Frankly, I’m amazed that Duluth’s Charlie Parr is not, you know, FAMOUS, or at least better known. Of course, it’s the way of the world that major talent can languish in obscurity for years, but Charlie has been at it for at least a decade now. His back catalogue is all over the place, between deletions, unavailability and various comps for different independent record companies (there’s even have an ‘Irish-only’ one, 2009’s Too Much Liquor, Not Enough Gasoline on Independent Records).
In 2001, he released his debut album Criminals & Sinners, followed by 1922 (2002), King Earl (2004), Rooster (2005) and Jubilee (2007). Glowing reviews for each release have cited the influences of pioneers like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson, as well as more recent guitar plucking virtuosi like John Fahey and Nick Drake. He is certainly firmly rooted in the worried old country-blues tradition of Mance Lipscomb and Bukka White, with songs marked by lithe 12-string finger picking, sinewy bottleneck shadings, the occasional cluck of banjo and a lived-in voice to match. 2008’s Roustabout saw him honing his craft even more, a process continued on his most recent album proper, last year’s When The Devil Goes Blind. That he is steeped in the music of the Old Weird America, found on collections like the field recordings by Alan Lomax released on the Folkways / Smithsonian label and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is obvious, a taste apparently formed at his late father’s knee.
All of which makes it slightly disappointing that the venue is so sparsely populated for this evening’s show. Sure, it’s a slow Monday night, on Parr’s two previous shows in this town there seemed to be more attendees at both of those gigs. Not that it bothers Charlie, who would probably play to an audience of two in his front room if he felt like it. He’s lost a ton of weight since his last visit to these shores in 2009, a development he attributes to quitting booze.
He kicks off with ‘Mastodon’ from When the Devil Goes Blind, and then alternates older material like the eerie ‘Cheap Wine’ and pensioner’s lament ‘Dead Cat On The Line’ from Rooster, with more songs from that last record, such as ‘I Dreamed I Saw Jesse James Last Night’ (dedicated to his father, a James’ aficionado). His freight-hopping father also features in ‘1922 Blues’ while Jubilee’s title track gets an airing, along with the chilling ‘Midnight Has Come And Gone’ from Roustabout. Covers include a grittily faithful reading of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1926 classic ‘Bad Luck Blues’, while the finale is ‘When The Devil Goes Blind’s startling a cappella take on the traditional ‘Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’, which has been recorded by everyone from Fred McDowell to Johnny Cash.
Also featured was the old gospel tune ‘Now Is The Needy Time’, about Daniel in the lion’s den, which will be included on Keep Your Hands on the Plow, a collaborative album between Charlie and his wife Emily, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, and Four Mile Portage, due for January release. Keep an eye out for it, and acquaint yourself with some of those previous under-the-radar Charlie Parr records. He’s the real deal, as this treat of an evening once again attests.