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The Wailin' Jennys

Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House

(Red House; US: 11 Aug 2009; UK: 10 Aug 2009)

If it’s possible to wail while playing folk music, then Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House demonstrates in several areas how to do so.  Recorded in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania in a vaudeville theater built in 1881, the dynamic new live album from Canadian sensations The Wailin’ Jennys serves up a variety of delectable roots music offerings, including blues, country, spirituals and folk – even with a little bit of jazz and bluegrass thrown in the mix.


Through a blend of covers, traditionals, and original tunes, the Jennys showcase a fine new lineup, classic roots instrumentation and their precisely crafted three-part harmonies.  Alto Heather Masse is the newcomer on upright bass, joining Nicky Mehta (guitar, drums, harmonica, ukulele) and Ruth Moody (guitar, banjo, accordion, bodhrán) alongside Jeremy Penner, who adds several tasteful flourishes of violin and mandolin and several burning solos throughout the disc.


A rollicking “Deeper Well” kicks off the disc with Mehta taking lead vocals.  It’s an intense track, with a haunting and searing violin solo splitting up the repeating dramatic, minor-key chorus.  The Jennys’ harmonies provide a dramatic foundation for the second track, an excellent a capella reading of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, a tune that has been recorded a thousand times but is brilliant here. 


Mehta takes the lead vocal again on “Driving”, a swinging, mellow tale of a drive from Maine to upstate New York in pursuit of a lover.  Between Moody’s gentle banjo picking, the simple, sweet melody, fine violin/harmonica interplay and again, striking vocal harmonies, this track stands out as one of the finest on this release. 


Unfortunately, it’s overshadowed by its successor, the traditional “Bold Riley” and the best track of the release.  Sure to leave many listeners misty-eyed and breathless, a beautifully bowed bass, accordion and violin provide the perfect backdrop to the angelic harmonies of Masse, Mehta and Moody.  There might only be four musicians onstage, but it sounds like a symphony.


Non-denominational spiritual (and Moody original) “Glory Bound” kicks off with a joyful, uplifting riff on banjo and doubled on violin, giving way to a simple, yet gorgeous “hallelujah” chorus, which is (not-often-on-live-recordings) enhanced by an audience sing-a-long, turning the Jenny’s three-part harmony into a full choral ensemble.


“Arlington” shifts the mood of the disc back to somber, with its magnificent minor-key melody and Mehta’s clear, bell-like vocals.  As the other Jennys join to create a rich, intoxicating harmony, Penner’s weeping violin gives the track a mournful quality.  A stunning take on folk blues legend Leadbelly’s “Bring Me Li’l Water Silvy” follows and finds the Jennys in a capella form again, caressing the simple melody with their sweet-as-honey harmonies, anchored by Masse’s impressive alto, which finds her at the depth and peak of her range in a single track. 


The slow-dance sway of “One More Dollar” propels the set forward, with another outstanding violin solo from Penner.  “Racing With the Sun” is at once dark and playful, mysterious and bouncy and features fine interplay between the acoustic guitar, ukulele and the violin.  “Paint a Picture”, sung a capella, is short, sweet and stellar. 


Although it’s not as strong as her other original on this release, “Arlington”, Mehta’s voice truly shines on “Begin”, an inspiring tune calling listeners to live in the moment – appropriate for a live release.  “Motherless Child” begins a capella and then echoes the stomp of set opener “Deeper Well”.  Rounding out the disc is “Calling All Angels” and “One Voice”, two fine tracks that provide an enjoyable and mellow cap to the evening.


The greatest vocal harmonies are both results of rigorous rehearsal and often times, the melding of the “right voices”.  There have been plenty of groups whose individual members didn’t possess particularly unique or impressive voices, but when they came together, a much more interesting voice was formed.  Within in the context of The Wailin’ Jennys’, each of the three principal members has impressive lead vocal takes, often accompanied by simple two-part harmonies – but the moments where the Jennys truly wail is when the three voices come together. 


And in a live setting, free of overdubs, multiple takes and pitch-correction technology, the subtle shades and delicate nuances of the human voice are on display for all to hear, mistakes and all – but there are no vocal flaws here.  Equally perfect for sunny day, open highway cruises and reflective, late-night drives, Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House proves that The Wailin’ Jennys are on top of their game and at the top of their field.

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It's been said that jazz was born in New Orleans and it grew up in Kansas City. That's where I grew up too, learning to love the sounds of the city's storied past. Now I'm on a mission to unearth what I haven't heard.


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