Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Stan Rogers – Northwest Passage; From Fresh Water

Northwest Passage
Fogarty’s Cove/Borealis

From Fresh Water
Fogarty’s Cove/Borealis

Northwest Passage, first released in 1981, and From Fresh Water, first released posthumously in 1984, were the final two albums recorded by Stan Rogers for Fogarty’s Cove, his family-owned record label. They are also the final two installments in Borealis Records’ 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.

These albums also continue Stan’s ongoing project to create song-cycles set in Canada’s various regions – something he began to do on Fogarty’s Cove when he wrote and sang about Atlantic Canada and its people. On Northwest Passage, he wrote and sang about the prairies and the north; on From Fresh Water, about Ontario, particularly the Great Lakes region.

Northwest Passage begins with the anthemic title song, a vivid portrait of Stan driving west across the country recalling the early explorers who searched for the elusive Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the arctic – centuries before global warming actually seems to have made a Northwest Passage feasible. Sung a cappella, the powerful song has proven to be one of the most enduring classics in a song catalog filled with enduring classics.

On other songs, Stan writes as empathetically about the people of the west and north as he’d already done so successfully about Atlantic Canadians.

In “The Field Behind the Plow,” he sings to and about an everyman farmer insightfully and authentically capturing his hopes and dreams, and his sometimes cruel realities.

In “Lies,” he sings, again insightfully and authentically, about a farmer’s wife and the hard life she leads. I’ve always thought of “The Field Behind the Plow” and “Lies” as companion songs married to each other.

“Night Guard” is a modern-day cowboy song worthy of Ian Tyson about a rodeo cowboy – now too old for the game – making a living protecting a cattle herd from rustlers, and “Canol Road” is an exciting, vividly cinematic song about a guy in the Yukon, crazy with cabin fever, who just had to get out and get that drink, no matter what the conditions, and no matter the price he’d have to pay.

A couple of the best songs on Northwest Passage blend the west with Stan’s eastern roots. In “The Idiot,” Stan sings in character as one of the countless Maritime boys who left home to work in the Alberta oil fields. And in “Free In the Harbour,” he sings about Newfoundlanders, stopping in Winnipeg on their way to Alberta, or sitting in the taverns of Edmonton and Calgary, nostalgically remembering home, “where the whales make free in the harbour.”

From Fresh Water begins with “White Squall,” which Stan sings from the perspective of an experienced Great Lakes shipman, used to the fury of lake storms, commenting on a much younger mate who, tragically, didn’t heed his warnings.

One of the finest songs on the album is “Lock-keeper,” sung from the perspective of such a man on the St. Lawrence Seaway. In some ways, I think “Lock-keeper” is related to “Northwest Passage.” In the latter song, Stan sings about leaving “a settled life” for the life of the adventurer. But, in “Lock-keeper,” he sings about the greatness of that settled life – of love and family – in contrast to the ultimate loneliness of the adventurer.

One of the most powerful songs on the album is “Flying,” ostensibly a hockey song about all the young players who dream of making it to the NHL while only a small, select few ever do. In reality, it’s an allegory about reaching for any kind of a star knowing so few will get there.

And, in a very sadly, prophetic line in “Flying,” Stan sang about “go up flying and going home dying” – something that tragically happened to him just a few months after writing the song.

Other favorites include “Tiny Fish for Japan,” which captures the feelings of Great Lakes fishers whose catch is bound for foreign markets, “The Last Watch,” a sad lament about a lake steamer about to be scrapped, and “The House of Orange,” a quiet, but very powerful commentary about the refusing, as an Irish descendant, to be part of the centuries-old conflict in Ireland that still raged in 1983.

As with Fogarty’s Cove, Turnaround and Between the Breaks … Live, as well as The Very Best of Stan Rogers, the remastered sound makes Northwest Passage and From Fresh Water sound better and fresher than they did as LPs or in their first issue on CD and are potent reminders of the tremendous singer and songwriter lost in that airplane fire almost 30 years ago. He was an artist with so much more to accomplish.

Kudos to Borealis Records for reissuing the albums, to Paul Mills, who produced the albums and supervised the reissue remastering, and to Ariel Rogers, Stan’s widow, who has kept the music in print over these many years.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge the important contributions of Garnet Rogers, Stan’s younger brother, and Valerie Rogers, his mother.

Garnet’s playing and/or singing can be heard on almost every track of all five of the albums – as it was at almost every gig Stan played in the last 10 years of his life. On more than one occasion, over a late-night beer, Stan told me that Garnet was his biggest musical influence.

And Valerie, who passed away this past summer, was the driving force behind getting most of these records made and into the hands of his growing legion of fans during his touring years. Stan expressed his tremendous appreciation for his mother’s efforts at virtually every concert I saw him do – at least since Turnaround came out in 1978.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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