Saturday, July 29, 2006

Thea Gilmore, 2005

The Washington Post

Thursday, August 4, 2005; Page C04

Thea Gilmore

"This is what we like to call, in our profession, intimate," Thea Gilmore observed dryly, surveying the 30-odd people who had come to hear her at Iota on Tuesday. It turned out to be a good size for the young British troubadour's moody, earnest songs.

Gilmore has been hailed by the British press for her folky approach, but her observation that she was born at the wrong time doesn't hold water. Many young musicians these days stylistically evoke the '60s folk clubs and, as Gilmore does, even make the music sound as if they invented it themselves.

Gilmore's greatest gift is her extraordinary voice. Smoky and weathered in the low registers, mellow in the middle and piercingly clear on its high notes, it's a versatile instrument, and Gilmore wielded it with finesse. She kept it almost too quiet, causing the members of that intimate gathering to lean in to absorb her lyrics. But when she needed to, she could wail with soul, as on a cover of Bill Withers's "Lean on Me," or spit acid, as on her scathing "Mainstream": "Who's gonna train us, can you really blame us? / If we grow up we're all going to be famous."

Accompanists Nigel Stonier and Jim Kirkpatrick provided guitar-rich soundscapes with perpetual energy even in the most delicately embellished moments. So what if 10 percent of the crowd was in the band? If Gilmore keeps up this fine work, she might very well have to contend with larger crowds -- and with the threat of her own mainstream to swim in.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Buddy Miller, Paste, 2002?

What a treat, to interview one of my favorite musicians. It was a phoner, back in 2002, maybe?, for Paste.

I'm gonna put "Visit Buddy and Julie Miller's house" on my list of life's wishes, along with "Hear 'Calvary Cross' live," "Be onstage for 'Meet on the Ledge' at Cropredy," "Drive cross-country (ideally in both directions, on two separate routes)," and "Appear on one of Bill Maher's talk shows"--that last one came up when I realized I know, personally, three people who have done so. (That would be Muslim scholar/fellow Richard Thompson fan Amir Hussain, actor/old schoolmate Lisa Ann Walter, and writer/husband of former co-worker Keith Donohue.)

Sorry; I came perilously close to "blogging" there.

Buddy Miller: Playing With Guitars
By Pamela Murray Winters

Buddy Miller's not one for big talk. Take Dogtown Studio, which occupies the downstairs of the Nashville home he shares with his writer-musician wife Julie: "I wouldn't call it a studio. I fool people - they call it a studio, and I guess when I have to be around professionals, I call it a studio so I can hold my head up high." So, just between us? "Really, it's a house full of junk. Good junk. A lot of really good gear that I've collected. But I wouldn't call this house a studio. It's a house, and I like keeping it that way."

An expert axeman, Miller comes across as a genial homebody who would probably prefer playing with his toys to chatting about his work - unless the topic of conversation is one of those toys, like the instrument he plays on the peppily retro "When It Comes To You" on the upcoming HighTone release Midnight and Lonesome.

"It's the coolest thing," he says of the Optigan, Mattel's '70s forerunner of today's sampling technology. "They look like a real cheesy console organ that would sit in the corner of a room…You stick something in there, like a 12-inch record, only it's not vinyl, it's whatever you make floppy disks out of. And you can see through it, and when you hold it up to the light there's concentric circles on it. And there's probably 40 or 50 different disks you can put in there." The discs play "what today you'd call grooves, in every different key. You use the chord buttons on the left-hand side, and it has a speed thumbwheel, so you can get the tempo you want, and then you change the chords. I wanted to do my whole record with it!"

Miller has employed his hi- and lo-tech gizmos as a sideman to Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Midnight Oil and Kinky Friedman, among others. As a singer and performer, he's released three solo albums and contributed to all of Julie's solo albums. The duo's Buddy and Julie Miller earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary folk album of 2001, so clearly he knows what he's doing. Music isn't something he intellectualizes.

"I don't put a whole lot of - how would you say? I don't spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out what the record's gonna be before I make it. I just want to go in and see where I'm at. And you know, sometimes that's not a good idea!" He laughs. "But I still kind of look at [my albums] as more like snapshots than creating some big thing."

Miller's focused but instinctive approach allows him to work quickly; Midnight and Lonesome, a stylistic potluck supper of originals, co-writes and covers, took three weeks. Yes, it was a little late, but that's because the Millers spent the last day of mixing watching CNN's coverage of the rescue of the nine trapped miners in Quecreek, Penn. "Julie was really moved…I woke up the next morning, and there was a song on my desk. So I thought, I gotta record this." Julie Miller's "Quecreek," a spare blend of the Miller's harmony vocals, acoustic guitar, and Tammy Rogers' fiddle, has the flavor of a broadside ballad and an unforced testimony of faith: "The miners were buried three nights and three days/But like Jesus Sunday morning all nine men were raised." "It was a series of miracles that had them rescued," muses Miller. "When that bit broke and they thought, well that's it - if they'd kept drilling with it they'd have hit water and they'd have all drowned. It was pretty moving, and just a piece of something good in this year."

Miller says that his Christian faith wasn't shaken by the events of September 11th, but "it kind of just woke something up, maybe a little bit more. I think it did for the whole country, at least for a little while. We were pretty much just floating along."

While Midnight and Lonesome has the inevitable 9/11 song, "Water When the Well Is Dry," penned by Miller and Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love), is far less pointed than other Ground Zero-based efforts. "I didn't want it that specific," says Miller. "Whenever it would get specific, I'd kind of pull it back."

Buddy and Julie Miller came out a week after the towers came down. "We had an in-store we were supposed to do, and some dates we were supposed to do, and gosh, it just felt so…"Adjectives won't work; Miller is a man of action. "You need to keep going, keep doing things, but you just feel like this isn't anything that we need to do right now. It's not important, and it just seems so foolish. But there was good that came out of doing them." About "Water," he says: "I just wanted to have something [so] that, at least for myself, I remembered it a certain way."

Even so, Miller prefers to look forward, rather than back. He squirms at questions about a time when he and Julie gave up music because of their then-interpretation of Christianity, saying that it's something he tries not to keep in the "memory bank" anymore. "It's had an effect in a bunch of different ways, some of them good, some of them not good. And I guess thinking about it, I guess there's a reason for it. You don't know how you get to the place you're at, but I'm really happy with where we're at right now, and how things are, and how I feel about life. So it's all good, as they say down here."

Told that self-effacing guitarist Richard Thompson once also quit the biz for spiritual reasons, living in a Muslim commune and trying to ply the antique trade, Miller brightens: "I didn't know that! He sold antiques? Well, you know, that's kinda cool. He probably got some pretty cool things - got to keep all the guitars…"

The Teeth, Carry the Wood

I don't generally pitch specific CDs to the Weekend section of the Washington Post, so I get lots of unexpected reviewing pleasures lobbed at me. This review is from spring 2006.

The Teeth
Carry the Wood

The vocals on Carry the Wood, the third recording by Philadelphia-area rockers the Teeth, suggest what Alex, the protagonist in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, might have sounded like had he been a sunny, loopy petty criminal rather than a vibrantly bitter sociopath. Sometimes the sound is ominous, sometimes it's playful, sometimes both. Carry the Wood inflects its glam-rockish songs with a modern American exuberance. The drowsy waltz time of "So Long" suggests a sad, slow dance, and the chorus of "You lost the ones you found" suggests melancholy. But the wanky guitar solo and the whiff of Queen-style pomp tell a different story. "Chop the Tree," which opens with a wholly unexpected accordion, plays at nature-boy contemplation, but the vocalist -- maybe Peter MoDavis, maybe his twin brother, Aaron -- sounds as if he has been communing with nature a bit too long. "Wake" offers a similar feeling: It's an acoustic ramble punctuated with the occasional off chord and such unsettling lines as, "I woke up early this morning and the lamp and the fan were on fire." It's hard to see the point of all this, other than it's a bunch of kids entertaining themselves. But the Teeth aren't navel-gazers; aside from their affinity for throbbing, repetitive and sometimes annoying sounds, they concoct an occasionally dissonant, appealingly retro-Brit sound that's as much your pleasure as theirs. (Pamela Murray Winters, Washington Post)

Dave Alvin, West of the West

Dave Alvin

Dave Alvin is as well-known for songs recorded by Dwight Yoakam ("Long White Cadillac") and his former group the Blasters ("Border Radio," "Marie Marie") as for his own compositions. But this time around, the man who once recorded an album called "King of California" stakes his claim to the title with the jewels of other California musicians.

Alvin confidently interprets the songs, as a minute's listening to "Redneck Friend" will prove. Jackson Browne made it light and bouncy; Alvin smokes up the sunny skies and slows the tempo to a swinging two-step beat. When Browne sang "Honey, let me introduce you to my redneck friend," his amiable tenor set him apart from his buddy; when Alvin growls it, he's talking about a partner in mayhem.

The songs offer fine storytelling, and Alvin finds where his sensibilities and theirs intersect. Their visions of California -- the lonely "Kern River" where Merle Haggard lost his best friend and now "may drown in still waters"; Kate Wolf's land of brown hills "Here in California" -- become his visions. His sonorous voice, his flame-edged electric licks, the work of an array of impressive sidemen, and the production of fellow guitar master Greg Leisz lend distinction to every track, from Jim Ringer's delicate country waltz "Tramps and Hawkers" to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter's brooding "Loser" (which couldn't sound less like a Dead song). The one song Alvin co-wrote (with Tom Russell), "Between the Cracks," juxtaposes an outlaw and the woman he left behind with thrilling shifts from fireside lament to cantina dance. And although there's wit throughout this album, only Brian Wilson's "Surfer Girl" demands a reality check: As a ragged chorus chimes in, is that a tongue in a cheek we hear clicking?

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Washington Post
Sunday, June 4, 2006; Page N07

Steve Ashley, Everyday Lives

Steve Ashley
Everyday Lives
(Topic, 2001)

No one can accuse Steve Ashley and company of trying too hard. A couple of times on "Catch Him If You Can," it sounds less like Gerry Conway is actually playing the tabla and more like he's accidentally bumped it. But this subtle approach perfectly fits the dreamy tone of Everyday Lives and the rather alarmingly ancient timbre of Ashley's voice.

This album doesn't hit you over the head; it rises up slowly to murmur in your ear. Chris Leslie plays the shyest-sounding mandolin ever on "Dance with You," a sound that makes perfect sense in a song about a village ceilidh (even as Ashley sings humorously "But no, it's 'Change your partner!'/and that sends me to the loo/I don't want no change of partner/I want to dance with you"). Less is more throughout this charming and very English album.

Many tracks have only two players: on "By the Light of the Moon," Ashley is paired with Danny Thompson, whose double bass adds gravity to the mystical love song. On "Say Goodbye," it's versatile Fairporter Leslie once again, adding light, lively mandolins to back what sounds like a morris tune.

The weakest song here is "And I Always Will," a rather ordinary love song with less of a rootsy feel than the album's other offerings. But even it's too innocuous to offend. The overall effect of Everyday Lives is calm: smiles rather than laughs, a dropped brow rather than full-on tears. And that's as it should be.

Pamela Murray Winters
Rambles: 7 September 2002

Jane Bom-Bane and Nick Pynn, Rotator

Jane Bom-Bane & Nick Pynn
(Roundhill, 2002)

I hated Jane Bom-Bane in David Thomas's Mirror Man, a splendidly strange musical production first staged in London in 1998. With the evening's mood largely, and rightly, in thrall to the mind of eccentric romantic Thomas, Bom-Bane's own idiosyncrasies seemed self-indulgent and twee. But a line in my moral code -- always give an eccentric a second chance -- led me to pick up Rotator, and I'm glad I did. Here Bom-Bane (vocals, harmonium, guitar) and collaborator Nick Pynn (guitar, violins, dulcimer, mandocello, bass pedals, theremin, harmonium), along with Tom Arnold on percussion, run rampant through a self-made hall of musical mirrors.

Inspired by the palindromic nature of the year 2002, Bom-Bane and Pynn present a collection of playful, striking compositions. "Palindromic Love," with Bom-Bane getting all Dolly Collins on the harmonium, reads the same in reverse order, word by word. "So Many DynamoS" has reversal in its title as well as its musical construction: each of its two parts is played twice and then "reflected." The charmingly catchy Latin-lover song "Boy," the first song Jane wrote as a "grown-up," is followed by the stately "yoB," in which the chorus of "Boy" ("...and be that bad boy's muchacha") is sung backward, phonetically: "Hash hash dwum ziob dab at theebna...." The lengthy, June Tabor-like "Kindle my songs if my own words should fail" turns, when it reaches the title line, and the lines are sung in reverse order.

"Rotator" is palindromic by the letter ("Net level, ten/Set o'notes/Snip, snips/Set o'rotes"). "Riddle of the Mode" is based on a modal palindrome that's way too complex for this mere scribe to explain, but it's certainly a pretty Renaissance dance tune with enigmatic, feminine-rhyming lyrics.

"Saippauakivikauppias - The Finnish Soapstone Seller" is a largely narrative, Kalevala-based epic about the longest palindromic word Bom-Bane and Pym could find. Rotator is musical and witty at the same time -- never a mere party game, always a work of art.

