Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mark Growden's "In Velvet"

Since his last release, Lose Me In the Sand, singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist/modern day troubadour Mark Growden has been on a roll. Recently relocated from San Francisco to New Orleans, he's got a new job as artistic director for NOLA's Marigny Opera House; new digs with an art room and a music room within walking distance of the mighty Mississippi; an exhibit of his visual art in the works; and a new band, the New Orleans Heavies, a hot nine-piece aggro that features three other horns and another singer alongside Mark's baritone sax and vocals. He seems nourished by the Crescent City's vibrant musical community, and the dark and celebratory vibes of that historic town's decaying Napoleonic grandeur.

"I'm playing more of other people's music than I have in years," he said on a recent visit to the Fort, when he and duo partner Eric McFadden performed for students and faculty at the Jo Kelly School -- Fort Worth ISD's intensive services campus for medically fragile, multi-disabled students -- as well as playing a gig at fonky Fred's. He also said he's been writing songs on his daily walks to the river.

As a result, his new album In Velvet, scheduled for an early 2012 release on Porto Franco Records, is the first since Live At the Odeon where I wasn't already familiar with most of the material via numerous live airings by the time I first spun it. (Of the songs on In Velvet, Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold On Me" has been a staple of Mark's solo sets for years, and he performed "The Love of It All" and "Sunday Afternoon" live with McFadden.)

In Velvet was recorded live in the studio to maximize spontaneity and vibe; going forward, Growden says all his albums will be made this way. It's eye-opening to hear him in a setting where his banjo and accordion aren't the dominant instruments, and worth remembering that he was a saxophonist first, only taking up those other axes and learning to sing when his horns were stolen. His vocal power, always impressive in intimate settings, is perfectly suited for fronting this large and unabashedly extroverted ensemble. His music's always had a folkloric base, and indeed, several of the songs here are traditional tunes with some lyrical reworking by Growden.

"Drivin' Into the Sunrise" -- great title image! -- kicks the door open with a rollicking groove worthy of Dave Bartholomew, featuring drummer Charlie Kohlmeyer making like Earl Palmer and the horns playing up a storm. (I always wondered what a Mark Growden rock 'n' roll record might sound like.) "The Love of It All," a highlight of both duet performances I witnessed, introduces vocalist LaTosha Brown, and her soaring gospel pipes nearly steal the show.

"Jumpin' Judy" is a band-arranged second line strut that opens with the deep song of Peter Harris' stand-up bass and gives the horns (trumpeter Wendell Brunious, tenorman Eric Traub, and altoist Loren Pickford), Hammond B3 wizard Larry Sieberth, and Growden's longtime guitarist/In Velvet co-producer Myles Boisen a chance to shine.

On "Something Within Me," as my sweetie observed, the preacher's kid from NoCal comes full circle, reminding us how much of early R&B, rock 'n' roll and soul came directly out of the black church. Listening to this track reminds me of walking around Oak Cliff on Sunday mornings when I first moved to Texas, listening to the music from Holiness churches where the bands had drummers and saxophones.

"The Old Lady From Brewster," the album's first single, is a traditional song from the Georgia Sea Islands that Growden's performed with his Bay Area bands, but the New Orleans Heavies transform it into a jumpin' R&B number which Growden and Brown sing with abandon -- "I got paint all over me" indeed! (Hear it via Soundcloud here.)

An added plus: In Velvet even has "rockin'" and "mellow" sides. The latter commences with an album highlight, the instrumental cover of Ry Cooder's "Paris, Texas," which packs the same emotional wallop as the intro to "If the Stars Could Sing" on Growden's classic St. Judas album from 2010, adding cinematic sweep and color to the mood: part Coltrane-esque soul rinsing, part wailing gutbucket lament. "Sunday Afternoon," written by Boisen, has a nice sense of place, and of peace, painting a picture of an idyllic urban interval. The band version of "You Really Got a Hold On Me" loses none of the intimacy of the ones Mark's been playing solo for the past couple of years.

"Old Dutch Davis" features the band on a jazz waltz. "That's All Right" has nada to do with Arthur Crudup or Elvis (thankfully); rather, it's another gospel-infused soother, giving Sieberth (on piano this time) and Brunious room for simple, soulful solo statements. The valedictory "Here's To You" has the same off-kilter riddimic lope as some of Growden's darker, fin de siecle cabaret pieces, but here it's suffused with warmth, and grace.

Mark says that since he's shifted his base of operations to the Gulf Coast, we in the Metromess can expect to be seeing more of him -- a good thing. He'll be back at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff on Thursday, December 1st, opening for eclectic guitar genius Marc Ribot. You'd be a fool to miss this.


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