Monday, June 12, 2017

Rosalie Sorrels 1933-2017

I am deeply saddened today to learn that my old friend and colleague – and folk music legend – Rosalie Sorrels passed away last night at her daughter Holly’s home in Reno, Nevada. Her children – Holly Marizu, Shelley Ross and Kevin Sorrels – and I believe other family members were with her as she slipped away over the past several days. Rosalie would have turned 84 on June 24.

Rosalie was one of the great interpretive singers on the folk music scene. She sang traditional folk songs, cabaret songs and gave us definitive versions of the songs of so many songwriters – notably Bruce “Utah” Phillips and Malvina Reynolds, among many others. And, of course, she was a remarkable songwriter herself.

Rosalie began her folk music journey in the 1950s and early-‘60s, collecting traditional songs and performing locally in Idaho and Utah – and making an occasional trip east to perform at events like the Newport Folk Festival. She made several albums of traditional songs in those years and one of them, “Folksongs of Idaho and Utah,” originally released in 1961, remains in print to this day via Smithsonian Folkways.

In 1967, she made a lovely album, “If I Could Be the Rain,” in which she introduced her own songs for the first time. About half the songs were Rosalie’s and about half were written by her Salt Lake City friend, Bruce “Utah” Phillips. Rosalie’s guitarist on the album was Mitch Greenhill, who would go to work with Rosalie often over the years as a musician, record producer, and agent.

Around that time, Rosalie’s marriage broke up and she hit the road – five children in tow – to earn her living on the folk music circuit. Nanci Griffith tells Rosalie’s story in the song “Ford Econoline.” Lena Spencer of the legendary folk music venue Caffé Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, gave Rosalie a home base as she began to travel to folk clubs, concerts and festivals – sometimes traveling by Greyhound Bus – in the U.S. and Canada.

Rosalie played in Montreal often. I was still in high school when I first heard and met Rosalie at the Back Door Coffee House in Montreal, sometime around 1970. The gig at the Back Door was four or five nights long and it was during that stay in Montreal that Rosalie wrote “Travelin’ Lady,” which became her signature song.

I began to produce concerts in Montreal as a college student in 1972 and my first booking with Rosalie was a double bill with Utah Phillips at Redpath Hall on the McGill campus in 1973. By 1974, I was running a Montreal folk club, the Golem Coffee House, and Rosalie played there often throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. Sometimes Rosalie came to the Golem as a solo artist and sometimes with musicians like Mitch Greenhill or Tony Markellis. Sometimes she came to the Golem on a double bill with Utah Phillips, and once as part of a three-woman show with Terry Garthwaite of Joy of Cooking and writer and storyteller Bobbie Louise Hawkins.

Rosalie was a quietly mesmerizing performer on stage and I have so many great memories of performances that I produced with her in Montreal – but also of concerts I saw her do in many other places in Canada and the U.S. In addition to her singing, Rosalie was one of the most masterful storytellers ever.

In the late-‘70s, I operated an independent booking agency for a few years representing a select roster of folk music artists and I was honored that Rosalie was one of my treasured clients.

In her song, “Rosalie, You Can’t Go Home Again,” Rosalie refers to lessons that she learned from her “teachers” – not referring to school teachers. Rosalie was one of my teachers. Rosalie taught me much about the endurance of the human spirit and that adversities and personal tragedies can be the basis for cathartic art. And she taught me how to recognize greatness in songs.

Rosalie Sorrels & Mike Regenstreif (1993)
A quick anecdote: I was at a folk festival with Rosalie – it could have been Mariposa or Philadelphia or Winnipeg or Vancouver, or maybe somewhere else, and Rosalie was in a multi-artist workshop. One of the other artists, a folkier-than-thou type who I will leave nameless, ranted on about how there were no good rock songs, that contemporary singer-songwriters starting with Bob Dylan were all terrible, and that traditional folk songs or songs that have lasted 50 or 60 years were the only ones that mattered. Rosalie responded by saying something like, “Yeah, you’re right, let me play you this song.” She proceeded to sing “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine/And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung…” When she finished the song, the folkier-than-thou guy said something like, “Now that was a great song! Where did you collect it?” Rosalie turned to him and said, “It’s by the Grateful Dead.”

The memories of times spent with Rosalie – in Montreal, Saratoga, Vermont, Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, etc. – are flooding back tonight. I remember the performances, for sure, but I also treasure the times around her kitchen tables in Ballston Spa or Burlington or in bars and friends’ living rooms all up and down the road, sitting up late and sharing songs, stories, drinks and memories.

I’m listening tonight to Rosalie’s 1972 album “Travelin’ Lady.” It was her most recent album the first time I produced a concert with her and it remains one of my favorites of Rosalie’s albums. One of the most inspiring songs of Rosalie’s original songs on the album is “Postcard from Indian (Keep on Rocking).” It’s a kind of existential, secular prayer song:

“If I should die before I wake
There’s nothing here I’d want to take with me
I’ve had the best, I’ve had the worst
I’ve been last, I got into the line first
I’ve been hungry, I’ve been satisfied
I’ve seen the carnival, I’ve taken every ride

If I should wake before I die
I’d never stop to wonder why
I’d grab the day, take it and run
Naked, reaching for the sun
I’d run like a rabbit, fly like a dove
All around the world, searching for love…sweet love

And yet here I lie, afraid to sleep
Afraid to look inside too deep
Just want to climb outside this skin
I’ll find out who it is that’s in there
Oh, friends and lovers, keep me afloat
Keep on rockin’…It’s a beautiful boat.”

