FROM THE SWAMP, WITH LOVE
In early July, Greensboro songwriter Molly McGinn began to unfurl a kind of semi-epic Parnassian for the digital set, a weekly series of online vignettes and companion music born from an existential crisis. Broke and in need of deliverance, even if only temporary, she began “Googling for Water,” as the title of the first entry goes. In the literal sense, she just needed a swimming hole. In the ontological sense, it was a search for an axis mundi via search engine. She found both in the Great Dismal Swamp “” more specifically, Lake Drummond “” late last fall. Her final destination, however, was the Triad Stage Friday night, where she unveiled the resulting composition and its chronicles, entitled Postcards from the Swamp, as a fully-formed, sweepingly beautiful live performance for the first time.
As a songwriter, McGinn has long practiced an anti-Romantic aesthetic; the gloomy allure of the tragic hero (or in this case, heroine) ran strong through her trio Amelia’s Mechanics, and Wurlitzer Prize, her duo with Possum Jenkins’ Dave Willis, upturned classic country’s more masculine tropes. This solo release as a whole, as she alluded in the spoken third chapter of Postcards, implies fatigue within that domain. She cited the lake as Irish balladeer Thomas Moore’s muse for the haunting “A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp,” but noted, “I’m tired of poems about women dying over love”¦We’re supposed to become love, not chase it,” leading into “Glass Hills in Steel Heels”, her hushed serenade on equal terms with the glowing embers of Phil Cook’s electric piano.
Cook, most well known as one-third of idle Durham freak folk trio Megafaun, contributed to the recording of Postcards from the Swamp, along with Willis, Mandolin Orange associate Jeff Crawford and Hiss Golden Messenger drummer Terry Lonergan. They also formed McGinn’s core backing unit for this live presentation, and as could have been ascertained from chapter four of “Postcards”, much more help was on the way.
Most endearing is that story in which McGinn describes the aid she received from Greensboro bluesman Logie Meachum in securing a gospel choir “” all at the price of a tin of sardines, some saltines and a tallboy; a most surefire hangover cure if there ever was one. She received Meachum and soul chanteuse Robin Doby Easter to the stage to deliver the devotion, Meachum with his porkpie over his heart and Easter with eyes closed and hands out as if Cook’s church organ were a baptismal rain. The scene exploded in a gospel-soul promenade, with McGinn, Easter and Meachum all taking turns at absolution on the mic. Then, as expected, that choir swept in from the wings ten-strong, their vitality pushing upwards through the compact, vertically angled room, and McGinn’s composition completely took flight.
Funny that it’s follow-up would be a cheeky song penned in the spirit of a floating theatre that once occupied the Dismal waters, one about a little girl who’d lose her best dress every time she’d go to play in those waters. It was the only one amidst McGinn’s song cycle “” at only six songs and under 25 minutes on record, it’s not quite an EP, not quite an LP “” that felt uniquely designed to entertain. The rest were interconnected idylls that served a greater purpose akin to Waxahatchee’s existentially searching Cerulean Salt (coincidentally, it also shared an album cover motif). They also just happened to be really, really fun to hear.
The listening aspect, as it happened, took a different shape depending on where you sat. Stage right behind Cook, where his stage monitor sat behind him and pointed outward, was awash in Wurlitzer soul, while across from him, Willis’s swampy guitar thrashed like an alligator with caught prey. Cook’s band the Guitarheels presented a more unified aesthetic during their closing set, if only because his selections were more individually single-minded. Even though its lineup had exactly two rehearsals together, he quickly established his band as the powerhouse collective they are purported to be with the rollicking jam “Ain’t It Sweet”. (His brother and Megafaun band mate Brad Cook couldn’t make it, so he enlisted Mount Moriah bassist Casey Toll.)
Most of his songs skewed tender in comparison; the anti-lullaby “Ellis, It’s Time to Wake Up”, an homage to the disorienting psychedelia that his son experiences immediately post naptime, was awash in reverbed guitar and nothing else save for the audience singing along to that one line at his behest. Cook’s own gregarious personality kept the room on its toes, telling hilarious, off the cuff personal stories, and occasionally just throwing out terrible jokes as a barometer for how far he could go (the two peanuts/assaulted goof did not draw a single groan).
Cook mostly stayed away from his recorded catalog, opting instead to dig deep into the canon that serves as his “” and McGinn’s “” primary influence. His interpretation, and likely to many, the total introduction to obscure ’20s gospel mystic Washington Phillips via “Take Your Burden to the Lord” transformed Phillip’s double zither compositions into a crescendo-ing twin guitar ballet, the warm piano of James Wallace serving as the melodic backbone. He also took a lateral route to Fats Domino’s “So Swell When You’re Well” through Wisconsin folk revisionist Charlie Parr’s “1922 Blues”, before ending with the night’s other real rocker, the Ry Cooder version of the early roots staple “Boomer’s Story”. In between, he might have jammed the pleasure buttons of hardcore Justin Vernon/DeYarmond Edison/Megafaun fans by offering up his versions of “Where We Belong” and “Love Long Gone”.
His fascination with weaving those ancient tunes into his oeuvre invokes a noteworthy refrain, nonetheless. There’s no hard, fast formula for elections into the folk and gospel canon. That the music of a Washington Phillips should be a suitable doctoral topic, as he noted, or that Ry Cooder was instrumental in keeping the name Carson Robison afloat speaks to how time, personal connection and, to a degree, nostalgia can empower the right songs in perpetuity. McGinn’s songs on Postcards from the Swamp seem to fit that mold. It’s a production of Filthybird’s Brian Haran, and likewise, Phil Cook’s brother Brad is producing his partner Renee Mendoza’s solo project. Its connec- tions are strong and its intentions sincere. Now all it needs is a little time. !