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Caged Shapeshifters
Story by Gary Alexander
Photos by Ray G. Ring IV

A review of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer and their
recent album Drum Hat Buddha prior to their appearance
at the Rosendale Cafe, Wednedsday, October 10, 2001.

  Related Links:     Article: The Dreamer and the Butterfly  
  Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer Website  
  Rosendale Cafe  

When you're part-coyote and part-hummingbird, you look a little different as the quality of light changes. Shadow and highlight may reveal other genetic ingredients of your form. Gryphons and centaurs spring to mind as your eyes attempt to focus in the reflecting pool and myriad other beasts with at least one part "man" in their constitution, spilled from a jiggle of exploratory DNA blending.

In the music of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, who will be appearing Wednesday night (September 10, 2001) at the Rosendale Cafe, we find another stage in the duo's metamorphic veer from acoustic obscurity to commercial clammor via their latest album Drum Hat Buddha. It is a bit like harkening to the distant, nature-wedded howl of a caged shapeshifter.

In one of his early books, William Irwin Thompson (who spoke recently in Woodstock), observed that "(t)he persistence of myth is irresistible, and though we have changed the content of history, we seem never to have altered its mythic structure."

As a songwriter, Dave Carter is sly master of the archetypes of American dream and myth and, lyrically, his instincts do not fail him on the new offering. Time and again his characters and thoughts emerge from the misted core of human imagination in all of its regional and situational variation. Merlin mingles amongst truckdrivers and biblical prophets stumble almost unnoticed past Murphy's desk in accounting while Saladin poses in a porkpie hat. The aspirations and oppositions remain ageless and liquid like the baseball player etched faintly into the centerpage of the cd's booklet, coiled in a batting stance, about to take a wack at the 30 foot serpent moving toward him.

In bringing his mythic heroes onto a modern stage, Carter injects human responses familiar to all of us, displaying a multi-leveled awareness of contemporary culture as acute as his grasp of the internal and eternal streams of perception upon which he navigates his canoe of poetry. Unnamed, specified or implied, Carter's protaganists are tenderly guided into the listener's sympathies where they can be "normalized" and cared about but the point is- he knows each of them as well as he knows us.

In Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, Mircea Eliade pointed out: "Critical writers have often pointed out modern versions of, for example, Don Juan, the political or the military hero, the hapless lover; of the cynic, the nihilist, the melancholy poet, and so forth; all these models are carrying on mythological traditions which their topical forms reveal in mythical behavior. The copying of these archetypes betrays a certain discontent with one's own personal history; an obscure striving to transcend one's own local, provincial history and to recover some 'Great Time' or other- though it be only the mythic Time of the first surrealist or existentialist manifesto."

At Falcon Ridge 2001, Carter's hair is longer
and Tracy's shorter as their music still enthralls.
Here, at an afternoon tribute to the songs of
Bob Dylan, they perform a stunning version of
"Farewell Angelina".
Carter's own discontent spurs his inspiration while his recognition that his is not an isolated malady gives him the wisdom to usher us all into the coach for the ride. Or, as William Irwin Thompson put it; "At the edge of history, history itself can no longer help us, and only myth remains equal to reality." Admittedly, such out-of-the-hat declarations leave much to be explained while his lyrics contain just as much which should not be "explained." Carter's comprehension of all of this, however, can be explained by a dedication to mythic structure (see article Dreamer and the Butterfly) predating the current minstrel cycle during which he rubbed elbows, however briefly, with the likes of mythmaster Joseph Campbell.

One troublesome drawback to the new album is the production "cage" into which it has been set. With some exceptions, many of its dozen beguiling songs are cast into unsuitable modes. The free flow of their catchy and would-be haunting melodies are diced by staccato unbecoming to their essence. It is much akin to the common miscalculations of a songwriter who brings his tour band into the studio to record without adjusting to the very different dynamics of the room or going back to the natural rhythms of the song's initial emergence.

In this case, because Carter and Grammer perform most often as a duo, it might be subtitled "Dave and Tracy Go Pop." Drum, first in title, comes out first in production as well, replacing the restrained percussion of previous efforts with snares mixed up to pop levels to sound like artists A, B and C demonstrating the pressure of chart wannabes stripping off individualities which don't fit the mold.

Rather than reflecting upon the considerable percussional talents of Lorne Entress, who graced the duo's Tanglewood Tree album, helping to make it one of the finest artistic successes of last year in any category, it might indeed reflect upon the habitual unconscious poise of playing to the crowd, which Carter and Grammer has seemed to do endlessly, crisscrossing the country in the past year, rather than playing to the song. That much is unfortunate in the more intimate dynamics of the recording studio and in relation to the qualities which distinguish their music as something quite apart from the mainstream standard. The subtle interplay of vocal and string rhythms which makes their sound so extraordinary is too often diminished or entirely washed out on Drum Hat Buddhah by an insistence of beat which plays like barbed wire around a patch of daisys.

On the positive side, the underlying songwriting soars and races, winds and involves, just as before and Grammer's exquisite vocal contributions increase their number of leads as her instrumental bracings shine on. Hearing these new songs in a "live" environment is a must for those who would follow the development of this rare musical team. They came to the Falcon Ridge Festival in the Hudson Valley from their Oregon base as relative unknowns in August of 2000 and delighted a surprised audience so dramatically with a much-too-brief afternoon performance, that they not only returned in 2001 as a headlining act but emerged as easily one of the most memorable highlights of the entire weekend. Hearing these songs escape the cage is an imperative for Wednesday evening. Come and catch the real source of this magic...

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on October 5, 2001

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