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

(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

Across the Plains
Little Miss Higgins

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

No Better Than This

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

Monday, September 13, 2010

David Francey to launch 2010-2011 Wintergreen Concert Series

Matt Large and Rebecca Anderson of Hello Darlin’ Productions have announced the line-up for the 2010-2011 for the monthly Wintergreen Concert Series. While I’m not yet familiar with Del Barber, who plays March 26, and who I hope to hear at the OCFF conference in Ottawa in October, all of the other concerts feature artists I have no qualms about highly recommending. I’ll have more to say about some of the individual concerts as the dates get closer.

The opening concert in the series – Saturday, September 25, 8:00 pm, at Petit Campus – will feature the sublime singer-songwriter David Francey. For tickets, series subscriptions or information, call Hello Darlin’ at 514-524-9225.

Below is a feature-length article I wrote about David for the Fall 2005 issue of Sing Out! Magazine.

--Mike Regenstreif

Photo: Denise Grant
David Francey: A Working Man’s Poetry

By Mike Regenstreif

Ayer's Cliff is a small village in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec that's about a 90 minute drive from Montreal where I live. About 10 years ago, I began to hear about a carpenter in Ayer's Cliff who was writing great songs. Evey Miller, a Montreal folkie who grew up in the Townships and spends a lot of time there, was the first person who told me about him. "You've got to hear David Francey," I remember her saying, "he doesn't even play guitar, but his songs are exceptional."

Over the next couple of years, I heard more glowing reports about David. Bill Garrett, a partner in Borealis Records and a fine performer himself, talked about him. So did Dave Clarke, a guitarist and songwriter in the Montreal band Steel Rail. Soon Dave started working out guitar arrangements to David's songs and they began working on a demo that would eventually evolve into a full length album, Torn Screen Door.

At some point in the recording process for that first album, Beth Girdler, David's wife, sent me a CD-R with a few of the songs that David and Dave were working on. Listening to the songs on that CD-R, with their timeless melodies and narrative lyrics rich in vivid imagery, it was immediately obvious to me that David Francey was going to emerge as a very significant singer-songwriter on the folk music scene.

David released Torn Screen Door on his own label, Laker Music, in 1999. Slowly, but surely, the CD picked up a lot of buzz on the folk circuit. With the buzz, David began performing, usually with Dave Clarke or Geoff Somers backing him up, at folk festivals and small clubs across Canada and the U.S. Audiences warmed quickly to his plain spoken, no-hype approach on stage, to his warm voice, and, of course, to his songs. At the age of 45, a career in folk music was launched.

In 2001, David released his second album, Far End of Summer, an even stronger, more confident set of songs, co-produced by David, Dave Clarke and Geoff Somers for David's own label and featuring arrangements built around David Francey's voice, Dave Clarke's shimmering guitar playing and Geoff''s contributions on fiddle, banjo and guitar. This time, the buzz was immediate and in April of 2002, David found himself in St. John's, Newfoundland at the Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys, accepting the Juno for Best Roots and Traditional Album by a solo artist.

In 2003, David, Dave and Geoff co-produced Skating Rink, a third album of David's songs for Laker Music and it too garnered the Juno Award for Best Roots and Traditional Album by a solo artist. To record his fourth CD, David journeyed to Nashville and collaborated with Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin of the Dead Reckoning collective of musicians and songwriters. Titled The Waking Hour, it was released late in 2004 in Canada by Jericho Beach Records and in February 2005 in the U.S. by Red House.

In his songs, David writes and sings about many things. Some songs, like "Border Line," in which he recalls his days driving a truck on overnight hauls between Canada and the U.S., bring back scenes from his working life. Scenes from small town life are captured in songs like "Far End of Summer," while in "Grim Cathedral," he reflects on the events of September 11, 2001 that he watched unfold on television. Many of David's most beautiful compositions are the love songs like "Come Rain or Come Shine" that are invariably inspired by his relationship with Beth.

With the recent release of The Waking Hour, it seemed like a good time to speak with David about his life, his unique and singular approach to songwriting and his late-blooming career as a performing singer-songwriter.

