Laurie Lewis



CD Reviews

Seeing Things

Seeing Things AlbumRelix
Singer songwriter Laurie Lewis has long been a purveyor of some of the most artful and sophisticated folk and bluegrass music. Seeing Things (Rounder) is this Bay Area performer's latest and most far-reaching effort. Backed by a terrific all-star cast, Lewis expands her horizons to include subtle elements of jazz ("Kiss Me Before I Die"), edgy, almost alternative folk-rock ("Visualize") and sweet ballads ("Angel On His Shoulder"). Other highlights of this exquisite album are the sprightly country-bluegrass stomper, "Blue Days, Sleepless Nights," and the stark yet beautiful version of the traditional "The Blackest Crow," featuring Lewis backed by the multi-layered fiddles of Daryl Anger. Perhaps the most compelling cut is her poignant cover of Tom Russell's "Manzanar," a touching ode to the Japanese Americans that were interned during the Second World War. (One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, http://www.


Kind of Blue
Multi-talented songwriter Laurie Lewis makes music with an ear toward tradition. But she's not afraid to break rules.
By David Hill Article Published Oct 11, 2001


For years, bluegrass was easily one of the most male-dominated musical genres around. All the biggest stars were men, and their bands were all made up of "boys." Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys -- you get the idea. Talk about boy bands.


Sure, there were a few token female members of the club, like accordionist Sally Ann Forrester and bassist Bessie Lee Mauldin, both of whom played for Bill Monroe. West Coast hillbilly singer Rose Maddox recorded a fine bluegrass album for Capitol, but that was a one-shot deal. Back in the early '60s, when earnest young college students discovered the joys of bluegrass, about the only women playing the festivals were Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. They, more than just about anyone else, made bluegrass safe for females.


These days, it's hard to imagine bluegrass without women. Alison Krauss is probably the most famous female performer, but others, like Rhonda Vincent and Claire Lynch, are doing highly regarded work. Earlier this year, country singer Patty Loveless showed her affinity for the high-lonesome sound on the wonderful Mountain Soul, and in recent years Dolly Parton has gotten in touch with her hillbilly roots.


Then there's Laurie Lewis, a dulcet-voiced singer from Berkeley, California. On her Web site, she calls herself a "singer, fiddler, guitarist, songwriter [and] river rat," which gives you some idea of her many talents. (She has also been a dancer and a violin maker.) She may not be a household name, but she's well-known in bluegrass circles. Indeed, she won the International Bluegrass Music Association's female vocalist of the year award in 1992 and 1994.


Bluegrass was her first love, but Lewis has also recorded a number of albums, most of them for the Rounder label, that aren't so easily categorized. One of them, 1998's Seeing Things, is best described as "contemporary folk" or "new acoustic." But her most recent disk, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, is a spirited return to the music that first captivated her as a teenager.


"Of course, I've always loved bluegrass," she says from her home in California. "It's a music that's very near and dear to my heart. But I hadn't played in a bluegrass band, per se, since, maybe, the early '80s. And since then, I had just been doing all these different configurations. Seeing Things definitely had some songs on it that would never be called bluegrass." But, partly because she's always been known as a bluegrass singer, Lewis decided it was time to do an all-bluegrass album again.


Still, she hates being pigeonholed. "I'm hard to categorize, and it drives the record companies mad. But that's just the way I am." Some of her favorite singers are hard to classify. "I mean, look at Ray Charles. If he loves a song, he's just going to do it. And he makes it a Ray Charles song."


Lewis got hooked on roots music back in the '60s, when she had the good fortune to see legendary performers like Doc Watson, the Greenbriar Boys (another "boy" band!), Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis and Jean Ritchie at the Berkeley Folk Festival. About the same time, she went to a Byrds concert; the Dillards, a California bluegrass outfit led by banjo picker Doug Dillard, was the opening act.


"I thought they were the funniest," Lewis says. "They really appealed to a fourteen-year-old. I just loved them, and I wanted to play the banjo." Her father bought her the much-desired instrument, and she began taking lessons from a student at UC Berkeley. When her teacher went away for the summer, he left Lewis a box of bluegrass records, which she played over and over. The seed had been planted.


