josh ritter leaves the beast behind

josh ritter.

josh ritter.

Most contemporary artists shy away from labels designed to market and promote their music, viewing them as stylistically restrictive. Josh Ritter is not among them. It’s just that he has come up with his own label, and it’s rather specific – messianic oracular honky-tonk.

Come again?

To comprehend that tag and Ritter’s need for it, one had to start with other labels. After 2013’s stripped down, primarily acoustic The Beast In Its Tracks, a record written in the aftermath of his divorce from songsmith Dawn Landes, Ritter decided to return to the outside world of inspiration that gave his early recordings comparisons to the likes of Bob Dylan for their removal from direct, auto-biographical lyrics. But Ritter also amped up the groove along with the scope of his songs. When he was done, he was surprised at the amount of religious imagery the resulting music contained. Hence, a genre of his devising was born.

“When you’re writing, you never really get a chance to think about the themes of the record, and I think that’s good,” said Ritter, one of the featured artists at this weekend’s Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. “It’s always good to be writing in the dark because I never want to write towards a goal.

“As I was wrapping up the record, I started to notice all this strange American imagery –  kind of mystical but very earthy, very feet-of-clay stuff about how people we know match up against the expectations we’re supposed to live up to in religion and just about how those things cause friction. For that reason, I thought the rambunctiousness of the music and the rambunctiousness of the statements needed a real flesh-and-blood term. Messianic oracular honky tonk just sounded like such a fun way of thinking about music.”

More than the label itself, Ritter said, came a need. With The Beast In Its Tracks drawing the emotional intent of his music unexpectedly inward, he felt a need for expansion. Being autobiographical, it seemed, did not suit him.

“One of my pet peeves has always been autobiographic information. I don’t care for it. I don’t care for songs that are just about me, me, me. I’ve always stayed away from that. The Beast In Its Tracks was an impossibility. I was writing about a divorce. I was cataloging it and dissecting it myself. It felt like it was an important thing to get down. It was a huge life experience that was important for me to look at from all angles to see what it was. The Beast In Its Tracks was about divorce and everything that came after.

“That having been done, I definitely felt like now was the time for me to get back to my outward looking writing, about writing that isn’t necessarily about me. It’s about other things. It was about a girl in a small town who is trying to make an awful decision or a tent preacher working his way across Ohio. These songs are definitely outward looking just because I felt like I had already allowed myself a pass to do a record about myself.”

Ritter’s writing hasn’t been limited to music, either. The Idaho native’s 2011 novel Bright’s Passage became a New York Times best-seller. It also renewed his appreciation for concise narrative storytelling that is essential to songwriting.

“It gave me respect for all forms of writing as well as a deeper respect for my own songwriting. I’ve always been a voracious editor. Nothing doesn’t get polished down. I believe in the idea being good enough for getting all you can get out it. When you’re writing a book, it’s still about being concise, about saying exactly what you want to say and saying no more.

“That’s also what is so attractive about songwriting, although the performance isn’t there when a person sits with a book and reads in a room. That’s a much lonelier life, I feel.

At the end of the day, the difference between the two is that with songwriting, I can go onstage and get a bunch of applause.”

Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band perform at 8 p.m. July 9 for the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. Tickets are $65 for weekend admission. Call 888-810-2063 or go to mastermusiciansfestival.org.

go big ‘blue’: leann rimes at 33

leann rimes, photo by owen sweeney (invision/AP).

leann rimes, photo by owen sweeney (invision/AP).

LeAnn Rimes has grown up in public, although she is hardly the first celebrity to do so. Still, it seems something of revelation that, at age 33, she is celebrating the 20 year anniversary of her breakthrough hit.

Seriously. Remember Blue, the Patsy Cline-style crooner of a country hit Rimes shook the world with two decades ago this month? It was the kind of worldly tune – both in sentiment and rich, regal vocal design – that even a practiced singer would struggle with when in came to conveying the kind of natural ease Rimes exhibited. The kicker, of course, is that Rimes was 13 when the song was a hit. Turns out, though, she was even younger when it was first recorded.

