Artist: Jack Rose
Album: Luck in the Valley
Label: Thrill Jockey
There was something close to the animalistic in some of the responses to Jack Rose’s horribly premature death at the age of 38 in the December of last year. This isn’t to say that all our responses to grief don’t involve some sort of pre-lingusitic animal reaction of course, just that in this case there seemed to be an undercurrent of pure animal expression – a reaching out to some part of Rose’s personality that defied or outstripped attempts at articulation. I didn’t meet Rose, but I can remember seeing him perform in the café area at the Green Man festival, a great bear of a man hunched over his steel-strung guitar in a light pall of rain. He played unamplified and was surrounded by a tense semi-circle of about 100 people, all tilting forward slightly in the gloom. It was as intense a performance as I’ve seen, Rose clawing at his guitar, producing a great thicket of sound, at times seemingly atonal and ragged, then spiralling into moments of near transcendent finger-picked beauty. As the set progressed, the crowd pressed in, drawn towards his heat. It was an extraordinary thing to witness, but it does seem to have been the way of things. He filled more than his allotted space, broke out and dragged the world towards him.
And now we’re left with this – in the face of such a loss, the frankly bleak task of laying an unfair weight on what is now a posthumous album. The temptation is to redraw the surrounds of this, map it backwards and go searching for sinews of meaning and tease out intimations of mortality that simply aren’t there. Rose was a prolific performer and writer, and in truth Luck in the Valley isn’t a remarkable record – it’s lit up by the depth of his passion and his at times ridiculous dexterity and talent for composition, but in the context of the body of his work it feels exploratory and is a further melding of what were his then preoccupations: the raga-inflected longer pieces that dominated his early releases and the raucous pre-war music he’d been playing both in a solo capacity (as Dr. Ragtime) and with the Black Twig Pickers – with a pointed lean towards the latter.
Luck in the Valley was in fact, loosely speaking, to be the third in a trilogy (which Rose had refereed to as his ‘Ditch Trilogy) – a trilogy which, along with his albums from last year with the Black Twig Pickers and the Dr. Ragtime band, was concerned with exploring the immediacy and spontaneity of pre-war music. It’s largely based on first-take recordings and revolves around rollocking rags and hoe-downs, 3 of which are covers of American classics (‘St Louis Blues’, ‘Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime’ and ‘West Coast Blues’), works by W.C. Handy, Blind Blake, and Dennis Crumpton and Robert Summer. The band itself is made up of a revolving cast of musicians including the incendiary Twig Pickers and the likes of Glenn Jones, Micah Smaldone and Harmonica Dan (what does he do?) – and as Rose had said in the past, they swing like a motherfucker. This is, for the most part, profoundly joyous, life-affirming music.
That said, the album does feature some of the ominous tones that Rose has explored from way back since his Pelt days, and that run throughout the body of his work. This is most notable on two tracks on Luck in the Valley – ‘Tree in the Valley’ and the opening track ‘Blues for Percy Danforth’, which will rightly be lifted into the pantheon of his best works. It’s a beautiful mix of picking and raga drones, and the key is how effortless it all sounds – those dextrous runs and the deep-pinned bass notes meshing perfectly into a whole that is so immediately the Rose sound that it near pierces the heart. As the track rises to its tumult and is met by a backgrounded jews harp and soft harmonica line you realise Rose, and his tight, tight band, were so in control of where they were going with all this that it seems impossible that there’ll be no more.
We wont talk of epitaphs and the like, for music of this ferocity and timelessness beats all that. Instead we should probably take it all in the manner it was intended – wild, on the way to some oblivion or other and reeking of animal sweat and joy.
Download: Jack Rose - Woodpiles On The Side of the Road
There was a lot of quite open grieving around the time of Rose's death, and some beautifully constructed tributes and paeans. One of the finest was David Morris's, over at Strangeglue. He also put together a fine radio tribute which you can still download.
Ethan Miller also put together a fine tribute, and included a download of a relatively recent Rose show from Fredricksburg, Virginia. The show features tracks from Luck in the Valley.
Jack Rose - Luck in the Valley
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