Sunday, August 24, 2014

Shelley Posen – Roseberry Road

Roseberry Road
Well Done Music

On Roseberry Road, Shelley Posen – a member of Finest Kind, the Ottawa-based vocal trio known for their exquisite harmonies – presents a set of 16 well-crafted songs in a variety of styles written over the past decade-and-a-half.

The album opening title song – named for the street in suburban Toronto where Shelley spent his early childhood – is among the highlights. It’s a sweet, lovely and nostalgic reminiscence filled with personal and very specific memories.

Another is “The Campfire Song,” about singing around a campfire and the kind of songs that get sung there. I developed much of my earliest appreciation for folk music from sing-alongs at summer camp in the 1960s and the song brings back a lot of those memories for me.

A few other favorites include “The Gazebo on the Oswegatche,” which seems like it could have been a 1920s pop tune; “The Basket’s Song,” which Shelly sings from the perspective of a basket woven in 1903 as it tells its history from creation to museum exhibit; “Canoeing My Troubles Away,” a country waltz that celebrates getting away from city life; and the closer, “Thanks for the Song,” an end-of-the-night farewell after a fulfilling concert or any kind of gathering for singing and sharing music.

Shelley uses a wide variety of styles on these songs and each features musicians specifically chosen to bring something special to it. Just a few of the contributing players include producer Paul Mills on banjo, guitarist Rick Whitelaw, violinists Anne Lindsay and Mika Posen (Shelley’s daughter), and bassists Dennis Pendrith and David Woodhead.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Rosalie Sorrels reissues – Travelin’ Lady & Whatever Happened to the Girl That Was

Travelin’ Lady
original LP on Sire

Whatever Happened to the Girl That Was
original LP on Paramount

I first met Rosalie Sorrels, the great singer, songwriter and storyteller, sometime around 1970 or so when she was in Montreal to play at the too-short-lived Back Door Coffee House. It was a four or five night gig and while she there she wrote “Travelin’ Lady,” which became her signature song and gave her next LP its title.

Travelin’ Lady was her current album when I started to produce concerts for Rosalie in Montreal and it was followed by Whatever Happened to the Girl That Was, a year or so later.

(In the late-‘70s, Rosalie was one of my clients for a couple of years when I operated a folk music booking agency.)

Of all of Rosalie’s albums, these were the only two on major labels and like many albums by non-mainstream artists on the majors, they went out-of-print much too soon.

While most of Rosalie’s albums from over the years have been reissued on CD at one time or another, these two never were until a few years ago when they were put out in Asia by Big Pink, a reissue label in South Korea. Here in North America, they had to be ordered expensively over the Internet (with even more expensive shipping charges).

Those LPs meant a lot to me so after Rosalie assured me she was actually earning royalties from the reissues, I ordered them and they took their place in my complete collection of Rosalie Sorrels CDs.

At age 81 and with some health issues, Rosalie can no longer travel and perform but her son Kevin Sorrels (who I've not seen since he was a kid) is operating her website and is making the two CDs available as a package deal as a way of generating some extra income for her. I believe Kevin is selling copies of the albums he's had manufactured domestically, but the price is significantly cheaper than what I paid a few years ago to order the albums from South Korea.

Travelin’ Lady, with liner notes by Hunter S. Thompson, was highlighted by three of Rosalie’s best songs: “Travelin’ Lady,” the story of her life on the road; “Postcard From India,” a philosophical tribute to endurance and acceptance; and “Rosalie, You Can’t Go Home Again.” Written at a time when Rosalie’s marriage had broken up and she was out on the road earning a hard living for herself and her five kids. The song is about the need to stand on her own and move forward.

Another highlight is Bruce “Utah” Phillips’ “Rock Me to Sleep,” one of the best songs ever about how the commercial music business can suck music and its creators dry.

Whatever Happened to the Girl That Was which features some country, blues and folk-rock arrangements includes some fine examples of Rosalie’s original songwriting but my favorite songs on it are her interpretations of several other writers’ works.

