Kevin Breit's Mandolin World

When Maritime favourite Thom Swift took the stage at Fredericton's Playhouse last Friday to launch his new album, The Fortunate Few, there was some pretty serious fire power with him on stage. It was like a first-team all-star lineup. On drums and bass, his regular (and excellent) El Caminos, featuring Maple Blues Award-winning Geoff Arsenault on drums, and Brian Bourne from the multi-ECMA winning Rawlins Cross on Chapman Stick. To Swift's left was a face (and hands) everyone knew, the top bluesman in the country, Matt Andersen, lending some licks for that evening only. And on the other side of the stage proweled another guitarist, maybe not a household name, but one that makes musicians stop in their tracks. Kevin Breit is one of the top players the country has even produced, the choice of stars from Norah Jones to Holly Cole, Rosanne Cash to k.d. lang.

How the Ontario guitar player ended up on Swift's launch, and album, is one of those chance meetings that bring musicians together. Breit and Swift didn't even know each other until last year. "He came to Toronto to play at a conference," Breit explains, "and the drummer was Howie Southwood, who lives in my town. And he said, 'Would you be interested in playing with Thom?' And I said ya, and I was trying to figure out how I knew this guy. And then I was hipped to the fact that he was in Hot Toddy, and I said, okay. We rehearsed in a hotel on the way to the gig, and I just loved that voice of his so much. We played for a half and hour, and then he asked me if I'd play on his record, and I said ya, I was all over it."

Breit rarely makes it to the Maritimes, so it was a good chance to chat with him about his just-released album. While he's known for his guitar playing, there is none of that here. Called Field Recording, it's credited to Breit and the Upper York Mandolin Orchestra, and is, yes, an all-mandolin album, save for vocals and stand-up bass. Breit's the singer, and the liner notes list a total of 14 different mandolin players, and their leader, one Thomas Dooley, Jr. A website tells the honoured history of the UYMO, which dates back to the early 20th century, when mandolin orchestras were common. In fact, it's such a great story, this collaboration, it's a marvel that the story of the 100-year old orchestra hasn't really been told before.

It doesn't take too much digging to find out the orchestra is as much a creation as the music. Breit's a long-time mandolin freak, and in his head, he pictured an old mandolin troupe, playing vintage sounds and instruments, and very much wanted to be part of that record. So to make it happen, he had to invent it. There's no Robert Noonan on mandocello, no Susan Hartwick on mandola, Keith Dooley doesn't exist to play mandolin, and his dad, Thomas Dooley, Jr., is know only in folksong.

Breit debuted the album in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, and many reviews, and even audience members were confused as to the existence of the orchestra. Breit's not being much of a help with that, even when question directly about the secret being the album. "If the secret you're referring to is the fact that maybe there's another reality happening, no not really," comes his coy answer. "It's hard when it's people that I like, and they say something like 'How did you like singing with the orchestra?' And I can answer that truthfully, it's great! When I put the headphones on and I heard it playing back, it's fun to do sing to that. Then people ask, 'Where did you meet this guy, Tom Dooley?' And I have to say, 'Well, I've known him all my life."

The end result is far from a period piece, or a celebration of classic folk. Instead, these are brand-new Breit songs, all with vocals, with twisted roots that draw in early rock and roll, blues, country, popular ballads and traditional sounds. You can't put a time stamp on any of them, and even the lyrics are enigmatic, playful looks at fictional, larger-than-life characters. Even when bluesman Big Bill Broonzy shows up in one song, Breit creates a life for him that's not strictly biographical. Sometimes melancholy, often funny, if these songs stood alone, recorded with a basic guitar band, it would be a fine album.

However, there's this orchestra, of one as it turns out. Over five months, Breit meticulously built the tracks, adding the mandolins, mandolas and mandocellos in orchestrated parts, building and soloing, until the end result is that you can imagine a stage full of colourful people strumming and picking in synch. Although Breit's a veteran of dozens of sessions for himself and the stars, "It was, by far, the most fun I've ever had recording."

In order to achieve the desired effect, Breit found that he had to play the role to the hilt. He invented the characters he would play with, even came up with a blustery personality for Tom Dooley, who, in his mind, was really responsible for the overall sound. "I did things that I would never do, which is just arrange it to death. I imagined that I'd take these three chord songs, and bring it to somebody who was just out-of-control. That's the only way I could do it, if it wasn't me. Then I'd listen to it, and think, it needs more, there's too much space, I want no space on this record. I wanted it to be something that was kinda like Van Dyke Parks (Brian Wilson's Smile, Rufus Wainwright), which was very dense. But there was something simple about it too, which might be the nature of the mandolin."

Even the instruments had to be specific ones, right down to the correct time period. "For me, it's the era. It's all about the instruments. All the players in the orchestra, they all came from a period of 1906 - 1909. They're all my instruments. It was amazing to put on an instrument that wasn't from that era. It's like they didn't get along, it was the weirdest thing."

All through his distinguished career, Breit's kept this project in the back of his mind. The confusion over the existence of the orchestra has led him to hope he's created a mandolin demand: "I'm trying to make it a reality, that people might hire the Upper York Mandolin Orchestra, and I would just take it and do it. I just love the idea a lot, and it's been with me for 16 years. Now that it's done, I feel kind of sad about it, because I really love doing it." Somewhere, in Upper York, Ontario, Thomas Dooley, Jr. is plotting his next move.

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About Bob Mersereau

Rockin' BobBob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).

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