Sunday, September 30, 2012

Kathy Mattea – Calling Me Home

Calling Me Home
Sugar Hill

In a career dating back to the 1980s, Kathy Mattea had a bunch of country hits. In 2008, though, she shucked all commercial pretence and released Coal, a thematic folk and bluegrass album of songs about the lives of Appalachian coal miners. It was her finest work ever. Whether singing about lost ways of life or of lost lives, she found the emotional essence of each song and brought it, sometimes powerfully, sometimes beautifully, to the fore.

Although only a few of the songs on Calling Me Home explicitly deal with coal miners, the album, both thematically and musically, does continue in the vein of Coal and at least equals, if not surpasses, the predecessor’s achievement.

The deep Appalachian roots of the album are signaled from the beginning of the first song, Michael and Janet Dowling’s “A Far Cry,” when the first sound heard is the fiddle and the second is the mandolin. The song itself, memorably recorded years ago by Del McCoury, is a powerful song of regret from the perspective of someone who forsook their life in the Appalachians, and the love they had there.

As noted, several songs deal directly with coal mining issues. Jean Ritchie’s quietly powerful “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” sung from the perspective of a woman whose husband was one of many men lost in the latest mining disaster and who fears a similar fate could await her sons. “Black Waters,” also written by Jean, and equally quietly powerful, is a lament for the environmental devastation the coal industry has wreaked in states like Kentucky, where Jean comes from, and West Virginia, where Kathy comes from. In Larry Cordle’s “Hello, My Name is Coal,” the narrator is coal itself contrasting its virtues and its sins.

Most of the other songs are drawn from writers who are either from the Appalachians like the late Hazel Dickens, or who have immersed themselves in the traditional culture and/or music. Among the most compelling are Si Kahn’s “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” in which a beloved and wise grandfather is recalled; and Alice Gerrard’s “Calling Me Home,” sung a cappella with chilling harmonies by Tim Eriksen, in which a dying man says his farewells.

The mostly-acoustic arrangements featuring such musicians and harmony singers as Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Tim O’Brien, Emmylou Harris, Aoife O’Donovan, Mollie O’Brien and Alison Krauss serve the songs perfectly.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lynn Miles – Black Flowers Vol. 3

Black Flowers Vol. 3

As I noted in my review of Black Flowers Volume 1-2, Lynn Miles has long been one of my favourite confessional singer-songwriters and although I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated her studio recordings – indeed, some of them are favourite albums – I’ve always preferred hearing her perform live in stripped-down settings which allow her beautiful voice and her excellent songwriting to shine.

A few years ago, Lynn began a long-term project to record solo acoustic versions of her entire song catalogue – both songs that have been released on her studio albums and previously unrecorded songs. Black Flowers Vol. 3 is the third CD in the series and – by my count – includes six songs drawn from her earlier studio albums and four which appear on CD for the first time.

As on the first two volumes in the Black Flowers series, without other musicians, all attention is focused directly on Lynn’s voice accompanied only by her own piano, guitar or guitar-harmonica playing, and her excellent songwriting. I hear the previously recorded songs on a deeper level than before and the previously unreleased songs – some of which I’m sure I’ve heard her do live at some point – are similarly heard.

While all of these are great songs, my favourite tracks include “Hockey Night in Canada,” the standout song for me on Lynn’s first CD, a vivid portrait of Montreal – or almost any Canadian city for that matter – deep in the cold winter when all we can do is long for a beautiful summer day; “Drunks and Fools,” which captures the feelings and state of mind most of us have felt and had at least one time or another; and “Look Up,” a reminder that a broken heart is not the end of the world, that life goes on. It’s a perfect finale to set in which many of the songs beautifully capture feelings of regrets and broken hearts.

Folk folks here in Ottawa, Lynn performs Wednesday, October 3, 8:00 pm, at Irene’s Pub, 885 Bank Street.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Bob Dylan – Tempest


Tempest, released 50 years after Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut, 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 in the 20th century via recordings and migratory performers. Some of these songs tell stories as detailed narratives, others paint pictures of scenes, both connected and disjointed. Many are filled with scenes of violence and death, with love, hate, sex and sexism, and religion. It’s impossible to know, in most of them, if Dylan is singing from his own heart or from the heart of his characters – or some combination of both.

