By Donald Teplyske
Anyone who has read Truevine, Beth Macy’s detailed account of George and Willie Muse, youngsters absconded by talent procurers in early 1900s Roanoke, VA understands that circuses and carnivals are not for those with gentle sensitivities. Haven’t read the book? You should.
Similarly, an episode or two of Carnivàle will dissuade the naïve from believing that what one experiences from the front of house is the reality of those involved in traveling shows.
Like Fred Eaglesmith, Brock Zeman is a musical artist continually challenging himself as well as others’ perceptions of him. There is continuity between his projects—a robust vocal presence, character studies that may take a couple listens to fully unravel, impressive instrumentation—but each pulses with a distinct heartbeat.
The Carnival Is Back In Town is the culmination of years of writing, a project Zeman set aside only to resurrect when he was felt capable of completing the song cycle. Within its 50-plus minutes, in a variety of voices and modes, Zeman has created a vibrant, enlightening, and sympathetic portrait of the outsiders, misfits, and ne’er-do-wells who populate his traveling road show.
From the advance men arriving ahead of the trucks and trailers, to those roustabouts doing the heavy lifting and the talent who find themselves making a living as carnival folk, Zeman has imagined a set of characters—the scarred juggler, the talent hustler, conjoined sisters singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the alcoholic clown, the freaks, and the forgotten—that reveal their own shortcoming, challenges, and experiences, more often than not simply distorted reflections of our own.
At times profane and in other circumstances affecting, and utilizing a cavalcade of roots sounds with their foundation within the traditions of carnivals, Zeman pulls the listener into this world of his imagination. The album is best experienced in a sitting where circumstances and characters are revealed within context where “every soul deserves to make a living with what they got.” The songs may work less effectively in isolation, but only marginally so.
“The Juggler,” “Buckshot Sadie,” and “Dirty Little Secrets” are among the songs that could find favor on adventurous Americana/roots radio outlets. Each of these feature writing the equal to the folks many of us grew up admiring, Joe Ely, Murray McLauchlan, Tom Russell, and the like. The lyrical details are precise, rich and unforced.
“Percy Jones” recalls The Coasters, but this grifter would have taken both “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy” for a ride. “Little Mac” is multi-dimensional, unlimited by others’ perceptions, while “Drinks (The Clown)” is sent off by his friends in a manner most of us would appreciate for ourselves.
If Zeman isn’t careful, he may find himself delving deeper into these characters as a novelist.
Recorded acoustically, Blair Hogan (guitars, mandolin, banjo), and Ryan Weber (bass, piano), and Dylan Roberts (drums and percussion) provide the instrumental backdrop for Zeman’s wide-ranging compositions, complemented by Tyler Kealey’s essential accordion, fiddling from Michael Ball, and conservative amounts of saxophone from Wayne Mills. Mills is given more room to let loose his Clemons-instincts on the album’s closing track, the sweeping and Springsteenesque epic “The Carnival Has Left Town.” Julie Corrigan and Kelly Prescott, providing harmony vocals along with Hogan, enrich the recording with additional texture.
Brock Zeman hasn’t reached his zenith with The Carnival Is Back In Town simply because one is confident that his greatest songs, his most expansive albums, are still to come. Until they arrive, I’ll continue to spend time with this spirited, animated collection.