Bob Thistle's new CD
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 30, 2003) – Berkshire-bred songwriting talent is on tap tomorrow night at the Common Grounds Coffee House at the First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street in Pittsfield, when city native Bob Thistle and South County’s Meg Hutchinson share a double-bill starting at 8.
For Thistle, the concert marks the release of his second CD, “Afterglow,” the worthy follow-up to his excellent debut album, “Three Wishes.” The centerpiece of the album, “Ladder 29,” is a haunting, modern folk ballad sung from the point of view of a Brooklyn fireman who was called to duty at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Thistle sings with simple conviction, fully inhabiting the blue-collar ethic of the 9/11 heroes, steering clear of unwashed sentiment.
“Afterglow” is tinged with bittersweet ballads. When things are going badly, there is hope for ultimate redemption. When things are going well, there seems to be an ominous cloud hanging over the proceedings.
The album’s kickoff track, “Letter Never Sent,” is an epistolary declaration of loneliness. In “Long Distance Driver” a truck driver finds little solace in the open road as he ponders having lost a loved one over drink. “Mr. Lucky” paints a picture of a man who seemingly has everything – a wife, children, a job – and who considers himself lucky, but the song begins with a vision of him suited for burial.
What with his 9/11 song about a fireman, and his stylistic, melodic and thematic resemblances to one obvious, overarching influence, Thistle deals with the inevitable comparisons to Bruce Springsteen by covering the Boss’s “Highway Patrolman.” He acquits himself well in an interpretation that features accompaniment by local singer-instrumentalist Adam Michael Rothberg on harmony vocals and mandolin.
Thistle sings in a yearning, organic voice with rootsy phrasing halfway between Woody Guthrie and Steve Forbert. In addition to his own acoustic guitar, each track features a spare arrangement with one or two accompanists drawn mostly from the Berkshire folk scene – bassists Dale Ott and Keith Forman (who produced and recorded the effort at his Williamstown studio), guitarists Jamie Choquette, Jim Markham, and Rothberg, and vocalists Bernice Lewis, Robin Lehleitner, and Rothberg, among others.
If there is a flaw to be found in Thistle’s otherwise terrific songwriting, it’s the same one that plagues Springsteen’s acoustic efforts – while each number is well-crafted and carefully written, there isn’t enough variation from song to song over the course of the album. After a while a creeping sameness sets in and they all blend together.
There are a couple of exceptions – the leadoff track, “Letter Never Sent,” features a swinging beat and chiming electric guitar by Choquette, and eight songs in, on “Boris, My Love,” Thistle attempts a humorous electric rocker about a wayward dog. It’s a good song that suffers from a clunky arrangement, probably due to the fact that Forman handled all electric guitar, bass and drum duties by himself. Both songs, however, showcase another side of Bob Thistle worth more exploration next time around.
Meg Hutchinson won the New Folk Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest, and the Telluride Troubadour Songwriter’s Showcase in Colorado, as well as the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at the Merlefest in North Carolina, all in the course of one year. With three recordings to her credit, including “Against the Grey” and “Any Given Day,” and a fourth on the way, Hutchinson recently moved to Boston, where she is quickly making a name for herself on that town’s competitive folk scene.
For reservations call 499-0866.
Jam-band fans can check out Mountain of Venus’s lovely meanderings at La Choza in Pittsfield tonight. The shortest track on the group’s new live album, “Live at Cicero’s,” clocks in at 5 ½ minutes – all the rest are over seven minutes long, giving plenty of time for the musicians to stretch out in between verses by singer Tanya Shylock.
On Thursday, Connecticut’s Psychedelic Breakfast celebrates the release of its new album, “Bona Fide,” featuring its keyboard-drenched, Frank Zappa-meets-Phish influenced groove-rock, appropriately enough at Pearl Street in Northampton -- where the live album by the classic-rock-loving quartet was recorded last year.
Those who prefer their rock music a little more contained, a little more modern, and shaped into hypnotically soulful, bite-sized, sensual nuggets should check out Jake, featuring the beguiling lead singer-songwriter Jessie Lee Montague, at Club Helsinki tomorrow night at 9.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 2, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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