Reviews

June 18, 2019
 

The Anchor Weighs In

Michael Jerome Browne: the kind of artist we need lest we lose sight of our connection to our historical roots.

 

 

By Joseph McSpadden

 

THAT’S WHERE IT’S AT

Michael Jerome Browne

Borealis Recording

 

For all of our 21st century sophistication and technological achievements it seems to me we need old forms and methods more and more. For all the instant gratification of Google searching, and for all the manic energy, rancor and divisiveness of the 24-hour news cycle, we need from time to time to retreat to a simple, more intentional way of thinking and feeling. In the place of dazzling special effects we yearn for a story that is true, based in human (as opposed to technological) experience. Music can take us there. It has the ability to transport us to our own humanity and history, both familial and universal. In our current time we need the scribes of the tribes, the oral historians who anchor us with their stories of our past, shared struggles we all can find as common ground. And we need to laugh and sing. We need Michael Jerome Browne.

Before Google there were volumes of encyclopedias. Before the point and click of digital music and streaming, there were low-fi recordings of field hollers and spirituals, gospel and blues that formed the bedrock of folk and rock ‘n’ roll. Michael Jerome Browne is a walking encyclopedia of all this, and his new record, That’s Where it’s At, celebrates his long love of pre-war blues and country and blends it with his take on modern pop and soul music.

‘Skeletons,’ written by Stevie Wonder, from Michael Jerome Browne’s That’s Where It’s At

Browne is an interesting troubadour. A virtuoso on guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica and fiddle, on his latest album he mixes soul and R&B tunes with older blues and spirituals. In lesser hands it would make for an album with too many disparate sounds to ever be seen as a cohesive musical document. Browne accomplishes this by stripping the modern songs down to their acoustic bare bones, and then putting just enough flesh on those bones to make them tasty. The end result is a group of songs that thematically and stylistically make for a piece of whole cloth, connecting our present with our past, into a tapestry that tells a very human story. It’s also a damn good time.

Quiet, unassuming, with a tongue-in-cheek low-key sense of humor, Browne might not come off as a musician who has performed on stages around the world. But he has been doing just that for years, as a solo artist and as a right-hand man for blues man Eric Bibb. He seems more like a suburban middle-aged father who might just be your next-door neighbor. No swagger, no cooler-than-thou attitude. The word humility comes to mind.

Born in Indiana, Browne’s parents moved to Montreal the following year, where he has lived ever since. He tours Canada and British Columbia regularly, as well as playing the U.K. and European blues festivals. His knowledge of blues, spirituals and gospel is vast. A sort of walking Smithsonian exhibit, he’s the kind of artist we need lest we lose sight of our connection to our historical roots.

‘Here I Am (Come and Take Me),’ written by Al Green and Teenie Hodges, from Michael Jerome Browne’s That’s Where It’s At

This time out Browne mixes an interesting assortment of covers from the likes of Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Al Green and Sam Cooke with a fresh batch of original material. The emphasis is on fun and it pays off for the listener.

Browne’s guitar playing is, as always, stellar, and on this record, downright funky at times. Starting with the opening track, “Don’t Ask Me Why,” Browne uses the instrumental to show us just how funky an acoustic guitar can be. The song radiates the joy Browne finds in playing.

‘Pharaoh,’ written by Michael Jerome Browne and Harrison Kennedy, from That’s Where It’s At

The funk-o-meter gets turned all the way up on “Skeletons,” a Stevie Wonder number that resonates with its take on dishonesty. Set against a punchy drum beat, Browne’s picking pops with energy and attitude. “Pharaoh” is the first of two fine collaborations with Harrison Kennedy, their voices blending on a blues moan about the drowning of Pharaoh’s army.

“Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” is a wonderful duet with Eric Bibb that continues the themes of Bibb’s Grammy nominated Migration Blues album. “Remember When” is a ballad that lauds enduring love. Written with Browne’s long-time partner, B.A. Markus, the song is poignant, observing love and relationship as it travels the distance through the different phases of life.

Harrison Kennedy returns on “That’s the Way Love Is,” the two men reflecting on the fickle nature of loving, and the tenuous grasp the human heart has on hope. Browne should consider an album of collaborations with Kennedy, as their natural chemistry exudes grace and warmth.

‘That’s the Way Love Is,’ written by Michael Jerome Browne and Harrison Kennedy, from That’s Where It’s At

‘Louisiana 1927,’ written by Randy Newman, from That’s Where It’s At

Al Green and Randy Newman are represented with covers of “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and “Louisiana 1927,” both performed with skill and respect. The album closes with a reprise of “Pharaoh.” Performed solo on a gourd banjo, this take feels like a field recording from days gone by. As the closing track, it reminds us that all that we enjoy now was built from dust, sweat and hard work. The music we have come to love started with roots down deep in the soil and in the tribulations of simple, honest working men and women.

Browne connects these roots to modern day pop music with a sensibility that makes it seem only natural that we should view them as part of a wide river of song. Perhaps his greatest gift is that he sees the whole picture, the panorama. Perhaps he knows that we are more connected than we realize, and he needs to point the way. In these divisive days we need that revelation more than ever.

More of Joseph McSpadden’s reviews and and reflections are available on his website, www.theflamestillburns.com