Pamela Murray Winters
Rambles, 10 May 2003

Penny Lang, Gather Honey

No, not the groupie from Almost Famous.

Penny Lang
Gather Honey
(Borealis, 2001)

Penny Lang's Gather Honey offers snapshots of the folk club scene in North America in the 1960s and 1970s. Via these rare live and studio recordings, one can glimpse the ascendance of Bonnie Raitt, Janis Ian and Buffy Ste. Marie as songwriters of choice and witness the fusion of country, blues and rock that filled coffeehouses during that era.

Fortunately, Gather Honey is more than an archive: It's a portrait of a remarkable singer, Montreal's Penny Lang. The first track is a somewhat noisy recording of Leadbelly's "In the Pines," made when Lang was a 21-year-old secretary playing for five dollars a night at Montreal's Café Andre. By the time track 16 rolls around, it's 1978, and Lang is assured, throaty, an all-out diva, growling "Goodbye, So Long" on a small-combo version of "Gather Honey." She is also near the end of the first phase of her musical career; soon after, she would retire to the Canadian wilderness until the late 1980s. (She is now recording and performing again -- few performers have the good fortune to enjoy two musical careers in one lifetime.)

On one of two bonus tracks, we hear Lang interviewed about her childhood influences and singing a couple of them: Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting for a Train" and the Scots traditional "One-and-a-Tanner."

Gather Honey is a great introduction to a hardworking and gifted artist, an interpreter in a class with Raitt, Sandy Denny and Cass Elliot.

Pamela Murray Winters
Rambles, 18 August 2002

Colin Reid, Tilt

Gosh, yesterday I was expending a lot of mental energy (too bad that doesn't burn calories) trying to remember the guitarist who played with Boo Hewerdine and Eddi Reader at some Cropredy Festival remembered only through a Wadworth 6X-induced haze. And here he is.

Colin Reid
(Topic, 2001)

File this one under Celtic roots -- but don't be surprised if you have trouble finding those roots under the lush growth herein. Sure, Tilt has Scottish composer Maire Breathnach on viola and violin and stalwart Britfolk vocalists Eddi Reader and Boo Hewerdine, but you won't find the usual pileup of strathspeys and slip-jigs here. Instead, masterful English folk guitarist Colin Reid leads his band through a slightly classical, slightly jazzy series of landscapes.

Opener "Rocket," part of a suite called "Icarus," brings Reid's guitar, Breathnach's viola, John Fitzpatrick's and Oleg Ponomarev's violins, and Neil Martin's cello together in a vigorous 5/4 romp -- someone can even be heard chuckling in the background. Reid and Hewerdine provide dual-guitar backing for Reader on Lindsey Buckingham's "Never Going Back Again," with Gino Lupari's percussion adding all the rock edge this post-Fleetwood Mac track needs. "Crimes Against Music Part II" features Brian Connor (piano), Alan Shields (double bass) and Andrew Lavery (drums) in a ragtime trio -- with Reid present only as composer.

On Tilt, his third album, Reid offers hope that the musical bloodline of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch still flourishes. It's a happy little collection of instrumentalists and melodies, mixing and matching with all the panache of the hippest thrift-store shopper on your block.

Pamela Murray Winters

Rambles, 22 March 2003

Jane Siberry, City

Another one from Rambles.

Jane Siberry
(Sheeba, 2001)

The heaviest things about Jane Siberry are her mascara and her discography. Her songs tend to waft all over the place, hovering occasionally to pick up a punchline or gain momentum for an extended exhalation that would be a yodel if it had any flesh on it. In a fistfight with Kate Bush -- well, it's not even imaginable. Perhaps a hot-air balloon race. Not that Siberry's full of pompous bluster: She's too diaphanous -- and too brainy. (Best all-time Siberryism, from the song "At the Beginning of Time": "and every now and then a bird would not fly by / and someone would look up and say / what wasn't that?")

One might expect an album of collaborations to bring Siberry down to ground or corset her up for crossover audiences, but instead it just gives her new directions in which to soar. The first two tracks of City result from Peter Gabriel's Collaboration Week. "My Mother Is Not the White Dove" layers Siberry's vocals over a classical-sounding string trio, jazzy sax and flugelhorn, and percussion, while "Harmonix/I Went Down to the River" is a percussion-heavy dance track. Other tracks find Siberry collaborating with Joe Jackson, bagpiper Michael Gray and even Barney the Dinosaur. (OK, Barney doesn't sing here, but the track "All the Pretty Little Ponies" was recorded for Barney's Great Adventure.) About half of City comprises Siberry's own compositions; she also essays the Hanukkah song "Shir Amami," the Celtic "Nut Brown Maid" and a collage of Laura Nyro songs.

City represents the work of an artist whose sound is consistent across a wide range of genres. Integrity is a pretty heavy concept, but Siberry's music gives it wings.

Pamela Murray Winters
Rambles, 13 April 2002

Joe Rathburn, Rockwells & Picassos

This review is from a great online arts magazine, Rambles (

Joe Rathburn
Rockwells & Picassos
(Betterworld, 2001)

From the first track, "Call It a Miracle," you get the idea that Joe Rathburn's got a lot of hours of listening to Bruce Cockburn under his belt. "Miracle" is about how great existence is, and nearly all of the rest of the album, while not always so cosmic in scope, is equally thumbs-up to stuff like equality, God and keepin' on truckin'.

It'd all be pretty cloying if San Diego singer-songwriter Rathburn and co-producer Jeff Berkley didn't enliven each song with unexpected instrumental choices, the faint acid wash of Berkley's electric guitar behind Rathburn's jolly whistling on "Together" and Gerry Walker's plaintive pedal steel on "Miracle" being just two. Elsewhere, brass horns and steel drums add a shimmer, if not an edge, to Rathburn's relentless optimism, and a wicked little bowed-bass line opens the Jimmy Buffett-like "Closer to the Moon."

The only ugliness here, in the breezy roadside-attraction portrait "24/7 Motel," is handled for laughs -- it's cute, never sinister. The fillips of originality might be enough for some listeners to overlook the truth of the adage that it's easier to write sad songs than happy ones. Rockwells & Picassos -- which owes a whole lot more to the former artist than to the latter -- is well made, but if you prefer vinegar to sugar, you'll have trouble swallowing much of it at a time.

