Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Top 17 for 2017

Here are my picks for the Top 17 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2017. As in past years, I started with the list of hundreds of albums that landed on my desk over the past year and narrowed it down to a short list of about 30. I’ve been over the short list several times over the past couple of weeks and came up with several similar – not identical – Top 17 lists. As I’m about to take a break from blogging until January, today’s list is the final one. The order might have been slightly different, and there are several other worthy albums that might have been included, had one of the other lists represented the final choice. Note: A couple of these albums were actually released in late-2016 but I only heard them for the first time in January 2017.

1. Various ArtistsWoody Guthrie: The Tribute Concerts – Carnegie Hall 1968, Hollywood Bowl 1970 (Bear Family Records). This magnificent set of three CDs and two stunning coffee-table-sized hardcover books document the Woody Guthrie tribute concerts held in 1968 at Carnegie Hall and at the Hollywood Bowl in 1970 featuring such artists as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Richie Havens and others. There are many performances not included in the original LP release and CD reissue and the sequencing has been arranged to reflect the actual concerts rather than a hybrid of the two as on the LPs.

2. Tom RussellFolk Hotel (Frontera Records). The songs on Folk Hotel provide more examples of why I’ve long considered Tom Russell to be the finest songwriter of the generation that came after Bob Dylan (the only non-original is a definitive interpretation of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” sung as a duet with Joe Ely). Tom’s songs are rich with stories and characters that come vividly to life.

3. Various ArtistsBig Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition (Great Smoky Mountain Association). Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition is a compelling 2-CD exploration of traditional folksongs found in the Appalachian Mountains – some of them well-known, some of them more obscure. Likewise some of the artists – including Rosanne Cash, Archie Fisher and Alice Gerrard are well-known and some not, including both contemporary members of traditional singing families and revivalists. Each of the 32 performances – 31 of them previously unreleased and most recorded specifically for this project – on Big Bend Killing is performed with both reverence for tradition and compelling vitality.

4. Various ArtistsTribute to the Travelin’ Lady Rosalie Sorrels (Rosalie Sorrels Tribute). As Eliza Gilkyson writes in the notes to her track on the 4-CD, 44-song Tribute to the Travelin’ Lady Rosalie Sorrels, “Any folksinger of my generation must claim Rosalie Sorrels as a foundational influence.” At least two years in the making, most of the songs were written by Rosalie. A few others were songs from her vast repertoire, two – including Tom Russell’s “Pork Roast and Poetry” – were written in tribute to her, and a couple are original songs by the late Guy Clark and the late Jimmy LaFave that I can easily imagine hearing Rosalie do.

5. Tom Russell Play One More: The Songs of Ian & Sylvia (True North Records). Ian & Sylvia – Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson – were a huge influence on the young Tom Russell. As a songwriter, Tom has collaborated with both Ian and Sylvia and on Play One More: The Songs of Ian & Sylvia, he offers a remarkable tribute to Ian’s and Sylvia’s songwriting with eight songs from the Ian & Sylvia years (the 1960s and early-‘70s) and two more each from their solo years (including one of Tom’s co-writes with each of them).

6. The KlezmaticsApikorsim/Heretics (World Village). Apikorsim/Heretics is a return to the kind of progressive Jewish cultural albums the Klezmatics were making in the first half of their now 30-year history: superb material drawn from both traditional sources and their own imaginations  matched by brilliant singing and playing. In some ways, it’s an album of contrasts. On the one hand, there are songs which express religious concepts which could be embraced by the most fervently Orthodox Jews. On the other hand, there are songs which celebrate a completely secular lifestyle that rejects all of the restrictions of an Orthodox – or even moderately religious – lifestyle.

7. Jayme StoneJayme Stone’s Folklife (Borealis Records). Jayme Stone’s Folklife is the follow-up to Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project. At about 43 minutes and 10 songs it’s a shorter CD than the first one (which had 19 songs and clocked in at 66 minutes). But it’s a tighter, more focused group with nine of the 10 songs featuring the core group of Jayme Stone, Moira Smiley, Joe Phillips and Sumaia Jackson – sometimes augmented by drummer Nick Fraser and/or harmony singers Felicity Williams and Denzel Sinclaire. The other song features Jayme with Dom Flemons and Ron Miles.

