East Side Slim
Brian Curran – Live At Off Broadway – Wildstone, 2012
Brian Curran – Live At Off Broadway – Wildstone, 2012
Brian Curran is a mainstay of the St. Louis blues music scene, even though he's only in the lower half of his 30s. Of course, in the world of blues that's analogous to being a kid, but Brian is anything but. He has been performing publicly since his late teens, studying blues and fingerstyle/piedmont guitar for most of 20 years now.
Brian composes his own material (featured on his 2 prior studio-recorded CDs), and he performs individualistic yet respectful covers - with a very real affinity for the material of songsters such as Mississippi John Hurt. For most of his career Brian has been working in a solo (or small combo) acoustic format and that definitely continues on this live CD.
Curran is certainly the focus here, and the fine additions of Adam Andrews (harp/washboard/percussion) on several cuts and (wife) Sara Curran (vocals/admonishments) on two songs allow the listener to more greatly appreciate the live setting this CD was recorded under.
Crowd noise was included, and more importantly, some of Brian's comments, stories and song explanations were also left in the final mix, lending even more "feel" and warmth to this recording. In addition to 10 songs recorded live at the Off Broadway venue in St. Louis, Missouri, there are 2 bonus tracks included here: 1) "Big Road Blues" being recorded live in Springfield, Illinois (for a radio broadcast), and 2) "Cherokee" being a studio recording – as well as a dedication of thanks to Curran's late friend and guitar teacher (as well as phenomenal guitarist) Bobby Caldwell.
The Songs: (songwriter in parenthesis)
1. Key To The Highway – (Charlie Segar/Big Bill Broonzy)
--While on the surface one might say "another version of Key to the Highway?" one shouldn't say that here. Brian and guest Adam Andrews strip this song down and take it back to its acoustic origins. Brian sings in his own voice, not trying to sound like someone he's not, and Adam scorches it with his acoustic harmonica work. Curran and Andrews work as a blues duo around the St. Louis region, and their comfort with each other is evident in their spirited interplay. Adam is also only in his 30s, so it appears that acoustic blues stylings are in good hands for a long time to come in the Mound City.
2. Pony Blues – (Charley Patton)
--Solo voice and guitar, including slide work, are the only things present on this passionate reading of Patton's tune. If you're going to tackle a Charley Patton tune, you have to do it right, which means investing yourself emotionally in the song – which Brian certainly does here; tough stuff
3. Louis Collins – (Mississippi John Hurt)
--This tune begins with a poignant yet humorous story of how Brian actually met his wife Sara because of this song. Brian breaks out his fingerpicking/piedmont style here, covering the gentle stylings of one of the true giants of blues/folk music – Mississippi John Hurt. East Side Slim has heard Curran perform dozens of times over the years, and to my ears this gentle piedmont-inflected style of playing is where Brian truly excels. His natural singing voice is on the gentle side (not a Patton or Howlin' Wolf bellow), and his fingerpicking ability is exceptionally strong and well nuanced; beautiful stuff, even if the lyrical content of this song is melancholy (to say the least.)
4. Presbyterian Blues – (John Hartford)
--This is the 1st of 2 instrumental songs of the CD, and it's another fine example of Brian's nuanced and gentle picking style. This one is not about how many notes you can play per measure. It's all about how much "feel" and depth of emotion you can place into a song featuring a relatively sparse arrangement; tremendous, simply tremendous.
5. Death Letter Blues – (Eddie "Son" House)
--Curran is not a one-trick pony when it comes to his playing style, as he is well-versed in the much more percussive (almost violent at times) picking/strumming styles of Mississippi delta influenced players such as Charley Patton or Son House. To say House's playing could border on violent would be something of an understatement, and while Brian does not approach the song from such a place, he does play in a strongly rhythmic and percussive style here, which meshes extremely well with the washboard/percussion work provided by Adam Andrews. Additionally, Brian digs a little deeper vocally, putting some rougher edges on his voice without sounding mannered or labored. Good stuff!
