Recording of May 2013: There's a Time

Doug MacLeod: There's a Time
Reference RR-130 (HDCD). 2013. Doug MacLeod, Janice Mancuso, prods.; Keith O. Johnson, Sean Royce Martin, engs. DDD? TT: 58:00
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Like a lot of other once-pure forms of American music, the blues today has become a swirl of influences, mixing folk, rock, rhythm & blues, and even Latin flavors into a music that its aficionados—that fervent contingent known as "blues nuts"—have grudgingly accepted as being a part of the music they adore. But if blues fans thought Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan muddied the wellsprings of the Devil's own music, it'll be only a matter of time before rappers mix blues in with their beats, and then—horror of horrors!—dance music begins to "borrow" from da blues. Rather than resist these changes, blues fans should willingly embrace any new energies brought into the music; rather than ruin, these fresh ideas and passions may actually revitalize a musical form that many already see as a museum piece.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment, let us enjoy the more gentle blenders, such as guitarist and singer Doug MacLeod. A New Yorker by birth but a Los Angeleno by virtue of his many years there—though his pronounced Southern accent reveals the fact that he's spent considerable time south of the Mason-Dixon Line—MacLeod has become a fixture in acoustic blues, thanks to his 19 studio albums and his near-constant presence on the thriving blues-festival scene. His original music, which is what he's documented in the 12 tracks of this warm, alive, natural, very well-recorded 24-bit HDCD collection, is a much tamer, more evolved mix that doesn't push at musical frontiers, yet works in wise and pleasurable ways.

Several tracks here, like "A Ticket Out" and "The Night of the Devil's Road," are variations on the primitive blues form of talky testifyin', a dramatic mode that bears more than a passing resemblance to what's known today as spoken word. In another talker, "Dubb's Talking Religion Blues," the singer-guitarist assumes the personality of the fictitious title character. MacLeod is a master at minimally accompanying himself in these monologues, adding flourishes on his resonator guitar after every line or two. These talking interludes are effective only if he keeps them short, as he does here.

Nearly as effective are the sprightly folky numbers, like the non-ironically titled "The Up Song," in which MacLeod lets his soulful voice stretch out and get joyous. Though he's probably best known as a canny, nimble acoustic blues guitarist, MacLeod's voice, with its prominent crying tone and agile phrasing, is the equal of his string jiggering. Though at times he pushes his voice too high, as in the awkward upward stabs in "East Carolina Woman," his singing is every bit as artistic as his instrumental prowess.

He can also wind up the tempo to a near-rock'n'roll gait, as in "Rosa Lee," the album's opener and perhaps its best tune, showing that he knows how to bring home the rock chops when he chooses. And funny numbers, like the perky "My Inlaws Are Outlaws," into which he inserts blues licks, are reminiscent of Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas from the Family."

MacLeod is sparely yet harmoniously accompanied by drummer Jim Bott, who's spent time with Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and now drums with the Mannish Boys. The third member of the trio recorded here is bassist Denny Croy, who's played with MacLeod since 1999 and has been a professional musician since 1979; he's landed gigs with Keb' Mo' and Brian Setzer, and is the longtime bass-guitar teacher at McCabe's Guitar Shop, in Los Angeles.

About the recording process, MacLeod says in the liner notes: "This is my first album for Reference Recordings. We recorded on a huge soundstage at Skywalker Sound in Marin County CA. We sat in a circle. We didn't use headphones. We recorded live so there are no overdubs on this album. I'll let you in on a secret. There are two songs on this album where I either missed a word or changed an entire verse on the spot. Hey, like I say on my live shows, 'It goes exactly like this.' Well, now, I guess you'd have to say, 'It went exactly like that.'"

Overall, MacLeod's art is a quiet, mostly solo-led pursuit of finely detailed song-stories, impeccable playing, impassioned singing, and his engaging personality shines forth in a live setting. It all makes for a very enjoyable if very traditional experience.—Robert Baird