Berkshire musicians folking it up

Ravin' Mavens

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 3, 2001) – A slew of new CDs by Berkshire-based musicians show the enduring pull of folk-based musics on those active on the local music scene.

Like the group’s first album, Brave New Girl, the Ravin’ Mavens new CD, Self Styled, features a versatile mix of original compositions, modern country songs, fiddle tunes and traditional folk songs from different cultures, this time out including Cajun-, African- and Latin-flavored numbers. Since Brave New Girl came out, however, the group has undergone a few personnel changes, with Catherine McKinnon and Kathy Jo Barrett leaving and Eileen Cozzaglio joining the group.

Cozzaglio is a wonderful addition to Ravin’ Mavens, which also includes Lisa Sturz and Louise Lindenmeyr. Cozzaglio’s fiddle tune “Deadly Nightshade” is one of the best things on the album, a three-part Gypsy- and Eastern European-inflected number beginning as a reflective air, turning into a dark, Irish-flavored dance tune, then heading into triple-time, prog-folk territory. Cozzaglio’s “Ruth” is even more experimental and evocative, with her violins and violas double- or even triple-tracked, and both numbers show evidence of her classical background with the hint of an avant-garde sensibility. Cozzaglio’s fiddle also spices up several other numbers, including the country-swing novelty “Eat at Joe’s.” One looks forward to hearing an entire solo effort some day by Cozzaglio.

As for the rest of the album, Lisa Sturz demonstrates her estimable vocal and songwriting talent on several tunes, including “Hours Past Midnight,” a new but timeless country waltz. Lindenmeyr showcases her Latin American accordion style on the Puerto Rican plena, “Zumbador.” Ravin’ Mavens are best when all three vocalists are showcasing the natural blend of their voices, such as when they swap verses on the country-waltz “Mother’s Lament,” or on the African-style a capella choral number, “I’m Going Home.” Some of the solo vehicles, such as “Get You Out of Here,” suffer from a weak vocal approach that lacks drive and spirit, not commanding sufficient attention. Also, on an advance copy of the recording, the bass occasionally overwhelmed the arrangements; this might be fixed, however, in the final mix.

Guitarist Adam Rothberg shared production duties on Self Styled with the Ravin’ Mavens and bassist Anders Johansson. Other instrumentalists include bassists Dan Broad and Joel Sturz, guitarist Steve Robinson and drummer Matthew Williams. “Self Styled” was recorded in Lee at Muse Mix Studio and engineered and mastered by Lisa Sturz. The group’s official CD release party is tonight at 8:30 at the Castle Street Café in Great Barrington, where the group will be joined by Broad and Rothberg. Call 528-5244 for reservations. Ravin’ Mavens will also appear next Saturday, Dec. 15, at 9, at the Lion’s Den in Stockbridge.

Lindenmeyr is also a member of The Joint Chiefs, a trio whose new album, It Matches Your Juice, features 16 songs, many of which are versions of popular tunes by the likes of Joni Mitchell, John Hiatt, Tracy Chapman, Rodney Crowell, Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen. Singer/guitarist Eliot Osborn contributes a few original tunes, and guitarist/bassist/singer George Potts also gets credit for one of the tunes. Osborn’s “Go Down Swingin’,” an easygoing country-swing tune that recalls Dan Hicks at his breezy best, sets the tone for the album both musically and thematically.

The trio, supplemented by percussion and accordion, finds swinging, jazzy shuffle grooves for the various tunes and organic harmonies in acoustic guitar- and mandolin-fueled arrangements. The Joint Chiefs occasionally perform in the Berkshires, but their next gig in the region is at West Main Restaurant, Lakeville, Conn., (860-435-1450) on Thursday, Dec. 13.

South County singer-songwriter Meg Hutchinson is quickly garerning national attention for her personal compositions, her warm vocals and her intimate performance style, which is captured so well on her marvelous new solo CD, Any Given Day, a live album recorded mostly at the Lion’s Den in Stockbridge. A few tracks were also recorded at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, where Hutchinson will celebrate the release of her CD this Sunday at 7, on a co-bill with singer-songwriter and former Ani DiFranco drummer Andy Stochansky. Tickets are available locally at Tune Street in Great Barrington.

While Hutchinson might put a listener in mind of any of various female singer-songwriters, including DiFranco, Shawn Colvin, Jonatha Brooke or Tracy Chapman, she has carefully carved out an original signature, as heard for example on the title track of Any Given Day. Accompanying herself on guitar, Hutchinson sings a first-person character sketch and a short story neatly wrapped into a contemporary folk song with a catchy melody that wraps itself around the words and the listener’s ears with equal skill. Hutchinson’s voice has a built-in smile and a gospel-strength ballast she holds on reserve and parcels out carefully and with deft aplomb.

Rick Robbins’s Don’t Deny My Name is a deceptively modest recording in more ways than one. You have to read the fine print to learn that the album by the Housatonic folksinger features guest appearances by The Band’s Garth Hudson, John Sebastian (that’s two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers), and Bob Dylan string wizard Larry Campbell. Country-blues folksinger Rory Block’s name and picture are on the cover, and Robbins gives Block -- who produced the album, as she did his previous one, “Walkin’ Down the Line” -- top billing (the album is credited to “Rick Robbins with Rory Block”).

The album is also a kind of tribute to Robbins’s longtime friend, mentor and duet partner, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Several songs on the album are associated with Elliott, and Robbins gives the Woody Guthrie acolyte credit on several tunes (“from the singing of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott”), making explicit the often implicit – and typically unstated – folk process.

While Block’s harmonies and signature guitar licks certainly color the music, as do Sebastian’s mouth harp, Hudson’s accordion and Campbell’s pedal steel guitar, mandolin and fiddle, Robbins needn’t deny his own name on this effort, as good as any traditional folk-style album that has come out in years. Robbins’s gruff, weather-beaten vocals are from the Elliott/Guthrie (Woody and Arlo) school, and as such they are well-suited to songs by Kris Kristofferson (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”) and a couple of well-chosen Bob Dylan obscurities (“Bob Dylan’s Dream,” “Billy”).

The Flying Garbanzos are a relatively new instrumental group in North County whose members include Eric Buddington, Tony Pisano, Josh Pisano and Dale Ott. As heard on the group’s modest new CD, Windsor Lake. the foursome plays mostly string-based music for contradancing, with violins, guitars, bass and mandolins prominent in the mix, although these are occasionally leavened by flute and hand percussion.

Despite the informal nature of the album, which was actually recorded at a campsite at Windsor Lake in North Adams last summer (at one point you can hear one of the musicians saying “Oh, I have a mosquito on me!”), the tunes on “Windsor Lake” –available at Toonerville Trolley Records and Wild Oats Market in Williamstown and at Papyri Books in North Adams -- are light, airy and bouncy and played with great spirit and wit. They are full of surprises and personality – the guitar on “Coleraine/Wissihickon Drive/Ross’ Reel” hints at the musicians’ background listening to rock music and maybe even Latin, and the virtuosic fiddling suggests that the violinist had his share of classical training. Rarely have I been as motivated to listen through to an entire album of Anglo-, Celtic- and Appalachian-based dance melodies as I was upon first hearing Windsor Lake.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 7, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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