Thursday, February 25, 2010

Johnny Cash -- American VI: Ain't No Grave

Although my weekly CD reviews have been gone from the Montreal Gazette for a year now, I still occasionally write the Gazette's Album of the Week feature. This week's is my review of Johnny Cash's final recording, American VI: Ain't No Grave.

Johnny Cash
American VI: Ain’t No Grave
American/Lost Highway/Universal
****1/2 out of five

Johnny Cash, who I’d argue was the single greatest figure in country music history, recorded prolifically – about 60 songs – in the year or so leading up to his death on September 12, 2003; a time marked by the death of his wife, June Carter Cash four months before. A CD from those sessions, American V: A Hundred Highways, released in 2006 revealed a frail, but still utterly compelling artist who knew that time was short and who chose songs that looked back at life and made peace with his God as he anticipated the end.

The songs on American VI: Ain’t No Grave, which producer Rick Rubin says will be the final release from the series of essential albums he made with the legendary artist in the last decade of his life, were recorded during the same period as the previous posthumous release. While Cash is still obviously anticipating the end of his earthly life, he also seems to be looking toward the heavenly journey he anticipates. “Ain’t no grave can hold my body down,” he sings in a powerful version of the traditional spiritual that gives this volume its name. The theme continues in several other songs. “And hope springs eternal just over rise/When I see my Redeemer beckoning me,” he sings in "1 Corinthians 15:55," apparently, the last song he wrote.

The context of Cash singing these songs with weakened voice at life’s end infuses several songs with meaning very different from the songwriters’ original intents. “Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over/But life goes on, and this old world will keep on turning,” from Kris Kristofferson’s "For the Good Times" is no longer just a breakup song, it seems to be Cash preparing us for his death.

In Cash’s hands, the Tom Paxton folk classic "Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound" is not the song of a young person wondering where life’s journey will take him; it’s the song of dying man thinking about what comes next. Similarly, a cowboy’s search for a watering hole in Bob Nolan’s "Cool Water," seems to become, in this version, a metaphor for a man’s dream of his heavenly reward.

Taken as a whole, the six American albums, and the Cash Unearthed boxed set, recorded between 1993 and 2003 represent an essential period in Cash’s almost half-century career. American VI: Ain’t No Grave is an intimate, poignant farewell from a great artist.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bonnie Koloc -- Beginnings

Mr. Biscuit

I first met Steve Goodman back in 1973 or ’74 when he did a four-night stand at the soon-to-be-defunct Karma Coffee House in Montreal. Hanging out with him then, we talked a lot about music and it was from Steve that I first heard of Bonnie Koloc. She was one of the best singers around, he told me.

I took Steve’s advice and sought out Bonnie’s early LPs – and what she’s done since – and she’s never failed to draw me in with her gorgeous voice and intelligent folk-pop (with touches of blues and jazz) approach.

Bonnie’s first LP came out in 1971 but she was already well-established as one of top performers on the Chicago folk club scene that included such peers as Steve, John Prine and Fred Holstein. But the music on Beginnings – released for the first time more than 40 years after it was recorded – dates from two 1969 live sets recorded by Rich Warren, then the student host of a folk music show on his college’s radio station. (For many years now, Rich has been the host of the legendary Midnight Special program on WFMT in Chicago.)

Listening to Beginnings, it’s quite obvious that Bonnie was already a great singer and performer; in fact, I would say it’s more even more obvious here than on some of her early LPs with their studio polish.

The sweetly sad “Rainy Day Lady” is Bonnie’s only original among the 16-song, hour-long set mostly devoted to her superb interpretations of tunes drawn from such well-known writers as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell as well as from local artists like Eddie Holstein and Steve Goodman (who was still completely unknown beyond the Chicago folk scene).

Among my favourites on the CD are Bonnie’s versions of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (despite a couple of lyrical deviations)” and “Just Like a Woman”; Goodman’s “Song for David”; Eddie Holstein's "Victoria's Moring"; and one of the best interpretations I’ve ever heard of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”

She also does fine versions of such classics as Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Bessie Smith’s “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon.”

