Monday, July 5, 2010

Andy Cohen -- Built Right on the Ground

Built Right on the Ground
Earwig Music

It’s probably close to 40 years since the first time I encountered Andy Cohen. I was a teenager immersed in the folk scene and he would have been in his 20s and already an accomplished traditional blues revivalist. I think I first heard him when Bruce “Utah” Phillips got me to come down and hang out in Saratoga Springs where he was a prime mover in Wildflowers, a musicians’ co-op that also included Andy. Not too long after that, I recall him showing up in Montreal to play at the Yellow Door. I sat and listened closely to Andy play three sets a night for three nights in a row.

Thinking back to those days, I’m reminded of something the young Bob Dylan said about 10 years earlier:

“I ain't that good yet. I don't carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people.”

Dylan’s point – I think – was that this kind of music is something you keep growing into, something that reflects your lifetime of experience. The truly dedicated revivalists of that period – people like the late Dave Van Ronk, the late “Philadelphia” Jerry Ricks, Paul Geremia, Roy Book Binder, Chris Smither, Martin Grosswendt, Rory Block and a few others, including Andy Cohen – have kept on getting better as they’ve gotten older. Listening to Andy now, in concert – I saw him do a house concert in Ottawa recently – or on this fine new CD, is a much deeper musical experience than it was, circa 1972, when I saw him at the Yellow Door.

These are primarily old songs and instrumentals that Andy is playing. Most date from the first half of the previous century and are drawn from the repertoires of the regional artists who defined early blues, jazz, country and folk music and who mixed these different strains of music together to create the wonderful music of what Greil Marcus dubbed “old weird America.” Picking the bejeezus out of his vintage Gibson J-45, or pounding boogie woogie patterns on the piano, and singing like he’s lived these songs, Andy gives us riveting renditions of such numbers as Big Bill Broonzy’s “Mopper’s Blues,” Jelly Roll Morton’s “Grandpa’s Spells” and Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur.”

As a life-long Woody Guthrie aficionado, I must call your attention to Andy’s hilarious version of “Mean Talkin’ Blues.” It’s the only version, other than Guthrie’s, that I can ever remember hearing.

In Andy’s hands, these old songs are hardly museum pieces. They are vital, fresh and contemporary (there’s even a clever reference to Barack Obama in his updated version of Sam McGee’s “Railroad Blues”). There is also Andy’s newly-composed “Jim Dickinson Stomp,” a most-worthy tribute to the late and legendary Memphis musician and record producer that Andy plays on guitar and dolceola, and a really nice version of Bobby Charles’ beautiful “Tennessee Blues,” that features Larkin Bryant, Andy’s wife, on mandolin and harmony vocals.

--Mike Regenstreif

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