Monday, May 18, 2009

Bridges reviewed by Mark Thompson

Mary Flower
Yellow Dog Records
14 tracks/50:15

Mary Flower may not be a familiar name to most blues fans but those fortunate to have been exposed to Mary’s artistry are undoubtedly captivated by her talent. Flower started out as a folk singer in the Denver area. After attending a blues guitar workshop, she switched careers and developed her skills as a guitar picker. She has two “Top Three” finishes in the National Fingerpicking Guitar Championship that attest to her ability. Her strong voice is a dark-hued instrument that easily glides from to note without a hint of strain.

Having relocated to Portland, Oregon, Flower has called on a cross-section of that city’s diverse musical community for assistance with her latest project. The title refers to the structures that span the Willamette River in Portland as well as the mixing of newer tunes with the classic songs that serve as the foundation of the blues genre. Take a listen to Mary’s version of Emmett Miller’s “The Ghost of St. Louis Blues”. The backing from clarinet, soprano sax, piano and tuba pushes Flower’s guitar to the background as they update this obscure late 1920’s tune. “There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears” is another older jazz tune with Duffy Bishop and Rebecca Kilgore supplying excellent harmony vocals. Janice Scroggins shows her skill as a piano accompanist when she joins Mary on “Backwater Blues”.

“Columbia River Rag” is a solo guitar piece with Flower picking intricate patterns with an easy grace. Even more impressive is “Daughter of Contortion” a Flower original that updates the difficult Piedmont style. Her son, Jesse Withers, adds his string bass to “Slow Lane to Glory” and “When I Get Home I‘m Gonna Be Satisfied“. Mary switches to the lap steel guitar on both tracks and proves that she is well-rounded guitar player.

“Portland Town “ takes some good-natured jabs at Mary’s new hometown. Her voice rings out over the unusual backing of Courtney Von Drehle on accordion and Matt Vehrencamp on tuba. Flower is joined by an old friend, Tim O’Brien on fiddle, for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Up a Lazy River”. The two instruments engage in a delicate musical duet until Flower’s vocal closes the track with a spirited verse and chorus. Featuring O’Brien on mandolin, Von Drehle on accordion and Flower on guitar, “Blue Waltz” is a fitting closing number. The piece has an easy-going tempo with a hint of sadness. As the track unfurls, the three instrumentalists take turns moving in and out of the spotlight, weaving an intricate musical fabric while making it look easy.

As good as her last several recordings were, Bridges may be the best work of Mary Flower’s career. She has obviously found acceptance for her unique musical vision within the Portland musical community. Some listeners might wish for more of Mary’s stellar guitar work. Most of us will appreciate the quiet grace of this package Mary has put together. It is a moving collection that deserves a wide audience.

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