Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Dust Bowl Ballads: Songs for the New Depression
This album by HOTCHA! – the Toronto-based duo of singer-songwriter-accordionist Beverly Kreller and singer-songwriter-guitarist Howard Druckman – does a really fine job of evoking the music of the Great Depression by combining period pieces like Louis Armstrong’s “Ol’ Man Mose” with very cool in-the-tradition originals like “Mines Went Down,” a lament for the devastation wrecked on miners’ lives when the mines close down that’s very effectively set to a Gene Krupa-like drum pattern.
HOTCHA!’s original songs are very well crafted. You can almost feel the dry, dusty heat in “Hey Little Waterboy,” the slow, small town pace-of-life in “Harlan’s Porch,” and the desperation that leads to evil deeds in “Sweet Miss Sally.”
A couple of the covers, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” a hit for Patsy Cline, and “Catfish John,” a ‘70s tune that’s been done by the Grateful Dead and a lot of bluegrass bands, date from decades after the Depression, but they don’t sound at all out-of-place here.
This music doesn’t seem like it’s from Toronto – there’s more of a rural, American southwest feel to it – but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kreller and Druckman have listened to the stuff Toronto’s Original Sloth Band was putting out back in the 1970s. HOTCHA’s approach to the vintage tunes sometimes reminds me of the Sloths.
Dust Bowl Roots: Songs for the New Depression seems especially timely coming, as it does, in these tough economic times.
Achin In Yer Bones
It’s probably inevitable that Winnipeg singer-songwriter Romi Mayes would get compared a lot to Lucinda Williams. Like Williams, Mayes is a brutally honest and open songwriter whose music reflects a life lived – at least partially – on the edge, and she stakes out a similar musical turf at the crossroads of folk, blues, real-deal country and rock ‘n’ roll. And her producer, Gurf Morlix, also produced Williams’ middle period albums.
The open honesty in Mayes’ lyrics is established from the get-go in the title track that opens this CD. The song recalls her much younger self, burnt out on a Kerouacian ramble, really needing to get back home, even if it meant 40 lonely hours on a Greyhound.
Some of my favourite pieces on the album include “I Won’t Cry,” a song whose defiant lyrics in the face of a break-up are in sharp contrast to the slow, sad melody and singing in which you can hear the cry in her voice, and “Hard Road,” a constantly-touring musician’s revelation that she needs to come in off the road for a while.
Romi Mayes performs Wednesday, June 3, 8:00 pm, at Petit Campus, 57 Prince Arthur East in Montreal – hellodarlinproductions.com/romi_mayes.htm – and Thursday, June 4, 8:30 pm, at the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield – theblacksheepinn.com.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Concert at Canadian Tulip Festival (Ottawa)
May 16, 2009
In my not so humble opinion, Ian Tyson has been one of the all-time great Canadian singer-songwriters since Ian and Sylvia burst on the scene in the early-1960s. I still love most of the Ian and Sylvia albums from back in the day as well as his solo work since the 1970s. I saw Ian in concert on Saturday for the first time since he started singing with what he calls his “new voice.” A couple of years ago a combination of vocal scarring and a bad virus took away the familiar smoothness and much of the range from the great tenor we’d known for 45 or so years. My last Ian Tyson concert was at Hugh’s Room in Toronto on November 27, 2006 before the change in his voice (and the night before Ian and I sat down for the long, career-spanning interview that ran on Folk Roots/Folk Branches on December 14, 2006).
Actually, I was surprised at how strong Ian’s singing seemed to be. While it was certainly not what it was back in 2006, Ian’s voice seemed to be considerably stronger than it was on Yellowhead to Yellowstone and other Love Stories, his album released late last year. Ian’s unique timbre and vocal inflections were there. There was no mistaking the singer and he still knows how to communicate the essence of a song to his audience.
There was also no mistaking the quality of his songs. Much of the set was devoted to sad songs of lost love and of the quickly disappearing west of the modern-day cowboys and included a lot of the material from Yellowhead to Yellowstone and other Love Stories and other relatively recent albums. He also occasionally reached back for a classic like “Navajo Rug,” co-written with Tom Russell, or way back to the Ian and Sylvia days for “Someday Soon” and “Four Strong Winds.”
