I'm getting ready to start up as a once-monthly Celtic radio DJ at KBCS in Bellevue, WA, so I've been getting in neat little packages of Celtic music for a while. Now it's time to get caught up and enjoy the fruits of some beautiful music-making in late 2012/early 2013.
Vishtèn is a Canadian roots music band very dear to my heart. They're one of the few groups out there today playing Acadian music, and they're absolutely the best. Acadian music is the ancestor of today's Cajun music, and is centered in the French-Canadian regions of Eastern Canadian provinces New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. There are very few traditional players left of this music, especially the fiddling, and, as a matter of fact, Canadian "Down East" fiddling (à la Don Messer) and bluegrass has done much to supplant the original Acadian traditions in E. Canada. There's a particular flavor to the bowing of Acadian fiddling that's absolutely addictive to me. There's a lot more syncopation than in other forms of French-Canadian fiddling, like Québécois fiddle for example, and the tunes are more rough-hewn, and often shorter. I use Acadian fiddle and fiddling techniques to play for contra dancing, and these tunes are like crack to dancers! They go berserk on the floor with the heavy rhythms and syncopation of the tunes. The songs of the Acadians are better known, since so many Acadians have emigrated from E. Canada, first with the Great Deportations of the 18th century, and even up to the present day with Acadians moving in New England. Acadians love call and response songs, and they love old medieval ballads, and actually a lot of groups in Québec today use Acadian songs in their repertoire, especially Le Vent du Nord.
On Mosaïk, Vishtèn showcase their dexterity with traditional and original tunes and songs. Sisters Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc have such lovely singing that the songs on this album really stand out. They're also widely knowledgeable about Acadian music and the traditional songs here are drawn from archival sources, friends and colleagues, as well as the Cajun tradition. This is great to see, and I know that Vishtèn have successfully toured in Louisiana. Even though Cajun music today doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to Acadian music today, those cultural links are still powerful, and you can find some amazing old Acadian songs in the early recordings of Cajun musicians. The songs are beautifully arranged, another hallmark of the band. The tunes are mostly original, but are of course based on Acadian traditions from the West of Prince Edward Island, where Emmanuelle and Pastelle come from, and the Magdalen Islands where their fiddler comes from. As a fiddler myself, I a huge fan of Vishtèn's fiddler Pascal Miousse. He's heir to the spectacular and wild fiddling traditions of the Magdalens, a small island chain off the coast of Québec. These islands are one of the very last strongholds of traditional Acadian culture and are a hugely ignored treasure trove of amazing music. I spent a bunch of time last year with Bertrand Deraspe from the Magdalens and his fiddling is a wonderland of lost rhythms and old old tunes. Pascal's inherited much of this music from island fiddlers and does us all a great service in taking this music far from the isolated islands where it still lives. Special mention here for Pastelle's accordion and Emmanuelle's flute playing. As a trio, Vishtèn can rock both song and tunes with aplomb.
This album is a very highly recommended foray into the rich Acadian traditions of Eastern Canada and window to a vanishing world that highly deserves to be appreciated by anyone interested in Celtic music or N. American traditions.
Vishtèn: La fougue des fées
It's been a few years since Irish-American singer Cathie Ryan's last album (The Farthest Wave in 2005), but it's great to have her back, and with a new collection of songs, and even a bit of a new sound. It seems, to me at least, that the new album, Through Wind and Rain, is a bit folkier than past outings. It mostly works great, though there are actually a few tracks that felt "too" folkie; like "I'm A Beauty," whose flat and preachy lyrics from songwriter Laura Smith were grating. But other songs, like "In the Wishing Well" and the Irish song "Mo Níon Ó" hit a nostalgic note for longtime listeners of Irish trad wishing for the glory days of the 1980s and 90s. And throughout, it's clear without any doubt that the true star of the album is Cathie Ryan's gorgeous, unforgettable voice. It's so beautiful and clear, like a mountain stream, that one can forgive all excesses without reproach. The best track on the album, "Fare Thee Well," is a show-stopping duet with folk singer Aoife O'Donovan (check out our exclusive interview with Aoife HERE), and a true showcase for Ryan's subtlety as a vocalist. She's got no need to shout, or max out the recording with her voice, she just fills the booth with a full ground swell of vocal purity. A cover of Kate Rusby's "Walk the Road" is another stand-out track, as is her cover of Irish guitarist John Doyle's song "Liberty's Sweet Shore." We got the scoop on the story behind this song in an earlier Inside the Songs post with Doyle, btw. Ryan's joined on her album by a list of amazing Irish and Celtic players, from Seamus Egan to Phil Cunningham, Joannie Madden to Niall Vallely, and so on, but it's really her vocals that stand out the most here, which is saying something.
All in all, there's no disputing that Ryan is one of the great voices of Irish music today, and her new album brings interesting new songs and a chance to really sit down an enjoy the magic of her voice.
Hanz Araki & Kathryn Claire. The Celtic Conspiracy Box Set.
It's remarkably ambitious in this day and age for any Celtic musician to release more than one new album in a year, let alone an entire box set, but sometimes you have to follow your inspiration, and it's clear that ace Northwest fluter and singer Hanz Araki has been tapping a deep well of creativity these days. With his partner, fiddler and singer Kathryn Claire, the two have formed The Celtic Conspiracy, a loose group of collaborators who have been putting on themed shows for the past few years in the Northwest. The themes range from topics like murder ballads to songs of labor and songs of emigration to season themes of winter and spring. They've turned up a lot of material from this and now have put together a box set of four albums, one for each theme. The discs are:
-A Winter Solstice Celebration
-The Emigrant's Song/The Laborer's Lament (which brings two themes together)
The most recent disc, A Winter Solstice Celebration, is a lovely celebration of wintery Christmas themes. You can actually buy this one separately, and I'd definitely recommend it for a Celtic Christmas album stocking stuffer. It's got a lot of British influences actually, namely old and sometimes ancient Carols from sources like Kathyrn's childhood Christmas'. Themed tunes from the Irish tradition abound as well, like "Christmas Eve" , "Apples in Winter", "The Frost is All Over". I'm a sucker for tunes with themed names, so this is always welcome.
You can pick up A Winter Solstice Celebration separately HERE. But if you have the money ($50 for the box set and you have to email Kathryn directly to get it- email@example.com), the full box set is certainly a great present for the Celtic and especially Irish trad music fan. Hanz is one of my most favorite Irish flute players, with a deft sensitivity to the melodies of this old music, and command of subtlety that few other musicians possess. Perhaps this innate focus on melody and the beauty of the music comes from his other background as a sixth-generation Japanese shakuhachi master? In any case, any music from Hanz's flute is a real treat. He sings beautifully with Kathryn as well, and the two share song duties on a good number of tracks here. Together, their dense harmonies are the hallmarks of the albums for sure. Special note should be also made to their clever reworkings of some of these songs. On the more common songs, the duo have totally reworked their common arrangements to justify their inclusion, and brought new life to the old standards. I'm thinking specifically of "Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender," which gets a eerie harmony vocal treatment that brings out the old horror of the song, "The Banks of Red Roses," which only needs Hanz's stunning voice to make me love this song again, and "My Johnny Was A Shoemaker," an old Steeleye Span chestnut that Kathryn nails. There's unusual songs here too and hidden gems, and with four albums you'll find a lot to love. Kudos to Hanz and Kathryn for this ambitious project; it's absolutely a job well done.
Hanz Araki & Kathryn Claire: Apples in Winter/The Frost Is All Over
Hanz Araki & Kathryn Claire: The Banks of Red Roses
Kathleen Conneely. The Coming of Spring.
There's a strongly predominant school of Irish tin whistle playing these days, and Kathleen Conneely is not a part of it. And that's a good thing. The main way of playing the whistle these days, as perfected by the fine folks in Lunasa, is a near-constant stream of ornaments designed to smooth out any of the rough edges of a tune and sound like a quietly burbling brook. It's beautiful and amazingly dextrous, don't get me wrong, but there's a real kind of beauty in the older way of playing too. The stately slow tunes of Micho Russell and the clearly enunciated ornamentation of Mary Bergin are hallmarks of the older style. And of course, that's not counting the regional whistle styles, of which I confess I don't know too much. But what Kathleen's doing on her new album, The Coming of Spring, is delving into the heart of the tune, perhaps the most sacred duty of any Irish traditional instrumentalist. Her ornaments never obscure the melody and never homogenize the sound of a tune, instead drawing out new facets and directions for the melody. Her phrasing of each tune is a thing of wonder, employing all kinds of stops and starts in the breathing, and breath rhythms that I rarely hear from whistle players, again all in the employ of better expressing the beauty of these tunes. It's a masterful album. In fact, it could easily be a master class in Irish tin whistle playing and perhaps a much needed lesson for some of the folks in the Lunasa school who love to obscure the tune by flooding it with cascades of ornaments. Special mention should be made too for the other players on the album, all current De Danann members: Mick Conneely (her brother) on bouzouki, Brian McGrath on piano, and Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh on bodhran. They help this album attain the true-drop Irish trad sound I've come to love from the old recordings.
Kathleen Conneely: Imelda Roland's/Master Crowley's/The Limestone Rock
01/22/2013 | comments (0)
The California Recordings is an intriguing slice of lo-fi indie-folk from Calgary-based songwriter and folk traveler Mike Tod. It's the result of Tod's travels through the wooded hinterlands of Northern California in summer 2012, and it's the results of one afternoon spent in front of a recorder with just his voice, a guitar, and some lovely backing vocals from friend Alyssa Jean Gardner. It's beautifully simple stripped-back folk music, with lyrics that gently ruminate on his travels and thoughts. Used to be this kind of lo-fi folk was a lot more common, but I guess we're moving into an era of more heavily produced, deep harmonized, hand-clapped folk anthems from groups like The Head and the Heart and Mumford & Sons. I like both those groups, but I'm struggling now to remember any of their songs. Mike Tod's more in the vein of The Lumineers, who understand that folk songs were made for singing along. He's at his best on this release when he's playing with folk idioms, not exactly subverting them, more like turning them over and over and admiring them. The best song is his truly lovely take on the classic "Inch by Inch."
