critic’s pick 309: cincinnati pops orchestra with rosanne cash, over the rhine, aoife o’donovan, dom flemons, comet bluegrass allstars and joe henry, ‘american originals’

american originalsImagine being seated in the spacious Cincinnati Music Hall swept up on an Arctic January evening last year by the warmth of the Cincinnati Pops. What would be the first human voice you might expect to serve as accompaniment for a program of music celebrating Stephen Foster? Chances are it wouldn’t be Joe Henry. Yet there he was, producer extraordinaire and composer with a surrealist tenacity that suggests David Lynch more than the cherished 19th century Americana composer. Henry’s elegant yet still slightly dangerous reading of Oh Susannah serves as the lead tune to a 74 minute performance recording called American Originals.

Henry, of course, is a roots music scholar and his inclusion in such a program – along with the participation of such like-mined Americana stylists as Rosanne Cash, Aoife O’Donovan and Carolina Chocolate Drop co-founder Dom Flemons, among others – makes American Originals several tiers above the usual orchestral pops presentation. Pops shows, practically by definition, gear toward accessible sounds and styles removed, often severely so, from an orchestra’s usual classical orbit. Still, striking up a dance card like this raises the bar for pops-oriented programming while enhancing the stylistic theme at hand – in this case, Foster-era works – with leanings to folk, gospel, blues and pre-bluegrass country in ways both credible and complimentary.

The most immediate ringer here is when Cash lets her regally clear but reserved voice wash over My Old Kentucky Home. It’s a moment that lets the lush cohesion of the Cincinnati Pops under the direction of John Morris Russell serve as a stirring, gorgeous backdrop for the clarity of Cash’s vocal work. Sentimental? Absolutely. But by playing to the scholarly strengths of the performers, this rendition yields a quiet authority that underscores everything generations (especially generations of Kentuckians) have embraced about the song.

But there is so much more to American Originals, including the delicate, lullaby like reading of Slumber My Darling by O’Donovan that reaffirms her reputation as heir apparent to the Americana throne seemingly vacated in recent years by Alison Krauss. Flemons also has a field day when the orchestral pageantry of Ring, Ring the Banjo pares down into the rugged intimacy of banjo and bones. A pair of Cincinnati favorites, Over the Rhine (in a warm but brittle reading of Hard Times Come Again No More) and the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars (in a Copeland-like revision of Amazing Grace with O’Donovan), round out the bill along with a suitably militaristic arrangement of The Battle of Freedom the Cincinnati Pops takes on without the guests.

But the show stealer goes to Cash, who transports Beautiful Dreamer straight to the heavens with the sumptuous orchestral support. What results is music both timeless and wondrous, a snapshot of an American ideal that has grown only more lustrous with age.

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