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Saturday, September 30

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Bird Songs

Andrew Bird rose to fame through his auxiliary role in the now seemingly defunct Squirrel Nut Zippers. As thanks, Katherine Whalen and James Mathus appeared on a couple of his early albums. But Bird has been a busy man for quite some time now. He teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music, has worked as occasional session man with The Pinetop Seven, Lil' Ed Williams, Sinister Luck Ensemble, and on the score for Tim Robbins's excruciating Cradle Will Rock. Throughout it all, he has been crafting his own unique brand of neo-traditional folk. An absolutely stunning performer, and perhaps the best one I have ever seen on pedals. Bird works those absurdly clever little loop pedals to create multiple tracks of live recorded sound that fully flesh out his often solo performances.

Bird's recent turn towards more pop-oriented, or perhaps less strictly Harlem revisionist, music has been welcome. 2001's "The Swimming Hour" served as something of a tour through American popular music forms, but no somnambulistic trek through a museum. This is no imitator, but rather a gifted synthesizer: Bird's music exhibits echoes of Django Reinhardt as well as strong influences of jazz, classical and early American folk recordings.

For his most recent album, Bird hunkered down in a converted barn wonderfully isolated somewhere near the Illinois/Missouri border. Here, the musical oak that is "Weather Systems" was able to take root. Subtly nudged forward by Mark Nevers, an engineer and producer who has worked with Will Oldham and Lambchop, among others, Bird felt at once free and grounded enough to create a thing of wonder.

This is a solo album. Kevin O'Donnell's subtle drumming heartbeat and Nora O'Conner's lovely, complementary tone are Bowl of Fire additions that help matters along nicely. Nevers even lends an understated guitar to the affair. But this is Andrew Bird's record, and perhaps his most subtle and powerful work to date, a career record perhaps.

Layered violins, every one of them emoted by this renowned expert, fill Weather Systems with powerful emotional tones. Everything here, in fact, comes together to create subtle emotional strengths. Hell, you can even occasionally hear the barn floor creak under Bird's feet as he wildly stabs and flutters on this instrument he knows so well, wood and catgut being merely an extension of his body.

To say that Andrew Bird sings and plays violins would be like saying Babe Ruth swung wood and caught leather. Bird does so much with his waveringly emotive vocals he really needs do no more. On top of that, he whistles -- really well -- and does so to contrast or augment the music depending on what's more appropriate. He also does just about everything one can do with a violin: plunk, saw, subtly intone, wildly fiddle. The word "virtuoso" is often bandied about when describing Bird. I guess I'll just concur and say he's about as damned good at what he does as he has a right to be.

Sometimes an album is so utterly humanistic -- as in romantic, as in so in love with the feeling of human emotion -- that it defies not only any pat explanation but betrays the need for rambling bullshit like this article you're reading right now. Sometimes a piece of art is such a confluence, such a subtle push and pull of its components coming together in such magical synthesis, that the parts well overshadowing the whole, creating something huge and mighty in the process.

The songs on "Weather Systems" are constructed extremely well. They assemble. To paraphrase Andy Partridge of XTC, they are like extremely well-constructed chairs, whereas other pop tunes are pretty much inflatable chairs -- all right for a second, but then your butt starts to sweat, right?

And that humanistic bit I alluded to? This man starts out a tune with quaint whistling, think the sparseness of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly alternating with the great old country of Johnny Bond's "Boots and Saddles," adds pizzicato (plucked) violin, whacks in a heavy violin-line where you can just envision the emotion rippling alongside the dust off the sawed strings. Then Nevers' "space guitar" kicks in to add depth. Throw in a dash of strangely Eighties-esque bass (actually Bird's own heavily processed violin) lend the tune even more of that artistic branding, that "otherness." Bird's Gram Parsons meets Harry Nilsson tenor emotes almost unnecessarily additional pathos like "If you think I'm wasting your time again/I'm wasting your time."

This all adds up to one damned fine album. And we're talking en toto here. Every song, every facet of every song, works together consistently to create one satisfying and enjoyable whole. What I described above throughout what must be the album's tightest single, "action/adventure," flows through every corner, edge, and hunk of flesh of this album.

A bit like Parsons sweetly cajoling a young Emmylou Harris, O'Conner's voice sounds as though it was intended to complement Bird's, though she's a fine artist on her own; she also lends some guitar assistance. O'Donnell adds some of the most subtly propulsive percussion this side of Johnny Cash's train songs.

