DANIEL BACHMAN: RIVER (2015, THREE LOBED RECORDINGS)
This review originally appeared at North Country Primitive in December 2015.
There’s a good reason why Daniel Bachman is feted as a natural successor to fellow Fredericksburg native, Jack Rose, and you can hear it loud and clear on his latest offering, River. It’s not just the stellar version of Rose’s Levee he includes on the album or even that Rose was his friend and mentor, but simply that his playing has developed the same panache, joy-de-vivre and easy confidence that listeners came to expect from Rose at his best.
River is an homage to the Rappahannock River, which passes through Fredericksburg on its way from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic at Chesapeake Bay. Now, I’ve never seen the Rappahannock, but I can tell you this: on River, Daniel Bachman summons up such a vivid montage of images, he carries the listener straight to a Rappahannock of the mind. For a concept album, even more so one that is played entirely on solo acoustic guitar, to achieve this is no mean conceit, especially when the concept is built around as visceral a force of nature as two hundred miles of river.
The album opener, Won’t You Cross Over to That Other Shore, is a 14 minute tour-de-force and quite possibly Bachman’s boldest statement yet. There are four distinct segments, the first of which evokes a fast flowing mountain river in full speight - it’s choppy and fiesty as it crashes, swirls and eddies through the rapids. The playing is shot through with the ghosts of fiddle tunes soundtracking oldtime hoedowns. The relative calm that descends just past the six minute mark almost comes as a relief - here there is dappled light flashing through the trees lining the riverbanks. The water is lovely - come on in. Nine minutes in and the mood changes again - everything slows right down, the river starts to swell, but just beneath the surface is a clear hint that there is more to come. What is eventually revealed is a beautiful coda describing the slow, stately majesty of a broad sweep of water rolling inexorably towards the sea. The tune, meanwhile, could be taken straight from the hymnody of some half-forgotten Baptist sect.
Levee, the aforementioned Jack Rose cover, is all slide guitar and country blues shapes, as much informed by Led Zeppelin as the Piedmont. Unlike that of Page and Co, however, hopefully this levee will hold. The brief Farnham is gentle and resigned, coming over like an elegy to the aging remnants of a tiny rural community seeing out their sunset years a scant few miles from the shores of the Rappahannock. William Moore’s Old Country Rock is the album’s one concession to straight-up Old, Weird Americana, a gorgeous slice of Piedmont blues that seamlessly sits alongside Bachman’s own compositions and makes explicit the rootedness of the album’s regional themes. The two part Song for the Setting Sun brings contrasting interpretations of evening coming to the Rappahannock. The first is the more rural and bucolic of the two, while the second conjures up the end of the day in one of the towns sitting along the river shore, possibly Fredericksburg itself. The first is a small group of friends passing around a bottle as they sit close by the fire they have lit on the riverbank - when the tempo changes half way through to mark the setting of the sun, you can see the embers flying away into the night sky. The second is like a slow dance tune, couples coming together, drifting apart and melting into the darkness.
The only real difficulty with River is that after the sheer dizzying ambition of the opening track, the rest of the album seems a little slight in comparison - placing all your cards on the table as an opening gambit is a brave move, but where do you go from there without appearing to retreat? The other tunes are all strong and beautifully presented in their own right, but they cannot hope but be overshadowed by the epic scope of Won’t You Cross Over, which is perhaps why the album concludes with a reprise of that number. It’s a mere quibble, though: River is truly American Primitive in its intent and delivery - deeply rooted in the American vernacular yet never in thrall to it, with the line between composition and improvisation all but invisible to the naked eye. Bachman has stitched together a patchwork quilt of an album - look carefully at the squares and you can see the entire story of the river depicted in timeless detail.