The Bills travel the world, with imagination
June 16, 2005
I don’t even like counting the number of years since I’ve been to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (the 32nd edition of which began yesterday and runs through the weekend). So while I await my return, I turn to the thankfully abundant stack of acoustic CDs.The Bills, “Let Em Run”produced by Joby Baker, Marc Atkinsonand the Bills (Red House Records)The Bills, a five-piece from the western Canadian coast, come out swinging ferociously on “Let Em Run,” their third CD. “Overture (Let Em Run)” welds classical-style violin and piano to Appalachian melodic and rhythmic themes, at once showing their virtuosity, imagination and sense of style. The very next tune, “Old Blue Bridge,” opens with a wonderful four-part a cappella harmony, followed by chugging folk strumming, led by Marc Atkinson’s mandolin. All you want is to hear more of what this band can do.Answer: plenty. The Bills do it fast and jolly (“Hello”) and slow and sad (“Which Way Away”), sophisticated (a cover of “Stardust”) and raw, serious and silly (the title track is about four chickens kept in the backyard). The two lead singers, Atkinson and guitarist Chris Frye, have distinct voices, with Frye getting into a most distinctive corner on the all-Irish, all-vocal “Bamfield’s John Vanden.” The Bills slip into one final mode – and another language – with the French-influenced Acadian sound of eastern Canada, on “Oeil au Beurre Noir.” Que magnifique.
Old School Freight Train, “Run”produced by David Grisman(Acoustic Disc)OK, which member of five-piece Virginia band Old School Freight Train is either a) related to David Grisman; or b) knows where Grisman hid the body?Grisman, the master mandolinist, has shown the most impeccable taste and exacting standards with his Acoustic Disc label. That streak comes to a halt here. At its best – as on the instrumental “Lookee Here,” a tune greatly influenced by Grisman’s own Dawg style, a mix of jazz and bluegrass – Old School Freight Train is a decent, middle-of-the-pack acoustic combo. But the opening title track doesn’t even rise to that level, with its combination of limp lyrics (“How many times have we walked that road / How many times can we carry that load”) and singing (noticeably off-key) to match. The cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” would be better if the vocal track were eliminated entirely; such a treatment still wouldn’t salvage the take on Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.””Run” hits its modest peak on the Brazilian-oriented “Euridice,” which, no surprise, features Grisman as well as the Grisman Quintet’s Joe Craven on percussion.
One word of advice: Run.Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now”produced by Gurf Morlix (Lost Highway)Louisiana-bred Mary Gauthier’s early biography includes adoption as an infant into a family of alcoholics, stealing her folks’ car and running away at 15, many pills and bottles, and spending her 18th birthday in jail. She’s overcome that; succeeding first in the restaurant business in Boston and now as a literate singer-songwriter.But as “Mercy Now” makes clear, Gauthier still has access to the old darkness. The album is Southern gothic to the core, beginning with the grim, ghostly “Falling Out of Love,” and running through her ode to daddy, “I Drink.” The equally excellent title song is a prayer for everyone, from her father on up to our country, to “every living thing,” all of whom just might benefit from Gauthier’s intervention. Producer Gurf Morlix, using cello and pedal steel, electric guitars and Hammond B3 organ, has given it all just the right touch of sorrow and redemption.
Dickey Betts & Great Southern”The Collectors #1″produced by BettsNot a bluegrass album. (Though it is all acoustic, and opens with the unmistakably Irish tune, “Beyond the Pale.”) Not even a new album. (It was released in 2003). But wow!Somehow, “The Collectors #1” – which, despite the title, is not a compilation of old material – eluded me upon its release. But in light of the recent Belly Up show by estranged Allman Brother Dickey Betts, roundly acknowledged as sensational, I thought this well-deserving of a heads-up.Betts shows here his talents are not exclusively in the realm of Allmans-style Southern blues-boogie. “The Collectors #1” is acoustic swing with a strong Southern accent, which makes for a knockout experience. Betts, playing nylon, steel string and slide guitars, and surrounded by fiddles, acoustic bass and saxophones, works through old blues, rearranged Allmans material and even a cover of Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” (A great song, yes, but can we all pick some other Dylan song to cover? Wouldn’t it have been nice to hear Betts tackle something from “Nashville Skyline?” Or something totally obscure? Am I alone here?)Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com