Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle

Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle
Nonesuch Records

Since my friend Kate McGarrigle passed away in 2010 following a battle with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, a series of concerts have been held to celebrate her life and works and to raise money for the Kate McGarrigle Fund in support of sarcoma care and research. The concerts have featured Kate’s kids, Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, Kate’s sister, Anna McGarrigle, other family members, longtime musical friends, peers and younger artists.

Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle is a 2-CD collection drawing on concerts in 2010 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, 2011 at Town Hall in New York City, and 2012 at Massey Hall in Toronto during the Luminato Festival. Hometown concerts will be held in Montreal at the Outremont Theatre on August 8.

With a few exceptions, these songs were written or co-written by Kate, and many of the performances feature Rufus and/or Martha. Among their highlights is their duet on the soaring “First Born,” a song Kate wrote about Rufus when he was a small child. Rufus particularly shines in versions of “Southern Boys” and Walking Song,” two of my favourite songs from Dancer with Bruised Knees, and in a duet with Antony on the heartbreaking “I Cried for Us.”

Among Martha’s best performances is “Matapedia,” a song inspired by memories of an old boyfriend of Kate’s from when she was a teenager and Martha’s meeting him, many decades later when she was about the same age as Kate was then. She also does a lovely version of “Tell My Sister,” one of several poignant songs of separation Kate wrote during her rocky marriage to Loudon Wainwright III – Rufus and Martha’s father. The song dates from before Martha was born.

Anna, who so rarely sang in public without Kate at her side, is heard on a number of songs including a touching duet with her daughter, Lily Lanken, on “Jacques et Gilles,” Kate’s beautiful song about the French Canadian migration from Quebec to New England to work in the mills and lumber camps. The song was inspired by research Kate was did on the life of Jack Kerouac (Kerouac’s parents were part of that migration) and I’ve long felt it was one of Kate’s most important songs. Other of Anna’s highlights include a collaboration with her children, Sylvan Lanken and Lily, on “On My Way to Town,” one of Kate’s most folk-like songs, and a collaboration on “Heart Like a Wheel,” the first of Anna’s songs to bring her renown, with Emmylou Harris, Krystle Warren, Martha and Lily.

Almost all of the contributions from other artists are extraordinary. Norah Jones sings a beautiful version of “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino,” another of Kate’s very best songs. Justin Vivian Bond, who I’d never heard before, soars on “The Work Song,” Kate’s reminiscence of the songs she and her sisters were taught by their father as little girls,and Emmylou offers her own song, “Darlin’ Kate,” a touching elegy written for Kate after she died. Robert Charlebois, perhaps the most legendary of Quebec singers, teams with Anna for a tender duet on “Dans le silence,” with harmonies from Rufus and Martha.

Martha’s version of “Tell My Sister” mentioned earlier was from one of the New York concerts. A second, equally lovely version sung by Peggy Seeger at the Toronto concert is also included. I was especially happy to see Peggy taking part in the concert because I remember Kate citing Peggy when we talked about who her influences were back in the 1960s.

There are also two very special versions of “Go Leave,” perhaps the most heartbreaking of the songs Kate wrote about her relationship with Loudon: Antony’s, recorded in New York City, and Linda Thompson and Richard Thompson’s recorded in London. Richard and Linda, who were once a brilliant musical duo, had their own storied breakup 30-odd years ago and this may well be the only performance they have given together since.

I always loved hearing Kate and Anna sing traditional folk songs and there’s a beautiful version of “Dink’s Song,” with Anna, Chaim Tannenbaum, Lily, Rufus and Martha each taking a verse. Chaim also leads a rocking version of “Travelling on for Jesus,” the traditional Bahamian gospel song Kate arranged for the finale of the first Kate and Anna LP, and which was often the concert finale back in the 1970s when I worked with them (click here for background on the years I worked with Kate and Anna).

Each of the CDs ends with tracks featuring Kate’s own voice. The first disc finishes with “Proserpina,” the last song Kate wrote. A recording of Kate singing the opening lines of the song fades into a beautiful duet by Sloan Wainwright and her niece, Martha. At the end of the second disc, Kate is heard by herself singing “I Just Want to Make It Last,” in which she asks the powers that be to “make the earth slow down a bit/We’re going way too fast/And I just want to make it last.” As the song ends, the last thing we hear is Kate saying “thank you.”

No, Kate, thank you.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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