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Various Artists
Route 50: Driving New Roots for 50 Years
Vanguard Records

To chronicle 50 years of blues, folk, and other on two discs must be quite an undertaking. Certainly too many heads are going to get involved. One tries to make the label look its best, one repaying favors from years gone by. And probably one bringing light to overlooked gems. Or perhaps the inclusions have overstocked CDís that are being pushed. The list of Vanguard artists NOT included is the real whoís who. At any rate, the 50th anniversary sampler consists of two separate but unequal discs. Disc one is focused on the superior earlier years of blues and folk. The overview presented is eclectic, and mostly satisfying. While disc two allows current artists a couple of songs each. Some are fantastic, and some never should have been signed.

James Cotton leads in with a Ray Charles sounding "Next Time You See Me." This smooth track rocks with subtle sax and bar house piano. Junior Wells is competing with James Brown in the juke-joint mover "Shake It Baby." And in case you donít catch it, he even mentions the Godfather in the song. The Vaughn brothers tried unsuccessfully for years to capture blues harpist Charlie Musselwhiteís signature sound. Hear the real deal in "Iíll be Your Man Someday." The low-down harmonica must be the missing element. The electrified Chicago shuffle-step guitars merely set the stage. John Hammond delivers a laid-back stroll in "Ask Me Nice."

Jump in where you can and hang onÖ(where are my Dillards?) "Black Mountain Rag" by Doc Watson tops off a string of folk-country. His hillbilly picking is so hot; itís not until the end of the song that you realize this is live. I imagine the audience sitting around on the floor with their jaws in their laps. Jerry Jeff Walker writes songs for those of us who find beauty in sorrow. As depressants go, "Louise" is like black tar. Itís sadder and more addictive than any Tom Waits dirge yet. The mournful guitar makes me feel more than forlorn, at least fivelorn. Ian & Sylviaís brand of folk falls somewhere between Pozo-Seco Singers, and The Weavers (who are noticeably absent from this record). Itís an unusual case where Ian Tysonís voice provides the delicate beauty, and Sylvia compliments. A gorgeous arrangement of horns augments acoustic guitar and gentle Gene Autry style yipping. Maria Muldaur adds her unique voice to Jim Kweskinís censored, but fun version of John Hurtís "Richland Woman." Although they change the racy words to "Any dude will do" my favorite line remains true, "My turkey-red bloomers, they got a rumble seat." Mimi & Richard Farina put on an "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream." The music is exciting, the story is inciting, and the vocals are monotone. Paving the way for "Aliceís Restaurant", the humor blended with political commentary works great.

John Fahey, who is commonly known as The Guitarist John Fahey (like The Artist), is undeniably proficient. But this self-indulgent instrumental "Lion" has no teeth. It brings to mind horses, but only the prissy dancing ones with their manes in stupid bows.

Unbelievably warm delta blues from Mississippi John Hurt in "Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight" makes you want to know the man so badly. His picking is intricate but not flashy. Take note, you blues wankers. Skip James plays some mean country-blues, but his falsetto can go away. Years later, English yabbos would affect the same girly caterwaul in Cream. Boogie piano accompanies Odetta on the roadhouse blues "Mean And Evil." Big Mama Thornton sounds a little thin on "Good-Bye Baby." It ainít no "Hound Dog" so why wasnít there room for Maybelle Carter here? Arguing electrics pester Otis Spannís gospel boogie-woogie keys on "Some Day." A slow soulful last call tune with wife Lucille joining him on vocals. Whatís the opposite of overblown? He may be a genius just for keeping two guitarists from driving him off the bench. Buddy Guy practices the minimalist approach as well with "Hole In Your Soul." Uncharacteristic shaky vocals, but a great R&B arrangement. Sax and keys on the Chuck Berry on downers prom song.

This next batch is the sort of smart-ass music that makes its listeners feel superior to the uninitiated. Let them, I canít bear it. Now I guess Oregon is world fusion. "Charango" features farty bass, poly-ethnic rhythms, and lead sweet potato? Then Larry Coryellís "Low-Lee-Tah" starts in with some nice cinema guitar tones, but deteriorates quickly into a jazz sketch as pointless as any on SNL. The Milestrumpet makes you feel like you havenít eaten in days. No resolve is no good. I blame this guy for Satriani. In "Little Maggie", Sandy Bull plays the banjo with no real tune to wrap it around. Itís like the beginning of something he never got around to finishing. And since he canít commit to one instrument or style, I assume he does this sort of thing all the time.

