Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Top 10 for 2010

Here are my picks for the Top 10 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2010. I started with the list of 408 albums that landed on my desk and over the past year and narrowed it down to a short list of about 35 worthy contenders. I’ve been over the list four times over the past week and have come up with four similar, but not identical, Top 10 lists. I decided today’s list will be the final one. The order might have been different, and there are half a dozen or so other albums that may have been included had one of the other days’ lists had been the final choice.

1. Natalie Merchant- Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch). A stunning two-CD set of 26 songs that Merchant set to music using the words of various 19thth and 20th century poets. The settings, using a large cast of revolving back-up musicians, variously range from Celtic to Klezmer, from Appalachian folk to blues and rock. Click here for my full-length review.

2. Tom Russell- Cowboy’d All to Hell (Frontera). The first eight songs on this under-the-radar release are re-mastered versions of Tom’s original songs from Cowboy Real (including duets with Ian Tyson on “Navajo Rug” and “Gallo del Cielo”), the first of his great cowboy song collections. The other nine songs are newly-recorded duo versions – with guitarist Thad Beckman – of eight cowboy songs originally recorded on other albums and one new song. These are vivid, cinematic portraits of the old and new west by a master singer-songwriter.

3. Bob Dylan- The Witmark Demos 1962-1964: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9 (Columbia/Legacy). These publishing demos, all solo performances recorded when Dylan was in his early-20s, and including Dylan’s versions of 15 songs he’s never officially released before, are well- worth listening to for clues to the development of the most essential of all 20th century songwriters.Click here for my full-length review.

4. Ron Hynes- Stealing Genius (Borealis). Ron calls the album Stealing Genius because most of the songs are inspired by specific works written by poets and novelists, mostly from Newfoundland along with one American. Stealing Genius represents the finest set of original songwriting to be released in Canada this year. Click here for my full-length review.

5. Mary Chapin Carpenter- The Age of Miracles (Zoë/Rounder). Most of these songs form an intimate conversation between Carpenter and the listener. It is, perhaps, her finest albums ever. Click here for my full-length review.

6. Eric Bibb- Booker’s Guitar (Telarc). Eric’s magnificent singing, his deft guitar work (along with Grant Dermody's equally great harmonica playing) and Eric's original songs can’t help but make anyone feel better about life. Click here for my full-length review.

7. The Once- The Once (Borealis). The Once, a trio from Newfoundland that plays a mixture of traditional material and first-rate contemporary songs is my choice for new discovery of the year. Their debut album includes some spine-tingling a cappella arrangements as well as some superb instrumental work. Click here for my full-length review.

8. Johnny Cash- American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American/Lost Highway). Recorded during the year before his 2003 passing, the final set in Cash’s series of essential “American” albums, these songs are an intimate, poignant farewell from a great artist. Click here for my full-length review.

9. Catherine Russell- Inside This Heart of Mine (World Village). On her third album, Catherine Russell’s relaxed and confident alto pulls listeners right into the mostly classic jazz and blues tunes anchored by inventive arrangements steeped in various shades and styles of blues, jazz, swing and folk music. Click here for my full-length review.

10. Various artists- Jug Band Extravaganza (Folk Era). An infectious live concert recording that features various combinations of Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, John Sebastian, David Grisman, Maria Muldaur and the Barbecue Orchestra on terrific solo, duo, trio and full group performances of jug band, blues, jazz and old-time country classics. See the new issue of Sing Out! magazine for my full-length review.

---Mike Regenstreif

Monday, December 13, 2010

Michael Wex -- The Frumkiss Family Business

My book review of The Frumkiss Family Business by Michael Wex from today's issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is now online at michaelwex.com.

--Mike Regenstreif

Adam Stotland -- Maagal

My review of Maagal by Adam Stotland for The Forward is now available on their Arty Semite  blog.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kate & Anna McGarrigle -- Oddities

KATE & ANNA McGARRIGLE
Oddities
Querbeservice
mcgarrigles.com

It was always wonderful, over the years, to have new music from Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Now, less than a year after Kate’s untimely passing, it’s a particularly wonderful, albeit bittersweet, to have these new recordings to savour.

Well, not exactly new. Oddities is a collection of a dozen songs that Kate and Anna recorded for various projects, and in various circumstances, between 1973 and 1990 but never previously released, or never released in the versions included on this new CD. It’s a compilation that Anna says she and Kate had long talked about putting together but kept putting off for another year. Many of the tracks are alternate versions of songs that have been heard on other projects. And even if almost all the songs are familiar, they sound fresh and new in these previously unreleased versions.

Kate and Anna grew up singing Stephen Foster songs – “These were songs that my daddy taught me,” sang Kate in “The Work Song” – and Oddities begins with a set of four of Foster’s 19th century parlour songs.

The first two Foster songs, the sad lament, “Was My Brother in the Battle,” and the hopeful anthem, “Better Times are Coming,” both written in 1862, are alternate versions of songs recorded by Kate and Anna for Songs of the Civil War, a companion CD of songs to the Civil War documentary series that Ken Burns did for PBS about 20 years ago.

The third Foster song, “Gentle Annie,” written in 1856, was previously released by Kate and Anna in collaboration with Linda Ronstadt on The McGarrigle Hour. For as long as I knew her, which was close to 40 years, “Gentle Annie” was always one of my favourite songs to hear Kate sing. With apologies to Bob Dylan, who wrote “that nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” nobody could sing “Gentle Annie” like Kate McGarrigle. Utah Phillips, another old friend now gone, was inspired to write his song, “Nevada Jane” after hearing Kate sing “Gentle Annie.” Anna’s harmonies on the track are, of course, sublime.

“Ah May the Red Rose,” the final Foster song, dates from 1850 and is a short, sad, beautiful song sung by Anna (with Kate supplying the sublime harmonies) that laments death and mourning.

The Foster songs are followed by two of the late Wade Hemsworth classics including, finally on CD, a version of “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” a song that the McGarrigles began singing back in the 1960s when they were part of the Mountain City Four. The song, of course, is best known from John Weldon’s animated short film featuring a different arrangement of the song (Kate’s voice begins this rendition while Anna’s begins the version in John’s film). “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” is another song that’s been one of my favourite McGarrigle performance pieces going back to the first concerts I produced for them at the Golem in Montreal in 1974 and 1975.

The other of Wade’s songs is a choral arrangement of “My Mother is the Ocean Sea,” an other-worldly sounding song that Kate and Anna also sang on a CBC broadcast recording many years ago. They also include a version of “As Fast As My Feet,” co-written by Anna and Chaim Tannenbaum, which was also on that CBC recording. It’s a zippy, infectious number that, in an era where a hook, a great melody and catchy arrangement meant something, could have been a hit single.

There are a couple of French songs in the set beginning with a live version of the traditional “A La Claire Fontaine” that was recorded at one of the Pollack Hall concerts with Kate and Anna that I produced in 1976.

The other French song is a Cajun number, “Parlez-Nous À Boire,” adapted from the repertoire of Louisiana’s legendary Balfa Brothers. It’s one of the rockingest numbers Kate and Anna have done.

“Lullaby for a Doll,” written by Kate, is a lovely song about childhood innocence, a version of which was included on ‘Til Their Eyes Shine, a 1992 collection of lullabies by various artists.

“Louis the Cat,” written by Anna and Audrey Bean, is a lament for a lost cat and is a living room demo recorded in 1973. I can’t say that I have any memory of the song from back in the day, but it’s still nice to hear after all these years.

Oddities ends with a version of “You Tell Me That I’m Falling Down,” a song written by Anna and Carol Holland that Linda Ronstadt recorded in 1975. Listening to this highly-arranged version, I think this track was probably either an album demo or outtake that didn’t get used. I remember Anna and Kate singing it at the Golem in 1975, and occasionally over the years, and always hoped they’d put it on an album; finally, here it is for us.

Oddities takes its place in a discography in which almost every album Kate and Anna recorded must be regarded as an essential recording. These are songs to warm our hearts as we head into the cold winter months.