That’s a message I think Rosalie would want to leave us with: “Keep on rockin’…It’s a beautiful boat.”

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Katie Moore & Andrew Horton – Six More Miles

Six More Miles

After several solo albums, Montreal-based country and folk singer-songwriter Katie Moore is joined by Andrew Horton for Six More Miles, a lovely set of (mostly) sad duets of eight country and folk classics and four original songs – two each by Katie and Andrew.

Katie and Andrew have a musical history together. Andrew played in Yonder Hill, a bluegrass band from about a decade ago that was fronted by Katie, Dara Weiss and Angela Desveaux, and has since played and sung in Katie’s bands. He also plays bass and sings harmony and occasional lead vocals in Notre Dame de Grass. They have developed a seemingly natural ease at singing together as lead and harmony vocalists.

They lead off the album with the title track. A lesser known Hank Williams composition, “Six More Miles (to the Graveyard)” sets the sad tone for the album as the narrator – Katie and Andrew singing in harmony – prepares to say a last farewell to his (her) “darling.”

A couple of my other favorites include a gorgeously haunting version of Bill Monroe’s “The One I Love is Gone,” that seems to come from deep in the well, and Shel Silverstein’s older but wiser song “A Couple More Years.”

Although there is a slow pace to most of these songs (they are, after all, sad songs), the pace does pick up on the traditional murder ballad (and sad story) “Wild Bill Jones” and the Carter Family classic “Lover’s Return.”

As mentioned, Katie and Andrew each contribute a couple of original pieces and these blend seamlessly with the classics. Katie’s “When We Reach the Valley” could easily be mistaken for an old-time country song while her “Blue Days” is an achingly beautiful song of lost love. Andrew’s “Since My Baby Been Gone” could be a companion song to “Blue Days,” while his “Owen’s Lullaby” is a gentle guitar composition – the album’s only instrumental – presumably written to send a baby off to sleep.

Katie and Andrew on vocals and guitars are ably and unobtrusively supported by Joe Grass on Dobro, mandolin and guitar; Alex Kehler on nyckelharpa (a bowed Swedish instrument) and fiddle; and Sage Reynolds on bass.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Durham County Poets – Grimshaw Road

Grimshaw Road

Ormstown, Quebec, a small town in the Chateauguay Valley about an hour or so southwest of Montreal, has a music scene that is seemingly out of proportion to its size and the finest band to come out of that scene is the Durham County Poets, a five-piece unit whose mostly original repertoire encompasses such styles as folk, blues, rock, swing and gospel – often mixed and matched within the same song.

I quite liked the Poets’ first two albums. Both Where the River Flows, released in 2012, and Chikkaboodah Stew, from 2014, were full of good songs and fine performances. But, their brand new release, Grimshaw Road, is their best yet. With more than five years of performing together, they’ve really gelled as a band and their songwriting – each of them contributes or collaborates – is stronger than ever.

The band is fronted by lead singer Kevin Harvey, a naturally laid back vocalist who nails the essence of whatever song he’s singing, bringing it to life in a way that serves the music and, particularly, the lyrics. He’s well supported by guitarists David Whyte and Neil Elsmore, bassist Carl Rufh and drummer Jim Preimel. Several of the band members occasionally double on other instruments and there are some guest musicians on some tracks including producer John McColgan on percussion and veteran Montreal saxophonist Jody Golick.

The album opens with the band in blues mode on “Grimshaw Road,” in which the singer relates a late-night encounter with the devil. It sounds like it could be an encounter like Robert Johnson’s mythologized visit to the crossroads, but the narrator here hears the sound of a heavenly choir and is guided away by an angel.

A few of my favorite songs on the album include the contemplative “Streets and Sidewalks,” which is reminiscent of early James Taylor; the infectious “Monday Morning,” a swinging blues about a workingman starting his week; the jazzy “Bowl Full of Lazy,” which sounds like it could have come from one of Tom Waits’ early LPs; and “Outside Cat,” a jump blues that could be taken literally as a description of an actual cat prowling the neighborhood or metaphorically as a hipster description of someone living by his own rules.

In addition to the original material there are two songs not written by members of the Durham County Poets. Both are great performances and both feature guest vocalists in duet with Kevin. On a beautiful version of the late Penny Lang’s “Diamonds on the Water,” they are joined by Michael Jerome Browne (I presume this is one of the songs they’ll perform on June 15 at the Montreal Folk Fest on the Canal’s tribute concert to Penny) and their version of Blind Willie Johnson's “On Your Bond,” with Suzie Vinnick, comes from deep in the gospel well.

One minor complaint: The CD digipac and lyric booklet feature black-and-white photos – which I quite like – but the lettering for the credits and lyrics are in white and, unfortunately, white lettering on a black-and-white background is frequently difficult to read.

Among the stops on the Durham County Poets’ series of album-launching concerts is a show here in the Ottawa area on Friday, June 16, 8 pm, at the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield.

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--Mike Regenstreif