Brown Bird
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Brown Bird

Providence, Rhode Island, United States | INDIE

Providence, Rhode Island, United States | INDIE
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Breaking The Shackles & Making Music Their Day Job

Photos by Timothy Renzi

So it was that Brown Bird marched across the country, armed with a catalog of songs that tied the conditions of our present times to the great American Folk tradition.

Those flawless takes of soulfully picked guitar and banjo, perfectly cracked vocals, smooth string playing and surly percussion? That’s all recorded live and it’s just the two of them playing it.

It’s a hard path we walk as musicians today. Maybe it’s a measure of the current times that we have to carve our creative place out of a world full of labor that has no interest in the songs we want to sing. Or maybe that’s the way it’s always been. The challenge is to beat the labyrinth of obstacles placed in front of us year after year and earn our right to be heard, our right to fully and completely identify ourselves and be known as musicians.

The story of Brown Bird and the story of their album Salt For Salt is about earning that passage. It’s akin to the story of a seedling pushing through the concrete to greet the Sun it’s been chasing as the tree it was always meant to be. In the case of songwriter David Lamb, the seedling was the collection of lyrics and melodies that swirled around his head while he passed the long hours at the shipyard where he worked. Day-by-day, week-by-week, he’d trudge home at night to sit with his partner MorganEve Swain and try to make something grow. MorganEve, still with the dust of her own hard day’s work at a coffee roasting plant, watered each and every idea with her enchanting playing on the upright bass, fiddle or cello. The rhythm and thoughts that weave themselves through the working week, weave themselves equally through Brown Bird’s music.

Through the rigors of day jobs, teaching music lessons and finding the time to rest in between, Brown Bird somehow managed to add in three to four performances a weekend, all while developing and recording a great record. Hard work. It must have been worth it, because here they are. They’re free. They did it. They’ve managed to shake off the shackles of the working world and lift themselves into the life of full-time music. But how?

The most immediate answer is that they have remarkable talent. Listening to the new album is a transportive experience. In songs like “Ebb and Flow” and “Fingers to the Bone” you can hear the grease and dirt in David Lamb’s banjo as he fingerpicks away underneath the smokey hum of his voice. MorganEve’s vocal harmonies lend a warm feminine authority to his words of the workingman’s existence. Her rich bass playing adds an authority that goes even deeper.

MorganEve was introduced to music at a young age through a private instructor who taught her the ways of the violin through the Suzuki method, an approach to teaching that seeks to create generations of students capable of a high level of musical achievement while maintaining a ‘noble heart.’ One of the core values of this method is the importance of saturating a young student with experiences in a musical community. As a result, MorganEve found herself venturing beyond her home state of Connecticut at an early age to play fiddle amidst the vibrant folk scene in Nova Scotia. It wasn’t until convening with David Lamb in Rhode Island that she added the cello and double bass to her arsenal, providing the bottom to Brown Bird. As new to the larger stringed instruments as she may be, her sense of melody and rhythm are so strong that her thumping notes become the very thunder in the beat of the up-tempo ‘whistle while you work’ tunes that permeate Salt For Salt.

It’s natural to listen to Salt For Salt and ask MorganEve and David how many overdubs or musicians they needed to capture the sound of the record. This is where the most remarkable side of Brown Bird comes in. Those flawless takes of soulfully picked guitar and banjo, perfectly cracked vocals, smooth string playing and surly percussion? That’s all recorded live and it’s just the two of them playing it.

As it turns out, David Lamb started his journey into music through the drum kit, living in Rhode Island and taking lessons from family friend and Berklee professor, Joe Galeota. Through the years of living and working in Boston and Seattle, David nurtured a collection of songs that eventually became Brown Bird, a band that at one point boasted five members. At first sight, he offers a lot to study and wonder about. His beard adds age to a youthful and exuberant face, but it feels like it belongs underneath his dark, pondering eyes, permanently fixed in a slight squint. A sleeve tattoo on his right arm leads down to his hands where he has the letters to the words ‘Come Home’ tattooed to his fingers. It’s hard not to wonder what home he thinks of when he looks down at those hands every day.

The imagery of his lyrics evokes the poetry of the Biblical writings that have inspired him. That sentiment, combined with his exhausted experience of working at a shipyard, makes for timeless verses that are as pained as they are proud. In “Fingers to the Bone” he writes,

I work my fingers to the bone

Not a pretty little penny have I got to show

I ain’t lookin’ for much, just a little bit of rest by the side of the road

I lift my voice to the forces above

To the Lords of Labor and the Goddess of Love

Ain’t I been a good, hard-working, faithful, serving son?

