Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Steve Gillette -- The Man

The Man
Compass Rose Music

The Man is a very different kind of album for Steve Gillette – one of the finest folk-oriented singer-songwriters since the 1960s. (His best-known song is “Darcy Farrow,” a standard of the folk repertoire since Ian & Sylvia recorded it about 45 years ago.)

The Man is a concept album that tells the story of Danny Murrow, a guitar player who was there at the dawn and flowering of the jazz age in the early decades of the 20th century leading up to and including the Great Depression and Second World War. Steve uses a combination of spoken word narration on top of instrumental versions of songs from that era, songs from those days he sings in Danny’s character, and several original songs that he wrote – and one Bessie Smith song that he rewrote – to move the story along.

Steve tells Danny’s story using a combination of fact and fiction. The fictional Danny interacts with all kinds of real musicians including the likes of Paul Whiteman, Bix Biederbecke, Bessie Smith, as well as John Hammond, the legendary talent scout and record producer. He picks up songs from Fats Waller, Count Basie and Yip Harburg and is affected by the contemporary events of the world from the racism of the era to the stock market crash and the loss of his son in the war – an event that leads him into a period of intense soul searching in which he concludes (in one of Steve's original songs) that "God is love, only love, nothing more, nothing less."

Steve surrounds himself with some great musicians on these tracks including the likes of Bill Shontz, Peter Davis, Dave Davies and Peter Ecklund on horns; Randy Wolchek and Steve’s late father, George Gillette, on piano; Jack Williams on guitar; Scott Petito, Glen Fukunaga and David Jackson on bass; Mark Graham on harmonica; and Paul Pearcy on drums. Among the all-star back-up singers are Cindy Mangsen; Kim and Reggie Harris; and Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino (Magpie).

I love what Steve has done with this album. In telling Danny’s fictional story, he’s also giving us a small slice of the early jazz world.

Steve has also put together a website about the project that is well worth checking out.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, June 28, 2010

Jeff Healey -- Last Call

Last Call
Stony Plain

The late Jeff Healey (1966-2008) was – with great reason – one of Canada’s most popular blues-rock guitarists and an exciting bandleader. He was also an expert on the hot jazz and swing of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s – I remember some great radio shows he hosted on the CBC playing old 78s – and, in the last decade or so before cancer took his life, went public as a traditional jazz singer, trumpet player and guitarist, touring and recording a series of fine albums with the Jazz Wizards, a group distinct from his blues-rock band. As much as I enjoyed hearing Jeff play blues-rock, I much preferred hearing him in the jazz context.

And, as much as I enjoyed hearing Healey in the Jazz Wizards, he was, apparently, frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t be singing and playing the trumpet and multiple guitar parts all at once. So, for his final recording project, Jeff decided to do an album on which he’d overdub most of the parts himself. Just two other musicians, violinist Drew Jurecka and pianist-clarinetist Ross Wooldridge, join him on selected tracks.

All 14 songs are a joy to hear. Listen to his amazing playing – rhythm guitar, lead guitar and trumpet – and singing on “Some of These Days.” It’s just one guy doing the job of four musicians and sounding better and tighter than most bands.

Healey turns in another amazing two-guitars-and-vocal performance on “Hong Kong Blues,” one of my favourite songs by the great Hoagy Carmichael, one of my all-time favourite songwriters.

There are several wonderful instrumentals including “Guitar Duet Stomp,” which, as the title implies, is Healey playing two guitar parts; and two guitar-violin duets – “The Wildcat” and “Black and Blue Bottom” – with Jurecka that pay tribute to the great guitar-violin recordings of the ‘30s by Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti.

Healey recorded this album just a few weeks after undergoing major surgery. You can’t tell from listening to his great playing and fine singing that he wasn’t in great shape. Sadly, he lost his battle with cancer about a year after laying down these tracks.

--Mike Regenstreif

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (June 29-July 5)

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 (and around the world via the web for most of those years). Folk Roots/Folk Branches continued for some time as occasional features on CKUT, and is now a blog. Here’s the 44th 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.

June 30, 1994: Show theme- All Canadian music.
June 29, 1995: Show theme- All Canadian music.
July 3, 1997: Guest- Guy Davis.
July 2, 1998: Guest- Chris Smither.
July 1, 1999: Show theme- All Canadian music.
July 4, 2002: Guest- David Amram.
July 3, 2003: Guests- Jay McShann and Duke Robillard.
July 1, 2004: Show theme- All Canadian music.
June 30, 2005: Guests- Eric Bibb and Michael Jerome Browne.
June 29, 2006: Guest- David Clayton-Thomas.
July 5, 2007: Guests- Chris Jagger; Eleni Mandell.