There's a lot to this album and it certainly deserves repeated listens. And I hope that this is the prelude to a more produced album that can explore more of Tod's muse. He's certainly got a lot of room to move from here. And on a final note, everything about this album reminds me of Northern California. I was born in California and raised in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and I miss my old home a lot. I can't really describe how he does it, but somehow Tod's managed to tap into the red-dirt and Ponderosa pines of my home to dig up music that sounds perfectly at ease on the banks of the Yuba River. I love that most of all about this album.
01/18/2013 | comments (0)
There are those who say the banjo is a percussion instrument, those who say that it’s a stringed instrument, and those who say it’s a little bit of both. Brooklyn-based duo Dubl Handi are surely part of the latter group. On their debut album, Up Like the Clouds, banjo player Hilary Hawke has married the rhythms of the banjo with multi-instrumental percussionist Brian Geltner. Brian’s loping snare drum rhythms, and rollicking washboard beats (Dubl Handi is named for an old washboard company of the same name) brings a new sound to this old music. They bring in new instruments like the mellotron and the marxophone, but the key to their music is their ability to tap into the sounds of the Appalachian Mountains. Hilary has conquered the keening vocal style of the region, and with Dubl Handi’s stark and beautiful arrangements, it’s clear they’ve got one foot in the past and one foot in the future of acoustic roots music.
Though it’s far from the motherland, Appalachian old-time music is huge in Brooklyn! The scene is centered on the storied Jalopy Theatre, a welcoming venue, soon to be featured in the Coen Brothers’ upcoming movie, that’s known for booking cutting-edge roots musicians. Hilary works at the Jalopy and the duo are fixtures in the local old-time scene. On Up Like the Clouds, Dubl Handi show that Brooklyn’s new revivalists have their ears closely tuned to the classics, as they produce fascinating versions of songs from sources like Roscoe Holcomb, Earl Scruggs, and Wade Mainer, plus newer inspirations like Tony Trischka and Brad Leftwich. Each song is done with a clear love for its origins, but flipped and twisted enough to bring something new to the table. Take for instance “New River Train.” What is typically a jovial platitude of Appalachian music, gets transported into a spooky modal sound with precision snare drum beats. Ola Belle Reed’s wrenching “Undone in Sorrow” is given new depth and texture with a subtle trombone line by Sam Kulik and mournful harmonies between Hilary and guest vocalist Zara Bode. Even Hilary Hawke’s three original songs on this otherwise traditional album blend easily into the landscape of Americana trad. Both “Little Orchid” and “Lonely Ghost,” for example, are clearly woven from the tapestry of American folk song, and could fit in well with any other old-time song written ages ago.
On Dubl Handi’s debut album, nearly every track is a surprising twist on old standards, without ever once feeling like the point is to be fresh and new. Rather, the point is to make great music together, and to revel in the raw rhythms and melodies that make this music so compelling.
Dubl Handi: "Katie Cruel"
Dubl Handi: "Shout Little Lula"
01/12/2013 | comments (0)
Celtic Colours Festival Review
Guest Post by Llyn De Danaan
The Celtic Colours Festival, named for the adornment of brilliant fall foliage that cloaks the hills on Cape Breton in October, recently finished its 16th year. Its mission, as Joella Foulds, founder and artistic director told us at one evening session, is to “promote, celebrate and develop Cape Breton’s living Celtic culture.” However, it has also become an acclaimed international festival and most assuredly extends tourist dollars and fattens Cape Breton pockets well into the autumn. Still, it is a festival of music that, for the most part, represents Cape Breton and the Maritime Provinces, and it is the lusciously fall-flavored Cape Breton hills and highlands that welcome us the moment we reach the island. In fact, the reds, oranges, and yellows (that become more intense during our more than a week in our Belle Côte residence) are almost as delicious as are the butterscotch pies, biscuits, baked beans, and fish cakes at the Cedar House in Boularderie. Just cross the causeway and you too will feel something magical on the other side of the Strait of Canso.
I attended this fulsome festival with a few friends, but the notes and opinions that follow are solely mine.
Rita MacNeil, a native of Big Pond, Cape Breton, has had a stellar career with songs that have soared to the top of the charts in the UK, Canada, and Australia. I saw her for the first time during the Island Women concert, an event featured as part of the 16th annual Celtic Colours, 2012. She appeared with Madison Violet, The Once, Cathy Ann MacPhee and Kathleen MacInnes, Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac, Nuala Kennedy, and Sylvie LeLievre. Though she was compelled by a malady to sit for her performance, her voice did not suffer. "I’ve got one bad leg and soon to have another,” she says, explaining her need to stay seated. She tells us a story. (We learn throughout the week of the festival that we are in a story-telling culture and come to expect lots of humor and bantering from musicians on stage.) She says that she was about to perform at a concert recently, but as she strode toward front and center, her dress tangled with the stage curtain and the curtain entered with her. We all “get” the scene. The large Rita, the massive curtain, and her green dress, all rolling out into view of the audience. “It took ten minutes to get me up,” she tells us. The show continued that night and so did her performance at the Savoy.
