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Financial Times, June 29/June 30 2002

Compact Choice
Live: Do Not Immerse
Broadside Electric
Clever Sheep

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"With her head." "Head!", shout the audience. "Tucked." "Tucked!" "Underneath her arm/She walks the Bloody Tower." This is, indeed, Bert Lee's old Music Hall classic, reinterpreted as a folk shoutalong, plus a series of increasingly convoluted klezmer curlicues on the oboe. The Philadelphia-based folk-rock band Broadside Electric write almost none of their own material. Their gift lies in a magpie's ear for neglected traditional material, interpreted extremely loosely, which can be twisted into their signature clash of traditional styles.

The band grew out of the various colleges around the city, and retain an academic outlook on life. They nearly split up at one stage, not because of the usual "musical differences", but because its hammered dulcimer player moved to Cambridge to pursue a PhD in Anthropology. This, their fifth CD in a decade, kicks off with a paean to Ampère's Law. (This is in the ignoble tradition of scientific humour, which is to say that physicists are likely to find it extremely funny.)

Live: Do Not Immerse is intended to sum up the band's career to date, though about half the tracks are new. It does display many of Broadside's strengths. There is a song in Ladino (medieval Spanish) and Hebrew, Mosé Salió de Misrayim, which recounts the youth of Moses, with a yearning, melancholy violin line from Helene Zisook. The last track, "Por La To Puerta", mixes Ladino with Turkish. The metaphors run dense. "Komo'l dukado en el sarraf/Te Tengo kulaneado" ("I hold you as closes as the banker his coin.") There is more virtuoso playing on a set of reels, "A Rat In Her Pocket", Zisook's violin frolicking with Amy Ksir on tinwhistle while Joe D'Andrea on drums and Jim Speer on stick guitar-bass drop in and out with a driving rhythm. "Whorly Whorl" wallows in bawdy, stirring in the old Morris tune "Postman's Knock". "Homeless Wassail" highlights the band's acapella prowess.

There are also several curiosities: a chorus from Iolanthe extolling the uselessness of the House of Lords ("They did nothing in particular/and did it very well"), and what sounds like a corporate anthem for Swiss Railways, "Mr Faare mit dr SBB".

The lyrics, in deepest Schweitzerdeutsch, embody a robust attitude to customer service: "War nit mit ys fare wott/da blybt halt denn dahei" ("whoever doesn't want to ride with us can just stay at home".) The band kick it along with plenty of oompah, but only the most dedicated will want to hear it more than once.

What is lacking, perhaps, is more of the macabre medeival murder ballads that are Broadside's specialty. (Hence the title of one of their earlier CDs, More Bad News.) The sole one here, "Sheath and Knife", begins "It is talked the world all over/The King's daughter goes with child to [i.e., by] her brother" and ends predictably unhappily. Tom Rhoads sings it straight, and the plain, repetitive melody weaves in behind him.

Humour serves Broadside Electric best as a leavening; it would be a pity if they lost the courage to let their more serious material do its work. Overall, though, Live: Do Not Immerse shows Broadside Electric playing, in all senses, confidently. It is one of those rare live albums where the listener has as much fun as the band.

- David Honigmann

 
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