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

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