After a well-deserved standing ovation, Ian encored with a poignant version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the only song of the night that he didn’t write or co-write.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Sleeve Dog Records
The last Susan Werner album I heard was a fascinating concept album called The Gospel Truth which blended gospel-infused arrangements with lyrics that questioned religious belief and what some people do in the name of religion. With Classics, Werner has come up with another interesting concept taking 10 classic pop, rock, folk and reggae songs from the 1960s and ‘70s and arranging them for her voice and a small chamber orchestra, and adding excerpts from classical compositions to some of them.
An interesting concept if it could be pulled off properly, but certainly one that had the potential to easily descend into some kind of bland mush in the hands of the wrong artist, producer and arranger-conductor. I’m happy to report that Werner was the right artist; that she and Crit Harmon were the right co-producers; and that Brad Hatfield, who also played piano, was the right arranger and conductor. This album succeeds on every score, from the choice of songs – and classical compositions to pair some of them with – to Werner’s gorgeous, intimate singing and the lush classically-oriented arrangements.
Among my favourite tracks are a beautiful version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” that’s juxtaposed with excerpts from Erik Satie’s “Gynopedies #1” arranged for piano with woodwind and string accents, and an almost aggressive-sounding string arrangement of Paul Simon’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” that also includes excerpts from the Winter movements of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”
In Werner’s hands, Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn” almost seems like it was written for piano and strings rather than 12-string guitar, while “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” first recorded by Nina Simone, takes on a Spanish tinge when paired with the “Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez” by Rodrigo.
Werner ends the album with the apt “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” a relatively obscure Beach Boys tune.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
A Stranger Here
There’s so much that can be said about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He spent time with Woody Guthrie and his family in the early-1950s, travelled with Woody on his last great road trip and was the prototype for the young Bob Dylan a decade later.
Jack spent part of the 1950s in England where his performances and early recordings inspired people like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Rod Stewart to get guitars and learn folk music. Mick Jagger has been quoted as saying that bought his first guitar after seeing Jack perform when he was a school kid.
Jack has an amazing repertoire of Woody Guthrie songs, Dylan songs, traditional cowboy ballads, blues, truck driving songs, Lead Belly songs and much else. And he’s one of the greatest storytellers of all time. I once saw him on stage for an hour, keeping the audience enthralled and in stitches and only getting around to, maybe, three songs.
I first met Jack in 1971 when he played a five-night stand at the Back Door, a Montreal coffee house that closed shortly after his gig there. I was 17 years old and fascinated with Woody Guthrie. I watched Jack perform for three or four nights and then ventured into the back room and asked him about Woody. He talked to me about Woody Guthrie for a long time that night, 38 years ago.
Over the years I’ve seen Jack many times and in many different situations: with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, at folk festivals, and in concerts and coffeehouses; we worked together several times when he played at the Golem, the Montreal coffeehouse that I ran from 1974-’76 and 1981-‘87. I got introduce Jack when he came back to Montreal, for his first Montreal concert since the Golem, in 2006 to play the Pop Montreal festival.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s life is the stuff of legend and myth. You never know what Jack might do, or where he might take us, in any given show or on any given record. On this record, Jack’s takes us deep into the country blues performing classic songs. Some of these songs come from early masters of the genre like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leroy Carr who were long gone before Jack arrived on the scene as Woody’s apprentice 60 or so years ago. Others come from artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis who Jack would have had the opportunity to know during the folk and blues revival of the 1960s. Of the 10 songs, I only recognize one, “How Long Blues,” as one that Jack has done before.
While Jack has included blues on many of his earlier albums, this is the first time he’s devoted a whole set to the genre. Working with producer Joe Henry and a remarkably creative studio band including such stellar musicians as Van Dyke Parks, Greg Leisz, David Hidalgo and David Piltch, Jack sounds amazingly free and relaxed in singing these songs. Although he doesn’t sound at all like her, there’s a Billie Holiday-like quality to his singing. The arrangements seem to be both as old as the songs – and as Jack himself – and, yet, utterly new and contemporary.
I believe it was Greil Marcus who coined the term “old weird America” to describe the wonderful music that Harry Smith compiled in his landmark Anthology of American Folk Music and that was so inspirational to subsequent generations of folk music revivalists. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s A Stranger Here is a contemporary take on old weird America.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Sunny and her Joy Boys
Introducing... Sunny and her Joy Boys
I’d never heard the delightful singer Sunny Crownover before I slipped this CD into the player. But I go back a long time with a couple of the Joy Boys.