And can she sing! Rita MacNeil commands an incredible vocal instrument with which she produces sounds that rise with seeming ease from the bounty of her whole body. The audience members were delighted and entranced. The Savoy is a restored vaudeville theatre in Sydney, Cape Breton Island. It was a perfect, regal setting for Rita and the parade of Island Women that followed.
From Rita we heard her song, what seems to be an almost anthem for the Islanders, “Home I’ll Be.” We’ve heard it at other concerts, but never with the power and authority with which Rita sings it:
“You’re as soulful as a choir
You’re as ancient as the hills
I caress you oh Cape Breton in my dreams.”
This song must have special resonance for those who’ve had to leave this Maritime Province to find work as mines and fisheries faltered.
Members of the audience know the song well, and as Rita’s voice rings out, I have a feeling I’m surrounded, indeed, by the soul of the place, finding its expression through the diva on stage. This is more than music. It is a telling of a people’s attachment to the history and culture of Cape Breton. Rita’s voice is not the younger, lilting voice I’ve heard on recordings, but carries still the passion of a Piaf. She sweeps up to notes as if she is riding a wave or flying on the wings of a gull floating above the sea wind. She keeps us on the edge of our seats wondering where she’ll sail to next. Frank MacDonald said earlier in the week at a reading that Cape Bretoners love their music not because it is beautiful but because it is perfect. This voice, this song must be what he meant.
What is the source of this soul, this love of place, this celebration of the island home? It is rooted in respect for the struggles of immigration and tragedies of loss of lands and livelihoods in Scotland and Ireland. It is etched with the terrors of the sea and with the risks of fishing and mining cultures that have sustained the people here. It carries the imprimatur of authentic connection to the Gaelic language and Scottish rhythms and movements that came with the people and sustains them still. There are other islanders in the world who celebrate their place in song but perhaps these too have common culture and language and perhaps, maybe even more importantly, a history of a struggle with colonial powers and losses to imperious land owners and political authorities. After all, the islanders of Cape Breton did not leave the highlands of Scotland (or villages and farms of Ireland) because they wanted to. They have, perhaps because of this, yearned for and maintained a connection with their beloved ancestral lands and forebearers whose names they are still called and whose histories most can recount.
Whole families here are musicians or dancers or weavers. When a fiddler gets on stage, the islanders know his or her story, and personally know their parents and grandparents, and their mentors. They know who has been “away” and who has returned. Culture is localized (Chéticamp is not Baddeck) but Celtic Colours celebrates the whole of the island and the connections with Scotland and Ireland, and announces that this is all here to stay—-the torch will most assuredly be passed, as a late week concert proclaimed.
During our short visit, we learned about step dancing, piping, milling frolics, and the Gaelic College. We learned about the Cape Breton Highlands and hiked the Cabot Trail to embankments that afford a view of the vast ocean below and beyond. We walked the beaches, pocketed polished bits of sea glass, and studied soft outcroppings of white gypsum. We were nearly blown over when the winds came in and snatched car doors and screen doors out of our hands. We ate oatcakes and attended fundraisers to raise money to replace flooded church basements floors. (The program, at Calvin United, was called Bach to Broadway and provided a sometimes-surprising departure from the Celtic theme of the Festival. One audience participation number led a jolly gentleman to exclaim, “I ooohed when I should have aaaahed. It was all good fun.") We were served refreshments by ladies who told us, “You can’t rush a good cup of tea.” We ate long spider-legged snow crab from Newfoundland. We shopped in co-ops and bought colorful knitted mittens and glass jewelry and more teacakes in Saturday markets by the sea. We drove from venue to venue along long colorful miles with views of sweeping headlands and deep, wet valleys. We traveled from Sydney and Glace Bay to Glencoe Station and Mabou. We traveled from Belle Côte and Scotsville up to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and walked lovely trails that led to grand views. (We could see to the Magdalen Islands in the distance.) We were compelled to do all of this if we were to take in the vastness of this small island and to suck up all we could of this festival and Cape Breton life. And we were grandly nourished by it all.
Our first event took place at the 100-year-old St. Matthew’s United Church in Inverness on Saturday afternoon October 6.
It was a sunny brisk fall afternoon and a long line was waiting to pass through the door of the welcoming white steepled church which is set on a hill overlooking town and sea. Our pew was located near stained glass windows dedicated to those who died in World War II.
This afternoon session is called Fiddles and Prose. This is a fine concept, this celebration of writers who have captured the spirit of the culture of music in Cape Breton. The authors read and the musicians answer them. It makes for a rich layered Cape Breton cake. Today we are introduced to the taste of the place by the authors Alistair MacLeod and Frank Macdonald. Although the writers read in English, it is Gaelic that is often a topic, especially in MacDonald’s work. It is, he tells us, “the language spoken in Heaven.” and by the end of the week, I believe this. MacDonald writes a column for the Inverness newspaper called “Assuming I’m Right.” He is a wit and reads two stories from his book A Possible Madness.
