Tarbox Ramblers garage-rock grit

Michael Tarbox of Tarbox Ramblers

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 19, 2004) – Railyards, brakemen, graves, muddy highways, horsehoes and thieves are the iconic imagery of old blues and folk songs. So when you take a first listen to Tarbox Ramblers’ haunting new album, “A Fix Back East” (Rounder), you can be forgiven for assuming that most of the songs go back decades, especially given the group’s raw, primitive sound and Michael Tarbox’s ghostly vocals. But in fact, most of the songs on “A Fix Back East,” the follow-up to the group’s eponymous debut, were written very recently by leader Michael Tarbox.

“Writing the music on the record was like turning on the radio -- the songs just came out dark,” said Tarbox in a recent phone interview from his home in Boston. “I’ve been drawn to dark sounds, whether blues or the Velvet Underground, sounds that are terrifying but beautiful. That’s sort of what informed what I was doing while I was writing.”

The result is a subtle blend of old-time blues and garage rock – stripped-down, minimalist, punk-inflected roots music that is not entirely unlike what better-known bands like the White Stripes are doing these days. In the case of Tarbox Ramblers – who celebrate the release of the new album with a show at Club Helsinki tonight at 9 -- the music is evocative of a world gone by and a world gone wrong, but also a world that lingers on into the 21st century. Some things never change, and hell, damnation and hangovers, along with love and transcendence – all of life’s essentials -- are just the same today as they were 80 years ago.

What makes them so immediate and brings them to life on “A Fix Back East” are Tarbox’s vocals – a cross between Robert Johnson at the crossroads and Bob Dylan 20 miles out of town and cold irons bound – and the stark purity of the music, which consists mostly just of guitar, string bass, drums and an occasional fiddle.

“It’s unembellished and elemental,” said Tarbox. “There’s just a lack of much beyond the essential. It’s good for people to hear things in the starkest terms. I just got off the road for two or three weeks. I always forgot what it’s like to watch TV. There’s such an onslaught of non-essential information. There’s such an excess and glut. Maybe in some way it’s good to have things presented in starker terms.”

Jim Payne

When they say that Jim Payne wrote the book on funk drumming, they’re not just saying that figuratively. Payne, who brings his trio featuring organist Jerry Z and guitarist Bill Bickford into Club Helsinki tomorrow night at 9, is the author of “Give the Drummers Some!,” the definitive work on the history of funk drumming. Since trading in the accordion for the drums in the late 1950s, Payne has held down the drum seat working with the likes of Hank Ballard, Eddie Floyd, the Blues Magoos, Link Wray, Dave Liebman, Mary Wells, Rufus Thomas and Greg Allman. He has also had a longstanding relationship performing with and producing projects by ex-James Brown band members Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis. He also produced the first two albums by jam-band avatars Medeski, Martin and Wood. It’s no wonder that Payne’s new CD, on the Savant label is called “Sensei,” which is Japanese for teacher or mentor.

Kelly Hagan

Canaan, N.Y., native Kelly Hagan – who performs at Helsinki on Monday at 9 -- self-released her debut CD, “Tell the Truth and Run,” last fall. Consisting of 10 originals, ranging from the Bonnie Raitt-ish bluesy funk of “Dirty Little Secret” to the Tori Amos-like piano balladry of “Slam the Door,” the CD captures the conservatory-trained Hagan’s depth and breadth and her love of a groove.

Mardi Gras party

Zydeco star Buckwheat Zydeco brings his band to Helsinki for a day-after Mardi Gras party next Wednesday at 8:30. The club will offer a special Cajun dinner menu beginning at 5:30 for those who want the whole Creole experience.

The Berkshire’s own Bernice Lewis warms up the crowd for Patty Larkin at the Clark Art Institute tonight at 8. The concert is part of the Clark’s “Songs and Stories” series, which continues with folksinger Gordon Bok on March 13 and Richard Shindell on March 26.



“Thread of Blue” (Water/WEA)

The artist formerly known as Dana Mase may have dropped her last name, but on her fourth CD she has significantly ratcheted up the artistic stakes. An album that could singlehandedly revive interest in the LilithFair pop-folk sound, “Thread of Blue” finds the sultry-voiced singer waxing eloquently about politics, the environment, sibling relationships, love, sex and G-d in a dozen original tunes backed by a band that knows how to churn up a groove, ring a guitar, and when to let the singer – who should appeal equally to fans of Sheryl Crow, Kate Bush and Tom Petty – take front and center. A spiritual and audible delight. [ 2/22/04 ]

Moya Brennan

“Two Horizons” (Decca)

Best known as the voice of popular Irish group Clannad, Moya Brennan – the artist formerly known as Maire Brennan – the ethereal, multitracked choral and symphonic arrangements, powered by bass, drums and synthesizers, immediately bring to mind the new-age-informed work of her sister and former bandmate, Enya. The album’s songs loosely connect a story about the Irish harp that Brennan plays on the recording, adding touches of authenticity along with contributions by guitarists Martin Carthy, Robbie McIntosh, and Anthony Drennan of the Corrs. An enhanced CD contains bonus materials including video footage and an interview about the making of the album. [ 2/22/04 ]

Moya Brennan is at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Thursday.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 20, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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