FolkFire Reviews

November/December 1994 Issue
  • Saint Louis Shape Note Singers: "Songs from The Missouri Harmony"
  • Jan Marra.: "These Crazy Years"
  • The Geyer Street Sheiks: "Great Dream"
  • Kirkwood Station: "De-Railed"
  • Swing Set: "Happy Birthday"
  • Live Contra Recordings by various artists: "Jump Fingers"
  • Natural Bridge: "Natural Bridge"
  • The Allen Street String Band: "Thumping on a Well Rope"
  • Reviews Index
  • FolkFireHome

  • Saint Louis Shape Note Singers: "Songs from The Missouri Harmony"

    by Bill Caspary
    This recording is both an historic event for St. Louis and a highly enjoyable listening experience. The St. Louis Shape Note singers, after using the early American hymn book, The Sacred Harp, discovered a book in the same tradition indigenous to this area, The Missouri Harmony, which the group republished.
    The Singers have recorded twenty-one songs from this historic text. The high level of musicianship in these performances is impressive and compares favorably with other recordings of shape note music. They achieve precise intonation, rich harmonies, and the rhythmic southern style. The sound quality, by Hufker Recording, is excellent.
    The songs are varied: in major and minor keys, slow and fast tempos and contrapuntal as well as chordal settings. The texts employ biblical imagery reflecting religious themes but also ordinary human suffering and joy. At its best the poetry is hauntingly beautiful. For general audiences this cassette should provide pleasurable music that grows in meaning upon repeated listening. For people specifically interested in Missouri history and in the shape note tradition, this is a must-have recording.
    Cassette tape. Wings of Song. Available from Dr. Kathryn Smith;2749 Geyer Ave., St. Louis, MO 63104.
    (Bill Caspary is one of the founders of the Childgrove Country Dancers. He plays fiddle in several local bands.)
    Here is their group listing
    Jan Marra: "These Crazy Years"

    by J McKeever
    Jan Marra is not just a talented artist; she's multi-talented, with a capital multi. Some of us know her as the "Hair-wrap, Late Night Snack, Bubble Queen" of dance weekends. She garlands herself and everyone else with flowers, not to mention bubbles, bangles and bright shiny beads. She gifts us with her song and her spirit, and because we can't just wrap her up and take her along with us, thank goodness for Those Crazy Years.
    Six of the nine selections on this tape are Jan's own compositions. Her lyrics explore many facets of relationships and personhood form the playful, almost "playground" love song, "Oh, Baby" to the searching honesty of "Two Hands," "Broken Locket" and "Those Crazy Years." She explores tongue-in-cheek memories of freedom and folly in "Gringotenango" and brings bite-your-tongue sarcasm to "Perfect Professional's Wife."
    Whether singing her own material, or that of others, Marra sings with a clear voice and sensitivity to human experience. She is someone, really, to see and enjoy in person: whether in a concert setting, as a dance musician/vocalist, or in a serendipitous garden serenade. Those Crazy Years helps fill the gap between those special occasions.
    Cassette Tape. Flying Fish Records. Available from Flying Fish, 1304 W. Schubert, Chicago, IL 60614.
    (J. McKeever plays the radio and is a dancer.)
    The Geyer Street Sheiks: "Great Dream"

    by J McKeever
    The album's collective tunes defy categorization, as do the Geyer Street Sheiks themselves. This album is bluesy/jazzy/traditional/old-timey/torchy and has a gem of an original a capella composition. Not only does it have a good beat and you can dance to it, you can shimmy, grind, swing and sing with it!
    However, I don't recommend the "singing with it" part. You'll want nothing to interfere with listening to Alice Spencer's rich and honeyed voice, except the fine accompaniment provided by her fellow Sheiks, all versatile and talented musicians.
    The instrumental representation includes: Tom Hall on National Steel Guitar; Steve Mote on ukulele, banjo, guitar, and piano; Mike Prokopf on bass; Charlie Pfeffer on mandolin; Marc Rennard on fiddle; and David Gebben playing washboard and percussion. Spencer is also credited with piano, mouth trumpet, and whistle. Hall, Pfeffer, Mote, and Gebben contribute to the vocals.
    Leads are strong; harmonies are tight. Melodies soar from vocalist to fiddle to mandolin to guitar and back again, with a percussive washboard tap-dance keeping a lively and steady rhythm.
    I prefer to hear and see the Geyer Street Sheiks perform live. I like to hear their new material; I love to dance to them. I always leave wondering, "What if Alice really let loose?" I think she would blast us all right through the walls. But I'm glad she doesn't: I want to be around for more of the Sheiks' eclectic sound--both live and recorded. I thank them for Great Dream. Great music! Great fun! Lets have more!
    Cassette tape or CD. BJam Records. Available at Streetside Records.
    (J. McKeever plays the radio and is a dancer).
    Kirkwood Station: "De-Railed"

    by Bob Borcherding
    Many Bluegrass bands seem to have lost a feel for the music. It has become a competition sport, striving to eject more notes per second than other bands; streams of arpeggios and hot riffs erupt from them and become the tune, rather than being ornamental to the tune. Bluegrass groups that adhere to this "hot-licks formula" bore me. Give me a band with tight vocals and a feeling of fun over a hot-licks band, anytime.
    The Kirkwood Station tape De-Railed shows off their vocal harmonization, sense of humor, and the cooperative sound of friends making music together. Kirkwood Station is a band of singers. They sing a mix of old standards and new songs, with no instrumentals! It's obvious and refreshing to find a band to whom the songs are important - not finger fireworks, nor notes per second. Their vocals are well done, tastefully executed, with ample backup musicianship. They don't use flashy, fancy hot-licks, but rather have emphasized vocals - a solid tape of singers singing bluegrass songs. Also included are humorous cameos of semi-famous KDHX radio personalities!
    The quality of the recording is generally good, though there are sometimes problems with instrumental balance. Songs included are: Coal Tattoo, Some Old Day, Face on the Cutting Room Floor, Think of What You've Done, Little Girl in Tennessee, Amelia Earhart, Wreck of the Old 97, I Still Miss Someone, Country Music Sucks, Darcy Farrow, Dixie Darlin', Gloryland, Jaded Lover, Blue Ridge Mountain Blues, C&O Canal.
    Cassette tape. Avialable at any Kirkwood Station performance.
    Bob Borcherding plays old time fiddle for The Twang Brothers and is a Contra, and English Country caller.
    Swing Set: "Happy Birthday"

    by Andrew Limanni
    Great listening music, great car music, great dance music - what else could you want? Swing Set, arguably the best swing band in St. Louis, has been busy playing lots and lots of gigs around town the last three or four years, and has released a cassette that's a hoot-and-a-half.
    It's called Happy Birthday, and yes, it does include a new jazzy version of that old chestnut, but loads more hip stuff as well. The zany song, "Swing Set" tells the origins of the band's name (It's not what you think.), "Communication" explains the joys of modern-day technology (This is one of their hot dance tunes in their live performances.), and "Zip Zap," written by bassist Rich Tralles, explains the problem of men trying to compete with snakes. (Sorry, you'll have to hear this one to figure that out.)
    Attention, Cab Calloway fans! The Swing Set boys do a great version of "Smokey Joe," another part of the continuing saga of Minnie the Moocher that Calloway sang so much about, and have done such a careful job of recreating his original vocal and instrumental style, that it sounds like old Cab himself.
    My favorite tunes were "Palm Springs Jump," a rock-em sock-em 40's style dance tune, and "Till Tom Special," a terrific instrumental featuring solid drumming by Keith Roger, strong guitar from John Chiesek, and truly amazing clarinet playing by Robb Cunningam. There are no real weak spots anywhere on this album. This tape is the next best thing to hearing the band live, which I also strongly recommend, especially if you like to dance.
    Cassette tape. Available from Swing Set at any concert.
    Andrew Limanni is a caller and dancer.
    Live Contra Recordings by various artists: "Jump Fingers"