Among them are three songs about the ravages of too much alcohol or the reasons that lead to too much drinking. Gary White’s “Nobody’s,” named for a Greenwich Village bar from back in the day, captures the feelings of loneliness and despair of a woman in pain. The song includes the line that gave the LP its title and I think Rosalie sang it son convincingly because she’s lived those feelings herself. Paul Geremia’s “Elegant Hobo,” arranged very differently from Paul’s own version, let us know that any of us could someday be that hobo, while “The Toast,” also by Gary White, is a powerful late night bar closer about the reasons too many people have been lost in the haze of alcohol. Sung a cappella, Rosalie’s version of the song cuts directly through to the heart.

Rosalie Sorrels & Mike Regenstreif (1993)
The other highlights include a powerful version of Bruce “Utah” Phillips’ “Rock, Salt and Nails,” a bitter song Bruce always refused to sing himself; “Hall of Fame,” Joe Dolce’s declaration of independence from the commercial music business; and Mitch Greenhill’s “Brightwood Fire,” about the thoughts and feelings running through the head of an insomniac unable to sleep.

With reissues of Travelin’ Lady and Whatever Happened to the Girl That Was now available, I’m waiting and hoping for a reissue of Moments of Happiness, now Rosalie’s only album from the 44 or so years that I’ve known her that has never come out on CD.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chris Smither – Still on the Levee: A 50 Year Retrospective

Still on the Levee: A 50 Year Retrospective
Signature Sounds

Chris Smither grew up in New Orleans and arrived on the folk scene in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the mid-1960s playing guitar in a unique style that he acknowledges was “one-third John Hurt, one-third Lightnin’ Hopkins and one-third me.”

I first discovered Chris via a couple of LPs released in the early-1970s and heard him live for the first time in 1978 when I was representing Priscilla Herdman and she shared a four-night bill with him at Passim, Bob Donlin’s legendary folk club in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. While Chris was already an excellent singer, songwriter, guitarist and performer back in those days, by the eary-1990s, he would really emerge as one of our finest folk-blues artists.

Now approaching age 70 and a half-century as a professional musician, Chris is one of those musicians who has continued to mature and become more compelling with time and on Still on the Levee, a superb 2-CD set, he returned to New Orleans to re-imagine and reinterpret 24 songs from across the length and breadth of his songwriting career. There are actually 25 tracks on the album but he ends each of the CDs with different versions of the title track from his 2006 album, Leave the Light On.

The first CD opens with “Devil Got Your Man,” one of Chris’ earliest songs and after listening to this album I decided to compare it to the 1970 version on I’m A Stranger Too. The guitar playing is more graceful, the groove is deeper and his singing voice – a wonderful drawl that is still rooted in New Orleans despite most of his life lived in the north – is more seductive. While I didn’t pull out the original versions of the rest of the songs (and I have them all), it seems to me that he pulls more out of each of them.

Each of these are great versions of great songs but among my favorites is “Rosalie,” which sounds to me like something Tim Hardin might have written if he hadn’t died so young and continued to mature as a songwriter.

Another is “No Love Today,” one of the most New Orleansian of Chris’ songs, which is mightily enhanced by the playing of Allen Toussaint, the legendary New Orleans pianist and songwriter.

Other highlights include “What They Say,” a fairly recent song that he does in fun duet with Loudon Wainwright III; “Up on the Lowdown,” a great tune that recalls Chris’ blues influences; and “A Song for Susan,” not so much a love song as a slow, sad song about love.

I also like the two versions of “Leave the Light On,” a song from the perspective of a mature man’s looking back at his life so far, at the future, and at mortality. The first is bouncy and all his own while the second – sung as a duet with Kate Lorenz of Rusty Belle – seems like a passing of the torch.

The 2-CDs come in enclosed in a beautifully-designed digipac long box with a large sized book that includes credits, lyrics to all of the songs and a bunch of great photos from the sessions and from distinctive neighborhoods of New Orleans. 
Chris Smither at the 2013 Ottawa Folk Festival (Mike Regenstreif)

Chris will be bringing his Still on the Levee tour to this past of Canada with dates in Toronto on September 26 at Hugh’s Room; here in Ottawa on September 27 at the NAC Fourth Stage;and in Montreal on September 28 at Petit Campus

I’ve seen Chris perform many times and he’s always been in excellent form.

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--Mike Regenstreif