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November 03, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

Various Artists

"Out on the Rolling Sea: A Tribute to the Music of Joseph Spence & the Pinder Family"

Green Linnet

If you're unfamiliar with the music of Joseph Spence, a folk guitarist from the Bahamas who died 10 years ago, this tribute won't do much to advance your knowledge. Other than a discography, the compilers have decided to give little more information about this obscure figure than might fit on his tombstone. The tribute-payers involved don't get a say on what Spence meant to them, either.

A shame. Any musician who was a motivating force for sublime performances such as the peak ones here deserves a decent commentary, annotation and historical summary. About a third of the 19-track "Out on the Rolling Sea" (mainly the last third) is dross or routine. But the dozen best songs form an affecting body of work based on gospel and folk-blues styles and infused with a glowing spirituality.

The CD is indispensable for fans of Taj Mahal, the folk-blues traditionalist whose song "Blow Wind Blow" weaves the simplest materials into a moving amalgam of deep sorrow, noble aspiration and piercing beauty. It's a career highlight for an always-classy musician. Victoria Williams, aided by an accomplished backup band, offers a modern, original hymn, "Although the Lord Be High Above" that is both idiosyncratic and affecting as it embodies the progress of a troubled soul finding comfort in belief. Idiosyncratic isn't quite an adequate word for Van Dyke Parks' lurching orchestration of another hymn, "On the Rolling Sea When Jesus Speak to Me." It's equal parts pomp and humor, high-church swell and down-home gusto. Pianist Jim Dickinson (best known as the session player on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses') takes a street-level view of the same hymn, leading a loose, rollicking band through a celebratory New Orleans parade version.

David Lindley, known for his impish musical personality, gets serious on the bouzouki for a lustrous, stately yet light-footed reading of the instrumental air, "Afindrafindrao." Other prime picking performances come from David Grisman & Marc Silber, electric guitarist Michael Chapman and the duo of Henry Kaiser and Steve Kimock, who support a surprisingly credible blues vocal on "The Crow" by that hippie relic, Wavy Gravy.

Available from Green Linnet Records, 43 Beaver Brook Road, Danbury, CT 06810 .

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