Roots singer-songwriter shows off his picking prowess.
I’ll admit I had not heard of Thad Beckman before this disc crossed my desk.
Best-known as the long-time accompanist to the fine singer-songwriter Tom Russell (who I am familiar with), Beckman has released a knockout of an album with lots of stylistic variety. He once described himself as a “roots singer-songwriter,” and that sounds about right. There’s a lot of old-school folk, country, and blues in his writing, and his slightly creaky, weathered voice (which has a bit of a tremulous Willie Nelson quality) gives his songs a timeless authenticity and gravitas.
Beckman is an excellent guitarist, whether playing spry fingerpicking lines, tasteful leads, or chopped strums. Most of these songs are dominated by acoustic guitar, but he plays electric on a few, and mixes in some Dobro. He also has a number of fine players backing him-I particularly like the contributions of organist Mike Emerson on three songs.
The title track is a world-gone-wrong blues with a slightly jazzy retro vibe. His classic lost-romance folk number “Stirring Up Some Ashes” has an almost slack-key feel. “Blues In My Blood” is dripping with country gravy, thanks to evocative steel guitar from Paul Brainard. My favorite, though, is a solo acoustic instrumental called “A Soldier Returns Home,” which starts out like a Mississippi John Hurt ramble, evolves into a guitar fantasia that has a mid-60’s Fahey/Basho/Peter Walker raga vibe, then moves into a Middle Eastern riff, before dropping into a subtle quotation of “Taps.”
This is powerful stuff, beautifully performed and exquisitely produced. Quite a find!
I first became aware of Thad Beckman several years ago when he began working as Tom Russell’s back-up guitarist. Knowing Tom as I do, particularly after 25 years with the great Andrew Hardin as his primary accompanist, there was no doubt in my mind that Thad would be a great guitarist. And he certainly proved that to me when I first saw them play together in 2012. Listening to Thad’s two previously released CDs, Me Talkin’ to Me and Blues Gone By, I also found out that Thad was a good singer-songwriter, and a particularly fine interpreter of traditional blues, in his own right.
As good as the songs were on Me Talkin’ to Me, released on 2008, Streets of Disaster is a giant step forward. Seamlessly working in blues, country and contemporary folk styles, Thad’s songwriting – and his fine performances – now seems classic and timeless.
“Street of Disaster,” the quasi-title track, opens the album. Using a traditional blues mode, the song is a compelling commentary on the state of the contemporary world.
Other highlights include “Blues in My Blood” and “Stirring Up Some Ashes,” a couple of country songs that seems like Merle Haggard at his best; “If Only My Heart Had a Brain,” a look back at romantic history set to a lovely solo guitar arrangement; “200 Dollars,” a witty blues tune in a Mississippi John Hurt mode; and “A Soldier Returns Home,” an extended, impressionistic blues guitar instrumental.
In addition to nine of his own compositions, Thad also includes a slinky version of Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues,” one of my all-time favorite blues songs (the original was included on Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music), in which Thad’s vocals are very effectively complemented by Mike Emerson on organ, Kurtis Piltz on harmonica, and Thad on electric lead guitar; and a terrific live duet with Tom Russell on Tom’s enduring, “Blue Wing.”
On his solo guitar and vocal album Blues Gone By, Thad Beckman concentrates on time-honored songs. Beckman works authoritatively in styles ranging from Charley Patton (“Banty Rooster”) to Brownie McGhee (“Sportin’ Life Blues”), including fine interpretations of Mance Lipscomb’s (“Ella Speed”) and John Hurt’s (“Spike Driver Blues”). He even expands his scope to include Merle Travis’ (“I Am A Pilgrim”) and contemporary David Lindley’s shimmering (“Look So Good”). Beckman’s own compositions are both serious, as in the reverential title song, and humorous, in the near-rock-‘n’-roll (“I Hate My Life”). With commanding yet understated vocals as strong as his finger-style guitar playing, Beckman crafts a quietly compelling set.
Thad Beckman came into my view in 1998 when the troubadour delighted me with the fantastic disk Carry Me Back. A wonderful record full of impressive folk and blues tracks. Thad belongs to the unique species of guitarists that can sing. He is a passionate performer who combines his tremendous guitar technique with very soulful singing; Beckman is sequel to Carry Me Back. A colorful record with which Thad displays his class yet again. The album opens with the sober, Woody-like The Land That I Love. Outlaws In Texas offers particular melodious guitar play and in the jazzy Death’s Rattle Beckman reminds one of Tom Waits. In the train song On That Train And Gone Thad grabs his National Steel guitar again. What a great guitar player he is! He also writes interesting and narrative songs. The beautifulSanson’s Song is an example of this. Goin’ To The Valley is one of those country blues songs from the best tradition of Mississippi John Hurt. The only cover on this album is the traditional country song Oh Death.
San Antonio Express-News
Former Texas resident Beckman now resides in the Pacific Northwest. He's touring with a new disc, "Beckman," that features a potent mixture of roots blues, country and folk. And Beckman does know how to make the combination work.
With a voice that rasps like shoe leather on roadside gravel, and a finger-picked guitar on which notes fly by like railroad ties under a fast moving freight, not to mention a long history of vagabonding behind him, Thad Beckman seems ideally suited to the wandering troubadour's tradition.
The Oregon native has been gigging around Austin for the past couple of years, but this is his first CD, and the portraits it paints are long on disillusionment, only occasionally leavened with moments of abandon. Beckman sings of lost loves (“When the Sun Goes Down”) and lost ideals, (“Song for JFK,” “Freedom Slowly Sets on America”). When sorrow’s coin turns to reflect a sunnier flip side, it is in sprightly blues-flavored tunes such as “Well Bottom Blues” and “Headin’ On Down The Road Awhile.”
Occasionally, Beckman balances the two emotional landscapes very nicely indeed, as in the lovely and wistful title track. Though he doesn't expand the wandering minstrel’s canon either musically or lyrically, he paints some detailed portraits (“Dust Bowl Madonna,” “Pretty Senorita,”) and turns a few nice phrases (“All them colors that I thought had died/ I can see ‘em shinin' right there in your eyes”). File "Carry Me Back” under postcards from the road.
The Austin Chronicle
Thad Beckman covers a fair amount of territory on Carry Me Back, taking his accomplished guitar and sincere voice and tackling tunes from bounce to blues, from Delightful Ditties to Deep Brooding Ballads. Witness “Well Bottom Blues” and You’re Just So Appealin’”: both are quirky fingerpickin’ songs that sound distinctly like the tunes that might pop into your head when you’re on your way to buy gumballs. Compare “Freedom Slowly Sets On America” and “When The Sun Goes Down”: Both are somber, almost sinister songs, heavily invested with a very basic despair born deep in the belly. While the disc does end with a measure of cheer, it’s the darker mood that prevails on Carry Me Back, with Beckman coming off as a vaguely gloomy truthseeker and self-described lost soul. Sometimes it works (“Song For JFK” is a somnolent and spacious gem) and sometimes it doesn’t (“Where Do I Belong?” is a touch over-wrought), but there’s scarcely a song on here that doesn’t carry a mood with it. Quite a few carry a growl as well. Solid stuff from a good songwriter.
Third Coast Magazine
World weariness, or perhaps, in deference to his origins, weltschmertz, rather summarizes singer-songwriter Beckman who came to Austin, apparently traveling on some hard, dusty roads, from Oregon. Resigned, or maybe just plain realistic, rather than cynical, there's a political edge running through his work, most obviously on “Freedom Slowly Sets on America” and “Song to JFK” and, taking injustice across the border, “Pretty Señorita,” though, while he's clearly a Guthrie disciple, he's also astute enough, or maybe just old enough, to observe rather than preach. Produced by Beckman with David Heath and Merel Bregante, who also play (bass and drums, of course) on most tracks, the album features appearances by Floyd Domino on organ and piano, Gene Elders violin and Chip Dolan accordion, among others, but, like bright ribbons on a scarecrow, they accentuate rather than disguise the starkness of Beckman's elemental visions.
You can feel the wind blowing hard across the plains listening to the opening track on Thad Beckman’s new album, “Carry Me Back.” Singing about a “Dust Bowl Madonna,” Beckman uses a phrase that he might apply to himself, “born to sing the blues.
San Antonio Express-News
Beckman plays an engaging blend of folk, singer-songwriter and blues music. Not everyone can pull off such a combination, but Beckman has chops, writing talent, a big personality and a bag full of true stories which all dovetail for a cool show. Check out Beckman's latest album, 'Carry Me Back', for proof.