JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

Chris Darrow: Under His Own Disguise

By:  | published on August 4, 2009

Chris Darrow
Chris Darrow/Under My Own Disguise
(United Artists, 1973 & 1974; re: Everloving, 2009)

You probably haven’t heard of Chris Darrow, but if you own a pair of working ears, you’ve likely heard him play music. Darrow’s musical footprint is colossal. In addition to being a member of lesser-known bluegrass and rock outfits like the Dry City Scat Band, the Floggs, and the Corvettes, Darrow was an early member of country-rock mainstay the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and co-founder of Kaleidoscope, a psych-rock precursor to many jam bands and world fusion acts that was lauded by Jimmy Page as “brilliant.” On top of all that, Darrow was a stalwart session player for the likes of Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, John Stewart, Sonny & Cher, and Linda Ronstadt. He is a legend in his hometown of Claremont, and was a mentor to Ben Harper, whose grandparents owned the Claremont Folk Music Center where Darrow bought his first guitar at 13.

Darrow had a brief moment in the sun as a solo artist, but it was fleeting and almost criminally underrated. After releasing a solid country-folk album called Artist Proof  in 1972, Darrow recorded two albums for United Artists, 1973′s Chris Darrow and 1974′s Under My Own Disguise. The twosome was reissued earlier this year as a deluxe two-CD, two-LP (180 gram vinyl) package by Everloving Records. They stand the test of time in every way, from songwriting and production to instrumentation and creativity. Darrow is the epitome of the pioneering artist that paved the way for more popular copycats.

As Harper says, “It never owned him. He’s a true rebel for that.”

For his self-titled album and half of Disguise, Darrow brought an orchestra’s worth of instruments to Trident Studios in London, where he worked with members of Fairport Convention and the backing bands of Jeff Beck and Elton John. Featuring Darrow on vocals, guitar, slide guitar, Dobro, fiddle, mandolin, piano, hammered dulcimer, banjo, and bass, the records are a master class in keeping an implausibly eclectic array of sounds grounded in a folk tradition.

Darrow drew from an array of sources, bringing in Celtic harpist Alan Stivell on “Faded Love” and harpsichordist Dolly Collins on “That’s What It’s Like to Be Alone.” British reggae act Greyhound lends a punchy rhythm to Darrow’s fiddle work on “Take Good Care of Yourself.” Despite leaps across the musical map, neither Chris Darrow nor Under My Own Disguise ever jars the listener, largely because the quality of the songwriting and the tight instrumentation never allows the diversity to seem like a device. Transitions from Celtic gloom to bouncy countrified reggae are smooth in Darrow’s deft hands.

Darrow’s music rewards multiple listens, unearthing subtle inflections and clever instrumentation. As a result, it’s easy to get caught up in the depth of the music and miss out on the fact that he has written some exquisitely mournful songs. Over the lively beat and fiddle licks on “Take Good Care of Yourself”, Darrow sings a gut-puncher of a chorus: “Take good care of yourself / That’s all you’ll ever own.” Anyone on the wrong side of the real estate collapse can second that emotion.

He pushes the raw, potent sadness a step further on “We Don’t Talk of Lovin’ Anymore” and “That’s What It’s Like to Be Alone”, with Collins’ harpsichord taking the latter into medieval territory. Lyrics like “How does it feel to walk but make no footsteps? / That’s what it’s like to be alone” are about as heartbreaking as it gets.

But Darrow is no one-trick pony. He doesn’t stay mired for long, mixing in love-is-all-we-need fare like “We’re Living on $15 a Week” and sunlit tracks like “Albuquerque Rainbow”, whose “colors form a bridge up above.”

Countless tracks on the two albums seem ripe for covers from the talented troubadours of today, something that Harper discovered nearly two decades ago. “Whipping Boy” is a raw, bluesy slide guitar dirge that Harper learned at Darrow’s feet in his early 20s and later covered for his debut album in 1994.

“Holy smokes—what a writer,” Harper says, calling Darrow’s solo catalog “inspiring and enlightening in terms of the depth of production and the songwriting. I always knew that Chris was one of the great California songwriters, but I didn’t appreciate the production enough until I realized that I had taken on a lot of that production subconsciously all along.”

Watch: “Whipping Boy” [at youtube.com]

– See more at: http://www.crawdaddyarchive.com/index.php/2009/08/04/chris-darrow-under-his-own-disguise/#sthash.IQ3wCpMV.dpuf