Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Top 10 for 2011

Here are my picks for the Top 10 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2011 (including reissues). I started with the list of more than 400 albums that landed on my desk over the past year and narrowed it down to a short list of about 35. I’ve been over the short list a bunch of times and came up with several similar – not identical – Top 10 lists. Today’s list is the final one. The order might have been slightly different, and there are several other worthy albums that might have been included, had one of the other lists represented the final choice.

1. Tom Russell Mesabi (Shout! Factory). There are a couple of distinct, but somehow linked, song-cycles on this album. The first explores the nature of the pursuit of art, the nature of legend, and the rewards and the cruelty of fame. The second is about the back-and-forth exchanges and borderland inter-dependencies of the area around El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. Mesabi is another in Tom Russell’s long series of masterpiece albums – all of them different from each other, all of them layered to reveal more with each hearing.

2. Kate & Anna McGarrigle – Tell My Sister (Nonesuch). An essential 3-CD set that reissues the first two highly acclaimed Kate & Anna McGarrigle albums – Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Dancer With Bruised Knees – along with 21 previously unreleased demos – many of them Kate solo – recorded between 1971 and 1974. The third CD of previously unreleased demos is absolutely wonderful. While most of the songs would end up being recorded on later Kate & Anna albums, there are six songs that have never been released before.

3. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony). It’s been eight years since Gillian Welch’s last album and the wait was rewarded with a superb set of new songs steeped in folk music tradition. The only musicians are Gillian and David Rawlings, her co-writer and long-time partner. The arrangements seem simple but are as deeply complex as the layered songwriting.

4. Stan Rogers – The Very Best of Stan Rogers and Fogarty’s Cove (Fogarty’s Cove/Borealis). The project to remaster and reissue the catalogue of Stan Rogers, arguably Canada’s greatest folk-rooted singer-songwriter, began with The Very Best of Stan Roger, a 16-song overture, and continued with Fogarty’s Cove, his first album. No contemporary songwriter has captured Maritime life as genuinely as Stan did on Fogarty’s Cove.

5. Bruce Cockburn – Small Source of Comfort (True North). Small Source of Comfort is Bruce Cockburn at his most intimate, his most musical, and his most incisive. It quickly assumed its place among my favourites of Bruce’s many albums.

Click here for my full-length review of Small Source of Comfort.

6. Diana Jones – High Atmosphere (Proper American). The third in a series of superb albums that Diana Jones has released since 2006 in which she creates seemingly simple and plainspoken (plain sung, really) songs which draw on the traditions of southern folk music. While the songs and performances may be seemingly simple, they are, in fact, skillfully drawn pieces that weave together timeless melodies with lyrics that are poetic and oblique on some songs and which tell stories and present fully fleshed out characters on others. 

7. The Klezmatics – Live at Town Hall (Klezmatics Disc). The Klezmatics, one of the most creative and influential of contemporary klezmer bands, celebrate their 25th anniversary this year with this two-CD set recorded at their 20th anniversary concert in 2006 where the band was joined by a stellar bunch of 26 other guest singers and musicians to play some of the best music from their nine previous albums in what really was a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza.

8. Bruce Murdoch – Sometimes I Wonder Why the World (Bruce Murdoch). These intimate and intense songs seem to flow like 13 movements in a suite. Mature love and human courage are the dominant themes. New songs from Bruce Murdoch are always to be treasured.

9. Ry Cooder – Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch). Drawing on traditional folk, blues, Mexican and rock motifs, and the influence of Woody Guthrie, Ry Cooder shows how vital contemporary topical songwriting can still be. While the anti-Bush pieces may already seem dated in the Obama era, even they speak to enduring themes of war, peace, honesty and accountability.

10. Carrie Elkin- Call It My Garden (Red House). A mature artist who has obviously developed her song-craft and performance styles, Carrie Elkin’s songs are layered in meaning and seem to reveal more each time I’ve listened to this compelling album.

---Mike Regenstreif

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sloan Wainwright – Upside Down & Under My Heart

Upside Down & Under My Heart
Derby Disc Music

There were several poignant musical moments, almost two years ago, at the funeral service for beloved singer and songwriter, and old friend, Kate McGarrigle. Among the most profound, for me, came when Sloan Wainwright, Kate’s friend and ex-sister-in-law, sang “Today,” a beautiful song I’d never heard before.

