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Restless Spirit

By B.A. Nilsson

Don Byron and Bang on a Can

A Ballad for Many (Cantaloupe Music)

As a tick-tock motif sounds insistently, percussive streams of plangent tones pick up melodic elements. A crescendo of intensity brings the short track to a peak, and it drops to a quiet close. It’s an arresting piece of music on its own that takes on an extra dimension when heard alongside the vintage TV program it was written to accompany: a remarkable Ernie Kovacs segment from the early 1960s titled Eugene, performed without dialogue. It opens with Ernie, wearing a straw boater and sporting an amusingly phony nose, trapped in a shrinking, doorless hallway. The tick-tock imperative makes sense, and, as that motif carries into the next segment, it becomes amusingly ironic underscoring.

The six tracks correspond to the program’s segments, including a goofy, silent Dutch Masters commercial. One of the final segments plays on a tilted set filmed to look as if it’s normal; there’s a parallel off-
kilteredness about the music that leaps the 40 years and nicely connects them.

“The Red-Tailed Angels” is a suite written last year for the soundtrack to a documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen, the World War II group that comprised the first African-American fighter pilots. Two other extended pieces are “Basquiat,” a ballad named for the painter that grows in intensity over a repeated ground, and “Show Him Some Lub,” the seven-minute album-closer that incorporates a recitation of names and places that provide clues to the performers’ identities—a shrewd and moving work.

Byron, who just finished a stint as an artist-in-residence at the University at Albany, is a restless, eclectic composer and performer whose work ranges from innovative jazz sessions to a tribute album to Spike Jones alumnus (and cut-up in his own right) Mickey Katz. Joining forces with Bang on a Can is one of those combinations that makes a whole lot of sense, as BoaC are a similarly restless, classically tinged ensemble always seeking to stretch the boundaries of formal compositions.

The six performers are talented, and therefore busy players—some time ago I wrote glowingly about pianist Lisa Moore’s recording of Frederic Rzewski’s music, and she’s equally effective as part of this ensemble, which also includes Evan Ziporyn on reeds, cellist Wendy Sutter, Mark Stewart on guitars, bassist Robert Black and drummer David Cossin. Byron joins them on a few cuts as well, including a track titled “Silver Wings” in “Red-Tailed Angels,” itself an arrangement of “He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings,” scored very effectively for two clarinets and cello.

Back before the massive record-industry mergers, you’d find BoaC recordings on a major label; they seem much more happily ensconced on their own Cataloupe Music label, and brought in renowned audio engineer (and longtime Byron collaborator) Tom Lazarus for this recording. It sounds great, which is good: You’ll want to listen to it repeatedly in order to coax some of the hidden treasures that only familiarity can bring.

Sir Douglas Quintet

Live From Austin, Texas (New West)

After the Sir Douglas Quintet’s run in the ’60s, Doug Sahm, with or without the band, hopped from label to label. When he and organist Augie Meyer reconvened a new version of the Quintet at the beginning of the 1980s, they recorded the stunning Border Wave album and hit the road. This set, recorded for Austin City Limits in 1981, is a portrait of a band firing on all cylinders. There are classic Sahm originals such as “Mendocino,” “She’s About a Mover,” and “Groover’s Paradise,” the latter given a buoyancy that improves it over the version that appeared on the album of the same name in 1974. When they kick into the Kinks’ “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?” (a rare instance of a triumphant cover of a Ray Davies song—try and think of more than two others), you can hear the excitement level in the room go up. A great musician, singer, writer, showman, and bandleader, Doug Sahm oozed music to the very end of his life (he died in 1999 from a heart attack at age 58). He’s the real thing, and this disc is an important addition to a wonderfully sprawling discography.

—David Greenberger

The Whippersnappers

Up Against It Now
(Hearn Brothers Productions)

The Whippersnappers—multinstru-mentalists Peter Davis, George Wilson, and Frank Orsini—have enlivened the Capital Region folk-music scene for three decades. Davis is in the house band of Jay Unger’s WAMC radio show Dancing on the Air, playing guitar, piano, and clarinet; Wilson is a traditional fiddler and banjoist par excellence who has played with Fennig’s All-Stars and is a frequent performer at regional contradances and folk festivals; and fiddler-
mandolinist-guitarist Frank Orsini has played with bluegrass greats Bill Keith and Frank Wakefield. Assembled by Davis in 1976 to serenade the crowds at Saratoga Race Course, the trio released a cassette, Getting Happy, in 1988, and now, finally, have their first CD. Up Against It Now is a footstomping, ripsnorting collection of old-time music that juxtaposes country songs of the 1920s and ’30s with Celtic fiddle tunes, and shows much—but by no means all—of what these three can do.

Of the 13 tracks here, five are songs by banjoist and singer Uncle Dave Macon (1870-1952), an early star of the Grand Ole Opry who turned professional at age 50 when the automobile ruined his lucrative mule-and-wagon business. A man of the world, he disdained the fire-and-brimstone preachers of his native Bible Belt and wrote songs that were often funny and always down-to-earth. These are sung with rustic zest by Wilson, who also has mastered Uncle Dave’s intricate banjo style, with Orsini providing smooth backup on fiddle. Standouts are “I Was Born About 14 Billion Years Ago,” Uncle Dave’s version of the creation story, here reworked by Wilson to square with modern science, and “Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line,” about a controversial convict-leasing program of the early 20th century that supplied forced labor to Tennessee coal mines. Orsini then takes over the vocals for the French Canadian song “Les Raftsman,” which celebrates the leisure-time pursuits of the men who moved goods long ago on the northern waterways.

For the instrumentals, Wilson and Orsini team up on fiddle, alternating between unison and harmony lines with Davis expertly backing on guitar or piano. Not only is the fiddling vivacious, but the old traditional tunes themselves often have quaint and intriguing titles: “The Joys of Wedlock,” “The Gobby-O,” “Teviot Bridge,” “The Methlick Style.” What was the Gobby-O? Or the Methlick style? Alas, the unfortunately spotty liner notes don’t say.

Still, folk fans will relish this record. Let’s hope the Whippersnappers don’t make us wait another 18 years for the next one.

—Glenn Weiser


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