When we last saw the String Wizard John McEuen on our stage, the Christmas season was underway and Liberty Hall glowed with sweetness and light. The great multi-instrumentalist and entertainer was living two mega anniversaries – his own 70th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his world-changing Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. His colleague Jeff Hanna sang “Mr. Bojangles” and made us cry. McEuen himself played spitfire banjo on classics like “Dismal Swamp” and danced around the guitar on tricky numbers like “Walking The Strings.” He curated and conjured a night of collaboration among a bunch of venerable and venerated roots musicians. It was the ideal way to close out the year 2015.
Now it’s late in 2016, which has been incalculably exciting for us here locally even if it’s been pretty exhausting and depressing at a national level. We need some unbridled joy and whimsical escape to propel us through the next few weeks and toward what I dearly hope will be a calm and bright holiday season. Who better than Father John? The hook for this visit is a new album that embodies a lot of what made last December 16 special and a lot of what’s made McEuen’s career so contributory to the mega-narrative of Americana. Made In Brooklyn is a gathering of old musical friends, including some of the same musicians from Roots (John Carter Cash, Matt Cartsonis among them), as well as Steve Martin, David Bromberg and Martha Redbone. They got together in a church in NYC and played a rangy bunch of songs spontaneously and live on the floor – all together with no fixes.
The recording is unique for another reason. A photo of the sessions shows a strange figure in the room – an artificial torso and head – perched on a road case and a bunch of blankets. It leans forward as if trying to pay extra attention. This is a binaural microphone, a remarkable piece of audio gear that’s favored by Chesky Records. It has microphones mounted inside artificial ears and ear canals to capture sonic signatures of human hearing that aren’t possible with standard microphones. Played back on headphones, the mix is an uncanny illusion of three-dimensional space. The musicians are placed distinctly in the room and their performances are that much more realistic and vivid because of it. So Made In Brooklyn is one of the most honest and authentic recordings I could point you to. And it marks yet another stroke of brilliance from an artist and song collector who plays important music with a twinkle in his eye.
The rest of our bill is much younger. And the band we know best is The Danberrys, the duo of married couple Ben DeBerry and Dorothy Daniel who made their Roots debut at a Christmas season show in 2012. I’ve loved them ever since, through their spicy debut self-titled album of 2013 and their elegant new release Give & Receive. They’ve built a special indie-folk vibe around Dorothy’s luxuriously low voice and Ben’s intricate acoustic guitar flatpicking. They work with top notch support musicians, including mood master Ethan Ballinger who produced the new disc. I got to see the Danberrys just last weekend at the Hoedown on the Harpeth, and I was reminded again what a rhythmically seductive and emotionally connecting band they are.
Also from around here with an ear for neo-acoustic wonderfulness is new band The Forlorn Strangers. Three men and two women joined forces about three years ago and soon thereafter they caught the imagination of area musical master Phil Madeira. He produced the band’s self-titled full length album debut which came out in August. They’ve been called old timey and up to date as well as an Americana Fleetwood Mac. The publication Music Helm wrote that “The group has managed to capture soul in each and every one of their songs, and keep us smiling while doing so.” The band has wide smiles in most of their photos too, so something must be catching.
Rounding out our night will be Free The Honey, a trio of women from Mississippi, Nashville and Texas who made Gunnison, CO their musical base. They’ve released new recordings in each of the last three years since forming, so they dream up songs with as much alacrity as they meld their voices and stringed instruments. Colorado magazine Marquee says their most recent album “shows a young group precisely playing music rooted in centuries ago styles, but with a relaxed approachability that makes it seem as if they’ve been at this for decades.”
The inexhaustible energy behind folk music comes from the generational torch passing and influence that goes on without calculation or coordination. No doubt each of our younger, eclectic artists that comprise most of this week’s bill have looked up to McEuen and the Dirt Band as teachers and guiding spirits on their own journeys. Cool to see the master and the apprentices on one night of music.