Some years ago we heard Rita Hosking’s Come Sunrise and were pretty much blown away by it. Its simplicity, the tales of hard life and Hosking’s vocal delivery were all well above par and invited comparisons to Gillian Welch and Rachel Harrington. So it’s very nice to report that her latest offering Little Boat maintains and even improves on the quality shown on the earlier release.
It’s a simple affair with little or no frills. Hosking plays acoustic guitar while her husband Sean Feder adds Dobro and banjo and producer Rick Brotherton supplies guitars, bass and hammer dulcimer. Making it something of a family affair Hosking and Feder’s daughter Kora Feder co writes one song and plays some banjo while Kathy Brotherton is called upon to add some accordion. The end result is a beautifully played set of songs that have a refreshing back porch feel, unhurried, relaxed, picking away at the end of the day to while away any worries. Hosking’s voice is wonderful, faintly reticent of Natalie Merchant’s, it’s warm and delivered effortlessly and the music suits the vocals perfectly. Topping it all Hosking has a poet’s way with words. She hymns the wonders of the Sierra’s singing
I’ve been around the world, to the countries of the East/ The halls of science have felt the soles of my feet/ And I got my start in the sweet Sierra range/ Where a grove of trees and the mountains call my name/ And I’d climb up in that old pine tree, with the sap on my elbow and a scrape on my knee/
And I’d read about the places I’d see when I climb down, but in my heart I’m always Sierra bound.
The opening song Parting Glass could be the deathbed thoughts of someone not raging against the dying of the light but accepting the inevitable while Nothing Left of Me is a bitter recrimination against a lover who has had his pleasure and moved on. Clean is a slyly humorous song that collects the thoughts of a student forced to clean for folk to pay for her education while Five Star Location, the one song here where the music shifts a gear up is a snapshot of a North Carolina community whose jobs have been shipped to China. The crowning glory however is the co write with Kora Feder, Where Time Is Reigning. Together they capture a wonderful and intimate childlike explanation of the wonders and mysteries of nature and science.
What did dinosaurs think? Says the kid in the dinosaur mask/And in her tar pit dreams, she pulls out a bottle of glass/And inside is a note, it’s a riddle of the treasure hunt type/And as she grows old, every year the peaches will get ripe/It’s the kingdom of the first and second hand/It’s an infinite and most enchanting land/Where rocks fly, old cars try, where everything dies but time.
With only seven songs and running in at around 27 minutes it’s over almost before it begins but it’s an album that grows in stature listen after listen and as we said before perfect to listen to at the end of the day to lighten the load.
Reading a bio of this duo especially on April First might lead one to think someone’s playing a joke here. Their name for example, Great Peacock? What on earth? Easily explained however by Andrew Nelson, “We kept noticing this hilarious trend of bands with names like Fleet Foxes, Deer Tick, Vulture Whale—they all had two names,” Nelson says, “one of which was always an animal.” What about the perennial poncho worn by the other member of the duo, Blount Floyd? Well he seems married to it stating in an interview when asked what he’s never leave home without he responded “my poncho.” It might make him look like a dyed in the wool hippy but then Clint Eastwood looked cool in a poncho and god forbid that anyone would pull him up for that.
So poncho wearing Floyd and smart guy Nelson have known each other for years and shared some bands together but eventually they’ve realised their voices sit together as smugly as a bug in a rug and having ditched their amplified guitars they’ve recorded a sublime E.P that sits firmly in the tradition of two man vocal harmonies with a line traced from the Everlies to the Lost Brothers. They do add some muscle to the songs with some fine backing (Dan Fernandez – Pedal Steel Guitar, Jeremy Byrd – Drums, Nathan Roland – Bass, ,Adam Stewart – Fiddle) and at times there’s a tendency to sound somewhat like the aforementioned Fleet Foxes and the Avett Brothers. The opening songs, Take Me To The Mountain and Desert Lark are the primary culprits here as they get an almost anthemic delivery, soaring at times but the guys sound great, fully fledged and confident. They shine however on the remainder of the songs. Sailing is a beautiful ballad with acoustic guitars and vocals to the fore while a keening pedal steel billows in a plaintive manner. It segues wonderfully into Family Home where the pedal steel hums and soars over a sumptuous pillow of acoustic guitars and piano. The sound conjured up is reminiscent of David Crosby’s If Only I Could Remember My Name and one could imagine that good old Jerry Garcia is piloting this one. They close the E.P with the gentle Bluebird which has a fine campfire feel and showcases their fine harmonies.