Rounder/Jeff Wall
Laurie Lewis Seeing Things
Laurie Lewis could be a Country Star. She has the chops. She's attractive, photogenic, and would come across well on music video. She's an excellent performer and entertainer. But what sets Laurie apart from the pack is her songwriting and that voice. That voice can soar like an eagle. It can bring a tear to the hardest heart.


But Laurie makes the music she want's to. She's been active in the California Acoustic Music scene for years. A founding member of the Good Ole Person's, an outstanding Bay area Bluegrass Band, she left out on her own when that group disbanded and hasn't looked back since. She has put out several excellent Bluegrass albums. This album is not Bluegrass, It's acoustic music. Damn fine acoustic music.


Some of the highlights are the bluegrassy "Blue Day's, Sleepless Nights", the tender ballad "The Refugee", a song about being grateful for roots and a place to call home. "Kiss Me Before I Die", is a song about how everything else can wait until after that desperate need for a kiss has been fulfilled. Done in a Dawg style, it comes across funky and full of sass. "I'll Take Back My Heart" is a delightful Norteno romp. "Manzanar" is a Tom Russell song about the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during WW2. With Laurie's soaring fiddle and aching vocals, and the accompaniment of Koto drums, the song will break your heart.


This is a pretty good little disc. Laurie's Vocals are top notch. Surrounded by top musicians such as Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, and Tom Rosen, the musical quality is great. The large majority of the songs work for me. There were a couple I didn't care for, but the thing that keeps you enthralled is that wonderful, wonderful, voice.


Cub Koda, All Music Guide
While previous albums have explored Lewis' prodigious fiddle talents and her ability to put a new spin on bluegrass music, Seeing Things zeroes in on her glorious voice and her ability to tell a story with it. Eight of the 11 tunes come from her pen; tunes like "The Refugee," "Kiss Me Before I Die," "Angel On His Shoulder," and "Bane and Balm" all show tremendous growth as a writer, while the opening "Blues Days, Sleepless Nights" bears strong comparison to her best bluegrass work. Tom Russel's "Manzanar" (the story of a World War II Japanese POW), her duet with Cris Williamson on "Let the Bird Go Free" and the traditional "The Blackest Crow" set moods bleak, somber and ethereal. But mostly it comes down to Lewis' voice, an instrument of uncommon beauty, depth and versatility. This is one special album. ~


Walnut Valley Occasional
If you want to know what kind of a bluegrass singer Laurie Lewis is, you only need to listen to one phrase. In the bridge of the song Visualize, from the new CD Seeing Things, she sings the phrase "and she knows," letting loose on the last syllable, sliding up and holding the note just long enough for tension to become passion. Lewis sings the same way she plays fiddle -- emotionally, but tastefully controlled.


If, however, you want to know about Lewis as a songwriter, you'll have to listen a lot more. Lewis -- in the company of such standouts as Iris DeMent, Judith Edelman, Patty Larkin and the Indigo Girls -- can and does write about anything. Moreover, she makes it all compelling.


On Seeing Things, Lewis seems to be both embracing and struggling with maturity. In the one hand, she is sultry and direct on Tattoo, a song that leaves mental images indelible as the name on the narrator's arm. On the other hand, the straight-ahead bluegrass cut Blue Days, Sleepless Nights is about playing it safer than she used to: "I used to dance out on the edge / I was possessed, I could not fall / But nowadays I just inch along that ledge / afraid to dance, I barely crawl."


