The chill breeze of British Isles folk blows through the opener, "Sea-Fever," on Will Danforth's newest release. And no wonder: The words he set to music belong to English poet John Masefield (1878-1967), who wrote voluminously of oceanfaring. Lines about the sea and the clouds present a freewheeling visual for "the vagrant gypsy life," and an array of folk instruments, played in a somewhat stately rhythm, conveys the mood. Danforth, a Michigan transplant who now resides in Chester, contributes evocative guitars, as well as mountain dulcimer, octave mandolin and harmonica.
You'd think those might do quite nicely, but no. Danforth has engaged the services of some fine fellow acoustic musicians on Grey Dawn Breaking -- John Dunlop on cello, Gabe Halberg on tabla, Gordon Korstange on flute, Cindy Mangsen on concertina, Colin McCaffrey on bass and Celtic harp, Marty Morrissey on bodhran, Jim Pitman on pedal steel, and Pete Sutherland on fiddle. Danforth's main instrument is really a rich, hearty voice that effortlessly glides from low to high and back. Still, he often beefs up his songs with harmonies from Patti Casey and other singers.
The remaining 11 tracks on Grey Dawn Breaking are Danforth originals. Most continue in the traditional Brit-folk vein -- melancholic, bittersweet, minor-key -- and nearly all are slowish in tempo. Subject-wise, Danforth gravitates to nature, love and philosophic tracts on life. Despite its ponderous-sounding title, "I Will Not Shy Away From the Sorrow" is the best of these; it picks up the tempo a bit and offers a bracing recommendation for, essentially, living life to the fullest and heeding the lessons of the bad with the rewards of the good.
Danforth strays from his Anglo roots with "Indian in My Past," set to percussive smacks that evoke Native American toms. Whether he's seeing ghosts, feeling white-man guilt or honoring a genuine ancestry isn't clear, but perhaps his quick line about being free of politicians and "corporate psychopaths" says enough. Danforth can get a tad heavy-handed at times, but when he sings about loving and being loved -- such as the burnished, long-lasting relationship referred to in "Simple Song" -- it's clear he knows whereof he sings, and the words ring true.
Though a couple of too-minimalist songs don't quite hang together, Grey Dawn Breaking is for the most part a solid contribution of sincere, heartfelt folk. And gorgeous production -- recording by Peter Engisch at Ad Astra, mixing and mastering by Lane Gibson at Charles Eller Studios -- gives the material the sonic heft it deserves.