Financial Times, June 29/June 30 2002
Live: Do Not Immerse
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"With her head." "Head!", shout the audience. "Tucked." "Tucked!"
"Underneath her arm/She walks the Bloody Tower." This is, indeed,
Bert Lee's old Music Hall classic, reinterpreted as a folk shoutalong, plus
a series of increasingly convoluted klezmer curlicues on the oboe. The
Philadelphia-based folk-rock band Broadside Electric write almost none of
their own material. Their gift lies in a magpie's ear for neglected
traditional material, interpreted extremely loosely, which can be twisted
into their signature clash of traditional styles.
The band grew out of the various colleges around the city, and retain an
academic outlook on life. They nearly split up at one stage, not because
of the usual "musical differences", but because its hammered dulcimer
player moved to Cambridge to pursue a PhD in Anthropology. This, their
fifth CD in a decade, kicks off with a paean to Ampère's Law.
(This is in the ignoble tradition of scientific humour, which is to say
that physicists are likely to find it extremely funny.)
Live: Do Not Immerse is intended to sum up the band's career
to date, though about half the tracks are new. It does display many of
Broadside's strengths. There is a song in Ladino (medieval Spanish) and
Hebrew, Mosé Salió de Misrayim, which recounts the youth
of Moses, with a yearning, melancholy violin line from Helene Zisook.
The last track, "Por La To Puerta", mixes Ladino with Turkish. The metaphors
run dense. "Komo'l dukado en el sarraf/Te Tengo kulaneado" ("I hold you
as closes as the banker his coin.") There is more virtuoso playing on a
set of reels, "A Rat In Her Pocket", Zisook's violin frolicking with Amy
Ksir on tinwhistle while Joe D'Andrea on drums and Jim Speer on stick
guitar-bass drop in and out with a driving rhythm. "Whorly Whorl" wallows
in bawdy, stirring in the old Morris tune "Postman's Knock". "Homeless
Wassail" highlights the band's acapella prowess.
There are also several curiosities: a chorus from Iolanthe extolling the
uselessness of the House of Lords ("They did nothing in particular/and did
it very well"), and what sounds like a corporate anthem for Swiss Railways,
"Mr Faare mit dr SBB".
The lyrics, in deepest Schweitzerdeutsch, embody a robust attitude to
customer service: "War nit mit ys fare wott/da blybt halt denn dahei"
("whoever doesn't want to ride with us can just stay at home".) The
band kick it along with plenty of oompah, but only the most dedicated
will want to hear it more than once.
What is lacking, perhaps, is more of the macabre medeival murder ballads
that are Broadside's specialty. (Hence the title of one of their earlier
CDs, More Bad News.) The sole one here, "Sheath and Knife", begins "It is
talked the world all over/The King's daughter goes with child to [i.e., by]
her brother" and ends predictably unhappily. Tom Rhoads sings it straight,
and the plain, repetitive melody weaves in behind him.
Humour serves Broadside Electric best as a leavening; it would be a pity
if they lost the courage to let their more serious material do its work.
Overall, though, Live: Do Not Immerse shows Broadside Electric
playing, in all senses, confidently. It is one of those rare live albums
where the listener has as much fun as the band.