Bob Snider is a musician you’ve never heard of, though nevertheless he has spent his life in music, playing in the streets of Toronto and in folk clubs across Canada. He’s also written two books on performing and songwriting, and they draw from his long experience reaching audiences. There is a lot of wisdom in those books—since he’s never gained fame, he always has to work hard to gain and keep the ear of an audience.
In his book “On Performing” Snider writes that for a performance to work “what you want is a clear, clean, simple unit that keeps moving.” He’s speaking about a set of music, not an individual song. “By clear I mean it should be easy to follow. In vaudeville they used to say ‘Tell ‘em what you’re gonna do. Tell ‘em what you’re doing. And tell ‘em what you did.’”
That doesn’t mean that you have to be simplistic or pandering, but rather you have to meet an audience’s trust with a sense of responsibility. You can take them anywhere you want, but you have to be the guide. That’s how the best performances work.
I’d add that that is also how the best recordings work. Rather than a collection of songs, they take the listener on a little journey. They used to talk about “programming” recordings, which was deciding on the order of songs. Still, even at that point, the songs should have been chosen to compliment each other, provide variety, and to make sense when set together.
And, indeed, these are the kinds of ideas that pop up when listening to the latest release from Jimmy Gaudreu and Moondi Klein, “If I Had a Boat.” Does it make sense? That’s an interesting question it turns out.
Gaudreau and Klein don’t have the same level of name recognition as some of the people they’ve been in bands with, but they’ve been present, in one form or another, though a sizeable portion of bluegrass history. Playing together is a recent thing, though that, too, has been impressive. Their first recording together, 2:10 Train, is gorgeous, including some unusual song choices that, nevertheless, really worked well. They covered a song that Linda Rondstat made famous, “High Sierra,” as well as Tim O’Brien’s “Colleen Malone.” Those were standouts, though the album was consistent: from beginning to end, it made sense. “Evening” was presented as a swing piece, and there’s a very playful take on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time.” Those two might have stuck out a bit from the rest, but they added variety and feel, and it worked.
Since then they’ve toured with Emmylou Harris as the opening band, and made a second album, Home from the Mills, that, if not as fantastic as the first, was nevertheless excellent. There is a care that went into the arrangements, and a delicacy of touch that was unique, to say nothing of how well the two played together. Like the first one, the sources ranged more than a bit. There’s Eric Bogle’s “Leaving Nancy,” Tim O’Brien’s “Rod MacNeil,” Bob Wills’ “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” and Alpha Rev’s “New Morning.” You perhaps haven’t heard of Alpha Rev—I hadn’t—and frankly that’s probably a good thing.
Like the first album, “Home From the Mills” worked because it made sense. It reflected the personality of the musicians, but it also was a work that could, more or less, stand alone as a testament to the breadth of North American folk music, and everything there was presented through that lens. “Red Haired Boy” was set next to Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” in order to highlight all the things they have in common, not the differences they share.
This latest recording, If I Had Boat, doesn’t work as well. The personality remains, though they’ve stretched the project too far. “Waltz for Anais” includes a piano that is strikingly conspicuous, and not in a good way, because it jars with all the rest of the things happening both in the song and on the album. It’s far too saccharine to support the mandolin in that piece, and otherwise draws too much attention to itself. “Grassnost” too feels like something from a different album, also because it includes a piano part that plays at being classical, yet only succeeds at being Muzak.
There are some other head scratchers here, including the title track, which is a cover of a Lyle Lovett song released in 1987. It’s bizarre, lyrically, which may have worked for Lovett, but it doesn’t work for Gaudreau and Klein. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Did She Mention my Name” is a nice enough song, but the version here makes you want to dig out Tony Rice’s. The vocal harmonies are strained and distracting.
Those diversions are unfortunate because there are some real highlights in here. “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” may not be a song that you feel you need to hear again, but you do, it turns out, as the version here is as beautiful as it is fresh and surprising. “One More Night” is the Bob Dylan song from Nashville Skyline, and it works well, as does the first track here, “I’m Always on a Mountain.” There are some other lovely moments in here as well.
As a whole, however, this album feels less like a journey than it does a tour of Gaudreau and Klein’s sock drawers. Each piece comes with its own intention, and I suspect the only thing that unites them is that they like them, have fun playing them, or are amused by them. The piano is an idea that they had in isolation, and the same is true of “Grassnost.” If I’m wrong, it’s only because the performers haven’t done their job: at the end of the album, I have now idea what they intended to do, what they were doing, and what they did. It’s just songs.