"Weather Systems" is by no means dogmatic or monochromatic. The title track alone goes through countless changes throughout its six minutes. The only rule for this album seems to be that the music must match the lyrics. The tune begins with a wicked arabesque on that fiddle of Bird's, then some pizzicato running wild as he examines mood changes. Ratcheting down the intensity of his vocals a bit while moaning about the weather patterns of emotion, that haunting whistle returns and the tune fades as perhaps Bird pulls together a fitful night's rest.

Andrew Bird supports the Magnetic Fields June 26th, 27th, and 28th. Good luck getting in, Chucky, this one sold out nanoseconds after it was announced.

Jazz with A Limp Struts

Kelly Hogan makes it all look easy. She continues to perfect her intimate and precise yet bold and highly emotive take on jazz singing at The Hideout every Thursday with her band, The Wooden Leg. "Jazz with A Limp" is how they humbly describe it. I call it jazz with an obvious appreciation and adoration for what they're doing. Each tune is chosen and then performed with such personality, respect, and joy that this regular gig is impossible to dismiss. An antidote to the modern torrent of self-consciously showy and/or arty jazz, the impossibly gifted quartet is rounded out by Scott Ligon on organ, Joel Paterson on guitar, and Kevin O'Donnell on drums.

There's a pretty big crowd in the back room of the Hideout on this particular Thursday. It should be three times the size. Scott Ligon begins the set with his take on Louis Prima's "Banana Split for My Baby," rolling through the hammering organ and amusing lyrics of this novelty tune with respect and aplomb. As he later whips through Ray Charles's scorching "I Want to Know" with his wicked organ providing juicy solos and comps equally well, the dead-on Paterson trading audio quips and O'Donnell actively holding it all together, one can only feel that one is in for some seriously good music. Later, effortlessly exceptional versions of tunes by George Jones and Johnny Burnette would serve as a nice bonus for those who stuck around... and Paterson's take on Chet Atkins simply elicited screams.

The Wooden Leg makes it awfully hard to remember that they are just the backing band, but Hogan's magnetic presence and soulful delivery quickly takes the group to a higher level of musical delight and sophistication. Right away, she pulls off an effortless version of Barbara Lewis's gorgeous doo-wop ballad, "Hello Stranger." As these superbly professional musicians provide rock-solid doo-wop backing, Hogan's affectingly sultry soul howls coast above the music in such an adventurous manner as if to say that woman needs no warm-up.

Kelly and her cats keep it cooking through local blues legend Oscar Brown, Jr's "Hazels' Hips." As Hogan switches from the consummate professional to awed student for just a moment, she dances a bit, self-consciously pushes her hair behind her ears, and then again loses herself in the emotionally-charged delivery of the tune.

Indeed, ego can find no room on a stage filled with so much genuine love and talent. The instruments pull to the fore for a wild electric lap pedal-propelled version of Harry Babasin's obscure West Coast Jazz classic, "La Rosita." O'Donnell trades one of his brushes for a giant club that makes his snare sound like a tom-tom and beats with soulful precision, one moment solidly backing and the next propulsively comping the equally inspired Ligon and Paterson. Nothing in jazz is more fun to watch than a tight band...and this is a band that really loves to play together.

Hogan resumes her charming, inspired delivery with a pair of song poems. Robbie Fulks recently played a tribute show and presented a documentary by filmmaker Jamie Meltzer on this folk art in the truest sense: An average Joe or Jane would spot the ad, send their poems along with five bucks to a professional, and get a 45 sent to them in return. The particular tunes Hogan chose served not only as brief views into the souls of the common man, but also unsophisticatedly amusing signs of the times. "Perhaps the world is a cube" was a nice line from "Ecstasy to Frenzy," and Hogan and Ligon's duet on "Cloud Nine" completed this tongue-in-cheek tribute to the poetry of the little man, poignant in that Kelly Hogan and the Wooden Leg will also probably never receive a shade of the recognition they deserve.

Driving home from the gig, I switched on the jazz station. "You'd be So Nice to Come Home to", Cole Porter's croon classic usually given a respectful, wistful delivery by utter necessity was suffering a merciless, sadistic butchering from some Diana Krall-sounding, self-consciously artful jazz singing woman. When the word "fire" reached its seventh syllable, I simply couldn't take any more. My capacity for cheese had been ruined. I could not stomach this put-on after Hogan's honesty and love, this shameless, schmaltzy coquettishness over Hogan's admiration, humility, and genuine, beautiful expression.

Steel Sweetness

Jon Rauhouse began his illustrious underground country career on a high school dare. He picked up the banjo and a spot in bluegrass outfit, Southwind. Shortly after joining the band, Rauhouse switched to pedal steel guitar. Southwind lasted seven years. Rauhouse spent a decade as a session man in his home town of Phoenix, finally landing in the Grievous Angels, an outfit that, as the name might suggest, blended country and rock. Apropos of nothing, but amusing just the same, the dubbed their bluegrass alter ego Ned Beatty and the Inbreds.

