Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other

If you haven’t heard Rhiannon Giddens yet … well, just listen:

Gifted with a glorious, classically trained voice plus extraordinary skills on banjo and fiddle, equally at home with African-American spirituals, Celtic “mouth music” and opera, Giddens is the kind of protean musician that comes along once in a generation.

Founding “postmodern string band” the Carolina Chocolate Drops, writing music for Bob Dylan’s words on The New Basement Tapes, winning a MacArthur Genius fellowship, acting in CMT’s Nashville series — Giddens has gone from strength to strength in a remarkably short time, earning every step up in her meteoric rise.  Seeing her live in the summer of 2015, I walked away giddy, as she and her band effortlessly filled a Cape Cod town hall with irresistible rhythms, utterly committed performances that ran the gamut from a tear-inducing take on Dolly Parton to funked-up Appalachian folk tunes  —  and that powerful, powerful voice.

For her third solo album (after 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn and 2017’s Freedom Highway), Giddens has teamed with Italian pianist/percussionist Francesco Turrisi, who  filters early Mediterranean folk music through the prism of jazz.  Recorded in Dublin, Ireland in five days with minimal preparation and few overdubs, There Is No Other soars, sears and astonishes — breaking your heart one instant, healing it and setting off fireworks of exhilaration the next, commanding your attention throughout.

Words can only approximate the sweep of traditions and times woven together here.  Folk ballads from Appalachia, Italy and England, jazz via Hermeto Pascoal (a Brazilian collaborator with Miles Davis) and vocalese pioneer Oscar Brown, classical arias by Carlisle Floyd and Samuel Barber — they’re all subsumed into the spell that Giddens (on banjo, violin and viola) and Turrisi (on piano, accordion, lute, banjo, and percussion) conjure up.  This music is warm, determined, melancholy, driven and delighted by turns, seamlessly flowing from one track to track, each its own thing, each part of a greater unity.

And Giddens’ singing — again, gorgeous beyond words.  On “Gonna Write Me A Letter” and her own “I’m On My Way”, she’s an unstoppable force of nature; on “Pizzica di San Vito” and “Briggs’ Forro”, a rippling vocal breeze above dancing beds of rhythm; on “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Trees on the Mountains”, the cry of a broken heart devastated by life and love; on “Brown Baby” and her gospel-tinged “He Will See You Through”, the voice of maturity, determination and hard-won belief.  Nothing human is foreign to her — the wisdom of generations and the optimism of youth come together to devastating effect.

I recommend There Is No Other without hesitation — it’s one of those albums that Duke Ellington might have termed “beyond category”, resonating deeply with the core of our shared humanity.  As Giddens and Turrisi put in in their liner notes,

From the beginning of our musical partnership we have been struck with the commonality of the human experience through music; how instruments, modes, and the very functions of songs and tunes are universal from culture to culture.  There are very real and documented yet unheralded historical links between many of the instruments we play; and yet others of the connections we have here arise solely from our artistic instinct; but either way, the overwhelming feeling we have is that there is no Other.

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi tour North America from September to November; tour dates are here.  In the meantime, listen to There Is No Other for yourself:

— Rick Krueger

If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley’s Golden Comeback

Fifty years ago today — December 3, 1968 — NBC aired Singer Presents … Elvis.  

At that point, Elvis Presley was generally considered a joke, a has-been.  His pioneering rock and roll days were long behind him, his singing and acting career and earning potential shriveled by a stultifying run of half-baked movies (Girl Happy, Harum Scarum, Clambake) and equally awful soundtracks (featuring horrid novelty songs like “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” and “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad”).  Presley’s manager “Colonel” Tom Parker was pushing for a holiday special where Elvis would cavort with nominally famous guest stars and sing … wait for it … twenty Christmas carols.

