Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Tom Paxton – Redemption Road

Redemption Road
Pax Records

About five years ago, when Sing Out! magazine was celebrating its 60th anniversary, I was among the people asked to contribute to a year-long symposium that talked about how folk music came to be important in our lives. I related an anecdote which I’ve repeated before and will again now.

In 1968 or ’69, when I was 14, or maybe just turned 15, I heard there was going to be a big folk concert at McGill University in Montreal and decided to go. It was a bunch of local performers doing short sets in the first half, and a headliner from New York in the second. When I got there, I discovered it was a “blanket concert”: thousands of McGill students – four, five, six and more years older than me – sitting on blankets on the floor of a huge gym. It was pretty full and I had no blanket so I sat on a long bench that lined the back of the gym wall. Between the local performers’ sets, I had an interesting conversation with a man in his early 30s sitting next to me. He obviously knew a lot about folk music and gave me some great suggestions on records to look for. When the intermission was announced, he said he enjoyed talking with me and left.

After the break, the MC, Tex König, introduced “one of the greatest of the Greenwich Village folksingers: Tom Paxton!” The man I’d been talking to all night walked on stage and did an amazing hour-long set that I still vividly remember more than 45 years later.

That was the “it moment” for me. I started to listen to every record and read every folk music book I could find. I subscribed to Sing Out!, went to coffeehouses and concerts, and was soon a part of the action – hanging out, learning some guitar, putting on concerts, running folk clubs, volunteering at folk festivals and writing articles and reviews. It became a way of life – and still is.

So, Tom Paxton, who, some years later, became a good friend, and who I’ve had the pleasure of working with a bunch of times in different contexts over the years, had a lot to do with drawing me into the folk music life.

Tom was one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 1960s – in fact, Dave Van Ronk once told me that Tom was the first Greenwich Village folksinger, before Bob Dylan, who worked hard and consistently at songwriting – and remains one of the greatest singer-songwriters today.

Tom – who is now 77 and has announced he’ll soon retire from the road – is about to release Redemption Road, another in the series of albums he’s released over the past half-century on which the songs – even when addressing contemporary social issues – all quickly feel like old friends. There are songs that will make you smile, some that might bring a tear to the eye, and more than a few that will make you think and remember (even if your memories might not be the same as Tom’s or Tom’s characters).

The album opens with a pair of light-hearted songs. “Virginia Morning” is an up tempo celebration of the end of winter, a beautiful spring day and the state in which Tom has made his home in recent years. It’s followed by “Susie Most of All,” a fun, bouncy tune filled with delightfully nonsensical rhymes that kind of reminds me of Mississippi John Hurt meets “Green, Green Rocky Road.”

The fun continues later in the album with “Skeeters’ll Gitcha,” a duet with John Prine, and “The Battle of the Sexes,” which wittily traces the eternal battle from the Garden of Eden up until today.

Among the songs that kindle memories are “Time to Spare,” a look back at youthful idealism that gets tempered by the realities of responsibilities; “Central Square,” an ode to the great love of one’s youth who got away; and “The Mayor of Macdougal Street,” a fond remembrance of Tom’s close friend – and mine, too – Dave Van Ronk.

In “The Losing Part,” Tom sings from the vantage point of age about the changes and loss that come with it. Although Tom apparently wrote the song several years ago, it takes on even deeper meaning thinking of Midge Paxton, Tom’s wife of more than 50 years, who passed away last year. I always so enjoyed Midge’s company when she came up to Montreal or to a folk festival with Tom.

Even when the stories they tell are the stuff of fiction, I’ve always thought that Midge inspired Tom’s love songs. “Ireland” on this album tells a beautiful story of falling in love so many years ago and whether or not the story being told in it is about Tom and Midge, or is fiction from Tom’s imagination, or perhaps some combination thereof, I clearly picture her as I listen to Tom sing.

I hear “Come On, Holy,” co-written by Tom and Jon Vezner, as a prayer for healing and for finding comfort with loved ones, friends and strangers.

“If the Poor Don’t Matter” is vintage Paxton topical songwriting that expresses compassion and common cause with the poor. Although the song would have been relevant at any time in the past century, Tom brings a very contemporary feel to the song with a hip hop feel to part of the song (which, honestly, is not far removed from the talking blues form used by Woody Guthrie in the 1940s and by songwriters like Tom, Dylan and Phil Ochs in the 1960s).

Tom grew up in Oklahoma and has written any number of songs over the years – among them “Deep Fork River Blues,” “Along the Verdigris” and “My Oklahoma Lullaby” – inspired by the state. Here he gives us “Buffalo Dreams,” which vividly recalls the people and the open plains of the state.

The penultimate song is the title track, “Redemption Road,” a beautiful song from the perspective of age and a life well lived. Tom’s lyrics are a perfect complement to the melody written as a guitar instrumental called “Redemption” by Geoff Bartley, another mutual friend of many decades. Janis Ian sings lovely harmonies on the song.

Mike Regenstreif & Tom Paxton
The album ends with the Irish folksong “The Parting Glass,” traditionally sung as an end-of-the-evening farewell. It seems a perfect choice with Tom’s impending retirement from the road and also as a nod to the traditional folk music that inspired the young Tom Paxton to spend a lifetime adding so much richness to the traditions.

