The Red House label has historically boasted a fine collection of folk musicians and this year decided to mark the event of its 25th year of publication in a triple-disc lookback featuring some of the top names in roots genres. This is not, however, a typical box set, which usually features rare tracks and such, but strictly an anthology project—save for a single unreleased John Gorka live cut—pulling from myriad past issuances. As such, it's more like the old Warner Bros collective twofers (in this case, a three-fer) but with a pointed mission and a big difference.
Each disc embodies a set period and atmospheric mood, the first being a look at how the publishing house started in the mid-West and slowly grew outwards, signing Greg Brown (label co-founder), Gorka, Spider John Koerner, and a double handful of others, including Pat Donohue and Prudence Johnson, staples of Garrison Keillor's marvelous Prairie Home Companion. Appropriately, this is the most basic and salt-of-the-earth disc, featuring pretty much unadorned tracks copacetic to the true-est ideals of the seminal musics involved (country, bluegrass, folk, etc.). Brown's lead-off cut, Iowa Waltz, shows this clearly, and Spider John Koerner's upbeat take on the classic St. James Infirmary only re-proves it, Dixiefying the standard almost into a period rave-up. Claudia Schmidts' Bend in the River then combines Joni Mitchell with zydeco and gospel for a perkily infectious melodic groove…and she's only the third in a generous 21-track CD.
Moving up to disc two (with 22 cuts!), we get the newer vibe immediately in Trova's Shaggy Pony, more a Peter, Paul & Mary track cut into Joni's territory with noticeable rock roots. We also note, as the disc proceeds, increasingly sophisticated engineering, though Ramblin' Jack Elliott cuts right back to his Seeger / Guthrie peership with a nakedly old-school recital in Rake and Ramblin' Boy—and this may well be the point at which Red House's philosophy is best understood, a label dedicated to both the preservation and evolution of down home American musics. Utah Philips steps up to create a center where old traditions are enshrined in a way that, ironically, would never have seen print even in the 60s. An unrepentant socialist (thank God someone is!), in All Used Up he's unafraid to face the truth and alternates uniquely between spoken and sung narrative with an acoustic background. Only Rod McKuen might've succeeded at this in the old days…and we already know what a hunka hunka burning crap his work was, so don't entertain the comparative except at its most obtuse.
Usually I'm unfond of Celtic music (for which the ancestors on my Irish side will probably put saltpeter in my beer from now until Saint Paddy returns) but the triadic The Trail to Mexico / In the Tap Room / The Banshee is a wonder to experience, perhaps because it seems to be a bit more Westernized via David Wilkie and the McDades. It isn't, however, all that far from Disc's 1's base, and that's important to note with Red House product: whatever there may be in the way of latter years artistically and technologically uplevelling everything, the foundations are never very far away.
Thus, disc three kicks off with the inimitable Loudon Wainwright and his unashamedly rockified folk tangent in Last Man on Earth, stuffed to the gills with trademark humor and cynicality. Of all the tracks up to this point, he takes the greatest leap forward yet remains firmly in the tradition, here a bit Neil Youngishly. Tom Landa and The Paperboys' tackle Dylan's All Along the Watchtower and build on Wainwright's modernist wont, blending rock, Celtic, folk, bluegrass, and more exotic flavors to an energetically great reading of one the master's most celebrated tunes. However, firmly in the latter years of the 20th century, Red House is still showcasing the old ways, first in Guy Davis' Sho 'Nuff Satisfied, about as rootsy as it's possible to get, and then in revivalist Jorma Kaukonen's delightful Fur Peace Rag, with turn of the century (the 20th, not the 21st!) accompaniment. By the time this disc's 21—cuts wind down, we've been through a lip-smacking 64 songs, all guaranteed to make one just a wee bit wistful for the days before computers, video games, and fascist presidents from royal families.
Anthologies are usually dicey for the consumer, containing materials one might well pick up anyway on the pertinent individual releases, but I'm guessing that no reader owns the entire Red House catalog (over 200 discs), so this is a feast of magnificent proportions for anyone and everyone, a literal orgy of killer work that no label may claim precedence over, not Rounder, not Flying Fish, not the old Elektra, no one. Therefore, Red House 25 takes its place among rightfully celebrated box sets, a form I happen to love, forever slavering for such treasure troves.
BUT, that all said, I normally also like to comment on presentation, as really good releases are like small works of art, especially box sets…but I can't do that here. What was sent me by the label, well after formal release, was one of the most cheapshit packages I've ever received in over two decades of critiquing: a hand-burned trio of discs crammed into a single jewel case and emblazoned with magic marker IDs (this last, I guess was a small favor so I wouldn't go crazy trying to figure which was which) and xeroxed promo lit in lieu of whatever carried the track info (a separate booklet probably). This miserly misfortune doesn't reflect on the artists or the product, but if you ever want to try to determine out how we critics get so damned cynical, consider for a moment just the miserliness of the business people we have to endure in order to speak to the music. They constitute a form of venality that would try the patience of Job.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Website design by David N. Pyles