--Mike Regenstreif

Upcoming Montreal Concerts

Our friends at Hello Darlin’ Productions have a couple of notable concerts coming up soon in Montreal.

On Saturday, December 11, they have a double bill featuring Ken Whiteley and Lake of Stew.

Then on Monday, December 13, it’s the Wintergreen Concert Series Christmas concert with the Good Lovelies.

Both shows are at 8:00 pm at Petit Campus, 57 Prince Arthur East. For info or reservations, call 514-524-9225.

Here are links to my reviews of the latest albums by Ken Whiteley and Lake of Stew and the Christmas album by the Good Lovelies.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Grant Dermody -- Lay Down My Burden

GRANT DERMODY
Lay Down My Burden
Grant Dermody
grantdermody.com

I was quite impressed, in 2003, with the debut album by Grant Dermody, a Seattle-based singer and harmonica player. As I wrote in Sing Out! magazine, “Despite the diversity of the collaborations, the tastefulness of Dermody’s harp, his relaxed vocals and a good choice of material, make for a nicely cohesive album...I’m looking forward to hearing more of Dermody’s playing on future projects.”

Earlier this year, in a review of Eric Bibb’s great album, Booker’s Guitar, I said, “the only other musician is harmonica master Grant Dermody. Grant’s playing is always creative – I especially like his use of chromatic harmonica on “Flood Waters” – and complements Eric’s singing and playing beautifully. Eric and Grant’s playing together is some of the finest guitar-harmonica duo work since Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were in their prime.”

Lay Down My Burden, Grant’s second solo album, is also a fine effort in which he and various collaborators offer fine examples of various blues and gospel styles and also occasionally delve into old-timey country music.

The album opens with one of my favourite tracks on the CD, a sweet version of the Reverend Gary Davis spiritual, “I’ll Be Alright,” which kind of picks up where Grant and Eric left off on Booker’s Guitar, except that it’s Grant singing the lead vocal on the gentle, optimistic song along with Eric’s sublime fingerpicking and some equally sublime harmonica playing by Grant.

From there the album moves on through a series of other collaborations ranging from full band settings to unique combinations with one or two other musicians to several tracks in which Grant backs up older bluesmen John Dee Holeman, Louisiana Red and the late John Cephas.

A couple of the most interesting tracks are harmonica duets. “Rain Crow Bill,” sees Grant and Mark Graham trading harp licks and whoops in the tradition of Sonny Terry (in fact, I have a recording of “Rain Crow Bill” from the 1940s in which Sonny and Woody Guthrie are trading harp licks and whoops). On “Twelve Gates to the City,” the second harmonica is ably played by Joe Filisko.

A few of the other highlights include “David’s Cow,” a playful guitar-fiddle-harmonica hoedown; a sad version of Dirk Powell’s “Waterbound”; and a beautiful a cappella arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” in four-part harmony.

Most of the songs on this album – whether drawn from the traditional repertoire or from Grant’s own song bag – feel timeless.

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Clare Burson -- Silver and Ash

CLARE BURSON
Silver and Ash
Rounder Records
clareburson.wordpress.com

(This review is from the November 29, 2010 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)

Clare Burson addresses her grandmother in “The Only Way,” the first of 10 original songs on Silver and Ash. “Someone said you left there just in time,” she sings. It was, quite literally, just in time when Burson’s grandmother escaped Nazi Germany for the United States on the morning of Kristallnacht in 1938.

With a grant from Six Points Fellowship, an organization that supports artists exploring Jewish themes in their work, the New York-based singer-songwriter wrote these folk-like songs by imagining her grandmother’s life in Germany during the trying years preceding the Holocaust.

Most of the songs are impressionistic with few explicit references. It’s almost like each song offers an interpretation of a faded photograph (in fact, there are several faded photos included in the CD booklet). Images of a small baby pervade one song while another offers sketches of people in – seemingly sudden – transit. In “Everything’s Gone,” Burson remembers her great-grandparents – soon to be lost in the Holocaust – through the eyes of her grandmother about to “take the last train from the last train station.”

Burson spent time in Europe researching these songs and addresses her grandmother again in “Magpies,” the album’s poignant finale, as if it’s a letter from Germany. “Sometimes I think of how life must have been for you here, what life could have been for you here.”

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, November 21, 2010

2010 Canadian Folk Music Award winners

The Canadian Folk Music Awards took place last night in Winnipeg. Click here for a full list of the nominees. Here are the winners (links are included for the albums that I've reviewed on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches blog.)

Traditional Album of the Year: The Once - The Once

Contemporary Album of the Year -- John Wort Hannam - Queen's Hotel

Children’s Album of the Year -- Andrew Queen - Too Tall

Traditional Singer of the Year -- Yves Lambert - Bal à l'Huile

Contemporary Singer of the Year -- Rose Cousins - The Send Off

Instrumental Solo Artist of the Year -- Wendell Ferguson - Ménage a Moi

Instrumental Group of the Year --Beyond the Pale - Postcards

Vocal Group of the Year -- Dala - Girls From The North County

Ensemble of the Year -- Le Vent Du Nord - La Part Du Feu

Solo Artist of the Year -- Amelia Curran - Hunter, Hunter

English Songwriter of the Year -- Ian Tamblyn - Gyre

French Songwriter of the Year -- Francis D'Octobre - Ma bête fragile

Aboriginal Songwriter of the Year -- Asani - Listen

World Artist of the Year – Solo -- Dominic Mancuso - Comfortably Mine

World Artist of the Year – Group -- Sokoun Trio - Zanneh

New/Emerging Artist of the Year -- The Once - The Once

Producer of the Year -- Steve Dawson - Things About Comin' My Way (Various Artists)

Pushing the Boundaries -- Beyond the Pale - Postcards

Young Performer of the Year -- Alexandre Boivin-Caron - La Tradition

As well, Ian Tyson received the Canadian Museum of Civilization's Resonance Award for his lifetime's contribution to Canadian music.

Congratulations to all the winners – and to all the nominees.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Steel Rail rides again; Bill Garrett & Sue Lothrop

Steel Rail concerts have been too few and too far between in the years since guitarist and songwriter Dave Clarke left Montreal for the milder climes of Victoria, BC. Soon, though, Dave will be back in Steel Rail action with bass player and singer Ellen Shizgal and singer-guitarist Todd Gorr for concerts in Lennoxville and Montreal. They’re promising some new songs and lots of the old favourites in their patented folk-meets-bluegrass style.

The concerts are both double bills with the most excellent duo of Bill Garrett & Sue Lothrop.

The Lennoxville concert is Friday November  26, 8:00 pm, at the Church Street Cafe, 6 Church Street in Lennoxville. Call 819-875-5696.

The Montreal concert, part of the Wintergreen Concert Series, is Saturday November 27, 8:00 pm, at Club Lambi, 4465 St. Laurent in Montreal. Call 514-524-9225.

Here are my Montreal Gazette reviews of the most recent CDs by Steel Rail and Bill Garrett & Sue Lothrop.

STEEL RAIL
River Song
Crossties

This third album by Steel Rail, rooted almost equally in country, bluegrass and folk music, is their best effort yet. The trio’s ensemble sound features vocalist and rhythm guitarist Tod Gorr, who has one of the most naturally country voices this side of George Jones, lead guitarist Dave Clarke, one of the most fluid acoustic pickers in the country, and bassist Ellen Shizgal, who provides the band’s heartbeat, some gorgeous harmonies and two lead vocals. Steel Rail’s secret weapon, though, is the fine craftsmanship of their songwriting. Songs of love and loss mix with pieces that nostalgically recall Belmont Park or that conjure images of the sailor’s church in Old Montreal, the Quebec countryside, beautiful prairie skies and the tough streets of downtown Winnipeg. ****

BILL GARRETT & SUE LOTHROP
Red Shoes
Borealis

On their duo debut, veteran Montreal singer-guitarists Bill Garrett and Sue Lothrop have crafted a fine blend of country, Cajun and folk-rooted material. One of the most affecting songs is the beautiful title track written about Lothrop’s mother at the end of her life. Another is "That’s How the Summer Slips Away," a poetic and wistful piece written by Lucinda Chodan and Dave Clarke. Two topical songs, Shelley Posen’s "No More Fish," and Terry Tufts’s "Never No More," provide moving commentary on contemporary issues, while "Leaving Louisiana," Rodney Crowell’s Cajun stomper, is the album’s most exciting tune. Garrett and Lothrop share the lead and harmony vocals and are well served by a supporting cast that includes Clarke and Tufts, fiddler Don Reed and clarinetist Vern Dorge. ****

--Mike Regenstreif

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ottawa Bluesfest partners with Ottawa Folk Festival

The Ottawa Citizen has a front page story today reporting that the Ottawa Folk Festival has been bailed out and taken over by the Ottawa Bluesfest.

