Thursday, October 27, 2011

Michael Jerome Browne – The Road is Dark

The Road is Dark

I was going to start this review by saying Michael Jerome Browne is a jack-of-all-root-music-styles. From blues to country to Appalachian mountain music, Cajun, swing, R&B – he can do it all. It’s a bit of understatement, though, to call him a jack-of-all-roots-music-styles when, in fact, he’s a master of most of those styles. He’s got encyclopedic knowledge of the music he plays, a giant repertoire drawn from the legendary artists who pioneered the various genres he plays, and – with songwriting and life partner B.A. Markus – has created a significant body of original material that stands tall with the time-tested standards he plays.

While Michael plays a variety of styles, and just about any instrument with strings, blues has been the dominant genre in his repertoire, much of it from the first few decades of the recording era in the American South (or inspired by that early music).

Whether or not you buy into the mythology of Robert Johnson at the crossroads at midnight, that kind of blues can be a scary music that delves deeply into the dark places of the soul. And that’s where Michael takes us on many of the songs on The Road is Dark – six taken from tradition and/or earlier artists, eight created by Michael and B.

Among the highlights from the songs Michael adapts is “Doin’ My Time,” which sounds like something Furry Lewis might have played if he played electric guitar. Actually, it comes from bluegrass pioneers Flatt & Scruggs and is an example of the stylistic cross-pollination of black and white music in the American South. Another is Michael’s intense version of Reverend Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” The sustain on Michael’s solo electric guitar arrangement allows the notes to seemingly cut deeper into the soul than on some of the familiar acoustic versions of the song.

Among my favourites of the original songs are “Graveyard Blues,” played on the fretless banjo and sounding like a bluesy Appalachian folk song, in which the narrator, a kind of rake and rambling man, seemingly near death and seemingly without regrets, talks about the facts of his life; “If Memphis Don’t Kill Me,” a good-timey jug band song featuring Michael on mandolin with fine back-up from Ottawa musicians Steve Marriner on harmonica, and Ball & ChainMichael Ball and Jody Benjamin – on fiddle and guitar; and “Sing Low,” with Michael on banjo and Mighty Popo on guitar, a haunting song inspired by the code songs African American women sang during slavery and dedicated to the struggle of Afghan women to emerge from their oppression.

I also really enjoyed Michael’s interplay with John McColgan’s inventive percussive washboard on three tracks including “G20 Blues,” a topical commentary on the bungled over-the-top police response to protesters at last year’s G20 Summit in Toronto. (John and Michael played together for years in the Stephen Barry Band.)

Among Michael’s launch concerts for The Road is Dark are shows Saturday, October 29, 8:00 pm at L’Astral, 305 St. Catherine Street West in Montreal; and Saturday, November 5, 8:00 pm, at the Westboro Masonic Hall, 430 Churchill Avenue North, in Ottawa.

--Mike Regenstreif

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