Monday, February 28, 2011

Mae Moore – Folklore

Poetical License

Mae Moore started out as a young singer-songwriter on the folk scene and went on to achieve some significant commercial success – both as a recording and performing artist in her own right and as a songwriter for others – in the 1990s. She retreated from the pop circuit years ago and now makes music on her own terms from her home base on the Gulf Islands in B.C. where she also paints and does organic farming. Several of Mae’s paintings are featured in the CD Digipak and booklet and she has recently released a companion art book also called Folklore.

When Mae mentioned to me a few months ago that she had a new album called Folklore in the works, I imagined that it would be a collection of traditional folksongs that she would put her personal stamp on. But, as it turns out, when she refers to folklore, it is to her own, personal folklore – or that of the other people who inhabit her songs. “You’re the author of your own folklore,” she sings to the protagonist in the title song.

While Folkore is certainly rooted in a contemporary folk approach, it’s also equally rooted in jazz. The acoustic guitar or dulcimer she plays signals the folk base while the musical exploration and some of the instrumental colouring suggest jazz. Several tracks feature Daniel Lapp playing Flumpet, a recent hybrid horn that blends elements of a flugelhorn and trumpet. His playing on “Tom Thomson’s Mandolin” is kind of bluesy in a Davisonian kind of way. Other jazz musicians featured on several tracks each include Scott Sheerin on soprano sax and Marc Atkinson on guitar. Producer Joby Baker is heard on various instruments on most songs.

While I generally avoid comparisons with other artists, there are several obvious parallels here with Joni Mitchell. Mae and Mitchell both use open tunings on the guitar and dulcimer, both blend folk and jazz influences, and both integrate music and painting in their personal art. Which is not to say that Mae’s music is derivative of Mitchell’s; it’s just that the parallels are interesting.

Among my favourite songs is “Tom Thomson’s Mandolin,” which describes the Group of Seven artist’s devotion to his art and to the natural wilderness beauty of Algonquin Park, where he died in unknown circumstances in 1917 at the age of 39. I’m not sure if the references to his mandolin playing are true or based on if they’re Mae’s poetic license, but, if true, I guess that makes him a musical and artistic ancestor to Mae and Mitchell.

Another favourite is the dulcimer-based “Oh, Canada,” a heartfelt tribute to the landscape of this vast country of ours (although, to avoid confusion, I wish it didn’t have the same title as our national anthem).

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lucy Kaplansky coming to Montreal, March 4

One of the concerts I’ve most been looking forward to this season is the return to Montreal of the superb New York-based singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky.

I remember being quite impressed hearing her do a song or two in New York City – more than 30 years ago – when she was half of Simon & Kaplansky, a duo with Elliot Simon. She later had a duo with Shawn Colvin before leaving the music business to get her PhD and establish a practice as a clinical psychologist.

Lucy returned to music making in the early-1990s and her first album was released in 1994 – I first played it on Folk Roots/Folk Branches on December 1, 1994. That album and all of her subsequent releases – including the Cry Cry Cry collaboration with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell – were staples of Folk Roots/Folk Branches programming until the show ended in 2007. Lucy was a guest on the show in 1999 in a conversation we recorded that summer at the Ottawa Folk Festival.

I’ve loved the three concerts that I’ve seen Lucy do over the years and anticipate a great evening on Friday, March 4, 8:00 pm, at La Sala Rossa (4848 St. Laurent). Contact Hello Darlin’ Productions at 514-524-9224 for information or ticket reservations.

Lucy’s most recent album is Red Horse, a collaboration with Eliza Gilkyson and John Gorka. My review is here.

Below are my reviews of her albums Over the Hills (Montreal Gazette, April 12, 2007) and Every Single Day (Sing Out! magazine, Spring 2002).

--Mike Regenstreif

Over the Hills
Red House

Themes of familial joys and grief, and continuity of the generations, runs through the finely-crafted and movingly delivered original songs that Lucy Kaplansky offers on her sixth album. She sings about the joys of raising an inquisitive young daughter in "Manhattan Moon" and says goodbye to her dying father in "Today’s the Day." "The Gift" is a poignant tribute to both her grandfather and father as she acknowledges the gift of music they passed down to her. In addition to her own songs, Kaplansky also puts her distinctive stamp on such numbers as "Someday Soon," Ian Tyson’s classic about a young girl in love with a rodeo cowboy, and "Ring of Fire," a hit June Carter wrote for future husband Johnny Cash. ****

--Mike Regenstreif

Every Single Day
Red House

On her fourth solo album, Lucy Kaplansky brings her considerable skills to bear on a set of songs that examine human relationships and frailties with the combined skills of a singer and songwriter (her songs are collaborations with her husband, Richard Litvin) who is informed with the insights of a highly trained psychologist (Kaplansky has a PhD in psychology and had a clinical practice in New York City for some years before returning to music on a full time basis). So when she sings about an egocentric singer in “Every Single Day” or the lonely person in the midst of the big city in “Nowhere” or the illicit lovers in “Guilty As Sin,” there is much deeper analysis than one often encounters in contemporary songs.

