Saturday, April 11, 2015

Jesse Winchester – Seems Like Only Yesterday: Live in Montreal 1976

Seems Like Only Yesterday: Live in Montreal 1976
Real Gone Music

Exactly one year ago today, Jesse Winchester, my friend of more than 40 years, and one of the greatest singer-songwriters ever, passed away following a battle with cancer. A year ago – “seems like only yesterday.”

Looking back, the memories – “everyone’s got him a few” – are vivid. It “seems like only yesterday” that I was struck by Jesse and his songs the first time I heard him play when I was 14 or 15 in 1968 or ’69 (Tom Paxton was sitting beside me at the time, but that’s another story) or when I started booking Jesse to play at some of the early concert series I was running in Montreal, circa 1972-’74.

And it “seems like only yesterday” – it was 1974 – that I took over the Golem, a year-old Montreal folk coffeehouse, and started booking Jesse for three-night gigs, two or three times a year.

In those days, Jesse’s gigs at the Golem were as a solo artist – just him and his nylon-string guitar (although I do remember other musicians occasionally sitting in with him). But, at some point around that time, he also started working with a band. I remember seeing Jesse with the band at venues like the Hotel Nelson in Old Montreal and Norm Silver’s Mustache behind the Montreal Forum.

On October 13, 1976, Jesse and the band – lead guitarist Bobby Cohen, bassist Marty Harris, drummer Dave Lewis, and the late, great pedal steel virtuoso Ron Dann – played a radio concert at Studio Six in Montreal that was broadcast both locally and across the border on FM stations in Boston, New York, Hartford, Providence, Philadelphia and Baltimore-Washington. In those days, before the 1977 amnesty for Vietnam War-era draft evaders like Jesse, he was unable to perform in the United States so this radio concert was the first time that people in the U.S. got to hear him play live. (It was also, apparently, the first time that a state-of-the-art FM radio concert had been broadcast live across international borders.)

That radio concert, unheard and unreleased for almost 39 years, has now been released as Seems Like Only Yesterday: Live in Montreal 1976. And unlike several other live sets from the ‘70s that were released without Jesse’s authorization – and much to his chagrin – Seems Like Only Yesterday has been authorized by Jesse’s family.

Although it’s probably been 35 or so years since I heard this band play live, the familiarity of the songs and the arrangements do make it seem “like only yesterday.” The songs were mostly drawn from the four albums Jesse had released to date – Jesse Winchester; Third Down, 110 to Go; Learn to Love It; and the then-current Let the Rough Side Drag – with a few more that would be on 1977’s Nothing but a Breeze.

Although I always preferred hearing Jesse solo – maybe because that was the context for most of his concerts I was directly involved with – I also always enjoyed his work with this particular set of musicians. Excellent players all, they fleshed out the songs on stage without ever getting in their way.

While some of the numbers – including the classics “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” “Mississippi You’re On My Mind” and “Yankee Lady,” as well as Martha Carson’s “I Can’t Stand Up Alone”– remained standards of Jesse’s concert repertoire throughout his career, I was particularly thrilled to hear some of the more obscure songs like the beautiful “All of Your Stories,” always one of my very favorite of Jesse’s songs, the dark “Black Dog,” and “Midnight Bus,” which I don’t think I heard Jesse perform in more recent decades. “All of Your Stories,” with an arrangement that is very different from the solo recording on Third Down, 110 to Go, is, perhaps, the most re-imagined song of the set.

Mike Regenstreif & Jesse Winchester (2009)
It was also a treat to hear this particular version of “Tell My Why You Like Roosevelt,” Jesse’s rewrite of Otis Jackson’s song from the 1940s, with its last verse reference to Jean Drapeau, then the highly authoritarian mayor of Montreal. I’d forgotten about that verse which was not included in Jesse’s officially released version on Learn to Love It – and which really could only be understood by those of us who lived in Montreal in those days.

Chuck Gray’s Studio Six was one of Montreal’s top recording facilities in the 1970s and was a familiar spot for Jesse – he had recorded Let the Rough Side Drag there – so the sound quality was unusually high for a live radio concert. Jesse and the band seemed relaxed and comfortable and turned in a set I take great pleasure in revisiting after all these years. Yeah, it does seem “like only yesterday.”

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--Mike Regenstreif

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