Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Phil Ochs : There But For Fortune" is coming to Ottawa

The Ottawa Folk Festival has announced they’ll be presenting a screening of the acclaimed documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, on Tuesday, June 14, 7:00 pm, at the Mayfair Theatre (1074 Bank Street)

I’ve been looking forward to an opportunity to see this film about Phil Ochs, one of the greatest topical singer-songwriters of the 1960s since it first began screening at film festivals and art house cinemas in January. Reviews and word-of-mouth from people I know who have seen it have been totally positive.

Mike Regenstreif and Sonny Ochs  at the 2009 Ottawa Folk Festival.
There will be an after-party down the street at Patty’s Pub (1186 Bank Street) after the screening featuring a sing-along of Phil Ochs songs led by Arthur McGregor and a question-and-answer session with the always-wonderful Sonny Ochs, Phil’s sister, and the person I think is most responsible for ensuring Phil’s songs – and his memory – have remained central to the folk music scene over the past 35 years. A ticket stub from the screening is needed to get into the party.

Advance tickets ($15) are available at the Ottawa Folklore Centre (1111 Bank Street).

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bob Dylan at 70

Photo: John Shearer (for Columbia Records)

Bob Dylan turns 70 on Tuesday (May 24) – 50 years and a few months after he first arrived in New York City with a repertoire of folksongs learned from Odetta and Woody Guthrie records.

Within a relatively short time, Dylan was one of the premier folk artists in Greenwich Village and was well on his way to becoming, arguably, but certainly in my opinion, the most important and influential songwriter ever.

I’m reminded now of something the young Dylan said.

In 1963, talking to Nat Hentoff for the liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan about his ability to pull off a song as difficult as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Dylan said, “It's a hard song to sing. I can sing it sometimes, but I ain't that good yet. I don't carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people.”

Dylan was all of 21 years old when he made that statement. Woody Guthrie – hospitalized with the Huntington’s disease that would kill him in 1967 – and Lightnin’ Hopkins were both then around 50. Big Joe Williams was about 60 and Lead Belly had died in 1949 at 61.

Dylan now is significantly older than Williams, Guthrie and Hopkins were then – and older than Lead Belly was when he died. The young Dylan was highly influenced by those legendary artists who had come along decades earlier – his own influence would soon surpass all others. He changed what was possible to do in the context of a song.

And, yes, he does carry himself with all of the musical gravitas that Williams, Guthrie, Lead Belly and Hopkins had then.

Dylan’s music has been part of my life for most of my life. I bought Dylan’s first few LPs in 1967 when I was 13 and have listened intently to everything he’s released over the past 50 years (and a fair bit of what’s never been released). I’ve seen him in concert a bunch of times and I’ve read most of the good books (including his own Chronicles Volume One), and maybe a few too many of the bad books, that have been written about Dylan over the years.

I was even introduced to him once – in 1975 – for about half a second. “Pleased to meet ya,” he said. I was 21, he was 34, more than half of both of our lifetimes ago.

I’ve written about a bunch of Dylan albums and books over the years in newspapers and magazines (and here on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches blog), I’ve produced and hosted a bunch of radio specials on him and his songs, but I don’t know Dylan. He is easily the most enigmatic, the most unknowable, person I’ve ever encountered.

As I noted in my book review of Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz in the current issue of Sing Out! magazine, I’ve long thought that one of the reasons I so appreciate so much of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre is that (I think) we’ve listened to so much of the same music. To the traditional folk and blues songs, and to so many of the musicians who played them. When Dylan sang, “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell,” I knew what he was talking about because I’ve listened to all those old Blind Willie McTell records. When he borrows lines or settings from Woody Guthrie or Lead Belly or others, I know where they come from. Dylan’s music is rooted ever so strongly in what Greil Marcus termed the “old weird America,” the folk music and the folk-rooted blues and country music that developed in particular regional locations and began to spread everywhere in the first half of the 20th century.

This leads me to the point I wanted to make when I started writing this little essay. Even before Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, there have been commentators who’ve said that Dylan left folk music behind. I don’t think that’s at all true. To this day, Dylan’s songwriting continues to be rooted in the “old weird America.” Dylan didn’t leave folk music behind when he embraced rock ‘n’ roll, he changed what was possible in a folk music context; both in how it’s played and how it’s expressed. I hear folk music at the heart of so much of Dylan’s songwriting -- from his earliest work to his most recent.