Reading the article, I surmise that the folk festival will likely move from Britannia Park and have more commercially viable headliners. It remains to be seen what that means for the rest of the artistic direction, artistic legacy and traditions of the festival (or the staffing and volunteer continuity). I guess we'll see in the coming months.

Update (Saturday, November 13): With thanks to Brian Silcoff and his OFME e-mail list, here is the press release that was issued Thursday by the Ottawa Folk Festival. As Ottawa Folk Festival board member Bob LeDrew notes in his comment,  the new arrangement is a partnership rather than a takeover. It certainly would have been helpful for me -- as a member of both the media and the Ottawa Folk Festival community -- to have received the press release on Thursday; or, at the least, to have been able to find it on the Ottawa Folk Festival  or Ottawa Bluesfest websites, both of which I checked after the news broke in yesterday's Citizen.

Pictured: Mike Regenstreif and Ramblin' Jack Elliott at the 2010 Ottawa Folk Festival (August 14, 2010)

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ron Hynes -- Stealing Genius

RON HYNES
Stealing Genius
Borealis Records
hynesite.org

Ron Hynes, the pride of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, is, without question, one of Canada’s greatest singer-songwriters – a writer whose genius can be found in decades worth of great songs.

Ron calls his new album Stealing Genius because most of its songs are inspired by specific works written by several poets and novelists, mostly from Newfoundland along with one American. In some songs, Ron actually gives the inspiring writer a co-writing credit.

The album opens with “Blood and Bones,” a song inspired by What They Wanted, a novel about a family’s resettlement by Donna Morrissey. It’s a familiar story that Ron sings about: a family forced to leave their home for someplace new because the work is no longer there. In this case, presumably, it’s the local fishery that’s no longer viable as “the ocean died like late night embers in the stove.” Ron’s lyrics and his singing seem to combine poignancy with regret and a hint of anger.

Morrissey’s book, as well as Michael Crummy’s The Wreckage, inspired “My Father’s Ghost,” a song that is both a remembrance from long ago of discovering a father’s death and a brilliantly drawn contemporary portrait of a lonely life in sea coast village.

In “House,” inspired by Stan Dragland’s Stormy Weather: Foursomes, Ron sings about an old house as the shell for the lost love that no longer lives within its walls.

“I Love You More Than God” and “Love and Hunger” are two stunning love songs based on poems by Des Walsh and which are reminiscent of the great romantic poets.

One of my favourite songs in the set is "30 For 60," inspired by a poem by Al Pittman, that's a powerful portrait of a man, no longer young, damning his regrets.

One song that takes its inspiration from an American book is “Judgement,” a song based on Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Ron sings from the perspective of Ford trying to rationalize his act.

As a singer, Ron knows exactly how to communicate the essence of the songs to his listeners and the arrangements, featuring such musicians as Paul Mills (who also produced the album), Alec Fraser, Tom Leighton and Burke Carroll, frame the songs almost perfectly.

Stealing Genius represents the finest set of original songwriting to be released in Canada this year.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Lucy Wainwright Roche -- Lucy

LUCY WAINWRIGHT ROCHE
Lucy
Lucy Wainwright Roche
lucywainwrightroche.com

Being the daughter, niece, and half-sister of a bunch of accomplished singer-songwriters, Lucy Wainwright Roche probably had a lot to prove when she decided to give up her teaching career and go into the family business. After all, her parents are Suzzy Roche of the Roches and Loudon Wainwright III. Her aunts are Maggie and Terre Roche, also of the Roches, and Sloan Wainwright, and her half-siblings are Rufus and Martha Wainwright. That’s an awful lot of familial talent to live up to. Well, first on a couple of eight-song EPs, and now on Lucy, her first full-length release, Lucy has more than proven herself worthy of a seat at a Wainwright and/or Roche family round-robin session.

Although her songs have their own distinctiveness, Lucy reminds me more of her mother’s music than her father’s. The melodies, the sometimes quirky lyrics, the way she harmonizes – sometimes with herself, or with back-up vocalists like her father, or the Roches, or the Indigo Girls, or Girlyman – have a similar kind of appeal to the Roches. Take “Once In,” the lead-off song, for example. The lines seem to be disjointed, but they come together as images of time on the road leading back to home. The travelling life, represented by the blurry, lonely, highway scene depicted on the CD cover, is a recurring theme in many of Lucy’s songs.

My favourite songs in the set include “Accident and Emergency,” an observational piece about a night spent in a British hospital’s emergency room, and “Statesville,” which uses images of a torn down high school in that North Carolina town, and the hanging of Tom Dula – immortalized in the folksong “Tom Dooley,” which happened in Statesville in 1868 – as metaphors for a broken relationship.

After 10 of her own songs, Lucy ends the album with a pair of interesting covers. With Paul Simon’s “America,” featuring the patented Roches harmonies, Lucy beautifully captures the same kind of innocence, alienation and anomie that Simon and Garfunkel brought to their recording more 40 years ago. Then, with Elliot Smith’s “Say Yes,” Lucy and duet partner Ira Glass, express the seemingly contradictory thoughts of someone who’s broken up, but apparently still linked in love, with his ex-girlfriend.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, November 1, 2010

Lynn Miles -- Fall for Beauty

LYNN MILES
Fall for Beauty
True North
lynnmilesmusic.com

As I’ve said before, Ottawa’s Lynn Miles has long been one of my favourite confessional singer-songwriters. This past August, Lynn was one of several artists I hosted in a round-robin set at the Ottawa Folk Festival and I got to preview several of the10 new songs she’s recorded on Fall for Beauty, a collection that ranks with her best work.

It’s often been said that the definition of a good country song is “three chords and the truth,” and that’s something that Lynn, as a veteran singer-songwriter knows well. In her country-flavoured song of that name, Lynn lets us know that three chords and the truth is still what she is looking for as an artistic statement and, indeed, these songs hit that mark time and again in various shades and combinations of contemporary folk, country and mature pop music.

The most powerful song in the collection is also – in terms of the production – the quietest. “Love Doesn’t Hurt,” is an astute, analytical piece about domestic or relationship abuse that draws definitive lines in the sand about what needs to be recognized as unacceptable in a relationship. I think Lynn was right to leave this track to just voice and guitar – nothing else was needed.

Also quite powerful is “Little Bird,” a song she sings compassionately and with understanding to someone who seems to battling with personal demons.

Another highlight is “Fearless Heart,” a wish list song set to a bright, up tempo arrangement and hooky melody that sets out a whole bunch simple desires and one big one, a fearless heart. She shows us that fearless heart in the following song, “I Will,” in which she declares her determination not to be laid low by the kind of setbacks that life throws in our path.

The album ends with the optimistic “Time to Let the Sun,” a sweeping, string-laden piece that recalls era when the likes of Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen and George and Ira Gershwin were creating the Great American Songbook.

Lynn launches Fall for Beauty with concerts Saturday, November 6, 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa (613-730-3403) and Wednesday, November 10, 8:00 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto (416-205-5555).

