Jeff Lang and Michael Tarbox
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 27, 2003) – The crowd at Club Helsinki on Wednesday night was treated to a showcase of two different but related approaches by Michael Tarbox and Jeff Lang, both of whom are singer-guitarists specializing in American roots music.

Lang, from Australia, combines the sensibility of a contemporary singer-songwriter with virtuosic chops on custom-made resonator guitars. Tarbox mines a vein of pre-rock, rural Americana channeled through the grit of a post-punk bluesman. In both cases, what comes out is some type of Hendrixian fusion of funky spirituality.

Lang is two musicians in one. He is something of a folk artist; his original songs, love songs and ballads about faraway places, bear hints of Anglo-Irish music with accents from Australia and the American south. He sings in a clear alto, and his compositions tend to rely more on atmosphere and impressionism than more formal elements.\

This was both his strength and weakness. When Lang was at his best, such as on “In Ravenwood” and “Everything Is Still,” there was a direct connection between what he was playing – the psychedelic bends and moans of his lap-steel slide, the percussive and buzzing effects of his steel guitar – and what he was singing.

But other, weaker numbers, including “Wash Your Sins Away” and “Tell Me Why,” couldn’t bear up under the weight of his artful and precise playing, his momentous crescendoes and vamps and distorted patterns, and thus the songs themselves were overwhelmed. At some point, you just wanted him to toss out the songs and throw himself into his innovative, extraordinary musicianship, which was as suggestive as any lyric could possibly be.

Tarbox’s approach was more self-contained. The singer, who usually performs with his quartet, the Tarbox Ramblers, barrelled through his set of hillbilly tunes, country blues and spirituals with a raw, gravelly voice and an equally raw, gravelly guitar style.

That voice and guitar were a perfect match, and Tarbox swung the distance between the two with heavy syncopation on numbers including Charley Patton’s “One of These Days” and standards like “I Shall Not Be Moved” and a rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” that eschewed the Dave van Ronk via the Animals arrangement in favor of modal blues.

Tarbox, from Boston, channeled a haunted urgency that suggested a desperate race to outrun the devil – a race that some of his songs addressed directly and that others only hinted at. In this way – like the greatest of blues -- his utterly earthy music offered a modicum of spiritual transcendence.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 1, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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