“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 #89: “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean” by John Fahey

faheyBeginning in 1959, John Fahey’s “Blind Joe Death” excursions for solo acoustic guitar were the first to radically reconsider traditional blues and old-time music, extending by personalizing what Harry Smith did with the Anthology of American Folk Music (1952): rather than mythologizing what at that time was a largely unknown recorded legacy, as Smith did, Fahey made it breathe life, by quoting in his riffs on the traditional all manner of contemporary music.  There is not a folk or jazz or avant-garde or prog rock guitarist who doesn’t owe Fahey a debt for this, for not only breaking boundaries — with which he was hyper-literate — but making such things seem irrelevant in the music he made.

“On the Sunny Side of the Ocean” is from 1965’s Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death.  It is a masterpiece of droning open-tuned right-hand wonder, building steam and dimension until it opens up with an unexpected pull off that turns the entire ship eastward on its perfumed journey.  It is here, in this simple but everything phrase, that Fahey’s influence is apparent, as it would echo down the years through Popol Vuh and Opeth, just as Charley Patton and Mississippi John Hurt echoed through Fahey.

Transfiguration, certainly.

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.

soundstreamsunday: “Ballerina” by Van Morrison

van-morrison-sqThe art gallery of rock and roll is a rich and welcoming place, with room upon room spinning off into many-directioned distances.  There is no entrance fee or warnings to stand back, please, from the piece.  And, like at all great museums, any pretense to surface comportment is, if meaningful at all, only a nod of respect to the spark of human creativity.  A sign that we don’t stand in willful ignorance.  Before the work, within the work, we are all children.  It is in rock’s nature to empower its listeners to create, and within this space there is no genre, no boogie no punk no progressive no pop no indie no folk, just an honoring of the empty canvas and the unrestrained fire banked down in humanity.  It’s what I love about rock, and it’s what made Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks happen.

Drummer Connie Kay and guitarist Jay Berliner both famously recounted that Morrison told his musicians — and these weren’t just any musicians, but some of the finest jazz players New York could provide in the late 1960s, led by the inimitable bassist Richard Davis — to “play what you want” and then left them alone to back and guide him on a set of eight songs whose precedents were slim and bore little relation to the rock-pop classics he recorded with his band Them (“Gloria,” “Here Comes the Night”) or on his first solo album (“Brown Eyed Girl”).  Astral Weeks (1968) is an echo of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959), where an extraordinarily talented group of jazz musicians received a similar lack of instruction, and Love’s Forever Changes (1967), where the pop songwriter deliberately challenged the very notion and direction of his craft.  Morrison’s artistic success on Astral Weeks was, and remains, startling.  The album’s embrace of acoustic jazz as a way forward had a profound impact on the burgeoning “singer songwriter” movement, and for better or worse has become instant point of comparison with subsequent work by musicians such as Joni Mitchell or Tim Buckley or Nick Drake.

“Ballerina” captures the essence of an album that is about nothing as much as ecstatic love, the joyous and at times Joyce-ean observations of a 23-year-old ancient who had spent the previous year turning his voice into a bebop trumpet.  While Morrison got and kept his fame on the back of “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” and the slew of equally wonderful R&B radio-ready hits that would come his way, it’s here that his artistic street cred was established, as he honored the canvas and invited Davis, Kay, and Berliner to follow their hearts along with him.

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 above.

soundstreamsunday: “Hunting Song” by Pentangle

pentangle-gfhggThe embrace of Arthurian legend and Tolkien-esque fantasy by British musicians in the 1960s and 70s — fueled undoubtedly by mixing the sounds of the folk revival with psychedelics and horrified revulsion at an overly industrialized and de-personalized world — worked to create some truly exotic hybrids in a scene that had also been profoundly influenced by American blues music and the sheer power of electric instrumentation.  But whether it was Donovan or Led Zeppelin or Uriah Heep taking on the Roundtable and Middle Earth, there tended to hang over this music a hippie haze that could just as easily turn towards the naively dumb as the innovative. (Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” sequence is funny because it’s so spot-on, and as a Zep and Rainbow fan I laugh, and squirm, whenever I see it.)  Leave it to Pentangle to get it right.  As Bert Jansch introduces “Hunting Song” as a “13th-century rock and roll song” on this stellar performance from the band’s 1970 BBC special, his is a voice of wry authority.  A key figure in the development of acoustic guitar playing in the 1960s, and a songwriter who found inspiration in the dark power of traditional music, Jansch was a musician who masterfully summed the denominators of blues and jazz and folk music early in his career, and until his death in 2011 was a guitarist’s guitar player.  While Pentangle could not be said to be Jansch’s band, as it also included a cast of equals including guitarist John Renbourn, bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Terry Cox and vocalist Jacqui McShee, they built on the ground Jansch cleared in the mid 1960s along with Martin Carthy and John Fahey.  Their music is jazz medieval, folk improv, well-suited to covering one genre’s songs with another’s genre’s music.  “Hunting Song,” originally recorded in the studio for 1969’s Basket of Light, adapts, from the Arthurian take on Tristan and Isolde, the story of Morgan Le Fay’s magic drinking horn, which revealed faithlessness in those who were incapable of drinking from it.  The narrator’s role in the story isn’t entirely clear, and the broken narrative itself is, in a moment of genius, written as if the band found it on a shard of manuscript.  There is a hunt, a horn, a betrayal.  The sources are uncertain, our interpretations our own.  Here we see a rare moment of electric guitar work from Renbourn, and Thompson, as always central to the Pentangle sound, hunched over his upright bass, working with Cox to both support and lead the tune.  Although Jacqui McShee didn’t possess the vocal firepower of Maddy Prior or Sandy Denny, she matched them in finesse, and beautifully floats over Jansch’s rougher, Dylanesque delivery. As a crossroads of jazz, progressive, and traditional music, this is one of British folk-rock’s great moments.

