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Hittin’ trees in the deep blue sea

Spend a Portland Afternoon with Bob McKillop
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  April 16, 2008

Portland Afternoon | Released by Bob McKillop | with the Mutineers | at the North Star Cafe, in Portland | April 19
As one of the Portland folk scene’s premier flag-wavers (at, Bob McKillop this week makes his own contribution to the oeuvre with a debut EP, Portland Afternoon, released on his nascent Mondegreen Records, which may well issue releases for folks not named McKillop in the future. Out of the gate, McKillop gets points for inventive promotion — he’ll be handing out free discs and playing tunes for patrons of the Red Cross’s Portland Donor Center April 19.

There are jokes to be made about playing for people who are a pint down, hooked to an IV, and woozy, but I’ll let you make them. I’m going to drop the cynicism for a minute to say it’s an admirable effort. Well done, Bob.

As for the six-song, 20-minute disc, it’s more fun than important. McKillop’s rooted in the American folk songbook, and collects a number of friends to fill out a pleasantly ramshackle roots sound developed with Acadia Recording’s Marc Bartholomew. Borrowing from the likes of the Carter Family, John Denver and Joni Mitchell, McKillop vocals may take some getting used to, being high and reedy (not quite like he’s just taken a hit of helium...), but there’s nothing really wrong with his key and he employs wordplay you might find corny, but should sometimes spark a laugh.

Like the disc’s best overall track, “Hittin’ Trees,” which is silly enough on the face of it, but is delivered with a relaxed cadence that lends it weight, and turns the screw a bit with verses like, “I keep hittin’ trees/And the cops are gettin’ mean/They threw me in the slammer last time/So now I leave the scene.” Especially nice here is the harmonica, played with a Dylan ramble. Jason Ingalls’s (Seekonk) drums are so far back of the mix, though, that I wonder if they’re necessary, and to make this really backwoods I’d have Alan Dickson play a stand-up bass and McKillop play his acoustic guitar in front of the mic, instead of using a direct line in (or so it sounds).

McKillop mines Dylan again on “Kettle Cove,” with a tune that could have come straight off Nashville Skyline. Here, Lindsey (no relation to Hannah) Montana’s piano is a fresh, clean sound and Heather Caston provides backing for a good lost-love narrative: “Sue McGraw did the college thing/Fished the Ivy League, caught a wedding ring.”

Elsewhere Vanessa Torres’s backing vocals, Jeff Trippe’s fiddle, and a great countrified electric guitar turn from Eric Bettencourt on “Back When I Used to Say Those Things” buoy what is largely an effervescent effort that may not get the blood pumping, but should at least lighten the mood.

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