"Years ago this land was green — we put money in the soil," sings T. Mitchell Bell on "Freedom Rust." "Tide has turned and we learned to trade blood for oil. / Fill the air and skies above with mystery cocktails, / Chase it down with a shot of carbon to forget that it was there."
The song's the keystone track on Bell's new album, Witness, in which the local singer-songwriter expands upon environmental concerns broached on his 2008 release, The Ballad of Philo Paul. Bell has served on the board of the Center for Coalfield Justice and performed at benefits for environmental causes. He jokes about preparing to "lock down" in protest if the fracking trucks ever roll in Peters Township, where he lives in an old farmhouse with his wife and three children.
Witness, however, mostly avoids preaching. Instead, it's a rich and varied song cycle featuring a full band of local talent (including Bob Banerjee and Steve Sciulli) dealing out folk- and blues-inflected rock. Thematically, says Bell, it's "one big long song."
The Celtic-accented "Valley Below," about mountaintop-removal coal-mining, forges the link between economic and environmental injustice. "Empty Inside" explores the spiritual hollowness of planet-eating consumerism; in the harmonica-driven "Give and Take," personal wholeness can't survive nature's exploitation. "Iron Bird" tunefully excoriates political fecklessness. "Freedom Rust" is an elegy for America's mid-century industrial heyday ... whose fossil-fueled brawn Bell nonetheless well understands drove climate change. "We have to evolve or we're gonna live on a dying planet," he says.
Still, "I wanted the record to be kind of a hopeful thing rather than a downer," he says. "We need to focus on the future generations. They're going to inherit what we ... dump everywhere."
Speaking of kids, an upcoming concert is a family affair. On July 25, T. Mitchell Bell and the Wandering Coalition perform live on the WDVE Coffeehouse. And that night, the band plays the Rex Theater with: The Steamshovel Blues Band (featuring Bell's dad); The Weathered Road and The Rusty Haywhackers, each of which features one of Bell's adult sons; and The Recipe, featuring Bell's niece.