Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ottawa concerts: Ron Hynes, Finest Kind

There are a couple of concerts coming up here in Ottawa that I’m really looking forward to.

Ron Hynes is performing Wednesday, February 29, 8:00 pm, at Irene’s Pub (885 Bank Street; 613-230-4474).

As I noted in my review of Stealing Genius, his most recent album, Ron “is, without question, one of Canada’s greatest singer-songwriters – a writer whose genius can be found in decades worth of great songs.”

Ron is also a great performer and Irene’s is the smallest venue I’ve ever seen him in – so it should be a treat to hear him in such an intimate setting.

Pictured: Ron Hynes and Mike Regenstreif at the 2007 Branches & Roots Festival in Ormstown, Quebec.

In a concert I can walk to, Finest Kind will be performing Saturday, March 10, 7:30 pm, at St. Martin’s Anglican Church (2120 Prince Charles Road). Information and tickets are available at this link.

Finest Kind (Ann Downey, Shelley Posen, Ian Robb), whose repertoire ranges from traditional British, Canadian and American folk songs to contemporary songs mostly arranged in glorious three-part harmonies, are fabulous whether singing a cappella or accompanying themselves on such instruments as guitar, banjo, bass and concertina.

Pictured: James Stephens, Finest Kind (Ian Robb, Ann Downey, Shelley Posen) Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Mike Regenstreif at the 2009 Ottawa Folk Festival.

Here is my review of For Honour & For Gain, Finest Kind’s most recent album, from the November, December 2010, January 2011 issue of Sing Out!

For Honour & For Gain
Fallen Angle 09

On their fifth CD, Finest Kind – the Ottawa-based trio of Ian Robb, Shelley Posen and Ann Downey – continue to offer superbly arranged versions of traditional and traditionally-oriented contemporary songs from Great Britain, the United States and Canada, including two written by Shelley. Half of the 18 songs are sung a cappella and half feature instrumental arrangements featuring Finest Kind and a cast of several guest musicians.

My favorite a cappella track is “John Barleycorn Deconstructed,” Shelley’s brilliant parody of the British folksong “John Barleycorn – which they recorded on their previous CD, Silks & Spices, released in 2003 – in which they explain, line by line, how and why they arranged the song. Not only is it hilarious, but it gives us an understanding into the work that an accomplished ensemble like Finest Kind puts into their arrangements.

Other highlights among the unaccompanied songs are “Bay of Biscay,” in which the sleeping Mary is visited by the ghost of her long lost lover, and “From Dover to Calais,” a modern shanty written by Toronto songwriter Howard Kaplan.

There are also lots of gems among the songs with instrumental back-up. Favorites include the shanty-meets-Cajun arrangement of “Bully in the Alley” featuring Ian’s lead vocal, Shelley and Ann’s harmonies, the fiddle of co-producer James Stephens and Jody Benjamin’s triangle; the Appalachian folksong, “Short Life of Trouble,” featuring Ann on lead vocal and banjo; “Lowlands Low,” a variant of “The Golden Vanity” that Shelley, a folklorist by trade, collected in the Ottawa Valley; and a beautiful, poignant version of Utah Phillips’ “He Comes Like Rain (Like Wind He Goes).”

If I have one minor quibble with this album, it’s that Ann is too seldom heard as lead vocalist (not that I have any problem listening to Ian or Shelley’s leads). ---Mike Regenstreif

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Anne Hills & David Roth – Rhubarb Trees

Rhubarb Trees
Wind River Records

I’ve come to think of Anne Hills, who has been high on my list of favorite singers for about three decades, as the queen of collaborations. Anne’s first LP, The Panic is On, released in 1982, was a collaboration with Jan Burda. Since then, in addition to a bunch of superb solo recordings – click here for my review of Points of View, Anne’s most recent solo album – she has recorded collaborations with Cindy Mangsen and Priscilla Herdman (Herdman, Hills & Mangsen); Cindy Mangsen and a bunch of guest stars; Jay Ansill; Michael Smith (one of my favorite memories from the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show was a live performance of Michael and Anne singing “The Dutchman); Tom Paxton; Steve Gillette, Cindy Mangsen and Michael Smith (Fourtold); Tom Paxton and Bob Gibson (Best of Friends); and, now, with David Roth.

Before developing into a superb songwriter in her own right, Anne first established her reputation and as an interpretive singer. David Roth was a songwriter I was first introduced to via several of his songs that Anne recorded many years ago. A new duet version of one of those songs, “May the Light of Love,” opens Rhubarb Trees, a lovely, often thought-provoking, occasionally humorous, collection of excellent material written or co-written by Anne and/or David.

There are new versions of several other excellent songs already familiar through previous recordings by either Anne or David. Among Anne’s are “The Child Within,” a reflection on the passage of years in rural West Virginia; “I Am You,” a universalist anthem, co-written with Michael Smith, which describes people of all races, religions, genders, and orientations as part of the same human family; and “Orphans,” a devastating reflection on children of war.