The fiddlers play as he concludes a story and we understand better the piece he has read about a young bride and her duel with the fiddler at her wedding dance. In the story, it is clearly the fiddler who is her lover and his tune and increasingly frenetic playing that makes love to her. We all feel the energy of the story and then see fiddler and dancer in a sort of reenactment on stage. As the fiddler’s tempo increases, the legs of people in the pews around us start to bounce up and down...until soon the whole church is filled with the sound of feet slapping the floor. No hands and no heads are moving. Only feet. We wonder if everyone will get up and make squares!
During the rest of the afternoon, we hear stories about the Gaelic alphabet: 18 letters each named for a tree or plant. Alistair MacLeod reads selections from his work. (He is the author of Letters to the World: The Writing of Alistair MacLeod and No Great Mischief among others) A desk lamp is hastily plugged in and held behind him as it is clear that he is struggling to see his pages in the dim late afternoon church. His last story is a reflection on the multicultural draw of the fiddle music of the island and incorporates the Scots, the French, and the aboriginals in a tale of fiddling. MacLeod’s own son and daughter, Marion MacLeod and Kenneth MacLeod, are on stage to play fiddle and keyboard.
MacLeod is thoughtful about the goals of his work. He is interested in point of view, about where we are in time when big things happen to us and how our lives are changed by trauma. His story of icy death and the subsequent recollection of the young boy who survives the rest of his family is beautifully crafted and evocative.
During the afternoon, we have our first experience of Cathy Ann MacPhee’s lovely voice. Her first language is Gaelic and she sings beautifully. She immigrated to Ottawa from Barra Island and has been teaching, but announces this afternoon, to a delighted audience, that she feels at home in Nova Scotia and is moving to Halifax.
Others who perform are Joanne MacIntyre, who sings in Gaelic, and Margie Beaton, an accomplished fiddler and step dancer who we see later in the week working in the Gaelic College gift shop.
This afternoon was a lovely introduction to Cape Breton and to the music of the place. As we file out, we feel the truth of MacLeod’s earlier comment that, “all of us are better when we’re loved” and we sense that the love in this community and this church on this fall afternoon is really what we must count on to make this a decent world.
After the readings, we make a dash into Inverness to find The Bear Paw, a bookstore, to buy MacLeod and Macdonald’s books. There we meet, for not the last time, the proprietor Alice Freeman. She and others in the store are chatty jokesters who tease and play as they help us find what we are looking for (even though it is past closing time). Before we leave, we make donations to Alice’s fund for stray cats.
On Sunday afternoon, we traveled up the road from Belle Côte to Chéticamp and the Doryman Pub and Grill. Ashley MacIsaac, a fabulous fiddler, was to play, one of my friends, a Nova Scotian who has been my host on previous trips, told me. It was a must, though not part of the official Celtic Colours program. We were told to get there early and did. Ashley wasn’t playing until 3 in the afternoon, but we arrived around 1 and the place was filled shortly after. I ordered Alexander Keith’s Honey Brown Ale and deep fried haddock with mashed potatoes and cole slaw. Everyone around me ordered some version of the same: pan fried haddock was popular at my table. The food came quickly and was delicious. I sipped my ale to make it last.
“He was a bad boy,” someone tells me of Ashley. And I hear the story of his “kilt flash” on the Conan O’Brien show. They tell me he has settled down.
The buzz in the Doryman gets louder and finally Ashley walks through the door, past the big signs for Molson and LaBlatts and Alexander Keith’s IPA. Loud cheers. His keyboard artist arrives and there is another round of cheers and applause as she makes her way to the stage. She is Maybelle Chisholm MacQueen, called by some the best Celtic piano player in Cape Breton. She is one of the Chisholms of Margaree, a well-known and respected musical family. She was classically trained but began playing for square dances at ten according to her biography. I love Maybelle’s vigorous style and the pleasure she seems to take from playing. Her hands move so fast I can’t get a good clear photograph of her, though a helpful fellow at the bar tries fruitlessly to give me a lesson in ISO settings. I take his suggestions with good humor.
When Ashley and Maybelle begin, every leg in the pub, including those holding the tables up, begins to move. People shout approval as the tempos of the tunes increase. Finally, Ashley invites a square set to form. Dancers move to the music for a while. Then a gentleman who seems to have trouble walking takes the floor and begins to step dance. Whatever ails him does not get in the way of his spirited movements. Others join him. The tempo of the fiddle and piano increases. One woman is left standing and dancing by the end. The effort to stay standing and keep dancing, increasing in speed and vying with the ferocious energy of the fiddler, and the flirtation between fiddler and dancer are recurring themes and they are present in the traditional Scottish Gaelic song, Sleepy Maggie. (Recorded by MacIssac and Mary Jane Lamond.) Poor Maggie fears she is too untidy to continue to dance because she’s lost a pin but then, oh well.....
“Oh I won’t be sad
When the fiddler, the fiddler comes tonight
I won’t be sad
When the fiddler comes tonight.”
The Doryman audience was pleased by all and whoops to show appreciation. Nobody was sad when this fiddler came.
The biggest disappointments of the week were the John Allen Cameron Song Session at Glencoe Station Community Center and the Brakin’ Tradition (with Cyril McPhee) performance at Chéticamp’s La Place des arts Père.
The John Allan Cameron session was to be led by Dave Gunning and was advertised as a sing along. Gunning’s latest album has been getting good reviews and he is busy touring. But though it would have been good to hear his new work, it was his recent tribute album to John Allen Cameron, himself from Inverness County, Glencoe Station and the chance to sing the beloved Cameron’s work with someone who knew him that drew the crowd.
To get to Glencoe Station’s Community Center we traveled a gravel road. People said the last time they’d been there, there had been two feet of snow on the road. We wonder how active people are in the dead of winter! The hall itself: Round tables are set up all about the large, functional room and each is covered with a plastic tablecloth covered with a measure of silky, colorful cloth and seasonal gourds. There are song sheets on each table. Tea and coffee is prepared and it is followed at intermission by teacakes and sandwiches, including lobster! It is a predominantly older crowd.
But alas, no Dave Gunning! Without explanation, Wally MacAuley takes the stage. The former member of The Men of the Deeps allows for a couple of sing alongs, but plays his own music for the rest of the program. Not what we came to hear. People were gracious but not enthusiastic.
I have to bless Wally, however, for introducing me to the haunting song, "The Piper and The Maker," by Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis. The last lines are particularly compelling:
The maker says to the piper who has played unearthly, previously unknown music on his new pipes and is greatly troubled:
“I understand your fear. But the wood and leather's of this Earth - no magic is there here. I will admit these pipes could be the finest ever made. But that would count for not one thing if they were never played. For there's music in them right enough and there's music in you too, And the one requires the other if that music's to come through. The pipes unlocked the music that was waiting in your soul. And you unlocked the instrument and made the circle whole."
Brakin’ Tradition was a popular band in the early 1990s and no doubt had and still has a following. After 18 years hiatus, they came together last spring and played and we heard them at Chéticamp in the Acadian Reunion session. (This is one of the few sessions that incorporates Acadian music or even alludes to the strong Acadian tradition on the island.) Cyril MacPhee, a member of the band, was one of two artists in residence for the festival and was a delight on his own. But Brakin’ Tradition’s set was uninspiring. The group needs to update its material and work on a new or better ensemble sound. The lead singer, Louanne Baker, was insistently loud. Her vocals lacked nuance or interesting dynamics. (Though pure Celtic music does not call for such it is true.) Her body language on stage was distracting.
One of the highlights of our week was the more didactic, participatory milling frolic at the Scottsville School of Crafts. Geoffrey May and Rebecca-Lynne MacDonald-May who are dedicated students of the local culture and its roots led the session. They have a radio show called “Aiseirigh Nan Gaidheal” (The awakening of the Gaels) available to stream from CKJM Cooperative Radio Chéticamp. It is broadcast in Gaelic with English translation. Geoffrey and Rebecca-Lynne taught us milling songs in Gaelic and demonstrated the moves used in felting cloth. (Alice Freeman says the mantra is push, pull, crash, pass.) Then we had at it! It was great fun. The session was full of history and the couple’s research has been thorough enough to supply many corrections to misconceptions regarding Scottish history and to suggest references for further study. We learn from Geoffrey and Rebecca-Lynne that the owner of the Bear Paw in Inverness, Alice Freeman, is a valuable source of milling songs. She stood on the milling table and step danced while she learned the songs when she was a small girl we are told. We are pleased we have met her and to have recorded a couple her songs as she sang them to us!
We saw The Once twice. The Once is a collaboration of Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill, and Andrew Dale. In Cape Breton for the festival, they come from Newfoundland. They did a fine afternoon session at the fabulous Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck. Then Geraldine was featured in the Island Women session in Glace Bay later that night. The songs of The Once are sometimes plaintive, sometimes funny, but always interesting. Geraldine has a powerful, but nuanced instrument and a memorable stage presence. We loved them so much that we ran down the street after their van hoping to stop them in time to buy a cd. We got one later that night at the Savoy.
Another surprise at the Island Women session was Sylvia LeLièvre, an Acadian from Chéticamp and called by some an Acadian super star and “Chéticamp’s best kept secret.” She owns a guest house and has been singing for 30 years and more, often with her brothers.
Sylvia has a beautiful, heartfelt voice, wonderful phrasing, and a deep connection with the lyrics she sings. I’d love to hear her in a smaller venue. Every recording I’ve found of her online is better than the last but I find no albums.
Also featured at Island Women was Mary Jane Lamond and Kathleen MacInnes. Mary Jane has a record of working with terrific artists and making the charts with her singles. (Notably her vocal on "Sleepy Maggie" recorded with Ashley MacIsaac.) She is a mover in the effort to support the continuing vitality of Gaelic culture. She, like many others, respects the songs and conventions of performance from her tradition and her roots. And she, again like many others, has worked to increase her Gaelic language skills. There are many academies on Cape Breton, including the Gaelic College on the Cabot Trail, St. Ann’s that make studying language possible.
