Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Natalie Merchant -- Leave Your Sleep

Leave Your Sleep

Leave Your Sleep, the new album by Natalie Merchant – 26 exquisite songs on two CDs with an 80-page, hardcover book – is a stunning achievement.

Merchant is a successful pop singer – both as a soloist and with 10,000 Maniacs – whose last album of new recordings was The House Carpenter’s Daughter, a fine collection of traditional and contemporary folksongs released seven years ago. Since then, Merchant took time off to have and raise a daughter.

Over the years that Merchant has been raising her child she has been finding poems by various British and American poets from the 19th and 20th centuries, setting the poems to music and researching the lives of the poets (she writes about each of them in the album’s book – which also includes the lyrics).

In composing the music for these poems, Merchant used a broad palette of musical styles, from Appalachian folk to blues, reggae, klezmer, New Orleans jazz, classical, Chinese and Native American music and employed a cast of 130 musicians and singers to help her realize the arrangements. Although the musical styles, arrangements and number of collaborators vary greatly from song to song, the album flows with a seamlessness seemingly borne from Merchant alone.

There is much to admire, if not love, on almost every one of the 26 songs but among my very favourites is “The Dancing Bear,” a poem by Albert Bigelow Paine, a close friend of Mark Twain’s that features the Klezmatics in a klezmer arrangement that’s both plaintive and playful. Another is “The Janitor’s Boy,” a sassy New Orleans jazz setting – featuring a band fronted by Wynton Marsalis – of a poem by Nathalia Crane published in 1924 when the child prodigy poet was all of 11 years old. Another is “Adventures of Isabel,” an Ogden Nash poem, which has a back porch folk feel courtesy of such musicians as Judy Hyman and Richie Stearns of the Horse Flies. And yet another is the blues arrangement of “The Peppery Man,” Arthur Macy’s portrait of a sour, antisocial contrarian that features some amazing vocals by the Fairfield Four.

Truth be told, I could rave on about every poem that Merchant has crafted into a song for this album. Kudos to Natalie Merchant for the conception of this ambitious, grand project – and for realizing it so brilliantly.

We’re just a third of the way through 2010 and I’m sure there will be more worthy releases, but Leave Your Sleep is an early candidate for my album of the year.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Willie Nelson -- Country Music

Country Music

Willie Nelson, who turns 77 on Friday, has got to be one of the most prolific of all recording artists. He’s rooted in the Texas country tradition, but, like Ray Charles, he’s a genre-crosser who’s made compelling music in all sorts of styles. I have no idea how many albums he’s made over the years, but I’ve got more than 30 Willie Nelson keepers sitting on my shelves. (To be honest, there have also been some that haven’t made it on to my keeper shelves.)

In recent years, Nelson has released several excellent albums including Two Men with the Blues, a classy set of jazz and blues with Wynton Marsalis and his band, and Willie and the Wheel, a great western swing album with Asleep At the Wheel.

Add Country Music, recorded with a drummerless collection of A-list musicians assembled by producer T-Bone Burnett – and including Folk Roots/Folk Branches guest Riley Baugus on clawhammer banjo and Buddy Miller on electric guitar – to Nelson's list of fine recent albums. This one rooted, as the album title implies, in traditional country music. Most of the songs are bona fide classics.

The album opens “Man with the Blues,” the only Nelson original, an old-school honky tonk tune like the kind of songs Nelson was probably singing back in the 1950s, and closes with a deep-from-the-well arrangement of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” an African American gospel tune that's given a haunting arrangement featuring Nelson stalwart Mickey Raphael on bass harmonica, Dennis Crouch’s heartbeat bass playing and some eerie guitar interplay between Nelson on gut string acoustic and Miller on electric.

One of my favourite tracks is an exciting rendition of f the Delmore Brothers’ “Freight Train Boogie” which, like Doc Watson’s version, you can’t help but feel the train boogieing down the tracks.

