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Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt

The Wheelhouse, Wombwell
Sunday 6 December 2009

Carrie Elkin's speedy return to the Wheelhouse is testament to her popularity around these parts after her first visit to the venue back in August, that time appearing with Nashville's Robby Hecht. Tonight Carrie returned to this popular Barnsley House Concerts venue this time with partner Danny Schmidt, sharing the stage as well as songs from two vary fertile repertoires. Like her previous appearance in August, it was less about working specifically as a duo and more to do with two artists sharing their individual songs with one another.

The opening set was provided by local singer-songwriter Mike Hughes, whose Dylan influenced (On My) Way Back Home recalled the same sort of energy as Bob Dylan's 115th Dream back in the good old days. Popping in for a fleetingly short set before hot-footing it over to Sheffield for a prior engagement, the young songwriter provided an adrenaline fuelled set of self-penned songs including Saviour On The Side and Friends Again, the title of which apparently derives from a suggestion made by someone in the audience here at the Wheelhouse during Mike's last appearance in the Summer.

Mike has been making solo appearances in the area for the last six months following the disbandment of the local band he was involved with. With a strong desire to explore the storytelling element of acoustic music and performance, embracing the precedent set by the likes of Johnny Cash and Townes Van Zandt, Mike brought to the Wheelhouse his own brand of stories told with a clear, confident and assured vocal delivery, not unlike Stereophonics' Kelly Jones, but with the same sort of troubadour spirit as contemporary Americana songwriters such as Ryan Adams and Hayes Carll. Joining Mike for a couple of songs was Wheelhouse regular Dick Bainbridge blowing some harmonica on the songs Lost From the Start and Sweet Rose Mae. Judging by the standard of songs played tonight, the potential for this performer is nothing short of reassuringly positive.

Before tonight's concert I met up with Danny Schmidt in the comfort of the Wheelhouse, whilst Carrie Elkin wandered around the house in her 'jimjams', having inadvertently put all her laundry in the washing machine, taking full advantage of the Jones's kind hospitality. I pointed out to Danny that the Wheelhouse has been possessed by the spirit of Carrie's voice ever since her last appearance there in the Summer. "It's probably reverberating in the walls" Danny suggested, knowing better than just about anybody the quality and strength of that voice, which projects inexplicably from such a small frame.

That voice kicked off proceedings tonight, a voice that was just a strong as usual despite a recent episode of unexpected illness. Starting with Did She Do Her Best, which appears on Carrie's current album THE JEOPARDY OF CIRCUMSTANCE the two artists went on to alternate between each others songs with two outstanding extended sets. 

Danny Schmidt wasn't born with an acoustic guitar in his hands and discovered acoustic music quite by accident after forays into completely different spheres of music. I suggested that by the time Austin born Danny came along in the early 1970s, fellow Texan legends such as Lightnin Hopkins and Mance Lipscombe would have been coming to the end of their respective roads. "I remember their names and I remember seeing Townes' name all the time in the listings but at the point that I got old enough to be going to shows I wasn't really into acoustic stuff for quite a while, through my teens. It wasn't until I was about twenty that I really got into that stuff. It was right about the time when guys like Lightnin and Mance were passing away and Townes wasn't there as often, so I never did get to see those guys even though they were playing pretty regularly. I would love to go back in time and take some of those opportunities."

"I sort of worked my way back to it because I was a teenager and I was into heavy metal and 'shredding' as they say, sort of playing lots of notes really fast up and down the neck and that was the kind of stuff that first interested me and I'd go and see all of Eric's (Clapton) shows and read as many interviews as I could and I was into Stevie Ray Vaughan too at the time and both those guys were heavily influenced by Hendrix; they talked about him a lot in their interviews and so I looked into Hendrix and got into him and read interviews with him and he talked about who his influences were.I finally got to Chicago and various guys who had gone electric blues, the first electric guys. Some of those guys like Muddy Waters bridged that gap between the country acoustic blues; they'd started in that world and had turned it electric and that got me creeping back into the acoustic country blues. That's when I discovered Mississippi John Hurt, who just blew my mind, I really loved his stuff and that's when I got myself an acoustic guitar, I was about twenty, twenty-one. I didn't really look back from there. That kind of stuff turned me on a lot more than the heavy metal stuff."

That blues influence in Danny's guitar playing was evident tonight especially in songs such as Better Off Broke and Blue Railroad Train, both of which certainly owe a debt to the old blues masters such as Mississippi John Hurt. Elaborating on John Hurt's story, Danny spoke enthusiastically about his musical hero. "He has an amazing story, he really wasn't a professional musician for most of his life. He cut one B-side track when he was in his twenties back in the 1920s, the track he happened to cut was called Avalon. A couple of musicologist students were travelling through Mississippi, just trying to research some esoteric stuff and they went through Avalon, Mississippi and just stopped at the general store and asked around, assuming he was dead and just trying to get any little pieces of the story or insights they could from any of the old timers and the first guy they talked to said 'oh yeah, you wanna just go ask him yourself he lives right down the street." 
 
Such stories are not unusual even though we have come to know these old bluesmen very well through their recordings. Whilst British blues bands in the 1960s were introducing these old songs to their young audiences, the originators of this music were living in obscurity in the Southern States of America. Danny Schmidt was fortunate enough to come along at a time when much of this music was much more accessible.

During the Nineties however, Danny grew increasingly disillusioned by the music industry and in particular the business end of it, so much so, that he dropped out of the performing scene altogether for some time. "I still waver back and forth on how much I want to be doing it. There's a few elements to it, one is that I've never been that comfortable performing, I'm much more comfortable now than I was early on, it's not a comfortable thing for me to be up in front of people. Some people you can just tell, they just open up and blossom and turn on when they're in front of people, but for me it's a scary proposition and early on, a terrifying one."

