In late May of this year, our TV screens were graced by a series of programmes (on BBC-4) which heralded a major new initiative, under the umbrella title of American Epic, celebrating and chronicling the "Big Bang" of modern popular music in America. In basic terms, the project represents a ten-year odyssey undertaken by director Bernard MacMahon and producers Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson with audio engineer Nicholas Bergh, that involved tracking down countless long-forgotten musicians, restoring the music that they recorded and reassembling the technology that created it. The TV programmes comprised a three-part historical documentary (as part of the long-running Arena series) and a live-in-the-studio session programme. In the latter, executive producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett assembled a number of important figures in contemporary culture, including some of the most widely acclaimed roots artists of our day, to recreate - and in many cases interpret afresh - songs from the periods and sub-genres in question (largely from the various traditions); to do this they reassembled the very first electrical sound recording system from the 1920s. And what a result! The method clearly inspired the artists enormously.
The cast-list speaks for itself - and the "house band" role, where required, is ably fulfilled by a select crew comprising Fats Kaplin (mandolin), Jack White (guitar), Little Mae Rische (fiddle) and Dominic Davis (upright bass), with other musicians like Gabe Witcher, Jay Bellerose and Omar Rodriguez dropping by from time to time to help out. For much of the time, though, it's individual performers who come under the spotlight for cameos, so I guess the best method will be to pick out some highlights to give you a flavour of the enterprise and the quality of the performances. On the first disc, Rhiannon Giddens delivers a gritty One Hour Mama; Blind Boy Paxton makes authentic capital out of the Rev Gary Davis classic Candy Man; Edie Brickell & Steve Martin cover The Coo Coo Bird; Ashley Monroe turns in a delicate take on Like A Rose; and the disc closes with its spirited gospel contingent - The Avett Brothers' Closer Walk With Thee and Beck leading a fairly large choir through Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods. Two of the disc's other highlights both feature Jack White himself: the rollicking Matrimonial Intentions, and Two Fingers Of Whiskey backed by Elton John. There's also some Tex-Mex from Los Lobos - strangely, I don't remember tex-mex being part of the documentaries…
The second disc is no less star-studded, Taj Mahal takes on Charley Patton (High Water Everywhere part 2); Pokey Lafarge is thoroughly at home on St. Louis Blues and Josephine; Rhiannon Giddens returns for an a cappella Pretty Saro and Ashley Monroe for a superb Jubilee; Bettye Lavette covers Frank Stokes and Jim Jackson numbers; there's Hawaaiian and cajun music too, Stephen Stills contributes Come On In My Kitchen; and the Avett Brothers return for Jordan Am A Hard Road To Travel. And Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson perform together on one item per disc - the first of these is Merle's own composition the Only Man Wilder Than Me.
There's something of an unaccountable temporal imbalance between the two discs - durations being 36 and 52 minutes respectively - but you can't fault the quality of the performances or the choice of material. Well, only Nas (Nasir Jones)' rap One Mic which for me doesn't quite gel with the rest of the music on this session, or its ethos.
I'd held back on this review awhile because I'd intended to cover all of the various elements of the American Epic project, but it's proved impossible to obtain anything but the American Sessions set for review. The most important component of American Epic is arguably the five-disc box-set The Collection, which gathers together 100 original recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, restored to what the press release describes as "unprecedented levels of sonic fidelity"; this would appear to be the core of the whole initiative, and by all accounts a real treasure trove, much in the mould of the landmark 1952 Harry Smith Anthology Of American Folk Music set on Folkways but with vastly superior remastered sound - so I'm doubly sorry to've missed out on this part of the project. There's also a single-disc 15-track anthology which takes its contents from the big box, including restored archival recordings from artists such as the Memphis Jug Band, Charley Patton, The Carter Family and Lydia Mendoza. Also available, on DVD and Blu-ray, is the complete series of TV documentary programmes. Finally, Touchstone have published the companion book American Epic, which provides a behind-the-scenes look at Messrs. MacMahon and McGourty's journey across America, fleshed out by contributions from many of the musicians who had participated in the sessions on the double-disc set reviewed above.
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