Other highlights include Merle Travis’ coalmining classic, “Dark as a Dungeon,” the tongue-in-cheek “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” and a sweet version of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” that seems like a traditional folksong.

--Mike Regenstreif

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (April 27-May 3)

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 for some time as occasional features on CKUT, and is now a blog. Here’s the 35th 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.

April 28, 1994: Extended feature- Stan Rogers.
May 2, 1996: Extended feature- Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee.
April 30, 1998: Show theme- 50 Years of Folkways Recordings with Guest- Tony Seeger.
April 29, 1999: Show theme- Songs by Old Friends.
April 27, 2000: Guests- Tony Babinski with Robert Marchand.
April 29, 2004: Show theme- The folk roots of rock ‘n’ roll and the rock ‘n’ roll branches of folk music.
April 28, 2005: Extended features- Tribute to the late Cyril Tawney; Songs of Passover.
April 27, 2006: Guest- Dave Clarke.
May 3, 2007: Guest- Ken Hamm.
May 1, 2008 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): Songs from the Folk Roots/Folk Branches Archives.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark O'Connor, Chris Thile, Frank Vignola, Bryan Sutton, Jon Burr, Byron House -- Jam Session

Jam Session

Although this 71-minute CD is called Jam Session, its nine tracks were actually recorded with three different combinations of musicians at several live sets between 2000 and 2004. And, although the six musicians seem to have equal billing on the CD cover, violinist Mark O’Connor is the only musician common to all nine tunes. He is also the composer of six of them and co-writer – with Sam Bush – of another.

O’Connor started as a child prodigy on guitar and, as a young man, spent several years playing with David Grisman in his groundbreaking, genre-blending, instrumental quintet of bluegrass virtuosos who essentially created a new kind of acoustic music inspired by both jazz – particularly the hot swing of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli – and bluegrass. As a violinist, O’Connor plays classical, jazz and bluegrass at virtuosic levels. He is an amazing player and you can be sure that the musicians surrounding him on these tracks are more than up to the task of playing on these Grismanesque sessions.

Five of the tunes were recorded in 2002 and feature O’Connor with mandolinist Chris Thile (who was also a child prodigy), guitarist Bryan Sutton and bassist Byron House. There are some amazing bluegrass-based exchanges on tunes like “Granny White Special” and the traditional “Don’t let Your Deal Go Down.” But this combo also combines bluegrass with gypsy jazz on “Macedonia,” swings like Reinhardt and Grappelli on “Swingin’ on the ‘Ville” and brings a Brazilian feel to “Soft Gyrations.”

Two tracks – “Gypsy Fantastic” and “Pickles on the Elbow” – with guitarist Frank Vignola (a Reinhardt specialist) and bassist Jon Burr swing like crazy with all kinds of hot playing.

The two finale tracks combining O’Connor with Thile, Vignola, Sutton and Burr were recorded in 2004 and include “In the Cluster Blues,” a slow, intense blues jam that is riveting through 16 minutes, and “Minor Swing,” a Grappelli-Reinhardt classic that seems to start off in just-noodlin’ mode but soon catches fire.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tom Lehrer -- The Tom Lehrer Collection

The Tom Lehrer Collection
Shout! Factory

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Tom Lehrer, a highly respected mathematician, occasionally wrote, recorded and performed brilliant satirical songs that lampooned the social and political mores of the Cold War era. His was a limited output: 37 songs spread out over a few LPs, several of which were recorded live in concert. Later on, there were a few more songs written in the early-1970s for The Electric Company, an educational TV show for kids and some rare compositions and performances in the 1990s.

The Tom Lehrer Collection is a CD/DVD combination that provides an excellent overview of Lehrer’s catalogue.

