Mark Growden's "Lose Me In the Sand"
Was it really only eight years ago that Mark Growden played the Wreck Room (R.I.P.) here in Fort Worth? He says he was only there twice, and I missed the show that Phil Fagan and Billy Wilson filmed when he opened for Woodeye, so it must have been just one night with his trio -- which he finished off by playing accordion while standing on the bar -- that I’m remembering, but that night still resonates for me like few other musical experiences in my life.
Mark disappeared from the boards for a few years after that, wrestling some personal demons and forsaking music in favor of painting for a time. Thankfully, he returned to performing, fit and healthy, toward the ass-end of the Millennial decade, released an album (Saint Judas) that was a catalog of signature strengths, and crisscrossed the country relentlessly -- an internet-enabled, cellphone-wielding modern-day troubadour -- building an audience base as he went, working mostly solo but also forging connections with sympathetic ensembles in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, and New Orleans.
He recorded Lose Me In the Sand last spring with his Tucson band, setting aside his other instruments and accompanying himself on the banjo exclusively. Listening to this record is a different experience for these feedback-scorched ears than any of his previous releases, since I’ve had the opportunity to become familiar with this material through hearing Mark perform the songs live a half dozen times, including once in my backyard on a friend’s birthday. The first thing that struck me was the richness (not slickness) of the instrumental arrangements, in contrast to the stark (but full) solo treatments to which I’d become accustomed. I was pleased to hear that Mark’s bringing the band along when he takes Lose Me on the road in February.
This music sounds “old” in the same way people used to say the Band did on their eponymous second album. Indeed, the sound of Lose Me is redolent of American folklore in a way that’s evocative but not idiomatic. Thus, on “You Ain’t Never Been Loved,” a gender-shifted reimagining of Aretha Franklin’s debut hit that opens the album, the back porch string-band accompaniment rubs up against a scorching amplified blues harp. A Growden original like the lively bluegrass romp “Settle In a Little While” – which my sweetie and I knew from live performances as “the stuttering song” -- sounds like an authentic Appalachian artifact. “Takin’ My Time,” with its stop-and-start rhythm, creaking fiddle, and sing-along chorus, has the cadence of a field holler or prison worksong.
As always, Growden sings with physical power, emotive force, and visceral impact in a voice equally tinged with desire and regret (and occasionally, more than a dash of humor). When he covers other songwriters’ material, he manages to recontextualize it and make it his own, banishing the spectre of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘80s video from the Boss’ “I’m On Fire,” and juxtaposing the National Anthem and Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” with surprising results. When he’s at his very best – as he is on “Killing Time,” inspired by the dying Northern California logging town where he grew up – Mark Growden reminds us that here in the 21st century’s second decade, we’re a lot closer to the “old, weird America” than we might like to think.
(He'll be at the Kessler Theater for their first anniversary on March 18th. Don't worry, I'll remind you.)