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July 1st, 2009 JEFF ROSENBERG | Music Stories
 

Beyond Blue

Woodbrain’s Joe McMurrian lets go of his ego to open up his sound.

     
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[PROGRESSIVE BLUES] Singer and guitarist Joe McMurrian made a name for himself around the Northwest with his quartet’s heady brew of blues, folk and rock. But now, he’s choosing to relegate that name to the background. The former Joe McMurrian Quartet is heretofore known as Woodbrain—a coinage plucked from McMurrian’s lyrics to “Broken Window.” That track appears on Swimming in Turpentine, the band’s debut release under the new moniker. It’s also the initial release under its new contract with Memphis-based Yellow Dog, a label that’s been a springboard to national recognition for Oregon blues artists such as Mary Flower and Terry Robb.

The name change seems to reflect a move from a leader-plus-backing-musicians hierarchy toward a band with four equal members, a direction those members say they’ve been moving in since first jamming together at the Eagle in October 2006.

“The change reflects the birth of this band, but we felt it coming a long time,” 41-year-old McMurrian says. “There was a completely organic growth period for about two years, and when we came to do the album, it felt like we’d gotten to what we were going for. ‘Somebody and the Somethings’ is kind of an egotistical play,” he continues, “and this entire band experience has been about a complete reworking of my ego.”

Another reworking is that, after some two decades of strictly acoustic playing, McMurrian’s taken up the electric guitar he once played as a youngster. It’s a revelation to hear him apply his acoustic dexterity to the electrified instrument—the kid-with-a-new-toy vibe is infectious. Even before the switch, the band’s more expansive moments were comparable to early Fairport Convention; now, McMurrian’s playing recalls Fairport’s Richard Thompson—another folk-rocker who approaches the electric ax with an acoustic sensibility. Meanwhile, rapidly growing into the mantle of “harmonica master,” David Lipkind—once resigned to a sideman role—struts to the fore as full-fledged band member. His interplay with McMurrian redefines the traditional roles of guitar and harp in a blues band, and Lipkind’s skill with the instrument and the various effects he tastefully employs seem to broaden the capabilities of the instrument itself.

Fans of the genre will eat this stuff up, but the music’s adventurous enough to also appeal to those who consume the blues proportionately with the other colors of the musical rainbow. There’s a possible pitfall in having such nontraditional material come out on such a blues-identified label as Yellow Dog, but hopefully potential listeners won’t write it off unheard—as Lipkind says, within the first five seconds of the disc, it’s clear this is a whole ’nother animal.

The band could appeal to the jam-band crowd, too, although its songs and arrangements are more concise and developed than many loose hippie jammers. But even on short, structured numbers, the members’ organic interplay somehow suggests improvisational space. Drummer Jimi Bott says the songs now include “jump-off and landing points,” so they can set off on instrumental excursions but return to the song’s structure without getting lost in the ether. Bassist Jason Honl agrees, “We’ve gotten really good at noticing if a jam is getting too noodly and not going anywhere. Any one of us can throw out a musical cue that the others will latch onto,” and return to the song’s structured elements.

Woodbrain’s rhythm section is elastic and adventurous, but still provides a steady underpinning. McMurrian’s use of low-tuned bass strings in his guitar playing frees Honl up for melodic excursions, and Bott audibly delights in being set free of the straight-ahead approach he became known for while playing with blues greats like Rod Piazza and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Speaking of his childhood love of the Allman Brothers’ expansive jamming style, Bott says, “I’ve never, in any band, been able to express that. This has really let me be myself. It’s an amazing thing to be able to play what you feel.”


SEE IT: Woodbrain opens for Robin Trower at the Roseland Friday, July 3, and plays the Waterfront Blues Festival at 3:30 pm Sunday, July 5.
 
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