Thursday, April 19, 2012

Kat Goldman – Gypsy Girl

Gypsy Girl

(This review is from the April 23, 2012 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)

In 2004, Kat Goldman was a promising Toronto-based singer and songwriter preparing to move to New York where her music was causing a stir. Goldman’s first CD, The Great Disappearing Act, had been released in 2000 to critical acclaim and “Annabel,” a song from that album, found favour with a number of other artists, including the Winnipeg band, The Duhks, who recorded it on a Juno-nominated CD. The song also inspired the Giller Prize-nominated novel, Annabel by author Kathleen Winter.

But the move to New York never happened because Goldman was seriously injured when a car crashed into a bagel shop she was visiting, necessitating multiple surgeries and two years of rehabilitation. She came back with a second CD, Sing Your Song, in 2007, and has now released the lovely Gypsy Girl, her third.

Reflecting the transitory implications of her album’s title track, Goldman now divides her time between Toronto and Boston where she studies English literature at Harvard and Boston Universities. Some of the songs were recorded in Boston and some in Toronto; all of them written with poetic craftsmanship and compelling melodies enhanced by arrangements which blend both folk and pop influences.

Among the highlights are “World Away,” inspired by her intertwined lives as a Toronto singer and songwriter and Boston student; “Letter From Paris,” in which she seemingly escapes or hides from both identities; and, perhaps, best of all, “Gypsy Girl,” in which she sings about the compulsion to move and to travel and to explore new places which drives so many artistic souls.

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 --Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Other Europeans - Splendor


(This review is from the April 23, 2012 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.)

The Other Europeans are 14 musicians from eight different countries in Europe and North America – eight of whom form a klezmer ensemble and six of whom comprise a lautar ensemble. Lautar is the music of Eastern European Roma (Gypsies). Some of the selections on Splendor, a splendid two-CD set recorded live at the Yiddish Summer Weimar in Germany in 2009, feature one or the other of the two ensembles, or parts thereof, while much of the album has all 14 of the musicians playing together.

The Other Europeans project has been spearheaded by pianist and accordionist Alan Bern, perhaps best known for his work as a member of Brave Old World, a band at the forefront of the creation of new Jewish music over the past couple of decades. Other members of the Klezmer Ensemble include clarinet and saxophone player Christian Dawid; Matt Darriau of the Klezmatics on kaval, piccolo, clarinet and saxophone; and Mark Rubin, who started his career as a member of the alt-country duo Bad Livers, on tuba and bass.

Among the members of the Lautar Ensemble are cimbalom player Kalman Balogh; accordionist Petar Ralchev; and trumpeter Adam Stinga.

Historically, as Walter Zev Feldman, mentions in his liner notes, Jewish and Roma musicians had little, if any, interaction in most areas of Eastern Europe except in Greater Hungary, primarily in the 18th century, and in Moldova, particularly in the province of Bessarabia, from the 18th century until the Holocaust. The music also crossed over to North America with Jewish immigrants in the late-19th and early-20th centuries but declined in both America and Moldova by the 1950s – in America due to assimilationist tendencies, and in Moldova due to the Soviet policy of creating a Moldovan ethnic music that was, as Feldman notes, “free from Jewish influence.”

The repertoire which the Other Europeans explore on Splendor – and which they perform brilliantly – is the klezmer and lautar music played in Bessarabia before the Second World War. Whether in the smaller klezmer and lautar groupings, or in the combined forces of the full ensemble, the music is compelling, exciting and beautiful.

Among my favourite selections from the klezmer repertoire are “Khaiterma,” a delightful classic which features Darriau on clarinet bouncing his notes off Rubin’s slap-bass playing; and the two-part “Klezmer Suite #1,” particularly the wild second part.

My favourite lautar selection is the two-part “Lautar Clarinet Suite #1,” which begins with a in a slow, contemplative mode before picking up steam. The piece almost seems classical.

And, of course, the tracks featuring all of the Other Europeans are a constant delight. Among the most beautiful and exciting pieces is the album-ending concert encore of Sârba de la nord.”

The similarities and contrasts of the Jewish and Roma influences in this music are fascinating. Alan Bern has done a sensational job of tying it all together in the Other Europeans.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer – Little Blue Egg

Little Blue Egg
Red House Records

Dave Carter was already into his mid-40s when he – and partner Tracy Grammer, who played violin and sang harmony – suddenly emerged in 1998 with an album called When I Go, an album which served notice that Dave was one of the most compelling and enigmatic singer-songwriters of our time. Then, after two more superb albums and concert and festival tours that established Dave and Tracy at the front ranks of the contemporary folk scene, Dave died suddenly in 2002 of a massive coronary, just weeks before his 50th birthday.

Those three albums by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, and a fourth, Seven is the Number, his final recordings, released posthumously, are among the most essential folk-rooted recordings of recent years.

Recently, Tracy discovered some demos recorded in their home studio between 1997 and 2002 and chose 11 of the songs – 10 of Dave’s and a superb version of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” lyrics by Woody Guthrie set to music by Billy Bragg for the Mermaid Avenue project – for Little Blue Egg, another most essential addition to Dave and Tracy’s discography.

