Sunday, June 26, 2016

Kate & Anna McGarrigle – Pronto Monto

Pronto Monto
Omnivore Recordings

I worked with Kate & Anna McGarrigle – first producing concerts in Montreal, then booking concerts for them as an agent across Canada and in the United States at such venues as the National Arts Centre (Ottawa), Convocation Hall (Toronto), Carnegie Hall (New York), and others – between 1974 and 1980.

During those years they recorded and released three LPs on Warner Bros. Records: Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Dancer with Bruised Knees, and Pronto Monto. The first two LPs were reissued fairly early in the CD era – and more recently in the 3-CD set Tell My Sister (the third CD is of early, previously unreleased demos) – but the third LP, Pronto Monto, released in 1978, has been out of print for at least 35 years. Finally, though, it is now reissued on CD for the first time.

While the first two LPs were critically acclaimed, they didn’t meet the major label sales standards that Warner Bros. expected. So there was an attempt, at the production level, to give Kate and Anna more of a pop sound on Pronto Monto. Songwriter David Nichtern, who had a major hit with Maria Muldaur’s recording of “Midnight at the Oasis,” was brought in to produce the album and a number of Los Angeles and New York A-list studio musicians played on it (along with key McGarrigle sidemen Chaim Tannenbaum, Peter Weldon, Dane Lanken, Ken Pearson, Pat Donaldson and Scot Lang).

The thing is, though, Kate and Anna were never (thankfully) cookie-cutter pop singers. They were always idiosyncratic, rootsy singers and songwriters – and that was a major part of what their charm was about. And – thankfully – that added pop gloss could not, and did not, really hide their idiosyncrasies and rootsy charm on Pronto Monto.

I haven’t had a working turntable for many years so it had been a long time since I’d listened to Pronto Monto. It’s been quite a delight to listen to the album again after so much time. Among my favorite tracks are Kate’s clever “NA CL”; Kate’s “Stella By Artois,” which celebrated the dawning of her decade-long relationship with British bass player Pat Donaldson; Anna’s “Bundle of Sorrow, Bundle of Joy,” which celebrated the birth of her son, Sylvan Lanken, who, by now, is close to 40 years old; and Kate’s “Come Back Baby,” a gently-rolling blues.

I also still really like their covers of “Tryin’ to Get to You,” an Elvis Presley B-side from his Sun Records days that was a rock ‘n’ roll highlight of Kate and Anna’s late-‘70s concerts; and Galt McDermot and William Dumaresq’s lovely goodnight song, “Cover Up My Head” (written years before Montrealer McDermot achieved fame for composing the Broadway hit “Hair”).

Pronto Monto has been the missing Kate & Anna McGarrigle album for far too long. It’s really nice to have it back (and to now have all of their albums on my shelves as accessible CDs).

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Chris Rawlings – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Cookingfat Music

I’d already met and heard Chris Rawlings perform several times when he came to do a concert for the staff of the summer camp I was working at in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal in the summer of 1970. As I recall, his first set was built around the kind of original songs – “Pearl River Turnaround,” etc. – I’d heard him perform at Montreal coffeehouses like the Yellow Door. His second set, though, was something entirely different: one extended piece that held us mesmerized for close to an hour. It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” first published in 1798 (revised in 1834), as set to music by Chris and fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Paul Lauzon.

(I haven’t seen or heard of Paul in many years but a Google search quickly led me to the Acadia University School of Music site where I learned that Paul is now a professor of music therapy).

Later in the 1970s and ‘80s, I heard Chris perform “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” several more times – including at least once at the Golem, the Montreal folk club that I ran in those days – and each performance was a mesmerizing as that first one in 1970, if not more so. So far as I can recall, I only saw Chris perform “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” solo (although I’d often see him performing in those days with Gilles Losier accompanying him on fiddle and piano, so, it’s possible I may have heard a duo performance at some point).

But, over three nights – February 28-29 and March 1, 1976 – Chris and Gilles and an ensemble totaling 17 musicians performed “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as part of an extravagant production at the Bibliothèque National du Québec in Montreal. (I didn’t attend any of those shows; I would have been at the Golem on the nights of February 28-29 and have no idea where I was on March 1).

Years ago, when I suggested to Chris that he record “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” he told me that he did have some good recordings from that Bibliothèque production and now, 40 years later, he has released “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” on CD.

It had probably been at least 30 years since the last time I heard Chris perform “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” so all of it sounded new to me again – especially since I’d never heard it with such elaborate accompaniment before. When I saw that there were 17 musicians I was worried that they might get in the way of the singer or the text but those fears were largely unfounded. And, thanks to the Internet, I was able to follow the dense text as never before by reading it while listening to Chris sing.

I should note that Chris and Paul’s score was augmented at the concert and on this CD by excerpts from the instrumental composition “L’Abatross” by Jérôme Langlois, whose two groups, Lasting Weep and Maneige, supplied many of the 17 musicians.

Although this recording of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is broken into seven tracks – with audience applause at the end of each – corresponding to the seven parts in the text, I recommend listening to it as a whole piece when you can sit down with it and just listen (or read along) to this still mesmerizing performance of the tale of “an ancient mariner” who “stoppeth one of three.”

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

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Eric Bibb & North Country Far with Danny Thompson – The Happiest Man in the World

The Happiest Man in the World
Stony Plain Records

Just six months after the release of Lead Belly’s Gold, Eric Bibb’s brilliant tribute to the seminal folk and blues artist Lead Belly, Eric returns with The Happiest Man in the World, a set of mostly original, but firmly in-the-tradition songs.

As I’ve noted before, Eric has been an extremely prolific artist over the past couple of decades but he keeps things fresh, from one album to the next, both by consistently writing and choosing great material and by varying his use of collaborative musicians. On this set he’s working with North Country Far – a trio of Finnish musicians including Olli Haavisto on Dobro, pedal steel and Hawaiian guitar; Janne Haavisto on drums and percussion; and Petri Hakala on mandolin, mandola, fiddle and guitar – and legendary British bassist Danny Thompson who provide always tasteful and never obtrusive back-up for Eric’s own inspired singing and guitar and banjo playing.

Eric sets the tone for the album with the upbeat title track, a declaration of love that makes him the happiest man in the world. The theme continues on a number of other songs including “Toolin’ Down the Road,” which celebrates sitting in the passenger seat while the woman he loves is at the wheel; “I’ll Farm for You,” which uses metaphors of farm life to proclaim love; “Born to Be Your Man,” which uses a litany of famous names – some of them real people, some of them biblical and folkloric figures, even cartoon characters – to provide points of comparison for his love; and “King Size Bed,” featuring Petri’s dancing mandolin playing.

Among my favorite tracks on The Happiest Man in the World are “Tossin’ an’ Turnin’,” a blues to complement Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads; the soulful “Creole Café,” sung from the perspective of a blues-singing husband deeply in love with his wife who runs a small café out in the country; and a lovely version of the traditional “Tell Ol’ Bill,” which Eric has recorded a couple of times before, and which always reminds me of my late friend Dave Van Ronk.

Michael Jerome Browne, Mike Regenstreif & Eric Bibb (2005)
There are cameo appearances by several other musicians and singers on a few songs including the album’s finale, a bluesy version of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” which features Montreal’s own Michael Jerome Browne, who has frequently toured with Eric, on slide and 12-string guitars.

Despite the fact that Eric has recorded so many albums in recent years, each of his recordings is a treat and The Happiest Man in the World is no exception.

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--Mike Regenstreif