I’ve heard Boiled in Lead in person but one time, and that was twenty years ago when they played in a field one late summer. Lovely they were, and their live sound carries over very well to being recorded.The Well Below EP is an excellent look at them live with some rare material not recorded elsewhere.
Describing them can be difficult, but Chuck in his review of their first decade of recordings does it nicely: ‘The problem when writing about Boiled in Lead is how to describe them. Rock and Roll? Punk? Blues? Jazz? Traditional? Which tradition? They’ve done everything from Irish to Albanian to Vietnamese to American Traditional. Indeed, there have been few constants with the band. They’ve had three different lead singers and the same number of fiddlers. They’ve had dozens of musicians and singers backing them up on various tracks. About the only consistencies, besides their name and eclectic nature, have been Drew Miller on bass and the fact that the band has been based in Minneapolis.’
The Well Below brings us Marc Anderson on drums joining masterful guitarist Dean Magraw and veterans Todd Menton, Drew Miller and David Stenshoel. The latter have been with the band on and off since the founding thirty-five years ago. Drew’s been there the entire time, an amazing run for any musician!
A true song of the Americana genre, which BiL is deeply skilled in, is first. ‘Wedding Dress’ was written by Roscoe Holcomb, an American singer, banjoist, and guitarist from Daisy, Kentucky, who was born early in the last century. A important figure in Appalachian folk music, Holcomb was the genesis for the term ‘high, lonesome sound,’
BiL’s version does a much clearer job than, say, Pentangle does of implying the madness must be in the mind of the woman, who is either completely delusional or had murdered multiple suitors. For another good take on this song, I recommend Alice Gerard on her Play The Music recording. Alice and Todd, who does the vocal here, would be interesting to hear singing together!
Next up is ‘The Well Below The Valley’, which is also known as ‘The Maid and the Palmer’. It is a murder ballad (Roud 2335 and Child Ballad 21). Although it is rather dark, with lyrics explicitly stating murder and incest as taken place, the song is not often avoided by folk artists, as witness the recording by Planxty. The version here, with its fast-paced drum and drone, with Todd again on vocals, is quite horrifying, which is quite likely the intent of the writer oh, so many centuries ago.
We then have ‘Western Borders’, a Minnesota song written by John Van Orman, known to Springfield music lovers as a founding member of the area folk ensemble Finnegan’s Wake. Here BiL, with Todd again on vocals, does an amazing take on this ballad of the days that Minnesota was truly a frontier state. It’s really nice to hear them do a song that shows how deeply rooted they are in the Minnesota culture!
Rounding off this most splendid CD, which makes me long for a full album, is their ‘Transylvanian Stomp’, which is a high energy rave up of songs from Hungary and Romania. It’s a reminder that the band has a deep, loving interest in all things musical. I swear that they’ve done this before, but my now faulty memory must be wrong, as nothing on the web says they’ve done so. They list it as trad, arranged by them, so it’s just possible that I’ve heard it elsewhere but I doubt it was done in this manner.
(Drew when I asked said: ‘Gotcha — demo version previously released on Alloy 2.1 track 9 as “Hungarian Medley”’ as they don’t know what the tunes are called, which made me feel better.)
Is The Well Below a good introduction to Boiled in Lead? Oh yes, though it barely scratches their talent over their history: they’ve had at least four vocalists that I remember, including Jane Dauphin. And do give a listen to Old Lead which is on Omnium, their label run by Drew; it’s a collection of Boiled in Lead and Hotheads, their first two albums, that gives you a delightful look at their quite amazing range, covering everything from where their name came from to very delightful Celtic tunes such as their set of ‘Banish Misfortune / The Road to Lisdoonvarna / O’Keefe’s Slide’ and ‘Jamie Across The Water’.
Their last full recording, Silver, a decade ago is proof that they’re every bit as good as they were so many years ago. Now excuse me while I put that on to play…