There are two kinds of “Fred Heads” (dedicated Fred Eaglesmith fans). Some relish his songwriting skills. His ability to evoke life on the farm and the pleasures of being on the rural route have been celebrated by notable artists such as Lucinda Williams, Robbie Fulks, and Kasey Chambers. But anyone who has seen Eaglesmith live knows he talks as much (if not more) than he sings. Some prefer his banter full of corny old jokes, silly tall tales, and rambling stories. Truth be told, there is not all that much difference between Fred’s two sides. Even when he’s earnestly addressing bucolic concerns in a heartfelt tune, his insights come from a skewed perspective. And when Fred’s doing his between-song spiels, his comments obliquely reflect on the material at hand.
Eaglesmith has been touring and recording with his wife, the singer and multi-instrumentalist Tif Ginn, for several years. The duo complement each other’s talents. Her playing allows Eaglesmith to draw lyrical concerns without losing the thread of a song, and her female voice smooths over his rough singing style and makes the material sound easier on the ears.
Alive should please both kinds of Eaglesmith and Ginn fans. The 34-track, double-album captures the duo having a good night at a 2019 concert at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia. The songs and spiels are somewhat divided between a nostalgic look at living in the country and reveling in the liberation provided by rock and roll music on tracks like “Cultivator” and “Betty Oshawa”. That mirrors Eaglesmith’s biography. He grew up in the Canadian boondocks before taking off to the city and becoming a traveling musician.
Because Alive was recorded before the recent pandemic, there’s something strangely dated about the whole concept of performing before a live audience. Of course, there is no way the two musicians would have known what the future would bring. As a result, there is a time capsule quality to the product to show us what seemed important then. And because many of the songs discuss mechanical farming, trains, cowboys, tractors, and trucking, there is already a looking backward aspect to the production.
Eaglesmith has a gruff but pleasing personality. He’ll badger the crowd about the importance of experiencing life versus having a more mediated existence, with his large personality serving as an example of what that means. He passionately delivers his songs so that one can’t help but wonder how he hasn’t broken a string, or his voice doesn’t crack as hits the vocal climax. But Eaglesmith and Ginn are professional troubadours. They know how far to push without getting sloppy.
Because so much of the album is taken up by Eaglesmith’s humorous shticks about everything from cover bands to electric cars, it’s easy to overlook just how good the songs are. This album serves as an introduction to their repertoire. As this is a live record, the ardor in which the duo perform material one might already know also matters. They make old tunes, especially the ones about past heartbreak such as “6 Volts”, “Cigarette Machine”, and “Kansas” sound as if the pain was still fresh. The songs still bring a tear to one’s eyes, even when presented between jokes at a small club in Northern Virginia. That’s how powerful they are.
Alive might suffer from the same fate as most live albums. How often does one want to hear the same repartee? The acoustics aren’t as crisp as in the studio. But the records’ charms far outweigh its limitations. It’s highly recommended to old fans and those who have yet to discover the duo.