THROUGH THE LENS: Dave Alvin, Kelsey Waldon, and More Exciting Roots Music Releases
Dave Alvin - Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2016 - Photo by Peter Dervin
It’s been eight months since most of us have seen a live show. During that time recorded music has become more relevant as something that binds us, that can bring us together both as roots music fans and as a people. Below are five new releases I am excited about. Three are coming soon and two were just released and, I think, deserving of attention:
Kelsey Waldon – They’ll Never Keep Us Down (Nov. 20)
Kentucky is a state of contradictions. As evidenced by recent elections, it’s a deeply red state. However, quite a few of its native-born roots musicians have recently made defiant statements that they do not go along with those red sentiments, their economic interests and career arcs be damned.
Waldon makes no bones about where she stands. On her cover of “Mississippi Goddam,” with Adia Victoria and Kyshona Armstrong, she adds a swirling, angry, country tinge to Nina Simone’s fiery rage in response to the 1963 bombing of a Black church in Alabama that killed four young girls. The flip side is Hazel Dickens’ bluegrassy “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” a people-have-the-power burner with lyrics such as “Your welfare ain’t on the rich man’s mind.” Red state citizens have been fooled into thinking that Blacks/immigrants/people of color are their enemy. Follow the money: It’s those who prosper by keeping us divided who are the ones to watch out for, not your neighbor.
Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche – I Can Still Hear You (out now)
I have an admission: This record takes me back to when the three Roche sisters ruled my acoustic world. The music of Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy continue to be my gold standard of trios. However, these songs, which evolved from personal loss and turmoil during a time of global loss and turmoil, are more serious than what the sisters sang some 40 years ago. That said, this mother-daughter duo use their their vocals to repudiate despair, to transcend the mere mortal. It is an odd yet comforting contradiction.
In “Ruins,” their voices eclipse any sense of despondency in lines like “I asked my momma yesterday, I asked my daddy too / Why is the human heart so mean that we do the things that we do.” In “(Swan) Duck Song” Suzzy uses her experience in children’s theater to enter a child’s imagination, finding both playfulness and terror, as she waddles her way through life. For once while listening, I did not read the credits, who wrote what or who’s playing what; I let myself get lost in the vocals. These are vocals that take you to the other side of the mountain, where renewal reigns supreme.
Larkin Poe – Kindred Spirits (Nov. 20)
It’s a double-edged sword when younger artists tackle classic songs that were popular before they were born: Youthful enthusiasm only takes you so far, the proof is in the pudding. For their second release of the year, this sister duo takes on this daunting challenge, and does it with a great aplomb. Probably because they’ve been doing it for years as evidenced by their many self-produced home videos. Because of that these covers have a lived-in feel, maybe not what you were expecting, but engaging nonetheless.
While they give us a taste of the blues with Robert Johnson and Bo Diddley, and their first single from the album, “Nights in White Satin,” has drawn praise from Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward, my faves are Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and the Elvis’ 1963 hit “Devil in Disguise.” In both instances they slow down the tempos, delving deeper, and in the process show us these well-known songs in a different light. Not that they necessarily take on new meanings, but rather an ambiance that comes from being open to your own experiences. Which, of course, is the essence of tradition.
Dave Alvin – From an Old Guitar (Nov. 20)
This album began as a Bandcamp release, but it grew so popular that Alvin’s label decided to give it a formal release, adding three additional cuts to an already stellar collection. Make no mistake, this is not some collection only for diehard Alvin fans; it’s a thorough collection of songs Alvin recorded for compilation records or when inspiration hit him, songs that just didn’t fit an upcoming album.
The album features acoustic and electric takes on songs written by Alvin as well as songs written by friends such Peter Case, Bill Morrissey and Chris Smither, as well as idols like Willie Dixon, Bob Dylan, Earl Hooker, Doug Sahm, and more. There are also contributions from dearly departed comrades like Chris Gaffney, Amy Farris, and Bobby Lloyd Hicks as well as from old Blasters pals like Gene Taylor along with various members of The Guilty Men/Women/Ones. The highlight is Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” which I recently listed as one of the best roots music Dylan covers, saying, “When Alvin asks where you want that killin’ done you can already smell the kerosene-soaked bullets ripping through flesh.” Alvin was made for our times.
Andrew Grimm – A Little Heat (out now)
Let’s get this straight from the outset: Grimm sounds a lot like Chuck Prophet or a laidback Dave Alvin. Not that that’s a bad thing. They also have something else in common: astute observations on life. But Grimm’s focus is more on the the darkness of these past four years. With his mellifluous voice (with some harmony assistance from Mary Lee Kortes(!)), you easily slip into a radical reality that’s hard to resist.
Case in point is “Don’t Die for Their Money,” where, as if internalizing one manufactured crisis too many, Grimm swoons as if in a lullaby: “Don’t die for their money, you’re better than that / Tear down their temples, nothing burns like cash / The way you’ve been talking, sounds like truth / You light the match, and I’ll hold the fuse.” The juxtaposition is devastating. You can hear the walls crumble with each swing of the hammer.
Now, the photos.