|There's a huge gap between artistically challenging and commercially successful.
And musicians (we're talking here of artists, not entertainers, mind) have to tread that line very carefully.
They can't "dumb down" their music for mass appeal without sacrificing artistic integrity. On the other hand, what good is integrity if their music is so far "out there" that no one cares to hear it?
"Jubilee", the latest offering from NorthernBlues, pairs modern-day troubadour Harry Manx, who spices his blues with eastern influences that include the use of the Mohan Veena (a hybrid instrument somewhere between guitar and sitar) with guitarist extraordinaire Kevin Breit, whose angular and invariably unpredictable playing is adventurous enough to approach the avant-garde.
Given the sheer musical genius of those involved, this project could easily have gone in directions more pleasing to the participants than the general listening public. Yet Jubilee is a delightful listen on every level. Yes, it's challenging enough to remain interesting through countless listens. But it's also, quite simply, a work of exceptional and thoroughly approachable beauty.
Harry and Kevin first met when paired by programmers for a Sunday morning workshop at the 2001 Summerfolk festival. A tape of that encounter, championed by Michael Wrycraft (who's responsible for the exemplary design - this is possibly the loveliest package we'll see this year!) led to the sessions that resulted in Jubilee.
The overall sound here is acoustic; although Kevin's often plugged in, he's largely content to weave in and out, with Harry providing the rhythmic underpinning. Mr. Manx (he was born, by the way, on the Isle of Man, making him a true Manxman!) contributes guitar, banjo, harmonica, and the aforementioned Mohan Veena. Kevin provides guitars along with a bewildering array of stringed instruments that sound like a science experiment gone horribly wrong (mandocello, banjolin, guitorgan).
Yet despite the presence of electronics, there's a thoroughly organic feel throughout. Credit producer David Travers-Smith with the pristine clarity of the recording, and Harry's vocals - warm, inviting, and seeming to possess something approaching the wisdom of the ages.
Covers include Sleepy John Estes' "Diving Duck Blues," an instrumental "Taking It To The Streets," a radically re-interpreted "Voodoo Chile," the traditional "Take This Hammer," and the disc's highlight, an utterly gorgeous rendition of the Danny O'Keefe chestnut, "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues." Most of the originals are instrumental offerings courtesy of Kevin, though Harry wrote two and sings the collaborative "Unmoved By Love."
Jubilee is yet another example of the surprising elasticity of what's often thought of as the most tradition-bound of musical forms, as envisioned by NorthernBlues' President Fred Litwin. Sure, some would argue there are moments here that aren't really blues at all. But the feel is there - which, surely, is what really matters - and it would be churlish indeed to resist Jubilee's myriad merits based on dictionary definition alone.
A fascinating disc and a warm and wonderful listen - what more could anyone want?
"Given the sheer musical genius of those involved, this project could easily have gone in directions more pleasing to the participants than the general listening public. Yet Jubilee is a delightful listen on every level."