The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Iain Shed­den

Amer­i­can Epic: The Ses­sions Var­i­ous artists Columbia/Sony One of the high­lights (and au­di­ence prizewin­ner) of last year’s Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val was the Amer­i­can Epic se­ries of doc­u­men­taries by Bri­tish film­maker Bernard MacMa­hon and pro­duc­ers Al­li­son McGourty and Duke Erik­son, the prod­uct of six years of re­search and film­ing across the US to cap­ture the his­tory of Amer­i­can roots mu­sic. The films, fea­tur­ing a cast that in­cludes ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers T-Bone Bur­nett, Jack White and, as nar­ra­tor, Robert Red­ford, are fas­ci­nat­ing stud­ies of long-for­got­ten pi­o­neers of blues, folk and coun­try mu­sic in the US, work­ing­class and hard­work­ing am­a­teur and pro­fes­sional mu­sos who paved the way in the early part of the 20th cen­tury for a record­ing in­dus­try none of them could be­gin to imag­ine. Part of the project and the sub­ject of one of the doc­u­men­taries, The Amer­i­can Epic Ses­sions, brought to­gether a wealth of con­tem­po­rary tal­ent — from El­ton John to Alabama Shakes, Beck to Bet­tye LaVette — to record ma­te­rial us­ing the same prim­i­tive record­ing equip­ment with which bud­ding record com­pany ex­ec­u­tives set off around the US in the late 1920s look­ing for tal­ent. This dou­ble al­bum fea­tures the high­lights of those ses­sions and it’s an ex­quis­ite rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the prim­i­tive power of Amer­i­can roots mu­sic and its en­dur­ing charm. Alabama Shakes set the bar high with the open­ing Killer Diller Blues, a stomp­ing coun­try blues, with singer Brit­tany Howard dis­play­ing the same raw en­ergy as the song’s most fa­mous per­former in the 40s, Mem­phis Min­nie. Young blues­man Blind Boy Pax­ton does some fine pick­ing on the old favourite Candy Man and Rhi­an­non Gid­dens, with a voice steeped in blues and gospel, com­pletely owns Ida Cox’s One Hour Mama and the a capella read­ing of old English folk song Pretty Saro, while Pokey LaFarge brings his jazzy swag­ger to St Louis Blues and the acous­tic stroll Josephine. There are some won­der­ful col­lab­o­ra­tions, in­clud­ing two of Merle Hag­gard’s fi­nal per­for­mances: a duet with his buddy Wil­lie Nel­son on Hag­gard’s Old Fash­ioned Love, a sprightly coun­try romp that closes the sec­ond al­bum, and their co-write The Only Man Wilder Than Me. Steve Martin and Edie Brick­ell give a tra­di­tional blue­grass sheen to the 20s stan­dard The Coo Coo Bird. The most sur­pris­ing and re­ward­ing pair­ing, how­ever, comes from John and White, team­ing up on piano and gui­tar re­spec­tively to sing a new song, Two Fin­gers of Whiskey, that reeks of bar-room joie de vivre. Other wor­thy con­tri­bu­tions come from Ash­ley Mon­roe ( Like a Rose, Ju­bilee), LaVette ( No­body’s Dirty Busi­ness, When I Woke Up This Morn­ing and Beck ( Four­teen Rivers, Four­teen Floods), but all 32 tracks are worth the price of en­try. There’s also a com­pan­ion book, with con­tri­bu­tions from some of the par­tic­i­pants and rare pho­to­graphs and posters from the pi­o­neer­ing spir­its who gave a voice to — and pro­vided the first record­ings of — mu­sic that stirs the soul.

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