Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nancy Apple’s Song Slinger Showdown, Part 1

This DVD showed up on my doorstep probably over a year ago, and promptly fell through the cracks. I’m glad I finally did dig it out from the pile, because there’s some very worthwhile and enjoyable music on this disc.
The DVD documents what is apparently a monthly event in Memphis, a song-swap between Nancy Apple and a few other acoustic singer-songwriters. On this particular night in October 2007, she was joined by Phil Lee and Jake Kelly. Apple acts as host, in a format which is reminiscent of the Texas songwriter showcases which were an occasional, yet significant feature of “Austin City Limits”, back in the days when ACL was an outlet for artists who were better-known in Texas than elsewhere, rather than a hype-machine for pop stars.
ACL’s songwriter showcases had more artists per show, but this three-artist format gives each artist the opportunity to show varied aspects of their repertoire. Apple sings a song, Lee sings one, Kelly sings one; and then the process repeats (though Kelly only gets three songs, as opposed to four for the others). In between songs, the three artists sit at a diner-style booth and swap anecdotes. The whole affair is very informal, occasionally a bit too much so, which leads to a few empty moments between songs that may make you wish they’d get back to singing. Fortunately, they do.
Stylistically, the approach of all three artists might be termed “non-commercial country music”, though the fact that they all play acoustic guitars (Apple plays accordion textures on one song, while the other two also blow harmonicas when appropriate) will slant this more toward the contemporary-folk singer-songwriter audience than to modern-day pop-country fans. Nancy Apple can be as hard-core-country as Loretta Lynn, but without the Nashville production, and with a hint or two of rock around the edges. Phil Lee, “The Mighty King of Love” conjures up what Bob Dylan might have sounded like in the 1960’s if he’d had a sense of humor. Jake Kelly has a distinctively thin, high-pitched voice, which I’m unable to compare to anyone, though his writing makes me think of John Prine in a way I can’t pin down. In other words, he’s an original – but then, all three artists are when you get down to it.
If you’re a fan of Texas singer-songwriters, and wonder why there aren’t any artists working in related styles in other parts of the country, well of course there are. Indeed, there are a whole lot of them. They simply don’t get the publicity they deserve. Nancy Apple, Phil Lee, and Jake Kelly are just three of the many worthy artists playing acoustic guitars, writing fine songs, and reaping few of the rewards which should be coming their way. Their names may not be familiar, but they should be heard and, as in this case, seen.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Onward Brass Band - The Tradition Continues (CD review)

The current edition of the Onward Brass Band, led by drummer Kurt Nicewander, is the legitimate inheritor of one of the grandest traditions in all of American Music, that of the New Orleans brass band.
With a history dating back over 130 years, the present edition of the band may not sound exactly like the original unit, which was never recorded. The original Onward Brass Band was most likely a fairly straightforward marching band in its earliest incarnation, which predated the era in which historians believe jazz was invented. However, “The Tradition Continues”, the first new CD by the current edition of the Onward Brass Band, ties together most of the other strains of New Orleans music – turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century marching band styles, jazz, blues, and even r&b – into a microcosm of the unique sounds which have developed in the Crescent City throughout the past century.
The album gets off to a rousing start with the standard “Bourbon Street Parade”. This
is, of course, especially appropriate, since the song was written by the great Paul
Barbarin, the man who revived the Onward Brass Band in the mid-1950’s, following an
extended period of inactivity for the band. Although the tune is often played in an Al Hirt/Dixieland style, the Onward’s version is much closer in sound and spirit to the distinctive New Orleans street parade of its title. Where else but on the streets of New Orleans would a syncopated dance rhythm and collective improvisation be superimposed on a march beat? Trombonist Freddie Lonzo’s gritty vocal includes a few cracked notes, but these only add to the genuine air of spontaneity felt throughout the performance. There’s an energy and enthusiasm to the group improvisation on the last chorus and coda that make it seem as if the commercialization and modernization which some observers claim to hear in present-day New Orleans music has never taken place.
The medley of “Closer Walk – Didn’t He Ramble” depicts another New Orleans cultural tradition – the so-called “jazz funeral”. The spiritual “Just a Closer Walk With
Thee” is played as a dirge, which serves as musical accompaniment to the mourners as
they slowly and somberly make their way to the cemetery. After the burial, as it were, the band breaks into a sprightly stepping version of “Didn’t He Ramble” (a long-time New Orleans favorite with a rich history of its own, dating back to a rather rowdy English folk song of unknown antiquity, “The Darby Ram”). The way back from the funeral thus turns into a cathartic celebration of life. The Onward’s version easily evokes images of second-line dancers and a crowd walking rhythmically as they wave hankies and parasols. Dimitri Smith captures the spirit of the affair with an uncommonly agile tuba solo, followed by an ear-catching, polyrhythmic break by the drum line (two snares and a bass drum.
I have to confess I’ve heard “Saints Go Marching In” a few too many times by now.
But let’s face it, the tune is pretty much expected in this context. To their credit, the members of the Onward Brass Band manage to add enough touches of their own to keep it interesting and entertaining nonetheless.
And what would a tradition-conscious New Orleans disc be without at least one tune inextricably linked to Louis Armstrong? The band’s rendition of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” is great fun. Tom Fischer, who proves to be a solid exponent of classic New Orleans clarinet style throughout the disc, comes up with some fine ideas on his solo, and the band turns on the burners for the last chorus once again.
Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras In New Orleans” dates from a later period in New
Orleans’ rich and varied musical history. Even so, Longhair’s distinctive rhumba rhythm makes an easy transition to Onward’s syncopated shuffle beat, in an arrangement that ties together elements of many eras and many styles of New Orleans music.
Indeed, in a genre closely associated with collective improvisation, the Onward Brass Band shows off some tight ensemble chops on the album. The riffing horns behind the solos in “Back Home Again in Indiana” are particularly enjoyable. This is another one of those performances that just keeps building in intensity. The ascending ensemble lines on the chorus of “Lil’ Liza Jane” are also noteworthy. And don’t overlook the way in which Smith’s tuba whoops fit into the arrangement of “Whoopin’ Blues”.
I do need to make mention of Freddie Lonzo’s tailgating trombone work, a definite
highlight throughout the album. There is nothing politely decorous about his playing, which is gruff, gutsy, earthy, with a delightful jump in his rhythm. Check out his brassy blats on “Just A Little While To Stay Here.”
The only substantive criticism I can make is that the energy level drops a bit too much when the vocals enter in “Down By the Riverside” and “Lil’ Liza Jane”. Even so, the band builds up a full head of steam again before these tracks are over. This is a really a minor carp when you consider the high level of entertainment maintained through the rest of the album.
Tradition can be deadly when an artist or band tries too hard to slavishly reproduce the past as carefully and mechanically as possible. The Onward Brass Band, however, take the opposite approach, utilizing and combining New Orleans traditions while making them relevant to the present moment with energy, inspiration, and drive. This is New Orleans brass band music rooted in a glorious past, yet still alive and well in the 21st Century. Top-notch!

Slight Format Change

I've decided to make a slight change in the format of "GenEc DVD Review". It will remain primarily a DVD review blog, and the name will remain the same. However, I will VERY occasionally post reviews of selected CD's that I feel are of special merit, and which have not yet attracted as much attention as they deserve. I hope this slight change meets with the approval of readers.
Thank you.