Sunday, October 28, 2012

Various Artists – Quiet About: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester

Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester
Mailboat Records

In July of last year, I reported here that Jesse Winchester, my old friend of 40+ years, was battling cancer of the esophagus. And I was very happy to report here the following September that his rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and his surgery were successful and that he was on the road to recovery – a recovery I was able to see for myself this past March when I visited with Jesse on his trip to Montreal to play a concert date there (at which he was as superb as ever – and where he will return again next April 13).

While Jesse was battling cancer, a number of artists from several genres of music, spearheaded by Jimmy Buffett and Elvis Costello, decided it was a good time to put together a tribute album to show their appreciation to Jesse for his many decades of great songwriting. The album, Quiet About: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester is now available from Jimmy’s Mailboat Records and hearing these folks sing Jesse’s songs in their individual (or group) styles is the next best thing to hearing Jesse sing them himself.

Four of the 11 songs are drawn from Jesse’s eponymously named first album – songs I was hearing Jesse sing in Montreal a year or so before that album came out in 1970 when I was a young pup on the Montreal folk scene. Jesse began that first album with “Payday,” a rock ‘n’ roll celebration of the time to go out and blow some dough and James Taylor kicks off the tribute with a version that is part folk, part rock and a good part the Memphis soul that Jesse grew up listening to.

Rosanne Cash follows with a lovely version of “Biloxi,” Jesse’s dreamy reminiscence of time spent on the Mississippi Gulf Coat written at a time when Jesse had no expectations of ever being able to get back there.

Lyle Lovett offers a sublime version of the classic “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” Listening, I was reminded of being with Jesse backstage at a festival in the 1980s – I think it was the Winnipeg Folk Festival – when Lyle, then an emerging Texas artist, came over to meet Jesse for the first time.

The fourth song from that first album is the neo-gospel “Quiet About It,” performed as the CD finale by Elvis Costello. This new version is quieter than Jesse’s original – which is kind of outside-the-box because Jesse is generally a much quieter artist than Elvis – and a perfect ending to the tribute.

Third Down, 110 to Go, Jesse’s second album – and still one of my very favorites of his – yields “Dangerous Fun,” performed wonderfully by Rodney Crowell with sublime harmonies from Emmylou Harris – who has recorded wonderful versions of several of Jesse’s songs on her own albums and who has also sung harmony with Jesse himself – and Vince Gill.

There are two songs from Jesse’s third album, 1974’s Learn to Love It, another of my favorites of Jesse’s albums. Jesse performed regularly at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the 1970s and ‘80s, and his first three concerts there were the week Learn to Love It was released. Mac McAnally does a nice version of “Defying Gravity” and Lucinda Williams does a perfect, drawling version of “Mississippi You’re On My Mind,” another song that in which Jesse paints a vivid picture of a place he knew well growing up and probably thought, when he wrote it, that he’d never get to see again.

Little Feat, with help from such friends as Larry Campbell and Sam Bush, rock out on “Rhumba Man,” from Jesse’s 1977 album, Nothing but a Breeze. I can just picture Jesse listening to the track and dancing around his living room at home the way I’ve seen him do countless times on stage during this song.

Vince Gill nicely captures the Memphis R&B grooves that are the essence of “Talk Memphis,” the title track of Jesse’s 1981 album and a tribute to the great music by Elvis Presley and other Memphis music legends he grew up listening to in his hometown.

The two most recent songs on the album come from 1999’s Gentleman of Leisure, Jesse’s first new album following a 10-year break from recording and touring. I was honored back in ’99 when songs from that album were first heard publicly when Jesse was my guest on Folk Roots/Folk Branches, the radio show I hosted on CKUT in Montreal from 1994 to 2007, a week before the album was released.

The title song, “Gentleman of Leisure,” is a nice choice for Jimmy Buffett who captures all of the song’s sly humor, and Allen Toussaint, the great New Orleans pianist and songwriter, does a wonderful version of “I Wave Bye Bye,” Jesse’s beautiful evocation of and farewell to the Old Montreal neighborhood he lived in for several years before leaving Montreal for a new home in the Eastern Townships (and, much more recently, back to the U.S. to make a home with Cindy, his new bride).

It is quite obvious that all of the artists on this tribute album are there as a testament to the love and respect they have for one of our greatest singer-songwriters, my friend, the great Jesse Winchester.

Pictured: Jesse Winchester and Mike Regenstreif at La Sala Rossa in Montreal (2006).