"I was born in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire in Scotland in 1954 and we emigrated to Canada when I was a boy. We moved to Cornwall [a small mill town in Eastern Ontario on the banks of the St. Lawrence River] in 1958, but went back to Scotland in 1963. Then, in 1968, we came back to Canada."

David has lived in Canada ever since, but still retains his distinctive, and quite charming, Scottish accent that you can hear in both his speaking and singing voices.

David's love of poetry and song has been with him since childhood. On outings, the Francey family would sing Robert Burns material and other old Scottish folk songs in the car.

"My dad had a great love of poetry. He was a terrific Burns man, and he instilled that in me. He had memorized umpteen of the songs and poems. In our house, it was a creditable thing to be a poet, so the poetry and the poet had worth. In lots of places, poetry is kind of shoved down your throat, so I was lucky to have had it explained early on that it's a worthwhile thing."

Over the years, David has moved around a bit.

"Cornwall was the first place in Canada that we lived. I've lived in Toronto, Peterborough, and Ayer's Cliff. Now we're living in Elphin, Ontario," a small village near Ottawa.

As a young man, David hitchhiked around the country several times, spending various periods of time working in a bunch of other places, as far north as the Yukon,

The roots of David's emergence as a songwriter are in a move that he made from Toronto to Ayer's Cliff after meeting Beth.

"I was working as a high rise laborer in Toronto. My first marriage had just gone under and it was a hard go. I had an opportunity to do some general carpentry and house building with Ian MacGregor in the Eastern Townships. I've known Ian since the Yukon, way back, so it was a good chance to get out of Toronto at a time when I needed to make a move. Ayer's Cliff was a great place to move to, and I was working with a really great bunch of guys."

He and Beth were married soon after the move.

For a long time, David had been writing songs just for himself or for family and friends, but "had no plans to do anything with them at all. Then, one day in the early 1990s, after we'd moved to the Townships, Beth and I were playing volleyball with this group of people and a couple of them were musicians. Beth said to them, 'David writes songs,' and they invited me to come to their practice on Tuesday night. So I went, sang my songs a cappella. They liked them, so I started singing them for other people. That was the first exposure the songs had, but they were really warmly received right away."

When David saw that other people were appreciating his songs he decided to put on a show.

"Ian MacGregor, the guy I was working construction for, had bought the Cliff House Hotel in Ayer's Cliff, so there was a venue to play."

David formed the band Sumach Street with Townships musicians Perry Beaton and Michelle Bourque and Sergio Abru, a Brazilian guitarist who was then living in the area.

"We practiced every week and did the show at the Cliff House. We packed the place to the rafters, the songs went well and we had a great night. The band lasted just for that show but we had a terrific time doing it."

While Sumach Street didn't last beyond that one gig, the response that he received as a performer and the appreciation that people were expressing for his songs encouraged him to keep working at his music.

"I kept working construction, and I kept writing. I had some good fortune after Sumach Street broke up when I ran into another band called Blue Moon with Ron Phendler, Dave and Elaine Vachon and Del Springate and I started playing with them for a little bit."

David and Blue Moon played at Townshippers Day, an annual celebration of the English-speaking community in the Eastern Townships.

"Someone from the CBC heard us at Townshippers Day and asked if we wanted to go on Art Talks, a province-wide radio broadcast with Shelly Pomerance. We did the radio show and had a terrific time. I really enjoyed being on the radio. Afterward, the producer asked me if I had an album. When I said no, he asked if I wanted to make a demo and told me about a studio in Quebec City that would give me a good rate."

That's where Dave Clarke came into the picture.

"I'd met Dave and his band Steel Rail and I thought they were the be all and end all. I also thought Dave was a great guy, so I called and asked him if he wanted to go up to Quebec City and make this demo. We ended up doing a whole album ... that was Torn Screen Door. I was working in the Townships, Dave was working in Montreal and the studio was in Quebec City, so it took us about two years to finish between the scheduling and everything."

