Sunday , March 7 2021

Music Reviews: Eric Andersen’s ‘The Writer Series’ and ‘Woodstock Under the Stars,’ Plus Al Stewart and Kelly Finnigan

Folksinger Eric Andersen is probably still best known as the 1960s folk revivalist who penned such classic compositions as “Violets of Dawn,” “Thirsty Boots,” and “Close the Door Lightly.” Those are all great songs, but Anderson has arguably produced his most important work in subsequent decades, during which time his recorded output has been wide-ranging and adventurous.

He has dueted with Lou Reed and Phoebe Snow, collaborated with the legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and recorded with Delta blues musicians. He has also released two trio albums with the Band’s Rick Danko and Norway-based Jonas Fjeld and issued a collection of covers of songs by other luminaries from the late 1960s folk movement. He has contributed to Jack Kerouac and Phil Ochs tribute albums and written and recorded a song about President Kennedy’s assassination (“Beat Avenue”) that at 26 minutes is far longer than Bob Dylan’s recent epic on the subject. Last but not least, he has explored the intricacies of sensual romantic relationships, including on a pair of terrific 1970s albums, Be True to You and Sweet Surprise.

Recent months have added several new noteworthy chapters to a career that now spans more than half a century. Andersen has released a triple-CD live set called Woodstock Under the Stars. In addition, Germany’s Meyer label has bundled and reissued three of his 2017 and 2018 albums under the title The Writer Series.

The Writer Series includes two discs for which Anderson composed all the material: Silent Angel—Fire and Ashes of Heinrich Böll, about the anti-fascist German writer; and Birth of a Stranger—Shadow and Light of Albert Camus, which the French writer’s daughter, Catherine, commissioned for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of her father’s birth. A third disc, Mingle with the Universe—The Worlds of Lord Byron, mostly weds Andersen’s music to words by the British poet. 

This is relatively demanding material, whose dense, sometimes spoken lyrics take centerstage while evocative, moody music that emphasizes piano and strings adds atmosphere. It’s not designed for background listening, but it’s well put together and consistently rewarding.

The more instantly accessible Woodstock Under the Stars, almost all of which has not been previously released on disc, is a must for any Andersen fan and a good first stop for neophytes. Its two-disc main attraction, a nearly two-hour 2011 concert, finds the singer joined by the likes of John Sebastian and Happy Traum and applying his baritone to some of the best material from throughout his career.

The set embraces early classics like the aforementioned “Thirsty Boots,” “Violets of Dawn,” and “Close the Door Lightly,” plus such later gems as “Blue River,” “Woman, She Was Gentle,” and “Rain Falls Down on Amsterdam.” Andersen also joins Traum on a blues-inflected cover of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.” A third disc collects well over an hour’s worth of odds and ends recorded live between 1991 and 2006, including a cover of Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins” and Andersen’s “I Shall Go Unbounded” and “Down at the Cantina.” 

The album is a reminder of the richness of his catalog and of his ability to establish an intimate connection with the listener as he sings of love, fear, injustice, hatred, sex, loss, sorrow, and other pains and pleasures of the human condition.

Also Noteworthy

Al Stewart24 Carrots (40th Anniversary Edition). Al Stewart’s ninth studio album, 24 Carrots, which appeared in 1980, found the singer working with a new band, Shot in the Dark, and a new producer, Chris Desmond. The record didn’t sell as well as its blockbuster immediate predecessors, 1976’s Year of the Cat and 1978’s Time Passages, both of which Alan Parsons produced, and it incorporates a few missteps. But it contains several songs that are nearly as strong as the hits that issued from the earlier records, including “Running Man” and “Midnight Rocks” (even though the latter, with its sax solo, sounds like a fairly blatant attempt to clone the success of the title cuts from the two prior albums). 

This three-disc 40th-anniversary edition weds a remaster of the original album to some notable and not-so-notable extras. In the latter category are single edits of two of the original LP’s tracks as well as a disc’s worth of demos that don’t equal the final versions. But there’s also a previously unavailable 1980 London concert that showcases spirited and well-recorded performances of some of Stewart’s best numbers, such as “Time Passages,” “Roads to Moscow,” “On the Border,” and “Year of the Cat.”

Kelly FinniganA Joyful Sound. Kelly Finnigan—lead singer of the Northern California–based Monophonics, who bill themselves as a psychedelic soul group—serves up one of the year’s best holiday releases on A Joyful Sound. Joined by members of his band as well as a long list of other accompanists, he offers an expertly self-produced collection that profits from rich instrumentation and recalls the heyday of Motown and Philly soul. 

Songs like “No Time to Be Sad,” “The Miracle Is Here,” “Heartbreak for Christmas,” and “To Be Young at Christmas,” all of which Finnigan wrote or cowrote, deliver on his wish that the album “should spark a feeling that it is a special time of year but also that it can be a very difficult time for [some].”

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.