Maturity and perspective come into play on both the clever Kiss Me Before I Die and the affecting Angel on His Shoulder. The first is a funky, funny Mary Chapin-Carpenter - meets - Bonnie Raitt seduction song which owes a lot to Tom Rozum's mandola playing. The second is a sparse song built on two quiet guitar parts. Powerful in its specificity, it is a testament to faith and a sense of higher purpose.
The significance of this album's title is not to be overlooked - when it comes to songwriting, Laurie Lewis is gifted with vision, imagination and a sensitivity that lets her fully view and appreciate both the physical world and the human emotional landscape. Seeing Things is perhaps Laurie's most adventurous and groundbreaking project, ranging stylistically from the balladry of "Let the Bird Go Free" and "The Blackest Crow" to the swing and soul of "Blue Days, Sleepless Nights" to a very funky "Kiss Me Before I Die". Another highlight is the song "Manzanar," the story Japanese-American internment during World War II, for which Laurie blends American acoustic folk music with the beautiful sounds of the Japanese kyoto. In addition to regular band mates Todd Phillips (bass) and Tom Rozum (mandolin), Laurie is accompanied on this CD by some of the very finest acoustic musicians available: Rob Ickes (dobro), Darol Anger (violin), Tony Furtado (slide guitar) and Kathy Kallick (harmony vocals), to name a few.


Country Standard Time/Robert Wooldridge
Laurie Lewis tells us in her liner notes that she had suffered a long period of creative drought during recovery from a serious car accident in 1994. Here she not only demonstrates a renewed creativity, but manages to address the accident in a positive light. "Kiss Me Before I Die" takes a whimsical look at the specter of death, while "Angel On His Shoulder" reveals that surviving adversity can make one appreciate "life's sweet blessings." While other tunes don't deal directly with the accident, songs such as "Let the Bird Go Free" and "The Refugee" acknowledge a spirit of renewal. Another highlight is a stirring performance of Tom Russell's "Manzanar," the story of a Japanese-American reflecting on the atrocity of internment camps during World War II. Regular band mates Tom Rozum (mandolin) and Todd Phillips (acoustic bass) are joined by such notables as Darol Anger (violin), Tony Furtado (slide guitar) and Kathy Kallick (harmony vocals). Lewis shows that she has lived through tragedy to emerge as an artist with creativity not only intact but seemingly heightened. - Robert Wooldridge


Fretplay/Mary Park
To be sure, there's still plenty of fiddle, mandolin, and high lonesome harmonies to be found here, and Lewis's respect for traditional music shines through. If Earth & Sky, the compilation that was Laurie Lewis's Rounder debut, served to showcase her bluegrass roots, Seeing Things finds her breaking new musical ground. But these songs range all over the musical map, from the lilting Norteño swing of "I'll Take Back My Heart" to the sly, bass-driven shuffle of "Kiss Me Before I Die. " Tom Russell's haunting "Manzanar" tells the story of Japanese internment during World War II, while Darol Anger grows a "forest of fiddles" (as the liner notes put it) around Lewis's lovely, clear soprano on the traditional "The Blackest Crow. " Lewis has always been a hard artist to pigeonhole, gracefully moving between musical genres as different as bluegrass, jazz, gospel, and traditional folk. With Seeing Things, she establishes herself as a powerful, diverse singer/songwriter who deserves a much wider audience.


Laurie Lewis continues to successfully walk the high wire above esoteric country, combining elements of bluegrass, folk and pure country to form her own seamless mix. She wrote or co-wrote eight of the eleven tracks here,a nd most are gems. For example, "The Refugee" is a lilting, accordion-driven tale of longing; "Kiss Me Before I Die" is freewheeling hillbilly jazz; "I'll Take Back My Heart" is full-blown Tex-Mex; Tony Furtado's slide guitar imbues "Bane and Balm" with a lush Hawaiian flavor. The songs Lewis didn't write are the traditional "The Blackest Crow," Mark Simos' "Let The Bird Go Free," and veteran Texas troubadour Tom Russell's "Manzanar," an epic tale about the Japanese internment during WWII. As usual, Lewis is impossible to categorize.


Crossroads/Kerry Dexter
Seeing Things is Laurie Lewis at her acoustic string band best, which is very good indeed. Her recent recordings have focussed more on her songwriting talents (they are on display here, too) in a variety of melodic and instrumental configurations. On this project, her voice and the power of acoustic string music come to the fore. Lewis' sense of humor and irony is apparent in "Kiss Me Before I Die" (and her comment on the song in the liner notes) as well as her appreciation of risks to the spirit ("Blue Days, Sleepless Nights"). Especially outstanding, too, is her cover of Tom Russell's ballad, "Manzanar."