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The renaissance man of Americana presents an ambitious folk opera set in the American west of the 1880s
A few weeks ago, this article in the Guardian caught my eye: Tom Russell: The Rose of Roscrae, A Ballad of the West review – a brave and original epic
I’d seen country singer Tom Russell once, in the 90s at the old Rodeo Bar on Third Ave at 28th St. Last night I had the privilege of hearing him again at a Chelsea venue called Midtown Live, which is booking some great acts these days. These many years later, Russell—cowboy singer, songwriter, renaissance man of the modern West—was playing songs from his new folk opera, recently released in a two-disc CD, “The Rose of Roscrae,” a capacious 52-track assemblage that charts the life journey of a historical figure named Johnny Dutton—and Russell’s imaginative extension of the character, “Johnny Behind the Deuce.” Based on what I read in the book that accompanies the CD, at sixteen, in 1880, Dutton fled Ireland after his girlfriend’s father forbade his courting her. The incident prompts this stanza in the title song, after which Johnny heads for the American West,
Now I can feel her father’s fists/As he knocked me ‘cross the stable floor/And I left my blood and tears behind me/As I walked all night from Roscrae to Templemore
The Guardian piece has more details, and the video in the post below this one shows an actual rehearsal of “The Rose of Roscrae.” They make it quite a proper revue, with dance movements, fancy rope tricks, and multiple-part harmonies.
“The Rose of Roscrae” makes a fair bid to be an historical epic, sketched in the green hues of Ireland and the dusty tones of cowboy country, with great musicianship and vocals. I was really pleased to discover that apart from the many songs that Russell wrote—performed here with a large and illustrious ensemble—has also found much precious archival sound that fits the theme: decades-old songs performed by Lead Belly, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Johnny Cash, and Jack Hardy.There’s even scratchy sound of a near-contemporary of Walt Whitman reading the bard’s poem “America.” Russell shows his folklorist/song and sound collector side to great effect. Other songs include the voices of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Guy Clark, Ian Tyson, Eliza Gilkyson, and Bonnie Dobson. The package also includes an illuminating 82-page book with the libretto, bios of the players, and Russell’s notes on the songs, which I read late last night, long after the concert ended.
Readers of my blogs may recall my affinity for Marc Berger’s concept album “Ride,” a kind of cousin to this work by Russell. In 2013 I wrote about Berger’s work here. I’m sure both writers have been inspired by Edward Abbey, a kind of Beat figure of the mid-century American West. Relatedly, I see a connection to some great movies, 1) “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” which I wrote about here; and 2) the 1962 Kirk Douglas film, “Lonely Are the Brave,” where he plays a latter day cowboy unable to live in or with modern society. It was based on Brave Cowboy, a novel by A.B. Guthrie, who of course wrote the great modern western The Big Sky, about mountain man Boone Caudill. Kirk Douglas also played the lead role in the 1952 adaptation of The Big Sky.
The Ontario trio Elliott BROOD played a great set of new songs for a 7pm set at Rockwood Music Hall on Manhattan’s lower east side last night. The early hour meant light was still pouring in the windows off Allen Street as they hit their first downbeat, but the vibe quickly turned funky for the crowd of about twenty-five, for as I wrote about this band after I first heard their live show in 2012:
“The trio’s gritty sound feels as if it’s been imported from the early days of sound recording. More raw than roots, it’s a sonic stew of acoustic guitar, banjo, reverb-ed Fender Stratocaster, harmonica, and thumping drums.”
Rockwood has excellent acoustics, whether the room is crammed or not. Last night, the mix was great and all instruments could be heard well. They played six new songs from their forthcoming album, “Work & Love” (Paperbag Records), and a couple older ones. They announced it was the first time they were playing the new songs for a live audience. Dressed all in white, Casey Laforet (electric and acoustic guitars, and an array of foot pedals he played in sock-clad feet); Mark Sasso (acoustic guitar, harmonica, banjo); and Steve Pitkin (drums and a keyboard set up next to his kit) charmed all with light banter and interesting song reveals. Casey, a still-new parent, introduced one new song, “Each Other’s Kids,” by explaining they wrote it after realizing how much people in their world universally rely on one another to take care of their young children.
I had met them in 2012, so it was good to re-visit afterward, and introduce all three to my wife Kyle Gallup, and our friend, Mike Fitzgerald. I caught up on all the news with Casey, and learned he and his wife are about to have their second child. Steve appreciated I remembered his last name correctly, something I can relate to, since people tend to spell my first name with two lls, though it only has one. I told Mark he had been in good voice, though he said he actually felt like he might be getting a cold. I gave them the card for my blog Honourary Canadian, which I began after I met them the first time. They began packing up for a show tonight at the Black Cat in D.C., then they’re moving on to Bristol, Tennessee—said to be “the birthplace of country music in the USA”—where they’ll be playing the Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival.
Last night’s only flaw was that the new album isn’t out yet–after hearing the new songs for the 1st time, I’m keen to hear them again. But it will be available Oct 21, and though it would’ve been nice to get a copy right from the hands of band member, I’ll also be glad to purchase it from the great Canadian indie music website, zunior.com, a seller I highly recommend.
I had a great time at the Elephant Stone show at Mercury Lounge Tuesday night. It was the third time I’ve heard the Montreal band (I earlier wrote about them here), and they were in great form, with frontman Rishi Dhir and his crew really getting down on several psychedelic and funk jams. As cool as Rishi’s sitar playing is, he’s also a really great bassist, and plays it like a solo instrument. Meantime, bandmate Gabriel Lambert is a wizard on 12-string electric guitar. The result is the band’s signature blend of soaring psychedelia, bright pop harmonies, thumping funk, and chiming guitar. If you’d like rock n’ roll that sounds like the Byrds crossed with Indian influences check them out. Frontman Dhir (shown at right) has playfully dubbed their sound ‘Hindi rock.’ I hear echoes of the Byrds and the Beatles, though more psychedelic-ized than either of those giant groups. I got a copy of their new album The Three Poisons after the show. Also in the house was Mike Renaud, aka “Parkside,” of Hidden Pony Records, which handles several of my favorite acts (like Rah Rah, Jeremy Fisher, Said the Whale, and Imaginary Cities) and Tyler Bancroft of the aforementioned Said the Whale, who was in NYC for a few days, then leaving to meet his bandmates for a StW show in Calgary. Parkside, Tyler, myself, and some new friends, Jillian Bordeaux and Michael, a colleague of hers from Caroline—a company that works with many indie music labels—went out for beers afterward.
Elephant Stone’s current US tour continues tonight in Philadelphia, and tomorrow in Asbury Park, NJ, Sept 12 and 13. Details here.
Here are more pictures from the fun night.