Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Andy Statman in Montreal

I wish I could be in Montreal tomorrow night when the Montreal Jewish Music Festival, presented by KlezKanada, presents a concert with Andy Statman, one of my favourite instrumentalists – on both the mandolin and the clarinet. Andy is a virtuoso in bluegrass and klezmer music and in new Jewish music and jazz.

The show is Thursday, September 1, 7:30 pm, at the Rialto Theatre, 5723 Park Avenue. Yiddish folk singer Abby Rosenfeld opens the concert. Call 514-770-7773 for tickets.

Andy is also giving a bluegrass mandolin masterclass at the Rialto at 4:30 pm.

Here is my review of two Andy Statman albums that appeared in Sing Out! Magazine in 2007.

Awakening from Above
Shefa 3002

East Flatbush Blues
Shefa 3001

Awakening from Above and East Flatbush Blues are two very different albums recorded by Andy Statman.  On the former, he plays clarinet and, on one tune, mandolin while on the latter, he plays mandolin and, on one tune, clarinet. On both, he’s supported by the highly creative rhythm section of Jim Whitney on double bass and Larry Eagle on drums and percussion. The differences are in the origins of their respective repertoires and in the primary instrument played by Statman on each disc, but the two albums are linked by the virtuosity of Statman and his accompanists, and by their obviously deep commitment to the respective musics.

Awakening from Above is a deeply spiritual collection of Jewish music. Unlike most of today’s contemporary Klezmer musicians whose approach to the music is essentially cultural, Statman approaches the melodies as an expression of his Chasidic religiosity. Many of them are based on the Chasidic tradition of wordless songs, or niggunim. Closing your eyes, Statman’s clarinet assumes the role of the rabbi’s voice singing a niggun to his followers gathered around the table after a Sabbath meal. Whitney and Eagle assume the roles of those followers who clap out the rhythms and add their voices to that of the leader.

Although I’m a secular Jew, there is something about Statman’s playing of these religious melodies that stirs me very deeply and seems to take me back to a time when the lives of my ancestors in the Eastern Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries were defined by their religion. There is a profound understanding of this music, and where it comes from, that is communicated through Statman’s virtuoso playing. More than once after listening to this album, I’ve needed to sit for a while in silent contemplation.

The 12 tunes on East Flatbush Waltz include traditional favorites like “Arkansas Traveler” and “Golden Slippers,” Bill Monroe classics like “Rawhide” and “Blue Grass Stomp,” and several of Statman’s own compositions. Bluegrass music is the obvious starting point, and Statman’s playing frequently shows that his masterful bluegrass technique takes a back seat to no one, but his approach in playing the music will certainly not sit well with purists who cannot fathom a band that departs from the standard line-up of mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle and bass.  No, Statman and company approach the music as highly creative jazz players.  Bluegrass, in effect, is the inspiration and the starting point for some amazing flights of musical imagination and improvisation. Their 10 minute version of “Old Joe Clark” takes the tune to places it’s never been before with an intensity it’s never had before. While this may not be an album for bluegrass purists, it is an album for someone who purely loves music.  ---Mike Regenstreif

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, August 29, 2011

Ottawa Folk Festival – Sunday and wrap-up

Sunday in Ottawa was cloudy, very windy and unseasonably cool courtesy of the northwestern edge of Hurricane Irene. Unlike Montreal, just 120 miles to the east, we were spared Irene’s torrential rains – all we felt was an occasional isolated drop or two.

We started our Ottawa Folk Festival day at the Falls Stage watching the last half-hour or so of Ball & Chain and their band playing a fine set of Cajun music for dancing. Sylvie even got me up on the dance floor for a number.

We stayed put for a strong concert performance by Lynne Hanson, one of Ottawa’s finest singer-songwriters. Lynne’s songs are firmly rooted in the storytelling tradition and fiddler Lyndell Montgomery’s playing really helped bring out the best in them.

Then it was up to the workshop area where I hosted a round robin session called Southern Folk with two great Texas-based singer-songwriters, Kelly Willis and Hayes Carll, Lynne Hanson – who comes from southern Canada – and the David Wax Museum, a Boston-based band influenced by Mexican and Appalachian folk music. All of them played some great songs and I had a fine time hosting.

