Album of the Week, February 14: The Watchman
February 14, 2016 Leave a comment
Ad van Meurs learned to love bluegrass and the blues listening to the music from the American military base near his home in the Netherlands. He learned piano and guitar and joined a folk-rock group in the 70s. When that group dissolved, he played the back of a guitar as percussion in a punk outfit that evolved into an abstract noise band. In the 80s he formed a minimalist synth band, then retired from music for a while to recover from bad habits and hard living picked up on the road. When he started up again, he returned to his roots. “I realized that I liked to just sit around a table and play bluegrass!” Creating the persona of the Watchman, a one-man band accompanied by his longtime musical and romantic partner, Ankie Keultjes, and an occasional bassist. Determined to break out of the Netherlands, he pestered legendary folk-rock producer Joe Boyd with demos. Boyd finally relented, signing Meurs to his Hannibal label and helming the Watchman’s debut release.
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Meurs and company crafted a charming, energetic set — what he calls hard folk — filled with stories, legends, and images from the lowland countries. Universalizing these personal and regional themes, he opts for simple, effective images and a sincere delivery that works nicely.
He opens with a bang with the surging Laundry Days, blending enthusiastic acoustic strumming, chiming slide work, and some finger-picking pyrotechnics. It’s an evocative song that gains power from his sandpaper baritone and Keultjes’ sweet harmonies. Summer At the Empty Playground is darker and more meditative, but no less compelling. Reflecting on the hollowness of nostalgia, he adds some haunting musical fills. He rounds out the opening with the instrumental The Captain’s Tune, a nice mix of guitar styles with a great slide solo.
On Freddy’s Race, he celebrates the bicycle culture of his homeland, echoing the pumping of the pedals with his playing. He considers The Lowlands of Holland with wistfulness, a nice homage to his homeland. Lowland Tune is another instrumental, a sort of bluegrass soundtrack to an unfilmed tour of the country.
With Darling Angel, Meurs grows pensive again. He warns a companion not to give in to despair, offering his love and support. It’s a moving lyric and delivery, one of the disc’s finest moments. I Wanna Be With You flips the equation slightly, declaring the singer’s need for an absent lover. With a rolling, bluesy backdrop, it’s a fun moment. Wiener Cowboy is the last instrumental, lightweight but pleasant.
After the Night Shift is a harrowing song of loneliness, the pleas of a man trapped in a hospital. Stark and grim, it’s beautifully constructed and another highlight. Keultjes provides the lead vocal on Letter to Your Wedding, a sad ballad to a lost love. Her delivery is fragile but confident, a smart switch for this bittersweet song. Things wrap up with Farewell Baby, a straightforward but effective lament for lost love.
The Watchman is hard to find, a long-deleted gem on a defunct label. For fans of bluesy, acoustic folk and perspectives outside the Anglo-American norm, however, it’s worth the effort. Ad van Meurs has real musical talent and a distinctive approach to his musical influences, offering something truly special.
FURTHER LISTENING: The Watchman became a band for a second album, Peaceful Artillery. The high points are amazing, but the whole package is less consistent and Meurs vision is sometimes blunted by the enthusiasm of his collaborators. Since then, Meurs and Keultjes have performed regularly and recorded sporadically, usually under their own names. They were also part of a fascinating experimental group called No Blues that blended their sound with Middle Eastern traditions.
BUYER BEWARE: Watchman and Watchmen are common musical names for both acts and albums. Many sources (including Amazon.com and AllMusic) often conflate Meurs work with others, so be careful if you’re tracking down his music.