Saturday, August 25, 2012

Robert Resnik – Playing Favorites

Playing Favorites
Thunder Ridge

My pal Robert Resnik is – quite rightly – regarded as a cultural treasure in the state of Vermont. For the past 15-plus years he’s been best known as host of All the Traditions, Vermont Public Radio’s deservedly popular folk music program. But he’s also a wonderfully musical guy himself adept at many instruments that you strum and pluck, blow into, or squeeze and pull, and many styles of North American and European folk music.

While Robert has partnered on any number of delightful CDs as a member of such bands as the Highland Weavers, Swing & Tears and Twist of the Wrist, and in a duo with Marty Morrissey, Playing Favorites is the first solely under his own name. And, true to the name of the album, it’s a world tour of songs and tunes that are among his favorites to play. From one track to the next – and often on the same track thanks to overdubbing – we hear Robert move from guitar to clarinet to pennywhistle to hurdy gurdy, to melodeon to kortholt (a woodwind instrument popular in the Renaissance period) to concertina and, of course, voice.

Traditional songs and dance tunes dominate the set. Most of the traditional ballads originate in the British Isles. A highlight of these is “Mary Neal,” a story of star-crossed lovers whose escape across the sea to Quebec ends in tragedy. Robert’s performance, sung over the drone of the hurdy gurdy with evocative lines from his clarinet and whistle, is haunting. Another is “Bedlam Boys,” a strange song dating back 400 years, about the entertainment provided by residents of a London insane asylum (Robert mentions in the liner notes that the asylum would charge admission to the public “for the pleasure of observing the lunatics”).

Among my favorite instrumentals is “O’Carolan Medley,” three tunes composed about 300 years ago for the Irish harp by Turlough O’Carolan. Robert translates the music to the guitar exquisitely and gently picking out the tunes. The overdubbed whistle on the final tune is also quite lovely. Another is “Esperanza,” a medley of three accordion tunes – the kind of music you’d like to hear in a sidewalk café in Paris.

And lest you think that Robert is stuck in tradition, he also includes several contemporary songs, including a couple of my personal favorites from the Montreal folk scene of the 1970s. Robert’s version of Allan Fraser’s “Dance Hall Girls” puts a slightly different spin on the song by stating, “That’s the way it always is here in Baltimore,” emphatically in the chorus rather than asking, “Is that the way it always is here in Baltimore?” I particularly like the way Robert’s clarinet weaves in and around the vocal on “Dance Hall Girls.” And Robert’s version of the late Kate McGarrigle’s “Come a Long Way,” featuring lovely harmonies by Mary McGinniss and Kristina Stykos reminds me of hearing Kate sing the song at the Golem, the intimate Montreal folk club I was running back in the mid-1970s.

While Robert performs most of the vocals and instruments on Playing Favorites, several other songs benefit from the fine harmonies and instrumental work of Mary and Kristina. Kristina also recorded and mixed the sessions.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rory Block – I Belong to the Band: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis

I Belong to the Band: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis
Stony Plain

Over the past six years, Rory Block – who, as I’ve said before has been one of the very finest of the traditional blues interpreters and revivalists for decades – has been turning her recording attention to a series of albums paying tribute to artists her inspired her journey deep into the well of the blues. After previous albums paying tribute to Robert Johnson, Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell, she turns her attention Reverend Gary Davis, the legendary street preacher, masterful ragtime and blues guitarist, and singer and writer of classic African American gospel songs and spirituals.

Like the previous tributes, I Belong to the Band: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis, is an intense voyage into the music of a seminal artist. Rory forsakes the Rev’s few secular songs – like “Candy Man” or “Cocaine,” both of which make me think of my late friend, Dave Van Ronk – to concentrate exclusively on his some of the religious songs he wrote or definitively arranged. Rory’s arrangements remain true to the spirit of Davis’ work while, at the same time, adding much of her own personality. I particularly like the way she uses overdubs of her own voice to create vocal harmonies and even choral effects in her powerful vocal arrangements. She sings these songs of faith with might and conviction. Equally powerful are Rory’s interpretations of Davis’ extremely complicated guitar arrangements.

