Claudia Schmidt,
Bend in the River: Collected Songs
(Red House, 2012)

For many years Claudia Schmidt has plied her trade as singer, songwriter, interpreter and guitarist from an Upper Midwestern base, living at various times in Chicago, Milwaukee, Michigan and (currently) Minneapolis. I used to see her on occasion at the Earl of Old Town, a once-famous folk/acoustic club on Chicago's North Side. In those days I was so focused on the more tradition-based, rural-accented artists ("authentic" folk singers) -- Schmidt was not among them -- that all I can remember of her from then is thinking that she seemed like a nice person.

Hearing Bend in the River, I deduce that either I'm getting decades-old memories refreshed or I'm hearing a more mature Claudia Schmidt than I was exposed to in the late 1970s. A retrospective on her recording career, Bend begins in 1987 and ends in 2000. It ably documents how versatile, gifted and not entirely classifiable she is as a performer. Perhaps the last quality explains why club and coffeehouse, as opposed to larger venues and record labels, remain her natural home.

Her tastes encompass mainstream jazz and classic pop as well as folk. In the last category, the 19th-century hymn "Wayfaring Stranger" -- the one traditional cut -- appears in an affecting reading at once lush and austere. A couple of duets with Sally Rogers on originals "Grampa Johnson" and "Going By" attest to Schmidt's affection for the old-time sound, which co-exists easily with her command of more urbane idioms. There are also, on occasion, Caribbean and gospel rhythms to be heard. The four pure jazz cuts (along with several merely jazz-inflected ones) have a particular appeal as testimony to Schmidt's understated but remarkable vocal skill and sophistication.

I hesitate to compare her to anybody in particular because she is so emphatically herself. Since, however, hardly anybody sounds like nobody at all, I guess I'll opt for Joni Mitchell, with a serious qualification or two. For one thing, Schmidt's style is accessible, friendly and anything but aloof. It speaks to a warmth of spirit that ice-queen Mitchell could never hope to communicate even if she wanted to. If Schmidt's muse flies her in a multitude of directions, it never takes her too far from the ground.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 July 2012

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