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Maria Dunn – Piece By Piece

Piece By Piece
Distant Whisper Music

I’ve long admired the superb work of Edmonton-based singer and songwriter Maria Dunn. She’s well-versed in traditional folk music, and like such songwriters as Woody Guthrie, Tom Russell, Si Kahn and Tom Paxton, has a wonderful and all-too-rare ability to write outside of herself from the perspective of other people with complete authenticity.

Piece By Piece, Maria’s latest project comprises just eight songs and runs just 29 minutes, but the suite of songs inspired by the waves of women immigrants who worked at the GWG clothing factory in Edmonton between 1911 and 2004 – and which is sung from some of their perspectives – is one of this year’s folk music masterpieces.

Some of the stories Maria tells in these songs reflect the working life of the GWG workers. “Speed Up,” is a call-and-response song reflecting the tempo of factory work and the pressure to increase the speed of the work. The song’s rhythms, reflecting the South Asian origins of some of the workers, are set by the beats of Ojas Joshi’s tabla.

In the poignant “Blue Lung,” Maria sings as a woman at the end of her life suffering from the effects of pulmonary fibrosis brought on, she believes, by her years of breathing denim dust on the factory floor – suffering that is not so different from that of coal miners suffering from black lung disease. Shannon Johnson’s violin adds much to the poignancy of the arrangement.

Some of the other songs reflect the lives or times in the lives of the GWG workers. In “I Cannot Tell You (The Whole Story),” Maria movingly sings as a woman from Vietnam, who grew up during the war there and left her family behind, at their insistence, for the chance of a better life in Canada. Although specific to one person’s story, it’s also a universal reflection of so many immigrants – particularly refugees.

In “Shareholder’s Reel,” Maria sings about contract negotiations from the class perspective of the woman who was the union local’s president in 1972 when the GWG factory was sold to Levi Straus. Terrific playing by Shannon on fiddle and Michael Lent on bass perfectly complement Maria’s voice, guitar and accordion.

From the first song to the last, it is obvious the utmost care and attention to detail was paid to the stories of the women who worked in the GWG factory. Combined with Maria’s skills as singer and musician, and as an empathetic songwriter with a great ear for dialogue, Piece By Piece is destined to be a folk music classic.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Lucy Kaplansky – Reunion

Red House

Family is a thread that runs through many of the original songs on Reunion, Lucy Kaplansky’s seventh solo album (Lucy’s original songs are written in collaboration with Richard Litvin, her husband).

The theme is established in “Scavenger,” the opening track, a song that could be interpreted in several different ways. One interpretation might be that it’s sung from the perspective of a refugee, far from home and family, trying to make his or her way alone, far away from loved ones. Or, perhaps, it’s a song sung from the perspective of a person who has chosen their own path in the world but understands that we are shaped and formed by our family relationships. “You may walk yourself alone/Through the hills of the night/But you’ll walk with the ones you love/In the valley of your life/You’ll always stand with the ones you keep/In the valley of your life.”

In the poignant “Mother’s Day,” she reflects on her loving and happy relationship with her daughter, a relationship made possible by another mother. “I’ve had a picture in my head all day/A mother wraps up her baby and walks way.”

The album’s centerpiece is “Reunion,” a song about two important family reunions in Toronto. In the verses, she recalls a 1971 trip – she would have been about 11 then – to her father’s hometown of Toronto for a big family reunion beginning with a visit to her grandmother’s bakery. During the reunion she comes to realize how much of the family is inside her father, who left Toronto for the U.S. as a young man (much like, perhaps, the protagonist in “Scavenger”). And, in the chorus, Lucy recalls another trip to Toronto, 40 years later, and another reunion with her Canadian cousins, all of whom, like herself, have lost their fathers. “Here we are together/Just daughters and sons/This is our reunion.”

In three of the most moving songs, Lucy reflects on the passing of her parents. In “I’ll See You Again,” she sets the scene of the night her parents met and of their final parting. In “My Father’s Son,” she sings from her father’s perspective, at the end of his life, as he repairs his relationship with Lucy’s brother, and in “Sleep Well,” she wishes a goodnight to her dying mother.

Lucy is also a gifted interpreter of songs she didn’t write and offers four excellent covers on Reunion including superb versions of “The Beauty Way,” written by her Red Horse mate Eliza Gilkyson, and, in this year marking the centennial  of Woody Guthries birth, “This Morning I Am Born Again,” a set of Woody's joyous lyrics set to music by Slaid Cleaves.

