It shouldn't be an unusual experience to be truly moved by a piece of music. At its most basic level, that is what music is supposed to do. But even as Backwash hears more and more of the stuff -- literally hundreds and hundreds of recordings line the shelves, nooks, crannies and corners of my fluorescently lit office -- that experience becomes less and less common. Beneath all the hype, image, glossy photos, stickers, three-dimensional flashware CD-ROM animations and cleverly written bios that accompany most releases, it's the rare recording that resonates beyond the sixty or so minutes of run time.
Music From Rancho deVille, the first and only solo recording from Charles Sawtelle, the late Boulder guitar luminary, is such an album -- a nearly perfect specimen of both original and traditional bluegrass music played by the former Hot Rize guitarist and his dream-team group of musical friends: David Grisman, Flaco Jimenez, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush and former Hot Rize bandmates Tim O'Brien, Nick Forster and Pete Wernick are among the artists who contributed to the recordings. The album takes an inherently humble, democratic music and elevates it to a nearly transcendent level; Grisman's mandolin solo on a plaintive cover of the Carter Family's "The Storms Are on the Ocean," for example, sounds as if it were being played on the heartstrings themselves.
Of course, the album is backed by a hell of a story -- one that's beautifully told throughout the liner notes in short essays and remembrances penned by Sawtelle's friends and musical partners. In addition to providing fascinating information on each song -- and detailing just who is responsible for the many, many instruments played -- Wernick, fiddler/vocalist Laurie Lewis and others document how the alternately sad and inspiring recording came to be.
Sawtelle began compiling material for Rancho deVille in the mid-'90s, inviting friends to picking sessions in his Boulder studio of the same name, a space where he had manned the boards for a bevy of local artists including Mollie O'Brien, Bleecker Street and the traditional Celtic outfit Colcannon. This recording, however, was to be Sawtelle's first solo effort; according to friends, Sawtelle's personal shyness, as well as a minor lack of confidence in the commercial viability of his work, had kept him from pursuing a solo recording earlier in his long career, one that had seen him as a guitarist and vocalist in a number of bands, including the Drifting Ramblers, Hot Rize, and Charles Sawtelle and the Whippets.
Sawtelle continued work on the disc even after leukemia reared its ugly head. In 1997 he underwent a bone marrow transplant, an operation that halted the project only temporarily. Lewis says Sawtelle continued brainstorming ideas for the album even after his condition eventually confined him to a hospital bed: "He never stopped making plans for the album, having me take notes on who to contact about what to sing or play, even though his health was deteriorating rapidly," she writes. "His hospital room was often filled with music."
Lewis, who had originally shared production duties with Sawtelle, assumed full control of Rancho after his death in March 1999. She took over all production duties, working off the guitarist's instructions as well as notes and recordings, sometimes unlabeled, that she discovered in the studio. "I now see it as yet another gift from my generous friend," Lewis writes. "I hope you're listening, Carlos, and I hope you like what you hear."
Sawtelle would no doubt be pleased with the offering, which is certainly enhanced by the history of its creation but stands alone as a fine piece in any context. Last week, the effort was released nationally on Grisman's Acoustic Disc imprint, with all proceeds going to the Bluegrass Trust, a nonprofit organization that helps musicians in financial need. When you add that altruistic element to the mix, there's really nothing not to like about this album.
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Those who don't enjoy the ambience and tonal anarchy that sometimes characterize the efforts of local sound pioneer J. Frede may find something not to like in Necessary Discomforts, an evening of experimental music and media at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art Theater on Thursday, March 8. As the event's title implies, crossing the threshold between conventional music and something slightly more visceral isn't always pleasant, but it can be an interesting and ultimately rewarding voyage for the more sonically adventurous. Just don't look into the light.
Necessary Discomfort takes its name from an experimental noise program hosted by d.j. Gundaba on Radio 1190. This is the first in a series of planned collaborations between the BMoCA Theater and the CU-affiliated station, a mating that should delight fans of independent art and music, to produce plenty of blissfully twisted projects -- and scare all of the hippies on the Hill right out of their Berks. Thursday's show seems a fine way to christen the partnership: Frede, who most recently lent his talents to the Telluride Experimental Cinema Exposition as both an organizer and a soundtrack artist, will be joined on stage by fellow noise artists Terrorstate, Chris Aka, Matt Bonal, Locutus and Twine; Hermes Plane will provide projected visuals throughout the evening. Call 303-443-2122 for more info, and remember that pleasure often comes from pain.
Leftover Salmon might be a slightly more palatable choice for some listeners (even though the band's name isn't all that appetizing). This weekend marks the Salmon's second Front Range performance with the new lineup that debuted during a New Year's Eve performance at the Paramount; following the departure of bassist Tye North and drummer/percussionist Jeff Sipe, the fishy neo-grass outfit enlisted Boulder bassist Greg Garrison (ex-Dave Watts, Tony Furtado Band), drummer Jose Martinez and former Derek Trucks Band keyboardist Bill McKay. Salmon supporters -- who are already just itching for the spring festival season to kick in and the sludgefest to stop, already -- will find plenty of reason to get down on Sunday, March 10, when the band swims into the Fillmore.