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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Mike Farris
Label: INO/Columbia Records
Time: 14 tracks / 74:23
The Station Inn might be one of Nashville’s legendary venues but it might as well have been Bourbon Street on the four nights in the fall of 2008 when Mike Farris and friends recorded this music. Together with the McCrary Sisters and the Roseland Rhythm Revue, Farris covered thirteen classic Gospel songs and a poignant, stripped-down acoustic rendition of the well-known R&B hit, “Green Green Grass of Home.”
Rather than go for the expected soul-gospel sound usually associated with these songs (and lately explored by the likes of Kevin Max and The 77s) Farris brings a New Orleans/Dixieland feel to the show with funky arrangements and a hot horn section that can jam like a New Orleans Street-funeral or blow like the Tower of Power. Even well-worn standards like “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” a song that got its first ‘rock’ treatment at the able hands of Delaney & Bonnie on their _Motel Shot_ album decades ago, gets new life as a fresh funky jam with a nasty guitar solo and ecstatic horn work.
The recording quality of this project is less than pristine, but the rawness of the sound works in its favor. Ferris at full volume is almost more than the microphones were able to handle and you get a sense of the intimacy and warmth of the venue (at least to me, it sounds like a fairly small but wildly appreciative crowd). Don’t expect to hear perfection here, and be thankful that no studio tweaking was done – there are human traces on this album and that’s how God intended it to sound, if you ask me. Those with perfect pitch might hear a flub on occasion, but on songs like “Good News,” when those horns blast out the memorable riff from Joe Cocker’s version of “The Letter,” all is forgiven – the energy more than compensates.
Farris, who was formerly the frontman for the rock band, Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, is in many ways the male vocal equivalent to Ashley Cleveland, performing in a similar vocal territory and occasionally having similar delivery. Of course, you can’t hear Farris sing without noticing phrasing similarities to Mavis Staples and even Jonny Lang, another ‘blue-eyed’ soul man. Like these other artists, Farris brings a background of not just rock, but blues, country, Americana, roots, and (naturally) gospel to his bag of stylistic tricks.
The McCrary Sisters are the perfect group of back-up singers for this live gospel experience, and even step out on their own to do an a cappella version of “Dig a Little Deeper,” which at first had them almost digging a bit too deep before getting back on track. As previously stated – the recording is un-retouched live music, warts and all.
The joy and energy of the music on _Shout! Live!_ is infectious – sometimes it’s celebratory and sometimes it gets so deep into the Bayou that there’s a hint of voodoo-blues. Listen to “The Devil Don’t Sleep,” for example – although it starts out with hints of KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” it ends as some very down and dirty gospel music indeed.
So, why are we so obsessed with the roots of gospel? Why have Delaney & Bonnie, Russ Taff, Kevin Max, The 77s and many others re-visited this music? Because it’s a vital element of what’s brought us to where we are today – our roots eventually call to us and bring us back to where we came from. We almost always come away richer for it. If you love gospel classics like “Can’t No Grave Hold my Body Down” and “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep,” and want to hear them performed with the energy of a live concert and with some gumbo flavor and a bit of cayenne pepper on the side, you should check out _Shout! Live!_
Some artists are so good that you don’t want to hear their music. That is, you can be worried that one bad album is going to break the spell. Mike Farris had my album of 2007 with Salvation in Lights, and the idea of hearing it live in a loose, raw style made me wonder whether it would lose something magical that the studio produced.
Hearing the first track starting confirmed my fears. It sounded a bit rough and I thought that I was in for an inferior version of the studio disc that would taint both releases in my mind.
But by the time we had got to the end of track four, adrenalin was getting me ready to give it a 5-star rating. It’s not unusual for me to dance in my kitchen, but this was making me do moves my legs haven’t managed in quite a while and putting a lot of utensils at risk of being kicked to the ground by accident. It made me remember that before my grandparents were dreaming of my parents, there were artists who were so good that people wanted to record them to preserve the memory. It is the performance that came before the recording, and Farris has the soul and fire of a real performer.
But with some of this material it goes deeper than vocal technique – and Farris has gritty gospel soul so embedded in his vocal chords that you probably couldn’t remove it without chopping the top half of his body off. The joy you feel with a song like “Can’t Sit Down” or “Mary Don’t You Weep” is deep in the gut, and it bursts to get out. With this live version of the latter, you can hear the intro getting you ready for the song, and the excitement makes it explode into life.
As well as twists of style, like the oh-so-swampy sound of “Devil Don’t Sleep,” it’s a real joy to have some new material. “Good News” not only maintains the set’s shuffling rhythms and brassy New Orleans feel, but adds both a nifty organ solo and some cheeky “la-la-la-la-la-la-la”s. The CD bonus of “Green, Green Grass of Home” winds everything down beautifully.
While the near-legendary McCrary sisters add incendiary depth to Farris’ songs and some tasty variety when they do an à capella of “Dig a Little Deeper,” the only downside to this release is their over-stretched slot in the middle of “Take Me.”
If I had to choose between this and Salvation in Lights for a life lived on a desert island, it’s hard to know which I’d take; but with a belly full of soul and a good few extra minutes, this one is the prime contender.