It turned out to be a song that Sloan and Kate had co-written in 2009, sometime after Sloan’s husband, George McTavey, passed away following a long battle with leukaemia.

I told Sloan how moved I was by the song and she sent me an MP3 demo of “Today” recorded June 27, 2009 at Kate’s house in Montreal with Kate on piano, Chaim Tannenbaum on harmonica and mandolin and Joel Zifkin on viola. It was a song I listened to many times in the months that followed and which I’m pleased to report is included on Upside Down & Under My Heart, Sloan’s new album.

“Today” remains a profoundly moving song – a sad, quiet, dignified memorial to both George and Kate.

The sense of loss pervades several other songs including the haunting “I Wear the Ring,” a song to her late husband telling him that she wears his wedding ring and lets him know their children are all right.

Beyond loss and grief are songs like “I Can See Now” and “I Am Free” in which she affirms her continuing life and songs of hope like “Upside Down & Under My Heart,” which she sings as an expectant mother to a yet unborn child.

Musically, Sloan blends strains of folk, blues and pop into something of her own. Her greatest strength, perhaps, is her voice, a warm contralto marked by unique phrasing that brings each song to life, whether singing quietly and contemplatively or powerfully and forcefully.

--Mike Regenstreif

Bonnie Ste-Croix – Canadian Girl

Canadian Girl
Bonnie Ste-Croix

I met singer-songwriter Bonnie Ste-Croix at the 2010 Ontario Council of Folk Festivals (OCFF) conference in Ottawa where she told me about an interesting project she had in the works. She was travelling to each of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories and recording a song there with guest musicians from each locale. It was a highly ambitious project, to say the least, for an independent musician.

Bonnie is a thoroughly Canadian girl. She grew up in the Gaspé, has since lived in Montreal, Banff, Vancouver and, now, Halifax, and, as she sings in the album’s title track, regards the entire country – and its seasons and customs – as home. And, in her various collaborators from west to east and north to south, she’s found kindred musical spirits.

The album’s strongest tracks include the fore-mentioned “Canadian Girl,” recorded in Halifax with fiddler Natalie MacMaster and singer Laura Smith; “Front Porch Song,” recorded in Toronto with Stephen Fearing playing the Six String Nation Guitar that Jowi Taylor has been bringing around the country over the past five years and singers Kate Reid and Lynne Hanson, a catchy, slice-of-life-in-the-neighbourhood tune; “On Était Bien,” featuring the members of Dentdelion and Dale Boyle, which sounds like a Quebec folksong; “If I Could Sail,” recorded in St. John’s with The Once, a lament for a lover at sea; and “October Song,” a lovely tribute to the Canadian autumn featuring fiddler and harmony vocalist Shari Ulrich and fiddler Julia Graff (Shari’s daughter).

Each of the guest musicians brings something special to the songs they contributed to. And while many of the songs are not lyrically or stylistically specific to the places they were recorded, Bonnie has succeeded gloriously in creating a musical tribute to Canada and in recognizing there are excellent and creative musicians and singers in every part of the country.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Klezmatics -- Live at Town Hall

This review is from the December 12, 2011 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

The Klezmatics
Live At Town Hall
Klezmatics Disc

The New York City-based Klezmatics, without doubt one of the most creative and influential of contemporary klezmer bands, celebrate their 25th anniversary this year with the release of a two-CD set recorded at their exciting 20th anniversary concert in 2006. The current line-up of the band was joined by their former clarinetists Margot Leverett and David Kraukauer, and a stellar bunch of 24 other guest singers and musicians, to play some of the best music from their nine previous albums in what really was a once-in-a-lifetime extravaganza.

Live At Town Hall opens with the exuberant, joyfully over-the-top “Man in a Hat,” a Yiddish-English celebration of Manhattan, sailors, world travel and lust. Lead singer Lorin Sklamberg sings the double entendre lyrics with an elastic facility few singers in any genre of music can match. Meanwhile the band – virtuoso players all – wails in triple time.

From there we journey through a marvellous set that includes several extended medleys and suites.

Among the many highlights are four songs featuring special guest singers.

