Scarlett, Washington & Whiteley,
Sitting on a Rainbow
(Borealis, 2003)

Sitting on a Rainbow has received some very good press. For instance, Greg Quill of the Toronto Star called it "an instant collectable." Unfortunately, I can't be quite as enthusiastic.

Most of the songs included on Sitting on a Rainbow, the third collaborative recording by Mose Scarlett, Jackie Washington and Ken Whiteley, were written during the first third of the 20th century. Many of them are so well known that it's impossible to hear them without them conjuring images and associations from childhood. And while some of those associations are likely to enhance one's appreciation of this album, for me songs like "Singing in the Rain," "When You're Smiling" and "World on a String" have, through commercial use or sheer repetition, become caricatures of themselves.

Coupled with this is the rather muppet-like quality of some of the vocals. In places this works reasonably well. "Walking Down the Line" has pure joy in its vocal delivery, the sort of infectious and honest enthusiasm that made Jim Henson's puppets connect with children and adults alike. On the other hand, when "Mood Indigo" opens with Ken's "mouth trumpet" intro all I can picture are plush farm animals -- cows and chickens, I think -- setting the stage for a sultry Miss Piggy. I can't take the song at all seriously.

That said, there is some wonderfully relaxed guitar work on Sitting on a Rainbow. The album feels spontaneous, casual and friendly; a group of old friends enjoying their shared love of well-worn tunes and each other's considerable musical prowess. After all, between Scarlett, Washington and Whiteley there are in excess of 125 years of performance experience. Add to that the talents of guest musicians including Amos Garrett and Jeff Healey, and this album is sure to impress on an instrumental level.

One amazing thing about the disc is how well the few new songs -- the originals "You Old Used to Be" and "Gas Up the Comet" as well as Bob Dylan's "Walking Down the Line" -- feel as classic as "Wait 'til the Sun Shines, Nelly" (1905) and "I Ain't Got Nobody" (1915). Scarlett, Washington and Whiteley obviously understand what makes this music tick. And I suspect these 15 songs work tremendously well in a small, intimate club or in a folk festival setting with the audience all singing along. But the intimacy doesn't quite translate in this studio recording.

Sitting on a Rainbow is sure to please folk fans but it's not the sort of album that's going to reach across musical boundaries and capture new listeners.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 28 February 2004

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