Imagine if bands could only ever play their own songs. What a drag. It would sure as hell make it harder to hook up at a wedding.
We’d also never have experiences like the Beatles doing “Twist and Shout,” or Iron & Wine doing “Such Great Heights,” or the Gourds doing “Gin and Juice.” None of that.
So lay off on the cover bands. Especially bands with taste like Beam & Fink, who release this week a selection of nine blues covers and two originals, fitted out with just harmonica and acoustic guitar. Done right, playing other people’s music brings the flavor of the past into the present. And Don’t Sell It is done pretty well, with production that’s just enough to emphasize presence and a performance that’s authentic without being idolatrous.
Is Mike Beam’s voice really that deep and gravelly in everyday speech? Likely not. But it’s not either some kind of guffawed belly laugh. He’s more of a forceful whisper, with enough musicality that’s it’s not monotone.
And his “Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor” is awfully heartfelt. Maybe you’ve heard Gillian Welch’s version of this. Or Doc Watson’s. But that doesn’t mean the sentiment is any less understood, here, or easy to execute, with Beam doing everything he can to be honestly broken down. Past desperation and into resignation: “Well I ain’t got nowhere else to go.”
Just the fact that “After You’ve Gone” caused me to find Nina Simone’s version of it makes me happy to have heard the record. Her version of the early twentieth-century traditional is transformative. A lesson in vocal command that any number of today’s yellers could bear: “You’ll miss the greatest pal that you ever had.”
Maybe the best compliment you can pay Jeremy Fink is that you hardly notice his harmonica playing. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, like David Rawlings backing Welch or Merle playing alongside Doc, never deigning to supersede, but performing ably when called upon.
You’ll notice that when Clapton played a song like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” back during his 1990s boomer-superstar hey-day, he needed about 10 band members to be unremarkable. Fink helps us recall the likes of Bessie Smith, who didn’t need half an orchestra either.
The simple fact is, you’ve got to Google to figure out which are the originals. Maybe once you’ve pegged them, “Rest Them Weary Bones” is slightly formulaic, and “More Than Just a Little Blue” has hints of irony, but there’s no way more than a few of you will pick them out on first listen. Rather, this is a solid 45 minutes of highly enjoyable blues, a mix-up of Delta, Piedmont, and a hint of Chicago.
BELTING OUT THE CLASSICS Beam & Fink hammer out the gamut on Don’t Sell It.
The pair pay homage specifically to Sonny Terry (harmonica) and Brownie McGhee (guitar); the instrumentation is right, but Beam & Fink aren’t quite as regimented. On classics like “Careless Love” and “44 Blues,” Fink brings a flavor of later rock licks, opening up his palette beyond the more rhythmic shuck and jive.