Review: Peter Rowan – “The Free Mexican Airforce – Classic Tracks From The Flying Fish Albums” (Roots Collectibles/CRS 2009)
I thought I had seen almost everything but this one is new. As you know, when crisis strikes we’re all invited to work harder and so it happens that the Dutch CRS has started a new series of releases called “Roots Collectibles”. In this particular case, the reissue concerns the first two solo records by Peter Rowan, presenting his full first album and a selection of the second (and it is this unusual “75%” reissue that was missing until now).
Anyways, interesting ideas are either the project behind the series which schedules the releasing of unpublished material and rare albums or the titles released up to date which include a compilation about the debut of the acoustic blues woman Rory Block (Lovin’ Whiskey – A Collection Of Songs From The Rounder Years) and the reissue of the debut in power-trio style of the Briton Danny Bryant (Watching You).
Even more engaging, anyways, it’s the possibility to trace the first steps of the career of Peter Rowan, excellent guitarist and mandolin player from Boston, Massachusetts, with Texas and Mexico in the heart and a whole roots dictionary in his fingers. If you have a quick look at the most sparkling among the traditional bands that have been hitting the stage from the 1960s onward, it’s likely that Rowan (who joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in 1965 at the age of 23) is one of the protagonists.
From the psychedelic folk and bluegrass of the unfortunately forgotten Earth Opera of David Grisman (The Great American Eagle Tragedy is a must-have masterpiece reissued 10 years ago by Wounded Bird) to the jazzy smoked country-rock of Seatrain, from the purely hard bluegrass of Muleskinner to the freaky western of the New Riders Of the Purple Sage, ending with the Bay Area super-group Old & In The Way (starring Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, Grisman etc…), Rowan is always there.
And we haven’t mentioned the majestic production of a never prosaic or expected solo career yet. Peter Rowan and Medicine Trail, respectively released in 1978 and 1980 (same year of Texican Badman, album that includes tracks previously released by the Italian label Appaloosa) talk the marvelous language of a country-rock soaked with tex-mex suggestions and borderline magnetisms. Considering the second title a bit superior, I am sorry it’s the one that has been “cut” by CRS. However, the music you can find in the cut version would deserve by any means the nomination for the Oscar in the category “roots music of 1970s”.
On the same titled debut, besides Peter, we find his brother Lorin at the piano, the great Flaco Jimenèz at the accordion, a huge number of fiddlers (at least 5!) and the breathtaking Jesse Ponce at the bajo sexto banjo (a sort of 12 strings acoustic guitar really common in the music of Eastern Mexico). Even in these days, listening to all of them together, while they swing from old west epic to hippie visions during the overflowing Land Of The Navajo, could represent a true example of mystic epiphany.
And if you find this description too deep, however, don’t forget that here you can find This is Land Of The Navajo, the country yodel Outlaw Love, the nostalgic waltz of the harrowing Break My Heart Again, a bluesy version of When I Was a Cowboy by Leadbelly, the limpid tex-mex of the dancing The Free Mexican Airforce, a live performance of Panama Red and the melancholic goodbye of The Gypsy King’s Farewell.
On the other hand, Medicine Trail sounds more classic rock and even if the usual Spanish rises don’t lack (clearly shown in the conjunto Riding High In Texas and in the cover of Jimmie Rogers Praire Lullabye) what prevail mostly are roots ballads such as My Foolish Pride or River Of Stone, both acoustic, intimate and beautiful.
And if a Dreaming I Love You suspended between bluegrass and honky-tonk sounds like a minor-key divertissement, surprises arrive from the grungy unplugged gospel of the Revelations enlightened by the dobro of Jerry Douglas and by the guitar of Ricky Skaggs, from the overwhelming electric outbursts of a title track totally devoted to rock’n roll (Tony Gilkyson on guitar) and from the almost Caribbean relax of the touching Maui Momma.
I hope it’s clear the fact that if you’ve been growing up listening to Texan songwriters and new country, this pair of albums is something you shouldn’t miss for any reason whatsoever (and please, talking about Rowan, include in your discography at least the beautiful The Walls Of Time, a parade of traditional and bluegrass pics from 1982, and Awake Me In The New World, underrated lessons concerning ethnic music released 11 years later).
Contrarily, the reason why The Free Mexican Airforce deserves a lower vote, compared to the intrinsic value of the album itself, resides in the lacking of completeness: at the end of the day, when we talk about our heroes it’s easy to become pedantic.
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