Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Diana Braithwaite & Chris Whiteley -- DeltaPhonic

Electro-Fi Records

The pairing of singer Diana Braithwaite with multi-instrumentalist and singer Chris Whiteley was almost certainly a match made in blues heaven. On DeltaPhonic, their third CD as a duo, Diana and Chris continue to create vital, contemporary blues mostly in the traditions of 1930s and ‘40s when the blues had migrated from the rural south to the urban north and acquired a sophisticated, jazzy hue. This time, though, some of the tunes begin to take on the harder edge of Chicago blues in the post-war years.

All but two of these songs – including one instrumental – were composed by Diana and Chris. Among my favourites is “Midnight Stroll,” a swinging, Basie-like tune that begins with Chris’s guitar trading licks with the horn section before Chris and Diana start trading lines in the verses. I particularly like both the horn arrangement – featuring Phil Skladowski on baritone sax, Jonathon Wong on tenor sax and Chris on trumpet – and the vocal interplay on this number.

Another is “Border Patrol Blues,” a slow, blues that begins with Chris on guitar in a musical conversation with his son, Jesse Whiteley, at the piano before Diana comes in with the vocals and her riding-on-the-train and crossing-the-border verses. Chris also offers a great harmonica solo on this track.

Along with their original material, Diana and Chris also offer up a fine version of Tampa Red’s blues standard, “It Hurts Me Too,” and a sublime version of the jazz ballad, “It Was a Sad Night in Harlem,” a song that Ivie Anderson sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra back in the 1930s. It’s a beautiful number to end the album with.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ottawa Folk Festival (and hangin' out with Ramblin' Jack Elliott)

It’s been two weeks, but I finally have a chance to make a couple of comments about the Ottawa Folk Festival (it’s been a very busy two weeks at work).

As I noted in my preview post earlier this month, this was a transitional year for the festival with a new artistic director, Dylan Griffith, and a new management team headed up by Ana Miura. Overall, I think, they did a very admirable job. Although some of the music was a departure from the standard folk festival fare, the festival managed to retain the all-important folk festival spirit – particularly during the daytime and most particularly during heavy rains that wiped much of Sunday’s programming (and most of Sunday’s crowd).

I quite liked Arrested Development, the hip hop group that headlined Friday night’s main stage concert. Their collaborative arrangements, their lyrics and their messages did not seem at all out of place at a folk festival. And seeing them interact with other artists on Saturday workshop stages confirmed that for me.

I don’t think, though, that Arrested Development brought in the hip hop audience to the festival. Looking around, it seemed like the kind of mostly middle aged and older folk who have been going to folk festivals for decades. If there was an increased number of young people this year at the festival, I think it was on Saturday.

To me, the heart and soul of a folk festival is the daytime workshop stages and there was something I wanted to see on at least one stage at just about every hour on Saturday (and scheduled on Sunday). At the last minute, I was asked to sit in as host of the Canadian Spaces session on Saturday afternoon because Chopper McKinnon, the long-time host of CKCU’s Canadian Spaces show was having cataract surgery. I had a great time with Lynn Miles, Chris MacLean, Jon Brooks and Meredith Luce.

I was really looking forward to spending some time with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott at the festival – off stage and on. I was scheduled to host an hour-long “conversation” with Jack on Sunday afternoon.

Jack was only scheduled at the festival on Sunday, so it was a pleasant surprise to meet up with him at lunch time on Saturday and spend a half-hour or so reminiscing. I was also happy to see Jack looking fit and strong as he had triple-bypass surgery a few months back and had just turned 79.

I mentioned the rain on Sunday. Well, the indoor stage was pretty much the only daytime stage that was viable on Sunday, so the schedule was re-jigged so that some of the highlights from the day’s workshop sessions could happen. My “conversation” with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, originally scheduled for noon to 1:00 pm was rescheduled for 1:00-2:00, so I got to spend an extra hour catching up with Jack in the green room.

Our actual on-stage time flew by. It was meant to be an oral history session looking at Jack’s long career. We covered a lot of ground, but I almost felt like we were just getting started when the time was up. Jack and I both had a great time doing it and the feedback from the hundreds of people packed into the indoor hall was tremendous.

The Sunday night main stage concerts were rescheduled for either the indoor stage or the dance tent. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s took place in the dance tent and was one of the best shows I’ve seen him do in decades.

Rather than the thousands that would have been expected, Sunday’s crowd was probably in the hundreds thanks to the day’s steady rain and heavy showers. But the festival staff and volunteers did a great job of making what could happen, happen; and the audience pulled together beautifully. There was great stuff going on all day on the indoor stage, and in the food court tent, and all the artists scheduled for a Sunday main stage concert got to go on.