Pamela Murray Winters
Rambles, June 16, 2002

Christian Kiefer and Sharron Kraus, The Black Dove

Washington City Paper, May 15, 2006

Hippy Hippy Fake

By Pamela Murray Winters

The Black Dove
Christian Kiefer and Sharron Kraus

Re-creation was part of the point of Britfolk, of course: It’s not as if those embroidered-waistcoated, acid-dropping dreamers and brooders of the ’60s didn’t know the history they were idealizing. But if you or your record—record—collection is of a certain age, you might observe today’s burgeoning freak-folk movement with some skepticism. Every new trend—especially those that have been new before—brings, if not more bad than good, more mediocre than either. Witness The Black Dove, a collaboration between Christian Kiefer, a Californian who sings like Nick Drake, and Sharron Kraus, an English folksinger who sounds disquietingly American. If Dove were a pastoral painting, it wouldn’t reach Thomas Kinkade levels of glurge, but at its worst it’s like one of those Bob Ross paintings of happy trees. The disc opens with twittery birds and a sad flute that are ultimately engulfed by the clamor of what must be the March of Industry. Instrumental passages link the songs, some of which refer back to themselves—and to the very heritage they’re emulating. For example, “Letting Go, Holding On” opens with banjo and a sound that suggests an ever-spinning hubcap, over which Kraus muses, “Through love Lord Bateman was won/Though he left for seven long years” and, later, “Through love young Tam Lin was saved/Though he changed to a lion, a snake, and red-hot iron.” Kiefer answers her in the next song, “A Snake & a Lion”: “So with Tam Lin a snake and a lion/A snake and a lion and you/I would roll them all into one.” The plot of the disc’s first faux-Appalachian ballad, “Missing,” finds two people sitting in a cemetery, watching as the man somehow loses his wedding ring, which rolls away. Kraus assures us that they’re not lovers, and the song would be a lot more intriguing if we could believe she’s lying. But her voice is far too fussy, too self-consciously pretty, to handle nuance. “White Shroud,” all rattling percussion, wheezy fiddle, and serviceable cello, tries to be psychedelic but succeeds only at reaching noodling. The music attains sepulchral beauty when Kiefer’s soft, whispery tenor is at the fore, as on “Cold Blue Room” and especially the measured, melancholy title song. And when Kraus adds keening harmony on the latter, you can hear what The Black Dove might have been. It just never gets past conjury and into natural magic.

Shirley and Dolly Collins, Snapshots

Washington City Paper, May 15, 2006

Tradition and Subtraction

By Pamela Murray Winters

Shirley and Dolly Collins

There are three categories of English female folk voices: pretty and somewhat opaque (Judy Dyble, Sharron Kraus); impassioned and likely to “inhabit the song” (Sandy Denny, Norma Waterson); and Shirley Collins. Collins can sing, certainly, but she doesn’t become the gypsy maiden or the rake gathering sweet primroses. Her bland delivery and the chilly quality of her thin soprano allow the stories to flash and fade—she’s just the messenger. Snapshots is a companion to Within Sound, Fledg’ling’s 2002 retrospective of the career of Shirley and her keyboardist sister, Dolly. Box-set producer David Suff found these demo recordings from 1966 and live recordings from the late ’70s only after Within Sound had been released. They’re minimal, informal documents; on some tracks you can hear Shirley discreetly clearing her throat before she looses that marvelous, strange voice, which, with Dolly’s portative organ and the rare banjo part, constitutes all the instrumentation. Dolly is often credited as co-arranger, and the sometimes solemn, sometimes spooky sounds she teased from her keys were an apt counterpoint to her sister’s singing. The organ has connotations, for most of us in the English-speaking world, with churches and ceremonies. But the sisters’ music is earthly: In “All Things Are Quite Silent,” Shirley’s barely through the first verse before she and her lover “lie snug in one nest.” In “While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping,” a poacher gets his rabbit and plans his celebratory booze-up. In “Black White Yellow and Green,” we hear of maggoty, poisoned plum puddings. If Shirley’s wraithlike croon isn’t to your liking, you haven’t heard it juxtaposed with the voices of lusty, rough-tongued men, as on Morris On, the 1972 various-Britfolk-dudes disc that started a folk-dance revival. That effect is here on “Lovin’ Hannah,” with choruses by a group called the Home Brew. But backing vocalists come into play most powerfully here on a brace of recordings from the 1979 Sidmouth Folk Festival. As Shirley recounts the tale of the “Poor Murdered Woman,” the audience wells up as a village chorus on the line “a poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground.” Like the best folk, old and new, it’s the perfect intersection of this world and another.

Guinness Fleadh, 1997

I'll preface this snark-filled rant by clarifying that I did not see Dave Swarbrick in 1970--when I was 9 and listening to my parents' battered copy of Louis Prima and Keely Smith: Box of Oldies.

Dirty Linen
October/November 1997, # 72


Randall's Island, New York, NY

June 14-15, 1997

For the first U.S. Guinness Fleadh the weather was perfect, and the atmosphere was consistent: The trees were green, the politics were greener, and the motivation was greenest of all.

There were two ways to enjoy the Fleadh. One was to gather as much data as possible ahead of time -- especially schedules and site maps. The best ways to do this were to be or know a VIP -- performer, press, or Guinness employee. The second way was to not give a damn, fill your pockets with cash, make your way to Randall's Island ($3 bus fare or toll, $35 to $40 for a ticket), and wander around drinking until you fall over.

Most of the attendees, or at least the most visible ones, chose the second approach. "Fleadh" was more than the name of the festival, it was a sound many tried to pronounce, albeit involuntarily. An Irish festival is no place to wear sandals.

The remaining attendees were able to have fun, if they steered clear of cookie-tossers and weren't prone to righteous indignation.

There was no advance information about concert schedules. New York papers didn't print a schedule (though at least one Connecticut paper did), and even the Internet gave little insight. Requests for information at the site were met with, "Buy the program" ($10, four colors, mostly ads, slightly out-of-date schedules).

The beer tent sold Guinness and Harp on tap ($5 a pint), and as far as I could tell, no free water was available. Small bottles of spring water, for $3 each, tasted suspiciously like chlorine. (And "New York Code" required that the vendors keep the screw-off caps.)

The "replica of an authentic Irish village" featured magnetic piercing jewelry, plastic car-window unicorns, and Sam Ash's electric guitar raffle.

Attendees who were there for the music and had done their homework were rewarded. At the end of day one, while Shane MacGowan and Van Morrison at competing stages siphoned off the serious drunks, the rest were intoxicated by Cape Breton's Ashley MacIsaac. MacIsaac and his band tore through funked-up tunes, mostly from Hi How Are You Today? But the stunner was a solo medley of traditional tunes that left his audience exhausted. For over 20 minutes, MacIsaac scissored his slight frame and sawed at the fiddle like a candidate for exorcism. Smoke rose from his bent back -- steam from his sweat? burning rosin? His precision, in the midst of this fury, was awesome; not since Dave Swarbrick, circa 1970, have I seen such an exhilarating skirl.

