Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Top 10 for 2010

Here are my picks for the Top 10 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2010. I started with the list of 408 albums that landed on my desk and over the past year and narrowed it down to a short list of about 35 worthy contenders. I’ve been over the list four times over the past week and have come up with four similar, but not identical, Top 10 lists. I decided today’s list will be the final one. The order might have been different, and there are half a dozen or so other albums that may have been included had one of the other days’ lists had been the final choice.

1. Natalie Merchant- Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch). A stunning two-CD set of 26 songs that Merchant set to music using the words of various 19thth and 20th century poets. The settings, using a large cast of revolving back-up musicians, variously range from Celtic to Klezmer, from Appalachian folk to blues and rock. Click here for my full-length review.

2. Tom Russell- Cowboy’d All to Hell (Frontera). The first eight songs on this under-the-radar release are re-mastered versions of Tom’s original songs from Cowboy Real (including duets with Ian Tyson on “Navajo Rug” and “Gallo del Cielo”), the first of his great cowboy song collections. The other nine songs are newly-recorded duo versions – with guitarist Thad Beckman – of eight cowboy songs originally recorded on other albums and one new song. These are vivid, cinematic portraits of the old and new west by a master singer-songwriter.

3. Bob Dylan- The Witmark Demos 1962-1964: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9 (Columbia/Legacy). These publishing demos, all solo performances recorded when Dylan was in his early-20s, and including Dylan’s versions of 15 songs he’s never officially released before, are well- worth listening to for clues to the development of the most essential of all 20th century songwriters.Click here for my full-length review.

4. Ron Hynes- Stealing Genius (Borealis). Ron calls the album Stealing Genius because most of the songs are inspired by specific works written by poets and novelists, mostly from Newfoundland along with one American. Stealing Genius represents the finest set of original songwriting to be released in Canada this year. Click here for my full-length review.

5. Mary Chapin Carpenter- The Age of Miracles (Zoë/Rounder). Most of these songs form an intimate conversation between Carpenter and the listener. It is, perhaps, her finest albums ever. Click here for my full-length review.

6. Eric Bibb- Booker’s Guitar (Telarc). Eric’s magnificent singing, his deft guitar work (along with Grant Dermody's equally great harmonica playing) and Eric's original songs can’t help but make anyone feel better about life. Click here for my full-length review.

7. The Once- The Once (Borealis). The Once, a trio from Newfoundland that plays a mixture of traditional material and first-rate contemporary songs is my choice for new discovery of the year. Their debut album includes some spine-tingling a cappella arrangements as well as some superb instrumental work. Click here for my full-length review.

8. Johnny Cash- American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American/Lost Highway). Recorded during the year before his 2003 passing, the final set in Cash’s series of essential “American” albums, these songs are an intimate, poignant farewell from a great artist. Click here for my full-length review.

9. Catherine Russell- Inside This Heart of Mine (World Village). On her third album, Catherine Russell’s relaxed and confident alto pulls listeners right into the mostly classic jazz and blues tunes anchored by inventive arrangements steeped in various shades and styles of blues, jazz, swing and folk music. Click here for my full-length review.

10. Various artists- Jug Band Extravaganza (Folk Era). An infectious live concert recording that features various combinations of Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, John Sebastian, David Grisman, Maria Muldaur and the Barbecue Orchestra on terrific solo, duo, trio and full group performances of jug band, blues, jazz and old-time country classics. See the new issue of Sing Out! magazine for my full-length review.

---Mike Regenstreif

Monday, December 13, 2010

Michael Wex -- The Frumkiss Family Business

My book review of The Frumkiss Family Business by Michael Wex from today's issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is now online at

--Mike Regenstreif

Adam Stotland -- Maagal

My review of Maagal by Adam Stotland for The Forward is now available on their Arty Semite  blog.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, December 6, 2010

Kate & Anna McGarrigle -- Oddities


It was always wonderful, over the years, to have new music from Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Now, less than a year after Kate’s untimely passing, it’s a particularly wonderful, albeit bittersweet, to have these new recordings to savour.

Well, not exactly new. Oddities is a collection of a dozen songs that Kate and Anna recorded for various projects, and in various circumstances, between 1973 and 1990 but never previously released, or never released in the versions included on this new CD. It’s a compilation that Anna says she and Kate had long talked about putting together but kept putting off for another year. Many of the tracks are alternate versions of songs that have been heard on other projects. And even if almost all the songs are familiar, they sound fresh and new in these previously unreleased versions.

Kate and Anna grew up singing Stephen Foster songs – “These were songs that my daddy taught me,” sang Kate in “The Work Song” – and Oddities begins with a set of four of Foster’s 19th century parlour songs.

The first two Foster songs, the sad lament, “Was My Brother in the Battle,” and the hopeful anthem, “Better Times are Coming,” both written in 1862, are alternate versions of songs recorded by Kate and Anna for Songs of the Civil War, a companion CD of songs to the Civil War documentary series that Ken Burns did for PBS about 20 years ago.

The third Foster song, “Gentle Annie,” written in 1856, was previously released by Kate and Anna in collaboration with Linda Ronstadt on The McGarrigle Hour. For as long as I knew her, which was close to 40 years, “Gentle Annie” was always one of my favourite songs to hear Kate sing. With apologies to Bob Dylan, who wrote “that nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” nobody could sing “Gentle Annie” like Kate McGarrigle. Utah Phillips, another old friend now gone, was inspired to write his song, “Nevada Jane” after hearing Kate sing “Gentle Annie.” Anna’s harmonies on the track are, of course, sublime.

