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


  1. 2 of my favourite artists! Wish I could be there.

  2. I knew Bruce, Penny, Willie Dunn, Richie havens and others of that ilk, back in the 60s and reviewed many of them for The Georgian and to a lesser extent, the Montreal Gazette. I lost touch with all of them by the early 70s - so it's been perhaps 40 years since I've had the pleasure of chatting with them.

    I'd certainly love to hear from any and/or all of them and they can contact me at

    carl Edgar Law aka Carl Law December 29, 2012