And anyone who thinks that folk music is necessarily defined by acoustic guitars does not understand folk music.

When jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie developed bebop, they weren’t leaving jazz behind, they were changing it; even though some of the traditional jazz greats like Louis Armstrong were slow to accept or understand what Parker and Gillespie were doing. Just like some in the folk establishment of 1965 were slow to accept and understand what Dylan was doing. Bob Dylan changed folk music in much the same way Charlie Parker changed jazz.

As far as I’m concerned, Dylan playing his folk-rooted songs with rock musicians in his time is not very different from the Weavers playing folksongs with the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra in theirs. 

Anyway, real rock ‘n’ roll, is a folk-rooted form. Just listen to the Sun-era recordings of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis. Listen to Wanda Jackson’s 1950s records, listen to Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley or Little Richard. The folk and blues roots are there in that music.

By the way, Louis Armstrong was a folksinger, too.

Happy Birthday, Bob!

For folks in Montreal: Billy Bob Productions is hosting a Bob Dylan 70th birthday celebration on Tuesday night, 8:00 pm, at Petit Campus, 57 Prince Arthur East. Tickets are $5.00 at the door.

---Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Various Artists -- A Nod to Bob 2

A Nod to Bob 2
Red House

A decade ago, when Bob Dylan turned 60, Red House Records, the superb folk music label based in Dylan’s home state of Minnesota, released a sublime tribute album called A Nod to Bob, that featured Red House artists of the day – including Rosalie Sorrels, Greg Brown, Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Guy Davis, Lucy Kaplansky and others – each doing a Bob Dylan song.

Now, with Dylan turning 70 this coming Tuesday, Red House has released another fine tribute featuring 16 of its solo artists or bands – including seven who were on the first Nod to Bob in 2001 – each doing a Dylan song or, in the cases of Spider John Koerner (“The Days of Forty-Nine”), Hot Tuna (“Mama, Let me Lay It On You”) and Guy Davis (“House of the Rising Sun”), great versions of traditional songs from Dylan’s repertoire.

Among my favourite tracks are John Gorka’s beautiful version of “Just Like a Woman,’ a gorgeous take on “Buckets of Rain” by Danny Schmidt, Meg Hutchinson’s haunting piano-based arrangement of “Born in Time,” and Jimmy LaFave’s intense folk-to-rock version of “Not Dark Yet.” There’s probably no other current artist who understands Dylan’s fusion of folk music and rock ‘n’ roll intensity better than Jimmy LaFave.

I have to admit that I much preferred the songs that Lucy Kaplansky and Eliza Gilkyson chose for Nod 1 to the ones they chose for Nod 2, but, still Lucy’s version of “Every Grain of Sand,” and Eliza’s live version of “Jokerman,” are both first-rate. As are almost all of the rest of the tracks.

I would say that if you’re looking for the best-ever various artists tribute album to Dylan, my vote would probably go to 2001’s A Nod to Bob. If you’ve got that one and want a more-than-worthy sequel, A Nod to Bob 2 is highly recommended.

---Mike Regenstreif

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kate & Anna McGarrigle -- Tell My Sister

Tell My Sister

Tell My Sister, assembled by producer Joe Boyd, and released to coincide with the Kate McGarrigle tribute concerts last week at Town Hall in New York City, is an essential 3-CD set that reissues the first two 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.

Aside from the fact that they are great albums, those first two Kate & Anna LPs were important to me personally as they (along with the third LP, Pronto Monto) came out during the time that I worked closely with Kate and Anna, producing concerts for them in Montreal and arranging touring concert dates for them at such venues as Convocation Hall in Toronto, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Carnegie Hall in New York City, and other places in Canada and the U.S. I wrote more about my friendship and working relationship with Kate and Anna in this article after Kate passed away last year.

The first LP, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, released in 1976, was one of the greatest folk and singer-songwriter LPs of the decade. Every one of the dozen songs – including five written by Kate and four by Anna – is a perfectly polished gem. The singing – in particular the stunning sibling harmonies – is stunning, the arrangements featuring a combination of folk music friends and some of the top studio musicians of the day are as near as you can get to being perfect.