Peter Stampfel at 72 might be the grand old man of American string band music but anyone who has seen him play recently will attest to the fact that he is one of the “zingiest” characters you could ever hope to meet. He wears his years well and his infectious bonhomie and general zest for life and for music puts many younger musicians to shame. He is a bona fide Blabber’n’Smoke hero having accompanied, enlightened and thrilled us over 40 years of listening to music and he has a list of achievements which are way too numerous to mention here. We did list some these when we wrote about his last Glasgow gig here where he filled the room with a sense of joy. Over the past decade he has seemed revitalised with a slew of albums with various co conspirators and The Sound of America takes us bang up to date while offering Stampfel an opportunity to revisit his roots.
Never a man (in his youth) to swerve various intoxicants ( and the first to include the word psychedelic in a song, Hesitation Blues in 1964), Stampfel has named his latest line up after the habit in the 19th and early 20th centuries of performers using ether to enhance their and the audience’s enjoyment of their shows. Although he states that the current line up has “no druggies, alkies, people with major character flaws, ego problems, or douchiness of any variety” they manage to capture the essential irreverence , bawdiness and general mayhem that has characterised the best of Stampfel’s recordings which from the very beginning sounded as if they were being played by folk coming at you from another universe where oxygen was only one of the gasses they needed to live on. If you think that freak folk is the domain of Devandra Barnhart then a listen to Stampfel should dispel that notion forever. As he says he’s always taken great joy in bending and twisting traditional material.
The Sound of America is essentially an opportunity for Stampfel to visit the alternative American songbook surrounded by his latest conglomeration. The Ether Frolic Mob are a shape shifting bunch, a moveable feast depending on who is available and who turns up on the night. While their ages range from the twenties to the eighties they all buy in to Stampfel ‘s medicine show elixir which guarantees a good time for all with no hokum. Stampfel writes several songs while others are credited to Ether Frolickers John Cohen and Walker Shepherd (the latter a co write with his dad, Sam Shepard). The rest are either traditional or penned in the backwoods or tin pan alley. Stampfel mentions Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music as a touchstone while also acknowledging his supreme collaboration with Michael Hurley, Jeffrey Frederick and others on the fantastic Have Moicy album (indeed he promises in the album notes that the Frolics are in the process of creating Have Moicy 2). While his is the dominant voice and he is undoubtedly the driver here there this is a democratic show with various members taking lead vocal and all joining in on fiddle, banjo, percussion and general mayhem. It’s random, at times thoroughly unhinged with Memphis Shakedown and New Fortune marginally sharing the prize for out there wackiness. Stampfel howls and wails on the former as only he can do and listening to it one is transported back to the mid sixties and the Rounder’s Indian War Whoop. While there are several wonderful instrumentals that lurch and sway excellently as displayed on Wild Wagoner the songs allow the Mob to shine and particular mention must be made of Hubby Jenkin’s masterful interpretation of Charlie Patton’s Shake It Break It. Stampfel himself offers a hilarious mea culpa on Back Again while Gonna Make Me with John Cohen on vocals zips us back to the very first Holy Modal Rounder recordings in its simplicity. Hey-O is another comparatively uncluttered song where Stampfel inhabits a childlike innocence able to deliver insults that no one could take offence to.
The Ether Frolics Mob might embody an anarchic principle where it seems everyone can do what they want and there’s always the possibility of falling into chaos but at their heart they employ their talents to enhance the whole and when the full ensemble launches into Golden Slippers or Deep In The Heart of Texas there’s an exhilarating effect even without resorting to a sniff of ether. Such wild shenanigans are unlikely to ever bother the BBC playlists but Stampfel and The Ether Frolic Mob mine a fascinating vein of American music and deliver it with a passion that is inspirational and above all else enjoyable.
For further information on the songs check out the extended liner notes here while you can buy the album here