For more traditional fare, uilleann piper Davy Spillane and singer Christy Moore, in separate sets, evoked Emerald Isle nostalgia, even in those of us who've never been there. Sinead Lohan, young and dreadlocked, showed off her soft, sweet alto in a pop-folk setting. The Sinead with less-interesting hair, O'Connor, was a striking disappointment, though it wasn't her fault; the sound for her stadium set was muddy beyond comprehension. (Rumors of sabotage stalked the audience.)

Natalie Merchant, Moxy Früvous, Suzanne Vega, and Richard Thompson did sets with minimal new material or Celtic content. All were charming and lively (Früvous more manic than merely lively). Either Vega chose the weakest of her early songs, or they haven't worn well for me since college, but she's forgiven because she opened with "Marlene on the Wall," possibly her best song. Thompson's audience included old fans (whom he obliged with a request or two) and new converts, who raved about his wit and acoustic guitar playing.

Still, I've had better settings for music at clubs and better crafts and Celtic content at local festivals. And the crassness was unsettling. Had the festival promised "Cead Mile Failte" ("ten thousand welcomes") each welcome would probably have cost a buck.

-- Pamela Murray Winters (Arlington, VA)

Friday, July 28, 2006

Mountain Heart (Bay Weekly, 2006)

The Bay Weekly is my hometown paper. There's a little error in the bio at the end; this was actually my third story for the paper. (How quickly we forget.)

‘Well, I Didn’t Expect That’

Bluegrass band Mountain Heart’s appearance at budding St. Leonard stage a happy surprise

by Pamela Murray Winters

“When was the last time you ever heard a bluegrass band fill in for Lynyrd Skynyrd?”

That’s how Clay Jones, guitarist for Mountain Heart, described a recent gig to his wife. Skynyrd was scheduled to open for country stars Montgomery Gentry in Virginia Beach when the venerable southern rockers had to pull out because of a medical emergency. The last-minute addition of Mountain Heart to the bill garnered acclaim like this note on the group’s Internet forum: “YOU guys don’t need to be opening for ANYBODY.”

Fortunately for Chesapeake Country, on July 8, Mountain Heart opens for Travis Tritt, who returns for a second time to Chesapeake Country, at the Mercantile Southern Maryland Bank Pavilion at the St. Leonard Volunteer Fire Department. It’s the second of three shows in the firehouse’s second concert series; Jo Dee Messina played there earlier this year, and Miranda Lambert and Jason Aldean are coming on August 25.

Masterminding the firehouse concert series is Dan Baker, chairman of the fire company’s board of directors —“which means everything that needs to get done,” he jokes.

The firehouse on Calvert Beach Road maintains a quiet, laid-back atmosphere on a weekday afternoon, but civic activities are frequent there. “We’re the focal point in the community,” Baker says, “and we love having the community consider us as such.”

But civic groups “deserve their own place to meet,” Baker says, in an “area that is really blossoming.”

Hence the concerts, proceeds from which will go to build a separate community center. Baker and company started the concert series last year with the Charlie Daniels Band; Lone Star also played that summer.

Michael Jaworek, of the Birchmere music hall in Alexandria, Virginia, brings Baker and a list of potential performers, from which artists are chosen that best suit the firehall tastes and finances.

The outdoor venue, next to the station and easily reached from Route 4, features a permanent stage and an ample seating area. Food is served by local nonprofits, raising money for their own causes. Beer is sold and rules are few, but the concerts maintain a family atmosphere.

Professional companies handle sound and lighting, and the group has enlisted TicketMaster for ticket sales this season. Though sales for the show are brisk, Baker won’t hazard a guess on whether the 3,500 seats will sell out: “I’m not a betting man,” he said.

Baker is likewise reticent when asked about his dream artist for the series, but finally admits that he’d like to host Alison Krauss. He also mentions Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers. Concerts have tended toward country music, but the committee is not averse to bringing in other genre.

With Mountain Heart, Baker might be doing just that. Jones, who cut his teeth on bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd but played with Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder before joining Mountain Heart, says of the group’s material: “If it’s a good lyrical song and it means something to us, we’ll work the song up.”

From the group’s latest disc, Wide Open, he cites fiddle player Jim Van Cleve’s composition “Deadwood”: “It’s really a jazz-oriented song with a bluegrass edge.”

Musical eclecticism is not new to bluegrass, but Mountain Heart’s stagecraft is unusual. Citing people’s narrow expectations when they see a banjo player walk onstage, Jones says, “The type of bluegrass we play is high-energy. We have wireless microphones, and we move around. It’s really like a rock show.”

One difference in the performers’ music, says Jones, is “we don’t travel with drums. We get our rhythm without drums. Adam Steffey, our mandolin player, is the closest thing we have to a drummer.”

Jones is excited to be on the same bill as Tritt, a music veteran whose long hair and bad-boy image haven’t scared off mainstream-country success: “I’ve been a fan of his music ever since he came out,” says Jones. That was nearly 20 years ago.

Tritt’s voice is part of the appeal: “He can sing from the bottom of the basement to the top of the moon,” Jones says.

Another part is Tritt’s shade of blue: “He’s very rock-and-roll oriented,” Jones notes. “He’s got that energy and drive that we have. He can play even a slow song with a drive in it.” Consider, he says, Tritt’s 1991 hit “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares).”

Local audiences will have two more chances to enjoy Mountain Heart this year: The group is scheduled for the Deale Bluegrass Festival & Car Show on September 16 and Annapolis’ Rams Head Tavern on November 5. Jones, who hasn’t played our area before, says he’s looking forward to the experience.

As for Baker, Mountain Heart will be a new musical experience: A different artist was scheduled to open when he initially booked Tritt. But the group is able to deliver on the series’ expectations of rousing music with a broad appeal. Surprises are likely to be happy ones.

“The best compliment we’ve had in quite some time,” says Jones, “was Well, I didn’t expect that!”

Pamela Murray Winters writes about music and other arts for The Washington Post, Dirty Linen and other publications. This is her first story for Bay Weekly. She lives in Churchton when she's not loitering at Fabulous Brew.

Bay Weekly, June ?, 2006

Hearing Silence (Village Voice, 2006)

This "essay" was culled from the comments I submitted with my Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll earlier this year. Or so I assume, since I didn't keep a copy of my comments.

It appeared later in the newsletter of the Annapolis Friends Meeting, where I go from time to time. We took out a couple of un-Friendly words first, though.

Hearing Silence
by Pamela Murray Winters

This was the year I sorta became a Quaker. "Sorta" means I went to two worship services in five weeks and started thinking seriously about whether I was a pacifist. It also means I'm lousy at getting out of bed on Sunday mornings. God didn't enter into it, exactly; God was and is always there. It's a matter of self-definition and, perhaps, self-discipline.

