Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Ring the Bell by The Gibson Brothers - CD

“Ring the Bell” is the first Gibson Brothers album being released today by Compass Records, and it’s a great new contribution to their ever growing record of accomplishment and musical creativity. The twelve new songs, including five by Eric and Leigh Gibson, present them doing what they do perhaps better than any other band around today. The honesty and truthfulness of their lyrics perfectly complement the sincerity of their close knit brother harmonies. This new album should take its place beside their four previous number one disks at the top of the charts.

“I Know Whose Tears” by Joe Newberry leads off the Gibson Brothers new CD “Ring the Bell” with an uplifting song about the power of:

Mother, my first companion,
Mother my truest friend,
Mother way up in Heaven,
Mother, we’ll meet again.

Opening with an almost dirge like fiddle solo from Clayton Campbell, the song leaps into a meditation of the calamities that can befall a loving son (hanging, death in a foreign land, drowning, death in a right cause, or damnation) and affirm the power of a mother’s love to salve the soul and bring peace. Eric Gibson’s clear tenor and haunting banjo dominate this song with Leigh Gibson’s close, high harmony providing the fill. As is usual in a Gibson Brothers interpretation of a song, sincerity and honesty dominate this song that in lesser hands and voices could reek of sentimentality. Clayton’s fiddle, echoing the word “mother” each time it reaches out provides the perfect punctuation. Joe Newberry has written a lyric that could easily fall into maudlin sentimentality into a song of faith and belief without the usual "yuck" factor that can accompany mother songs.
The Gibson Brothers on the Hillside Stage

This album was recorded using the current Gibson Brothers touring band of Leigh and Eric Gibson, Mike Barber on bass, Clayton Campbell on fiddle, and new addition Joe Walsh on mandolin with an occasional hand from MikeWitcher on Dobro. In “I Can’t Like Myself,” Leigh, Eric, Mike, and Joe have collaborated on writing a lilting song that captures the problems of abject love in which the singer must choose between liking himself and loving the object of his affection:

Gonna run, gonna run to the mountain high,
And be alone with the big blue sky,
Gonna cry, gonna cry ‘til the sky ain’t blue,
Or I like myself, and I don’t love you.

Walsh’s bouncy mandolin breaks and fills add a new, fluid style and sound to the Gibson Brothers sound without changing their essential vibe. In this song, Leigh’s voice takes the lead with a sense of self-discovery. Eric’s banjo triplets emphasize the positive nature of the song and the singers.
Joe Walsh

Many Gibson Brothers love songs describe relationships that are falling or missing something without one or the other partner being to blame. Somehow, lost love and missed communications are what happens in life. In the Shawn Camp and Paul Kennerly song “The Wishing Well,” Leigh sings:

No, the wishing well ain’t working,
There must be something wrong,
It’s taken my last dollar,
And I’m sinking like a stone.

Mike Witcher contributes an understated, but perfect, Dobro sound in this song as well as several others. The interplay of fiddle and mandolin here is delightful as the song dances through the sense of lost love without lost hope. Perhaps this is characteristic of the typical Gibson Brother’s song, that even as life looks dark, the genuine sound of hope for the future stands out. Despite the singer’s assertion that he’s sinking like a stone, I can’t help feeling things will work out, perhaps because he may have learned that wishing won’t do the trick.

Eric Gibson
When I heard “Ring the Bell” on the Hillside Stage at Merlefest in April, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. This is a gospel song so filled with hope and the spirit of community that it’s truly irresistible. The song of the bell, perhaps a church bell, perhaps from some other source calls:

Now the farmer and the teacher,
And the barber and the preacher,
All held hands and moved as one.

This captures the spirit in the Chet O’Keefe song. As so often happens in Eric and Leigh’s work, the sounds echo across the mountain and valleys that capture the sense of the Adirondack Mountains dominating the region just to the south of their northern New York home. Eric’s understated yet powerful banjo shows itself wonderfully in this song. His banjo work has yet to receive the recognition it deserves. While not a dominating virtuoso, everything he does is designed to serve the lyric, which always comes first in Gibson Brothers work. The power of the Spirit to touch a person at the core comes through this song in every note.

