Aireene Espiritu and The Roots of the Road
Some voices effortlessly embody the diversity, unity and passion of American music.
In her voice, in the way Aireene Espiritu sings her original songs, she is at once a rare breed of artist, a soul singer, a folk troubadour, a blues artist, a busk show princess, a skiffle tear-stained street singer with a heart as big as the history of the music that drives her. And in the final analysis, she is a storyteller without borders or cultural limitations. Her voice echoes with our collective memory of Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, and Bonnie Raiit.
Espiritu gave herself over to a full time career as a troubadour-artist a decade ago. In a recent interview, she told me she is homeless. However, it wasn’t a reference to pity or pathos, but to freedom. It is this freedom she revels in today, allowing her to grow her art, her music, and her life in a way that often goes against the popular stream. Like a true gypsy of old or the generous Hawaiian canoe tradition, she gathers what she finds as she travels around the world and makes it all part of her art.
Just when you think the term ‘Americana’ has grown weary, overused and watered down to the point of commercial meaninglessness , along comes Aireene Espiritu, who defines the very term so that it’s impossible to describe her music in any other way. Nashville and Austin, pay attention to this talented artist. She sings like Aretha and writes like God. But, it’s simply what any gifted artist does when she is open to the world around her.
From this opening portal, we enter a world of the Aireene Espiritu with the title song, “Put Back Charlie,” about a humpy-dumpty kind of redemption, then on to a dymanic original take on “Stagger Lee.” There’s a compassionate and empathetic song for a “Bag Woman,” while “Boom & Bust” serves as a reminder of the 2008 economic disaster. This is followed by an insightful take on the murder of 17 year-old African-American youth, Trayvon Martin, from the perspective of the small-minded shooter.
Espiritu’s musical ground is as organic and real as her vocals and songwriting, with a congregation of skilled roots musicians from Northern and Southern California. They include Tom Corbett on mandolin; Ed Tree on a variety of stringed instruments including dobro, electric and acoustic lead guitar; Debra Dobbkin on drums; and Gary Ferguson. Her band, the Rarities, are a formidable creative force and source of support for this exceptional artist, both in her live performances and in the studio. She provides the material, the soul of the song, and they bring in the finishing acoustic and electric blend that give the tunes the elegance and luster needed to help them reach their potential.
Espiritu’s genesis in music is as original as her songs. She came to America and the Bay Area of Northern California from the Philippines when she was ten years old. The custom in her family consisted of get-togethers that included weekend afternoons of live guitar and ukulele music provided by her uncles. Through these childhood memories music has become, for her, a source of community and family.
But, it was one afternoon at a book store that sent her deep into the core of American music. While shopping through the stacks, shelves, and aisles of books about music, Alan Lomax’s book, The Land Where the Blues Began, fell off the shelf onto the floor in front her her. This book planted a seed that blossomed into a career that has grown some of the finest of recent folk-based songwriting in Americana today. Espiritu drew from those early field recordings that Lomax preserved for artists like her to discover. Her life has never been the same. She became well-versed in Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and blues artists like Bessie Smith. They became part of her soul and carry the Holy Spirit behind her songs.
Today, Espiritu has grown an independent self-managed career that has allowed her to nurture music through house-concerts and small coffee house venues, not only in America but also throughout Europe. As she continues on her unique road, it’s hard to see anything but a future of success for an artist who presents such an original vision filled with so much warmth, compassion, vision and imagination.
But Espiritu isn’t waiting for the traditional path to success to take hold. In fact, as she moves down this road she’s paved — a road-less traveled — she need only stop long enough for the world to catch up with her. If it does, Americana music, as well as the universe around her, will be a better place filled with some beautiful and joyous music.