Metroland Gift Guide 2006 - Blues, Bluegrass,
Celtic, and Folk Music CDs

2006-Blues, Bluegrass,
Celtic, and Folk
Glenn Weiser
 

Shopping for a folk Blues, Celtic or bluegrass fan? An impressive array of top singers and musicians in all these genres just happened to anticipate your holiday needs earlier this year, and obligingly recorded several fine CDs for you to choose from. Here are some good bets:

For the blueshound, one of the year’s hottest releases is harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite’s Delta Hardware (Realworld). After forays into other genres in recent albums, Musselwhite’s new offering is a sweet homecoming to the blues. As a singer, he’s always been more of an earthy crooner than a belter; his harp playing, here backed by a lean, electric three-piece band, is fabulous. On top of all his mesmerizing riffs and solos, Musselwhite also has penned some socially conscious songs to boot.

Another prime blues choice is Junior Wells’ Live at Theresa’s 1975 (Delmark), a CD culled from a two-night stand at a once-famous bar on Chicago’s South Side. Wells shines on the harmonica, and his singing is comparable to James Brown’s. Buddy Guy’s brother Phil, former Muddy Waters sideman Sammy Lawhorn, and Byther Smith, an undeservedly obscure musician, all play guitar here. The record seems unedited, as it contains Junior’s colorful banter with his responsive audiences in between the songs.

Even though mandolinist and guitarist Ricky Skaggs is also among the best tenors in bluegrass, he forgoes vocals altogether in his latest release, Instrumentals (Skaggs Family Records) and lets the collective strings of his band Kentucky Thunder do the talking. You won’t find any familiar fiddle tunes or old country standards here—Skaggs has written 11 new instrumentals for this record, ranging from jazzy and Celtic-tinged pieces to the hardcore bluegrass fare you’d expect from this acoustic master.

Of David Grisman’s two releases this year, The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience (Acoustic Disc) is 14 tracks of real-deal bluegrass, replete with frenzied flurries of flawless picking and clothespin-on-the-nose singing (the other, Dawg’s Groove, explores the more eclectic side of Grisman’s music). The track list, too, is solidly in the bluegrass mainstream, including chestnuts from the Carter Family, Ralph Stanley, and Flatt and Scruggs, as well as traditional songs.

Irish singer Niamh Parsons grew up in the thick of the 1960s Dublin folk music scene, hobnobbing with the Chieftains and other Celtic luminaries. Her newest CD, The Old Simplicity (Green Linnet), is deceptively titled, as the highly ornamented, traditional vocal style she has mastered is anything but simple. Capably accompanied by acoustic guitarist Graham Dunn, she serves up a rich array of 14 Irish and Scottish songs in her powerful alto.

The guitar is usually relegated to accompaniment in Celtic music, so it’s gratifying when a fine musician makes it a lead voice. Donal Clancy, formerly of the band Danu, has a new instrumental acoustic guitar CD of traditional tunes, Close to Home (Dara) that has drawn praise for its superb fretwork. The dozen tracks here contain jigs, reels, and slow airs, all beautifully played to the spare accompaniment of bagpipe drones, bouzouki, and bodhran.

Pete Seeger got his props, and folk music a shot in the arm last April when Bruce Springsteen released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia). Recorded in three days with a dozen or so banjo, accordion, and fiddle-wielding folkies at Springsteen’s New Jersey farmhouse, the record is a worthy tribute to the rising singer who was blacklisted by the music establishment in the early 1950s after he bravely stood up to McCarthyism (his group, the Weavers, had had a chart-topping hit in 1950 with Goodnight, Irene). Most of the 15 tracks are traditional songs made famous by Seeger and other postwar folksingers, but you’ll hear some of his originals as well.

Lastly, it may be a stretch these days to call Bob Dylan’s music folk, but that’s where he started and that where his heart still seems to be. Critics have called his newest record, Modern Times (Columbia), his best in years. His voice is low and gravelly now, but his distinctive vocal phrasing and songwriting genius remain sure. Even though he set off a contretemps when some astute observers discovered he’d apparently lifted some of the albums lines from a Civil War-era Southern poet named Henry Timrod (adding to the mystery, all the letters of “Timrod” can be found in the title Modern Times, but Dylan’s been mum on this one), it’s a wonderful and important record all the same.

—Glenn Weiser

 Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2006 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  

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