Bonnie is supported throughout the album by the excellent playing of guitarist Ray Frank and bassist George Stevens. John Mathis plays flute on three songs and two others feature a guy named Bob (from the bar) on harmonica.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (February 23-March 1)

Folk Roots/Folk Branches with Mike Regenstreif was a Thursday tradition on CKUT in Montreal for nearly 14 years from February 3, 1994 until August 30, 2007. Folk Roots/Folk Branches continued as occasional features on CKUT and is now a blog. Here’s the 26th instalment of “This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches,” a weekly look back continuing through next August at some of the most notable guests, features and moments in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history.

February 27, 1997: Guests- Sam Gesser; Steve Fruitman.
February 25, 1999: Guest- Corky Siegel.
March 1, 2001: Extended feature- Seal Maiden: A Celtic Musical by Karan Casey.
February 26, 2004: Black History Month feature- Blues in the Mississippi Night, recorded by Alan Lomax on March 2, 1947, with Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson.
February 24, 2005: All live music show with guests- Full Frontal Folk; Andy Cohen & Ragtime Jack Radcliffe; Natalia Zukerman; Sid Selvidge; The Kennedys; Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer; Tracy Grammer with Jim Henry; Anne Hills & Michael Smith.
February 23, 2006: Show theme- A pre-Mardi Gras Celebration of New Orleans.
March 1, 2007: Guests- Dave Clarke & Ellen Shizgal of Steel Rail.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Seth Rogovoy -- Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet

Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet
By Seth Rogovoy
324 pages

(This review is from the February 22, 2010 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)

Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941, unquestionably among the greatest and most influential songwriter-performers of all time, has been the subject of seemingly countless numbers of biographies and book-length analyses over the past 40 years. These books have covered his life and music from myriad angles – I know, I’ve read a bunch of them of them.

But Seth Rogovoy’s Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet is the first book that examines Dylan’s life and music with a perspective that encompasses his Jewish upbringing, the influence of Jewish texts on his songwriting, and his sometimes confusing and contradictory relationship with Judaism and religious practice. According to Rogovoy, “Consciously or not, Bob Dylan has in large part adopted the modes of Jewish prophetic discourse as one of his primary means of communication, determining the content of his songs, the style of delivery, and his relationship to his audience.”

Young Bobby Zimmerman grew up in Minnesota, first in Duluth, then in the small town of Hibbing, where he was in close contact with his Yiddish-speaking grandparents, where he attended Hebrew school at an Orthodox synagogue, Agudath Achim, and where his mother and father were presidents of her Hadassah and his B’nai Brith chapters. He also spent five summers in the 1950s at Camp Herzl, a religious Zionist camp in Wisconsin. Rogovoy makes the case that, in addition to the rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country and folk music that fascinated him, Dylan’s Jewish upbringing had a significant impact on his canon of songs.

There are some Dylan songs in which the Jewish influence is obvious. The opening scene in “Highway 61 Revisited” is a modernized version of the biblical story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But Rogovoy points out that there are many more songs in which the Jewish influence is pervasive but not necessarily obvious. While “All Along the Watchtower,” famously covered by Jimi Hendrix, for example, has often been (mis)interpreted as oblique musings, Rogovoy convincingly shows that the lyrics are a midrashic paraphrasing of Isaiah 21:4-9.

There are many other examples. Rogovoy points out that key passages in “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of the early songs that established Dylan’s reputation as the ‘voice of his generation,’ a designation he came to quickly reject even if his growing legions of fans didn’t, were based on verses from Ezekiel, Isaiah and Genesis, while “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” he points out, recasts phrases from Leviticus as if they were being spoken by a prophet on behalf of God.

As an artist, Dylan has gone through any number of periods in the almost-five decades that he’s been an important songwriter. Certainly, the most perplexing period for his Jewish fans was from 1979 to 1981 or ’82 when he embraced evangelical Christianity. Rogovoy devotes a long chapter to this period arguing that the album Slow Train Coming, the first and most popular of Dylan’s Christian albums, “is as noteworthy for its lack of Christian material as it is for any blatant references to Jesus.” The album’s hit song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” writes Rogovoy, “fits comfortably within a Jewish worldview in which mankind’s utmost duty is seen as serving God.”

While Dylan’s embrace of Christianity was well known and publicized through recordings and concerts devoted exclusively to songs from that period, his return to Judaism, circa 1982 or ’83, was not overtly publicized. Rogovoy describes how Dylan’s return was engineered by his concerned mother and a still-observant boyhood friend, and through a year of study with a Lubavitcher rabbi in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. (To this day there are semi-regular Dylan sightings, particularly around the High Holidays, at Chabad centres in places Dylan happens to find himself.)

And, of course, the book abounds with many examples of songs from his post-Christian period which Rogovoy is able to explain from a Jewish perspective. A scene in “Jokerman” describes tashlich, while another reflects David on the run from King Saul. “I and I,” which uses Rastafarian terminology, says Rogovoy, is a meditation on the relationship between God and Moses, while the unambiguous “Neighborhood Bully” is a “thinly veiled paean to Israel and Jewish peoplehood.”

Rogovoy’s analysis of the Jewishness of many of Dylan’s songs continues through to the 2009 album Together Through Life. What Rogovoy couldn’t have counted on was the curveball of a Christmas album Dylan released at about the same the book hit the stands.

Maybe Rogovoy will update the paperback edition of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet to point out that Dylan did the album as a food bank charity benefit (tzedakah) and that there’s a long tradition of Jewish artists who’ve done Christmas music. “White Christmas,” probably the most famous of all secular Christmas songs, was, after all written by the Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline).

Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet offers a fascinating perspective on Dylan and his songs. A basic familiarity with the songs is a probably a prerequisite to appreciating it.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Anne Hills -- Points of View

Points of View
Appleseed Recordings

“Anne Hills is such an exquisite singer that it’s understandable that people might be swept up in the pure beauty of her voice and thereby overlook her writing. That would be a mistake. For me, Anne’s writing, in songs like “Follow That Road” and many others, is as direct, melodic and deep as any work being done today. She is quite simply one of my absolute favorite songwriters.” --Tom Paxton

My old friend Tom Paxton gets no argument from me about the merits of Anne Hills as either a singer or songwriter. Almost every album she’s ever made – whether as an interpretive singer or singer-songwriter; or as a solo or collaborative artist – is a favourite of mine. And that includes Points of View, her first solo album in more than a decade devoted primarily to original material. And, like Tom says, these songs are direct, melodic and deep.

The album opens with “I Am You,” a universalist anthem, co-written with Michael Smith (another of my favourite songwriters), that describes all races, religions, genders, and orientations as part of the same human family.

Among my favourite tracks is a pair of winter themed songs. In “Pennsylvania,” Anne describes scenes from the highway as she makes her way through the state during a heavy winter snow storm. Then, in “Two Year Winter,” co-written with Bill Jones, winter storms and cold seem like a metaphor for a long period of sadness or depression. That sadness in “Two Year Winter” eventually gives way to the promise of spring and the joy of childbirth in “A Plain Song.”

Other favourites include “My Daughter & Vincent van Gogh,” which begins with Anne describing a family outing to a van Gogh exhibit that seems to dissolve into an imagining of the family as part of a van Gogh painting, and “I’m Nobody,” a song which helps to understand what it might be like for someone, particularly a child, in dire need of affirmation.

Along with these and other original songs, there are a couple that Anne didn’t write or co-write including an absolutely exquisite version of Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson’s “Alexandra Leaving.”

The CD cover is a self-portrait of Anne that’s reminiscent of van Gogh’s self-portrait in a hat and coat with his ear (or where his ear used to be) bandaged. Instead of a bandaged ear, Anne’s painting has her eyes covered by a blindfold (that sort of looks like a piece of lemon meringue pie).

--Mike Regenstreif

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (February 16-22)

Folk Roots/Folk Branches with Mike Regenstreif was a Thursday tradition on CKUT in Montreal for nearly 14 years from February 3, 1994 until August 30, 2007. Folk Roots/Folk Branches continued as occasional features on CKUT and is now also a blog. Here’s the 25th instalment of “This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches,” a weekly look back continuing through next August at some of the most notable guests, features and moments in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history.

