Philo Records, 1976
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/29/1999
Ah, now this is more like it!
After a day of listening to studio-polished musicians and machines that are programmed not to play a single wrong note, it's refreshing to pull out an album that glorifies in a bit of grit.
Dave Van Ronk was one of the leading musicians of the folk music renaissancein the '60s and '70s. After growing disillusioned with the commercialization of the scene, Van Ronk tried his hand at retirement - something which didn't last too long. Almost as a slap in the face to what he saw as a decline in the folk scene, Van Ronk put out Sunday Street - an album of only acoustic guitar and vocals - in 1976. (The album has been re-released by Philo.)
Van Ronk is a singer who sounds like he gargles with battery acid - and I wouldn't want his voice to change one iota. It is that gritty, take-it-as-it-is sound that really captures his true magic. He also is one hell of a guitar player - more on that in a minute - who makes me want to smash my guitars in frustration, knowing I'll never play like he does. Simply put, Sunday Street is one outstanding album.
From the opening notes of the title track, Van Ronk lets you know that school is in session, and he is going to give you an intense education for 44 minutes. Van Ronk successfully captures the existential anguish of those who are waiting to catch one big break in life ("Sunday Street," "Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning", "That'll Never Happen No More"), but shows that there is more than just a glimmer of hope in their eyes. It takes something special to capture such raw emotion in song, and Van Ronk oozes that magic.
If all this weren't enough, he blows the doors off their hinges with two outstanding instrumentals. The first, a cover of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," makes me wonder how one person is playing this song. Van Ronk seems to dance around the fretboard, yet he captures the true essence of the classic ragtime piece. The other track, a cover of Jelly Roll Morton's "The Pearls," is another track which shows Van Ronk's mastery of the six-string. It's beautiful, it's outstanding... it's making me green with envy.
Whether it's the "double-dare" action of "Jivin' Man Blues" or the old, wise storyteller of "That Song About The Midway" (the latter written by Joni Mitchell), Van Ronk leaves no doubt on Sunday Street that he believes every word he sings, and puts his all into every single note he plays on the guitar. This is one of those rare instances where I wish that an album hadn't been so short; Van Ronk's talents are so great that I wish this had even been a double-album set, just so I could have soaked up more of his magic.
Sunday Street is an album that many people today might not have heard of - which is, as we call it in the business, a God-Damn Shame. Van Ronk is an artist who deserves to be recognized for the talent he is by more than just an underground culture. One listen to this album, and you'll understand why.