Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Older and Wiser: A Review of the Music of Craig Sonnenfeld

There is knowledge that comes with experience and there is the more refined knowledge,
that which we call Wisdom, that comes with experience over time. It has been my great
privilege to be able to write this review of two CDs’ worth of music by Craig Sonnenfeld,
a Boston-area singer/songwriter whose accomplished musicianship and lyrical wisdom
are equally worthy of note.

This is my first time reviewing two CDs from the same artist in a single music essay and
it has been an experience with a great deal of merit. Perhaps the greatest barometer for
measuring an artist is not a single work, but the arc and growth of his or her work over
time. With that in mind, I offer the following thoughts on Craig’s two CDs, Reverie,
recorded in 2004 and produced by Steve Rapson, and Storm Clouds Rising from 2005
(New Roots Records, www.newrootsrecords.com), produced by Craig and Steve
Friedman.

In introducing new artists to our readers here at New Mystics, I am often inclined to
reference mainstream artists to create a common language of art. In Craig’s case, the
comparisons are somewhat heady, as you will see, and deservedly so. Decades of life
have gone into these two CDs, both with guitar in hand and not. Because he is writing
about a long life well lived, I sense the same depth of perspective shown in the latest
albums by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and, albeit without the pain, of the last works of
Johnny Cash (you can read my tribute to Johnny on my Literature Page).

So, to the business and biography, and then on to the music.

Both CDs are available through Craig’s website, www.craigsonnenfeld.com, where you
can also read some other reviews and find out some cool things about Craig not contained
in this review. There was also a short article on Craig at
www.insiteboston.com/Jan06/music.html. The article refers to Storm Clouds Rising as a
“somber romp,” which seems to me to be a contradiction in terms, “with little comic
relief” and a “low mood.” Not to take umbrage with a fellow reviewer (our work is, by
nature, highly subjective) but I hope this review does a better job of representing just how
varied and nuanced Craig’s second CD actually is.

Craig, who originally hails from Atlantic City (Jersey in the house!), had left his music
behind for more than twenty years and Reverie, his first release, marks his return to
playing, writing, and performing, inspired in part by a trip to see the Rolling Stones in
concert and mostly by the encouragement of long-time friends. In his youth his guitar
teacher was Philadelphia Jerry Ricks who was playing at the time with Mississippi John
Hurt, Son House, and Skip James, and Craig aptly demonstrates all he learned. He thanks
several Boston area Open Mic hosts on the liner notes for Reverie, and he also played in
Jersey in 2005 at the New Jersey Folk Festival at Rutgers University and at the festival in
Ocean City, NJ where Tom Rush headlined. His music is played regularly on Jim
Albertson’s “Down Jersey Jim” show on WSNJ in south Jersey. Craig has also played
twice at The Bitter End in NYC, where he was part of the singer-songwriters showcase.
His CDs have also been broadcast internationally in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel,
and the Netherlands.

Reverie is just Craig and his guitar, easing back in as it were, and he wrote all 12 songs
except for “Wayfaring Stranger,” which is a traditional tune. In the folk tradition, no song
(on either CD) is less than 4 and a half minutes and one runs 7 and a half. The cover art
on Reverie was done by his daughter Amanda.

“Junebug” is a ballad about his father’s death that establishes him firmly in the singing
storyteller tradition, a role he plays out with passion, insight, and success throughout both
CDs. “The Joke’s on Me” evokes the bittersweet songs of Jim Croce. “Talkin’ Cubicle
Blues” is an autobiographical piece with no small amount of humor in the tradition of
such Talkin’ Blues folksingers as Bob Dylan. “Bantry Bay” brings to mind the strolling
minstrel vocal quality of Glenn Yarbrough, a quality that is equally strong on the wryly
humorous and insightful “Now that I’m a Geezer.” “Two AM Blues” has a deep
southern-style Blues feel that’s hard to ignore, while Craig’s arrangement of “Wayfaring
Stranger” has all the haunting qualities of some of my favorite songs on Storm Clouds
Rising. “Hills of Wicklow” borrows from the Irish ballad tradition (there are songs on
Storm Clouds Rising that also have a feel that brings to mind the emotionally loaded
songs of Andy M. Stewart and Tommy Sands). Craig seems to have thought a lot about
the comings and goings, the joys and sorrows of Love, as any poetic folksinger must, and
there is much for the listener to think about in turn on “The Only Promise” and the last
three tracks on Reverie, “Too Young, Too Poor, Too Bad,” “The Song that Never Came,”
and “You’ll Always Be There.”