"I'm good with people one on one or a couple at a time but when you're the focus of attention it's kind of nerve wracking but that's what you have to do to put a song out in the world and that part I enjoy. I love writing and I love putting the song out there and the only way to do it is to get up there and play it for people and record them. The other element is just the music business part. When you start relying on your art for your living it puts a lot of pressure on the art and takes a lot of the fun and passion out of it if you're not careful it can get out of balance. That balance for me in my dream world would be ten percent business and ninety percent art and the way it works nowadays in the independent grass roots world, it ends up being ninety percent business and ten percent sitting there with your guitar. Probably every hour I'm with my guitar I'm on my computer for nine."
  
Tonight Danny and Carrie were able to momentarily forget the business end of the music industry and do what they do best, in this case, to share their stories with a small but enthusiastic South Yorkshire audience. With recent songs like Obadiah, Questions About Angels and Been Meaning To Ask, together with older songs Berlin and the Dar Williams song Iowa, Carrie delivered another outstanding performance helped along by the occasional guitar fill and harmony vocal courtesy of her partner and soul mate. Honouring a request, Carrie once again performed a stunning version of Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, which brought out some pretty nice communal singing from the small shoulder to shoulder gathering.

Community singing is nothing new to Danny Schmidt who spent a good part of his younger days experiencing first hand an alternative way of life in one or two of America's surviving communes. "I lived in two different communities, I lived in a place called the East Wind Community in the Ozark Mountains for a year and then I lived at Twin Oaks Community for almost four years and that's up in Virginia. I quit college when I was about twenty-one. I discovered that these communities still existed, they were always a dream. I had a big group of close friends growing up and just had it in my head from very early on that it would be kind of dreamy to buy a farm somewhere and all live together, have houses very near each other and raise our kids together but I didn't realise there was anything that resembled that existed still, so when I did discover that I dropped out of school and spent about a year researching some of these communities before going to East Wind. I was drawn to the self reliant element, that we'd do a lot of things for ourselves, grow a lot of things for ourselves, build a lot of things for ourselves and maintain a lot of things for ourselves, we still interfaced with the outside economy but it's just a more connected way to live, things have deeper value."

Danny became good friends with the young singer-songwriter Devon Sproule at the Twin Oaks Community and later with Paul Curreri, who went on to become Devon's husband. It has to be said that Danny and Paul share a similar style of playing and singing. Danny recalls living in the same community as the young singer songwriter and later with both Devon and Paul in Charlottesville. "I've known Devon since she was about twelve, she was a kid when I moved to the community. I'd just started writing songs and she was just learning guitar and we both decided we both wanted to be songwriters I guess at about the time I left the community, she was only sixteen by the time she left and there was an informal community of musicians in Charlottesville and Paul (Curreri) moved to Charlottesville soon after that and was very quickly incorporated into being close with us."

Living amongst like minded people certainly had its benefits in terms of music and performance and Danny would take part in regular music sessions including 'Neil Young' nights. Danny in fact wrote a song called Neil Young which sounds to all intents and purposes just like an authentic Neil Young song and which appears on his PARABLES AND PRIMES album. "I don't play that live anymore. The concept of the song is that it's sort of a love song, a cosy afternoon with this sweetie and this Neil Young album going in the background and the guy in the song is fairly well distracted by the music, he's probably ninety per cent in the music and just ten per cent with the girl. I always wanted the production on that song to have the Harvest/Harvest Moon vibe in the background with the steel guitar and the harmonica going and so once we were able to create that in the studio the song felt really naked singing it without that."

Other songs however suit that sort of nakedness such This Too Shall Pass, Dark Eyed Prince and Stained Glass, again from his PARABLES AND PRIMES album, all of which featured in the set tonight together with older songs such as McCreary's Pipes from his earlier ENJOYING THE FALL album and Company of Friends from his LITTLE GREY SHEEP album. Newer songs from his current INSTEAD THE FOREST ROSE TO SING album were showcased tonight with heartfelt renditions of Firestorm and the lighter sing-along Swing It Down, proving that much of Danny's repertoire perfectly complements Carrie's in a live setting. I finally asked Danny about the poetic title of the new album. "It was a late addition to the record, the working title was called Serpentine Circle, the song from which the line 'instead the forest rose to sing' came from is called Serpentine Circle of Money and that was the one that I thought pulled the most threads together for the record but in some conversations with a friend I realised it had a sort of sinister sound to it even though the album doesn't. It's a little bit lighter for me and has a little more playfulness than most of mine, they tend to be sort of heavy and weighty and dark."

With six albums to his credit, I asked Danny whether he approached each album differently in order to create a different sound and feel for each subsequent album. "I try to treat each collection of songs in whatever way is most appropriate for them and if that means ending up doing exactly the same kind of production I've done on a previous one I'll do that. If what the songs are calling for is a much more stripped down approach I'll end up taking that approach. I'm not one of those people that writes with a concept for a whole album, it's more I'll look over the last batch of songs and themes will grow out of looking back at them more than conceptualising a theme and then writing songs that fit along that line."

Rounding off tonight's performance, Danny and Carrie each chose a finisher to conclude what turned out to be a landmark performance at the Wheelhouse, which I imagine will be remembered for a long time. Danny chose his song Cleopatra from his MAKE THE RIGHT TIME album, which has a suitable chorus to finish with. Danny then suggested that Carrie 'leave us with something pretty', which she duly responded to with a fine unaccompanied Amazing Grace admitting that 'sometimes it's hard to leave a space like this.' She's not on her own with that thought. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky