It’s rare that you hear a band going out on the top of its game rather than grasping at lost musical straws as it continues on. Singer Cary Hudson recently released his debut album The Phoenix while the sister of current Wilco member John Stirratt, Laurie Stirratt, is putting the finishing touches on her debut album. But prior to all of that, both were the heart and soul of one of alternative country’s “big” groups in Blue Mountain. Formed in the early ‘90s, the band released several excellent yet commercially unsuccessful albums along the lines of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. But by 2001, it was curtains. Thankfully though, one of the last performances from Blue Mountain’s 2001 tour was recorded. And although fans might question the breakup, the band play like it was now or never.
Recorded at Chicago’s Schuba’s Tavern on 11 March 2001, the tandem of Hudson and Stirratt make beautiful traditional country and Americana music together. The opening verses of the English traditional “Young and Tender Ladies” is indicative of this. Using little more than voice and Hudson’s guitar, the song flows nicely into the sloppy and ragged hoe-down of “Bloody 98”. Coming complete with the audible hoots and hollers from the audience, another benefit is that it sounds “live”, unlike so many overdubbed, over-produced live albums that sound more like studio performances. Dedicated the sweet roots rocker “Lakeside” to drummer Ted Gainey, the tune has the same restless, get-out-of-small-town feeling that fuels much of the genre.
Perhaps the shining moment early on is the Celtic ballad that is somewhat country-fied during “Banks of the Ponchartrain”. Listening to it, you’re hoping for either an accordion or a wee tin whistle to appear as it has that lovable swaying melody to it. It’s also a song Shane MacGowan should be required to do before his death. If there’s one slight drawback to the record at times, the pacing tends to be a bit extreme, as “Banks of the Porchartrain” moves abruptly into another great mid-tempo country ditty in “Myrna Lee”. After moving entirely to an electric guitar, Hudson and Stirratt plow through “Jimmy Carter” from the band’s 1995 debut album Dog Days.
Mixing country with a murky blues slide guitar might be considered an experiment from hell, but it works during “Riley and Spencer”. Sounding like a modern day Wilco in its use of guitar effects and soundscapes, the band do a somewhat adequate version of “Rain and Snow”, adding little to the track and resembling a setlist breather. “Black Dog” (and no, not the Led Zeppelin tune) has Hudson squawking like a chicken during a hard and heavy guitar solo that slows to a faux conclusion before picking up its hootenanny speed again. But it’s the impressive rock guitar solos that carry the weight of the song. There is also a Bayou feeling along the lines of Cajun fiddle great Doug Kershaw on “Poppa”. The rhythm section makes the song more than it deserves to be.
The consistently strong songs stops near the end of the first disc, but not before a pretty and poignant “Let’s Go Runnin’”, with Hudson pouring his heart but not beer into the Americana ballad. Disc two begins a tad lightweight in the country pop flavor of “When You’re Not Mine”, resembling too much the Music Row fodder oozing from Nashville. But the Springsteen-like introduction to “Soul Sister” makes all the short negatives quickly fade away. The murky honky-tonk on “That Nasty Swing” is the fusion of Appalachia and Louisiana, or Appalouisiana if you prefer.
Rounding out the set is a gorgeous couplet starting off with a melodic “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” before turning into the Irish-tinged “Rye Whiskey”. The song has Hudson strumming his guitar like it was a huge mandolin and Gainey subtly hitting the skins like it was an Americanized bodhran. Closing the album out with a signature track like “Generic America”, it is a brief snippet of a band knowing when to say when. If you like edgy alternative country, you will like this album. You may love this album and ask it to take your surname. If you like alternative country and even remotely dislike this album, you are an idiot. Sorry, but the truth hurts sometimes.
// Notes from the Road
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