I’ve always thought of Side 1 of the original LP – the first six songs on the CD reissue – as perhaps the most perfect of LP sides, rivalled only by Side 2 of Abbey Road by the Beatles.

The Side 1 suite begins with “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” Kate’s rock ‘n’ roll celebration of a hoped-for night, and segues into “My Town,” Anna’s sad, but gorgeous, lament for a broken heart that features some very pretty mandolin work by David Grisman (who would soon go on to revolutionize how we think about the possibilities of bluegrass instruments). Then, Kate’s “Blues in D,” patterned after the great piano-guitar duo recordings of Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell, and featuring some nifty work by Amos Garrett on acoustic guitar and Joel Tepp on clarinet, leads into Kate and Anna trading verses and adding celestial harmonies to a majestic version of “Heart Like a Wheel.” The days of the Mountain City Four, the legendary Montreal folk group of the 1960s that included Kate and Anna, are recalled with the Wade Hemsworth classic, “Foolish You,” before the side ends with a beautifully orchestrated version of “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino,” Kate’s exquisite ode to New York State, the California coast and lost love.

While Side 1 of the LP – tracks 6-12 on the CD – may have been a perfect album side, there is no fault to be found with the second side. Anna’s “Complainte pour Ste-Catherine,” co-written with Philippe Tatarcheff, and featuring some Cajun-style fiddling by Jay Ungar and Floyd Gilbeau, is one of the McGarrigles’ most enduring French-language songs. “Complainte” leads into “Tell My Sister,” Kate’s song about needing to come home alone from a bad period in her marriage to Loudon Wainwright III. Interestingly, Kate and Anna follow “Tell My Sister” with a fun version of Loudon’s “Swimming Song.” It’s followed by Anna’s “Jigsaw Puzzle of Life,” which describes the first decade of her relationship with her then-boyfriend, soon-to-be-husband Dane Lanken. Then we hear Kate’s stunning, heartbreaking performance of “Go Leave,” a song for dying relationship that she still carried some hope for, before the album ends with a joyous rendition of the Bahaman spiritual “Travelling on for Jesus.”

I’ve listened to Kate & Anna McGarrigle many hundreds of times over the past 35 years. Listening to this newly remastered version, it still sounds as fresh as it did when I first sat down with Kate in 1975 and she played the first rough mixes for me.

Dancer with Bruised Knees, released on LP in 1977, may not have been quite as good as the first album, but it wasn’t off by much. As Joe Boyd says in the Tell My Sister liner notes, “Its only problem was the album it had to follow.”

Among my favourites of Kate’s songs from Dancer are the pastoral “Southern Boys,” the lovely “Walking Song” and “Hommage à Grungie,” a tribute to an artist friend. Favourites of Anna’s include the title track, told from the point of view of an ex-dancer friend (and including a brief parody of Kate’s “Work Song”), the pretty “Naufragée du Tendre,” again co-written, like most of Kate and Anna’s French songs, with Philippe Tatartcheff, and “Kitty Come Home,” Anna’s plea to Kate to leave the scene of her broken marriage and return to Montreal. Another of my favourites is their version of Galt MacDermot and Bill Dumaresq’s “No Biscuit Blues,” a song that predates Montrealer MacDermott’s great success as the composer of the Broadway hit, Hair.

Like the first album, Dancer with Bruised Knees is an album I’ve listened to hundreds of times and it still sounds great after all these years. It’s also an album that has a few personal memories as I visited in the studio a couple of times during the recording process and listened in as Kate and Anna worked on several of the songs.

It’s the third CD in the set – demo recordings from 1971-1974 – that  makes Tell My Sister essential for Kate & Anna fans that still have copies of the original LPs or CD reissues. These 21 tracks, lasting more than an hour, and including two versions each of “Heart Like a Wheel” and “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino,” are absolutely wonderful. While most of the songs would end up being recorded on later Kate & Anna albums, there are six songs, including “Annie,” a never-released gem written by Chaim Tannenbaum and sung by Kate, that have never before appeared on any of Kate and Anna’s albums.

