Darrell Scott – A Crooked Road (2010)


Scott in the studio for a change (for me) after all the live stuff. And it’s quite different from the other discs I have that involve him.

Lessee… I first encountered Scott on Series 3 of the excellent Transatlantic Sessions. I knew nothing about him, had never heard of him, but there he was and some of what he did was quite interesting, especially his performance of Stuart Adamson’s “Shattered Cross“. Then I got those live albums I’ve reviewed already and then he popped up (in my world view) in Robert Plant’s excellent Band Of Joy project.

But all of those were Scott as sideman or working collaboratively. So the thing to do was to grab some of his solo, studio work in order to get a feel for pure Scott.

A little biographical backtrack: It turns out he’s a late starter as a solo act and songwriter. He’d been playing for years before relocating to Nashville where initially he worked as a studio player before other artists started showing an interest in his songs. He was in his late 30s when he released his first album under his own name. Even then he maintained his day job as a session player. The multi-faceted approach means that he has several revenue streams and thus could earn a good living from music without necessarily becoming a household name (which, given the variety of gigs he’s had, may mean more fun).

Most of his successful songs seem to have been in what we might call “adult country”, the thoughtful, well crafted aspect of contemporary country music. And that’s mostly the sort of songs and treatment that we get here. These are songs that could easily convert to a contemporary radio-friendly sound, make Scott some good money and have a little more intelligence and finesse than a lot of modern pop music. Billy Ray Cyrus he is not.

This album then, is far less roots or rock than anything I’ve heard from him before.

Everything is well crafted. Lyrically he has a tendency to accen-tu-ate the positive, e-lim-inate the negative. Which some might see as distinctly American as opposed to – so the theory goes, anyway – the more ironic, gritty approach of the British. He does touch on darker, more interesting subject matter, but he certainly doesn’t feel that his manlihood is compromised by wearing his heart on his sleeve and expressing his love for his family and family life.

We get affirmative, uplifting songs such as “Love’s Not Through With Me Yet”, the frank, almost artless expression of love for an absent lover in “Tonight I’m Missing You” (I hold this love up to the light /  I wish may I wish I might / I wish my arms could hold you tight) and many tender references to his children in “A Father’s Song”.

But if a title like “The Day Before Thanksgiving” has you anticipating a portion of Mom, Apple Pie, Old Glory and Jesus then you may be in for a surprise to find him deconstructing and disowning some of his country’s most potent traditions and folklore: “I don’t believe the pilgrims sat with Indians for a feast / A self-proclaimed holy sailor doesn’t break bread with his beast / But then again he had a musket and the Indian had a knife … I don’t believe this country’s manifestering destiny / Someone just cooked it up and it is fed to you and me“.

There’s range, then, to his song writing. Personally I liked his songs better when he goes into a more straightforward lyrical mode. The likes of “Snow Queen and Drama Llama” felt heavy handed next to, for example, the McCartneyesque title track with it’s  heart on sleeve lyric.

Everything is immaculately executed, and he does play EVERYTHING on this album. The versatility and multi-instrumental skills that marked his contribution to the Plant project are even more on display.

It’s a double album (would be two CDs worth if purchased in a physical format) and it has the sprawl (or range) that comes with that format. I can think of several double albums that would be more tightly focussed if they were reduced to a single (EG The Clash’s London Calling) but the flip side of the looser focus is the range of idea and expression, and that’s very much the case here.

And range… boy! Does he have it. He has a great feel for rootsier material, he can convincingly front a high-class power trio, he sprinkled sonic fairy dust all over the Band of Joy and now all these takes on a mature, thoughtful but adult-oriented rock. Is this the “pure Scott” that I was curious about? It’s hard to say, because Scott certainly does not walk the straight and narrow, and the world is a little more colourful for that.

It’s not my favourite though. I like it, I’m impressed by it, but it doesn’t have the live spark that I found earlier.  For the defence I’ll make the point that when you have to build everything an instrument at a time you’re unlikely to get the spark when fine musicians play together in real time. How could you? So there’s a trade off: Richer arrangements for “spark”.

But still, an impressive album with a lot of good playing and some fine songs.