The most moving song on the album is “Song For Molly,” a beautiful, quiet piece in which Kaplansky recalls the relationship that she had at 13 with her institutionalized grandmother in the grips of Alzheimer’s or some other memory-robbing disease.

In addition to her original material, Kaplansky also turns in strong versions of songs drawn from other writers.
My favorite of her covers is Julie Miller’s “Broken Things,” in which the broken-hearted protagonist finds that its never too late to find love again. Her version of the Louvin Brothers’ “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night,” shows Kaplansky’s great affinity for traditional country.

Most of these songs have a layered, produced sound that’s closer to pop music than contemporary folk usually gets, but Kaplansky never lets the arrangements overtake either the songs or her voice.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Wailin’ Jennys – Bright Morning Stars; Good Lovelies – Let the Rain Fall

The obvious similarity between the Wailin’ Jennys and the Good Lovelies are that they’re both Canadian – although the Jennys now include an American member – trios of sublime harmony singers. But, the similarities pretty much end there as shown on the fine new CDs the groups have released this month. The Jennys' songs are – mostly – quieter and more subtle and reveal more each time they’re heard. The Good Lovelies are more upbeat and just plain fun from the get-go.

Bright Morning Stars
True North Records (Canada)
Red House Records (U.S.)

Bright Morning Stars is the Winnipeg-based Wailin’ Jennys third full-length studio album and each of those albums has featured a slightly different line-up.

Their debut EP, The Wailin’ Jennys, and first full-length studio album, 40 Days, featured original members Nicky Mehta, Ruth Moody and Cara Luft.

Firecracker, the second full-length studio album, featured Nicky, Ruth and Annabelle Chvostek; while on the 2009 live album, Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, and, now, Bright Morning Stars, Nicky and Ruth are joined by American singer-songwriter Heather Masse.

As I noted in my review of Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, the Wailin’ Jennys have, with each personnel change, seemingly seamlessly adapted and evolved. There was something different, but consistently Jennyish, with each change. With the live album and several years of touring with Nicky and Ruth, Heather seems like a veteran member of the trio, hardly the new Jenny on the block.

The Wailin’ Jennys take an egalitarian approach to the album. Each contributes four original songs on which she sings lead with the other two supplying their sublime harmonies and they also offer a stunning version of the traditional hymn-like “Bright Morning Stars,” sung in glorious three-part harmony.

Highlights among Nicky’s songs include the opening track, “Swing Low Sail High,” at once both a confession to love’s shortcoming and a reaffirmation of love’s endurance, and “What Has Been Done,” a mysterious ballad, seemingly about a murder, or, perhaps, a suicide, that shows the influence of traditional Appalachian folksongs.

Ruth’s highlights include “Storm Comin’,” a metaphorical piece about being prepared for what life and love have to offer, and “Asleep At Last,” a quiet, beautiful love song.

Heather’s highlights include “Mona Louise,” partly a lullaby and partly a celebration of a new life, and “Cherry Blossom Love,” a haunting song that seems almost equally derived from both the folksong and jazz ballad traditions.

As I noted in the introduction, these songs are – mostly – quiet and subtle and reveal more each time they’re heard.

Let the Rain Fall
Good Lovelies/Six Shooter

I looked up the brief reviews I wrote for the Montreal Gazette and Sing Out! magazine of the Toronto-based Good Lovelies self-titled debut album. In both reviews I mentioned the “three promising young singer-songwriters – Caroline Brooks, Kerri Ough and Sue Passmore – delightfully dress up each others’ often-delightful neo-folk, country and swing songs with irresistible three-part harmonies.” The album was on my list of favourites for 2009. The Lovelies also turned out a quick Christmas album in 2009 and are now back with Let the Rain Fall, their third full length CD.

As I mentioned in the intro, Let the Rain Fall, is upbeat and fun from the get-go. While there are a couple of songs that offer moments of sadness, most of the 13 numbers are irresistible, toe-tappers that offer sunny good cheer amid superb three-part harmonies.

While the debut album was built around songs written by each of the Good Lovelies, Let the Rain Fall’s songs – except for a fun cover of hip hop artist K-os’ “Crabbuckit” that they more than pull off – are credited jointly to the Good Lovelies. The result is that the album’s songs are one of a whole rather the sum of its parts. Is it Caroline, Kerri or Sue riding her bike through Toronto in “Backyard”? Which one is getting on the plane for a period of separation – borne of music touring, I presume – in “Every Little Thing”? Maybe it’s all of them and it really doesn’t matter much that they’ve somehow merged the individual identities.