“I first cut Blue when I was 11 and then I re-recorded it when I was 13,” said the veteran singer who performs this weekend at Renfro Valley. “But the version that you heard, and the one you still hear today, is the recording I did as an 11 year old. The vocals were switched accidentally, and the 11 year old recording was released. So what you’re hearing is me at 11.”

“I haven’t actually listened to the whole album (the same-titled recording that became Rimes’ debut major label album in 1996) in a really long time, but it definitely defines a moment in time. For Blue itself, it really is still such a timeless song.”

With Blue celebrating its 20th birthday, one has to ponder the obvious. How does an artist, even one with the performance authority and vocal chops of a practiced adult, address stardom at the dawn of their teen years?

“I don’t know if anybody knows how to handle that kind of success at that age,” Rimes said. “It was so instant and so big. I was so young that I don’t think I ever really understood how it could be such a pivotal moment. Still, that time really defined my career.”

Unfortunately for Rimes, so did the tabloid-ready adventures that came with stardom in subsequent years. The hits continued to pile up – especially crossover smashes like How Do I Live, I Need You and Can’t Fight the Moonlight. But so did all the offstage turbulence – lawsuits, divorce, family strife – that made Rimes as much of a sensation with the tabloids as her music.

“There are good things and bad aspects to success,” she said. “I want to give myself a little bit of credit here, because I’ve been very honest about the ups and downs in my life and hopefully through a lot of that I’ve been able to help people. Of course, there are a lot of people who think they know something about you when they’re reading something in a magazine in the grocery line. At the same time, that’s given me a real understanding and even sympathy for other human beings and what they go through.”

Today, however, Rimes sees her life and career from calmer turf. She recently signed a recording contract with RCA/UK in Europe and has begun work on a new album. Her current overseas single is a cover of The Story. The song was a single for folk/rock song stylist Brandi Carlile but became a bigger hit when re-cut by actress/singer Sara Ramirez in 2011 for the television drama Grey’s Anatomy (which features Ramirez as a cast member).

“There will be a completely different single in this country in the next few months, but I love The Story. I first heard it on Grey’s Anatomy and thought, ‘What’s that?’ But I’ve been a fan of Brandi for many years, too.”

Rimes said the anniversary of her earliest chart success together with the next chapter of her recording career has proven an invigorating combination.

“I feel very grounded. I’m at a good place right now.”

LeAnn Rimes performs at 8:30 p.m. July 9 at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, 2380 Richmond St. in Mt. Vernon. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 800-765-7464 or got to renfrovalley.com.

critic’s pick: neko case, k.d. lang and laura viers, ‘case/lang/viers’

case-lang-viersThe trouble with most pop vocal trios, especially all-star amalgamations of previously celebrated solo artists, isn’t the singing. If the harmony wasn’t there, the teaming would have never caught fire in the first place. No, the kinks usually surface in the writing. As such collaborations are of often designed as exhibitions of star power, the songs handed to the artists involved are either perfunctory tunes offered to capitalize on the harmonies or pop covers cut to insure the product’s accessibility.

It should comes as little surprise that case/lang/viers, an absolutely sumptuous session of elegant turbulence, quiet provocation and blissful singing doesn’t adhere to any of the expected supergroup prototypes. Formed at the behest of Canadian cross-genre chanteuse k.d. lang, the trio pens 14 tunes of their own, covering everything from tales of rapturous and shattered romance to startling eulogies. The singing? Well, it’s sterling throughout. That’s kind of a given that the remarkable songstresses Neko Case and Laura Viers round out the trio. But it’s the songs on case/lang/viers that really grab you. To say they compliment the harmonies doesn’t begin to cut to the core of the album’s serene glow.

