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Discovery
By Glenn Weiser

John Kirk and Friends
Fiddle Music of the North Country (Quickstep)

A century ago, if you wanted to learn a stringed instrument and play light music for parties and dances here in upstate New York, you probably wouldn’t have chosen the guitar. Odds are you would have picked the then-more-popular fiddle. It was nicknamed “the Devil’s box” by respectable folk; its melodies were a bit sinful, often virtuosic, and, once mastered, great fun to play. The recent discovery by local fiddler and mandolinist John Kirk of a trove of sheet music formerly owned by a long-forgotten Saratoga band has led to a fine CD of Celtic-inspired fiddle tunes that, despite its historical and musical significance, never loses this vital sense of fun.

The Lockwood family of Greenfield Center had a group that performed in the area from the mid-1800s to at least the 1920s. In addition to playing well-known music like Stephen Foster’s songs and popular reels and jigs, the band also featured homegrown New York state tunes like “The Saratoga Hornpipe” and “Lake Eerie.” The ensemble’s three-generation lifespan and repertoire came to light when a local antique collector purchased the family’s sheet music collection and other musical artifacts at an estate sale in Saratoga Springs around five years ago and shared the music with Kirk. Fifteen of the 19 tunes on the CD are from this collection.

Joining Kirk are some the region’s finest traditional musicians: his wife Trish Miller on guitar and banjo; Ed Lowman on fiddle and double bass; Mac Benford on banjo; Frank Orsini, Sara Milonovich and Cedar Stanistreet on fiddle; Connie Hume on flute; and Mark Murphy on double bass. Together they deliver sprightly dances, fetching waltzes and airs, and the 19th-century hits “Old Dog Tray” by Stephen Foster and “Grandfather’s Clock” by Henry Clay Work.

Although Kirk and company’s playing on these 16 tracks is superb, the main attraction of the CD are the Lockwood tunes that evidently have lain dormant for decades. Many of these compare well with the old chestnuts of the fiddle repertoire. For example, “Lovely Jean” is a plaintive slow air, “Lake Eerie” is a jig Kirk pairs with the famous Irishman’s “Heat to the Ladies,” and “The Saratoga Hornpipe” is a catchy slow reel. The CD also contains a musical oddity: “A Curious Duet,” which seems to be a forgotten fiddler’s attempt at a classical composition. With Fiddle Music of the North Country, John Kirk has unearthed a fascinating piece of regional cultural history and distilled it into splendid music.

Solomon Burke

Make Do With What You Got (Shout! Factory)

Soul titan Solomon Burke up dates his roots with fresh and meaty authenticity on his follow-up to 2002’s Grammy Award-winning comeback, Don’t Give Up on Me. Unlike Don’t, however, this hearty disc stresses Burke’s exceptional voice, a blend of grit and velvet that animates tunes spanning Dylan’s “What Good Am I?,” Dr. John’s power-reggae title track and “Fading Footsteps,”Louisana songwriter David Egan’s surreal exploration of being an outsider. Lovingly produced in the Atlantic tradition by the respectful and creative Don Was, Make Do seems conventional at first, particularly compared to Don’t, its lean, songwriter-heavy predecessor. But further listening reveals the idiosyncracies at the heart of Burke’s style, like the “Hold on!” launching the CD on Coco Montoya’s “I Need Your Love in My Life” (the best uptempo rocker the Stones never wrote) or the way Burke toys with blues convention in his improvised asides on the Stones’ “I Got the Blues.”

Was highlights but never upstages Burke’s voice in arrangements replete with Memphis-styled horns and Sweet Inspirations-style vocal backup; the “oohs” and “aahs” on “I Got the Blues” and a terminally churchy version of Robbie Robertson’s “It Makes No Difference” evoke a time when lyrics were designed to move you emotionally, not for shock and awe.

Backed by the likes of Ray Parker Jr., James Gadson (who drummed for Dyke and the Blazers and Bill Withers) and Reggie Young, a bassist who animated records produced by the storied Chips Moman, Burke sounds comfortable and authoritative here. His voice remains extraordinarily effortless, his conviction indisputable. Even the sentimentality of “After All These Years,” a tune cowritten by Burke, is endearing, Burke declares his love so purely. Listening to Make Do, like all Burke’s work a testament to perseverance and values—it’s telling that the album ends with Burke nailing Hank Williams’ world-weary “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul”—could become a habit.

—Carlo Wolff

Jimbo Mathus

Knockdown South (Knockdown South)

While it’s common for an ar -tist’s name to be the same as the album title, here we have the an album title mirrored by the label name. Clearly this is a project near and dear to Jimbo Mathus’ heart. A dozen songs of swampy blues, creased and wrinkled roadhouse R&B, country resilience and honesty, and punch-in-the-gut rockers.

Mathus and his wife, Katherine Whalen, founded the N.C.-based Squirrel Nut Zippers in the ’90s. Their hopped-up retro mix of swing, mountain strings, and Vaudeville-era flourishes took off bigger than they’d have imagined, with more than two million units passing under the cash-register scanner. That happy accident eventually bought Mathus the freedom to return to his native Clarksdale, Miss., to take on a variety of projects and open his own recording studio.

Two key elements combine to make this a casually powerful set: the songs and the band. The former, all penned by Mathus, cover everything from the perfectly woozy rhythmic bearing and chorus gang vocals of “Skateland Baby” to the Muscle Shoals funk of “Hypmotized.” The latter is due to the presence of a wealth of like-minded players, dubbed the Clarksdale Rhythm. Imagine if the Stones had stuck with what they discovered on the Keith-strong Exile on Main Street and then listen to Knockdown South. Life is good.

—David Greenberger


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