Monday, October 24, 2016

CD Review–John McEuen - MADE IN BROOKLYN

imageMatt Cartsonis, an old friend of mine from the Phoenix area music scene, had been talking on Facebook for a while about this new project he was working on with John McEuen, long time multi-instrumentalist and Grammy winner with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Having known Matt for over 35 years, and knowing the vast experience he has in the music world, I was very intrigued.  Then all the media blitz began and the new CD, MADE IN BROOKLYN, was hitting the airwaves and all the roots/Americana sites.  The first single released, “Excitable Boy,” sung by Matt and written by Matt’s former employer, the late Warren Zevon, debuted at #6 on the Alt Root Top 10 chart.  This CD was taking off big time, and it was making even this ol’ man an “Excitable Boy”!!!

imageLucky for me, the stars all aligned and I received an e-mail from another friend in Nashville, Shelly Mullins, of Music City Media, asking if I wanted to review MADE IN BROOKLYN. Her office staff sent a copy of the CD to me in nothin’ flat and then I found out for myself what all the raving was about.

Thank YOU Shelly! This is GREAT music folks, and it transcends lots of different genres and categories in such a unique way that it may end up in a very elite genre all its own. It is definitely one of a kind. “First Class Happy Dixie Gospel Country Grass” doesn’t even begin to cover all the musical bases I hear on this CD, but, it’s a start. And…. as of the first week of October on the Alt Root Top 10 chart, “I Rose Up,” another cut from this marvelous release, is at the coveted #1 spot!! Prepare for blast off!!!

I have to say that I’ve been a John McEuen fan for a very long time. I remember when he and the rest of the Dirt Band first came on the scene 50 years ago, way back when I was still in high school.  I also remember wearing out several copies of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the seminal album that brought the royalty of country, acoustic and bluegrass all together for an event that is still revered to this day.  John was so much a part of that project, and I feel he is really carrying on the importance of that music with this CD.  To me, this is not just another album coming out, it’s another EVENT that is going to be remembered with the same fondness as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

John and David Chesky produced this record, and it is released on Chesky Records.  The reason that is important is because Mr. Chesky, and his brother Norman, are the developers of the high-resolution “Dummy Head” microphone system, known as “LARS.”

They used the old technique of sitting the band in a circle around one microphone, and then recording the ensemble “Live” in an acoustically suitable room, in this case an old church in Brooklyn, NY.

In a filmed interview, Mr. McEuen said that this method uses just one $50,000.00 custom made Binaural mic and the players are moved to specific spots around it to catch an even better, high quality and balanced audio recording. Listening on headphones really tells the story of how well this system works…… the quality of this recording is unbelievable!

imageI love to listen to new music in my truck on the way to work, and often AT work, also.  The folks around me are used to me playing all kinds of off the wall things, but, this CD got a reaction that I wasn’t anticipating. Right off the bat I noticed how quiet it became as the first couple of songs played… then I saw that everyone was bobbing their heads along to the beat and smiling like crazy!  Then the questions started: “Is this a new radio station?”  “Who is this?”  “Where did this music come from?”  “Where did you get this, Bill?”  At least a dozen people were instantly infatuated with the CD, so I showed them the cover, and a few whipped out their phones and snapped pictures of it so they could get a copy.  I’ve NEVER had that happen with any of the new CD’s I’ve played at work!  It wasn’t just me that was infatuated with this music. AND…. what I find to be very hopeful and pleasing about it is that those who liked this CD are such a diverse age group, old geezers like me, middle aged folks AND students from Fort Lewis College here in Durango.

To see the younger generation taking to this music so whole-heartedly makes me feel fortunate to be in a community that loves its roots, Americana and Bluegrass music and backs it year round and on a nightly basis in the local clubs and concert halls.

Besides the Chesky/Binaural technology, there are two other reasons this CD is so magical…… the music chosen to be recorded, and the players John assembled to play on it.  Matt Cartsonis and John McEuen have been friends and musical cohorts for over 20 years, and Matt has traveled extensively with him.  Mr. Cartsonis has also worked with Pete Seeger, Steve Martin, Ringo Starr, Warren Zevon and the Austin Lounge Lizards, just to name a few.

Matt first came to my attention in the late 70’s in a Phoenix based band called “The Normal Brothers,” and he still considers himself a “West side boy” from the Valley of the Sun. If he’s in Phoenix, you’ll catch him sitting in with our mutual old friend Ronnie Glover and “Trio Rio.” He also is still grateful to “The Two Week Notice Band,” and the Skaggs brothers, Kenny and Russell, for giving him his start as a 17 year old new kid on the block.

