Bands that have been present on the scene for several decades have two options: Either they make a living from their own substance, and therefore from hits of the past. Or they are still trying to come up with something new, sometimes with the wishes of conservative fans in spite of it. The "Brno-based" group Poutníci (meaning Pilgrims in Czech), who are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, are somewhere halfway in between. They still play Panenka [The Doll], which the audience demands, but fortunately they didn't get stuck and – maybe after a long time, but still – they come up with a new serial album, which should not pass unbeknown to the fans of Czech country and bluegrass.
Poutníci is an established brand. In fact, it doesn't matter that no-one from the original line-up, founded in 1970, has been playing in the band for a long time. Not even the fact that no Brno resident is a member of the group, which we are used to locate in Brno out of inertia (the bandleader Jiří Pola's hometown Slavkov is the closest to the South Moravian metropolis). A number of outstanding personalities of Czech acoustic music passed through Poutníci – Robert Křesťan and Luboš Malina, František Linhárek, Jiří Plocek, Svaťa Kotas, Zdeněk Kalina, Mirek Hulán, Petr Brandejs, Jiří Mach and others. The double bass player Pola, who heads the current line-up, has been a member of Poutníci since 1980. He alternates at the solo microphone with the band's youngest member, Jakub Bílý, who expanded the ranks of Poutníci in 2009, and thus had not sung on the previous serial recording Poutníci 2006. He first appeared in 2010 on the concert album Poutníci slaví 40 [Pilgrims Celebrating 40] and then on the album Country Vánoce [Country Christmas] (2013). While his voice still seemed interchangeable and "untrained" at the time, he has come a way forward at the new album.
The line-up, which used to change quite often before, has been stable over the last ten years. Peter Mečiar from Slovakia plays banjo and dobro, Jan Máca plays mandolin and guitarist Bílý and double bassist Pola both make their share of solo vocals. Unlike the mentioned concert and Christmas album, it is really clear from the new studio recording that the line-up has settled over the years, and that the gentlemen know each other well and can rely on each other. The Pilgrims can hardly find a charismatic author such as Robert Křesťan or a super-genre virtuoso such as Luboš Malina anymore, but this is not even necessary. Today, Poutníci are again a well coordinated acoustic band, which has something to build on and which also proudly looks ahead. At the same time, the instrumental skill is more evident from the accompanying component of the new songs than, for example, from the adaptation of Vivaldi's Autumn from the Four Seasons, which is rather a curiosity. We notice a certain return of freshness in singing: While Jiří Pola has his intonation limits, which he counterbalances with his interesting timbre and credibility of an experienced narrator, Jiří Bílý has matured and developed since the previous recordings. You can hear it, for example, in the song Tisíc prudkejch koní [A Thousand Sharp Horses], where he has minor problems with articulation in the first verse (the phrase "Tam nad noční hrází kde jiskří se proud" ["There above the night dam where the stream sparks"] is slightly "slurred"), but in the chorus and especially in choir vocals he turns into a sovereign country tenor. He reveals a relatively rougher timbre in the song Jaguár and manages a less typical melody for the genre in Jen s tebou [Only with You].
While the main author of the melodies is now Jiří Pola, who manages to balance on the edge of genre clichés and sometimes even come out of them, the new quality lyricist was found by Poutníci in David Konopáč, a man otherwise associated with the "alternative folk" band Jarabáci. Some of the lyrics were tailored to the country band directly, while he allowed himself to work with the expected vocabulary in a new way (A Thousand Sharp Horses, which is not really a song about horses at all). Also interesting are two successful lyrical etudes on the topic of "guilt": one about a relationship (Mea culpa) and the other as a protest song (Co když [What If]). Also, Jiří Pola's lyrics in Jiný pohled [A Different View], in which he somewhat disrupts grammatical and assonance, does not sound bad at all in the interpretation of Jakub Bílý. And a pleasant country refreshment, well suited to the band's repertoire, are the lyrics of Ivo Cicvárek in the song Loď se jménem naděje [A Ship Named Hope]. The whole album then opens with an eponymous older song with lyrics by the late Josef Prudil, which was sung by Pola in the 1990s and now has been taken over by Jakub Bílý. Fans thus have a comparison – the same song with lower and higher solo vocals.
Poutníci can continue to benefit from their glorious past, Porta awards in the 1980s, and international achievements in the late 1980s and 1990s. They can once again invite their former members to join them at special concerts. After all, one of them, Svaťa Kotas, was the sound and music director of the new album – and the sound of the recording is very good. Above all, it's good that the band is trying, of course within its genre, to look for new ways, to address new authors, to bring new topics. Personalities such as Robert Křesťan or Luboš Malina are not "in stock" today, but Poutníci have dealt with their round-number anniversary with honours. They definitely do not have to be ashamed of their new album. So all we have to do is wish them to be able to give numerous gigs again and that the new album will sell as greatly as possible. Although fans will not find Panenka or any of the biggest older hits on it.
Poutníci – Stíny na střechách. Jiří Pola – Karas 2020. 14 tracks. Total playing time: 39:42