Irish drinking songs I understand. If you like them, youíll like "Jug Of Punch" by The Clancy Brothers and if not, you know what you can do. And if you like Dylan, then dig his compatriot Eric Andersen. "Close The Door Lightly When You Go" is a gentler "Donít Think Twice"

Disc 2 starts out nicely with recent Vanguard addition Mark Selby. His blues-rock style is like Mark Cohn or later Chris Rea. "Don't You Throw That Mojo On Me" has faux tin recording production. But the country-blues guitar and boogie piano are legit. Very non-blues message on "Iím The Lucky One." Gospel backup singers support his positive message; "Iíve got something worth more than all your gold. And sheíll stand by me even if I lose the game." Did I mention your girl will love this too?

Terry Radigan has nothing new to say, and a boring Corrs way to say it. A lot of production about nothing. "When I Get Around You" is repetitive and banal. "Blink" has weird instrumentation, but that canít save it from her even weirder pronunciation. Dandy Warhols guitars with sugary adult cotnempo- vocals make for sheer yuck-rock.

You can close your eyes and sink into a Peter Case song. He is so intimate with his songs that you are immediately comfortable. "Blue Distance" knows where itís headed and takes weaving guitars with it. This song feels like itís bursting out from his chest and heís trying to contain it. "Something Happens" is Celtic and sensibly happy.

Even if youíre a Cajun from Nawlins, and you love et tu fe, why you want to sing about it? Tab Benoit likes "Crawfishin'." And whatís more, he loves the "Jambalaya" too. I know Hank wrote it, but he also wrote "Hey Good Lookiní (What You Got Cookiní)." Sing about women or drinking please, no more food.

Like Jim Brickman, David Wilcox is raising up an army of sequin sweatered followers. He has a nice voice and tone, but his jazzy phrasing is spineless. "This Tattoo" is a banjo-fusion-rap with finger snaps. Dave Mathews must have written "Rule Number One" for Fastball to sing. Wilcox sounds like heís smiling all the while heís singing. Try Elliott Smith instead, this guyís pure Tesh.

Venice is sappy band whose singer is wasting his phenomenal pipes covering "Landslide." They have harmonies for women in Laura Ashley dresses who want something jazzy, but find Manhattan Transfer too threatening. Iíve heard a lot of cheesy organs, but this is the cheesiest electric guitar I have ever heard. There own hand-clapping "One Quiet Day" is like the Rembrandts crossed with the Osmonds. The song is 5 disgusting minutes long with only 1 minute of material.

If Vanguard is looking for the next Lucindarella story, Patty Larkin has a good shot. Dark guitorchestration and intriguing lyrics on the very beautiful "Beg To Differ." Her songwriting is desperate like Aimee Mann. "Burnin' Down" is also full and rich, with low rumblings of disaster. Low-key but containing the urgency that compels it.

Bill Miller is modern folk with rock arrangements. Native American themes on "Ghostdance" set to pleading warblings and circle chants. "Every Mountain I Climb" reminds me somewhat of Dream Academy musically but vocally Warren Zevon comes to mind. Instantly accessible and welcome, but original.

Ian Tyson (of Ian & Sylvia) spins homey Marty Robbins style horse tales. "La Primera" tells history from the mustangís point of view. Steel playing soft on the hopeful "Brahmas And Mustangs." For all the sincerity, the girl in this song ainít calling back.

Like all families, Vanguard has productive members and whack jobs. The kooks in this crew are given heavy production and patronizing smiles. The rest have to get by on unadulterated talent.

-Ewan Wadharmi

Track Listing:

  1. Next Time You See Me - James Cotton
  2. Shake It Baby - Junior Wells
  3. I Don't Play, I'll Be Your Man Some Day - Charlie Musselwhite
  4. Ask Me Nice - John Hammond
  5. Black Mountain Rag - Doc Watson
  6. Louise - Jerry Jeff Walker/Nicolette Larson
  7. Play One More - Ian & Sylvia
  8. Richland Woman - Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band/Maria Muldaur
  9. House Un-American Blues Activity Dream - Mimi & Richard Farina
  10. Lion - John Fahey
  11. Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight - Mississippi John Hurt
  12. I'm So Good - Skip James
  13. Mean And Evil - Odetta
  14. Good-Bye Baby - Big Mama Thornton
  15. Some Day - Otis Spann
  16. You Got A Hole In Your Soul - Buddy Guy
  17. Charango - Oregon
  18. Low-Lee-Tah - Larry Coryell
  19. Little Maggie - Sandy Bull
  20. Jug Of Punch - The Clancy Brothers/Don McLean
  21. Close The Door Lightly When You Go - Eric Andersen

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