What drives someone to become a performer? Conceit? A passion to be heard? Dissatisfaction with other entertainers? Madness?
What drives someone to become a performer that puts their neck literally on the line?
What drives someone to become an assassin? Conceit? A passion to be heard? Dissatisfaction? Madness?
New York City has a great banjo player and songwriter embodied in Curtis Eller, as evidenced by his newest full length recording: "Wirewalkers and Assassins". These ten songs aren't exactly a cycle but they do touch upon some reoccurring themes (as illustrated by the CD's title). Circus performers, killers and other celebrities peak from behind curtains and strut boldly onto center stage.
Tightrope walkers, assassins and celebrities all have one thing in common: they all have somewhere to fall. And, damn, they can fall hard (though Booth managed to keep going after breaking his leg when he jumped from Lincoln's box to the stage.) But there-in is the essence of drama: the great brought low. It's the goal of an assassin and the end result of many entertaining careers.
Eller is a great storyteller. He takes the tale of John Wiles Booth and carves it into a classic murder ballad ("The Curse of Cain"). He shapes boxer Joe Louis in to an object of veneration, the focus of a condemned man's prayer (on the closer "Save Me Joe Louis"). On "Plea of the Aerialist's Wife" he remolds himself into a country crooner (reminding me of the great Rex Hobart). On this one song he manages to make heartbreak and fear seem both personal and universal. The tunes aren't always downers though, "Sweatshop Fire" and "Firing Squad" are barn burners and flag wavers... rural vaudevillian calls-to-arms. They remind us of a time when folk music was insurrection music, protest music.
Curtis' unease, his dissatisfaction makes him a backwoods troubadour on par with Steve Earl. Both seemed burdened by the past, what could-have-been and the shadows those events throw on the present. This album is haunted by the (American) Civil War and by the killing of a president that followed it. One man can follow a vision and take action. But what vision? What action?
Curtis Eller's troubled soul is palpable on this recording, but he isn't without hope. He finds strength in love and in people's ability to endure... and, most potently, in the witty turn of a phrase.
Perhaps his feelings can be summed up by paraphrasing the Brown Bomber: "We're gonna win 'cause we're on Joe Louis' side."