The Bard Chord review: Ernest Troost Live At McCabe's
Mixing traditional country blues and ragtime influences with spell-binding lyrics, Ernest Troostʼs new album, “ERNEST TROOST LIVE AT McCABE’S” takes the art of the story-song to new heights.
I have to confess: I had heard of Ernest Troost, but I had never actually heard him play until Friday, July 15th, at the CamarilIo Café. It might have been my first time, but it certainly will not be my last! His talent, both as a guitarist and a lyricist, is extraordinary, drawing easy comparisons to Bob Dylan, Chris Smither, Danny Schmidt and Steve Earle.
This is no exaggeration. Winner of the prestigious Kerrville New Folk competition in 2009, Ernest Troost is an Emmy-winning (and multiple Emmy-nominated) composer of more than 100 scores for films and television. And this cinematic background is reflected in each of his story songs. His exquisite chord voicings and open tunings are in tune with every turn of the phrase. And his phrases, in turn, reflect a solid sense of drama that keeps the listener mesmerized.
I think of his songs as being both “rootsy” and sophisticated at the same time. His music has the simple melodic and rhythmic appeal of folk and country blues, while providing layers of subtle complexities. And his words are laced with irony and insight, sharp observation and pure poetry.
Troostʼs subjects are often dark, filled with gangsters, murderers and victims of hard times (or their own addictive tendencies). Not surprisingly, many of these stories take place around the Great Depression of the 1930s, including his two Kerrville entries – “Resurrection Blues” and “Switchblade Heart.” These stunning songs, among others, reflect that time period with echoes of ragtime and Piedmont blues style guitar picking.
But not all the songs on this album are dark. Troostʼs latest work includes some beautiful love songs, such as “My Love,” “Close,” and “The Last to Leave.” And “The Last Lullaby,” a powerful, gentle song in memory of those precious people weʼve lost this year (introduced with a special mention of Kenny Edwards), literally brought tears to my eyes.
Recorded live, as the title suggests, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, in January 2011, the new CD offers up a generous serving of 15 songs – some performed solo, but most with the help of some very talented friends! Of special note is bassist Mark “Pocket” Goldberg, who definitely lives up to his middle name; and Nicole Gordon, whose gorgeous voice provides lead vocals on two songs, and angelic harmonies on others.
In all, Troostʼs new third album, “LIVE AT McCABE’S” is a real treasure trove of his folk music in recent years. It features some of the most popular selections from his earlier two albums, as well as a lot of new material, not previously recorded.
I urge you to listen to excerpts of his songs on CDBaby.com. The artistry is immediately apparent. “LIVE AT McCABES” is available for sale on CDBaby for $14; you can also download the album there for just $9.99. This is one album not to be missed!
--The Bard Chord: Jackie Morris
ARTIST: ERNEST TROOST
TITLE: ERNEST TROOST LIVE AT MCCABE'S
LABEL: TRAVELIN' SHOES RECORDS
RELEASE DATE: July 2011
The luckiest fans of acoustic music on the night of January 7th, 2011 in Los Angeles were smack dab in the audience of McCabe's Guitar Shop for a concert from one of this country's landmark and pre-eminent songwriters of our generation, the great Ernest Troost. As an opener for Kenny Edwards in 2010, Ernest impressed, and this year yielded up a night unto himself, a very aptly deserved reward. Now in hand as Ernest Troost LIVE at McCabe's, this stellar new CD is the wonderful take-away from that evening's performances of Ernest's brilliant songwriting, amazing guitar work and fabulous accompanying players and singers.
As I previously wrote in these pages, "2009 Kerrville New Folk Winner Ernest Troost's newest album, the aptly titled Resurrection Blues, is a brilliant new piece of songwriting art. Its thirteen Piedmont-blues influenced songs tell stories of passion, lost love and regret-filled lives at a cross-roads, looking for a modern-day answer to 'how did things ever get this far?' and 'when did the darkness fall?' Ernest Troost’s existential questions run rampant in his first three songs; and then, the stories begin." Eight of the fifteen songs on this new LIVE album are taken from Ernest's previous releases (Resurrection Blues and All The Boats Are Gonna Rise) but excitingly there are 7 new songs, many of them, as Ernest explains from the stage, part of a gathering of love songs that he's written in the last couple of years since the last album.
Ernest begins the evening with three songs by himself, and you get to hear not just what an amazingly inspired songwriter he is, but his masterful skill at creating a fully orchestral sound with just guitar. Ernest is a deeply gifted musician and player and is able to bring lushness to the accompaniment with the most simplicity possible.
He begins the set with a call and a request: asking for music in his great song Resurrection Blues:
"got the past in my pockets and the future's in my shoes,
play me some of those, play me some of those old Resurrection Blues!
The perfect thumping bass makes you think of jug bands and you're transported to the Georgia plains or the Virginia Piedmont – precise, rhythmic and tasty. He continues with Travelin' Shoes, a country/folk/Tin Pan Alley-type anthem about California history that would have made Woody Guthrie proud, or John Steinbeck for that matter. He finishes his 3-song solo set with My Love, a true new folk standard, drawing in the listener from the first line.