Quakers practice silent worship. Silence is a damn valuable thing for someone who listens to music for both business and pleasure. I do believe that one can listen to too much music; one needs a palate-clearing from time to time. But silent worship is hard work for someone who is attuned to listening, to seeking patterns. We're supposed to be waiting on the Spirit, but so far I've been most impressed by the way the chairs in the meeting room creak and groan softly.

I've always been suspicious of the power of music. I've seen Christians felled like dominoes by the power of a heart-wrenching soprano, only to recant later. I've caught myself swaying or tapping a toe to some song whose lyrics, upon reflection, scare the crap out of me. My favorite song in first grade, which we sang in a very liberal Maryland school under the guidance of our hippie teacher, was "Marching to Pretoria."

Sometimes I struggle mightily to separate mind from heart—especially when it comes to the music of Richard Thompson, which touches me in a very individual way. Other times, I just succumb. I did a lot of succumbing this year: to the Lil' Rascals Brass Band at New Orleans JazzFest; to shows by Dar Williams, Nanci Griffith, and Herman's Hermits, none of which I expected to like; to the rebel jug band Asylum Street Spankers performing a children's show at the Floyd World Music Festival in Virginia. And to maybe 16 Thompson shows; I tend to lose count.

I don't go to Quaker services for silence. I go because in that silence is the ever present possibility, a space for revelation.

Churchton, Maryland

Amelia White, Mary Lee's Corvette CD reviews, Weekend, 2006

AMELIA WHITE "Black Doves" Funzalo MARY LEE'S CORVETTE "Love, Loss & Lunacy" Emergent

Washington Post, Friday, July 28, 2006; Page WE06

A MUSIC INDUSTRY bent on both pigeonholing and mass-marketing performers leaves many gifted artists in its wake. Too exploratory for country, too lush for punk, too folky for rock, Amelia White gets kissing-cousin status with alt-country because of her slight twang (the Virginia native now lives in Nashville). Like Aimee Mann, she wields a voice both powder-soft and powerful. And, like Mann, she has the backbone to attract uncompromising listeners who demand uncompromising musicians.

The song "Broke but Not Broken" exemplifies that artist-survivor mindset, but "Black Doves" doesn't waste time on self-pity. White offers a clear-eyed view of what's around her, whether it be the corruption of "Snakes and Pushers," set to a blood-dark syncopation, or the sweetness of love in "Sleeping Poppy." (If you do what I initially did and mishear the lyric as "you're my sleeping puppy," it's not White's fault; she develops her theme beautifully, with images of "a flower in the night / Closed up tight and hiding from the dark," defending itself against wind and uprootedness.)

"Dig Me Out" -- not the Sleater-Kinney song -- is a tale of rescue that makes the rescued protagonist no less strong and brave for recognizing her peril and the help she received. Rich backing vocals from Mack Starks, who wrote the song with keyboard player Neilson Hubbard, reinforce the tensile strength of White's staying power. A hidden track, "Lucky," is a delicate, lilting recognition of life's joy, written, White says, about a month after 9/11: "All the bad news and the way that I've been so blue / It all falls away from my shoulders."

Where White is organic, Mary Lee Kortes, of Mary Lee's Corvette, is a little polyester-shiny, though not insincere. She's the spike-haired Aimee Mann of Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry" video, busting out of the confines of uptight society with joy and desperation. In fact, there's something very '80s about Kortes's music: With its propulsive beat and sunny disposition, it's music for long road trips -- or very hip aerobic classes.

Kortes has been the subject of buzz in high places -- "Love, Loss & Lunacy" offers special thanks to the late Timothy White, the noted rock critic -- and she has assembled some high-powered friends here, including the Silos' Konrad Meissner on percussion, Rufus and Martha Wainwright collaborator Brad Albetta on keyboards and guitar wizard Eric "Roscoe" Ambel on electric 12-string and programming. Amid a crowd of charming songs -- with "All That Glitters" and "Nothing Left to Say" as up-tempo and sad-ballad exemplars, respectively -- it's the sonic palette that stands out. Even with a secondhand shop's worth of instruments, producer Stephen Butler keeps the sound garage-band spare. And right up front is the winsome Kortes, her soft, swooping voice both vulnerable and unsentimental.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

RT (Free Reed's Richard Thompson box set), Harp, 2006

I have more, much more, to say about this one someday.

Richard Thompson
RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson Free Reed

It has been said by both critics and fans that the body of Richard Thompson's studio work doesn't do justice to the breadth and passion of his music. The British label Free Reed has made an ambitious, even audacious attempt to rectify the problem with five discs comprising 85 tracks' worth of rarities, most of them from live recordings; even the most avid grubby-fingered tape trader will find new material here. The presentation is uneven: The accompanying 168-page book, with witty writing and a wealth of arcane supplemental material by Nigel Schofield, is riddled with small errors, and documentation of the sources is scant and poorly organized. But the sequencing is ingenious: Schofield has grouped the material on the discs by theme (e.g., "epic live workouts," for that nearly 13-minute version of "Sloth"), and, in many cases, one song informs the next. When a technically crappy but artistically sweet 1972 recording of Thompson and wife-to-be Linda performing "The Great Valerio" is followed by a wrenching recording of the same duo--10 years, one marriage, and one marital meltdown later--dancing in the light of its burning home on "Walking on a Wire," the tears will come. RT is not perfect, but it's an impressive archive of an artist who consistently thinks outside the box.

By Pamela Murray Winters

First printed in Mar/Apr 2006

Brandi Carlile, Harp CD review, 2006

Those last four words of the review make me cringe a little, and not just because of Lance. Oh, well, you do what you can.

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile

Red Ink

It's not promising: "Brandi." But one listen reveals an artist who probably never dotted that "i" with a little heart. Like her name, Carlile's music seems to have its origins in that eclectic period of pop radio between 1974 and 1984: On the opener, "Follow," she starts out sounding like Emmylou Harris but quickly morphs into something more like Freddie Mercury. The 23-year-old has a fine hand with a song as well: "Happy" pairs lyrics like "I'm happy/Can't you see" with music and a delivery that prove the opposite. Sometimes she goes overboard, into hair-band-vocalist territory, but mostly she purveys top-notch, unfussy pop songs with a rock sensibility. She's a little like the wonderful LP--and a lot like Sheryl Crow with balls.

By Pamela Murray Winters

First printed in Jan/Feb 2006

Mary Battiata (Little Pink), Spring 2002

A flashback to my first piece for Harp magazine. I hear Mary's working on a new album, and I can't wait to hear it; I'm playing Cul-de-Sac Cowgirl as I write this message.