While all of these songs are compelling some of my favorites include “Samson & Delilah (a.k.a. “If I Had My Way),” “Twelve Gates to the City” “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here” and the always-haunting “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” On these songs, and the other seven, Rory takes command and seems to inhabit the soul of the songs with power, grace and authenticity.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Blind but Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson by Kent Gustavson

Blind but Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson
By Kent Gustavson
Sumach Red Books
368 pages
Note: Blind but Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson was first published in 2010. This review is based on the revised and expanded version published in 2012.

The Back Door was small coffee house on the corner of McTavish and Sherbrooke Streets in downtown Montreal beside the McGill University campus. It’s two-year existence from 1969-1971 corresponded to my last two years of high school and the time that I began to seriously immerse myself in the folk music world. Among the artists I saw and met at the Back Door were Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Jerry Jeff Walker, Paul Siebel, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Rosalie Sorrels and Doc & Merle Watson.

Doc and Merle – billed that week as “Doc Watson & Son,” Merle would have been 21 then – played an amazing concert. Their guitar playing and Doc’s warm singing were like nothing I’d heard before. I quickly acquired the Doc and Doc & Merle albums which had been released over the previous decade and nearly every other one that’s been released in the four decades since. Doc was among the most-played artists in the 14-year history of my Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program.

Doc Watson was one of the greatest and most influential musicians of all time – particularly on guitar players. Although not primarily a bluegrass musician – Doc played virtually every kind of Southern roots music from traditional Appalachian music through blues, folk and rockabilly – Doc’s guitar playing redefined the role of the acoustic guitar in bluegrass music making it a lead, rather than just rhythm instrument. Today, it’s not unusual to hear guitar virtuosos picking the bejeezus out of fiddle tunes, but it all comes back to Doc’s masterful playing in the 1960s.

Doc was in his last days when Kent Gustavson put a copy of the revised version of his 2010 book, Blind but Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson, in the mail to me. It arrived a few days after Doc passed away, at age 89, on May 29.

The book is a compelling read. Although it would appear that Gustavson was not granted direct access to Doc and his immediate family, or even to Mitch Greenhill, his longtime agent (who took over from his father, Manny Greenhill) at Folklore Productions, his research was thorough and drew on many years of interviews of interviews with the legendary artist, articles, book references and many direct interviews with musicians and others who worked with Doc over the decades and knew him well.

Among the anecdotes I particularly enjoyed was the story of how Jerry Ricks, a young African American blues musician, took Doc in for a couple of weeks in 1963 when Doc was playing in Philadelphia. Jerry, who passed away in 2007, was a friend of mine. The way the story is told in the book is very similar to the way Jerry told it to me when I first met him in 1973.

Although I crossed paths with Doc several times in the 1970s and ‘80s, I didn’t really know him personally, so there was much I learned from this book. From the stories of his boyhood years at home and at the boarding school for the blind that he attended to the devastation he felt after Merle’s death in 1985 (and from which he never really recovered).

Although every Doc Watson concert I was ever there for, and every Doc Watson record I’ve ever played (and played and played and played), was the work of a master, Doc, apparently, did not enjoy the musician’s life of playing for strangers every night and being away from home. The early years playing concerts with traditional musicians like Clarence Ashley or traveling on his own to coffee houses and college concerts gave him ulcers.

And while I knew that Doc had spent most of the 1950s playing electric guitar in a local rockabilly band prior to his 1960 discovery by folklorist Ralph Rinzler (who played mandolin in the Greenbriar Boys), and while I knew that Rinzler had prevailed on Doc to just play traditional music on acoustic guitar (and banjo), I was unaware of how restricted Doc felt as a musician during the years he worked with Rinzler. By the time of my first Doc Watson concert a decade later, it was a given that Doc would move seamlessly from a traditional folksong, to a Mississippi John Hurt blues, to a Jimmie Rodgers country song or a contemporary folk-rooted song by Tom Paxton or Townes Van Zandt, and whatever else Doc might want to play – including an occasional rock ‘n’ roll classic. But, as the book reveals, that wasn’t the case in the early years when Rinzler would shape Doc’s recordings and concert sets.

Things began to ease up for Doc by the mid-1960s when teenaged Merle began to go out on the road with him. His son provided company and greatly eased the logistics of traveling for the blind musician.

But, as we learn from the book, the road was not kind to Merle either.

The Merle I remember from the stage was almost silent but for his guitar playing. Off stage, though, he relieved his own frustrations and loneliness through too much partying, substance abuse and promiscuity – losing his marriage in the process – culminating in the strange circumstances of the late-night tractor accident that claimed his life in 1985.

Gustavson tells the story of Merle’s struggles and his death candidly without either sensationalizing or suppressing what was undoubtedly that darkest chapter of Doc’s life.

As well as telling the story of Doc’s life, I particularly enjoyed the way Gustavson provided the context surrounding the story, from the descriptions of Appalachian mountain life when Doc was growing up to the realistic portraits of the music scene during the long decades of Doc’s career.

Gustavson tells Doc Watson’s story, from boyhood through to his later years, well. The writing is crisp and I appreciated the sidebar style contextualization he built into the narrative. Even when discussing the seeming aloofness that Doc retreated into after Merle’s death, Gustavson writes with an understanding of the circumstances and always with the complete respect due to one of the greatest of all musical giants.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, August 6, 2012

Bonnie Koloc – Rediscovered

Mr. Biscuit

As I noted in my review of Beginnings, a Bonnie Koloc collection of vintage – but previously unreleased – live recordings, I was first turned onto Bonnie almost four decades ago by the late Steve Goodman, one of her contemporaries on the Chicago folk club scene at the time.

Taking Steve’s enthusiastic recommendations to heart, I collected Bonnie’s 1970s recordings, all of which are now long out-of-print. On Rediscovered, Bonnie has recorded new versions of 10 songs from earlier albums, most of them from that period (and a couple from her much more recent and presumably still in-print CD, Visual Voice).

As always, Bonnie’s music falls somewhere between contemporary folk and pop music with strong elements of blues – particularly showing the influence of the classic woman blues singers of the 1920s and ‘30s – and jazz.

If anything, Bonnie’s interpretive skills have deepened and the arrangements on these 10 songs – a nicely balanced collection of five original songs and five drawn from other songwriters – are beautifully intimate featuring small groups or small groups plus strings.

Among my favorites from among Bonnie’s own songs is “Children’s Blues,” a powerful, deeply-felt commentary about the painful, often lasting effects of parental conflict on young kids. Despite not having heard the LP version in about 25 years, it’s a song I’ve never forgotten. The perfect arrangement is built on Larry Kohut’s heartbeat bass with Chris Siebold’s acoustic rhythm guitar and lead lines from John Rice on dobro and Steve Eisen on tenor sax – and, of course, Bonnie’s superb singing.

Another is “Two Black Guitars,” a heartfelt remembrance of Bonnie’s late brother Jim, also a musician, that references the Everly Brothers and ends with a coda from the Everlys hit, “Bye Bye Love.” Howard Levy’s sublime harmonica playing adds much to this and several other songs.

Among the covers, there’s a great version of Lil Green’s classic “In the Dark,” which Bonnie starts singing a cappella – her voice slipping and sliding effortlessly around the melody – before Kohut, Rice and Sibelod move in under her.

Another favourite cover is John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” a song that draws on an old woman’s somewhat bitter memories and feelings. It’s a song that almost demands a woman’s voice and Bonnie nails it.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Stan Rogers – Turnaround; Between the Breaks… Live! reissues

Fogarty’s Cove/Borealis

Between the Breaks… Live!
Fogarty’s Cove/Borealis

With Turnaround, first released on LP in 1978, and Between the Breaks… Live, from 1979, Stan Rogers’ second and third albums, Borealis Records continues its 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.