In general, Storm Clouds Rising is a richer and more complex disk (which is not meant to
take anything away from the overall atmosphere of Reverie), featuring several guest
musicians (Steve Rapson on electric guitar, Steve Sadler on dobro, Valerie Thompson on
cello, Lee Adler on keyboards, and Deb Blackadar on percussion), no more than two
playing on any given song. This sparse arrangement really helps to draw focus to the
depth of Craig’s lyrics and his talent with the guitar. Storm Clouds Rising has been
garnering high praise from no less than Bob Franke, and it’s easy to see why.

“Rope of Sand,” the lead-off tune, is a Western ballad in the style of “Ghost Riders in the
Sky,” Garth Brooks’ “Lonesome Dove,” and Dylan’s “Romance in Durango,” and, of
course, the songs of Johnny Cash. Craig’s songwriting universe appears to have expanded
out from the solely autobiographical to the more general Human Experience between the
two CDs, and this change is couched in a larger historical context that manifests
throughout the CD. For instance, “Rope of Sand” is thematically echoed on the last song
of this 9 song set, “Ten Steps to Climb,” which tells the story of a Civil War era ex-
soldier awaiting his hanging in a prison for the crime of killing his wife’s lover.

“Sweet Liza Jane” has a bluegrass feel with nice dobro work. Craig further explores the
bluegrass style in a more vigorous way on “Devil on the Run,” which immediately
brought to mind the awesome guitar work and rich vocals of Dan Tyminski, of Alison
Krauss and Union Station. This is definitely one you’ll want to turn up loud!

There are several haunting compositions on Storm Clouds Rising. “Anne Frank’s Eyes” is
beautifully played and heartfully wrought, and according to some correspondence from
Craig, has been getting the most attention. The lyrics were posted in English and
translated into German by a multicultural youth website from Oberhausen and included in
an article they did on Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where Anne Frank died
(http://www.multi-online.org/downloads/dailynews/daily_news_7.pdf). It has also been
played on the Midnight Special radio show (in a set list that included Tom Chapin, Joni
Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, and Janis Ian). The song was also
syndicated nationally on XM satellite radio and 70 other stations. “Masquerade” has
especially atmospheric cello playing. My favorite track on both CDs, and, to me, the most
haunting (for those who know me, you can see the correlation) is “The Lighthouse,”
which tells the story of a young New England husband lost at sea and the widow he
leaves behind. I’d like to quote the chorus:

“She begged me not to sail so soon
But I was young and heard the tune
Of southern winds and ancient ruins
Of whaling ships and gold doubloons”

I think these four lines will give you a very good idea of just how talented a writer Craig
Sonnenfeld really is. “The Lighthouse” has been getting regular airplay on both WOMR
FM on Cape Cod and Troubadour AM in Shirley, Mass. WOMR had Craig into the
studio for an interview as well.

“Catch Some Z’s” echoes the more humorous numbers on Reverie, with a wonderful tick-
tock rhythm added by Deb Blackadar’s percussion.

“The Very Last Time that We Kissed” features some interesting keyboard atmosphere
from Lee Adler and a subtle effect on the vocals that works very well.

I want to mention in closing that Craig is holding the same Ibanez acoustic with cutaway
body that I have been playing for the past two years...I’m still searching for all those
great licks that he’s managed to find in there...

Craig, if you’re listening, I’m ready to learn them!

Craig let me know that he’s got a full CD’s worth of songs already written and should be
back in the studio in 2007.

I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

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