Sunday, April 23, 2017

Michael Earnie Taylor Orchestra – $3 Pants

$3 Pants
Laughing Cactus Music

Once upon a time – or, more accurately, the 1970s – my favorite Canadian band was a folk-bluegrass-country-jug band from Saskatoon called Humphrey & the Dumptrucks. I met the Dumptrucks – guitarists and lead singers Michael “Earnie” Taylor and Graeme Card, banjo and Dobro maestro Gary “Humphrey” Walsh and acoustic bassist Michael “Bear” Millar – for the first time, circa 1972, when I was helping to run the Yellow Door Coffee House in Montreal and they came to play a weekend gig.

The band was tight, they wrote great original material, and their shows and LPs were always a guaranteed good time. Graeme left the band in 1973 and Humphrey & the Dumptrucks carried on as a trio that was just as good and just as entertaining. I brought them back to Montreal to play at the concert series I was running at Dawson College in ‘73 – which I recall being one of the best attended shows ever during that two-year series – and they played at the Golem, the folk club I was running in Montreal in 1976 when they came to town for an extended run at Centaur Theatre of “Cruel Tears,” the country-and-western opera they co-wrote with playwright Ken Mitchell, as part of the cultural programming for the Summer Olympic Games. “Cruel Tears” was one of the most memorable Canadian theatrical productions of that era.

While none of the terrific LPs recorded by Humphrey & the Dumptrucks has ever been reissued on CD, you can hear some of them on YouTube.

The Dumptrucks broke up in the early-1980s and Michael “Earnie” Taylor settled in Stratford, Ontario where he worked for the Stratford Festival for many years and continued playing music. He formed a band called Me & My Uncle (with Humphrey on banjo) which released a terrific self-titled CD in 1996. He followed that with an equally terrific CD called Folk ‘n’ Western released under his own name in 2002.

Now, 15 years since the last CD, comes $3 Pants by the Michael Earnie Taylor Orchestra (METO). In addition to Michael on guitar, kazoo and most lead vocals, METO includes Jeff Laughton – who was in Me & My Uncle and also played on Folk ‘n’ Western – on acoustic bass and harmony vocals; Ross Mulligan on electric and nylon-string guitars; and Terri Dans and Carol Miller on kazoo and vocals. Terri and Carol each take the lead vocal on one song.

The album opens with a fun version of “Ring of Fire,” a Johnny Cash hit from 1964. Cash’s version of the song featured an instantly recognizable intro and fills played by a mariachi horn section while METO’s kazoo trio plays those parts here. You can tell that METO’s arrangement is both tongue-in-cheek and respectful.

Then comes a new version of “Calgary Song,” one of Michael’s original songs from Six Days of Paper Ladies, the first Humphrey & the Dumptrucks LP. Hearing it again after all these years reminded me of great times listening to the Dumptrucks and of the time Michael showed me the guitar chords for “Calgary Song” about 45 years ago. $3 Pants also includes a new version “Clyde Beattie,” also first recorded on Six Days of Paper Ladies, Michael’s memory of the lion tamer in a circus that came through Saskatoon when he was 10.

There are also new versions of “Lady of the Prairie” and “One More for the Women,” two of the songs from “Cruel Tears.” Although it’s been more than 40 years since I’ve seen the show, hearing them on this CD brought back visual memories of the scenes in “Cruel Tears” in which they were sung.

Among the other highlights on $3 Pants are Michael’s “Tourist Town,” an infectious boogie modeled on Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee’s “Spread the News Around” that spoofs Stratford (the opening line is taken from William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”) and a deeply-felt version of Bruce “Utah” Phillips’ emotional “Rock Salt and Nails”with countrypolitan harmonies by Terri and Carol.

This album will certainly be appreciated by anyone who remembers Humphrey & the Dumptrucks – and should also win lots of new fans for the Michael Earnie Taylor Orchestra.

Pictured: The Michael Earnie Taylor Orchestra – (from left) Ross Mulligan, Michael “Earnie” Taylor, Terri Dans, Carol Miller and Jeff Laughton.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Tom Paxton – Boat in the Water

Boat in the Water

I’ve written about Tom Paxton a lot over many years: here on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches blog, in Sing Out magazine, and in the Montreal Gazette. I’ve worked with him a bunch of times in coffee houses and concert halls and folk festivals – and, more than once, I’ve told the story of how an encounter with Tom when I was about 14 or 15 (and he was 31 or 32) was that “it moment” for me that led to a lifetime’s involvement in folk music. All this to say, without trying to be too repetitious, that I regard Tom to be one of the most important and significant songwriters and folksingers of all time. Period.