In addition to the artists I’ve already mentioned, some of the many others I really enjoyed included Clarksdale Moan, Carolyn Mark, Jenny Whiteley, Kim Beggs, Lau and the Old Sod Band (who were incredible troopers in the food court tent during the Sunday rain; as was Arthur MacGregor leading singalongs).

I also really enjoyed seeing Harvey Glatt receive the Helen Verger Award in recognition of his many decades of leadership on the Ottawa folk music scene (not to mention many other musical genres). The award was exceptionally well deserved.

Dylan Griffith pulled the 2010 festival together in about half a year. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do with a full year.

Pictured: Mike Regenstreif in conversation with Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Sunday, August 15, 2010, at the Ottawa Folk Festival; Canadian Spaces with Lynn Miles, Meredith Luce, Chris McLean, Jon Brooks and Mike Regenstreif, Saturday, August 14, 2010 at the Ottawa Folk Festival. 

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, August 23, 2010

Twistable Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein

Twistable Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein
Sugar Hill Records

The late Shel Silverstein, who died in 1999 at the age of 69, had a multi-faceted career. He first made his mark as a cartoonist and was best-known in that department for his work with Playboy Magazine. He was a noted author of children’s books and a folk, country, and rock singer-songwriter who made some interesting albums of his own – several, including his 1962 classic Inside Folk Songs were reissued just a couple of years ago – and wrote such hits as “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash, and “The Unicorn” for the Irish Rovers.

Versions of those two songs, and 13 more, are included on this loving tribute to the great songwriter from artists representing several generations of peers and admirers. While Todd Snider plays it pretty close to Johnny Cash’s chest on his version of “A Boy Named Sue,” Dr. Dog’s rendition of “The Unicorn” bears little resemblance to the Irish Rovers version as it cleverly moves between barbershop quartet singing to indie rock to folk rock and back again.

My favourite Shel Silverstein song is “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” a brilliant description of a suburban woman’s descent into madness. I remember thinking when I first heard Marianne Faithfull’s synth-laden arrangement in 1979 that it would have been a great country song and then saying “oh yeah” when I checked the credits and saw it was a Shel Silverstein song. This country-rock version by Lucinda Williams must now be regarded as definitive.

Another of my favourite Silverstein songs is “The Living Legend,” a song that must be forever associated with the late Bob Gibson, who recorded it back in 1974. The song essentially tells the story of Gibson’s life as a legendary artist who self-destructed and was back to doing any small-time gig he could get. Bobby Bare, Sr. does a fine job with it.

Another Silverstein song that I associate with Gibson is “Me and Jimmy Rodgers,” which classic country singer Ray Price sings as a classic country song.

Other great tracks include Kris Kristofferson’s version of “The Winner” and John Prine’s take on “This Guitar is For Sale.” Both Kris and John are at the top of their games. Also not to be missed is the fine version of “Queen of the Silver Dollar” by young Sarah Jarosz.

Then, near the end of the album, Nanci Griffith offers a beautifully poignant version of “The Giving Tree,” a song Silverstein based on one of his most popular children’s books.

What an amazing, multi-faceted talent Shel Silverstein was.

--Mike Regenstreif

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (August 24-31)

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 52nd and final instalment of “This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches,” a weekly, year-long look back at some of the most notable guests, features and moments in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history.

August 25, 1994: Extended feature- Judy Small.
August 24, 1995: Extended feature- Guy Clark.
August 28, 1997: Show theme- A tribute to Pete Seeger.
August 27, 1998: Guests- Tom Lewis; Angela Page.
August 26, 1999: Guests- John Roberts & Tony Barrand.
August 24, 2000: Guests- Kim & Reggie Harris.
August 31, 2000: Guest- Rosalie Sorrels.
August 28, 2003: Extended feature- The 40th anniversary of the March on Washington.
August 26, 2004: Guest- Michael Pickett.
August 25, 2005: Guests- Jay Ungar & Molly Mason.
August 24, 2006: Guest- Tommy Emmanuel; Extended feature- Tribute to the late Kirk MacGeachy.
August 31, 2006- Guest- Riley Baugus.
August 30, 2007: The final regular edition of Folk Roots/Folk Branches after almost 14 years.
August 28, 2008 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): New recordings and new reissues by James Talley.

Pictured: (Top) Rosalie Sorrels and Mike Regenstreif at the 1993 Champlain Valley Folk Festival; (bottom) Molly Mason, Mike Regenstreif and Jay Ungar at the 2005 Champlain Valley Folk Festival.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (August 17-23)

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 51st instalment of “This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches,” a weekly look back, continuing through the end of this month, at some of the most notable guests, features and moments in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history.

