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CD reviews

STEWART OKSENHORN
pitkin county correspondent
Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn
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Since 1999, Mark Knopfler, formerly of Dire Straits, and Emmylou Harris, the duet partner extraordinaire, have gotten together for the occasional Nashville studio session. My opinion of the results is perfectly split.

If you are a fan of Knopfler and Harris ” and why wouldn’t you be? ” “All The Roadrunning” can be sublime. The pair meets on a country-tinged, roots rock foundation that is familiar to both, and there is little strain to find a comfort zone in these songs of modern, and eternal, romance. On “This Is Us,” where they sometimes trade lines and sometimes share them, Knopfler and Harris fit like a hand and a perfectly worn glove. The finale, “If This Is Goodbye,” has potential for melodrama; the song is inspired by the final phone calls from those dying in the Twin Towers. Instead, Harris and Knopfler nail the emotional sweet spot.

But if you’re a fan of artistic risk ” and why wouldn’t you be? ” “All That Roadrunning” falls short. There is little sense of a push-and-pull to arrive at something new; both fall into their old grooves. They explore the edges some ” “Red Staggerwing,” with its fiddle fills, is as country as Knopfler gets ” but with less authority than you would hope.

I expect that years from now, I’ll accept “All The Roadrunning” for the wonderful music it is. For now, I have an equal sense of disappointment for not being the groundbreaking work I hoped for from two of my favorite musicians.

The Boss, on the other hand, discovers a whole new realm ” for himself, and perhaps for anyone ” on “We Shall Overcome.” Where Pete Seeger performed his songs in small settings, usually in trios or duets, Springsteen concocts the idea of a folk orchestra to pay tribute to the folk icon. The tunes of common workers and extraordinary tragedies ” including some, like “Erie Canal” and “John Henry,” I’ve known since second grade ” are played by an ensemble of 14 musicians. The crowd of banjoists, drummers, singers and horn players was rounded up by Soozie Tyrell, violinist of the E Street Band.

Springsteen’s singing matches the grandness of the setting. He opens up his pipes; he can be heard shouting out to his companions when it comes times for their solos. This isn’t Springsteen in the folk mode of “Nebraska,” with guitar, harmonica and a tape recorder. Instead, he expands the music by throwing most every American rural style ” gospel, bluegrass, swing, old-timey ” into the pot, elevating the idea of folk music in the process.

No, this is not the long lost, vintage Sam Cooke classic. It’s off by 40 years, the width of an ocean and several shades of skin color.

James Hunter is British, white and 42 years old; “People Gonna Talk” is his U.S. debut. And when people do talk about him, they will say, “Sure sounds like Sam Cooke.” Hunter gets that old-school soul sound down, from the tight horn arrangements, to the “babys” and “whoa-whoas,” to the two minute, 30 second song length (eight of the 14 tunes clock in at under three minutes). All the songs are written by Hunter, even if you could swear you heard Cooke sing the beautiful “Mollena” around 1963. “People Gonna Talk” might make you long for Cooke, who was killed in an ugly L.A. motel incident in 1964, but it will also make you glad Hunter is carrying this torch.

And Hunter has one thing on Cooke: the guitar-playing here is all Hunter’s, and it kills.

The Disco Biscuits have had a prominent presence in the jam scene since their founding, at the University of Pennsylvania, a decade ago. That presence hit a snag recently; the Philadelphia-based Biscuits took a hiatus after drummer Sam Altman left the quartet.

“The Wind at Four to Fly” is a transition project. The live, double-CD is driven by Altman’s potent drumming; it also heralds the return of the Biscuits, who will perform at the summer’s major festivals (Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, High Sierra) with new drummer Allen Aucoin.

The Disco Biscuits formed in 1995, the year Jerry Garcia died and the Grateful Dead were laid to rest. So the Biscuits can be considered a proto-post-Dead jam band, and “The Wind at Four to Fly” shows how the jam scene has evolved. The Biscuits share almost nothing with the Dead’s more rustic side; instead their sound, dubbed trance-fusion, leans toward the electronic. In the lengthy “Caterpillar,” the old rhythm section of Altman and bassist Marc Brownstein lock into a groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on the dance floor, while guitarist Jon Gutwillig and keyboardist Aron Magner make techno-inspired sounds.

Jamming is the band’s strong suit. When they actually sing a song ” the Phish-like, prog-rock tune “Kitchen Mitts,” for instance ” it is quickly evident that singing and songs are not their forte. Fortunately, with tracks running as long as half an hour (the slow-building instrumental, “Basis For a Day”), there is no shortage of jamming.


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