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The first time I met Edie Brickell was in the summer of 1988. "What I Am," the first single from Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, her band's major-label debut, was in heavy rotation on Q102, and the newly famous Edie Brickell and New Bohemians played a show outdoors in the West End. The band was happy, young and a bit overwhelmed by the size of its hometown crowd.
After the show the band sat down at a table to sign autographs. I reached up onto the stage, grabbed the set list and stood in line. When it was my turn Brickell took the set list from me and, next to "What I Am," added: "is what I am & this is who I am...Edie Brickell." Then she drew a little smiley face. She was cute, shy and maybe a little embarrassed about the whole thing. The song hit the top of the Billboard charts a month or two later.
Fast-forward 16 years, and a lot has changed. For starters, there aren't free concerts in the West End anymore, New Bohemians broke up (well, sorta--more on that later), Brickell is living in New York and by all accounts happily married to Paul Simon (she was unavailable for interview because she was at home celebrating a birthday for one of her children), and few radio stations play the kind of music that she's currently making.
Whereas her work with New Bohemians was trippy and raw with extended jams and improvised melodies and lyrics, Volcano is the type of controlled, mellow and focused music that grown-ups make. Comparisons to Norah Jones' slow delivery and sparse arrangements are inevitable. Whereas 1994's Picture Perfect Morning, her first solo album, was so soulful that Barry White didn't sound too out of place, Volcano is more breezy and adult-contemporary. With such a stylistic break from her past and without any members of her old band on it, it almost seems more her solo debut than sophomore effort.
Recorded with ace studio musicians and produced by Austin's Charlie Sexton, there's nary an up-tempo song on the album. Still, songs like "Once in a Blue Moon" are captivating. With its clean electric guitar lines weaving around the relaxed vocal and complicated but subtle drum rhythm, the track builds to a climax and then gently subsides as acoustic guitars and simple keyboards enter and leave the mix. Brickell is also still adept at incorporating odd details and characters into her lyrics like none other. "What Would You Do," which was the one song written during the recording sessions to make it to the album, revolves around a girl "barely old enough to legally drive" who has "a restlessness that blew her over the line/Like the wind inside an aluminum can" and asks the rhetorical question "What would you do if you were me? When it's suicide to stay and murder to leave."
Touring now with a backing band that includes Sexton and Dallasites Carter Albrecht and Dave Monsey from the Sparrows, Brickell's live show is a bit more spontaneous. Sound checks are often a breeding ground for new material, which often makes it into the regular set list.
Keyboardist Albrecht, who also spent some time onstage with the Slip and the reunited New Bohemians, notes that "Edie will write a lot of songs just in our sound checks. She can improvise at the drop of a hat anytime, so if she says she wants to jam, you better do it because there's going to be a song coming out of it. She blushes when you compliment her about it, but there's something inside of her where she kinda puts her foot down and says she's going to be good, and then she is."
"We do a fair amount of improv, but we don't just get up and jam on something without knowing what it is," Sexton says. "It's all in the structure of a new song we're working on."
The live band has even been performing a rearranged "What I Am," adding a Miles Davis bit to the beginning and replacing the song's signature bendy guitar solo with jazzy drums and bass solos.
Meanwhile, New Bohemians play regularly at the All Good Cafe and other places without Brickell, mostly for fun, and then separately in different bands more seriously. The Live Montauk Sessions, recorded in 1999, turned out to be only a brief reunion for Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. Recorded mostly live in the studio, the album features "Came a Long Way" and "Rush Around," which are also on Volcano. Brickell and part of the band also played together a couple of years ago as the Slip. Both incarnations seemed like earnest attempts to reunite, but record deals didn't come through, putting the bands on indefinite hold.
But among all the current and former bandmates of Brickell, there are no hard feelings. "Enough time has gone by that I think we all support each other in every way. Maybe when we first took a break from being a band that was weird for a bit, but even then we kept in touch and remained close," says New Bohemians percussionist John Bush. "Now it's definitely no big deal if we do our own thing." In fact, Bush will miss seeing Brickell's Austin show on May 8 only because his new band, Foamy, is opening up for the Spin Doctors at the Firewater Bar and Grill that night.