The Sweet Lowdown
Produced by Adrian Dolan
Released: November 2012
The Sweet Lowdown’s second CD, May, is a pure delight. Released in 2012, it won the 2013 Island Roots Album of the Year award for the Victoria, BC-based band. The group consists of banjo and guitar player Shanti Bremer, originally from Olympia, WA, German-born Miriam Sonstenes on fiddle, and native Victorian Amanda Blied on guitar, who trade lead and harmony vocals with a light touch reminiscent of Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Each has enough songwriting, vocal and instrumental talent to stand alone, but together they create a synergy of honest vocals, tight three-part harmonies and masterful fiddle, banjo and guitar playing. Their songs convey the soul of mountain music through the contemporary framework of new folk and bluegrass.
There are twelve tracks on this CD. The ten original songs are fresh and engaging, with writing credits divided evenly around the group. Vocals build from solo or duo to full harmony on cuts such as “Please Take Me Home,” “Let It Go,” “What Goes Up,” and “Drink It Down” (with an environmental theme inspired by a documentary on water rights). Most of the singing is clear enough to understand, but close listening does not always reveal all the words. Thankfully, the six-panel foldout includes a booklet tucked in one pocket with all of the lyrics and brief notes on the four instrumentals. Sonstenes creates a toe-tapping groove on her original fiddle tunes, trading leads with Bremer’s banjo on old-time and Celtic-flavored instrumentals such as “Big Wave” and “Inza and Liam’s Jig.” Bremer’s composition skills are no less impressive with the exotic melodic turns of her tune “Lucknow,” named for a city in India. Her beautiful title track, “May,” starts with a relaxed solo banjo motif, moves into lead and harmony traded with the fiddle, then breaks into a driving beat in a minor key before resolving with a quiet, lyrical ending. Two traditional tunes that round out the album show the band’s ability to play straight-ahead bluegrass on “Reuben’s Train,” or harmonize with a quieter folk sound in “Sail Away Ladies.”
Some of my favorite lyrics include:
“It’s a long way to the places that we used to know /
All the empty rooms and the hours waiting by the phone /
Why can’t we let it go, /
What you and I both know, /
Why can’t we let it go.” /
(from Let It Go by Miriam Sonstenes)
“Asleep at night /
While demons stay awake and sell our rights /
Before we wake, and when we do /
It’s to the store and on the shelf we see /
Their good night’s work. /
When the rain ceases to fall /
And the winter doesn’t come at all /
And the taps won’t give you a glass, /
Save us, save us.” /
(from "Drink It Down" by Shanti Bremer)
“Blue are the midnight skies /
On those the longest nights /
When up the hills we go /
Ride snow back down
Snow lit the night like day /
Day broke above blue lakes /
Glaciers they shone like gold /
Behold the sun”
(from "What Goes Up" by Amanda Blied)
Guitar picker Paul Chasman turned a new musical corner by delving into the craft of songwriting in his most recent CD. Basics was recorded entirely live, without overdubs, at Kung Fu Bakery Studios in Portland, OR. While long known for his guitar playing, he makes his debut here as a vocalist and there’s a lot of joy that shines through his voice on these songs. Chasman is quite the showman. He creates elaborate accompaniments with hot guitar leads and backup, plus harmonica on several cuts, which makes the live presentation all the more impressive since he is singing with great gusto at the same time. His vocals are a little rough around the edges, now and then straying from the pitch, but his voice is pleasant and his phrasing is expressive.
Chasman discovered he had a knack for writing lyrics while he was recovering from hand surgery. He became quite prolific in a short period of time, turning out these 16 songs and recording them within the next year. He brings humor and a perceptive edge to topics like population, racism (Ballad of Muhammad Ali), the environment, wolves, politics (Free Nation Blues) and death (“Well, it’s ashes to ashes and it’s dust to dust; nothing is free, just one guarantee, it’s a short stretch from dawn to dusk; you can’t walk, run, hide or crawl, when your number is called”). Styles range from country blues to folk fingerpicking to light jazz (Water Song), and his guitar cries the blues on Song for the Wolf. His playing stands out on every track, but is especially sweet on I Don’t Have the Blues, Meat and Potatoes (the only instrumental), This Guitar, and one of my favorites, I’m Just Sayin’ (“Kinda like Egypt, kinda like Iran, a woman’s fate is decided by man. No matter if you’re 12 or the father’s unknown, you’d better have that baby, then you’re on your own, but I’m just sayin’… The truth’s not always what they claim, ‘cause if you really value life, you’ll care for who remains. I don’t mean to complain, I’m just sayin’…”).
