Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Joel Mabus -- No Worries Now

No Worries Now

In 2004, I reviewed Golden Willow Tree, an album by Joel Mabus, in Sing Out! Magazine and led the review by saying “Very quietly, and under too many people’s radar, Joel Mabus has spent the past 25 years building one of the most impressive bodies of work spanning both traditional and contemporary folk music. He’s a fine singer, has a virtuoso’s command of guitar and banjo (and fiddle, which he doesn’t play on this particular album), has a deep repertoire of traditional ballads, old-time music and blues, and is a superb songwriter whose compositions are well informed by the traditions and traditional songs he’s mastered.”

Except for needing to add another six years or so onto his résumé, that strikes me as a good lead for a review of No Worries Now, Joel’s latest album.

Many of Joel’s past albums – this is his 20th – have had some sort of focus: albums of traditional ballads or banjo music or guitar instrumentals come to mind. The focus on No Worries Now is on his songwriting – and, from the first song to the last, he leaves no doubt that he’s a terrific and musically versatile songwriter who can knock off swing tunes filled with witty lyrics and hot guitar licks, topical songs that would do Tom Paxton proud, and riveting narrative ballads with equal facility.

Among the many highlights here are “Am I Right,” a swing tune filled with down home witticisms, “Two Cents Plain,” a ragtime song for the new depression, “Little Mister Diddy,” a clever tune about Joel’s favourite corrupt politician that could also be about your favourite corrupt politician, and “How Can I Keep From Singing,” in which he keeps the melody and repeating line from the old hymn but rewrites the verses as a universalist song of peace.

My favourite track, though, is the epic “Charlie Birger,” about a 1920s gangster who, apparently, ousted the KKK from his turf. In the tradition of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” or Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding,” Joel casts Birger as a Robin Hood of his time, a friend to the common people. Joel’s performance is so riveting and intense that you hardly notice that it’s an eight-minute ballad.

I can’t imagine a Joel Mabus album that I wouldn’t highly recommend and No Worries Now is certainly no exception.

--Mike Regenstreif

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