New Yorker Nell Bryden has been mixing up blues, country, and jazz for a few years now and seems poised to make a major breakthrough. A child prodigy who was studying the piano at age four and the cello at age nine, her Second Time Around album fits snugly into the record collections of those who long for a slightly edgier Norah Jones. Currently, Nell is working with Grammy-winning producer David Kershenbaum on a full-length studio album scheduled for release in the summer of 2009. Live From Iraq will act as a handy stop gap while her fans wait for a new release.
Nell trawls widely for her inspiration, drawing as much from Ryan Adams and Bob Dylan as she does from Nina Simone and Bonnie Raitt. Having played over 350 shows in the last two years, including four tours of the UK, she's no shrinking violet when it comes to road-dogging. Ms Bryden also likes to make an impression onstage, and her collection of vintage dresses makes her look like a time-traveler from the 1930s. However, I doubt too many items from that collection would have made the suitcase for this particular tour. Although I'm sure the troops at the Balad Air Force base would have appreciated the gold sequined mini-dress she brought out that day!
Because October 2008 saw Nell and her band playing 15 shows in a ten day period, flying between Forward Operating Bases in Iraq, at the request of the Armed Forces Entertainment (USO). Nell says that the idea of doing an album was inspired by Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison, and saw recordings being made at the Cropper Detention Center, where Saddam Hussein was held for trial, Camp Victory in Baghdad and the Forward Operating Base at Mahmudiyah.
The album sees her taking on a bunch of classic covers alongside her original songs, kicking off with a take on "I Know You Rider" , most famously recorded by the Grateful Dead, dipping into Lynyrd Skynyrd with a cover of "Tuesday's Gone", as well as rifling through the blues drawer on "House Of The Rising Sun" and Robert Johnson's "Hellhound On My Trail". The original compositions – "Second Time Around", "Meridian", "Tonight" and "What Does It Take" – fit snugly into the set, and you barely notice the background noise documented in the liner notes. But it's not often you see helicopters getting a credit! The highlight, though, is the Muddy Waters classic, "Forty Days And Forty Nights"', where Nell lets her voice off the leash for an impassioned blues moan.
The album is accompanied by a twenty page booklet, with photographs and blog entries of and about the tour, and it sets off the whole experience remarkably well. Nell says that some people were impressed with her plans to play in a war-zone; others were not. The ones that disapproved mistaking her actions as political. However, she sees it as taking a risk to bring music to people who need it most – kids that are far from home, seeing horrible inhuman events, battling boredom in-between, and having no way of expressing their emotions.
"Live From Iraq" is a fabulous album, not just because of its provenance, but because Nell and her last-minute, pick up band of Bryan Bisordi, Mark Stewart, and Eric Lindberg, are so obviously trying to bring something special to their performances. This is a rare experience, and one you really ought to have.