At age 79, Tom remains a vital artist. On Boat in the Water, his new album, Tom offers eight new songs and new versions of five of his classics from the 1960s and ‘70s all delivered from the perspective of wisdom and experience – whether they are songs reflecting his own life or reflecting the lives of characters created from his (and his co-writers’) creative imagination(s).

Among the most poignant of the new songs are “The First Thing I Think of Each Morning,” co-written with Jon Vezner, and “It’s Too Soon,” co-written with Pat Alger, both of which made me think of Midge Paxton, Tom’s late wife, who passed away in 2014. I always enjoyed so enjoyed Midge’s company when she came up to Montreal with Tom or at folk festivals we were all at.

Other highlights from the new songs include “Boat in the Water,” co-written with Pat Alger, a breezy let’s-get-away-from-it-all-together tune; “A Daughter in Denver,” in which Tom’s character, a divorced dad with grown kids, laments how his family has scattered; and “Eleanor’s Song,” co-written with Jon Vezner and Don Henry, a portrait of a woman who has lived life strictly on her own terms.

Highlights from among the older songs that Tom revisits are “Outward Bound,” a beautiful farewell song that takes on even more poignancy in hearing it sung in Tom’s older voice; and “The Last Hobo,” a story of a man left behind by society that is filled with the subtext of ever-changing times.

Tom on vocals and guitar is well supported throughout the album by bassist Ralph Gordon and co-producers/multi-instrumentalists/harmony singers Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. Cathy also takes the lead vocal – and does a very nice job – on “Home to Me,” a tender love song that Tom used to sing at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the 1970s and ‘80s.

To paraphrase the title from a 1973 Tom Paxton LP, it’s always great to have new songs (and new versions of old songs) from an old friend.

Pictured (from left): Billy Bragg, Sonia disappear fear, Mike Regenstreif, Tom Paxton and Greg Greenway (with Zachary Stevenson looking on as he does a sound check) at the Kansas City Folk Festival after the Folk Alliance International Conference (2017).

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Jayme Stone’s Folklife

Jayme Stone’s Folklife
Borealis Records

A little over two years ago, the masterful banjo player Jayme Stone released Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, an superb album in which he and a revolving cast of singers and musicians reimagined 19 songs – mostly traditional folksongs – that had been collected by legendary folklorist Alan Lomax (1915-2002) over a period of many years. As I noted in my review, “it is an extraordinary collection at once timeless, traditional and utterly contemporary.”

Although the CD featured different musicians and singers on different tracks Jayme worked with more focused smaller groups when taking the Lomax Project out on the road. The superb Lomax Project concert that I got to see and hear – March 16, 2016 in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage – featured Jayme with primary lead singer and accordionist Moira Smiley, bassist Joe Phillips and fiddler Sumaia Jackson. Moira and Joe had each appeared on about a third of the tracks on Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project while Sumaia was recruited sometime after the recording was completed.

While I went into that concert wondering if Jayme, Moira, Joe and Sumaia would be credible performing the often complex arrangements that had been played by other combinations of musicians on the CD, it was quickly obvious that the four had formed a wonderful, tight performing unit. It was one of the finest concerts I’ve seen in recent years.

Jayme Stone’s Folklife is the follow-up to the Lomax Project CD. At about 43 minutes and 10 songs it’s a shorter CD than the first one (which had 19 songs and clocked in at 66 minutes). But it’s a tighter, more focused group with nine of the 10 songs featuring the core group of Jayme, Moira, Joe and Sumaia – sometimes augmented by drummer Nick Fraser and/or harmony singers Felicity Williams and Denzel Sinclaire. And although most of the songs come from Lomax field recordings, there are a couple here that came through other collectors.

Although each of these tracks is a terrific performance highlighted by great playing and Moira’s charismatic lead vocals, a few of my very favorites include “Mwen Pas Danse” with its bouncy, breezy Caribbean rhythms; “Hey, Lally Lally Lo,” which I learned at summer camp in the 1960s as a singalong song that we’d improvise verses to, but which Moira turns into a sexy torch song; and the a cappella finale, “Wait on the Rising Sun,” with Moira’s lead vocals supported by Jayme, Sumaia, Joe, Felicity and Denzel in glorious harmonies.

“Buttermilk” is the only song on Jayme Stone’s Folklife not to feature the core musicians. On this song Jayme, on banjo, is joined by Dom Flemons who sings and plays guitar and quills (a panpipe flute made from cane reeds) and jazz musician Ron Miles on cornet. It’s a delightful, energetic performance on which you can also hear percussive bones playing – I assume by Dom who I’ve seen play them during his days with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

As I said about Jayme Stone's Lomax Project, this album is an extraordinary collection at once timeless, traditional and utterly contemporary.”

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--Mike Regenstreif