By Steve Boisson
Bill Morrissey has often drawn inspiration from the bleak New England winter. He has mined it for metaphors in songs about ice fishing, wood burning, cabin fever, and other things born of short, cold days. On Come Running, Morrissey’s first original CD in six years, he explores the season’s darkest implication. “And these days the sun don’t rise, as much as it goes down,” he sings on a lament for his late friend, the fiddler Johnny Cunningham. On another tune, a washed-up musician rues, “Thirty years of thank you and please, ’til all you get is the smoker’s cough and the alcohol disease.” The material could be depressing in lesser hands, but Morrissey always manages to make sadness go down sweetly. On the lighter side, Dave Alvin—more or less Morrissey’s West Coast counterpart as regional balladeer—lends some shimmering electric-guitar fills on jaunty numbers such as “I Ain’t Walking” and “Dangerous Way.” But nothing animates the music so much as Morrissey’s keen eye for detail and ear for the telling phrase. And, of course, there’s that voice. When Morrissey wraps his quivering, whiskey-burnished croak around a line, it feels as warm as the first breath of spring. Highly recommended.
Come Running | Turn and Spin Media
By TED DROZDOWSKI
July 24, 2007
This disc marks the renaissance of New England musical poet Morrissey. Creatively, it revisits the strong emotional territory of his classics Standing Eight and Night Train (both on Rounder). And its release follows a visit to rehab that seems to have restored the singer-songwriter’s buoyant spirit, resulting in some of his warmest, wittiest live performances in years. The album features Dave Alvin on electric guitar, plus producer Billy Conway (drums) and Dana Colley (sax) of Morphine and Twinemen. The songs ricochet between joy and sadness. The triumphant opener “I Ain’t Walking” is an outright rocker — with Morrissey adding clarinet — and “Dangerous Way” and “New Walking Blues” have a similar blithe spirit. On the blue side, there’s “Johnny’s Tune,” a loving elegy for the late folk-violin wizard Johnny Cunningham, and the wistful “By the Grave of Baudelaire” and “Canal Street,” which use Morrissey’s trademark gift for novelistic detail to capture longing and a touch of lust. Alvin’s baritone guitar on the latter adds a layer of emotional resonance. References to Morrissey’s passion for classic Delta blues sneak their way into his lyrics, as does a tip to the Polish side of his ancestry. And he channels his passion for hot jazz into “He’s Not from Kansas City.” Come Running also marks Morrissey’s first venture into self-releasing an album after decades with Rounder. It’s available at cdbaby.com.
January 20, 2006
GUITAR FESTIVAL REVIEW | TRIBUTE TO JOHN HURT
Stepping Around the Pieties in a Tribute to a Bluesman
By BEN RATLIFF
Mississippi John Hurt was a reluctant blues musician, if he was one at all. He lived most of his life in Avalon, Miss., barely traveling; it is said that he never played in juke joints, which would explain why his voice and fingerpicked guitar style never developed the percussiveness he would have needed to cut through a commotion.
He made some curiously gentle early recordings in 1928, singing softly as he fixed alternating bass patterns with his thumb and syncopated a melody with three other fingers. They weren’t successful. But nearly 40 years later, his luck changed; he was pursued, found and handed a ready-made audience. There was a vacancy for a nonpercussive blues singer, especially one as benign as John Hurt. There was even a name now for what he did: he was a folk-blues singer.
Anyone approaching his music another 40 years after that, as several performers did on Wednesday night at Merkin Concert Hall in a Hurt-centric concert devised by the New York Guitar Festival, faces a tricky job. There are social-consciousness pieties, blues-fan pieties, folk-singer pieties and even guitar-playing pieties to step around. Hurt’s work is tight and specific; performers have to take it for what it is, and take themselves for who they are.
The folk singer Bill Morrissey got it right. A Hurt fanatic at 15 who came to perform Hurt’s music publicly only much later in life, Mr. Morrissey, now in his mid-50’s, is the kind of musician who doesn’t show you all he can do. He played absolutely clean guitar, damping strings only where he desired to, working perfect sliding notes into the fingerpicking cycles; without elaborating on those patterns much, he let you hear their economy and beauty.
One got the impression that he secretly had a Hurt imitation down cold, but he sang in his own strange, quiet voice: vowels that came out in winces, flashes of a gargled baritone, each note snuffed out before its pitch became too apparent.
Mr. Morrissey’s set included light songs like “Funky Butt,” which Jen Chapin also sang during a short performance at the beginning of the concert. But another choice, “If You Don’t Want Me Baby,” one of the songs Hurt recorded after his rediscovery, got the serious performance it deserves. Its three lyric strains formed a composite statement about serene, lonely resignation; Mr. Morrissey used his full concentration and his power of understatement to transmit its emotion.
Jorma Kaukonen, the evening’s big draw, played a far more casual and less satisfying set. Singing and fingerpicking, accompanied by Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin, banjo and tenor guitar, he opened up Hurt’s repertory, including “Stack O’ Lee,” “Casey Jones” and Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You,” to jamming. It was careful work, but it amounted to letting the air out of a basketball; the tension inside the music collapsed.
More to the point was the guitarist Brandon Ross, who rearranged three Hurt songs compositionally. Mr. Ross, who used to direct Cassandra Wilson’s band, seems to hear music as murmurs, or fog. He changed the thumb-pattern intervals so that they lightly clashed against the melodic material; he introduced more complex chords; with a voice that was cool to the point of evaporation, he made the songs both lighter and more droning.
Unscheduled, unvirtuosic and sweetly relevant was Dan Zanes, who appeared in the middle of the show with two adults and five children, some of them preadolescent. Calling themselves the How Not to Get Rich Orchestra, they played one song, “My Creole Belle”: it was transparent, joyful and about as folk as possible.