Saturday, February 20, 2016

David Francey – Empty Train

Empty Train
Laker Music

I’ve written often about David Francey since he emerged – seemingly out of nowhere – in 1999 at age 45 as one of Canada’s greatest folk-rooted singer-songwriters. I’ve reviewed nearly all of his albums – he’s been a prolific recording artist over the past 17 years – and I’ve done newspaper and magazine features about him. My Sing Out! magazine feature from Fall 2005, "David Francey: A Working Man's Poetry," can be read here on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches blog.

With Empty Train, David offers 11 of his insightful, mostly timeless songs (one of which he co-wrote) and a fine version of “False Knight,” the traditional folk song.

The album opens with “Empty Train,” the compelling title track with a heartbeat arrangement featuring Mark Westberg on electric guitar, a texture I’m not used to hearing accompanying David. The insistent pattern of the electric guitar effectively conjures “the rattle of an empty train” that David describes hearing at a lonely train station Ashcroft, BC.

Perhaps the most moving songs are “Crucible,” written about his father and uncle’s service in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and “Hospital” about visiting his father in the hospital.

“Crucible” describes his father and uncle’s navy duties in the war noting their too-quick growth “from young to old” and the tragic losses of their comrades who didn’t make it home while “Hospital” poignantly describes an old man nearing his end. The song was written in 2004 and David notes that his father did live to come home from that hospital stay – but not the next.

Other highlights include “The Money Boys,” a short, but very effective, topical song about bankers that David sings a cappella with son Colin Francey; “Big Texas Moon,” a love song with a bouncy old-time feel courtesy of Chris Coole’s banjo frailing; and “Blue Girl,” inspired by the National Film Board documentary Give Me Your Soul, which describes the emptiness of pornography and its eventual effect on an actress giving her soul to it.

David is currently on tour performing release concerts for Empty Train. Click here for the tour itinerary.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Judy Collins – Strangers Again

Strangers Again

Fifty-five years after the release of her first LP, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, Judy Collins remains a remarkable singer with one of the most elegantly beautiful of voices – a voice that moves seemingly effortlessly from folk music to art songs and pop music.

Strangers Again, Judy’s latest album, much of which leans toward pop music, is a collection of duets with 12 male singers – some of whom I’ve been listening to for decades and some of whom I’d not heard of until now. As well, some of the songs were familiar to me while others I’d never heard before.

Among the standout tracks is Judy and Willie Nelson’s haunting version of Dave Carter’s “When I Go,” a song that turned out to be prophetic as Dave, a brilliant songwriter who only emerged in his mid-40s, died suddenly from a heart attack just weeks before his 50th birthday in 2002. With the most folk-oriented arrangement on the album, Judy and Willie capture the deep Native American spiritualism at the essence of the song.

Another standout is a version of Leonard Cohen’s sublime composition “Hallelujah” with Bhi Bhiman. Although the song has been covered to death by other artists, I’ve always thought it was almost written with Judy’s voice in mind and – especially given how many of Leonard’s songs Judy has recorded over the years – I’m surprised she hasn’t done before now.

Also among the highlights are the new versions of Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon” with Jimmy Buffett and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” with Don McLean, two of Judy’s greatest hits from decades ago, and Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home” with Jackson Browne.

Judy Collins and Mike Regenstreif (2014).
Judy will be here in Ontario next month for three concerts on Friday, March 11, at Southminster United Church here in Ottawa (which I’m highly looking forward to); Saturday, March 12, at Hugh’s Room in Toronto; and Sunday, March 13, at Aeolian Hall in London. All three concerts will be opened by my old friend Garnet Rogers.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Corb Lund on tour

I’m looking forward to seeing Corb Lund and his band, The Hurtin’ Albertans, when their current tour brings them to the National Arts Centre Theatre in Ottawa next Friday, February 19 at 7:30 pm as part of tour that also sees them doing concerts in a bunch of Ontario locations and in Montreal over the next week or so. The complete itinerary is available at Corb’s website.

