Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bruce Cockburn, Wailin’ Jennys win Junos

As usual, all the Juno Award categories that I actually have any interest in (Roots/Traditional, blues, world, etc.) were awarded the night before the televised award show, thus relieving me of any reason to pay attention, let alone tune in tomorrow.

Congratulations to Bruce Cockburn who won the Roots/Traditional (solo) award for Small Source of Comfort (click here for my review) and to the Wailin’ Jennys who won the Roots/Traditional (group) award for Bright Morning Stars (click here for my review).

Congratulations also to True North Records which released both albums.

--Mike Regenstreif

Eric Bibb – Deeper in the Well

Deeper in the Well
Stony Plain

Although he’s been an accomplished musician since he was a teenager in the 1960s, Eric Bibb really only landed on my radar in 1998 with the release of an inspired and inspiring album called Good Stuff.

I soon discovered Eric was the son of actor and folksinger Leon Bibb (who was a prominent participant in the post-War folk revival) – and the godson of Paul Robeson and the nephew of pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, talk about a musical pedigree – and that I was previously unfamiliar with Eric because he’d spent most of his career living and performing in Europe.

Good Stuff launched Eric’s career in North America and he was soon a significant presence on the folk, blues and jazz festival circuit. He was my guest several times on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program when he’d come to play at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

Since Good Stuff, Eric has recorded prolifically, both solo albums and collaborations with other artists, and I’ve written about many of them here and in various publications. These albums have almost always been among my favourites for any year they’ve been released and are all albums I’ve returned to often over the years. His new album, Deeper in the Well, will be no exception.

To keep all of his recordings sounding fresh, Eric has done things a little differently from album to album. This time around, he travelled to Louisiana to record at Dirk Powell’s studio in Pont Breaux with Dirk, who plays just about anything with strings, plus accordion; fiddler Cedric Watson; drummer Danny DeVillier; harmonica player Grant Dermody, who contributed so much to Eric’s Booker’s Guitar album in 2010; and Christine Balfa on Cajun triangle.

A little over half the album’s songs are Eric’s originals, including “Bayou Belle,” the appropriately swampy opening track that blends the acoustic blues Eric is so expert at with the Cajun and Creole influences of Louisiana.

As with all of Eric’s albums, it’s hard to pick favourites. But a few of mine from initial listening would include “Money in Your Pocket,” a count-your-blessings kind of song co-written with Michael Jerome Browne; “Music,” an infectious celebration of music-making; a happy sounding version of “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well,” learned ago from Doc Watson; and a thoughtful version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times There are A-Changin’” which Eric makes sound as vital in 2012 as it was almost half a century ago.

While it doesn’t say so in the credits, there are a couple of equally excellent tracks that I suspect were recorded, at least partially, elsewhere. Eric’s “In My Time,” which contrasts good times and hard times, brings together Eric’s soulful singing, and fluid, finger-picked guitar, with the sublime playing of dobro-master Jerry Douglas; and an almost West African-sounding version of Taj Mahal’s “Every Wind in the River” features back-up by master-of-all-roots music Michael Jerome Browne and studio wiz Michel Pepin, both of Montreal.

As mentioned, Deeper in the Well is yet another Eric Bibb album I’ll be listening to years from now.

Pictured: Michael Jerome Browne, Mike Regenstreif and Eric Bibb during Folk Roots/Folk Branches at CKUT, June 30, 2005, (Photo: Sari Matinlassi) 

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dan Livingstone and the Griffintown Jug Addicts

Dan Livingstone and the Griffintown Jug Addicts

Dan Livingstone and the Griffintown Jug Addicts take their inspiration from the original jug bands that played and recorded around Memphis in the 1920s and ‘30s, and 1960s revival groups Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band.

The Montreal-based group which gelled playing weekly gigs at the Griffintown Café are a lot fun to listen to with their juggy interpretations of classics drawn (mostly) from the delta and Piedmont blues traditions.

Dan Livingstone sings with appropriate bluster and he’s an accomplished guitar player – whether running a slide up and down the neck on Mississippi Fred McDowell tunes or picking out the intricate finger-style patterns on tunes by Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, Merle Travis and John Fahey (who I used to bring to Montreal to play at the Golem in the 1970s and ‘80s).

Livingstone gets solid support from Jug Addicts Julia Narveson on washtub bass and Brad Levia on washboard – both of whom also played with the sadly disbanded Lake of Stew – and Colin Perry, known for his work leading the blues band Blind, on lead guitar and tenor banjo.

Among the highlights are bouncy versions of Blake’s “Chump Man Blues,” Fuller’s “Rag, Mama, Rag” (which should not be confused with The Band’s similarly-named song) and Fahey’s “Last Steam Engine Train,” the only instrumental.

