Saturday, June 28, 2014

Notre Dame de Grass – That’s How the Music Begins

That’s How the Music Begins

In my Montreal Gazette review of their first album, New Canada Road, in 2007, I wrote, “Notre Dame de Grass may well be the finest pure-bluegrass outfit to come out of Montreal in decades. In bandleader Matthew Large they’ve got a solid singer, guitarist and songwriter who understands and respects the bluegrass traditions and knows how to create a unique sound while playing within the genre’s rules.”

Seven years down the bluegrass road, Notre Dame de Grass is a somewhat different band, but there’s really no doubt that the version of the band that has gelled over the years since that first album is, indeed, the finest pure-bluegrass band to have ever come out of Montreal – and certainly one of the finest to have ever come out of all of Canada.

Matt Large is still leading Notre Dame de Grass and Belgian-born banjo player Guy Donis, one of the finest purveyors of the Bill Keith-influenced melodic banjo style, is still adding his fine playing to the band's sound and some great instrumentals to the repertoire, but the other three musicians – bassist and singer Andrew Horton, mandolinist Joe Grass and fiddler Josh Zubot – all joined the band since the last album was recorded and have each contributed to making it an even stronger unit.

That’s How the Music Begins is a textbook example of everything a traditional bluegrass fan would want in an album. There’s some excellent original material, some traditional standards, some outstanding instrumentals, and some gospel, all played and sung within the standard bluegrass instrumentation and vocal styles defined by Bill Monroe and other first-generation bluegrassers like the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs.

While there are lots of contemporary bluegrass bands who are technically great, Notre Dame de Grass is part of a relatively rarer number of bands with both a unique character and a superior repertoire.

Matt is a fine bluegrass songwriter and contributes such songs as the title track, a driving number about the joys of getting the musicians together to play, and “Edmunston Nights,” a reflection on escaping small town life.

But the absolute highlight of the album, and one of the finest new bluegrass songs I’ve heard in years is Matt’s “New Canada,” a homage to the waves of immigration that have continued to make Canada the interesting, multicultural country it has developed into over the years.

Other highlights include “Mount Royal Backstep” and “St. Jean Express,” two fine banjo-driven instrumentals written by Guy, and a haunting version of “Satan’s Jewel Crown,” one of several songs featuring fine lead vocals by Andrew.

Another definite highlight is Matt’s powerful, album-ending, solo version of the traditional folksong, “Cowboy’s Life is a Dreary Life,” that he sings in a pure, traditional a cappella style.

Hopefully, it won’t be seven years until the next Notre Dame de Grass album.

Pictured: Notre Dame de Grass at the Montreal Folk Festival on the Canal, June 21, 2014 (Photo: Mike Regenstreif)

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Arlo Guthrie – Here Come the Kids

Here Come the Kids
Rising Son Records

The centennial of the birth of the great folksinger and prototypical songwriter Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) was July 14, 2012. Since around that time Arlo Guthrie has been out on tour celebrating his father’s milestone with a tour – and now, a 2-CD live album recorded last October at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago – called Here Come the Kids.

While Arlo has usually included some Woody Guthrie songs in his concerts and on his albums, about half the songs in this set were written by Woody and most are introduced with stories – Arlo is a master storyteller with perfect timing – about Woody or the songs.

Among the classic Woody Guthrie songs are great versions of “Oklahoma Hills” (credited to Woody and his cousin, Jack Guthrie, who had a hit with it in 1945), “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” “Do Re Mi,” and a sing-along version of Woody’s best known song, “This Land is Your Land.”  

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” by the way, is always considered to be part of the classic Woody Guthrie canon, but Woody's words about a tragic 1948 plane crash were set to music in the late-1950s by Martin Hoffman. More recently, Nora Guthrie, Arlo’s sister, has been commissioning many artists to set some of the 3000+ sets of Woody’s lyrics discovered in the Woody Guthrie Archives to music. Early in the concert, Arlo does a lovely version of “Mother’s Voice (I Hear You Sing Again,” Woody’s tribute to his mother and the songs he heard her sing, which was set to music by Janis Ian. And then, as the encore, he concludes the concert with the inspiring “My Peace,” set to music by Arlo himself.