By now, I’ve been listening to Corb’s records, seeing him in concert and writing about him for nearly 15 years. The most recent articles on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches blog have been a review of his joint concert with Ian Tyson at the National Arts Centre a little over two years ago, and a review of his album, Losin’ Lately Gambler in 2009.

Here are some earlier articles I wrote over the years for the Montreal Gazette:

CD review of Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier from December 6, 2007

Corb Lund’s attention is on war stories on his most ambitious, and most powerful, album yet. He leads with "I Wanna Be in the Cavalry," a snappy rhythmic piece propelled by military snare drum and rousing banjo that suggests a young, eager Civil War-era recruit anxious to serve his country while riding the horses he loves. Later, as the CD ends, Lund reprises the song, this time singing it slowly and mournfully as if his narrator’s been to hell and back. Perhaps the most interesting and insightful song is "Student Visas," the tale of a mercenary who fought Reagan’s covert war against the Sandinistas. Lund occasionally steps back from the intense war stories with horse songs and clever tunes about tools and family parties.

Concert review from September 16, 2006

Packed to standing-room capacity on Thursday night, Petit Campus felt like an Alberta dance hall as Corb Lund led his crackerjack quartet – rooted in classic country, rockabilly and western swing – through a two-hour set that had the crowd still screaming for more after three encores.

Lund, looking resplendent in western wedding wear, grabbed the audience from the get-go with Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, the title track from his recent Juno and CCMA award-winning CD, and never let go.

Despite the high energy party atmosphere, it was obvious to anyone paying attention that Lund has become one of this country’s best songwriters and that his descriptions of ranch life and rodeos, oil riggers, truck drivers and musicians, all rang with authenticity.

Interview from September 12, 2006

Corb Lund’s latest CD, Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, was released in Canada a year ago. This summer, that album and Five Dollar Bill, Lund’s 2002 release, were certified as Canadian gold records, signifying sales of more than 50,000 copies each.

Yesterday, just days before Lund’s Montreal show at Petit Campus Thursday night, he took home awards for album of the year and roots artist of the year from the Canadian Country Music Association. Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer already got Lund the Juno for best roots and traditional album by a solo artist. “We’ve been tracking the sales, so the gold records weren’t a total surprise,” Lund said when reached this week on his cellphone. “But I wouldn’t have predicted them a couple of years ago.”

Although Lund does get airplay on country radio (particularly small-town country radio in Western Canada) and has had videos on rotation on CMT, most of his following has been built one show at a time via the relentless touring that Lund and his band, the Hurtin’ Albertans, have been doing in the four years since Five Dollar Bill was released. They spend much of the year criss-crossing the country: playing clubs, festivals and, increasingly, concert halls. They’ve also made regular forays into the U.S. and have recently toured Europe and Australia.

Lund considers himself somewhat of a “black sheep” on the country music scene. “When you hear us in comparison to what’s currently out there in country music, we sound a little strange. But if you actually listen to us, our stuff has more elements of traditional country music in it and our lyrics have much more rural content than the modern stuff you hear on the radio. We’re kind of a throwback to what country music was at one time.”
It’s to the rural orientation of his lyrics that Lund attributes his popularity with “people who live their lives agriculturally, the kind of people who listen to country music.” When asked how big-city people who come to 9 p.m. (or later) shows in places like Montreal or Toronto respond to the rural nature of his songs, Lund said the songs are playing well there, too. “I think to the urban people we’re raw enough and hip enough that the same kind of people who are digging Johnny Cash are picking up on us.”

Two of the songs on Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer feature Lund, 37, in duets with country and folk legends Ian Tyson and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, both of whom have close to four decades on him. One reviewer likened their participation on the CD to the passing of a torch.

“I’ll leave that to the music writers of the world to determine, but it was pretty cool getting to work with those guys,” Lund said. “I’ve known Ian (Tyson) for quite a while now.”

“He was a hero of mine when I was younger and he’s become a real mentor and friend,” Lund said. The duet with Tyson, “The Rodeo’s Over,” is a nostalgic piece that Lund says “takes on a generational feel.” And like all of Lund’s cowboy-themed material, the song rings with authenticity.