I’ve been listening to bandleader, guitarist and producer Duke Robillard since he fronted the first Roomful of Blues album in 1977. I was very happy to have Duke as a guest a couple of times on Folk Roots/Folk Branches; once in the company of Kansas City legend Jay McShann, the late, great swing and blues pianist and singer. Of all of Duke’s many and varied recordings, my favourites are his swing and jazz albums. And this is one of his best swing and jazz albums.
I’ve known Billy Novick since 1978. I ran a small booking agency back then and among my clients were Billy and Guy Van Duser, a fantastic clarinet and guitar duo whose swing revival shows straddled the folk and jazz scenes. Three decades later Billy is still one of my all-time favourite clarinet and sax players – and you should hear him play jazz tunes on the pennywhistle too.
Even before I listened for the first time, I kind of knew that with Duke and Billy in the band, I was going to really like this album, that it would be good, really good. And it sure is. Joining Sunny, Duke and Billy is Paul Kolesnikow on guitar – both he and Duke are playing acoustic archtops – and Jesse Williams on acoustic bass. Sunny and her Joy Boys are a terrific, tight unit whether they’re swinging on old Ella Fitzgerald numbers like “Strictly From Dixie” and “Undecided” or stretching out on a torchy jazz ballads like Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” and “That’s My Desire.”
The four players – virtuosos all with great senses of swing – are fantastic. Billy’s clarinet and sax and Duke’s lead guitar weave beautifully and infectiously around the rhythms laid down by Paul and Jesse. When Sunny comes in with her captivating vocals she takes us right back to what was great about the swing era.
In his liner notes, Duke says most of these tunes are ones that he’s wanted to do for more than 35 years. If he was waiting for the right combination of singer and musicians, he sure found them in Sunny and her Joy Boys.
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Another Country: The Songs of Mimi and Richard Fariña
Narrow Lane Records
Mimi and Richard Fariña had a very brief career in the mid-1960s, releasing two fine albums – Celebrations for a Grey Day and Reflections in a Crystal Wind – in 1965 that still hold up remarkably well, before Richard was killed, at just 29, in a motorcycle accident on Mimi’s 21st birthday. A third album, Memories, included outtakes and a couple of solo tracks each by Mimi and her sister, Joan Baez, singing Richard’s songs, was released in 1968. The 12 songs and one brief instrumental on Caroline Doctorow’s tribute to the Fariñas were all drawn from those three albums.
Recording a successful tribute album like this means walking a tightrope in that the interpretations must retain the essence of the original versions while bringing something new to the songs. The arrangements have to simultaneously reflect the spirit of the times in which the songs come from while still sounding relevant today. Caroline Doctorow and her primary collaborator, producer Pete Kennedy, succeed admirably on this CD. Most of Caroline’s versions are every bit as good as the originals and there are even a couple, “Hard Lovin’ Loser” and “Sell-Out Agitation Waltz,” that I think are far better than the originals. Pete knows how to play and produce rock and roll much better than Richard did, so these rockier songs fare much better in his hands than they did in Richard’s.
Among my favourites on the CD is Caroline’s version of “Reflections in a Crystal Wind,” a lyrically oblique song that I’ve always heard as a young person trying to come to an understanding of what makes love, and the world, go round. Nanci Griffith supplies some lovely harmonies. Another is “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood,” done here in a version that is both haunting and beautiful.
In addition to the Fariña songs, the album is built around Caroline’s excellent vocals and Pete’s excellent arrangements. Pete’s playing, on a variety of often-overdubbed instruments, is always superb. Other musicians and singers who contribute include Happy Traum, Eric Weissberg, John Sebastian, Nanci Griffith and Maura Kennedy.
I didn’t know Richard personally, but Mimi, who died of cancer in 2001, and I became friends in the 1980s and she made several trips to Montreal to play at the Golem, the folk club I ran back then. I think Mimi would have been very moved by Caroline’s tribute.