Another is a perfectly campy version of Travis’ “I Like My Chicken Frying Size,” featuring Dom Desjardins on tenor banjo and Jérome Dupuis-Cloutier on trumpet added to the band.

At just nine songs and 35 minutes, the CD is over much too fast. I hope to hear more from them sooner than later.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Eric Taylor – Live at the Red Shack

Live at the Red Shack
Blue Ruby Music & Records

Back in the 1980s, Nanci Griffith was a regular performer at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I was running in those days. Like many of the artists who played the Golem, Nanci stayed with me and we’d often sit up, late at night, talking about music, musicians, singers, songs and songwriters. One of the people she told me about was her ex-husband, a great songwriter, troubled in those days, named Eric Taylor. I’d had a bit of an introduction to Eric via his song, “Dollar Matinee,” which he performed with Nanci on her first LP, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.

Eric grew up in Georgia and arrived on the Texas folk scene in the early-1970s. Following in the footsteps of songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, he was one of the best of the next wave of singer-songwriters in a scene known for its great writers. Eric released his first LP, Shameless Love, in 1981, and then pretty much disappeared for more than a decade.

I was doing the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show when Eric re-emerged in the mid-1990s with the eponymously named Eric Taylor, a CD which re-established Eric’s place in the front ranks of contemporary folk-based singer-songwriters. That album, and a series of excellent releases that followed, were staples on the radio show for its entire run.

For Live at the Red Shack, Eric took some songs from his extensive back catalogue – including a couple that have only been available on Nanci Griffith or Lyle Lovett albums and another that was (so far as I know) previously unrecorded – into the Red Shack, a Houston recording studio, and performed them live to a small audience of invited guests. Backing Eric throughout the album are Marco Python Fecchio, an excellent, atmospheric electric guitarist and James Gilmer, a very tasteful percussionist. Nanci, Lyle, Denice Franke and Susan Lindfors Taylor provide duet and/or harmony vocals to some of the songs.

Something I’ve always loved about Eric’s work is that he’s not a navel-obsessed songwriter. Many of his songs are from the perspective of a character completely, or at least seemingly, outside of himself. In one song, he’s a guy from Indiana who just happened to be a tourist in the crowd when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. In another, he’s a guy in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota when news about the death of Crazy Horse comes through in 1877. And, in yet another, he’s a character in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road talking about Dean Moriarty. And in all of these settings, and others, he seems to be singing with complete honesty and authenticity.

Without question, these are all great versions of great songs, but I’ll call attention to a few of my favorite tracks.

One is certainly the afore mentioned “Dean Moriarty,” doubled in length by a spoken word into that sounds like it could have been written by Kerouac back in the day. Another is “Mission Door,” with chorus harmony from Nanci, a beautifully constructed portrait of skid row life. And yet another is a gorgeous duet with Denice Franke on “Blue Piano,” which captures a scene from many years ago of Bonnie Brown playing the painted-blue piano at Anderson Fair, a legendary Houston music club.

It was also great to hear Eric and Nanci reprising their version of “Dollar Matinee,” first recorded on Nanci’s debut album in 1978, and to hear Eric and Lyle team up on “Memphis Midnight, Memphis Morning,” an Eric Taylor song Lyle recorded on Step Inside This House, an album he made in tribute to influential Texas songwriters.

If you appreciate great singer-songwriters, you should be listening to Eric Taylor.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Montreal concerts: Tom Paxton, Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester
Matt Large and Rebecca Anderson of Hello Darlin’ Productions in Montreal have lined up a superb set of concerts this spring. Among the artists are some of the brightest young performers on the contemporary folk scene and several bona fide legends.

I want to pay particular attention to back-to-back concerts on Saturday and Sunday, April 21 and 22, featuring two legendary and great singer-songwriters, two artists I’ve had the privilege of working with many times over the years, and two men I’ve been honoured to share friendship with over many decades.

Tom Paxton performs Saturday, April 21 and Jesse Winchester performs Sunday April 22. Both concerts are at 8:00 pm at Petit Campus (57 Prince Arthur East). Visit the Hello Darlin’ website or call 514-524-9225 for tickets or more information; call for a special deal being offered if you buy tickets for both concerts.

Tom Paxton
A story I’ve told before dates back to 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 and decided to go. It was a bunch of local acts 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 back. Between acts, I had an interesting conversation with the man sitting next to me. He obviously knew a lot about folk music and gave me some 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!” That man I’d been talking to all night walked on stage and did an amazing hour-long set that I still vividly remember 40-odd 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, producing concerts, running folk clubs, volunteering at folk festivals and writing articles and reviews. It became a way of life – and still is.