For many, lang is the marquee name here. For anyone who has lost touch with the clarity and emotional potency of her singing as well as the often exquisite longing of her best compositions, look no further than Honey and Smoke, a breathtaking love song of distant unrest that any singer would (or at least ought to) kill for. But pair that with the satin-rich voice that reveals not one iota of a blemish from a career that has railed on for over three decades, along with the hushed girl group vocals Case and Viers supply (an integral component to Trevor Martine’s lustrous production) and the sparks begin to regally fly.

Case, not surprisingly, turns such stately pop tradition on its ear during Delirium with an equal measure of defiance and distance (“I kissed you in the morning, but only in my mind’s eye”) and blurrier, neo-psychedelic backdrops that twist new shapes out of familiar girl-group pop in much the same way R.E.M.’s later records embraced softer, more ambient flavored variations of its earlier elemental sound.

Viers may be – comparatively, at least – the least established of the three trio members (she opened a Decemberists concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts in 2009). But she maintains the most visible songwriting presence on the album, running from the spry, summery requiem for the doomed ‘60s songstress Judee Still (Song for Judee) to the dizzying, orchestral rumination Best Kept Secret.

Throw all that in the same pop neighborhood and you have what may be the most articulate and sonically satisfying pop album of the summer.

bernie worrell, 1944-2016

bernie worrell.

bernie worrell.

Listening to Bernie Worrell play keyboards was like taking a trip into outer space. Sure, he spent the better of a career perfecting, dissecting and retooling all manners of groove. But at his best, Worrell took flight. The sounds he created left earthbound rhythm behind and went bouncing around the cosmos, unfurling in waves and textures that were distinctly his own.

Take the way his synthesizer work on the Talking Heads classic Burning Down the House blasted through the melody like a theremin at the song’s conclusion or examine his early ‘70s work with Funkadelic, George Clinton’s evil twin counterpart band to Parliament that threw funk into a psychedelic blender. Better still, give a listen to the scores of other projects he has been a part of, from world beat sessions with Fela Kuti to collaborations with former Lexington groove troupe Catawampus Universe. Worrell was always the player that knocked a groove or a melody on its ear with a progressive charge that was orchestral in its expansiveness, elemental in its sense of soul and unendingly playful in its sentiment.

Best of all, Worrell’s appeal was remarkably diverse. As one of the chief musical architects in Clinton’s Parliament ranks, he helped refine funk music for R&B crowds. Witness the still exquisite party anthem Flash Light for proof. But for artsy, post new wave audiences, there was his work with Talking Heads – specifically, the headier groove experiments on 1983’s Speaking in Tongues and the landmark concert film Stop Making Sense made from the record’s subsequent tour. Worrell played Lexington with both bands in 1977 and 1983, respectively.

But his best local viewing came through a series of club shows in the late ‘90s at the long-defunct Lynagh’s Music Club with his Woo Warriors band. Worrell may not have been in prizefighting form at those performances as he so clearly was in Stop Making Sense. But the club appearances, executed as career overviews of sorts, were ripe with animation and invention that presented Worrell without the Clinton sideshow of his Parliament-Funkadelic years.

Lexington also provided a famed non-appearance for the keyboardist. Having been recruited by Chrissie Hynde for the Pretenders’ underrated 1986 comeback album Get Close, Worrell and bassist T.M. Stevens were sacked from the band just prior to its January 1987 performance at Memorial Coliseum with Iggy Pop. Hynde even held court for two days of rehearsals at the venue to work in replacements.