After Torn Screen Door was released (in the fall of 1999), David started to get some gigs beyond his home, usually working with Geoff Somers, a guitarist and fiddler from Toronto.

"Geoff had heard the first album and knew it off by heart. We did some gigs including a couple of festivals: the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Wye Marsh Festival in Ontario that summer."

With the album out, and David starting to make his presence felt on the folk music scene, word started to spread about the singing carpenter from the Eastern Townships. Some of his biggest fans were other songwriters. Jesse Winchester, who was also then living in the Townships, told me how impressed he was with David and his songs. James Keelaghan recorded a version of "Red-Winged Blackbird" from Torn Screen Door, becoming one of the first artists to cover a David Francey song.

"David Francey," Keelaghan said at the time "is the best Canadian folk writer that I have heard in 20 years. Quite simply, almost every song I've heard so far I wished I'd written. I think that he is going to be a voice in this country for a long time and that his songs will be sung by my great, great, great grandchildren."

Kieran Kane, with whom David would eventually collaborate on a recording project, heard David at that first Winnipeg Folk Festival appearance.

"I sat on a workshop stage, and a scruffy man in shorts and work boots stood up to take his turn. What I heard were words of eloquence, beauty and charm, hung on a jewel of a voice," recalls Kane.

Despite the acclaim, making music for a living was still far from David's mind.

"I was still working full-time at construction. I was lucky because I could get a Monday off when I needed it. I was hammering nails, or doing whatever we were doing, roofing, renovating or whatever, and then on the weekend I'd fly off to a festival. Monday or Tuesday morning I'd be back at it hammering nails again."

David gives his co-workers on the construction jobs a lot of credit for his being able to get his music career going.

"The boys were great, they'd give me the big star treatment, just for fun, but they were so supportive it was ridiculous. I couldn't have done any of it without them, because when I wasn't there on a Monday, they were there covering for me. Without their help it would have been immensely difficult."

With all of the positive response to Torn Screen Door, David continued doing as many gigs as he could while continuing to work in construction and carpentry. He also recorded a second album, collaborating again with Dave Clarke, and adding Geoff Somers to the mix.

The second album, Far End of Summer, was released in time for the 2001 festivals. By now, David was getting more gigs and was spending time away from the construction sites. Depending on their individual schedules, either Dave Clarke or Geoff Somers would provide beautifully crafted accompaniments to David's singing. Occasionally, the three would work together as a trio. David and his songs were the talk of the folk circuit in Canada, and, increasingly, south of the border as well.

In April of 2002, Far End of Summer was recognized with a Juno. On the journey home from the eastern far end of Canada in St. John's, Newfoundland (where the awards ceremony was held that year), David and Beth talked about the future.

"I'm very cautious, but what really sold me on the possibility of an actual career as a performing songwriter was the success the first album was getting across the country on its own. Because of the sporadic nature of construction work, you're not working half the winter so it's always been tight to the bone. I just looked at Beth on the drive home from Newfoundland after we'd won the thing and said, 'You know, maybe it's time we went full time with this, how much worse can it be?' We decided to put all our effort into the music instead of just trying to scrape by on both things."

So, in 2002, at the age of 48, David Francey became a full-time singer-songwriter.

"It was just as tough in the beginning as it was when I had a construction job. They're both seasonal jobs and there wasn't that much difference economically. But it was much easier on my body than doing construction work. After we got up and running, we were doing okay."

With the decision to go full-time, David (and Dave) began doing longer tours. Instead of going out for a weekend gig, they were gone for three or four weeks at a time bringing David's songs to audiences all across Canada, from big cities to small towns, and more and more, in the United States and in Europe. Between tours, they recorded a third album, Skating Rink, released in the spring of 2003. And just a year later, David was back at the Juno Awards, again winning the trophy for best roots and traditional album by a solo artist.

David has a unique approach to writing songs. As someone who doesn't really play guitar or piano, he makes the tunes up in his head as he writes the lyrics.

