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Tag: jean ritchie

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review Jan Bell & the Maybelles

Good Cop (on her phone, outside the American Folk Art Museum): See any jaywalkers?

Bad Cop (on his phone, out of breath, across Broadway on 64th Street): Ha, just me [sprints across just ahead of the light, and a taxi edging into the crosswalk]. How’d you get here before me?

Good Cop: I took the D and walked from Columbus Circle. And I didn’t jaywalk.

Bad Cop: Jaywalking is the new stop-and-frisk. Makes sense: after all, cars are hitting people and killing them left and right in this neighborhood. While we’re at it, we should start fining banks for every time they get robbed. They wouldn’t be getting robbed if they had better security.

Good Cop [sarcastically]: Or if they weren’t banks.

Bad Cop: They would be if they were bodegas. Anyway, let’s go inside. It’s freezing out here.

Good Cop: We’re here for the Friday night show with folk singer Jan Bell and her all-female band the Maybelles.

Bad Cop: You shouldn’t call her a folk singer. People will think she’s some sappy girl singing top 40.

Good Cop: People who like real folk music will get it. What is folk music, after all? It’s songs by songwriters who were most likely illiterate, that were passed down through an oral tradition since those people probably couldn’t read music either.

Bad Cop: Folk music has a bad name. It’s actually really creepy, the good stuff anyway.

Good Cop: Jan Bell knows that for sure. What did she say, how many happy love songs are there really, anyway?

Bad Cop: You’re better at the verbatim stuff than I am. But she’s right.

Good Cop: I’m so psyched for this show. Jan is playing acoustic guitar, that’s Rima Fand from Sherita on fiddle and Tina Lama on bass. And that looks like Katy Stone with the banjo.

Bad Cop [looks around, scowling]: This is so lame. We’re the only ones under sixty here.

Good Cop: What do you mean? That guy over there’s our age…

Bad Cop: That’s the bass player’s boyfriend. And there’s quilts on the walls. I feel like I’m in a nursing home.

Good Cop: This is actually a great place to see a show right after work. Lara Ewen, who’s also a fantastic Americana singer, books the music here and she has great taste. Plus the people from the Jalopy have a hand in it.

Bad Cop: These shows start at 5:30. Who gets out of work by 5:30 on a Friday?

Good Cop: Well, we made it, didn’t we?

Bad Cop: Under the wire. This is strictly a neighborhood thing. That’s New York in 2014 for you: everything is local. Local is the new central. All these little micro-scenes and no central scene, no way for a band to gain any traction.

Good Cop: Jan Bell has plenty of traction. She tours the US and the UK too.

Bad Cop: She has a motorhome. And she’s British so she’s got friends over there to put her up.

Good Cop: Well, I say good for her [the trio of Bell, Fand and Lama launch into a sad, shuffling minor-key song with three-part vocal harmonies].

Bad Cop: Wow, they’re really working the acoustics here.

Good Cop: I see they moved where the performers play from one side of the room to the other. This natural reverb is magical! It didn’t take Jan thirty seconds before she came up with a game plan – her voice can sometimes be pillowy but this is just plain heavenly!

Bad Cop: Yeah, she’s pillowy one minute, biting and bitter the next. She’s found her zone up there and she’s gonna haunt us. The bass player’s also a really good singer. You notice?

Good Cop: She really hits those high notes.

Bad Cop: A jazz player, obviously, She knows when to chill but she’s always got something interesting, something unexpected going on the low end, not just BUMP-bump, BUMP-bump, know what I mean?

Good Cop: Rima’s amazing too – I’m hearing all kinds of unexpected slides, and harmonies in what she’s playing. And she’s a great singer too.

Bad Cop: Yeah, but the lyrics are dumb. What’s this song about, Union Square?

Good Cop: No, it’s a cover. It’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, by an English folk singer, Jean Ritchie. It’s a coal mining song. Jan did it on her album from about a year and a half ago with all these mining songs on it. Her grandfather was a miner.

Bad Cop: Now what about this next song they’re doing? This has gotta be American. Oldtime country blues…

Good Cop: This is Mining Camp Blues. It’s from the 1920s, maybe earlier, I dunno. Trixie Smith recorded it, Alice Gerrard covered it and that’s how Jan discovered it. You know, passing stuff down through the generations. Same old, same old, huh?

Bad Cop: Yeah. Now this next one I know, You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, this is a Steve Earle song. He did it on his bluegrass album.

Good Cop: Actually not. This sad, haunting song is by Darrell Scott. It’s great we can hear all the instruments and yet there’s so much reverb on everything. It sounds so, well, authentic.

Bad Cop: This is a weird neighborhood for me but I gotta say that I am impressed by the acoustics here. And everybody who works here is so nice! It’s like we’re in Iowa. Or a nursing home in Iowa.

Good Cop: C’mon, admit it, you’re having a good time.

Bad Cop: Now THIS one I know! Loretta Lynn. Blue Kentucky Girl. Very different version from the original – the girls are doing it very low key, hushed, kind of a lullaby.

Good Cop: I like how she intersperses the originals, and the classics, and the obscure ones. That sad waltz, you know, “I’ve lost the right to love you.”

Bad Cop: This next one’s even creepier. A mail order bride sent off to Idaho where she’ll probably end up dying. Life was hard back then, huh?

