This CD/DVD double whammy reclaims important documents by my favourite embodiment of Curlew (George Cartwright, Davey Williams, Ann Rupel, Pippin Barnett, Tom Cora) from unjustified shadows. A Beautiful Western Saddle introduces, for the first time in the band’s existence, a set of lyrics penned by poet Paul Haines (an old objective for Cartwright’s admiration) and sung by Amy Denio. Leaving the analysis of the texts to those who are fascinated by this sort of revisionary act, let me tell you that the music was, and still is, fairly atypical in the quintet’s history. It does preserve all the fundamental features of classic Curlew: the awkward antagonism of the main themes, the incapability of missing a beat even in the most rhythmically tortuous fragments, the extreme flexibility of players who switch from composed parts to improvised sections with confidence and genius (hats off Tom Cora, wherever you are).
Denio’s charming yet vigorous accents, in union with a higher degree of structural straightforwardness, adjust the usual guidelines by attributing a distinct American flavour to the songs while magnifying orchestrations that sound - for lack of a better definition - rurally urbane. There’s more melodic open-mindedness in this record than anywhere else in the ensemble’s curriculum, and I bear in mind that this turn of events was reasonably startling for yours truly when it appeared on the market. Heard in the present day the project is warmly greeted and fresh-sounding, a one-of-a-kind experiment that deserves appropriate recognition (not to mention the elegiac magnificence of tunes like “Today” and “Human Weather Words”, or the hypnotic consequence of the minimalist “Paint Me!”). This writer stresses that the very best of Curlew lies elsewhere (Bee or Paradise being the personal suggestions, should someone need a first course). Make no mistake, though: we’re talking outstanding stuff here - no question.
If there were residual doubts about buying this thing or not, the “fuck yeah!” response might be brought out by the addition of the video material. The initial half includes The Hardwood – originally issued on VHS – shot at the Knitting Factory in 1991, a testimony of the tightness and energy of the original lineup, caught executing evergreens such as “Gimmie” and “To The Summer In Our Hearts” with the habitual perspiring ability of keeping the blood boiling and the fractured metres going (Rupel’s head-shaking trance and agile fingers are a must-see; she’s not playing nowadays, an awful shame for a great bassist and composer. Please come back, Ann!). The rest was recorded at Washington’s D.C. Space – also in 1991 – and is mainly based on Western Saddle’s repertoire, naturally with Denio joining on stage (and recklessly dancing with Williams in one of the DVD’s funniest spots). Given the rarity of the footage and the chance of appreciating the difference between the studio and the live renditions of the pieces, the somewhat rough quality of the picture is easily forgotten (it’s been almost 20 years, remember). This is the only way to observe this unique group in action from a comfy sofa, and that’s enough to warrant happiness.