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Joe K. Walsh

Borderland – 2016 (Skinny Elephant Music)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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CDs by Joe K. Walsh

Mandolin may be an acquired taste for some. It's others' lifeblood. Joe K. Walsh is an estimable mandolinist whose musical bloodline traces back to David Grisman and Bill Monroe. Walsh's "Borderland" is a sweet and tasty, but complex collection of mandolin musicianship.

Walsh has played with the best: he was the mandolinist for The Gibson Brothers for many years, until Jesse Brock took his place. Given Walsh's faculty position at Boston's Berklee College of Music, the road and the classroom did not always mesh, it seems. Walsh played in the Heather Masse-fronted version of the late Joy Kills Sorrow band. He has collaborated with Grant Gordy (guitar) and Darol Anger in Mr. Sun.

On "Borderland," Walsh displays his mastery of the mandolin, but equally important, his songwriting and interpretive skills. It's a collection that will stay with the listener, inviting return engagements.

Walsh writes beautiful songs, in a traditional structure, sometimes on his own ("Never More Will Roam," "The Berry's Walk Out"), and others with stout collaborators, such as Chris Moore ("Red Skies" and "Pine Tree Waltz"), Courtney Hartman ("Closer") and Brittany Haas ('The Bee-Loud Glade"). Phil Ochs' "There But For Fortune" is well served. Walsh even joins up with W.B. Yeats for a spirited musical adaptation of the poet's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." Walsh is a native Minnesotan, but now lives in the Northeast, and his connection to the rough and ready landscape of New England suits him. The listener enjoys red skies, streams, inshore coastal experiences, and even a balloon trip to the North Pole ("Never More...") as heard and seen through Walsh's ear and eye.

Walsh's mandolin style is smooth. His vocals do not force the matter and complement the material. The songs are encomia to both the instrument and form. Walsh's playing is admirably supported by outstanding instrumentalists who have come within his orbit at Berklee: Hartman, the guitarist for Della Mae, Gabe Hirshfeld, banjoist for the Lonely Heartstring Band, and fiddler Brittany Haas. Veteran player Bruce Molsky, who handles several instruments across "Borderland," also produced the collection, which has a crisp and airy ring, true to the material.

"The Berry's Waltz" is aspirational and encouraging. Walsh says in the liner notes that it was written for his sister's wedding. It's a delightful run through mandolin lines and some mandola for good measure. The song sounds as if it was written in 18th century, leading men into battle, rather than marriage. "Closer," which ends the collection is a benediction and a gentle landing spot for this fine record.