Justin Rosini/Rainbow Times
For those of you who have been looking for your next folk hero, you can stop. He
The new live album by transgender songwriter Namoli Brennet, is filled with hope and melancholy, love and loss, joy and bitterness. Drawing upon six of her eight albums, dating back to her 2002 debut Boy In A Dress, the prolific country folk singer blends these emotions into themes of freedom and distance traveled in the album’s 15 tracks, three of which are previously unreleased. A deft acoustic player, the tracks feature her and her guitar with little else. Not that anything more is needed; her smoky vocals and flying fingers fill her performance spaces perfectly, the power of her voice harnessed by subtlety. Although the album features Brennet live from a variety of places and venue sizes, her voice and guitar seem to move almost seamlessly throughout, occasionally broken up by some stage banter.
Opening with the as-yet unreleased “Surrender,” Brennet immediately draws the listener in with a plea for understanding and support. “I know I’m not the only one to break up,” she sings, and one can empathize when she admits to raising a white flag and surrendering to the conflict within. She uses her guitar as a shield, deflecting the world’s weight, both here and on the beautiful ballad “Counting Rosaries,” which finds her calling out to saints and remembering childhood prayers to gather strength to forge through life’s rough patches. She is just as apt at using her guitar as a sword, however, on tracks like “Grapes Of Wrath” and “Border Crossing,” the former a marcher that poignantly captures the modern plight of disenfranchisement and the latter a tender, biting and absolutely crushing tale of a family trying to gain entry to the country and those trying to assist them.
According to her blog, Brennet has lived for over a year without a permanent address. Instead, she has traveled the country, playing venues and house concerts along the way. Listening to “Dust On The Radio,” one can easily picture her driving down an endless mid-western highway on a blindingly sunny day with the windows open, the static on the radio matched only by the static landscape, as she heads to another gig in a nameless town. In “Iowa,” her wandering seems to have found a home. Recorded at KPLV Studios in tiny Decorah, Iowa, this ballad finds her yearning “to be sown, to be grown, to belong as I belong in Iowa,” and is reminiscent of Paul Simon singing his own love song to Memphis, Tennessee in “Graceland.”
The haunting “Settle Down” has her drumming percussion on her guitar and marveling at the way voices from the past whisper what needs to be heard in the present. She challenges us, asking, “Who among us was born to settle down? We were born to rise.” There is power in her sparse playing and in her earthy vocals as she tests the boundaries of our freedom, using civil rights icons of the past to illustrate her point that change is coming, change is here, change is continuing. She leaves the burden of its continuance to us.
If you have never had the benefit of hearing Namoli Brennet sing live, this is a more than acceptable substitute and a great place to start for the first time listener. It is a greatest hits album of sorts – one that captures the spirit of her catalogue, as well as her own lofty spirit, in an hour and ten minutes. For those who have been looking for their next country folk hero, you can stop. Here she is. She has been waiting for you to arrive.