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


  1. Scott MerrifieldMay 17, 2011 at 8:34 AM

    My wife, Vickie, just returned from attending the tribute concert in New York last Friday, with a couple of copies of this CD set in hand. She found the concert to be one of the most moving and satisfying she has ever experienced. There was also a tribute in London. Is there any plan to have one in Montreal?

  2. Jane McGarrigle told me a few weeks ago that a Montreal concert will probably happen at some point. I'll have details on the blog as soon as anything is announced.