Saturday, October 3, 2015

Happy Traum – Just for the Love of It

Just for the Love of It
Lark’s Nest Music

Ten years ago, reviewing Happy Traum’s then-new album, I Walk the Road Again, in Sing Out! magazine, I noted, “It’s been much too long, more than two decades, since Happy Traum, a former editor of Sing Out! magazine, released a solo album. Happily, the long wait has resulted in a very sweet gem of a CD.”

Another decade has gone by, but the wait for Just for the Love of It, another very sweet gem of a CD, was worth it. As usual, Happy has impeccable taste in choosing a program of great traditional folk and blues songs or contemporary songs written in the tradition and even better taste in the way he arranges them with both reverence for his sources and the originality of his always creative fingerpicking guitar and warm singing. He also surrounds himself – track to track – with just the right set of supporting musicians for each song and arrangement.

Because I have multiple versions of every one of these songs in my collection (in some cases many versions) there’s an instant familiarity to every track. But, despite, that familiarity, Happy made each and every one of them sound fresh the first time listened to the album – and they still sound fresh no matter how many times I’ve played the CD.

The album kicks off with Happy’s interpretation of Brownie McGhee’s version of the traditional “Careless Love Blues.” I have versions of Brownie playing the song solo and with Sonny Terry on harmonica. With Happy doing a great job on guitar and vocals, John Sebastian does an equally great job on harmonica.

Other favorite tracks include the traditional “Deep Blue Sea,” learned from Pete Seeger and featuring David Amram on pennywhistle and terrific harmonies by Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams; a contemplative, solo version of Pete’s “Sailing Down My Golden River”; an arrangement of the traditional “Things Are Coming My Way” that is, like so many Georgia Sea Island songs, completely infectious; and a defiant-sounding version of Woody Guthrie’s classic “I Ain’t Got No Home,” that also features a great harmonica part by John Sebastian.

There is also a full-on version of Bob Dylan’s “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood),” featuring Happy’s son, Adam Traum on slide guitar and harmony vocals. This song was one of several duets Happy recorded with Dylan in 1971 for Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 album.

There are another eight songs on Just for the Love of It. I could just as easily have cited any of them as a highlight. I hope it’s not another decade before Happy decides to do another album.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Darrell Scott – 10 Songs of Ben Bullington; Five albums by Ben Bullington

Last November, I got an email from my friend Rik James, host of the Americana Backroads program on KGLT radio in Bozeman, Montana asking if I knew of Ben Bullington. It was the first time I’d heard of him.

It turned out that Ben, who had died about a year earlier from pancreatic cancer at age 58, was a family doctor in the tiny town of White Sulphur Springs, Montana who also wrote songs – mostly, I assume, for himself, his friends and his family. Between 2007 and 2013, he recorded and self-released five CDs of his songs.

Rik passed my name and address on to Joanne Gardner, a close friend of Ben’s who had helped him put out the CDs and who has continued to spread the word about him and his songs. She sent me the five CDs and they revealed Ben Bullington as one of the finest singer-songwriters I’d ever encountered. Had I heard them when they were first released, each would have been on my annual year-end best-of lists for the years they were released.

10 Songs of Ben Bullington
Full Light Records

Nashville-based singer-songwriter Darrell Scott met Ben Bullington toward the end of his life through Joanne Gardner, a mutual friend, and Darrell also discovered what a great songwriter he was. On 10 Songs of Ben Bullington, he offers some fine, often very moving interpretations of 10 of the 50-something songs from his five albums.

The album opens with “The One I’m Still Thinking About,” a beautiful song written with love about a former love. As someone who hosted a folk music radio program for many years (and who still does occasionally), I appreciated the way Ben wrote folk music radio into the song.

Darrell performs solo on the album and other favorite tracks include “Born in ’55,” a narrative that travels through the years calling attention to many of the history-changing events that those of us born in the middle of the last century have been witness to; “Green Heart,” a vivid reminiscence of falling in love for the first time as teenager; and “I’ve Got to Leave You Now,” a poignant song I presume Ben wrote for his sons during his final year after his cancer diagnosis (it was on his final album).

10 Songs of Ben Bullington is a fine album and great tribute from one songwriter to another. The greatest success this album can have – and I’m sure that it will have – would be to inspire listeners unfamiliar with Ben Bullington to search out his own recordings.

Two Lane Highway
White Sulphur Spring
Satisfaction Garage
Lazy Moon
Ben Bullington

Two Lane Highway, released in 2007, is a superb introduction to the work of Ben Bullington. Like Darrell’s album, it also opens with “The One I’m Still Thinking About” before continuing with such fine songs as “Sittin’ on the Porch,” a tribute to the great joys found in making music and writing songs; “When the Wind Blows from the East,” written from the perspective of a D-Day soldier; and “Corby Bond,” a story song in which Ben assumes the persona of a travelling oil field worker.

