A Dark Tale
Some time ago, I noticed a huge number of hits on the lyrics page for Beans, Bacon and Gravy. Hmm, this was 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. I went to CDDB, the Internet song tracker, and saw that this was indeed 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 elusive.
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!
-- Jim Clark
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 felt 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!