FAME Review: Curlew - A Beautiful Western Saddle / The Hardwood (CD / DVD)
Curlew - A Beautiful Western Saddle / The Hardwood (CD / DVD)

A Beautiful Western Saddle / The Hardwood


Cuneiform Records - RUNE 303/304 (CD / DVD)

Available from Cuneiform Records.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

From the CD outset, this isn't your father's Curlew. It's not your Curlew. Hell, it's not even my Curlew, and, frankly, I'm not sure whose Curlew it is, but saxist George Cartwright's new Saddle / Hardwood is thoroughly unexpected, not the X-Legged Sally of yesteryear (Bee), that deliciously frantic whirlwind of fractured nervous derring-do, nor the more pointillistic jaggedness of Live in Berlin, but rather the essence of those releases sieved through a demented Dave Cousins (Strawbs) and Capt. Beefheart by way of slightly a Dagmarized Lani Hall or Astrud Gilberto.

It's puzzling while satisfying, this unexpected inspissation of the highly melodic and mellifluous with delightful old abrasions and left turns, some of which end up sounding like nursery rhymes on LSD derived from late-harvested wheatfields growing wild by the schoolhouse down at the county seat. The personnel of the ensemble are familiar (Cartwright, Tom Cora, Davey Williams, etc.) but the presence of Amy Denio appears to explain the shift, putting a twist on things as though the Art Bears finally got a corporate job and then proceeded to slowly anarchize the dacron and polyester milieu of corporate penguins and MBA'ed gorillas. This means, of course, that Kurt Weill and Tom Waits lurk in the wings, smoking reefer with Leonard Bernstein.

Saddle / Hardwood is the very definition of 'quirky', with no end of demented brilliant playing offset by almost commercial counterpoise (sometimes nearly, eek!, Betty Crockery), a contrast that infects the listener slowly and thoroughly, pleasant dissociation mixed with fever. The DVD, however, yanks everything right into the old milieu head and toes, starting with a killer cello solo from Cora on a half darkened stage. That, in fact, is the true starting point of this release which there returns rather pointedly to the halcyon elder Curlew with no apologies, showcasing myriad schizophrenic tendencies, the backbone of the group.

In fact, you really must start with the DVD (especially catch the fierce duel between guitarist Williams and bassist Ann Rupel in Saint Croix) and work progressively backwards to the CD. I guarantee you'll enjoy the latter much more properly, vastly more evolutionarily that way unless, of course, you happen to issue from more sedate origins (in that case, reverse the reversal). The first half of the very long filmed set of two gigs is pure Curlew, the second a Wash. D.C. reading of A Beautiful Western Saddle with Denio sitting in, much rawer than the studio version and very happily so in grand style, a perfect interface before arriving at the CD, which fines everything out to a jangled fare-thee-well.

Regardless, Cartwright & Co. have been around for quite a while and forever cheated of their rightful due by grace of a rather ignorant American music public. I doubt this great release will change that misfortune, given the e'er stodgy climate of this country, but it'll cement their place in the affections of a loyal gaggle of misfits and spaced connoisseurs ecstatic to receive such a long-buried diamond—both performances are from '91 sessions—and place it in their weird and dauntingly twisted music collections…just like mine.

Track List:

  • Let's Sit Right Down / The Passing
  • Such Credentials as have become Pseudonym
  • Poem for Gretchen Ruth
  • All's Well that Ends (excerpt)
  • Peking Widow
  • The Prince
  • What is Free to a Good Home? (for Robt. Wyatt)
  • Still Trying
  • Breakfast
  • Today
  • Song Sung Long
  • Human Weather Words
  • Now You can Tell Me or Can It Still be Told?
  • Paint Me (dedicated to the President of the U.S.A.)
  • Saint Dog
  • Rudders
  • Moonlake
  • Gary Brown
  • Jim (to the James River)
  • Saint Croix
  • Gimme
  • To the Summer in our Hearts
  • It must be a Sign
  • The Hardwood
  • Today
  • Paint Me!
  • What is Free to a Good Home?
  • Now You can Tell Me or Can It Still be Told?
  • The Prince
  • Poem for Gretchen Ruth
  • Such Credentials as have Become Pseudonym
  • Top the Summer in our Hearts
  • The Hardwood

Edited by: David N. Pyles


Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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