All of these adventures added up to an unrelenting original voice – so much so that when news broke of Worrell’s death yesterday at age 72, the tune I reached for first was the live version of Crosseyed and Painless that served as the finale to Stop Making Sense. It began with sunshine and psychedelia then jumped lines into the most feverish funk Talking Heads ever recorded. Worrell isn’t even that present as a soloist on the performance. But listen to the groove and all the profound color surrounding it. That’s where you heard him – in the engine room making the music soar like a rocketship.

ralph stanley, 1927-2016

ralph stanley, may 2004. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

ralph stanley, may 2004. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

My fondest memory of Ralph Stanley goes back to May 2004 when the bluegrass music chieftain was on tour as part of the Great High Mountain Tour. The multi-act, Americana-heavy production had been booked into Rupp Arena that month, but in preparing an advance story on the show, Herald-Leader photographer Mark Cornelison and I were granted atypically broad backstage access for an earlier tour stop in Cincinnati. There, we were allowed to interview and take photos of the dozen or so acts on the bill.

Upon arriving that afternoon, I was led to a table where Jerry Douglas, Buck White and Stanley sat in casual conversation. I turned a tape recorder on and the four of us simply talked – sometimes about music, but largely about topics far removed from the business at hand. When Mark had his gear set up, road manager Bob Neuwirth, who was already busy with myriad other duties, began sifting through schedules to determine which artists were available for impromptu photo sessions and, more importantly, where they could be shot. That’s when Stanley spoke up. “You could take some pictures of me playing banjo in my dressing room if you like.”

The room went silent. Dead silent. Getting to photograph Stanley – the artist who almost single handedly defined the role of the clawhammer banjo in string music, the bluegrass traditionalist who turned a spiritual like O Death into a pop hit of sorts in the wake of its ghostly inclusion in the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou? – in such an intimate setting was kind of the bluegrass equivalent of getting to sit in on a sketch session with Picasso. Stanley wasn’t the only major bluegrass elder of the day. But since the death of Bill Monroe in 1996, Stanley was viewed as the music’s most patriarchal figure, an artist nearly as old and practiced as the music itself. So yes, Stanley’s generous offer was accepted and Mark’s resulting photos are represented by the fabulous shot above.

Stanley died yesterday at age 89 and remained an active touring performer until relatively recently. We’ll leave his litany of artistic accomplishments for others to dwell on. Suffice to say, Stanley was a quietly authoritative figure, whether he was leading an ensemble through the gospel affirmation of Angel Band, sounding beyond ghostly within the quietly rapturous singing of O Death or letting the strings fly through Clinch Mountain Backstep. He was a pioneer during the early days of bluegrass, a stately ambassador for its preservation later in life and an innovator and gentleman at all points in between.

when i’m seventy four

paul mccartney.

paul mccartney.

Paul McCartney turns 74 today. If you don’t think that is a cause for celebration, your head hasn’t been in the headlines this year. The first half of 2016 has taken an alarming number of cultural legends from us along with scores slightly less iconic artists that have collectively defined the popular music that has befriended us over the last half century. The fact that Sir Paul is still here as an active performer in the face of such continuous loss is, well, beyond wonderful.

There is no denying that much of McCartney’s post-Beatles output has been uneven, especially in recent decades. But the paths his early songs forged have forever fortified pop music. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would be nearly as thrilled with a world without Hey Jude, Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, Let it Be, Back in the U.S.S.R., The Long and Winding Road, Penny Lane, We Can Work it Out and Blackbird as the one we have with them. Throw in post-Fab Four works like Ram and Band on the Run and, yeah, the bar was pretty well set at a level that a library of later works couldn’t hope to match.

Another anthology set, Pure McCartney, was released last week to commemorate the birthday, and it is probably as good an introduction as any to his non-Beatles work. But the only way to fully appreciate the scope, influence and sheer stylistic vitality of McCartney’s music is to pick up every studio record – Beatles and solo career-wise – he was involved with between 1964 and 1974.

Sir Paul is back in our region on July 10 with a concert at Cincinnati’s US Bank Arena – a visit that offers considerable comfort at a time when so many musical heroes have taken their leave of us. But the most obvious reflection on the day comes from a renewed listen to When I’m Sixty Four, a song remarkably grounded in its steadfast romanticism when the Beatles cut it in 1967: “Give me your answer, fill in a form; mine for evermore. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”

But it was the song’s final off-the-cuff word that summated the mood of McCartney that still proves so captivating as the future rolls on: “Ho!”

in performance: universal indians with joe mcphee

joe McPhee.

joe McPhee.