We then headed back to the Falls Stage to hear an excellent set by Anaïs Mitchell – who was in a songwriters’ workshop I hosted in 2006 at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Vermont – and the first half of a charming performance by Catherine MacLellan.

By then, the cold was really getting to us. As much as I wanted to stick around and hear concerts by Lynn Miles, Hayes Carll, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, and Levon Helm. It just wasn’t in the cards. It was “Goodnight Irene” for us.

As I mentioned, I really think there were two very different festivals happening at Hog’s Back Park this past weekend. A variation on Bluesfest, particularly at night and particularly on the main-stage; and a variation on the traditional Ottawa Folk Festival on the rest of the grounds, particularly during the daylight hours. The formula was successful in that it brought in bigger crowds than the Ottawa Folk Festival has seen in years.

If that’s what it takes to have a successful folk festival in Ottawa, then, I suppose, that’s what it takes. But, there are a few things that can be done to make the festival better.

The first, as Ian Robb suggested in a Maplepost message, is shut down the main-stage during the day. The overbearing sound from that stage just puts an unnecessary damper on several of the other stages and the jamming area. The daytime programming on the mainstage was unnecessary and the crowds drawn by some of the main-stage headliners (as opposed to the folkies who come for the festival experience) only show up at night anyway.

Second, the festival should be booked with an artistic vision that includes creative workshop programming. The Ottawa Folklore Centre did a great job with what they had to work with, but the workshop programming was an afterthought in the grand scheme of the festival when it should be at the forefront because that’s what makes a folk festival special.

Third, there were a few too many acts booked that had no connection to folk or roots music. While headliners like Steve Earle, Colin Hay and Levon Helm certainly do belong at folk festivals, there were some who just didn’t.

Fourth, include more traditional music and dance and more traditions. I’d have loved to have seen some klezmer music, some Celtic music, some traditional African music and so much more. There should always be room for traditional music and a diversity of traditions at a folk festival.

This was year one for the Ottawa Folk Festival under Bluesfest management. Despite such problems as sound bleed, I did think it was a more-than-worthy festival. I hope it will continue to evolve into the great festival it can be.

--Mike Regenstreif

Ottawa Folk Festival – Saturday

“I think there may be two Ottawa Folk Festivals happening this weekend: a variation on the Bluesfest scene at the main-stage and a variation on the traditional Ottawa Folk Festival scene at other stages,” I wrote in my previous post after Friday night’s offerings.

After Saturday and Sunday’s full day schedules, I’m convinced of that. During the weekend days, I felt like I was at a folk festival (in spite of the fact that the Falls and RavenLaw stages and the jamming areas still had to contend with overbearing sound bleed from the main-stage much of the time.

When we arrived on the grounds a little after noon, the Old Sod Band was playing for contra dancers at the Falls Stage and the workshop stages were all getting into gear. As I’ve mentioned before, the daytime workshops, for me, are the heart and soul of a good folk festival. Despite the challenges of a it being a festival that wasn’t booked with workshops in mind, Arthur McGregor and his team at the Ottawa Folklore Centre did a good job of putting together the workshop programming.

The first workshop we settled into was Storytelling and Mythology featuring Anaïs Mitchell, Garland Jeffreys and Gandalf Murphy. Although I didn’t warm up to the Gandalf Murphy band, I enjoyed Anaïs’ songs from Hadestown, her folk-opera about the Orpheus myth – which was perfect for the workshop’s theme – and Garland's great story songs about the New York City hew grew up in.

Then it was back to the Falls Stage to hear a set of accomplished acoustic pop songs by Ron “Doc” Weiss. Accompanied by a bassist and percussionist, the set was highlighted by Ron’s intricate acoustic guitar playing in a style not unlike Bruce Cockburn’s.

Then it was to the workshop area to hear an excellent session called Old Traditions, New Songs with Rick Fines, Vance Gilbert and Jayme Stone. Rick played songs he’d written based in the ragtime and jazz traditions, Vance did songs based on jazz – including singing in the voices of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Tom Waits, Vance is a dead-on impressionist – and a cappella balladry, while Jayme’s banjo (and his fiddler accompanist) took us around the world and back to the classical era.

The workshop schedule included several on-stage interview sessions and I was tapped to conduct an interview with the Scottish-Australian singer-songwriter Colin Hay, who first came to prominence about three decades ago as lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter of Men At Work, one of the most successful bands of the early-1980s. I had a great time chatting with Colin about his career and hearing him play a few of his excellent recent songs. (I left the festival grounds before his two-hour evening concert later that night, but I heard from several people that it was one of the finest concerts of the festival.)

We finished up the workshop day watching a nice Bluebird North songwriters’ round-robin featuring Rick Fines and two accomplished Ottawa artists, Ana Miura and Megan Jerome.

All in all, it was a great afternoon of folk festivaling and we decided to call it a day after the workshop area shut down for the evening. I really wanted to get some rest and be back on Sunday for a full day leading up to Levon Helm’s festival-closing concert.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ottawa Folk Festival -- Friday night

On its second night, the Ottawa Folk Festival felt more like Bluesfest and less like a “folk” festival: big crowds drawn by specific artists – in particular a very loud rock band called City and Colour and Steve Earle, who seemed to be equally loud at times.

How loud were they?

Loud enough that it put dampers on other artists valiantly playing on other stages.

City and Colour didn’t interest me – but singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys and banjo player extraordinaire Jayme Stone playing simultaneously on other stages did. My plan was to catch some of Garland’s set then dash over and catch some of Jayme’s. I was so charmed with Garland Jeffreys – who I’d never seen live before – that I stayed put and missed Jayme.

Playing acoustic guitar and accompanied by just another guitarist Garland’s long set drew on his rich catalogue of classic material like the epic “Spanish Town” and “Wild in the Streets” and new songs from the recently released CD, The King of In Between, his first  album in a decade, and a great version of Bob Dylan’s “Pledging My Time.”

The only problem with the set – which took place on the RavenLaw Stage, a beautiful, natural amphitheatre, was the overwhelming sound bleed from City and Colour on the main-stage.

My plan for the second half of the evening was to catch the first half of Steve Earle’s set starting at 9:00 pm, then scoot over and catch Vance Gilbert who was starting at 9:30. Getting to the main-stage area where City and Colour was just finishing and Earle was following changed my mind. The area was just too crowded for comfort. It was a stand-up crowd from front-to-back. Forget about folk festival etiquette of low chairs on one side, high chairs on the other and no-smoking in the middle of the crowd.

So I headed over to the Falls Stage to wait for Vance Gilbert’s set. That area slowly filled with an audience of “folk festival” types that built to a nice crowd by the time Vance came on at 9:30. Waiting for Vance, Steve Earle was loud enough that we could hear the first 30 minutes of his set just fine from across the festival site.

Vance was in fine form, he sang great, despite complaining of allergies, his guitar playing was as sophisticated as a schooled jazz musician, and he was funnier than almost any comedian I’ve seen in a comedy club.

Among the highlights were such songs as “Icarus By Night” and “Unfamiliar Moon.”

He was even in good humour about his recent nightmare with United Airlines and made light of the overbearing sound of Steve Earle’s set that continually flooded in.

I think there may be two Ottawa Folk Festivals happening this weekend: a variation on the Bluesfest scene at the main-stage and a variation on the traditional Ottawa Folk Festival scene at other stages.

Today I’m looking forward to the three daytime workshop stages kicking in. To me, that’s what a real folk festival is all about.

Among today’s workshops is an on-stage interview I’m conducting with Colin Hay at 4:00-4:45 pm on the Heron Stage.
--Mike Regenstreif

Friday, August 26, 2011

Ottawa Folk Festival -- Thursday night

The new version of the Ottawa Folk Festival – under Bluesfest management – had what appeared to be a very successful kick-off last night.

Arriving at the new site at Hog`s Back Park for the first time, I was very impressed with the new digs. It`s a lovely, lushly green location for the festival with the stage areas all within a two-minute walk of each other. The food and artisan vendors are on park grass, a big improvement over the concrete they occupied at the old Britannia Park site and there’s a much bigger variety of food than in past years.

Although the festival is under new management, it was very nice to see, early in the evening, well-deserved recognition paid to 18 people who either founded the Ottawa Folk Festival or were highly involved over many years in its organization. The 18 were the first inductees into the newly-created Festival Builders Hall of Fame. Congratulations to AL Chopper MacKinnon, Alan Marjerrison, Arthur McGregor, Barry Pilon, Carol Silcoff, Chris White, Dean Verger, Gene Swimmer, Joyce MacPhee, Karen Flanagan McCarthy, Max Wallace, Pam Marjerrison, Peter Zanette, Rachel Hauraney, Roberta Huebener, Rod McDowell, Sheila Ross, and Suzanne Lessard-Wynes on the well-deserved honour.

And, congratulations again, to Gene Swimmer, the Ottawa Folk Festival’s volunteer executive director for many years, who also received the Helen Verger Award, recognizing his many years of work on behalf of the folk festival.

With three stages going almost simultaneously, choices had to be made. Early in the evening, I didn’t really make a choice and wandered from stage to stage catching a couple songs each from local artists Megan Jerome, John Allaire and Gerry Wall.

I also caught a few songs by American singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman. I’d been looking forward to hearing him but he didn’t really capture my attention so I went to hear the last few songs by Dry River Caravan, a local Ottawa band that plays music blending klezmer, Balkan, bluegrass and other musics. It was my first time hearing them and I was quite impressed. I’m looking forward to hearing more of them.

The best set I saw last night – indeed, the only one that I watched from beginning through encore – was Justin Townes Earle. The son of Steve Earle (who plays the festival tonight), he is one of the finest young singer-songwriters around today (click here for my review of his latest album). Playing guitar, and accompanied by the superb bassist Bryn Davies and the equally superb fiddler Amanda Shires, Earle engaged the audience with his down-home demeanor and well-crafted songs steeped in folk, blues, country and western and swing traditions.

After Earle’s set, I dashed over to another stage to catch the last half-hour of the Punch Brothers set. The Punch Brothers are a kind of post-bluegrass band led by mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile – who’s a lot taller now than the first time I saw him play when he was a 13- or 14-year-old mandolin prodigy, circa 1994 or ’95. The instrumental skills of all five guys in the Punch Brothers are awesome and they’re good singers too. But, I wasn’t crazy about their material. Other than an astonishing instrumental (whose title I didn’t catch) and a great version of Robbie Robertson’s “Ophelia,” the other four songs didn't really draw me in.

My best bets for tonight are Vance Gilbert and Steve Earle – who, of course, are playing at the same time on different stages.

Workshop alert: For me, the real heart of a folk festival are the daytime workshops. The Ottawa Folk Festival workshops -- curated by the Ottawa Folk Festival -- are on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I’ll be taking part in one each day. I'm doing an on-stage interview with Colin Hay on Saturday, 4:00-4:45 pm, on the Heron Stage; and hosting the "Southern Folk" workshop on Sunday, 3:00-3:45 pm, with Lynne Hanson, Hayes Carll and Kelly Willis, on the Slackwater Stage.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Utah Phillips -- Making Speech Free; Various Artists -- Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce “Utah” Phillips

Utah Phillips and Mike Regenstreif (2005)
Bruce “Utah” Phillips (1935-2008) and I were friends for a long time. I met him in 1971 when the Smithsonian Institution held a series of folk music concerts in Montreal at the American Pavilion at Man and His World, the remnant of Expo ’67, and they engaged Bruce to MC the series for a couple of weeks. I was a 17-year-old folk music enthusiast anxious to soak up whatever I could and he took a liking to me that blossomed into friendship and our working together often.

In 1972, when I started my first concert series at Dawson College in Montreal, I tracked Bruce down and invited him to perform a concert.

“I’ll do it on one condition,” he told me over the phone from San Francisco. “That Malvina Reynolds comes with me and it’s a double bill.”

That’s how I got to produce the only concert the great folk songwriter Malvina Reynolds ever did in Montreal.

I went on to produce many concerts with Bruce in various halls and at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Some were solo concerts and some were double bills with Rosalie Sorrels.

I hung out with him a lot over the years in Montreal, of course, and at the Philo studio in Vermont where he had a caboose, in Saratoga Springs, and a bunch of other places. I once spent a week driving him and Rosalie around New England, New York State and finally up to Montreal when Bruce was running for president of the United States on the Sloth and Indolence ticket.

And I got an education-and-a-half walking around skid rows with Bruce in Montreal, Boston and Vancouver as he picked up stories from the folks there.

In the ‘90s, Bruce developed congenital heart failure and wasn’t able to travel much anymore. Chances to spend time with him became rare occasions. Our last time together was in 2005 when he performed and I MCed at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Vermont. We recorded a great radio interview and his participation was a highlight of the annual songwriters’ workshop I ran at the festival for many years.

These two albums, a live set of Bruce recorded in 1999, when his performances had become relatively rare due to his congenital heart failure, and a tribute album, organized by his son Duncan, by folk music artists from Utah, have triggered a lot of fine memories of time spent in Bruce’s company and watching and listening to him perform.

Making Speech Free
PM Press/Free Dirt Records

Making Speech Free documents a 74-minute live concert set that Bruce gave as part of a free speech teach-in in San Francisco in 1999. Although much of the set seems tailored to the theme of the teach-in, the songs and spoken word pieces were quite typical of the sets he was doing in the later years of his career. I suppose any Utah Phillips set could be seen as a free speech teach-in.

A good half of the performance was devoted to Bruce’s spoken stories about the labour movement, in particular to the I.W.W. – the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies – and labour heroes like Joe Hill and Mother Jones, and about the brand of anarchy that Bruce picked up decades ago from Ammon Hennacy: “An anarchist is anyone who doesn’t need a cop to tell him what to do.”

As with any performance Bruce ever did there are moments of great hilarity that may mask the fact that they are also carefully-planned history lessons. The songs, mostly, are labour songs, or songs of social conscience, gathered from Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Maurice Sugar and James Oppenheim.

Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce “Utah” Phillips
Waterbug Records

This tribute featuring various folksingers based in or around the state of Utah was organized by Duncan Phillips, Bruce’s oldest son. I remember hearing Bruce talk about Duncan when he introduced the song, “Daddy, What a Train?” a song written for him. It was 40 years ago when I first heard those intros to that song.

With three exceptions – Kate MacLeod, who also produced the CD, Anke Summerhill and Hal Cannon, who told me in an e-mail exchange some time ago that he took guitar lessons from Bruce and Rosalie – I wasn’t previously familiar with most of the Utah-based artists who contributed to the album. But I sure know the songs. Most of them date back to Bruce’s early years and include such gems as “Eddy’s Song,” sung by Paul Rasmussen, a tribute to Eddy Balchowski, a concert pianist who lost an arm as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War; “The Telling Takes Me Home,” a lament for the dying west, sung by Dave Eskelsen; and “Jesse’s Corrido,” a powerful song written in protest of a death sentence handed to a Hispanic young man in Utah for a prison murder, sung by Gentri Watson.

Among my favourite tracks is certainly Kate MacLeod’s version of “Nevada Jane,” a song Bruce wrote about the deep love Wobbly organizer Big Bill Haywood had for his wife. Bruce based the tune for “Nevada Jane” on the version of Stephen Foster’s “Gentle Annie” that Kate McGarrigle used to sing. I hear something of Kate McGarrigle’s singing in the way Kate MacLeod sings the song.

Another favourite is Duncan Phillips’ own song, “Long Gone,” a tribute to his father that doesn’t shy away from the long years that father and son spent searching for a way to find each other.

All in all, Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce "Utah" Phillips is a worthy tribute from a folk music community inspired by one of its greatest. By the way, these songs were recorded using the big old Guild guitar that Bruce played on stage for almost his entire career. He's holding that guitar in the picture of the two of us at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in 2005.

Here is a link to my review of Singing Through the Hard Times, an earlier tribute to Bruce “Utah” Phillips.

--Mike Regenstreif