Free Times Café, March 7, 2014
These two artists happened to meet each other at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas where they were both New Folk Finalists in 2012, so when Lindsay had an option to share a bill, Michael answered the call. I had only sampled Lindsay’s talents via her website, proving she was loaded with potential, while any chance to see Michael redefine the blues in his old-school way, count me in. Their music may be dissimilar yet this often makes for a good night out.
Opening the show with his usual gaggle of antique and home-hewn instruments, MJB simply ran through a thumbnail of his greatest influences, adding his personal spin to all he has learned. Blending the immortal traditions of yesteryear with seamless and equally timeless originals, any occasion spent listening to Mr. Browne is equal parts educational and wholly entertaining.
From Charlie Lincoln’s “Country Breakdown” to Peetie Wheatstraw’s “Six Weeks Old Blues”, he updates us on everything from nicknames to the particular barnyard manners of each lauded practitioner, gaining precious context for the times while revealing Browne’s personal inspirations from each of them. As Browne rips into his own “Guitar Mama” from Drive On, we learn that his love of Memphis Minnie helped galvanize his penchant for slide guitar, amongst other things. His use of slide on Muddy Waters’ own “My Life Is Ruined” breaks away into an evening highlight – the traditional “Reuben” revealing its African roots compliments of his gourd guitar. Dipping back into a song penned by Richard M. Jones, resuscitated by Roscoe Holcomb’s high lonesome sound, “Trouble In Mind” transfers old-tyme into good times in record time. Switching over to fiddle, Browne resurrects his Acadian counterpart with Canray Fontenot’s waltzing “Les plats sont tous mis sur la table”, segueing into his own “La contredanse à Tit-Browne”. A quick set change to 12-string guitar, Browne’s passion for Blind Willie McTell is obvious in his treatment of “Broke Down Engine Blues”, making his 12-string sing.
Songster Dick Justice’s “Black Bog Blues” lends a strong stringband feel while MJB’s treatment of Bill Jackson’s “Long Steel Rail” underlines the never-ending value of traditional music. Browne’s own “Remember When” – a new composition – taps into his strengths in defining country soul, accompanying himself with more powerful 12-string before closing by emulating another guitar idol in Blind Blake and his “Too Tight Blues”, exorcising Blake’s own haunting instrumental style.
Tough act to follow yet, palate cleansed by sale-priced Creemore, the Shuswap’s Lindsay May represents an entirely different sort of act – folk-based but somewhat experimental, having earned her that elusive “alt-country/Americana” tag. Not entirely accurate, Lindsay’s live performance differs greatly from her recorded works. She clearly aims for more of a pop vein, with thoughtful lyrics grafted to memorable melodies. Some songs stand head and shoulders above others – each clearly redefined and reworked as the solo performer reinvents them, accompanying herself on numbers traditionally given life by multiple musicians. Adept on guitar and mandolin alike, she covers a lot of ground, stylistically, with the strength and flexibility to make it happen. Like Browne, she’s a wanderer in the troubadour tradition yet, unlike Browne, she’s still seeking a solo style to call her own and it’s clearly evolving. Equipped with an engaging stage presence and a sincere gift for gab, she’s also blessed with a larger-than-life voice and the enthusiasm to drive it home, commanding complete attention. Yet the magic is found in the softer numbers like the bluesy “I Want A Love” with its rhythmic chug and the quieter-still “Girl With Grit” – a theme song if ever there was one. Some songs – which she’s been successful with – seemed somewhat oversold, her voice tending to overpower the experience at times. “Shimmer” – a lovely song from her ’12 release of the same name – became almost theatrical, her vocal over-the-top at times. The effervescent “Bittersweet” – from her debut – suffered a somewhat bombastic showbiz attack despite it becoming a singalong number. “Nashville” – one of her strongest songs – barely survived its disproportionate intensity where the laidback “Tell Me Everything” came off as slightly self-indulgent, very unlike its recorded counterpart, wrapped in harmonies and stinging lap steel guitar. It’s all a matter of control. May’s voice is beautiful – with multi-faceted qualities that can carry you in many directions at once. Yet her best qualities are heard when she’s able to dispense her voice in softer measure, more effective when she incorporates more space around it. Take “Lie To You”, for example. It shone in her care, peeled back and toned down – an exceptional song in her canon. And marvel at what she does with her original music on both Shimmer and Girl with Grit. Fronting a well-rehearsed band, she’d blow you away and she’s got more power and energy than a stage this small could ever withstand.
A hell-bent-for-success songwriter, she’ll make it, based on her accomplishments. And when these two Kerrville veterans joined for the encore, May seemed to relax as Browne assumed the key guitar role. As a result, “Star In The Sky” proved another highlight. The net takeaway is that Lindsay May has the goods but may not be entirely comfortable in her own skin quite yet – all by herself and alone on a stage. She writes great songs, has the ability to realize them with quality arrangements. The only missing ingredients are time and mileage.
As expected, a great night out – and a tasty glimpse of two inspiring performers, each approaching their game from slightly different angles.
Photography by Eric Thom