Saturday, February 28, 2015

Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project

Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
Borealis Records

Alan Lomax (1915-2002), who started as an assistant to his father, the pioneering folklorist John Lomax, was one of the most important folklorists and ethnomusicologists – if not the most important – of the 20th century. His thousands of recordings of traditional artists from all over the world, including of such important figures as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and Jelly Roll Morton, most of them field recordings, is one of the most important repositories of traditional music.

For Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, his most ambitious project yet, Canadian banjo master Jayme Stone has surrounded himself with a stellar cast of singers and musicians – among them Tim O’Brien, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smiley, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Eli West, and Drew Gonsalves – who reinterpret and reimagine 19 songs and tunes collected by Lomax over the years.

Being released to celebrate the centennial of Lomax’s birth, it is an extraordinary collection at once timeless, traditional and utterly contemporary. Jayme and his collaborators – he refers to the album as a “collaboratory” – breathe new life into the music. And to be sure, this is not a Jayme Stone star turn. The lead vocals are left to others and his banjo playing is part of the ensemble on most tunes, doing exactly what needs to be done in service to the songs and tunes.

While each of these 19 performances is very special, I’ll call attention to a few of my favorites.

Among them are a couple of songs from the repertoire of the amazing Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers. “Before This Time Another Year,” features Tim O’Brien on lead vocals and guitar (the only instrument) with stunning harmonies by six other singers. Tim, who happens to be the same age as me, adds a few lines of his own to the traditional verses to mark the milestone birthday he passed this past year. Then on the spiritual “Sheep, Sheep Don’tcha Know the Road,” the same singers, this time led by Moira Smiley, do an amazing a cappella call-and-response rendition punctuated by their infectious hand clapping.

The shanty “Shenandoah” receives an interpretation that is at times hauntingly beautiful and at times exciting thanks to the sublime singing of Margaret Glaspy, Jayme’s banjo, and Brittany Haas’ fiddling.

The duet by Margaret and Tim on the old cowboy song “Goodbye, Old Paint (Leaving Cheyenne)” is sad and beautiful, while Margaret’s duet with Bruce Molsky on “Now Your Man Done Gone,” although sung a cappella, captures all the essence of the blues.

Lomax recorded some of the great early calypso singers and one of the most infectious pieces here is Drew Gonsalves’ version of “Bury Boula for Me” on which Jayme’s banjo playing stands in perfectly for steel drums.

This sublime album includes a beautiful 52-page booklet with detailed song notes, photos, and essays by Jayme and Stephen Wade. An essential album.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Chris Rawlings – Northern Spirits

Northern Spirits
Cooking Fat Music

As I noted in my review of Autumn Gold in 2012, “Chris Rawlings was one of my favourite local singer-songwriters when I first started hanging out on the Montreal folk scene back around 1969. He was then in the early stages of his solo career after spending a few years as part of a band called Rings and Things.” In 1972, “when I started my first concert series at Dawson College in Montreal, Chris headlined my second concert presentation. And when I started running the Golem Coffee House in 1974, Chris was one of my frequently-presented artists.”

A new CD from Chris is always welcome and Northern Spirits, which includes both new and vintage material (some of which I’d never heard before), is arguably his strongest release since the early LPs Pearl River Turnaround and Soupe du Jour.

The album starts strongly with one of the new songs, “Song of the Bush Pilot,” inspired by stories Chris heard from bush pilot Chick Bidgood. Sung from the old bush pilot’s perspective, his reminiscences come vividly to life.

Other new songs include a couple written with Lynn Heath, Chris’ wife. “Heavy Lifting” is a topical piece that touches on concerns about the environment and world conflicts while “Ezekiel’s Bones,” thoughtfully recounts and comments on the biblical legend.

My favourite new song is “The Lancashire Lass,” which recounts the life story of Chris’ late mother.

Among the older recordings I particularly like “Louis Riel,” Chis’ ballad about the legendary Métis leader who was tried – many believe unjustly – for treason and hung in 1885. I’m not sure when it was recorded but one of the musicians on the track is the master pedal steel player Ron Dann, who passed away about 25 years ago. Chris pairs the song with “La Chanson de Louis Riel,” which combines Riel’s own words with a traditional melody. Chris' newly recorded vocal is paired here with an arrangement of “La Chanson de Louis Riel” taken from an LP of traditional tunes adapted for a recorder quartet that Chris recorded in the 1970s (or, perhaps, early-‘80s).

Another older song (although I’m not sure if the recording is old or new) that I was happy to hear
again for the first time in years was “English Band in Le Studio,” which recounts a 1970s-era incident at a recording studio in Morin Heights, Quebec. I wasn’t there at the time but I remember hearing the story from Chris and others who were shortly after it occurred.

Wish list: I hope someday Chris will release a recording of his (and Paul Lauzon’s) masterful setting of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic 19th century poem. I still clearly recall several of Chris’ stunning performances of the piece from three and four or more decades ago.

Pictured: Chris Rawlings and Mike Regenstreif at the 2007 Branches & Roots Festival in Ormstown, Quebec.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Martin Grosswendt – Payday!


In 2004, reviewing Call and Response, Martin Grosswendt’s second album in Sing Out! magazine, I wrote, “Hey Martin, I surely do not want to wait another 25 years for your third album.” Yes, that superb sophomore album came out a quarter-century after Dog on a Dance Floor, released by Philo Records in its pre-Rounder Vermont era.

Well, the wait for Payday! Martin’s third album, was considerably shorter at only a decade, but still too long – but, like its predecessor, it was well worth the wait.

The Philo studio in Vermont was about a two-hour drive from Montreal and it was one of my main stomping grounds for much of the 1970s. I first met Martin there, circa 1973 or ’74, when he was recording with artists like Bruce “Utah” Phillips, Mary McCaslin, Jim Ringer, Tom Mitchell and many others. I don’t think he’d turned 20 yet, but I knew from the first time I heard him play that he was already one of the finest interpreters of traditional country blues (and other kinds of music as well).

Coming about 40 years after that first encounter, Payday! is the work of a masterful musician who performs songs drawn from the great blues legends – and from several contemporary songwriters, including himself – with a deep-from-the-well authenticity and intensity that is rarely achieved by contemporary interpreters. And that authenticity applies to his singing as much as it does to his playing.

While it’s a completely solo album – Martin plays guitar on most tracks but switches to banjo or fiddle occasionally – there is a fullness to Martin’s arrangements that makes other musicians unnecessary.

While he can growl with the best of them – as on his own song “Liquored Up and Twisted,” where his solo guitar seems like a full Chicago-style band – Martin is one of those too-rare artists who can be tender in his singing and bring an appreciation of the real poetry of the blues. This is particularly evident in his masterful interpretations of such songs as Mississippi John Hurt’s “Payday,” “Delia,” and Uncle Dave Macon’s “Mournin’ Blues,” a slowed down, sorrowful version of “Morning Blues,” that brings new meaning to the song.

Martin’s inventive use of the banjo on Muddy Water’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi,” gives those songs such a different spin from the originals that I hear them, too, in whole new lights.

And the instrumental fiddle medley of his own “Blues for Danny Poullard” and Joseph “Bébé” Carriere’s “Blue Runner” beautifully combines Cajun and blues influences.

Two of my favorites on the album are contemporary songs I first heard Martin perform live decades ago. His versions of Richard Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” and Bobby Charles’ “Tennessee Blues” are both definitive and beautiful.

Hey Martin, I surely do not want to wait another decade for your fourth album.

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--Mike Regenstreif