Folk Ways and Means
(Red Brick Records)
Talk about folk music in Houston and, depending on your age, you're probably talking about either the established co-eminence of Shake Russell and Jack Saunders or the energetic earnestness of the still-up-and-coming David Rice. Of course, the folk conversation in Houston is filled with holes, and Don Sanders fills nicely the slot reserved for granddaddy of the contemporary crop. When no less a success story than Lyle Lovett cites you as a formative influence, you're going to get pegged as an elder statesman no matter how much it might rankle.
Like a lot of elder statesmen who, one way or another, missed the juicy part of the gravy train, Sanders uses his latest effort as an attempt to both consolidate his strengths and reach out to a next-generation crowd that may not know just how much of Sanders's influence they've been hearing over the years. With Promisin' Boy, Sanders delivers on the first count with a solid batch of original songs (two co-written with bass/lead guitar/piano player Mike Sumler). On the second, he recruits the help of backing vocalists Carolyn Wonderland, Denice Franke and Kimberly M'Carver. It's a pretty package Sanders comes up with, with a good dose of the folksiness that's drawn diehards to Anderson Fair since he started playing there in 1971. On the other hand, it doesn't offer much of anything to change the minds of the hordes who have abandoned folk music as static, predictable, and maybe just a little bit cloying.
The problem here might be familiarity, because it's certainly not Sanders's voice, which is clear and confident in this terrain. Likewise, the band -- featuring Sumler, Sanders on acoustic and slide guitar, Ron Rebstock on banjo, Kelly Lancaster on mandolin and Max Dyer on cello -- handles Sanders' range from maudlin race-conscious folk ("Que Paso?") to peppy coffeehouse blues ("Zero Tolerance") without a hitch. Yes, it's a nice ride, but we've been taken to this same place before.
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There's a lonesome-on-the-train song ("Laredo Train"), the father-and-son-conflict title track, the ironic class-and-caste comment of "Bigtime Boulevard" (a neat if uninspired portrait of River Oaks), a fuzzy, windblown love song ("Cool Breeze"), a heartache song ("Little Bit Blue"), a money-ain't-everything song ("Workin' Too Hard"), a cheating song ("Valery", a government-is-too-intrusive song ("No Probable Cause") and, neither last nor least, a song about social faddishness ("Zero Tolerance") that comes complete with a she-wants-me-to-eat-tofu-but-I'm-sticking-with-the-cigs lyric that lost its edge about the second time its original conceptualizer hummed it in the shower, which must have been at least 20 years ago. If you had to invent from scratch a folk album that encompasses all the strengths and weaknesses (and thematic cliches) of the genre, you couldn't do much better than this.
Sanders is a literate fellow, and a talented crafter of songs. But if his abilities can be called freshly sharpened tools, they're still plowing fallow soil.
Ballads, blues & bebop
Apt title, to which Austin multi-instrumentalist Tony Campise could add: growling r&b, hammy crooning, surprising twists on old standards and pop tunes, and a final bit of New Agey forest atmospherics -- "High on a Mountain" -- that features Campise on a reverberating bass flute.
ut Campise's strength lies in his versatility on tenor and alto sax, with which he pays tribute to classic blues and bebop styles while adding a range of voicings all his own. His tenor can make throaty, soft, remorseful pleas on ballads ("Since I Fell for You") and then turn to honking Texas r&b on his original "Continental Divide" -- a surrealistic lament that gives a glimpse of Campise's humor as he moans out, Dr. John-style: "I'm gonna get off the highway baby / Train some fleas maybe / Find some hubcaps maybe / Get on my knees and watch the UFOs go by..."
Guitarist Mitch Watkins proves the perfect foil for Campise, responding to his leader's fat tenor sound with slashing r&b chords or offsetting the aggressive sax with a fading, off-center riff of octaves reminiscent of Steve Kahn's solo work.
Campise's tenor sounds richer and more varied than his alto, which is more impressive for Campise's speed and ease in moving through chord changes or from melody to improvisation. The one exception to that rule comes in "Goodbye Mr. Evans," an elegy to pianist Bill Evans. Here, Campise's solo soars into alto heaven. -- Bill Levine
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