8. Too Sad for the PublicVol. 1 – Oysters Ice Cream Lemonade: American Folk Fantasies Written and Arranged by Dick Connette (StorySound Records). For 20 years, since the release of the first CD by Last Forever, I’ve greatly admired the work of composer/songwriter/producer Dick Connette. Much of the material on Vol. 1 – Oysters Ice Cream Lemonade: American Folk Fantasies Written and Arranged by Dick Connette, his new project – recorded under the group name ‘Too Sad for the Public’ – continues in the vein of Last Forever with original songs based on traditional themes and a couple of fascinating covers of pop songs. The lead vocals are in the capable hands of Suzzy Roche (four songs), Rachelle Garniez (one song), Ana Egge (two songs) and Gabriel Kahane (one song) – and there are also several go-go instrumentals recorded as a tribute to the late Chuck Brown.

9. Eric BibbMigration Blues (Stony Plain Records). Migration Blues, a topical and timely set of songs about the migration of peoples and individuals – from country to country or place to place – is one of the prolific Eric Bibb’s most powerful and compelling collections. This is an intimate recording. In addition to Eric, who variously plays various guitars and six-string banjo, the core musicians are multi-instrumentalist Michael Jerome Browne of Montreal on various banjos, various guitars, fiddle and mandolin; and harmonica master JJ Milteau of France. The three virtuoso musicians – whether all three or two at a time – are a seamless unit.

10. Moore & McGregorDream with Me (Ivernia Records). Dream with Me by Moore & McGregor – veteran musicians Wendy Moore (harp, oboe, English horn, pennywhistle, vocals) and Arthur McGregor (guitar, banjo, bodhran, and most of the lead vocals) – is a marvelous debut album of songs and tunes by a duo who have long worked together (often performing kids’ shows as the Celtic Rathskallions) that includes superb original songs by Arthur, traditional Celtic tunes, and several excellent songs drawn from other writers.

11. Orit ShimoniSongs for My Father (Orit Shimoni). While Israeli-Canadian singer-songwriter Orit Shimoni’s previous albums have primarily been original songs in English, she decided to record an album of the Israeli folksongs she grew up with as a gift for her father on his 70th birthday. Songs for My Father is a lovely, quiet, often thought-provoking collection.

12. Tom PaxtonBoat in the Water (Pax Records). Now 80, legendary folksinger and songwriter Tom Paxton remains a vital artist. On Boat in the Water, Tom offers eight new songs and new versions of five of his classics from the 1960s and ‘70s all delivered from the perspective of wisdom and experience – whether they are songs reflecting his own life or reflecting the lives of characters created from his (and his co-writers’) creative imagination(s).

13. Bruce CockburnBone On Bone (True North). Bone On Bone, Bruce Cockburn’s first new album in more than six years, is a compelling set of personal, often spiritual, songs that touches folk, rock, blues, jazz and gospel bases.

14. Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train (M.C. Records). On Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train, Guy Davis, one of the finest blues artists of my generation, combines with the excellent Italian harmonica player Fabrizio Poggi for a loving homage to the inspiring folk-blues masters Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Guy and Fabrizio include several of Sonny and Brownie’s original songs and a bunch of other songs drawn from their extensive repertoire.

15. Jim KweskinUnjugged (Hornbeam Recordings) On Unjugged, a new album recorded in England, the masterful folk legend Jim Kweskin offers a delightful hour-long set of folk, blues and novelty songs. Even though these are familiar songs, Jim’s interpretations make them all sound fresh. The album’s title refers to the fact that he’s playing without his colleagues from the renowned 1960s-era jug band that bore his name. (In fact, Jim has made many more albums on his own – and in other collaborations – than he did with Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band.)

16. Duke RobillardDuke Robillard and his Dames of Rhythm (M.C. Records). Of all of Duke Robillard’s many and varied recordings, my favorites are his swing and jazz albums. And the constantly delightful Duke Robillard and his Dames of Rhythm may well be his best swing and jazz album yet. Duke plays acoustic archtop guitar throughout the 15 tracks and sings lead on three songs – and duets with Sunny Crownover (of Sunny and her Joy Boys fame) on another. There are absolutely fantastic rhythm and horn sections (including my old friend Billy Novick on clarinet and alto sax) and most of the lead vocals are handled by rotating cast of extraordinary Dames of Rhythm: the aforementioned Sunny Crownover, Maria Muldaur, Kelley Hunt, Madeleine Peyroux, Catherine Russell, and Elizabeth McGovern.