August 18, 1994: Show theme- A tribute to Woody Guthrie.
August 17, 1995: Extended feature- Brother acts.
August 20, 1998: Guests- Doug McArthur & Jeffra.
August 19, 1999: Guest- Spider John Koerner.
August 17, 2000: Extended feature- Songs of Malvina Reynolds.
August 22, 2002: Guest- Mae Moore.
August 18, 2005: Extended feature- Tribute to the late Vassar Clements.
August 17, 2006: Guest- Tom Lewis.
August 23, 2007: Guest- Noah Zacharin.
August 21, 2008 (Folk Roots/Folk Branches feature): Tribute to the late Artie Traum.

Pictured:  (Top) Artie Traum and Mike Regenstreif on October 12, 2006; (Bottom)  Tom Lewis and Mike Regenstreif at CKUT during Folk Roots/Folk Branches on August 17, 2006.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, August 14, 2010

David Amram documentary

David Amram is the only musician I’ve ever seen conducting symphony orchestras, playing folk music at jazz festivals, jazz at folk festivals and music from around the world everywhere. He’s composed all manner of musical works from symphonies and operas to jazz to folk-like songs to film and theatre scores. His books are fascinating reads. He’s performed with many of the greatest orchestras and with people ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Bob Dylan to Ramblin' Jack Elliott to Willie Nelson to Jack Kerouac to me (David has brought me up on stage to read from Kerouac's On the Road while he leads a jazz group).

I first met David 36 years and he’s been a great friend – and tremendous influence on how I approach listening to music – ever since. I produced his first Montreal concert in 1979 or 1980 (he's since been to Montreal to conduct the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and I Musici de Montreal chamber orchestra and to perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. This photo was taken by Ron Petronko while we were having lunch during the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 2004.

David turns 80 this coming November and is as active and vital as ever. A documentary film, David Amram: The First 80 Years is scheduled to come out in April 2011. Here’s the trailer.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Chrome on the Range
Meadowlark Records

A couple of years ago, in a review of an earlier Michael Hurwitz album in Sing Out! Magazine, I wrote: “The recordings of Michael Hurwitz, an honest-to-goodness cowboy from Wyoming, have become big favourites of mine over the past several years and Cowboy Fandango is another one that I can’t stop playing a lot. He’s got one of those comfortable voices and delivery styles that makes me think I’m listening to an old friend – we’ve never even met – and the arrangements, built around Michael’s acoustic guitar and featuring instruments like fiddle, pedal steel, mandolin, and a very tasteful rhythm section, are timeless, sounding like they could have been recorded recently or almost any time in the past 50 or 60 years. Plus, his songs tell stories that make me want to listen from the first line to the last.”

Those comments also apply to Michael’s new album, Chrome on the Range, a compelling set of mostly-western story songs delivered in various blends of folk, country, western swing and blues. Among the many highlights on the CD are “Ed Trafton,” a western ballad about an older, gentlemanly stage coach robber; “Edith,” the story of an eccentric fiddler at the time of the turn of the last century; “Cowboys Gone Wild,” a humorous barroom tune sung in duet with Tracy Nelson; and “Minnie Sang the Blues,” a talking blues about Memphis Minnie, or, really about remembering the circumstances of being introduced to Memphis Minnie records as a kid that’s reminiscent of such Guy Clark songs as “Randall Knife” and “Let Him Roll.”

Along with a dozen of his own songs, Michael also includes really nice versions of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree” and Gary McMahan’s “Real Live Buckeroo.” McMahan trades verses with Michael on the latter.

The playing by Michael's band, the Aimless Drifters, is never aimless. In fact, their tasty accompaniments add much to the richness of Michael's songs.

As I also mentioned in that Sing Out! review, “If, like me, you’re a fan of the cowboy songs of Ian Tyson, Tom Russell and Bill Staines, you should be listening to Michael Hurwitz too.”

--Mike Regenstreif

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (August 10-16)

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 50th instalment of “This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches,” a weekly look back, continuing through the end of this month, at some of the most notable guests, features and moments in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history.

August 11, 1994: Extended feature- Klezmer music.
August 10, 1995: Extended feature- Sister acts.
August 13, 1998: Guest- Hy Goldman of KlezKanada.
August 12, 1999: Guest- Joel Mabus.
August 15, 2002: Guest- Jim Rooney.
August 14, 2003: Extended feature- Tribute to the late Lanie Melamed; Guest- Dean Cottrill.
August 16, 2007: Extended feature- Remembering Elvis Presley on the 30th anniversary of his death.

Pictured: Joel Mabus and Mike Regenstreif at the 2001 Champlain Valley Folk Festival.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Ottawa Folk Festival, August 13-15

By this time next week, we’ll be well into this year’s edition of the Ottawa Folk Festival. It kicks off on Friday evening, August 13, and continues all day and evening on Saturday and Sunday. As I mentioned a year ago, the folk festival has long been my favourite Ottawa festival. Years before I actually started working in Ottawa in 2007, I was making an annual trip to the nation’s capital for the Ottawa Folk Festival.

