Music from Down East, that being the great state of Maine, is in the Compact Capsules spotlight this week. We begin with the latest entry in the terrific Greetings From Area Code 207 series of compilations devoted to music from artists with Maine connections. From there it’s onto releases from a couple of the best from the Maine roots rock side of the tracks in Diesel Doug & the Long Haul Truckers and The Coming Grass. Let’s get to it.
Greetings From Area Code 207, Volume 6
Cornmeal Records CMR-2076
The sixth volume in the ongoing compilation series Greetings From Area Code 207 is yet another winner. Showcasing artists whose past or current abode is the great state of Maine, charity remains the main driver behind the series with 100% of the proceeds from the sales of the CD once again going to benefit the St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center of Portland. In other words, it’s a great collection of music with the greenback dollar you lay out for the thing going to a good cause. Sounds like a can’t-miss deal and here’s betting after a listen or two to the sixth volume in this series, you’ll wholeheartedly agree. The participants are the usual mix of the familiar and not so familiar, unless you happen to spend a lot of time in Portland checking out the music scene. On the familiar side of things, singer/songwriters with past and present ties to Maine like Slaid Cleaves, Cindy Bullens, Mark Erelli, and Rod Picott are the ones most likely to ring a bell with people in these parts. What I’ve dug about the previous volumes in the series is it affords the opportunity to check out an entire scene, that being Portland and its surrounding communities, in a single CD (and at the same time get a little jealous that our own scene here in Rhode Island, as far as original roots music is concerned, is not nearly as strong). While a number of the “locals” have had tracks on those previous volumes, new works from groups like Seekonk, The Coming Grass, Phantom Buffalo, Sara Cox, Bullyclub, The Hot Tarts, and Diesel Doug & The Long Haul Truckers do nothing but impress. Portland road trip, anyone? By the way, this latest entry in the Greetings From Area Code 207 series once again includes a nine-track bonus disc featuring recordings of live “unplugged” performances made at the Portland-based WCLZ-FM studios by some of the heavy hitters in the Americana and AAA ranks including Maine-based Ray Lamontagne, Ben Lee, Sarah McLachlan, Blue Merle and Minnie Driver. (Check out the Cornmeal Records web site at www.cornmealrecords.com for information on the Greetings From Area Code 207 series as well as the St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center).
Diesel Doug & the Long Haul Truckers
Mistakes Were Made
Blame it all on Steve Earle’s mid-1980s album Guitar Town. A masterpiece of a longplayer from the dawning of the New Traditionalist Movement in country music, it was all Scott Link, a.k.a. Diesel Doug, needed to convince himself he should quit school a second time and try his hand at songwriting and playing guitar. Nine years later Diesel Doug & the Long Haul Truckers were born. Hailing from Portland, if a band name can score you points then Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers hit themselves a grand slam, particularly as it pertains to the alt country domain. It’s also a pretty fitting handle considering the Maine roots and its place in the annals of truckin’ music (RE: “Tombstone Every Mile” from the Baron of Country Music and Maine native, the late Dick Curless). A Maine institution of sorts on the roots circuit, this four-piece easily qualifies as one of the better, not to mention longest running, entities of the No Depression ilk that the New England region has to offer. The 16-track Mistakes Were Made is a retrospective or sorts released in celebration of the band’s 10th year in the business. It brings together tracks from their two previous full-length recordings, An Angel Not a Saint from 1997 and the 1999 release The Fine Art of Carousing, along with three previously unissued tracks and another three which appeared on compilation releases only (i.e., the aforementioned Greetings From Area Code 207 series). While a number of the tracks on Mistakes Were Made smoke in a “diesel” country kind of way, the band proves itself equally adept at hardcore honky tonk as well as rockin’ out. In other words, plenty of driving twang guitar and pedal steel that washes down real easy. The songs, nearly all band originals with the exception of atake-or-leave-it cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas From the Family” and “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas” from the Commander Cody archives, are a mix of the serious and the not so serious with an oft-times distinctive early Earle aroma to them. On the serious side there are winners like “Circles” and the too pretty “Not Much to Say”. The not so serious stuff is equally terrific with songs like “If I’d Shot Her When I Met Her (I’d Be Outta Jail By Now)” and “I’d Like to Quit Drinkin’ (But I Live Over a Bar)” each jukebox ready with crafty wordplay and hot licks . And how can a band with a name like Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers not have some truckin’ songs in the arsenal? Diesel Doug and company answer the call of the 18-wheeler in fine style on cuts like “18 Wheels of Love”, “Thin White Line” and “Never Lookin’ Down”. A few drinkin’ songs in the Mistakes Were Made mix gives the collection the ultimate honky tonk seal of approval.
The Coming Grass
Beauty of a Heart
Velvet Ed Records
Portland is also home base to roots rock five-piece The Coming Grass. It was just about a year ago that word first surfaced that a new album from the band was nearing completion. Targeted for a Spring 2005 release, as is usually the case with such fragile goal setting, that album, titled Beauty of a Heart, did not finally make it out until mid-December. (Rumor has it that had the hard drive of bandleader Nate Schrock’s computer not died, he may still be tinkering with the finished product in seeking the utmost perfection.) It was worth the wait. The follow-up to 2002’s recommended Transient which won the band plenty of decent reviews with a sound at times remindful of everything from the Jayhawks to Blood Oranges to Son Volt and that featured guests from bands like the Backsliders and Wilco, Beauty of a Heart in comparison comes across as a more organic and cohesive affair. Credit the solidifying of The Coming Grass lineup not long after the release of Transient and the ensuing seasoning of that lineup in the time since. It shows in both the songs and music of Beauty of a Heart which finds that satisfying balance between rootsy riff rockers and those that bring the acoustic into the mix for a more down-home vibe. When it gets in gear with all band members in motion, there’s an early 70s Stonesy feel to the leadoff number “So Far Gone”. It’s a track that sticks in the craw long after hearing and which gets Beauty of a Heart off to a promising start. The rest of the record lives up to that promise thanks in large part to a band with a number of weapons in its arsenal ranging from the two-pronged guitar attack of founder Nate Schrock and Steve Jones each of whom also take the vocal lead to the beauteous voice of Sara Cox who doubles as Schrock’s wife. Cox, who also has a couple of fine solo releases to her credit, is pure magic on the four numbers featuring her on lead vocals, “Polly”, “Cold Outside”, “Dig Deep”, and the album standout “Sugar” which is a sassy reworking of the original version that appeared on her 2000 solo EP Firewater. Schrock handles the lead vocals on most all of the remaining tracks moving smoothly from the bare bones acoustic, sans-band solo number “Chasing” to the shades-of-Neil Young “Exploding Home”. Classify Beauty of a Heart as an album where the moments are many and at the same time has me wishing Portland was just a bit closer. (For information on The Coming Grass and Beauty of a Heart, check out the band’s web site at www.thecominggrass.com)
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at [email protected].)<...