Sam Amidon,
(Nonesuch, 2014)

Jorma Kaukonen,
Ain't in No Hurry
(Red House, 2015)

In a short autobiographical essay inside the Ain't in No Hurry package, Jorma Kaukonen remarks, "I have been more than a decently rewarded folk musician for more than half a century." Of course, those who don't follow the folk scene closely are more likely to know Kaukonen as a founding member of Jefferson Airplane and, later, of the rock-and-roots Hot Tuna, with fellow Airplane member and friend Jack Casady. Still, folk music has long been a passion, at least privately when not publicly, in Kaukonen's career, after he heard it first while growing up in Washington, D.C., and later immersed himself in bluegrass and Piedmont blues, the latter of which remains a prominent influence on his Gary Davis-shaded guitar style if not necessarily in the songs he chooses to sing.

Ain't in No Hurry, the third and latest of his solo albums on the St. Paul-based Red House (I reviewed his previous, River of Time, in this space on 14 February 2009), highlights Kaukonen's easygoing yet sophisticated approach. He surrounds himself with previous recording mates such as Casady (bass), Larry Campbell (guitars) and Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin). As always we are treated to Kaukonen's lyrical picking and warm, conversational singing. This guy has been at it long enough that mortality-focused songs (Jim Eagan's title piece, the original "Seasons in the Field") have entered the repertoire. "Ain't in No Hurry," among the album's highlights, has such a pleasantly bouncy melody that only a third, more attentive listening alerted me to its deep-dark subject matter.

The playlist encompasses originals, covers and one that splits the difference, this last being Woody Guthrie's "Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me" with a brand-new melody by Kaukonen and Campbell. Kaukonen offers up affecting versions of two Depression-era standards, Jimmy Cox's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and Harburg/Gorney's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Thomas E. Dorsey, better known as a great gospel composer (e.g., "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"), is responsible for the outrageous "The Terrible Operation," which could be either an over-the-top sexual metaphor or an expose of jaw-dropping medical malpractice. Either way, it is funny. The Carter Family's "Sweet Fern" is touched up, wittily, with some Jimmie Rodgers guitar effects. Of the originals my favorite is the gripping, Dylan-flavored "Bar Room Crystal Ball," which manages to occupy 7:37 without overstaying its welcome.

Basically, what we have with these new albums by Kaukonen and Sam Amidon is a form of folk-music presentation, though updated, that came together during the 1960s revival, Though folk music lives on outside the industry mainstream, its place as at least a marginal genre with a loyal following seems assured. Naturally, the best performers seek a sound that sets them apart. Older artists like Kaukonen have fashioned their own over the decades. Amidon, a young man with a handful of previous records, grew up in a New England home in which his parents were active folk musicians, part of the Word of Mouth Chorus whose Nonesuch album Rivers of Delight: American Folk Hymns from the Sacred Harp Tradition happens to be among the very first CDs I purchased when the format became widely available.

Lily-O boasts eight traditional American songs, plus Amidon's own "Down the Line" and the late Rosa Lee Watson's "Your Lone Journey" which feels so much like an oldtime hymn that it may as be well one. (It's usually recorded as "Your Long Journey," but Amidon uses the composer's -- Doc Watson's spouse's -- original adjective.) Curiously, however, the album was cut in a studio in Reykjavik, Iceland, and produced by Valgeir Sigurdsson, heretofore associated with pop acts such as Bjork. The small back-up group includes the well-known jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, who is versed too in traditional music; the pairing proves to be a happy one. Besides handling the lead vocals, Amidon plays banjo and acoustic guitar, as well as fiddle on "Blue Mountains."

Amidon and Sigurdsson don't go for authenticity in the arrangements. Theirs is very much a contemporary take on early music. While the sound is usually fairly spare, there are short interludes of electronica, jazz piano, percussion and more to fashion a kind of atmospherics intended to take the songs outside time and maybe even space. Mostly, Amidon sings in a laconic, drama-eschewing voice, not hurrying things along as he revels in narrative and melody from a psychic distance. In that context the up-tempo "Walkin' Boss" and "Pat Do This, Pat Do That" (an interesting variant of the better-known "Pat Works on the Railway") inject some arguably needed variety.

I suppose this isn't for everybody, particularly those suspicious of what they deem excessively imaginative reinterpretations of venerable folk material. At the same time it certainly won't please those who demand fast tempos and shrieking guitars. It ought to be for anybody else, though, who has ears, taste, and attention span. Listen carefully, and the beauty of Lily-O reveals itself to you.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 May 2015

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