So many others deserve a mention. But this is a quick review of most of the shows we attended. There were many others. Celtic Colours is packed with rich performances and other events every day for over a week. Lest you think I’ve forgotten about Natalie MacMaster, I didn’t. She was featured at Celtic Colours. However, she is playing in my town this coming Sunday night and I knew I’d get a chance to catch her there.
Still, I had to see Vishtèn from Prince Edward Island for fear I wouldn’t have another chance. Vishtèn is a collaboration of twins Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc and Pascal Miousse (actually from the more northern Magdalen Islands). Vishtèn quite simply entertains and delights. There is fiery fiddle music, rhapsodic accordion harmonies, dancing, insistent percussion, and even a jaw harp and whistle make appearances. The audience can’t help but be swept up in the charm and rhythm of this high-energy group. See their joyful Upper Hillsborough video and you’ll want more:
Will I return to Celtic Colours next year? If there is anyway possible, I’ll be there.
Thank you to Llyn De Danaan for this wonderful review of the 2012 Celtic Colours Festival on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. Lynn is a Northwest writer and anthropologist based out of Olympia, WA. Her books include Koans for the Inner Dog: A Guide to Canine Enlightenment, collections of poems, and her latest work, Big Adventure in Moa Nui: The Very Mysterious Events on a South Pacific Island and Their Resolution, a work of fiction based on her travels in Tahiti. Her recent Mountain of Shell project focuses on the life and work of the Japanese and Japanese American community on Oyster Bay, Washington. Her nonfiction book, Katie Gale’s Tombstone: Landscape, Power, and Justice on 19th Century Oyster Bay will be published by University of Nebraska Press.
Note: Hearth Music is currently working as US-based publicists for Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac, but this had no bearing on Llyn's trip to Celtic Colours or her review.
01/06/2013 | comments (1)
I first heard about fiddler and songwriter Jenny Anne Mannan from my friend Kevin Brown, an excellent bluegrass roots songwriter (and festival producer) who knows much about roots music in Eastern Washington (Jenny Anne lives in Spokane, WA). Having just ventured to Twisp last year for the first time, there's about half of my state that I know very little about. But there's long been a history of excellent fiddlers in Eastern Washington, with one of the most prominent being Kimber Ludiker of Della Mae, who comes from a line of awesome fiddlers, including her mom JayDean Ludiker (not to mention her brother, mandolinist Dennis Ludiker in Austin's MilkDrive). Now we can add Jenny Anne Mannan to this list as well. On her debut album, Saints & Sinners, she contributed two beautifully written fiddle tunes and plays them with aplomb. But it's Mannan's songwriting that is the most stunning part of this album. The songs are written in an Appalachian vein, and sound as rough-hewn as an old Kentucky barn door. "Lindytown," to me, is the highlight of the album, a visceral, cutting stab at Appalachian strip mining. It has possibly the best line I heard in any new song in 2012: "Faith moves mountains, but money moves man." On "Open up the Door," Mannan's fiddle twines seditiously with the gospel lyrics, snaking along with a well-earned grace, and "Moonshiner's Son" sounds like something from early Gillian Welch. We're not the only ones singing Mannan's praises, by the way: Sara Watkins co-wrote her song "Lock & Key" with Jenny Anne on her new album, Sun Midnight Sun.
We caught up with Jenny Anne over email to ask her about her new album and the inspiration behind our three favorite songs of hers. Here's what she had to say:
Jenny Anne Mannan: Open Up the Door
"The idea for this song actually came from my husband, Caleb [Mannan]. He's a fantastic writer and is always working on something, and his mediums range from prose to poetry to song to art...I never know what he's going to come up with next! One day he sat down at the dining room table and sang this chorus, slapping out the rhythm with the palm of his hand. I responded right away to the idea of a new, reinvented spiritual song - we've all heard old-time spirituals about the joy of being saved or delivered, but here's a person who's in a kind of limbo. They're still in despair because they see themselves clearly for the first time, they suspect salvation is the answer, but as yet there's been no breakthrough. They're sort of half-way saved. It's an interesting idea, and one that Caleb and I both relate to - we're so used to hearing about 'seeing the light' in positive terms, but there are times when, without the hope of something beyond ourselves, seeing the light can mean we see the worst in ourselves. The resultant plea, "Dear Lord, open up the door..." comes from that desperate hope that a power greater than ourselves intervene on our behalf.
Musically, this song is a true collaboration. Caleb had been listening to a lot of blues and old-time–the likes of Roscoe Holcomb, John Lee Hooker, and Lightning Hopkins–and those influences definitely come through in the arrangement. As I was recording and layering parts, I wanted to maintain the raw authenticity that I heard when Caleb first sang it for me, so, much to my engineer's dismay, I slapped out the rhythm on my guitar. It's a tricky thing to find the line between polished and sterile, and on the other side, the line between raw and just plain rough, but I think it all works. For me, the song really came together when I added the banjo - who'd have thunk?!
