LIVE AT THE FUR PEACE STATION
Roy Book Binder has been on the road and playing country blues for audiences since the blues revival of the 60s, when he was a student of Rev. Gary Davis. With all of that traveling and performing, he's had a lot of time to perfect his stage routine. Listeners to Live at Fur Peace Station, his latest release, are the beneficiaries of this long experience and polish. Recorded in performances from 2002 to 2004 at the concert hall of Jorma Kaukonen's Fur Peace Ranch, Book Binder is in fine form, playing his brand of raggy, east coast country blues and deadpanning his way hilariously through the stories and one-liners for which he's become well-known. "The Book" is a modern country blues character if ever there was one, and for those not yet familiar with his style, this record is probably as good an introduction as you can get, short of catching him live.
Book Binder's last live album was the 1994 Rounder release, Don't Start Me Talkin'. That's a good record, but this one is even better, with a more interesting set of songs, in my opinion -- and Book Binder seems very much at home at the Fur Peace Ranch. There are actually a few echoes of the earlier CD in the stage repartee here, working essentially as in-jokes. It's worth noting that the talk on this record is given its own tracks, allowing you to skip straight to the music -- Roy can certainly spin a yarn and some introductions are longer than the songs -- or go straight to the talk as you prefer. He's one of the few players out there who could do a record without touching his guitar and still come up with an entertaining piece of work, and it's telling that he has appeared at the National Storytelling Festival.
The two original songs on the CD include the opening track, "What You Gonna Do," a lightly picked number played out of C -- a position Book Binder favors heavily on this set and that's well-suited to his style, which leans mostly towards the Piedmont -- with a lyrical guitar melody that wouldn't be out of place in the hands of Bo Carter. He follows up with a brief version of "Baby Let Me Lay It On You" (which he'd been teaching in the Fur Peace Ranch workshop but rarely performs). The song sets him up for a story of being on the road with Rev. Davis and leads hilariously, and circuitously, into a performance of the murder ballad "Delia."
Roy's approach to "Delia" is rooted in Davis's version -- itself never actually released on record -- a style that Davis called "old-fashioned pickin'," played in C with the fifth in the bass on the I chord, a simple change that somehow makes for a gorgeous guitar part. It's one of the most effective versions I've heard. (Fellow Rev. Davis alumnus Ernie Hawkins plays a real nice version as well.) The spoken introduction is over five minutes long, with Book Binder riffing comically about everyone who's covered the song having won a Grammy but him, and it is classic Book.
"Delia" is followed by a short version of "Jelly Roll" that features licks similar to Roy's version of "Hesitation Blues" in C (for those who are familiar with his teaching videos). "Three Times Seven" (in G) is a Merle Travis tune from the 40s, in the bragging style of songs like "Ragged But Right" or William Moore's "Ragtime Millionaire," which is also included here and is one of the most fun cuts on the CD. Playing in C, Book Binder weaves in bits from his version of Rev. Davis's "Cincinnati Flow Rag" throughout and sails through this performance.
There's much on the album that acts as a kind of tribute to the late Dave Van Ronk. Book Binder explains how the writing of the second original tune, "Full Go Around", comes out of the loss of several great musicians in recent years, including Van Ronk and John Jackson. It's played out of dropped D, a tuning my ear associates a lot with Van Ronk, and has much of his style to it. Two other tracks, "Cocaine Blues" and "Yas, Yas, Yas," have the Van Ronk touch as well. The former is the well-known Van Ronk adaptation of Rev. Davis's take on the song, while the latter is Van Ronk's fingerstyle arrangement of the song Tampa Red did as "The Duck Yas Yas Yas."
"CC & O Blues" is the song recorded in 1928 by Pink Anderson and Simmie Dooley, played here in D. Along with Rev. Gary Davis, Pink was one of Book Binder's mentors, and as is the case with Rev. Davis, Roy can be counted on for lots of stories about hanging out with Pink. We learn here that the first time Pink heard his 1928 recordings was when Roy, having taped the four songs from Nick Perls' 78 collection, called him up late one night and played the recordings over the phone.
Another highlight is "Travelin' Man", which Book Binder did originally on his album of the same title in 1971. That means he's had over 30 years to practice it, and it's one of the best versions I've heard, be it Luke Jordan, Coley Jones, Jim Jackson or Pink Anderson. There's more ragtime-style playing on Larry Johnson's version of "Charlie Stone," played out of G. This is one I hadn't heard before (it appears on Larry Johnson's "Fast and Funky" album, which, sadly, I am lacking) and has a great vocal melody and a catchy I - III - VI - II - V - I - V progression. "Won't You Be Kind" is the Luke Jordan song about the importance of good housekeeping ("Won't you be kind to your kitchen, I mean your dining room, sweep out your pantry, girl, won't you be kind, keep your backyard clean") which Roy plays out of an A position. "Chunk of Coal" is a spiffy country blues arrangement of a song by cowboy poet and country songwriter Billy Joe Shaver.
The record finishes up with two more covers: the first, Jimmy Murphy's 1949 "Electricity," played out of Vestapol tuning (or open D). The closing track is in the same tuning -- Jesse 'Babyface' Thomas's "Another Friend Like Me."
I've listened to Live at the Fur Peace Station a lot and have enjoyed it tremendously. It's laid back and appealing in so many ways. Book Binder's guitar style is deceptively simple-sounding at first but has lots of fine, subtle picking with quick-moving riffs, chord partials, and embellishing bends, snapped strings and hammer-ons. It's a great trick to be playing that much and sound so relaxed. Roy is I think at heart a songster, and he seems like he'd be right at home in a modern day medicine show, perhaps a lingering result of his friendship with Pink Anderson.
This CD is on Roy's own Peg Leg label (he takes several good shots at his former label, Rounder, on the disc), and it's important to note that it is available only at his shows and at the Book Store on his website at www.roybookbinder.com. And it's now available on Weenie Juke.
- Andrew Mullins (www.weeniecampbel.com)