In 2009 I was at the Beverley Festival in Beverley, East Yorkshire. I had tickets for what was billed as an “Americana Night”. The principle attraction for me was the New York fiddler Bruce Molsky. I had little idea about the rest of the evening’s performers.
The headline act were the Coal Porters, a very fine acoustic band with the classic bluegrass instrumentation (one each of fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass) but a more rock-ish repertoire.
Now that festival – and this is not uncommon in the UK – was operating to a time limit after which all the amplification would have to be turned off. And the Coal Porters were running out of time. Undeterred they carried their instruments off the stage and set up for some unplugged performances right in front of the first row of seats. The singer/mandolinist actually stood on the vacant chair next to my wife’s in order to better project his voice to the back of the tent.
And that was my introduction to Sid Griffin.
He turns out to be an interesting guy, one of the people credited with the birth of what we now know as “Americana” with his then band the Long Ryders that played a sort of country-punk fusion. He also has long simultaneous careers as a journalist, writer of books, player and producer.
For this album he decided to not use the Coal Porters but allowed his producer to chose the backing players. They are uniformly excellent. This is a thing to not be surprised about really. Bluegrass (for they are all bluegrass player) places a high premium on musical skill, and that genre and that scene is rich with fine players.
Griffin sent demo tapes ahead of him. By the time he got there the band knew the material well and they cut a record in just four days. Most tracks didn’t require more than two takes.
At first listen it’s an interesting album. The opening track, “Ode To Bobby Gentry”, sounds a lot like Gentry’s most famous hit, but the narrative voice is hers – or hers imagined. Gentry walked away from it all in 1978 and has stayed out of the public eye ever since. Griffin imagines the background to that deliberate ending of a career, and then cleverly links into the conversational, implicative style of the track whose name I am trying to not mention.
“Blue Yodel No. 12 and 35” seems to have something to do with Dylan, judging by that title, but the joke escapes me. It’s a witty song though, in a classic sarcastic, punning country style:
“The first thing I’ll do, for the last time this morning
Is fall out of love with you.
The first thing I’ll do, in the second that I’m free
Will be my third attempt at leaving too”
The second that you notice I will blossom like a lotus
While you wither like an I.O.U”
and there’s more where that came from.
Mostly it’s unassuming and very well played in a bluegrass-ish style. And it’s a lovely SOUNDING record, the sort of production that always strikes me as being very UNproduced – just roll the tape (metaphorically these days, of course) and let the players play. There’s a lovely detail in the way in the acoustic instruments are recorded, but also a warmth. A very natural sound.
“Between the General and the Grave” is a bleak song about a soldier in WW1. It’s strength as a song derives from being personal and conversational and matter of fact rather than from strident preaching.
“Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show” reuses the trick of an imagined voice of a famous person. This time it’s Elvis, famously an adoring son, calling his mother right after he’s been on the TV Show that changed his life.
“Everywhere” is another song set in wartime – this time dealing with the friendship between two Americans, one of them of Japanese ancestry, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour.
But there are false notes. The spoken word “Punk Rock Club” quickly becomes wearisome after a couple of listens. And the one cover on the record, that old burst of sixties love and optimism “Get Together” (you know it: “Come on you people now / Smile on your brother / Everybody get together / Try to love one another right now”) is embarrassingly naive these days (even more so than Nick Lowe’s “Peace, Love and Understanding”). The short “Front Porch Fandango” sounds like a fragment of an interesting but unfinished song.
Ultimately, then, it’s a pretty good album that could have been a great one but for a shortage of good material. Maybe Griffin didn’t have enough to go around.
It’s a pity, because the best is so good and the lyrics are often engaging and very well crafted and the laid back bluegrass groove is seductive in it’s own way. This is OK in a way because it doesn’t seem that Griffin has set out his stall to make a big classic record (probably that’s never going to happen for him now) and he’s clearly not chasing radio play (though I understand that in the end he got quite a lot in Germany). So a mixed report card with good marks but also a note of “could try harder” or “if only…” in the margin.
Hey! At iTunes prices it’s a no brainer. You won’t regret the spend.