All Hail King Wilkie
Low Country Suite
Artist: King Wilkie
Title: Low Country Suite
Genre: Acoustic Blend of Country/Folk/Bluegrass
Label: Zoe/Rounder Records
In a MusicDish piece two years ago, with a nod to Jon Landau’s infamous 1974 review of Bruce Springsteen, this writer hailed the Charlottesville-based King Wilkie as “the future of bluegrass,” while worrying that these talented young men would soon slide off to graduate schools and respectability, as so many other promising young bluegrass acts have done.
I was wrong on both counts and you should be glad. They’re not the future of bluegrass and they’re still making great music. Their first full album, Broke, is perhaps the best original bluegrass album of the this young century, but while they have indeed tired of the limitations of traditional bluegrass, their new CD, " Low Country Suite," (Zoe/Rounder Records) is a deeply-felt, deeply satisfying masterpiece, a kind of Gram Parsons meets The Band exploration of the tensions between freedom and attachment, and the longing that connects the two.
Initial reviews of Low Country Suite have emphasized their departure from bluegrass – let them go, friends, there’s plenty of great bluegrass still out there – and characterized the new CD as “low key” or “transitional.” Maybe, but only in the sense that Music From Big Pink was low key. For one thing, Low Country Suite is full of wonderful songs, from the moody tone poems like “The Raising of the Patriarchs” and “Stone and Steel” to the gorgeous “Millie’s Song” and “Oh My Love” to LA country like “Captivator,” not to mention Reid Burgess’s flirtation with thirties’ Tin Pan Alley in “Ms. Peabody.” I’d pay to hear Burgess sing Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael anytime.
I can’t think of a recent record I’ve enjoyed so much or played so compulsively as Low Country Suite, and based on their recent packed performance at Philadelphia’s Tin Angel, where this writer and fidder Nick Reeb’s mother seemed to be the only audience members over 30, they are having no difficulties attracting and retaining an enthusiastic, even raucous audience. Reeb’s resonant, almost viola-like playing was only one of many highlights that night.
The analogy to The Band is actually quite relevant, I think: in the same way that Robbie Robertson consistently declined to act out the guitar god role in an era of 12 minute guitar solos, in order to serve the collective vision of the group and its songs, mandolinist and singer Reid Burgess here holds back his serious bluegrass instrumental and vocal chops – particularly his wonderful Jimmie Rogers high tenor - to help drive King Wilkie’s new musical direction.
The new songs are entirely original – with Ted Pitney and Burgess’s songwriting in full flower, though lead singer John McDonald’s “Savannah” is arguably the most powerful cut on the record. At the same time the songs are full of phrases and associations redolent of American music and places: Rockabye, Ms. Peabody, Angeline, Wrecking Ball, Savannah. The first time I heard “Angeline,” live at the Tin Angel, I was sure it was some forgotten nugget from The Band or Little Feat.
This is not a group in which the ensemble is organized around a central genius or two. This is a full band, overflowing in talent and ideas, and totally cohesive, with Jake Hopping on bass, Abe Spear on banjo and pedal steel, Nick Reeb on violin, Burgess on mandolin, ukulele and organ, McDonald on guitar, and guitarist-songwriter, Ted Pitney. Pitney always seemed a bit redundant in a live bluegrass context, but here he really anchors the group as a kind of moral and musical conscience.
The dominant sound here is vaguely reminiscent of early 1970s' LA country - before it became soft rock - yet even Pitney's "Captivator," which starts out with a quintessentially LA cowboyish line like "You must be an angel," morphs into a weird kind of group sing-along at song's end. This a record that uses the familiar as a basis to create surprises.
The world of pop music in 2007 is a thousand times more complicated than in the almost innocent days of Music From Big Pink, so I won’t predict quite so dramatic an impact on their peers for King Wilkie, but if you are reading this you have no excuse for missing Low Country Suite.
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