Milagro Saints: Folk-soul healing

Milagro Saints

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 17, 2003) – The road from Sheffield, England, to the southern Appalachians is shorter than it seems. And it is embodied in the soulful folk-rock music of Milagro Saints.

The North Carolina-based group -- in residence for a two-night stand at the Dream Away Lodge (413-623-8725) in Becket, on Friday and Saturday at 9 – was originally formed in New York City in the mid-‘90s among former members of English rock group the Jack Rubies, Talking Heads offshoot groups including Tom Tom Club and Casual Gods, and the Chicago blues scene. The core of the band consists of singer/songwriter/guitarists Stephen Ineson, originally from Sheffield, and Joyce Bowden, a Virginia native who also plays percussion and clarinet. Keyboardist Lee Kirby, an Arkansas native whose Hammond organ lends the group its distinctive, soulful sound, rounds out the basic trio, which sometimes tours with a bassist.

The group’s music, as heard on excellent CDs including its eponymous debut, its second album, “Midnight America” and its most recent, “Sunday,” connects the dots between Ineson’s English folk roots and his American confreres’ background in folk, blues and funk.

In a recent e-mail interview, Ineson pointed out that this is a dynamic that has been playing itself out for at least half a century.

“There really is a short history between English folk song like the ‘childe ballads’ that were brought to the Appalachians and what we do,” said Ineson. “Dylan himself went to England in 1960 and learned a lot of English songs from Martin Carthy and made them into songs on ‘Freewheelin’ with his own lyrics.

“All three of us have English, Scottish and Irish (and French, I think) ancestors. The folk form that we write out of is basically ‘Old World.’ I think the American connection and catalyst is the kind of ‘cosmic American music’ that Gram Parsons talked about -- which is the way the Old World form exploded in the expansive landscape of this huge continent, and was also touched by the ancient mysticism of African and Native American shamanism.”

The result, as filtered through the unique sensibilities of the writers and musicians of Milagro Saints, is a plaintive, timeless fusion of folk and soul music, reminiscent of The Band but with distinctive touches all its own.

“My role model in terms of writing has always been Dylan, who I’ve listen to relentlessly since I was 15,” said Ineson. “Then I was hit by Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

“To me, these people are the spiritual writers of our age. To me, Dylan is a spiritual teacher and his ground gets higher as his work recedes into history.

“I always got a buzz from these people, because to me they evoke ‘spirit’ -- that which is not material. They are searching the ‘higher ground’ and laying it out in song. It’s not ‘pop’ and it’s not ‘the music industry.’

“Our writing comes out of a need for healing, and that is what I get out of Dylan and Morrison. It’s healing for themselves and their audience. I can’t really write unless I’m putting out some form of healing and a real sense of love -- love as the force that holds the universe together.”

Backstage bits

On “Ring-a-Ling,” the kickoff track of his terrific new CD, “Idiot Wisdom” (Captivating Music), Ray Mason sings, “Ring-a-ling, it’s so good to hear your voice.” It’s a sentiment familiar to longtime fans of the roots-pop genius, the Pioneer Valley’s answer to Elvis Costello. Chock full of memorable hooks and lyrical delights – including a song called “When the Ceiling Shakes Hands with the Floor” – the album boasts plenty of classic-style, original soul- and country-inspired roots-rock. The Ray Mason Band celebrates the release of “Idiot Wisdom” on Friday night at 9:30 at Harry’s Music Club in Northampton (413-584-4100). Sharing the bill are the Lonesome Brothers, the country-rock group that also features Mason along with singer-songwriter/guitarist Jim Armenti.

Best known as a founding member of seminal alt-country bands Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, Jay Farrar is now touring as a solo artist behind his latest CD, “Terroir Blues” (Act/Resist). An intriguing work, the album alternates between stripped-down, minimalist roots-rockers and Radiohead-like electronic tracks called “Space Junk,” creating a fascinating musical dialogue between old world and new, and giving new meaning to the term “roots music.” Farrar is at Pearl Street (413-586-8686) in Northampton on Saturday night.

“Go,” the long-awaited follow-up to Vertical Horizon’s breakthrough album, “Everything You Want,” was finally released on RCA Records a few weeks back, and the album and the first single, “I’m Still Here,” are both quickly climbing the charts. This time out, the radio-friendly rock album boasts two Berkshire connections – bassist Sean Hurley, a Pittsfield native and 1992 graduate of Pittsfield High, and Grammy-winning producer John Shanks, son of Ann and Bob Shanks of Sheffield. A veteran of local rock bands, including Xavier, which he joined in 1990 at age 16, Hurley toured with Arlo Guthrie and performed with the Barnyard Blues Project and local jazz musicians including drummer Randy Kaye, keyboardist John Sauer, and guitarist John Myers. Vertical Horizon is at Northern Lights (518-371-0012) in Clifton Park, N.Y., on Sunday night.

Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) boasts a double-bill of top-notch singer-songwriters on Friday night with Jess Klein and Mark Erelli, and a return engagement by punk-mambo band Babaloo on Saturday night.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 17, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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