"I was in high school when I started writing songs. They were awful, I guess. I was writing poetry even before I got to high school and they turned into songs around the time that Neil Young's After the Gold Rush came out. I was listening to a lot of singer-songwriters at the time. The songs always come the same way, with the melody and the lyric at the same time. So they've all evolved out of the poetry, I guess. I'd make up the tune and the lyric and I'd just keep them in my head, just locked there like glue until I'd write them down in a journal. Then, if I looked at the page, I could sing the song for you."

While some of David's songs have been written quickly, sometimes a song will get started, be put aside, and finished later.

"I've got so many started and they all take their own time to get finished. I'll be walking down the road and a little snippet of a song will pop into my head. Maybe I'll finish the song that day, maybe it'll be years after I first wrote the snippet. I never know, exactly, when they're going to come out."

I asked David if working with the excellent musicians he's collaborated with in recent years has had an effect on his songwriting.

"In the arrangements, certainly, but I'm very singular in the writing. I don't share that at all. I don't even know how. I don't take anybody else's ideas into consideration, and I don't ask for them. I feel very isolated when I'm writing, and that's a good place for me to be. I'm not a big believer in forcing anything, I don't know that I could go out and force myself to write, to look for the bolt of lightning to strike."

As for the arrangements, "I hear in my head what has to happen with the music and working with brilliant musicians like Dave Clarke I usually just sit down and sing them the song and the chords just come out. The only time I balk is if I hear a chord that seems like it's wandering away from the melody, I'm kind of a slave to the melody, but I've had good luck that way with people that I've played with."

With David's working class family background, and the fact that he'd written songs about his own long history as a working man, I wondered if he felt his work was connected to the traditions of working class poetry and songs.

"I think so. If you look at Burns's work, he was a ploughman and wrote about things going on around him. He was an excise man and he wrote about that as well. He went and did all these normal jobs, what you'd consider working class jobs, and he wrote about them. And I've been doing all these jobs like construction and carpentry as long as I've been writing seriously. I'm just trying to chronicle what's going on in my life, so given the fact that I was doing that kind of manual labor I think you'd have to correlate my work to the traditions."

David went to Nashville to record The Waking Hour with Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin.

"I'd met Kieran and Kevin years ago at Winnipeg Folk Festival, and they wanted to record then, but I said no. I told them I've got a couple that I want to do in Canada first and after that I'll give you a shout. We kept in touch and I gave them a shout after Skating Rink and said 'I'm ready to record, boys.' Anyway, I went down to Nashville and we rented a little studio there and recorded live off the floor. Those boys have this innate kind of rhythm or groove that they throw into the music and I was really hoping to come out with that kind of feel. We just played the songs until we got a good take and then moved to the next song. It evolved very easily, very naturally."

I told David that when I heard he was going to go to Nashville to make a record, I was worried that he'd be doing something more slickly produced than his earlier releases, and that on hearing The Waking Hour, I was happy to hear how consistent the feel was with his first three albums.

"I like the recording format that we've always taken. Right from the very first album, I've thought that less is more. That was a struggle on the first album because people bring to it what they think is going to be good for you. Fair enough, there's nothing wrong with that. But for myself, I was happier with less. 'Less, less, less,' became the mantra. I don't think everybody agreed with that, but I think the end result was really good. I think it was the right way to go so I've kept that format."

I also wondered if by spending time in Nashville and working with artists like Kane and Welch who have been part of that scene for a long time, he felt at all pressured to take up co-writing with other songwriters as a commercial pursuit.

"We did sit down and co-write one song. It was late at night and we'd done all the work we were going to do and I was leaving the next day. So I said 'Let's write a song the way you would do it here, just so I can see what it's all about.' So we sat up until three o'clock in the morning writing a tune, and it was just a fabricated tune. Kieran said 'What do you want to write about?' I told him the Cumberland River runs through Nashville and I like the name and everything so we created a story and wrote around it. It was an interesting exercise, but it's far, far removed from how I write and it wasn't very fulfilling for me as a songwriter."