To this day, my wife, Mary Ann, and I, still laugh when we remember Matt’s hilarious, and irreverent, version of the George Jones classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” If Matt were to put up a YouTube video of his version of this song, he’d be an over-night video “Star!” In the words of Kenny Skaggs: “Matt has seriously developed into a very talented performer whose love of folk and Americana is reflected deeply.” I couldn’t agree more, and it’s so nice to see Matt’s talents on display on such a world class recording project.

David Bromberg, noted picker and singer, is here re-creating his vocal version of “Mr. Bojangles,” one of John McEuen’s favorite songs. He sings the first 3 verses and Matt finishes the song on the last 2 verses, with the clarinet of Andy Goessling (a member of Railroad Earth) and David Amram’s flute.  I love this arrangement, and the excellence of all the players makes it shine like a new penny.

Flatt and Scruggs are represented here in an exciting, straight ahead bluegrass version of “Blue Ridge Cabin Home”.  Matt on vocals and rhythm guitar, Andy on mandolin, THE Jay Ungar on fiddle, John on banjo and harmony vocal, David Bromberg on lead guitar and Skip Ward on upright bass.  If this tune in particular doesn’t light up the bluegrass charts, I’ll be VERY upset!  It has that Ryman Opry stage vibe and the recording process works GREAT on re-creating this vintage sounding song.  The only thing missing is the band all wearing string ties ala Lester and Earl.

The appropriately named “Brooklyn Crossing,” written by John McEuen, is the first song you’ll hear, and it is an instrumental delight. John plays guitar on this and tuned it to a D-Minor.  It sets the stage for just how good the Binaural mic works and how well this process captures John’s music.  Nicholas Prout, who recorded, edited and mastered this recording, nailed this system down from the very first licks played.

Another instrumental written by John, “Miner’s Night Out,” is my favorite, and it flies!  Kevin Twigg adds drums to this one, and together with John’s 1927 Gibson Florentine banjo tuned to C-Minor, they emit an eerie tonal quality that probably couldn’t have been captured with regular recording equipment.  The echo of the old church building also seems to add a natural (or maybe an UN-natural) reverb to this song. Jay Ungar’s fiddle and David Amram’s pennywhistle fit this song perfectly.  Skip’s bass drives this one like a freight train.

The more I listened, the more I realized this really is John McEuen’s CD.  Yes, he was one of the many players in a great ensemble, but…… he wrote, or co-wrote six of the tunes, his instrumental virtuosity guided the arrangements and his foresight in formulating the concept of this recording was paramount. 

Listen closely to “Acoustic Traveler,” and he’ll take you places you’ve never heard before. Starting in ¾ time and then changing into a 2/4 up-tempo space odyssey, Andy’s alto sax, David Amram’s pennywhistle, Matt’s mandola, Skip’s bowed bass and the incendiary percussion of Kevin Twigg sizzle!  John’s acoustic guitar work, on his 1932 Martin OM-28, is the highlight, though. Very nice….

John’s “Jules’ Theme,” is equally haunting and suspenseful, and John played a new/old style National guitar on this one.  Skip’s bass propels this one and keeps the flute, violin and clarinet in the mood that John’s guitar artistry sets.  I love how the Binaural mic catches Andy and Mr. Amram’s breathing into their instruments so distinctly.  Again John’s guitar is captured so closely you can hear his fingers change notes on the fretboard.  The listener is taken right into the building and given a seat right next to John and the others as they play.  Wonderful!

John, Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby (Martha’s husband) set the words of British poet William Blake to music, and “I Rose Up” is the lovely gospel result.  Martha, Matt and John Cowan rotate singing the verses, with back-up vocals provided by Marilyn McEuen (John’s wife), Molly Mason (Jay Ungar’s wife) and Nancy Josephson (David Bromberg’s wife). If any song fits this recording studio to a T, this one is it. The familial voices captured in the old church in Brooklyn ring with praise!  On September 27th, 2016, this song was presented live by John and his friends on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry, and Matt made his Opry musical debut singing it.

