- Banjo Dan, Spirits
(Self-released, CD, digital)
"Banjo Dan" Lindner's lucky number is seven. That's because seven was the number worn by New York Yankees great Mickey Mantle, writes Lindner in the liner notes to Spirits, his seventh solo album. Linder also reveals that after 50 years, 17 studio albums — including many with his trailblazing Vermont bluegrass band the Mid-Nite Plowboys — two live records and one DVD, Spirits is his last record.
Having covered Lindner for the past 15 years — amazingly, just a fraction of his career — I'll say this: I'll believe that when I see it. Or rather, when I don't. After the Plowboys called it quits in 2012 following a 40-year run, Lindner didn't slip quietly into retirement. He continued to perform and record at an admirable clip. And the Plowboys have been known to reappear on stages around the Green Mountains from time to time, as well. But if Spirits really is Lindner's last record, it's a heck of a "swan song," as he puts it.
It's actually 13 swan songs, if we're being particular, including 12 originals and a twangified version of, appropriately enough, "Swan Lake." They represent what Lindner considers to be some of the finest songwriting of his career. It's hard to argue with him. Like many of his 100-plus original tunes, the new material blends sweet sentimentality with winking charm. But as its title implies, Spirits is, well, a spiritual sort of record. And as one might expect, Lindner's is a gentle sort of spirituality.
Opener "Pandora" waltzes in on a rolling banjo line and Jon Glik's lilting fiddle as Lindner recounts the Greek myth of Pandora's box. But the following track, "Tell the Bees," really sets the album's tone.
Bob Amos, one of many notable Vermont guests, takes lead vocals, giving life to Lindner's writing in his pure, clear tenor. "Tell the bees the hour is nigh / Time has come to say goodbye," Amos sings, harmonizing with his daughter, Sarah Amos, and Lindner. Then, "When my last frail breath is drawn / Tell the bees to fly me home."
On "Jesus Wept," inspired by the closest thing to an expletive Lindner's Quaker mother was ever heard to utter, he wonders what J.C. might weep about if he returned now. Predictably, Lindner finds no shortage of material — "A dark morass of evil and despair / a viper's pit of sin and misery," he sings.
That's not to say Lindner's spiritual ruminations are all bleak. "The Big Game" is a rowdy bluegrass romp set at a poker game with the Devil — voiced by Nate Gusakov — with the highest stakes imaginable. And brother Willy Lindner takes the lead on the album's most uplifting track, "Rainbow."
The record, and perhaps Banjo Dan's recording career, closes on "Wooly Bear," about an old Vermont tradition of predicting the length of an upcoming winter by the stripes on the woolly bear caterpillar. It's a metaphor, of course, which Lindner reveals with his signature humble style, singing, "Wooly Bear, Wooly Bear, what do you know? / Will we have a mild winter, or 10 feet of snow? / Will we ever find respite amid all this strife? / Will we ever find peace in this life?"
Spirits is available at banjodan.com.