Robert Plant and The Band Of Joy – Live At the Artist’s Den (recorded 2010, released 2011).

Robert Plant is growing old with a dignity, a continued inventiveness and a disinclination to rest on his laurels that few of his contemporaries can match.

Led Zeppelin called it a day in late 1980. By mid ’82 Plant’s first solo album was out, and he’s hardly let up since. Initially he steered clear of Led Zeppelin material and forged his own identity and brand. With the passing of time he’s included some Zeppelin songs into his live act, but the versions are never imitative. He’s also got a lot more interesting after his early albums which were in a (then) mainstream AOR style. He hasn’t got complacent with age – quite the opposite in fact.

In 2007 he had a surprising smash hit when he teamed up with the sweet voiced Allison Krauss, one of the queens of contemporary country music and a renowned bluegrass fiddler. This unlikely duo had massive success with the album Raising Sand and followed that up with an acclaimed live tour.

This left Plant with an appetite for Americana, but he didn’t try to reprise Raising Sand. The band for the tour with Krauss was built around (possibly by) Buddy Miller, another of these interesting musicians who has all sorts of irons in all sorts of fires (producer, solo artist, songwriter, ace guitar player) and who seemed for a while to be at the centre of an intersecting set of currents by which Nashville and 60s British rock came together.

Now, this all really fits in with my current interest in Darrell Scott, because Scott was one of the players that Miller recruited for the album and tour that he and Plant planned.

The resulting album was another notable success for Plant whose post-Zeppelin career has been far busier, more varied and far more successful than those of the remaining Zeps and is thus a major obstacle to a Led Zeppelin reunion tour. Plant set out to filter some of his favourite songs by other people through the sensibilities and skills of his new band, and so the album is all covers.

The album was released in 2010, and then they hit the road, touring in both the United States and Europe for the best part of a year. In February 2011 they played in Nashville and the show was filmed for the Artist’s Den TV series.

Even if you have and like the CD, you want the DVD. The performances here are much stronger and more varied and the Band of Joy reveal their full spectrum of their skills.

Scott was mostly in the background on the CD, here he gets to show great all round skills, not just on guitar but on pedal steel guitar, mandolin and banjo, and his range as a vocalist is a key element in the band’s impressive vocal punch. He comes close to stealing the show, but doesn’t actively try to usurp the limelight. When he’s not taking a solo he’s sprinkling sonic fairy dust around with his backing vocals and the ornamentation in his playing. His tremendous versatility and his considerable skills give the band a broad range.

Plant’s is the name writ large for marketing reasons – for rock audiences at least – but he gives Miller, Scott and paramour Patty Griffin (all of them recording artists in their own right) a solo spot each and plays Harmonica behind Miller and serves as a backing vocalist to Griffin and Scott. In many ways it is a band effort rather than star singer plus backing band. Given that some of the Nashville audience and media might be more familiar with Scott, Miller and Griffin than they are with Plant this may be a pragmatic approach.

Apart from the solo spots the material is split about 50/50 between Plant’s solo career (mostly the album they were touring on) and the band that Plant used to be in. The album numbers are cranked up a notch in excitement and the arrangements are more expansive. The Led Zeppelin numbers are re-imagined by the Band of Joy and acquire a rootsy, even country feel at times. This is not too jarring because Zeppelin as a band were very concious of the roots of what they were doing, but here it’s more overt. “Rock ‘N Roll” is rendered as rockabilly with Byron House slapping away at an upright bass before Scott gets in his pedal steel solos. “Houses Of The Holy” is significantly countrified – Scott is on pedal steel again – before Plant and the band start cranking up the intensity with the vocals and then suddenly Scott and Miller jump onto and slightly modify Jimmy Page’s original guitar riff and the rhythm section turn up the “hard rock” control to match. Plant has a broad grin on his face – he knows just how good this band is and he’s clearly enjoying playing with them.

It is Plant who is responsible for the only notable blooper in the whole performance when he fluff his lines and timing towards the end of “Rock ‘No Roll”, a number he must have sung many times over the years. The band catch it, cover with an extra bar and then everybody’s back in sync again. Everywhere else the performances are near faultless without compromising the band’s power and the spark of their live performance.

Their cover of Richard Thompson’s “House Of Cards” beats the pants off of the original and shows their tightness and their range as they build it all the way up, drop down to just Scott’s mandolin and then crank that sucker all the way up again.

Guitar nerds will find their eyes taken by Miller’s arsenal of unusual guitars. No Stratocasters and Les Pauls for him. There’s a baritone Danelectro (which allows him to get into an interesting space between where the guitar and the bass would usually operate), a tiny Eko octave electric guitar, and various other oddities. His one nod to convention is the use of a 12-string Gibson acoustic on “Tangerine”. But whatever he’s playing he gets great tone and, more importantly, plays to great effect. His solos are excellent, sometimes simultaneously retro and bang up to date, and in the ensemble playing he and Scott combine forces well.

The band has all bases covered. They have deep roots but they can deliver the modern, they can play delicately or with muscular power, there are top notch individual solo skills, they are versatile, they play marvellously well as a unit and the harmony vocals are impressive.

Band of Joy? Plant’s clearly having a very good time of it playing with them, and you’ll have nearly as much fun watching this exciting and fabulously skilled band in action.

Darrell Scott, Danny Thompson and Kenny Malone – Live in NC (recorded 2003, released 2004)

There’s something about Darrell Scott. This is quite a different proposition from the last album I reviewed that featured him. The formats are different – acoustic duo on that versus power trio on this – and generally this is more overt, predominantly electric, more contemporary and Scott fronts the proceedings by himself.

But there’s  strong similarity as well in the feel of it, in the way that the top notch players are tight but also spontaneous, in the energy of the interplay between them. As I said of that album, and as I’ll say again here, “this is why we have live albums”.

So two live albums featuring Scott, and both times we get to make that observation.

Scott has an interesting multi-faceted career. He’s a successful songwriter, with some of his songs having been big hits for other acts, mostly in a musical area that we might think of as intelligent AOR/country (EG “Long Time Gone” which was a big hit for the Dixie Chicks). He’s also a very strong player on several instruments (catch his show stealing performance in Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy on their in concert DVD) and in demand for session work. And he also records and performs under his own name.

On this live disc (I actually have a hard copy!!!!) he teams up with two other very gifted musicians – and rightly shares the billing with them.

Kenny Malone is a top Nashville session drummer. I think we tend to think of LA as the great centre for studios and studio players, but Nashville is just as important and just as full of great players. Malone is one of the best, and probably one of those players who we’ve all heard many times on other people’s records.

Bass player Danny Thompson is a player of great experience, versatility and considerable technique with an inimitable sound and thrust to his playing. He has a long and varied CV that includes long and notable spells with the band Pentangle, as a sideman to Richard Thompson, in the house band at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club, and most famously of all with John Martyn.  Though he’s a modest man who makes no claim to greatness and won’t allow such tags to be pinned upon him he is one of the giants of his instrument. He draws a distinction between “bass” and “bass guitar” and he plays bass.

Now forget all that (or the bits you didn’t already know)! If you didn’t know who these guys are before you start listening to this album you will soon want to. The excellence is apparent early on when Thompson and Malone work up a mighty, kinetic groove under Scott’s vocals and guitar on the opening “Miracle of Living”. And throughout the musicianship is of a high standard and is exciting.

The shows the album is assembled from were played in small venues in North Carolina. Scott produced and he’s kept the record sounding intimate. You can believe you’re sitting in a bar with a beer in your hand and this remarkable band not far away. The band has great dynamics (why not? They have great everything else) and the recording isn’t too compressed and so allows the music to “breathe”, the light and the shade are preserved.

Scott’s acoustic guitar playing is as skilled and as expressive as his electric playing. The third track “With A Memory Like Mine” (which was included on the live Scott/O’Brien album, but with a quite different arrangement) shows his fluid acoustic playing with the strings ringing most pleasingly. There’s a jazzy feel at times in Scott’s playing. Although he and Malone make their living in Nashville their range extends far beyond the musical genres that city is famous for.