Sometimes Chasman delivers his song in character, as in I’m So Special that tells the truth about life with cats (“It’s 3 in the morning, wake up ‘cause I want to go out! You open the door but now I am having some doubts. I’ll let you know if I decide to go… Just stand there and wait, while you I berate, go fill up my plate (not with that stuff I hate, never mind, it’s too late!), I’m off to the rug to throw up everything I just ate… I’m so special…”).
Basics is a witty, clever and entertaining collection of songs. Chasman’s fans will enjoy the abundance of good guitar music throughout, and the audio quality is excellent considering the challenges of live recording. A suggestion for the future would be to include lyrics either with the CD or on the website.
Come Home to Me
Released June 2013
This CD is a charming and delightful listen through nine originals and two covers by Seattle-based Melissa Jane Pandiani (Pandi) and Amelia Boksenbaum (Milly Raccoon). Recorded at Empty Sea Studio by Michael Connolly, who also plays upright bass, the production is true to their performances with Pandi on guitar, Milly on fiddle and mandolin, and both on crystal clear lead and harmony vocals.
It’s remarkable how well matched these two women are in both their songwriting and vocal skills. They both write creative, whimsical songs in a blend of Americana, folk and old-style country with a hint of old-time Appalachian and bluegrass. Their harmonies are sometimes as close as the Everly Brothers and other times move apart unexpectedly. Their ethereal voices are perfect for their quirky and interesting lyrics that range from reporting on the ups and downs of love to introducing mythical characters.
One of my favorites is Pandi’s upbeat song, Ghost Girl:
“Fresh off the train from heartbreak city, as a ghost girl I come into Nashville town /
First outlaw I see comin’ with his licorice lover’s lies, /
I’ll draw my pistol and I’ll cut him down… /
My heart it bleeds, can’t get no sleep, I must remind myself to breathe now and then /
I’m dustin’ off my knees and I’m headed east, and I’m never gonna hurt like this again.”
No Buying Time by Milly sets uncommon lyrics to an old-fashioned country melody:
“I’m an animal, so stay away, don’t lie your lies to me /
I’m an alien and I’m leaving soon, there’s no buying time with me… /
I’ve got hidden swords all over me, I’m a fortress of disease /
I’ve got hidden songs and haunting dreams, I’m gone so mote it be.”
Little Bunny by Milly is a barnburning instrumental featuring the fiddle in a minor key with some interesting chord progressions. Jack of the Wood by Pandi is a happy, hoedown kind of song driven again by Milly’s old-timey fiddle bow. They even break into Whiskey Before Breakfast right in the middle of it.
“Well he opened up his hand and released a firefly /
Took me to his dwelling up along the mountainside /
Asked me for forever and I wondered if I could, then he cast his shade on another maid, Now we call him Jack of the Wood.”
Of the two covers, my favorite is the Louvins’ Hide and Seek. The vocals are sweet and high-energy, and the guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass keep our toes tapping.
The Gloria Darlings have played at festivals and concerts and busked nationwide. Their sound is a little raw instrumentally, reminiscent of a street show. Milly’s strength is on the fiddle, seeming more comfortable playing leads on it than on mandolin, where there are issues of timing and leaving lead phrases not quite complete. Pandi is a strong guitar strummer and a smooth fingerpicker. This new CD should put these two artists on the map with their endearing, down-home and innovative music.
Near and Far
Released: April 2013
Dick Weissman is an accomplished performer, instrumental composer, songwriter, recording artist, author and educator. Active in the Portland, OR music scene for ten years, he recorded this CD there but relocated to Denver during the summer. His new CD, Near and Far, showcases his latest collection of original music written primarily for banjo and guitar, plus a few songs with vocals. These 16 tracks are produced mostly on the simple side with a number of solos and innovative duets with oboe, English horn, oboe d’amore (all played by Mitch Imori) or soprano sax (played by Noah Peterson). Weissman contributes his own versatile talent on banjo, banjola, 6- and 12-string guitars, electric guitar, piano, and tiple. Mollie O’Brien makes several guest appearances as a lead and harmony vocalist. She shows up partway through Brazilian Banjo Rag doing a wonderful, whimsical scat, and takes the lead on Oklahoma (Carry All My Tears Away), the only song that is fully produced with 12-string guitar, drums, bass (Ron Bland) and harmonica (Dan McCrimmon). Weissman sings lead on A Cup of the Blues and shares vocals with Harry Tuft and O’Brien on the sweet waltz-time song, Take This Letter.
