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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: Barbara Dane And The Chambers Brothers


1) It Isn't Nice; 2) You've Got To Reap What You Sow; 3) You Can't Make It By Yourself; 4) Pack Up Your Sorrows; 5) I Am A Weary And A Lonesome Traveller; 6) We'll Never Turn Back; 7) Come By Here; 8) Freedom Is A Constant Struggle; 9) Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Both technically and substantially, this is a Barbara Dane album rather than a Chambers Brothers album — all the material is chosen (and some of it written) by Barbara, she takes lead vocals on all the tracks, using the brothers largely for backup, and the record was released on the Folkways label, with which Dane had already had an association. However, since this is one of the best albums ever to feature The Chambers Brothers anyway, and also because I am unlikely to ever separately cover Barbara Dane — not because she does not deserve it, but because her disco­graphy is such an utter mess — I might as well drop this short, but grateful evaluation along the way, as a reasonable detour before continuing along the main road.

Apparently, Barbara Dane, of whom I'd never even heard before digging in the Brothers' disco­graphy, had been a permanent fixture on the jazz/blues/folk circuit since the late Fifties, perfor­ming solo as well as in various liaisons with everybody from Louis Armstrong to Muddy Waters and beyond, earning much critical praise but fairly little publicity — mass audiences were not particularly interested in listening to a white girl putting on the shoes of Bessie Smith, even if most had to admit that they fit her fairly well. On the social side, though, she was more akin to Nina Simone than to Bessie — constantly revitalizing old blues and spirituals with new lyrics, making her sound thoroughly relevant back in the day, but somewhat dated today, now that even American audiences will probably have trouble remembering who McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara were in the first place.

Regardless, what does not sound dated is the voice: Barbara Dane was an admirable singer, and the nine tracks here, more or less evenly spread between light folk, dark blues, and multi-colored gospel, are more than enough to prove it. Without trying to engage in a discussion of just how close to «authentic African-American» her voice is, I will just state the simple and obvious — it is a strong, rich, energized sound that she delivers, with a great sense of phrasing and just a small touch of humor and irony and irreverence, to ensure that the listener be not obliged to treat the songs as sacred vessels of the divine human spirit (looking at you, Joan Baez). It is even pleasant to listen to her brief spoken introductions to some of the songs on the first side, with an ever so slight Arkansas accent and a subtle aura of bittersweet wisdom; and as for versatility, there is quite a distance from the friendly, but still troubled optimism of the Appalachian upbeatness of ʽPack Up Your Sorrowsʼ to the doomed self-resignation of ʽI Am A Weary And Lonesome Travellerʼ (a particularly harrowing number of the kind of which I sure wish there'd been more on here: one too many gospel stompers can seriously distort the picture).

The Chambers Brothers, though relegated to purely secondary services, still provide them loyally on every track. The first side of the album features instrumental backing, usually in the form of a quiet rhythm section and one or two electric (always electric, although Dane herself sometimes strums an acoustic in addition) guitars, sometimes with extra harp thrown in by brother Lester; the second one, however, is completely a cappella, with the brothers' harmonies providing the only support for Dane's lead, and this is where they really become inexpendable — their harmonization with Dane is perfect, and the sound engineer also has to be thanked for near-perfect channel separation, so that, by slightly adjusting your ear, you can concentrate either on each individual pitch, or on all of them together. The effect is so cool that, with only a few people present at the mikes, you still get an «all the people» feel from the performances, much stronger than from quite a few gospel choirs.

Commenting on the melodies or on the meanings of the songs is rather pointless — one look at the titles is probably enough to make you realize you've probably heard it all before, with the possible exception of the lead-in track, Barbara's self-penned ʽIt Isn't Niceʼ which is a fairly catchy folk protest tune of the Peter, Paul, & Mary kind. What matters is not the source material, but the sound of it, and it all really works — ironically, The Chambers Brothers' first truly out­standing service to mankind is in the capacity of a support act. This is why the predictability of the melodies, or the dragged-out length and repetitiveness of the tunes is never a big bother: as long as they got this great groove going, with Barbara as the inspiring leader of the pack and The Chambers Brothers as the inspired members of the back, nothing else really matters. Thumbs up, for an album that may have never properly transcended its time but is still worth revisiting just to remind yourself of the rather unique type of fun that time was capable of.

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