Leftover Salmon – Aquatic Hitchhiker

Eight years is a long time to wait for a new helping of Cajun-infused bluegrass poly-funk, but it was definitely worth the wait.  Aquatic Hitchhiker, Colorado jam legends Leftover Salmon’s new studio release, delivers with an album that defies genres.  Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt started the group with banjo master Mark Vann more than twenty years ago, and after Vann’s passing from cancer in 2002 they tried press on, but went on a hiatus in 2004, much to the dismay of their fans.  They reunited a few times, including six performances in 2007 and a smattering of shows since, periodically delighting supporters with their signature high-energy performances.  Since then, young banjo picking virtuoso Andy Thorn, winner of the coveted Rockygrass banjo and band contest in 2003, has joined forces with Hermann and Emmitt and brought new energy to the band not seen since Vann’s passing.
Aquatic Hitchhiker opens with a Cajun inspired nod to the Gulf oil spill with the song “Gulf of Mexico.” With a funky backbeat , some impressive mandolin and keyboard work, and lyrics that complement the composure well, “Things a little different round here these days.  Since the storm and the spill drove everybody away”- it’s pure Salmon.  The title track “Aquatic Hitchhiker” starts soft and slow, then explodes into a mad picking fest with a driving beat reminiscent of old-school bluegrass.  Thorn really flexes his musical muscles, trading banjo licks with Emmit on the fiddle.  The song “Bayou Town” reflects Leftover Salmon’s dexterity, with a swinging old time country-waltz style twang, and “Kentucky Skies” is sure to be a crowd favorite – because what Leftover Salmon fan wouldn’t appreciate a tune about moonshine, Bill Monroe, bluegrass festivals and playing guitar around a campfire under the night sky?
Not that every song on the album is pure Leftover Salmon “poly-ethnic Cajun slam-grass.”  “Light Behind the Rain” is a lyrically rich ballad written by Andy Thorn and Benny Galloway, who also wrote all of the tracks on Yonder Mountain String Band’s 2003 progressive bluegrass release Old Hands. The song “Here Comes the Night” also deviates from Salmon’s norm, sounding like a 70’s pop song with the band trading guitar chords for furious picking, but it grows on you after you hear it a few times.
Acquatic Hitchhiker, which was produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, is a well put-together studio effort from a band known for their amazing, high energy live shows.  Although LoS is known as a jam band, they defy genres and their energy and passion shines through on this twelve track offering.  They deliver an impressive set of funk, rock, country, folk, jazz, and of course, they didn’t forget the ardent fans of the good old-fashioned ”poly-ethnic Cajun slamgrass” that only Leftover Salmon can deliver.

Charlie Parr

Many people play roots music, but few modern musicians live those roots like
Minnesota’s Charlie Parr. Recording since the earliest days of the 21st century, Parr’s
heartfelt and plaintive original folk blues and traditional spirituals don’t strive for
authenticity: They are authentic.
It’s the music of a self-taught guitarist and banjo player who grew up without a TV but
with his dad’s recordings of America’s musical founding fathers, including Charley Patton
and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. With his long scraggly hair, father-
time beard, thrift-store workingman’s flannel and jeans, and emphatic, throaty voice, Parr
looks and sounds like he would have fit right into Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American
Folk Music.”

Parr uses three instruments, not including his own stomping foot. He got an 1890 banjo
the first time he heard Dock Boggs. “I don’t do claw hammer, I don’t do Scruggs-style,
it’s just a version of me trying to play like Dock Boggs, I guess,” Parr says.
He has two Nationals, a 12-string and a Resonator, which became an obsession when
Parr saw a picture of Son House playing it. “The first time I got my paws on one, I went
into debt to buy it,” he says. “Nationals are fun because they are as much mechanical as
instrumental, you can take them apart and put them back together again.” On an
overseas tour, the neck of the Resonator broke in baggage: he played the guitar by
shimming the neck inside the body with popsicle sticks. “It solidifies your relationship
with the instrument so much: It’s as much part of you as anything else.”

Most of his recordings, including Roustabout (2008), Jubilee (2007), Rooster (2005),
King Earl (2004), 1922 (2002) and Criminals and Sinners (2001) eschew typical studio
settings. He has recorded in warehouses, garages, basements and storefronts, usually
on vintage equipment, which gives his work the historic feel of field recordings. It’s not
because he wants to sound like he was discovered 75 years ago by Alan Lomax; it’s
because most modern recording studios make the reticent and self-effacing Parr feel
uncomfortable. He often works with engineer and mastering master Tom Herbers of
Third Ear Studios in Minneapolis to give his recordings true fidelity no matter what the
format, from mp3 to 180 gram vinyl to whatever is in between. Yet his music sounds so
timeless that you half wonder if there’s not a scratchy Paramount 78 of Charlie Parr
singing and strumming somewhere.
His inspiration is drawn from the alternately fertile and frozen soil of Minnesota. Parr
grew up in the Hormel company city of Austin, Minnesota (population 25,000) where
most of the world’s favorite tinned meat, Spam, is still manufactured. And he hasn’t
moved far, drawing sustenance from the surprisingly large, thriving and mutually
supportive music scene of Duluth: Parr’s 2011 album of traditional songs, Keep Your
Hands on the Plow features locals including Charlie’s wife, Emily Parr; old-timey
banjo/fiddle band Four Mile Portage; and Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of the
renowned alternative rock band Low.