February 16, 1995: Extended feature- Peter Rowan.
February 22, 1996: Show theme- Recordings of the 1960s.
February 20, 1997: Extended features- Odetta’s Movin’ It On concert; Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.
February 18, 1999: Guest- Tom Paxton.
February 22, 2001: Guest- Chris Smither.
February 21, 2002: Show theme- Black History Month Special.
February 20, 2003: Guest- Bill Bourne.
February 17, 2005: Guest- James Talley.
February 16, 2006: Guests- Solon & Jeremiah McDade of The McDades.

Pictured: Mike Regenstreif and James Talley on February 17, 2005.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Harlem Parlour Music Club -- Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth
Harlem Parlour

When I first heard the name Harlem Parlour Music Club, I thought it might be a revival band playing the great tunes of Harlem music masters like Fats Waller or James P. Johnson from generations past. But, that’s not what this terrific band is about. They’re a collection of New York-based musicians – some of them solo artists, others key band members for pop artists like Cyndi Lauper, or ace studio musicians – who’ve come together to play rootsy, mostly original songs in the Harlem living room of drummer Sammy Merendino and occasional club dates.

The names of a couple of the musicians and singers in the Club jumped right out at me. Dobro and mandolin player David Mansfield has played on lots of records on my shelves and he played with Bob Dylan for several years. I met him briefly back in 1975 when I was a backstage guest of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott at a Rolling Thunder Revue concert. Speaking of Dylan, singer-songwriter-guitarist Mary Lee Kortes has a band called Mary Lee’s Corvette that did a live album I liked covering all the songs, in order, from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

The focus here is on original tunes by various members of the band – the only cover is a folk-meets-funk version of Sly Stone’s “Thank You (forlettinmebemiceelfagin)” – that usually feature the writer on lead vocals, with stirring harmonies from other singers, and instrumental back-up from a great rhythm section and stellar instrumental soloists.

Among my favourite tracks are Darden Smith’s neo-gospel “Dyin’ to be Born Again”; Allison Cornell and Ann Klein’s “Runaway Train,” a topical song about a world out of control set to a hyper-bluegrass arrangement; and Kortes’ “Truck of Pennsylvania,” an almost-epic description of scenes and encounters on the road.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (February 9-15)

Folk Roots/Folk Branches with Mike Regenstreif was a Thursday tradition on CKUT in Montreal for nearly 14 years from February 3, 1994 until August 30, 2007. Folk Roots/Folk Branches continued as occasional features on CKUT and is now also a blog. Here’s the 24th instalment of “This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches,” a weekly look back continuing through next August at some of the most notable guests, features and moments in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history.

February 9, 1995: Pre-Valentine’s Day “All Love Songs” Special.
February 13, 1997: Pre-Valentine’s Day “All Love Songs” Special.
February 11, 1999: Guest- James Keelaghan.
February 14, 2002: Tribute to the late Dave Van Ronk; Guest- Gerry Goodfriend.
February 12, 2004: Guests- Jason Rosenblatt of Shtreiml and Abby Rosenblatt.
February 10, 2005: Tributes to the late Stan Rogers and Odetta, the 2005 Lifetime Acheievement Award honorees of the North American Folk Alliance.
February 9, 2006: Special Edition- Variations on the theme of John Henry.
February 15, 2007: Guests- Dane Lanken and Anna McGarrigle.
February 14, 2008 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): Spotlight on Paul Robeson.

Pictured: Anna McGarrigle and Mike Regenstreif at the launch of Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Songs & Stories by Dane Lanken, recording an interview heard February 15, 2007 on Folk Roots/Foolk Branches. (Photo: Campbell Hendery)

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Claudia Schmidt -- Promising Sky

Promising Sky
Claudia Schmidt

I first heard Claudia Schmidt more than 30 years ago. She struck me, back in the late-‘70s, as one of those people who is just inherently musical as she’d move, seemingly effortlessly from a Michael Smith song, to a blues standard, to a traditional ballad sung a cappella. Listening to her records over the years – it’s probably 20 years or so since I’ve seen her live – I’ve not changed my mind about that musicality.

