Sid Selvidge,
Live at Otherlands
(Archer, 2005)

This double-disc set preserves a solo coffeehouse performance by veteran Memphis folk (and sometime r&b) singer Sid Selvidge. The first disc, an audio record of the concert, carries slightly more than half an hour's worth of Selvidge's soulful reinventions of material from African-American vernacular and folk-revival sources. There is also one of his own songs, "The Outlaw," where his multi-octaved voice drifts into a dreamy yodel. All of this is to the good -- but really, does the universe need another cover of "Long Black Veil"?

The second disc, a DVD, lets you know how Selvidge looked as he picked -- he is a finger-picker (one of several reasons his versions of old country-blues tunes don't ape the sources) -- and sang. It also preserves an engaging backstage interview, where Selvidge, who happens to be an anthropologist in his day job (in other words: no dummy), talks smartly about the songs and warmly of his friendship with the celebrated Memphis bluesman/songster Walter "Furry" Lewis.

He offers a near heart-stopping rendition of the Ivory Joe Hunter classic "Since I Met You, Baby," a song that only the most assured vocalists would even imagine attempting. Other highlights include an unaccompanied "Boll Weevil" and a compelling take on Lewis' deeply peculiar "Kassie Jones" variant. Long in his repertoire, these songs and their performances feel alive and lived in, as natural to Selvidge as breath and joy.

If you've never heard him before, this is one place to start -- and start you should; he lives up to decades' worth of flattering notices. For those of us who are not new to Selvidge, the DVD is likely to be the bigger focus of attention. I also recommend his previous CD, A Little Bit of Rain (Archer, 2003); the name is from the Fred Neil song, which appears again on Live). A studio recording, Rain has a fuller, and fully satisfying, sound, courtesy of legendary Memphis producer and Selvidge compadre Jim Dickinson. It also boasts a version of the traditional "Swannanoa Tunnel" -- an eerie, unsettling song in anybody's singing -- that will scare the hell out of you.

by Jerome Clark
6 May 2006

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