Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Yellow Door to celebrate 50th anniversary

On November 12, I’ll be in Montreal with a bunch of old friends to help the Yellow Door Coffee House celebrate its 50th anniversary. While it used to be conventional wisdom that the Yellow Door started up in 1967, Marc Nerenberg, who was around at the beginning and has kept folk music going at the Yellow Door in recent years, has traced the coffee house launch back to 1966 – which means the Yellow Door is, by far, Canada’s longest-running folk venue, and one of the last surviving folk venues of the 1960s anywhere.

I was 15 years old in 1969 when I started going to the Yellow Door. I went to a concert at the Back Door – a sister club to the Yellow Door that was open from 1969 to 1971 – where I heard about the Yellow Door and headed there the following weekend.

Back then, the Yellow Door was run by Chuck Baker and the format was to book lesser-known acts for three-night gigs from Monday to Wednesday and headliners for three nights from Thursday to Saturday. Sunday night was Hootenanny Night at the Yellow Door when performers – professionals and amateurs – put their names in the hat for chance to play three songs (or 15 minutes, whichever came first). As I recall, 12 performers got to play – in the order their names came out of the hat – on Hoot Nights.

In short order, I was a regular at the Yellow Door (and the Back Door) soaking up performances by almost everyone who played there. While some of them are largely forgotten, some became well known, and a few became legendary.

At some point in 1970 or ’71, I got involved in helping run the Yellow Door. I think Chuck just drafted me one night to work the coffee counter or sell tickets. I eventually did a lot of both, and then started to MC the occasional set. By 1972, I was MCing the Hoots every Sunday. Once in a while, when Chuck was away, I took over – even sleeping in his apartment on the Yellow Door’s top floor.

So, like so many performers who started out on the Yellow Door’s small stage, I got my start learning how to run folk clubs and concerts at the Yellow Door. In the fall of 1972, I started to produce folk music concerts at Dawson College and McGill University (while staying involved at the Yellow Door) and in the spring of 1974, I took over running another folk coffee house, the Golem, whose booking policy I modeled after the Back Door’s. And even though I’d moved on to the Golem, I was still around the Yellow Door a fair bit.

Perhaps my most memorable night at the Yellow Door was in the spring of 1972 when Jerry Jeff Walker and his guitarist (I recall his name being Travis something) happened to pass through town – I think they were en route from Ottawa to New York – and showed up at the Yellow Door on a Monday or Tuesday night. I was MCing that night and Jerry Jeff asked me if he could do a guest set. I told him that I’d have to clear it with the artist – his name was Merle Michaels, an American, I think, who was then living in Montreal and who I’ve not seen or heard of in the past 40 years. I asked Merle if it was OK for someone to do a guest set. “Sure,” he said, “Who?” At first he didn’t believe me when I said it was Jerry Jeff Walker. Anyway, after the show, maybe a dozen of us were on hand to hear Jerry Jeff play for about an hour-and-a-half without a break. He didn’t do “Mr. Bojangles” that night, but he did do “Stoney,” my request.

So, 50 years after the Yellow Door first opened as a folk music venue, and about 47 years after I first showed up at the basement coffee house, a bunch of us from the old days will join with today’s generation of Yellow Door performers to celebrate at a special 50th anniversary reunion concert, curated by Marc Nerenberg, on Saturday, November 12, 7:30 pm, at Petit Café Campus (57 Prince Arthur Street East in Montreal).

Among the old friends from my Yellow Door era who will perform are Bill Garrett & Sue Lothrop, Bill Russell, Chris Rawlings, Danny Greenspoon, Joel Zifkin, Kevin Head, Linda Morrison, Marc Nerenberg, Michael Jerome Browne, Noah Zacharin, Peter Paul Van Camp, Ronney Abramson, Russ Kelley, and an acoustic version of the Stephen Barry Band.

Among the younger performers from today’s generation of Yellow Door performers will be Bashu Naimi-Roy, the Chinese Kiwis, Corinna Rose, Gabrielle Marlena, Jesse Daniel Smith, Jitensha, Lauriel Lewis, Simon Banderob, and Thanya Iyer.

The MCs for the evening will be Chuck Baker, Marc Nerenberg, Mike Regenstreif (Hey, that’s me!) and Penny Rose.

The anniversary weekend will also include several events at the Yellow Door itself (3625 Aylmer Street) including a Friday night Hootenanny, a free concert on Saturday afternoon and a brunch on Sunday. See the website for details.

Fifty years – half a century – imagine that. Congratulations to all who have played at the Yellow Door over the years – and especially to everyone who’s had a role in keeping it going against all odds for five full decades. It will be something to see everyone again.

