Kate Long & Robin Kessinger,
What We Do
(Onward & Sideways, 2008)

What We Do is exactly what it says: what they -- Kate Long and Robin Kessinger -- do in concert, in this instance at a county arts center in Elkins, West Virginia. They sing Appalachian folk songs and Long's in-the-tradition originals, including her haunting "Who'll Watch the Homeplace?" -- covered with good reason by a number of folk singers and bluegrass bands. They also tell jokes and stories, preserved here.

From the evidence of this recording, a Long/Kessinger concert must be an agreeable experience. A recording and a concert have different requirements, however. The former is intended for repeated listening, the latter for single exposure. Consequently, jokes that were funny and anecdotes that were engaging the first time soon lose their charm, since they depend on the element of surprise, there to be encountered just once. I wonder if this CD is intended for concert, club and festival operators from whom Long and Kessinger are seeking gigs. As in, "Here's what we do." Well, were I one of the just-mentioned, I'd hire them. And as for the rest of us impatient with the talking, modern technology provides the cure: after you've heard the CD, rip the songs into your computer software.

Long, a unique vocalist, boasts a lilting alto that, while not calling up the hard nasal tones of mountain performance, manages to sound authentic enough in its own way. It is a splendid instrument that will not be mistaken for anybody else's, its range used to devastating comic effect in her "Lift Me to Heaven Before I Turn Mean," which wickedly parodies two staples of rural songcraft: gospel tunes and odes to Mother. Another highlight is the medley of the centuries-old ballad "Barbry Allen" and Long's rewrite "Forget Barbry Allen," inspired by her frustration with the original's ending. (I sympathize. My friend Robin Williams and I once did the same with an Irish ballad with what we judged to be an unacceptably dopey conclusion. Our rewrite, which took on a life of its own, is now often mistaken for traditional.)

An award-winning flat-picker who is also an effective singer (especially so on the duet arrangement of "Lift Up," which sounds almost like a medieval hymn but is actually a Long composition), Kessinger hails from a family well known to devotees of mountain music. His uncle was the legendary fiddler Clark Kessinger, who recorded for Folkways and other labels. The accompaniment is Kessinger's lead guitar and Long's rhythm, no fuss, nothing fancy, and all that's needed. Even so, the instrumental "Cottage Hill" (credited to Kenny Sidle) is a genuine tour de force, and "Cooley's Reel" and "Cincinnati Rag" soar.

review by
Jerome Clark

7 February 2009

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