Saturday, August 27, 2016

Sally Rogers & Claudia Schmidt – We are Welcomed



SALLY ROGERS & CLAUDIA SCHMIDT
We are Welcomed
Pragmavision

For the fourth time since 1981, Sally Rogers and Claudia Schmidt – both of whom I first met sometime in the ‘70s – have combined their always lovely and frequently powerful voices together in glorious harmony.

We are Welcomed features seven of Claudia’s original songs, three of Sally’s, and four drawn from other songwriters that they make their own.

Among the highlights from Claudia’s songs are a couple of powerful topical songs. “Willful Ignorance,” carries wise advice to those might be seduced by trumpian demagoguery, while “Still on the Bridge” reflects both on the deadly attack on civil rights marchers in 1965 in Alabama as they left Selma and crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge en route to Montgomery and how, half a century later, we are still, figuratively, on that bridge.

Other highlights from among Claudia’s songs are “Jamaica’s Tree,” a poignant tribute to a young woman from her neighborhood who lost her life at a too young age, and to the resilience of her mother; and the inspiring “Quiet Hills,” a 1994 song from one of Claudia’s solo albums that is re-recorded here with Sally’s magnificent harmonies.

Sally’s songs include the title track, “We are Welcomed,” a zipper song that celebrates new life (or rejuvenated life) with “song,” “joy,” “hope” and “love”; “Prudence Crandall,” a homage to a Connecticut teacher, who, many decades earlier, had been persecuted for breaking the color barrier in her classroom; and “The Tunes Jacqueline Plays,” a tribute to the seemingly magic musical abilities of pianist Jacqueline Schwab (who is the pianist on the album and on this song).

Each of the four songs by other writers is a sublime choice. Neal Hagberg’s “Star Girls” is a heartrending but, ultimately, hopeful tribute to girls and young women who are sold into slavery and/or repressed by religious fundamentalism. Peggy Seeger’s “Love, Call Me Home” is a lovely paean to friendship, while Jean Ritchie’s “The Cool of the Day,” based on a passage from Genesis when Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden, is given a stunning treatment with Sally’s lead vocal and Claudia’s harmony.

My favorite of the cover songs is a magnificent version of Sandy Denny’s autumnal masterpiece “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” There have been many great versions of this song since the late-1960s and this version stands very tall among them. By the way, the drummer on the album, and on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” is Dave Mattacks, who was once a member of Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny (although I believe he joined the band after they recorded the song).

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, August 20, 2016

John Gorka – Before Beginning: The Unreleased ‘I Know,’ Nashville 1985



JOHN GORKA
Before Beginning: The Unreleased I Know – Nashville 1985
Red House Records

I’ve known John Gorka for a long time – probably since the very early-1980s, if not earlier. In any case it was years before his first album, I Know, was released in 1987. We’d hang out at folk festivals as part of the Sing Out! magazine crowd. John was living in Bethlehem, PA, where Sing Out is headquartered, and often helped out editor Mark Moss while I was one of the regular contributing writers.

I was visiting Boston not long after I Know came out and ran into John one afternoon in Harvard Square and he slipped me a copy. I was on my way to Passim, the legendary folk club, to say hi to proprietors and old friends Bob and Rae Anne Donlin and it turned out John was playing there that night. We stayed for the show and I remember it being a great concert.

I Know is an album filled with some great songs and it established John’s well-deserved reputation as one of the finest folk-rooted singer-songwriters of our time. What I didn’t know until recently was that the version of I Know that Red House released in 1987 was the second version of the album. Two years earlier, John went to Nashville and recorded a version of the album with producer Jim Rooney. Jim, also an old friend, was a veteran of the 1960s folk and bluegrass scene who was working in Nashville producing excellent albums for artists like Townes Van Zandt, Tom Paxton, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, David Mallett, Steve Gillette and so many others.

John decided not to release the Nashville recording and eventually re-recorded nine of the 10 songs – plus three more – for the 1987 LP. Finally, though, 32 years after the Nashville sessions, John has released them as Before Beginning: The Unreleased ‘I Know’ – Nashville 1985.