In the liner notes to the new version of Turnaround – which sounds incredible, much better than the LP or the first CD release – Ariel Rogers mentions that Stan “struggled with people not liking the album as much as the first,” Fogarty’s Cove, which had been released to great acclaim.

As I recall, I was one of those who didn’t like Turnaround as much as Fogarty’s Cove – at least initially. Fogarty’s Cove was a beautifully executed concept album whose songs captured the spirit of the people of Eastern Canada with seeming authenticity from the first track to the last. And there was an acoustic consistency to the production and arrangements which flowed throughout the album. Turnaround, on the other hand, was much more eclectic. Thematically, a few of the songs could have been on Fogarty’s Cove, others reflected more urban, big city settings, and a couple of others were more inner-directed. The production and arrangements were also more eclectic drawing on a variety of influences including folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll. But, as I listened repeatedly to Turnaround back in the day, it very quickly grew on me.

Even if I was initially resistant to some of the “Steeleye Stan” arrangements, there was never any doubt in my mind about the quality of the songwriting. Several songs have always been favourites. Among them is “Second Effort.” As I recall, Stan wrote the song  from the perspective of an Olympian dreading coming home without the gold (how appropriate to be writing about the song this week), but it could just as easily be about anyone who has reached for a dream and come up short. Another is “Song of the Candle,” an ambitious song of philosophical examination.

But, perhaps, my very favourite is “Turnaround,” the title track, a quiet song contemplating life and choices made which ends the album. (In 1979, I was helping folksinger Priscilla Herdman choose songs for her album Forgotten Dreams and “Turnaround” was one I encouraged her to do. She did a magnificent version.)

As mentioned, there were some songs which continued with themes introduced on Fogarty’s Cove, including “The Jeannie C,” a heartbreakingly poignant song about a fisherman whose spirit was broken when his boat – which had been built by his father and named for his mother – was lost.

As well as being a gifted singer and brilliant songwriter, Stan was an incredibly dynamic live performer and his third album was recorded live at a late-‘70s folk club in Toronto called the Groaning Board. Between the Breaks… Live was a nine-song set which included five of Stan’s songs recorded for the first time, a live version of one song from Fogarty’s Cove, a traditional song and two drawn from other writers.

Although the stage patter was edited out, it’s a great live album that captures much of the excitement of a Stan Rogers concert in those days. His regular touring musicians at the time, brother Garnet Rogers on violin and flute and bassist David Alan Eadie, were augmented by Grit Laskin on long-necked mandolin, concertina and Northumbian small pipes, and guitarist Curly Boy Stubbs (producer Paul Mills). All of the musicians also sang (as did the audience) on several songs. Like the remastered version of  Turanaround, this great-sounding reissue sounds much better than the LP or the first CD release.

Among the standout tracks is the live version of “Barrett’s Privateers,” which I referred to as “a song that seems so real and authentic you’d swear it was a time-tested traditional sea chantey” in my review of Fogarty’s Cove. Tempered by hundreds of performances, this rendition is much more exciting and dynamic than the studio rendition from a couple of years earlier.

Other standouts include “The Flowers of Bermuda,” a cinematically vivid stomper about a sea captain who went down with his ship just a few hours away from his destination, “Rolling Down to Old Maui,” a traditional chantey that Stan loved to sing, and “Harris and the Mare,” a narrative ballad about a peaceful man driven to violence.

The absolute highlight, though, is “The Mary Ellen Carter,” a fictional account of some sailors from a sunken boat determined to raise and restore it. As I’ve written before, it is one of the most inspiring and most infectious songs in the contemporary folk canon. It remains, to this day, my favourite of all of Stan’s songs.

As I noted in my review of The Very Best of Stan Rogers, Stan was a friend and colleague. Although I know these albums backward and forward, it is so exciting to hear them again in the glory of these remasterings,

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--Mike Regenstreif