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Music Review: John Dee Holeman & The Waifs Band

You and the rest of your band have just traveled half way around the world to tour across the United States. You count yourself lucky because you've been given the use of a studio for the week you want to rehearse before heading out on tour. What you'd really like to do is play some Blues music, but no matter how hard you try, what arrangements you work up, it just isn't coming together.

It turns out your host at the studio happens to know a bunch of old time blues musicians, they record right here in this studio all the time. So when he says how would you like it if I invite some of them over to jam with you, you might be a little intimidated but you still jump at the chance.

John Dee Holeman turned up…he picked up an old guitar and started to play… well like he'd been doing it all his life…All week we had been going over songs, arrangements…Arguing over this and that…When John Dee picked up that guitar and started playing it was the most natural thing in the world…as natural and easy as taking a walk …John Dee Holeman took a walk with his guitar and the Waifs tagged along… Vikki Thorn lead singer of The Waifs

The Waifs are folk group from Australia who have started to make a name for themselves at home and abroad. The last time Bob Dylan toured Australia he sought them out so they could open for him throughout the tour. But all it took for them to be reduced to awe struck children and students again – as evidenced from the quote above by one of the Thorn sisters who lead the group – was to spend the afternoon with John Dee Holeman recording the eleven tracks that have been released as John Dee Holeman & The Waifs Band

So who is this John Dee Holeman who can reduce a group of young professional, successful musicians to awe struck fans? Well obviously he's an old time Blues musician: his birth certificate and the way he knows his way around a guitar prove that. John was born in 1929 in North Carolina and was playing guitar by the time he was fourteen.
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He learned the basics from his older brothers, but his real education came from listening to the music of Piedmount Blues player Blind Boy Fuller on records. Piedmount Blues is a smoother, more country flavoured sound that came out of North Carolina and areas similar. It probably came about as a result of the cross pollination of the spirituals sung by the black slaves and the Irish and Scottish folk music being sung by the white farmers.

However it was born it's sound is as smooth as silk and leaves lots of room for finger picking on the part of the guitar player, or just about any type of plucking, strumming, and or worry of strings that a player wants. John Dee will sometimes play with a claw hammer style, echoing the days he used to play banjo, but then again John has evolved his own way of doing just about everything to do with the Blues in the years he's been playing.

All you have to do is start listening to the music the Waifs and John Dee recorded and you'll see how special a player and singer he is. (He can't dance while playing guitar anymore, as he's had a couple of strokes and they've slowed him down a little, but he used to also be a pretty mean tap/clog dancer) From the opening track, his version of "John Henry" you just know you're in for a treat.
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First off, for all Ms. Thorn's protestations, the Waifs are all pretty damn good players themselves, and provide some really sweet accompaniment all the way through the disc. I've always had a weakness for a well-played snare drum with acoustic music, so I personally appreciated the sound of brushes scrapping rhythmically during some of the swingier or mountain influenced tunes.

"Looking Yonder Comin'" (If you can't hear "Orange Blossom Special" or "Hear My Train A Comin'" in that song you need to get your ears checked) is a perfect example of a great meeting of musical styles. It starts off sounding like it could be country gospel, then John's voice starts moving into another emotional pitch and we're now in Blues territory.

Then they move into their final song which is a rousing version /jam of "Baby Please Don’t' Go". It becomes an extended jam of guitars, harmonica, base and brushes slapping across the surface of a snare drum, until John decides they've had enough and winds it down. Remember this is a very relaxed informal gathering, a group of talented musicians hanging out in the studio with the tape just happening to be rolling. (I thought I had imagined it the first time, but during a second listen I definitely hear a baby cry on the song "Country Gal", which makes sense as it's as mournful a blues heartbreaker as you're liable to hear anywhere this side of the Mississippi or the other.)

Everyone can say all they want about the fact that the Music Makers organization is preserving pieces of our past with their recordings. But as far as I'm concerned when I hear something like this disc and the music sung with such passion and played with such enthusiasm there's nothing remotely "old fashioned " or dated about this music. How can music that comes from the soul and speaks to heart have a date stamped on it?

John Dee Holeman & The Waifs Band is one of those rare occasions where you feel like a fly on the wall sitting in on a private jam sessions between musicians playing just because they've got the chance. Maybe there's a mistake or two that would have been eliminated if they had been "recording" but the immediacy and sheer enthusiasm for the music at hand more then compensate for any slip-up.

Take some time in your busy day and put this disc in a player and forget your troubles for close to an hour. It's easy when you hear people playing like this. It will make you feel that all is right with the world. I'm sure The Waifs do after that afternoon in the studio.

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