Pictured (top): Michael Jerome Browne, Mike Regenstreif and Eric Bibb at CKUT during Folk Roots/Folk Branches on June 30, 2005.

Pictured (lower): Mike Regenstreif and David Clayton-Thomas at CKUT during Folk Roots/Folk Branches on June 29, 2006.

--Mike Regenstreif

Friday, June 25, 2010

Oliver Schroer -- Freedom Row

Freedom Row

The late Oliver Schroer (1956-2008) was a great Canadian violinist/fiddler, composer, record producer, accompanist, and music teacher whose music – rooted in classical, folk, jazz and many strains of world music – seemed to know no boundaries. He remained vital and creative even through the final year and days of his life as he battled and finally succumbed, with great dignity, to a particularly virulent form of leukemia.

Oli recorded some of the basic tracks for Freedom Row about 10 years before he died and, for whatever reasons, set the album aside working on it sporadically over the years and then intensively, even from his hospital bed, in his final months as he battled leukemia. While Hymns and Hers, another album that Oli worked on during the battle was quiet and spiritual, Freedom Row is an album of joyous, lively tunes that reflect his positive, optimistic outlook on life.

There is a wonderful blending of musical genres, styles and feelings in some of these tunes. “Paddy in Timbuktu” mixes Irish and West African influences, “Jora Dance” reflects the joy found in many of the world’s folk dancing traditions, while “Don Victor’s Parade,” reminds me of New Orleans Mardi Gras music (despite being inspired by a musician Oli met on a Mexican island).

Other favourites here include “All the Little Children in the World,” a fiddle tune with a sing-along chorus, “Dancing on the Waves,” which has the feel of a Cajun waltz, and the funky, percussive “Barking Spiders.”

The core musicians of the Stewed Tomatoes who appear on most tracks include bassist David Woodhead, drummer Rich Greenspoon, percussionist Ben Grossman and guitarist Rich Pell. All kinds of other great players (and singers) make cameo appearances on various tunes.

In his liner notes to the tune, “Fiddle with a Broken Wing,” Oli said “this tune had a limping quality that reminded me of a bird with a broken wing, still trying to take flight somehow.” Although the tune may have been composed many years before his illness, to me, it’s a metaphor for the determination he showed to always remain a vital and creative force. Oliver Schroer lives on in the music he left for us.

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Merle Haggard -- I Am What I Am

I Am What I Am

I’ve always felt that Merle Haggard is one of the all-time great and definitive artists in country music. Real country music that is – not the homogenized, kinda-twangy, committee-written, focus group-approved stuff that Nashville major labels and country radio have specialized in for years, if not decades.

Without major label constraints and hit single pressure, Haggard – like such peers as Willie Nelson (most of the time) and the late Johnny Cash – is free to be who he is as an authentic, roots-oriented, jazz-inflected country singer and songwriter. “I am what I am” he tells us in the title track to this album, the latest in a string of several fine albums he’s released over the past 10 years or so, and that’s just fine with me. He-what-he-is retains the authenticity that I want to hear in a singer and songwriter.

Among my favourites of these 12 songs are “Oil Tanker Train,” a sweet, childhood reminiscence about a train – carrying a cargo of oil – that would pass by his childhood home, “Live and Love Always,” a nifty, western swing and Dixieland duet with wife Theresa Haggard, and “Mexican Bands,” his gringo’s tribute to Mexican music (and food).

Haggard receives able back-up throughout from the Strangers, his longtime band, which is supplemented judiciously by just a few other musicians. The arrangements remain faithful to his classic sound.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mary Chapin Carpenter -- The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles

Mike Boone of the Montreal Gazette devoted his radio and television column on February 1, 1995 to an interview with me on the occasion of the first anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches and Mary Chapin Carpenter was one of the artists mentioned as having been spotlighted on the show. It raised an eyebrow that one of the most popular country-pop artists of the day would be part of a folk music radio show and I needed to clarify during the interview that the spotlight was not built around her hits you might hear on pop radio, but around her insightful, thought-provoking, melodic songs that communicated so much to devotees – like me – of such songs.