Monday, May 4, 2009
Live In London
Leonard Cohen, the masterful Montreal-born singer-songwriter, will be performing two Ottawa concerts at the National Arts Centre May 25 and 26. Unless you’re willing to scalper prices, you can pretty much forget about getting tickets. They sold out, like everywhere else on Cohen’s world tour, almost instantly at up to $250 (plus service charges).
The concerts that Cohen will perform in Ottawa will vary little from the concerts that he’s given throughout his worldwide tour over the past year. The repertoire, down to each of the planned encores, has been essentially the same as Cohen moves from city to city and from concert halls here to arenas there. That doesn’t really matter though. From all reports, and from the evidence of his London, England concert last July 17, it’s an amazing, meticulously planned and executed show.
That London concert is now available in both DVD and 2-CD packages. The concert is mesmerising. When I sat down to watch the DVD, I did not get up again until I’d seen every minute of its two-and-a-half hours. I didn’t take the intermission that stretches a Cohen concert past three hours in person.
And what, you may ask, kept me glued to the set for 150 minutes? Let’s start with the songs. Cohen is one of the greatest songwriters of our age who is known for working endlessly on a song until every line, indeed every word, is perfect. Nothing in a Cohen song is wasted, even in an eight-minute song. And almost every songs clocks in at least five minutes. Only, “Suzanne,” an early masterpiece is within the typical length of most pop songs. Cohen is one of those very rare songwriters whose work continues to reveal nuance and deeper levels of understanding, even songs like “Suzanne,” or the biblically-inspired “Hallelujah,” or the classic “Bird on a Wire” which I’ve heard countless times over many decades.
Then there is Cohen himself. At 74, he is singing with such obvious commitment to both himself and his audience. And there seems to be some kind of wisdom-with-age dynamic that Cohen brings to the interpretation of each of these songs whether they were written recently, 20 years ago in middle age or 40 years ago as a relatively young man.
Finally, there is the quality of the nine world class musicians and singers who Cohen surrounds himself with on stage and uses to bring the great songs to life. The arrangements are highly creative. While I particularly appreciate the work of Javier Mas, a Spanish master of the guitar and a variety of exotic stringed instruments, and harmony vocalists Sharon Robinson, and sisters Charley and Hattie Webb, each of the other musicians is excellent.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Pete Seeger turns 90 today and there are events honouring him all over the world including the massive tribute concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York. I'll be attending a hootenanny in Pete's honour tonight in Ottawa.
I've been listening to Pete since I was a young kid and was 20 years old in 1974 when I first met and worked with him when I was an area co-ordinator/stage manager at the Mariposa Folk Festival and Pete's concert was on my stage. Doing the math, I see that Pete then was the same age I am now.
I've interviewed Pete a number of times, both for radio and newspapers. When Pete did a surprise Canadian tour of small venues last summer I interviewed him for the July 3, 2008 issue of the Montreal Gazette (the article also appeared in several other newspapers). Here is that article as well as my review of Pete's latest album from the current issue of Sing Out! Magazine.
Pete Seeger returns to Montreal
Special To The Gazette
The last time I interviewed Pete Seeger was in 1999 just as he was about to turn 80. He was planning to stay close to his Hudson River Valley home and just play a few songs occasionally for school kids or at benefit concerts. It was unlikely, he said then, that he’d travel far enough from home to perform in Montreal again.
Almost a decade later, though, the still-vigorous Seeger is on his way back to Montreal. His July 5 concert here kicks off a quickly-arranged, and quickly sold-out, tour of small venues that also takes him to Toronto, for two nights, Kingston and Ottawa in the company of acoustic blues revivalist Guy Davis and his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger of the folk-rocking Mammals. The three will share the stage, swapping songs and backing each other.
Reached at his home overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York, Seeger told me he has fond memories of performing in Montreal.
“Sam Gesser hired me when nobody else would,” Seeger said, referring to the late Montreal impresario who broke into the concert business with a Seeger concert in 1952 when most of the folksinger’s performing opportunities were lost to the McCarthy-era blacklist. Gesser, who died April 1, brought Seeger to Montreal often over the next four decades.
Seeger is one of the most revered musicians of all time and has been a major influence on the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen – who’s done two albums of songs he learned from Seeger LPs – and almost everyone else who’s picked up a banjo or acoustic guitar in the past 60 years.
