On the stunning and lovingly performed High Wide & Handsome, Americana songster Loudon Wainwright III places his own splendid compositions on hold and devotes two full discs to the music of Charlie Poole, a renegade banjo stylist who squeezed a lifetime of old time and pre-bluegrass country music into a hard-living, five year bender cut short by the Great Depression and his death in 1931.
Had Poole hailed from England instead of North Carolina, his life story would have been ideal material for Richard Thompson, the masterful British songsmith and guitarist who has continually fashioned fascinating tunes out of the plights of his often ramshackle characters, from the urchins of Dickensian London to the stiff-upper-lip classes that roam those pavements today.
That Thompson and Wainwright are long time pals and will be touring together this fall (alas, there will be no dates in this region) under the preposterously apt billing of Loud and Rich underscores the links and wonderful contrasts between their two new retrospective collections.
Thompson’s Walking on a Wire might seem like a lesson in redundancy to some. It is the guitarist’s third boxed set anthology. Its biggest flaw: no unreleased material to entice hardcore fans. Its biggest plus: the most comprehensive assembly of Thompson’s music to date. It covers songs from every album he has issued since his beginnings with Fairport Convention in the late ‘60s. It’s all prime stuff, too. The artistic, emotive and visceral command of the collection’s 71 tunes never once wanes.
For those taken by the dark underlings that wander through Thompson’s songs, we have Genesis Hall (with Fairport), Withered and Died (with ex-wife Linda Thompson) and a pair of acoustic 1994 heartbreakers, Beeswing and King of Bohemia. Need a blast of Thompson’s riveting guitarwork? Then crank up the ‘70s adventures Night Comes In and The Calvary Cross or a volcanic concert version of 1999’s Hard on Me. And for unsentimental love songs that are nothing short of epic, there are classics old (Dimming of the Day, A Heart Needs a Home) and recent (She Sang Angels to Rest).
Wainwright’s retrospective, of course, covers a career entirely removed from his own. But as is the case with his original material (and, for that matter, Thompson’s), Poole’s music values the whimsical as well as the stoically dramatic with a strong instrumental undercurrent propelling both.
A case in point: The solo banjo version of High Wide & Handsome‘s title tune. “Let’s live it up,” Wainwright gleefully sings. “Might as well, we’re all dying.” As such sardonic twists have long been earmarks of Wainwright’s tunes, Poole’s songs become a natural fit. Similarly, the album’s light, loving instrumental cast is assisted by the brilliant New York cellist Erik Friedlander (especially during one of Poole’s final recorded compositions, 1930’s Where the Whippoorwill is Whispering Goodnight) and pianist Paul Asaro (the heart-stopping The Letter That Never Came).
A master Brit guitarist and songwriter rightfully celebrating his own music; an American contemporary honoring a renegade inspiration – taken as a whole, these wonderful collections emphasize the artistic rewards of being Loud and Rich.