In addition to “May the Light of Love,” another of David’s songs which I recognize from one of his earlier albums is “That Kind of Grace,” actually co-written about 20 years ago with Anne, which connects events of the civil rights movement with the then-current Rodney King case.

Among the highlights of the newer material are Anne’s “Nightime Falls,” a poignant reflection on the circle of life inspired by the final illness and passing of her father; and David’s “Everything That Happens Makes Me Stronger,” a song he put together based on poems written by young people whose families have been caught up in the recent economic crisis.

Although many of these songs deal with heavy topics, there are also songs filled with humor. Among them are “Rhubarb Trees,” co-written by Anne and David, which was inspired by the Mary Hills painting they chose for the cover of the CD digi-pak; David’s “Neuroplasticity,” a three-part a cappella round inspired by speakers at a psychology conference; and “The Strange Meanderings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama Down to Nashville, Tennessee,” a hilarious country music parody co-written by Anne, David and Michael Smith, which imagines the Dalai Lama’s adventures writing country-and-eastern songs in Music City.

The arrangements on this lovely album are kept simple. Some tracks are just Anne and David, with bassist Mark Dann joining them on others.

--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, February 20, 2012

Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen – Home By Dark

Home By Dark
Compass Rose Records

Individually, Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen had well established reputations in the folk music world long before they met, married and began touring and recording together as a duo (while also maintaining their both their solo careers and collaborative efforts with other artists). Steve has been an A-list songwriter since first making his mark in the 1960s with “Darcy Farrow,” a standard of the folk repertoire since Ian & Sylvia recorded it in 1965, while Cindy’s reputation as a fine interpretive singer – particularly of traditional ballads – dates back to the 1970s.

Over their years together, I’ve noticed the influence that Steve and Cindy have had on each other. Steve is less concerned with singing his own songs than he is in singing great songs whether he wrote them or not (and he still writes great songs) while Cindy has become a fine songwriter herself while still remaining a sublime interpreter of traditional music. All of that is on display on Home By Dark, their fifth album as a duo (mixed among various solo efforts and collaborations with other artists).

Steve and Cindy almost evenly split the lead roles on this album. Among Steve’s highlights are his version of Doug Johnson’s “Holy Smoke,” which uses Native American legends in a song about the California wildfires wrought each year by the Santa Ana Winds, and his two original songs, “The California Zephyr,” co-written by Denise Fleming,” and “Home By Dark.” The former is a sad portrait of a woman riding the train that runs between Chicago and San Francisco, broken by alcohol and lost in her memories of a love that’s long gone (or perhaps was never requited). The latter is a poignant circle-of-life song that begins with a childhood memory of hopping on a bicycle to explore the immediate world with just the need to be “home by dark” and moves on to a father’s contemporary desire to leave the demands of the daily working life early enough in the day to be “home by dark” to spend the evening with his children.

Cindy’s highlights include a stunning and haunting version of “The Two Sisters,” a compelling tale of sibling jealousy and murder, her own equally haunting “Seal Harbor,” based on the traditional stories of the seal folk, which she introduces with her setting of Rudyard Kipling’s “Seal Lullaby,” and a beautiful version of “Some Boats,” written by Anne Hills, another of Cindy’s frequent collaborators.

Other highlights include their delightful duet on “The Gnu,” a hilarious song from one of Flanders & Swann’s shows, and a couple of instrumental medleys – “Rosmini’s Rag,” featuring some fine guitar picking by Steve in a tribute to Dick Rosmini, a great guitarist of the 1960s who lost his battle with ALS in 1995, and “Manomet Waltz/The Mathematician,” featuring some equally fine concertina playing by Cindy.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’

Strictly Romancin’
World Village Records

Catherine Russell has been just about my favourite present-day jazz singer ever since she finally released Cat, her debut album, in 2006 following a long career as a back-up singer for a variety of artists. The daughter of Luis Russell – who served as band leader for Louis Armstrong back in the day – and Carline Ray, a pioneering woman jazz musician, Cat is a great singer who brings out the best in classic and traditional jazz and blues tunes. Writing in the Montreal Gazette, I called that first album “glorious.” So too have been all of her subsequent releases.

Strictly Romancin’, Cat’s fourth album, is appropriately enough, being released on Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, as most of the songs, most of them classics, some of them obscure-but-great classics, deal with one aspect or another of romance.

There are, of course, different sides to the love relationship. There’s the ready-for-Valentine’s Day woman singing “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “Romance in the Dark”; the hopeless romantic singing “Ev’ntide”; and the spurned or out-of-love woman singing “Under the Spell of the Blues” and “No More.” Whether it’s an inherent loneliness in “Under the Spell of the Blues” or the anticipation of “Romance in the Dark,” Cat nails the appropriate feelings and emotions expressed in each song.