Mary Battiata:
It’s About the Song

Mary Battiata was raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which sits on Washington, D.C.’s left shoulder. No matter what the Mason-Dixon Line says, it’s not the South. The middle Atlantic states are a hotpot of funk, folk, metal, and twang. And while Battiata’s band, Little Pink, has been labeled alt-country, it’s hardly a textbook example of the genre. The distinctive sound of Cul-de-Sac Cowgirl (Adult Swim) is built on Battiata’s voice, a raw variant of Margo Timmins’ cool purr; her songs, portraits of damaged innocence, erotic longing, and stoking up to ride the wall of death; her hundred-and-twenty-buck Danelectro’s “weird cheap twang”; and the judicious use of a collection of Washington-area roots-rockers headed by Karl Straub (of the similarly hard-to-categorize Graverobbers).

Listening to Cul-de-Sac Cowgirl is like tuning in a very clear radio station from thousands of miles away: what you hear is not lo-fi and definitely not psychedelic as the 21st century understands it, but definitely experienced through a whiskey haze, a cannabis blur. Things are just a little off-kilter. When I tell her that the sound is “disorienting, in a good way,” she replies, “Oh, good, ’cause that’s the intended effect.”

So it shouldn’t be surprising when the first influence Battiata cites, for its “darkness,” is the far-from-rural Velvet Underground. “I also really like the early Rolling Stones records—“in particular, Flowers and Aftermath. “They both have a sound-they’re sort of country and folk, almost, but then they’ve got this weird guitar sound and it really, I think, makes them very powerful and just takes them all up into another planet. I also think that, Richard Thompson, the darkness in his guitar chords and sound, is also something beautiful...It’s like a whole palette of colors that I feel like I’m just starting to mess around with.”

Still, she’s not pinning Little Pink down to much of anything these days, describing the group as “me and whoever I can get to work with who I want to work with.”

“There’s a disadvantage that, if the cast is always changing, you’re always having to show people the songs-but that also means that the sound is always changing, and it’s pretty liberating.”

In this way, Little Pink evokes the group to which its name pays homage. “It’s not so much their individual songs or any particular record of theirs as much as I liked the way they were so free and just changed things up as they went along. If you talk to people in their 20s, sometimes, they don’t know The Band that much....I think it’s maybe because partly they changed the sound a lot. But I really love their overall’s easy in a band, like in anything in life, to calcify, you know? So I like the way they were always blowing things up and moving on.”

OUT NOW: Cul-de-Sac Cowgirl (Adult Swim) See Also: Velvet Underground, Richard and Linda Thompson, Blood Oranges

First printed in Spring 2002

Ian Anderson/Orchestral Jethro Tull, July 2006

8/1/06: Alas, there's an erratum here: "Immigrant Song" was actually "Kashmir." And I feel really bad for not catching it.

This one has a backstory, which I'll get to after the review.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson Indulges His Inner Child at Wolf Trap

Washington Post, Friday, July 28, 2006; Page C02

Wednesday's show at Wolf Trap, "Ian Anderson Plays the Orchestral Jethro Tull," might have been subtitled "The Juvenile Person's Guide to the Orchestra," as Anderson chatted, mugged and naughtied his way through his repertoire and beyond. Among myriad examples: He noted that Jean Sibelius wrote one of his concertos "in the lavvy-loo," then reenacted the event, with sound effects.

Maybe you have to be a windbag to be that kind of flutist, for the jolly geezer was as inventive a blower as ever, careening across the stage in a frenzy of vocals, flute and leg twitches when, for example, his version of Bach's "Bouree" called for it. At 58, his voice has worn as thin as his prog-rock genre, but he compensated with enthusiasm for the nexus of tunes and tempos, performer and audience. A crowd-teasing "Aqualung" opened with the string section's flourish of six familiar notes, then swaggered through cocktail jazz and spaghetti western long before the title character raised his phlegmy head. A Mozart medley suggested the reinvention of Wolfie's oeuvre by a musically gifted cargo cult. And if some numbers wore out their welcome, the fey charms of "Mother Goose" could have gone on all night.

"Locomotive Breath" came as a breath of pure rhythmic relief, as did an impassioned re-imagining of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" led by guest violinist Lucia Micarelli. Barefoot, bare-shouldered and all of 23, she was the howling, earth-shaking mistress of "Immigrant Song." Anderson could only hang on for the ride. And he seemed to relish every minute of it.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

I could have gone on and on about this show. And I did, in my original review, which was too long for the Post. Whoever edited it did a good job of trimming and tightening. I didn't get to see any changes before publication.

The last paragraph, as I wrote it, read as follows:

“Locomotive Breath” came as a breath of pure rhythmic relief, as did an impassioned reimagining of Led Zeppelin's “Immigrant Song” led by guest violinist Lucia Micarelli. Barefoot, bare-shouldered and all of 23, she was fodder for Anderson's bad intents: He quipped that local Tull fan Tony Snow wished he were onstage, but “unless you've got [mammaries] like these, you've got no chance.” But for all his phallic fluteplay, Micarelli was the howling, earth-shaking mistress of “Immigrant Song”; he could only just hang on for the ride. And he seemed to relish every minute of it.

For "[mammaries]," a bracketed bowdlerization I included because the Post wouldn't have printed the original, read "tits."

In Anderson's defense, it seems like the word is more shocking on this side of the Atlantic than on his own. But I've got scant else to offer in his defense. I was taken aback.

An editor friend and I had a fascinating phone discussion in which we dissected the various levels of potential offensiveness of this instance: whether it mattered, for example, that Micarelli had toured with him for several shows and wasn't a one-night guest, or that the crowd was made up of Tull fans, who gave Anderson a warm reception, rather than no-applause-just-rattle-your-jewelry subscriber types.

Whatever. Not my place to say much more other than that the show rocked.

Bonnie Raitt, July 2006

Raitt at Wolf Trap: Something to Talk About

Washington Post, Wednesday, July 5, 2006; Page C02

Bonnie Raitt's music has always reflected her latest enthusiasm: her Celtic heritage in the "Luck of the Draw" era, Zimbabwean music a few years ago. On her current tour, which stopped at Wolf Trap on Monday and returns tonight, she's reveling in herself.

Raitt is a generous performer, and on Monday she gave ample time in the spotlight to keyboardist Jon Cleary, whose New Orleans strut sound provided many joyous moments. She praised the other longtime members of her band, gave a shout-out to Public Citizen and dedicated "Papa Come Quick" to WRNR DJ Damian Einstein. But unquestionably personal concerns were reflected in a version of "Nick of Time," in which the verse about her aging parents was, poignantly, newly set in the past tense.