Weissman’s music evokes gentle moods with the quietness of his solo playing, from the intricate banjo picking on Trail Ridge Variations interwoven with English horn, to his arpeggiated fingerstyle guitar on Angeology, a beautiful romantic piece written in memory of friend and Journeymen bandmate, Scott McKenzie. Recapturing Trail Ridge starts out with thoughtful, soft, melodic passages on solo banjo and then picks up the energy with frailing before closing with melody again. Stuart and the Blue Goose has a toe-tapping, old-time Appalachian feeling, written for the fine banjo player Stuart Jamieson, who died in 2008. Banjo Duende is a unique and impressive solo banjo piece with a strong flamenco theme. One of my favorite tunes is Sami & Dave, written with two different themes for his two blue heelers who had vastly different personalities. It changes mood from the prim, proper and reflective melody accompanied by oboe d’amore, to releasing all that pent-up energy into rollicking strums and rolls just like a bouncing, happy puppy.
At the end of the CD is a final track, About the Music, where Weissman gives a brief background for each song. This is a nice touch, and it gives us a sense of knowing the artist better through hearing his friendly voice speaking straight to the listener.
Welcome Her Back
I've traded notes on songwriting with Seattle singer-songwriter Stefanie Robbins at the Beacon Hill Songwriters' Circle, so she invited me to her CD release concert and asked me to write a review of Welcome Her Back. Her new album is quite the professional production. She likes a touch of sentimental country slide behind her big voice and effective chord changes, and the polished band obliges. You can hear bits of Carole King, Stevie Nicks, and Dolly Parton in Stef's songwriting and Eric Miller's arrangements.
When Stef is anthemic she can sound defiant, as when she celebrates a wilder "her" tucked inside herself in the title song Welcome Her Back. Other times she's rhapsodic. I'm guessing that Eric Miller's detailed arrangements bring out her grander side, as in the gorgeous overdubbed outro at the end of Carried Away, where multiple Stefanies emulate the effect of letting herself tumble in and out of love. I'm not sure, however, that Eric's efforts can find much new in Let My Cards Show (an image trademarked by Kenny Rogers), or sort out the planetary metaphor of Constant One (it's hard to improve upon John Donne imagining his spouse the "fixed foot" of a compass that "makes me end where I begun.")
Stef trying to push questions out of her mouth as fast as she can while young Sedona is still there to hear them. Sedona is struggling to fend off a hard loneliness that Stef recognizes. Perhaps she remembers perfectly well her own impatience with such nosy questions just a few years back while she was on the street. Yet now she's in the position of asking Sedona those very same questions because she cares about her, worries that she will be hurt or disappear. And in songwriting as well, the more intimately the song yields to the complex gestures of the singer's spoken voice. That's what Joni Mitchell was doing when she began a song with the spoken phrase "No regrets, Coyote" ― turning that sassy line into a moment of theater. I hope that Stef will continue to feel comfortable writing songs in her own personal voice, and peppering them to taste with remarks directed at particular people.
The night of her CD release show, I asked Stef "Where are we welcoming you back from?" and she answered "Myself." That's an intriguing answer.
