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Sass and stomp
Sarah Borges finds her roots, plus Jimmy Ryanís new Hayride
BY JONATHAN PERRY
Related Links

Sarah Borges's official Web site

Jimmy Ryanís official Web site

Nick Zaino review's Jimmy Ryan's Lost Diamond Angel

Before sheíd even unpacked her bags on arriving in Boston in the mid í90s, aspiring singer-songwriter Sarah Borges took the T to Somerville, bound for the legendary Fort Apache Studios on Camp Street. Despite being told by a traffic cop that there was no Camp Street in the vicinity, she ferreted out the site. She stood outside and listened. "I could hear somebody playing in there, like drums going," she recalls. "And I was thinking, ĎIím gonna make a damn record there.í And years later, I made the record. Ask and ye shall receive."

Even though this promising twang-and-torch singer began her musical apprenticeship as a teenage indie-rocker, you get the impression she always knew what and where she wanted to be and how to get there. Recorded at whatís now known as Camp Street Studio, Silver City (Blue Corn Music) signals her arrival. Borgesís genial homespun charm on stage ó recently on display at her sold-out Lizard Lounge CD-release party ó and her breezily exuberant manner off it attest to an artist whoís both a seasoned performer and a fresh talent.

"I feel like Iím so new to this even though Iíve been playing in Boston for 10 years," she says over beers at the Middle East bakery. "Everything is happening in such a different way than it has in other bands Iíve played in. But Iíve never made a record before, and I have no idea whatís supposed to happen."

Whatís happening is this: Silver City, a sassy, brassy slab of heartthrob C&W swing, soul, and sulk, has in one bold stroke all but cemented the 26-year-old Taunton nativeís place in the thriving local roots-music scene. Its linchpin is Borgesís crystalline voice (placed front and center in Camp Street engineer Paul Q. Kolderieís warmly burnished mix), which ó much like her home townís main industry (hence the albumís title) ó is the aural equivalent of silver, with slivered streaks of amber and gold that seep and snake through ballads like the drinkerís lament "Ring in the Shape of a Heart" and the regal pedal-steel-and-mandolin weeper "Pious Proud." Instrumentation for the latter comes courtesy of mandolin master Jimmy Ryan (whose own EP-release party Borges opens tonight, April 28, at T.T. the Bearís Place) and pedal-steel specialist Steve Malone, who also performs with the Confidence Men, Jake Brennanís band. Brennan is Borgesís boyfriend, and her backing band amounts to a version of the Confidence Men, with lead guitarist Russell Chudnofsky, bassist Binky, and drummer Rob Dulaney all being Confidence members.

The circumstances suited Borges. "We had the luxury of not having anyone to make it for. There was no label at the beginning. Paul said, ĎLetís just do some demos and see how it goes.í And we did five, and he said, ĎLetís do three more,í and we did those, and he said, ĎNow we almost have a record, so letís finish it up.í " It was only after a mutual acquaintance told Texas-based Blue Corn Music label head Denby Auble about the Northern singer with the Southern sound that Auble flew from Houston to Boston last summer for a private showcase. Within a day, Borges had a record deal.

The sound of Silver City marks a dramatic shift from the six years Borges spent fronting the noisy indie-pop outfit Kipper Tin. Brennan himself went from punk rock ó he led Cast Iron Hike ó to roots rock, and Binky used to play with local garage-rockers the Banjo Spiders. (Spiders guitarist Eric Barlow is also a member of the Confidence Men.) "I had never heard the Flying Burrito Brothers," says Borges, who duetted with Brennan on a cover of the Burritosí "Sin City" at her CD-release bash. "And one day I was over at Binkyís and we were smoking some pot and lying down on the floor listening close to the speakers and it was like nothing I had ever heard. Binkyís from the South and so he really loves that music, and Jakeís dad [local roots musician Dennis Brennan] taught him a lot about music and made him mix tapes when he was growing up. It wasnít as much of a transition for them as it might appear."

She continues, "Not that I make a habit of reading gossipy crap. But someone wrote something about me, how I was just doing this because I could make more money by appealing to this audience instead of playing indie rock. But I feel like this rootsier side was always there. Itís just that, at different points in your life, you emphasize different parts of yourself."

