Recording of December 2016: Made in Brooklyn

John McEuen: Made in Brooklyn

Chesky JD388 (CD). 2016. John McEuen, David Chesky, prods.; Norman Chesky, exec. prod.; Nicholas Prout, Mor Mezrich, Max Steen, engs. DDD? TT: 65:03

Performance ****

Sonics ****½

The invite from David Chesky was simple enough: “Hey Robert, John McEuen, David Bromberg and a lot of other people are going to make a record in this abandoned church that a friend of mine owns in Brooklyn, you wanna come by?” Knowing the resourcefulness, not to mention good ears, of David and Norman Chesky, owners of Chesky Records, I soon arrived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to find Stereophile contributing editor Herb Reichert munching on cookies and listening through headphones to what was going into the computer. Ahh, that freelancer lifestyle.

Meanwhile, out in the unheated, poorly lit former sanctuary of what was, indeed, a half-dilapidated Brooklyn church—nothing like thick, decaying carpets to damp the sound—a group of musicians was busily at work, aiming to cut an entire album in two 12-hour sessions. The idea was sort of an enhanced guitar pull that would feature a group of players standing around a microphone, working fast, rather than just a circle of pickers sitting around pulling on jugs and strings at their leisure. The fulcrum around which everything was to turn was John McEuen, the longtime fiddler and banjo player best known for his years in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. McEuen also plays piano and guitar, sings, and writes songs, and, between NGDB and solo projects, has appeared on over 40 albums since the mid-1960s. He won wider fame as the tall hippie who, against all logic, led the charge for Nashville traditionalists and the Dirt Band to gather in 1971 to make the landmark three-LP collaboration Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

In preparation for Made in Brooklyn—which, in a brief conversation we had at the church and in a web story on, he referred to as “mature American music” and “advanced folk music”—McEuen began collecting favorite players and songs. For the former category he chose a gallery of players, all over 50, many of whom had never met in person. Most, like guitarist, fiddler, and singer David Bromberg, fiddler Jay Ungar (who composed the immortal “Ashokan Farewell”), and singer John Cowan, best known as the vocalist in New Grass Revival, all fit into the broad category that mixes bluegrass, jazz, folk, rock, and blues, and probably best described as Americana. Sparkly pixie dust was spread across the project by Steve Martin, a childhood friend of McEuen’s, who stopped by to play banjo on one tune and, according to McEuen, suggested the album’s title: Made in Brooklyn.

Although they rehearsed, particularly Martin, prior to recording, in the session I attended the method was to keep recording rapid-fire takes of the same tune until they had enough they liked that could then be edited together into a single master. The recording gear included a B&K 4100 Binaural Head, an MSB Platinum Studio ADC, and Crystal microphone cable. The three engineers, Nicholas Prout and his assistants, Mor Mezrich and Max Steen, managed to capture a very live, natural sound that in many ways harks back to the vocal balances and overall immediacy that the Carter Family records, for example, once had—though these sessions benefited from the better fidelity and expanded dynamic range possible with modern recording gear.

“The music John creates was made to be captured in one take on one mike,” David Chesky told me. “This is the way this music was meant to be heard since its inception. We are taking an aural photograph of a great genre of American music and preserving it for the next generation. John’s entire band was of the highest level. Steve Martin, while best known for being a movie star, is a serious musician who has tremendous history with John, was a great addition to the vibe of the session, and was a pleasure to work with.”

Next to the loose but very professional playing, the album’s strongest attribute is the eclectic batch of songs McEuen chose. I was lucky enough to be there when they recorded a number of wonderful takes of “She Darked the Sun,” a great song by Gene Clark and Bernie Leadon that Clark first recorded in 1968, for The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark. In more than one of the takes I heard, Cowan nailed it.

While Made in Brooklyn‘s great surprise is “My Favorite Dream,” a previously unrecorded song by the great songwriting duo of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the album’s most transcendent moments come when the players improbably launch into two tunes by Warren Zevon. Steve Martin’s banjo leads a bluegrass version of “My Dirty Life and Times” that is somehow a perfect fit. Then there’s the album’s murder ballad, Zevon’s “Excitable Boy,” which comes complete with the trio of female backing singers singing the same vocal arrangement as in the original. David Bromberg’s lead vocal in this number is another match that works beautifully. Hearing Zevon done in jaunty bluegrass style is an experience all Warren fans need to have.

While dropping the two mostly spoken-word performances—of “The Mountain Whippoorwill” and “Bojangles Conversation”—that close the album would have made it a better record, the ebullient DIY spirit captured in this jammy Americana, all of it beautifully recorded, sounds and feels better with every listen.—Robert Baird

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