Although I never knew David Lamb personally, I do remember the first news of his illness. Two years ago, I took a mini road trip to see Joe Fletcher in Grand Rapids, MI. Having stayed in touch with Fletcher since an early piece I wrote for ND about him and his band the Wrong Reasons, I was happy to show up for support during a rare tour stop in my home state. With him were his longtime friends and sometimes collaborators, MorganEve Swain and David Lamb. Brown Bird, though I had heard of them in association with Joe many times, were still new to me and I was eager to hear another band from Providence, RI — a scene that had lately become my new favorite. Sure enough, by the end of the night, I was a fan. Even during my terrifying, white knuckle drive to my sister’s house on Lake Michigan afterwards (Western Michigan is known for their copious snowfall and white-out blizzards), I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I hadn’t seen such a good show, in quite some time. Swain and Lamb were partners in music and life and it showed in their energy on stage. Their voices melded into a unique style of folk that I couldn’t attribute to anyone else and I was eager to discover the rest of their catalog.
After such an amazing and energetic performance, I was surprised to hear from FLetcher that the following night’s show had been cancelled. What was thought at the time to be a developing flu had left Dave unable to play.
Sadly, Dave passed away from leukemia on April 5, 2014 . He was 35.
A year after Lamb’s passing, MorganEve has released Brown Bird’s final album, Axis Mundi. Though written and recorded during his convalescence after a bone marrow transplant, its energy is palpable and humbling. Against the backdrop of the band’s previous releases, this one is louder and more complex — a fitting final contribution from a man who could don a Mastodon t-shirt as easily as he could play bluesy folk.
Loosely translated, axis mundi means “Navel of the World,” a belief held by many world religions that there is a celestial pole connecting higher and lower realms. As the end product of Lamb’s final recordings and Swain’s dedicated mixing and producing after his passing, the title is fitting. A sense of connection is in fact a powerful force on the album. As their ninth album, Axis Mundi is deftly threaded with the evolutionary culmination of the duo’s sound. Inspired not only by roots music, but the roots of roots music, “Blood From The Tree” and “Ephraim” showcase Lamb and Swain’s unique interpretations of traditional Eastern European folk.
Known for their genre bending combinations, the album just as quickly transitions to the heavy rock of “Forest of Fevers,” with its “She’s So Heavy,” Beatles riff. The album as a whole is more rock-laden than the duo’s previous efforts. “Sackcloth and Ash” features an ancient, almost Middle Eastern melody set against the backdrop of a distinctly metal drum beat. Interspersed as well are moments of the vintage Americana that gave Brown Bird their start: the bluesy “Patiently Awaiting,” the slow burn chamber folk opener of “Focus,” and the surprising and brilliant surf rock tinged “Aloha Senor Mano,” a track as at home on the album as it would be in a B-movie spaghetti Western.
In less deft hands, this album could easily sound like a messy disaster, but through it all runs Lamb’s powerful imagery, coupled with a sense of modern folk. A talented and literate songwriter, Lamb does not shy away from using what I can only imagine to be some of his hardest moments, as his raw material. From the get go, the album’s opener “Focus,” with lyrics like “Tethered to the cure/I focus on the pain/transformation comes/Tempered by the flame,” sets the lyrical intensity of the record. Whether he knew it to be his last album or not, Lamb’s Cormac McCarthy-esque lyrics, are bleakly rich. The song titles themselves connote images of blood, fevers, and ash with lyrics to match. One haunting instrumental on the album is even entitled “Shadrach,” a biblical character condemned to a fiery death. Yet, like the story of Shadrach, Axis Mundi is a story of light within the fire. Far from an elegy, Lamb gives his all on this record and combined with Swain’s subtle harmonies, and commitment to bringing it to life, it is the profound work of a man whose name is never far from such qualifiers as genuine and committed. Almost in defiance of his state of health, Lamb has left us with a resounding farewell and a fitting end to an amazing band whose talents culminate in this all too soon final record.