Alive and Picking! – Brian Gladstone at His Very Best
by Gary Tate – Brian Gladstone continues to fascinate, not just from a musical standpoint, but also because he's become a role model by showing what can be accomplished through sheer force of will and determination. Alive and Picking, recorded live at Convocation Hall last February as part of Toronto's annual Winterfolk festival, is merely the latest installment in the unstoppable Gladstone snowball.The Gladstone master plan has been to expose his distinctive brand of quirky but compelling Folk music to as many people as possible. The manner in which he's done so is a story unto itself, but suffice it to say he has utilized every imaginable tool for tapping into as many sources of publicity and visibility as can be imagined (for incontrovertible proof check out www.backtothedirt.com).
Yet music remains the hub of his wheel, as Brian confirms: "(It's) the motivation for all my activities. All the other activities are merely a vehicle to get the music out there. It's my way to create my own scene, creating innovative channels to get my music heard as all the regular channels were grid-locked".
On that particular cold February night, the Winterfolk warmth poured out from the expansive Convocation Hall stage, toasting the chilliest of bones and creating a real sense of community spirit. It was a very special occasion indeed, as the full backup band was featured including sister Bonnie Piper on harmony vocals, Maureen Brown on drums, Alan Soberman on bass, and the exquisite guitar stylings of the estimable Tony Quarrington.
The result is an eight-song, 35-minute EP with an unadorned and freewheeling sound as un-amplified as the confines of a large auditorium environment permits. Precisely the way Brian – the master of lo-fi engineering – insists it must always be.
The playful, and oftentimes bizarre lyrics of "Betty Two Shoes" and "The Black Bearded Wonder" never get burdened by any over-the-top theatrics; they always retain their understated folksy charm, perfectly reflecting Brian's laid back personality. Making predictions may be the height of conceit, yet I'll go out on the proverbial limb and prophesize that "I Like Me" will go on to be Brian's most enduring creation, simply because its theme of self-worth strikes such a universal chord. It is a definite pinnacle on Alive and Picking.
The guitar plucking is a treat unto itself, so while "Caren 42" remains one of the most sensitive and mystical of Gladstone's compositions, it also acts as the takeoff site for some thrilling cascading guitar work, thanks to the superb acoustic interplay between Gladstone and Quarrington. I wouldn't mind spending an entire evening listening to these 6-string wonders just playing their respective instruments – much like they do on "Somebody Stole My Gal".
"Ashphalt Cowboy", the leadoff track, is another finger- picking extravaganza that takes sly delight in exposing the phoniness and superficiality at the heart of the Nashville myth. "Jamie Lynn" is one of 4 selections on Alive and Picking from Brian's exceptional 2001 release Psychedelic Pholk Psongs, which has garnered worldwide airplay and given him credibility as a top-tier Folk artist. "Jamie Lynn" is a special song about an exceptional woman who chooses the path of deceit and it leaves no doubt that when Brian's at the top of his game, comparisons to Dylan, Cohen, Prine, and Mississippi John Hurt aren't out of line.
Gladstone is an intensely personal writer, yet his songs are accessible to the listener because of his honesty, his dedication to his craft and his varied musings on a wide assortment of subjects. Combine it all with an intrinsic sense of melody, an always impeccable supporting cast, and it's little wonder his audiences are delighted on so many levels. It's this eclectic spirit that's at the forefront of Brian's very unique take on life and Alive and Picking confirms that Brian Gladstone -psychedelic pholkie – can also do it where it really matters: In front of the real pholk.