Short Reviews for the Independent 1998
By Art Menius
Most of my two decades freelancing with Durham’s the Independent involved lots of one paragraph recording reviews, a few review essays, many one graph show previews, and the rare feature. This page collects the former from 1998.
FOR HOME BREW DUE October 14, 1998
Scott Ainslie, Terraplane (Cattail 1196)
North Carolina’s blues scene has blossomed in recent years with our still impressive roster of master musicians joined by talented younger folk like Lightnin’ Wells, Skeeter Brandon, and Durham’s Scott Ainslie. In his latest, Terraplane, Ainslie offers a moving and mature body of songs new and old. Although Ainslie is a leading expert on Robert Johnson and the most Delta influenced of our bluesmen, Terraplane also provides strong examples of Peidmont and Chicago styles, gospel, and several original pieces, including the hilarious “Change My Name.” Most memorably, he reinterprets Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” on the primitive, one-string diddley bow.
FOR PLAYLIST DUE October 7, 1998
The Bad Livers, Industry and Thrift (Sugar Hill SHCD 3887)
If you know of a band vaguely like the Bad Livers, tell me for their’s is roots music as close to the leading edge as it comes. Those new to the duo will be amazed that the Lloyd Maines produced Industry & Thrift is their most focused and cohesive work. The Bad Livers start with a foundation in old-time music, then discard all the rules of genre borrowing from bluegrass, klezmer, country, and rock The Bad Livers play the chestnut “Doin’ My Time” as if it had been popularized by Lynard Skynard instead of Flatt & Scruggs, then render “Cannonball Rag” almost exactly like Merle Travis until it devolves into a hyperspeed banjo break. Wacky and wonderful.
FOR PLAYLIST DUE January 7, 1998
The Blasters, American Music (Hightone HCD 8086)
The CD reissue of this 1980 gem sounds as smashing now as then. The Blasters mixed pulsating, stunningly fresh neo-rockabilly with blues rockers that sounded a lot like Van Morrison’s old group Them. Featuring Phil and Dave Alvin, the Blasters played their own vision of rockabilly, rather playing at rockabilly. They captured the substance of the music just as well as the vastly more popular Stray Cats did its style. The original Rollin’ Rock LP sold 2000 copies. This CD with six additional cuts surged into the No Depression charts.
FOR PLAYLIST DUE June 3, 1998
Conjunto Cespedes, Flores (Xenophile #4043)
Since 1981 Conjunto Cespedes, a family band from the San Francisco area, has gradually climbed to the top rung of Afro-Cuban ensembles worldwide. Lead by the astonishing vocals of Bobi Cespedes, the explosive band comes close to reaching its enormous potential on their third CD. Based in an enthusiastic interpretation of the Cuban son, the music of Conjunto Cespedes cannot be resisted by feet or spirit. This is dance music of the Americas richly endowed by African roots.
FOR HOME BREW DUE November 11, 1998
Elizabeth Cotten, Live! (Arhoolie 477)
Anyone wanting to know about the namesake of Carrboro’s Libba Cotton bike path can find no better introduction than this record. The Carrboro native, who passed away in 1987, was 91 when she won a Grammy for this 1983 project, just now reissued on CD. Despite her advanced age, her playing and singing remained strong, asserting all the fine qualities of her 1950s recordings. The listener hears her best known pieces – “Freight Train,” “Shake Sugaree,” “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” – but more significantly her winning personality shows itself in delightful introductions and stories. Live! brings one of North Carolina’s greatest people and folk artists right into your home.
FRED EAGLESMITH. I knew his name as someone who had sent me a cassette tape inside a wooden box. Cool, although not cool enough to entice me to listen to it. I found out that Fred J. Eaglesmith is a compelling singer-songwriter who writes about hard work and hard living with a hard edge. Bumming around Canada after leaving his farm home, Eaglesmith saw John Prine on TV and thus inspired got serious as a writer. You won’t hear any “sunshine, lollipops” songs from Eaglesmith, but instead you get real life turning surreal. With the release of his US debut, Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline<D> on Razor & Tie, Americans are discovering a new power at work.
