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On listening to Martha Redbone my mind was immediately whisked back three or so years to another roots performer, Martha Scanlan. Such the organic nature of her album, which as you would expect is a unique affair as she draws on the work of English poet William Blake! Who, I hasten to add had a keen interest among many others the American revolution.
The Garden Of Love Songs of William Blake isn’t Redbone’s debut album for the lady already has acclaimed recordings, Home Of the Brave and Skintalk to her name. Now with this wondrous piece of work added her name she is set to become permanently carved into the fabric of Americana. Her affiliations to the welfare of Native Americans (fund raising events and workshops etc) and understanding of Appalachian music is beautifully illustrated here. Born and raised in Harlan County, Kentucky (of parents with Clinch Mountain, Virginia roots) prior to her moving to Brooklyn via London, England rhythm runs through her body like it were a river, and you don’t have to take my word for this. Just take a listen to her and the players. Yes here is another thing because not only do you get Martha’s fabulous, strong and finely textured singing voice but Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder member John McEuen (banjo, guitar, dobro, fiddle, autoharp, lap dulcimer add his guile and expertise as co-producer with David Hoffner (keyboards, pump organ, accordion, tack piano, hammered dulcimer) to go with Mark Casstevens (guitars, harmonica), Byron House, upright bass and Debra Dobkin, percussion and guests ease through the terrific selection of work. Blake grew up and lived in London (1757-1827) near all his life, a poet, engraver, sketch artist and painter he was prolific in all areas —a man ahead of his time. Redbone's energy and talent could not have been better used.
Getting back to McEuen, to have him on board and donate so much time as a player and music arranger is no small account. For the string wizard only becomes involved in projects worth pursuing. As this one is. Redbone sense of when and when not to release the great power of her vocals is uncanny.
From the rumbling sound of dobro on ‘The Garden For Love’ and haunting edge to her vocals (plus backing vocals, Martha's distant chants included) that cut through the air like a butcher’s knife meat on his chopping board the scene, and standard is set. Like all great albums of this kind there is a warm cohesive feel as the tempo and urgency builds. To deceptively draw the listener closer to the action the more time passes. With so many outstanding performances it is nigh on impossible for me to single any out! But I shall try my best. Her poise and the accompanying acts on vocals on a banjo and accordion aided ‘How Sweet I Roamed’ and flute aided ‘A Dream’ that skips along to the sound of Native Indian chants like a brave walking through a meadow in spring, and it doesn’t stop here. For the music continues to hold many surprises. The uplifting ‘I Rose Up At the Dawn Of The Day’ lends a gospel feel not to be ignored. It is something you might hear performed by a Black gospel choir! The banjo, occasional acoustic guitar that follows the rhythmic clapping is also great. I can't think of anyone or anything that would make this piece any greater than it is! It is the kind of piece the late Levon Helm would take to a great level on one of his Late Night Rambles up in Woodstock. Only to see Martha and the crew do it live on stage could beat it.
The material weaves in and out of moods of love and, anger even on ‘A Poison Tree’ that hits country music’s back roads with it’s production and her feisty singing. What a voice! In the past she has been described as being part Aretha Franklin, part Neville Brothers, you can now add West Coast singer-songwriter, fiddle player, producer etc Laurie Lewis on a cappella piece ‘The Ecchoing Green’. Plus there is ‘Hear The Voice Of The Bard’; powered on by sterling picking that contains some terrific upright bass her faultless vocals set the mould.
When it comes to albums of the year this will not only be on my list but many others too. You had best take my word on this. And Martha Redbone a big favourite too!
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