Redbird – Redbird Live at the Café Carpe

January 01, 1970

(Signature Sounds)


It’s just a matter of time before Redbird elicits warm
smiles and the occasional tear on A
Prairie Home Companion
. Apparently the quartet, which coalesced around a
2003 U.K. tour/triple-bill of Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, and Peter
Mulvey, hasn’t yet appeared on the show. David Goodrich was subsequently
recruited to add lead guitar to the three songwriters’ picks and originals.


Redbird’s song-swap-and-support isn’t unique, although its
Folk and Americana roots are growing somewhat thinner as interpreters and
lovers of traditional genres grow old and die off. Even its more out-of-the-box
covers, which would have been unusual coffeehouse fodder 15 years ago, make
more sense now that 40- and 50-something folkies fold Alternative faves into
the Standards lexicon. The group’s bio mentions jamming on Bowie alongside
“jazz ballads or country crooners,” and Mulvey cites Tom Waits, Los Lobos, and
Bill Frisell among his influences.


But hundreds of cool references, along with open minds, can’t
buy the quality that prompts fans to reserve tickets for Redbird’s annual
four-night stand at The Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. That quality,
sometimes called “a certain something,” might be dissected into the following:
A feeling of warmth – usually born from mutual liking and respect; a certain
heat (often an outgrowth of the members’ excitement about playing and
interpreting music together), and charisma (another vague term, but an integral
factor). Redbird glows with all of these attributes. It’s a new-folk band for
over-40s to grow older with, and from which interested under-40s may also
extract enrichment.


Fresh air regularly sweeps through the band’s second
recording, garnered from two Café Carpe evenings. The commencement choice, Duke
Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” is pretty standard. But the stamp
Redbird puts on a chestnut that’s been mauled by Ella Fitzgerald, Frank
Sinatra, and a few thousand others, is extraordinary. Over a vibrant Hot
Club/swing foundation, Mulvey’s brilliant phrasing dredges surprising nuances
from his simultaneously engaged and off-hand tenor, and the melody. The
performance tells us to expect a band with serious chops, that’s having too
much fun to take those chops so seriously the fun would be choked off.


From there, song structures, styles, and moods are only
predictable in their ability to engage via acoustic instrumentation (and Goodrich’s
electric lead). Variety’s also offered by frequent lead vocal shifts. The track
order feels intuitively artful, as when a relatively low-key (almost
karaoke-casual; somewhat giggle-marred) rendering of the country song “What
Made Milwaukee Famous” is followed by the minimalist potency of Jeffrey
Foucault’s approach to the Appalachian tune, “Come All Ye Fair and Tender
Maidens.” The combination keeps the listener awake while somewhat off-guard. Delmhorst’s
gorgeously textured vocals, another No-Doze element, are especially showcased
on her “Strangers” and on an arrangement of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” that
pares off any of the original’s drinkin’-‘n’-cryin’ schmaltz, leaving the
melody ripe for handy plunder.


Folk purists will be at home with Neil Young’s “For the
Turnstiles,” which is dialed back to a more standard arrangement than that
employed on the original. They can hear Redbird’s popular cover of Greg Brown’s
“Ships,” a studio version of which was included on the band’s debut. Garrison Keillor’s
an inevitable sucker for the group’s jubilant reading of Mississippi John
Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me.”


In case it doesn’t go without mentioning, most tracks are
enhanced by vocal harmonies. Yes, it can be nice when everyone sings, and when
everyone writes (intelligent songwriters tend to be the best cover song
scouts). This is happily exemplified when Redbird busts out with one of The
Faces’ best songs, “Ooh La La,” which translates beautifully into a
mandolin-embellished folk soup. And which makes ridiculous amounts of sense
when it’s delivered by a group of musicians who are old enough to understand
the lyrics, along with being one of those “I loved this when I was 14 – what,
you love it too? What, the audience remembers and loves it too?” nuggets. I’m
even more enamored of Mulvey’s original “Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad (And Far Away from
Home).” It’s a nice, nice, nice, nice song.


Tracks like those almost make up for “Phonebooth of Love,” which
circles a basic blues progression to over-hammer its cutesy point. Similarly,
maybe you had to be there for “4 & 20 Blues,” in which the musicians are
clearly having a blast I’m not sharing while listening to it.


Those preferences and leanings aside, this live document
makes an indelible mark. It’s hard to imagine anyone who’d want to skip the
banquet; downloading single tracks. But if such individuals exist, they might
be fans of Goodrich. In that case, a lovely slice of the guitarist’s rich
palette is included with the instrumental “Snowed In,” which functions within
the mix as a sort of palate-cleanser, the seventh of 14 tracks.    


you want to skip “Phonebooth” and “4 & 20 Blues,” the whole caboodle. MARY LEARY

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