She dug deep into her catalogue for authoritative yet comfortable readings of Sippie Wallace's "Woman Be Wise" and NRBQ's "Me and the Boys." Recent songs such as Maia Sharp's "I Don't Want Anything to Change" were strong, but old favorites such as "Angel From Montgomery" and "Love Letter" -- both featuring guest vocals and guitar by opener Keb' Mo' -- were incandescent.

"I Can't Make You Love Me," so familiar it's hard to hear anew, became a portrait of wonder and pain, with Raitt's voice taking on a fullness that the blues-loving waif of 35 years ago must have longed to achieve. She's grown into a powerhouse performer, yes, but the spark of rediscovery is always there, turning what might otherwise seem like laurel-resting or midlife dilettantism into impassioned renewal. May she never lose the power to surprise.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Bottle Rockets, June 2006

Should it worry me that this was accompanied, on the Post Web site, by an ad for erectile-dysfunction treatment?

Missouri's Bottle Rockets Light Up the Night at Iota

Washington Post, Thursday, June 22, 2006; Page C04

How do you make the second night of a two-night stand special? On Monday night at Iota, the Bottle Rockets began their set with the entirety of their new album, "Zoysia." On Tuesday, frontman Brian Henneman announced his approach to the sophomore jinx: The Missouri rural-rock band would alternate songs from "Zoysia" with other "hits" from its 14-year career.

It was a move as well thought out as the Rockets' music, which balances influences with a finesse that sideshow performers and single moms would envy. "Get Down, River," which sounded like the Appalachian folk classic "Long Black Veil" transformed into a waltz-time slow-rocker, flowed into "I Quit," an appealing combo of funk and country-rock, followed by the laconic honky-tonk two-step "Blind." Polished yet propulsive, the four-piece band was at least the sum of its parts.

If the Rockets' set seemed a little safe, it was only by contrast with the openers. Bobby Bare Jr. and his five partners in taste crime offered such embellishments as a baritone sax, a guitarist whose windmilling endangered the overhead Christmas lights, a patched tambourine that looked as though someone had thrust an angry fist through it, and the lyrical sentiment "If you talk any faster with food in your teeth / I swear to God I am gonna call the police." The ensemble fell somewhere between Skynyrd and Zeppelin, with a bit of R.E.M.-like drone in the ursine Bare's vocals. It was music to get whiplash to: unsubtle, raucous and sublime.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Handsome Family, Last Days of Wonder

Anyone who knows me will appreciate how amused I was to see this Washington City Paper review show up on the Web site Mental Health News. "News"?

Incidentally, I've never seen "Tyra." I'd made a Jerry Springer joke, and my editor thought that was so last century....

Washington City Paper, June 30, 2006

Last Days of Wonder
The Handsome Family
Carrot Top

By Pamela Murray Winters

Brett Sparks’ bipolar disorder is to the Handsome Family’s music what champagne is to Lawrence Welk’s—both a metaphorical representation of tone and the key to enjoying it. I can’t help but approach Last Days of Wonder via familial experience: My father was both a manic-depressive and, dark-comically, an elevator operator. Few instruments reflect that particular imbalance better than the musical saw Family adjunct David Coulter wields on “These Golden Jewels,” its up-and-down tones (and the plinking of Sparks’ banjo) contrasting with the song’s nightmarish quality. “I drove circles in the meadow, threw TVs off a cliff,” Sparks recounts in lyrics—written by his wife, Rennie Sparks—that might be fiction or documentary. “I scattered dirty needles in a grassy ditch.” Sometimes the Sparks’ visions amplify our own, and sometimes they’re just plain crazy; either way, they’re harrowing. In “Bowling Alley Bar,” when Brett moans, to a cornball country setting, “Sorry about your sunglasses/I didn’t mean to step on them/I didn’t mean to laugh when you cried”—well, that’s drunk talk, whether the intoxication is courtesy of bourbon or serotonin. And when things get really gnarly, as in the peculiarly placid “After We Shot the Grizzly” (in the second verse, they shoot and eat the horses—to a loping cowboy rhythm), we’re glad to be the listener rather than the singer. That sense of distance is also the reason why the couple’s recordings, made by Brett in their garage studio in Albuquerque, N.M., are more appealing and less self-indulgent than their concerts, which sometimes feel like a taping of Tyra. It’s easier to appreciate the subtlety of Brett’s sonic touches from afar: the shimmer of synthesized glass harmonica on “Beautiful William,” the trebly howl of an electronic harmony line on “All the Time in Airports.” Last Days of Wonder is good art and good psychic testimony, a revealing evocation of what it’s like to commune with madness. It must be exhausting to feel that way every minute, but experiencing it from the comfort of your living room can be fascinating, even moving. When Brett’s voice swells to celebrate the reckless memory of “flapping your broken wings in the green, green grass,” for just a few seconds, you envy him.

Amy Correia, July 2006

Amy Correia will be opening for Richard Thompson in some of his fall shows. I first saw her when she was touring with RT, and it's led to some lovely musical experiences.

I reviewed one of her shows earlier this week.

Amy Correia's Unique Voice At the Iota

The Washington Post, Thursday, July 20, 2006; Page C02

"Are you all all right?" Amy Correia asked a small group of fans seated in chairs at the foot of the Iota stage. "I'm worried about you."

They were quiet -- as were their fellows in the rest of the club -- and Correia, under the warmth of lights on an already hot Monday night, fretted that they might be falling asleep.

She needn't have worried. The mesmerizing young singer/songwriter, who plays guitar and baritone ukulele, is gifted with a unique voice, her soprano tinged with a quivering danger.

Her songs, built on her sturdy, deft string playing, melded play and peril. In "The Bike," perhaps her best-known song, she rides off on her inheritance from a relative who drank himself to death. But there was no turgid musing in her reverie, just a bouncy singalong chorus -- the audience sang along -- with just a hint of melancholy.

Correia offered a few songs based in California, including "Hold On," cast in the third person but implicitly in the first: "Mama was weak and mama used / But she loves you . . . In the state of California / Six months and she's out on parole." But many evoked New York, including "Coney Island, USA," a song of hope, despair and carnival imagery that suited her peculiarly beautiful muse.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Here goes nothing.

Not knowing how to make a normal Web page, I've resorted to this. God help me, a blog.

This is the bio I submitted to Gargoyle magazine, which is running one of my poems in its upcoming issue:

Pamela Murray Winters grew up, if you can call it that, in Takoma Park, Maryland, and is a lifelong resident of the Washington area. A former hypersensitive college poet (non-drug-enhanced division), she's returning to poetry after a couple of decades of riotously prosaic living. She writes about music and other arts for the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Dirty Linen, Harp, and other publications. She lives creekside in Churchton, Maryland.

That's in case you just stumbled across this page and want to know who I am.