After an introductory 17 minute ensemble improvisation full of free jazz fury tempered slightly at times by solo and duo dynamics, Universal Indians tenor saxophonist John Dikeman popped open a can of soda. As taking a few sips, Norwegian bandmates Jon Rune Strom and Tollef Ostvang engaged in comparatively pastoral dialogue on bass and bells, respectively. Seemingly restless, Dikeman then jumped back into a steadily mounting ruckus built around the Ornette Coleman staple Lonely Woman that would bounce, recoil and, at times, serenade with subtle texture over the next half hour.

Remarked one patron after the full hour-long Outside the Spotlight performance drew to a close earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center: “So that’s what a can of Ale 8 will do for you.”

Dikeman, a Wyoming native now based in Amsterdam, represented one of two jazz generations at work – one fascinated with the gusto, immediacy and especially volume brewed within a free jazz group. As such, his unamplified solos, especially within the echo-filled environment of the Lyric’s Community Room, possessed earsplitting volume early into the show. Fittingly, Dikeman physically threw himself into such moments, bopping back and forth from the waist up with rock star-like abandon.

In contrast was Universal Indians’ special guest Joe McPhee, a Poughkeepsie mainstay who, at age 76, has been a jazz renegade for nearly 50 years. McPhee’s playing on alto saxophone and the marvelous pocket trumpet wasn’t nearly so forward, physical or obvious. His soloing utilized space, breath and tone far more than Dikeman. But that didn’t stop him from making the pocket trumpet squeal like an approaching siren out of hushed dissonance the two times he played it.

There were also instances where McPhee and Dikeman teamed to embrace melody. Those times were brief and fractured, but they were immensely colorful, as in the moments where the beauty of Lonely Woman’s theme finally arrived like a fashionably late guest. The same held true when McPhee concluded the Coleman tribute with a snippet of South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza’s You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me, a tune regularly covered by another overseas trio the elder saxophonist often collaborates with, The Thing. With Universal Indians, though, the melody served as a cross-generational coda fueled equally by youthful fire and sagely reflection.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass (saturday afternoon)

town mountain: phil barker, jack devereux, adam chaffins, robert greer and jesse langlais. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

town mountain: phil barker, jack devereux, adam chaffins, robert greer and jesse langlais. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

“It’s another hot one, isn’t it?”

That was the observation of Town Mountain’s Robert Greer as yesterday afternoon’s temps shot near the ‘90s at the Kentucky Horse Park for the Festival of the Bluegrass. The heat may have sent many patrons scrambling for the shade, but the sounds served up for the remaining faithful combined for a remarkable showcase of two bands representing two string music generations.

The ascension of Town Mountain as one of the festival’s premiere acts was demonstrated in a set that emphasized the North Carolina’s quintet’s obvious strengths – specifically, a rugged ensemble charge (showcased at once during the show opening Tick on a Dog), ample stylistic dexterity (the honky tonk drive of Whiskey With Tears) and individual firepower (Greer’s joyous vocals, Phil Barker’s quick-witted mandolin picking).

Curiously, the ingenuity of Town Mountain’s set came down to two cover tunes. The first, the Grateful Dead by way of Johnny Cash classic Big River was all jovial country reinvention while the Cash by way of Sting gem I Hung My Head, with Lawrence County bassist Adam Chaffins on lead vocals, ignited the country core of a pop nugget, transforming it into a woeful Western epic that equaled classics like The Long Black Veil.

the seldom scene: rickie simpkins, lou reid, dudley connell and fred travers.

the seldom scene: rickie simpkins, lou reid, dudley connell and fred travers.

