MUSIC: Martha Redbone Roots Project Plays Aurora

Friday, February 21, 2014


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So what is the verse of an 18th century English poet doing in the hands of 21st century American Roots artist? A lot more than you might think, especially in the case of the Martha Redbone Roots Project and their recent release, The Garden of Love – Songs of William Blake.

Aurora , a new venue in downtown Providence, was the site of a great show on a stormy Thursday night as FirstWorks RI welcomed the Martha Redbone Roots Project to town. The group, made up of singer and percussionist Redbone, her husband and musical director Aaron Whitby on keyboards, and guitarist Alan “AB” Burroughs, thoroughly impressed those assembled.

Redbone sang mostly from the highly acclaimed Garden of Love release, an album that made several end-of-the-year “best of” lists in 2013. For the project, Redbone and husband Aaron Whitby arranged all the songs to the words of the famed English Romantic poet, William Blake. She was described by renowned music critic Robert Christgau as “a major find,” making his top 20 list last year.

Honoring William Blake

Redbone, a woman of Cherokee, Choctaw, and African-American heritage who grew up in Appalachia, explained the connection with the 18th century English Romantic poet. “His words fit the imagery of Appalachia,” and the struggles she witnessed growing up in a poor community. She noted the similarities in everyday life Blake expressed in the poem, “The Poisoned Tree.”

I was angry with my friend,

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe,

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

After confirming that the audience was ready “for some Hootin’ and Hollerin’,” Redbone opened with “The Garden of Love,” the powerful title song from the new album. Little did he know it, but in a sense, Blake was writing in the American Blues tradition, using the double entendre quite effectively in the title song:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

Diverse Styles

Blending Native American rhythms, slide guitar, keyboards, and the melodica, the band weaved through a number of styles over the course of the evening. She sang beautifully on the waltz-like “How Sweet I Roamed,” a tune Redbone suggested Dolly Parton should record. An “a cappella” take on “The Echoing Green” followed. “The Fly” further showed Redbone’s range; it’s a country lullaby, featuring Whitby’s jazzy flourishes on keyboard.

Several original and covers followed including “Drums,” a song Redbone once recorded with John Densmore of The Doors. (It’s also been recorded by Johnny Cash.) The song is an indictment of the Indian Boarding schools on the early 20th century, a time when the US government tried to forcibly assimilate Native Americans. The lyrics are potent:

From the Indian reservation to the governmental school
Well, they're goin' to educate me to the white men's Golden Rule
And I'm learning very quickly for I've learned to be ashamed
And I come when they call Billy though I've got an Indian name.

Meeting Pete Seeger

I spoke with Redbone on the morning when the music world learned of the passing of Pete Seeger. Acknowledging his influence on her music, she befriended the folk legend at a WhyHunger fundraiser three years ago, where she “made him a cup a tea.” “He put his arms around me,” she noted, and then he led the audience in a moving version of “Over the Rainbow.” Redbone also marched with Seeger during the Occupy Wall Street movement. To honor Seeger, the band played “Eyes on the Prize,” with Redbone inserting a couple of lines from Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” Yup, she’s got range!

At the onset of the show, Redbone and the band promised the audience to “take you to church and bring you back home.” That part was easy; she’s an extremely talented artist and, as others have noted, well worthy of further attention. Her interpretation of Blake’s work is solemn but uplifting, reinforcing the universal nature of humanity. If you missed the show, we recommend the album!

Aurora is Born

Not to forgotten, the show was the first major event at the Providence performance space Aurora. The venue, on the site of the former “Roots Café,” will be managed by FirstWorks as a “cabaret and arts space.” It was an auspicious opening and we look forward to returning in the near future.

Ken Abrams reviews roots, rock and blues for GoLocal. He can be reached at [email protected].


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