Saturday, May 25, 2013

David Clayton-Thomas – A Blues for the New World

A Blues for the New World

On A Blues for the New World, David Clayton-Thomas sounds as good – or better – than he did in his hit-maker heyday as lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears.  His voice remains as powerful as ever and his superb studio band retains the familiar horns-and-rhythm section sound he mined so well with BS&T – even elevating the jazz-meets-blues style to a new level with excellent arrangements. But, more than anything else, it is David’s substantial songwriting that raises this album to a level well beyond most contemporary blues releases. These are songs of substance with much to say about our world and the human condition.

“Politics,” for example, a condemnation of corrupt and out-of-touch politicians, might be topical at almost any time, but it seems particularly relevant to hear it this week with the Canadian news dominated by the allegedly fraudulent expenses claims of certain senators, the alleged illegal drug use of the mayor of Toronto, and the systemic corruption coming to light in Quebec.

Among the other highlights are “Holy Moses,” based on the biblical legend of the Israelites’ Exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt which is given a potent gospel arrangement featuring Rob Gusevs on a swirling Hammond B3 and vocal support from Sharon Riley’s Faith Chorale; “Calico Girl,” which recalls a relationship with an elusive woman that could just as well be a friend or daughter as a lover, features Roly Platt’s bluesy harmonica on top of the other horns as it builds from a downhome blues into a full-throttle arrangement; “A Blues for the World,” a slow, contemplative blues which offers both analysis of the sad state of today’s world and hope for the future; and “Common Ground,” an a cappella arrangement featuring the vocal group Cadence, which offers a father’s advice to a grown child ready to take on the world.

Perhaps the most powerful song on the album is “The Lights of Broadway,” an ode to the resilience of New York City and to human freedom following 9/11. Sharon Riley’s Faith Chorale helps raise the song into a powerful anthem.

Pictured: Mike Regenstreif and David Clayton-Thomas at CKUT during Folk Roots/Folk Branches,June 29, 2006. (Photo: Jadro Subic)

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Montreal: Folk Festival on the Canal June 12-16

Montreal’s Folk Festival on the Canal will open this year with three stellar indoor concerts in venues near the Lachine Canal and then continue outdoors with a weekend of free music on its banks. The artists at the three indoor concerts would be among the headliners at any major folk festival.

The first concert features the great Roger McGuinn on Wednesday, June 12, 8:00 pm, at the Corona Theatre (2490 Notre Dame St. West).

Roger – originally known as Jim McGuinn – came out of the Chicago folk scene as a teenager in the late-1950s and early-‘60s and gained attention as a sideman for groups like the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio and for singers like Judy Collins and Bobby Darin. In 1964, he co-founded a band which became The Byrds, one of the most influential American bands of the 1960s. The Byrds were seminal to the birth and development of both folk-rock and country-rock. Roger was the key member of the Byrds through all of their history and permutations.

I saw Roger perform for the first time in 1975 when he was one of the featured artists in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and I chatted with him at the after-concert party (I was a guest of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, one of the other artists on the show). Then, in the 1980s, I produced a couple of intimate acoustic concerts with him at the Golem. In 1998, Roger was my guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program when he returned to Montreal for a concert with Richie Havens.

Always a great performer, Roger’s concerts are a fascinating and entertaining walk through some of the most significant musical times of the past 50 years.

The second concert will feature Tim O’Brien on Thursday, June 13, 8:00 pm, at the Georges Vanier Cultural Centre (2450 Workman).

Tim, a multi-instrumentalist and fine singer and songwriter began his career in the 1970s and ‘80s as a member of Hot Rize, one of the best bluegrass bands of the day. With Hot Rize – and their offbeat country alter-egos Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers – and as a soloist, Tim has built a substantial body of excellent work encompassing both the folk roots of traditional music and the folk branches of contemporary music.

The third concert features the Travelin’ McCourys on Friday, June 14, 8:00 pm, at the Corona Theatre.

Fronted by brothers Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Rob McCoury on banjo, and also featuring Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass, the Travelin McCourys backed bluegrass legend Del McCoury – Ronnie and Rob’s father – for many years developing into one of today’s premiere bluegrass units.

Tickets for the three indoor concerts are available at this link.

On Saturday and Sunday, June 14 and 15, the festival shifts to Ilot Charlevoix (corner of St. Patrick and Charlevoix) for two full days of concerts and other activities – all free of charge – featuring a diverse selection of artists highlighted by Old Man Luedecke on Saturday and The Once on Sunday. The complete schedule is available at this link.

I like to refer to Montreal’s Folk Festival on the Canal as the little folk festival that could. Founded and still run by Matt Large and Rebecca Anderson of Hello Darlin’ Productions and Carl Comeau of Hyperbole Music, the festival has slowly, but surely, developed into an important part of Montreal’s busy festival calendar.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Friday, May 17, 2013

David Francey – So Say We All

So Say We All
Laker Music

As I’ve noted before, David Francey, then in his mid-40s and a carpenter by trade, emerged in the late-1990s as one of Canada’s most significant and accomplished singer-songwriters. His songs are distinguished by their beautifully-crafted, poetic lyrics and memorable, traditional-sounding melodies. On So Say We All, as on the nine previous albums he’s released since 1999, David surrounds himself with a small group of creative acoustic musicians who help bring out the best in his songs without ever getting in the way.

David notes in the CD booklet that he recorded this album following what had been “a very difficult year,” that recording it “was a pathway up and out from under.”

Indeed, several of the songs reflect themes of depression and hopelessness. “Harm,” which sounds like an Appalachian folksong thanks to Chris Coole’s banjo arrangement, captures the feelings of someone at the deepest depths of depression longing to climb out again. “Cheap Motel,” reflects the loneliness that is part of many road musicians' day-to-day life, while “Ordinary Man” presents a series of scenes – the military, a dead end job, prison – in which an ordinary man is trapped, and “Satellite,” shows the emptiness of staring at the ground on a dark night while the wonders of the heavens are there to behold by just looking up.

Despite these, and several others, the album is not all dark. There is the hopefulness of finding love in “Weather Vane” and the renewal of the human spirit reflected in “Blue Skies,” a song inspired by the Blue Skies Folk festival.

Even when David is singing about darkness, there is much to learn and understand about the human spirit – and that is a mark of great songwriting.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Tom Russell – Aztec Jazz

Aztec Jazz
Frontera Records

Leave it to Tom Russell – who has given us such groundbreaking albums as The Man from God Knows Where, a brilliant folk opera about immigration and the American dream, and Hotwalker, an equally-brilliantly conceived and executed audio collage of original songs, poetry, stories, rants and outside voices that pays tribute to forgotten aspects of American culture, and many other great albums filled with some of the best songwriting of the past 30 years – to raise the art of the live album to a whole new level.

A year ago, Tom and guitarist Thad Beckman, his regular accompanist over the past several years, performed a concert in Halden, Norway with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, a superb chamber orchestra featuring 21 brass and woodwind players as well as a bassist, drummer and two percussionists under the direction of conductor Frank Brodhal. Swedish composer Mats Hålling wrote orchestral arrangements for 11 of Tom’s songs and the concert was recorded.

The results are absolutely stunning. Tom’s singing and Thad’s lead guitar playing are magnificent and the orchestral arrangements, while uniquely faithful to Tom’s songs, variously recall some of the works of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and David Amram, or Gil Evans’ Spanish-tinged chamber jazz arrangements for Miles DavisSketches of Spain, or orchestrated New Orleans second lines or Mexican mariachis.

The album opens with a lush version of “Love Abides,” a beautiful song that contrasts tragedy with blessings, hope and love. It was a perfect finale for The Man from God Knows Where and is an equally perfect way to begin Aztec Jazz.

“Nina Simone,” another quiet, song, lushly arranged for the Norwegian Wind Ensemble follows. The song is about finding what you need in a voice that understands. For Tom, once in a bar in San Cristóbal, Mexico, it was the voice of Nina Simone on the juke box. I know I’ve heard Nina Simone cut through to my soul when she sings about being “lost in the rain in Juarez” in a way I think Bob Dylan would appreciate. Sometimes my own “Nina Simones” have been Rosalie Sorrels or Billie Holiday or a dozen other singers who understand. Update, June 16: Video of Tom Russell and Thad Beckman performing “Nina Simone” with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.

The pace picks up with “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam,” in which Tom recalls 1969 when – as the war in Vietnam raged, Neil Armstrong took his small step onto the moon, and 500,000 people sat in the Catskills mud for a three-day music festival – he went to Nigeria as a young academic to teach. Update, June 14: Video of Tom Russell and Thad Beckman performing “East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam” with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.

“Goodnight, Juarez” is a Tex-Mex lament for Jurarez’s descent from an open tourist town to the battleground it’s become. The song looks at contemporary Juarez, remembers when it was a very different place and imagines how it could be so again. “Juarez, I had a dream today/ The children danced, as the guitars played/ And all the violence up and slipped away/ Goodnight, Juarez, goodnight,” Tom sings with mariachi tinges to the orchestral arrangement.

“Criminology” documents a series of harrowing experiences Tom lived through in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s in Nigeria and Canada. The arrangement features some nifty West African guitar fills by Thad and R&B horn punctuation by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.

“Guadalupe,” done beautifully here with some gorgeous guitar lines by Thad and an orchestral arrangement highlighting the oboes, is a song that reveals more every time I hear it. And I’m not necessarily referring to new layers of understanding of what Tom was thinking when he wrote it. I mean what I hear and understand about my own truths and my own quests filtered through Tom’s words and the gorgeous melody.

“Stealing Electricity,” with the orchestra at full throttle, has a hook that could have made it a hit back when pop music was about real songs. Tom tells us that reaching out for love is like stealing electricity, sometimes you’re going to get burned.

“Finding You” is a beautiful love song written for Nadine Russell, Tom’s wife, and is lushly arranged for the orchestra.

“Mississippi River Running Backwards,” is about a world out of whack – the kind of stuff TV evangelists might attribute to an angry God. It’s a song perfectly suited to the big, New Orleans-style horn arrangement it has here.

While most of the material on Aztec Jazz is drawn from recent Tom Russell albums, “St. Olav’s Gate,” is one of my favorites of Tom’s early songs. It was chosen for this album, I assume, because its setting is in Norway. The song recalls a single night and a broken promise. Most of us have been that drunken man waiting in vain at St. Olav’s Gate, even if our personal St. Olav’s Gate wasn’t in Oslo.

The album concludes with “Jai Alai,” a brilliant, fast-paced flamenco piece about passion: for the game of jai alai – and for love. The Norwegian Wind Ensemble offers a deeply layered and exciting arrangement and Thad’s guitar echoes the intensity of the flamenco masters.

Although these songs might already be familiar to followers of Tom's music, the way they are reimagined and reinterpreted with the Norwegian Wind Ensemble makes Aztec Jazz an essential Tom Russell album.

Aztec Jazz will be released in June but can now be ordered via Village Records

Note: Some of my comments about the songs are drawn from reviews I’ve written about the Tom Russell albums they originally appeared on or from my booklet essay for Veteran’s Day: The Tom Russell Anthology.

Pictured: Thad Beckman, Mike Regenstreif and Tom Russell in Montreal (2012).

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--Mike Regenstreif