Joanne Borts and Sklamberg sing a duet on “Di Krenitse,” an Itzik Fefer poem set to music by Israeli singer Chava Alberstein. The arrangement draws on both klezmer and cabaret styles.

“Elijah Rock,” an African American spiritual which references biblical prophets Elijah, Moses and Ezekiel, features singer Joshua Nelson and an arrangement that could raise the roof on Preservation Hall in New Orleans.

Adrienne Cooper is featured on a powerful version of “I Ain’t Afraid,” a Holly Near song with added Yiddish lyrics by Cooper and Michael Wex, which the Klezmatics turned into a post-9/11 anthem extolling both defiance to terrorism and reconciliation of peoples.

And Susan McKeown, the superb Irish traditional singer, joins the band on “Gonna Get Through This World,” one of several songs drawn from the Klezmatics’ two albums of the Woody Guthrie Jewish-themed lyrics they set to music.

Other highlights include several other songs from the Guthrie project including “Holy Ground,” sung beautifully by Sklamberg with a choir of other Klezmatics and guests adding gorgeous harmonies, and just in time for right now, the celebratory “Hanuka Gelt.”

Along with Sklamberg, who plays accordion, guitar and piano in addition to his lead vocals, the core Klezmatics include Frank London on trumpet, horns, keyboards and percussion; violinist Lisa Gutkin; Matt Darriau on clarinet alto saxophone and kaval; Paul Morrissett on bass and tsimbl; and drummers David Licht and Richie Barshay. They are not just one of the best bands in klezmer music, they’re one of the best bands in any kind of music.

--Mike Regenstreif

The Boxcar Boys -- Don't Be Blue

This review is from the December 12, 2011 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

The Boxcar Boys
Don’t Be Blue
The Boxcar Boys

The five musicians of the Boxcar Boys – one of whom is a woman – look like a klezmer band dressed in Depression-era clothing on the cover of their debut CD, Don’t Be Blue.

Their instrumentation of clarinet (John David Williams), trombone (Karl Silveira), sousaphone (Rob Teehan), violin (Laura C. Bates) accordion (Ronen Segall) is probably more klezmerish than any other style of music being played these days. And, they do sound very much like a klezmer band  on original numbers like “The Handcuff King” and “Waltz for Rotman,” both composed by Bates, or “Mugg’s Island” and “Jägerbomb Blues” by Williams.

But, this Toronto-based combo also draws on traditional jazz, folk, ragtime, and even country music. Two of the best tracks are an unusual and very haunting treatment of the country classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams, and a happy-sounding version of the 1920s jazz tune, “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll.”

Great stuff!

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Canadian Folk Music Award Winners

The Seventh Annual Canadian Folk Music Awards took place tonight at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto.

The awards went to:


Good Lovelies - Let The Rain Fall

The Creaking Tree String Quartet - Sundogs


Benoît Archambault - Les pourquoi 

Mark Howard, David Travers-Smith - Bright Morning Stars (The Wailin' Jennys)


Jayme Stone - Room of Wonders


Bruce Cockburn - Small Source of Comfort


Genticorum - Nagez Rameurs


Kiran Ahluwalia - aam zameen : common ground


Suzie Vinnick - Me 'n' Mabel


Geoff Berner - Victory Party


Vince Fontaine - Songs For Turtle Island


Alexandre Poulin - Une lumière allumée


Lynn Miles - Fall for Beauty 

Molly Thomason - Beauty Queen


Jane Harbury 


Dave Gunninga tribute to John Allan Cameron


Dave Gunning - a tribute to John Allan Cameron


Minor Empire - Second Nature


Genticorum - Nagez Rameurs


Bruce Cockburn - Small Source of Comfort

Congratulations to all the nominees and recipients, to the Canadian Folk Music Awards organizers, and to Andy Frank and David Newland of for the webcast.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Holger Petersen – Talking Music: Blues Radio and Roots Music

Talking Music: Blues Radio and Roots Music
By Holger Petersen
Insomniac Press
326 pages

Holger Petersen’s primary gig for the past 35 years has been running Edmonton-based Stony Plain Records, which he’s built into one of the world’s premiere roots music labels. He is also a veteran and much-respected host of two weekly blues radio programs, Natch’l Blues on the Alberta-wide public station CKUA (for more than 40 years), and Saturday Night Blues on CBC (for 25).