The album opens with “Duquesne Whistle,” a train song that swings a little like an old Bob Wills tune, but which really reminds me of the Memphis Jug Band’s “K.C. Moan,” which was included on the Anthology of American Folk Music (Smithsonian Folkways), the monumental collection of songs from “old weird America” assembled in 1952 by Harry Smith (and which Dylan undoubtedly heard sung back in the day by our mutual friend, Dave Van Ronk). There’s no real narrative to the song, which was co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (the album’s only writing collaboration), but in each verse the train whistle recalls another scene: a traveler on the train, of a love relationship, childhood, etc.

“Soon After Midnight,” in folk-like ballad form seems to be a late-night confessional that could be, at least at first, either religious or romantic in nature. As the song develops, Dylan refers to harlots and “Two-Timing Slim,” whose corpse he’ll “drag through the mud.” Is it a song of regret about betrayal of a lover or wife or of God? The lyrics, like so much of Dylan’s work are open to interpretation.

There’s a lot going on in “Narrow Way,” – religion, history, war, love, sex – which all unfold in a series of images set to an intense, Chicago blues arrangement.

 “Long and Wasted Years,” is seemingly written as an apology to a lover or former lover or judging from the line, “It's been a while, since we walked down that long, long aisle,” a wife or former wife. I don’t know – and we probably can’t know – whether Dylan is singing about a relationship from his own life or in character. However, the line, “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes, there are secrets in ‘em that I can't disguise,” strikes me as perhaps as one of Dylan’s most revealing lines about himself in decades.

The images in “Pay In Blood,” like many of these songs are vague and seem to suggest different things at different points in the song. Sometimes they seem to be coming from a religious zealot, sometimes from a political skeptic. The tone is angry and accusatory but it’s hard to tell if they’re coming from above or below, let alone left or right.

In “Scarlet Town,” Dylan takes the setting and lifts several lines from the ancient folk ballad “Barbara Allen,” and weaves a rambling, contemporary portrait of a town whose citizens’ lives encompass various shades of good, evil, love, hate, greed, vice, lust, and more.

I’ve seen commentaries on “Early Roman Kings,” which uses Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” as its template, which interpret the song to be about a New York City street gang out for blood and money. Maybe, but my read is that it’s about unbridled capitalists who will destroy the soul of society in their quest for figurative blood and real money. Of course, as with so much of Dylan's work, the interpretation is in the ear of the beholder.

“Tin Angel,” which also touches on the greed and the need for control of an unbridled capitalist type lifts lines and some of its story from “Gypsy Davy,” Woody Guthrie’s rewrite of the traditional “Gypsy Davy,” “Gypsy Daisy” or “Gypsy Laddie” ballad. Dylan’s contemporary folk-styled ballad is a richly detailed story of love, jealousy and betrayal that ends tragically with all three characters dead in a tale of murder and suicide.

“Tempest,” the title track is another long, richly detailed folk-like ballad that tells the story of the sinking of the Titanic, 100 years ago, that mixes fact with images and details from Dylan’s imagination – the references to a character in the song named Leo were supposedly inspired by actor Leonardo DiCaprio who starred in the Hollywood film version of the story. Through 14 riveting minutes – I believe it’s Dylan’s longest song ever* – and 45 verses without a chorus, the story unfolds with seemingly as much detail as the film (minus Leo's love story with Kate Winslet's character). There’s so much going on that you really need to hear it repeatedly to let the details sink in. (*Update September 26: Tempest is actually about 2.5 minutes shorter than Highlands from Time Out of Mind. Thank you to John Yuelkenbeck for reminding me of that.)

“Roll On John,” which ends the album is a tribute to the late John Lennon filled with details from Lennon’s life and lines from several of his songs. As a song title, it completes a 50 year circle for Dylan who sang a great version of the traditional song, “Roll On John,” on a 1962 radio program in New York City. You can hear that radio recording on the compilation There Is No Eye: Music for Photographs (Smithsonian Folkways), an album put together by John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers of songs by artists he photographed back in the day.

Listening to Tempest, I can’t help but be reminded of Bob Dylan at 70, an essay I wrote 16 months ago on the occasion of his milestone birthday. Almost everything about Tempest reinforces what I wrote in that essay – from the roots of his songwriting, to his gravitas, to our inability to know him.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Dust Busters with John Cohen – Old Man Below

Old Man Below
Smithsonian Folkways

In 1958, when he would have been 25 or 26 years old, John Cohen got together with Mike Seeger and Tom Paley and founded the New Lost City Ramblers. At a time when most of the folk revival-era groups – think Kingston Trio, etc. – were smoothing the rough edges out of folksongs to create a folk-pop music for pre-boomer college students, the New Lost City Ramblers dedicated themselves to reviving and preserving the rougher, decidedly rural old time country music recorded in the “golden age” of the 1920s and ‘30s – the kind of music assembled a few years earlier by Harry Smith on his monumental Anthology of American Folk Music.

