Friday, March 25, 2016

Noel Paul Stookey – At Home: The Maine Tour

At Home: The Maine Tour

As I’ve noted before, I was too young to have been caught up in the wave of commercial folk groups – like the Kingston Trio and Limeliters – that became hugely popular in the late-1950s. But several groups that came along just a little bit later – in particular Ian & Sylvia and Peter, Paul & Mary – did have a huge impact on me as my interest in music, and especially folk music, developed in the ‘60s. Years later, I got to know Noel Paul Stookey a little and, through him, met Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers, when Peter, Paul & Mary performed in Montreal in the ‘80s.

Along with the many Peter, Paul & Mary albums, Noel has also recorded many solo albums and his latest, At Home: The Maine Tour, is a warm and intimate, extended live set – 24 songs running 79 minutes – recorded during a tour of Maine, his home state for the past four decades. It’s an entirely solo affair – no back-up musicians or singers – with the spotlight all on his voice and very accomplished guitar arrangements.

The set is a CD/DVD combo with the songs on the CD and videos of them recorded at the concerts on the DVD. Some of the songs are numbers I’ve never heard before while others are new versions of songs from Peter, Paul & Mary or earlier solo albums. (I think one of the songs, the then-unreleased “Facets of the Jewel,” may have had its world premiere when Noel was my guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program in 1999.)

The most moving pieces on At Home, are “Jean Claude,” a reflection on the Holocaust from the perspective of an old French man who, as a boy, witnessed his friend, a Jewish boy named Michel, shipped off to a Nazi death camp; “Familia Del Corazon,” an inspiring song I’d never heard before that’s an important reminder of what countries like the United States and Canada truly represent to ourselves and to the rest of the world (and an important message in these Trumpian times); and “Not That Kind of Music,” a tribute to Pete Seeger written a couple of years before Pete passed away.

Among my other favorites in this set are such classics as “Wedding Song (There is Love),” a beautiful piece he wrote to sing at Peter Yarrow’s wedding; “Whatshername,” a jazzy reminiscence, many years later, of one who got away (I’m sure most everyone has a whatshername to recall); “Virtual Party,” a witty, delightful spoof of anonymity in the digital age; and “Glory Train,” Noel’s adaptation of the traditional “This Train,” which brings the set back to the first Peter, Paul & Mary LP 54 or so years ago.

Near the end of the album, Noel sings “In These Times,” and it strikes me that At Home: The Maine Tour is a timeless collection from an artist with a deep understanding of his times.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Huxtable, Christensen & Hood – Under the Weather; Lisa Null - Legacies

Under the Weather
Fool’s Hill Music

Huxtable, Christensen & Hood Teresina Huxtable, Carol Christensen and Liz Hood – began playing coffeehouses and folk festivals in the 1970s. Around 1980, they released their first LP, the excellent Wallflowers, which effectively mixed traditional folksongs with a few of Terri Huxtable’s originals – mostly sung in glorious three part harmonies. A second LP, Melancholy Babies, came out around 1986 and added a couple of old pop songs to the folk and original material.

Finally, 30 years later, comes Under the Weather, a third album from the trio – a set that expands on the folk, original and pop material to include songs from three superb folk-rooted songwriters who have passed away in recent years.

They open the Under the Weather with a lovely version of “Talk to Me of Mendocino,” my late friend Kate McGarrigle’s exquisite ode to New York State, the California coast and lost love. Later in the set are superb versions the late Victoria Armstrong’s “Santa Fe River,” and the historical narrative “John D. Lee,” written by my late friend Bruce “Utah” Phillips, which vividly describes an 1857 massacre in Utah. All three of these borrowed songs are among the highlights of the album.

Other highlights include “The Isle of St. Helena,” a Napoleonic ballad that effectively uses snare drums and flutes to help provide a military backdrop to the arrangement; a spine tingling solo a cappella version of “Open the Door Softly”; a Nova Scotia version of “Since Love Can Enter an Iron Door,” featuring the voices on top of a reed organ and accordion arrangement (with an effectively a cappella verse); and Terri’s “The Stroll,” whose lyrics evoke high school dances from the long ago and whose arrangement suggests early rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s nice to hear the voices of Huxtable, Christensen & Hood again after all these years.

Folk-Legacy Records

Lisa Null is another artist from the 1970s that I hadn’t heard in decades – save for a track on Singing Through the Hard Times, a Utah Phillips tribute released in 2009.

Although she hadn’t made a new album in more than 30 years, Lisa decided to record much of her repertoire after a serious illness in order to ensure the songs she loves will remain. On Legacies, a 2-CD boxed set, Lisa offers a 72-minute collection of traditional folksongs, a 63-minute collection of mostly original songs, and a 68 page booklet of extensive notes.