Skip forward 15 years and all of the songs on Carpenter’s new album, The Age of Miracles, are the kind that would have been played on the show. Most of the songs form an intimate conversation between Carpenter and the listener. It is, perhaps, her finest album ever.

Three years ago, Carpenter suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and her brush with death seems to be reflected in several of these songs. “I found myself between two lifetimes/A sunset and a dawn/I reached out and took the lifeline/Offered up between here and gone,” she sings in “Holding Up the Sky.” Later in the album, in “Iceland,” she advises us to “just be glad to be alive.”

I’ve always admired songwriters who can step outside of themselves and write poignantly as if they were someone else. Carpenter does that brilliantly on two songs. In “June 1989,” she sings from the perspective of someone who’d been a 17-year-old Chinese soldier “obeying orders” during the Tiananmen Square massacre. While there is no judgment that is overtly cast in the song, Carpenter’s protagonist is someone obviously haunted and devastated be their experience. And Carpenter writes and sings the quietly compelling “Mrs. Hemingway” from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, as an older woman looking back at her life in Paris with Hemingway. (Hadley and Hemingway were married in 1921 and divorced in 1927. She died at 87 in 1979).

Near the end of the album, in the title song, Carpenter contrasts a world filled with natural and man-made disasters and terrible injustices and the same world filled with seemingly natural and man-made miracles – our world in an “age of miracles.”

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (June 22-June 28)

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 (and around the world via the web for most of those years). Folk Roots/Folk Branches continued for some time as occasional features on CKUT, and is now a blog. Here’s the 43rd 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.

June 23, 1994: Extended feature- Bill Morrissey.
June 27, 1996: Show theme- All Canadian music.
June 26, 1997: Show theme- Songs of Stan Rogers.
June 22, 2000: Guest- Connie Kaldor.
June 24, 2004: Extended feature- Tribute to the late Estelle Klein.
June 23, 2005: Guest- Connie Kaldor.
June 28, 2007: Guest- Catherine Russell.

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

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Christine Lavin -- Cold Pizza for Breakfast: A Mem-wha??

Cold Pizza for Breakfast: A Mem-wha??
By Christine Lavin
Tell Me Press
416 pages

Back in the 1970s, I used to pass through Saratoga Springs a lot. It’s about half way between Montreal and New York City so sometimes I’d stop on my way to or from New York. As the locale of the Caffé Lena, then, as now, the longest continually-running folk music coffee house on the planet, it was a place I was drawn to as a destination in its own right. It was a great place for a young folkie to hang out and, as a college folk concert presenter and then coffee house director in Montreal, I occasionally did circuit deals with Lena Spencer – for whom the Caffé Lena was named – to present the same artists in Montreal just before or after they were in Saratoga.

Sometime in the mid-‘70s, Lena pointed out a young woman waitressing at the Caffé to me.

“Her name is Christine Lavin,” said Lena. “Remember her name. She’s a songwriter and she’s very good.”

Lena, of course, was right. Within a few years, Christine was living in New York City and establishing herself as a major league singer-songwriter and gifted performing and recording artist. Her albums were a staple of Folk Roots/Folk Branches for the entire run of almost 14 years that I did the radio show.

Anyone who’s been to a Christine Lavin concert over the years will also tell you that she’s an outstanding – and, often, brilliantly funny – storyteller. She puts those talents to fine use in her autobiography, Cold Pizza for Breakfast: A Mem-wha?? (Is it a sign that you’re getting old when people around your age are publishing autobiographies?)

With great skill, Christine tells the major story of her life – from growing up as one of many Lavin siblings, to her leaving home and finding her way to the career she loves (as do we), and to the ups and downs of her life in New York and on tour – while frequently inserting various anecdotes and occasionally floating off on interesting tangents. And she doesn’t whitewash anything for P.R. purposes. There are tales of bad relationships and bad business dealings – and even some bad gigs, like the time she opened for Joan Rivers before a hostile audience of old folks in Florida.

Some of my favourite stories in the book are about her encounters with influential artists including a great one about briefly hopping on to Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue caravan with Lena. Christine actually taught Dylan a new verse to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” that she’d heard Pete Seeger sing.

A story that brought back memories for me was about a January 1976 Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels concert in Saratoga and about the landmark church fire in Saratoga that happened in the middle of the night after the concert. I was there that night having driven Utah and Rosalie around on that short tour which, by the way, culminated with a concert that I produced in Montreal. (This was the tour that Utah announced he was running for president of the United States on the Sloth & Indolence ticket.)