Among my very favourite tracks are humour-laced songs like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s kiss-off song “I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom’Bye,” an arrangement highlighted by the playful interaction between Cat and John Allred’s trombone, “Satchel Mouth Baby,” Mary Lou Williams’ shout-out to Louis Armstrong, and “Everybody Loves My Baby,” a fun, swinging tune made famous by the Boswell Sisters.

Certainly one of the most special tracks is the Sister Rosetta Tharpe-Marie Knight spiritual “He’s All I Need.” Backed by Mark Shane’s gospel piano, Cat and her mother, Carline Ray, sound positively inspired.

Cat’s arrangements are perfectly suited to each of the tunes and feature a terrific group of ace musicians – both the core members of her touring band and guests who contribute to select tracks. In addition to those already mentioned, some of the instrumental highlights include Matt Munisteri’s guitar solo on “Don’t Leave Me,” Joe Barbato’s romantic Paris café accordion on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and Dan Block’s playful clarinet on “Everybody Loves My Baby.”

Catherine Russell draws on the influences of many great singers of bygone years to create a unique voice of her own and to make classic material seem as fresh and vital as ever. Kudos to Cat, to all of the musicians, and to producer Paul Kahn, for another in her series of excellent albums.

Click here for my review of Catherine Russell’s 2010 album, Inside This Heart of Mine.

Pictured: Catherine Russell and Mike Regenstreif at CKUT during Folk Roots/Folk Branches (June 28, 2007).

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Alberta Hunter – Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery

Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery
Rock Beat Records

Back in the 1970s and early-‘80s I used to get to New York City several times a year. One of my great pleasures in being in New York was getting to spend time in the company of the great Dave Van Ronk.

One night Dave asked me if I’d heard Alberta Hunter perform yet. One of the greatest of the classic blues singers of the 1920s and ‘30s, Hunter, by then in her 80s, had recently resumed performing again after many decades spent working as a nurse in a New York hospital.

When I told Dave I hadn’t seen a Hunter show, he marched me over to a club called the Cookery, for a marvelous set by the elderly, but still energetic, performer. Accompanied by a pianist and bassist, she was entrancing singing old songs like dating from her early career 50 and 60 years before, as well as great versions of several tunes from later decades. It was a very similar show to one recorded in December 1981 and now released as Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery.

Hunter's excellent accompanists on the live album are pianist Gerald Cook and bassist Jimmy Lewis, who, from the sound of things, I'd guess, were probably the musicians I saw her perform with.

Listening to the CD, I’m so reminded of that night I spent at the Cookery listening to Hunter, still great, singing classics from early in her career like “Down Hearted Blues” and “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” new material like “Remember My Name” and “The Love I Have For You,” and other great tunes like “Georgia On My Mind.” And on songs like “Handy Man,” Hunter, in her mid-80s, still knew how to exude a raunchy sexiness.

I would consider all of Alberta Hunter’s recordings, from her earliest sides in the 1920s through to the comeback albums she made in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to be essential. This live album is an important addition to her catalogue.

--Mike Regenstreif

Blue O’Connell – Choose the Sky

Choose the Sky

If Blue O’Connell had just chosen to perform instrumentals on Choose the Sky – six of its 13 compositions are instrumentals – it would be easy to simply applaud an album of often haunting, creative classical guitar or guitar/flute pieces influenced by sounds of nature and by strains of classical, folk, new age and Native American music. The compositions and the way she plays them on guitar and, occasionally, on flute, is spacious, calming and lovely.

The vocal songs, too, are spacious, calming and lovely. But, when Blue sings, the timbre in her singing voice quickly tells us that she is an unusual singer-songwriter. Hers is a voice obviously affected by a hearing disability – a disability she has not allowed to stop her from appreciating, making and sharing music.

A musician, since childhood, Blue began to progressively lose her hearing as a young adult. She continued to make music using hearing aids for more than 20 years until three years ago when she received a cochlear implant in one ear and a digital hearing aid in the other. She then had to undergo therapy and rehabilitation to understand and process sounds in a new a different way.

All the while, I kept at my music even though it did sound very strange in the beginning,” she explains on her website.

There is a seeming innocence to Blue’s lyric writing that finds joy in the sights of the sky, that wonders how she will be affected by a spiritual encounter or where the inner muse for creating music comes from. Perhaps the most moving song is “To Belong,” an empowering declaration about overcoming disability.

While Blue performs solo on most of the album, a few songs are sweetened by contributions from cellist Peter Markush, harmony singer Mary Gordon Hall and guitarist Jeff Romano.

And while there may be a seeming innocence to her lyric writing and a seeming purity to her melodies, I can’t help but think that I’m just a little bit wiser from having listened to Blue O’Connell’s inspiring music.

--Mike Regenstreif