Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hilda Bronstein -- Hilda Bronstein Sings Yiddish Songs with Chutzpah!

This review is from the September 19, 2011 edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

Hilda Bronstein Sings Yiddish Songs with Chutzpah!
Arc Music

When I first opened this CD, I assumed that the word chutzpah was being used to describe British singer Hilda Bronstein’s approach to the singing of Yiddish songs. While I wouldn’t say there’s a lack of chutzpah in her singing, Chutzpah is actually the name of the klezmer band she fronts.

The album is a collection of 17 Yiddish-language songs – many of them familiar – drawn from various sources including classic Yiddish films and theatrical musicals, settings of Yiddish poems and several Holocaust-era songs. Bronstein sings the quieter, sombre songs with all due respect and the more celebratory, upbeat songs with much verve.

Chutzpah, which includes Israeli accordionist Yair Schleider, and violinist Meg Hamilton, also noted for her work in the She’koyokh Klezmer Ensemble, provide Bronstein with arrangements that move from swinging to contemplative.

Among the highlights are such toe-tappers as “Abi Gezunt,” made famous by Molly Picon in the 1938 film Mamele, “Di Grine Kuzine,” an ultimately bitter song about Jewish immigration to America in the early part of the 20th century, and “Farbay di Teg,” a Yiddish version of a Russian folksong whose English version (adapted by Gene Raskin), “Those Were the Days” was a hit in the 1960s by Mary Hopkin.

Some of the CD’s most poignant moments come in songs like “Makh Tsu Di Eygelekh,” a lullaby composed in the Lodz Ghetto, and “Slutsk,” a Yiddish theatre song recalling a shtetl in Belarus.

--Mike Regenstreif

She’koyokh Klezmer Ensemble -- Buskers’ Ballroom

This review is from the September 19, 2011 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

Buskers’ Ballroom
Arc Music

The She’koyokh Klezmer Ensemble has become somewhat of a sensation in British music circles for their tight, soulful variation on traditional Ashkenazic klezmer music musically informed by strains and influences from Sephardic, Roma, Balkan and Parisian jazz traditions.

The joyous dance tune “Russian Shers,” which opens the album and gives various instrumentalists the chance to interact with each other in a way that lots of fun, is among my favourite tracks on the CD. Others include “Bendi Glendi,” in which guitarist Matt Bacon demonstrates his great facility on a Django Reinhardt-like jazz tune; “Hora with Onions,” a Naftule Brandwein tune that becomes a showcase for violinist Meg Hamilton; “Rampi Rampi,” a Turkish Roma piece in which percussionist Vasilis Sarikis and singer Cigdem Aslan – who was born in Istanbul – are highlighted; and “Train to Orestiada,” which features clarinetist Susi Evans on an arrangement that’s imagined as a Ukranian klezmer band playing in a Greek nightclub in Athens.

While I’ve called attention to a few of the She’koyokh musicians as pertaining to the cited selections, they and the rest of the band – Oliver Baldwin on tambura, Robin Harris on trombone and Ben Samuels on mandolin – are all delightful throughout the 14 selections clocking in at more than an hour.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Jesse Winchester update

Back in July, I reported that my old friend Jesse Winchester had cancelled his concert bookings after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus.

Some good news! After rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and surgery last week, Jesse is now cancer-free and on the road to recovery.

Cindy Winchester, Jesse’s wife, has been keeping folks up-to-date with Jesse’s progress on his Caring Bridge site. You can also leave messages for Jesse (and Cindy) there.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tim Eriksen in Montreal and Ottawa this weekend

Tim Eriksen, one of the premiere interpreters of traditional balladry in the world today, will be in Montreal and Ottawa this weekend. These events are not to be missed by anyone interested in traditional folk music.

There are two events in Montreal on Saturday, September 24.

Tim will be doing a shape-note singing workshop at 3:00 pm at 550 Beaumont #203 and an evening concert launching the 2011-2012 Wintergreen Concert Series at 8:00 pm at Petit Campus (57 Prince Arthur East). Contact Hello Darlin’ Productions at 514-524-9225 for tickets or info for either event.

In the Ottawa area, Tim is doing a Sunday afternoon concert, September 25, 2:00 pm, at the Harry Craig Community Hall (6045 Prince of Wales Drive, North Gower). For information, contact Ann Downey at banjodowney@gmail.com.

Here are my reviews of two of Tim’s albums from Sing Out! Magazine.

Tim Eriksen
Appleseed 1053

Tim Eriksen started out playing punk rock with Cordelia’s Dad, a band that evolved into mesmerizing purveyors of hardcore, uncompromising traditional music.  On this equally mesmerizing solo effort, recorded in just five hours, Eriksen offers purist interpretations of traditional songs and tunes as well as well as several songs of his own making that fit seamlessly with the traditional songs.  If not for the liner notes, I would be hard pressed to tell which are the traditional songs and which are his.  Eriksen sings a cappella on some songs while on others he variously accompanies himself on guitar, fiddle and fretless banjo.  Two pieces, “Last Chance,” frailed on the banjo, and a medley of “Mobile Serenade Polka/Shep Jones Hornpipe,” neatly picked on the guitar, are instrumentals.

One of Eriksen’s most powerful original songs is “I Wish the Wars Were All Over,” an anti-war song that he constructed using lyrical fragments from a variety of traditional songs.  Singing from the perspective of a young woman whose lover is off fighting, Eriksen quietly purveys the woman’s devastating uncertainty over whether her man will survive.  Of the traditional songs, highlights include “Brown Girl,” a long version of “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender” that he learned from a tape of Appalachian ballad singer Frank Proffitt, and an intense, a cappella performance of the even longer “Village Churchyard” garnered from the singing of Roscoe Holcomb.

Eriksen presents this music with absolutely no commercial considerations or compromises in making it palatable for an audience.  The only choice he seems to give a listener is to pay absolute attention or to ignore him and completely tune out.  I choose the former.
Soul of the January Hills
Appleseed 1120

On a summer day late in the last century, I was at a folk festival listening to Cordelia’s Dad, a band that came out of the punk scene performing traditional folk songs. Sitting with me was a noted scholar and singer of traditional songs – someone who would generally have little truck with any approach to folk music that strays from a traditional approach. I remember him telling me that he was as excited hearing Cordelia’s Dad as anyone he’d encountered in decades. The band’s lead singer was Tim Eriksen, who in the years since, has become even more steeped in traditional folk songs and in developing a compelling and intense approach to their performance.

Soul of the January Hills is a mesmerizing set of 14 songs, all sung a cappella, that Eriksen recorded in one take, in one hour-long session, sitting (or perhaps standing) by himself in a church in Poland. He turned on his digital recorder, sang the songs once, in order, turned off the recorder and had this album.

Among the traditional ballads that Eriksen sings are “Queen Jane,” “Two Babes,” “Lass of Glenshee” and “Drowsy Sleeper.” Listening, one can’t help but be caught up in the tales of lust and murder n the songs’ stories. Somewhat of a specialist in shape note singing, he also sings such hymns as “Amazing Grace,” “Son of God” and “Wrestling Jacob.”

Perhaps the most powerful song is “I Wish the Wars Were All Over,” a song that he compiled from fragments drawn from a variety of traditional songs. He sings it from the perspective of a woman whose love is away at war. Eriksen has recorded “I Wish the Wars Were All Over” before, but this a cappella rendition is even more convincing than his earlier version.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sing Out! Magazine – Summer 2011

My copy of the Summer 2011 issue of Sing Out! Magazine arrived today (just in the nick of time before summer officially fades into fall this week. The cover story is about the David Wax Museum, a band I met last month when they were part of a workshop I hosted at the Ottawa Folk Festival.

As usual, this issue of Sing Out! has some of my writing including a book review of Woody Guthrie: American Radical by Will Kaufman, and a bunch of CD reviews:

Rory BlockShake ‘Em On Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell
Jonathan ByrdCackalack
Hal CannonHal Cannon
Patti CaseyThe Heart of a Waiting Boy
Rachel HarringtonCelilo Falls
Diana JonesHigh Atmosphere
Buddy MillerBuddy Miller’s The Majestic Silver Strings
Job PotterJob Potter
Danny SchmidtMan of Many Moons
The Wailin’ JennysBright Morning Stars
Tim WilliamsWhen I was a Cowboy.

--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Scott Alarik – Revival: A Folk Music Novel

Revival: A Folk Music Novel
By Scott Alarik
Peter E. Randall Publisher
315 pages

When I first met Scott Alarik in the late-1970s, he was one of the impressive Minnesota-based folksingers who’d soon find some measure of wider recognition through their appearances on the early shows of the A Prairie Home Companion radio show.

A few years later, Scott moved to the Boston area where he continued to perform and record but became primarily known as a freelance writer covering folk music for the Boston Globe, Sing Out! and other publications. Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground, a collection of Scott’s folk music articles was published in 2003. Now, with Revival: A Folk Music Novel, Scott turns his attention to fiction.

The story is set in a scene that Scott knows as well as anyone: the contemporary folk music scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts (as well as the broader North American folk music scene). The main characters are Nathan Warren and Kit Palmer.

Nathan is a veteran performer whose chance at the big time was blown by a combination of music biz politics and his own self-destructiveness. Now sober, he runs a weekly open mike night at a Cambridge bar where he mentors promising young performers and gives chances to any and all who want to get up and share their songs.

The young and painfully shy Kit Palmer is one of those promising young singer-songwriters – perhaps the most promising. Nathan recognizes her talent, helps her overcome her stage fright and – despite their age and experiential differences – they fall in love.

As the story develops, Nathan teaches Kit the art of stagecraft and becomes her backup musician and producer as she begins to climb her own ladder to folk music stardom. All the while Kit’s influence revitalizes Nathan and his own music.

Among the secondary characters is Ryan Ferguson, the veteran freelance folk music critic for the major local newspaper. The paper is going through the same kind of cutbacks and restructuring the Montreal Gazette – where I used to be the freelance folk music critic – went through a few years ago, so I related strongly to the character (whose professional struggles, I’m sure, were based, in large part, on Scott’s own adventures at the Globe). Another is Joyce Warren, Nathan’s ex-wife and a star in the folk music world now based in L.A.

Scott does two things quite brilliantly in Revival. He tells a May-December love story in a way that seems fresh and vital – and he gives a superb primer on the folk music scene as it has evolved almost a half-century after the major folk music revival of the 1960s. Readers get an understanding of the hierarchy of the scene from open mikes in neighborhood bars to community-based, volunteer-driven house concerts and coffee houses, to the major folk club, concert and festival circuit. The independent recording scene, folk music radio and publications are all are part of the primer that should make this book essential reading for any aspiring performer – and for anyone who cares about the scene.

One of the things that I loved about Revival is that Scott has created characters that seem like people I know. In a note that precedes the story, Scott stresses that any similarities to real people in the characters in coincidental, but there are aspects to these characters that I recognize – or at least read into – many people I know, or have known over my years on the folk scene (which pretty much parallel Scott’s), including more than a few good friends.

Revival: A Folk Music Novel is a terrific read for anyone who likes a good story and an essential read for anyone who cares about or wants to understand today’s folk music scene.

--Mike Regenstreif

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Tom Russell -- Mesabi

Shout! Factory

Three years ago, I had the pleasure of writing the booklet essay for The Tom Russell Anthology: Veteran’s Day, Tom Russell’s 2-CD, career spanning retrospective, in which I referred to him as “the best songwriter of my generation.” It’s a conviction I’ve repeated several times since and which is only reinforced by Mesabi, yet another in his long series of masterpiece albums – albums that essentially raise and set the bar for contemporary singer-songwriters.

There are a couple of distinct, but somehow linked, song-cycles on this album. The first explores the nature of the pursuit of art, the nature of legend, and the rewards and the cruelty of fame.

The album begins with about 10 seconds of solo acoustic guitar picking out the melody line to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as an intro to “Mesabi,” the album’s folk-rock title song named for the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota, the area that Bob Dylan grew up in during the 1940s and ‘50s. The song begins with a description of the kid that was the young Robert Zimmerman in Hibbing and shifts up into the 1960s and the kid who was the young Tom Russell listening to and being inspired by the troubadour kid singing “Don’t Think Twice” on his uncle’s record player.

While “Mesabi” was about the creation of a legend, it leads into “Where the Legends Die,” a literate jazz piece about the realization that legendary figures are just as human and flawed as the rest of us.

Flawed legends are the heart of the next pair of songs. “Farewell Never Never Land,” which shifts from a Stephen Foster-like intro to a folk-rock setting, tells the tragic story of Bobby Driscoll, a Disney child actor – he was the voice of Peter Pan in the classic animated version from 1953 – that grew up to be a drug addicted has-been who died of old age at 31.

Tom sings “The Lonesome Death of Ukulele Ike,” as the song’s title character in a bouncy 1920s or ‘30s pop style. Ukulele IkeCliff Edwards – was a popular singer in those days, and achieved his greatest success as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. (Who can forget his classic rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star?”) Ultimately, though, Edwards died penniless, another fallen legend.

“Sterling Hayden” is a tribute, of sorts, to the tough guy actor, author and raconteur who mostly lived life on his own terms, famously expressing one major regret: naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. “I don't think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing,” Sterling Hayden wrote years later. Tom brings a variation of that quote into the song, which he sings as both a third-person narrator and as Hayden himself. Tom’s song refers to seeing Hayden interviewed on the Johnny Carson show. I can also vividly remember a series of fascinating interviews he did in the ‘70s with Tom Snyder on the Tomorrow show.

“Furious Love (For Liz)” follows. It’s a short, sad lament for Elizabeth Taylor sung at the time of her death and recalling many years earlier when Taylor lived with husband Nicky Hilton in El Paso, across from Juarez, Mexico, long before Juarez became a battleground in the Mexican drug wars. The song is also the first hint at the direction Tom will soon move the album in.

In “A Land Called Way Out There,” set to a kind of folk-brass band arrangement featuring members of Calexico, Tom recalls the quick, early death of James Dean and then sings a new version of “Roll the Credits, Johnny,” which Tom first recorded in 2008 as one of the two new songs on The Tom Russell Anthology: Veteran’s Day. The song uses the symbolism of the end of a movie to bring closure to the first of the two major song-cycles on the album.

“Heart Within a Heart,” is a beautiful, spiritual song featuring the gospel harmonies of Regina and Ann McCrary. It provides a few minutes of respite between the album’s two main thematic blocks.

Tom lives near El Paso in the West Texas borderlands just north of Mexico and he’s often written about the back-and-forth exchanges and border town interdependencies of the area. The next song-cycle is about that and is heralded in the first few bars of “And God Created Border Towns,” by the quasi-mariachi sounds of pianist Augie Meyers (legendary for his work with the late Doug Sahm, from the days of the Sir Douglas Quintet to the Texas Tornados), accordionist Joel Guzman and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpets. The song lays bare the realities of the border: migrants looking for a better life are exploited and murdered by the thousands, guns flow south across border to enable the drug wars, and the drugs flow north to the seemingly insatiable American market.

“Goodnight, Juarez” is a Tex-Mex lament for Jurarez’s descent from an open tourist town to the battleground it’s become. Tom looks at contemporary Juarez and remembers the time – not that many years ago – when it was a different place and imagines how it could be again. “Juarez, I had a dream today/ The children danced, as the guitars played/ And all the violence up and slipped away/ Goodnight, Juarez, goodnight.”

“Jai Alai,” named for a once-popular sport, is a brilliant, fast-paced flamenco piece – featuring the guitar Jacob Mossman – about passion: for the game – and for love.

The borderland song-cycle draws to a close with a new version of “Love Abides,” the finale from Tom’s folk-opera, The Man from God Knows Where, an album I still consider the best, the most important, piece of work by any musical artist in the past three decades or so. It’s a beautiful song that looks at a world filled with tragedy but also filled with blessings, hope and love.

The album ends with two songs labeled as bonus tracks but which I think are a kind of restatement of the first theme Tom explores on this album.

Tom's sublime, newly definitive version of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” is a duet with Lucinda Williams on top of an atmospheric arrangement by the musicians of Calexico that brings us back to the Mesabi Iron Range. The song seems as fresh and as topical now as when the troubadour kid wrote it almost half a century ago.

The finale, “The Road to Nowhere,” written for the new Monte Hellman film, Road to Nowhere (“Roll the Credits, Johnny” is also used in the film), could be about almost any of the fallen heroes and legends in the songs sung earlier in the album – or not yet written about.

I’ve mentioned a few of the musicians Tom uses on this album. Among other great contributors worth noting are pianist Barry Walsh, who co-produced the album with Tom; multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, who played in Tom’s band back in the 1980s; guitarist Thad Beckman, who tours with him now; legendary pianist and studio arranger Van Dyke Parks; and harmony singer Gretchen Peters.

As I mentioned at the top of this review, Mesabi is another in Tom Russell’s long series of masterpiece albums – all of them different from each other, all of them layered to reveal more with each hearing. And, I’ll say it one more time: Tom Russell is the best songwriter of my generation – the generation that followed 10 or 12 years after Dylan.

By the way, I’m not sure how long it will be there, but tomrussell.com is currently giving away free downloads of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Mesabi is scheduled for release on September 6.

--Mike Regenstreif