Rani Arbo knows good music. As sole female member of New England's premier folkgrass roots combo Salamander Crossing, she was the stunning, crystal-clear voice behind some of my absolute favorite originals and interpretations of songs from the traditional to the popular. She was also founding member of honkytonk act Girl Howdy, where she lent her crisp fiddle-playing to a fun, authentic group of women that moved on without her before recording a lick. And, since the turn of the century, as the leader of Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, she's been consistently blowing the minds of those who thought folk-tinged bluegrass was nothing more than country music in disguise.
I've been lucky enough to have seen this amazing artist in small venues in all three of her musical incarnations. Over that time, I've seen Arbo -- who originally presented herself as just one vocalist/instrumentalist among several in Salamander Crossing's first release -- grow into a powerful vocalist, arranger, and bandleader, first tentatively, and then with the kind of easy, grinning confidence and control that brings her name to the front of the marquee.
There's a reason why reviewers compared Salamander Crossing's later work favorably to that of Alison Krauss and Union Station. But since then, as leader of Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem -- a band which also features fellow ex-Salamander Crossing member Andrew Kinsey and Arbo's husband, percussionist Scott Kessel -- Rani and her cohorts have gone far beyond the simple genre-work of Krauss. From their first release, each Daisy Mayhem album has spanned an incredibly broad spectrum of style, from honkytonk to folk to blues to bluegrass to swing -- and with the support of her powerful bandmates, each of whom contributes to authorship, arrangement, and leadership, Rani makes it all work exquisitely.
Rani Arbo's life hit a snag a few years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer just around the time she and Kessel became parents. During that time, Rani stopped touring much, and we moved away from the Northern Massachusetts region that Rani calls home; I haven't seen her live in a while, with or without her incredible band of musical cohorts. But now, after a four year gap between albums, Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem are back in swing. Critics love their newest release Big Old Life, which like their previous ventures, is a solid mix of up- and down-tempo traditional songs, originals, and just plain fun. (It also includes some sweet covers of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs.) I think you'll love it, too.
Today, a history in covers -- both in the hopes that you'll support Rani and the rest by picking up their catalog, and in celebration of an artist that, like the beautiful and ever-changing musical phoenix that she is, keeps rising from the ashes to shine once again. Listen for a range of musical styles, the playful stretching of a still-evolving musician comfortable in every mode from slow ballad to acoustic swing to the familiar bluegrass style made popular by Alison Krauss. Then listen again. Then buy. And repeat, ad infinitum.
One note before we get to the tuneage. There's a lot of music here today, but only because it was damn hard to keep from posting every song on every album. Instead of just going for the "popular" covers, why not try 'em all for once? I promise your ears will thank you.
- Salamander Crossing, Things We Said Today (orig. The Beatles)
(from Salamander Crossing)
- Salamander Crossing, Two Faces Have I (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
(from Passion Train)
- Salamander Crossing, Five Days in May (orig. Blue Rodeo)
- Salamander Crossing, Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow (trad.)
(from Bottleneck Dreams)
- Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Limo To Memphis (orig. Guy Clark)
- Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, I Do My Cryin' At Night (orig. Lefty Frizzel)
(from Cocktail Swing)
- Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, O, Death (trad. / Bessie Jones)
- Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Turtle Dove (trad.)
(from Gambling Eden)
- Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Oil in My Vessel (trad.)
(from Big Old Life)
- Rani Arbo, I Saw Three Ships (trad.)
- Waters, Moore, and Arbo, Nowell Sing We (trad.)
(from Wonderland: A Winter's Solstice Celebration)
Still wavering? To make purchasing easy, I've linked each album mentioned above directly to a purchase page at long-time Pioneer Valley folklabel Signature Sounds, which is currently offering their yearly artist sampler free with any purchase. This years sampler includes Winterpills, Crooked Still, new work from previously featured folkartist Peter Mulvey, unreleased Erin McKeown and more!
Today's bonus coversongs:
- Electric bar-blues band the Tarbox Ramblers cover O, Death
- Mountain music pioneer Ralph Stanley covers O, Death, too
Yesterday's bonus coversongs: