Joel Fredericksen Gives American Music a Classical Sound

JOEL FREDERIKSEN and Ensemble Phoenix Munich

Rose of Sharon: 100 ears of American Music 1770-1870

Harmonia Mundi HMC 902085

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Operatic bass, lutenist, and classical conductor Joel Frederiksen turns his attention to American traditional music on Rose of Sharon. For those whose mythology and/or Bible skills are weak, the rose of Sharon is not just a flower; it’s also some times used as a symbol of Jesus (based on a particular reading of Solomon 2:1). The quasi-religious references explain why part of this album features sacred music, in this case shape note singing, Shaker hymns, and spirituals.

The hook is that Frederiksen wants to feature music from the 17th and 18th centuries, as he puts it, like “an American quilt;” in other words, he wishes to form a unified portrait from different pieces. We get the meeting of sacred--the three aforementioned themes--plus songs from the Revolutionary War era, early choral traditions, and the Civil War--a program with six parts and thirty songs. It’s an ambitious effort that works well in places and seems a bit naff in others. As one might expect of a classical ensemble, the voices and instruments are sublime. Whether they are always appropriate is another matter. To my ear, classical treatments of folk material often sound bombastic and/or ponderous. Hearing a dramatic, but trained voice belt out songs such as “Captain Kidd” just sounds wrong, and when you know a song such as “The Gentleman Soldier” from Steeleye Span and then listen to Frederiksen’s version, the latter sounds like the a bad PBS special. Ditto songs such as “Dance Me a Jig,” a tune that’s best when one lets down one’s hair rather than buttoning one’s waistcoat.

All of this is to say that Rose of Sharon works best on the songs that were arranged for more serious treatment in the first place, to wit, most of the religious songs. The ensemble and Frederiksen sound great on shape note selections such as “Northfield” and “Wondrous Love,” and Frederiksen is almost Paul Robeson-like on spirituals such as “Sinner Man.” Needless to say, the ensemble is in their métier when performing choral music mined from the Billings collection.

How much you enjoy this release depends entirely on your taste for classical treatments of folk music. I’m neutral on that subject, but seldom enthusiastic, which pretty much sums up my view of Rose of Sharon. It’s a good-of-kind recording, though I generally like to hear this material in rootsier and rawer forms. I’d also like to take umbrage with the label’s assertion that Frederiksen is interpreting “rarely heard” American music. Really, folks, you need to get away from the recital hall more often; I’ve known all of these songs for many a year!


Carrie Rodriguez--Live in Sublime


Iron Horse Music Hall

Northampton, MA

June 16, 2011

What’s so special about Carrie Rodriguez? Let’s see, she writes great songs, plays fiddle like a woman possessed, is drop-dead gorgeous, and has a voice that makes your knees knock. Other than that, she’s practically a charity case.

I have had enjoyed Rodriguez’s albums for several years now, but they left me unprepared for the dynamism of her live show. In the studio she sounds a tad little girlish, but I can assure you--as one of her lyrics puts it--she’s “a grown woman.” So grown that by the time she polished off “Big Love,” “What Kind of Love is This?” and “Got Your Name on It,” I needed a cold shower. All three songs are heavily produced on Rodriguez’s studio recordings, but in concert she slows them down and sings in a sultry voice that’s more like a torchy jazz singer than a country girl. The effect is stunning. When Rodriguez closes her eyes and cranes her neck, the feel is that of a bolero. Also surprising is just how good she is on the fiddle. That’s the instrument she played when she was discovered in Chip Taylor’s backup band, but Rodriguez does more than just fill in the instrumental spaces. Her traveling partner, Luke Jacobs, laid down acoustic, electric, and peddle steel guitar licks that freed Rodriguez to tackle her fiddle with verve and gusto. She was equally adroit on longneck mandolin and the mandobird, the latter an electric mandolin. Another thing that one hears live that isn’t always obvious on her records is a distinct Appalachian flair that makes some of the instrumental breakouts sound more Tennessee than Texas.

There were, simply, no slips, dips, or low spots in her 90-minute show. Rodriguez was in complete control as she changed moods from sexy to poignant, as she did when she sang “Seven Angels on a Bicycle,” her remembrance of a friend killed while riding his bike in New York City. She changed focus several other times as well, and nailed a version of the Hank Williams chestnut “I’m So Lonesome I Could Die.” She closed with a song her great aunt, Ava Garza, recorded in the 1950s “La Puñalada Trapera.” Add Latina torch singer to Rodriguez’s many talents. Like I said, practically a charity case. If Carrie Rodriguez is playing anywhere near you, clear your calendar and catch her live. The recordings are fine, but live is sublime.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the evening’s warm-up act, Brooke Brown Saracino. She’s young and I hate to be uncharitable, but her voice is odd, she doesn’t articulate, her songs are weak, and her guitar playing weaker still. Give her credit for having the moxie to mount the stage, but we can only hope she’s not planning on making her living in music.