Paul Kamm & Eleanore MacDonald,
Calling on Love
(Freewheel, 1999)

live at The Palms,
Sacramento, California
(May 1995)

A few years back, Paul Kamm and Eleanor MacDonald opened for David Wilcox at The Palms -- a tiny, friendly venue that is literally a small barn tucked away on the edge of some relatively new suburbs that sprouted like weeds out of the rich farmland between Sacramento and nearby Davis, California. I had really been looking forward to hearing Wilcox, who is one of my favorite performers, and I had arrived early at this first-come, first-seated "concert hall." The Palms is as intimate a setting as you can find, with room for just over a hundred people in a rustic space so constricted that those in the front row can rest their feet on the edge of the six-inch-high stage. I'm a nut when it comes to acoustic steel-string guitars, and I had just ordered an Olson cedar-top like the one I knew Wilcox played. It was dangling impossibly far away at the end of a two-year-long waiting list, and I was eager to hear what my new guitar would sound like. But after I secured one of those coveted front-row seats, I saw that Wilcox's Olson and his relatively high-tech series of pedal-actuated effects were nowhere in sight. Instead, there was a simple setup consisting of two microphones flanked by at least two or three guitars (an Alvarez-Yairi and a Taylor come to mind) that were resting in their stands. I sighed in exasperation, realizing that I would have to wait through someone's idea of a musical "appetizer" before getting to enjoy the long-awaited main course.

My pique melted away as soon as Paul Kamm and Eleanor MacDonald took the stage, and began their set. This duo has two distinct musical signatures -- their vocal harmonies and Kamm's syncopated finger picking and strumming, which is every bit as recognizable as the styles of Norman Blake and Tony Rice, two of my guitar heroes from the bluegrass flatpicking world. Kamm's elegant work on the guitar provides the perfect support for his simple but lyrical melodies. Kamm's strong vocals are in turn taken over the top by MacDonald's soaring harmonies. I was entranced by their forty-minute set and when the break came, was pleased to see that they had a table filled with CDs available for purchase. While I was trying to determine which album to buy, I made the mistake of asking MacDonald which album I should buy if I could only afford one. She briefly favored me with a glance that instantly made me aware of how witless my question had been before kindly explaining that each of them were like her children, and she couldn't recommend one above any of the others. I wished that I could buy all of the albums but finally settled for Fields of Elysian, which had a hauntingly beautiful song that featured MacDonald, about an adopted child's musings concerning her birth mother.

I treasure albums that age well, and over the years I have found myself sliding Fields of Elysian into my CD changer again and again. It was therefore with eager anticipation that I unwrapped Calling on Love, Kamm & MacDonald's first recording in three years. My first impression was that the CD was musically very similar to Fields of Elysian (after all, these are the same two voices, backed by the same guitar). If I had stopped there, without allowing myself time to let the music and especially the poetry wash over me in repeated waves, I would have done myself and these two fine artists a disservice. Calling on Love is an album that not only wears well, it almost needs to be broken in -- although truth be told, it is the listener who is changed by the music, not the other way around. Kamm's compositions and the two songs the duo covers are performed with deceptively simple artistry. Kamm's lyrics are such beautiful poetry that they could stand alone, and with accompaniment and harmony added, they seemed to beg me to return to them again and again. When I yielded to this calling, I had a new understanding and appreciation every time. There are elements of musical accompaniment that I don't recall from Fields of Elysian, such as Alasdair Fraser's viola on "From Clare to Here" (one of the few songs not penned by Kamm), and the sparing use of piano, fiddle, fretless bass, other guitars, keyboards and "atmospherics" on other tracks. I particularly liked Fraser's fiddle on "Chasing the Storm."

There is nothing here not to like, but I did find myself wanting just a little more. Kamm sings solo on this album, and I wished I could have heard a number that featured MacDonald's beautiful voice. And while the previously mentioned superficial "sameness" dissipated as I came to appreciate the nuances of each arrangement, I would love to hear these singers experiment with vocal arrangements that were less parallel. These two voices would sound wonderful with arrangements that had them singing different lyrics at the same time, with melodies and counter melodies interwoven to create a broader palette of sounds -- a technique often used by The Indigo Girls. I want to emphasize though, that this particular desire for "more" dissipated considerably as I came to appreciate the intricacies of the arrangements. This is a very, very fine work. These "parents" have another precious child in which I'm sure they deservedly take immense pride. It is an album that I know I will treasure for years to come.

[ by Tim O'Laughlin ]