Today’s digital technology means we can now preserve more of the past than ever before. Yet ‘progress’ (auto-tune, computer-generated beats) means much of what’s preserved sounds dusty and dated. Which makes itinerant musicians like Andy Cohen, a troubadour in the classic sense, so valuable.
Sure, with a little bit of digging most people with a computer can find original recordings of many of the songs that appear on Cohen’s latest, Built Right From The Ground. But Cohen brings them to life in a way that historical preservation rarely conveys.
Cohen, originally from Boston but now based in Memphis, is a master guitarist with a warm and weathered voice who seemingly inhabits his old-timey material, living and breathing in the music as though the intervening years haven’t changed things one bit. He also plays something called the dolceola on a track, and here he’s joined by his wife, Larkin Bryant, on a pair (mandolin on both and harmony vocals on the haunting “Tennessee Blues” that closes the disc). Also on hand is vocalist (“My Old Pal”) and guitarist (“Miss The Mississippi And You”) Kurt Anderson.
Though there’s ample fire in Cohen’s fingers, the prevailing mood throughout Built Right Up From The Ground is rather subdued. His fingerpicking is intricate but relies more on quietly exquisite taste than flashy display, and his vocals are supremely relaxed – he never seems to be trying very hard at all, yet each tune here is an unassuming but compelling gem.
It’s definitely not slick – Cohen’s not worried if his warbling croon goes a little off-key at times. What matters is the material, and Cohen applies both a scholar’s insight and genuine affection to his selections; apart from the lone original, an instrumental tribute to the late Jim Dickinson, most of the tunes come from the earlier part of the 20th century, with compositions from the likes of Jimmy Rodgers, Memphis Minnie, Jelly Roll Morton, and Big Bill Broonzy (in a bit of an unlikely musical coincidence, the latter’s “Mopper’s Blues” was once covered by Rod Stewart – surely the only thing ‘Rod The Mod’ and Cohen have in common!).
Cohen’s magic lies precisely in his unhurried and unforced delivery. He’s not trying to replicate a bygone era, nor is he trying to awkwardly update the material. He simply treats each song with dignity and respect, finding his own relaxed groove and in the process making each song his own. It’s as easygoing, and as easy to take, as a warm summer’s day on the porch with nothing much to do. And in today’s faced-paced world of information overload, that’s a very precious thing indeed!