So it was that Brown Bird marched across the country, armed with a catalog of songs that tied the conditions of our present times to the great American Folk tradition. They hit the stage almost every weekend night channeling songs from the Anthology of American Folk Music, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters. When they earned a spot at the Newport Folk Festival, they were seasoned enough and ready to capture the audience in front of them. Through the sales of their EP at the festival and the support system they garnered through their tireless gigging, they were able to scrap together the money that eventually funded Salt For Salt and their ticket out of the working world.

They’ll spend the next few months hitting venues in northern Vermont, upstate New York, Massachusetts and Maine. There’s no set CD Release Party and they’re not too concerned about that. This whole leg of a potentially endless tour is their personal release party and they’ll keep on doing it until, well, until it stops.

There’s not a clear end to the next chapter in the history of Brown Bird. They’re running from something more than running to anything. They’re leaving the struggling balancing act of work and music behind and hitting the road with a record so brilliantly simple and authentic that it bypasses any and all cynicism and heads straight to the heart. After all, how many readers of this very magazine greet every morning as a new day in an endless fight to claw their way through the concrete of the working world? David and MorganEve have been there and they’ve gotten to the other side. In a way, perhaps they themselves are the Lord of Labor and the Goddess of Love, setting out to spread the Gospel that you too can actually make it happen. - Performer Magazine


PAWTUCKET, R.I. - David Lamb’s tattooed hands tell a story. Fists clenched and held together, they spell out in block letters a reminder that he once needed.

“COME HOME.’’

Lamb got that ink at a trying time in his life, when he was restless and could use a moral compass.

You think about that tattoo and its message a lot when you listen to Brown Bird, the band Lamb started in 2003 as a solo project. Home could be anywhere. From its bluesy swagger to exuberant Eastern European string arrangements to visceral folk narratives, Brown Bird’s music is nomadic and yet rooted in things we all want: love, comfort, direction.

It’s surprising, then, that it has taken Brown Bird nearly a decade to attract the attention it deserves. Having weathered various lineup changes and with a new album out today, Brown Bird is finally poised for greater things.

“There has been a lot more momentum going for us lately, down to the very small details that we’re getting paid a little more for shows and around New England we’re getting a little more recognition,’’ Lamb says earlier this month outside the Met, where Brown Bird will play later that evening.

“Slowly it’s building and we feel like it has a lot more potential to be sustainable,’’ adds Lamb, with MorganEve Swain, his bandmate, sitting next to him.

Brown Bird, which is based in Providence after a few years in Maine, has indeed had a slow burn. “Salt for Salt,’’ released on the indie Rhode Island label Supply & Demand Music, is not the band’s first album, but it feels like a debut. Pared down from a five-piece to a duo, Brown Bird is now a band of economy with a potent focus that wasn’t heard on previous releases.

Lamb and Swain, who are 33 and 26, respectively, are a couple, not that you’d need to be told if you’ve ever seen them together. On stage and off, they impart a quiet but smoldering chemistry, and not just in their complementary nature of playing. Sometimes their mutual admiration seeps into performance.

During Brown Bird’s breakthrough debut at the Newport Folk Festival this past summer, Swain remarked that it was a shame the audience wasn’t facing the water: “You’re missing a really nice view out there.’’

Unrehearsed, Lamb couldn’t help himself.

“I think you’re a pretty nice view,’’ he said, and the crowd played its part in return: “Awww.’’

They conjured a big sound that sunny afternoon, which was all the more impressive when you considered it was just two people. On “Salt for Salt,’’ Swain plays violin (worked over more like a fiddle, though), upright bass, and cello; Lamb gets his kicks on acoustic guitar, banjo, and percussion.

“Salt for Salt’’ makes it clear that they rely on the other’s virtuosity. Swain, in particular, is a force on the album, a trained violinist who has taken detours into Celtic music, bluegrass, rockabilly, and country. Lamb meets her at every turn with his ferocious guitar work and a junkyard-dog howl that’s part Johnny Cash and a whole lot of Tom Waits.

As for their own shorthand for the music they make, Swain and Lamb still haven’t come up with a good answer. - The Boston Globe


Rhode Island folk duo Brown Bird’s Salt for Salt is an extended spiritual rave-up of folk and blues which rages darkly on, expressing the eternal human battle to remain relevant through conflict and challenge. This is the folk album for people who love folk music and want it to remain devoid of anything commercial, a blistering testimonial recorded live to tape, capturing the band’s emotionally rich, honest musical missive. Though you may think I’m bubbling over with unnecessarily florid praise, a listen to Salt for Salt in full will convince you I’m speaking truth.

