Eric Andersen: Beat Avenue

[20 February 2003]

By Jason MacNeil

Eric Andersen was in the same clique as Robert Zimmerman in the early ‘60s. Performing around the Greenwich Village coffeehouses and folk “cities”, the duo had the same musical influences. They were thought to be some of the leading candidates to take folk music further than ever. And while we all know what happened with Dylan, Eric Andersen certainly didn’t fall through the musical cracks. Andersen actually performed with Dylan during the opening evening of the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 and became the first singer/songwriter to tour Japan. Still performing nearly forty years after his first gig, Andersen has carved a very fine and critically acclaimed body of work. His 2000 album You Can’t Relive the Past put him somewhat back in the spotlight as the genre solidified itself. Now with his latest record, a double-disc affair, Andersen has once again brought something old and something new to the fore. And he never skips, or misses, a beat throughout.

The opening disc consists of a dozen songs, beginning with “Ain’t No Time to Bleed”, is a bit jarring as the song sounds very contemporary and a blending of roots rock and gospel. Backed by vocalists Phoebe Snow and Lucy Kaplansky, the track is a good start despite the phrase “my time of dying” recalling Zeppelin. Andersen comes across like a well-polished Northern version of John Hiatt, especially on “Before Everything Changed”, whose first verse brings to mind the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It’s an upbeat tune though, with everything but the kitchen sink thrown into the mix in the vein of Little Feat. Andersen takes the mood down with the slow building waltz-like “Salt on Your Skin”, one of the album’s highlights.

What might disappoint some listeners is how the album is void of the typical singer/songwriter/acoustic guitar idea people have of folk singers. Andersen never heads down that road, relying far more on an electric guitar than recent releases. “Song of You and Me” is a bit long-winded and Dylanesque, missing the mark despite ambling along for six minutes. A certain tension builds in the song but is never fully realized. “Shape of a Broken Heart” is another highlight with Andersen’s great songwriting skills well above average here. The closest he comes to the “folkie” is perhaps the gorgeous “Under the Shadows”, a down-tempo and somber look at “what is ain’t what was”. The harmony vocals here only add to its luster.

Throughout the album, Andersen occasionally throws a sonic wrench into the album that sounds a bit forced, especially on the Southern rock flavor of “Rains Are Gonna Come”. When it relies on the drums instead of its guitar, it works better. For “Runaway”, Andersen talks about, er, running away as all of the appropriate touches of fiddle and acoustic guitar are used to their strengths. It tends to sag near its conclusion though, going one or two repeats too long. The whispery delivery of “Still Looking for You” brings the singer back to his musical bread and better despite some backing that is slightly unnecessary.

The second disc is more along the lines of Floydian lengths—two songs clocking in at nearly thirty-seven minutes. The first song, the title track of the album, is Andersen’s recollections of the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. According to Andersen, he sat in with the likes of Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and Michael McClure as they read poetry in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district reflecting on what happened. This marathon of sound starts off with a soulful sound that is rather feeble and is beatnik spoken word poetry over some subtle horns and keyboards. Unfortunately, the song doesn’t evolve into anything different for the first half of the song. Andersen’s lengthy narrative shoots down any solo possibilities by backing musicians.

“Blue Rockin’ Chair” is much better, a dirge-like blues tune that featured the Band’s Garth Hudson among many others. It has an edgier sound and direction to it and is much better for it, slowly working the tempo and groove up. The album works quite well, although rarely you have to take the bad with the good.

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