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Brian Belknap's latest release, Cradle to Grave is a homemade record that benefits enormously from the fact that the home in question belongs to M Ward and She and Him producer sideman Mike Coykendall.
Coykendall was largely responsible for Belknap's return to the music scene after a 10 year hiatus, helping him put out 2008's Lucky Me. That album eventually came to the attention of Director Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City) who featured three of it's songs in the new Showtime series Look! that debuted in the fall. Rifkin has called Belknap "one of the greatest singer/songwriters alive today."
Cradle to Grave picks up where Lucky Me Left off, with Belknap in top form alternating between accordion, mandolin, slide and acoustic guitar and Coykendall bringing the same sensibility that has put him in demand by everyone from Conor Oberst and Jolie Holland to Blitzen Trapper.
Recorded live in just two days with minimal overdubs the record captures both the intensity and intimacy that makes Belknap so compelling on stage.
"While we were recording Mike mentioned that Johnny Cash said that it shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks to make a country record, so a couple of days seems about right for folk." relates Belknap.
Cradle to Grave is part of a collaboration between Belknap and Coykendall that goes back years.
I first met Mike when his band the Old Joe Clarks was playing at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. I stood there transfixed for the entire set and worked up the nerve to pass him a cassette I had recently recorded. A few days later he called me up and we've been fast friends ever since." Belknap recalls.
Along with Sue Sandlin of Stairwell Sisters fame Belknap had just formed the band Turpentine. Coykendall had them open for his band and they were soon sharing the stage with the likes of Calexico, Richard Buckner, Mark Eitzel, Tarnation, Cake and Train.
"The mid-90s was a good time for folk, bluegrass, and country in San Francisco", Hello Vegetables music blogger Kevin Lipski wrote recently, "but for my money it didn't get any better than Turpentine. Brian Belknap's songs weren't nostalgic recreations of the folk of the past, but honest, unromanticized visions of contemporary working-class life, the bitter and the sweet. And long after you sold your car with the tape deck and could no longer listen to their cassettes, the songs stuck with you. Honest to God, I'd put these songs up against anybody's."
The songs were stitched together from the fabric of Belknap's life. A self-taught musician who left a troubled home at an early age, he thumbed cross country making what he could playing on the streets. Finding factory work he honed his skills practicing in boiler rooms and on loading docks during lunch breaks-organizing when he could against the horrible working conditions he often found himself in.
The sensitivity to the plight of those living on the margins of society so evident in Belknap's songs is ultimately what also led him to leave music to devote his time to the struggle for social justice.
Ironically his return to performing came when he was forced out of his rent controlled apartment in the San Francisco's Mission District and started playing on the street again to help make ends meet.
Now, with the help of friends like Coykendall, drummer Michael Hoffman and bass player Jill McClelland Coykendall in the studio and live support by multi-instrumentalists Kenny Annis, Erik Pearson and Kurt Stevenson it looks like Belknap will be back for awhile.
For those long disappointed by his absence from the local music scene this is welcome news. For those still unfamiliar with his distinctive take on American folk music, Cradle to Grave will make you understand why he was so sorely missed.
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