Bill Miller: Spirit Rain

Chip O'Brien

Bill Miller

Spirit Rain

Label: Paras Recordings

Bill Miller's music is artfully eclectic, in large part influenced by the traditional Native American songs he learned in his youth, but equally influenced by Dylan, Hendrix, Roy Orbison, and Pete Seeger. At times, it is even Beatlesque. It is, however, truly unique, and all Bill Miller. Spirit Rain is a wonderful blend of styles, moods, and textures.

Miller has worked with Nancy Griffith and Peter Rowan. He has shared bookings with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Richie Havens, and Arlo Guthrie, and has toured with Tori Amos. He is also a painter, and his work has been displayed and sold in galleries across the country.

One of the most unique and evocative sounds present on Spirit Rain is that of the Native American flute, of which Miller is a master. The album opens boldly with an instrumental called "Approaching Thunder", on which the flute is featured, setting the stage for a musical and spiritual journey. Other instrumentals on the album, equally as soothing, and which break up any monotony that might be present, are "Red Sky Red Heart", and "Sun Dog", all featuring Miller's impressive flute playing. "Sun Dog" is the more melodic of the three instrumentals and therefore the most memorable. "1st Dream" also seems to fall into this category. It is a chant and drum song performed by members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and adds beautifully to the mysterious and spiritual aspects of this collection of songs.

The most passionate performance on Spirit Rain is "I Believe", a simple and impassioned testament to a belief in all that is not seen, of all that exists beyond the limits of our senses, and in personal redemption. These are themes that dominate Spirit Rain. The refrain is repeated over and over at the end of the song. Finally, reaching a fevered pitch, the song concludes with Miller's sustained vocal, bringing to mind, once more, the hollow warmth of his flute playing.

Other tracks on the album possessing a similar depth of emotion are "Never Too Far", "Prayers for the Truth", and "Little Brother (Spirit Rain)". "Never Too Far" is a simple yet poignant meditation on the oneness of all life. The light tinkling of the piano winds its way through this recording, like wind chimes. "Prayers for the Truth", co-written with John Flanagan, has a bit of that generic Nashville flair to it. That commerciality, however, ends up being more or less negated by Miller's delivery. What, in less adept hands, could come off sounding clichéd or corny, comes off sounding honest. Miller sings, "The sound of the drum / An eagle's wing / To my people these are sacred things / Visions of old / Hope for the new / All we ask is a prayer for the truth / All we need is the truth". "Little Brother (Spirit Rain)" is more of a chant than a song, and is very intense. It begins with a harp-like guitar and a recording of wind, and is soon joined by the Native American flute. The vocal enters, chanting, "I am a spirit in a land so free / So free", and is followed by cascading minor scales played ferociously on a nylon string guitar.

If one song stands out as incongruous, it is "Face the Blues", a traditional blues tune composed by Miller. In the midst of such colorful and unique material, the blues format seems a bit mundane, and seems to hinder more than help the flow of Spirit Rain.

The album concludes with "Underneath the Blue Sky", a song reminiscent of Seal and various artists of this ilk from more than a decade ago. Yet, it does not sound dated. This, I believe, has much to do with the crystal clear production of Bill Miller and Michael von Muchow, and the sheer honesty and passion with which these songs were performed, qualities which never go out of style.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.