Holger’s an excellent interviewer – I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how many he’s done in his combined 65 years of weekly broadcasts – and he’s taken transcriptions from 19 of what must be the among the best and turned them into a page-turner for anyone who’s fascinated with great blues and roots artists, producers and musicologists.

As it happens, I’m familiar with the work of all of Holger’s subjects in Talking Music: Blues Radio and Roots Music. I know a couple of them, have met a few others, and have interviewed some of them myself. Despite that familiarity, I was drawn into these interviews and could hear the voices – and Holger’s – in my head as I read their words.

There are lots of fascinating stories here: David “Honeyboy” Edwards on the death of Robert Johnson; legendary musicologist Alan Lomax talking about the discovery of Lead Belly and decrying the state of contemporary blues; Jay McShann on his early days in Kansas City and having a kid sax player named Charlie Parker in his band; Ian Tyson on both his early folk days and the renaissance of cowboy culture; Chris Barber talking about the first British blues tours he organized for legends like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee; Jeff Healey on his love for traditional jazz; Lucinda Williams on her early Folkways records; Sam Phillips on recording artists like B.B. King and Elvis Presley early in their careers; Eric Bibb and his dad, Leon Bibb, talking about their relationships with Paul Robeson; and, so many, many more.

All the people in this book – famous or not – are important figures in the history of music and the insights in these interviews serves to enhance appreciation for them and their work.

--Mike Regenstreif

Concert review: Leon Redbone at the Shenkman Centre

In the 1970s, I produced several Montreal concerts with Leon Redbone. The first, at Redpath Hall in 1974, a year or so before Leon's first LP came out, was one of the most successful shows I put together in those days (I also think it was one of the first times, if not the first time, he had headlined in a concert hall, rather than club setting).

I booked Leon into the 400-seater and needed to sell about 200 tickets to break even. About a week before the show, we’d moved about 150 tickets and it looked like I’d probably break even or maybe even make a little money with a good walk-up sale.

Then, all of a sudden, there was an item in Rolling Stone in which Bob Dylan raved about Leon. Ticket sales went crazy. The show sold out. We added a second show and it sold out. We sold 800 tickets for an artist yet to make his first record. And another  couple of hundred people were turned away at the door.

The last time I saw Leon was at a folk festival, circa 1980 or ’81. So, until Thursday night’s concert at the Shenkman Centre in Ottawa (and a quick visit backstage – thank you, Richard Flohil!), it had been a good 30 years since I’ve seen him live.

All the Redbone magic from decades ago was very much in evidence at the Shenkman Centre. The music – blues, jazz and Tin Pan Alley songs from 70 and more years ago –was great and the shtick, straight out of pre-war vaudeville, was hilarious.

After a short, charming opening set by young and very promising singer-songwriter Ariana Gillis, accompanied by her father, David Gillis, Leon – accompanied by Paul Asaro, a wonderful stride pianist – ambled on to the stage in a Chaplinesque manner, using his cane to great comedic effect.

The repertoire was all old songs – most of them instantly recognizable – and included great arrangements of numbers like “Diddy Wa Diddie,” which was requested more than once before Leon got around to it, “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Shine On Harvest Moon,” with the audience harmonizing perfectly, “Big Time Woman,” “Marie,” and “Sweet Sue,” all sung, and occasionally whistled, with Leon’s studied drollness.

Watching Leon expertly play the guitar was a joy. His fingers seemed to dance all over the fret board and his playing seemed like it was based as much on piano as guitar arrangements. And, in Asaro, he had a terrific stride pianist to play with.

Asaro’s piano was hidden behind a barrier so he was only to be seen when sticking his head up to take an occasional blow or to enter or exit the stage. While this kept all the visual attention on Leon, Asaro was very much a part of the show. His playing was great, easily matching Leon’s dexterous finger and fret work. And Asaro also occasionally played Abbott to Leon’s Costello in some back and forth comedy bits that would look dumb on paper but were hilarious in the way they pulled them off.

It’s funny what you remember sometimes. Sitting watching Leon, I recalled a line from the Montreal Star review by rock critic David Freeston about a Leon Redbone concert I produced in 1976 at Pollack Hall.

“It was the darndest thing I ever saw,” wrote Freeston.