But Singer’s execs had something else in mind: a show centered entirely on Presley, reminding the audience of his initial, explosive impact on pop music and propelling him forward, into a fresh phase of his career.  Elvis bought in, the Colonel signed off, and Steve Binder (director of the spectacular 1964 concert movie The T.A.M.I Show, featuring The Supremes, The Beach Boys, James Brown and The Rolling Stones in thrilling live performances) signed on.   Which is why, on that night fifty years ago, as 42 percent of the US television audience tuned in, they locked eyes with a man on a mission:

Continue reading “If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley’s Golden Comeback”

Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son: Rick’s Quick Takes

Even allowing for occasional brushes with fame — playing with Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s, making the very first digitally recorded pop album (1979’s Bop Till You Drop), producing the worldwide smash Buena Vista Social Club — Ry Cooder has steadfastly remained below the radar over five decades.  Occasionally though, he resurfaces with his trademark blend of Americana: plenty of space in the irresistible groove; tasty instrumental interplay; rich harmony vocals carrying an idiosyncratic, pungent lyrical message.

Cooder’s first album in six years, The Prodigal Son, is a welcome return to basics.  With the exotic decorations and oddball concepts of recent albums stripped away,  Cooder plays almost all the instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and keyboard); his son Joachim co-produces and mans the drums.  The genre focus is narrowed too, zooming in on vernacular gospel by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Alfred Reed, Carter Stanley and William Dawson.  As Cooder told MOJO magazine,

“Gospel is the best music to sing.  When you sing it and play it, I always felt you go to some other place physically and emotionally … Maybe age has got something to do with that.  You live through certain experiences, you keep looking for something, and maybe you’ll find it.  I think I have.”

Continue reading “Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son: Rick’s Quick Takes”

soundstreamsunday #102: “Kiss It Off” by Little Feat

little feat2On the other side of the 70s country rock that made the Eagles fabulously famous and rich — and drove them eventually to a dark funk that produced songs like “Those Shoes” — dwells Little Feat, emerging from the Zappa/Beefheart camp of SoCal weirdness during the same period, with funky desperate darkness fully intact from the get-go.  Theirs was an American vernacular progressive rock, full of smarts and awareness, and as led by guitarist and singer Lowell George (fired as “a favor” by Zappa, who then helped him get a Warners record contract since George was a talent, no doubt), they were the rock and roll revolution from the inside, the real throwdown at the hoedown.

Continue reading “soundstreamsunday #102: “Kiss It Off” by Little Feat”

“A song to the stars…” The progressive folk of Honeysuckle

honeysuckle album

Like Thelonious Monk, I like everything. But a little bit of everything — not everything of everything. Within about 30 seconds to a minute of hearing a track someone is “showing” me for the first time I decide whether I’ll invest time exploring the artist.

The other evening I was reading an article while my wife was listening on her phone to a band that had appeared earlier that day on the WDVX (Knoxville, TN) Blue Plate Special. Twelve seconds into “Deep Blue Eyes,” I heard what I figured to be the familiar affectation of a young contralto voice. “No. No, no. Not another hipster band.” Already, my mind was conjuring images of the group — bearded men with goofy hats and suspenders; she, probably wearing some 1920’s floral print with loud lipstick and hairstyle to match.

At 47 seconds, however, something unusual happened with the mandolin. It climbed the scale, ripping open an attic of dense harmonies. The driving instrumental break, pausing to get its breath before again lunging forward, signaled something beyond my first impression.

I don’t know
Which way we are being pulled
But the stars are sewn into the sky
To guide us on our way

And then, “Down, down, below the waves…” By the 2:20 mark I had minimized whatever forgotten article I was reading and was Googling, “…who is this, honey?” “A band called Honeysuckle.”

My sincerest apologies to Holly McGarry, Benjamin Burns, and Chris Bloniarz for my prejudice. I promise that when you guys come back down South we will be there in the front row to see you.

Catacombs (Oct ’17) is the latest release from this Boston-based trio. How did I miss them? Liking everything sometimes devolves into too much time around the fringes: not bluegrass but traditional bluegrass; not progressive music but proto-prog, etc. Traveling the gaps are artists that pull together everything you love with unexpected dash and capacity.

Honeysuckle play traditional folk instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin) with a jazz rock intensity and chiseled focus. The wordless vocals of “Constellations” might put one in mind of Fleet Foxes; but the musicianship is so staid and majestic that it takes wing under its own power, without an updraft of reverb.

