Chris Daniels "Better Days" www.chrisdaniels.com
Before this past September, I had never heard of Chris Daniels. Never noticed mention of his long-running, Colorado-based band The Kings. Knew nothing of his connection to Telluride, where he closed each Friday evening for ten years, or his long-ago collaborations with David Johansen or New Grass Revival.
Since then, I've learned that Daniels, who has been enough of a mainstay on the Colorado music scene that he is to be inducted into that state's Music Hall of Fame with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others. I've come to appreciate Daniel's straightforward approach to roots music. Much like Darrell Scott, Daniels takes forty years of influences and creates something that is entirely his own from them.
Having recorded with The Kings since the mid-80s, "Better Days" is Daniels' first 'solo' album. Solo in that his name is on the cover. Daniels is joined throughout the 14-track album by an impressive list of collaborators including an Americana "who's who": Richie Furay sings on a couple tracks, Sam Bush brings his fiddle and mandolin along for a pair, Mollie O'Brien duets, while Lloyd Maines and Glenn Fukunaga brings a little Austin to the disc. Also appearing are Greg Garrison, John McVey, and Ernie Martinez, among many others. It is an impressive list, but what is most telling is the cohesion with which such an expansive slate of players and vocalist bring to the recording.
Some of the songs are new, others go back thirty years and more. A selection of songs- including the freewheeling Cabin Fever and languid South Carolina- appear twice during the set. These songs, which were written by Daniels, also appear as part of a very nice bonus live set recorded at Telluride 1985 with New Grass Revival. Rose Colored Glasses- not the John Conlee song- gently helps the woman who loves Daniels see the positive aspects of his personality, while Eldorado Canyon has a mid-80s Michael Martin Murphey feel about it.
Challenges are faced straight on in both Sister Delores and I Still Think Of You. Sister Delores features one of my favorite phrases; used here, "Foxhole Christian" reveals both the reality through which Daniels sees himself and the faith he experiences within a caregiver. Sister Delores is one of the select songs that directly address Daniels' battle with leukemia. Without a hint of manipulation, each phrase of I Still Think of You tempts a tear to fall; Molly O'Brien's vocal gifts simply make the song that much more acute.
Not everything about "Better Days" hints at gloom. Rather, the album has a positive vibe that emphasizes the endurance of spirit over defeat. Medical Marijuana is a loopy lark while Therapy is a horn-rich ode to turning the page on the asses who attempt to ruin our perspective. Old Man Das is the requisite near-grass instrumental; it moves along at a fine clip. Good Ole Beast and This Old Guitar are love stories Guy Clark would quite possibly take pride in.
Closing the album are three or four songs (depending on the version of the album purchased) featuring Daniels fronting New Grass Revival. As with all things NGR, they're pretty cool. The quality of these recordings is a bit suspect, but any loss in fidelity is made up by their grand intensity. NGR completists who are tempted to seek out "Better Days" just for these tracks will find much more within the set to impress.
Independent of these live recordings, Daniels brings the album to a close after about 85 minutes with Grandfather's Christmas, Ila's Carol a new offering for all seasons.
"Better Days" is available in three formats. The more expansive of these is a 2 CD, hard-bound, 60-page volume with lyrics, song notes, and photos from throughout Daniels' past 40 years. It contains the bonus live version of South Carolina with NGR and very impressively reminds us that there still exists those who care about the whole album experience. The single disc set includes all the same music minus the live take of South Carolina within a simple gatefold. The download includes the 20 tracks from the 2 CD set.
This isn't a bluegrass album although it is bluegrass-friendly in sound. Largely acoustic, although not exclusively, the emphasis throughout is on Daniels' voice and words with the instrumentation coloring the spaces in a very complementary fashion. No matter your musical preference, chances are "Better Days" will appeal should Americana (whatever that is) be your thing.