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bob Dylan -- The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964

BOB DYLAN
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964
Columbia/Legacy
bobdylan.com

Like countless other songwriters signed to Tin Pan Alley publishing houses over the years, Bob Dylan – between 1962 and 1964 – knocked off quickie solo demos of many of his songs so that they could be pitched to various recording artists. And when song publishers Leeds Music – briefly – and Witmark signed the young songwriter to publishing deals, they surely had no idea that he was on the verge of smashing the Tin Pan Alley model that the music business had thrived on for decades ushering in the era of the singer-songwriter.

Dylan was all of 20 years old when he recorded his first LP – Bob Dylan – in late 1961 (it was released in '62). Although that album only included two of Dylan’s own songs, the songs had already begun pouring out of him at a pace seemingly unrivalled since Woody Guthrie’s most prolific period in the 1940s and he began cutting these demos in January 1962.

And it wasn’t just the sheer number of songs that he produced in this period that was astounding – it was the already-mature quality of the writing, its constant evolution and its wide variety. Here was a kid between the ages of 20 and 23 producing topical songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” and “Ballad of Hollis Brown”; love songs ranging from “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” to “Farewell,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Girl from the North Country” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

There are comic songs, philosophical pieces, folk-based ballads, and, in “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the second-to-last of these demos presented completely and in chronological order, a great big hint at how Dylan would soon redefine the possibilities inherent in a contemporary song.

These publishing demos – which are Dylan solo, mostly playing guitar, or guitar and harmonica, or occasionally piano – were not recorded for commercial release so there are some that include coughs, abrupt endings and forgotten lyrics. The recording quality varies from track to track and few of the versions here are superior to the officially recorded and released versions. But, still, every performance is worth listening to for clues to the development of the most essential of all 20th century songwriters. One track that is particularly noteworthy for its unique approach is the version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the earliest he ever recorded, which Dylan plays on the piano, giving it a very different feel than his guitar-based versions of the classic. (For what it’s worth, I think the definitive version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” is the nine-minute performance on Live 1966, The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4.)

And, what makes this collection essential are 15 songs that Dylan has never before released on albums or earlier volumes of The Bootleg Series. Some of the 15 I know from other artists like Dave Van Ronk, who recorded a Dixieland version of “All Over You” with the Red Onion Jazz Band, or Judy Collins, who sang “Farewell,” based on “The Leaving of Liverpool,” so beautifully on Judy Collins #3, or Odetta, who did “Long Ago, Far Away” on her whole album of Dylan songs. But, there are some, like the Guthrie-esque songs “Gypsy Lou” and “Ain’t Gonna Grieve,” the latter surely based on Woody’s “Sally Don’t You Grieve,” that I’ve never heard before by Dylan or anyone else.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, October 25, 2010

Rosemary Phelan -- What Sings in the Blood

ROSEMARY PHELAN
What Sings in the Blood
Mighty Wren
rosemaryphelan.com

If I’m not mistaken, Toronto-based singer-songwriter and community nurse Rosemary Phelan had already finished recording What Sings in the Blood, a lovely set of haunting songs, and was already scheduled to launch the album this Wednesday (October 27) with a concert at Hugh’s Room in Toronto before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in July.

With her cancer battle, some of these songs – no doubt influenced by her years as a community nurse – seem almost prophetic as she poetically wrestles with human mortality. “Oh you never do know if tomorrow will come,” she sings in “Redwing,” the first song on the album and “Red sky at night, gold light at dawn/Will still burn bright when we are gone,” she sings in “We Never Cry.” In “Overwhelmed,” Rosemary seems to be reflecting the ongoing struggle between life and death faced by someone dealing with serious illness.

Not all of the songs call for reinterpretation in light of Rosemary’s cancer battle. “Three Wishes” is a peace song that longs for a world in which prayers for peace are no longer necessary; “Hymn for the Innocent,” which touches on many themes ranging from the innocence of childbirth to the sacrifices of war, almost seems like a Stephen Foster song from 150 years ago; and “Red Dress,” is a mature love song borne of life’s everyday struggles (and is one of several songs on the CD in which the colour red figures in one way or another).

Rosemary’s singing is compellingly lovely throughout the album. Her voice, sincere lyrics, folk-inflected melodies and tasteful arrangements draw the listener right into the songs. Kudos, too, to such supporting musicians and singers as co-producer Jason LaPrade, David Francey, Jon Brooks, banjo player Chris Coole and multi-instrumentalist/singer Ian Tamblyn whose tasteful contributions help make this CD a success.

With Rosemary now undergoing chemotherapy, the Hugh’s Room CD launch has been turned into a benefit concert featuring Jon Brooks, Annabelle Chvostek, Chris Coole, Spencer Lewis, David Newland, Evalyn Parry, Elizabeth Shepherd, Tannis Slimmon, Ian Tamblyn, Adam Warner and Katherine Wheatley singing her songs. The host will be Andy Frank of Roots Music Canada.

BTW, I like the roots and branches motif of the cover drawing.

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mavis Staples -- You Are Not Alone

MAVIS STAPLES
You Are Not Alone
Anti-
mavisstaples.com

Now over 70, and 60 years after she started singing with her family band, the Staple Singers, Mavis Staples remains a tour-de-force of gospel music (and blues, too.)

Her last couple of albums, We’ll Never Turn Back and Live: Hope at the Hideout, revisited the civil rights era that the Staples Singers provided much of the soundtrack to and she showed how vital and contemporary those songs remain. On You Are Not Alone, she breathes new life into some of the traditional and Pops Staples-composed spirituals that she was singing with the Staples Singers, mixing them with some equally formidable contemporary songs suggested by producer Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco).

Among the gospel highlights are an infectious revival tent version of Reverend Gary Davis’ “I Belong to the Band,” that could get anyone up out of their seats, an a cappella rendition of “Wonderful Saviour,” that has Mavis leading the harmony singers in call-and-response, and an arrangement of “In Christ There Is No East or West” built around Mavis’ lead vocals and Tweedy’s acoustic guitar playing. Speaking as a non-Christian, I can say one needn’t be a believer to believe in the power of Mavis’ singing or to appreciate the honest conviction that seems to be evident in every word she sings.

Highlights among the more contemporary songs include a powerful version of John Fogerty’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” a compassionate take on Tweedy’s “You Are Not Alone,” and slow, blues ballad rendition of Randy Newman’s “Losing You.”

There’s a whole of soul on this CD.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Justin Townes Earle -- Harlem River Blues

JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
Harlem River Blues
Bloodshot Records
justintownesearle.com

Justin Townes Earle is Steve Earle’s son and his middle name honours Townes Van Zandt. In the course of three albums, now, he’s more than lived up to the Earle and Townes names as a promising singer-songwriter well-versed in folk, honky tonk and rockabilly styles. His first album, 2008’s The Good Life was a formidable debut and his second, last year’s Midnight at the Movies, was even better. Harlem River Blues, his third in three years, cements his reputation as one of today’s finest young artists.

After living most of his young life in Nashville, Earle moved to New York City and many of the songs on Harlem River Blues, beginning with the title track that opens the CD, seem inspired by the city. In “Harlem River Blues,” Earle’s first-person character is on his way to drown himself in the Harlem River. It’s a surprisingly manic song for such a depressive subject. Other NYC-referenced songs include “One More Night in Brooklyn,” a love song with an R&B groove, and “Workin’ for the MTA,” an infectious modern-day folksong about working in train tunnels – in this case the tunnels of the New York City subway system.

“Wanderin’,” with its familiar themes of footloose travelling is another modern-day folksong. The spirit of Woody Guthrie – who spent some of his most productive years in New York City – can be felt in “Workin’ for the MTA” and “Wanderin’.”

Along with New York City, there also seems to be some pretty obvious Memphis influences on this record. “Move Over Mama” is a rockabilly tune driven by a slap-happy bassist that sounds like it could have been recorded at Sun Records in 1958, and “Christchurch Woman” sounds like it could have been recorded in a soul session a decade later. And I’ve already mentioned the R&B groove on “One More Night in Brooklyn.”

There is so much promise in this young artist. Unfortunately, it seems that he’s also got Steve’s and Townes’ predilections for self-destructive behaviour. He recently entered rehab to deal with addiction issues – here’s hoping that, like his dad, he’s successful in getting control of his demons.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band -- Legacy

PETER ROWAN BLUEGRASS BAND
Legacy
Compass Records
peter-rowan.com

Peter Rowan left Massachusetts in 1964 to play guitar and sing with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys – the legacy band in bluegrass music. After serving his three-year apprenticeship with the father of bluegrass music, he’s gone on to make all kinds of music from Tex-Mex to folk, from reggae to rock ‘n’ roll, with frequent returns to make some of the best bluegrass albums north of Kentucky.

Legacy, featuring an all-star set of musicians is surely the finest album of traditional, by-the-rules bluegrass music I’ve heard this year. Peter’s songwriting is first-rate, his singing has remained virtually unparalleled over many decades, and he’s surrounded himself with a dream band with the great Jody Stecher, one of our finest folk artists, on mandolin, Keith Little on banjos and Paul Knight on bass. All three add superb harmonies and Jody and Keith each take a lead vocal. There’s is also a great Jody Stecher instrumental track that includes Tim O’Brien sitting in on fiddle.

The other guests on the album are Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs who join Peter for some close gospel harmonies on “God’s Own Child,” and singer Gillian Welch and guitarist David Rawlings who add something special to the quasi-gospel “So Good.”

Among the other highlights are “The Family Demon,” sung from the perspective of a young boy determined to not be defeated by his violently abusive father, “Jailer, Jailer,” a somewhat oblique song that seems to suggest that the psychological bonds one enforces on himself can be stronger than the steel bars of a jail cell, and “Across the Rolling Hills,” which seems to combine Eastern and Western spiritualism. Spiritualism, in some form or another, seems to be the pervasive theme of much of this album.

--Mike Regenstreif

OCFF Conference


I had a most excellent time at the annual conference of the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals (OCFF) this past weekend in Ottawa. I attended some interesting panels and meetings – including State of the Folk Nation, at which a recent PhD in ethnomusicology was totally unconvincing in his theories about what folk music is – and heard a lot of great music from both young performers I was experiencing for the first time and veteran artists I’ve been listening to for decades. It was also a wonderful opportunity to see some old friends and make some new ones.
It was an honour for me to be one of the conference’s mentors. As a mentor, I spent time working with several promising artists whose paths in folk music I look forward to following in the years to come.

Congratulations to Paul Mills, OCFF’s retiring president and Executive Director Peter MacDonald, along with the other board members, staff, and volunteers, for a superbly-organized event.

Speaking of old friends, I was very happy to see William (Grit) Laskin receive the Estelle Klein Award. Named for the visionary artistic director of the Mariposa Folk Festival in the 1960s and ‘70s, the award is the OCFF’s annual recognition of lifetime achievement and Grit is a most-worthy recipient.

Andy Frank of Roots Music Canada did an excellent job of putting together this video tribute to Grit on the occasion of his receiving the Estelle Klein Award.



--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, October 18, 2010

Billy Novick -- Music from The Great Gatsby; Ernie Hawkins -- Whinin' Boy

BILLY NOVICK’S BLUE SYNCOPATORS
Music from The Great Gatsby
Billy Novick
billynovick.com


Clarinet and sax player Billy Novick has been one of my favourite musicians since I first heard him playing with David Bromberg in the mid-1970s. A few years later, I got to know him and to hear him a lot when the small booking agency I operated for several years in the late-‘70s represented Billy’s duo with master finger-style guitarist Guy Van Duser. Thirty years later, as evidenced on this CD, Billy is still making exceptional music.

Billy was commissioned by the Washington Ballet to provide the score for their production, earlier this year, of The Great Gatsby, a ballet based on the classic novel of the 1920s by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not having seen the ballet, I can say, without reservation, that the CD stands on its own as a great set of 1920s-era jazz, blues and ragtime that includes a bunch of period classics and some great in-the-tradition pieces composed by Billy.

Billy’s Boston-based band, the Blue Syncopators, are mostly playing in New Orleans Dixieland mode as they run through such numbers as James P. Johnson’s “Charleston,” W.C. Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues,” Scott Joplin’s “Swipsey Cakewalk” and Louis Armstrong’s “Wild Man Blues.” The interplay between the various horns and the impeccable rhythm section is a constant delight.

Also delightful is the work of vocalists Louise Grasmere and Dane Vannater on several numbers. Whether it’s Grasmere’s humorous scatting on Billy’s “Dance of the Ashes” or sounding like a classic blues singer on “He May Be Your Man,” or Vannater singing poignantly on Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do,” or camping it up on “We Are All Going Calling on the Kaiser,” their singing is in the same league as the instrumentalists.

ERNIE HAWKINS
Whinin’ Boy
Corona Records
erniehawkins.com

Speaking of New Orleans Dixieland mode, Whinin’ Boy, the latest CD by Ernie Hawkins, who is primarily known for his Piedmont-style guitar playing, – he was a student of Reverend Gary Davis and remains one of the Rev’s greatest interpreters – blends Piedmont guitar playing with Dixieland arrangements featuring an equally fine set of musicians.

The album opens with Ernie’s guitar playing Jelly Roll Morton’s title track in an arrangement that, early on, is reminiscent of Dave Van Ronk’s great Morton interpretations. By the time he starts singing the first verse, the washboard is beefing up the rhythm, and by the time he gets to the second verse, the horns are sounding like Saturday night at Preservation Hall. (The album ends with an instrumental reprise of “Whinin’ Boy.”)

Whether doing faithful versions of New Orleans standards like “Basin Street Blues,” or adapting Davis’ “There is a Table in Heaven” to a Dixieland arrangement or vamping on Big Bill Broonzy’s “Shuffle Rag,” Ernie makes this music come alive.

Mixed in with the classic blues and jazz tunes are a couple of Ernie’s original instrumentals. On “The Southbound Sneak,” he matches his great blues fingerpicking to a great tuba-trombone-washboard accompaniment. Then, on “My Poodle Has Fleas,” a tune he’s recorded before, he switches to ukulele to trade licks with tuba player Roger Daly.

Both of these CDs are a reminder of how infectious Dixieland music can still be in the hands of creative and inventive musicians and arrangers.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ken Whiteley -- Another Day's Journey

KEN WHITELEY
Another Day’s Journey
Borealis
kenwhiteley.com


Ken Whiteley’s website notes that “his musical journey has taken him from jug band, folk and swing to blues, gospel and children's music.” With the exception of children’s music, Ken covers all of those grounds on Another Day’s Journey, which I think I can say without much reservation, is the finest solo album of his long career.

Of course, the term ‘solo’ is a bit of a misnomer as Ken, who sings and variously plays more than a dozen different instruments, works with cast of great collaborators – singers and instrumentalists – that changes, track to track, as the album unfolds on this journey through Ken's musical world.

The album begins with the title track, a joyous, uplifting song from the repertoire of the amazing Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Acoustic blues great Guy Davis, is Ken’s principal accomplice on this tune. Guy returns later in the CD to add his harmonies, harmonica and guitar playing to “Too Much Trouble,” a lovely, nostalgic original by Ken, and on a bluesy version of the traditional “Motherless Children.”

Kim and Reggie Harris – whose music and infectious personalities never fail to inspire – and sacred steel master Chuck Campbell join Ken for three songs including the inspirational “Butterfly,” and the poignant “No Answer,” both co-written by Ken and Reggie, and “I Want to Live So God Can Use Me,” an on-your-feet gospel number.

I’ve been on a listening to a lot of jug band music lately and two juggy tracks here are duets with Maria Muldaur, a central figure in the jug band revival of the 1960s and in its latest revival over the past few years. “Language of Love” and “Mike and Mary” are both recent Ken Whiteley originals that sound like they could have been recorded by the Memphis Jug Band in 1927, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in 1965, or the Original Sloth Band in 1975.

Newfoundland swing guitarist Duane Andrews joins Ken for two other highlights on the album: Ken’s own “Old Wind Blow,” which also features some excellent harmonica work by Ken’s brother, Chris Whiteley, and “I Want To Be Happy,” an old swing tune that was a staple in the repertoire of the late, great Jackie Washington.

Ken Whiteley performs in Montreal on a split bill with Lake of Stew on Saturday, December 11, 8:00 pm, at Petit Campus. Click here for info.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, October 11, 2010

Joan Baez in Kitchener, Montreal and Ottawa this week

Ottawa is folk music central this coming weekend as it hosts the annual Ontario Council of Folk Festivals  (OCFF) conference. I’m going to step out of the conference for a couple of hours on Saturday evening for the Joan Baez concert, five blocks away at the National Arts Centre.

Half a century after a still-teenaged Joan took the 1959 Newport Folk Festival by storm, she remains a great performer. The last time I saw her perform – 2003 in Burlington, Vermont – Joan was remarkable.

According to Joan’s website, her band includes three great acoustic musicians: John Doyle, the great Celtic guitarist; Dirk Powell, an incredible multi-instrumentalist who’s one of the most innovative of today’s old-time and Cajun musicians (I’ve hosted folk festival workshops a couple of times with Dirk, see the photo in the post below, and he is truly amazing – when Linda Ronstadt was a guest on Folk Roots/Folk Branches, she raved about Dirk’s playing on the Zozo Sisters CD she’d just released with Ann Savoy); and virtuoso bassist Todd Phillips, whose work, 30 years ago, with the original David Grisman Quintet redefined the possibilities in acoustic music.

Addendum (October 13): As noted, the above information about who is in Joan's band was found on her official website. However, I'm now given to understand that Dirk Powell will be the only musician with her. -MR

Joan’s three Canadian dates this week are:

Wednesday, October 16 – Centre in the Square, Kitchener, Ontario
Friday, October 15 – St. Denis Theatre, Montreal, Quebec
Saturday, October 16 – National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Ontario.

Here’s a CD review I wrote for the September 4, 2008 issue of the Montreal Gazette.

JOAN BAEZ
Day After Tomorrow
Razor & Tie

Almost 50 years into her recording career, Joan Baez teams with producer Steve Earle and a select group of acoustic musicians for one of her strongest albums in three decades. Although these songs – by such writers as Earle, Eliza Gilkyson, Tom Waits and Diana Jones – are all of recent vintage, each has a timeless quality to it. Waits’s title track, for example, written from the perspective of a soldier returning home, dates from the current Iraqi War. But it could have come from any other war time. The most beautiful song is Gilkyson’s "Rose of Sharon," an adaptation of the biblical "Song of Solomon." Baez’s voice, though lower than it was in her youth, is a remarkable instrument still capable of great beauty and power.

-Mike Regenstreif

Pictured: Joan Baez and Mike Regenstreif backstage at the Flynn Theatre, Burlington, VT. (October 12, 2003)

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Riley Baugus, Jenny Whiteley & Dan Whiteley in Ontario and Quebec

A very interesting collaboration of Riley Baugus, one of the finest contemporary masters of traditional Southern, old-time music, who was recently on tour and CD backing Willie Nelson in his traditional country project, and Jenny Whiteley, one of Canada’s best singer-songwriters and multiple Juno-winner, and her brother, multi-instrumentalist Dan Whiteley, is now on tour with dates this weekend in Kingston, Montreal and Wakefield (near Ottawa).

Riley was a guest on Folk Roots/Folk Branches in 2006. We recorded the conversation in August 2006 at the Ottawa Folk Festival where I hosted a couple of workshops that he participated in. He should not be missed by anyone interested in traditional Southern music.

This review I wrote of Riley’s album, Long Steel Rail, is from the January 11, 2007 issue of the Montreal Gazette.

RILEY BAUGUS
Long Steel Rail
Sugar Hill

Although Riley Baugus is a relatively young singer, banjo player and fiddler from North Carolina, his music is deeply rooted in ancient Appalachian balladry and the traditional old-time country music he grew up playing. It is obvious that Baugus is a modern master of this old music. Performing songs like "Old John Henry" and "Lonesome Road Blues," Baugus’s singing and playing powerfully evokes generations of earlier musicians who have passed these songs along. When he lays down his instruments for an a cappella rendition of "Now is the Cool of the Day," his voice is spine-tingling. Baugus’s principal collaborators on the album are co-producers Tim O’Brien, who plays mandolin and guitar, and Dirk Powell, who plays fiddle and guitar.

-Mike Regenstreif

And click here for my review of Jenny’s latest album, Forgive or Forget.

It should be a great concert They’ve already played in Toronto and have these dates coming up:

Friday, October 8, 10 pm – The Grad Club in Kingston
Saturday, October 9, 8 pm – The Yellow Door in Montreal (presented by Hello Darlin’ Productions)
Sunday, October 10, 4 pm – The Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield.

Pictured: Dan Frechette, Riley Baugus, Dirk Powell, Courtney Granger, Martha Scanlan, Robert Michaels &  bass player, and Mike Regenstreif at the Ottawa Folk Festival (2006).

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Once -- The Once

THE ONCE
The Once
Borealis
theonce.ca

The Once, a trio from Newfoundland, played at the Montreal Celtfest on July 31. I was there but, unfortunately, had to leave just before their festival-closing performance. If the concert was anything like their self-titled debut album – which has been nominated for three Canadian Folk Music Awards – I missed something very special.

They play a mixture of traditional material and first-rate contemporary songs drawn from such songwriters as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Amelia Curran and others. Although there are no original songs on the CD, the arrangements are all strikingly original as they make each song uniquely their own.

About a third of the songs are sung a cappella by lead singer Geraldine Hollett with harmonies from Once-mates Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale. Their vocal arrangements on such songs as Leonard Cohen’s “Coming Back to You” and Tom Waits’ “The Briar and the Rose” – which I’ve always thought sounds like a traditional folksong – are spine-tingly beautiful. Hollett’s solo vocal on Scott Richardson’s “Marguerite”is absolutely riveting.

Churchill and Dale are both multi-instrumentalists and their arrangements on such songs as “Three Fishers,” sung beautifully by Hollett, the traditional “Maid On the Shore,” Amelia Curran’s “What Will You Be Building” and Leonard Cohen’s album-closing “Anthem” are superb. They also offer a fine medley of three Celtic instrumental tunes.

I do think there is a mistake in the credits. The composers of the contemporary songs are listed with a notation that all other songs and tunes are traditional. The words to “Three Fishers,” though, should be properly credited to Charles Kingsley, the 19th century poet. It’s been set to music several times and the version performed by The Once was composed by Garnet Rogers (and sung by Stan Rogers on For the Family).

--Mike Regenstreif

Sing Out! Magazine – Summer 2010

Sing Out! Magazine – actually the Summer issue – has finally made its way north into Canada. The cover story is about Nanci Griffith, a regularl performer at the Golem, the folk club I ran in Montreal in the 1970s and '80s. My review of The Loving Kind, Nanci’s latest album can be read by clicking here.

As usual, this issue of Sing Out! has a bunch of my CD reviews including:

The Chieftains- San Patricio
Tim Eriksen- Soul of the January Hills
Steve Gillette- The Man
Marianne Girard- Pirate Days
Robin Greenstein- Images of Women Vol. 2
Jim Guttmann- Bessarabian Breakdown
Steve Howell- Since I Saw You Last
The Huppah Project- Under the Canopy
Bonnie Koloc- Beginnings
Pokey LaFarge- Riverboat Soul
Tom Lehrer- The Tom Lehrer Collection (CD/DVD combo)
Natalie Merchant- Leave Your Sleep
Red Hot Chachkas- Beats Without Borders
Carrie Rodriguez- Love and Circumstance
Chip Taylor- Yonkers, NY
Shari Ulrich- Find Our Way
Various- Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Concert
Tom Waits- Glitter and Doom Live

I’ll have another 20 or so reviews in the Fall issue of Sing Out!

