There have been a handful of albums that have been responsible for bringing new bluegrass fans into the fold, even if the recordings themselves might not have been mainstream bluegrass. Examples include Old & In The Way’s eponymous album, the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” It’s this last album that is revisted by Dirt Band multi-instrumentalist John McEuen, at least in spirit. While titled Made in Brooklyn, it might as well be renamed Closing The Circle.
Recorded live in a Brooklyn church, this CD functions as an exuberant gathering of some of McEuen’s favorite musical collaborators, and becomes a very eclectic homage to his many stylistic influences. The overall vibe is one of looseness and spontaneity, which can lead to moments that are ragged as well as right, but there’s much more of the latter than the former here. The instrumental work is stellar, featuring Jay Ungar on fiddle, David Bromberg on guitar, and Andy Goessling of Railroad Earth on an exceptionally wide array of instruments, from mandolin and resonator guitar to clarinet and saxophone. The always eclectic New York musician/composer David Amram contributes pennywhistle and percussion, and McEuen gets to play anything else with strings while bassist Skip Ward does a great job of holding everything together.
Vocally, Made In Brooklyn is a bit more of a mixed bag. Matt Cartsonis takes on the lion’s share of the leads, while McEuen himself contributes his quirky pipes on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Travelin’ Mood,” as well as a verse of Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy” (more on that later). John Carter Cash makes a cameo appearance singing his father’s “I Still Miss Someone” in an understated way that reveals echoes of the patriarch’s craggy phrasing. Coming to the fore is John Cowan, who nails the Gene Clark/Bernie Leadon song “She Darked The Sun,” (previously recorded by Linda Ronstadt and Dillard and Clark, among others) and joins Cartsonis and McEuen protege Martha Redbone on a powerful gospel-style rendition of “I Rose Up,” a musical adaptation of a William Blake poem.
Some of the finest gems on this album are to be found in the song choices. A previously unrecorded Boudleaux Bryant song called “My Favorite Dream” is touchingly sung by Cartsonis in a manner reminiscent of Steve Goodman at his best, while fans of the late Warren Zevon will appreciate covers of two of his songs. “My Dirty Life And Times,” despite a few too many “yee-haws,” is a great choice for a rootsy adaptation and is held together deftly by the banjo of none other than Steve Martin. “Excitable Boy,” which McEuen accurately presents as lineage to the murder ballad tradition, may suffer in comparison to the originals despite, or perhaps because of, the replication of the background vocals. Bromberg is asked to reprise his moving version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” here joined by sensitive instrumental support from some of the players. And McEuen himself delivers a very strong solo voice/fiddle/banjo delivery of Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Mountain Whippoorwill.”
All these highlights are supplemented by several McEuen original instrumentals interspersed throughout. All told, “Made In Brooklyn” is a fitting testimony to a musical career devoted to exploring the tangled roots of traditional music. (Chesky Records, 1650 Broadway, Ste. 900, New York, NY 10019, www.chesky.com.)HK