6. I'm Satisfied – (Mississippi John Hurt)
--In a nice bit of sequencing, Brian brings the tempo back around to a more gentle place after the rough and tumble Death Letter Blues. Curran steps back from the vocal microphone here, as his wife, Sara, takes the vocal turn. She sings in a laid-back, gentle style which fits the peacefully gentle melody of the tune – with this melody serving as a feature piece for Brian's fingerpicking work.
7. Some Days And Memories – (Garry Curran aka "Brian's father")
--This song was written by Brian's father, Garry, and Brian includes a pre-song commentary about his dad and the nature of his dad's songwriting style. As Brian says about this song, "it's kind of about fishing, but it's about more than that actually." This is a gentle folk song (featuring Brian's fingerpicking) about advice from father to son about how to happily live your life - without forgetting what is truly important - and about keeping your head up through life's tribulations (and there will be tribulations.)
8. Jitterbug Swing – (Booker T. Washington White aka Bukka White)
--If East Side Slim was a selfish man, he might say that Brian included this tune just for him. Seriously, it's been a favorite for years, and it's so closely associated to Bukka White that it's often titled "Bukka's Jitterbug Swing". As for Brian's version, it's been my favorite song from his repertoire for years and years. It swings like crazy and is rhythmically propulsive, and it mixes elements of the rougher delta playing styles with those of the gentler, ragtime/swinging piedmont styles. A huge thank you from Slim for recording a live version of this song!
9. Blue Bird – (John Lee Hooker)
--Brian calls Adam Andrews back to duty here, with the result being we get treated to more of Adam's inspired and accomplished harp playing. Adam happens to be one of the youngest harp players playing out in St. Louis, as well as one of the finest, regardless of age. The duo takes us on a harrowing, hard-edged ride here, using changes in volume and playing intensity to dynamically build tension in the song.
10. In Spite Of Ourselves – (John Prine)
--Sara Curran steps back to the mike for a vocal duet with Brian, reprising the Iris DeMent role to Brian's John Prine in this Prine "classic" tale of star-crossed, problematic lovers who dig each other despite each others' (many) faults. The melody is very much in a John Hurt-vein, being both gentle and pretty. The tune was included on the CD due to the large number of folks who request this duet of Sara and Brian, and it was most definitely a wise decision to place it here.
11. Big Road Blues – (Tommy Johnson)
--Big Road Blues is a rite-of-passage sort of tune for acoustic pickers, many of whom handle the melody adequately but don't really get their head around the importance of the delivery of the lyric. Curran's high-level fingerpicking skills ensure that he nails the melody, and he delivers the lyric in a rhythmic style that meshes well with the pulsing of the melody rhythm. Brian sings the song in his own voice, with a passion gained from having a true love for the material.
12. Cherokee – (Ray Noble)
--As an added bonus, Brian delivers this short but tasty studio-recorded cut as a solo instrumental (the disc's 2nd instrumental cut.) But, in a bit of an anomaly, it sounds like he is playing a hollow-body electric guitar rather than his typical acoustics and resophonics, gently picking this Ray Noble tune in a fashion that would make Chet Atkins smile (East Side Slim, too!) What a nice way to close out a fine album.
Live At Off Broadway is Brian Curran's 3rd CD release, and it's a keeper. The obvious warmth of the crowd (tip to other musicians…stack the crowd with family and good friends!) and the fine acoustics of the venue are well-captured on this live disc. Of course, none of that would have been possible without the skills and love of the material Brian exhibits on each song. Guests Adam Andrews and Sara Curran (it's tough to call Brian's wife a guest artist, but it was his gig…) both add substantially to the mix, helping to make the blues and folk heard here sound all that more vibrant. Alright, it's time to rate this bad boy; East Side Slim is giving Live At Off Broadway by Brian Curran a well-deserved STLBluesometer rating of 4.00 – cast your line out there and reel this fine catch in.
For more information concerning Brian Curran, see the following websites:
Lee Howland - aka East Side Slim