FOR PLAYLIST DUE August 5, 1998
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Friends of Mine (Hightone HCD8089)
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott stands as an icon of American folk music, the last of Woody’s generation, one of the few stars from before the Folk Boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s still touring. Friends of Mine, the follow-up to his Grammy winning comeback Southcoast, finds Jack singing duets with the likes of Peter Rowan, Bob Wier, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, and others. The whole record has a friendly, down home, good times feel to it with a neat mixture of songs by the guests, cowboy songs, and Dylan and Guthrie tunes. Jack performs solo on “Bleeker Street Blues,” his third and most recent compisition inspired by the Zim’s 1997 illness (“The world’s best doctors can’t cure what’s been ailing you… Not Freud, not Pasteur, not Eddie Van Halen.”).
FOR PLAYLIST DUE March 4, 1998
Bobby Hicks, Fiddle Patch (Rounder CD 0416)
Greensboro fiddler Bobby Hicks spent the 1950s with Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, the 1960s in Vegas, and the last 17 years with Ricky Skaggs. About once a score he delivers a solo album. More than worth the wait, Fiddle Patch proves special. Hicks leads Del, Ronnie, and Rob McCoury, Marty Stuart, Skaggs, and others through flowing western swing and waltzes, powerful fiddle tunes, and killer bluegrass. Sweet with double stops (two strings sounded simultaneously) in any style, Hicks’ playing enriches the melody with tone and taste, and his guests follow suit.
FOR PLAYLIST DUE July 1, 1998
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Gospel Radio Gems (Sugar Hill SHCD-3879)
A score ago Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver exploded on to bluegrass and southern gospel music scenes with a ornate, rhythmic, and richly full bodied quartet singing style. Over the years and the personnel shifts, Doyle has evolved his sound in a sparce direction leading to their Spartan masterpiece, Gospel Radio Gems. With just guitar and four voices, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver channel the golden days of sacred music on radio though their own approach into a captivatingly simple and winning approach.
HOME BREW DUE June 10, 1998
Dave Lippman; I Hate Walmart (Urgent Records UR110)
When I met Dave Lippman he was living, I believe, on the west coast; I thought he had a few good songs. Now Lippman’s in Chapel Hill, and I Hate Walmart proves he has a whole bunch of strong songs. Well grounded in American musical traditions, Lippman turns a sharp wit to a variety of modern lack of life subjects. Time and again he employs just enough humor to make difficult subjects accessable and to deliver his message without losing his listener. Those who love prejudice, stupidly, megacorporations, the Bohemian Club, and the disappearence of local culture will hate this CD.
FOR PLAYLIST DUE September 9, 1998
The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Live on the Radio (Arhoolie CD 467)
The late Rose Maddox, a gutsy, good humored, and, at times, salacious singer, helped pioneer female lead vocalists in hardcore postwar country music. During the first phase of her long career, the Alabama born Maddox family band established the honky-tonk (see Hank Williams, Sr.) hillbilly sound on the west coast. This record presents a generous 38 cuts culled from 1953 radio and TV appearances in southern California. They provide a aural portrait of the southern California hillbilly scene and its most important and outrageous act performing everthing from Williams and Bill Monroe songs to proto-rockabilly and “Peter Cottontail.”
HOME BREW May 13, 1998
The Maudlin Brothers; Highway of Sorrow (Skylark Records 220)
The Maudlin Brothers like to pick old-time music and sing bluegrass. The members prove quite skilled in both areas. They also have a fine ear for material that suits them and no fear of juxtaposing party and church songs. Their love of bluegrass harmonies, the Carter Family, and southern sacred music both white and black has, however, set them on a course where too some of their work sounds unmistakably like the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Skilled enough to earn that lofty comparison, The Maudlin Brothers stand as a powerful vocal ensemble just needing better to establish and cultivate the original sound of which they are quite capable. Whenever The Maudlin Brothers define their own space between bluegrass and old-time, it works well.