Leigh Gibson
Having produced a hit using Tom Petty’s song “Cabin Down Below” in their previous disk, the Gibsons have chosen another Petty piece, “Angel Dream” for this album. Wikipedia describes Petty’s work as fitting into the adult contemporary and classic rock genres. The genius of the Gibson Brothers is to be able to incorporate the works of a classic rocker into a bluegrass song without seeming to bend the bluegrass genre beyond anyone but the most hide bound traditionalist’s limits. This song

I dreamed you, I saw your face
Found my lifeline, when drifting through space,
I saw an angel, I saw my face,
I can only thank God it was not too late

captures the relief and joy of finding the end of loneliness. The tempo and drive of the song modulate in support of the words as the dream may or may not become reality.

Mike Barber
In “What Can I Do?” by Bob diPiero, Eric and Leigh Gibson capture the sense of powerlessness of a lover seeking to show what he knows within himself to be true. Again, lack of communication and longing for oneness dominate the song as the Dobro solos haunt the background while allowing Leigh’s voice to set the tone. “Jericho” is another Joe Newberry song with jump and liveliness to it, in marked contrast to his other contribution to this album, “I Know Whose Tears.” It shows his versatility. The song is up tempo and upbeat, with Leigh’s voice in the lead.

Clayton Campbell
“Farm of Yesterday” and “Bottomland” continue a theme found in previous Gibson Brothers’ songs like “The Next One is Mine” and “The Barn Song.” In many ways, the borderland of northern New York, hard on the Canadian border is an agricultural wasteland. The difficult winters and changing economic climate forced Eric and Leigh’s family to abandon farming after several generations of dairy farming. The loss of the farm life and the decline of rural America are typical material for bluegrass music. The Gibsons bring their own lives and experiences to this world. In “Bottomland,” written by Leigh, the singer has achieved wealth and success, but finds his life empty without the joys of living close to the land as the music trails off into silence, an unusual ending for a bluegrass song. Eric wrote “Farm of Yesterday” which comes at the same theme from a different focus. The two complement each other in much the same way the two brothers’ voices do. In addition to his fine singing, Leigh Gibson plays very solid rhythm guitar and is a respectable flat picker. The Gibson package is as complete as you can expect from a five piece band, creating a strong wall of sound that comes together as great music.

Eric & Leigh with Pete Wernick
The Cabin Stage at Merlefest
“Just an Old Rounder” by Marshall Warwick is a song of salvation from a dissolute life through God’s salvation. Its upbeat sounds of hope and future contrasts remarkably well with the sadness of the two farm songs as well as the ones of lost love. Walsh’s strong, yet understated chop works well with Eric’s banjo solos. Gospel songs, in the hands of the Gibsons, always emphasize redemption and hope rather than pain and suffering, a welcome touch. The idea of the lost sheep being found dominates. Mike Barber’s bass frames the tone and beat of all Gibson Brothers work. His unobtrusive work contributes in each and every song, and it’s too easy to underestimate the consistently strong work he has contributed since the genesis of this band.

Eric’s song “Forever Has No End” opens the theme of rekindling dying love.

Feel the ocean, feel the wind,
Feel the sunshine on your skin,
Our golden days will never fade,
Forever has no end, forever has no end.

It celebrates the value of commitment to marriage and to seeking to maintain the good things in relationships through eternity. “That’s What I Get for Lovin’ You” by Eric and Leigh shows the other side of the coin: the pain of loss and the emptiness of a relationship gone bad. As so often happens in good bluegrass songs the upbeat message communicated by the music contrasts markedly with the content of the lyric.

As is so often the case with well thought out collections of songs, this CD deserves to be purchased and listened to in toto. The songs in this collection represent a thoughtful bringing together of themes and sounds familiar to Gibson Brothers fans while adding fresh energy and content. Those not yet familiar with their work or having heard only cuts on the radio should seek to immerse themselves in the joyful world of sound, tone, and lyric they create. Samples from the songs can be heard at Compass Records and the CD can also be purchased there. We like to buy artist’s CDs directly from them at festivals. The Gibson Brothers have a busy, and expanding, touring schedule for the rest of this year. If you’re going to be seeing them soon, why not purchase the CD directly from the band? It’s a good thing CDs don’t wear out. This one will inhabit the player in your car and be featured on your iPod for months to come.