Listening to the CD before reading John’s liner notes it was hard to fathom why John decided not to release the album in 1985. The songs are really good – we already knew that from I Know – and the singing, arrangements and production are all very strong. It would have been an excellent debut album for the 25-year-old singer-songwriter.

But, as John explains in the liner notes to Before Beginning, “Why did I not put that project out as a record after all that work and expense? I can only say that I was finding my way. I had played solo live almost exclusively and I had not made an album. I guess I just didn’t know what I wanted to hear… The record may have been right for the time but the time was not right for me.”

Although the songs were already familiar – nine from I Know and the 10th, “Geza’s Wailing Ways,” from a Fast Folk collection – they sound fresh in these different arrangements.

My favorite song here is “Down in the Milltown.” I presume John was writing about Bethlehem which was once a prominent steel mill town. He captures a mill worker’s thoughts and life with the kind of depth that the late Bill Morrissey did in so many songs about New England mill towns and workers.

Other highlights include clever songs like “Winter Cows,” which fantasizes about what cows might be thinking about when it’s cold outside and “Branching Out,” written from the perspective of a tree and what it wants its wood to eventually be; and “I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair,” a beautiful lament in which he looks for signs of a lost love in others he encounters.

Pictured: John Gorka, Mike Regenstreif and Lucy Kaplansky at the 2012 Ottawa Folk Festival. Lucy and Shawn Colvin sang harmonies on both Before Beginning in 1985 and I Know in 1987.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Garnet Rogers – Night Drive: Travels with My Brother



Night Drive: Travels with My Brother
A Memoir by Garnet Rogers
Tickle Shore Publishing
751 pages
garnetrogers.com

I first met and became friendly with the late Stan Rogers at the Mariposa Folk Festival in June 1975. We were friends for eight years – until he lost his life, along with 22 others, on June 2, 1983 in an airplane fire that forced an Air Canada flight en route from Texas to Toronto to make an emergency landing at the Cincinnati airport. Stan was returning home from the Kerrville Folk Festival. Over those eight years, Stan rose from relative obscurity to become one of Canada’s greatest folksingers and songwriters.

About a decade after his death, a highly disappointing biography called An Unfinished Conversation: The Life and Music of Stan Rogers (now renamed Northwest Passage) by Chris Gudgeon was published. As I noted in 1993 in Sing Out! magazine, “As a friend, colleague and admirer of Stan Rogers, I looked forward to this book. I've long thought that someday someone will write a great book about his life and music. Unfortunately, despite its good intentions, this book isn't it.”

Well, it took another 23 years, but that great book about Stan’s life and music has finally arrived in the form of Night Drive: Travels with My Brother by Garnet Rogers. There is no one who knew Stan better. They grew up together – Stan was about six years older – and spent the last decade of Stan’s life constantly traveling together back and forth across Canada and through the United States, usually with a bass player in tow, as bandmates. On many occasions over the years, both publicly from the stage, and privately over late night beers in various locales when we’d talk about how things were going, I heard say that Garnet was his best friend and most important musical influence.

Garnet Rogers and Stan Rogers (stanrogers.net)
In 85 short chapters, each a story in its own right, Garnet describes his years with Stan – from their youth in a working class family to their years on the road when there wasn’t much of a folk circuit – in vivid detail, with sometimes brutal honesty, and often laugh-out-loud humor. Despite its length (and the actual weight of holding up such a long book as I read), Night Drive: Travels with My Brother remained a compelling page-turner from start to finish.

I knew Stan and Garnet during the years when most of the book takes place. I was there for a few of the incidents Garnet writes about (not just in Montreal, but also in Philadelphia, Toronto, and at various folk festivals in Canada and the U.S.). I also knew (know) many of the people who weave in and out of the story and so many of them come to life on these pages with great authenticity. Reading the book put me right back in those years.

In the years after his death, Stan became a sort mythologized hero figure. And while Gudgeon’s earlier book fed some of the myths, Night Drive: Travels with My Brother tells the real story of how hard it was to build and sustain a folk music career. Stan, and Garnet – and their parents, Valerie and Al Rogers, who put up their life savings to bankroll an independent record company that they ran from their home – as well as many peers who come and go through the story, cobbled together careers that may have included some terrific folk festivals in the summer months but also included long periods of almost no work or months of travelling from small coffeehouses to shitty bars and nobody-cares college gigs.

