Help My Brother by The Gibson Brothers – CD Review
The eagerly awaited Gibson Brothers’ new CD Help My Brother is being released by Compass Records on Tuesday, February 22nd. Comprising twelve songs, seven of which are Gibson Brothers originals while four are contemporary originals and one a cover of a Jim and Jesse McReynolds classic. The Brothers’ core touring band of Mike Barber, Clayton Campell, and Joe Walsh is tastefully augmented with guest vocals by Ricky Skaggs, Claire Lynch, and Alison Brown on vocal harmony and banjo, while Mike Witcher shows up on Dobro. The recording, produced by Eric and Leigh, along with band-mate Mike Barber and engineered by Ben Suratt is of the highest quality. The album design and photographs present a fine package. All-in-all, this project presents itself as first class in every way.
The Gibson Brothers Band
“Help My Brother” (Leigh Gibson) the first song on the CD, hits your ear like the kickoff of a live performance, filled with an energy unusual in a recording. From Leigh’s initial attack to Clayton’s lingering fiddle note, that closes without dropping, this song epitomizes the excitement and authenticity a Gibson Brothers song can generate. “Do all I can for any other/That’s what I’ll do for me” provides the core idea of this song that turns selfishness into helping and sharing. Starting with a commitment to the other, a personal and wider sense of brother, which can only help self emerges. Typical of Gibson Brothers’ songs, this title song for the CD lifts both mind and spirit in lyric and melody.
In the blues song“Walkin’ West to Memphis” by Chris Henry, Leigh shows greater vocal range than he’s heretofore demonstrated, while Eric, in a brief banjo break midway through the song shows why he should be seriously considered for banjo player of the year as well as for Male vocalist. It’s truly sad that IBMA has no category for duet singing. So much great bluegrass depends on vocal combinations that to set aside solo vocalists while ignoring duets and trios misses an important aspect of the music.
It seems strange that a love song to Elvis Presley would be called “Dixie,” (Eric Gibson) but in this lovely story song, Eric asks an older King of Rock and Roll whether he’d return to an early love of his life named Dixie who also represents the simpler, less opulent southern lifestyle of his youth, giving up all that his music career has brought him, for a life of happiness and fulfillment. “ Would you go back to Dixie/And turn in your crown/Would you love her tender/And then burn Graceland to the ground?” The plaintive question should be asked of every person chasing success. As with so many Gibson songs, the particular can be generalized to a comment on life’s choices. Their benefits and their costs, are explored in the context of commercial and material success versus devotion to love and goodness. As in so much of the Gibson Brothers music, the expertise of Mike Barber’s work on bass helps provide both drive and rhythmic power to the band’s output.
People who follow the Gibson Brothers have been hearing “Frozen in Time” (Eric Gibson) for nearly a year. Eric sings about being frozen in a “better time,” unable to move into the present, discovering that to be frozen allows one not to become to caught in the sadness of the present. To be frozen in ones mind allows seeing the world as it could be rather than as it is. For many people, the comforting glow of a past that may never have existed offers a helpful place to go, but the singer “feels a chill” at the thought of living out his life distanced from reality. After all, it may have been a chill that extinguished the dinosaurs to which he compares himself.
Frozen in Time – Video
Gibson Brothers’ gospel songs represent a level of simple faith transcending specific doctrinal and denominational choices for a more generalized faith in God’s power to provide support and love for “all who believe and will let him come.” It’s hard to believe that after last year’s huge success with “Ring the Bell,” (Gospel Song of the Year, Song of the Year) they could come up with another gospel song that speaks to every seeker, but “He Can Be Found” (Ella Barrett & Faye Cunningham) does just that. The song says that God can be found in the simple things of life – a mother’s smile, the eyes of a child, the air we breathe, in all of us who sincerely seek him.
“Singing As We Rise” by Joe Newberry stands as another inspiring gospel song whose rising voices and instrumentals take the listener on a trip to a higher plain. The song shows people singing, working, preaching as they rise toward a better life. Joe Walsh’s mandolin solo leaps off the record with a held note in its center that grasps a listener for a brief beat and then slams home. Ricky Skaggs does a guest verse and sings on the chorus of this song. It’s unusual for the Gibson Brothers to add guest singers. In this CD it’s done effectively because the guests contribute to the essential Gibson Brothers sound without dominating or interfering.
Guest – Ricky Skaggs
“Want vs. Need” written by the Gibson Brothers and Tim O’Brien, expresses the basic conflict in Americans’ lives. The struggle to give up wanting (almost Zen-like in its demands) while seeking to find “My own song” takes this song to a higher level of human ambition for finding self based on the “things that really matter.” As Leigh sings of realizing that the person he loves can be “someone to lighten up my load” he expresses the longing so many feel for giving in order to receive the goodness of life and love.
