Pat Donohue, |
Even casual listeners of NPR's long-running Saturday night show A Prairie Home Companion should know darn well who Pat Donohue is. He's been a central member of The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band for at least a decade. He's the one who stands in the middle of the stage behind host Garrison Keillor. (That visual cue will probably work only if you happen to have seen the show performed live, in season.)
A Minnesota native, Pat started playing guitar when he was 12 years old. He was named the National Finger Style Guitar Champion in 1983. (He had come in second place the previous year.) And the man and his fingers certainly haven't slowed down in the decades since. In addition to performing with Keillor and the Shoe Band on Saturday nights and traveling with them for special nationwide tours, Pat does his own share of individual appearances, recordings and teaching stints. He must have non-stop obligations.
Even in the beginning, Pat had a fascination with the blues. According to his website bio: "Though he considers himself foremost a folk guitarist, Pat's influences are rooted in bluesmen Blind Blake, Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters and Miles Davis. He manages to blend jazz and blues with folk, and the mix is seamless." It's all true. So it should come as no surprise that most of his original tunes have a blues base, both during "A Prairie Home Companion" broadcasts and on this CD.
More than half of the 14 songs here follow blues progressions and are lyrical lamentations about something that's gone wrong in life. The opening song of the set is a bouncy cover of "Ain't Nobody's Fault But Mine," which describes all manners of misdeeds. "Exercise Blues" describes an unsuccessful quest for keeping in shape. "Cold Winter Blues" focuses on living in Minnesota for half of the year. It also sounds as if it's about to lapse into "Sweet Home Chicago," but it never quite does. Pat offers a slightly funky version of the classic "Hound Dog" -- and when it fades out, you have to wonder if he and his band mates just kept jamming in the studio. "No Joke" is about being broke, told through verses that are really limericks. Pat's lead picking shines in this one. "With You Again" and "Louise" are both punchy songs that are wistful about lost love. The most raw blues tune on the disc is "Come Back Baby," a cover of Walter Davis's song from the 1940s. It too continues the blues theme of wanting and waiting for someone special to return.
Four of the selections sound like Sunday morning songs to me: light and easy ones, with quieter melodies that are as comfortable as lounging around in flannel pajamas. They too continue the running theme of longing for lost love. These include "Some Time," "Too Gone" and "You Haunt Me." The instrumental "Lonesome Midtown Blues" fits into this category too, in spite of its title.
Pat's line-up includes two terrific parodies. "Irish Blues" is a riff on the jig known as "The Irish Washerwoman." The lyrics talk of the morning-after consequences of spending the night before in traditional (i.e. drunken) Irish celebration. It's a real treat to hear the typical fiddle part picked out by an expert on guitar instead. And that's when you remember that Pat's last name is Donohue, and that he may have crafted the story in the song from personal experience.
"Would You Like to Play the Guitar?" is a solo parody based on "Swinging on a Star," the song made popular by Bing Crosby in the 1940s. It tells of the pitfalls of being a professional musician. It's funny and too true and a wonderful way to close the set.
I've categorized the cuts for the purposes of this review, but they're nicely mixed on the CD. Or you may choose to hit "Scramble" and mix them up yourself.
Pat is accompanied by some musicians familiar to us: Rich Dworsky on piano and organ; Peter Johnson on drums; Gary Raynor on bass; and Joe Savage on occasional pedal steel guitar and harmonica. Yes, in many instances, they've got that Prairie Home Companion sound. And that's not a bad thing.
I have only one minor complaint. I had hoped that "Guitar Camp" would be included on this CD. That's a song that Pat did on the show on Sept. 15, 2007. In it, he tells tales from guitar camp and interjects licks from some of the most famous guitar picking solos, like "Freight Train," "Classical Gas," "Blackbird" and "Stairway to Heaven." Except that he plays them like a beginner: fumbling and wrong. It's hilarious. You can hear it online at http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/programs/2007/09/15. But still, it would have been nice for one more comedy bit to be included on this recording.
This album serves to show that Pat Donohue is indeed a stellar musician in his own right. His style features punchy plucking and melodies that engage nice rhymes. He's fortunate enough to be kept in that fertile swirl of continual creativity surrounding A Prairie Home Companion. Obviously Garrison Keillor is not the only person who can come up with quirky and relevant musical parodies, as well as interesting new original pieces.
Nobody's Fault is a must-buy for any fan of A Prairie Home Companion or of the blues. It also makes for good long-distance driving music, with "Irish Blues" and "Would You Like to Play the Guitar?" spaced out far enough to give you some well-timed laughs or a few steady head-shakes to keep yourself awake. I guarantee that at least one of these songs will stick in your head. "Irish Blues" is the one that stays with me. Of course, it probably doesn't help matters that I keep hitting REPLAY whenever that cut ends.
music review by
Corinne H. Smith
7 September 2013
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