Cameron Blake calls what he does “chamber folk”; it’s folksy singer-songwriter material overlaid with classical instruments. Hide and Go Seek, like Blake’s previous releases, dips into piano pop, especially on tunes like “Baby Come Home.” “Down to the River” best showcases Blake’s ability to bring classical sophistication to two popular music styles and turn it into something unique. The song is a fast waltz, with the piano high in the mix and a catchy tune, but the strings add some modern discord and tension to what would otherwise be a straightforward and undistinguished song. His treatment of “I’ll Fly Away” is notable, too, in that it is performed here as a hymn rather than in the usual Appalachian folk style. It feels like hearing the answer to a riddle: fitting, and obvious in the “Why didn’t anyone think of that before?” sort of way.
Despite a lot of overlap in the songs, Live with Strings is a distinct experience. Here, the folk influence tends to take a back seat to Blake’s classical and pop/rock influences. It was recorded at An Die Musik, an excellent listening room. The sound of a big wooden room, in fact, complements Blake’s music so well that many live tracks end up being superior to the studio versions. The live versions of “Hide and Go Seek” and “Never Taught Much” in particular benefit from the more prominent string section and truly excellent violin playing. The traditional tune Blake takes on here is “Moonshiner,” which one of the more exciting vocal takes between the two discs. But “Where the Blossoms Fall” is the jewel of this album—a pristine, heartfelt performance.
Because there’s so much overlap, Live with Strings needs to pass the “essential alternate versions” test to justify owning both it and Hide and Go Seek. That doesn’t happen here. One problem is that a string section, even a small one, lacks the kind of improvisational spontaneity and excitement of discovery that a small jazz combo or rock (or folk) band is capable of; these are the kinds of music that generally produce the most exciting live albums. Blake also did not retain any stage banter (if indeed there was any to retain) on the recording, a huge failure to take advantage of an intimate space and provide us with any sense of being there.
So it sounds like alternate takes from the studio with some applause. Fortunately, we’ve moved on to a world where most listeners will rip songs to their iPods or computers, so the additional material is a boon to those who want to pick and choose the best versions between studio and live takes.
—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)
This video of “The Moonshiner” is from a different performance than what’s on the album. He’s joined by David Hadley, who some readers might recognize as the pedal steel player for June Star: