Ryan Thomas Becker has a dilemma. When he performs with his friend and collaborator, George Neal, he has to keep his eyes trained on the floor or his guitar or the crowd, anywhere except the place George is standing. “I can’t look at him,” Becker admits. “I might burst out laughing or get nervous or scared. He’s just so intense.”
Anyone who has seen George Neal – formerly of Little Grizzly, currently of The Slow Burners, now of Hares on the Mountain – is likely to share Becker’s reluctance to look straight at George Neal when he is mid-song, irrepressible and shooting, as the former says, “fireballs from his eyes.” I have seen it for myself, George Neal practically unhinging his bearded jaw like some kind of maddened reptile, emptying his soul to the dregs. It is the kind of ingenuousness we are almost embarrassed to see in adults that, as Becker and others rightly observe, makes us squirm in our chairs and turn our heads before the honesty of it reduces us to raw and irrational emotion.
Neal and the reverential Becker, already band mates from The Slow Burners, have now applied their abilities to their newest project: Hares on the Mountain. The name derives from the South England folk song of the same name, predictably included among the 14 songs that make up their debut, self-titled album.
The recording bears every dent and pock of its haste, sounding like it was committed in some echoic hall by a worn troupe of musicians waiting out their exile. The rattled sound folds itself nicely around Neal’s voice, which itself sounds like cracked and thirsty, desert ground. Other than a couple early diversions, the Spartan sound is appropriate in context and would have been ruined with even a spot more of polish.
The songs are split evenly between Neal’s own compositions and those deriving from the English and Irish folk tradition, reaching back at least 500 years, when “The Cherry-Tree Carol” was purportedly sung at the Feast of Corpus Christi. Other venerable tunes include “Matty Groves,” in which Neal recounts the allure and danger of adultery and the violence of passion with chilling conviction, and the converted lullaby “Weela Wallia.” The latter of those two concludes with the practical advice, “don’t stick knives in babies’ heads,” if that gives you any indication of what passed for a jolly, pre-modern lullaby. Neal’s own version is considerably darker than the bouncy original. The album ends with a bold assertion of disbelief juxtaposed with the oldest of saintly tunes, the aforementioned carol reciting the apocryphal tale of Jesus commanding a cherry tree from within Mary’s womb.
It is not as easy as you might think to tell these recovered ballads of murder, regret and devotion from George Neal’s recently authored songs. Neal’s own composition, “Foreign Skies” is of a length and poetry that rivals the other folk tunes, an achievement given how easily modern lyricists run out of steam. The song employs Shiny Around the Edges’ Jenny Seman in a cross-oceanic lovers’ dialogue of grief and loneliness.
All of this leads me to believe George Neal is gifted or afflicted with an ancient soul. Neal is older than I thought, but older still when he sings. He might be carrying around all of antiquity in his guts and that might be what frightens audiences when they look directly into his eyes and catch something of every age there. Neal’s agelessness and temerity are perhaps more accurately captured by the work of Hares on the Mountain than ever before. On it, we find Neal in a state of hallowed wildness, where his feverish enthusiasm finds traction in the dirt of history.
You can see Hares on the Mountain for free on the porch at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton on Sunday, March 6 at 5:00 pm.
Photo by Andy and Christi LaViolette