The CD includes 26 songs most of which are drawn from that repertoire of 37 songs written and recorded in the ‘50s and ‘60s. You’d think that topical songs from 40 or 50 years ago would seem dated today, but the relevance of some of them has only deepened over time. Many of the environmental problems that Lehrer was singing about in “Pollution” in 1965 are so much worse now than they were back then and the nuclear threat documented in songs like “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” is still being addressed in international non-proliferation conferences. The racial, ethnic and religious bigotry that Lehrer lampooned in “National Brotherhood Week,” has a direct line of descent to some of the veiled bigotry that still plays out in American tea parties and reasonable accommodation debates in Canada.

If I had to pick my favourite track, I suppose I’d go with “(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” a very funny send-up of the kind of secular holiday songs written by Jewish songwriters like Irving Berlin for Christian holidays like Christmas. Recorded in 1999, it’s one of those rare, later period Lehrer songs.

Lehrer himself chose the songs for this collection and wrote the liner notes. As an old folkie, my one quibble with his song selection is that he left out “The Folk Song Army,” his hilarious send-up of the early-60s folk boomers. But, he did include “The Irish Ballad,” his equally-hilarious parody of a traditional Irish ballad with an introduction that brilliantly sizes up folkier-than-thou purists.

The CD is a great set for anyone looking for an excellent primer on Lehrer and his songs. The DVD is a great bonus for anyone interested in the songs and makes The Tom Lehrer Collection essential even to Lehrer completists who already have all the original Lehrer albums (they’re all in print on CD) or The Remains of Tom Lehrer boxed set that came out a decade ago.

The DVD includes a complete 12-song concert recorded for Norwegian television in 1967, several rare performances from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and four animated videos of the songs that Lehrer wrote for The Electric Company.

The song intros on the DVD -- and on many of the live tracks on the CD -- also show Lehrer to be a much wittier comedian than most of today's stand-ups.

In the small world department, two of the DVD performances, “The Derivative” and “That’s Mathematics,” were taken from a 1997 event at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute event honouring the 80th birthday of Irving Kaplansky, who had been Lehrer’s math professor at Harvard in 1943 and ’44. Kaplansky, who was an amateur musician and songwriter himself, was the father of singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, one of the finest of today’s contemporary folk artists.

--Mike Regenstreif

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (April 20-26)

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 34th 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.

April 21, 1994: Extended feature- The Montreal folk scene.
April 20, 1995: Extended feature- Environmental songs.
April 22, 1999: Guest- Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary.
April 20, 2000: Guest- James Talley.
April 25, 2002: Guests- Scott Cameron Smith, Ariel Rogers and David Rogers.
April 22, 2003: Guest- Maria Dunn.
April 21, 2005: Guest- John Prine.
April 20, 2006: Guest- Gerry Goodfriend.
April 26, 2007: Guest- Garnet Rogers.
April 24, 2008 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): A tribute to the late Sam Gesser.
April 23, 2009 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): Guest- Tom Paxton.

Pictured: Mike Regenstreif and Garnet Rogers on April 29, 2006.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Good Lovelies and Amelia Curran win Junos

As per usual, all the Juno categories that I actually have any interest in (Roots/Traditional, blues, world, etc.) were awarded before the televised award show, thus relieving me of any reason to tune in tonight.

Congratulations to the winners of the Roots/Traditional categories; both of which have been written about on this blog. The Good Lovelies won the group award for their self-titled Good Lovelies, and Amelia Curran won the solo award for Hunter Hunter.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bruce Murdoch and Penny Lang – April 24 at Petit Campus

Pictured: The Montreal Folk Reunion at the 2009 Apple Hollow Folk Festival with (left to right) Willie Dunn, Penny Lang, Ron Bankley, Bruce Murdoch, Marc Nerenberg and Mike Regenstreif.

The finale for this season’s Wintergreen Concert Series in Montreal features Bruce Murdoch and Penny Lang, two old friends I’ve known since my earliest days on the Montreal folk scene in the late-1960s. In fact, I remember a Penny Lang concert at my high school in Montreal in 1968 that predated when I started hanging around coffee houses in 1969. That Penny Lang concert was one that helped spark my interest in going out to folk clubs like the Back Door and Yellow Door (where I first met Bruce Murdoch).