Good Cop: That one’s actually a new song. It was written by Karen Dahlstrom, who was Jan’s bass player for awhile. It’s on her album, which is all new songs about Idaho and the old west, but written in an oldtime vernacular. It’s awfully good. I have it.

Bad Cop: You know this is where this band loses me. Cover Hank Williams, ok, but Ramblin’ Man? A woman singing a song written for a guy just doesn’t cut it for me. It’s like Joan Baez singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Virgil Cain is my name, NOT.

Good Cop: But listen to the vocals! And the harmonies! They really get this song, it’s so sad, and so haunted, and so full of doom and dread! You like this Nashville gothic stuff, right?

Bad Cop: Actually I do. OK. I changed my mind. I like these girls’ version. But I still don’t think women should try singing songs clearly meant for a guy, or vice versa.

Good Cop: OK, I think this is their last song. Another wistful waltz, a love song to New York written down under the Manhattan Bridge where Bell runs the Saturday night show at 68 Jay Street Bar. What a pretty way to bring it down and end the night. I tell you, we are going places with this blog. This is the third fantastic band we’ve been asked to go see in the past week. Stick with me and you’ll be famous!

Bad Cop: Don’t count your chickens. My guess is that we’re on the shuttle back to Columbus…

Good Cop: You mean Scranton.

Bad Cop: Uh, whatever. At best, we’re the B team. The only reason we were enlisted for this one is because the blog covered another show of hers last summer. So they needed a new angle. That’s all.

Good Cop: Be careful with that breaking-the-fourth-wall stuff. You know you’re not supposed to do that.

Bad Cop: That’s why I’m the bad guy [pulls a flask from his inside jacket pocket and takes a slug]. See you in Col…I mean Scranton.

Good Cop: Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Jan Bell has booked the night of February 23 at the Jalopy for an all-star tribute to Pete Seeger. It starts around 8, it’s ten bucks and there will be a lot of good usual New York Americana suspects onstage. If we’re lucky Jan will do her version of Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream like she did tonight.

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Beautiful, Haunting, Evocative Mining Songs from Jan Bell

Jan Bell has one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices in any style of music. She’s never sung or written more vividly or poignantly than she does on her new concept album Dream of the Miner’s Child. A miner’s granddaughter, she traces the seam of coal that runs under the Atlantic from Wales to the Carolinas to make connection between the traditional songs of the Yorkshire mining country where she grew up, and the Appalachian ballads of her adopted land. A small ocean liner’s worth of Americana talent, including her bandmates from the acclaimed all-female Maybelles, joins her on this virtually all-acoustic collection recorded at various stops around the world. Soaring with vocal harmonies and prominent violin, it’s a richly purist, gorgeously subtle album, much of it propelled with a casually expert country swing by bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer Brian Geltner.

It opens with a briskly plaintive version of Jean Ritchie’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore (referring to a railroad rather than a New York subway line), Bell’s honey-and-nettle vocals contrasting with an austerely soaring Rima Fand violin solo. Yorkshire Water, an elegant chamber pop-flavored original, sets nuanced harmonies from Melissa Carper and the Be Good Tanyas‘ Samantha Parton over spare lines from Truckstop Honeymoon guitarist Mike West and pianist Katie Euliss.

Bell does Trixie Smith’s oldtime Mining Camp Blues closer to Davis Sisters-style country, joining harmonies with Alice Gerrard, Megan Palmer supplying rustic fiddle ambience. The title track, a wistful duet with Jolie Holland, looks back both to the 1925 Vernon Dalhart version as well as the original 1907 Welsh mining disaster ballad. Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, a duet with Will Scott, is considerably more subtle – and strangely evocative – than the haphazard Pogues version.

Another Bell original, Elsecar Grace aka John Willliams, carries a cruelly ironic narrative with a vintage soul/gospel melody. Her midtempo take on Darrell Scott’s haunting You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive is nonchalantly chilling, while Juliet Russell adds her voice to an absolutely otherworldly a-cappella duet on Brian O’Higgins A Stor Mo Chroi.

M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson and Hilary Hawke join Bell on her Maybelles bandmate Karen Dahlstrom’s The Miner’s Bride, a brooding tale of a mail-order marriage in the old west made even more ominous by Thompson’s ghostly singing saw. Casey Neill shares vocals and adds electric guitar on a gently insistent, impactful take of Billy Bragg’s workingman’s anthem Between the Wars. Bell follows that with a Woody Guthrie lyric, Union Sea and makes ragtime-tinged antique pop out of it.

The catchiest of the originals here is Aunt Molly Jackson, the Carper Family (Melissa Carper, Beth Chrisman, Jenn Miori and Brennen Leigh) adding rich harmonies to this brisk oldschool C&W number. The most British of the tracks here is Carried by the Wind, Bell joined by Salty Pink’s Amelia Sauter and  Leah Houghtaling. Bell and Palmer end the album with an a-cappella take of the traditional Irish ballad Factory Girl. Life in mining country on both sides of the Atlantic was hard; Bell and her all-star cast deliver these songs with a potent bittersweetness that reflects both the hopes and grim realities of the people who created them, at the same time adding memorably to the repertoire. It’s not a stretch to imagine future generations of Americana musicians referencing the Jan Bell versions of many of these songs: this album secures her place among the finest and most individualistic musicians in that world. Bell plays the album release show at Barbes at 8 PM this Friday, Dec 14; high-voltage Balkan band Sherita (a Raya Brass Band spinoff) kicks off the evening at 7.