Saturday, January 17, 2015

Michael Jerome Browne – Sliding Delta

Sliding Delta

About 40 or so years ago, Marc Nerenberg excitedly told me about Michael Browne, a 14-year-old blues prodigy in Montreal. Soon, at a Sunday night hoot at the Yellow Door in Montreal, I heard him play and was suitably impressed by his obvious technique in playing traditional blues. But, as a much more mature 20- or 21-year-old, I wasn’t quite ready to take such a young kid seriously as a bluesman. I remember a similar reaction when I first met Colin Linden when he was 12 or 13.

Over the next years, I saw Michael play from time to time in coffee houses and, more often, busking on Prince Arthur Street or in the metro. It was obvious that both his technique and his understanding of the traditions were continuing to grow quickly. About 30 years ago, he began playing guitar and singing with the Stephen Barry Band – Montreal’s finest electric blues outfit. By then there was absolutely no question about taking Michael seriously.

With Michael continuing to develop as a solo performer on the street and with his lead vocals a highlight of several Stephen Barry Band albums, it was probably inevitable that he’d eventually get around to recording under his own name and in 1998 – by then known as Michael Jerome Browne – he released his self-titled debut. As I wrote in my Sing Out! magazine review, it was “an eclectic tour de force of various shades of the blues with some equally accomplished side excursions into Cajun and Appalachian music. Browne's soulful singing is matched by the depth of his instrumental powers on various guitars, banjos and fiddles.”

Since that debut, Michael has released a series of fine albums masterfully exploring a variety of traditional roots styles including various blues styles, Appalachian folk songs, Cajun music, and much more.

On Sliding Delta, Michael returns to the kind of early blues that first inspired him and it's a stunning selection of songs drawn from African American blues legends who were all gone by the time he got started four decades ago. Except for the final track, this is a purely solo album featuring Michael’s vocals and instrumental virtuosity – mostly on guitar but occasionally on banjo or mandolin or with added racked harp.

Without exception, I savored each of the 14 sublime performances, but a few of my very favorites include Mississippi John Hurt’s “Sliding Delta,” performed on the 12-string with a natural ease that is so reminiscent of Hurt himself; Memphis Minnie’s “Frisco Town,” a bouncy blues on which Michael shows how terrific the blues can be when played on the banjo; and Charley Patton’s “When Your Way Gets Dark,” on which he demonstrates how beautiful the interplay between voice and slide guitar can be on early Delta blues.

A couple of my other favorites – Henry Thomas’ infectious “Bull Doze Blues,” again played on the banjo (and it’s nice to hear someone playing a Thomas song other than “Fishing Blues”) and Crying Sam Collins’ “My Road is Rough and Rocky,” a variant of the better-known “Railroad Bill” – are drawn from the songster tradition that knew no boundaries between blues, folk songs, even early pop and jazz tunes.

Michael Jerome Browne, Mike Regenstreif & Eric Bibb (2005)
After playing solo on the first 13 tracks, Michael ends the album with a fine duet with the great Eric Bibb on “Choose Your Seat and Sit Down,” a spiritual originally recorded in the 1930s by Dock Reed and Vera Ward Hall.

Michael launches Sliding Delta with concerts here in Ottawa on Wednesday, January21, at Irene’s; and in Montreal on Saturday, January 24 at Petit Campus; and in Toronto on Sunday, January 25 at the Rivoli.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Christine Lavin – If You’re Drunk You Cannot Buy a Puppy

If You’re Drunk You Cannot Buy a Puppy

After a health scare last summer, the always-delightful Christine Lavin has returned with her 21st solo album. Like many of her earlier records, If You’re Drunk You Cannot Buy a Puppy is a collection of mostly funny and, occasionally, serious songs – a few of them recorded live.

The album opens with the very witty “Women Walking Wearing Wings,” a hipster-jazz piece that deconstructs the Victoria’s Secrets Fashion Show and the appeal that it has for some.