The solo songs reveal that Kate, had she pursued a solo career, would have been at the top of the folk and singer-songwriter scene. Most of her naked solo performances are every bit as good as the versions she’d re-record in subsequent years for official albums. Some, like this version of “The Work Song,” are superior to the later recordings. The same can be said of the tracks recorded with Anna – they are also a delight to hear in these versions naked of any layered-on production.

Among the demo tracks are two songs Kate and Anna recorded in 1974 with Roma Baran on guitar and vocals: a version of Kate’s “Kiss and Say Goodbye” and “Willie Moore,” the traditional folksong. These songs remind me of the first three shows I produced for Kate and Anna in the summer of 1974 at the Golem Coffee House in Montreal. Those wonderful concerts, which they played as a trio with Roma, remain a fond memory. The three were brilliant together and I’ve always regretted that Kate, Anna and Roma didn’t continue in that trio format.

It’s also interesting to hear Anna’s “Heart Like a Wheel” as primarily a solo vehicle for Kate. Even on the later version of “Heart Like a Wheel,” which includes some harmony from Anna, it is still Kate’s performance. In later concerts, and in the version recorded for Kate & Anna McGarrigle, it was very much a shared performance.

Another fascinating performance is the 1971 version of “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino,” that includes a final verse that Kate dropped before the song became well known.

Speaking as someone who knew Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and their music, back in the day when these “good old songs were new,” I cannot recommend Tell My Sister highly enough.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Festival Folk sur le canal June 16-19

Festival Folk sur le canal returns to the Lachine Canal in Montreal for a fourth year and a more ambitious undertaking. The festival was a one-day affair in 2008 and 2009 and expanded to two days last year. This year it expands to four days.

The festival will kick off on Thursday, June 16 with an opening indoor concert  at the Georges Vanier Cultural Centre (2450 Workman) featuring legendary folk, rock 'n' roll and jugband artist John Sebastian, founder of the Lovin' Spoonful.

On Friday, June 17 the action shifts a few blocks south for a free, outdoor concert presented in collaboration with Parks Canada at Ilot Charlevoix (corner of St. Patrick and Charlevoix) from 4:00-9:15 pm. Artists will include Osmosaic, Hellbound Hellcats, the Jimmyriggers, La chorale Edinburgh, and Belzébuth.

On Saturday and Sunday, June 18-19, the Festival Folk sur le canal returns to its familiar digs and format at the St. Ambroise Terrace, on the Lachine Canal, behind the McCauslin Brewery at 5080 St. Ambroise Street.

Once again the festival has an impressive line-up of established artists and interesting younger artists beginning to make their marks locally, nationally and internationally.

Among the artists I always look forward to hearing again are David Francey, Rose Cousins, Fred Eaglesmith, Sheesham & Lotus and Grouyan Gombo.

There are also a bunch of artists I’ve never had a chance to see before. Folk festivals are a great way to discover new artists, so I’m looking forward to hearing many of them too.

I’m also happy to see that the festival will include several afternoon workshop sessions. Having cut my folk festival teeth at Mariposa in the ‘70s, I’ve always felt that workshops are the heart and soul of folk festivals.

A family-friendly event, the festival will also have music and other activities for kids.

The Festival Folk sur le canal has developed nicely over the past four years. Congratulations to Matt Large and Rebecca Anderson of Hello Darlin’ Productions and Carl Comeau of Hyperbole Music for a doing great job of putting it together and making it happen.

Lots more information, the full schedule, and tickets are available at

--Mike Regenstreif

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sing Out! Magazine – Spring 2011

My copy of the latest issue of Sing Out! Magazine – Spring 2011 –  arrived this week. The cover story is about Jorma Kaukonen.

As usual, this issue of Sing Out! has some of my writing including a contribution to the “60 for 60” folk music symposium.

I also have book reviews of:

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz
The Long Trail: My Life in the West by Ian Tyson.

And a bunch of CD reviews:

Brenn Hill- Equine
Susan Lawrence- Welcome to Lawrenceville
Lawrence Lebo- Don’t Call Her Larry, Vol. 3: American Roots
Rosemary Phelan- What Sings in the Blood
Ken Whiteley- Another Day’s Journey
Wise-Magraw- How the Light Gets In.