Lund comes from a ranching family with generations of rodeo experience. His grandparents and parents were rodeo champions and he rode and wrestled steers in rodeos until he was about 15 and got sidetracked into music.

Lund said he has had a good time at his previous Montreal shows. He’s promising “some pretty good beer-drinking country music, with some dirt on it.”

CD review of Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer from September 29, 2005

Three years after Five Dollar Bill put Alberta’s Corb Lund on the country music map, he’s back with an even better set of songs documenting the cowboy culture the one-time boy steer riding champion was born to. While Lund’s songs vividly describe timeless themes like broken down rodeo cowboys and trucks getting stuck in the mud, he also brings the genre into contemporary times with references to closed borders in the wake of mad cow disease, the effects of global warming on ranch country, and the toll of drug abuse on rodeo riders. There’s fun to be had in tunes about playing cards and playing big bass fiddles and cowboy music legends Ian Tyson and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott each show up for a duet.

Interview from November 18, 2002

Corb Lund’s parents were both rodeo champions. “My mom was the first barrel racing champion at the Calgary Stampede in 1959 and 1960.” As a boy, Lund was on track to follow in their footsteps. In 1981, when his father won the Stampede’s steer wrestling title, 12-year-old Corby was the boys steer riding champion.

The teenaged Lund switched his attention from rodoeoing to music. He played bass through the 1990s in the Smalls, an Edmonton-based alternative rock band. In the past couple of years, though, he’s found his voice as a singer and songwriter documenting cowboy culture in an economic country and rockabilly style. “I still ride for fun when I go home but I don’t rodeo anymore,” he said in an interview when the Corb Lund Band passed through Montreal for a couple of club dates in mid-October. The band returns to town Tuesday night for a final local stand at Petit Café Campus.

Lund’s family history, with more than a century of ranching and rodeo riding in southern Alberta, and an earlier history as Mormon settlers in Utah, provides fodder for some of his songs. “Both sides of my family came from Denmark in the 1830s, were converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah in the 1840s,” he explained.

After the Mormon Church outlawed polygamy in 1890, the Lunds, on his father’s side, and the Ivins family, on his mother’s side, were part of a Mormon migration to southern Alberta around the turn of the 20th century. “I’ve looked into it and apparently my family weren’t polygamists, but that’s when they homesteaded in Alberta.” However, when he gives a capsule account of his family’s migration, from Denmark to Utah to Alberta in “No Roads Here,” a song on Five Dollar Bill (Stony Plain), his latest CD, Lund does make a veiled reference to “hidden family history.”

Other highlights on Five Dollar Bill include “Buckin’ Horse Rider,” a tribute to Lund’s uncle Lynn “and all the other bronc riders I’m related to,” the title track, a tale of cross border booze smuggling between Alberta and Montana in the American Prohibition era, and the very pretty “Short Native Grasses.” Lund recorded part of the album in Edmonton with his working band and part of it in Nashville where they were augmented by producer-drummer Harry Stinson and fiddler Tammy Rogers of the Dead Reckoners.

Along with Ian Tyson, another former rodeo rider who he credits as a big influence, Lund is using his songs to document a dying Western culture. “Cowboying and ranching is based on cheap land,” he said, “and the land is worth too much for other purposes now. Ranching becomes less and less viable every year. It’s such a colorful culture, it’s sad that it’s dying.”

The songs, and Lund’s intense touring schedule, have been building him a solid fan base. After conquering Western Canada with three months of touring after the release of Five Dollar Bill, the Corb Lund Band has spent the fall doing one nighters back and forth across Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and the Northeastern United States. Before the end of the year, they’ll tour England and be back home for dates in Alberta. Texas and Nashville are on the agenda for early in the New Year.

“We get a pretty interesting mixed audience,” he said. “About half are post-rock’n’roll, alt-country punk people, and about half are sort of Fred Eaglesmith, folk festival, Wrangler-wearing cowboy hat people. It’s a lot of fun.”


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--Mike Regenstreif