Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Sweet Summer Breeze" by The Farewell Drifters

The Farewell Drifters at Merlefest 2009

The genesis of the Farewell Drifters lies at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY where Joshua Britt, who plays mandolin and does most of the emcee work on stage first met banjo picker Trevor Brandt and combined with brother Clayton Britt to form a band, cobbling together the eclectic sound that has come to characterize their music. They furnished their apartment in Bowling Green with sofas placed on the street for disposal. When they were unable to get gigs in town, they started holding house concerts, using the sofas for seating. Their first album, Sweet Summer Breeze, is the result, and a happy result it is. Their sound is a synthesis of bluegrass, folk, and, for want of another term, Americana. This band, typical of many of today’s young bluegrass bands, was not nurtured at the feet of their grandparents in a lonely, rural cabin where music was the only source of entertainment. Rather it was nurtured in high school and college. Influences include Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler, John Fogerty, Jerry Garcia, J.D. Crowe, John Hartford, the Beach Boys, Tim O’Brien, David Grisman, Tony Rice, James Taylor, Clarence White, and so-on. With this broad a range of influences, it’s easy to imagine the range of vision that’s included in their album. Nevertheless, they have coalesced around a sound that can be driving, melodic, and warm without ever becoming too sweet. Their musicianship has continued to grow and the band is becoming as much a pleasure to see on the festival stage as it is to hear in this debut recording.

Almost all the songs on Sweet Summer Breeze were written by group member mandolinist Joshua Britt and guitarist Zach Bevill. As befits a group of young men just out of college, the content involves young love both lost and found as well as the search for self and some sort of identity. At the same time, the works are neither self-indulgent nor treacly, maintaining some edginess while looking both inward and around at the real world. Their approach to singing and composing is essentially optimistic.

The opening song “Windy City Rails” written and sung by Zach Bevill opens with a serious musical nod to Paul Simon while setting the tone and sound for this band.

And the spaces in the crowd, makes me want to cry out loud,

Who are you?

Now the face here in the crowd, makes me want to shout out loud,

Hey, Hey this is me.

No one looks me in the eye, it’s just the way we live our lives.

The song introduces some of the themes elaborated on in the entire album – seeking without finding, experiencing the here and now, walking through life confidentially and taking what life has to offer. The band sound, featuring acoustic instruments typical of a bluegrass band (mandolin, banjo, two guitars, and bass) has plenty of drive, but never loses its melodic center. The song invites a listener to enter into the CD and find out what else is there. CD buyers won’t be disappointed as they discover the breadth and range of this excellent band.

“Wheels,” is a more contemplative song about using wheels to take people away to a newer and better world written by Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons. Wheels can also be the conveyance to another world. As such, it serves as a somewhat obscure gospel song. Clayton Britt, Joshua’s brother, an able flat picker, contributes a very nice guitar solo on this number, as he does on many others.

We’re not afraid to ride, We’re not afraid to die,

So, come on wheels, take me home today,

Come on wheels, take this boy away.

The wheels can be the daily conveyances of life, or a chariot to another world.

Joshua Britt

“Sweet Summer Breeze” the title track of the album, opens with a bright and sunny banjo solo by Trevor Brandt in a song written by Joshua Britt. Brandt’s strong melodic roll underlies the entire song as he ably combines melodic and Scruggs style banjo.

As I look around I see every life's the same,

We all put on our disguise, cut our hair and make our claims,

Sit behind our desk and hide behind our shell,

But in every person’s mind, we’re running free somewhere else,

The sweet summer breeze transports the singer to the places of dreams and fulfillment. There’s longing in the song, but no desperation as compromise is part of life, not a contradiction of it. The breeze takes us where it will and provides a conveyance to freedom.

Every bluegrass album must have a murder song that tells a good, moral story. Written in a haunting minor key, The Death of Jesse McVille fulfills the requirement and more.

Too late, too late, too late cried I,

Your back is turned, your heart is made of stone,

The flash of a gun, a lesson learned, the city never felt so alone.

Clayton Britt’s guitar solo captures the desperation and the fear underlying the mood of such songs. The instrumental interludes provide a sense of chaos without ever giving in to undisciplined play. Jesse, of course, isn’t really bad. Rather, he’s the victim of early abandonment by an absent father and poverty. Jesse isn’t responsible. The grammatical nonsense is almost as much a crime as Jesse’s murders, but the song is so good, the misuse of language is worth overlooking. Anyway, Jesse ends up paying the price.

Zach Bevill

The loss of love and our hope of keeping it alive are at the center of “Holding On” written and sung by Zach Bevill. Just as we want to hold on to our early loves, so we foolishly seek to hold on to our youth, which is forever fleeting. The message that “Nothing in this world will last forever” is one that most of only learn after having lost much in this life. “Love Comes Easy” suggests the ways that love grows between two people:

Moss don’t grow on a rolling stone,

Sun don’t shine in the rain,

Love comes easy when it’s meant to be,

I only want to see you again.

