Saturday, March 2, 2013

Various Artists – Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys

Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys

About 35 or 36 years, I spent some time hanging around the Philadelphia Folk Festival with an aspiring record producer named Hal Willner. We were introduced, as I recall, by the legendary folk music photographer David Gahr. Some years later, Hal began to produce fascinating compilation albums, including wonderful tributes to such composers as Nino Rota, Thelonious Monk and Kurt Weill.

In 2006, he put together Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys, a wonderful 2-CD set of mostly non-traditional renditions of mostly traditional songs of the sea. It was an album that polarized the folk music world. Some, me included, loved it. It fit perfectly into my reasoning for naming my radio show (and, now, this blog) Folk Roots/Folk Branches – music rooted in, or branching out, from some kind of folk-based tradition. There were a lot of great tracks but a lot of traditional purists – some of the same folks who are still pissed about Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965 – hated the album as it wasn’t faithful to the finger-in-one-ear tradition of a cappella singing which some think of as the only authentic way to approach much of this kind of material.

My guess is this 2-CD sequel, Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys, will meet a similar reception. Personally, I’ve been having a lot of fun listening to this diverse group of artists – some of whom I’ve long loved, some of whom I’ve never previously appreciated, and a few of whom I’d never even heard of – re-imagine these songs of the sea.

The album begins with a rollicking version of “Leaving of Liverpool” by poguemeister Shane McGowan and a folk-rock rendition of “Sam’s Gone Away” by Robyn Hitchcock before settling into Beth Orton’s extended version of “Bamboo (River Come Down),” written by my late friend Dave Van Ronk and made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary on their first album. Ironically, it’s a song that Dave himself hated and quickly dropped from his performing repertoire.

Other highlights from the first CD include a lovely, ragged take on “Shenandoah,” sung by Tom Waits with harmony vocals and some lovely guitar playing by Keith Richards; Ivan Neville’s second line arrangement of “Mr. Stormalong”; and a soulful, cabaret arrangement of “Off to Sea Once More” by Macy Gray. The most beautiful moments are in Gavin Friday and Shannon McNally’s version of “Tom’s Gone to Hilo” (which Kate and Anna McGarrigle often performed as “Johnny’s Gone to Hilo”).

Highlights on the second CD include Dr. John’s setting of “The Lure of the Tropics,” a century-old poem by Clarence Leonard Hay; Jenni Muldaur’s lovely rendition of “Row the Boat, Child,” an African-American rowing shanty from the singing of Peter Davis of the Georgia Sea Island Singers; a good-time version of “Whiskey Johnny” by Michael Gira with Dixieland horns; and a poignant version of “Mrs. McGrath,” sung by Anjelica Huston to the accompaniment of a string quartet.

While most of the tracks were recorded especially for this release there are a couple of selections from other sources. There’s an instrumental medley of “Wedding Dress Song” and “Handsome Cabin Boy,” recorded back in the ‘60s by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Marianne Faithfull’s lovely version of “Flandyke Shore” with harmonies by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, from her 2008 album Easy Come, Easy Go (which was produced by Hal Willner).

Caveat: As is any project of this type, there are bound to be occasional clunkers. But tracks like Katey Red and Big Freeduias annoying take on Sally Racket (Oy, what a racket!) are few and far between.

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--Mike Regenstreif

1 comment:

  1. I believe I can assure you that if I'd been at Newport, I would not have booed Dylan for going electric.

    Actually, according to credible accounts, most who booed did so because the sound system needed adjusting. Other electric acts, notably Paul Butterfield's band, had already played at the festival, and nobody complained. Besides, Dylan's electric music was already playing on the radio. I think the Newport audience was more sophisticated than legend gives it credit for.

    But I didn't like the original Rogues Gallery -- and I suspect others felt the same -- because many of the performances were mediocre and sounded tossed off by musicians who didn't appear to understand or care about the material.

    I heard several cuts from the sequel on NPR's website. Generally, they sounded better, sufficiently so that I may end up buying the package. Like you, though, I couldn't help chuckling at the thought of how much Van Ronk (whom I knew, too) hated "Bamboo/River Come Down." Beth Orton's version is lovely, showing yet again that a songwriter is not always the best judge of his or her material.