Thursday, February 10, 2011
Joe Walsh's "Sweet Loam" - CD Review
Joe Walsh, whose primary gig these days is playing mandolin for The Gibson Brothers, has released his second solo CD called Sweet Loam, an independently produced project available from the merchandise table at Gibson Brothers concerts or directly from him. Following his initial solo album, the progressive Saturday Night Waltz, much of it recorded with band mates from Joy Kills Sorrow, an earlier band he played with, Joe says he wanted to “make a warm, laid back acoustic record.” He's succeeded in reaching, indeed exceeding his goal.
Having joined the Gibson Brothers about two years ago and participated with them in the success of their award winning CD Ring the Bell, Joe's growing confidence can be seen in his stage work and the fluid sound of his distinctive mandolin style. Smooth and clear with a marvelous right hand technique that beguiles rather than overpowers, he's at the top of his game, and his work has helped elevate the Gibsons to a level they've never before achieved. On this new solo project, Joe feels he had nothing particular to prove, no agenda. In it he combines with Darol Anger's Republic of Strings and friends from Joy Kills Sorrow to present a delightful, varied, and innovative piece of work which stands on its own and belongs on the air as well as in individual collections of lovers of bluegrass and Americana acoustic music.
Five of the eleven songs on the album are Joe Walsh originals while another is a Walsh setting for a traditional bluegrass tune “Mole in the Ground.” “Ain't No One Like You” opens the CD with an old timey sound, but not quite, with the cello and bass interacting so effectively. The soulful opening mandolin solo moves into a conversation between the instruments, especially the double fiddle with Darol Anger and Lauren Rioux. The cello in Americana music creates a distinctive bass sound with a more versatile range and timbre than the double bass, creating a unique and complementary tone. Mike Block excels on the cello in this CD. Walsh's voice tells the song in a gentle, tuneful rasp. The song ends with a rising speed, the cello and bass together backing the lilting mandolin.
“Wolf Cat Breakdown” is a Walsh original with Darol Anger on fiddle, and Lincoln Meyers, who is wonderful on guitar here and is also now getting the national attention he deserves in Frank Sollivan's band. Walsh's mandolin is always clear and lucid with interesting spaces between the notes then blending into the instrumental ensemble seamlessly. Amanda Kowalsky on bass is fine. Switching glissandos from mandolin to bass to fiddle lead to a cute ending. As in so many of the cuts on this CD, the conversations between the instruments contain much of the excitement.
“Mole in the Ground” is a traditional tune given the Walsh treatment here. The power of the seemingly ineffable small things that move mountains are featured in the contrasts - mole in the ground, waves in the sea, stone in the rain, tree in the woods, tide strong and slow. The power of the small and ineffable have their effect on the surrounding environment. Even traditional tunes take on new depth and find new expression through this ensemble's work with them. “If I was a mole in the ground, I'd tear that mountain down” suggests the power of the small individual to effect the world.
“Emily's Welcome to Portland” celebrates a visit by Joe's sister to his newly adopted city. Joe comes originally from Duluth, Minnesota, but moved to Portalnd after he graduated from Berklee College o Music in Boston. You can almost see the young couple exploring the sites and sounds of this seaside Maine town together, as Joe shows her around. Perhaps their conversation is represented in the exiting chatter back and forth between Walsh's mandolin and the dual fiddles of Darol Ander and Lauren Rioux. There's wonderful use of cello here, too, with lots of dance and joy in this song.
"I Shall Be Released," written by Bob Dylan opens with a jazzy, swinging mandolin attack. Joe's singing is reflective as he examines his own move from Minnesota to Portland and Mike Block's cello solo reflects this. Maeve Gilchrist, harmony vocals effectively reflect poetry of Dylan set to the acoustic sound of Walsh's band. Who knows whether the soaring fiddle originates from Darol or Lauren, but it sure is good. Again, in recording and mixing this song, the empty spaces are hugely important. Good taste abounds in this entire album reflected in the absence of urgency to fill every little hole with sound.
“Bob's Bucket” and “Sunday Morning Reel” are Joe Walsh original instrumentals, each with a strong Celtic lilt. The first features Joe's light and airy mandolin, with Owen Marshall on guitar providing a lovely two person ditty giving Walsh a lot of room to air out his his very light Celtic sound. There's lots of intentional pick sound providing a strong beat. A small and lovely inclusion. “Sunday Morning Reel, with a slightly different lineup and a full band accomplishes much the same purpose. The two together stand as excellent show pieces for Walsh's picking.
It takes courage to cover your bosses on your own solo project with them singing. The Gibson Brothers recorded “Early”on the 1997 album, “Spread Your Wings,” but the rendition on this CD is completely different from the way they have performing it on stage, where it is frequently requested. The mandolin kick-off presents a very nice alternative to the way Gibson Brothers fans are used to hearing “Early.” It sounds a little slower than the Gibsons sing it without ever dragging. The solo mandolin is rich and full while Joe's back-up play is, as always, excellent. “Hold Whatcha Got “ is a Jimmy Martin song regularly in the rotation of the Gibsons. In this version, the Gibson Brothers entire band features twin fiddles with Darol Anger augmenting Clayton Campbell's always fine work.
Eric & Leigh Gibson
“I Remember When I Knew” is a Walsh composition, too. The classical mandolin intro creates a reflective sound with bowed bass underlying its contemplative sound before other instruments quietly enter. Wes Corbett on banjo along with Scot Law on jazzy guitar combine to great effect. This instrumental is almost fugue-like in its complexity as bits of conversation reiterate the theme, traveling back and forth before Karl's bass dies into silence at the end. The sound of Karl Doty on bowed bass underlies this quiet and intriguing instrumental. Wes Corbett on banjo is always thoughtful and restrained. This song gives a schooling in instrumental improvisation showing the versatility and virtuosity of all the players.
The CD concludes with Elizabeth Cotton's “Oh, Babe it ain't no Lie,” a blues ballad reminiscent of some of Dylan, bringing the CD to an appropriate conclusion. This work deserves to be heard whole and listened to repeatedly as its subtle shadings and thoughtful play showcases Joe Walsh as a soloist, a creative force, and an ensemble player of strength and creativity. He has matured and gained in confidence and versatility since his initial solo project. He has drawn on Boston's rich musical soup to gather a wealth of musical experience and diversity in this album. The dynamics of the recording require careful and subtle listening, as careful and subtle as the recording itself. At present, it can be obtained directly from Walsh and at the Gibson Brother's merch table wherever they appear.