soundstreamsunday playlist and archive

soundstreamsunday: “Midnight Feast” by Lal Waterson and Oliver Knight

Lal-Waterson-010One of the few individuals who could lay any real claim to being essential to the British folk revival, Elaine “Lal” Waterson lent her unique voice — absolutely beautiful and instantly recognizable — to the records she and her brother Mike and sister Norma made as The Watersons, defining the passion and respect necessary to performing traditional material while opening up the freedom and possibility such songs allowed. Although a tremendous songwriter in her own right, she wrote sparingly, and before her death in 1998 created only a handful of records. “Midnight Feast” is from 1996’s Once in a Blue Moon, a collaboration with her son, guitarist and producer Oliver Knight.  It is an unusual record; Knight’s inventiveness as an electric guitarist gives the album a consistently full and yet uncluttered sound, supporting his mother’s poetry and voice, highlighting her artful, at times jazz-like, delivery. Indeed, in tone and mood there is nothing so much like this album as Abbey Lincoln’s 1959 landmark Abbey is Blue, in its grooves an acknowledgement of the fullness of life, with its travails and its joys.  A profound wisdom at work, speaking of the deeper mysteries.

Once in a Blue Moon at Amazon

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soundstreamsunday: “Northern Sky” by Nick Drake

_79248536_bigbryterlayterAcross three years and three albums, Nick Drake produced singular, autumnal music that in its vision and genius defies era and genre. An extraordinary guitarist, lyricist, and gifted writer of melody, Drake was a lone wolf, debilitatingly shy, and thus his records were midwifed, by producer Joe Boyd — to this day Drake’s champion — and arranger Robert Kirby, along with various luminaries from the British folk rock/jazz scene. Richard Thompson, one of the players, estimates Drake probably sold only 5,000 albums in total when they first appeared, and it would take a VW ad a generation after his death to bring his music to a wider audience, but Nick Drake’s discography carries a timeless beauty, the light of late fall, and I hear in it the expressiveness — pain, humor, love — of Van Morrison and the soft, breathy sway of Joao Gilberto. “Northern Sky” from Bryter Layter is to my mind a perfect song of deep love and yearning, informed by the sensitive playing of John Cale, Dave Pegg, and Mike Kowalski. It wasn’t the breakthrough Drake expected (Island Records declined to release it as a single), and, perhaps disillusioned by his own overt attempt at and ultimate failure to make a commercial record, it’s believed to be one of the reasons he stripped down his sound for Pink Moon. And yet “Northern Sky’s” shimmering, jazz-inflected pronouncement, “I never felt magic crazy as this,” and its bell-like arrangement, is as fitting and whole a description of Nick Drake’s music as any I can imagine.

Find on Amazon

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Soundstream Sunday: “Hallucinations” by Tim Buckley

buckley4I realized last week when I featured the Sun River song “Esperanza Villanueva” that if I had a nickel for every time someone referenced Tim Buckley as a comparison (as I did in my intro) I’d be a rich man. But how many people have actually heard Tim Buckley? One of Jac Holzman’s/Elektra Records’ stable of brilliant, and troubled, artists, Buckley languished commercially while making music that thrilled his listeners and critics. He died young, a drug casualty (a tragedy echoed over two decades later by the untimely death of his equally talented son, Jeff), but left a deep, intense impression on the post-Dylan outsider folk and singer-songwriter scene he helped create. With his soaring voice and chiming twelve-string, Buckley leaned heavily into jazz, and the band you hear on this smoldering live version of “Hallucinations” — from London in 1968 — are jazzbos (not unusual in this fertile period in “folk” music, where Coltrane held as much sway as Guthrie). Where the studio version of the song feels overly-structured and baroque, here “Hallucinations” is free flowing, long form, Lee Underwood’s electric guitar, David Friedman’s vibes, and (sitting in from Pentangle) Danny Thompson’s bass creating a killer, punctuated Om. There was a time for me, glimpsed now across a thousand other Sunday mornings, when this song accompanied a drag or two off a joint and a walk across Central Park. To see the art.