In 1972, I started my first folk concert series at Dawson College in Montreal and invited Bruce to be headline the first concert (Kevin Head, a fellow Dawson student, was the opening act). Penny played the series in 1973 and both – along with Jesse Winchester, Sneezy Waters, and Bill Garrett – were on the bill for the final concert in the series in the spring of 1974.

When the Dawson series finished, I took over running the Golem Coffee House, which became the pre-eminent Montreal folk club of the 1970s and ‘80s. Bruce, again, was the first artist I presented there. Both Bruce and Penny were regular performers at the Golem during my first tenure there from 1974-’76 (I reopened the Golem again in 1981).

I thought Bruce was one of the finest singer-songwriters of that time period. But, for reasons that I understood and respected, Bruce needed to quit performing and get away from the music business. I always hoped that he’d return and he did, just in time to be one of my final guests on Folk Roots/Folk Branches in July 2007. A year later, Bruce released his first album of new songs in almost three decades. Here’s my review from Sing Out! Magazine.

Matters of the Heart
Bruce Murdoch 2-2008

Bruce Murdoch’s is an interesting story. He grew up in working-class Montreal, left for Greenwich Village as a teenager and made his recording debut in 1965 at age 17 with four songs on Elektra’s Singer-Songwriter Project LP, an album that also introduced Richard Fariña, Patrick Sky and David Blue.

Bruce went on to record a full-length LP with Richie Havens as producer before returning to Montreal around 1970. He was one of my favorite songwriters and performers and when I started my first concert series, at Montreal’s Dawson College in 1972, Bruce was the first artist I asked to perform in it.

Bruce made one more album, an LP released by Radio Canada International in 1980. But before that record came out, he quit the music business and moved to Alberta where he went back to school, got his credentials and became a high school teacher in the small town of Hinton. His Martin D-28 sat unopened in its case for about 25 years until a recent burst of creativity brought forth the 11 new songs on this CD.

Bruce’s focus is now more personal and less obviously political than on his many of his older songs, but, they are as compelling as ever with several revealing more layers of meaning every time I listen. And I’ve listened to this CD often in the weeks it’s been out.

Many of the songs are informed by the pain of separation including “Angels in My Heart,” written for his daughters, and the poignant “I Keep You in My Heart,” in which he tries to explain his absence to a child who can’t understand.

The album’s minimalist production keeps the attention on Bruce’s songs, vocals and rhythmic guitar playing. Among the musicians adding nice touches are guitarist Ron Bankley and violinist Jeri Corlew. --Mike Regenstreif

In 2006, Penny Lang released what I think was the finest album of her long career. Here’s my review of that album from Sing Out!

Stone + Sand + Sea + Sky
Borealis 176

Six years ago, Penny Lang was sidelined by a stroke. Always a fighter and no stranger to illness, Penny battled back, slowly began touring again and put out Gather Honey, a collection of previously-unreleased tracks from early in her career.Now comes Stone + Sand + Sea + Sky, a remarkable album, certainly the finest of her long career, and an album unlike anything she has done before.

Except for “Let Me Fly,” a gospel song given a Zydeco arrangement here, these are quiet songs, each with a unique, often unusual arrangement. Working with co-producers Roma Baran – who played in Penny’s band as a teenager in the late-1960s – and Vivian Stoll, Penny has re-imagined her approach to singing, lowering the keys and singing in a quiet voice that draws the listener into the song.