There are also some stories about our mutual friend, Dave Van Ronk.

Christine, like so many others, was mentored by Dave and tells of how she actually first moved to New York City because Dave offered to give her guitar lessons.

And there are great, often hilarious, sections about Christine’s severe addiction to Dame Edna, how she became the first (and only) folksinger to integrate baton twirling into her stage act, and about starting up knitting circles with audience members as a pre-concert ritual.

Virtually from the time she first had any success in the music business, Christine has been one of the most generous of artists in terms of other performers. There are legions of performers who’ve benefitted from Christine’s singing their praises over the years – from peers like various members of the Four Bitchin’ Babes to legendary songwriters like Ervin Drake – and many of them get further exposure in Christine’s mem-wha.

Christine’s natural gift as a storyteller kept me in my seat turning the pages until, too quickly it seems, I’d read the last page.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (June 15-June 21)

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 (and around the world via the web for most of those years). Folk Roots/Folk Branches continued for some time as occasional features on CKUT, and is now a blog. Here’s the 42nd 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.

June 16, 1994: Extended feature- Rosalie Sorrels.
June 15, 1995: Guests- Dave Clarke & Ellen Shizgal of Steel Rail.
June 20, 1996: Extended feature- Tamarack.
June 19, 1997: Guest- Laura Smith.
June 17, 1999: Guest- Jesse Winchester.
June 21, 2001: Guests- Alan Bern of Brave Old World; Judy Frankel.
June 19, 2003: Guests- Solon & Jeremiah McDade of the McDades.
June 17, 2004: Extended feature- Tribute to the late Ray Charles.
June 15, 2006: Guests- Les Tireux d’Roches.
June 21, 2007: Guest- Clay Eals.

Pictured: Jesse Winchester and Mike Regenstreif at the 2000 Champlain Valley Folk Festival.

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Festival Folk sur le canal June 19-20

Festival Folk sur le canal is back for year number three on the St. Ambroise Terrace, on the Lachine Canal, behind the McCauslin Brewery at 5080 St. Ambroise Street. For the first time, it’ll be a two-day fest on Saturday and Sunday June 19 and 20.

The festival has an impressive line-up this year that includes some of the best and most interesting artists from the Montreal roots scene including Lake of Stew, Katie Moore, Notre Dame de Grass, the Kitchen Shakers, Dave Gossage, and the What 4, a group that includes Jane McGarrigle.

Among the out-of-towners I’m looking forward to hearing are Old Man Luedecke, Jenny Whiteley, Kathleen Edwards, Jon Brooks and Anaïs Mitchell (who was part of a songwriters’ workshop I hosted a few years ago at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Vermont).

And like any good festival, there are some performers – including Peter Katz and Craig Cardiff – who are new to me that I’m looking forward to hearing for the first time.

I’m very happy to see that this year’s edition of the festival will include several workshop sessions. Coming from the Mariposa of the ‘70s generation, I’ve always felt that workshops are the heart and soul of folk festivals. They’re also promising some great music and other activities for kids.

And I’ll be back for my third year as one of the MCs. Look for me from mid-late Sunday afternoon.

The festival has grown nicely over its three years. Congratulations to Matt Large and Rebecca Anderson of Hello Darlin’ Productions and Carl Comeau of Hyperbole Music for for a great job of putting it together and making it happen.

Lots more info at montrealfolkfest.com.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Socalled Movie profiles artist taking Jewish music in new directions

(This review is from the June 14 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)
As a teenager growing up in Ottawa and Chelsea in the 1990s, Josh Dolgin got into hip hop and rapping and adopted ‘Heavy J’ as his rap name. It was, it seems, somewhat of a misnomer. He wasn’t a person of excessive poundage and, apparently, his music in those days was not something you’d describe as “heavy.” In response, a fellow rapper took to calling him ‘Socalled Heavy J.’

The original ‘Heavy J’ eventually fell away and ‘Socalled’ he’s remained.

By the late-‘90s, Socalled had begun mixing klezmer and other forms of Jewish music with the beats and samples techniques of contemporary urban hip hop to create a unique, compelling and utterly original fusion. While generally remaining respectful of the traditions of Jewish music, he’s taken it in directions it’s never gone before.

