Almanac Music: Eilen Jewell – A New Lady Sings the Blues

 

Following a talented musician who is outside the mainstream, celebrated but not widely known, is rewarding.   The opportunity to see them perform must be taken, but raises questions.   Will they turn up to play? Will they meet expectations? Right time and venue?

 

For an avid fan, Eilen Jewell’s show in May this year at Chateau Apollo in Adelaide went beyond affirmation, one of those rare events with magic in the music, moment and place.

 

Jewell is an unusual artist.   Her music is original and modern, while deeply connected to the past.  She seems to study music and life’s experiences, garnering material from the latter to enrich the former.   After growing up in Boise, Idaho, she busked at college in Santa Fe, moved to LA and on to Boston.   She lived there for nine years, meeting husband and musical soul mate Jason Beek.   He introduced her to guitarist Jerry Miller, creating the nucleus of the band she has performed and recorded with ever since. Now she is back in Boise, close to family.

 

First impressions suggest her work is limited to the country music idiom.  Deeper immersion reveals depth and diversity, a mature artist who fuses country with rockabilly, western swing, jazz and the blues.  Her early albums Boundary County (2005) and Saints and Sinners (2007) showed a gift for song writing, including social commentary:

 

Can anyone among us please explain

 

What went down on the banks of the Ponchartrain

 

No Sir I don’t believe it was the hurricane

 

That lay New Orleans out to waste

 

(“The Flood” Boundary County)

 

In later albums, Sea of Tears (2009) and Queen of the Minor Key (2011), her repertoire extended into rockabilly and bluesy jazz. Sundown over Ghost Town (2015), made after she returned to Idaho, turns inward with exquisite songs of landscape and loss in the decaying rural communities of the north-west United States.

 

Jewell’s latest work, Down Hearted Blues (2017), is not so much a change of direction as her personal tribute to the blues. The dozen covers include songs – some familiar, some not – of Bessie Smith, Willie Dixon, Memphis Minnie, Lonnie Johnson, Big Maybelle and Frankie Lee Sims. They venture into soul (“Its your Voodoo Working” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me”) and, fittingly, conclude with “The Poor Girl’s Story”, a Moonshine Kate depression era song written by country fiddler, Fiddlin’ John Carson. Jewell’s singular voice, with its faint echoes of Billie Holliday and Etta James, is the essence of the work, taking it beyond the derivative.

 

Her performance at Chateau Apollo had everything to make a memorable experience.  Managed by the adjacent Crown and Anchor, a champion of live music, the Chateau serves as an improvised space for functions, exhibitions and events. Part open air, the old building has had many uses over the years, most recently an outdoor furniture and garden shop. Doric pillars and decorative pots with giant plants give it an interesting atmosphere.  While demolition to make way for apartments seems inevitable, in its unrenovated state it is the ideal intimate performance space.   The sound is surprisingly good, the floor large enough for a stage, a few tables and benches, barrels and stools.   A spiral staircase provides extra space to perch. The Sunday afternoon crowd of around 75 left enough room for dancing.   Two outstanding local artists filled the first half, Naomi Kyte followed by Max Savage and The False Idols. They were perfect entrées to the main event.

 

Like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Jewell and Beek embody their creative partnership on stage. They are modest, with natural ease and charm.   Eilen announces that, as this is a matinee, her three year old, Mavis will be a surprise guest.   And she is, for the full ninety minutes, sporting protective headphones, an unselfconscious star. The band takes it in their stride.  They are superbly attuned, guitarist Miller and upright bass player Shawn Supra keeping perfect time with Beek’s drums, his tenor harmonies filling out Jewell’s vocals. There is a friendly patter, briefly given context when the song warrants, encouragement to the audience to get up and swing. They work through a good cross-section of early songs; an extended bracket from Down Hearted Blues; “Santa Fe”, a personal ballad of drunken love, trains and desert colours, is a highlight.   There is a Loretta Lynn song from the tribute album Butcher Holler (2010). The pace quickens, the lead guitar and upright bass fly along with the “Queen of the Minor Key”, a rocking finale.   Mavis lasts the distance, takes a bow at the end with the band.

 

It has been a joy to watch and listen to an artist so devoted to doing what she loves, leading an equally devoted band. Eilen Jewell is an extraordinary professional and a wonderful musician, bonded to her music, family, band and the stage.   How else could she give a show as good as this with the unsolicited help of a three year old who leads the dancing, knows the right side of a harmonica, is ready to play the drums and understands that, well, this is just what Mum and Dad do?

3/8/18

 

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Comments

  1. Cameron Bennett says:

    I seen her at Broadbeach blues festival on the same tour and was an instant fan .I am now working my way through the back catalogue and my admiration only grows. The best decision I made in a long time.

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