My memories of Lisa from back in the day are of a singer of traditional folksongs who worked with guitarist Bill Shute on the folk festival circuit. And, indeed, the CD of traditional material shows that she still knows how to communicate the stories and feelings at the essence of these songs whether singing a cappella or working with some simple, but beautifully arranged accompaniments.

Among the traditional highlights are “The Banks of Champlain,” a historical ballad with piano accompaniment by Donna Long, in which a woman mourns her lover’s death in a War of 1812 battle; “Dink’s Song,” the achingly beautiful song collected by John Lomax more than a century ago that Lisa sings a cappella; and “I Went to See My Mother,” an Ozark song from the singing of Almeda Riddle that Lisa performs with banjo player Bob Claypool.

I don’t recall hearing Lisa singing her own songs back in the day so the second CD in this collection came as a surprise. The only one I previously knew was “I’m Going Home to Georgia,” a beautifully realized song from the perspective of an old man full of regrets, that I remember from one of Sally Rogers’ early LPs. Lisa sings it here with an unusual harp (David Scheim) and electric bass (Pete Kraemer) arrangement that works perfectly.

Other highlights from the collection of “Newer Songs and Tunes” include “Turn Me Loose and Let Me Go,” a song of comfort and farewell also featuring Scheim and Kraemer; “Come Take Me Home Again, Kathleen,” an a cappella song written in the style of a traditional Iriah ballad about the historical troubles in Ireland; and the bouncy “Follow the Money,” with Lisa on electric piano, one of several instrumental tunes she composed.

The second CD also includes several songs Lisa did not write and I was most taken by the quietly powerful “Andy Goodman (To His Mother),” a song written by Jean Ritchie following the brutal 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner. Sung from Goodman’s perspective, it’s a song I’d never heard before (although I own many of Jean’s recordings and saw her perform numerous times).

Like Huxtable, Christensen & Hood, it’s good to hear Lisa again after all these years.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Various Artists – God Don’t Never Change; Mr. Rick Sings About God + Booze

God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson
Alligator Records

Like many, my first exposure to Blind Willie Johnson was via his recording of “John the Revelator,” included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a monumental collection of recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s that was so influential on the generations of folk-rooted artists that came to the fore in the 1950s, ‘60s and beyond. The artists on the Anthology – including Johnson – are the anchor of what Greil Marcus has termed the “old weird America.”

Johnson could have been one of the deepest sounding of the early bluesmen but was devoutly religious and only sang the gospel and spiritual songs he wrote or adapted from earlier sources. He recorded 30 tracks in all between 1927 and 1930 when the Great Depression effectively killed his recording career – the 2-CD set, The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (Columbia/Legacy) is highly recommended – but many of those songs have become standards of revival folk and blues artists from Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary to Eric Clapton.

God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson is a set of 11 of Johnson’s songs performed by an interesting group of contemporary artists.

Tom Waits – whose voice on some of his later recordings seems almost genetically descended from Johnson’s – leads off the set with a compelling version of “The Soul of a Man,” that is built on a sampled guitar track taken from a field recording of Smith Casey recorded by John Lomax and featuring Waits’ wife, Kathleen Brennan, on background vocals and their son, Casey Waits on drums. Waits returns later in the album with “John the Revelator.”

Lucinda Williams, who has a deep understanding of traditional southern music running through much of her own music, also turns in effective performances on two songs: “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” and the title track, “God Don’t Never Change.”

Interestingly, the only African American artists on the album, the Blind Boys of Alabama, turn in the single performance that seems least influenced by Johnson. Their infectious version of “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time” is done in their time-honored style reflecting the religious joyousness that is always at the heart of their performances.

Among the other highlights are the call-and-response version of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” by Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi; a deeply felt rendition of “Light from the Light House” by Maria McKee; and a subdued, thoughtful reading of “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” by Rickie Lee Jones that effectively brings in a New Orleans-funeral-style horn arrangement near the end of the song.

Mr. Rick Sings About God + Booze

One of the Blind Willie Johnson standards not included on God Don’t Never Change was “You’ll Need Someone on Your Bond.” However, Mr. Rick – a.k.a. Rick Zolkower – does a nice, rockabilly-flavored version on Mr. Rick Sings About God + Booze, a mostly upbeat collection of traditional and contemporary Saturday night and Sunday morning songs.

Mr. Rick and his musical friends draw on all manner of roots styles in creating irresistible versions of such God songs as “Hush,” Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Kind Favor,” and “I’ll Fly Away,” and such boozers as Eric Von Schmidt’s “Champagne Don’t Drive Me Crazy,” Sleepy John Estes’ “Liquor Store Blues” and Mr. Rick’s own “Don’t Put My Bourbon Down.”

Perhaps my favorite track is “Two Little Fishes,” a biblical story song I first heard sung by Josh White, that takes on a klezmer feel thanks to Jono Lightstone’s clarinet playing.

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--Mike Regenstreif