Chuck McCabe's Sweet Reunion: The Minstrel Boy Goes (Down) Home
When a musical artist hits his stride and produces one meaty release after another, attention must be paid. Case in point: Chuck McCabe. Building on the momentum of his fiendishly listenable 2004 release, Chicken Dinners ()
and 2002's equally tasty Bad Gravity Day (),
the northern California-based singer-songwriter's Sweet Reunion is the richest, most ambitious album of his career. Sweet Reunion attests to the full creative maturity of its maker and indeed the vitality of the album as a musical format. Download a choice cut or two, but you'll want the CD, not least for its elegant design, but mainly to hear a contemporary artist at the top of his game.
As a kind of gene mapping of a minstrel boy's progress, McCabe's Sweet Reunion will take a place among classic albums of Americana, such as Arlo Guthrie's Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys, Maria Muldaur's Waitress in a Donut Shop, The McGarrigle's Hour, and Lyle Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth. Each is a meditation on the burdens of family and of the individual's place among larger traditions.
In a baker's dozen of songs featuring A-list players and sensitive production, McCabe draws on the raw materials of American music - Celtic pipes, gospel piano, bluegrass banjo, ragtime horns - to produce a wry, often haunting exploration of his own roots, ancestral and musical, and of the modern minstrel's response to an ever scarier modern world. Each song draws meaning from the whole, with instrumental motifs and reprises re-connecting the songs in new, potent ways.
The rocking, dobro-driven "Grandpa Played Softball" and the poignant "Gone to Utah" offer memorable portraits of McCabe patriarchs (each shown on the sepia family reunion photo, circa 1950, inside the CD). In the former, the big-boned baseball star turned mailman teaches his grandson the value of subtlety in a hardball world: "The pitch that wins is the one that spins/Any fool can throw it hard." In the latter, aided again by Rob Ickes' dobro filigree, the singer's father dismisses the cautions of family and doctors to find an agnostic's peace in "God's country." One day he simply leaves a note, "Gone to Utah."
Who can't recognize a parent of their own in this song, or in the separate photo of Chuck's father featured on the inside CD jacket? L.L. Bean chinos, cotton shirt, sensible shoes, pick-up truck, squint, and alone: "He's just a man we thought we knew/But he was only passing through."
"The Junk in Murphy's Yard" - a celebration of the music in the mundane - and "Erin the Fair" explore McCabe's Scots-Irish roots in genuine Celtic tones and rhythms, aided by crack Celtic players such as Brian McNeill on concertina and piper David Brewer. "Erin the Fair" is reminder that Irish emigrants have often found themselves wanted only as cannon fodder. As Chuck comments: "My grandfather (and his brother) fought in WWI, my father, in WWII and Korea. The old quote 'I am a soldier that my son might be a poet' is particularly poignant to me, as my father lived to see exactly that."
In fact, McCabe himself was a Vietnam-era Marine reservist who did two USO tours of Indochina as a performer. Such experience gave him glimpses of horrors rarely seen by most guitar slingers, so it's no surprise that his husky tenor is particularly effective on the darkest cuts here. "Deliver Us From Evil" is a gospel inflected post 9-11 prayer to "Protect us from the innocent/They know not what they do," while "Old Enemy" concedes the powerful creative force of personal demons: "Fightin' you has only made me strong/Old Enemy, you have been a friend to me all along." The solo banjo reprise of "Deliver Us" is as moodily evocative as anything on the "O Brother" soundtrack, its plaintive modulation into "Old Enemy" like the call of a crow flying over a wasteland.
McCabe is known for his witty, incisive lyrics, but Sweet Reunion is a profoundly musical record. He has the mature artist's confidence in sharing the spotlight with collaborators. As Chuck comments: "Rob Ickes, Norton Buffalo [harmonica], and John Lee Sanders [piano] are the color and flavor men on the project... not just the icing on the cake, but the very texture. They were in on the ground floor, and some of the arrangements evolved around their great playing."
Listeners who know Norton Buffalo only by his famous harp solo on Bonnie Raitt's cover of "Runaway" are in for even greater delights: his shimmering chromatic solos - one part Little Walter to three parts Toots Thielemans - provide frissons of pleasure, especially on McCabe's ode to prickly marital bliss, "That's What I Like About My Baby." McCabe's wife Cindy, by the way, likes "Gone to Utah."
As Chuck admits, this reunion is bittersweet: "The last few years have seen the loss of several friends and family members. The previous generation is slipping away, and I've started thinking a lot about where I came from. One of my aunts sent me the reunion photo that's inside the album. The picture really hit me hard... my mom, dad, grandparents and great-grandma are all in that photo... four generations of the people who, in a greater sense, I am."
But this is no mid-life crisis record. Indeed, "No Good to Me Now," a full-throated R&B romp, declares the singer's readiness to drop the weight of "old stuff" and get "some new stuff." Perhaps most of all, Sweet Reunion is a celebration of McCabe's roots in the American South. The instrumental "Bonifay Rag" is an exuberant banjo and fiddle cakewalk, culminating in Rik Siverson's swaggering horns. According to Chuck," [Producer] Joe Weed liked the tune immediately, saying it sounded like small town, turn of the century America to him, when Model T Fords shared dusty roads with horse and buggy and there were Sunday concerts in the park. Bonifay is a little town so far north in Florida that it's almost Georgia and almost Alabama. My grandparents grew up there, and that's where the reunion photo was taken."
This southern sound and the moral journey of McCabe's minstrel boy find their fullest expression in the benedictory title song and its joyous reprise ending the album. "Church was my first chance to stand up and sing on my own, and I was just lucky to be in the South where the music was inspirational! In contrast to the fiery preaching, the music promised salvation from the dire threat of eternal damnation, a refuge from thoughts of guilt and regret. First they hit you with the brimstone, then soothed you with the sweet harmony of a big old church full of people singing together. I bought the whole program."
In the "Reprise," John Lee Sanders' Sunday school piano, joined by the voices of backup singers "The Irrationals," lift the CD to a generous, open-hearted close, as the pianist regales the group with memories of Friday night gospel sings at his Louisiana high school, and belles with beehive hairdos. In these final moments, Chuck McCabe is content to let John Lee serve as the voice of a rich, motley American musical heritage - a heritage to which McCabe himself has contributed so much. We're invited to this reunion because this is our family and our music too.
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