FOR HOME BREW (Due March 11, 1998)
Mercury Dime, Darkling (Yep 2007) *****
Darkling, the much anticipated, Mitch Easter – produced new CD from Rowan County’s Mercury Dime finds a confident ensemble skirting the edges of Byrds/R.E.M. territory, melding those sounds with influences from Springsteen, Dylan, Long Ryders, the Band, and beyond into a synthesis all their own, more alt than country. Cliff Retallick’s generally exquisite lyrics come across as much more oblique and overtly poetic than typical for No Depression, often evoking politics as image in the throes of wordplay (“You’ve got AWACS in your haystacks”) or as pure fantasy in the enchanting “Robert Kennedy Works in the Airport.” Mercury Dime sounds ready to step to the top of the class.
FOR HOME BREW DUE August 10, 1998
Nashville Bluegrass Band; American Beauty (Sugar Hill SHCD 3882)
With Reidsville’s Alan O’Bryant on banjo and most lead vocals, the Nashville Bluegrass Band has cultivated its own rich vision of bluegrass. Part of their daring approach involves waxing songs no one else in the genre sings. The title cut, not a Grateful Dead reference, find Pat Enright presenting a first person description of a recent parolee who finds a car that he just has to have. Carl Jones of Garner contributes two more of his outstanding, mournful ballads, “Just Like A Fiddle” and “Homeless Waltz,” first pitched to NBB after a PineCone concert in Raleigh. “Slow Learner” sounds like a sure hit on bluegrass radio. A mature and magnificent work, American Beauty offers seriously funky material performed and sung by a tight, masterful ensemble that has played together without a line-up change for a decade.
HOME BREW DUE July 8, 1998
Various Artists; The North Carolina Banjo Collection (Rounder Records 0439/40)
An old saying maintains that shaking any tree in North Carolina will send a banjo player tumbling to the ground. An exageration, but the North Carolina Banjo Collection, a 2-CD, 42 cut set compiled by Lexington’s Bob Carlin, delivers an astonishing compilation of the rural 5-string banjo styles – frailing, minstrel, and two-finger – that came before Tar Heel Earl Scruggs made three-finger bluegrass banjo picking famous. Drawn from commercial, archival, and field recordings spanning the 1920s to the 1990s, the compilation somehow includes most of the important players including Charlie Poole, Doc Watson, Libba Cotton, Wade Mainer, and Etta Baker. No state has had its old-time banjo traditions better documented.
FOR PLAYLIST DUE April 1, 1998
Various Artists, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder CD 1500)
When Kentucky’s Fiddler Bill Stepp exclaims “here’s the bony part!,” while kicking off this remarkable collection with “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” you know you’ve discovered something extraordinary. Banjo Dancing’s Stephen Wade sorted through thousands of hours of Library of Congress recordings of traditional, nonprofessional musicians to assemble these thirty selections from 1934 through 1946. What the Anthology of American Folk Music does for commercial records, this does for field work with a breathtaking and broad sampling of real Americans making their own music – fiddle and banjo tunes, blues, ballads, and skip rope ditties.
DUE February 5, 1998
Lightnin’ Wells, Bull Frog Blues (New Moon NMC 9507)
A strong album that will stand the test of time, Bull Frog Blues marks Lightnin’ Wells’ solo recording debut after 25 years playing and studying with blues masters. Most of the cuts come from the Piedmont blues tradition, but he also adds a bit of gospel, hokum, and swing blues. Lightnin’ exquisite playing exhibits deep understanding of the subtleties of genre. He sings honestly, never “corking up” his voice. Bull Frog Blues benefits from the contributions of Big Boy Henry, Barney Pilgrim, Rebecca Newton, and others.
FOR HOME BREW DUE September 9, 1998
Lightnin’ Wells, Ragtime Millionaire (New Moon Blues NMC 9820)
Lightnin’ Wells, besides being a monster musician, has learned from, produced, recorded, and written about such Carolina blues giants as Big Boy Henry, Algea Mae Hinton, and George Higgs. Through this he has developed into a powerful, compelling player of our region’s Piedmont blues, while singing with refreshing honesty rather than trying to sound black. Ragtime Millionaire, his second record, offers 19 tracks featuring Lightnin’ literally solo on material from the 1930s to the 1990s. Wells performs it all with convincing authority and an affinity for having fun.