40 Years of Concert Performances
New Lost City Ramblers821 610 481 2
Rounder Record Corp.
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Though it may be heresy in some corners of the folk community, I've always thought Mike Seeger was the most talented of the Seeger clan. Sure, he'll probably never achieve the icon status of Pete, but it's arguable that his contribution to American folk music has been just as great. No doubt, Pete has written a truckload of great songs, but it's unknown how many equally essential ones Mike Seeger has unearthed from the annals of the rural American folk tradition and brought to our attention. To that extent, he's been an Alan Lomax-like figure, cruising the back-roads in search musicians long forgotten, except Mike Seeger actually took his admiration a step further and decided to make himself a living breathing musical tribute to the sounds he helped us all rediscover. For the past four decades, joined at different intervals by Tracy Schwarz, John Cohen, and Tom Paley, the New Lost City Ramblers have been his most visible vehicle for this restoration, and as a collection of highlights from a long and storied career as ambassadors of live folk music, no better document exists than 40 Years of Concert Performances. |
With over two hours and nearly 50 tracks (16 of which are previously unreleased), the Ramblers are captured at various stops in their history, presenting songs that cover the whole spectrum of human emotion with all the humor, sincerity, and poignancy due them. From a somewhat unpolished rendition of Soldier's Joy from 1958, which Mike Seeger remembers as being the first song they ever played together, to Tracy Shwarz's unaccompanied rendition of the cowboy ballad Tom Sherman's Barroom from 1998, all the stylistic wanderings are captured. Still, no matter how big a slice of Americana they tried to capture, they were first and foremost a stringband. From note perfect versions of stringband classics like I've Always Been a Rambler and Jordan Is a Hard Road to Travel to irreverent reinventions like Too Tight Rag performed with two kazoos, the Ramblers were an incredibly versatile band. And even if they weren't the most technically proficient stringband to ever take the stage, chances are they were one of the most entertaining.
Tracks like The Battleship Maine, She Tickles Me, and The Arkansas Traveller are fine pieces of old timey comedy, though one gets the feeling that the listener is probably slightly missing the full effect for not being able to witness the mannerisms with which they are delivered. Still, where the Ramblers truly shine is on renditions of Carter Family classics like On Some Foggy Mountain Top, Worried Man Blues and East Virginia Blues, though they also impressively maneuver through Bill Monroe standards like The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake and Tennessee Blues with similar adeptness. While the Ramblers can sound extremely ragged at times, with none of them being particularly outstanding vocalists, it's always somewhat surprising to hear just how well they harmonize together, especially on the Delmore Brothers originals included. Never allowing their own feelings of reverence to keep them from presenting songs in their own style, the Ramblers present Orange Blossom Special as a train blues and Turkey in the Straw as accompanied only with a Jew's harp.
In an era of glossy overblown country balladry and rather toothless singer-songwriter folk, it is more than refreshing to hear the origins of rural American music presented with such authenticity and reverence. And while you'll probably not see the Ramblers name turn up in many country music magazines, they've probably done as much to preserve the true roots of that music as any contemporary musician currently recognized in that genre. At any rate, 40 Years of Concert Performances is a most painless way to pay homage to the sounds of the past.