While every one of these 13 songs is deserves attention, space permits me to comment on only a few. "It’s Not Easy,” written specifically for Penny by Ken Pearson, is cast as a classic blues with the composer at the piano, Dave Clarke on guitar and some lovely muted trumpet by Rebecca Coupe Franks. Penny sings the song as if every word comes from deep within her soul. Penny strips the bluegrass off the Greenbriar Boys’ “High Muddy Waters,” giving it a chamber-folk arrangement that beautifully captures the personal redemption at the essence of the lyrics while Utah Phillips’ “If I Could Be the Rain,” with its key message about the absolute need to express feelings through singing, has a gentle country arrangement featuring Clarke on guitar with Penny’s 1960s accompanists Kate McGarrigle on piano and Baran on lap steel.

Quite obviously, a tremendous amount of thoughtful creativity, by Penny, the producers, and the various musicians went into the making of this very special album. --Mike Regenstreif

Last summer, I hosted an event called the Montreal Folk Reunion at the Apple Hollow Folk Festival in the Chateauguay Valley that included both Bruce and Penny. It was magical to see them on stage together for the first time since the 1970s and I’m so looking forward to seeing more of that magic on Saturday, April 24, 8:00 pm at Petit Campus, 57 Prince Arthur East in Montreal. For info or tickets, call Hello Darlin’ Productions at 514-524-9225.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (April 13-19)

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 33rd 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.

April 14, 1994: Extended feature- Ian Tyson.
April 13, 1995: Extended feature- Sylvia Tyson.
April 18, 1996: Extended feature- Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
April 13, 2000: Guest- Bill Morrissey.
April 18, 2002: Guest- Eve Goldberg.
April 17, 2003: Guest- Eleni Mandell.
April 15, 2004: Guest- Peggy Seeger.
April 13, 2006: Guest- Robert David.

Pictured: Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Mike Regenstreif and Matt Large at Pop Montreal (2006).

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, April 12, 2010

Chad Mitchell Trio -- Then & Now

Then & Now
Trio Productions

I spent an interesting – and surprisingly enjoyable – evening recently watching Then & Now, a 3-DVD set documenting, through commentaries, conversations and performances, the history of the Chad Mitchell Trio, one of the most venerable of the commercial folk boom groups.

The first of the three DVDs compiles clips from the many television shows – Bell Telephone Hour, Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, etc. – the trio did during their heyday in the early-to-mid-1960s. Watching them sing poignant songs like “Dona Dona,” topical songs like “The John Birch Society,” kids’ songs like Tom Paxton’s “The Marvelous Toy,” and all manner of tightly arranged traditional folksongs was made easy by the quality and cleverness of the singing and vocal arrangements, and by the fact that they always surrounded themselves with such topflight instrumental accompanists as Roger McGuinn (then Jim McGuinn) and Paul Prestopino. While much of these period pieces might seem dated by today’s standards, listening in the context of the times allowed me to enjoy the songs – and the conversations of trio members Chad Mitchell, Joe Frazier and Mike Kobluk which are inserted throughout the DVD.

One of the things that personally interested me in the three earliest clips from the ‘60s was seeing McGuinn as the trio’s accompanist on banjo and guitar. Roger, of course, went on to make folk-rock history as leader of the Byrds and then as a noted solo artist who I’ve had the chance to produce a couple of concerts with at the Golem in the 1980s, and have as a guest on Folk Roots/Folk Branches in 1998. He couldn’t have been much more than 20 or so playing beside a tuxedoed or tie-and-jacketed Chad Mitchell Trio in 1961-’62.

Chad Mitchell left the trio in 1965 and the trio continued for a time as the Mitchell Trio with the young John Denver as the third member.

In 1987, Chad Mitchell, Joe Frazier and Mike Kobluk came together for a reunion concert that was recorded for a PBS fundraiser and that comprises the second DVD in the set. Maybe it was the superior recording quality, but the Chad Mitchell Trio sounded better to me in 1987 than they did in the ‘60s. The harmonies and arrangements are as good, or better, than ever and there seems to be a greater depth to the interpretations.

