Monday, January 28, 2013

Coen Brothers folk music film

On June 25, 2011, I posted about the rumor that the Coen Brothers next film would be based on the life of my late friend Dave Van Ronk.

The film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is now finished and is an account of fictional folksinger Llewyn Davis, set in Greenwich Village in the early-1960s. Dave’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, written with Elijah Wald, provided source material for the film but the fictionalized Davis is apparently not Dave (although the films title would seem to be a it of a homage to Dave as one of his LPs from that period was Inside Dave Van Ronk).

The New York Times has published an interesting article about the film – including comments from Elijah who has seen it.

I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

Update (January 29, 2013): Here’s the first trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis. The song playing underneath the scenes is Bob Dylan’s “Farewell,” a song he based on the traditional “Leaving of Liverpool.” There’s a glimpse of the LP cover of the character’s album and indeed it is a homage to Inside Dave Van Ronk.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Way We Feel – The Songs of Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot was still in the relatively early stages of his career as a major folk-rooted singer-songwriter when my own musical interests began to centre on the folk scene. His third LP, Did She Mention My Name, was the first of Lightfoot’s albums that I bought new when it first came out in 1968 and I quickly acquired the first two and many of the ones that followed. His 1960s albums, and several from the ‘70s, still resonate particularly strongly with me.

Over the past decade, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Jory Nash has organized an annual tribute concert at Hugh’s Room in Toronto, in which a revolving cast of artists, and a house band, each do a pair of Lightfoot songs. Lightfoot himself has shown up occasionally and performed a couple of songs – including last Sunday, the third of a three-night stand.

Last night, Jory Nash brought The Way We Feel – The Songs of Gordon Lightfoot to Centrepointe Theatre in Ottawa. Interestingly, although there was overlap, the roster of artists was substantially different from the Hugh’s Room shows last weekend.

MC David Newland, who opened the show with a song and did a great job of keeping the show flowing, and the superb house band – guitarist Jason Fowler, pianist David Matheson, bassist David Woodhead, and Christine Bougie, who switched between drums and lap steel as well as featured artists Lori Cullen, John Wort Hannam, Jory Nash, and Andy Maize & Josh Finlayson of the Skydiggers, were on the Hugh’s Room bill. The additional artists in Ottawa were Cadence, Rick Fines, Oh Susanna and Suzie Vinnick (fresh from winning a couple of Maple Blues Awards last week). Band members Jason Fowler and David Matheson also took turns in the spotlight with a couple of songs each.

In the hundreds of songs Lightfoot has written and recorded over his long career, the artists had a wealth of material to choose from and included several of his best known songs and several of the more obscure.

Certainly, the evening’s high point was when the entire cast gathered on stage at the end for gospel-style version of “Rich Man’s Spiritual,” which Jory Nash pointed out was the first song on Lightfoot’s first album. Each verse was led by a different artist or group of artists, with everyone else joining in and leading the audience on the call-and-response parts. It was a joyous moment and a perfect finale.

Among the other highlights were Jory’s solo version of “Mother of a Miner’s Child,” Lori Cullen’s jazz ballad version of “Rainy Day People,” Rick Fines’ soulful rendition of “Ribbon of Darkness,” which included some sublime slide guitar playing, Oh Susanna’s country version of “Early Morning Rain,” John Wort Hannam’s lovely solo rendition of "Your Love’s Return" and Suzie Vinnick’s electrified take on “If You Could Read My Mind.”

In all honesty, there were a couple of arrangements that didn’t work for me. Lori Cullen’s disco version of “Song for a Winter’s Night” robbed the song of the beauty of its quiet intimacy. And I really wished that a cappella quartet Cadence had just concentrated on the lyrics to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” instead of also using their voices to imitate the musical instruments – the net effect was to lose much of the impact of the song’s story.

In a concert that included just 22 songs, there were so many great Lightfoot songs left unsung. No wonder this show can be mounted annually without losing its freshness.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Amelia Curran – Spectators

Six Shooter Records

Spectators is the third stunning album in a row from Amelia Curran, one of the finest singer-songwriters to emerge in Canada in recent years – and certainly the finest singer-songwriter to emerge from Newfoundland since Ron Hynes.

Like Hunter, Hunter and War Brides, Spectators is filled with beautiful melodies, compelling arrangements built around Amelia’s acoustic guitar and lovely voice and lyrics which reveal more each time they’re listened to. If there’s a departure from the previous albums, it’s in the somewhat more expansive use of tonal colouring including very effective brass and string sections on a couple of songs each.

Among my favourite songs are “The Modern Man,” a Cohenesque contemplation on mortality and accomplishment, “San Andreas Fault,” in which Amelia examines a seemingly-fragile relationship in the first person, and “In a Town (200 Days),” which captures the spirit of human resiliency in the face of challenge.

But, perhaps, the most poignant song is the album’s finale, “Face on the News,” a quiet, poetic reflection on perspective and human struggle.

If I’ve any complaint – and I could have made the same complaint about Amelia’s previous two albums – is that I really wish she’d included lyrics in the CD package or at least on her website. These are songs with lyrics which should be followed closely while listening and reread again and again as these are songs which reveal more each time they’re heard – and, in many cases, these are songs which are open to interpretation and reinterpretation.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Various Artists – …. First Came Memphis Minnie

…. First Came Memphis Minnie
Stony Plain

Memphis Minnie (1897-1973), who began her recording career in the early-1930s, was a pioneering and influential blues artist and certainly the most prominent example of a female blues singer from that era who accompanied herself on guitar. Until Minnie came along, female blues singers – like Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Alberta Hunter and so many others – generally fronted traditional jazz bands or worked with a piano player. Minnie, though, could play guitar as well or better than any male artist and was a role model to generations of female musicians who followed in later decades.

…. First Came Memphis Minnie is a set of 13 songs from Memphis Minnie’s repertoire assembled by Maria Muldaur.

Maria, herself, is the dominant artist in the collection with eight songs taken from a couple of the terrific acoustic blues albums she’s done in recent years – two from Richland Woman Blues and six from Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul – on which she’s backed by such great musicians as Del Rey, Steve James and Dave Earl. Two of the most exciting songs, “I’m Goin’ Back Home” and “She Put Me Outdoors,” are terrific duets with Alvin Youngblood Hart playing Joe McCoy to Maria’s Minnie.

The three tracks recorded just for this album are all superb. Bonnie Raitt, playing acoustic guitar, does a great job on “Ain’t Nothin’ in Ramblin’,” proving – as if there were any doubt – she is still a remarkable purveyor of acoustic blues when she wants to be. Rory Block, one of today’s greatest acoustic blues artists, does a soulful solo arrangement of “When You Love Me” with some excellent slide playing, and Ruthie Foster offers a delightfully sassy take on “Keep Your Big Mouth Closed.”

Rounding out the album are two other previously released tracks. The late Phoebe Snow, with backing from David Bromberg, is featured on an elegant version of “In My Girlish Days” from her 1976 album, It Looks Like Snow (Phoebe never did enough of this kind of material), and the late Koko Taylor finishes the album with “Black Rat Swing,” from her 2007 release, Old School, the album’s only contemporary Chicago-style electric track.

Starting with the songs from her own albums and rounding the tribute out with five offerings from other artists, Maria Muldaur has assembled a worthy tribute to one of the most important figures in blues history.

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--Mike Regenstreif