The three Copland classics on this disc–Billy the Kid, Appalachian Spring and Rodeo–are all ballet scores, and from the very first bars of Billy, with its evocative depiction of the wide-open prairies, you are firmly in the territory of music that tells a story. But you don't need to follow all the ins and outs of each story to enjoy music which paints as vivid a picture of rural America as you could hope for. If the sprightly "Hoe Down" from Rodeo brings a splash of colour to concert programmes, the remarkable thing about so much of the music in these three pieces is how quietly sensitive it is. And while Michael Tilson Thomas does not hold back in wringing every last ounce of splashy razzmatazz, he is equally the master of introspective music which clearly demonstrates that you don't need to be loud to be a populist. The recordings were made in the San Francisco Symphony's home, Davies Symphony Hall. You couldn't hope for more authentic performances than this–more than 76 minutes of dyed-in-the-wool Americana.
Aaron Copland may well be the best-known, the most loved, and the all-around greatest of twentieth century American composers, but his music from the '20s and '30s is still relatively unknown, still relatively unloved, and of still questionable greatness. Was Copland the Modernist too far out to connect to a big audience so he re-created himself as Copland the Populist to become the best-known, most loved, and greatest American composer? But was his Piano Concerto from 1926 really too jazzy and vulgar, his Symphonic Ode from 1928 really too cerebral and severe, his Piano Variations from 1930 really too harsh and austere, and his Short Symphony from 1934 really too rhythmic and complex or was it lack of familiarity made them seem so? From this 1996 recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, one would have to vote for the latter because Copland the Modernist is every bit as great a composer as Copland the Populist.
Michael Burks' third release on Alligator Records, Iron Man, is as close to being a live album as you can get from a studio performance. This could be attributed to Burks using his seasoned road band on this date instead of the Memphis studio musicians used previously on Make It Rain and I Smell Smoke. Alongside Burks' searing Flying V strut, Wayne Sharp's greasy Hammond B-3 dominates this set, reveling in soul and rock influences, including a cover version of Free's "Fire and Water," a definite nod to the blues-rock audience Burks has gained over his 30-plus years on the road. While Iron Man is an overall inspired modern electric blues disc, a few missteps hamper the session. "Ashes in My Ashtray," penned by Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson, would have made a better instrumental in this particular case, as the lyrics get in the way of an intense Burks guitar performance.