Seeger’s lengthy résumé includes forming two legendary folk groups: the Almanac Singers, with Woody Guthrie, before both shipped out to serve in the Second World War; and the Weavers, the group that brought folk music to the pop charts with Goodnight Irene and Tzena Tzena Tzena in 1949 before being blacklisted. Seeger has written or co-written scores of enduring songs, including Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer, has made hundreds of recordings, and has been at the forefront of the civil rights, peace and environmental movements.
“I really don’t take concert tours anymore,” Seeger said when asked about what made him decide to do this four-city Canadian jaunt. “But my grandson, Tao, is a great performer, and Guy Davis is a great performer, so I decided to do a few things with them. The five concerts I’m doing in Canada are more than I’m doing almost anywhere else.”
Talking to Seeger now, he seems motivated by many of the same concerns that spurred his activism decades ago. “I think there’s a chance the human race will survive,” he said. “I’m not as pessimistic as I was after Hiroshima,” referring to the atomic blast that spurred a lifetime’s devotion to the peace movement. During the Iraq War, Seeger has been leading weekly peace vigils near his home.
One of Seeger’s greatest successes as an activist has been leading the movement to clean up the Hudson River. The river was horribly polluted when he founded the Clearwater organization in the 1970s. Now, he points out, people swim safely in many parts of the Hudson.
In separate interviews, Guy Davis and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger both spoke about being directly influenced by Seeger as children.
Davis’s parents, the actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, were longtime friends of the Seeger family. In 1960, eight-year-old Guy developed a love for the banjo while attending Camp Killooleet, a kids’ camp in Vermont that was run by John Seeger, Pete’s brother. Ossie Davis bought his son a banjo and the youngster learned the instrument from Seeger’s classic book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo.
“Over the years, Pete sparked my interest in Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly, both of whom he had known, and my interest in the 12-string guitar began to grow. One thing led to another and I wound up going on the road with Pete as an opening act in the mid-70s,” said Davis. “This tour's going to be a wonderful hoot.”
Rodriguez-Seeger grew up playing music with his grandfather and began performing concerts and recording with him as a teenager in the 1980s. “We played concerts together for about 13 years.” he recalled.
Wanting to articulate his own musical ideas, Rodriguez-Seeger formed a trio with Sarah Lee Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie’s daughter, and her husband, Johnny Irion, in 1999. Two years later, he hooked up with Ruth Ungar and Michael Merenda as the Mammals.
With the Mammals currently on hiatus, Rodriguez-Seeger recently performed a concert with his grandfather and Davis at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York.
“We had a really good time,” said Rodriguez-Seeger. “We got home and Grandpa was bouncing off the wall with excitement. ‘Let’s do that again,’ he said.”
The Canadian tour was quickly arranged and generations of folk fans eagerly snapped up all available tickets.
Last July Pete Seeger did a quickly sold-out four-city Canadian tour playing in small venues. Those of us who were lucky enough to get tickets – the audience I was part of in Montreal ranged from young children to elderly folk fans who were there at Pete’s first concert in the city in 1952 – quickly saw that at 89, the patriarchal figure of the folk scene (and, certainly, of Sing Out! Magazine) remains, despite his diminished vocal powers, an incredibly charismatic performer. And that comes through on this CD recorded shortly before that tour last summer.
Much of this 65-minute CD is devoted to new or previously unrecorded songs like “If It Can’t Be Reduced,” a musical lesson in environmental responsibility inspired by a resolution passed in 2007 by the city council of Berkeley, California, and “Wonderful Friends,” a salute to the values of friendship that has Pete trading verses with David Bernz, a member of Work o’ the Weavers, who co-produced the album with Pete.
There are also new versions of older songs including a powerful version of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” the Israeli song that was one of the Weavers’ biggest hits. Although the song’s original Hebrew lyrics celebrated the arrival of soldiers in a village, this version has been rewritten as a peace anthem with lyrics in Hebrew, Arabic and English. There are also instrumental banjo tunes and some of Pete’s pearls of spoken word wisdom.
In addition to Bernz and other members of Work o’ the Weavers there are a number of other singers and musicians, mostly from the Hudson Valley area, who join Pete on the CD. Among the collaborators is Pete’s niece, Sonya Cohen of Last Forever, who sings a poignant version of “When I Was Most Beautiful.” ---Mike Regenstreif