A BLUE STATE JUKEBOX REVIEW
by Tony Peyser
About three years ago, I heard an album I really liked by a Virginia-based band called The Circuit Riders. It felt like they were summoning some old Americana ghosts with a mix of country, folk and blues. Much of their sound was carried by lead vocalist Steve Fisher, who also wrote a lot of the Circuit Riders songs. He sounded a lot Dylan as well as T-Bone Burnett, the producer of "O Brother" fame whose solo career finally generated a long-awaiting box set this year of his often hard to find albums. (This Dylan-Burnett comparison isn't a stretch since the latter was a de facto protege of the former.) I was especially smitten with "Circus Is In Town" which evoked that old thrill of three-ring theatrics coming to somebody's hometown. But there was also a somewhat jaundiced and modern eye cast on the proceedings: "The horses are getting tired, waiting in their stalls/The crowd is growing restless, hoping the acrobat will fall."
Fisher wrote me recently to say The Circuit Riders were on hold for the moment but had an album to send along. He described his solo debut, Broken Land Parkway, as stripped down. This may be true but after I head it, I sure felt pumped up.
I have to start out by mentioning the album's one cover: Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927." In the world post-Katrina, this haunting track has become even more memorable and embedded in our collective consciousness. I heard someone else sing it recently on a tribute album --- I like the guy and won't mention his name --- and it was surprisingly flat. That's why I felt skittish when I saw that Fisher was also taking a whack at this track from Newman's 1974 release "Good Old Boys." But this version has a somber power that's just amazing. Fisher's using his own emphasis in the phrasing of the lyrics to make the song more his own. Maybe there's another force at work here. Newman's original (which I love) was clearly recorded on dry land but Fisher's interpretation seems almost like he's singing from low ground as a nearby levee just broke. While Newman never seemed in harm's way, Fisher is resigned to singing with the imminent threat of being carried away by uncertain waters. This cover is nothing short of mesmerizing. You don't need a dinner jacket to listen but may be inspired to put on a lifejacket. (FYI, Fisher didn't just decide to cover this Newman classic after Katrina; he'd started singing it at shows a year before.)
There is a sense of loss in Fisher's album which is conveniently book ended by the first and last songs. The opener, "Welcome To Damascus," is about his leaving home and his father no longer feeling at home after the big mall came to town and put stores like his Dad's out of business. Doug Austin's mandolin playing here embellishes the track with a poignant down home feel. Late in the song, Fisher sings, "I saw a great blue heron fly/Between sunset and the sky/Trying to find a way to get back home." I was reminded of those ducks in Tony Soprano's pool that reduced the mobster to tears. Even the wildlife in Damascus feels displaced. It's here that Fisher sets the tone on his album as one of sweet sorrow.
Fisher's harmonica is heard throughout the album; it's kind of like his scruffy but loyal sidekick. It the first sound you hear in the album closer, "Collateral Damage." Fisher gives an account of military service overseas with his best pal Sanchez. They're blood brothers from the opposite ends of town and the chorus has a hush to it: "Hey now look over yonder/Where do the young boys go?/Hey now look over yonder/Three days to Modesto." Suffice to say that arriving at this yearned for city isn't the homecoming that anybody was hoping for. It's a snapshot from war about young men coming home not in peace but in pieces, a testament to the terrible price this pre-emptive campaign on terror has forced so many to pay. In a similar vein, "Willie Comes Home" paints a portrait of another young man who enlists and dies in a Mideast neighborhood so far from the neighborhood where he was a local baseball phenom.
Fisher mixes things up a little in a Tex-Mex kinda way with his border saga, "Rafael." Our hero has crossed border illegally, is working his fingers to the bone and sending his money home. But he --- like the father in "Welcome To Damascus" and young soldiers in "Collateral Damage" --- also feels that sense of not being where he should be. It's a tender portrait of a hard working lost soul, an insightful counterpoint to the ongoing immigrant-bashing that loathsome "compassionate conservatives" are so found of trotting out.
Fisher's album has a sense of being haunted by various ghosts of love, loss and memory. I was in the process of moving when I was writing this column, which made it tricky for me to track down a couple of these phantom presences. But when I got settled down, I looked through my CDs and found what I was looking for.
Ghost #1 was "Old Stone Church," probably the album's most wistful track. Fisher reminisces about a once towering church from his childhood. There's an elegant sadness that's overpowering as a structure like this surely seemed to have a shot at eternity. This is the chorus: "The old stone church on the hill/Stone by stone was built/Now lies in ruins in the field/There's a place in heart I carry still." Something in the chorus someone sounds like George Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth.)" It's hard to describe just what, but spirits are elusive and sometimes so are words to describe such similarities. The point here is "Old Stone Church" is a melancholy song with deep roots that resonate along the tree of popular music. (Harrison and Dylan, you may recall, were in the roots rocking Traveling Wilburys in the 1980s. You may not be aware that another key collaborator in that supergroup was T-Bone Burnett: yup, the very aforementioned fellow whose voice sound so much like Fisher's.)
Ghost #2 was "Rafael," which absolutely reminded me of some other song I heard a few years ago. In a box in my new attic, I finally found the album it was on, which was called "Sun, Moon Mule." The reason it seemed similar is because it was the exact same song. Plagiarism? Nah --- this track was written by Fisher and recorded by his old band, Circuit Riders. I hope the band records some more records, but Fisher makes it clear with "Broken Land Parkway" that he's more than capable of making memorable music on his own.
A BLUE STATE JUKEBOX REVIEW
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