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Shadowfields: Festival for One
by George Graham
(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/21/2019)
Male-female singer-songwriter duos seem to be becoming popping up with increaing frequency on the scene these days. There has been a spate of sibling and spouse groups, often with the kind of vocal harmonies that come from people growing up or sharing a life together.
This week we have another album from a co-ed songwriter duo, whose partnership is a professional one, but whose musical collaboration has been going now for some thirteen years. They have just released their sixth recording together. It’s the duo of Heather Humphrey and Tom McKeown, formerly known as Humphrey-McKeown and now calling themselves Shadowfields. Their new release bears the title Festival for One.
New York native Heather Humphrey and Chicagoan Tom McKeown first met in 2006, when at an informal gathering, when multi-instrumentalist McKeown asked if anyone present had an interest in writing songs. Ms. Humphrey said yes, and they began their collaboration, at first composing songs to sell to publishers in Nashville for use by others. Over about five years, they wrote over 100 such songs, many of which were turned down. More centered on songwriting, they were initially reluctant to perform the songs before audiences, but began to get a positive reaction to their music once they did at open mics and the like. They released their first album together in 2012, called When the World Was Young featuring a bunch of songs that they wrote that were passed over by the music publishers. At first, it was just the duo, but over the years they worked with various band members both in the studio and in performance. They settled on a more or less constant group for their 2016 album All I Wanted to Hear which we featured in this review series. In the wake of their following album Tapestry of Shadows in 2017, they toured extensively, and while on the road began writing material for what would become this album, Festival For One. Being that it as more of a band effort, and they felt that the name Humphrey-McKeown sounded more like a law firm than a band, so they renamed the group Shadowfields for the new project. The rest of the group includes drummer Jim Livas, who has been with the duo for several years now, bassist Tony Meadors, and violinist Gary Jacklin. In addition to his electric and acoustic guitars, McKeown plays other bluegrass instrumentation, such as banjo and mandolin, and so in the context of the band it’s sort of bluegrassy rock. Ms. Humphrey plays mainly piano. They describe their music as “Americana Swamp-Grass, Neo-Gypsy, Folk-Rock.” And the songs they bring, most of them quite articulate lyrically, make for music that goes beyond the singer-songwriter or folk cliches, with interesting instrumental textures, and a nice division of vocal labor among Humphrey and McKeown, alternating lead vocals and doing a fair amount of harmonizing. In fact on one tune, a whole chorus of backing vocalists are brought in. Like their previous efforts, the album was self-produced in their own studio.
Opening is a song called Awake which spotlights the album’s blend of rock elements with some bluegrass instrumentation, including the fiddle and mandolin. It’s a kind of encouragement to someone who is in a funk from the end of a bad relationship. <<>>
Only Words is a has a more contemplative sound for its lyrics about the heartbreak of a lost love. <<>>
A kind of old-fashioned hippy wish for changing the world for the better is the subject of a track called Sweet Love. The bluegrassy banjo is prominent in the arrangement. <<>> Toward the end, to stress the kind of wish for everyone to join in, a large chorus of backing vocalists make an appearance. <<>>
Alice is a song about girl with an apparently rather different perspective on the world. The band’s instrumentation and arrangement gives the story the right amount of intrigue. <<>>
Wish I Could has as its refrain, “Wish I could change the world,” but here the purpose of changing the world is more personal, to make things better for the significant other in the lyrics. <<>>
The “swamp-grass” in the band’s self-description of their music is represented on the song Sing It Kinda Slow, which also has one of the album’s more elaborate arrangements. It’s another song in which the duo’s lyrics can be interpreted as applying to the state of the world. <<>>
One of the more cryptic sets of lyrics comes on the song The Deed Is Done. It’s one of the more memorable tracks from its instrumentation with the mandolin featured prominently. <<>>
The album ends with My Clues, whose lyrics are the source of the album’s title “Festival of One.” It’s kind of elaborate love song, and also features a good use of the band’s distinctive instrumentation. <<>>
Festival For One the new album by Shadowfields, formerly known as Humphrey McKeown, is a thoroughly worthwhile recording that takes the singer-songwriter duo format and makes it more interesting through their bluegrass-influenced but electric rock arrangements. The band’s material is astute lyrically, and their vocals are strong, with the duo alternating on doing lead vocals but also engaging in some admirable harmonies.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The mix is clean, the vocals are well-recorded, and there are no dumb studio effects. Dynamic range, how well the recording captures the ebb and flow of the performance, is not great, but better than most recent releases.
There is a certain appeal that a co-ed singer-songwriter duo can have. Heather Humphrey and Tom McKeown, as Shadowfields, in their partnership, have created good deal of music over the past 13 years. Their new album is probably their best yet.
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