The assured, level gaze with which Braden Gates meets the camera on the cover of his second album was definitely reminding me of something and I went flicking through the record racks. My first thought was Jesse Winchester, facing the world down on his first record - and that is a pretty good, and not inappropriate, pedigree for this fine young singer-songwriter.
Then I was reflecting on how rooted in place much of Braden's writing is - you can often see and hear, and occasionally smell, his stomping ground in Old Strathcona, Edmonton's art-and-nightlife-and-lowlife quarter. (All the best towns have one of those - check out The Hold Steady's 'The Sweet Part Of The City' if you need further directions.) I was looking at the picture of the Commercial Hotel on the CD and visualising the panhandler Gates was bringing to life in a song:
Old man Jason Lee
On the corner of Whyte and 103
Says 'Hey Braden, you got a buck
And an extra smoke for me?'
and I was definitely revisiting Whyte Avenue, Old Strathcona's main drag. So then I pulled out Dylan's Highway 61 and, yes, there's definitely some shared lineage in that stare and the set of their jaws.
Gates has enough talent and potential to make these sorts of comparisons more than fanciful. He's made real progress since his first release, the engaging Break It To Me Gently. While that was essentially a solo recording, the new one, Ferris Wheel, adds friends on bass, piano and harmonica, as well as backing vocals. Importantly, Braden has also overdubbed fiddle on some tracks. Live, his songs are either guitar or (less frequently) fiddle based and it's great to be able to hear the two together. He's a very accomplished picker but, for me, his fiddle playing is in another class, with an attack and verve that raises a song's energy level as soon as his bow bounces on the strings. There are a couple of essentially live fiddle songs on the new record, 'Bound To Win' and the title track, with Braden keeping a stompboard rhythm under pizzicato verses and bowed breaks - very much in the manner of the wonderful 'Gator's Gym Girl' on the first album. They work well, but there is only so much you can do with that format. So it is nice to have the variation of a violin twining around other instruments on songs like 'Holding On' and 'Ocean Blue'.
I'd heard 'Life's A Picture' live last year, introduced with a wry account of the meeting with the drifter who inspired it. Gates risks putting that spoken story to music and I am happy to say that 'The Story Of Chicago Bob' comes off well and stands up to repeated listening.
But for me, the stand-out song of this strong set is the final one, 'Song For Casper'. Inspired by a friend being arrested for public intoxication, it starts from a description of the party life they are leading but is somehow undercut simultaneously with melancholy, wistfulness and hope. The repeated hookline
now is the time to be free
is strangely moving, combining an appreciation of the transient here-and-now with a yearning for something else. On the record, the arrangement is particularly fine, with Ken Stead's piano adding strongly to the emotional heft in combination with Braden's fiddle.
Some nights you'll end up wasted
Some nights you'll end up bruised
Some nights you'll end up lonely
Just howling at the moon.
It works pretty well as a solo performance too, as you can see here:
All in all, a strong recommendation for Braden Gates and for Ferris Wheel. You can download or order CDs from Braden's Bandcamp page.