I’m really beginning to dislike the word revival. I’ve nothing against the word itself, merely the way it’s being employed in the context of music. Press release after press release heralds some musician or other as being in the vanguard of some sort of revival.The word revive has its origins in the Latin word revivere, which literally translates as “back live” but has come to mean bring back to life. So when it’s used in reference to a particular genre of music, the inference is the style had died and is now being resurrected by somebody. The problem I have with this is the music it’s usually used in context with never went anywhere. The blues, folk, and the other music people seem to think needed reviving never died. It just wasn’t in the popular eye because some other music was the flavour of the month. Thousands of people the world over may have been enjoying a musical genre, but it’s only when it shows up on MTV people remember its existence and it miraculously undergoes a revival.
All you have to do is sit down and listen to a disc by the likes of an artist of the calibre of Colin Linden and you’ll appreciate how alive the folk/blues/roots tradition has been and continues to be. Linden has been performing and recording since the 1980s and tours throughout Europe and North America to appreciative audiences playing what most people would now refer to as either roots or Americana. Listening to the new release of a concert he gave in 2010, Still Live, on the File Under: Music label, you’ll hear as diverse a collection of material from this one performer as you’d normally expect to hear from five or six different groups. Blues, R&B, soul, rock and roll, and country all make their presence felt in Linden’s music, and he sounds equally at home with each.
Linden interest in the blues started young. His mother took him to see Howlin’ Wolf when he was 11 and he’s been hooked ever since. You can hear his affinity for the blues in his slide guitar playing and his use of rhythm in all his music. But, blues is the foundation upon which he builds his music not the only place he resides. They are Linden’s jumping off point. However, no matter how far he leaps, he never loses track of his first love. Yet he’s not content with being a traditionalist either and merely recreating the sounds others have made before him. Even better is what’s true musically is also true lyrically. Don’t expect to hear your typical “my baby done left me brokenhearted” blues songs or blue-eyed soul moaning from Linden. While he might have gained his reputation for being a guitar player and sideman (playing with everyone from Emmylou Harris to Robert Plant), his lyrics have an intelligent introspection you don’t often hear in popular music.
The soulful, R&B-influenced “Between The Darkness And The Light Of Day” stands out as a great example of this. “Just a soldier on the road between the darkness and the light of day/I did everything I was told but I still haven’t found my way/Now my feet are weary but my heart is strong/Somehow or other I will carry on/And I lift my spirit and sing my song between the darkness and the light of day”. It’s not often you hear anybody singing about the difficulties of finding balance in a world where it’s so easy to fall into negativity and cynicism. Things don’t always work out the way we’re told they do. Go to school, get an education and a job, and family are sure to follow is the myth a great many of us were raised on. However, reality turned out to be a different story.
In this song, Linden talks about all those who are still struggling with finding they’re way. However he doesn’t do it with negativity or by trying to find someone to blame. Instead the song is about the bravery of those who make the effort to find themselves and create space for a decent life in a confusing world. These people are truly soldiers, but they don’t go to war in order to conquer. They’re fighting to be true to themselves and what they believe in. In a world replete with songs about broken hearts, it’s a joy to hear somebody sing about something real, and in such an intelligent and soulful manner.
This tune also shows off the band playing with him on this occasion. John Dymond on bass and Gary Craig on drums effortless carry the rhythms of this song and the rest of the album. Soul and R&B have to be some of the trickiest music to play. Neither fast nor slow, the music has to have an almost effortless swing to it in order to be effective. Of the soul I’ve heard recently, this is one of the few that hasn’t felt deliberately slowed down in an effort to make it sound more heartfelt. Instead, Craig and Dymond have set a pace which carries Linden’s guitar and vocals with a kind of effortlessness that is wonderful to hear. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Spooner Oldham is providing organ accompaniment on this and other tunes. His fills on keyboard provide texture and body to songs without making them overblown. It’s like he smooths out the rough edges of the sound without taking away the rawness needed to keep the songs real.
Of course Linden is the focal point of every song. His guitar playing is probably one of the best kept secrets in music. There’s nothing showy or flamboyant about it, but careful listening reveals him to be as skilled as anybody out there. There’s a style and grace to his playing that only comes from years of playing and a devotion to his music. At the same time there’s nothing of the playing-it-by-rote you might hear from others who have been playing for ages. Everything, from his fingerpicking to his slide guitar leads, sound like he’s still playing with the joy that comes with the first flush of discovery. Polish and refinement do not have to translate into slickness, and Linden performs with heart and passion.
While no one’s going to write odes in praise of his vocals, his voice is ideally suited to what he chooses to sing about and the style of music he plays. There’s a roughness around the edges of his voice that gives it an integrity which more than compensates for any lack of polish. When he sings you have no trouble believing he means every word of every song. While the same can be said about other singers, what makes Linden a little more special is it holds true across the various genres he ventures into. From the straight-ahead rockers, acoustic blues to the more soulful R&B numbers he never hits a false note.
Still Live is a unique opportunity to hear an artist who plays for the love of his music. Linden plays what he plays not because it’s what is popular today, but because it’s the music that allows him to speak clearest. What’s really nice about this live recording is how it manages to both capture the feel of a concert and have studio-quality sound. Not only does that mean you’re able to fully appreciate his talents as a musician, you hear that little bit extra of himself that all artists seem to show in concert. For those of you familiar with Linden, this disc will be a treat as it will give you a chance to appreciate his talents in a live setting and be reminded of just how versatile a musician he is. For those new to him it will make a great introduction to a man whose life-long love affair with the blues and its offspring shows in every note he plays and every lyric he sings.