Review By : George Douglas
Full disclosure: Duane Rutter is a friend of mine and I think he’s one of the best singer-songwriters working in Canada or anywhere else in the world right now. His first album Waiting Room was critically acclaimed and reviewed across Canada and beyond. This album, Never Bet The Devil Your Head, came out a couple of years back and the silence was deafening. The music industry in 2007 was vastly different than it was in 2011 and is different yet now, three years later. I’m writing this review in the hopes that more folks will check his music out.
Duane plays all the instruments on this album. Guitar, drums, piano and some xylophone too! It’s his masterful guitar playing that first grabs your attention. The song DW’s Blues has a Mississippi John Hurt feel to it and the picking is as good as anything Chris Smither or Peter Case has recorded in that style. The album opens with Ride With the Devil in which a mysterious hack takes the singer on an Ebenezer Scrooge-like journey through the past. Duane told me that he left that song off the original submission for mastering but Mark Logan at Busted Flat Records insisted he include it. It’s a good thing he did because it is a crowd favourite whenever he performs it now.
There’s a particular sound that comes out of Norfolk County, found north of Lake Erie and south of Highway 401. The Band had it, Fred Eaglesmith has it, Rick Danko had it in spades which is probably why Mumford and Sons chose Simcoe as a stopover for their Gentlemen of the Road festival last summer. I saw Daniel Lanois interviewed back when he produced Robbie Robertson’s eponymous album, and he was asked what vocal sound he was going for. Lanois replied “The Simcoe Sound, I wanted him to sound like Rick Danko!” Duane’s musical pedigree includes time in Ronnie Hawkins band and in another with Rick Danko’s brother Terry. He also played a journeyman’s share of cafes, bars and festivals in this area. With it’s intertwined organ, acoustic guitar and drums It’s Been a Long Time Since I Talked to My Marie could be a Band outtake, and for me exemplifies the Simcoe Sound.
On first listen Stalin’s Shoe would seem to be a series of poetic couplets: vivid descriptions of seemingly unconnected vignettes of small town Ontario or Ohio or Oregon. There’s a sense of weltschmerz and melancholy in the singer’s voice in this one and knowing that it was written in the time period when a horrible crime gripped my hometown makes it even more poignant. During this time an eight year old girl named Tori Stafford was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Tthere was an agonizing three month period between her disappearance and the finding of her body. All the police had to go on was a snippet of video showing a dark-haired woman walking with the young innocent near her school. Rather than a literal portrait or telling of that sad tale, Rutter stitches together images and scenes like a master film director evoking a feeling of unease and a murky portrait of the woman at the centre of the story. The song stands on it’s own without any knowledge of the back story yet is even more haunting placed in that context.
Patch of Green appears next to last on the album and is one of my favourite Duane Rutter songs. It is simple but deep, short but evocative. Like some Springsteen, Dylan or Neil Young songs, it sounds like an old folk song that has been around forever. That timeless quality ensures that those songs will be played and listened to for years to come. The song describes an old man sitting by his deceased love’s burial place. I was puzzled by the line, “The autumn moon is rising fast, while old Hannah goes down slow.” Duane told me that Old Hannah was what slaves picking cotton called the sun. A little web search showed me that Leadbelly sang a song called Go Down, Old Hannah. In the middle of the afternoon, when labouring beneath the hot sun, it would seem to stop above the men working, causing them to exhort it to go down, and end the day. Great folk music has a melody and story that stay in your head. This song has those qualities for me and taught me something too.
This album can be purchased through the regular digital means and if you buy it through the Amazon link on this site it helps keep Broken Jukebox going. For a physical copy of the CD go to www.bustedflatrecords.com I suggest you buy two and turn someone you like onto a great album.