Rauhouse then had a short stint with Jamal Ruhe in the Sleepwalkers. Towards the end of the Nineties, he started backing Bloodshot's impressive female country roster, including Mekon Sally Timms and part-time jazz singer Kelly Hogan. While on tour with Neko Case, Rauhouse met up with old Southwind bandmate Tommy Connell. They became a duo.

Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant were an insatiable pair of country/jazz guitarists who performed endlessly throughout the Fifties. Subtle and brilliant, it's the kind of music that causes the listener to hoot and holler occasionally just to express the pent-up awe at how damned good it is. Mirroring that duo in inspiration and talent, Rauhouse pulls a remarkable turn on the steel while Connell picks in a similarly augmentative fashion.

Rauhouse's 2002 album was called "The Steel Guitar Air Show," nicely alluding to the remarkable stunt of creating in this music a vibrant homage without sounding dated. His latest, "The Steel Guitar Rodeo," covers similar ground, roping in standards from the era but sounding fresh enough and performing the tunes so well that the listener is transported not to a dogmatic recreation of 1942, not to some self-consciously "new swing" Astroturf, but to the green, green grasses of an altogether new place, a new home that not only works but is delightful and goes down easy, like a tall glass of lemonade.

Hideout owner Tim Tuten opens the CD of originals and carefully selected covers going with a humble spoken introduction. Rauhouse's instrumental "Widowmaker" then kicks in Chicago-style, driven by Tom V. Ray's solid bass and Kevin O'Donnell's subtly propulsive brushwork. As throughout, Rauhouse's banjo and pedal steel/Hawaiian guitar lines are unreservedly inspired while absolutely gorgeous to both the ear and aesthetic sense all at once -- easy to appreciate on any level, depending on what mood you're in.

All in all, the instrumentation is phenomenal. The classic TV theme "Perry Mason Theme" is run through the steel guitar filter. It sounds natural, great. "Powerhouse," Raymond Scott's impossibly complicated masterpiece of Forties faux-jazz, is a bold tune to even attempt; Rauhouse and his band of merry men pull it off with flavor and flair. The innumerable guest contributors include John Convertino, Will Lovell, and Joey Burns lending their Tucson rhythmic talents, Carolyn Mark granting backup, and a slew of others of equal and varied talents (minus the rodeo clowns).

Kelly Hogan pulls double duty on the sultry "Smoke Rings" and punishing "Prisoner of Love." Remarkable standards both, the listener can easily imagine Hogan snug both in a satin dress and behind one of those old microphones, smoking a cigarette, but behind her the musicians have traded their suits and uniforms for denim and dungarees. As Hogan wistfully intones, "Tell me where do they go, the smoke rings I blow at night?/What do they do the circles of blue and white?/Why do they seem to picture a dream of love?/Why do they fade like phantom parades above?" one cannot help but simply drift away along with the dreamy tune and that intimate and alluring voice.

Sally Timms brings a time-appropriate reverence to "(There'll Be Blue Birds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover." The Rodeo improves this song, transforming a tune that has traditionally been mismanaged. Normally, its poignant lyrics have been ironically set as a perky big band jump with corny male vox. Here, Timms makes "Cliffs of Dover" into just the soft, coaxing, hopeful plea for peace we need. Just beautiful.

Everyone complains that Neko Case is underused in The New Pornographers. I always respond: how much can you take? On "River of No Return" she virtually destroys everything before and after with her voice. God, that voice: all the raw power and emotion of Patsy Cline, the wisdom of Loretta Lynn, spooned onto the tongue with an indescribably sweet seductiveness. Incomparable. Unfairly superior. More than one song may be too much to take.

That's fine for the girls, but how about the boys? Blacky Ranchette himself, Howe Gelb, whacks the ivory while monotonously intoning the "Indian Love Call," a superb standard, fashioned almost note-for-note from the best of the big bandleader's versions. Of course, I'm talking about the rebellious genius that was Artie Shaw. Gelb shines as always.

No vocal slouch, Rauhouse himself sounds a bit like Steve Earl as he stomps, spits and derides "Work Work" as the dirtiest word he's ever heard. This is a John Rauhouse album after all, and it is his Hawaiian guitar that later eases the listener out of "The Steel Guitar Rodeo" -- but don't bother getting up and changing the disc. You'll only listen to it again -- it's so easy and so, so damned good.


About the Author(s)

Alan Jacobson is a freelance writer and DJ; read more of his music writing at Modern Kicks.

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