The cover painting, by the way, is a scene from Lucy’s grandmother’s Toronto bakery. It was painted by Avrom Yanovsky, a noted political cartoonist who once worked at the bakery and the father of Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky.

Pictured: John Gorka, who sings harmony on “Mother’s Day,” Mike Regenstreif and Lucy Kaplansky at the 2012 Ottawa Folk Festival.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pete Seeger – Pete Remembers Woody; Pete Seeger & Lorre Wyatt – A More Perfect Union

Pete Remembers Woody

There have been many worthy recording projects released in 2012 to mark the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth on July 14, 1912. Among the most interesting is certainly Pete Remembers Woody, a 2-CD collection mostly made up of stories told by Pete Seeger about the friend he met in New York City in 1940 and their times together. The stories are punctuated by songs, most of them written by Woody Guthrie, most of them previously released, sung by a variety of artists, both contemporary and historical.

The album was assembled by David Bernz, a member of Work O’ the Weavers, a group dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Weavers, the folk music group Pete was a part of in the late-1940s and ‘50s. Over a period of years dating back to the 1990s, David made living room recordings of Pete talking about his history and these reminiscences of Woody are drawn from those recordings.

Although I’ve heard Pete tell some of these stories before – on stage and in various interviews, including several interviews with me – it’s still fascinating to hear all of these stories collected into this aural history. From his first meeting Woody, through their travels together, to stories of how some of the classic songs came to be written, to his last visit with Woody, it is an essential collection for any student of Woody and/or Pete. And, frankly, anyone who wants to understand the development of folk music in the 20th century should be a student of both Woody and Pete. There is much for any lover of folk music to appreciate in Pete’s stories.

Some of Pete’s stories are told on top of music beds variously played by Pete himself, Cathy Fink, Ralph Storm and producer David Bernz.

And, as noted, there are songs spread throughout the two CDs punctuating Pete’s stories. A couple of the tracks, Woody and Cisco Houston singing “New York Town” and the Almanac Singers – a group that included both Pete and Woody – singing “The Sinking of the Reuben James, are from the 1940s. The rest date from recent years and include several each by the Work O’ the Weavers, the Vanaver Caravan, and Steve Kirkman (one of them with Fred Gillen, Jr.). There are also recordings by Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Pete & Arlo Guthrie and David Bernz.

As well as the Woody Guthrie songs, there is also a version of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ “If I Had a Hammer,” performed by Work O’ the Weavers, and David Bernz also sings an original song, “Woody’s Ghost,” inspired by Woody. “Woody’s Ghost” is heard in three parts at the beginning, middle and end of the project.

A More Perfect Union
Singer and songwriter Lorre Wyatt is best known for such songs as the anthemic “Somos El Barco/We are the Boat,” which has been recorded by such artists as Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary, and for a number of songwriting collaborations with Pete dating back to the early efforts to clean up the Hudson River. In 1996, Lorre suffered a debilitating stroke that kept him on the sidelines for about 15 years. He has recently begun making music again and is again writing songs with Pete, who, at the age of 93, remains a remarkably vital musical artist.

The 16 songs on A More Perfect Union include 15 co-written by Pete and Lorre, as well as a new version of Lorre’s “Somos El Barco/We are the Boat.” Ten are performed by Pete and Lorre together, some with contributions from significant guest artists, and there are three songs performed by Pete without Lorre and three more by Lorre without Pete.

The tone of the album is established on the first song, “God’s Counting On Me…God’s Counting On You,” a new anthem for these times about communal responsibility for fixing what’s wrong with our contemporary world. The verses are variously sung by Pete, Lorre, Bruce Springsteen and the Rivertown Kids, the group of Beacon, NY school kids who sang with Pete a couple of years ago on Tomorrows Children, while a choir of singers harmonizes on the chorus. It’s an inspiring song destined to join the long list of Pete’s essential classics.

The communal spirit of “God’s Counting On Me” continues to be felt on such songs as “A More Perfect Union,” sung by Lorre, Pete and Tom Morello, “Wonderful Friends” and “A Toast to the Times.”

Other highlights include the gorgeous version of “Somos El Barco/We are the Boat” sung by Pete, Lorre and Emmylou Harris, again with a choir of singers on the chorus, and quietly compelling “Bountiful River,” the 10-minute opus which ends the album.

That Lorre was able, 15 years after his stroke, to return to making vital music again, and that Pete has continued to be such a force of nature, music making and songwriting well into his 90s, is nothing less than inspiring.

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--Mike Regenstreif