Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page

Two songs into Rooster, Minnesota-based bluesman Charlie Parr achieves the well-nigh impossible. He makes "Bethlehem", a traditional, Biblically-themed acoustic song so dangerously intense that it feels current. It is a stark retelling of Herod's massacre of the innocents -- the night when the king of Israel killed all the two-year-old boys in hopes of eliminating Jesus -- told from the perspective of an ordinary father who lost his son that night. The event is so massive, so unthinkable, that it overshadows what most people consider the larger story: that Jesus escaped and went on to die on the cross. Indeed when the father sees Jesus hanging on a cross, he can only envision his lost boy's face. It is all the more powerful for being minimal musically, with the thump of foot punctuating minor key picking and a monochrome melody filtered through a ravaged voice.

Though the rest of Rooster is excellent, this single song tells you most of what you need to know about Charlie Parr, his traditional roots, his coiled emotional intensity, his sparseness and his almost unbearable honesty. Later in the album, his work will take on slightly different shades and colorings, in the sardonic humor of "One Eyed Jack," in the ghostly slide of "Dead Cat on the  Line", in the cake-walky exuberance of "Public Record Rag," but he returns to this peak level of quality just once. That happens in "Cheap Wine", a slow and melancholy ache of a tune, underwritten to the point of bare essence, and encompassing all the loneliness of old ladies and their cheap wine and the morose liquor clerks who serve them. "I can't stand the sight of any of them. I wish I could sell this place. I wish I could buy a boat...float away," may not look like a universal truth there on the page, but on the album, this verse contains every color of disappointment and dead-ended-ness and alienation.

Lots of blues musicians get the notes right. They play authentic chords and patterns on authentic instruments. They sound just like the old days, except they don't. Charlie Parr has somehow inhabited this music from the inside, letting it out in a way that's as natural as breathing -- and as vital. ~ Jennifer Kelly