While “Holding On” suggests the difficulty of keeping anything forever, “Love Comes Easy” yearns for long term romance and lifetime commitment. The two songs create a tension just as the two urges exist in real life, creating a unity that shows them well when placed beside each other in the CD. This shows the craft of recording design now being lost in the torrent of individual downloads. A strength of this CD lies in the structure of song order combined with the very solid range of tempos, keys, and moods. “You Can Have Her” by Bill Cook continues the arc of varieties of love. A hard driving bluegrass song drawn from sixties country music and recorded earlier originally by Waylon Jennings, but given a driving bluegrass interpretation here. “Lovely Linda” completes the song cycle.

The broken promise, the hardest to keep

Lets you close your eyes, but won’t let you sleep

Lets you roam, but it won’t let you ride,

Like a dream, it leaves you unsatisfied.

As the song ends with the line And goes back to believin’ that there’s love in her eyes, the guitar strikes three harmonic notes that capture the sense of self delusion capable in lost love. The four song series on the varieties of love is more powerful than any of the individual songs in isolation.

Clayton Britt

“Birmingham” is a road trip song with a twist.

It’s a long road from here to Birmingham

And I don’t know when I’ll be seeing you again,

But you know I’m doin’ everything I can,

Got my thumb up in the air,

I know I’m gonna make it there,

I’m golden into sunny Alabam.

The singer’s old car is broken down, but that’s just a small glitch in his quest to get to his love. He considers a range of options but keeps on hitch hikin’. This is a sunny, conventional bluegrass song that does a nice job showcasing Joshua’s singing and the band’s instrumental work. “Expecting Rain” uses rain as a metaphor for the troubles we encounter through life as the singer decides that home provides the shelter he needs as he ages. The song offers a quiet interlude and a slower, more thoughtful pace.

Trevor Brandt

As a history major at Western Kentucky University, Joshua Britt had access to a large collection of Civil War era letters. “Dark Charley,” my favorite song in this collection, grew from a letter written in the 1920’s by an elderly woman recalling her love affair with one of her father’s slaves before the war. The song has terrific drive and a very interesting use of syncopation to capture the urgency of the girl’s fear for her lover as she sings “Don’t…Look….Back….Dark Charlie, even for the love of me.” She urges him to run away to safety rather than risk disfigurement or death for their love. This story song is perhaps the strongest in a strong album, and I understand the Farewell Drifters have begun regularly including it in live performances, too.

Dean Marold

Just like many of the songs in this collection, “Loaded” is filled with the anxiety, fear, hope, and confidence of facing maturity and eventual aging – the concerns of self-aware young people on the cusp of accepting responsibility for adulthood. Fear of losing love and the fulfillment of it mix in equal parts to create a sense of optimism for the future. Sung as a flashback, this song is still forward looking.

My head is loaded,
sometimes it feels like it's with gun powder,

How’s it feel when your mind’s growing older?

Must not feel like anything at all.

The lyrics of this song sound much like the youthful cries of much contemporary music, but they’re combined with a clear bluegrass instrumental sensibility that forms a pleasing synthesis – new themes in traditional forms. Joshua Britt, in addition to his chores as song writer and singer, plays a very competent and lively mandolin.

“Tavern Light Blues” is a typical bluegrass honky-tonk song with a little country/Texas swing flavor to it.

Maybe you’re grievin, ‘cause this time I’m leavin’

This time is just too much,

Saw you down at the bar, gettin’ in his car

Honey baby that enough?

Blind love fools you, even though the evidence is there. Life is tough and learning is hard. This good song shows Colorado bassist Dean Marold off particularly well from his solid kick-off to a strong break in the middle of the song. Song shows the band’s versatility very well in a light and pleasant format.

Written from the point of view of an old man watching a youngster living his life and offering him good advice, “Distant Traveler’s Son” exhibits a lot of the maturity this band possesses. While composed of young men fully a part of our youth culture, their songs and performances still show respect for tradition and experience.

Look away, don’t cast your gaze across old men like me,

You’ll worry yourself sick before the age of twenty-three.

Watch the way a woman turns, her eyes move left to right,

Let her sweet breath warm your bed at night.

This song is a fitting closer for this debut album of The Farewell Drifters whose work shows them well deserving to be picked up by a good label, thus getting the opportunity to enjoy the support a major independent label can provide. This recording features the members of the band that is currently touring and includes no guest appearances, which is a nice touch in these days of augmented and electronically over-produced recordings.

Joshua Britt, Dean Marold, Zach Bevil

The Farewell Drifters have been touring and their CD has received good play on satellite radio. Joshua Britt and Zach Bevill recently recorded an in studio special with Kyle Cantrell at XM/Sirius radio. Kyle Cantrell has informed me it will air for the first time on Thursday, July 9th at 9:00 AM on XM 14 or Sirius 65. Usually there are several additional airings. Listen for them and check out the Sirius/XM web site. Meanwhile, their CD can be purchased directly from their store as well as a three song preview of their next CD. Clips may be heard on their web site, MySpace page, on iTunes, or other on-line sources. Let me put in a plug for purchasing this entire album either as downloads or directly from the band as a CD. Supporting bands by direct purchase from their web site or from their merchandise table at their appearances is a good way to assure their being able to continue to record and tour. If you haven’t heard this band, give them a listen. They represent much of what’s good in today’s best young bands.