Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Levon Helm -– Ramble at the Ryman

Ramble at the Ryman

Most Saturday nights, Levon Helm puts on a show called the Midnight Ramble at his studio in Woodstock, New York. His band plays and they feature a guest or two. Tickets cost $150.00 and typically sell out. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard from several people who have that it’s worth every penny.

Occasionally, Levon takes the show on the road. He’ll be here to close out the Ottawa Folk Festival on August 28. Ramble at the Ryman captures the legendary singer and drummer from The Band, along with his band, and several guests in a 2008 Ramble show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, one of the most legendary music halls south of New York City.

It’s an eclectic blend of Americana music that Levon and his associates play. There’s lots of New Orleans in the mix – particularly in the second line horn arrangements. There’s also Memphis R&B, Appalachian folk and old-time country, blues, bluegrass, and, to be sure, rock ‘n’ roll. Levon, a survivor of throat cancer, does some of the singing, but, a lot of the vocals are handled by band members and guest artists.

Six of the 15 tracks are drawn from Robbie Robertson’s Band songbook and it’s obvious, three-and-a-half decades after The Last Waltz, Levon still finds a lot of joy and opportunities for creative expression in the songs. The album opens with “Ophelia,” with its celebratory, second line horns-meets-The Band arrangement. Along the way, Levon revisits the Cajun-flavoured “Evangeline,” sung as a duet with Sheryl Crow – their version holds up well next to the original version which featured Emmylou Harris singing with The Band – and “Rag Mama Rag,” done bayou-meets-Bourbon Street-style with some great trombone work by Clark Gayton. Later, the album closes with three Band songs as Levon and company breathe new life into “The Shape I’m In,” “Chest Fever” and “The Weight.”

Among the other highlights are a sweet version of the Carter Family’s “No Depression Heaven,” with lead vocal by Sheryl Crow, a bluegrass-meets-Dixeland-meets-rock ‘n’ roll arrangement of the traditional “Deep Elem Blues,” and a sweet country version of Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Wide River to Cross” with guests Buddy Miller on guitar and vocals and Sam Bush on mandolin.

It all whets the appetite for the Ottawa Folk Festival show.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bill Morrissey 1951-2011

Bill Morrissey performing in 2010.
I woke up this morning to the very sad news that Bill Morrissey, one of the finest singer-songwriters of my generation (and a marvellous interpreter of Mississippi John Hurt songs), passed away yesterday.

I don’t know any details – apparently he was on a stopover in Georgia on his way north after some tour dates – but Bill has been in fragile health for a number of years. Bill did not look at all well when I last saw him in 2005 when he was in Montreal to perform for the Wintergreen Concert Series, but I’d heard he was recently feeling better; that he was overcoming alcoholism and depression, and Internet reports had him sounding good at recent concerts.

(Addendum, July 26, 2011: Autopsy results indicate Bill died from complications of heart disease.)

Mike Regenstreif & Bill Morrissey in 2005.
I’ve been a great admirer of Bill’s music since the LP version of his first album, Bill Morrissey, came out in 1984 (he later re-recorded the album for the CD release). We first met at a folk festival around that time and I enjoyed talking with him whenever our paths crossed over the years. He was twice my guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show and he was among the most-played artists over the run of the show. In 2002, I hosted a workshop called Short Stories That Rhyme with Bill, Ron Hynes and Cliff Eberhardt on the mainstage of the Ottawa Folk Festival.

Bill was also a very fine novelist. I loved Edson, his first novel published in 1996, about a musician in a New Hampshire mill town (not unlike the town depicted in his classic song, “Small Town on the River”). He'd completed a second novel, Imaginary Runner, that has not yet been published.

Life in New Hampshire, where Bill spent many years, was a theme that ran through many of his songs.

Bill’s novelist’s skills as a storyteller were reflected both in his songs and in the engaging way he talked on stage between songs.