- Hank Davis (edited for brevity; full review here)
The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard
(2015; Stony Plain)
Duke Robillard is well known for his superlative guitar tone and dexterous playing. The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard shows yet another side to this stellar artist. The cover art shows Duke sitting on the porch in the sun, strumming his guitar, and it is easy to imagine sitting on the grass in front of him listening as he plays a few lines from My Old Kentucky Home or sings I Miss My Baby in My Arms with Bill Novick playing clarinet and Matt McCabe on piano. Guest vocalist Sunny Crownover sings on Evangeline and Mary Flower adds lap slide guitar while Jon Ross plucks and strums a mandolin. Jerry Portnoy uses his harp savvy to fill out Eric “Two Scoops” Moore’s Left Handed and Duke’s I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog (To Take the Place of You), which was recorded live at the Blackstone River Theater. Mary and Duke perform a duet on Nashville Blues, with both singing and playing guitar. The Providence Mandolin Orchestra and Novick’s clarinet gives Saint Louis Blues an old-timey feel and adds to the dramatic rhythm. Doug James shows potent harp skills on Sleepy John Estes Someday Baby with Duke on mandolin. Robert Lockwood’s Take a Little Walk With Me was also recorded live at Blackstone River. Maria Muldaur takes the vocals on Santa Claus Blues with Doug James on bari sax and Dave Babcock on tenor. Jay McShann plays a stately piano on Meade Lux Lewis’ Profoundly Blue, which features crisp guitar lines by Robillard. The Acoustic Roots of Duke Robillard closes with 46 seconds of Duke playing solo on the jaunty Ukulele Swing. This album is just so much fun!
The Dusty 45s
Live and On Fire
The Dusty 45s are one of the more entertaining bands to see perform in the region, and Live and On Fire catches them in their element. The generous 15 selections are almost exclusively originals, most penned by front man Billy Joe Huels. The first 12 cuts were recorded at a February 2014 show at the Triple Door, and the remainder in Portland. Their sound ranges from rock to surf to a touch of rock-a-billy and a healthy touch of country with plenty of picante guitar by Jerry Battista. Bye Bye Blues is an old jazz song from 1930, probably the best known of the dozens of recordings is the 1952 version by Les Paul and Mary Ford, here featuring a trumpet solo by Billy Joe, a short upright bass solo by Jeff Gray and a harp solo by the drummer Kelly Van Camp (yes, drums with one hand and feet and with harp in the other hand -- amazing to see!) Bumblebee is a fun song with the line “bumblebees make honey/Honey will you be mine/sweet like sugar/I want to drink your bumblebee wine.” They do a show-stopping version of one of my very favorite blues songs, St. James Infirmary, with tasty guitar lines by Jerry and muted trumpet by Billy Joe, even a harp solo by Kelly. The rocking romp 32 Quarters surely has the crowd on their feet and stomping. The show ends with Miserlou credited as Greek traditional/Dick Dale, and I can visualize Billy Joe’s flaming trumpet as the audience chants along with the band -- hey, hey, hey. Go see the Dusty 45s play a live show, and while you are there make sure to get a copy of Live And On Fire, and the 45s' last studio release Fortunate Man, too.
- Malcolm Kennedy
Jeannine Hebb began her music career at the age of four when she worked out the tune of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina on the living room piano while listening to it as the only song on her grandmother’s music box.
As an only child, and being shy, she spent much of her childhood writing her own songs while learning piano developing her singing voice, and was touring with a professional musical theater group by the age of thirteen. Stage was the place where she felt comfortable with herself. She went on to Berklee College of Music and graduated in three years at the age of twenty.
Along the way she won several awards, including the recipient of the Frank E. Remick and E. Ione Lockwood awards for excellence in music and vocal performance and the Susan Glover Hitchcock scholarship for outstanding musicianship. She also received the Scott Benson scholarship for songwriters, the highest honor in the Berklee songwriting department, when she graduated. After that, she moved to New York City where she released her first EP, Too Late To Change Me.
She has been compared to singers and songwriters from Laura Nyro to Carole King and her style contains influences from jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues, and she blends them together well. The album contains quite a few other musicians including herself on voice piano, with additional musicians on guitar, pedal steel, bass, drums, violin, viola, and cello, although the piano is the featured instrument which is understandable since she is the piano player, and she does an excellent job at it. But is her singing that really carries the album.
The production and arrangements are excellent as is her performance. She has a beautiful voice that is full and rich and well suited for the style of music on the album. The songs are about heart break but done in a somewhat upbeat manner making the album more light-hearted and very enjoyable to listen to. The song I Believe has this in it with lyrics that might sound rather downbeat but are sung beautifully:
"If I believe /
What everybody’s telling me
Surely you would disagree
With everything I’ve heard
Can I take your word."
And the song Back to Me Again is very upbeat and fast paced and really showcases her great voice:
"Say what you want /
But leave my heart /
I need all my precious heart /
And I know you can’t be trusted /
With my mind /
And it’s twisted all the time /
Wrapped so tightly I might die /
Any time you so desire."
Her voice and songwriting are impressive, and so is the album.
- by Greg Bennett
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