Jim’s pedigree as a singer and interpreter of American song is second to none – and peerless. He played an important role at the forefront of the American folk revival, where within the 60s counter-culture his Boston-based Jug Band provided an antidote to the serious-minded introspection of much of the musical output of the day, producing music that “reflected both the joyous freedom of the times and the interest in past musical forms”. Jim and his cohorts (who included Geoff Muldaur) were never to court glamour, fame and fortune, for Jim was content to hone his interpretations of songs from every walk of life in his own inimitable fashion. Hence his stature being often overlooked by folk music fans, and his name invariably only cited by the cognoscenti. Jim’s not been exactly prolific on the recording front either, with half-a-dozen album releases between 1963 and 1970 then only intermittent releases over the next couple of decades before enjoying something of a renaissance in the present decade with a Jug Band reunion tour in 2013, a solo album in 2015 (that somehow eluded my radar even) and an acclaimed 2016 joint release with Geoff. And he’s still gigging strong at age 77.
Whatever, the appearance of a brand new studio album from Jim is cause for rejoicing indeed. Unjugged is a brilliant exposition of Jim’s unbridled charisma, his strengths both as an assured interpreter of songs of many kinds and denominations and as a master guitarist accomplished in all manner of ragtime, blues and jazz stylings. Just stop and marvel at the apparent ease with which Jim steers his course through Living In The Country, a rare example of a Pete Seeger instrumental, or the unshowy yet perfectly judged tender deftness with which he accompanies himself on the standard The Way You Look Tonight. In a word, breathtaking. The set-list for Unjugged is a matchless 15-track cross-section of his vast repertoire drawn from the Great American Songbooks (yes, my use of the plural is deliberate), with personal adaptations of blues staples from Blind Blake and John Hurt sitting alongside classics like Staggerlee, Days Of ’49, The Wreck Of The Old 97 and The Tenderfoot. These are supplemented by especially fine renditions of Going Going Gone (by Joan Whitney & Alex Kramer) and the obscure but beautiful traditional lament Now She’s Gone, and even a version of Donovan’s Colours (on which Jim’s joined by some other singers, encouraging us to sing along, just like on his live gigs). The album also includes a small number of wild-card oddball entries such as Shel Silverstein’s slightly risqué Mermaid Song and a suitably hammily hushed rendition of the Weston & Lee music-hall chestnut With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm. Both of these selections, of course, demonstrate Jim’s deliciously droll sense of humour and the consummate intelligence of his wit – a quality which exists in spades throughout the show, of course, whatever the song he chooses to tackle. On this latest collection, Jim’s own interpretive expertise is selectively augmented by his good friends Bonnie Dobson, Ben Paley, Tali Trow and Bill Denton, who provide just enough of a foil on appropriate occasions.
In this magnificent, and truly delectable album, the liner note proclaims, “you hold in your hands a primer for the interpretation of songs.” How very true. And it’s lovingly packaged too. What more could you want?
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