A couple of months ago, I noticed a huge number of hits on a page on my Cisco Houston web site: Beans, Bacon and Gravy. Hmm, this is weird. This song is not on any of the CD compilations, and would not count as one of his best tunes, in my opinion. A friend and I speculated, and he posited that it had been re-recorded by some contemporary performer, and wandering Google searchers were stumbling in to Cisco's version. So I went to CDDB, the Internet song tracker, and saw that this song was on one other CD, a eponymous CD by a group called Sabotabby. I am pretty persistent in searching, and can usually find what I'm looking for, but information about Sabotabby and their CD was not readily available on the Internet.
I labored on, and eventually found an e-mail address for one of the bandmembers. He offered me the CD for a reasonable price, and I bought it. And its companion, in a package deal all the way from Canada. I post these reviews after I sent them to Glenn Edwards, the member who provided the CDs. He gave me permission to copy the CDs and share as I like, and I have. So here's my take, and one other. Find 'em and listen, if you can!
Sabotabby starts with the two worst tracks...sorry to say, but I cringed as I listened, wondering what I had acquired and how I could dispose of these with a minimal loss. I put Sabotabby on when it arrived, and my dazed family glared at me with a "What the **** have you got this time?" look. My musical tastes are a bit more broad and eclectic than theirs, but, oh boy, did regret hit fast. I found "Smoke A Phatty" puerile, the stick-your-tongue-out-at-Christianity worthy of a six year old nah-nah boy, not "serious" thinkers. While some Christians are indeed offended by any drug use, I believe most would be disturbed not by the thought of Jesus inhaling, but by the smarmy, condescending attitude toward Him. Unfortunately, the musical performance accompanying this drivel was wonderful, a brilliant mix of harmonica, guitar, percussion and banjo, demonstrating excellent taste and careful attention to detail. All of this musicianship only served to undermine the woeful lyrics. And the screechy, hillbilly vocal sounded like something disgustingly banished from Hee Haw. "Beans, Bacon and Gravy" was almost indistinguishable from "Smoke." It is a discouraged song, and while not a defeated song, the uptempo performance came off quite oddly and inappropriate. And with a date mentioned specifically, way back in the 30s, it's hard to take them seriously.
However, things rapidly improved after that. "Dark as a Dungeon" is, of course, a great song, performed by many great performers, but this performance loses nothing in comparison to anybody. Good vocal, excellent arrangement. Mournful but not gloomy. I first heard this song back in 1978 when I worked at The Inn of the Governors in Santa Fe. In our bar, a guy who called himself Mal-esh performed to a largely indifferent crowd. He was quite good, just a guitar and a collection of old and new songs that were hopelessly out of place in that dusty pre-chic city. And "Dark" was his best song. You could feel the water seeping around you as he sang. Oppressive, cold, dank, frightening and yet alluring. It is a wonderful song, and they do it well.
The best vocals on the CD belong to a guy named Glenn Edwards. I liked "Nothing But Fear" and "Drive Henry Drive" very much. These are not cute, not smarmy, not trite or "politically-active" songs but well-put together tales of life as they see it. "Drive Henry Drive" is, to me, the finest original on the CD.
The traditional stuff is well-arranged. And "Road Kill" is a funny song--silly, but I laughed and enjoyed. So, after a dreadful opening, it evolves into something much better, and concludes with a startlingly wonderful a cappella song. After so much superlative playing, this was a brave, but perfectly executed, choice.
Overall, very satisfactory! Quite pleasing, quite surprising, and though daring and quirky, well done in its quirks.
"Shady Grove" has been done a million times, so you better do something clever or original (a la "Dark as a Dungeon"). Did not notice anything. Competent, well sung, very well-played, but nothing special.
But it moved to an excellent original. I liked "King Arthur" quite a lot. The tin whistle can get annoying pretty quickly, but I loved "Red Haired Boy", the plucking of the guitar and banjo complemented each other perfectly. I know the tune, I think, a Clancy Brothers one, but can't quite get a handle on it. And great blending of the three tunes. "Old Joe Clark" sounded as fresh as I've ever heard it. "Before I Met You" was adequate, but not remarkable. Seemed a bit predictable, and though the bass voice made a nice contrast, the lyrics sounded like so many other similar songs.
