I should have written this review weeks ago but truth be told, I've been swamped with work and have spent what little time I have had listening, waiting for that moment of clarity which sometimes allows the review to write itself. I cannot claim it a negative thing. I have enjoyed every moment of Darkling & the BlueBird Jubilee even more than I occasionally enjoy Crookston's last album, my introduction to Crookston's land of musical enchantment: Able Baker Charlie & Dog (reviewed here). When Able Baker crossed my desk a few years ago, I heard a musician already settled into a world he must have been born to, a musician every bit as concerned with the foibles of the world and his inability to change the bad parts of it as he could be—a musician as subjective and objective as music would allow. It must be maddening to jump from happy to the deepest of sad at the drop of a guitar chord and Able Baker made me wonder—how does he do it? How do they do it, this seeming endless group of troubadours who spread both joy and sadness with equal emotional attachment?
I wonder this as I listen to Caitlin at the Window, a soft and overwhelming song about a man whose love is gone, sleeping "at the churchyard on the hill" and the sense of loss is palpable and mournful while at the same time strangely uplifting if only because a song this beautiful cannot be too depressing, by default. A couple of songs later, Crookston traipses through Good Luck John, as close to traditional as he gets on Darkling, an almost humorous take on a man who floats between extremely good and extremely bad luck in a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of way. I wonder because Caitlin brings me to tears in my heart and it seems a bit sacrilegious to follow it up with what could be considered a ditty if it wasn't such a damn good folk song.
Crookston does that on this album, paying tribute to the highs and the lows, the happy and the sad. He does it so well that you hardly notice the extremes, partially through this innate sense of his music, this ability to keep you listening to his voice and his phrasing and his guitar. He is a musical magician, I think, using misdirection in the subtlest of ways. Caitlin is gone but he keeps her alive by thinking and dreaming and feeling—I can almost see him sitting at a window, lost but living, and still loving, regardless. I can see John slogging through his travails, accepting the good and the bad with equanimity. I can hear the wishes for others in the only cover on the album, Mary Gauthier's Mercy Now, a song reminiscent of the true roots of Modern Folk, a beautiful and haunting reminder of who we should be rather than who we are.
When I talk of this album to others, I know I am going to point to Mercy Now as an indication of Crookston's worth as a musician because no real musician of worth exists in a vacuum and part of his cachet is how he hears others. It is a magnificent song. Crookston performs it beautifully and with respect.
I am impressed with Darkling on so many levels. Crookston's voice is exceptional. The production is first-rate. The songs the best he has ever written (and, again, his choice of Mercy Now perfect).
Joe Crookston, I now realize, works out of Ithaca. Tom Mank and Sera Smolen territory. The Dean Brothers with Linn Brown territory. Something tells me it is time to delve into Ithaca as a center of music because what I am hearing, past and present, is intriguing. Listen to Crookston, then listen to Mank and The Dean Brothers and tell me if I am wrong. Sometimes I think every city is its own hub when it comes to music. Crookston is becoming a very big part of Ithaca's.
They may not be Crookston's lyrics, but they have been running through my head since I first heard this album: "We could all use a little mercy now". I am convinced that they were written for his voice, just as I am convinced that Rock Salt & Nails was written for Steve Young's. Sometimes things happen for a reason. Listen to this album, then you decide.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2012, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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