But doesnít she miss stomping on a distortion pedal and cranking her electric guitar full blast? "Hell yeah ó but I think one of my biggest selling points is my voice, and I feel like Iím a much stronger singer than I am a guitar player. But itís hard to sing well over a wall of guitars and drums ó not that I donít enjoy it, but itís hard to write the songs you really want to when you have to think about how youíre going to compete with that wall. So I started writing with a couple of the guys I play with now and found it was so much more appealing. The response has mirrored that ó Iíve gotten so much more positive feedback doing this."

Borges penned nine of the discís 12 tracks ó rough-hewn stories about ordinary people trying to hold on to love, faith, hope, and dreams. Her eclectic covers include a gospel number written by Tommy Dorsey (and popularized by Mahalia Jackson), a pop gem by Teenage Fanclubís Norman Blake, and a tune written by her motherís boyfriend, Ken Camadeco, who stepped on stage to blow harmonica at Borgesís CD-release show. Chudnofskyís robust lead-guitar work shines like a bright Bakersfield sun throughout; local pedal-steel wizard Mike Castellana (Laurie Geltman/Rich Gilbert) brings boogie-party precision to "Miss Mary" and old-time elegance to Borgesís take on the Dorsey cover, "Iím Going To Live the Life I Sing About in My Song." Jake Brennan also returns a favor (Borges co-wrote "Two of a Kind" and duetted with him on his 2004 Yep Roc debut, Love & Bombs), taking an acoustic-guitar turn on a sweetly understated reading of the Fanclubís "Mellow Doubt."

Borges considers her own material as part of a continuum with the music she grew up hearing in her parentsí house: Dylan, the Allman Brothers. "That music is a lot more heartfelt and open. You think about love and dying and God as you get older. This approach is more like writing a novel, and indie rockís more like quirky poetry. I feel like it is the same creative space. Iím just a different person."

WHEN JIMMY RYAN began playing mandolin back in Vermont in the 1970s, he joined both a traditional bluegrass band, Pine Island, and a punk band called Decentz. Pine Island would land gigs opening for bluegrass originators the Stanley Brothers; Decentz warmed up punk audiences for the Ramones. A decade later, he combined his love of both styles when he formed the bluegrass-shaded rock outfit the Blood Oranges, whose guitarist, Mark Spencer, is slated to sit in at T.T.ís. "I always wanted to mix bluegrass and rock and roll and see what happened. Thatís what I wanted to hear, so thatís what I make. Why not mush íem together like chocolate and peanut butter? It seemed really natural to me. To this day, people say, ĎWhy do you do it that way?í And I say, ĎWhy wouldnít I?í To me, thereís always been country rock. The Blood Oranges were on a label [East Side Digital], but they had no niche for us. We didnít have a category back then ó Ďcountry rockí was a baaaad phrase in the late í80s. People thought of Charlie Daniels and that frightened íem off."

Gospel Shirt (Ruido Grande/Hi-N-Dry), Ryanís six-track EP follow-up to his self-released 2002 solo debut, Lost Diamond Angel, isnít likely to drive them away. Produced with Morphine/Twinemen drummer Billy Conway and gorgeously mixed by the Grammy winning Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow), the set offers a romp through the Appalachians ("Hardest Time") one moment and a torn-and-frayed trip to Stones territory ("Breaks My Heart") the next. "Let It Bleed is, like, my favorite record on earth," says Ryan, who credits session man Ry Cooderís mandolin solo on "Love in Vain" with turning him on to the instrument. "Itís pretty obvious I have Stones damage in my writing ó the Stones and the Band. You canít escape them. Iím sure I stole the opening riff of ĎBreaks My Heartí from somebody."

The EP is credited Jimmy Ryan and Hayride ó which means that the usual cast of characters and local luminaries was on hand, including a core contingent of guitarist Duke Levine, bassist Andrew Mazzone, and drummer Billy Beard. It was recorded in just a week. "Those guys never have a bad idea. I wish I couldíve played with them more, but everybodyís got such crazy schedules. Kevin Barry and Duke just went off to play with Mary Chapin Carpenter again and thatís fucking up at least five or six bands in town. We never practice, ever. I mean, thatís what gigs are for."

Jimmy Ryan and Hayride celebrate the release of Gospel Shirt tonight, April 28, at T.T. the Bearís Place, 10 Brookline Street in Harvard Square, opening with Sarah Borges for Chris Scruggs; call (617) 492-BEAR.


Issue Date: April 29 - May 5, 2005
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