Bill leaves behind a substantial body of superb work. While many of Bill’s songs were sad and serious, he also wrote some that were very funny and, today, I want to think that he’s somehow experiencing the heaven he once wrote about:

“And me, I couldn’t be happier
The service here is fine
They’ve got dinner ready at half-past nine
And I’m going steady with Patsy Cline
And just last night in a bar room
I bought Robert Johnson a beer
Yeah, I know, everybody’s always surprised to find him here

It’s a great life in heaven
It’s better than the Bible said
It’s a great life here in heaven
It’s a great life when you’re dead.”  --Bill Morrissey, “Letter from Heaven”

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, July 11, 2011

Get well, Jesse Winchester!

My thoughts and best wishes are with my friend of 40+ years Jesse Winchester as he battles cancer of the esophagus.

Jesse has cancelled his concert schedule while he undergoes treatment for the rest of the year.

Jesse is one of the great singer-songwriters of our time and there was a significant period of time when we on the Montreal folk scene had him almost to ourselves.

Three quick anecdotes:

Jesse played often at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the 1970s and ‘80s. I took over the club at the end of May 1974 and Jesse’s first gig there was at the beginning of August. This was right about the time that his third LP, Learn to Love It, came out and all three nights were sold-out. Jesse, in those days, was not able to perform in the U.S. but was already attracting a lot of attention for his songwriting. A reporter from Rolling Stone magazine showed up and covered the gig as part of a story about Jesse. I believe it was the first time that Rolling Stone had ever covered a Montreal story.

In November 1975, I was a backstage guest of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (another Golem performer) at the Rolling Thunder Revue's first Toronto concert. During the concert, Joan Baez dedicated a song to Jesse (Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston” which has a line, “I’m the number one fan of the man from Tennessee”). I met Joan for the first time at the Rolling Thunder party after the show. When I mentioned that Jesse was a friend, Joan spent about half an hour grilling me about him.

In 1999, when Jesse released his first new album in 10 years, I was honoured that he chose to debut the album as a guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show.

I know that I speak for all his friends and fans in wishing Jesse a speedy recovery.

--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Carolina Chocolate Drops on their way to Montreal

The Carolina Chocolate Drops, one of the most exciting string bands to emerge in many years, will be performing their first Montreal concert Thursday, July 14, 8:00 pm, at Petit Campus (57 Prince Arthur East).

For info or tickets, call Hello Darlin' Productions at 514-524-9225.

Since forming six or seven years ago, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been at the forefront of the revival and revitalization of African American stringband music, a rich form of traditional music that had been largely forgotten in recent decades.

I’ve seen the Carolina Chocolate Drops several times at folk festivals and have loved their unique blend of traditional music with contemporary sensibilities – both on stage and on their series of excellent CDs. Their latest full length CD, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy this year for Best Traditional Folk Album.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are coming to Montreal with a revised line-up from the version of the band that I know from CDs and folk festivals. That version was a trio featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson.

Justin recently left the band and original members Rhiannon and Dom have been joined by human beatboxer Adam Matta and multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins. The buzz I’ve heard indicates version 2.0 of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is every bit as exciting as the original trio.

By the way, the band name, Carolina Chocolate Drops, is a nod to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, an African American stringband that played and recorded in the 1930s. I had the opportunity to get to know three of the Tennessee Chocolate Drops – Carl Martin, Ted Bogan and Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, all of whom have since passed away – when they reformed as Martin, Bogan and Armstrong in the 1970s.

Here’s my Montreal Gazette review of the first Carolina Chocolate Drops album from June 21, 2007.

Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind
Music Maker

There’s been a strong revival of old-time music over the past several years and one of the most exciting groups to emerge is the Carolina Chocolate Drops. This trio of young African American musicians takes much of their inspiration from the almost-forgotten traditions of black fiddle and banjo-based music from the Piedmont region of the American Southeast. Their very impressive debut CD is highlighted by highly rhythmic instrumental work on string band tunes like “Rickett’s Hornpipe” and “Old Cat Died,” and by convincing singing on a couple of murder ballads: “Little Sadie” and “Tom Dula.” The finest vocal performances come in their vivid a cappella versions of the prison song “Another Man Done Gone,” and the ancient ballad “Little Margaret.”

--Mike Regenstreif