Themes of home, or, more particularly, being away from home, and love, and missing love, run through many of these songs. But, they are an accurate reflection of the lives of young musicians plying their trade from one end of this vast country to the other and beyond.

The Good Lovelies’ arrangements blend folk, country, jazz and swing influences into something that’s always quite appealing, always very musical, and, almost always, lots of fun to listen to.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, February 21, 2011

Arlo Guthrie celebrates 50 years of performances

Early in 1961, 13-year-old Arlo Guthrie went to see legendary folksinger Cisco Houston at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. It was one of Cisco’s final performances before he died of cancer in April 1961 at the age of 42.

Cisco was a close friend and frequent collaborator of Woody Guthrie, Arlo’s father.

Arlo recalls: “Halfway through the show Cisco said, ‘Arlo, why don’t you come up and sing a few songs?’ I froze — like a deer in the headlights! I couldn’t breathe but somehow I got through it.”

“You are never doing that again,” Arlo promised himself.

Of course, he’s done it again, thousands of times over the past 50 years. Just a few years later, Arlo hit it with “Alice’s Restaurant” and the rest was history. Today, he is one of the most beloved of all contemporary folksingers and one of the most entertaining performers to ever take a stage.

Arlo has been a good friend to Folk Roots/Folk Branches over the years. In 1996, he returned to Montreal for the first time since the 1970s to perform in a Folk Roots/Folk Branches concert, and he was twice a guest on the radio show, in 1998 and 2004.

Congratulations to Arlo on his golden anniversary as a performing folksinger. Here’s to many more years on stage.

Pictured: Arlo Guthrie and Mike Regenstreif backstage at Arlo's Folk Roots/Folk Branches concert at the Concordia Concert Hall on December 6, 1996.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, February 14, 2011

Stan Rogers -- The Very Best of Stan Rogers

The Very Best of Stan Rogers
Fogarty’s Cove/Borealis

Stan Rogers and I were friends for the last eight years of his life. We first met and began to form our friendship at the Mariposa Folk Festival in June 1975. He was still relatively unknown – it was more than a year before he would record his first album – but I was blown away by his songs, his singing and by the performances I saw him do that year at Mariposa. I invited him to come and play at the Golem, the folk club that I ran in Montreal in the 1970s and ‘80s, and he made his Montreal debut at the Golem in February of 1976.

Stan, his younger brother Garnet Rogers, who mostly played fiddle and a bit of flute in those days (and who would always remain Stan’s constant and most-valued musical companion), and bassist Jim Ogilvie came to Montreal on what turned out to be the coldest weekend of that winter. Stan was still unknown and they played to about 15 or 20 people over the three nights. By the time of his last gig at the Golem, about six months before he died in a fire on an Air Canada plane on June 2, 1983, Stan was selling out two shows a night there (and was scheduled to return in September 1983).

Stan was a complicated and intense man. He loved to argue and be the centre of attention. But, those of us who knew him privately also knew of his capacity for great generosity and the loyalty of his friendship. I remember with great fondness that many nights I spent in Stan’s audiences, and the many late night beers, long conversations and all-night song swaps we shared in Montreal, London (Ontario), Toronto, Philadelphia, Winnipeg and other places on the great folk road of the 1970s and early-‘80s.

Stan was, in my opinion, the finest folk-rooted songwriter that Canada has yet produced. When he died at the so-very-young age of 33, he left behind a formidable body of work, but, who knows what he would have gone on to achieve in the decades since, and, to come. From that formidable collection of songs, Ariel Rogers – Stan’s widow – and Paul Mills – the producer of all but one of his albums – have selected 16 songs they consider to be The Very Best of Stan Rogers and present them on this set of re-mastered tracks.

There are, to be sure, a bunch of these 16 songs that absolutely had to be included. Among them are “Forty-five Years,” the gorgeous love song he wrote for Ariel before they were married; “Barrett’s Privateers,” the classic sea chantey he allegedly knocked off in a few minutes so that he’d have a song to sing lead on when hanging out with the Friends of Fiddler’s Green; “Northwest Passage,” a song that incomparably captures the essence of this country’s heart and history; and, of course, “The Mary Ellen Carter,” one of the most inspiring and infectious songs in the contemporary folk canon.

Although there are several songs not in this collection that I would have probably chosen – “Second Effort,” “Song of the Candle” and “Turnaround” come to mind – it’s hard to argue with Ariel and Paul’s choices.

Stan’s parents were both from Nova Scotia and no songwriter has captured the life of the Maritime fisher so authentically. Among those songs included here are “Fogarty’s Cove,” “Make and Break Harbour” and “The Jeannie C.”