A few of the other songs that will surely make you smile are “Remembering My Passwords,” which hilariously traces the evolution of password theory from the dawn of the Internet age late last century to the present; “A Million Little Pictures,” an amusing treatise on the art of exaggeration; “Ha Ha Ha Ha Tsk Tsk Shhhhhh,” in which she recounts her adventure seeing the movie Sex & the City in New York on opening day; and the title track, “If You’re Drunk You Cannot Buy a Puppy,” a list of things people should not do when they've had too much to drink that was inspired by a sign she saw at a pet shop in Greenwich Village.

One of the live tracks is “Tony DeSare, Bucky Pizzarelli, Edith & Ervin Drake at the Algonquin Hotel,” a very funny spoken-word reading from Christine’s book, Cold Pizza for Breakfast: A Mem-wha??

Among Christine’s serious songs are “Cary Grant, Esther Williams, Angelina Jolie & the Romance of the Gun,” which examines the role of pop culture in influencing American gun culture; “They Are Not Done They Are Not Done,” which captures a family’s conflict as it deals with end-of-life issues; and “Song of Lucy Gayheart,” inspired by Willa Cather’s 1935 novel Lucy Gayheart and the love that Joanne Woodward had for the book.

These are songs that will make you smile, occasionally laugh, and occasionally bring a tear to your eye. Like many of Christine’s earlier albums, this is an album to revisit from time to time to smile, laugh and shed that tear again.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Various Artists – Tulare Dust: a songwriters’ tribute to Merle Haggard (Expanded Edition)

Tulare Dust: a songwriters’ tribute to Merle Haggard (Expanded Edition)

Tulare Dust: a songwriters’ tribute to Merle Haggard, co-produced by Tom Russell and Dave Alvin and originally released in 1994, was one of the very finest tribute albums of that era and featured a great collection of 15 roots artists singing their favorite songs from Merle Haggard’s impressive catalog.

Tulare Dust has recently been reissued as an expanded 2-CD set; the first CD is the original album while the second CD is live tracks taken from the CD release concert which featured about half the artists each doing their Haggard selection plus one of their own.

Dave Alvin nails the significance of Haggard in the liner notes to this new edition when he writes that Haggard “has always been one of the great American songwriters in the folk music tradition. Being in this folk tradition doesn’t necessarily just mean strumming an acoustic guitar in a coffee house, it can also mean learning your musical craft from your elders, then taking what you’ve learned and finding your own voice inside that musical and community tradition. It’s what Muddy Waters and Bill Monroe did. It’s what Hank Williams, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Curtis Mayfield did. It’s exactly what Merle Haggard did.”

Haggard himself has paid tribute to some of those musical elders – notably Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills – who influenced him. But, as becomes obvious in listening to some of these songs, the influence of Woody Guthrie is also strongly felt in Haggard’s work. Listen to Tom Russell’s great medley of “Tulare Dust/They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down” to understand that Haggard’s own family were among the waves of Okies who risked all of their do-re-mi trying to find a better life in California during the Dust Bowl era.

That Guthrie influence can also be heard in such songs as “Kern River,” sung from deep-in-the-traditional-well by Dave Alvin and “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today,” sung with conviction by Peter Case.

Some of my other favorite tracks include Iris DeMent’s world-weary version of “Big City”; Lucinda Williams’ heartbreaking version of the heartbroken “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go”; Marshall Crenshaw’s rendition of the separation song “Silver Wings”; and Steve Young’s sad version of “Shopping for Dresses,” Haggard’s portrait of loneliness.

Another highlight is R&B singer Barrence Whitfield’s very affecting take on “Irma Jackson,” Haggard’s poignant song about inter-racial love – a song that was taboo-breaking in the world of early-1970s country music.

Among the best of the songwriters’ original material on the second CD are Tom Russell’s always exciting “Gallo del Cielo,” Dave Alvin’s “King of California,” Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train,” and Peter Case’s “A Little Wind (Could Blow Me Away),” about Elvis Presley's comeback concert, which was co-written by Tom Russell.

Tulare Dust: a songwriters’ tribute to Merle Haggard was a great album 20 years ago and is made even greater by the inclusion of the second live disc.

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--Mike Regenstreif