--Mike Regenstreif

Canadian Folk Music Awards nominations

The Canadian Folk Music Awards announced the 2010 nominations today. The awards ceremony takes place in Winnipeg on November 20.

Traditional Album of the Year

David Francey and Mike Ford - Seaway
Le Vent Du Nord - La part du feu
The Foggy Hogtown Boys - Scotch and Sofa
The Once - The Once
The Sojourners - The Sojourners

Contemporary Album of the Year

Amelia Curran - Hunter, Hunter
Dala - Girls from the North Country
Lennie Gallant - If We Had A Fire
Old Man Luedecke - My Hands Are On Fire and Other Love Songs
John Wort Hannam - Queen's Hotel

Children’s Album of the Year

Andrew Queen - Too Tall
Kathy Reid Naiman -Sing the Cold Winter Away
The Kerplunks - Number 3
Madame Diva - Madame Diva
Peter Lenton - Proud Like a Mountain

Traditional Singer of the Year

Emma Beaton and Nic Gareiss - Emma Beaton and Nic Gareiss
Rebecca Barclay - Cinnabar
Rik Barron - Never So Far
Woody Holler and his Orchestra - Western Skies
Yves Lambert - Bal à l'Huile

Contemporary Singer of the Year

James Keelaghan - House of Cards
Justin Rutledge - The Early Widows
Lynn Miles - Black Flowers Volume 1 & 2
Nathan Rogers - The Gauntlet
Rose Cousins - The Send Off

Instrumental Solo Artist of the Year

Brad Keller - House On Fire
Colin Grant - Fun For The Whole Family
Sahra Featherstone - Born of a Summer's Day
Samantha Robichaud - Collected
Wendell Ferguson - Ménage a Moi

Instrumental Group of the Year

Beyond the Pale - Postcards
Duo Duval Boulanger - Pièces sur Pièces
Daniel Koulack and Karrnnel- Fiddle & Banjo
Oliver Schroer & Stewed Tomatoes - Freedom Row
Sokoun Trio - Zanneh

Vocal Group of the Year

Dala - Girls From The North County
The Marigolds - That's The State I'm In
The Once - The Once
The Sojourners - The Sojourners
The Wailin' Jennys - Live At The Mauch Chunk Opera House

Ensemble of the Year

Beyond the Pale - Postcards
Le Vent Du Nord - La Part Du Feu
Les Tireux d'Roches - Cé qu'essé?
Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs - Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs
The Sojourners - The Sojourners

Solo Artist of the Year

Amelia Curran - Hunter, Hunter
David Myles - Turn Time Off
Justin Rutledge - The Early Widows
Matt Anderson - Live From The Phoenix Theatre
Old Man Luedecke - My Hands Are On Fire and Other Love Songs

English Songwriter of the Year


Amelia Curran - Hunter, Hunter
Chris MacLean - Feet Be Still
Ian Tamblyn - Gyre
Justin Rutledge - The Early Widows
Lennie Gallant - If We Had a Fire

French Songwriter of the Year

David Jalbert - Le Journal
Francis D'Octobre - Ma bête fragile
Frederick Gary Comeau - Effeuiller les vertiges
Geneviève Toupin - Geneviève Toupin
Lennie Gallant - Le coeur hante

Aboriginal Songwriter of the Year

Asani - Listen
Brenda MacIntrye - Medicine Song
Eagle and Hawk - The Great Unknown
Tom Racine - Three Mile Junction
Wayne Lavallee - Trail of Tears

World Artist of the Year – Solo

Briga - Diaspora
Dominic Mancuso - Comfortably Mine
Élage Diouf - Aksil
Jeff Bien - Songs of Forgiveness and Prayer
Jocelyn Pettit - Jocelyn Pettit

World Artist of the Year – Group

Beyond the Pale - Postcards
Le Vent Du Nord - La Part Du Feu
Roberto Lopez Project - Soy Panamericano
Sokoun Trio - Zanneh
Apadooraï - Kinda Roots

New/Emerging Artist of the Year

Jack Marks - Two of Everything
Jadea Kelly - Eastbound Platform
Jay Aymar - Halfway Home
Peter Katz - First of the Last to Know
The Once - The Once

Producer of the Year

David Gillis - To Make it Make Sense (Ariana Gillis)
Hawksley Workman - The Early Widows (Justin Rutledge)
Jory Nash - New Blue Day (Jory Nash)
Steve Dawson - Things About Comin' My Way (Various Artists)
Thom Swift and Charles Austin - Blue Sky Day (Thom Swift)

Pushing the Boundaries

Beyond the Pale - Postcards
Daniel Koulack and Karrnnel - Fiddle & Banjo
Mauvais Sort - Droit Devant
Miss Emily Brown - In Technicolor
Oliver Schroer & Stewed Tomatoes - Freedom Row

Young Performer of the Year

Alexandre Boivin-Caron - La Tradition
Jocelyn Pettit - Jocelyn Pettit
Kierah - A Fiddle Affair
Lucas Chaisson - No Loitering
Rachel Davis - Rachel Davis

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ormstown Branches & Roots Festival, September 24-26

I’ve got a busy music weekend in Montreal planned that includes seeing Little Miss Higgins on Friday night at Upstairs and David Francey on Saturday night at the Wintergreen Concert’s Series’ 2010-2011 kickoff at Petit Campus.

Meanwhile, about an hour southwest of Montreal, the Ormstown Branches & Roots Festival is taking place Friday night through Sunday afternoon indoors on the Ormstown Fairgrounds. It’s been three years since I’ve been to the Branches & Roots Festival – which I used to enjoy as an outdoor summer festival.

The festival begins with an open stage night on Friday, continues with concerts and a couple of workshops on Saturday, and finishes with a gospel afternoon on Sunday.

Among the Saturday performers are Allan Fraser, once of Fraser & DeBolt, whose song, “Dance Hall Girls,” remains an enduring classic; Clarksdale Moan, an acoustic blues duo who impressed me greatly at the Ottawa Folk festival in August; Ana Miura, one of Ottawa’s finest singer-songwriters; and Yonder Hill, who I described in the Montreal Gazette as “a first-rate Montreal bluegrass unit centred on the stunning lead and harmony vocals of Angela Desveaux, Katie Moore and Dara Weiss.”

The complete Branches & Roots Festival schedule is available on their website.

(BTW, I’ve always wondered where they got the name of their festival.)

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Various artists -- Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations

Various Artists
Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations
Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation
Idelsohnsociety.com

(This review is from the September 27, 2010 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)

This fascinating compilation was conceived when members of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation – a group named for Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, the composer of “Hava Negila” – chanced upon a 1958 recording by Johnny Mathis, the African American singer mostly known for his romantic, smooth pop songs, of “Kol Nidre,” the prayer traditionally sung on Erev Yom Kippur.

Singing in the original Aramaic, Mathis, sounds like a veteran cantor on this powerfully stirring interpretation which provides the finale for Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, an album that explores Jewish music, or music composed by Jews in non-Jewish styles or even by gentiles in Jewish styles (or with Jewish cultural references), and performed by African American artists between the 1930s and 1960s.

That there would be a history of musical interaction between Jews and African Americans is hardly surprising. There are examples that stretch across the entire history of 20th century popular, jazz and folk music.

A few of the 15 tracks included on the CD are well known, some are surprising.

Perhaps the most surprising is the version of “My Yiddishe Momme” by the great jazz singer Billie Holiday that opens the album. On this private recording made at the home of a friend in 1956, and accompanied just by pianist, Holiday strips the song of its usual nostalgic sentimentality instead offering it as a poignant, plaintive lament.

One of the most astounding tracks is Aretha Franklin’s 1966 recording of “Swanee,” a song written by Jewish songwriters George Gershwin and Irving Caeser, and made famous by Al Jolson who sang it in blackface, a performance style abandoned many decades ago in recognition of its inherent racism. Franklin – who was yet to record the soul classics that made her a huge star – turns in a soaring, powerful performance that makes Jolson’s version seem completely irrelevant.

