Like many artists looking to fill the gap created both artistically and financially by restrictions on live gatherings this year, Elles Bailey has also produced a lockdown “live” album (as in recorded and broadcast live but without an adoring audience present). There have been plenty of these over the year and like the experience of many home football teams, the absence of an encouraging friendly crowd can leave an empty feeling that sometimes impacts performance. However, cleverly (or perhaps driven by practicalities), Elles has avoided re-treading familiar ground and, instead, treated her fans to stripped-down acoustic versions of cover songs taken from two musical categories, roots blues and her favourite songwriters, or as she put it herself, paying “tribute to the writers & songs that have become entangled in my soul over the years”.
The difference between you or me getting the acoustic out and unimaginatively warbling our way through our favourite tracks and this offering is two-fold. Firstly, Elles is a fantastic singer. I’m undoubtedly biased as I love her voice. She could sing the proverbial phone book and it would sound good. It’s part of the wonderful mystery of life as to why we individually like different tonal qualities. In Elles case it seems obvious: she has a beautiful combination of sweet melodic qualities mixed in with the hint of a husky rasp that gives her all the power needed to give a performance the oomph required without having to resort to screechy wailing. While the music is stripped down to two guitars for the first set of songs, the subtle but precisely effective guitar playing by Joe Wilkins elevates these versions way beyond a simple strum through. His slide playing is superb, each note just perfect for these simple but thoughtful arrangements. Phil King on acoustic provides equally understated support as well, providing tight harmonies on the songwriters’ selection.
The selections are a mix of the familiar, Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”, Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover” and Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Border Song” etc with the less familiar (to me at least), Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” and “Crowded Table” by the Highwomen (given that they are a superstar country combo, it’s probably only me). Regardless of any pre-existing knowledge of these tunes, the versions here are all excellent in their own right; a testament to the quality of the songwriting as well as the exemplary performances. The substitution of Joe James on double bass as the second guitarist for the blues set gives things a different audio dimension (some great playing by him on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”).
I personally would be more than happy not to hear another version of “Spoonful” but listening to the version here proves that with the right, imaginative arrangement and a singer able to get the most out of the lyrics and provide her own interpretation, new life can be breathed into an old chestnut. Each of the 16 songs on this impeccable selection is a real gem. It may not have come about without Covid, but this is definitely a silver lining to that particular cloud. This is a very nice addition to the Elles Bailey catalogue (volume II would be equally welcome!).
Bluesdoodles Rating: Wonderful – Will bring added ENJOYMENT to your collection
1. I Remember Everything (PRINE)
2. Crowded Table (CARLILE, HEMBY, McKENNA)
3. Border Song (JOHN, TAUPIN)
4. You Are Not Alone (TWEEDY)
5. Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover (SIMON)
6. Mercy Now (GAUTHIER)
7. Angel From Montgomery (PRINE)
8. Love Me Like A Man (SMITHER)
9. Where Did You Sleep Last Night (LEDBETTER)
10. Way Down In The Hole (WAITS)
11. When The Levee Breaks (McCOY)
12. Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City (PRICE, WALSH)
13. No Mercy In This Land (HARPER)
14. Spoonful (DIXON)
15. For What It’s Worth (STILLS)
16. You Can’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover (DIXON)