The title track features a fusionist breakdown, introduced by a riff reprised at the end of an atonal final chorus that swirls like angry hornets. “Watershed” has a complex cadence and vocal delivery that would be at home on Tull’s Stand Up. “Chipping Away the Paint” recapitulates and expands on the themes introduced in “Constellation” and “Catacombs,” with bits of “Deep Blue Eyes” linked by a psychedelic jam and — what’s this? — a throbbing electric guitar riff. A sign of things to come? [Update: the band informed us that it’s actually the mandolin with heavy pedal effects]

Okay, maybe the brief whistling on “Greenline” is just a tad hipstery. But for those who ramble on toward Proghalla this track, like the rest of Catacombs, points out an inviting, picturesque path under familiar and constant stars. One definitely worth exploring.

From Honeysuckle’s living room, the title track…

soundstreamsunday #85: “Oil on Panel” by Wovenhand

wovenhandconcertLike Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes — last week’s soundstreamsunday entry — David Eugene Edwards brings to American folk, rock, and country an utterly unique, instantly recognizable voice.  Unlike Pecknold, Edwards toils in relative obscurity, which is a shame, as for the last 20 years he’s brought a wide-eyed intelligence to songs extending darker traditional themes, shimmering with christian imagery, to bracing goth soundscapes.  While you could make favorable comparison of Edwards’ bands, Denver’s 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, to Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, the better starting point, should we need it, might be Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or perhaps the old testament.  Or Carravagio.  With a voice both commanding and vulnerable, Edwards brings to his arrangements sonic chiaroscuro, breathing life, momentum, and dimension across acoustic and electric instrumentation tuned to his songs’ subjects.  Compositionally, he is a painter looking, I think, for balance, perhaps reflecting his relationship with his faith.

“Oil on Panel” is from Wovenhand’s third album, 2004’s Consider the Birds.  Referencing the act of painting, three of the deadly sins, Roma, and Yeshua, the song captures the direction Wovenhand was charting as it set out in the early aughts, into-the-christian mystic, highly refined, mannered, powerful.  With a windy, buzzy ambience overlayed with piano and distant strings, the song blossoms into near-orchestral grandeur halfway through, Edwards telling a story heavy with images invoking less a narrative than a feeling, of being unmoored, freighted with guilt but defined by faith.  If the edges bleed it is not without purpose.  “I paint them roughly, I paint them in my sleep.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

*Image of Wovenhand in concert by Colin Gentile, 2015.

soundstreamsunday: “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers

billwithers.jpgWhere Randy Newman and John Prine brought hyper-literate character study to the singer-songwriter genre, often inhabiting in the first person the figures they constructed in song, Bill Withers went for the emotional jugular, unabashed, and if there was any character being studied it was him.  Withers’ warm, supple voice, steeped in rhythm and blues and country, was his listeners’ point of entry, a vehicle in and of itself for delivering the musical goods.  Born in 1938, by the time he released his first record Withers was 33, had spent a decade in the service, and was working a factory job so soul-killing that a guitar and an empty notebook seemed as good a possibility as any for a better life.  His age helped him make records glowing with self-assured performances, and he became an unlikely pop star.  The hits came with that first record and kept coming through the 1970s.  By the time he did the unthinkable and retired in 1985, Withers’ legacy included some of the best American songs ever recorded: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Lean on Me.”

“Lean on Me” is kind of like “The Weight” by the Band — it’s almost hard to believe that an earthly person actually wrote a song so integral to the late 20th-century American experience.  There is a grandeur to it, musically, lyrically, and sentimentally, that, even in its ubiquity, still shines.  It hit number one in 1972, but didn’t do all the heavy lifting to raise 1972’s Still Bill to number four, packed as that album is with great songs and arrangements popping with gospel funk dynamics.  In its album context, closing side one of the LP, “Lean on Me” is a beautiful respite from the personal strife suggested in “Lonely Town (Lonely Street),” “Who is He (and What is He to You)?” and “Use Me.”  The song evens a delicate emotional balance, and as an affirmation of simple friendship, it’s the finest kind of pop music.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.