Eric & Leigh
“I’ll Love Nobody But You” is a Jim and Jess McReynolds song familiar to many. The Gibson Brothers give it a lift, reminding us of the body of great work left to us by the first generation of bluegrass performers. Mike Witcher, guesting on Dobro, contributes just the right note. A quick listen to samples of this song by David Grisman and Longview, as well as Jim and Jesse’s version immediately shows how strong the brother affinity is and how well the Gibson Brothers capture the spirit of the McReynolds version while simultaneously making it their own. Their ability to take a familiar bluegrass standard and breathe new life into it while giving more than a nod to the bluegrass greats they follow is unsurpassed today. This song provides an excellent reason why people should purchase whole CD’s rather than buying singles. There might be a temptation to overlook a song as familiar as this one, but here the Gibson Brothers grab hold of the original and make it their own while never varying from its intention. In an interview on WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, Leigh commented that some bootlegged tapes given to them when they were fifteen or sixteen years old had awakened in them their love of duet singing. In this cut, which will certainly return to the jam circle for another go around,, they “tip their hats” to Jim and Jessie.
Recording Engineer Ben Suratt with Wife Missy Raines
“Just Lovin’ You” (Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane) is another song that captures the uniqueness of being “Me” through “loving you.” The song has a lilt and simplicity to it. The tight harmony of Eric and Leigh’s voices, their togetherness, contrasts interestingly with the idea of finding self while reaching out to a unique “you.” This song provides another example of Clayton Campbell’s strengths in this band. He’s a remarkable solo fiddler, but his ability to use his instrument to blend the songs of the entire group together provide glue for many of their songs.
Guest – Claire Lynch
“Talk to Me” (Leigh Gibson) is a love song opening simply with Leigh’s clear voice accompanied by a guitar. Slowly the rest of the band joins in as Leigh sings about his need for communication. “I know that I’d be all right, if you’d talk to me.” Claire Lynch joins in on the harmony refrain in another pitch perfect guest appearance as the longing plaintive quality of her singing the third verse provides the female voice this song cries out for. It’s impossible to overestimate the strength of Joe Walsh’s instrumental contributions to the past two Gibson Brothers albums as well as their live performances. He draws remarkable sustain from his instrument. This heart wrenching song addresses the loneliness in the lives of couples who fail to reach out effectively. Allison Brown on the mellow wood banjo provides a contrasting banjo sound.
Guest – Alison Brown
“One Car Funeral” (Jon Weissberger with The Gibson Brothers) is one of the saddest songs imaginable so, of course, it has the bounce and drive characteristic of the essential duality of bluegrass, presenting sadness and tragedy in a happy sounding setting, much like a circus clown’s huge smile often belies the tragedy of his existence. “A two minute service that only three men shared. Not the preacher nor the digger nor the reason they were there.” The repeated use of the one car, two minutes, three men mantra drives home the lonliness and despair of the scene by the grave.
Guest – Mike Witcher
“Safe Passage” by Leigh Gibson joins “Iron and Diamonds” in its sound, “Farm of Yesterday” and “Arleigh” in their love of family as a particularly Gibson Brothers song. This family, which settled on a small farm in the northernmost part of New York,just along the Canadian border, looks backward at its Irish, rural farm, and immigrant roots in some of their very best song writing, epitomizing the best instincts embodied by bluegrass music. “Our daddy told us young that he would be the last one to raise a crop from this rocky land” leads to the singer’s keeping himself on the journey to “Safe Passage” not in going to fight the Civil War or struggling to make a meager farm produce, but in seeking to tell the stories, guitar in hand. The song provides a powerful, and often to be played, ending to the best Gibson Brothers work yet.
Safe Passage – Video
Entertainer of the Year? Sure…why not? Album of the Year? Of course….“Help My Brother” will rise to the top of the charts just as the previous five Gibson Brothers releases have. Their quality, integrity, and gritty commitment to being themselves while producing great music has provided a high standard for years. This CD only adds to and improves that years long record. The Gibson Brothers, in their authentic simplicity, exemplify everything that is good about bluegrass music. They aren’t a Show Band. They don’t use large production numbers. They resist over-selling themselves both at their merchandise table and from the stage. They rely on old fashioned values wrapped in the freshest and most identifiable sound to be found to allow the music – composition, performance, lyric and vocal – to sell itself. This is their best work yet. Katy Daley, morning host of WAMU’s Bluegrass Country in Washington, D.C. comments, “My hope is that people won’t only look back at all the wonderful duets we all love and respect in country and bluegrass. My hope is people will now talk about what The Gibson Brothers ADD to the brother duet tradition. Their close harmony singing has never been better. Add to it their musical arrangements with all the textures and layers, and I think they bring the brother duet tradition into the 21st century.”
He Can Be Found – Video
“Help My Brother” can be ordered from Compass Records, purchased from the Gibson Brothers merchandise table wherever they appear, ordered from all online sources, or downloaded. I strongly recommend purchasing the entire project. Too much thought, time, effort, and love have gone into creating this marvelous piece of work for those who appreciate the Gibson Brothers not to experience it in its entirety. The release date is February 22nd.