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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