I’m now at work on a bunch of CD reviews and a book review for the Summer issue of Sing Out!

--Mike Regenstreif

Tim Grimm – Thank You Tom Paxton

Thank You Tom Paxton

I’ll preface this review with an anecdote that I related in the “60 for 60” folk music symposium in the current issue of Sing Out! Magazine.

In 1968 or ’69, when I was 14, or maybe just turned 15, I heard there was going to be a big folk concert at McGill University in Montreal and decided to go. It was a bunch of local acts doing short sets in the first half and a headliner from New York in the second. When I got there, I discovered it was a “blanket concert”: thousands of McGill students – four, five, six and more years older than me – sitting on blankets on the floor of a huge gym. It was pretty full and I had no blanket so I sat on a long bench that lined the back of the gym wall. Between acts, I had an interesting conversation with the man sitting next to me. He obviously knew a lot about folk music and gave me some suggestions on records to look for. When the intermission was announced, he said he enjoyed talking with me and left.

After the break, the MC, Tex König, introduced “one of the greatest of the Greenwich Village folksingers:  Tom Paxton!” That man I’d been talking to all night walked on stage and did an amazing hour-long set that I still vividly remember 40-odd years later.

That was the “it moment” for me. I started to listen to every record and read every folk music book I could find. I subscribed to Sing Out!, went to coffeehouses and concerts, and was soon a part of the action – hanging out, learning some guitar, putting on concerts, running folk clubs, volunteering at folk festivals and writing articles and reviews. It became a way of life – and still is.

Mike Regenstreif and Tom Paxton (2009).
So, Tom Paxton, who, some years later, became a good friend, and who I’ve had the pleasure of working with a bunch of times in different contexts over the years, had a lot to do with drawing me into the folk music life.

Tom was one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 1960s – in fact, Dave Van Ronk once told me that Tom was the first Greenwich Village folksinger, before Bob Dylan, who worked hard and consistently at songwriting – and remains one of the greatest singer-songwriters today.

I know that Tom has influenced many, many artists over the years, among them the fine actor and singer-songwriter Tim Grimm. On his new album, Thank You Tom Paxton, Tim sets aside  his own songs in favour of a dozen of Tom’s dating from as early as the early-‘60s to as recent as 2007.

Tim includes a very nice version of “The Last Thing On My Mind,” unarguably the best known and most-often covered of Tom Paxton’s songs. There are several other well-known songs on the album, but several of Tim’s choices are more obscure.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard another cover version of “General Custer,” a satirical look at the demise of the ill-fated Custer at Little Big Horn that was on Tom’s never-reissued 1971 LP, How Come the Sun. Tim gives the song a fine bluegrass treatment with able backing from the White Lightning Boys. Other lesser-known Paxton songs that Tim brings to life include “Bishop Cody’s Last Request,” done in a folk-rock arrangement faithful to the song’s late-‘60s origins, and a lovely version of “All Night Long,” a meditation on late-night loneliness and doubt, and on the power of song.

Some of the other highlights – can you really pick highlights from an album of songs that are all great? – include a duet with Joe Crookston on “Rumblin’ in the Land,” a song about hard times that seems just as relevant in 2011 as it was when Tom wrote it almost half a century ago; “Fare Thee Well, Cisco,” a loving tribute to the great folksinger Cisco Houston, who died young from lung cancer at just about the time that Tom was starting his career; and beautiful versions of such Midge-inspired love songs as “Home To Me” and “I Give You the Morning.”

Another highlight – which I would have sequenced as the album closer – is a beautiful version of the inspiring “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain,” a recent song that Tom wrote in tribute to the likes of Pete Seeger, Martin Luther King and others who’ve led the way to peace and true social justice.

I really like Tim’s arrangements of these songs, some of which are faithful to Tom’s original versions, some of which take the songs in different directions. And, in addition to those already mentioned, I’ll also call attention to some fine contributions from guitarist Jason Wilber, Tim’s co-producer (who is also a fine singer-songwriter but is best known for being John Prine’s lead guitarist), and angelic harmony singers Sarah and Claire Bowman.

--Mike Regenstreif