In the past few years technology has taken on a larger and larger role in popular music on both the performance and manufacturing front. When it comes to the strictly practical side – recording and distribution for instance – technology has been a boon for the independent musician as it has allowed him or her to manufacture and distribute their own music for no more than what it would cost to purchase a personal computer with a good sound card and a high speed Internet connection.
One only needs to look at the success of bands like Dispatch who never signed with any record label and yet were able to sell out three nights at Madison Square Gardens by simply making the tickets available to their MySpace friends to see how well that could work out. Bands no longer have to jump through hoops with record companies in order to get their music published and distributed. True they have to pay for it all out of their own pockets, and as their pockets aren't as deep as the big companies, they won't be able to afford to do all the big companies do marketing, distributing, and promoting their recording. But for some people that's a fair exchange in return for being able to retain creative control.
On the other hand, the ever increasing role that electronics and digitally created effects have started to play in the music itself has led to something of a backlash resulting in some musicians and audience members looking to older and simpler forms as an alternative. Like the punks in the 1970s who rebelled against what the saw as the excesses of progressive rock and the blandness of the industry controlled charts, the musicians among them aren't interested in creating music for the sake of celebrity. They want to play music that inspires them to play and moves them.
Like some of their contemporaries, for Eden Brower and John Heneghan of Eden & John's East River String Band that has meant going backwards in time and searching out old blues and popular songs from the early part of the twentieth century to perform. While there's always the risk that when performers look to an earlier era for their material that they will become a type of museum piece or a curiosity, one only has to listen to their recently released CD, Some Cold Rainy Day, recorded on their own East River Records label and distributed by Forced Exposure, to realize that this duo won't be put in a display case any time soon.
One of the hardest things for a musician to do these days is be able to hold an audience's attention when it's just you and your guitar up on stage or on record. Even a duo, like Eden and John, face a stiff challenge in both grabbing their audience's attention and then holding on to it once they begin performing. Even more difficult is doing what they have accomplished with their CD. I don't remember the last time that either a solo act or a duet has been able to hold my attention like these two.
Right from the opening track, Mississippi John Hurt's "Ain't No Tellin'", Eden's voice reaches out and pulls you into the songs. You don't just sit and listen, as there is something about how she sings that drags you into the song so you experience what she's singing about. There's been plenty of people who have covered old blues and pop standards from these time periods, but very few of them have been able to bring them alive like John and Eden do.
I've gone years without being able to take the ukulele seriously as an instrument, and now for the second time in as many weeks here's another person playing one with such flair and finesse that it makes you forget people like Tiny Tim. Eden plays a resonator ukulele, metal body with a cone built in to amplify the sound, that you think would make it sound tinier, but in actual fact gives the instrument more body. It makes a wonderful counterpoint to John's guitar playing as she fills in the spaces around his chords with her sound.
Some of the songs on the disc are ones I'm familiar with from other sources, "Nobody's Business If I Do" by Tommy Bradely & James Cole for instance, but some of them, both songs and writers I've never heard of before. John and Eden have culled these tracks from old 78 records that they have dug up at used records stores, garage, and junk sales across the United States, and some of the song titles and writer's names are half the fun of this disc. "On Our Turpentine Farm" by Pigmeat Pete & Catjuice Charlie or "I Had To Give Up Gin" by the Hokum Boys are two of my favourites. What makes it even more fun is how good the songs sound.
I think part of the reason the songs sound as good as they do is that both of Eden and John have been passionate about this music for a long time. They have pictures on their web site of them standing in front of shelves filled with old 78 records that they've collected over the years. They appear to spend a great deal of their time getting together with like minded musicians and playing this music just for the love of playing it. That love shines through in every song sung and every chord plucked and played. When you hear people that excited by what they are doing you can't help but get caught up in it.
You can also tell this just isn't a fad for these two. They'd be playing this music even if there wasn't the renewed interest we've been seeing over the last few years for more traditional forms of music. When Eden and John play a song like Little Hat Jones' "Bye Bye Baby Blues" the song sounds like it was written for them. They may not have the most polished of voices or be the slickest of players, but this music wasn't written by or performed by people who were either. I think if you're going to sing "Do Dirty Blues" by Bertha "Chippie" Hill you have to be a little rough around the edges.
If you go to Eden and John's web site you'll find links to all sorts of interesting information about the music they play and where they found it, and places you can see them, and others like them, playing. For those of you who like beautiful old guitars, even if only to look at them, they also provide a link to a site that sells restored guitars from the 1930s, featuring some very rare items made by Stella. I mention this because I think it will help you understand how they are able to bring music that's nearly eighty years old, if not older, alive without sounding affected. They have taken the time to understand the music and dedicated themselves to it until, and you can tell this by listening to them, they live and breathe it.
Utah Philips might have been talking about Eden & John's East River String Band when he said "The past didn't go anywhere" because it hasn't. While living in the past may be a dangerous thing, too many of us are in so much of a hurry that we forget the past and about what we can learn from it. The music on Some Cold Rain Day is from the past, but it speaks to things that most people can relate to and about topics that all of us can understand. Eden and John have lifted these songs from the wax grooves of old 78s and breathed new life into them so another generation of music fans can appreciate them. Its a great record of great music performed by people who love what they do – it doesn't get much better than that.