As good as the first album was – and it was, as I said, superb – Ben’s second album, White Sulphur Springs, released in 2008, was even better. Ben’s singing was more confident and the album, recorded in Tennessee, benefitted from some stellar backup work from multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin and from a fine duet with Rodney Crowell on “Toe the Line.” Other highlights include the topical commentary of “I’m a Stranger,” featuring lovely harmonies from Tracy Nelson; “Born in ’55,” one of the best songs on Darrell Scott’s tribute CD; and “White Sulphur Springs,” a vivid description of Ben’s home and hometown and the people who live there.

The production values and backup musicians introduced on the second album continued on the third, Satisfaction Garage, released in 2010. And this album also contained a superb set of highlighted by “The Engineer’s Dark Lover,” a lovely song inspired by a lonely scene at a small town train station; “Lester Mays (He Lived the Way He Wanted To),” a tribute to an original character reminiscent of the old man in Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train”; and “Would You Walk With Me Tonight?” a courting song filled with vivid imagery.

By 2012, when Ben recorded Lazy Moon, his fourth album. The template was pretty much set in stone. More great songs with simple but compelling arrangements sung in a natural storyteller’s voice. While any of these songs could be picked as a highlight, I’ll mention “I Didn’t See You Maggie,” in which the narrator sings to an old lover with a new life that doesn’t include him; “Lone Pine,” about an Afghanistan War vet back tending the family farm with an appreciation for art, poetry and music; and “Buckles and Leather,” a series of stream-of-consciousness observations.

Ben Bullington got his cancer diagnosis about a year or so before he died in November 2013. It was only then that gave up his medical practice and dedicated his last months to playing music full-time, performing concerts and recording a final album, the self-titled Ben Bullington. I don’t know how many of the 11 songs were written that year but there’s a sense of finality, of saying goodbye to friends and particularly to family in such songs as “I’ve Got to Leave You Now” and “The Last Adios,” and even indirectly in songs like “His Chosen Time.”

There is hardly a weak song on any of Ben Bullington’s five albums. Whether he’s singing of his own life, or of characters inspired by others, or of fictional characters from his own imagination, the songs are timeless vignettes marked by a rare authenticity.

I wished I’d known of Ben Bullington’s work while he was still alive. Each of his albums carries my highest recommendation.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Guy Davis – Kokomo Kidd

Kokomo Kidd
M.C. Records

As I said two years ago in the intro to my review of Juba Dance, over the past two decades, Guy Davis has been one of the premiere interpreters of traditional acoustic blues and one of the songwriters whose in-the-tradition work has kept the genre vital and alive in modern times. In the hands of Guy and a few of his peers, the traditional blues forms remain timeless – as relevant now as they were 30, 50 or 80 years ago. All of the recordings Guy has released since the limited edition Guy Davis Live in 1993 (repackaged as Stomp Down Rider in 1995) have been both a homage to Guy’s musical forebears and a crucial contribution to contemporary music.

Guy is in great form on Kokomo Kidd with eight new songs and five covers – a couple of which are very pleasant surprises.

The album opens with the bouncy “Kokomo Kidd.” Guy assumes the persona of Kokomo Kidd, a seemingly ageless bootlegger/dealer/pimp/fixer, who supplies liquor, drugs and women (or men) to top Washington politicians during Prohibition and through to the present where he continues as an ultimate dirty trickster. Guy’s banjo playing sets the rhythm, his voice tells the story in a kind of blues-based pre-rap style, and the bottom is filled by some terrific tuba playing by Ben Jaffe of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Other favorites from among Guy’s originals include “Taking Just a Little Bit of Time,” which celebrates stepping out of the hectic pace of contemporary life “for just a little bit of time”; “Shake It Like Sonny Did,” a great tribute to country blues harmonica legend Sonny Terry (who I had the opportunity to know and work with in the 1970s); and the delightfully catchy “Maybe I’ll Go,” a nod to Mississippi John Hurt.

With the support of Professor Louie on Hammond organ, Guy moves into classic soul ballad mode on the powerful “She Just Wants to be Loved,” an empathetic piece about a lonely woman who has never found the love she’s spent her lifetime looking for.

The most moving piece on the album is “I Wish I Hadn’t Stayed Away So Long,” in which Guy poignantly laments that his life as touring musician meant the he “got home too late to say goodbye” when his mother (the legendary actress Ruby Dee) died.

Guy Davis & Mike Regenstreif (2006)
Among the songs Guy didn’t write are three blues standards. Among them is Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” done in classic Chicago blues style with Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. 

The pleasant surprises I mentioned are a soul ballad version of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and a reggae version of Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Both songs so familiar and yet so fresh-sounding in these interpretations.

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--Mike Regenstreif