The new country-blues: Rachel Brooke's musical alchemy
Bessie Smith and Patsy Cline were hitchhiking across Mississippi in the middle of the night. They caught a ride in a Cadillac driven by a college kid named Charles Carr. Fats Domino was playing softly on the car radio.
In the backseat, Hank Williams was already in a coma.
They rumbled through a sinister crossroads where two figures capered in the moonlight. Patsy said, "Hey, was that Robert Johnson?"
Bessie peered out the window. "Looks like the devil to me."
"Yeah, he's there, too," Patsy said.
If, from these swirling, out of space/time musical images, a new voice in country-blues should burst forth, it would sound very much like Rachel Brooke, who will appear with her band Wednesday night in New London's Oasis Pub.
They're out in support of her new album, "A Killer's Dream," which is the latest step in Brooke's incredibly evocative and narrative style of songwriting. In addition to the rich DNA of blues, honky-tonk and early rock, Brooke fuses her sultry melodies with a fantastic ability to spin stories out of three- and four-minute song structures.
"I try to keep myself open to everything that's going on around me," says Brooke, by phone from the band van last week as they headed east out of Cleveland. "Like a lot of writers, I can tap into emotions from personal relationships or things that happen to me, but more and more I'm sparked by random things that happen around me. I just try to grab any emotion or impression when it hits me and take it from there."
Such is the evolution in craft from Brooke, a Michigan native whose banjo-happy father introduced her to music early on, and whose self-titled debut album was written primarily about going through a divorce. Over time and exposure to a rich variety of typically southern music, Brooke's source material has indeed expanded. Not coincidentally, she's earned increasingly fervent critical and audience response for such albums as "Late Night Lover" and "Down in the Barnyard," as well as "A Bitter Harvest," a deliciously bleak duet album she made with Poor Bastards' vocalist Lonesome Wyatt.
If Brooke's material seems unrelentingly dark, it's not a reflection of her daily personality. In conversation, she's enthusiastic, laughs a lot, and is clearly happy to be out, traveling and playing music.
"I do think the songs usually come to me when I'm upset or sad or angry," she says. "But it's therapeutic. If things are bothering me, I put them in a song and then it's over. I can go back to being happy."
A lot of the material on "A Killer's Dream" was written just before another recent tour and fine-tuned on the road. It was so well-rehearsed, the decision was made to record "A Killer's Dream" live in the studio. In this age of Auto-Tune, generated beats and the possibility of hundreds of overdubs, recording live in the studio is an increasingly rare thing.
Did the looming reality of having a full band performing together - when a single mistake could derail a take - intimidate Brooke?
"Actually, it was remarkably easy and fun," she says. "We had just come off a tour where we were playing the songs every night, and then we went ahead and cleared time to rehearse them a few more days before the studio. It ended up being totally fun."
Perhaps it is that precise sense of musical exhilaration that gives a vibrant undercurrent to Brooke's oft-melancholy songs. She remains, at heart, a huge fan.
"We're always exploring stuff on the road," Brooke says.
She describes being in New Orleans for a gig and taking the time to seek out Fats Domino's house; she considers Domino a great influence and criminally overlooked.
"I just wanted to see where he lived," she says. "Unfortunately, it was pouring, driving rain, and there were flash flood warnings. We got to the Ninth Ward and the water in the streets was up over the tires, so we had to give up. But I like to do that stuff because I like the music and the history of the music and the people - and it's what makes me want to do what I do."
IF YOU GO
Who: Rachel Brooke with James Maple
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Oasis Pub, 16 Bank St., New
How much: $5
For more information: (860) 447-3929,
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