One of the great pleasures of being a freelance critic who dances to no one's tune is the ability to laud great under-appreciated artists and their work without fear of a Rolling Stone type situation shrugging it off. In recent years, in these and other pages, I've run across truly great off-mainstream musicians like Bernie Pearl, James Isaac, JP Jones, and God only knows how many others, but I've always held an especial fondness for Danny O'Keefe, one of America's greatest 20th century folkies. I first discovered him in the 70s via one of my brothers' first two pain-in-the-ass wives and, as an avid record collector (30,000 LPs, CDs, tapes, etc.), his LPs have over the years been one of my holy grails here in L.A., where bastard record shop owners will not order his stuff and consumers who managed to lay hold of the LPs wouldn't let go of them. Hence, my collection of all eight O'Keefe albums—including the hard-to-find full-length anthology promo, The O'Keefe Files—is hard-won and cherished. Imagine my delight, then, when, in visiting his website, I now see there are a couple of CDs I didn't even know of (Runnin' from the Devil and Don't Ask), as well as a re-issue of the Day to Day LP, entitled Redux, with two new cuts. I think I feel that devilish ol' collecting urge sneaking up on me again.
O'Keefe penned the immortal Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues, a standard that deserves far more coverage than it has so far received, and, somewhere in the 80s, even Warner Bros. understood just how fanatical his followers were. On the O'Keefe Files, they explicitly referred to the scarce availability of his LPs and said "If you are one of the lucky few who possess O'Keefe albums, please pass this on to a friend", and, to facilitate that, made the slab available for free.
Danny sings with a mournful but even voice, one that hypnotizes, one you can't get enough of even though it's neither overtly passionate nor given to wide broad ranges. What I'm struck by is how beautifully it blends in with the superbly arranged instruments, far more musical than most voices, kind of like stealing a bandwidth from Kenny Rankin's prime (Silver Morning) and doing more with it than even the great Kenny could. Danny's nailed his niche so solidly that it would in fact be a crime to veer from it, and so he hasn't.
Nor have other singer-songwriters been ignorant of this guy's illimitable merits, covered by Jimmy Buffett, the Mark-Almond Band (now there was a righteous ensemble!), Andy Williams, Donny Hathaway, John Denver, Sheena Easton, Alison Krauss, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Nickel Creek, even the world-famed cabaret singer, the Weill-ian Ute Lemper, and God only knows how many others. Danny's is some of the most seductive and satisfying music, and, despite the decades having passed, he's just as strong and authentic as the moment he released his first LP in 1971. Those melodious vocal chords haven't aged a minute and his writing prowess has only deepened, a seemingly impossible virtue given that he was in his prime from Day One.
Start with the brightly uptone opener "The First Time", then marvel as O'Keefe slides himself into (We're All) Strangers Here. Linger over the barroom bluesy Last Call, catch the unusual time signatures in Siamese Friends, revel in the profusion of dreamy bluesy folky sonics, and basically just let yourself slip narcotically into every cut here, 'cause not a single second is less than pristine. This guy has always been mesmerizing—in his own much more melodious way, another Van Morrison—and *In Time* merely adds yet another magnificent notch to his musical belt.
There will be a lot of CDs you might want to get this year but only so many that you must lay hold of. This is one of the latter. Danny O'Keefe is not just a great 20th century musician, he's one of the absolute best. Put this up with Mickey Newberry's re-take on his own In a New Age (with the wrenching accompaniments of Marie Rhines and Edgar Meyer)—it's that captivating, heart-tugging, and gorgeous. "Exquisite" is too weak an adjective. It's only March, but you can already put this at the top of my Best Of list for the January 2010 lookback. I'll be in heaven until then. Call for me there.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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