Yeah, and Leon is still pretty close to the darndest thing going, 30-odd years later.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Various Artists – Note of Hope: Woody Guthrie & Rob Wasserman, a collaboration in Words and Music

Note of Hope: Woody Guthrie and Rob Wasserman – a collaboration in words and music
429 Records

“The note of hope is the only note
That can keep us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution
Because, largely, about all a human being is anyway
Is just, a hoping machine.”

-Woody Guthrie, Notes About Music, 3/29/1946

During the almost-14-year run of the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show on CKUT in Montreal, I did a bunch of special programs devoted to the songs of Woody Guthrie.

Almost 11 years ago, on January 4, 2001, Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives, joined me on one of those shows to talk about Woody, the archives and the various projects she had done, or had in the works, to bring the thousands of unheard songs in the archives to life.

One of the projects she mentioned was a multi-artist collection being spearheaded by the great bassist Rob Wasserman. I was already a big fan of Rob’s playing and of his Duets album for which he collaborated with a different artist on every track, so the Woody Guthrie project was something I quickly began looking forward to.

Years passed since that radio show. When I’d see Nora over the years, she’d tell me the project was still ongoing. Finally, Note of Hope is out, released in conjunction with celebration leading to the centennial of Woody’s birth on July 14, 2012.

Rob Wasserman’s bass playing is the heartbeat of this collection, and the soul is Woody Guthrie’s writings, dating from his New York – particularly Brooklyn – years of 1942 to 1954.

It’s an eclectic collection of artists and an eclectic range of material that Rob and Nora have assembled for Note of Hope. There are artists rooted in folk, rock, jazz and hip hop – or various combinations thereof – and the songs, mostly set to music by the individual artists themselves, or in collaboration with Rob, stretch far and away, both lyrically and musically, from the standard Woody Guthrie canon. In addition to having been a prolific songwriter, Woody was also a prolific prose writer and I'm sure some these pieces were not written as songs. Several of the most compelling tracks are performed as spoken word pieces with musical backing.

The spoken word tracks, and a couple of others that are kind of sung-spoken, remind me of Jack Kerouac’s recorded readings with musical backing.

Among the spoken word pieces is “Voice,” performed by Ani DiFranco, a Coney Island meditation on how it is not real, authentic, everyday people reflected in popular culture – something that’s not much different 60 or 70 years later.

Another is “I Heard a Man Talking,” a reading by the late Studs Terkel, the legendary Chicago radio interviewer and oral historian. The piece, written in 1943, is a story that could have come out of Kerouac’s On the Road, written almost a decade later. It makes me wonder if Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness writing style was at least partially inspired by Woody’s writing.

And then there’s “There’s a Feeling in Music,” read by Pete Seeger on top of a banjo and bass arrangement composed and played Tony Trischka and Rob. Written in 1942 just two years after Woody and Pete met for the first time in New York City, it is a beautifully written rumination on why music and songs are so important and so much a part of our lives.

“The Debt I Owe,” set to music with some of his additional words by Lou Reed is almost a talking song too. The narrator walks around Coney Island – where Woody lived with wife Marjorie Mazia Guthrie and kids Arlo, Joady and Nora – ruminating on money troubles in a way that seems to so reflect the burdens of so many in our own 21st century economic crisis. But, there’s another layer to the song. The real debt is not about money, it’s about the times we’re living in – “the bell is ringing out danger,” Lou sings (and a line Lee Hays and Pete Seeger would use a few years later) – and the people we love and sometimes hurt, and owe so much to.

Other highlights include “Wild Card in the Hole,” set to music and sung by Madeleine Peyroux, another song that seems as reflective of our own times as of 1949 when Woody wrote the words; and “Old Folks,” set to music and sung by Nelly McKay, in which the narrator muses on the weariness and accomplishment of old age and the optimism of youth.

The finale, “You Know the Night,” set to music by Rob and Jackson Browne, and sung by Jackson, is an amazing 15-minute tour-de-force in which Woody vividly recalls the night he met Marjorie. Written in 1943, it almost presages songs like “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” that Bob Dylan would start writing two decades later.

The performing artists in this collection are of our time, but I never cease to be astounded how so much of Woody’s writings, from six or seven decades ago, seems to be as much, or more so, of our time as his.

--Mike Regenstreif