The album was produced by Jim Rooney, always a great producer for primarily acoustic recording sessions, and features some of the fine Nashville musicians who frequent Jim’s Nashville productions, as well as contributions from Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer and Geoff Bartley, who have often collaborated with Tom on stage over the years.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project

Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
Borealis Records

Alan Lomax (1915-2002), who started as an assistant to his father, the pioneering folklorist John Lomax, was one of the most important folklorists and ethnomusicologists – if not the most important – of the 20th century. His thousands of recordings of traditional artists from all over the world, including of such important figures as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and Jelly Roll Morton, most of them field recordings, is one of the most important repositories of traditional music.

For Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, his most ambitious project yet, Canadian banjo master Jayme Stone has surrounded himself with a stellar cast of singers and musicians – among them Tim O’Brien, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smiley, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Eli West, and Drew Gonsalves – who reinterpret and reimagine 19 songs and tunes collected by Lomax over the years.

Being released to celebrate the centennial of Lomax’s birth, it is an extraordinary collection at once timeless, traditional and utterly contemporary. Jayme and his collaborators – he refers to the album as a “collaboratory” – breathe new life into the music. And to be sure, this is not a Jayme Stone star turn. The lead vocals are left to others and his banjo playing is part of the ensemble on most tunes, doing exactly what needs to be done in service to the songs and tunes.

While each of these 19 performances is very special, I’ll call attention to a few of my favorites.

Among them are a couple of songs from the repertoire of the amazing Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers. “Before This Time Another Year,” features Tim O’Brien on lead vocals and guitar (the only instrument) with stunning harmonies by six other singers. Tim, who happens to be the same age as me, adds a few lines of his own to the traditional verses to mark the milestone birthday he passed this past year. Then on the spiritual “Sheep, Sheep Don’tcha Know the Road,” the same singers, this time led by Moira Smiley, do an amazing a cappella call-and-response rendition punctuated by their infectious hand clapping.

The shanty “Shenandoah” receives an interpretation that is at times hauntingly beautiful and at times exciting thanks to the sublime singing of Margaret Glaspy, Jayme’s banjo, and Brittany Haas’ fiddling.

The duet by Margaret and Tim on the old cowboy song “Goodbye, Old Paint (Leaving Cheyenne)” is sad and beautiful, while Margaret’s duet with Bruce Molsky on “Now Your Man Done Gone,” although sung a cappella, captures all the essence of the blues.

Lomax recorded some of the great early calypso singers and one of the most infectious pieces here is Drew Gonsalves’ version of “Bury Boula for Me” on which Jayme’s banjo playing stands in perfectly for steel drums.

This sublime album includes a beautiful 52-page booklet with detailed song notes, photos, and essays by Jayme and Stephen Wade. An essential album.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Chris Rawlings – Northern Spirits

Northern Spirits
Cooking Fat Music

As I noted in my review of Autumn Gold in 2012, “Chris Rawlings was one of my favourite local singer-songwriters when I first started hanging out on the Montreal folk scene back around 1969. He was then in the early stages of his solo career after spending a few years as part of a band called Rings and Things.” In 1972, “when I started my first concert series at Dawson College in Montreal, Chris headlined my second concert presentation. And when I started running the Golem Coffee House in 1974, Chris was one of my frequently-presented artists.”

A new CD from Chris is always welcome and Northern Spirits, which includes both new and vintage material (some of which I’d never heard before), is arguably his strongest release since the early LPs Pearl River Turnaround and Soupe du Jour.

The album starts strongly with one of the new songs, “Song of the Bush Pilot,” inspired by stories Chris heard from bush pilot Chick Bidgood. Sung from the old bush pilot’s perspective, his reminiscences come vividly to life.

Other new songs include a couple written with Lynn Heath, Chris’ wife. “Heavy Lifting” is a topical piece that touches on concerns about the environment and world conflicts while “Ezekiel’s Bones,” thoughtfully recounts and comments on the biblical legend.

My favourite new song is “The Lancashire Lass,” which recounts the life story of Chris’ late mother.

Among the older recordings I particularly like “Louis Riel,” Chis’ ballad about the legendary Métis leader who was tried – many believe unjustly – for treason and hung in 1885. I’m not sure when it was recorded but one of the musicians on the track is the master pedal steel player Ron Dann, who passed away about 25 years ago. Chris pairs the song with “La Chanson de Louis Riel,” which combines Riel’s own words with a traditional melody. Chris' newly recorded vocal is paired here with an arrangement of “La Chanson de Louis Riel” taken from an LP of traditional tunes adapted for a recorder quartet that Chris recorded in the 1970s (or, perhaps, early-‘80s).

Another older song (although I’m not sure if the recording is old or new) that I was happy to hear
again for the first time in years was “English Band in Le Studio,” which recounts a 1970s-era incident at a recording studio in Morin Heights, Quebec. I wasn’t there at the time but I remember hearing the story from Chris and others who were shortly after it occurred.

Wish list: I hope someday Chris will release a recording of his (and Paul Lauzon’s) masterful setting of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic 19th century poem. I still clearly recall several of Chris’ stunning performances of the piece from three and four or more decades ago.

Pictured: Chris Rawlings and Mike Regenstreif at the 2007 Branches & Roots Festival in Ormstown, Quebec.

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--Mike Regenstreif