With support from luminaries from the worlds of rock (The Violent Femmes), blues (Guy Davis), jazz (Catherine Russell) and more, not to mention actor John Lithgow, Tony Trischka has put together what is destined to be one of 2021’s most ambitious concept albums, Shall We Hope.
The banjo master, who is a longtime Fair Lawn resident, has spent more than a decade working on this album, which is set during the Civil War Era and tells the stories of various characters: soldiers, slaves, immigrants, thieves and so on. Trischka incorporated into his songs letters from people of that time and Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!,” and bracketed them with excerpts (read by Lithgow) from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wise and profound speech at the dedication of a peace memorial at the Gettysburg, Pa., Civil War battle site in 1938.
Trischka does not attempt to tie all his characters together in a single story line. Shall We Hope is really more of a portrait of a bunch of disparate people caught up in the war, and a reminder that, as Lithgow (as Roosevelt) states, the idea is to get to a place where soldiers from both sides can come together as they did as old men at Gettysburg, in 1938, “thankful that they stand together under one flag now.”
This is an idea that resonates powerfully in 2021, of course, just like the warmth of the We Shall Hope song “Christmas Cheer (This Weary Year),” which Trischka released as a single in December, seemed appropriate for the pandemic blues of late 2020. But that’s the nature of timeless messages: They always seem apt.
Beyond the messages, the album is purely enjoyable on a musical level, as Trischka demonstrates instrumental virtuosity in countless different styles: The album ranges from Celtic-flavored folk (for the immigrant’s anthem “Carry Me Over the Sea,” sung by Maura O’Connell) to a gospel spiritual (“I Know Moon-Rise,” sung by Russell) to acoustic blues (“Leaving this Lonesome Land,” sung by Davis) to crisp, breezy bluegrass (“Christmas Cheer,” sung by Michael Daves) to a boisterous a cappella singalong (“Soldier’s Song,” sung by The Violent Femmes). Arranger Van Dyke Parks helps make “Big Round Top March” sound like something you might hear at a 19th century carnival — a veritable kaleidoscope of sound.
This is, basically, the kind of album that doesn’t get made anymore: A collection of 18 songs that not only invites you to immerse yourself in it, but almost demands it, in order to get the full effect.
Trischka has said he hopes to present a staged version of these songs at some point, after the pandemic is over. But there is no reason to wait that long to delve into the rich mosaic of Shall We Hope.
For more on Trischka, visit tonytrischka.com.
Here are videos for two of the album’s songs, “Christmas Cheer (This Weary Year)” and “Carry Me Over the Sea.”
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