For now, David is out on the road singing his songs to appreciative audiences. Despite an increasingly busy schedule and critical acclaim, David continues to build his audience one gig at a time on the folk music circuit playing in all kinds of settings, from small house concerts and clubs to big halls and festivals. And with Dave Clarke busy with Steel Rail, his solo career and other projects, David is currently working with Ottawa guitarist Shane Simpson and occasionally with Terry Tufts.

After releasing four albums in just six years, David is planning to take a bit more time before doing his next one.

"I wouldn't have put The Waking Hour out so soon after the last one, but Jericho Beach really wanted to get it out. I would have been happy to wait another year. So, the next one won't be out until 2007. I have some ideas about where I want to go with it but I want to think about them some more before I get down to it. It'll be well into next year before I even start to think about it. I've got tons of songs written, so coming up with the material is not a problem."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Irwin Silber 1925-2010

Irwin Silber, the first editor of Sing Out!, the preeminent folk music journal since 1950, passed away on Wednesday from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Irwin ran Sing Out! for its first 17 years, a time that included the folk boom – what Utah Phillips liked to call “the great folk scare” – of the late-1950s and early-‘60s.

It was 1970 or ’71 when I began subscribing to Sing Out! – and it was sometime in the ‘80s that I became a regular contributor to its pages – so Irwin’s tenure was before my time. But, as a student of the folk music revival, I am well aware of his legacy with the magazine (in the '70s I had the opportunity to go back and read every issue of its early decades from cover to cover) and in such other endeavors as People’s Songs, Oak Publications and Paredon Records.

All of us who have practiced folk music journalism over the past 60 years are somehow rooted in Irwin's pioneering work.

I never met Irwin in person, although we did exchange e-mails on several occasions when I turned to him as a source for research I was doing. He was gracious and helpful whenever I had a question for him. He was particularly helpful when I wanted to find out about John Gates (born Solomon Regenstreif), the long-time editor of the Daily Worker and political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

I send my condolences to Irwin's wife, Barbara Dane, and the rest of his family and friends.

The New York Times obituary on Irwin can be read here.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Richard Thompson -- Dream Attic

Dream Attic
Shout! Factory

In a long career that began with Fairport Convention, the seminal British folk-rock band he founded in the 1960s, which continued in a duo format with then-wife Linda Thompson in the ‘70s, and as a solo artist/band leader since, Richard Thompson has earned a well-deserved reputation for both his commanding guitar work and his sometimes-astounding songwriting.

In live concert settings, I’ve seen him play several times as an acoustic solo artist and several times with a band playing electric guitar. By and large, I’ve preferred the solo acoustic shows and the live recordings of his that I’ve gone back to have been the solo ones. I’d rather hear him shine the attention on the songs than impress me with his guitar technique – although even in the solo context his playing can still amaze.

Dream Attic, Thompson’s brand new album, is a live album of all-new material, recorded with a great band, in which he does astound with the guitar playing, but in which the songwriting shines through as if it were an acoustic set.

There’s obvious anger and heavy doses of sarcasm in the lines to some of these songs. The CD opens with “The Money Shuffle,” which rocks hard and skewers the bankers and stock brokers whose greedy practices brought financial ruin to so many people. In “Here Comes Geordie,” which has a lilting English folk-rock arrangement, he drips sarcasm all over a self-righteous target who sure seems to resemble, if not be, the artist who grew up as Gordon Sumner.

“Crimescene,” is a harrowing song which seems to portray the aftermath of an explosion, perhaps a terrorist attack, while “Sidney Wells” is a long ballad about a serial killer with instrumental fills that seem driven by the character’s violence.

The album’s saddest song is “A Brother Slips Away,” a memorial that recalls a couple of friends from much younger days who have passed on.

Most of the songs on Dream Attic are relatively long – most are in the five-plus minute range and a couple approach eight minutes. This gives Thompson on guitar, multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn and Montreal violinist Joel Zifkin – a high school friend of mine – lots of room to solo and add musical colour. Drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk are a solid rhythm section and give the others all the support they need.

--Mike Regenstreif