Search This Blog

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sing of the Devil

Spuyten Duyvil knows the Great American Songbook. Not that Great American Songbook, but the earlier one that was given to us by Harry Smith in his Anthology of American Folk Music, giving us a glimpse of what Greil Marcus termed the “old, weird America” in a series of late-’20s, early-’30s recordings.

It inspired young musicians in the 1950s – folk and rock wouldn’t sound as they did and do without it – and it continues to be re-discovered and re-celebrated, especially now, when music-making has grown more personal and more easily disseminated.

Spuyten Duyvil named itself after a section of the Bronx that was so-dubbed by its Dutch settlers because of an angry creek that flowed through the area. The creek is gone, but the Yonkers-based band has given new life to what threatened to be no more than a Metro-North stop, and it’s a felicitous moniker for an ensemble that brings a delightfully off-kilter jug-band sensibility to its playing.

Mark Miller and Beth Kaufman evolved their casual music-making into something that still sounds casual but with a professional burnish. You hear it on the opening track, “Keep Your Skillet Good and Greasy,” which harkens back to Uncle Dave Macon (who is on the Harry Smith collection, though not with this number) with its carefree dirtiness. Dirty (ish) lyrics, certainly some dirty playing, propelled by harmonica and a heavy beat so that Kaufman’s vocal can do its no-nonsense work.

Then it’s Miller and Kaufman singing “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” – not the 1890s ragtime number, but an offshoot of it played by Mississippi John Hurt, segueing it into Hurt’s “Preaching on the Old Camp Ground. James Meigs’s harmonica again is a vital component, alongside Rik Mercaldi on guitar, bassist John Neidhart and drummer Jagoda.

Spuyten Duyvil
Hurt is another artist on the Smith collection, although these number aren’t, which underscores that this is a tribute to its (old, weird) sound, not its playlist – although the singular exception is a “Fishin’ Blues.” Even so, it’s more about Taj Mahal’s bluster than Henry Thomas’s wistfulness, and that’s just fine, especially in the way that Miller and Kaufman swap lyrics and harmonize the refrain.

They spawned more than this band and album. Amidst the country-blues sound of “Make Me a Pallet” comes the sultry voice of their daughter, Dena, keeping its distinctiveness even when she’s harmonizing with her mom.

They take a tender song like “The Cruel War” and find a way to keep it idiomatic to their sound and still tender, with Kaufman as plaintive as any ’60s balladeer. She also finds a unique approach to “Barbara Allen,” choosing an appropriate set of lyrics out of the multitude that exists, and making into a “House of the Rising Sun” kind of 6/8 lament.

Twelve cuts make for a brief CD, but we’re talking about an LP-inspired recording, from an era that taught us to groove to a 20-minute set and then flip the damn thing. No flipping needed here – just a sultry night and some dancing shoes. It’s excellent stuff.

Spuyten Duyvil: The Social Music Hour, Vol. 1
Spuyten Duyvil Music Ltd.

No comments: