Mudcat – Castaway

Capping a year marked by noteworthy ambition and dispiriting, if necessary, transitions, the day after their full-cast release performance of this album at the since-shuttered Avondale Towne Cinema on December 1st Danny Dudeck announced that “thus ends the Mudcat band,” further clarifying in a comment that he’s “going acoustic.” If that surprise disclosure holds true, it’s a cryin’ shame, because they’ve always been one of Atlanta’s most reliably invigorating and entertaining bands – but Lordy, what a run! Like, what, 30 years, give or take? That’s just amazing.

Listening to Castaway, it’s clear they’ve gone out at their peak, and then some. It’s an ambitious, conceptional work inspired at least in part by Dudeck’s own genealogy. “The Dudeck family immigrated to the United States in 1870 from Silesia Poland,” reads a brief passage on the inside cover, “boarding the BERLIN in Bremen Germany and arriving in the port of Baltimore Maryland.” Caught in the tide between where the old world dies and the new one begins.

The 11 songs flow as if interconnected, expressing common themes throughout the journey. Faith and perils. Love and temptation. Redemption, death and rebirth. What lives on from our ancestors, buried long ago but not forgotten, is the growing family, the descendants. Now, I can’t necessarily pick up on a linear narrative on Castaway that tells a story from song to song. What is more apparent, however, is that these songs give glimpses into scenes that more fully complete the picture. The album is, after all, presented as a soundtrack, an original cast recording.

So when “God Please Bless America” marches in right off the bat with a battalion of brass, drums (Eskil Wetterquist in the pocket), guitars and the Luna Strings (violin, viola and cello), as Dudeck laments that “My baby went off to school today/ I don’t know if I’m going to see my baby again/ We’re not promised tomorrow,” it places it right in midst of the madness of today’s broken culture more so than an echo of late 19th century concerns.

As he’s done periodically throughout the many lineups of Mudcat, Dudeck enlists a striking female vocal counterpoint to his raggedy dirt road delivery that vacillates between a preacher’s fervor and an undertaker’s solemnity. Here that role is filled fabulously by Mandi Strachota, who duets with Dudeck on many of the songs, and sings lead on the title track, which launches a three-pronged brass midsection (The Atlanta Horns, bless them) in the midst of a repeating riff, for a hypnotic vibe that could’ve landed it on Moondance.

The styles cover a wide range of musical Americana – not in the alt-country/singer-songwriter sense for which the term has been appropriated, but in the cross-section of American music forms that gleefully intersect: blues, jazz, gospel, country… The Southeastern Woodlands meet the Bayou in “Cherokee Rose,” a dash of rollicking early Rock ‘n’ Roll USA, fitting since it’s presented in memory of Chuck Berry. “Country Life,” an 18th century English ballad, comes to life here as a stripped-down backporch spiritual, with harmonica courtesy of Joey Hoegger. Dudeck, Strachota and Wetterquist all take turns on lead vocals on “How Long,” a hopeful folk song with a Southern gospel-inflected chorus that sounds like something that could’ve been captured on an old field recording by a traveling folklorist.

The sentiments of “Lamps are Lighting” lead perfectly into – and parallel – the six-minute centerpiece “You Are the Sun.” With its reference to “heavenly bodies” and organ passage (via keyboardist Chad Mason, who shines throughout the album) that one could imagine swelling through pipes in a magnificent cathedral, “Sun” is one of those declarations of awe, salvation and unwavering love that could just as readily be a devotional to the Lord above as much as an expression of gratitude to a significant other. Sung as a duet between Dudeck and Strachota – the latter of whom brings a drop-to-your-knees gospel power to lines about being “lost in the darkness” while “your brilliance is leading me home” – it’s sort of half soulful hymn, half New Orleans street band.

Late night urban saxophone coaxes “Mysterium Tremendum” into the headlights, its electric piano sunglass-cool and shifty, the slide guitar woozy and wobbly, as Dudeck and Strachota pace around each other’s shadows for what might be the underside of the previous song, where jealousy and regrets cloud the luster and the gospel-blues delivery is steamed up by some liquor-fueled grinding on the streetcorner…but with whom?

Dudeck’s mournful slide guitar, Jacob Holiday’s careful bass and Mason’s piano guide “Spiral” both downward and upward. The ominous “Rise” contrasts “fields in decay” on the one hand with a bounty “rising from the ground/ Enough to feed us all…even climbing walls” on the other. “Villains are at the gate,” Strachota sings at another juncture, “and our kingdom soon will crash.” Is this the same America that the opening song pleaded with God to have mercy upon?

With Hoegger returning with his harmonica, “Simple Life” brings the album to an acoustic country-blues close with sentiments that foreshadow Dudeck’s decision to draw the curtains on the band: “This electric living’s not good for woman or man,” he proclaims. “Pull the plug from the socket, put away our toys/ We won’t miss a thing but that lonely noise.”

These recordings surpass anything Mudcat’s previously recorded, while Dudeck’s poetic words are drawn from a deep realm he’d not tapped prior. It encapsulates all that has gone into Mudcat, into Dudeck’s music, over these past several decades, and presents it in a way that’s at once confident, mature, reverent and fresh. Who, dancing into the wee, wee hours at the Northside or some other crosstown dive to the infectious scrappy magic conjured by this band 20, 25 years ago would’ve imagined they’d craft a recording as nuanced and sublime as this? Yet everything has been leading to this.

After successfully completing such a work, it’s understandable that a man would choose to step back or take a hard turn into the opposite direction. It’s also clear that Danny Dudeck has far too broad a vision to limit to just acoustic solo shows. It’s worth noting that dozens upon dozens of fine musicians have passed through the group’s ranks over a long period of time, while Dudeck, as always, is Mudcat. While I always look forward to seeing him perform, whatever the incarnation, I think it’s highly unlikely we’ve seen the very last of Mudcat in a band or ensemble setting.

[30 Miles Up]