This past Thanksgiving in Falls Church, Virginia, USA, I repeatedly played my new CD of the Gary Booker Ensemble’s Within Our House to my gathered extended family and friends. It was a big hit and went so well with the spirit of the occasion that some of my (modified?) memories of that day have found their way into this review. My wife is one of ten siblings and there were lots of people of all ages present. Outside it was a warm Virginia fall, and a thick fog rolled in suggestive shapes.
Issued in 1997, the record features strong choral work from the Chameleon Arts Chorus and superb arrangements for the Chameleon Arts Quartet plus an "unplugged" rock band. It was recorded live 'in England' at St Mary and All Saints Church. The easiest way to describe it would be as Gary Brooker’s unplugged outing, but it doesn’t really fit that because of the extensive choral work. At the same time it’s more truly acoustic than most unplugged sessions, which usually sneak in mostly amplified instruments, just with the amps turned to the "unplugged" settings.
The material seems like an odd combination on paper – early music, gospel, artistic pop, folk, rock and roll. In performance it sounds, well, divine. It includes a capsule overview of Brooker’s work, three of the most unusual and influential songs of recent years – A Whiter Shade of Pale, A Salty Dog and Nothing But the Truth. These are all in new arrangements that were made just as carefully and boldly as the originals. Then there also are two drop-dead beautiful songs, one less well known, one new. Add Mattachins, Linden Lea and Steal Away, and you’ve got a bunch of breath-taking music in one place. The diverse styles achieve unity because the novel instrumentation is made essential to each piece.
Pastime with Good Company – As this started things up my 10 year-old daughter’s reaction was to put her arms at her sides and do her best Irish hornpipe. I suspect some of the syncopated percussion here isn’t authentic to early music, but my early-music performing friends weren’t there and I could be wrong. It certainly gives the feel of pure Renaissance music. Mattachins and Linden Lea both beautifully maintain the sound of earlier musics.
Holding On – This comes as a bit of a surprise, perhaps because it’s the closest the CD comes to conventional contemporary pop (though it has the most politically radical lyrics). It fits in by gaining emotion from the spare arrangement.
A Salty Dog – If this had come right after Linden Lea it would have been an almost overwhelming "shock of the new" when Brooker’s bluesy, empassioned voice (darkened by the years?) breaks through the ethereal chorus. After thirty years it’s still a challenging song. The choir’s traditional pieties, chanted in Latin, only complicate that challenge. Did I say ethereal? Here and elsewhere Brooker (or Andrew Phillips, the chorus master) also makes dramatic use of the deeper voices.
This song drew the following anecdote from my teacher friend Jeff (early 50s, tweed jacket, octagonal wire-rims): "I heard them do this at Mile High Stadium in Denver, I guess '69. A lot of police, maybe even National Guard were out because of the crowd – lots of gate crashers, tearing down fences and stuff. So they tear-gassed the crashers and of course the tear-gas floated into the regular crowd. We all ran down towards the stage to escape the gas, a huge crush. I fell down, felt something under my hand, grabbed it and managed to get up. It was this huge joint I’d fallen on! What times ..."
The Captain cried, we sailors wept / our tears were tears of joy ...
Hide and Seek – Fine acoustic guitar. Robbie McIntosh is another of the great guitarists Brooker has always managed to find. You can see why he was drawn to Leo Kottke as well as the electric guys.
Within Our House – Quite a bit of composition went into this song, but it only furthers the emotion. When Booker sings "Lift your voice / and you will know the tune" and almost strains to reach the high note for "tune," it has all the heartbreak and promise pop can offer. Passionate hospitality. A little chorale is built into the last verse. Here, as in many of the Brooker / Reid collaborations since 1974 I feel I hear Brooker’s music and delivery doing more of the work than Reid’s words, but maybe they’re simple on purpose. When you’re inviting folks in you want to be clear don’t you? There is a bit of Reid’s old usefully fractured grammar in the last line, "live in Within Our House."
Steal Away and Gospel Train – Steal Away is a beautiful old tune and it’s to Brooker’s credit that he can put it next to his song without showing himself up. Putting these two songs together evokes the memory of Marianne Anderson. The choir shines on the first melody, but suffers slightly with Gospel Train. They don’t seem to have the forceful personality that would help a great gospel choir give life to this slighter song.
Peace in the Valley – I am a heretic in admiring but not enjoying Elvis, so I’ll excuse myself. Brooker does Elvis-voice. A pretty old tune, done faithfully. Thank ya, thank ya very much.
Nothing But the Truth -- The sound, invented in this song, of Art-rock meets Motown, gave New Wavers something else to do besides thrash for at least ten years. ie. The Jam / Style Council or Elvis Costello & Steve Naive (at least from Armed Forces to Punch the Clock). This arrangement is a masterpiece of adapting unusual instrumentation – with the shrieking violins and spooky organ interlude, the break explodes with drama.
The Long Goodbye – My praise for Within Our House could be pretty much repeated here. At our Thanksgiving I asked a brother-in-law his opinion of what was playing (this) and he asked if it was Eric Clapton. I said no, but it débuted on an album featuring him. The clearer, sparer arrangement does emphasise its bluesy nature, and I wondered if it was written with Slow-hand in mind. While being more melodically inventive than most pop, it seems to stay within Clapton’s more limited range, and its relatively short vocal phrases would fit his understated delivery. As with WOH, the choir takes the song higher.
Jesus on the Mainline – This rhythmic, country gospel song gets a huge boost from McIntosh’s guitar, which sounds like the young Ry Cooder.
Psalm for St. Mary – In the introduction, where Brooker starts by saying "I’ve done a terrible thing to Psalm 150" he really gets to sounding like a country preacher. The rampaging gospel song bursts forth accordingly.
A Whiter Shade of Pale – The sensitive new arrangement of this demands that the song be taken seriously in its new context no matter how familiar it is. It is still one of the most radical pieces of pop culture that one can encounter in daily life. There is a glorious choral fanfare at the end.
And outside our small house crammed full of people, past locked bicycles, the parked Volvo, black pickup truck, Suburban vans, battered VW Bus and other assorted cars that brought the people, the lovely fog rolled. It looked like the ghostly shapes of all the people in the world ...