The next track “River Take Me” is a first person narrative from a guy who’s having a bad time of it. Laid off and now the storms are in and the levee’s about to break. Scott’s back on electric and the band uses dynamic range to great effect as the song’s story unfolds. The playing from all three is constantly inventive. Malone gets a drum solo full of clever rhythmic tricks and which leads into a spoken passage from Scott. These sort of changes can be clumsy in some hands, but this band has (as they say in Nashville) finesse up the Wazoo. The track weighs in at 10:12, but you won’t get bored. Scott’s solos are strong without always being loud.

Scott switches back to acoustic for “Helen of Troy, Pennsylvania” which is another demonstration of how power and volume are not the same thing. And after several other fine performances they conclude with a brooding rendition of the old spiritual “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”.

In the late 60s the idea of the power trio arose in rock music. From Wikipedia: “A power trio is a rock and roll band format having a lineup of guitar, bass and drums, leaving out the rhythm guitar or keyboard that are used in other rock music to fill out the sound with chords. While one or more band members sing, power trios emphasize instrumental performance and overall impact over vocals and lyrics… a three-person band [could] have the same sonic impact as a large band but left far more room for improvisation and creativity, unencumbered by the need for detailed arrangements.”

And that’s what we have here: A power trio. A lot of the interest here results from having “more room for improvisation and creativity, unencumbered by the need for detailed arrangements.” The format leaves each player space to move, and they’re good enough (“enough”?) to take advantage of the space and have the taste to know when to leave the space be. They’re one of the best power trios you could hope to hear, delivering a performance full of inventive playing and genuine excitement.

AFAIK this was a short lived project. Neither Scott nor Thompson seem to me to happy to be stuck in a single groove, and all of them are in demand studio players who would have had very full appointment books. Scott and Thompson played a once off duo show in London a few years ago, but we shouldn’t expect to see a reunion any time soon.

But let’s give thanks that they had enough curiosity and sense of adventure to put this project together despite the logistical difficulties (Thompson uses a borrowed bass) and that we have this album to listen to.

 

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott – We’re Usually A Lot Better Than This (released 2012, recorded in 2005 and 2006)

Scott and O’Brien are not household names. If you want a demonstration of how there is no justice in this world then see the previous sentence.

Both of them operate in the world of Americana. O’Brien is from the folkier end of that genre. Scott is wider ranging, more contemporary. Both are high quality players on multiple instruments and accomplished singers. Both of them have had their songs recorded by other artists. Both have had interesting careers with albums under their own name as well as collaborative work with others.  Scott is an in-demand session player. Both are based in Nashville and their kids even go to the same school – yet they haven’t often worked together.

This album is compiled from shows they gave in 2005 and 2006 as fund raisers for the school their kids attend. They performed as an acoustic duo. The results are quite electric.

The playing and singing here is out of the top drawer. Most of the time Scott is on guitar and O’Brien on mandolin or octave mandolin (a longer scaled instrument tuned an octave below the standard mandolin)  but they each play other instruments – always with plenty of skill. The duo format gives them space to fill and also space to stretch out.

The real magic of this album lies in the mix of tightness and spontaneity. They drive each other on complement each other with inventive playing and harmonising which gives the performances an exciting and joyous spark. This is why we have live albums: to capture the extra energy that flows between and from the musicians in a live setting.

The material is a mix of their own and covers of (amongst others) Hank Williams, Gordon Lightfoot and Gary Davis. Particularly interesting is O’Brien’s “Mick Ryans’s Lament” with a stirring melody that could have come out of Ireland two hundred years ago and which examines the irony of anti-imperialist Irish republicans fighting in the army of an expansionist USA. Scott’s “With A Memory Like Mine” is both a show case for his banjo playing (fully as skilled and exciting as his guitar work) and a protest in the shape of a parent’s lament against a war which could be Vietnam or the Persian Gulf.

Repeatedly they crank the excitement levels up with great playing and wonderful musicality. The one false note is O’Brien’s son taking the stage for a spot of hamboning – but then these shows were school fund-raisers. But this is a trivial shortcoming – this is an album full of wonderful performances with an over arching mood of great pleasure being taken in the human business of making music.

Usually a lot better than this? I’d really like to hear that.