Although she came out of the folk scene, and has kept one of her feet firmly planted there, in recent years Claudia has simultaneously devoted herself to jazz. Several of the CDs that she’s released recently have been fine jazz efforts while others have remained in the folk vein.

Promising Sky, Claudia’s new album, blends her folk and jazz influences and adds some blues and world music spicing in a fine collection of mostly-original material.

Among the highlights is “Wisconsin Country,” a haunting song that has Claudia’s ethereal vocals supported by the bowed bass of Jack Dryden and flute of Nancy Stagnitta, as she describes an autumnal journey through the countryside and into herself. Another is “If All Goes Well,” a jazzy tune about the resiliency of the human spirit. I also really like her version of “We’ll Be Together Again,” a standard familiar from the vocal-piano duets of Tony Bennett and Bill Evans. This version features Claudia’s voice and 12-string guitar receiving some quietly-soulful support from mandolinist Don Julin, bassist Dryden and drummer Randy Marsh.

I have to say, though, that my absolute favourite song on the CD is the title track. Sung a cappella with harmonies from Seth Bernard, May Erlewine and Rachael Davis, “Promising Sky” is a bright, gorgeous, hope-filled song inspired by the choral tradition of South Africa.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (February 2-8)

Folk Roots/Folk Branches with Mike Regenstreif was a Thursday tradition on CKUT in Montreal for nearly 14 years from February 3, 1994 until August 30, 2007. Folk Roots/Folk Branches continued as occasional features on CKUT and is now also a blog. Here’s the 23rd instalment of “This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches,” a weekly look back continuing through next August at some of the most notable guests, features and moments in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history.

February 3, 1994: The Thursday debut of Folk Roots/Folk Branches with Mike Regenstreif on CKUT.
February 2, 1995: All-request show celebrating the first anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches.
February 8, 1996: Extended feature- Chris Smither.
February 6, 1997: Extended feature- Utah Phillips.
February 5, 1998: All-request show celebrating the fourth anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches.
February 4, 1999: All-request show celebrating the fifth anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches.
February 3, 2000: All-request show celebrating the sixth anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches.
February 8, 2001: Guest- Sue Foley.
February 7, 2002: Guest- Bruce Cockburn.
February 6, 2003: All-request show celebrating the ninth anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches.
February 5, 2004: The 10th anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches with guests- Kate & Anna McGarrigle.
February 3, 2005: The 11th anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches with guest- Tom Russell.
February 2, 2006: The 12th anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches. All music by past guests.
February 8, 2007: Guest- Chris Frye of the Bills.
February 7, 2008 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): A tribute to the late John Stewart.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sing Out! Magazine – Autumn ‘09/Winter ‘10

My copy of the latest issue of Sing Out! Magazine arrived in today’s mail. The cover story is on Richie Havens, a member of the Folk Roots/Folk Branches guest list.

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

Albert & Gage- Dakota Lullaby: The Songs of Tom Peterson
Dave Alvin- Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women
David Baxter- Day & Age
Jim Byrnes- My Walking Stick
Leonard Cohen- Live in London
Ronny Cox- Songs... With Repercussions
Nanci Griffith- The Loving Kind
James Hill & Ann Davison- True Love Don’t Weep
Tish Hinojosa- Our Little Planet
Hotcha!- Dust Bowl Roots: Songs for the New Depression
Willie Nelson- Naked Willie
Corin Raymond- There will Always be a Small Time
Red Stick Ramblers- My Suitcase is Always Packed
Robert Resnik & Marty Morrissey- Old & New Songs of Lake Champlain
Sunny and Her Joy Boys- Introducing Sunny and Her Joy Boys
Twist of the Wrist- Twist of the Wrist
Various- Appalachia: Music from Home
Various- Man of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney
Susan Werner- Classics

--Mike Regenstreif