Fans of premier folksters the Wailin’ Jennys, even those unable to catch the 2010 tour, have been having themselves a real field day. Over the past year, the group has put out three excellent albums on St. Paul’s Red House Records. There’s been Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House by the trio and, also from Red House, a pair of solo turns, Heather Masse’s Bird Song and Ruth Moody’s The Garden.
It’s a delight, actually striking, to encounter on Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House performances that, incredibly enough, are richer still than the studio albums for which the Wailin’ Jennys are internationally lauded. There are 14 songs, eight of them new, all featuring golden-throated fare.
There are powerful lead vocals by each of the members (Nicky Mehta, mezzo; Heather Masse, alto; Ruth Moody, soprano) and marvelous harmonies. The energy, whether uptempo like the bright Emmylou Harris cover “Deeper Well” or their beautifully somber take on the traditional “Bold Riley” makes for in-concert artistry at its essential best—singing and playing that compel with fresh, sustained immediacy. A standout is Nicky Mehta’s “Arlington.” She brilliantly emotes with unerring precision to deliver soul-deep angst, stark passion. On the instruments are Mehta (guitar, drums, harmonica, ukulele), Ruth Moody (guitar, banjo, accordion, bodhrán), and Masse (bass) joined by usual accompanist Jeremy Penner (violin, mandolin). If you’re not particularly fond of a cappella, numbers like Leadbelly’s “Bring Me Li’l Water, Silvy” and Masse’s “Paint A Picture” may not be quite your cup of tea. On the other hand, give a listen. You just might decide to grow a bit fond of a cappella.
The Garden begins as a rustic gem, barebones parts with Ruth Moody trusting to sparse arrangements of original material (“The Garden,” “Cold Outside). It’s a disarming set-up, listening to her sketch melodies and textures culled from rural Americana; and it makes for a fascinating transition as she shifts to fleshed-out renderings with drums, bass, guitar and other accompaniment, strengthening the sound while softening the edge on her voice. The catalyst and hands-down show-stopper is “Travelin’ Shoes,” a spirited, bittersweet ballad about friendship, love, and wanderlust.
Heather Masse solidly acquits herself as a country-blues siren of the first order with Bird Song. Smooth as can be and locked in the pocket, it serves up one air-tight offering after another. For a hilarious hoot with an undercurrent of slick, sweet seduction you can’t beat “Mitten.” Not with a stick. It’s one of those sly, chuckalious tunes you can’t wait to have your friends listen to. Especially after they’ve had a few.