Each of the three also steps forward with a solo performance. Mike does a sweet version of Charles Badger Clark’s “Spanish is a Loving Tongue,” Chad does well with Yip Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” and Joe does a powerful version of Bruce Cockburn’s then-very-topical “Nicaragua,” a brave and compelling choice for a reunion concert during the days of the Reagan Administartion.

Toward the end of the concert, Chad Mitchell steps out for a song to be replaced – as he was in 1965 – by John Denver who sings a really nice version of “For Baby (For Bobbie),” a song they sang together as Mitchell Trio (and the first John Denver song ever to be recorded) with Joe and Mike.

All four – Chad, Mike, Joe and John – sing the finale, Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” their standard closer, together.

Twenty years after that reunion concert – and almost a half-century since they first performed together – the Chad Mitchell Trio came together again in 2007 for two concerts that are seamlessly edited together as the third DVD in the set.

Earlier, I said the trio sounded better to me in 1987 than they did in the 1960s. Well, they also sounded even better to me in 2007 than in 1987 as they work their way through a familiar repertoire of traditional and contemporary folk standards including lovely versions of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds,” Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind” and Woody Guthrie’s “Great Historical Bum.

Speaking of Tom Paxton, the Chad Mitchell Trio sang a lot of Tom’s songs during their run in the 1960s (and, circa 1960, the young Tom actually auditioned for the spot in the trio filled by Joe Frazier) and he joins them late in the concert for a really nice version of his classic “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound,” and for the closer, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.”

Watching the DVDs was, to be sure, an exercise in Mighty Wind-type nostalgia for the commercial folk era. But it was also a reminder that the Chad Mitchell Trio – like Peter, Paul and Mary, like the Weavers, like Ian and Sylvia – had something very special that transcended their commercialism and that deepened greatly over time.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Catherine Russell -- Inside This Heart of Mine

Inside This Heart of Mine
World Village

In the spring of 2006, an album called Cat by Catherine Russell, a singer I’d never heard of before, landed on my desk. As a radio host and producer, and as a music reviewer for Sing Out! and several other publications, a lot of albums by artists I’ve never heard of before land on my desk. Every once in a while, one of those albums jumps out at me from the first track and I know I’m hearing someone special.

And so it was with Catherine Russell. She grabbed me from this first track, an old jazz tune called “Sad Lover Blues.” Cat’s version – Cat, short for Catherine, has been her nickname since childhood – blends classic blues, swing, R&B and country influences into something a jazz-loving folkie like me was going to take to right away. As I listened to the other 14 songs on the album, it quickly became obvious that this was a great singer who’d certainly been exposed to all of those kinds of music and much more.

It was easy to tell – from the sound of her voice and the maturity of her delivery, and from the pictures on the CD cover that showed an attractive, middle-aged woman – that Cat couldn’t be a newcomer to the world of music. But why, I wondered, hadn’t I heard of her before? How could it be that this 50-year-old singer was releasing her very first album?

Montreal has the world’s largest jazz festival and in my review of Cat for The Montreal Gazette, I said, “Russell needs to be here at the jazz festival next year.” Somebody at the jazz festival was paying attention and there she was, in June 2007, wowing a crowd of 10,000 or more at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. And her trip to Montreal for the jazz festival gave me the opportunity to sit down with Cat and find out about this fabulous singer I’d never heard of before that album landed on my desk.

I found out from Cat that she’d spent the first three decades of her career as a side person, helping make other artists sound good. “People ask me all the time why I waited so long to do my first record,” she said. I wasn’t waiting. I was a side person.”

Those are the opening paragraphs to “Blues & Country & All That Jazz: The Genre Fusing Music of Catherine Russell,” an article I wrote for the Winter 2008 issue of Sing Out! Magazine.

When I interviewed Catherine Russell on Folk Roots/Folk Branches and for that Sing Out! article, Cat was preparing to record Sentimental Streak, her second CD. Released about the same time as the article was published, Sentimental Streak was every bit as good as that inspired debut that grabbed me in 2006.

