Browne is an interesting troubadour. He is a virtuoso on guitar, banjo, mandolin, harmonica and fiddle. On his latest album he mixes soul and R&B tunes with older blues and spirituals. In lesser hands it would make for an album with too many disparate sounds to ever be seen as a cohesive musical document. Browne accomplishes this by stripping the modern songs down to their acoustic bare bones, and then putting just enough flesh on those bones to make them tasty. The end result is a group of songs that thematically and stylistically make for a piece of whole cloth, connecting our present with our past, into a tapestry that tells a very human story. It’s also a damn good time.
Browne is an interesting artist. Quiet, unassuming, with a tongue-in-cheek low-key sense of humor you might not peg him as a musician who has performed on stages around the world. But he has been doing just that for years, as a solo artist and as a right hand man for blues man Eric Bibb. He seems more like a suburban middle-aged father who might just be your next door neighbor. No swagger, no cooler-than-thou attitude. The word humility comes to mind. He’s also very funny.
"This record is perhaps a bit more diverse stylistically than some of the country blues things I’ve been doing more recently. But I have recorded records that are a little more eclectic. I have a country soul record I made about ten years ago,” Browne says.
Born in Indiana, Browne’s parents moved to Montreal the following year, where he has lived ever since. He tours Canada and British Columbia regularly, as well as playing the UK and European blues festivals. His knowledge of blues, spirituals, and gospel is vast. He is a sort of walking Smithsonian exhibit, and the kind of artist we need lest we lose sight of our connection to our historical roots.
This time out Browne mixes an interesting assortment of covers from the likes of Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, and Bobby “Blue” Bland, Al Green and Sam Cooke with a fresh batch of original material. The emphasis is on fun and it pays off for the listener.
Browne’s guitar playing is, as always, stellar, and on this record, downright funky at times. Starting with the opening track, “Don’t Ask Me Why,” Browne uses the instrumental to show us just how funky an acoustic guitar can be. The song radiates the joy Browne finds in playing.
The funk-o-meter gets turned all the way up on “Skeletons,” a Stevie Wonder number that resonates with its take on dishonesty. Set against a punchy drum beat, Browne’s picking pops with energy and attitude. “Pharaoh” is the first of two fine collaborations with Harrison Kennedy, their voices blending on a blues moan about the drowning of Pharaoh’s army.
“Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” is a wonderful duet with Eric Bibb that continues the themes of Bibb’s Grammy nominated Migration Blues album. “Remember When” is a ballad that lauds enduring love. Written with Browne’s long-time partner, B.A. Markus, the song is poignant, observing love and relationship as it travels the distance through the different phases of life.
Harrison Kennedy returns on “That’s the Way Love Is,” the two men reflecting on the fickle nature of loving, and the tenuous grasp the human heart has on hope. Browne should consider an album of collaborations with Kennedy, they seem to have an easy chemistry that exudes a natural grace and warmth.
Al Green and Randy Newman are represented with covers of “Here I Am (Come and Take Me) and “Louisiana 1927,” both performed with skill and respect.
The album closes with a reprise of “Pharaoh.” Performed solo on a gourd banjo, this take feels like a field recording from days gone by. As the closing track, it reminds us that all that we enjoy now was built from dust and sweat, and hard work. The music we have come to love started with roots down deep in the soil and in the tribulations of simple, honest working men and women.
Browne connects these roots to our modern day pop music with a sensibility that makes it seem only natural that we should view them as part of a wide river of song. Perhaps his greatest gift is that he sees the whole picture, the panorama. Perhaps he knows that we are more connected than we realize, and he needs to point the way. In these divisive days we need that revelation more than ever.