There are also a couple of songs, “Free in the Harbour” and “The Idiot,” about Maritimers out of place in the Alberta oil fields after the fisheries played out.

Stan spent most of his own life living not so far from the Great Lakes and several pieces from his eloquent song-cycle about the Lakes and its fishers and boatmen are here including “White Squall,” “The Last Watch,” “Tiny Fish for Japan” and “Lock-keeper.”

Other songs include “The Flowers of the Bermuda,” Stan’s stomper about a captain who went down with his ship in a storm just five hours sailing distance from his destination, and “The Field Behind the Plow” and “Lies,” in which he masterfully captures the lives of a prairie farmer and a ranch wife.

I mentioned that Stan wrote authentically about the Maritime fisher. The fact is, though, all these other songs were just as authentic. Very few of his songs were ostensibly about himself. His research was impeccable and he wrote genuinely about real people – even when writing fictional songs.

The re-mastering job on these recordings is great. These recordings never sounded as aurally good as LPs or first-generation CDs. Kudos to Richard Hess, who restored the old tapes, and mastering engineer João Carvahlo. And, of course, to Paul Mills, who produced the original albums and played on many of the songs as Curly Boy Stubbs, Garnet Rogers, whose presence is felt on almost every song, as well as the many other fine musicians.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Carrie Elkin -- Call It My Garden

Call It My Garden
Red House

Earlier this week, I responded to the Penguin Eggs critic’s poll for 2010 in which I listed my top 10 CDs of last year and my top three new discoveries among all the artists I heard for the first time over the course of the year. Although the year is still relatively new, I’m reasonably sure that Carrie Elkin will be among the top new discoveries that I list in the 2011 poll and it wouldn’t surprise me either if Call It My Garden made the top 10 album list.

Although Call It My Garden was my introduction to Carrie, the Texas-based singer-songwriter has been around for a while and has a number of earlier CDs to her credit. She is a mature artist who has obviously developed her song-craft and performance styles.

The album, which has the feeling of off-the-floor spontaneity in its music-making that I really appreciate, opens with “Jesse Likes Bird,” a joyous, anthemic tribute to a seemingly still-innocent spirit. About two-thirds of the way through the track, the song turns into an instrumental bluegrass romp that’s about as joyous as the song itself.

As much as I like the joy I hear in the opening track, it is Carrie’s sadder and quieter songs that really slay me. Among the most stunning is “Dear Sam,” a song-letter-tribute written for singer-songwriter Sam Baker who was severely injured in a 1986 terrorist attack in Peru. The song is a stark reminder of how trivial day-to-day troubles can be in comparison to what some people have experienced. Another is “Landeth By Sea,” an impressionistic portrait of a disintegrating love relationship.

Among the other highlights on the album are “St. Louis,” in which a conversation with a seatmate on a plane helps to put life and love into perspective; “Shots Rang Out,” an observation of a woman in a desperate situation; and “Berlin,” a celebration of individual resiliency.

Carrie Elkin’s songs are layered in meaning and seem to reveal more each time I’ve listened to the album – especially when following the lyrics as posted on her website.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Norman Doucette -- Some Mother's Son

Some Mother’s Son
Norman Doucette

The dozen original songs – steeped as they are in both folk music and country – that Norman Doucette sings on his debut album, Some Mother’s Son, remind me of a time, about 40 years ago when there was an explosion of great singer-songwriters mining that musical vein. Among the artists I’m thinking of are Kris Kristofferson, Steve Young, Paul Siebel, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. In particular, Norman reminds me of early John Prine in his approach to melody and song construction.

These are gritty songs populated by seemingly true-to-life characters that you might encounter on the poor side of most urban downtowns. “The poor man walking by the soup kitchen door” in the lead-off track; the perpetual wanderer in “Teepees, Tents and Trailers”; and the hooker caught up in addiction and poverty in “Angel with a Broken Heel.”

There are also echoes of Stan Rogers in the title track, “Some Mother’s Son,” in which Norman’s first-person character, an East Coast fisherman whose livelihood is played out, is faced with the choice of heading to Alberta to work the tar sands or joining the army and carrying a gun in Afghanistan.

Norman is a veteran performer. I hope this CD opens some doors for him as his songs are well-deserving of an audience.

BTW, that I know of Norman Doucette and his fine songs is certainly thanks to his brother, Adrien Doucette. Adrien, founder of the Branches & Roots and Apple Hollow Folk Festivals, as well as a prime organizer of the weekly concerts at Café Namas Thé in Ormstown, is kind of the folk music godfather of the Chateauguay Valley south of Montreal. It was at Adrien’s festivals that I’ve enjoyed opportunities to hear Norman perform live and it was Adrien that sent me the CD.

--Mike Regenstreif