Of all the 16 tunes and conversations on this CD, I think Boudleaux Bryant’s “My Favorite Dream,” is my “favorite.” There are actually two versions of this tune for you to enjoy…… the first is the slower instrumental “My Favorite Dream Intro.”  The second one is pure nostalgia with a 1940’s flair, but, both are a joy to hear.  On “My Favorite Dream,” Andy plays clarinet, Amram plays flute, Jay is on fiddle, Skip on bass and Kevin is on snare drum with brushes, which are like whispers in your ears.  Matt’s voice fits this song so well, and his personality shines through on it.  In a previous 1940’s life, Matt must have been a “Crooner!”  This song also has some super back-up vocals.

One of the finest voices you’ll ever hear, no matter the genre, is John Cowan.  Here, John sings “She Darked the Sun,” by Bernie Leadon and Gene Clark.  A previously recorded version of this tune by Linda Ronstadt served as the template for Mr. Cowan’s vocal rendering of a great song, and John McEuen knew that this song and this singer had to be included on this CD.  David Bromberg plays electric guitar, Nancy, Molly and Marilyn add the ooooohs and aaaahs and Matt sings harmony to Mr. Cowan’s lead vocal.  The best parts of the song to me are the twin fiddles of Jay Ungar and John McEuen.  Just the frosting that this lonesome song needed.

Another favorite of John McEuen’s, “I Still Miss Someone,” by Johnny Cash, is sung by John Carter Cash, Johnny and June’s son. The younger Mr. Cash is known for his production talents, having produced some of the hottest acts out of Nashville, but, here he shows us his vocal talents.  His soon-to-be wife, Ana, and Matt sing the close harmony with Mr. Cash, and Marilyn, Molly and Nancy, lend their background vocals to this take on the 1958 original hit.  David Bromberg’s Dobro finds a home sliding in and out of the song’s melody line and Matt is playing the tic-tac acoustic guitar underneath John McEuen’s guitar solo and fills.  Love this …….

Two Warren Zevon tunes are included here, the afore mentioned “Excitable Boy,” and “My Dirty Life and Times,” which features Steve Martin on banjo.  Matt spent about three years working for Mr. Zevon before his untimely death, and Matt’s knowledge of the man and his material make him the perfect candidate to pass these songs on to new listeners.  Eclectic is the only word I can come up with to describe them.  NOT your typical bluegrass tunes lyrically, but, in this context, they more than add to the fun and games.

The old Willie Wayne tune, “Travelin’ Mood” gets the royal treatment here.  John’s second love behind bluegrass, is acoustic guitar blues, and he sings this one and fills it with hot guitar licks.  The song also features imageAndy on clarinet, adding a Bourbon Street Dixieland feel to it.  With David Bromberg adding the second guitar, Mr. Amram on pennywhistle, Matt on mandola and Kevin and Skip adding drums and bass to the syncopated arrangement this tune falls right into the Lightnin’ Hopkins style of “da blues.”

All the talents of John McEuen are sharply on display with the one-man-band tune “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” by Stephan Vincent Benet. John plays banjo and fiddle, and tells the story of a young fiddler at a fiddle contest in a sing-song, recitation- talkin’ style that makes the listener not want to miss a word or a note.  This is John at his best!  He holds your attention in the palm of his hand, and you don’t want the song to end.  Mr. McEuen OWNS this delivery!  The song was written in 1928, the same year that Vassar Clements was born, and John feels that the song could have been written about Vassar. 

John starts out on his Zeta fiddle, but, at times it sounds like he’s playing mandolin. It’s actually John plucking and strumming his fiddle as a fretless mandolin, adding another hidden dramatic dimension to his playing that kept me glued to Mr. Benet’s words.  At about the 3:30 mark he physically changes to banjo, and when the change does occur, there is hardly any extraneous noise. The beauty of the Binaural mic is very evident here….. John’s voice will move back and forth from the right to the left earpiece and then settle in the middle, then do it all over again in the opposite direction.  Every move of John’s body, ever so subtle, is captured and audibly changes what one hears. You hear him breathe, sigh, whisper and shout…… and all his emotions are right there for you to enjoy.

John gives a very eloquent performance, and in doing so gives us, the listener, a glimpse of the simple Appalachian life, illustrated in the lyrics, the instruments and the vocal treatment of the long gone fiddle/mountain culture.

I just found out that MADE IN BROOKLYN is now under GRAMMY consideration.  There are no other details at this time, but, all I can say is WAHOO!!!  It’s about time that music of importance, quality, historical value and passion is recognized.  

John McEuen’s MADE IN BROOKLYN is THE musical event of the year as far as I’m concerned!


Bill Hallock 2016




Reviewed by: W. J. Hallock for Prescription Bluegrass

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