A fine frenzy of spring releases
By Jim Caligiuri,
11:16AM, Wed. Apr. 6, 2011
Maybe it’s because the Old Settler’s Music Festival is next weekend, or that two sets by the Yonder Mountain String Band kicked my ass at Stubb’s last weekend, but I’m in a bluegrass frenzy and a few new releases have added fuel to the fire.
Anyone who witnessed Steve Martin at last April's Austin City Limits taping knows he's serious about bluegrass, and Martin’s comic side makes his music that much more enjoyable. He just issued Rare Bird Alert (Rounder) with touring partners the Steep Canyon Rangers. It takes up where his Grammy-winning LP The Crow left off, picking on a mixed bag of styles, only this time he adds vocals from Sir Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks. The hysterical, gospel-like “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” is from that ACL taping and there’s an update of “King Tut” to top things off. Martin’s liner notes are a hoot as well.
He’s 84, but Ralph Stanley's not slowing down. His latest, A Mother’s Prayer (Rebel), is an album of spirituals that’s divine. The good doctor’s voice has weathered to the point of matching the creases on his visage. Still, when presented a cappella on “Prince of Peace,” there’s no doubt he envisions himself in a tiny church in rural Virginia where he first learned to sing. The Clinch Mountain Boys lend reliable backing on time-honored tunes like “Are You Washed in the Blood?” and “John the Revelator” and the Ronnie Bowman-penned titled track is the definition of haunting. It doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or not, if this disc doesn’t touch you, better check your pulse.
One of the biggest surprises of 2011 so far is a new album from Hot Tuna. Steady As She Goes (Red House) is the first studio recording in 20 years from Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and friends, and it sounds like they never left. Mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Skoota Warner round out a set of acoustic and electric Tuna, recalling their more adventurous work from the 1970s. Producer Larry Campbell, lately known for his work with Levon Helm, uses his fiddle to recreate the Papa John Creach sound on Reverend Gary Davis’ “Mama Let Me Lay It On You.” Campbell also adds his wife, Teresa Williams, on occasional backing vocals, but they're just distracting. If there are any Hot Tuna fans left in the world, and I’m guessing there are, this is one they’ll love.
After a period of relative inactivity, Shannon McNally has become remarkably prolific. The Mississippi-based singer-songwriter’s Western Ballad (Sacred Sumac) is her most spiritual offering yet. Anchored by a title track written by poet Alan Ginsberg, the disc is a collaboration with renowned New Orleans producer Mark Bingham, who co-wrote nine of the album’s 11 songs. McNally travels from the psychedelic Southwest (“Memory of a Ghost”) to Cajun country (“Tristesse Oubliée") to the edge of madness (“My Own Second Line”). Although a bit more subdued than her previous work, Western Ballad shows McNally is capable of a range that knows no limits.