Several numbers are guaranteed to put a smile on your face and a tap in your toes. Johnny Hartman’s 1966 version of “That Old Black Magic,” by Jewish composer Harold Arlen, incorporates verses from “Matilda,” the calypso song, and then, more relevantly for this compilation, the Yiddish song “Di Grine Kuzine.” There’s a 1939 version of “Utt Da Zay,” performed by Cab Calloway that Jewish songwriters Irving Mills (Calloway’s manager) and Buck Ram adapted from the traditional Yiddish folksong about a tailor. Calloway, one of the swing era’s great wits, sings the opening verses almost with reverence interspersing them with some scatting that almost sounds like a Chasidic nigun. Soon, though, the band is in full swing mode and his scats let us know that it’s all in fun. And, Slim Gaillard’s 1945 recording of “Dunkin’ Bagel,” is a musical hipster’s guide to such Jewish foods as bagels, matzo balls, gefilte fish, pickled herring, etc.

Fiddler on the Roof provides material for two tracks including a spiritual-sounding instrumental version of “Sabbath Prayer,” recorded in 1964 by jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Later in the CD, the Temptations do a 10-minute, Las Vegas-style medley drawing on many of the musical’s hits.

A most interesting combination of composer, lyricist and performer comes in African American singer Jimmy Scott’s 1969 version of “Exodus.” The music was composed in 1960 as the theme for Exodus, the film based on Leon Uris’ novel about the founding of the State of Israel. The lyrics Scott sings, easily interpreted as being from the perspective of a Jew in his homeland, were written later by American pop singer and religious Christian Pat Boone. Another fascinating combination of song, creators and performer is Lena Horne’s 1963 recording of “Now,” a civil rights song written by Jewish songwriters Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Jule Styne to the melody of “Hava Nagila.”

In a similar theme, “Where Can I Go,” translated by Leo Fuld from a Yiddish song that longs for a Jewish homeland, also became a civil rights anthem in its English-language version. It’s included here with Marlena Shaw’s 1969 recording.

Other highlights include “Sholem,” a wild version of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,” recorded in 1959 by Eartha Kitt; the Yiddish love song “Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieba,” performed by Alberta Hunter, a 1920s classic blues singer, on a 1982 album at age 87; a 1963 version of the Hebrew folksong, “Eretz Zavat Chalav,” by the great Nina Simone; and collaboration of Jewish singer Libby Holman and African American folk and blues legend Josh White on a 1942 recording of “Baby, Baby,” a variant of the traditional “See See Rider.”

These tracks just begin to illustrate the possibilities inherent in a musical history of black-Jewish relations. Let’s hope this is just the first in a series of volumes.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Little Miss Higgins -- Across the Plains

LITTLE MISS HIGGINS
Across the Plains
Little Miss Higgins
littlemisshiggins.com

Reviewing Junction City, an earlier album by Little Miss HigginsJolene Higgins off stage – in Sing Out! Magazine, I said she was my favourite new discovery of 2007. She released a live album in 2009 (which I’ve not heard) and is now back with Across the Plains, a terrific new studio album on which her new songs, and often tongue-in-cheek approach, make rooted blues styles, from Dixieland to Chicago, sound fresher than anything you’ll hear on commercial radio in the 21st century.

As I mentioned in that Sing Out! review, “Higgins grew up in Alberta and Kansas, did theatre training in British Columbia and now makes her home in Nokomis, Saskatchewan, a small prairie town on the old Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railroad lines. Maybe it’s the echo of those trains passing through town that inspires her to create music steeped in the traditions of such blues artists as Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy.”

The album opens with “Beautiful Sun,” a glorious, upbeat song that marries lyrics that pay tribute to the northern prairie sun to an arrangement that’s straight out of Preservation Hall.

Nine songs later, the album ends with “Slaughterhouse,” whose lyrics are set on the outskirts of a small prairie town but whose arrangement could be played in a blues bar on the south side of Chicago.

Many of the other songs are lyrically rooted on the prairies. Among them are “The Tornado Song,” an infectious stomp about the effect of tornadoes on how the little miss’s garden grows; “Bargain Shop Panties,” a hilarious spoof about buying underwear in a Quonset hut shop off Main Street that features some great riffing and solos from her most excellent studio band; and “Snowin’ Today: A Lament for Louis Riel,” a song that moves from weather observation to a remembrance of the Métis leader hanged in 1885.

Other highlights include the swinging “Wash These Blues Away” and “Glad Your Whiskey Fits Inside My Purse,” a humourous tune about some Yukon boys looking to get drunk in Memphis that starts out in lo-fi like an old 78 before jumping back into the modern era (by modern, I mean the sound quality).

Although Across the Plains is not a jug band album, it reminds of the same kind of fun I have listening to the best jug band music.

Little Miss Higgins performs in this part of Canada this coming week:

Thursday, September 23 – The Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield.
Friday, September 24 – Upstairs in Montreal.
Saturday, September 25 – The Dakota Tavern in Toronto.
Sunday, September 26 – The London Music Club in London.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

John Mellencamp -- No Better Than This

JOHN MELLENCAMP
No Better Than This
Rounder
mellencamp.com

When John Mellencamp released an album of old blues and folk songs in 2003 called Trouble No More, I wrote – in a Montreal Gazette review that also ran in the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal – that “Mellencamp has often shown a rootsy side to his music, but here he immerses himself in roots music, particularly traditional blues and folk, as well as gospel, country and early rock ‘n’ roll. He’s learned well from old recordings and finds more than credible, individual takes on these venerable songs.”

On No Better Than This, Mellencamp seems to go even deeper into the roots of traditional American music but instead of old songs learned from Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie records, the songs are Mellencamp’s own, written in traditional styles and recorded, as they might have been 50, 60 or 70 years ago in front of a single microphone, in mono, into a vintage tape recorder.

OK, I know that a tape recorder wouldn’t have been used 60 or 70 years ago, but it would have been 50 years ago when guys like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and so many others were recording in the same Sun Studio in Memphis where nine of these 13 songs were recorded. An historic recording location, to be sure.

Mellencamp and producer T-Bone Burnett took advantage of the studio floor markings that Sun producer Sam Phillips set down in the 1950s for optimal studio sound in recording Mellencamp on vocals and acoustic guitar with his live-off-the-floor band of Burnett, Andy York and Marc Ribot on guitars, bassist David Roe, drummer Jay Bellerose and violinist Miriam Sturm. There were no overdubs – what they played is what we hear.

Among the highlights of the Sun session songs are “The West End,” a gritty blues sung from the P.O.V. of someone who grew up in a lousy neighbourhood and is determined to get out; the title track, a rockabilly number whose swagger is a blend of young Elvis and young Johnny Cash; “Coming Down the Road,” a hopeful Guthrie-esque anthem; and “Easter Eve,” a vivid folk-like ballad of a violent encounter that seems modelled on the traditional “Arthur McBride.”

The rest of the tracks were recorded locations that were no less historic.

“Right Behind Me,” a duo track featuring Mellencamp with Sturm’s intense bowing on the violin, was recorded in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, the same room in which Robert Johnson recorded his first sides in 1936. Legend has it that Johnson sang facing the corner of the room and Mellencamp adopted the same position for a song that rambles through Johnsonian references to women, Chicago, and the devil.

Three solo folk-oriented love songs were recorded in the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, a church that was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the years preceding the American Civil War. They include “Thinking About You,” a nostalgic reminiscence of a long-ago love that could be a companion to Tom Waits’ “Martha”; “Love At First Sight,” kind of a puppy-love tune for more mature folks; and “Clumsy Old World,” a song about love’s contradictions written under the probable influence of John Prine.

There may be one or two Mellencamp songs from over the years that are more memorable than these, but, to my mind, there is no better John Mellencamp album than this.

--Mike Regenstreif