Yesterday afternoon also sported the return of The Seldom Scene, a festival mainstay and, until last year, the event’s Saturday evening headliner (Town Mountain now has that distinction). But with the addition of banjoist Rickie Simpkins on banjo, the band added a new dimension to an already diverse sounding unit, not to mention a welcome boost of new artistic blood.

The band’s three vocalists – guitarist Dudley Connell, dobroist Fred Travers and mandolinist Lou Reid – boldly spelled out the range of the current Scene lineup. Connell offered a sobering and solemn reading of Blue Diamond Mine while Travers’ high tenor singing brought new life to What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ ‘Round (a tune that reaches back to the band’s 1972 debut album, Act 1). But Reid pretty much owned the show with a galvanizing vocal lead on the plaintive ballad I Couldn’t Find My Walkin’ Shoes, a wild harmonic wail under Connell during the tipsy waltz From the Bottom of the Glass and nimble mandolin runs during a white hot Sugarfoot Rag that sent Simpkins over to fiddle. The combined firepower suggest a hearty renaissance for The Seldom Scene may be at hand.

tom gray and valerie smith.

tom gray and valerie smith.

In between the two titan bands during the afternoon was Missouri native Valerie Smith and her group Liberty Pike. Smith took perhaps the boldest chances of any act on the festival bill in terms of repertoire and sheer vocal stamina, both of which reflected plenty of genre hopping.

The set list was hit and miss. Some of the curiosities of her show, like George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun, proved an ill fit. But other, more extreme choices such as the 1975 Jessie Colter country hit I’m Not Lisa revealed a surprisingly fertile framework for strong harmonizing. For her wildest choice, Smith and bassist Tom Gray (curiously, a founding member of The Seldom Scene) soared out of bluegrass altogether for the jazzy stride of Buzzed that made for a fun and audacious festival diversion.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass (friday afternoon)

shawn lane and gaven largent of blue highway performing yesterday at the festival of the bluegrass. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

shawn lane and gaven largent of blue highway performing yesterday at the festival of the bluegrass at the kentucky horse park. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

The elephant in the room was more like one stomping about in the campground of the Kentucky Horse Park yesterday as Blue Highway took the stage for its afternoon set at the Festival of the Bluegrass. The elephant, in this instance, was the absence of dobroist and co-founder Rob Ickes, one of modern bluegrass music’s most recognized and awarded instrumentalists, who split amicably with the band late last year. Blue Highway guitarist and co-vocalist Tim Stafford wasted no time in addressing the question of “Where’s Rob?” But the explanation became more of an introduction for 20 year old Gaven Largent, Ickes’ replacement.

The Virginia native turned out to be quite complimentary to the rest of the Blue Highway lineup, which consisted exclusively of founding members. But it was also a wisely paced introduction. During the afternoon set, Largent largely sidestepped the kind of hearty soloing that distinguished Ickes and opted more for a natural integration into the band’s song structures, whether he was weaving his playing around the breaks of banjoist Jason Burleson and fiddler Shawn Lane or fortifying the leisurely paced Just to Have to a Job.

Largent wasn’t the only new face in Blue Highway yesterday. Daniel Salyer sat in for bassist Wayne Taylor who is recuperating from cardiac bypass surgery. Salyer more than stepped up to the plate by adding to the gospel quartet harmonies of Bill Monroe’s Wicked Path of Sin and supplying accomplished high tenor lead vocals to covers of the Stanley Brothers’ Little Maggie and Flatt & Scruggs’ The Old Home Town.

russell moore and jerry cole of IIIrd tyme out.

russell moore and jerry cole of IIIrd tyme out.

In contrast, a following set by Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, a longtime Festival of the Bluegrass favorite, was largely business as usual.

