By Bruce Sylvester
It's been a while since I checked in with a roundup of cool new (or reissued) material. Here goes. As usual, the range is broad.
Ray Charles's most socially concerned album ever, 1972's A Message from the People (originally on his own label, Tangerine, and now reissued through Exceleration Music Partners) is both hopeful and worried as it reflects the breadth of his musical vision. A cover of Stevie Wonder's 1970 hit “Heaven Help Us All” hits home even more now than then. A reggae take on John Denver's hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and his keeping (with a wink) Melanie's verse en francais in “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma” reach across nations. So does the cover art: Ray seated in tall grass with the faces of “Abraham, Martin and John”'s honorees hovering above four children of different ethnicities. On “America the Beautiful” (with rearranged verses), he exhorts us like a Baptist preacher for a final ray of hope.
Yes, classical chamber music can fuse with blues harmonica. Check More Different Voices (Dawnserly) by Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues helmed by yesteryear's Siegel-Schwall Band's harp man. The voices extend from a Ukraine-born cantor's song of peace to Tracy Nelson (Corky's cohort in '60s Chicago's blues scene) revisiting her signature song, “Down So Low,” with her contralto – as ever – so poised that it almost resembles a classical delivery. Comic social commentary has been a staple of the blues. Looking at health care – or lack thereof – “Insurance”ranks with Camille West's “Toe to Toe with the HMO” from her days with Four Bitchin' Babes. Might Corky's poem “Penguins in the Opera House” be a spoof of proper attire?
Brooklyn-born teenager Nora Brown's solo Long Time to Be Gone (Jalopy) takes us back to a pristine Appalachia via quiet traditional balladry and her rustic yet delicate playing on four banjos including an 1888 Ludscomb passed down in her family and – attesting to her talent – one loaned to her by the Library of Congress. The album title comes from “Rye Whiskey-Little Birdie.” Recording in historic Saint Ann's church in Brooklyn, “a cavernous space,” says Brown, “We experimented with the sound that different locations in the church produced. Mics were configured around the room. On a lot of the tracks you can hear the expanse of the space pretty clearly.”
Self-titled The Local Honeys (La Honda) opens with the two women's late fellow Kentuckian Jean Ritchie's bittersweet “The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore.” Then and S. turn to their own songs of their home state's rural past and present: a contemporary cold-blooded murder ballad to continue a folk tradition, an opioid addict's matter-of-fact comments. As for the fellow creatures Stokley grew up with, “Suppose we're all just animals with slightly different hides. …. I never got used to watching horses die. Count my pretty ponies when I greet the morning light.” Hobbs's vocals recall Gillian Welch's timbre. Producer Jesse Wells (on guitars, fiddle and mandolin) and the rest of Kentuckian Tyler Childers' band, The Food Stamps, move between bluegrass, folk and rock on this disc that – like Childers' – speaks directly to their home region and maybe the rest of us as well.
Intense with the fervor of true believers, two-CD The Legacy of John and Frances Reedy (Yazoo) presents 33 songs from a relatively forgotten Kentucky-bred husband-wife duo whose gospel captures the drive and passion of hard bluegrass (meaning the real McCoy). Like their Appalachian contemporary Brother Claude Ely, they could rock the gospel. Occasionally a clarinet joined their basic guitar-fiddle-mandolin-bass-steel guitar arrangements. Then there's John's mouth-harp boogie “Lost John.” Frances's assertive, take-control voice was less nasal than some country vocalists of the day. The first CD here spotlights 1961-63 singles – mostly sacred – on Starday. The second CD – mainly home tape recordings – includes John's compositions “Knocking on Your Door” (which Old and in the Way covered) and “Somebody Touched Me.” John (1918-83) penned the former during a brief breakup and divorce from Frances (1922-2006), who erupts in anger at him amid a tender religious tape. The package's remastering and 20-page booklet are excellent. By the way, Ralph Stanley (to my mind, the ultimate voice in bluegrass) said that his showstopping arrangement of his classic “Oh Death” came from the Reedys' recording here.
Next there's the documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (Sony) directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldmine. Its focuses are three: Cohen himself, his song 'Hallelujah” and what many people think is its ultimate cover, the late Jeff Buckley's version. With plenty of footage of Cohen's conversations, the film goes way back to his affluent childhood in Montreal. Judy Collins and Clive Davis are among numerous talking heads – all of whom, to their and the directors' credit, steer clear of the hype and platitudes we often hear in rock docs. It was Collins who moved him beyond being a respected but obscure poet when she recorded his songs like “Suzanne” and then encouraged him to move on to the big-time music stage. We see handwritten drafts of his songs and are told that “Hallelujah” had about 150 verses or more and took various directions in early versions. The film covers a lot of ground in about two hours.
When the pandemic wiped out live performances, newly formed Mandolin (www.mandolin.com) rose to the occasion by staging online concerts in empty venues and performers' homes, where we might even meet their pets. Besides getting closeups of musicians' faces, audiences can wear whatever they want and can replay shows afterwards. By now, Mandolin can also present shows with audiences right there – like The Decemberists tour-opening August 12 concert at Denver's Mission Ballroom. Leader Colin Meloy (reportedly an Anglophile) was in strong voice singing his vestiges of trad English folk balladry and introducing – as he put it – a country song set in the reign of Henry VIII. Knowing a bit of Tudor history helped me understand it. The keyboardist too was super. Upcoming Mandolin concerts include “Celebrating the Life & Songs of John Prine” (five tribute shows between Oct. 7 and 12), Father John Misty and John McCutcheon among many.