REVIEW: Ghost Bikes–Folksinger Jim Page’s Live Masterpiece
By Nathan Moore
Unlike many contemporary songwriters, Jim Page defies musical categories. While the Seattle wordsmith is referred to in certain circles as a political songwriter, Page, in his own words, “refuses to compartmentalize.” “I’m not going down into that ghetto,” he says with a gleam in his eyes. “I’m a whole person. I have a political life and a love life. I don’t pay attention to the labels.” To Page, letting the critics define and pigeon-hole an artist is a trap that musicians should avoid. Anyone who has seen Page live or has listened to one of his many albums knows that the man can write a song about any subject matter under the sun. His newest release Ghost Bikes—recorded live in front of a studio audience—proves this point. It is a collection of engaging songs about everything from war and homelessness to the lives of Lightin’ Hopkins and Leonard Peltier. Each track bursts with Page’s clever wordplay and poetic observations, trademark qualities that have made him one of the most respected contemporary songwriters.
Page recorded Ghost Bikes at Jack Straw Productions in Seattle with “The Spokes,” a handful of talented musicians who lend masterful accompaniment to the songs. Specifically, Page is joined by Grant Dermody on harmonica, Michael Gray on violin and viola, Erin Corday on vocals and bamboo flute, and percussionist Joel Litwin on the brief case, shoe box, and raw pasta. The combination of musicians is perfect, lending a poignant yet playful mood to the album as a whole. “The energy was right,” Page proudly notes. “The recording was done in three hours, and there are no overdubs.” In fact, Page goes as far as saying that in terms of his discography, “Ghost Bikes” is his favorite album. For an artist who has released a number of critically-acclaimed albums, that’s saying a whole lot.
From the very first note of the opening track “Meinong”—a beautiful kaleidoscope of images from Page’s experiences performing in the Taiwanese township—listeners are treated to a tapestry of lyrics and melodic textures that capture the ear on an emotional level. Vivid lines such as: “Meinong, all around the circle eternity flows/ And after awhile you gotta go I suppose” intertwine with delightfully airy harmonica riffs and Corday’s smooth backing vocals. This pattern continues throughout Ghost Bikes. Driving fiddle accompanies Page’s rapid-fire strumming on “Lightnin’ Hopkins,” an incredible story-song about Page’s first musical influence. “I never learned to play the blues, I hope that’s alright” Page sings, and it becomes clear that a musician’s influence goes way beyond simply imparting technical skills. Like many great songs, Page ends it with a philosophical theme that sticks in one’s head: “Now some people they pass right through you, maybe leave a little mark/ Some people shine like a light for you sometimes/ And help you find your way when it’s dark.”
As with Jim Page’s previous albums, Ghost Bikes features a healthy does of observant social and political commentary. Page never preaches to the audience, though; instead, he presents his take on the world through detailed storytelling and well-crafted imagery. The album’s title track, for example, focuses on the tradition of painting and decorating bicycles to memorialize riders killed by reckless motorists. Woven into such metaphoric descriptions of ghost bikes as “pedal birds,” is Page’s advice to a world addicted to cars: “Humanity,” he sings, “…is going to have to decide whether to asphyxiate itself or go out for a ride.” Michael Gray’s fluid fiddle lines intertwine with Joel Litwin’s solid brush-work and Grant Dermody’s subtle harmonica playing to create an eloquent mood that perfectly matches Page’s vocal work.
“Yang Ru-Men” is one of the album’s gems, a story about a Taiwanese man who received a long prison sentence for leaving “rice bombs” (fake explosives) in public sites in an effort to publicize the destructive impact of corporate agribusiness and the WTO’s free trade policies on small farmers. While playing at a music festival in Taiwan, Page visited Yang Ru-Men in detention and told him that he would write a song about him. Before his imprisonment, Yang Ru-men signed his communiqués to the press with the phrase: “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” It is this beautiful phrase that Page sings as a chorus, potently demonstrating that the best lyrics are rooted in real life struggles and experiences.
Other songs such as “Tent City” come across as polished vignettes. “Tent City” takes listeners on a cold, wet journey through makeshift villages of cardboard and plastic tarps where it’s “Too cold to sit down” and “too cold to stand.” Page’s reflection on the increase in tent cities across the landscape of the new depression is more than just a descriptive look at the right of every human to have decent shelter. His song also taps into the grassroots energy that has come from the organization of encampments like Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. “Take a message to the man, whisper it in his ear,” he sings “Until we see some changes, we’re gonna stay right here!”
Page’s clear vocal style adds quite a bit to the overall feel of the album and makes his intelligent lyrics accessible to listeners. For example, his relaxed delivery of the slow blues number “Big Star Fallin’” complements his solid finger-picking and down-home lyrics. On other songs like “Song For Leonard Peltier,” Page eschews fancy phrasing and presents the story of the imprisoned Native American activist in a straightforward manner. “My singing is more like talking,” he says, commenting on his method. “When I listen to a song, I want to know what it’s about.” One of the most refreshing aspects of Ghost Bikes is that the lyrics jump right out, and the listener doesn’t have to play a song over and over again in order to figure out what Page is saying.
As a whole, Ghost Bikes is an impressive effort. Page’s trenchant lyrics and memorable melodies, and the cast of supportive players all come together to create one of 2010’s best folk albums. To promote Ghost Bikes, Page plans to embark on a major cross-country tour as well as a trip to Ireland (where he used to live and perform) in spring 2011. As an artist who has spent years honing his performing skills, Page is known for his energetic live shows. In fact, when the legendary Utah Phillips once took to the stage after Page, he said, “That Jim Page used up all the available vocabulary, and now I don’t what songs I’m going to sing.” To experience just how good Jim Page is, grab a copy of Ghost Bikes, and go see him while he’s still on this side of the ocean.