Album review: SUITCASE SAM – Goodnight Riverdale Park

Pete Feenstra chatted to Suitcase Sam for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio in May 2021, playing tracks from the album ‘Goodnight Riverdale Park’

Suitcase Sam - Goodnight Riverdale Park

Curve Music [Release date 28.05.21]

Suitcase Sam once described himself as: “The something else you are searching for.” He may well be right.

He’s a musical chameleon one part troubadour, one part parlour singer who makes a musical connection with the American hobo mythology.

And the chances are there’s a decent niche market out there for his retro based itinerant music, loosely based around Toronto.

The album was originally released in 2019, but is just being promoted in Europe.

He’s an ambivalent character, edgy enough to embrace the “outlaw” tag, but close enough to mainstream country to never cut his ties with the hand that might feed him.

Much like the late Leon Redbone’s predilection for pre-World War 2 jazz and roots music, Sam’s oeuvre caters more to the esoteric end of that niche, being anchored in early 20th century jazz, ragtime, jug bands, blues and stretching a few decades into 30’s and 40’s country.

Sam has the same Toronto base, the same musical tastes and even a similar mysterious persona to Redbone, which gives him a foothold in a world over populated by self-aggrandizing bio’s.

He’s spent the last 10 years refining his musical ability to the point that whatever your retro roots preferences, he appears to be a dab hand at all of them. This extends to his faux yodelling delivery on tracks like the honky-tonk, sing-along  ‘Friday Afternoon’ and ‘My, Oh My’ which features richer harmonies.

It’s the way he explores the possibilities of a song with his own unfettered enthusiasm that gives the album its spark.

Listen for example, to the wild syncopated feel of ‘The Maple Leaf Stomp’ (an instrumental interlude delivered too early in the album), or indeed the spiky, twang-driven drinking song ‘Edge Of Town’, on which his musical frisson takes over from where a lack of clarity of diction leaves us searching for a lyric sheet.

Either way, we are caught up in the slipstream of the kind upbeat number you could imagine him playing live to an appreciative drinking crowd.

The album presumably takes its title from Toronto’s Riverdale Park,  a stretch of greenbelt spanning both sides of the Don River, motorway and rail.

It’s an image that suggest space, freedom and of course movement.  The potentially fast links out of town for bode well for a character whose transitory stage name suggests escapism.

In truth, the album smoulders and flickers into life, but doesn’t quite totally convince with it’s recycled eclecticism. This is counter-weighted  by several catchy hooks such as the opening line of the driven oompah driven and wild clarinet of ‘Honey I Know’ and a consistent handmade rustic musical undertow that warrants a revisit.

He opens with the sludgy Neil Young meets Hank Williams dirge of ‘Growing Up’. He then moves back in time step by step, save for impressive doffs of the hat to the early 70’s and The Band on ‘Frankie And Me’, with its sweeping organ, infectious bar room style and catchy hook.

There’s an understated “outlaw” concept at the core of the album, enhanced by both a reference to his apparent itinerant hobo status in his PR and a Hank Williams drawl that sometimes obfuscates his own lyrical abilities in pastiche.

No matter, Suitcase Sam has enough going for him to offer significant appeal to traditional musical palettes

His co-producer Walter Sobczak wisely opts for a nicely ragged organic approach, which bottles the energy of the moment.

Tracks like the acoustic ‘Morning Mail’ wouldn’t be out of place on the Stones ‘Sticky Fingers’ album, while the initially Spartan and partly autobiographical ‘The Grand Trunk Pacific Coast Railroad’ – all rudimentary double bass, honky-tonk piano and fiddle led country – draws us in with a mix of musical familiarity and lyrical imagery.

And so it goes, in a series of flashes though the archives of American roots music with Sam at the centre of it. He celebrates his eclectic musical appetites with intimate narratives and down-home music that lingers long after the song has finished.

In sum this is a fine debut album that serves as the perfect introduction to his heartfelt musical roots.  It remains to be seen whether he can rise above his salient musical antecedents and create something all of his own.  ***½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

Josh Taerk’s latest Sunday Session was streamed on Sunday 22 May.

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David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 GMT, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 19 June 2022.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 GMT as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 21 June 2022.

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