Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Alison Brown

Today I am highlighting a very non-traditional selection. The music today is mostly jazz with enough Celtic thrown in and a nod to Doc Watson so I feel it appropriate enough- besides, I love jazz music played on a banjo so you probably do too. If you have been reading this blog from the beginning, you know I look for common ground in my selections. Where someone like Abigail Washburn bridge Appalachian and Asian music, Alison Brown bridges Appalachian and Jazz with frequent detours into the Celtic arena. Today’s selection is a DVD-


Alison Brown Quartet Live at Blair (with Joe Craven).

I know I have featured Alison Brown here before, her album Replay specifically.  Ms. Brown’s band is her on banjo and guitar, her husband Garry West on electric bass, John Burr on piano, Larry Atamanuik on drums and special guest Joe Craven on mandolin, fiddle and percussion (as the mood strikes him). There is even an appearance by her two young children in the show. (She seems to often bring her two children out on stage to perform a number for the audience. I guess I honestly have mixed feelings about that but it is nice to know that the next generation of musicians is coming along and getting used to the stage and the idea of performing.)

I first became aware of Alison Brown several years ago at the Merle Watson Memorial Festival (held each year in Wilkesboro, NC) when I saw Alison Kraus playing. I had heard of Krauss beforehand and so knew a little about her music, but what I had not heard about was her banjo player at the time- Alison Brown. From the very start, Brown’s playing intrigued and interested me because of how clean and quick it was. My first thoughts were that she must be a jazz player because she seemed very knowledgeable about music theory based on how well she apparently knew her way around the fingerboard in a way that many traditional banjo players might not. Her phrasing was sometimes lyrical and her delivery was confident and succinct. She had something musical to say and when she was done saying it, she backed off the microphone. There was no noodling around…searching with her. I don’t remember Alison Kraus much that night, my attention was focused on Alison Brown the whole time.

I tend to get a little distracted musically at times and sadly I forgot about Alison Brown for a while, but one day a few years later I ran across one of her solo albums and that first time I saw her play all came back to me. I bought the album and have never let her playing slip too far from my mind ever since.

As much as I love listening to CDs, when I can find a DVD of a band I like I always get it. Seeing close-ups and artful edits between cameras is always pleasing to me. Being able to see musicians expressions and silent communication amongst themselves has always been a fascination. That is why I was attracted to Live at the Blair. Musically and visually, this is a wonderful DVD. We see a wide range of music being played from jazz to traditional to celtic. My only disappointment is that most of the stage banter has been edited out. I have seen her band play live a few times and find her stage presence and banter very entertaining. This was especially disappointing because one of the songs in this concert is My Favorite Marsha and the story she tells about writing that is as funny as it is wonderful. The way I remember the story, one day Alison got a not from a fan saying that the person enjoyed listening to Brown’s music while at work. That might be pretty standard but the fan’s name was Marsha Ivins….astronaut! As if that weren’t cool enough, Alison got another note some time later from NASA explaining that when they send astronauts into space, they apparently contact them each morning with a wake-up song. Marsha Ivins was one of the astronauts in space at the time and they wanted to use one of Brown’s songs as the wake up song. She apparently got right to work and wrote My Favorite Marsha for them and she plays if in this concert.

Sadly, the story of Marsha Ivins is not on this DVD, but along about 32 minutes or so into it she does stop the music and tell the story of The Wonderful Sea Voyage of St. Brendan. It is in this talk that Joe Craven shows his amusing side and provides sound effects while Brown talks about rowing and albatross cooking and donut eating. The first time I saw Joe Craven he was playing percussion for David Grisman and his stage antics were always amusing just as his musicianship was always impressive. It was very nice to hear this and it gives a little indication of her stage presence and shows a bit of her dry humor.

My favorite parts of the show are the songs Crazy Ivan and I’m Naked and I’m Going to Glasgow. The latter song is actually a set of The Grey Goose, Ray Harvey’s, The Malinky, and Going to Glasgow. Brown has Celtic roots and her record label is deeply invested in Celtic music. She shows us here that she is a definite player of it too! Crazy Ivan is very impressive musically. There is a lot going on in it and everyone shines. It is not Appalachian music per se but it is impressive.

My recommendation is that you watch and enjoy this video.  People like Alison Brown are widening the public awareness and appreciation for banjo.  We need more of that.

Title: Alison Brown Quartet- Live at Blair

Location: Video-DVD- Level 4

Call Number:M1630.18 .L584 2009

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