There are great stories about so many of those gigs (one of which concerns Stan’s first Montreal gig at the Golem, the folk club that I ran in the 1970s and ‘80s; more on that later) and there are so many stories about them and about the road trips in getting to them and the adventures and misadventures along the way.

Garnet writes with great affection about many friends who became part of the story – including fellow performers and folk music presenters. There were, of course, others who don’t come off well and in some cases he left them nameless, or in at least one particular case, used a thinly disguised anagram of the fellow’s first name. I recognized some of the unnamed people as people I knew and understood why Garnet left them unnamed.

While many of the negative depictions in the book matched my own memories of the individuals – including a well-meaning but incompetent agent I had warned Stan about before he began working with her on his early U.S. tours – one negative depiction in Night Drive: Travels with My Brother that made me somewhat uncomfortable was of Paul Mills, the CBC radio producer and guitarist (a.k.a. Curly Boy Stubbs), who produced all but one of Stan’s albums. For whatever reason, Garnet and Paul never got along and that is reflected in Garnet’s descriptions of the recording sessions and of the occasional live gigs when Paul became part of the onstage band. While I wasn’t actually at any of the recording sessions and have no dispute with Garnet’s own impressions, Stan always seemed enthused about his recording projects when I’d chat with him about what he’d recorded and what was coming out next. Back in the day, I only heard Stan speak glowingly about Paul, as a producer, as a musician and as a friend. I still listen to and appreciate the records they made together.

Earlier, I mentioned the brutal honesty employed by Garnet in telling the story of his years on the road with Stan. This is reflected in his descriptions of the inevitable conflicts borne of too many hours in a day and too many days of the weeks, months and years they spent cooped up travelling long distances on the road, too many nights in cheap motels, and too many bad gigs along the way. Garnet also writes honestly of the copious amounts of substance abuse (mostly alcohol) used to both alleviate the boredom of life on the road and to self-medicate for personal problems including Garnet’s clinical depression and Stan’s marital tensions.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the early chapters in Night Drive: Travels with My Brother is about Stan’s first gig at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I took over running in 1974. I met and first heard Stan at the 1975 Mariposa Folk Festival and booked him to play at the Golem on the first open date that fit both of our schedules. That turned out to be a weekend in February of 1976 on what turned out to be the coldest weekend of that winter (and, perhaps, the coldest weekend of all the years I ran the Golem). The description of coping with the cold in a car with no heat is classic.

Garnet did make a mistake in talking about the format of Golem gigs in the 1970s. Noting that the Golem was in Hillel House – the Jewish student centre at McGill University – he described the gig as being two nights: Friday and Sunday nights with a night off on Saturday because shows could not take place there on the Jewish Sabbath. It was actually a three-night gig: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday nights. The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Fridays and ends after sundown on Saturdays – so Friday was the night off.

In early-1976, Stan was still a relatively unknown artist. Fogarty’s Cove, his first LP was still a year-and-a-half away. So the lack of fame and the intense cold combined to keep the crowds tiny over those three nights. Garnet remembers 13 people over two nights while I think it was closer to 20 people over three nights – numbers, I guess, that are close enough for folk music.

Garnet also tells a tall tale about Frank Wakefield playing at the Golem. A pretty funny story but totally apocryphal.

Mike Regenstreif and Garnet Rogers in Montreal (2006)
I had two stints running the Golem, from 1974 to 1976, and from 1981 to 1987. I had inherited the Thursday-Saturday-Sunday format from Saul Markowicz, who had founded the Golem in 1973. When I returned in 1981, it was for one-night gigs with popular artists doing two concerts in one night. When Stan played his final gig at the Golem in December 1982, he was selling out two shows a night. He was scheduled to return to the Golem again the following fall.

Night Drive: Travels with My Brother made me laugh frequently and made me cry occasionally as it brought back some memories of my own and let me share in the so many more memories of the man who knew Stan Rogers better than anyone.

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--Mike Regenstreif