Saturday, March 10, 2012

Montreal concerts: Tom Paxton, Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester
Matt Large and Rebecca Anderson of Hello Darlin’ Productions in Montreal have lined up a superb set of concerts this spring. Among the artists are some of the brightest young performers on the contemporary folk scene and several bona fide legends.

I want to pay particular attention to back-to-back concerts on Saturday and Sunday, April 21 and 22, featuring two legendary and great singer-songwriters, two artists I’ve had the privilege of working with many times over the years, and two men I’ve been honoured to share friendship with over many decades.

Tom Paxton performs Saturday, April 21 and Jesse Winchester performs Sunday April 22. Both concerts are at 8:00 pm at Petit Campus (57 Prince Arthur East). Visit the Hello Darlin’ website or call 514-524-9225 for tickets or more information; call for a special deal being offered if you buy tickets for both concerts.

Tom Paxton
A story I’ve told before dates back to 1968 or ’69, when I was 14, or maybe just turned 15. I heard there was going to be a big folk concert at McGill University and decided to go. It was a bunch of local acts doing short sets in the first half and a headliner from New York in the second. When I got there, I discovered it was a “blanket concert”: thousands of McGill students – four, five, six and more years older than me – sitting on blankets on the floor of a huge gym. It was pretty full and I had no blanket so I sat on a long bench that lined the back of the gym wall back. Between acts, I had an interesting conversation with the man sitting next to me. He obviously knew a lot about folk music and gave me some suggestions on records to look for. When the intermission was announced, he said he enjoyed talking with me and left.

After the break, the MC, Tex König, introduced “one of the greatest of the Greenwich Village folksingers:  Tom Paxton!” That man I’d been talking to all night walked on stage and did an amazing hour-long set that I still vividly remember 40-odd years later.

That was the “it moment” for me. I started to listen to every record and read every folk music book I could find. I subscribed to Sing Out!, went to coffeehouses and concerts, and was soon a part of the action – hanging out, learning some guitar, producing concerts, running folk clubs, volunteering at folk festivals and writing articles and reviews. It became a way of life – and still is.

Mike Regenstreif & Tom Paxton
So, Tom Paxton, who, some years later, became a good friend, and who I’ve had the pleasure of working with a bunch of times in different contexts over the years, had a lot to do with drawing me into the folk music life.

Tom was one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 1960s. Dave Van Ronk told me that Tom was the first Greenwich Village folksinger, even before Bob Dylan, who worked hard and consistently at songwriting. He’s never stopped and remains one of our greatest singer-songwriters today.

I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Tom in several different contexts. He played regularly at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the 1970s and ‘80s, always filling it to capacity, always doing great shows filled with a combination of great new songs and Paxton classics. When Robert Resnik and I booked and programmed the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Burlington, Vermont in 2000 and 2001, Tom was the 2001 headliner and was part of the annual songwriters’ workshop I hosted there for seven years. And, of course, he was my guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show,

Tom, for me, is one of the most special of artists.

So, too, is Jesse Winchester. In fact, I first encountered Jesse at that same McGill concert in 1968 or ’69. He, Penny Lang and Bruce Murdoch, were among the Montreal artists who played in the first half of that concert. It was before Jesse’s classic self-titled first album was released.

Again, as I’ve written before, Jesse is one of the great singer-songwriters of our time and there was a significant period of time when the Montreal folk scene had him almost to ourselves. A few 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.

Mike Regenstreif & Jesse Winchester
In November 1975, I was a backstage guest of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (another Golem performer) at the Rolling Thunder Revues 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.

Jesse was a headliner in 2000, the first of two years that Robert Resnik and I programmed the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Vermont. And, like Tom the following year, he was part of the annual songwriters’ workshop I hosted there.

After many years in Montreal and the Eastern Townships, Jesse remarried and now lives in Virginia with his wife, Cindy, so his return trips “home” to Montreal are special occasions to see and play for old friends. And this trip is doubly special because it will be his first visit since a serious health issue last year.

I’m looking forward to being in Montreal and seeing these two old friends next month.

And for folks in Toronto, Jesse will be at Hugh’s Room on April 13-14-15, and Tom will be there on April 20.

--Mike Regenstreif

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