Pictured: A drawing from the 1970s by Marc Nerenberg that is being used on 50th anniversary T-shirts; and Mike Regenstreif, Penny Rose and Jesse Winchester receiving the Yellow Door Award at the Yellow Door 35th Anniversary Concert, April 27, 2002 at Café Campus. (Photo: Judith Cezar)

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--Mike Regenstreif

Monday, October 24, 2016

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

You Want It Darker

You Want It Darker, following rather quickly on the heels of Popular Problems, released in 2014, and Old Ideas, from 2012, is the third in a series of remarkable and deep late-career albums from Leonard Cohen that followed in the wake of his equally remarkable years of late-career tours and live albums. Like the previous two albums – in fact, like most of Leonard’s recordings dating back to Songs of Leonard Cohen from 1967, almost a half-century ago – You Want It Darker is a masterwork filled with conversational and hypnotically mesmerizing song-poems layered with meaning that both reveal more every time they are heard and suggest new avenues of meaning and interpretation rendering them ever mysterious.

The album begins with the title track, which Leonard released on Internet on September 21, his 82nd birthday. It is a song that only an older man could have written; a song from the perspective of someone who has lived long and is prepared for death.

Much was made of Leonard having released the song on his birthday. I think, though, what’s much more significant than his birthday is that he released the song during the Jewish month of Elul, a time when Jews prepare for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

It is a song Leonard sings directly to God. “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my lord,” he sings in the chorus, echoing the words of the biblical patriarch Abraham as he prepared for the near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. But, while Abraham might have been ready to face the death of his son, Leonard, here, seems prepared to confront his own mortality; something Jews traditionally think about during the High Holidays.

The melody – despite having been composed by collaborator Patrick Leonard – seems like it comes directly from the synagogue music Leonard heard growing up at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount (a city within the city of Montreal). And, indeed, he turned to Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar choir to sing with him on the song. The choir’s haunting harmonies are heard from the beginning of the song, Leonard himself sounds like he’s singing from the depths of his soul, and the final minute of the song is devoted to Zelermyer repeatedly, and seemingly distantly, singing the word “hineni.”

It is a stunning performance from Leonard, the choir and the cantor. And I must extend kudos to Adam Cohen, Leonard’s son and a talented singer-songwriter himself, who produced this track and much of the rest of the album.

The Shaar choir appears again later in the album to sing haunting harmonies that contrast beautifully with Leonard’s recitation-like singing on “It Seemed the Better Way,” another song – also with a melody composed by Patrick Leonard – in which he muses on the possibility of death.

One of the most affecting songs is “Traveling Light,” which I think may be a farewell song for Marianne Ihlen who died in July. The song can be interpreted as look back to Leonard’s times with Marianne – that inspired such songs as “Bird on the Wire” and, most notably, “So Long, Marianne – as well as an affirmation of the affection that remained after 50 or more years had passed since that time.

Some of the other songs reflect on love, or broken love, but always from a perspective of maturity and with possible layers of interpretation of the kind of love Leonard is referring to.

As I have noted before about Leonard’s songs, they are always open to interpretation and layered with ideas: ideas he had when he conceived the songs; ideas that continued to grow over the days, even years that he worked on them; and the ideas that each of us hears and develops from listening and re-listening to the songs. What I hear in these songs is not necessarily what you will hear, or, perhaps, not even what Leonard Cohen – part Jewish mystic, part Zen monk – might himself have intended.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Caroline Doctorow – Dreaming in Vinyl

Dreaming in Vinyl
Narrow Lane Records 

Music, for a lot of baby boomers like me, was big deal when we were young (and remains a big deal for some of us). Acquiring a new LP from a favorite band or solo artist was often a major event. The songs meant something to us and so many have stayed with us over the decades.

Caroline Doctorow’s new CD, Dreaming in Vinyl, is a reminder of those days. Eight of the 10 songs are seemingly timeless interpretations of songs that first came out between 1965 and 1970 while the other two – Caroline’s originals – evoke that period.

Almost all of the covered songs on Dreaming in Vinyl were instantly familiar to me as they were drawn from LPs I owned back in the day (and most of those I now have on CD reissues). And the only song I didn’t really know, “Hard, Hard Year,” was because it wasn’t on one of the Hollies’ LPs I did have back then.

Caroline’s versions of these songs remain quite faithful to the original versions. Her always-lovely voice is well served by her own guitar playing and overdubbed harmonies, by violinist Chris Tedesco, and by the layered accompaniment of producer Pete Kennedy on all other instruments. Among my favorites are Bob Dylan’s “Time Passes Slowly,” Paul Simon (Simon and Garfunkel)’s “Dangling Conversation,” which chronicles a couple’s growing alienation from each other, and Richard Holler’s poignant topical song “Abraham, Martin and John,” an iconic hit by Dion after the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

The versions of the Lou Reed and John Cale (Velvet Underground & Nico)’s “Sunday Morning,” Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” Donovan’s “Turquoise,” and John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Beatles)’s “Across the Universe” are all also noteworthy.

As mentioned, Caroline’s two original songs evoke that period when we were buying vinyl LPs. “To Be Here” is a beautiful love song and travelogue. “That’s How I’ll Remember You,” is a lovely farewell written for Caroline’s father, the acclaimed novelist E.L. Doctorow, who died last year.

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--Mike Regenstreif