Guitarist Bob Carpenter was a Canadian singer and songwriter who performed in the folk genre during the early 1970’s, a period generally considered the golden age of Canadian music. Although not well known (even during his performing years), he was well respected by his peers, with artists such as Emmylou Harris and Billy Joe Shaver recording his songs. He is generally associated with the West Coast, although he was born and grew up in the North Bay area of Ontario. I was unable to uncover much about Bob’s early years, although apparently he started out like many other “folkies” in the Yorkville era of the mid ’60’s. He somewhat mysteriously appeared at the farewell party for the artists who were part of the Festival Express, a legendary series of 1970 Canadian concerts featuring Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Ian and Sylvia’s Great Speckled Bird among others. The party was held at the York Hotel in Calgary, and his performance was impressive enough to merit special recognition by the reporter from Rolling Stone who was covering the Festival Express tour.
Bob continued to hone his craft, mainly in Canada it would seem, in the following years. He was getting noticed however, and a contract with Warner Brothers in 1974 led to recording sessions in Los Angeles with noted Canadian producer Brian Ahern. The result was the cult classic “Silent Passage”. The making of the record, it would seem, was fairly straight forward. Brian had assembled a first rate band to support Bob; session musicians extraordinaire Lee Sklar on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums, Bill Payne and Lowell George from Little Feat of piano and slide guitar respectively, pedal steel ace Buddy Cage and Emmylou Harris and Anne Murray (yes, our Anne Murray) on background vocals. On listening to the music, it seems one could not have found a more sympathetic musical partner than Brian Ahern. The production is not lush, but the instrumentation provides support and context to Bob’s sparse guitar and vocals. His voice has to be heard; the gentle intensity and sincerity is stunning. Comparisons do not come easily, perhaps one can detect a hint of Harry Chapin here and some Bob Dylan there, but really, Bob was his own man, and these are his songs. Although all of the tracks are outstanding, the title song simply knocks it out of the park. Bob was not at all a technical singer, but the songs were written to provide a vehicle for the story he wanted to tell, and his ability through his voice to tell that story was his strength. I learned of this record through Lee Sklar’s youtube channel, where he talks about the recording sessions he has been involved in. Interestingly, Lee recalls that on projects like this nothing was written out. He and some of the other musicians simply came into the studio and listened to the artist perform his songs, and then tried to come up with a part that fit. Having the quality of this type of musicianship is integral in ensuring the artist’s vision of their music is maintained, and having a sympathetic producer doesn’t hurt either.
Creating a masterpiece is one thing, getting it to the public so they can listen is unfortunately another. For whatever reason, the label decided against releasing the record. After listening to the finished product it seems stunning that the whole thing was shelved. I haven’t been able to find any specific reason, maybe there wasn’t one. Record companies are notoriously fickle and arbitrary. Sadly that might have been the end of it, but Bob had supporters and in 1984 Holger Petersen’s Canadian label Stony Plain Records acquired the rights to the album and it finally saw the light of day (or so the story goes, details to follow). The album has continued to be in demand, with glowing reviews from publications such as Rolling Stone, including in 2014 when the magazine selected Silent Passage as one of the top 10 reissues of the year.
For those that want to hear the record, it is available digitally. For vinyl purists, it gets a little murkier. When one ventures on-line to conduct a search, vinyl copies of the record on the Reprise label appear. So how is it that a record that was apparently never released in 1975 be found for sale in 2021? While I don’t have a definitive answer, it would appear that some number were pressed before the decision was made not to officially release the record. After that, a third party could have bought them (who knows why) and surreptitiously put them our for sale. I’m not sure how they could otherwise have got out there. Vinyl copies (at a much more reasonable, although still steep price) from Stony Plain can also be found for sale on-line. Interestingly, Stony Plain also used the same cover art (front and back) as the original version. There is also the 2014 compact disc reissue from No Quarter, and of course, iTunes.
Bob Carpenter was a very spiritual person, and it seems in the years after the recording of Silent Passage, he decided to move on from the music business to pursue a more religious life. He died quite tragically and far too early to cancer when he was only 50. I am very recent convert, and so I admit I may lack objectivity, but the recording really is extraordinary and his music deserves recognition. As I like to say, highly recommended.