    by Bob Borcherding
    There is little which brings as much excitement to an avid old-time dancer as the sound of a fiddle being tuned-up. Anticipation! A dance is about to happen--electricity fills the air. Happiness becomes palpable; like a cool breeze on a late summer's eve, it wafts across one's cheek, restoring hazy memories of picnics, lemonade, bonfires, the smell of burning leaves.
    The music starts, dancers begin to flow like graceful puppets, moving as the music makes them, giving energy to the musicians, driving them to new heights. On and on it goes, musician spurring dancer, dancer spurring musician. You'll find some of this magic on the Childgrove Country Dancer's live recording, Jump Fingers.
    Playing music for dances requires an extremely high level of musicianship, endurance, and energy. This tape is chock-full of dance musicians who meet these criteria, recorded at their best-- that is, while playing for a dance. A list of these musicians would be a good start of a Who's Who of Old-Time Music in Missouri: the Grace Family, the Unidentified Fiddling Objects; the Ill-Mo Boys; Bob Holt and Friends; Geoff Seitz and Friends; Charlie Walden and Friends; Cathy Barton and Dave Para; Cousin Curtis and the Cash Rebates; and Mahatma Gumbo and the Red Hot Mandy Stompers (an all-mandolin band).
    I heartily recommend this tape. At just over 87 minutes of top-quality music, it is quite a bargain. It combines wonderful musicians, a masterfully-done recording, and the subtle sounds of dancers having a blast. Since these recordings were made at dances, the selections run from over four minutes to more than nine minutes, being the length of the dances. Some tunes are melodic, some are driving, some are at a blistering pace, some are slower, but they are all good.
    Cassette tape.Childgrove Country Dancers. Available from Mac McKeever, 314-537-1643
    Bob Borcherding plays old-time fiddle for The Twang Brothers and is a caller.
    Natural Bridge: "Natural Bridge"

    by Roy Gokenbach
    As I was thinking about how to summarize the overall feel of Natural Bridge's album, I thought "I could listen to this tape on a trip to the West Coast and really enjoy it over and over again." I also thought "If record companies are looking for talent, it really doesn't get better than this." The band is relaxed, professional, comfortable, and--if you're are a critical musician--very satisfying.
    Joel Ferber on mandolin and banjo is an exceptional musician. I really enjoyed his ability to "speak" and tell a story instead of playing cliches and scales to fill time. His work on "Blind Alley" is particularly impressive. Of course, this has to do with the eclectic format of melodic and interesting songs.
    Andy Ploof provides not just rhythm guitar but some hot jazz and bluegrass picking as well as fiddle and dobro. Sometimes guitarists will over-play, try to dominate the session. Andy is really a tasteful player and a very versatile and accomplished guitarist--head and shoulder above most I've heard.
    I remember really enjoying hearing Mike Lindane play his fretless bass at the Venice Cafe, but what a treat it is to hear him get a chance to solo on this recording! Bass solos are usually tolerated by musicians and listeners alike, but Lindane is really worth listening to. Fortunately, the other musicians in Natural Bridge realize that this is another strength of the band. All three musicians offer great vocals throughout the recording.
    I also must give credit to the drummer and percussionist--Carl Albrecht and Blake Travis, respectively. Their beat was right in the pocket and their work on "Sitting in Limbo" is particularly good. Overall, the arrangements were excellent, with just the right amount of share for all concerned. I highly recommend this recording for your listening pleasure, or education, if you are a musician.
    Cassette tape or CD. Available at Music Folk, 8015 Big Bend in Webster Groves
    Roy Gokenbach plays guitar for Flashbax and several old-time groups.
    The Allen Street String Band: "Thumping on a Well Rope"

    by Jeff Miller
    This recording by one of Illinois' best old time string bands features fiddle tunes, banjo tunes, and a few songs. Fiddler Bill Rintz and banjoist Dave Landreth have been playing together for twenty years and it shows. Their tight playing through the recording is relentless. Guitarist Ed Hawkes plays some fine bass runs and keeps the beat solid. Adrea Todd Landreth plays baritone banjo-ukulele. Contrary to most banjo ukes, this one really blends in well, not covering up the five string banjo like most smaller bodied ukes.
    My favorite tunes on this tape are Dave's original banjo/fiddle tunes. All three have a unique sound. Dave and Bill start "Farewell Orion" in the great fiddle/banjo tradition and play some great music in that context. I really enjoyed the piano on "Cotton Eyed Joe Too"; it keeps the tune just this side of rock 'n' roll. Unfortunately, the piano player is uncredited in the liner notes, which are otherwise informative.
    Most of the music on this recording has a specific arrangement. The fiddle or banjo starts solo, adding a guitar or dulcimer and finally arriving at a roaring string band sound. Allen Street varies this approach enough to make it interesting. The song this approach works best on is the Illinois variant of the traditional British ballad "Boglin' Smugglin' Men". Bill Rintz even added an interesting second part to the melody and the singing is excellent.
    This recording would be a welcome addition to any old time music fan's collection. The tunes are all played with great feeling and drive, and the recording quality and mix are very clean. The Allen Street String Band is doing its part in keeping the Midwest string band sound alive.
    Cassette tape, Marimac #9406. Avialable at Geoffrey J. Seitz, Violin Maker, 4175 Loughborough, 353-1312.
    Jeff Miller plays banjo for Big Note String Band and the Twang Brothers.

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