Hull & Larson,
(Arabica, 1998)

There are few things I enjoy more in life than strong coffee, vintage instruments and eclectic roots music masterfully played, which is why Moonbeams by Dakota Dave Hull and Kari Larson holds pride of place on my disc carousel.

Hull (self-avowed coffee fiend and friend of Ed Dunn of Dunn Bros. fame) and Larson weave a mesmerizing, instrumental tapestry of traditional fiddle tunes, Joplin rags, funky old big band jazz tunes and originals with deft, simple and straightforward arrangements.

There is no singing on the recording. They allow the instruments to sing for themselves, and quite a collection it is. Hull plays guitars: everything from a 1930 Gibson L-10 to a 1929 National Triolian resonator to a 1933 Epiphone De Luxe Masterbilt with several stops in between. Larson displays a light touch and impeccably sweet tone on mandolin, tenor guitar (1930 Martin) and resonators. There is even a vintage ukulele duo of "Mr. Sandman" that, oddly enough, is one of the more hauntingly beautiful pieces on the disc.

Moonbeams reminds me of sitting around a kitchen table into the wee hours of the night, joking around, bouncing from topic to topic, losing yourself in the stories. It starts off with an old vaudeville-era Gus Kahn piece called "Goofus" with Hull and Larson both on resonator guitars. It rambles through some Civil War fiddle tunes ("Kingdom Coming," "Sally Ann" and "Colored Aristocracy" make up one set), Irish fiddle tunes ("Rights of Man," "Threepenny Bit") and "The Chrysanthemum" by Scott Joplin. It makes a left turn with a few covers: the aforementioned "Mr Sandman," "You Don't Know Me" by Eddy Arnold and "Paulistana No. 1," originally a classical piano piece by a man named Claudio Santoro. Along the way they showcase some originals: a Django-inspired swing piece entitled "Wind Chill," a turn-of-the-century-sounding tune called "Sweet Thursday" that would make David Grisman jealous, and a bluesy tune called "Half Way There" that reminds me of Billie Holiday.

With so much variety, one would assume there would be an occasional lapse, but this recording not only succeeds, it shines. Moonbeams presents a blend of tradition and off-the-wall, of simple arrangements and complex sounds, of familiar chestnuts reinvented and fresh, new material reinvigorating the old. The eclecticism is refreshing to me and a source of wonder each time I listen. Like a good book, you always find something new in it.

Hull and Larson understand the capabilities of their varied and various instruments and don't feel limited by their traditional musical roles. They burnish an old Irish tune like "Three Penny Bit" (one section of the medly "Three Pony Bit") with ukulele back-up (hey, it worked for Gerry O'Beirne). They take the resonator guitar out of its familiar blues element and make it swing. They take away the lyrics and make you fall in love again with a simple melody.

But what I admire most about this effort is not the command of so many genres and so many instruments. The quality I admire most is Hull and Larson's ability to blend with each other seamlessly, whether in a soulful harmony line or in a backing arrangement that pushes, drives and complements the melody without ever overshadowing (for example the title track "Moonbeams" or "Duck River"). Each is a remarkably talented picker, but together they amaze and astound.

This Arabica Productions offering (did I mention that Hull and Larson are fond of coffee?) is truly a deep, rich blend, and like good coffee, it will leave you buzzing and ready for another round.

[ by Fred Keller ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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