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Peter Rowan

The Rock, Maltby
Friday 23 November 2007

If Peter Rowan seemed a little subdued at the Rock tonight, the blame could be directed towards one or either of the following; it had something to do with him being in the middle of a UK tour during the current British November chill, or more likely, it quite possibly had something to do with the almost comatose audience. Normally a Peter Rowan gig throws the entire room into a frenzy of rowdy choruses of Panama Red or Free Mexican Airforce, but tonight, it wasn't to be, even though it was a full house.

Kicking off with a couple of songs from the classic DUST BOWL CHILDREN album, the title song first with it's high lonesome yodelling, swiftly followed by the haunting Tumbleweed, the room soon filled with the sound of one of the most recognisable voices in the world of bluegrass music. In terms of hero status, I place Peter Rowan right up there with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, although whereas these two artists forged a landscape of imagery through poetic words and music over the last four decades, Rowan is the 'voice' that very much belongs to that landscape and which has captivated audiences of Bluegrass music for the past three or four decades. 

After two of his repertoire classics to whet the Rock's appetite, he chose to entice the audience out of their shells with Panama Red throughout which I swear I saw through the corner of my eye one solitary foot tapping to the beat. I put it down to the cold. When all chorus-rousing attempts fail and the communal euphoria remains decidedly front parlour calm, then there's only one thing to do, switch to laid back mode. 

Rowan did this admirably with Walls of Time, which brought the essence of what we know as Bluegrass music to the Maltby audience, and not surprisingly, as it was after all co-written by Rowan and Bill Monroe, the creator of the genre. Having settled into a relaxed mood onstage, Rowan introduced a handful of new songs which left me puzzling over whether they were astonishingly good or strangely eccentric. The Jury is definitely out on this one at the moment. Skyscraper, My Cage and Chopping Down Trees For Jesus were at best full of ironic humour or at worst 'worryingly quirky' but enjoyable nevertheless. Of the newer songs, She Knows stood out as a potential classic Rowan song and one which I have been scouring for online since but alas to no avail.

I always place a lot of importance on the covers a song writer chooses for his set, not least to provide an insight as to what or whom the artist is listening to. Townes Van Zandt's To Live is to Fly, the Carter Family's Jimmy Brown the Newsboy and Woody Guthrie's Philadelphia Lawyer show precisely where his allegiances lie, with that of first rate American folk giants. 

For someone who has been around for so long, Peter Rowan has maintained a unique vocal delivery as well as a competent guitar picking style, and none of that has suffered as a result of the ensuing years on the road. Land of the Navajo has always been an audience favourite and features some of Rowan's Native American vocal pyrotechnics, and tonight he didn't disappoint. It's also always nice to hear the re-telling of the Free Mexican Airforce preamble, but I couldn't help feeling it was all pretty much delivered in a 'going through the motions' manner, which I can't really blame him for. I wouldn't like to have to go through that night after night either. It's almost as bad as Arlo Guthrie having to yawn through Alices Restaurant Massacree every night, year in year out.

After closing with Midnite Moonlite Rowan took a bow to some healthy applause. I'm certain that the audience were appreciative and attentive and I dare say most of them thoroughly enjoyed the performance, but the gig simply lacked atmosphere. Perhaps I expect too much.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky