Thursday, December 13, 2012

Top 12 for 2012

Here are my picks for the Top 12 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2012  (including reissues). I started with the list of more than 400 albums that landed on my desk over the past year and narrowed it down to a short list of about 30. I’ve been over the short list a bunch of times and came up with several similar – not identical – Top 12 lists. Today’s list is the final one. The order might have been slightly different, and there are several other worthy albums that might have been included, had one of the other lists represented the final choice. I also took a bit of liberty by listing four reissues by one artist as a single choice.

1. Woody Guthrie, Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection (Smithsonian Folkways). The book and the third CD, which contains much previously unreleased material, make this 3-CD boxed set essential for Woody collectors. The entire set also makes for a great introduction for Woody novices to the great folksinger and songwriter in this year marking the 100th anniversary of his birth.

2. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (Columbia). Like so much of Leonard Cohen’s best work, there are layers and layers of meaning and understanding in these songs that I think will continue to reveal themselves over a period of years of repeated listening.

3. Bob Dylan – Tempest (Columbia). This is the work of a master songwriter – the master songwriter of our time – informed by half a century of his own work and by the music of what Greil Marcus called “old weird America,” the folk music and folk-rooted blues and country music which developed in various regions before spreading everywhere via recordings and migratory performers.

4. Stan Rogers – Turnaround/Between the Breaks … Live!/Northwest Passage/From Fresh Water (Borealis). Remastered and reissued versions of the final four of the five original albums Stan Rogers – in my opinion, Canada’s greatest folksinger and songwriter – recorded for his family owned record label (the first in the series was reissued in 2011).

5. Tom Russell – Heart on a Sleeve (Frontera). A remastered and reissued version of the great solo debut  album – with six bonus tracks – by the artist who I’ve come to think of as the greatest songwriter of my generation.

6. Eric Bibb – Deeper in the Well (Stony Plain). Mostly recorded in Louisiana with musicians who add some Cajun and Creole influences, this is yet another inspired and inspiring set by the great acoustic blues and folk artist.

7. Maria Dunn – Piece By Piece (Distant Whisper). This suite of eight songs inspired by the waves of women immigrants who worked at the GWG clothing factory in Edmonton between 1911 and 2004 – and which is sung from some of their perspectives – is one of this year’s folk music masterpieces.

8. Anne Hills – The Things I Notice Now: Anne Hills Sings the Songs of Tom Paxton (Appleseed). This is an excellent set of some of the finest songs written by one of our finest songwriters – sung by one of our finest interpretive singers. Tom Paxton joins Anne for three duets.

9. Lucy Kaplansky – Reunion (Red House). Many of these songs movingly and poignantly reflect on family relationships and the continuity of generations.

10. Kim & Reggie Harris – Resurrection Day (Appleseed). Filled with glorious harmonies, this album inspires with a message that we are all important and vital parts of a world that is so much bigger than any of us.

11. Kathy Mattea – Calling Me Home (Sugar Hill). A moving folk music album by a one-time country music hit-maker which explores her deep roots in the Appalachian Mountains.

12. Hans Theessink & Terry Evans – Delta Time (Blue Groove). A second superb collaboration by the always excellent Hans Theessink, a Dutch blues singer based in Austria, and Terry Evans, a fine blues and gospel singer originally from Mississippi.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Stan Rogers – Northwest Passage; From Fresh Water

Northwest Passage
Fogarty’s Cove/Borealis

From Fresh Water
Fogarty’s Cove/Borealis

Northwest Passage, first released in 1981, and From Fresh Water, first released posthumously in 1984, were the final two albums recorded by Stan Rogers for Fogarty’s Cove, his family-owned record label. They are also the final two installments in Borealis Records’ project of releasing remastered versions of the original albums from the tragically too-short career of the artist I’ve long thought to be Canada’s greatest folksinger and songwriter.

These albums also continue Stan’s ongoing project to create song-cycles set in Canada’s various regions – something he began to do on Fogarty’s Cove when he wrote and sang about Atlantic Canada and its people. On Northwest Passage, he wrote and sang about the prairies and the north; on From Fresh Water, about Ontario, particularly the Great Lakes region.

Northwest Passage begins with the anthemic title song, a vivid portrait of Stan driving west across the country recalling the early explorers who searched for the elusive Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the arctic – centuries before global warming actually seems to have made a Northwest Passage feasible. Sung a cappella, the powerful song has proven to be one of the most enduring classics in a song catalog filled with enduring classics.

On other songs, Stan writes as empathetically about the people of the west and north as he’d already done so successfully about Atlantic Canadians.

In “The Field Behind the Plow,” he sings to and about an everyman farmer insightfully and authentically capturing his hopes and dreams, and his sometimes cruel realities.

In “Lies,” he sings, again insightfully and authentically, about a farmer’s wife and the hard life she leads. I’ve always thought of “The Field Behind the Plow” and “Lies” as companion songs married to each other.

“Night Guard” is a modern-day cowboy song worthy of Ian Tyson about a rodeo cowboy – now too old for the game – making a living protecting a cattle herd from rustlers, and “Canol Road” is an exciting, vividly cinematic song about a guy in the Yukon, crazy with cabin fever, who just had to get out and get that drink, no matter what the conditions, and no matter the price he’d have to pay.

A couple of the best songs on Northwest Passage blend the west with Stan’s eastern roots. In “The Idiot,” Stan sings in character as one of the countless Maritime boys who left home to work in the Alberta oil fields. And in “Free In the Harbour,” he sings about Newfoundlanders, stopping in Winnipeg on their way to Alberta, or sitting in the taverns of Edmonton and Calgary, nostalgically remembering home, “where the whales make free in the harbour.”

From Fresh Water begins with “White Squall,” which Stan sings from the perspective of an experienced Great Lakes shipman, used to the fury of lake storms, commenting on a much younger mate who, tragically, didn’t heed his warnings.

One of the finest songs on the album is “Lock-keeper,” sung from the perspective of such a man on the St. Lawrence Seaway. In some ways, I think “Lock-keeper” is related to “Northwest Passage.” In the latter song, Stan sings about leaving “a settled life” for the life of the adventurer. But, in “Lock-keeper,” he sings about the greatness of that settled life – of love and family – in contrast to the ultimate loneliness of the adventurer.

One of the most powerful songs on the album is “Flying,” ostensibly a hockey song about all the young players who dream of making it to the NHL while only a small, select few ever do. In reality, it’s an allegory about reaching for any kind of a star knowing so few will get there.

And, in a very sadly, prophetic line in “Flying,” Stan sang about “go up flying and going home dying” – something that tragically happened to him just a few months after writing the song.

Other favorites include “Tiny Fish for Japan,” which captures the feelings of Great Lakes fishers whose catch is bound for foreign markets, “The Last Watch,” a sad lament about a lake steamer about to be scrapped, and “The House of Orange,” a quiet, but very powerful commentary about the refusing, as an Irish descendant, to be part of the centuries-old conflict in Ireland that still raged in 1983.

As with Fogarty’s Cove, Turnaround and Between the Breaks … Live, as well as The Very Best of Stan Rogers, the remastered sound makes Northwest Passage and From Fresh Water sound better and fresher than they did as LPs or in their first issue on CD and are potent reminders of the tremendous singer and songwriter lost in that airplane fire almost 30 years ago. He was an artist with so much more to accomplish.

Kudos to Borealis Records for reissuing the albums, to Paul Mills, who produced the albums and supervised the reissue remastering, and to Ariel Rogers, Stan’s widow, who has kept the music in print over these many years.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge the important contributions of Garnet Rogers, Stan’s younger brother, and Valerie Rogers, his mother.

Garnet’s playing and/or singing can be heard on almost every track of all five of the albums – as it was at almost every gig Stan played in the last 10 years of his life. On more than one occasion, over a late-night beer, Stan told me that Garnet was his biggest musical influence.

And Valerie, who passed away this past summer, was the driving force behind getting most of these records made and into the hands of his growing legion of fans during his touring years. Stan expressed his tremendous appreciation for his mother’s efforts at virtually every concert I saw him do – at least since Turnaround came out in 1978.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kim and Reggie Harris – Resurrection Day

Resurrection Day

As I noted in a feature story I wrote for Sing Out! magazine (“Kim and Reggie Harris: Building Bridges,” Summer 2007), I’ve long been inspired by Kim and Reggie Harris – by their moving work as recording and performing artists and by the deep commitment they have as activists who use their art to help make ours a better society.

As they note in the booklet to Resurrection Day, much of this album was inspired by Reggie’s 13-year battle with an autoimmune disease – a battle he almost lost but overcame thanks to a liver transplant in 2008.

Reggie sings about his battle with the disease most explicitly in the contemplative title song. It’s not a religious resurrection he sings about – however much faith may have played a role in his recovery – it is literally a physical resurgence after “a long, long journey” filled with “pain so deep” he questioned, “Will I get over? Can I get over?” The questions are answered in the chorus, “Hallelujah! A new day is here/You’ve got a new race to run/Resurrection day, resurrection day.”

Several of the album’s other songs – both Reggie’s originals and material drawn from tradition or from other writers – allude metaphorically to moving forward in life and love. In Phil Ochs’ “Do What I Have to Do,” the narrator pledges to do what he has to do, to be what he has to be despite whatever obstacles might stand in his way. In “Here and Now With You,” a gentle, Brazilian-styled love song dedicated to Kim, Reggie sings about love supplying the force needed to overcome trial and distance. And in “It’s All About Love,” they sing about the combination of faith, trust and dedication which add up to love.

Among the album’s most poignant songs are “When Mom Left Us Here,” an expression of feelings at the loss of a parent, Matthew Jones’ “Tree of Life,” sung beautifully by Kim with gorgeous harmonies by a circle of friends recorded at the Old Songs Festival, and "Traffic," a topical song about slavery in our contemporary world.

Other highlights include the depression-era classic, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” updated with a new last verse and rollicking zydeco arrangement to give it a contemporary feel, and the inspirational “Butterfly,” co-written by Reggie and producer Ken Whiteley, who sings it with them. (Kim and Reggie sang on Ken’s version of the song on his 2010 album, Another Day’s Journey.)

And, in this year of marking the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth, they end the album with “Roll On Woody,” a tribute to that most iconic of folksingers and songwriters.

As with all of Kim and Reggie’s albums, their voices frequently intertwine and support each other in glorious harmonies. Also, as with all of Kim and Reggie’s albums, they inspire with a message that we are all important and vital parts of a world that is so much bigger than any of us.

Pictured: Terry Leonino & Greg Artzner (Magpie), Kim & Reggie Harris, Pete Sutherland, Larry Penn, Utah Phillips and Mike Regenstreif at the 2005 Champlain Valley Folk Festival.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hans Theessink & Terry Evans – Delta Time

Delta Time
Blue Groove

Delta Time is yet another in a series of remarkable albums by the always excellent Dutch, Austrian-based blues singer, songwriter and guitarist Hans Theessink – and his second collaboration with Terry Evans, an outstanding blues and gospel singer, originally from Mississippi, who is probably best known for his sublime harmonies on many of Ry Cooder’s albums dating back to the 1970s.

The album begins with Theessink’s title track – one of five songs which feature transcendent trio harmonies from Evans and colleagues Arnold McCuller and Willie Greene, Jr. – which celebrates a return to what the late folklorist Alan Lomax referred to as “the land where the blues began.” As on the other 12 songs, Theessink’s and Evans’ guitars and voices blend perfectly and lead into a gorgeous slow version of the Delmore Brothers' classic, “Blues Stay Away From Me,” with Theessink’s deep baritone floating on the bottom while Evans’ tenor rides on top. “Blues Stay Away From Me” is one of three songs in which the duo’s guitars are augmented by sweet and distinctive lead guitar lines from Ry Cooder.

The other tracks with Cooder are a groove-inflected version of Bobby Charles’ “How Can People Act Like That” and Theessink’s “Shelter from the Storm (not to be confused with the Bob Dylan song of the same name),” a beautiful love song that also features those amazing harmonies from Evans, McCuller and Greene.

Among my other favorite tracks are terrific, slow acoustic versions of blues classics “It Hurts Me Too” and “Honest I Do,” a fun version of “The Birds and the Bees (Evans sang harmonies on Jewel Aiken’s pop hit version in 1965),” and Theessink’s “Mississippi,” a 10-minute tribute to many of the blues greats – including Evans – who have come out of that state.

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--Mike Regenstreif