Wading Into Woody’s Deep Pool of Inspiration
In this celebratory season of Woody Guthrie’s 100th Birthday, it is only fitting that we take a stroll down the old cobblestone alleys of Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA. to find the storied basement space of Club Passim, the venerable folk club where so many memorable minstrels have strum and sung over the years. Club Passim (Latin for “here and there”) was founded in 1958 by Joyce Kalina and Paula Kelly and was originally known as “Club 47.” It was resurrected and renamed Club Passim (“Passim”) by the Donlin Family at its present location on Palmer Street in 1969, that most memorable year for political activism and music making. Today, Passim is a nonprofit arts organization that is alive and vibrant irrespective of the artificially created genre called “Folk Music” which, like a rusty old barnyard fence, cannot possibly contain within its label all of the sprouting new growth of artists and recording labels that push acoustic music into far flung and pristine territory. For instance, under the “Folk Music” rubric we might find the lilting mandolin and sultry voice of Sarah Jarosz; the two fisted dynamo of The Kennedys; the soulful walking blues of Chris Smither; the twisting creativity of Antje Duvekot; the beguiling songs of Nick Drake and Richard Shindell; the endless roads traveled by Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, Kate Wolf, Greg Brown and countless others. These artists’ recordings (many of which have been highlighted here in past Stereo Times reviews) are supported by a deliciously malleable national radio and internet presence, (including stations like WUMB here in Boston), and nurtured by record labels such as Red House Records, Signature Sounds and Sugar Hill Records, all of whom take the time and effort to produce recordings of superb quality to ensnare these artistic creations for our listening pleasure.
Back at Passim, with its basement space composed of low ceilings and brick lined walls, everything from a breathy whistle to a thumb on a single bass guitar string is heard distinct, crisp and natural. This early summer evening, we pack into Passim’s welcoming confines to listen to the spare beauty and powerful artistry of singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson; she a torchbearer from Austin, Texas burning the fuse of Guthrie’s incendiary tinderbox for all to hear (and be inspired for another 100 years). Gilkyson’s recordings are produced by Red House Records, that sterling Minnesota based label that has always championed artists spirited and soulful. Here at Stereo Times, we have written about wonderful Red House recordings from the likes of Meg Hutchinson; John Gorka; Lucy Kaplansky and Greg Brown; each producing recordings of erudition, beauty and labors of love under the Red House banner. Gilkyson’s latest Red House recording, entitled Roses At The End of Time (“Roses”) is another gem; rich in storytelling, powerful in imagery and quivering between Wendell Berry’s plainsong tales and the taking of a dagger to the heart of runaway Capital. At her Passim concert, Gilkyson sings and plays acoustic guitar accompanied by spare, delectable electric guitar from Jim Henry. Gilkyson begins the concert with the unfolding beauty of her ballad from Roses, “Blue Moon Night,” all tremulous and sparkling. Her voice rises high and delicate, (then low and dusky), as guitar notes twinkle and shine around her spare and evocative vocals. She then gathers up the audience and holds us tight in her grasp by singing a quiet version of Neil Young’s “I Am A Child” (full of innocence and light guitar touches) and then traverses the sweet territory of the title track from Roses, an effusive ballad with Henry producing an undercurrent of fastidious guitar colors that melt away into the depths of Passim’s compact acoustic space.