"Doughnut Eater" is probably better heard live. The too-controlled sound feelt as if it wanted to break free and be unleashed, which can't be done in the studio. But the snotty tone is a tad unpleasant for me. Satire has to work without just laughing at someone, and this is little more than smug condescension. The next medley got close to repetitive but manages to skirt away at the last moment. I loved "Cookie Bakin' Grandma", a great mix of the silly on top of brilliant musicianship. Especially tasty harmonica on that one.
"Amy Allen" worked nicely for me as well....sounded appropriately poignant and yet not defeated, a good blend of lyric and music, and then rolled into a snappy ending. And the instrumental step leading to the chorus was lovely.
"Deportees" is one of Cisco's best performances. Woody's virulent denouncement, Cisco's "right-there" flavor, and brilliant, spare guitar make a near-perfect performance. This one doesn't sound as good as his, though I admit that it is a fearful standard. The spare instrumentalism was nice, but this just comes off as a thin reflection, and the angry lyrics lost their potency like this. There was anger in the vocal, but it sounded not quite right.
For me, the non-political, non-condescending songs worked best, (of course I am one of those intolerant, racist, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, corporate-loving crazy evangelical Christians who voted for Mr. Bush....) the interpretations of old favorites mostly pleased, and instrumental work was excellent. The vaguely Anarchist/Christianity-snubbing lyrics and Workers of the World Unite inserts didn't dazzle me, as I know all too clearly the inadequacy of those approaches. I don't read German, so the full text of the Sabotabby CD label is mysterious, but I can see enough to know it is likely more of the 1940's Pete Seeger thinking that was exposed so painfully in the following years. Allowing each band member to sing their own material is a dangerous approach, as some voices are clearly better than others. But my second favorite performance on Sabotabby, Road Kill, is Terry Joe Rodrigues's only lead vocal. So, rather than a uniform rule (not palatable to IWWW members) possibly a bit more discretion might have been useful here. However, the overall review is two solid CDs, with much to like, a few thinks to positively admire, and only a couple of dogs that drag the overall review done. Fine work! 3.5 and 4 stars, if we use the good-old 5 Star system. Worth a listen. Heck, worth many listens!
----Jim Clark, Overland Park, Kansas
Sabotabby: A Band That Deserves A Hand
If talent alone was all that was required for a successful recording career, the Canadian Celtic/folk quintet "Sabotabby" would be putting out at least one CD per year for a solid independent label, maybe Rounder Records or John Prine's "Oh Boy" outfit. That would mean at least seven releases. Instead, I have two CD's to review, a debut from 1998 and a follow up made in 2000. What a shame.
The more recent release, titled "Celtibilly" was made in Canada. It comes in at just under 37 minutes, which is short by today's standards, but my, it is a good 36:51, well worth playing twice in a row. The band members are Patrick Gouthreau, Glenn Edwards, Eric Lackey, Terry Joe Rodrigues and Anj Daub. They take turns doing lead vocals, but for my taste, Edwards is the best voice in the group. The instruments, many hand-crafted by a variety of Canadian craftsmen, include fiddles, mandolins, guitars, tin whistles, banjos, bass, harmonica, bodhran and bouzouki.
