“To me, it’s bogus that art can only be in museums. The real art is what goes on when people don’t expect it. My idea of a good time is getting in front of an audience and giving them more than they expected. That makes it a worthwhile, fulfilling thing to me.” – David Olney
Townes Van Zandt’s short list of favorite music writers included Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and … his buddy, David Olney. Obviously Olney keeps pretty good company, and deservedly so (except Eric Taylor once said, “Townes must have had a drink or two when he said Olney was up there with Mozart – Olney’s about as good as it gets when it comes to writin’, but he don’t sing like Mozart.”). With a career spanning more than four decades, he’s had time to polish his art to a fine shine. Whether performing blues, jazz, country, or folk ballads, Olney excels in them all – not to mention he can seriously rock. In short, David Olney is one brilliant artist – even if he doesn’t sing like Mozart. I am constantly amazed at what he comes up with next.
His latest venture is a unique series of thematic mini-album EPs on his own Deadbeet Records label, two of which have been released so far. Each EP consists of reinterpretations of some of Olney’s classic catalog tunes combined with brand new songs to create its own unique theme. The series capitalizes on Olney’s special talent for spinning a tale, which has made him one of the most original and impressive storytellers in the music business.
“Something happened. Back there all those centuries ago. Something not easily believed or easily dismissed. Two thousand years of glory and horror, of love and hate, of beauty and violence have only made those long ago events more murky and more enigmatic. But nothing comes of nothing. Something happened. The Stone is an attempt to address those events. From varying points of view (a con man, a donkey, a murderer and a soldier), a story is told. A picture struggles to emerge. Nothing is proved. Nothing is denied.’” (From the CD cover)
Newly released on March 20, 2012, The Stone is the latest in David Olney’s thematic mini-album series. The cover art and song titles don’t leave much room for doubt as to what the theme is. Although timed to be released just before Palm Sunday, this is not so much a religious recording as it is simply the telling of “the greatest story ever told” by one of America’s greatest storytellers. As Ray Waddle, columnist for The Tennessean, said, “Olney is a folk/roots/rocker who comes at his occasional subject of faith from odd angles. He writes about people on the periphery of revelation, witnesses rattled by a glimpse of the blinding light. Whatever the subject, Olney is likely to stay in touch with an ancient theme of the human story – a heartsick restlessness, a longing for homecoming.” The Stone follows this angle, approaching its subject from the outside looking in – in Olney’s words, “from the points of view of some of the peripheral characters. How did they respond to these events (whatever they were)? What in the world did they think was going on?”
Olney has used unusual perspectives in his songwriting before, most notably in the song Titanic. While the Titanic may be most often associated with the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee,” or Celine Dione’s hit from the movie soundtrack, “My Heart Will Go On,” Olney’s song is uniquely written from the perspective of the iceberg. It’s powerful, and it’s quite frightening in its intensity – just one demonstration of the talent of the songwriter who has penned these little mini-albums.
The Stone develops its theme over six tracks (three previous compositions, plus three brand new songs) cleverly arranged in chronological order to tell the Easter story, beginning with the journey to Jerusalem and ending with the missing body. Olney admits he’s sure “something” happened, but isn’t convinced it happened as it has been handed down to us. Not exactly the kind of stuff the Christian music industry would be interested in. Still, with the exception of the imagined scenario for the motivation behind Judas’ betrayal, the songs are not outside the realm of possibilities when stacked up against biblical records and Olney’s imagination brings a powerful human element into the 2,000-year-old story. It takes a huge talent to pull off such a project, and Olney pulls it off very well. Regardless of your personal beliefs, it will affect you – if for no other reason than for the sheer drama in which it is performed.
The opening track, “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” is a powerful spoken-word piece narrated by a con-man healer who “can’t make a dime” since a stranger came through town ahead of him who “has everyone convinced he’s for real.” A backdrop of Sergio Webb’s acoustic guitar steadily drives the music forward as the story unfolds. The song appeared on one of Olney’s earlier albums, and was also a hit recorded by Emmylou Harris. Next up is “Brays,” another previously recorded song completely reworked. As one might expect from the title, it is sung from the perspective of a donkey who triumphantly enters the city of Jerusalem as palm leaves are placed at its feet. The musical arrangement is impressive, with some ingenious orchestration consisting of a low, beastly, cello-like sound coupled with reverberating higher notes that struck me as being similar to what is heard in a donkey’s braying. The blues-rocking “Brains” picks up the pace with lyrics about the betrayal punctuated by a smoking harmonica. We are then brought to the upper room with the song, “Flesh and Blood,” the only song that isn’t from a peripheral character’s point of view. Rather, it juxtaposes the passover meal eaten in “a faraway place, a faraway time” with the present, where it is still observed and held sacred by believers. The track list returns to the periphery with the arrest, presented from the perspective of a thief and murderer in “Barabbas,” a previously released song composed in classic Olney storytelling fashion. The final track is the chilling and somber “A Soldier’s Report,” which recounts a Roman soldier’s reluctant report to his superior in which he tries to explain the disappearance of the body under his watch. It is a most effective ending to a very impressive mini-album.
Supporting musicians for The Stone are few, but more than adequate – Olney (vocal, guitar and harmonica), Jack Irwin (harpsichord, percussion and orchestrations), Sergio Webb (classical guitar), and Dave Roe (string bass). “When we started recording these songs, I thought they would be complicated,” said Olney. “More voices, more instruments. But the songs have a peculiarity to them that called for a simple approach. The sound is very minor key. Like a voice inside your head.”
The first in the mini-album series debuted in May of 2011:
“Downtown streets. Slick with Rain. Watch your step. Don’t talk to strangers.”
So says the blurb on Olney’s website about his first EP in the series, David Olney Presents: Film Noir. The words are the opening lyrics to its first song, “Frank is Gone,” and they set the stage for everything that follows on this five-song mini-album of ‘50s-‘60s detective music that artfully evokes that film noir atmosphere with “arrangements as smoky as Bogart’s ashtray,” as Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle puts it.
Indeed, this little mini-album drips with the atmosphere of film noir enough to wring it out like a rag. From the moment the ear catches the opening sinister-sounding riffs of a descending walking bass spilling from the speakers, the mind’s eye conjures up an image of a vintage movie screen where desperate and shady characters come to vivid life. We are introduced to characters like Frank, who abruptly skips town in a shroud of mystery, and to his girlfriend Gracie who “keeps the front light on” as she waits for him, but by the second track (“Blue Moon Hotel”) admits against a backdrop of a smoky, sultry sax that she thinks Frankie never made it. We get hints of a deal, and the double-cross, and we’re pretty sure who the man is who’s holed up in a cheap hotel room with just a bed, a blanket, and a pillow that amounts to not much more than a prison cell. Then there’s “$20 Serenade” about a robber who strikes up an amiable enough conversation with a stranger on the street until he pulls out a gun, but the tune is such a toe-tapper, it’s hard to get too concerned. There’s also a slow-grooving blues tune with a surprising and very effective muted organ adding to the mood set by the walking bass line and slow bluesy guitar strumming. Perhaps the best song on the EP is a remake of Olney’s previously released tune, “Sunset on Sunset Boulevard,” about a host of characters including an aging star who sips her martini and throws a glass at her TV as she shouts “those filthy swine have all forgotten; how dare they turn their backs on me!” The atmospheric ‘tinky-tink’ of piano keys from multi-instrumentalist and producer Jack Irwin, Jim Hoke’s smoky saxophone, and some very impressive finger-picking from guitar maestro Sergio Webb (who, by the way, is an impessive artist well worth checking out) provide just the right finishing touches to this gem.
Independent weekly newspaper Philadelphia City Paper included Film Noir in its list of Top 10 Roots Albums of 2011, stating, “these dark stories and their perfect small jewels of cool jazz must be honored for offering fascinating listening, both lyrically and musically.” I wouldn’t argue with that. Give it a listen here:
While these two EPs are radically different from one another thematically, they share a similar sparse and (for the most part) smooth and easy musical blueprint. That is not to say, though, that all of Olney’s 20+ albums are of this kind. He can rock to bring the house down, swing to a country stomp, and perform anything in between remarkably well, as his discography proves. (For those unfamiliar with Olney, I highly recommend starting with The Wheel or Omar’s Blues, two of his greatest achievements.) But as good as Olney’s recordings are, audiences virtually all agree his live performances are even better. The one word that is repeatedly used to describe them is “intense.” Few artists are able to so completely bring an audience under their spell as David Olney does. He is on the road a lot, both throughout the U.S. and in Europe, so do yourself a favor and check his website for the touring schedule to catch a show near you.
One reason for Olney’s ability to captivate a live audience with such intensity is his love for theatrics. When he sings songs about characters, he doesn’t just sing about them. He inhabits them for as long as the song lasts. “I think if I was ever going to do any other kind of self expression or artistic endeavor, I would probably be an actor,” he says. Along those lines, he has been publicly reciting classic poetry for the past several years and posting the performances on Youtube, where he is gaining a loyal viewing audience. Here’s one fine example:
As I said, I’m constantly amazed with what he comes up with next.
Kezzie Baker lives in the heartland of America and if there’s one thing she likes better than listening to all kinds of music, it’s talking about it. There are just way too many truly great artists that never receive the notoriety they deserve. She tries to do what she can to change that by spreading the word around to anybody who will listen.
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