[2 April 2003]
Soul music beats like a lover’s heart when your press your face against bare flesh and hear a pulse drumming in your ear. For some, this music was created in the late ‘60s and ‘70s in places like Memphis, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Then one day it went away. For those who love music, it continues to thrive in places other than the Stax, Hi, and Motown studios. It can even be crafted by people from far-off, exotic lands such as Vancouver, Canada. Not only does the rhythm guitar not have to be played by Steve Cropper, but the instruments don’t have to be electrified. At the Be Good Tanyas show on March 12 at the Bottom Line in New York City, soul music rang out from a mandolin, banjo, ukulele, and acoustic guitar.
The Be Good Tanyas have an uncanny knack for digging the soul out of every song they play. Whether it’s Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die” or the old traditional “Oh Susanna” or one of their own magnificent compositions such as “Lakes of Pontchartrain”, the Be Good Tanyas possess entirely any song they sing. They do this in the simplest way and with such ease that it hardly looks like they have to try at what they do.
Their musical arrangements are relatively simple. It is precisely that lack of pretension which allows the Be Good Tanyas to stretch out so brilliantly in their live performances and on their albums. It gives their music that laid-back country sound. Samantha Parton has a soft lovely voice that whispers, in a single breath, all the sadness and joys of the world. When she’s not singing, she brings the same feeling to a song with her mandolin rolls, ukulele plucking, and guitar fingerpicking. At the Bottom Line show, Parton was so sick she had to sit on a stool for a few numbers and had almost cancelled the show. Perhaps she felt she wasn’t giving her best performance, but it only highlighted that great rawness of unhomogenized feelings that are the essence of the Be Good Tanyas’ music.
Add to Parton being devastatingly ill the fact that Frazey Ford was due to give birth in only a matter of weeks. Frazey Ford, in addition to having a name out of a Steinbeck novel, has a voice that seems to suggest that vulnerability is a powerful state of being. When she sings, it sounds restrained in a way that is meant to protect the audience from what might happen if she fully loosed her vocal chords and let out the supernatural force that resides there. Ford has a voice that can make a grown man weep.
Trish Klein’s subtle touch in the background of the Be Good Tanyas’ songs adds necessary layers to the mix. She provides the foundation and grounding from which Ford and Parton can launch their vocals. A simple strum or five-note phrase on her electric guitar during their Bottom Line performance rounded and burnished the rougher, raw corners of the songs. Her harmony vocals multiplied their strength.
When it came time for the encore at the Bottom Line show the Be Good Tanyas went directly to soul music for help. Otis Redding, the greatest of all soul singers, had a voice so powerful it seemed to be capable of conjuring up anything in the range of human experience. For that reason, his songs have always been notoriously difficult to cover. The Be Good Tanyas not only covered Otis’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is” masterfully, they did it in such a way as to make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up as a chill made its way up and then down the spine. That’s the mark of any good band—they’re not so much performers as they are presenters of an emotion that can stand naked and honest in front of an audience.
The Be Good Tanyas are a band with plenty more soul to come.