Designed as a celebration of sorts for the band’s 25th anniversary, the set drew upon songs vintage (the hard labor lullaby Moundsville Pen from IIIrd Tyme Out’s self titled 1991 debut album, which Moore curiously said “set the tone” for the quintet’s music) as well as numerous tunes from 2015’s It’s Almost Tyme. Highlights included I’m Leaving You and Fort Worth Too, which underscored the tireless drive of Moore’s singing, and the expert Wayne Benson instrumental Spindale, with the latter dispensing swiftly animated but unhurried runs on mandolin.

dara wray of blue mafia.

dara wray of blue mafia.

The Missouri band Blue Mafia, making its Festival of the Bluegrass debut, closed out the afternoon and early evening program with the day’s most traditionally minded performance, right down to the dark contours of Your Last Breath, a eulogy mandolinist and co-vocalist Dara Wray dubbed “a love song.”

The playing and harmonies were all crisply delivered, but Blue Mafia still has a ways to go in establishing a musical identity of its own. While it was refreshing to hear the band avoid the pseudo country accents that plague many young bluegrass acts, what was on display yesterday was largely perfunctory. As amiable and adept as the performance was, one hopes the band can develop a voice of its own to stand out more in a bluegrass field that the festival yesterday reminded us was still as stylistically diverse as it was vast.

dave swarbrick, 1941-2016

dave swarbrick.

dave swarbrick.

The ’60 and ‘70s were peppered with innovators whose contributions to contemporary music purposely strayed from commercial visibility. To those that championed the popular sounds of the day, such quiet giants went largely unnoticed. But to more ardent fans that followed the stylistic path such work forged, their status quickly turned heroic.

One such pioneer was Dave Swarbrick, who passed away with little more than a nod from mainstream media on June 3 at age 75.

From the ‘60s onward, Swarbrick helped redefine British folk music, especially through electric innovations that triggered a genre unto itself, British folk-rock. He was a world class fiddler, one as comfortable with a somber ballad as he was with a dance tune. But it was his spirit that spoke volumes – a hearty, jovial attitude with gypsy-esque fervor that beamed through his playing and especially his singing.

Though introduced to British audiences at the dawn of the ‘6os with the Ian Campbell Folk Group, it was the music he created through two lasting alliances that established the breadth of Swarbrick’s remarkable musicality. The first was the duo he co-led with guitarist/singer Martin Carthy, one Britain’s most learned folk torchbearers. The second was the vanguard folk-rock band Fairport Convention which he helped pilot during the ‘70s through myriad personnel changes and a steadfast devotion to a sound that equally embraced folk tradition and electric mischief.

I was lucky enough to see Swarbrick in both settings. With Carthy, he was all wily grace, a strictly instrumental adornment to his partner’s folk troubadour profile. Given how the two stressed guitar/fiddle arrangements, Swarbrick’s playing was ripe with subtle colors that were often antique but never austere. Their performances possessed an air of timelessness, even when their repertoire would spill over into contemporary tunes.

With Fairport, Swarbrick was a lit fuse – a player that reveled in the electric possibilities that rock arrangements offered him, including the opportunity to open up as vocalist. Singing was never what Swarbrick was known for, but it was one of the true delights of his music. His final recordings with Fairport, the underrated and hard-to-find trio of The Bonny Bunch of Roses (1977), Tippler’s Tales (1978) and the sleeper concert album Farewell Farewell (1979) were equal parts history lesson and pub crawl revelry led by distinctive, intuitive and immensely animated vocals.

Swarbrick battled emphysema for many years (perhaps not surprisingly, as most performance photos from the ‘70s revealed a cigarette dangling from his lips). While it never deteriorated to the degree the Daily Telegraph in London stated in 1999 by prematurely publishing his obituary, Swarbrick underwent a double lung transplant in 2004 but was still touring a decade later.

Recommended listening, outside of numerous Fairport and Swarbrick/Carthy albums, includes the 1981 solo album Smiddyburn, an instrumental session that reunited the full 1970 Fairport lineup (including Richard Thompson) and encapsulated British folk in all its traditionally rooted finery and electric finesse. Like Swarbrick himself, the music sailed through the decades with a love of heart, home and history.

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