With just one personnel change in 1962 when Tom Paley left and was replaced by Tracy Schwarz, the New Lost City Ramblers played together and recorded lots of Folkways albums for about half a century. All of the revivalist groups striving for that ‘20s and ‘30s authenticity playing old time music over the past half-century have followed in footsteps of the New Lost City Ramblers. (One of my favorite folk festival memories was being there for a rare reunion of the original group when John, Mike and Tom, all booked as solo artists, played together at the 1997 Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Burlington, Vermont.)

The Dust Busters, three young musicians in their 20s based in Brooklyn, are the latest group following that trail blazed by the New Lost City Ramblers in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Many of the old time artists whose 78 rpm recordings inspired the New Lost Ramblers were still alive and playing in the 1950s and ‘60s and they were able to learn directly from some of them in addition to the old records. That’s not possible for today’s young musicians in groups like the Dust Busters, but they can and have been learning from first generation revivalists like John Cohen and Peter Stampfel (whose Holy Modal Rounders played a bent and twisted version of old time music informed by beat poets and ‘60s culture) in addition to the old records (which have never been as easily accessible as they are now in the digital age).

Not only have they learned from John Cohen, John collaborates with them throughout  their first album, Old Man Below, an album that sounds like it just as easily have been a Ramblers LP from 50 years ago.

The Dust Busters – Eli Smith on banjo, guitar, mandolin, harmonica, jew’s harp, pump organ, manjo; Walker Shepherd on banjo, guitar, bantar, fiddle, manjo, piano; Craig Judelman on fiddle, piano; with John Cohen on guitar, banjo, mandolin; and Frank Fairfield on fiddle on two songs; and Eli, Walker, Craig and John trading lead and harmony vocals –repertoire on this entertaining CD is highlighted by such numbers as “Black Jack Daisy,” Dillard Chandler’s variant of “The Gypsy Laddie” and “Black Jack Davy,” “The Roving Gambler,” “Free Little Bird,” and “Baby, Your Time Ain’t Long.”

Another highlight, and the most contemporary song in that it dates from the 1940s, is Butch Hawes’ “Arthritis Blues.”

These are songs that have slipped into tradition because they’ve stood the test of time and because successive generations have brought their own sensibilities to them. I look forward to hearing more from the Dust Busters.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ottawa Folk Festival – Sunday and wrap-up

After all the rain on Saturday, the weather for the Ottawa Folk Festival on Sunday was much better – cool with a mix of sun and non-threatening cloud.

As I’ve noted before, I consider the daytime programming – particularly the workshops – to be the heart and soul of a folk festival and I spent almost all of Sunday parked at the workshop stage where I heard a lot of fine music and was rewarded with much of the spontaneous interaction that folk festival workshops are noted for.

The first of Sunday’s scheduled workshops was an on-stage interview with actor/singer-songwriter Jill Hennessy. Unfortunately, we arrived late – just in time to hear her perform one of her alt-country songs at the end of the session. I would have liked to have heard more.

The rest of the workshops were multi-artist, round robin style song swaps with vaguely-defined thematic titles which pretty much allowed the artists to take them wherever they wanted to go. First up was Any Way You String It, hosted by Arthur McGregor of the Ottawa Folklore Centre who was playing his banjo for the occasion. Other participants included country artist Nudie of Nudie and the Turks, Newfoundland folk trio The Once and the sublime singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson (who was joined for a song by the equally sublime singer-songwriters John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky, her partners in the folk supergroup Red Horse).

Among the workshop’s highlights were Arthur’s instrumental banjo interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Nudie’s dipping into Sam Cooke’s early years for some Soul Stirrers gospel, The Once getting all the artists playing and the whole audience singing on Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and Eliza’s sing-along rendition of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

Next up was Hellos & Goodbyes hosted by Lucy Kaplansky with British folksinger John Smith and a stripped down version of the indie-rock band Said the Whale.

Clearly Lucy, who called Eliza Gilkyson up to sing with her on one song and John Gorka on another, carried the workshop with several of the songs from her stunning new CD, Reunion, including the title track which recalls a 1971 family reunion in Toronto when she was 11 and a recent concert trip to Toronto attended by many of her Canadian cousins.

John demonstrated his songwriting roots in traditional British folk music and also played a version of Richard Thompson’s “Beeswing” that was quite lovely despite nervousness that caused him to trip-up in a couple of verses. John’s work with open guitar tunings was quite creative. Said the Whale, playing without their bassist and drummer, seemed a bit like a fish – or whale – out of water in the folk festival workshop setting.

Toward the end of the workshop, I dashed over to the main stage to see Chris White, one of the most tireless animators of Ottawa’s folk music scene, receive the Helen Verger Award. Named for the founder of Rasputin’s the late, lamented Ottawa folk café, the award has been presented annually by the Ottawa Folk Festival to someone for outstanding contributions to Canadian folk music. Chris, the Ottawa Folk Festival’s founding artistic director and guiding spirit for 16 years, was a most deserving choice for the award.

Then it was back to the workshop stage for City Slickers, Country Songs, hosted by Pat Moore, followed. Also on hand were Gordie McKeeman & (one of) His Rhythm Boys, Catriona Sturton and Amy Helm.

Pat, accompanied by guitarist Pat McLaughlin, was a charming host and contributed several excellent performances in both straight country and Ray Charlesesque country/R&B. Catriona particularly shined on a harmonica/guitar instrumental.

But, clearly, the stars of this workshop were Gordie and Amy. Gordie was also playing without his bassist and drummer, but his infectious fiddling and step-dancing and Peter Cann’s hot guitar playing more than carried the day with their down-home tunes.

Amy, who played mandolin, was accompanied by guitarist Dan Littleton and called up Byron Isaacs – who also plays in her band and was a band mate in Ollabelle – to sing harmony on a couple of songs. Amy was the only person I heard sing a Woody Guthrie song at the festival in this centennial year of Woody’s birth. Her rocking version of Woody’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” was reminiscent of the version by Bob Dylan and The Band (which included Amy’s dad, Levon Helm) from the 1968 Woody Guthrie memorial concert at Carnegie Hall. She also did a stunning version of Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand.”

There was lots of musical exchanges and jamming by all of the artists throughout the City Slickers, Country Songs workshop.

Then it was back over to the larger stage area to see most of Michael Jerome Browne’s concert set. Performing solo and  playing multiple instruments including guitar, fretless gourd banjo and fiddle, Michael showed his mastery of various traditional and contemporary roots styles – blues, folk, Appalachian, Cajun, etc. – in a repertoire that ranged from traditional folk material to an Al Green soul classic and several of Michael’s excellent original songs written in collaboration with lyricist B. Markus.

And that was it for me at this year’s Ottawa Folk Festival. Scheduling conflicts meant I couldn’t stay for the Sunday evening concerts. Among those I particularly wanted to see were Amy Helm and Red Horse (Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky.)

The festival also continued with a Monday night concert headlined by Bon Iver which apparently attracted a massive crowd to Hog’s Back Park.

Last words

I’m very happy the Ottawa Folk Festival attracted the big crowds it did this year. It portends well for the future.

As I noted in my first report, the Ottawa Folk Festival has really become two festivals in one – an indie rock event and a folk festival. Unfortunately, the overbearing sound bleed from the big stages sometimes overpowered the quieter folk stages.

I fully understand why Bluesfest director Mark Monahan has gone in the indie rock direction with most of the programming. Clearly, his choices brought in the biggest – and youngest – crowds in the festival’s history. But the two streams of programming needn’t compete the way they do.

My suggestion would be to program a real folk festival during the daytime and the louder rock acts at night. The big crowds of university students and folks in their 20s, for the most part, only show up at night anyway.

Expand the workshop schedule on Saturday and Sunday with more stages and creative, visionary programming that doesn’t seem like it’s almost an afterthought – including having much more and much more diverse traditional music. Shut down the huge main stage during the day and restrict daytime concerts on the bigger side stages to folk and/or acoustic artists. There’s so many of them around. It will also bring in a lot more of the traditional folk festival audience, many of whom feel alienated from the current festival format.

And then, use the evenings for the louder indie-rock concerts that bring in the huge crowds. As I said, those crowds only show up at night anyway.

Kudos to Mark and the rest of the Bluesfest team for maintaining some of the Ottawa Folk Festival traditions including the kidzone, dance area, and environmental policies, and for banning smoking on the festival grounds.

And kudos, too, to the great corps of volunteers, another Ottawa Folk Festival tradition.

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--Mike Regenstreif