Album Reviews: John Prine - The Broadcast Archive, Rory Block - A Woman's Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith, Plus More New Releases

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A Bargain-Priced Live Anthology from John Prine

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a bargain-priced repackaging of three live Leonard Cohen albums, an apparent result of European copyright laws regarding material that has been aired on the radio. Now, from the same company, comes another such killer deal: The Broadcast Archive, which collects a trio of previously issued live radio shows by singer/songwriter John Prine, one each from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Total playing time is just under four hours. Last time I checked, the three-CD set was going for about 14 bucks on Amazon—about a third of what it would have recently cost you to buy the three discs separately.  

All the material on CD number one predates Prine’s eponymous debut LP, which came out in 1971. In fact, according to the liner notes, the first 18 tracks preserve the oldest surviving Prine recording, a solo acoustic August 1970 show at Chicago’s 5th Peg club. (However, I wonder whether all of those performances really come from that gig: they sound like studio demos until we get to the 12th track and start to hear an audience.) Also on the disc: a fall 1970 appearance on Studs Terkel’s radio program that includes six songs plus 17 minutes of interview material. The second CD contains a 1986 concert from Asheville, North Carolina, while the third features a 1996 broadcast from the Singer-Songwriter Festival in Frutigen, Switzerland. 

Prine has been in the spotlight lately, thanks to the April release of the excellent The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new material in 13 years. But as his fans know, he has been writing (and occasionally co-writing) great songs for decades, and you’ll find excellent readings in this package of many of them. From his first album—one of the most auspicious folk debuts ever—come such classics as “Angel from Montgomery,” “Donald and Lydia,” “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” “Paradise,” and “Spanish Pipe Dream.” From later LPs, the collection includes gems like “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” “You Got Gold,” “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian,” “Blue Umbrella,” and “That’s the Way That the World Goes ’Round,” to name a few. 

This anthology serves as a reminder of the warmth, charm, and wit that Prine exudes in a concert setting, and also of how many memorable lines he has written. Remember “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose” (from “Sam Stone”)? How about “I chased a rainbow down a one-way street—dead end / And all my friends turned out to be insurance salesmen” (from “Illegal Smile”)? 

The guy is a treasure. Collections like this one offer proof.

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Rory Block’s Affecting Tribute to Bessie Smith

Power Women of the Blues, a new album series from Rory Block, is a project that she says “has been simmering in my imagination for 54 years.” It’s an excellent idea for a series, and Block—an artist I’ve admired for nearly as long as she’s been thinking about this concept—is exactly the right performer to execute it. On A Woman’s Soul—A Tribute to Bessie Smith, she launches the project with readings of 10 songs associated with a giant of the genre, including “Empty Bed Blues,” “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” and “Kitchen Man.” It’s a one-woman show, with Block, who coproduced, providing all vocals and playing all guitars and bass parts, as well as all percussion. 

Block understands Smith’s appeal. As she writes in the liner notes, “It’s important to me to mention Bessie’s outrageously sexy material, her fearless jaw-dropping delivery, her unapologetic presentation of women as the powerfully sensual, sexual beings we know we are…Bessie’s material was never dirty, it was just plain sexy.” Block captures all this in her own playful and eminently playable performances, which feature great slide guitar and soulful vocals. 

I look forward to the rest of this series (which follows one on Block’s mentors); meanwhile, I’ll be revisiting this CD often. It’s a reminder of Smith’s importance—and also of Block’s own considerable strengths as a blues guitarist and singer. Someday, I suspect, we’ll be seeing tribute albums to her as well.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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The innocence mission, Sun on the SquareUnderstated vocals and melancholy music characterize this 10th album from the innocence mission, a Pennsylvania-based indie folk outfit that apparently dislikes capital letters. The group, which has been making music for nearly three decades, features Karen Peris, who wrote most of the songs, provides most of the vocals, and plays guitars, piano, pump organ, and accordion; her husband Don plays guitar and drums; and a third member, Mike Bitts, adds bass. (Other backup includes viola and violin on a few tracks.) Belle and Sebastian and Nick Drake are good reference points for this music; and Karen’s vocals also sound redolent of the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler. As for Karen's lyrics here, they’re poetic but abstruse. In “Light of Winter,” for example, she sings, “Gentle lions, will you rise from these sidewalks and walk beside me awhile / Taxis arrive / The snow has arrived.” And from “Galvanic”: “And we will see, and leap to our feet, in song flights, and mark it down: the healing has been authorized.” I haven’t a clue what she’s talking about, and I think the album would have profited from a bit more musical variety—there’s nothing here you’d call up tempo—but I do like the mood that these dreamy songs establish. 

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Various Artists, Epilogue: A Tribute to John DuffeyThe late multi-instrumentalist and tenor vocalist John Duffey played key roles in two important bluegrass groups: the Country Gentlemen and, later, the Seldom Scene, both of which helped to update the genre and broaden its appeal. Some of Duffy’s fellow musicians pay tribute to him on this album, which includes a 44-page booklet containing remembrances and liner notes. Among the program’s 17 tracks, all of which Duffey’s groups once recorded: the Carter Family’s “Sad and Lonesome Day,” Duffey’s own “Bringing Mary Home,” Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” and Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.” The list of performers includes such virtuosos as dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolinist David Grisman, singer Jonathan Edwards (whom you may recall from the 1971 pop hit “Sunshine”), and banjo player Bela Fleck.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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