Mike Regenstreif & Tom Paxton
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. Dave Van Ronk told me that Tom was the first Greenwich Village folksinger, even before Bob Dylan, who worked hard and consistently at songwriting. He’s never stopped and remains one of our greatest singer-songwriters today.

I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Tom in several different contexts. He played regularly at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the 1970s and ‘80s, always filling it to capacity, always doing great shows filled with a combination of great new songs and Paxton classics. When Robert Resnik and I booked and programmed the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Burlington, Vermont in 2000 and 2001, Tom was the 2001 headliner and was part of the annual songwriters’ workshop I hosted there for seven years. And, of course, he was my guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show,

Tom, for me, is one of the most special of artists.

So, too, is Jesse Winchester. In fact, I first encountered Jesse at that same McGill concert in 1968 or ’69. He, Penny Lang and Bruce Murdoch, were among the Montreal artists who played in the first half of that concert. It was before Jesse’s classic self-titled first album was released.

Again, as I’ve written before, Jesse is one of the great singer-songwriters of our time and there was a significant period of time when the Montreal folk scene had him almost to ourselves. A few quick anecdotes:

Jesse played often at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the 1970s and ‘80s. I took over the club at the end of May 1974 and Jesse’s first gig there was at the beginning of August. This was right about the time that his third LP, Learn to Love It, came out and all three nights were sold-out. Jesse, in those days, was not able to perform in the U.S. but was already attracting a lot of attention for his songwriting. A reporter from Rolling Stone magazine showed up and covered the gig as part of a story about Jesse. I believe it was the first time that Rolling Stone had ever covered a Montreal story.

Mike Regenstreif & Jesse Winchester
In November 1975, I was a backstage guest of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (another Golem performer) at the Rolling Thunder Revues first Toronto concert. During the concert, Joan Baez dedicated a song to Jesse (Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston” which has a line, “I’m the number one fan of the man from Tennessee”). I met Joan for the first time at the Rolling Thunder party after the show. When I mentioned that Jesse was a friend, Joan spent about half an hour grilling me about him.

In 1999, when Jesse released his first new album in 10 years, I was honoured that he chose to debut the album as a guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show.

Jesse was a headliner in 2000, the first of two years that Robert Resnik and I programmed the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Vermont. And, like Tom the following year, he was part of the annual songwriters’ workshop I hosted there.

After many years in Montreal and the Eastern Townships, Jesse remarried and now lives in Virginia with his wife, Cindy, so his return trips “home” to Montreal are special occasions to see and play for old friends. And this trip is doubly special because it will be his first visit since a serious health issue last year.

I’m looking forward to being in Montreal and seeing these two old friends next month.

And for folks in Toronto, Jesse will be at Hugh’s Room on April 13-14-15, and Tom will be there on April 20.

--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Jon Brooks – Delicate Cages

Delicate Cages

Delicate Cages, the fourth album in six years by Toronto-based singer-songwriter Jon Brooks, is an ambitious examination of some of the various “cages” of the human condition – some of them literal, some metaphorical, some of them based on real people, others drawn from the artists’ imagination, all of them, in one way or another, insisting that we look at the world, or, at least a small slice of it, through someone else’s eyes.

The ethos of the album is established in “Because We’re Free,” the opening song in which the narrator reflects on a series of natural disasters and human-caused catastrophes and questions why God didn’t prevent or alleviate such occurrences. The answer comes in the songs title which is repeated at the end of each chorus.

Among the most powerful songs are two that are based on real people.

“Son of Hamas,” was inspired by the book, Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices, the autobiography of Mosab Hassan Yousef, the eldest son of a founder of the Islamic terrorist organization who worked clandestinely over a period of years to prevent terrorism. The song is a glimpse into the life of a heroic young man viewed as a traitor by his own family.

“The Lonesome Death of Aqsa Parvez,” is the story of a teenaged victim of a so-called honour killing, at the hands of her father and brother, which took place in a Toronto suburb in 2007.

The most infectious song is “Hudson Girl,” essentially a love song for Jon’s wife. But, it’s a love song with political overtones when the second verse explains that Jon’s Hudson girl, as a child moving with her family, was among those driven out of Quebec by Bill 101, the repressive language law – Jon gives thanks to Bill 101 in the song for delivering his wife to him.

Although many of these songs deal with difficult subject matter – and kudos to Jon’s fearlessness in tackling such material with the right mix of honesty and sensitivity – the album’s ultimate message is one of hope when Jon explains in “There Are Only Cages,” the penultimate track, that there is a good cage, “the cage of freedom” and “this cage of freedom is love.”

The album ends, with Jon by himself at the piano, playing a contemplative instrumental reprise of “Because We’re Free.”

Pictured: Jon Brooks and Mike Regenstreif at the 2010 Ottawa Folk Festival.

--Mike Regenstreif