When violinist/fiddler Amy Farris, a native `Texian' (an ancestor, James Bonham, fought and died at the Alamo) and Austinian stopped into the Rudyard Kipling early last month as part of her tour promoting her debut CD, Anyway, she was the opening act for Two Dollar Pistol, which is generally de rigueur for a songwriter with a debut solo. She also was traveling with a single guitarist who wasn't Dave Alvin, producer of her CD and longtime roots rocker with The Blasters and X, so there was a bit of a question as to how the fairly complex songs from the CD would fare would solo voice, guitar and fiddle. Happily, it turned out that she sang every song note-perfect, while her fiddling was much more upfront in the mix (as it had to be) and that was even more happy-making, as Farris is a ferocious improviser on the fiddle..
The fact that a singer-songwriter can reproduce a record in performance is not all that noteworthy until it's noted that the songs on Anyway are exceptionally stylistically diverse. It also helps that she is a terrific singer, able to handle all the various styles she covers in this project Having listened to the CD for a month or so prior to her appearance, I had formed opinions about those songs, so it turned out to be quite interesting to be able to check my opinions against Farris' intentions. For the record (no pun intended), they matched pretty well.
Although this is Farris' debut, she has had a depth of musical experience to go with her twenty-five years on the violin, touring and/or recording with Alejandro Escovedo, Kelly Willis (for six years), Bruce Robison, Tish Hinohosa and Ray Price.
The opening two tunes, Bruce Robinson's "Drivin' All Night Long," and "Heading East," written by Farris, are pleasant enough but didn't grab me on first listen. It wasn't until I got to "Undecided," written by Robin Shavers, and arranged "after" French violinist Stephane Grappelli, that I really tuned into the CD. I confess to not thinking of Grappelli on "Undecided" though I did peg it for a Django-era arrangement. Duh.
The title tune, co-written with Alvin, is a classic Brill Building, pre-Beatles Sixties style song, complete with doubled reverb vocals, hooky chorus and Duane Eddy-ish guitar riff from Alvin.
That one is followed by "Pretty Dresses," also co-written with Alvin and arranged a la Ray Price. Farris' fiddle part could have come straight off any number of tunes from that era of Texas-swing influenced country music, played over a rock-solid, chunk-chunk rhythm section, plus steel. Yee-hah.
Then comes "My Heart's Too Easy To Break," which opens with a too-tasty-for-words guitar intro by Alvin that every roots rocker should learn right now. Farris' vocals are a match for the weeper lyrics. The break, during which she trades licks with Alvin, only makes me wish she had had a full band at the Rudyard show.
"Poor Girl" is a jangly guitar tune written and recorded by X's John Doe and Exene Cervenka on 1983's More Fun in The New World. Farris' interpretation has a boom-chick rhythm that launches the song into a radio-ready, sing-along chorus. From there, she moves to a mid-Fifties "girl singer" tune written Dan Marcus and Merrily Weber, "Hard To Say," featuring lounge-era style piano and brushes on the drums.
It's not everyday that you hear Jean Paul Sartre referenced in a song, and it's even more unusual to hear his name rhymed, but Farris pulls it off in "No Exit." "John Paul Sartre, down in old Montmarte, he got it right" is how it went. And it works. Honest.
"Big Louise," another piano-based jazz-trio piece, written and recorded by Scott Engel Walker of the Walker Brothers, is a two-tissue gem with lines like "She fills the bags `nearth her eyes with the moonbeams and cries `cause the world's passed her by." Sniff.
The final tune, "Let Go," is one that Farris described in performance as one to relax to, I description with which I quite disagree. Au contraire, I would have to call it an intense, naïve spiritual meditation, near to a Zen koan. Consider this verse:
"Stop all the hoping and waiting
The white light, the hunger and hating
Sit down and be nothing but air in a big, empty room.
It's good/ good enough to just sit there in peace
And the world can go right on without you
And forget what they want you to be."
Purty deep fer a fiddlin' Texas girl, ain't it?
>Find out more about Farris at www.amyfarris.com. You can order the record there, too.