I could say the same about Cat’s third release, Inside This Heart of Mine. But, I won’t, because, if anything, it’s even better. Her alto, sounding even more relaxed and confident than before, pulls you right into this set of mostly classic jazz and blues tunes anchored by inventive arrangements steeped in all of the kinds of music she grew up listening to – her parents are the late Luis Russell, a jazz legend who was Louis Armstrong’s bandleader in the 1930s and ‘40s, and Carline Ray, a bass player and singer, who was a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a band that made history in the 1940s as the first all-female big band – and all the different kinds of music she’s played and sung over the years.

I love the whole album, but if I had to pick a few highlights they’d certainly include what is now my all-time favourite version of Willie Dixon’s oft-recorded “Spoonful,” featuring some wonderful blues banjo playing by Matt Munisteri (who’s heard on guitar for most of the album and on banjo on a couple of others) and the tuba of the always-wonderful Howard Johnson; “We the People,” a delightful Fats Waller tune from 1938 that swings like mad that I’d never heard before; “Long, Strong and Consecutive,” a sassy song filled with double entendres which seems like it could be a Bessie Smith song but was actually written by Duke Ellington in the 1940s; and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” a great old tune that Cat’s father must have played hundreds of times with Louis Armstrong.

Along with the classic material, Cat also includes a couple of great contemporary songs that fit right in. “November,” is a sad song of separation written by producer Paul Kahn; and “Just Because You Can,” written by Rachelle Garniez, sounds like something Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli might have played (if Reinhardt played banjo).

Catherine Russell is always a joy to listen to. Inside This Heart of Mine will be released on April 13.

Pictured: Catherine Russell and Mike Regenstreif at CKUT during Folk Roots/Folk Branches (June 28, 2007).

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (April 6-12)

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 32nd 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.

April 7, 1994: Extended feature- Tom Paxton.
April 11, 1996: Extended feature- Songs of Phil Ochs.
April 8, 1999: Guest- Peggy Seeger.
April 6, 2000: Tribute to the late Lee Haggerty.
April 12, 2007: Guest- Gern f. of the United Steelworkers of Montreal.
April 10, 2008 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): Songs of Jesse Winchester.

Pictured: Jesse Winchester and Mike Regenstreif at La Sala Rossa (2006).

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, April 5, 2010

My first-ever review.

In 1975, when I was not yet 21, I asked Herbie Aronoff, the entertainment editor of the Montreal Gazette, to let me be a music critic. He sent me to Place-des-Arts that night to review a Murray McLauchlan concert. I had to come back to the Gazette office and write to space and deadline on a typewriter. That review, the first of thousands, is now available on the Google news archive.

Click here to see the review.

Years later, Murray played for me at the Golem, and years after that was a guest on Folk Roots/Folk Branches.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sherele -- Oy Mame Shein Pickles Chiles and Jrein

Oy Mame Shein Pickles Chiles and Jrein
Sondios y Sabores

(This review is from the April 5, 2010 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)

A few months ago, I was listening to Jazz Around the World (Putumayo), a compilation highlighting bands from many parts of the world, and became fascinated by a tune called “Polka Dot Blues,” played by Sherele, a group from Mexico. It was a kind of snappy Latin jazz tune with some nifty nylon-string guitar playing and a tight, bass and drums rhythm section. But the tune was in a minor key and featured a clarinet as the lead instrument. Sounds like klezmer music, I thought.

Well, it turns out that Sherele is a klezmer quartet based in Mexico, and the tune, composed by clarinetist Nathalie Braux, was the only original composition from their first CD, Oy Mame Shein Pickles Chiles and Jrein. The rest of the album is devoted to their interpretations of traditional klezmer tunes like “Lebedik un Freylekh” and “Reb Dovid’s Ningun,” played with a highly enjoyable blend of Mexican, South American and Eastern European influences.

Sherele’s CD is highly recommended for klezmer fans on the lookout for a unique take on the music.

--Mike Regenstreif