“The Ropes:” CD Review

“The Ropes” is a balm to our troubled times.

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By leaps and bounds my favorite CD of 2020 is “The Ropes” by Hugh Christopher Brown, Jason Mercer and Pete Bowers.

“The Ropes” is lyrical, mystical, soulful and transcendent. The first time I put it on I was so compelled by its flavors and hues that I had to stop everything else I was doing, lie down on the wooden floor, and let the tones reverberate through my soul.

The band organically came together as the in-house rhythm section for Wolfe Island Records laying down tracks for a constant flow of singer-songwriters through Chris’s studio. Subsequent to recording the essential tracks for “The Ropes,” Chris took the masters to New York City and worked on arrangements with Tony Scheer, Michael Blake, Teddy Kumpel and his lifelong music partner, Kate Fenner. Further contributions were made by Teilhard Frost, Craig Rocky Roberts and legendary harmonica player, Mickey Raphael.

Brown, Mercer and Fenner began playing together as teenagers when they formed the legendary Canadian band, The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. After a decade on the road, the band disbanded, with Brown and Fenner heading to NYC where they continued making records as a duo. Mercer also found his way to New York where he spent many years as a member of Ron Sexsmith and Ani Difranco’s bands. The Ropes reunites Brown, Fenner and Mercer for the first time since The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir.

I asked Chris how the songs for the CD came about and he said, “The Ropes is grounded in our love of sundry music and poetry, especially the work of folk and soul artists of the early 70’s. When Kate and I were touring with BB King in 2002, he told me, ‘You know Chris, people call my music blues, but when I was growing up, I wasn’t playing county, or blues, or jazz or folk… I was playing music. It was all music, and the way it came to me I did not dispute.’ I wanted The Ropes to be an paeon to all of the different musical lineages that have influenced us.”

Chris is a master of modulation. On many tracks he works through so many key changes that I caught myself repeating out loud, “How did he do that?” In particular, I loved “Methods” on which Chris’ playing reminded me of a combination of Billy Preston and Richard Tee’s always poignant and righteous digitation and prestidigitation. You can watch him play it here:

The Ropes” is a balm to our troubled times.

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