Doug MacLeod Can Sing the Blues, But Can a Classical Engineer Record it?

Back in 1995 in The Tracking Angle's second issue I wrote of acoustic folk/blues artist Doug MacLeod's performances on his Audioquest LP Come to Find (AQ 1027): "You'll hear a lifetime's accumulation of feelings, experiences and influences in his fingers, in his voice and in his songs...."

MacLeod was 46 at the time. Eighteen years or so later MacLeod is still at it, as he's been since he picked up bass and guitar as a child. He's issued nineteen studio albums some live ones and even an instructional DVD. The years have only enhanced and enriched MacLeod's technical and communicative abilities. He's an even more fluid and nuanced guitarist and singer than he was back in 1995.

Both guitar and voice now seem to flow with greater liquidity and ease on this recorded-live-at-Skywalker Ranch production. His storytelling, good as it was back in 1995. now exudes a knowing wisdom and his playful sense of humor is more finely honed. Don't get me wrong: the performances on that Audioquest record are mighty fine, but these are positively buoyant. That's a word not usually associated with the blues, but MacLeod's is a "feel good" variety though of course when required it can plumb the depths.

When his family moved from New York to Saint Louis, the teenager's musical life changed after he saw a small club electric set by B.B. King.

MacLeod later joined the Navy, moved back East to Virginia and got involved in the mid-Atlantic folk scene, playing originals and covers in clubs from the Carolinas to Washington D.C. His "folk/blues" are more rural than urban and more reflective than aggressive, though over the years his side gigs with Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton, Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson, Lowell Fulson and Big Mama Thornton surely had him expressing his edgier and more intense self. MacLeod also learned from those legends stage performance art: how to project himself outward and reel the audience inward. His songs have been well-covered too, by everyone from the Alberts King and Collins to Eva Cassidy.

. Given those abilities it made complete sense to MacLeod and co-producer Reference Recording's Jan Mancuso to treat the two day session as a live concert, though without an audience. Joining MacLeod on the Skywalker Ranch stage are drummer Jimi Bott who is a regular with the L.A. based The Mannish Boys and bassist Denny Croy, who's played with MacLeod since 1999 and has also worked with Brian Setzer, Victoria Williams and Keb' Mo' among others. The three sat is a circle and played live on the enormous orchestra-sized stage. No overdubs.

On some tunes MacLeod plays a custom National Resophonic he calls "Moon". On others he's on an old Gibson C-100 FE he calls "Little Bit" because, he says, " a little bit falls off her." He also plays a borrowed 12 string National El Trovador as well as his National Style 'O' he calls "Owl."

The tunes range from the playful opener "Rosa Lee" to the mournful "Black Nights" to the forward looking "The Up Song." He's wry on "My In laws Are Outlaws" and dark singing about a selfish prick with a handicapped parking card who is not handicapped. "A Ticket Out" exudes all of the expected excitement and regrets associated with leaving. It's more folk than blues. MacLeod's ability to crossover and combine the two genres, as well as his wide emotional range and story weaving abilities keep the listener engaged throughout the nearly hour long, thirteen tune set spread over two 45rpm 200g LPs. As for his playing, listen to how he handles "Owl" on "Run With the Devil." The recording may have been produced on a chilled, barren soundstage, but you'll feel the hot Virginia sun.

The only misfire is a didactic talker about religious intolerance that touches overly familiar bases, but it's the side 4 closer so if you don't dig it, or tire of it after one spin, it's easily avoided.

Recording engineer Keith O. Johnson, best known for the spacious, wide sound stages and thunderous dynamics found on References classical music recordings, shows here that he can capture the enormous Skywalker space without losing the players in a watery reverb grave. Yes, you'll see and feel the vast space referenced in the room's reverb but the images are stable and sufficiently intimate to sound close by. Johnson is well known for capturing an orchestra's lower registers. Here he perfectly gets the string pluck and body of Croy's 1948 Kay double bass as well as the punch of Bott's kick drum. The bottom end of this recording is positively awesome. If it sounds muddy, blame your system not Johnson's recording.

The recording is high resolution digital, probably 176/24 bit and Reference makes the full resolution files available as WAV files on data discs (HR-130). I didn't have that, but i did compare this double 45 cut half speed by Paul Stubblebine and pressed 200 gram at QRP to the CD version and even comparing on a relatively inexpensive vinyl set-up and mega buck digital one (names omitted to protect the innocent) the vinyl exudes an openness and resolution of spatial and transient detail muffled by the CD. The opening track tells the story. On the CD MacLeod and the others are "there". On the LP they are there!. QRP's 200g pressings were dead silent too. Add a "Tip On" full color gatefold jacket and excellent photos and liner notes and you have a first class package to accompany an equally fine recording and of course performances that will keep you coming back for another "set."

P.S.: Yes, it's too bad Johnson didn't haul out for this project his incredible analog recorder, since blues and tape go together better than blues and the digits, but whatever he did to his digital rig and whatever Stubblebine did in the mastering will probably convince you both that high resolution digital and lacquer cutting produces a more than acceptable result and that Johnson's abilities to produce the sound of live music produced in a real space are undiminished by the digits.

P.P.S: Analogue Productions has reissued MacLeod's Audioquest recording and it will be reviewed soon on Analogplanet and compared sonically to the original.

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Martin's picture

I picked this up from Elusive Disc several weeks ago, still waiting it's turn to be cleaned....