Saturday, August 1, 2015

Peter Keane – Rural Electrification

Rural Electrification

I was a big fan of Peter Keane’s four earlier albums and their subtle mixtures of in-the-tradition originals and interpretations of country blues and folk classics. After about 13 years since his last album, Peter has resurfaced with Rural Electrification, an album that is both a continuation of what he’s done on earlier albums, and a departure.

The album continues where Peter left off as he remains a wonderfully subtle song interpreter. Most of these songs date from the 1920s and ‘30s and he gets to the essence of each song with his superb fingerpicking and easy going singing. Everything you could want in the guitar arrangement – and it’s a solo album, just Peter’s guitar and vocals – is there, and there are no unnecessary vocal gymnastics to distract from the lyrics.

The departure is that Peter played acoustic guitars on his earlier albums and – as hinted at in the album title, Rural Electrification – he’s playing an electric guitar, a rich-sounding Gretsch hollow-body, on this one. Happily, the switch to electric guitar doesn’t mean he’s cranking the volume to 11, adding feedback or weird effects, or rocking out. Mostly, the difference is in a bigger range of tone and some added sustain and reverb. The sound remains as purely musical as on the acoustic guitar. I wouldn’t say I like it more or less than Peter’s acoustic work, it’s just a little different.

Among my favorite tracks are Mississippi John Hurt’s “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” Elizabeth Cotten’s “When I Get Home,” the Mississippi SheiksSitting on Top of the World, Goebel Reeves’ “Hobo’s Lullaby” (which is often cited as Woody Guthrie’s favorite song, and his own “Almost Gone,” the only new song in the 12-song set.

Whether Peter sticks with the electric guitar or goes back to acoustic, or uses both, I do hope it will be much sooner than 13 years when we hear from him again.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Thad Beckman – Streets of Disaster

Streets of Disaster
Thadzooks Records

I first became aware of Thad Beckman several years ago when he began working as Tom Russell’s back-up guitarist. Knowing Tom as I do, particularly after 25 years with the great Andrew Hardin as his primary accompanist, there was no doubt in my mind that Thad would be a great guitarist. And he certainly proved that to me when I first saw them play together in 2012. Listening to Thad’s two previously released CDs, Me Talkin’ to Me and Blues Gone By, I also found out that Thad was a good singer-songwriter, and a particularly fine interpreter of traditional blues, in his own right.

As good as the songs were on Me Talkin’ to Me, released on 2008, Streets of Disaster is a giant step forward. Seamlessly working in blues, country and contemporary folk styles, Thad’s songwriting – and his fine performances – now seems classic and timeless.

 “Street of Disaster,” the quasi-title track, opens the album. Using a traditional blues mode, the song is a compelling commentary on the state of the contemporary world.

Other highlights include “Blues in My Blood” and “Stirring Up Some Ashes,” a couple of country songs that seems like Merle Haggard at his best; “If Only My Heart Had a Brain,” a look back at romantic history set to a lovely solo guitar arrangement; “200 Dollars,” a witty blues tune in a Mississippi John Hurt mode; and “A Soldier Returns Home,” an extended, impressionistic blues guitar instrumental.

Thad Beckman, Mike Regenstreif, Tom Russell (2012)
In addition to nine of his own compositions, Thad also includes a slinky version of Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues,” one of my all-time favorite blues songs (the original was included on Harry Smith’s legendary Anthology of American Folk Music), in which Thad’s vocals are very effectively complemented by Mike Emerson on organ, Kurtis Piltz on harmonica, and Thad on electric lead guitar; and a terrific live duet with Tom Russell on Tom’s enduring, “Blue Wing.”

Find me on Twitter.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Ottawa Folklore Centre closes

Ottawa Folklore Centre (Google Streetview)

The folk music community in Ottawa, in Ontario, and, indeed, across Canada, was dealt a harsh blow today with the announcement that the Ottawa Folklore Centre has fallen into bankruptcy and has closed.

The announcement came in a letter to the community (see below) from Arthur McGregor, who founded the Ottawa Folklore Centre in 1976 and ran it with tremendous dedication and love for nearly four decades – most of his adult life. As Arthur writes in his letter, it has been his life’s work.

