Inspired by the Alan Lomax collection of field recordings, Paul Reddick - for the first time stepping out as acknowledged leader of the Toronto-based Sidemen - has crafted a dense, moody collection that seems not so much a blues disc per se as an exploration of and meditation upon the blues.
That's not to say, however, that this is a dry, academic work bereft of the fire that fuels the blues; there's passion aplenty running through everything here. But there's a greater intelligence at work than the standard "baby done me wrong" themes. Indeed, were there awards for such things, this would probably be a shoe-in for 'most thoughtful' disc of the year.
Much of the credit for Rattlebag's success goes to producer extraordinaire Colin Linden, who also contributes some excellent work on guitar, mandolin, and dobro. A revered roots-rocker in his own right, Colin's responsible for the almost claustrophobic sound that skirts the edges of distortion, veering close to chaos in places. The resultant musical landscape - there's no other term for it, really - is an atmospheric evocation of alienation and disorientation. Existential blues, if you will. Music for driving on a dark night on the road to nowhere.
Categorized as "Hard Blues For Modern Times," the songs, all but one written by Mr. Reddick, come across much like short stories, vignettes told with a novelist's sense of narrative and a poet's ear for language. Images emerge from hazy clouds of sound, phrases tumble out of furiously driving rhythms, all punctuated by Mr. Reddick's thick harmonica and Kyle Ferguson's slashing guitar. Another roots-rock legend, Richard Bell (who's worked with The Band, among others) contributes snatches of piano and moaning organ that add immeasurably to the effect. Both Greg Marshak (bass) and Vince Maccarone (drums) rise admirably to the considerable demands placed upon them. The drums in particular are quite high in the mix, and Mr. Maccarone, switching with ease between brushes and sticks, provides much more than simply a propulsive foundation; he's an integral component in the soundscape, and the project owes much to his abilities.
Though each tune stands well on its own - indeed, with it's lack of conventional blues structures there's much here that could garner airplay on either rock or blues radio - Rattlebag is best taken as a whole. A scattershot approach simply doesn't do it justice.
Northern Blues has done it again, once more stretching the boundaries of the blues, exploring it's limits while remaining true to the spirit. Rattlebag is nothing short of a masterpiece; not easy, not 'fun', but a fascinating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding journey nonetheless. In other words, a work of art.
My very highest recommendation!
NorthernBlues Music Inc.
67 Mowat Ave, Suite 233,
Toronto Ontario Canada M6K 3E3
Web : www.northernblues.com
This review is copyright © 2001 by John Taylor, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.