Like most Si Kahn fans, I came to his music many moons ago (1984/5) with his astonishing, much-covered song What You Do With What You Got. I found it as the final song on Side 2 of his album Unfinished Portraits, and I nearly wore it out, playing it on its own, time after time, till it developed a scratch...and I eventually stopped only after I had scratched my itch to play it.
But I never forgot that song and its writer, and thus bought his earlier albums in the hope of finding a song of such majesty. Of course I never did, though I found his 1975 song Aragon Mill was a song that exuded real gravitas.
Now, you may ask...why do I mention this? I am not really sure other than to say that I keep looking for that song in-a-million from Si’s pen: even though that is totally unreasonable of me. After all, most artistes would rest easy after writing that masterpiece, and settle for their place in history.
But not Si Kahn: he has continued to produce a considerable body of songwriting work, on top of working on-and-off as a community organizer, environmentalist and political activist these past five decades. And here in this new album, we have thirteen songs of his...ten of which were previously unrecorded, the other three being Government On Horseback, Hard Times and Going Going Gone.
He is joined by long-time collaborators, the staggeringly good German bluegrass band called The Looping Brothers, who provide superb bluegrass breakdowns at supersonic speed: with a virtuosity such that if you close your eyes you’d swear that Ulli Sieker’s fiddle/mandolin was Darol Anger/David Grisman, Matthias Malcher’s guitar/banjo was Tony Rice/Bill Keith and Ralf Strotmann was perhaps the vital one in the trio, as it was he who kept the tent tethered to the ground with his hugely authoritative electric bass, and stopped the other two soaring off into the stratosphere.
Now normally, I am wary of ten unrecorded songs written by Si (since not all were straight off the printing press, and you have to wonder what was wrong with them that he never recorded them before...!!) But I am happy to tell you that none are duds and three or four are rather good: I give my award for best track to Hudson River New York Upstate Waltz, which touched my heart. It is in a weird way a curious throwback to Aragon Mill: the deindustrialisation of America, updated. Si sings it with aching sincerity, and it contains the sweetest of high tenor harmonies from Matthias: so sweet that it would get all the songbirds down from the trees to eat from his hand.
Photo Credits: (1) Si Kahn, (2) Looping Brothers (unknown/website).