The combination of industrial meat factory where both of his parents worked proud union
jobs, set in a largely rural environment, had a broad impact on Parr. “Every morning
you’d hear the [factory] whistles blow, when I was a kid they had the stockyards andanimals there, so you were surrounded by this atmosphere,” Parr says. “My mom and
dad would come home from work, their smocks would be covered by paprika and gore.”
But out the back door were soybean fields, as far as they eye could see. “As a kid I
thought it was kind of boring, but now I go and visit my mom and I think it’s the most
beautiful landscape there is.”
What leisure time was available was spent at an uncle’s farm a few miles away in
Hollandale, where Charlie would pick the potatoes and other crops that would feed their
families. Charlie’s father and uncle would buy whole cows from a local cattle farm. The
family rarely ate Spam.
Parr shows the same resourcefulness on the road, averaging 3 or 4 shows a week, year
round. To stay in traveling shape, he eats home-prepared meals such as spicy lentil
curry, black bean chili and mix vegetables that cook on the manifold of his van while he
drives. “It’s a good heat source and it’s handy—25 miles on the manifold will cook about
anything you want.”

To many, Parr is considered a regional artist, which is another way of saying he doesn’t
like to travel far from his family’s Depression era roots. “From Cleveland to Seattle and
down to San Francisco and back is my area,” he says, though the focus is
unquestionably Minnesota and the Northern Plains. Yet he’s built a big enough audience
in both Ireland and Australia to tour both regularly. He’s had especially good fortune
Down Under, where his “1922 Blues” was used as the counterintuitive music behind a
Vodafone mobile commercial and became a viral and radio success. Three of his songs
added atmospheric resonance to the 2010 Australian western “Red Hill.” On his last
tour, his fourth of that continent, he was a guest DJ for three hours on a Melbourne roots
music radio station, on which he played songs from his own mix CD. “The newest thing
on it was some Bukka White recordings from the 1940s,” Parr says with some
incredulity. “People were calling all morning to say how much they like the music.”

Quiet, thoughtful and humble, Parr has made two albums of spirituals, and a few
traditional songs of the hard life and the hereafter are always in his live sets. Such music
isn’t necessarily rooted in the Methodist church in which he grew up: “It was more like,
let’s get the service over quick so we can get downstairs and drink coffee and have pie!”
But faith, though undefined, underlines all of Charlie’s music, both in the listening, the
covering, the writing and performing.
“When you listen to Charley Patton playing something like ‘Prayer of Death,’ way over
and above it just being a ‘Charley Patton’ song, or a ‘spiritual’ song, it’s one of the most
beautiful and haunting pieces of music you’ll ever hear in your life. You can’t quite put
your thumb on it, you just want to do something like that so much…I don’t think I ever
have, but it’s a weird, visceral thing. Any time I get a song like that right, I get kind of that
weird feeling, you know?”

—Wayne Robins, April 2012
Wayne Robins has been writing about music since the 1960s, and lives in New York.

Nathaniel Rateliff – Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

 Songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff established himself as a critically celebrated folksy Americana singer/songwriter on 2010’s In Memory Of Loss, his Rounder Records debut. Though he played in straight-ahead rock & roll bands before then, his independent releases since have been of intimate, poignant, and pensive songs. Until now. This self-titled offering on Stax is a hard-swinging, house-rocking affair that draws heavily on vintage R&B, soul, and proto rock & roll. Though Rateliff has displayed emotion in his vocals since the beginning, even fans have never heard him like this. Influences from Sam & Dave to Van Morrison to Sam Cooke range freely on this set — and he has the voice to pull it off. The sessions were helmed by producer Richard Swift, who captured Rateliff and his large band — complete with a swaggering horn section (and occasionally subtle strings) — with just enough reverb to make it sound live. “I’ve Been Falling,” with its upright piano and handclaps, delves deep into vintage Morrison territory without really emulating him (though Rateliff comes closer on the album’s last track, “Mellow Out”). The raw soul passion in “Trying So Hard Not to Know” evokes the historic Stax ethos perfectly, while sidling up to the Band‘s Big Pink era. “S.O.B.” has verses saturated in Southern gospel, with foot stomping and handclaps as the only accompaniment, before the entire band erupts in a carousing chorus. This reverses gospel’s usual Saturday-night-to-Sunday-morning course; it is one of the rowdiest broken-heart songs you’ll ever hear. “I’d Be Waiting” is a tender, wide-open love song with a late-night jazzy soul feel. The singer’s voice is haunted equally by the spirits of Cooke and Bobby “Blue” Bland. If this album has a weakness — and it does — it’s that Rateliff‘s use of these forms and styles in his writing is not only basic — which is fine — but overly formulaic. Only the pedal steel-driven Americana in the absolutely lovely “Wasting Time” — which recalls the Gregg Allman of Laid Back — deviates; one or two more songs in this vein (especially with this band) would have made all the difference. That’s a small complaint, one that will deter few. Rateliff‘s world-weary, deeply expressive tenor and lyrics place him on a different level than any of the current crew of revivalists.