As she is on Roses, Gilkyson is a chameleon in concert, able to leap from these gorgeous, spare ballads to rockers full of gnash and grit. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (taken from Roses) is one of these propulsive workouts. At Passim, Gilkyson and Henry trade off long sustains and thunderous guitar attacks, with Henry crunching and mashing chords into a sonic brick to throw at those same enemies of Woody’s: corporate greed and collusion. On Roses, this same number is transformed into a slow brewing New Orleans number, (in the shadows of Katrina), with huge slide trombone played by Mike Mordecai next to Gilkyson’s raw vocal attack. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a creative marvel with its use of traditional New Orleans instrumentation and swing tempo to unfurled furious and sardonic indictments in the Gail Force wind of Gilkyson’s lyrics. The recording quality of Roses captures every lilt and breathy pause to Gilkyson’s multi-faceted, immersive voice; every shimmering touch of Mike Harwick’s electric guitar and every sprite run from Chris Maresh’s upright bass. On Roses, Guthrie’s inspiration is heard from the corners of several songs, including “Death in Arkansas” (written by Gilkyson’s brother, Tony Gilkyson) with its spare and lovely drift on banjo and guitar. When Gulkyson and Henry perform this piece at Passim, Henry’s mandolin lifts and falls articulate and sparkling next to Gilkyson’s plainsong lyrics: “Do you see our bones hidin’ like a toad in the old red dirt that is now a road?” Guthrie’s touch is also heard on Gilkyson’s “Vayan al Norte,” in which Gilkyson creates a portrait of Guthrie’s “La Frontera” (the world of the immigrant farm worker from Mexico) in all its stark tragedy and myriad contradictions: “from the frying pan into the fire.” On Roses, this piece combines Gilkyson’s lilting Spanish lyrics entwining with gentle vocal harmonies sung by Alejandro and Albert Diaz. It is a beautiful stately combination, with a song of survival outlined against cascading guitar strums and wisps of vocal harmonies that create a sense of Life flowing onwards up a valley to an unknown destination. This same stark beauty is revealed in the Passim concert when Gilkyson delivers her concluding song, also taken from Roses, entitled “Midnight on Raton.” Gilkyson delivers this shadowy contemplative Ballad (which she wrote in a motel room overnight “curled up ‘neath blankets”) in her soft, clarion voice that soars and decays away as if disappearing up some desert canyon wall into the beyond.
The lingering beauty and power of Gilkyson’s artistry brings to mind another one of the great singer/songwriters of our time who passed away this year. Bill Morrissey was an artist who took life on full tilt in his songwriting and captured much of Life’s comedies and errors in the flash pan of his wily lyrics and acoustic guitar rambles. Morrissey’s lyrical genius was both age-old and fresh at the same time, never losing its comic edge or its surgical insight. His vinyl oeuvre on the Philo label is a must for those wishing to hear his signature deep boned voice and unerring guitar touches with that naturalness to tone and timbre that only vinyl can provide. On vinyl, Morrissey’s Standing Eight [Philo] is a gem, with “Summer Night” and “She’s That Kind of Mystery” two of most beautiful and sharply attentive creations to grace a turntable. On disc, this reviewer’s pick for a Morrissey gem has to be his Songs of Mississippi John Hurt [Philo 11671] in which Morrissey tackles John Hurt’s “Avalon Blues” to the “Coffee Blues” with panache and a creative breadth that is stunning to behold. “If You Don’t Want Me” ignites the set with the simplicity of languid guitar strums and the soft pulse of harmonica next to Morrissey’s resonant vocals. This is sweetness at its zenith and leads into the sparkle lucidity of “Avalon Blues” with Morrissey telling the tale in his smooth, talky baritone around the fire where sparks of piano, guitar, and sax ignite like fireflies in the dark. Then we take a turn towards jug band in the backyard with “Shake That Thing,” with Cormac McCarthy chugging away on his harmonica dipped in honey and radiant glow. “Big Leg Blues” powers up the raunchy good times with Morrissey suave and dazzling in his deep husky vocals alongside David Torkanowsky’s barrel fisted piano and the rest of the brass band swinging for the fences. Proving that there was nothing he could not handle when it came to combining the blues with piquant human observation, “I’m Satisfied” gets the toes a-tapping with its piercing trumpet yelps from Jamil Sharif and Morrissey’s deep shifting vocal presence. By the time we get to the pristine beauty of “Hey Honey, Right Away” or the shimmering stillness of “Beulah Land,” (with the most radiant mandolin by Frederic Koella you may hear), Morrissey has captured our hearts with his rare gift of brilliant artistry and wonderment at every creative turn that he has up his sly sleeve. I only hope that wherever Morrissey is now, (along with Guthrie, no doubt) that they are both having a “Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight.”
We welcome any suggestions for audiophile recording gems. Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.