The Ottawa Folklore Centre was never just a musical instrument store. It was also a music school where skilled musicians taught novices how to sing and play guitar, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, fiddle and who knows what else. It published songbooks by the likes of Stan Rogers and Bruce Cockburn and it was a community gathering point. The Ottawa Folklore Centre was a place to drop in and hang out. It was a great source of information about what was happening on the folk scene. The Ottawa Folklore Centre was a beloved community institution that nurtured and supported other community institutions – from the Ottawa Folk Festival to Canadian Spaces on CKCU to the Canadian Folk Music Awards, Rasputin’s Folk Café, Irene’s, the Black Sheep Inn, the Ottawa Grassroots Festival, and virtually every other festival, concert venue and music producer in the region.

But, noting all of that, and so many other incredible accomplishments, doesn’t begin to address the real, lasting contribution of the Ottawa Folklore Centre – which was to make folk music an accessible, affordable, participatory part of people’s lives.

Arthur McGregor performing at the 2013 Ottawa Folk Festival. (Mike Regenstreif)
I know that running a business like the Ottawa Folklore Centre has never been easy. But it’s been more than a business – for Arthur, in particular, but also for just about everyone else who has ever worked there – it’s been a calling. Most of the folklore centres I got to hang out as a young folkie – the legendary New York Folklore Center, the Toronto Folklore Centre, and the Montreal Folklore Centre – were gone by the 1980s. A select few – the Denver Folklore Center, the Halifax Folklore Centre, and, until now, the Ottawa Folklore Centre, come to mind – have endured. I hope their communities know what treasures these places are.

I have some idea of how tough it’s been for Arthur to keep the Ottawa Folklore Centre going over the past number of years. And while most business-oriented people might have called it a day long ago, Arthur kept on keeping on because, deep down, he knew how important the Ottawa Folklore Centre has been to our community.

Thirty-eight years! It’s been a great run, Arthur. The entire folk music community is giving you a well-deserved standing ovation for all that you’ve done and accomplished with the Ottawa Folklore Centre.

Arthur’s letter:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

There are few things more important to me than folk music and the deep community that it engenders. I have dedicated most of my life to this community.  For the past 38 years the main symbol of that dedication has been the Ottawa Folklore Centre. I opened it on Bronson Avenue in 1976 and later, Terry Penner, my late wife, and I moved it to its present location on Bank Street. These thirty-eight years have not been easy but I have continued, with the help of family and friends…hundreds, in the face of many challenges and been proud of what we have accomplished. I have persisted in upholding the original vision of the OFC as a true centre for musicians to come together as well as a centre for teaching. The pursuit of this vision has meant much personal sacrifice over the years and the road has been far from easy. But it has been my life’s work and I am particularly proud of the esteem the community has held for this work and this vision.  That esteem was gloriously on display when it first became known that the business was running into trouble last year. A benefit concert was held which raised enough money to keep us afloat for a while.  This outpouring of love was humbling and heart-warming at the same time.  It is because of this love and community support that the decisions I now have to make are so onerous and difficult. 

In recent years the challenge of keeping the OFC alive has been steadily increasing to the point where the impact on my personal life is no longer bearable.  It has become quite clear that in spite of our on-going efforts and personal sacrifices, this business is simply not sustainable.

We have sought much professional advice and explored several options. I have pursued possible buyers of the business, real estate agents to see if sub-leasing parts of the building is feasible, hired consultants to help organize the business to reflect current realities. We have worked with community organizations to share programming. I have tried everything I know to keep this business afloat. I have invested all the money that I have available to me. I have nothing left to give, monetarily or physically.

With sales recently weakening as the summer arrives, the final decision has been made for me.

Effective July 23, the Ottawa Folklore Centre Ltd. is declaring bankruptcy and will be in the hands of a bankruptcy trustee, Ginsberg/Gingras. There will be customers, students, staff, suppliers, and teachers who will not understand this choice and who will lose earned income and payments for lessons and goods that The Folklore Centre will not be able to honour. I apologize for this. It is not for lack of trying.

Arthur McGregor

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--Mike Regenstreif