I heard or read somewhere that Sarah Alden's lineage goes all the way back to the days of Pilgrims and John Alden. Is that right? Does it matter? I suppose not, but writers are always searching for that magic tie-in to jumpstart the subject of the moment. Come to think of it, I have one better than that.
I saw Sarah Alden play with Luminescent Orchestrii, quite by accident. I was visiting a friend who was visiting relatives in Eugene, Oregon and one of those relatives happened to be tuned in to a house concert series and got the lowdown on this band which had scheduled a last-minute show the very night I was there. Luminescent Orchestrii, he said. They any good, I asked? Just wait till you see them. He being a musician himself (and a damn fine one), I took the leap. That evening, we walked into a very nice house a handful of blocks south of the University of Oregon campus and witnessed one of those shows you wish you could see but never have the luck.
Now, Sarah Alden is not The Luminescent Orchestrii, mind you, but she is a card-holding member of that luminescent, shall we say, group and boy, what she did that night. What they did, actually. They twisted and cajoled and danced and jigged and played songs from what seemed like a few hundred countries. Emceed by Sxip Shirey, the "leader" of the band, the show was magic from first moment to last and even after, when the musicians transformed back into human shape to visit with the fifty or so people who packed themselves into that small living room space. Four people—two gentlemen and two ladies, both ladies sporting violins. It was a whirlwind of sounds heard round the world. Like I said, it was magic.
Sarah was allowed her one song, prefaced by an explanation of her musical accomplishments (maybe that was where the connection to John Alden was made), most of it being East Coast and folk-related. Almost bluegrass in structure, the song stayed well outside the realm of international influences which ruled the night. A good song among a string of other good songs, but the most American of the bunch.
When I saw Fists of Violets on the to-be-reviewed list, my fingers stuttered in their haste to claim it. A chance to write about Sarah Alden is a treat, especially after seeing that house concert. A chance to write about Luminescent Orchestrii, a godsend. What can I say? I got the music in me.
Alden has the music in her too. Roots music that you would have to dig to find but which is innate to her. Ida Red, a classic Western Swing tune. Niz Banju Idem, a Serbian song straight out of Gypsy Land. When Sorrows Encompass Me, a mountain music dirge/not dirge on which Alden harkens the ghost of a toned-down Judy Canova, who had a beautiful voice when Hollywood and radio wasn't wrapping it in hick's swaddling clothes (Alden's notes on this tune made a tremendous difference in my comprehension of the music). Willie the Weeper, a druggie song written before opiates were considered drugs. All of the songs here are here for a reason and makes me understand why people who play in bands have this urge to record solo albums. This album isn't about Sarah Alden as much as it is about Alden's influences and the wonderful music she has grown up with and discovered. One song is an original Alden, the title track, and one other co-written with Parrish Ellis (Aunt Viola's Waltz). All belong on this album.
As I listen, I keep flashing back to that night in Eugene, not because the music is similar as much as the fiddle relationship of Alden and fellow Luminescent violin player and vocalist Rima Fand. They were incredible together that night, the violins and voices (yes, they both sing) feeding off of each other. Fand plays on eight of the ten songs and sings on a few as well.
This gets better every time I hear it (and music doesn't get any better than when that happens). And did I mention that Sarah Alden is one hellacious violin player? Damn me, anyway. I meant to.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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