17. Julian FauthThe Weak and the Wicked, the Hard and the Strong (Electro-Fi Records) Most of the 14 songs on Toronto-based singer and pianist Julian Fauth’s The Weak and the Wicked, the Hard and the Strong are creatively reimagined versions of well-known blues and folksongs like “John Henry,” “Betty and Dupree,” and even Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

I will be featuring songs from each of these albums when I host the Saturday Morning program on CKCU on Saturday, January 6, 7-10 am. (The program will also be available 24/7 for on-demand streaming after it airs.)

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Various Artists – Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition

Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition
Great Smoky Mountain Association

While much of the attention in modern folk music circles is centered on contemporary singer-songwriters, traditional folk music rooted in ancient balladry remains a vital force in the music. And while there is much to be said for the argument that that the oral folk tradition through which these traditions were passed from generation to generation began to disappear with the advent of recording and mass media in the 20th century, there are still musical families in areas like the Appalachian mountains in the U.S. who continue to maintain their traditions of passing down songs, and traditional revivalists who have learned the music through contact with both source singers and recordings who have maintained and expanded the traditions.

Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition is a compelling 2-CD exploration of traditional folksongs found in the Appalachian Mountains – some of them well-known, some of them more obscure – performed by a range of artists, likewise some well-known and some not, including both contemporary members of traditional singing families and revivalists.

Each of the 32 performances – 31 of them previously unreleased and most recorded specifically for this project – on Big Bend Killing is performed with both reverence for tradition and compelling vitality.

The first CD includes 13 performances of songs that originated in the British Isles and that became staples of the traditional Appalachian repertoire. While most of the songs are performed by American artists, there are four tracks by artists from across the pond. Scottish ballad singer Archie Fisher turns in lovely versions of two long ballads, “Thomas the Rhymer” and “Tam Lin” in which the events described in the songs unfold vividly, while the British trio of Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr offers equally gripping versions of “The Sheffield Apprentice” and “Willie Taylor.”

Other highlights on the first CD include versions of “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender” by veteran Appalachian traditional singer Sheila Kay Adams and “Mathy Groves” by her younger cousin Donna Ray Norton; and two versions of “Barbara Allen” by Carol Elizabeth Jones and Rosanne Cash.

The 19 songs on the second CD include several distinctively Appalachian versions of British Isles ballads but centres mostly on ballads that were originally sung in the Appalachians – including “Tom Dula,” perhaps the best known Appalachian ballad thanks to its popularization as the Kingston Trio’s hit, “Tom Dooley.” The rendition here, sung sadly by Laura Boosinger with backing by the Krüger Brothers, draws the listener into the sad tale of the murder of Laura Foster.

Murder is a theme explored in many traditional ballads and other compelling performances of murder ballads on the second CD include “Pretty Polly,” sung by Amythyst Kiah with backing by Roy Andrade; “Omie Wise,” sung by Hasee Ciaccio with fiddler Kalia Yeagle; the familiar “Banks of the Ohio,” performed by Doyle Lawson; “Knoxville Girl,” sung by Kristi Hedtke and Corbin Hayslett; “Big Bend Killing,” a song I’d not heard before, performed by the great Alice Gerrard; and “Old Joe Dawson,” another one I’d not heard before, sung a cappella by Bobby McMillon.

Other highlights on the second CD include a great version of the well-known African American blues ballad, “John Henry,” by Amythyst Kiah with Roy Andrade; Elizabeth LaPrelle’s captivating version of “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” a contemporary ballad written by the late Jean Ritchie; and Rosanne Cash’s gorgeous, album-closing version of “The Parting Glass.”

And make no mistake, I could go on and on about the songs and singers that I haven’t mentioned.

The album was produced by Ted Olson, a professor of Appalachian studies and bluegrass, old-time, and country music studies at East Tennessee State University, who contributes essays on traditional Appalachian balladry and extensive notes on each of the songs to the album’s 74-page booklet.

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--Mike Regenstreif