On this disc, there are only ten tracks, a couple of them instrumental medleys of traditional tunes. The CD begins with a competent, but not special, version of "Shady Grove" which concludes with the instrumental "Cluck Ol' Hen." Then comes a song written and sung by Edwards, "King Arthur" which is lovely and reminds me a bit of Al Stewart's historical ballads. On Track Three, Edwards is back again, doing the lead singing on the traditional ballad "Peggy Gordon" in fine fashion. The next item is an instrumental medley combining the traditional tunes "Red Haired Boy", "June Apple" and "Old Joe Clark." It is beautifully accomplished. The fifth offering is a love song titled "Before I Met You" and sung by Eric Lackey without accompaniment. It is simple, even corny, but compelling. I was reminded of Roger Miller's ironic song from the musical "Big River"---the one titled "You Oughta Be Here with Me." Track Six is a spoof on cops and their favorite snack foods, called "Doughnut Eater", written and sung by Patrick Gouthreau. The next serving is another medley, also quite pleasant, involving traditional tunes "Over the Waterfall" and "Soldier's Joy" and "La Bastringue" (which has some vocalizing) and "Whiskey Before Breakfast." Terry Joe Rodrigues wrote and sings "Cookie-Bakin' Grandma" just for fun. Edwards then returns with his own song, "Amy Allen" featuring a strong vocal. The CD winds up with Woody Guthrie's "Deportees" again with Glenn Edwards in the lead. I've heard lots of famous singers or groups do that song over the past 40 years, but Sabotabby's version is one of the strongest. It isn't as good as Cisco Houston's rendition, of course, because nothing could match Woody's best friend doing one of Woody's best lyrics...but it is a fine effort.
Now to the first disc, title "Sabotabby" and issued on a German label in 1998. Longer than their second effort, a dozen songs instead of ten, it is a bit less perfect. Same quintet, same instruments except for the addition of Uillean pipes played by Anj Daub. The first tune, "Smoke a Phatty" was composed by Daub and Gouthreau, but I found it offensive, albeit clever. Just quoting one line should be enough for the reader to decide if he'd like it better than I did: "Smoke a phatty for Jesus, smoke a phatty for the Lord."
Track Two is the thing that brought Sabotabby to my attention at all, via the tribute website www.ciscohouston.com. The group does its interpretation of the Depression-era hobo song, "Beans, Bacon and Gravy." Cisco did not write it, but he put it out on a Folkways LP called "Songs of the Open Road" in the late '50's, and no one has done it better. The Sabotabby version fails to match Cisco's as well, but just the fact that the group found the song and liked it well enough to record it shows that the members have good taste and good sense. Track Three is the old Merle Travis coal-mining classic, "Dark as a Dungeon" with lead vocal by Eric Lackey, and I enjoyed it very much. The next item is a Glenn Edwards song, "Nothing But Fear" and that too, was quite nice. Track Five is an instrumental medley combining "Lafferty's" and "Knotted Cord" and "Maids of Mount Cisco". It is competent, but not compelling. Next comes a song stemming from a Welsh poem put to music by Pete Seeger, "The Bells of Rhymney." Pete's own version was a staple of his 1960's concerts, and Judy Collins also recorded a strong version of the song. Glenn Edwards' rendition does not quite rise to the levels achieved by Seeger and Collins, but if you have not heard those recordings, you'll find this one interesting, but somber.
The next two tracks, "Have Capital Will Travel" by Gouthreau and "Drive Henry Drive" by Edwards, reminded me a bit of The Pogues---I could not understand all the words, or the point of the songs, yet enjoyed the musicality of them. Nice guitar work, especially on "Have Capital." Offering Nine has Anj Daub doing lead vocal of the traditional song "Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore." Nice job but it goes on too long, since it combines with the instrumental "Rolling Waves." The next selection is an instrumental medley, "Mug O' Brown Ale Set" but by this time on the CD, I was a bit tired of the Celtic instrumentals. Next to last is a song by Rodrigues called "Road Kill"---just plain fun. This album ends with the song I like best, "Mary Ellen Carter" written by Stan Rogers, who I know nothing about. It is a shipwreck song with a comic sensibility, sung a cappella with Anj Daub doing the lead vocal. It seems lovely to me. It made me yearn for a CD release of one of the best LP's I ever bought, the 1973 National Geographic Records compilation "Songs and Sounds of the Sea." All in all, I'd give "Sabotabby" three-and-one-half stars in a five-star rating system, and the "Celtibilly" disc four-and-a-half. If the reader likes Celtic-flavored folk music with a few modern humorous touches thrown in, he or she should hunt these releases up via on-line auctions and add them to the collection.
----Bill Adams, Lovington, New Mexico