This live album from the premier purveyors of American Desert Music is not officially released until November. However, with 3hattrio commencing a UK tour this week, they have brought the first run of discs with them allowing those who attend their shows to be the first on the block to own this excellent recording.
Over the course of four albums 3hattrio (Hal Cannon, Greg Istock and Eli Wrankle) have emerged with not only a unique sound but as keepers of the traditions and history of Zion National Park with particular reference to Utah’s desert lands. Inspired by the arid landscape and influenced by the numerous settlers over the ages including Southern Paiute Native Americans, the trio have an almost magical ability to transport the listener into what, at times, seems an alien world.
As evocative as the albums are, they don’t really prepare you for the emotional impact of experiencing the band live. With just a guitar, banjo, fiddle, double bass and rudimentary percussion they conjure some fabulous sounds, at times eerie and shamanistic, elsewhere evoking frontier sounds carried from the old world and bearing the trails through Appalachia as played around desert campfires. When your reviewer was fortunate enough to experience them live we reported that there was a circularity to the songs on the night, one all enveloping aural experience, and so it is on Live At Zion which the band describe as, “A single piece of music, a desert symphony rising out of our home in Zion Canyon.”
Recorded in a pre civil war church in their hometown of Virgin, Utah, Live At Zion finds the band playing to friends and neighbours and expertly captures the live experience. With a mixture of songs from the albums along with new pieces, it’s a magnificent listen from start to finish. Hal Cannon’s evocation of the mighty winds which have carved the shape of much of the desert landscape sets the scene before Istock’s impressionistic Thelma & Louise creeps into view. Propelled by his driving double bass as Wrankle’s fiddle twists and turns, the song is powerfully evocative as Istock scats and mumbles before the trio soar off into uncharted territory and then return to the primary riff. It’s desert music with a whiff of Coltrane’s extrapolations thrown in and is just astounding. Cannon grounds the band with his salute to their homeland on Zion Song and much of the album repeats this trick as the trio alternate between atavistic sound explorations and down home folklore. At the centre of the album is a number, called here Desert Triptych, which is an amalgam of three songs (Rose, Night Sky and Lord Of the Desert) which is just astounding. Ranging from the spacey opening (which would surely astonish any prog rock fan) to Cannon’s invocation which is reminiscent of a stoned cold and immaculate Jim Morrison tripping in the desert, it has to be heard to be believed.
The trio continue to paint vivid sound portraits on the wailings, slick banjo and sonic fiddle exploration (and closing humour) of Texas Traveller, while the percussive intricacy of Crippled Up Blues and then Cannon’s banjo led riparian song, Flight, showcase the trio’s magnificent interplay. Throughout the album Wrankle’s playing astounds while Istock’s mastery of his bass and percussion remains a mystery as it seems impossible for any human being to do what he does here.
Live At Zion captures this unique band in full flight and bodes well for the upcoming UK shows.