Some musicians make music with such unique style that after hearing them once you can identify them immediately. Martin Simpson is among this elite group. His virtuosic fingerpicking, commanding voice, and organic musical arrangements remake even the most overdone tune into something fresh and new. On Righteousness and Humidity old standards including "John Hardy, " "I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes," "The Cuckoo Bird," "Wild Bill Jones," and "Rollin and Tumblin'" are transformed into Simpson compositions.
For those unfamiliar with Martin Simpson, his musical biography begins with his first album, Golden Vanity, released in 1976. Shortly after its release he went on tour with the legendary British folk group Steeleye Span. After this tour he then joined the great singer June Tabor, whom he worked with for the next ten years. In the late 1980's Simpson recorded two solo guitar collections for Shanachie Records, Leaves of Life and When I Was on Horseback. During the '90's Simpson made the blues album Smoke and Mirrors, and in 1996 released Band of Angels, a collaboration with his wife Jessica Simpson. In 1997 Simpson recorded the live album Live as well as his best-known release, Cool and Unusual. Since then Simpson has made Bootleg USA in 1999, and The Bramble Briar in 2001.
On Righteousness and Humidity Simpson is joined by James Singleton on acoustic bass, Rich Kemp on fretless electric bass and electric guitar, Reggie Scanlan on Fender bass, Amassa Miller on organ, and Carl Budo on drums. Simpson not only handles vocals but acoustic guitar, ukulele, lap-steel, electric guitar, and 5-string banjo. Recorded at the Noiselab in New Orleans, LA and Panda Sound in Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire, England, engineers Jimmy Gordon and Oliver Knight did a superb job of capturing all the subtle nuances of Simpson's masterful musicianship.
Buried among all the transformed traditional compositions, is an original Simpson tune titled "Love Never Dies" guaranteed to touch the heart if any guitar collector. With references to a Gibson Super 400 and "a J-200 with such a sweet neck" the song is framed around an old musician Simpson met at an Arkansas truck stop who played with Hank Thompson and Patsy Cline. Every time I hear it, the song completely slays me.
So you think you know what great guitar playing and great music making is all about? Until you've heard Martin Simpson you don't know nuthin'.
The very first long-playing record album I ever purchased was Society's Child by Janis Ian. Armed with this record and a mono copy of Bob Dylan's Bringing it All Back Home I wore out the needle on my first Garrard turntable. Fast-forward thirty years - I stole the title Acousticville for my monthly Vintage Guitar column from Janis Ian's song "Welcome to Acousticville." In penance I concluded my first column with a mention that her 1936 D-18 guitar, serial # 67053, that had been stolen in1972 and she was still seeking it. Remarkably a VG reader, Geoff Grace, returned the guitar to her shortly thereafter.
For those who don't have quite as long or interesting a relationship with Janis Ian Working Without a Net makes a wonderful introduction to her rich wonderful body of work. This 2-CD release functions as a "best of" album since includes almost all her important songs, beginning with "Society's Child," working through "Jesse," "Stars," "At Seventeen," Between the Lines," "This Train Still Runs," and "Breaking Silence." Janis reminds me of Judy Garland in that when she is on stage she completely owns that small piece of real estate for the duration of her time there. Working Without a Net gives you a taste of her performance mastery. About two-thirds of the performances are solo, if Janis Ian can ever really be considered a solo act, since her longtime soundman Philip Clark functions as sort of a silent accompanist, adding special effects and little sonic filigrees throughout most of her show. The last third of this live album features a fine backup band of seasoned pros including Rick Blackwell on bass, Jim Brock on drums, and Randy Leago on harmonica, sax, and keyboards.
An almost compulsive recorder (once at the Lyons Song School, an annual occurrence before the Rocky Mountain Folk's Fest, she borrowed my DAT machine to record her lecture on performance technique when her usual recorder failed) Janis had a wealth of performances to choose from when compiling this CD. The result is a truly live album (no overdubs ala Kiss Live) that not only captures some great performances, but also gives an accurate picture of the breadth of her prodigious talent. While the recording quality does vary, as you would expect from a release that includes material from thirteen different venues over a thirteen year span, the overall sound quality is remarkably consistent, I suspect in large part to her house mix guy, Phillip Clark.
It's nearly impossible for one live album, even if it is a double album, to comprehensively cover a performing artist's entire career, but Working Without a Net comes as close to achieving this elusive goal as any release I've heard. So if Janis Ian is an old acquaintance, let Working Without a Net reunite you, and if she is an unknown quantity, this CD makes the perfect introduction.
Kane's River don't look like a traditional bluegrass band - no matched outfits, no siblings or relatives, and their music draws from too many sources to be called old-style bluegrass. Perhaps folk-grass or singer-songwriter-grass would be a better description of what they do.
Originally formed by guitarist/singer John Lowell in 1993, Kane's River's roster includes co-founder David Thompson on bass and vocals, Julie Elkins on banjo and vocals, Jason Thomas on fiddle, mandolin, and vocals, and Ben Winship on mandolin and vocals. Ben joined Kane's River in 2002 after stints with Tony Furtado, Tish Hinojosa, Matt Flinner, and David Grier. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Kane's River is the cohesion and maturity of the band's sound. Just as in a traditional bluegrass band, each instrument and player has their particular musical role, but unlike a more traditional band the roles are less rigid and more innovative.
Many bluegrass bands usually perform and record some covers, but Kane's River do mostly original material. On Same River Twice only four songs, a reworking of "False Hearted Lover" by Tony Furtado, "Listening to the Rain" by Donald Devanney, "A Far Cry" by Mike Dowling, and "Wind in the Wires" by David Francey, are not from the pens of one of the band members. David Thompson, Ben Winship, and John Lowell each contribute three tunes apiece while Julie Elkins co-wrote two songs with David Thompson to complete Same River Twice's playlist. Julie, John, and Ben all share lead vocal duties, and everyone in the band adds harmony vocals. One of the two instrumentals on Same River Twice, "Foisted Possum," written by Ben Winship, has an especially infectious melody line that instantly sent me to my mandolin to learn it. I suspect several of the other tunes on Same River Twice will also find their way into many players' repertoires.
The sonics on Same River Twice deserve some attention. Produced by Ben Winship and Kane's River, Winship also served as the engineer in addition to sharing mastering duties with John Scherf. The final result sounds as good as any acoustic recording I've heard from any major label. Both warm and articulate, the sound serves the music nicely. Winship's Heiden mandolin sounds especially convincing, just as did when I heard him play it live.
Same River Twice proves that Kane's River is among the brightest of a new generation of bluegrass bands who are not afraid to let broader influences have an effect on their music. I'm definitely a fan, and after a listen I suspect you will join me.