The most improbable meetings sometimes produce the most surprising results. This recording is an outstanding example.
The Music Maker Foundation is a non-profit organization based in North Carolina that is dedicated to providing recognition and day-to-day support for traditional musicians and their families. So spectacular are the efforts of this extraordinary enterprise that performers who could not afford to travel 50 miles to play a gig at home, not only get to have their music recorded and distributed, but in some cases get to travel to music festivals as far away as Byron Bay in Australia or Lille in France, playing in front of thousands of delighted festival goers.
Australia's foremost exponents of high energy folk-rock, Bob Dylan tour support band and festival circuit favourites The Waifs, had gathered at the Music Maker studios for a week of rehearsals prior to a US tour. After the usual swings between nailing a song to arguing over an arrangement that characterise such chores as rehearsals, it was sweet relief for The Waifs when Music Maker's Tim Duffy suggested hooking up with some Foundation artists to make some music and see what developed.
Orange County, North Carolina native John Dee Holeman, a seventy-something contemporary of Blind Boy Fuller, storyteller, dancer, and blues guitarist, arrived and things started happening. Waif's singer, harmonica player Vikki Thorn says that the experience was "just something you felt, as natural and easy as taking a walk." She tells us that "John Dee Holeman took a walk...and The Waifs tagged along, sometimes in step, sometimes a step behind. But the closest step we'd ever taken toward the blues."
Traditional songs like "John Henry" are played with joy and exuberance, in this case with an energy comparable to the recent Springsteen version. On blues standards like Otis Spann's "Country Gal," Holeman's National Steel playing echoes Mississippi John Hurt in technique and his vocals are smooth and silky despite his advancing years.
Sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson, whose thrilling vocals are at the heart of The Waifs live and recorded performances, contribute minimal but sympathetic vocals, with Thorn (in her own words) "trying...to be bluesy" on harmonica. Guitarist Josh Cunningham, usually a forcefully melodic lead player with The Waifs, takes a back seat here, in deference to the fact that this is John Dee Holeman's party, and he's a guest. Typically solid but swinging rhythm section duties are provided by bassist Ben Franz and David Macdonald, who beats on what might just be the world's smallest drum kit.
While Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie" swings like mad, and "Baby Please Don't Go" is a joyous rollicking shuffle, all songs on this charming CD are a treat. One minor quibble with the entire project is the absence of any of Dave Macdonald's mighty fine finger-picked guitar, but there's plenty of that to be found elsewhere (more about him at www.davidrossmacdonald.com).
John Dee Holeman's recording Bull Durham Blues is available through the Music Maker Foundation at www.musicmaker.org. The Waifs latest studio recording, Sun Dirt Water, has just been released and will be featured in a forthcoming issue of Puremusic. • Michael Hansen