Arlo also uses the concert to pay tribute to some of Woody’s friends and musical associates with versions of “St. James Infirmary,” learned from Cisco Houston, and “Alabamy Bound,” picked up via Lead Belly. Along the way, we also hear stories about other of Woody’s friends including Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

There are also some perennial favorites like Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” and Arlo’s
Mike Regenstreif and Arlo Guthrie (1996).
own “Motorcycle Song” and “Coming into Los Angeles.” The most poignant moment comes when Arlo sings a beautiful version of “Highway in the Wind,” the first song he wrote for Jackie Guthrie, his wife of 43 years, who succumbed to cancer on October 14, 2012, a year – almost to the day – before the concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music was recorded.

Throughout the concert Arlo receives tasteful backup from Bobby Sweet on guitar and fiddle and from longtime musical associates Terry A La Berry on drums and Abe Guthrie, Arlo’s son, on keyboards.

Arlo Guthrie is one of our finest live performers and superbly recorded live albums (credit Abe for that) like Here Come the Kids are the next best thing to being in the audience.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Dave Van Ronk – Live in Monterey

Live In Monterey
Omnivore Recordings

I’ve written several times before about my valued friendship with the late, very great Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002), the legendary folk-blues-jazz-cabaret singer, guitarist and songwriter, including in reviews of Down in Washington Square, the marvelous 3-CD collection released last fall, and my book review of his memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, (completed brilliantly in Dave’s words by Elijah Wald).

My last opportunities to spend extended periods of time with Dave were in 1998 when he came to Montreal to perform at the Montreal International Jazz Festival (and sit down with me for an extensive interview on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program), and then later that same summer when I was MCing and he was performing at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Burlington, Vermont.

Dave was pretty damn great when he started out in the 1950s – by the early-‘60s he was a major influence on Bob Dylan and just about every other singer, guitarist and songwriter who passed through the Village folk scene – and just kept getting better and better as time went on. The concerts and workshops I saw him in do in Montreal and Burlington in 1998 were all superb – Dave was at the peak of his form.

A couple of months before his great Montreal Jazz Festival concerts, Dave was in similarly fine form when he performed in Monterey, California. An edited version of that concert has now been released as Live In Monterey.

Dave’s repertoire that night seems like a pretty typical Dave Van Ronk concert. Almost all of the 16 songs are numbers I heard him do many times over the years but all are songs I never got tired of hearing him sing and play. For one thing, there were always different nuances and developments in his vocal phrasing and guitar playing that made every version of every song unique. For example, “St. James Infirmary” (sometimes known as “Gambler’s Blues’) is a song I heard him do in almost every show I ever saw him do – and there were many – and I’ve got 10 different recordings of Dave doing the song, but I hear something new and exciting in every one.

And the same goes for the other songs in the set. It is a treat to hear his whisper-to-a-growl-to-a-shout voice and inspiring, always-intricate guitar arrangements on such classics as Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues,” Reverend Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues,” “Candy Man” and “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” Brownie McGhee’s “Sportin’ Life Blues,” his beautiful version of “He was a Friend of Mine,” adapted by Dave, Dylan and Eric Von Schmidt, from the traditional “Shorty George,” Mississippi John Hurt’s Spike Driver Blues,” Tom Paxton’s tribute song, Did You Hear John Hurt? and all the rest.

Some of these songs – including “Cocaine Blues,” “Candy Man,” Bessie Smith’s “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” and his own “Losers” – are infused with Dave’s patented humor while others, including “Jelly Jelly,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Winin’ Boy Blues” are informed by jazz, particularly the traditional New Orleans jazz that Dave loved and sang so well.

Although almost all of the repertoire on Live In Monterey was from the standard Van Ronk canon, the set ends with an extraordinary and beautiful version of Ian Tyson’s classic “Four Strong Winds.” Although, Dave recorded the song on To All My Friends In Far-Flung Places, I don’t recall ever hearing him perform it in concert.

The CD booklet includes words from co-producer Rick Chelew and a great essay by Happy Traum, who knew Dave from the mid-1950s on and recalls vividly their friendship from the early days in Washington Square forward, as well as Dave's importance as a musical innovator and mentor to many.

About the only thing I miss on Live In Monterey are most of the asides and stories that typically punctuated a Dave Van Ronk concert. I assume they were edited from this recording to make it a purely musical experience.

I return often to many of Dave’s albums and this is one that will certainly be among those for years to come.

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--Mike Regenstreif