“Ah May the Red Rose,” the final Foster song, dates from 1850 and is a short, sad, beautiful song sung by Anna (with Kate supplying the sublime harmonies) that laments death and mourning.

The Foster songs are followed by two of the late Wade Hemsworth classics including, finally on CD, a version of “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” a song that the McGarrigles began singing back in the 1960s when they were part of the Mountain City Four. The song, of course, is best known from John Weldon’s animated short film featuring a different arrangement of the song (Kate’s voice begins this rendition while Anna’s begins the version in John’s film). “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” is another song that’s been one of my favourite McGarrigle performance pieces going back to the first concerts I produced for them at the Golem in Montreal in 1974 and 1975.

The other of Wade’s songs is a choral arrangement of “My Mother is the Ocean Sea,” an other-worldly sounding song that Kate and Anna also sang on a CBC broadcast recording many years ago. They also include a version of “As Fast As My Feet,” co-written by Anna and Chaim Tannenbaum, which was also on that CBC recording. It’s a zippy, infectious number that, in an era where a hook, a great melody and catchy arrangement meant something, could have been a hit single.

There are a couple of French songs in the set beginning with a live version of the traditional “A La Claire Fontaine” that was recorded at one of the Pollack Hall concerts with Kate and Anna that I produced in 1976.

The other French song is a Cajun number, “Parlez-Nous À Boire,” adapted from the repertoire of Louisiana’s legendary Balfa Brothers. It’s one of the rockingest numbers Kate and Anna have done.

“Lullaby for a Doll,” written by Kate, is a lovely song about childhood innocence, a version of which was included on ‘Til Their Eyes Shine, a 1992 collection of lullabies by various artists.

“Louis the Cat,” written by Anna and Audrey Bean, is a lament for a lost cat and is a living room demo recorded in 1973. I can’t say that I have any memory of the song from back in the day, but it’s still nice to hear after all these years.

Oddities ends with a version of “You Tell Me That I’m Falling Down,” a song written by Anna and Carol Holland that Linda Ronstadt recorded in 1975. Listening to this highly-arranged version, I think this track was probably either an album demo or outtake that didn’t get used. I remember Anna and Kate singing it at the Golem in 1975, and occasionally over the years, and always hoped they’d put it on an album; finally, here it is for us.

Oddities takes its place in a discography in which almost every album Kate and Anna recorded must be regarded as an essential recording. These are songs to warm our hearts as we head into the cold winter months.

--Mike Regenstreif

Upcoming Montreal Concerts

Our friends at Hello Darlin’ Productions have a couple of notable concerts coming up soon in Montreal.

On Saturday, December 11, they have a double bill featuring Ken Whiteley and Lake of Stew.

Then on Monday, December 13, it’s the Wintergreen Concert Series Christmas concert with the Good Lovelies.

Both shows are at 8:00 pm at Petit Campus, 57 Prince Arthur East. For info or reservations, call 514-524-9225.

Here are links to my reviews of the latest albums by Ken Whiteley and Lake of Stew and the Christmas album by the Good Lovelies.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Grant Dermody -- Lay Down My Burden

Lay Down My Burden
Grant Dermody

I was quite impressed, in 2003, with the debut album by Grant Dermody, a Seattle-based singer and harmonica player. As I wrote in Sing Out! magazine, “Despite the diversity of the collaborations, the tastefulness of Dermody’s harp, his relaxed vocals and a good choice of material, make for a nicely cohesive album...I’m looking forward to hearing more of Dermody’s playing on future projects.”

Earlier this year, in a review of Eric Bibb’s great album, Booker’s Guitar, I said, “the only other musician is harmonica master Grant Dermody. Grant’s playing is always creative – I especially like his use of chromatic harmonica on “Flood Waters” – and complements Eric’s singing and playing beautifully. Eric and Grant’s playing together is some of the finest guitar-harmonica duo work since Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were in their prime.”

Lay Down My Burden, Grant’s second solo album, is also a fine effort in which he and various collaborators offer fine examples of various blues and gospel styles and also occasionally delve into old-timey country music.

The album opens with one of my favourite tracks on the CD, a sweet version of the Reverend Gary Davis spiritual, “I’ll Be Alright,” which kind of picks up where Grant and Eric left off on Booker’s Guitar, except that it’s Grant singing the lead vocal on the gentle, optimistic song along with Eric’s sublime fingerpicking and some equally sublime harmonica playing by Grant.

From there the album moves on through a series of other collaborations ranging from full band settings to unique combinations with one or two other musicians to several tracks in which Grant backs up older bluesmen John Dee Holeman, Louisiana Red and the late John Cephas.

A couple of the most interesting tracks are harmonica duets. “Rain Crow Bill,” sees Grant and Mark Graham trading harp licks and whoops in the tradition of Sonny Terry (in fact, I have a recording of “Rain Crow Bill” from the 1940s in which Sonny and Woody Guthrie are trading harp licks and whoops). On “Twelve Gates to the City,” the second harmonica is ably played by Joe Filisko.

A few of the other highlights include “David’s Cow,” a playful guitar-fiddle-harmonica hoedown; a sad version of Dirk Powell’s “Waterbound”; and a beautiful a cappella arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” in four-part harmony.

Most of the songs on this album – whether drawn from the traditional repertoire or from Grant’s own song bag – feel timeless.

--Mike Regenstreif