Several years ago, Socalled, now based in Montreal, caught the attention of documentary film director Garry Beitel, whose works include Chez Schwartz, about the legendary Montreal smoked meat joint, Bonjour! Shalom! – which explores the relationships and tensions between the Chassidic and French Canadian communities in the Montreal area of Outremont – and Endnotes, about a palliative care unit. Over a couple of years, Beitel and his crew sporadically followed Socalled at home, on tour in Europe and the U.S., and on a klezmer cruise organized by the Dolgin family in 2007 along the Dnieper River in Eastern Europe. The result is The Socalled Movie, a documentary that explores Socalled, his creative process, and his seemingly disparate collaborations in a series of 18 vignettes.

The most joyous parts of the film are the frequently infectious performance sequences. Whether Socalled is leading his own band, which includes bluegrass and folk singer Katie Moore, and occasionally musicians like Matt Darriau of the Klezmatics, or participating in a unique collaboration like his musical summit with legendary funk trombonist Fred Wesley and klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, one can’t helped but be caught up in the music.

The film also reveals Socalled – like many creative people – to be conflicted and, sometimes, contradictory. In one interview segment he says that his fascination with Jewish music comes from his respect for Jewish culture despite the fact that he has nothing but contempt for religious beliefs and traditions. But, in another segment, he looks at an old siddur seemingly with reverence for what it represents. He dismisses Holocaust-education trips like March of the Living, but is deeply affected on the klezmer cruise when he visits the site of a Jewish massacre during the Holocaust. Socalled also talks openly about being gay – and even celebrates his sexuality with a concert at a Montreal porno palace that was a Yiddish theatre back in the 1930s and ‘40s – but will not reveal the identity of his partner or the nature of their relationship.

One thing about Socalled that I found particularly interesting is that while his main form of musical expression is hip hop, a genre that is often, and perhaps unfairly, seen as rejecting of older genres of music, and the musicians that made it, he seeks out older musical heroes to work with. In addition to Wesley, who was playing with soul legend James Brown long before Socalled was born, we see Socalled in poignant scenes with Irving Fields, a Jewish lounge musician now in his 90s, and Arkady Gendler, an older singer of traditional Yiddish songs who was a guide on the klezmer cruise down the Dnieper. At the same time, he’s also collaborating with contemporary hip hoppers like C-Rays Walz and D-Shade, and composing a solo piece for classical cellist Matt Haimovitz.

The Socalled Movie is a fascinating look at an artist who I suspect will continue to develop in interesting ways in years to come.

The Socalled Movie, co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada and reFrame Films, will be screened in Ottawa at the Mayfair Theatre, 1074 Bank Street, on June 18, 21 and 23 at 9:30 pm.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (June 8-June 14)

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 (and around the world via the web for most of those years). Folk Roots/Folk Branches continued for some time as occasional features on CKUT, and is now a blog. Here’s the 41st 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.

June 9, 1994: Extended feature- Pete Seeger; Guest- Raylene Rankin (Rankin Family).
June 8, 1995: Extended feature- Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen.
June 13, 1996: Extended feature- Songs of Bruce Cockburn.
June 12, 1997: Show Theme- Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt.
June 11, 1998: Guest- Fred Eaglesmith.
June 14, 2007: Guest- Joe Boyd.
June 12, 2008 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): Remembering Stan Rogers.
June 11, 2009 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): Songs of Steve Gillette.

Pictured: Mike Regenstreif and Steve Gillette at the 1994 Champlain Valley Folk Festival.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (June 1-June 7)

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 (and around the world via the web for most of those years). Folk Roots/Folk Branches continued for some time as occasional features on CKUT, and is now a blog. Here’s the 40th 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.

June 2, 1994: Show theme- Remembering the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran from 1974-1976 and 1981-1987, 20 years after I first took over.
June 1, 1995: Show theme- The legacy of Lead Belly.
June 6, 1996: Extended feature- Songs of Jesse Winchester.
June 4, 1998: Guest- David Amram.
June 3, 1999: Guest- Dar Williams.
June 7, 2001: Extended feature- A tribute to the late John Hartford.
June 6, 2002: Extended feature- Songs of Wade Hemsworth.
June 5, 2003: Guest- Brendan Nolan.
June 2, 2005: Guest- Seán Tyrrell.
June 1, 2006: Guest- Penny Lang.
June 5, 2008 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): A tribute to the late Bruce “Utah” Phillips.

Pictured: Utah Phillips and Mike Regenstreif at the 2005 Champlain Valley Folk Festival.

--Mike Regenstreif