David Lamb makes his mission clear at the start of “Bilgewater”, which stands as the album’s most thoroughly original work of folk gold: “When every day is like a war between the will to go on and a wish that the world would spiral into the sun / Turn your head toward the storm that’s surely coming along”. It’s hard to top that line for sheer force of will, but the album is full of great lyrical moments like that one, as the music— a rich wall of guitar, banjo, violin, double bass, cello and bass drum—combine to form a rich aural palate via which Lamb and MorganEve Swain choose to paint.

There’s a sense of gypsy influence, a folk-punk vibe to the arrangements throughout Salt for Salt, almost a merging of traditional folk with more left-field examples of folk alternatives. Vandaveer definitely comes to mind almost immediately on “Blood of Angels”, as Lamb sings hauntingly of an internal battle of good versus evil: “I drank the blood of angels from a bottle just to see if I could call the lightning down,” he sings. “It hasn’t struck me yet”. The upbeat nature of the arrangements belies the dark nature of the fate-tempting lyrics, and the song stands out as a prime example of what makes Brown Bird stand above any of their contemporaries.

But the album is made whole by the slowed-down simmer of “Ebb and Flow”, a bluegrass ode to tidal predictability, punctuated by half-note bass drum beats which makes the harmonized vocals stand out and burn like a signal flare. The song singlehandedly turns the entire listening experience on its ear, coloring what we’ve already heard in a way which demands a return to the beginning. This is one of those albums which rewards both close listening and repeated opportunities to hear the songs in succession, making each repetition rewarding in its own right.

An example of haunting classicist folk from artists who know what they’re talking about, Salt for Salt is hands down the best folk album I’ve heard this year, stunningly arranged and executed. This album is a spectacular example of what can be done within the framework of traditional music to push it into the headphones of a new generation, without falling victim to incongruous stabs of modernity. It also signals the fully-formed arrival of Brown Bird as a band you’ll be hearing a great deal from in the future.

8 out of 10 - PopMatters


Discography

Salt For Salt - released October 2011 on Supply & Demand Music

The Sound Of Ghosts EP - released April 2011 on Supply & Demand Music

The Devil Dancing - released 2010 on Peapod Recordings

Photos

Bio

Providence, RI's Brown Bird is better listened to in a room made of wood. Of course, it is easy to download the code and listen to the band on small computer speakers, but what is the point? You miss the warm layers of guitar, banjo, violin, double bass, cello, and bass drum (wooden rim) which hangs thick over their latest full-length effort, Salt for Salt, being released October 18th, 2011 on Supply & Demand Music (home to Dark Dark Dark, Vandaveer, etc). The album artwork (below) was illustrated by Will Schaff (Okkervil River, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Songs:Ohia).

Recorded live to tape in Pawtucket, RI, Salt for Salt is the first album by Brown Bird to capture the intense energy of the duo's live show, surging in waves that often swell into high-spirited, foot-stomping madness. David Lamb's lyrics are as well-written as they are emotionally intelligent, thankfully avoiding the pitfalls of the wish-wash known as "modern-folk" or "singer-songwriting". Lamb and his partner MorganEve Swain write simply, and the record is eerily sparse at times - a tambourine, a bass drum and the cello often the sole accompaniement to Lamb's (what a name) cracked, wood-smoke voice.

Brown Bird are also not afraid to write experimentally either. "Ebb and Flow" and "Shiloh" (the latter a longer, entirely instrumental track) each boast melodies worthy of a dervish, the melodic structure reminiscent more of Turkish or Greek rebetika than old-time or bluegrass. Lamb and Swain work beautifully together, with his banjo providing a backbone to a fiddle break, her harmonies a lonesome echo of the melody. But Brown Bird also know too much to be pure romantics; Lamb's continual reference to ships clearly come from his years spent working at the shipyard in Warren, RI, just as their arrangements well only from a deep knowledge of the American folk tradition.

Paring down from five musicians on their last album to the duo of Lamb and Swain on "Salt For Salt" resulted in some necessary instrument changes. Swain, a lifelong violinist, spends most of the album on cello and double bass, instruments she picked up in the past two years. Lamb has a kick drum and woodblock/tambourine rigged to a second pedal in front of him, using his whole body and voice to carry the rhythm and melody simultaneously. This new configuration propels each song forward with a blur of hands, feet and voices.

A cantankerous and drafty two-man ship stationed in Providence, RI, Brown Bird plays original, traditional American music in the best sense possible. It is music that comes from a context but is not afraid of the context: a living root with a view towards the leaves.