Nicole Gordon has been Ernest's long-time harmony and duet singing partner and she is pitch perfect and soulful with these tunes. These two launch into a rough and rowdy By And By which is filled with evocative language of the blues and folk wisdom with its warnings and morals. Then the killer song: the gorgeous and award-winning Switchblade Heart. This is, arguably, Ernest's finest songwriting and contributed to his Kerrville prize. It tells a unique and tender story of a tragedy, in which love is found in two lonely lives only to be lost again at the hand of mistaken violence. Again, Nicole complements here perfectly, becoming the voice of the girl who brings love to the solitary Frankie. It is a haunting and beautiful stunner.
Following is a great new piece in his new love song collection. Close is again sung by Ernest and Nicole, describing the irony of how giving someone space in relationship makes two people closer. Another new song, Bitter Wind, as Ernest explains, was inspired by a friend who died at the hand of a drug overdose. Sung from the man's perspective, it is the classic example of what Ernest can do with lyrics. I thought of Dylan while listening to Bitter Wind in its call out to danger as an actual entity, a character in the song, knowing full well that that it is coming and he is too weak to stop the inevitability that it will "eat it's way in."
Nicole sings powerfully and evocatively on Ernest's song This Field about migrant farm workers, and then effortlessly opens up on the breezy, jazzy Tin Pan Alley-flavored Doubtin' Blues (so well augmented by Mark Goldberg's very profound groove on bass). Ernest then gets back into the lead (again, Goldberg's yummy thump matches Ernest's perfect rhythm chops) with the rocking O Love and Storm Comin'. Goldberg's organic and deep connection with the songwriter is pure musical symmetry.
The last few songs begin, appropriately, with The Last Lullaby, a beautiful, Carter family-style hymn of remembrance to those who have passed away. This lyrical and heartfelt song is no downer, though – the music sounds like a sunny, clear morning of love coming up through the heart to help a loved one on his or her way home. On this recording it is dedicated to the late Kenny Edwards who passed away in August last year. For a bit of cynical humor there is Real Music, inspired by Ernest's work in the film and television music industry and describes how good music is often left to bleed by the side of the road. The great Disturbin' Blues is the raucous concert finale, but the CD ends with Ernest's encore, The Last To Leave. It's a beautiful ballad set in waltz time about having a gentle heart in matters of love. He sings metaphorically: "if this love is a party, then everyone's gone home" and he finds himself in the kitchen "sortin' through empties." Then the sweet and melancholy refrain:
My heart, my heart, it's always the first to believe
My heart, my heart, it's always the last to leave.
Blues Revue Magazine wrote that "Troost's style and subject matter recall Dylan, Dave Alvin, and (especially for his concentration on life's darker side) Richard Thompson--enviable company indeed. Such comparisons are not lightly made: Every song here is a keeper."
Ernest Troost is an Emmy-winning and multiple Emmy-nominated composer of more than one hundred scores for films and television. His intricately-wrought blues-folk songs reflect this strong melody craftsmanship and matches it with a rare ability to write poetry that sounds like everyday language. Harmonic complexity is sprinkled among the simplicity, though, here and there, just as suggestions of what's coming. You might be listening to a sweet song in a major key when a minor interlude will slide in and out, almost without your notice, and you think "hmm – is there something else here?" His subjects lend edginess to his work, but it's a roughness that's been burnished smooth by a compassion you can hear in his voice. It's an urge to love the characters for all their flaws and simple bad luck. His passion for them is a gentle and tender one, and the support he gives to their stories is born of true love. You can hear Ernest's knowing how hard it can be to just get through life as your true self. In a way, these are all morality tales: tragedies, lost love, yearning for closeness and for understanding. For me, the melodies and harmonies linger in my head and the characters haunt my thoughts long after the songs are over.
Joining Ernest for this concert are his long-time collaborators, the wonderful Mark "Pocket" Goldberg on bass, Dave Fraser on harmonica and accordion and Debra Dobkin on drums. Everything they do complements Ernest's amazing and world-class guitar work, tasty and lushly beautiful from start to finish. The great sound and recording is due to the talented Wayne Griffith at McCabe's.
I want to quote two fans who have written on Ernest Troost's CD Baby page, because they so perfectly express what this artist does:
"Ernest Troost is a writer of fine Southern Gothic literature. His stories just happen to be accompanied by his wonderfully picked guitar. In one 45 minute CD, you have a great flood, love, pleading, betrayal, threats, murder, longing for a better life, men toiling, men running from trouble, men chasing trouble, and dismemberment. There is something here for everyone. If you like songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt and John Prine, BUY THIS CD. If you like roots songwriters of any ilk, BUY THIS CD. If you are a guitar devotee, BUY THIS CD. It is as good as the best thing you've ever heard. You will not be disappointed." I couldn't agree more.
"When I first met Ernest and he sent me some of his music I was blown away. Not because of his work but because I'd never heard of him before and wondered..."where the Hell you been?" Now about the music, I love, love, love Ernest's songwriting because the storytelling is so compelling. It's like reading a novel about the deep south, when you're from the deep south, I relish every word as if I were there or had done exactly what he or she has done. Now about the guitarist. If you have yet to see Ernest live you better do it soon. He has the greatest touch and finger style...man! I wish I could play with that much feel!"
And from me: "…and that thumping, tender bass line, like the heartbeat of the song – steady, tripping, gentle and lost, driving and spooky all at the same time. Some chords will make you weep!"