Of the 10 songs written by Dave, I first heard three – “Hard to Make It,” “Any Way I Do” and “Gypsy Rose” – on Tracy’s excellent 2005 solo album, Flower of Avalon. The rest are new to me.

Among this album’s highlights are “Gypsy Rose,” a beautiful, poetic love song; “Cross of Jesus,” which describes three very different people – two in the third-person, one in the first-person – united by the crosses they wear and the sincerity with which they live their lives; and “September Sea,” in which Dave seems to have a prescient understanding that his life would be short and that Tracy would keep his flame alive.

Dave Carter is one of those rare songwriters whose work continues to reveal more with repeated listening over many years. The songs on Little Blue Egg are a welcome addition to his canon.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Guy Davis – The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues

The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues
Smokeydoke Records

Fishy Waters is a fictional character, an old time blues musician, created by Guy Davis for The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues, a one-man theatrical play in which Fishy Waters reminisces about his life, telling stories and singing songs, in a way that provides audiences with insight and context into the lives of early blues musicians and more particularly, into the times and societal situations that shaped their lives and music.

Guy has performed in productions of The Adventures of Fishy Waters a number of times since its debut in 1994 and has now released this 2-CD set as an audio play version. Although I’ve never seen the full production on stage, I have seen Guy do several excerpts over the years during club and festival concerts, so I eagerly looked forward to at least hearing the complete version. As I expected, listening to it was a rich and rewarding experience. If I was still doing my radio program, I would have played each of the two CDs from start to finish with hardly an interruption.

The stories Fishy Waters tells range from a humorous description of a one-legged grave robber to a devastating description of encountering a KKK lynching of a young African American boy.

While most of the production is devoted to stories, the play integrates a bunch of superbly performed songs – some of Guy’s own written in traditional styles as well as classics drawn from Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson (who Guy has also played on stage) and Big Bill Broonzy.

Although, by now, Guy is probably best known as a blues musician, he is also an actor of substantial talent – something he probably comes by naturally as the son of acclaimed theatre and film actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. In The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues, he blends his acting and musical talents to superb effect.

Listening to Guy as Fishy Waters tell these stories reminds me of listening to the likes of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Jay McShann, Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong, and other blues legends I've had the opportunity to know tell their first-hand accounts.

Pictured: Guy Davis and Mike Regenstreif at the 2006 Champlain Valley Folk Festival.

I'm now on Twitter.

--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Caroline Doctorow – I Carry All I Own: The Songs of Mary McCaslin

I Carry All I Own: The Songs of Mary McCaslin
Narrow Lane Records

Back in the 1970s, I was part of an extended circle of friends that spent a lot of time hanging around a barn in North Ferrisburg, Vermont – about a two-hour drive from Montreal – that had been converted into a recording studio and was home to Philo Records, one of the most interesting, and, for about 10 years, one of the most vital, of the folk-rooted record labels of the time.

Among the artists I became friends with was Mary McCaslin, an influential singer and songwriter and a guitarist known for her innovative use of open tunings. Several of Mary’s Philo recordings, in particular Way Out West and Prairie in the Sky, remain contemporary folk classics whose songs have turned up on recordings by such artists as Tom Russell, Gretchen Peters, Stan Rogers, Sneezy Waters, David Bromberg, Kate Wolf, and Bill Staines. Many of Mary’s songs featured imagery from the old and new west and her Prairie in the Sky LP inspired Ian Tyson to return to songwriting, thus precipitating the renaissance of cowboy culture.

Three years ago, contemporary singer-songwriter Caroline Doctorow released Another Country, an album of Richard and Mimi Fariña songs, the first in a series of planned tributes to artists who influenced her. I Carry All I Own: The Songs of Mary McCaslin is the second in the series and, like the Fariña tribute, it was produced by multi-instrumentalist Pete Kennedy. All of the back-up complementing Caroline’s voice and guitar on this CD is by Pete.

It’s a lovely tribute encompassing 10 songs drawn from three of Mary’s Philo albums from the ‘70s (one of which, Sunny California, was initially licensed to Mercury Records) and one from A Life and Time, a 1981 recording on Flying Fish (interestingly, both the Philo and Flying Fish catalogs were eventually absorbed by Rounder Records). Caroline’s singing and the arrangements remain faithful enough to Mary’s originals that they are instantly recognizable to those of us who knew this music back in the day and yet are just different enough that they have a contemporary freshness all their own.

While I really enjoyed the whole album, among my favourite tracks are “Circle of Friends,” which always reminds me of sitting up late at night with Mary and other friends from the era; “Young Westley,” a fictionalized outlaw-ballad-cum-love-song at least partially inspired by Mary’s early relationship with singer-songwriter Jim Ringer, to whom she was later married; and a beautifully dreamy, atmospheric rendition of “Prairie in the Sky.”

I’ve no doubt Mary will feel justifiably honoured by Caroline’s fine tribute.

Pictured: Mike Regenstreif and Mary McCaslin at the 1999 Champlain Valley Folk Festival.

I'm now on Twitter.

--Mike Regenstreif