Laurie Lewis,
One Evening in May
(Spruce & Maple Music, 2013)

Long a respected, influential figure on the West Coast roots scene, singer/multi-instrumentalist Laurie Lewis divides her performances and recordings between the overlapping traditions of folk and bluegrass. On One Evening in May, captured at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse on May 8, 2013, she and friends, most notably Tom Rozum and Nina Gerber, spotlight -- albeit not exclusively -- Lewis's folk-flavored originals. While there is no bluegrass, three of the songs ("My True Love Loves Me," "The Crooked Miles," "With Me Wherever I Go") take their inspiration from the mountain music out of which bluegrass evolved in the mid-20th century.

Lewis, it bears noting, is not ordinarily thought of as a singer-songwriter. In that sense she reminds me of the late Dave Van Ronk, who was primarily an interpreter; when he wrote his own songs, they were invariably well-crafted and meant to last. Few singer-songwriters manage to fashion consistently first-rate material. Artists like Lewis and Van Ronk, at ease reinventing others' work, save their songwriting for those occasions when they have something worthwhile to say and a melody to match.

The light-hearted "Kisses," a discourse on the variety of same, claims the distinction of being the only song I've ever heard that uses the adjective "quotidian." It also occasions the thought that people must toss kisses around with far more abandon in California, where Lewis dwells, than do we undemonstrative Midwesterners, who keep even tepid hugs to the barest of minimums. The more somber, novelistic "Barstow," about a long life in a desolate place, is not to be confused with Jay Farrar's apocalyptic musical prophecy of the same title. There must be something uniquely unsettling about that city (pop. 22,000, in the desert of San Bernardino County), references to which show up in a surprising number of songs, and practically never in flattering contexts.

My favorite of the originals, "Sailing Boat," amounts to five and a half minutes' worth of hypnotically extended metaphor, the lyrics and melody attesting to Lewis's grasp of the power of old ballads. If not exactly a ballad, it feels as if derived from one in the way "Storms Are on the Ocean" began its long life amid verses to the broader narrative of "The Lass of Loch Royal." Over the years Lewis's performances have moved me and stayed stubbornly in memory, but even so, this one particularly commands the heart. Another standout, "Trees," takes an honorable place among others in which Lewis has evoked nature and environment. Rozum gets to shine on the traditional "Down to Tampa" and on Merle Haggard's "One Sweet Hello," Gerber on her alluringly tuneful instrumental "Winthrop Waltz."

If you're wary of live albums, don't worry. The audience, always respectful, keeps its applause to the end and doesn't bellow out requests. Meantime, Lewis and accompanists attend to the singing and the picking, not to the showing off. As an added virtue, One Evening is more than an hour's worth of CD, a small miracle in an age when many discs don't make it to half that.

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 March 2014

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