Reviews

In Heavy Rotation: Roots & Blues

Norman Blake: Anchored in love, living life full measure (Photo: Christi Carroll from somagency.com)

 

DAY BY DAY, Norman Blake (Smithsonian Folkways)— The voice is weathered, but affecting; the guitar playing nimble, evocative, reflective according to the moment; the mood, very interior, and probing. Witness Norman Blake’s memorable new album, Day By Day (a title perhaps more telling when you reach age 83, as has Blake). Largely featuring only Blake, his voice and his guitar, seven of its nine tunes are drawn from the deep past and most of these vivid, poetical reminiscences find the singer both acutely aware of his place in nature’s temple and in quiet lament for loves lost and his approaching mortality—sometimes in the same song, as in the rustic “I’m Free Again.” These themes animate the likes of “Montcalm and Wolfe” (in which a 1759 battle in the French and Indian War figures prominently) and the lively old Celtic ballad, “Three Leaves of Shamrock.” The beloved Rising Fawn String Ensemble materializes to add an elegiac touch to the Carter Family’s “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.” “Ghost ships float through my mind, searching for a port to land,” Blake confesses in his original ballad, “Time,” and land aplenty they do herein, anchored in love, living life full measure. –David McGee

‘I’m Free Again,’ Norman Blake, from Day By Day

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MARKOLOGY II, Mark O’Connor (OMAC Records)— It was 1978 when the teenage Mark O’Connor released his first solo guitar album to rave reviews. Forty-three years and a celebrated, almost unprecedented career in bluegrass, country and classical music later, he issues another effort that is truly solo—the first Markology found him leading a sextet (including Tony Rice on guitar)—with O’Connor assaying seven traditional evergreens and three originals, deploying his Martin D-28, a vintage Gibson mandocello and a John Baxendale dreadnought with nary a guest in sight and his creative voice in full flight. Plaintive as ever, “Shenandoah” gets a whole new, captivating sheen via O’Connor’s thoughtful probing of the melody line and the frisson his chord extensions add. The giddy-up-go struts of “Beaumont Rag” and “Alabama Jubilee” dazzle and scintillate at once, with the precision of O’Connor’s speed picking and the seamless grace of the classical marginalia he sneaks into the proceedings. His own “Flailing” hardly lives up to its title, as a clearly in-control O’Connor fashions a richly textured piece out of breathtaking fleet-fingered passages alternating in mood with meditative chordings. A certain high-office holder in our government might appreciate the go-for-broke, blues-tinged rhythmic drive and witty, frisky solo passages of another O’Connor original, “Kamala Boogie.” Instrumental mastery of the highest order, this, often challenging, always easy on the ear and bracing to the soul. –David McGee

‘Shenandoah,’ Mark O’Connor on the vintage Gibson mandocello, from Markology II

***

RESURRECTION, Mike Zito (Gulf Coast Records/Hillside Gllobal)— Few artists have battled demons as savage as Mike Zito’s once were and lived to tell the tale. In diary-like detail, he chronicled this frightful period of his life, and his subsequent resurrection, in 2014’s Gone to Texas; now, on Resurrection, he dives into the well of conflicting emotions the pandemic brought on. Produced with sizzling sonics by the redoubtable David Z, Zito is at his merciless, shredding best on guitar while singing with gritty authority and penning what are arguably his most searing, most personal lyrics yet. Through it all, Zito’s big heart shines through. The album opening “Don’t Bring Me Down” is a white-hot howl about love seemingly lost and then, yes, resurrected, its anguished confessions burnished by Eric Demmer’s frighteningly apocalyptic sax solo; later, the cool shuffle of “In My Blood” tones things down to underscore the sincerity of Zito’s mea culpa about fear of commitment, with Lisa Anderson’s whispered backing vocals adding a haunting shadow to Zito’s soul baring lead. Ultimately the crunching blitzkrieg treatment of Clapton’s “In the Presence of the Lord” best embodies the battle between the id, ego and super-ego animating Zito’s own original tales while underscoring his blind faith, shall we say, in the power of a higher authority to keep him properly focused in life and love. The first post-pandemic masterpiece? Resurrection is a contender. –David McGee

‘In My Blood,’ Mike Zito, from Resurrection

***

BAYOU LIBERTY, Tiffany Pollack & Co. (Nola Blue Music)— After making her mark in the blues world with her 2019 debut, Blues in My Blood, a duo record with her cousin, Eric Johnson, Louisiana native Tiffany Pollack journeyed to Memphis for some old-school recording sessions with producer John Nemeth—really old school, as in straight to tape—and emerged with a dozen original tracks defining her newfound sense of independence and freedom in the aptly titled Bayou Liberty (both the name of the Slidell, Louisiana, highway near which Pollack grew up and her liberation from those stomping grounds),“I’m not living for you/I’m not living for them/I’m just living for me” she declares amidst the swampy, sax-fueled groove of “Livin’ for Me.” The spirit of independence and self-realization runs strong in Pollack’s lyrics and is expressed boldly in the remarkable instrument that is her voice—at once capable of raw power (as in the driving strum und drang of “Devil and the Darkness,” another showcase for the empathetic punctuations of Christopher Johnson’s sax), sultry swagger (in the old-timey swing of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”) and country soul (in the pedal steel-inflected yearning of “Mountain”). Something remarkable is going on here, and attention must be paid. –David McGee

‘Mountain,’ Tiffany Pollack, from Bayou Liberty

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