This is a year of great change for the Ottawa Folk Festival. Chris White, the founding artistic director stepped down last fall after 16 years at the helm. The new artistic director is Dylan Griffith, who came to the Ottawa Folk Festival after four years directing the Dawson City Music Festival in the Yukon.

It seems to be a year of generational change for the festival. Despite the presence of certain older artists, most notably the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, there is a greater emphasis on younger artists or on artists like Arrested Development, who are drawn from musical genres more likely to appeal to a younger demographic than the traditional folk festival audience.

This is not to say that there’s a lack of the kind of artists that have long been associated with folk festivals. Among them are the Old Sod Band, an instrumental band that includes Ann Downey and Ian Robb of Finest Kind; the Foggy Hogtown Boys, probably Ontario’s finest bluegrass band; Lynn Miles, a world class singer-songwriter from Ottawa who did an amazing set at the festival a few years ago just before headliner Emmylou Harris; and such other notable Canadian singer-songwriters as Jenny Whiteley, Chris MacLean, Jon Brooks and Kim Beggs.

Among the other artists I’m looking forward to hearing are Calexico, the southwestern atmospheric band; country rocker Carolyn Mark; and Ladies of the Canyon, a Montreal trio that I introduced at the Festival Folk sur le canal in Montreal in 2009.

As someone whose first folk festivals included the Estelle Klein-era Mariposa Folk Festivals of the 1970s, I’ve always felt that the daytime workshops are the heart-and-soul of the folk festival experience. The daytime schedule has now been posted and there are a bunch of workshop sessions that I’m really looking forward to.

I’ve had that honour and privilege of hosting many workshops at the Ottawa Folk Festival over the years. Among my favourites was a panel discussion in 2007 with me, Nora Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson and Jimmy LaFave discussing Woody Guthrie and his enduring influence. This year, I’ll be sitting down on stage with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – long one of folk music’s most influential and enduring legendary figures – to talk about his remarkable career that now stretches over a 60-year period. Jack was already a legend when I first met him back in 1971. The session, called A Conversation with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, is from noon to 1:00 pm on the indoor hall stage.

Pictured: (Left) Mike Regenstreif, Nora Guthrie, Kris Kristifferson and Jimmy LaFave at the 2007 Ottawa Folk Festival. (Right) Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Mike Regenstreif at the 2006 Pop Montreal Festival.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Tim O'Brien -- Chicken & Egg

Chicken & Egg
Howdy Skies Records

With the addition of Chicken & Egg, there are now a dozen Tim O’Brien albums sitting on my shelves – and that’s not including recordings he made as part of the stellar bluegrass band Hot Rize. Tim sings like a bird, plays just about any stringed instrument and any roots-oriented style with authority, is an excellent songwriter (who often writes with a fine sense of humour) and shows consistently good taste in the traditional songs he performs and in the songs from other songwriters that he chooses (his Red on Blonde is one of the best-ever albums of Bob Dylan covers).

Chicken & Egg, I think, is one of Tim’s finest. Working with some great sidemen – Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar, bassists Mike Bub and Dennis Crouch, drummer John Gardner, Ray Bonneville on harmonica, harmony singers Darrell Scott and Abigail Washburn, to name just some – Tim recorded the album off-the-floor, giving it an organic and spontaneous live feeling.

Some of my favourite tracks include “You Ate the Apple,” sung from the perspective of God giving a dressing-down to Adam and Eve which includes an order to dress-up; “The Sun Jumped Up,” a set of previously-unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics from the archives that are given a bouncy melody and arrangement by Tim that’s highly reminiscent of the traditional “Crawdad Hole”; “All I Want,” a bluesy bluegrass number about getting back home to the one he loves; “Suzanna,” written by Hall Cannon, a fiddle and banjo tune that seems to be from the perspective of a street person who may or may not know what he’s going on about; and “Workin,” a rockabilly tune that weds Guthrie-esque lyrics with a Sun-era Johnny Cash arrangement.

This is one of those albums that I know I’ll be playing a lot over a long period of time.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history (August 3-9)

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 49th instalment of “This week in Folk Roots/Folk Branches,” a weekly look back, continuing through the end of this month, at some of the most notable guests, features and moments in Folk Roots/Folk Branches history.

August 4, 1994: Extended feature- Gordon Lightfoot.
August 3, 1995: Extended feature- Songs marking the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
August 6, 1998: Guest- Ian Robb.
August 3, 2000: Guest- Tom Russell.
August 8, 2002: Extended feature- “By the Hand of the Father”: Songs & Stories from an Original Theaterwork with Alejandro Escovedo and others.
August 3, 2006: Guest- Linda Ronstadt.
August 9, 2007: Extended feature- Tribute to the late Tommy Makem.

Pictured: Tom Russell and Mike Regenstreif at the 2000 Champlain Valley Folk Festival.

--Mike Regenstreif