Kirk and Friends
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.
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.
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.