Robert Sarazin Blake: A new direction on his musical highway

by Amy Kenna

In the winter of 2015, internationally acclaimed folksinger and Stringband Jamboree founder Robert Sarazin Blake flew from Woodstock, NY to Bellingham with the Hudson Valley Sound in his back pocket and a magnum opus on the horizon. Recitative – a wide, rolling artistic yawp of a double-album – marks the 12th release for Blake, and a new direction on his musical highway. The album is distinctly flavored by the Americana rock and folk roots of the Hudson Valley, a region that nurtured the music of Dylan and the Band, Janis Joplin and Van Morrison during the 60s and continues to be a hub for legendary talent.

“I didn’t know I was searching for the Hudson Valley Sound until I stumbled into it,” explained Blake, whose ties to the region date back to 2000.

Through collaborations with Americana Rock royalty such as Amy Helm (daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm), Blake widened the wingspan of his already unique sound –  a blend of Arlo Guthrie-style talking blues peppered with leftist-anarchist philosophies and fused together with intuitive strumming, smoky horns, keys and upright bass.robert blake web

“In this album, I am fully embracing the fact that I write a different kind of song,” Blake said.

Blake met his recording crew in Marlboro, N.Y., in 2014 after playing The Hoot festival with bandmates Thomas Deakin and Swab Lofgren. The trio watched a group of teenagers jamming at closing time at a venue called The Falcon then joined forces for a spontaneous session.

“I didn’t know who they were, but I knew I wanted to make music with them,” Blake explained. “It turns out, I’m not the only one who felt this way. The list of who and where they’ve played is long and tall – from Levon’s Barn to Carnegie Hall.”

The Recitative recordings feature the talent of Lee Falco on the drums, Brandon Morrison on the bass guitar, Connor Kennedy on guitar and piano, and Will Bryant on piano and organ. The album also boasts an eye-popping host of talented special guests, including upright bass player Doug Weiss, who collaborates with Al Foster (best known for playing on 13 Miles Davis albums), Dobro artist Cindy Cashdollar, who played on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, and the vocals of Ruthy Unger.

Inviting Cashdollar into the studio was a chance occurrence and awe-inspiring, Blake recalled.

“It was so wonderful for me to be sitting there in the same position Dylan and Van Morrison had been, with Cindy Cashdollar just off to the right,” said Blake, who was struck by her gracious spirit. “She was completely there in service of the music.”

Every monumental album needs a good recording studio, and Blake found the perfect one in his band’s rehearsal space.

Dubbed “The Building,” the hallowed space was built with reclaimed lumber from a century-old church and features vaulted ceilings and stained glass.

“‘Work’ is the song in which you really hear the sound of the room,” Blake said. “It was built to be a place where live music was performed, and we brought the recording equipment in. It was made with the intention of magic moments happening.”

Blake cut 11 songs in June 2015, then returned to the Valley in December to trim down his introspective single “Rock & Roll Dream.” During the remake, Blake was hit with fresh inspiration and laid six new songs to track.

“Songs can sit finished or half-finished in my notebooks for years, but lay there undiscovered,” Blake said. “With songwriting there’s only one thing that you need, and that’s time. I made the time.”

The result was “songs which had been road-tested for years, and others that were fresh and raw,” Blake said.

The album title Recitative is a Latin word that means speak-narrative, and defines Blake’s conversational, ebb-and-flow style of song.

A classic example is “Keeping Track,” which rattles through hot-button political issues, then ends on the high note of searching for keys.

“I believe we all have a responsibility to take care of each other and make the world a better place, and we all have a responsibility to pay attention to people’s lives outside of our own — and it can be overwhelming to keep track,” Blake said.

“Couples,” a playfully sardonic glimpse into romance, was released on Valentine’s Day and premiered on the Bluegrass Situation.

Like a laughing dream, Recitative traipses through emotional cliffs and valleys while guiding the listener to unexpected destinations. An example is the cathartic “Another New Year,” which took Blake five years to write.

“It’s important in life to not take your own depression too seriously,” Blake said. “If the listener sticks with me long enough in the song, they’ll get that.”

The City of Subdued Excitement inspired the “poppiest” song on the album, Blake said.

“The song is written from the perspective of a street musician on a Saturday night,” Blake said. “There’s a lot of Bellingham in this record – we live in a special place.”

Recitative’s vivid cover art was painted by Michael Costelloe, a longtime Bellingham resident and artist, now of Portland. The original painting, as well as album art for Blake’s Beautiful in the Afternoon and A Long Series of Memorable Nights Forgotten, are on display at the Mount Bakery.

What’s next for Blake? In addition to the annual task of organizing the Jamboree, he’s looking forward to a six-week rock-flavored tour on the East Coast.

“Working with a full band is a new set of paints in my paint kit,” Blake said. “My goal is to develop the music further then be open to touring possibilities this spring.

“It just keeps getting better for me,” Blake said. “A pile of these songs people have been hearing for the last five years, but there’s also a pile that haven’t been played live at all. That’s fun for me and hopefully fun for others, too.”

The official release of Recitative will be April 7, but Bellinghamsters can preview the sound and purchase CDs at the Green Frog on March 25. Doors open at 7 p.m. and again at 9:30. Blake will be joined by Vancouver, B.C. guitarist Noah Walker, formerly of the CR Avery Band, who also played on five songs for Recitative

Preorders are available at Hard copies of the album will be sold at Avalon Records and Everyday Music in addition to Blake’s website. Blake is also pre-releasing 11 singles leading up to the April 7 release.