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Loudon Wainwright III with Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks: I'd Rather Lead a Band
by George Graham
(Search Party Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/11/2020)
There are vocalists who sing other people’s songs, which is usually the pattern in the jazz and country music worlds, and there are the singer-songwriters who dominate rock and folk. But once in a while someone well-known as a singer-songwriter will do an album of covers – other people’s songs. Bob Dylan did it back in the early 1970s. Often such projects are collections of reasonably contemporary songs, by composers who may have a professional, fan or personal relationship with the vocalist. But some singer-songwriter have also dipped into the archive to do collections of songs from past generations. For a while there was a bunch of rock singers doing songs from the classic American Tin Pan Alley era, some of which were pretty awful.
This week we have a long-time veteran folkie, and prolific songwriter going way back to for a collection of songs from the 1920s and 1930s, in an authentic style, with one of the best band leaders specializing in that genre. It’s Loudon Wainwright III with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks and their new album I’d Rather Lead a Band.
Loudon Wainwright has been on the music scene since releasing his first album in 1970, and is still probably best known for his novelty song Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road from 1973. But he has been a prolific songwriter and performer, recording dozens of albums, with many of his songs being quite witty. In recent years, he has also had a career as an actor including on the M*A*S*H and “Parks and Recreation” TV series, and films The 40-year-old Virgin and Knocked Up. Wainwright also worked with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks doing some music for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire and the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator, recreating the sound of the music from the show’s era.
In his CD booklet notes to I’d Rather Lead a Band, Wainwright said that the album’s producers Randall Poster and Stewart Lerman approached him with the idea of doing an album of songs from close to 100 years ago. Wainwright said that he was already a fan of Giordano, so he jumped at the prospect. Wainwright gathered songs from ones he remembered that his parents liked, and songs from old movies by Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Barbara Stanwyk and others. Vince Giordano created authentic, often whimsical arrangements in the classic 1920s and early 1930s sound, mostly evoking music from before the rise of big band jazz and the Swing Era.
The songs run from the familiar old standards to obscure novelty songs, with most of them upbeat, but with a few getting a little too sentimental for my taste. As a vocalist, Wainwright does not really perform in the style of the most of the singers from that era, who were more theatrical in their approach. But he delivers the songs directly and with gusto, and frequently cedes the spotlight to the instrumental interludes that were a mark of many of these songs in their day.
Opening a piece called How I Love You (I’m Tellin’ the Birds, I’m Tellin’ the Bees). It epitomizes the sound of the era’s songs, with their charmingly old-fashioned lyrics. <<>>
The album tends to alternate between the upbeat novelty songs and the sentimental ballads. A Ship without a Sail is one of those songs. Once can imagine hearing the song at a slow ballroom dance. <<>>
Among the most familiar songs on the album, at least to jazz fans, is Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin. Wainwright and Giordano perform the song’s rarely heard introductory verse. <<>>
One of the most fun-filled tracks is I’m Going to Give It to Mary with Love, which Wainwright said was banned from the BBC because of its lyrics back in 1936. Giordano and the Nighthawks are at their sparkling best, and Wainwright has a great time with the vocal. <<>>
Another cute but obscure song included on the album is So the Bluebirds and the Blackbirds Got Together, which Wainwright said was recorded by Bing Crosby with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the 1920s. The arrangement, which Giordano recreated from the original recording, is full of cinematic flourishes. <<>>
Another jazz standard included on the album is I Thought about You, whose arrangement is in the style of the jazz and swing era, rather than the earlier style of most of the album. <<>>
The title track I’d Rather Lead a Band is one of the now-obscure songs, but it was written by Irving Berlin and was featured in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical in 1936. It’s another great example of the authentic sound of the album, and the brilliance of Giordano and the band. <<>>
If you are looking for a track does, I think, cross the line from being cleverly authentic to more than a bit corny, it’s the closing song, a sentimental waltz called More I Cannot Wish You. But lyrically it provides a nice valedictory. <<>>
I’d Rather Lead a Band the new album by Loudon Wainwright III with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, is the kind of recording listening to which one can’t help but smile. The songs with their quaint lyrics, and whimsical arrangements definitely evoke sounds from 90 to 100 years ago, from the Prohibition Age up to the beginning of the Swing Era. Wainwright is obviously having fun with the songs, and his vocal style works surprisingly well. But I think the album’s star is Giordano, whose brilliantly authentic orchestrations, and razor sharp playing by the Nighthawks gives this album so much charm. It captures the best of the era, while minimizing the aspects that could be considered corny. Giordano has been at this for quite a while, and his work as been employed by many a film director over the years. In a way, it’s nice to hear the focus on the songs themselves, and it’s a great selection, including some clever but obscure gems.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” The album is cleanly recorded throughout, nicely capturing all the little details of the arrangements, and with Wainwright’s vocals sounding warm and unfettered by studio effects.
There is a lot of retro music about these days, but not a lot from the 1920s and 1930s. Loudon Wainwright with Vince Giordano have created a great album that illustrates how much fun music from that era can be.
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