Jenny Anne Mannan: Lindytown
"One day I opened an email from my husband Caleb containing a link to a New York Times article written by Dan Barry entitled, "As The Mountaintops Fall, A Coal Town Vanishes". I read and reread the article, enthralled and heartbroken by the true story of the disappearing Appalachian hamlet of Lindytown. The song centers around mountain natives Quinnie and Lawrence Richmond, whose heritage, way of life, and legacy were literally destroyed by surface mining. While most of their friends and neighbors sold their family's land to the Massey Energy company, the Richmonds didn't. They stayed behind because Quinnie was in the early stages of Alzheimer's and Lawrence was afraid a major move would be too upsetting to her. So Massey gave them a $25,000 settlement, and the Richmonds watched their home become a dust-covered ghost town. Having grown up in the mountains of northeastern Washington on the banks of the Columbia river, I wondered what it would be like if the very land that raised me was altered beyond recognition. I think it's impossible to be raised in a rural setting and not think of the land as a living, nurturing, maternal sort of energy, and this image of blowing off the mountaintop and leaving slurry in the streams and valleyfill in the lowlands seemed so violent to me. I thought of the line, "They raped our land for 25 grand," and the rest of the song came from there. I thought of the vast achievements of human ingenuity, and the ways in which progress can be perverted by greed, and came up with, "Faith moves mountains, but money moves man." In the end, songwriting is really storytelling, and I just wanted to make sure my friends heard the story of Lindytown."
Jenny Anne Mannan: Moonshiner's Son
"I'm doing much better than my daddy done..." Who hasn't thought that, at some point? But in my experience, comparison to the previous generation is usually made in reference to what sort of living we're making or whether our laundry room is more organized than our mothers' or how well we handle our kids when they misbehave...most of us aren't talking about whether or not the living we make is sanctioned by the Federal government! This song was inspired by the legend of one of the most colorful characters I've come across: my husband's grandpa JE Jones. JE grew up in dustbowl Oklahoma to a daddy whose moonshine still got busted up by the Feds every so often and whose booze binges took him away from his family for months on end. According to his kids and grandkids, JE was no saint. He was a coffee drinking Camel smoking reformed alcoholic country-song-writing Okie WWII Vet whose efforts at prosperity led him everyplace from cotton fields to psych wards. But he stuck around, he worked hard, and he gave his 5 kids a much better life than his daddy gave him. A sense of heritage is really important in our family, and I wrote this song because I want our kids to know their place in this world isn't only defined by their generation. Music is a living, breathing, visceral way to experience history. We know what the Oregon Trail sounded like when we play Arkansas Traveler, we experience a tent-revival when we sing "Just As I Am", and hopefully my kids will learn a little something about their great-grandaddy, and themselves, when they hear "Moonshiner's Son".
01/04/2013 | comments (0)
After the popularity of last year's regretful column, we're bringing back our list of shame from 2012. Each week we receive new music lovingly packaged, often by the artists themselves, and each week we fail to write about most of it and feel very bad about that. It's just a question of free time, really, and free time's short on everyone's list these days. We're so happy with the artists we DID get to write about in 2012, but here are 10 artists that we definitely should have written about and completely missed the boat on. With our apologies! And... in apology to these patient artistic souls who kindly refrained from sending us angry emails, here's Jenny Ritter's lovely song, "You Missed the Boat":
Jacob Miller & The Bridge City Crooners. East Side Drag.
Jacob Miller is probably the nicest guy in the Northwest's roots music scene, and also one of the most talented. But you know as well as I do that nice guys finish last, so it's up to you and me to keep that from happening. Build up some karma points and titillate your musical tastebuds with his 2012 country blues album, East Side Drag, and share it with your friends! If you're a fan of Pokey Lafarge, Woody Pines, or Old Crow Medicine Show, then this album is for you. Not only is Miller a wickedly talented country blues guitar fingerpicker, but he's got a voice of honeyed gold. He channels the old jugband greats with the same kind of cracked-pavement vocals that must have come out of the back-alley dozens popular in the 30s and 40s, but it's also a voice that wouldn't sound out of place opening up for Colin Meloy & Them Ol' Decemberists. Well, anyways, in a world with justice that would be the case. But here I am, having booked Jacob already twice for awesome shows in the Northwest, and I still haven't got around to writing about his album. Damn, nice guys really do finish last.
East Side Drag is either a short album or a long EP, but either way it's a great taste of more to come from this wickedly talented musician and his merry band of pickers from Portland, Oregon. A few of the songs are hand-picked from old sources, and there are some excellent gems here, my favorite being "Ragtime Millionaire." It's a rollicking F The Man comin' out of the first Great Depression (courtesy of ragtime guitar genius Bill "The Barber" Moore) and still sounding great in our New Great Depression. Miller draws out the raw edge of this song, with its biting satire, "I brush my teeth with diamond dust/And I don't care if the banks go bust". Part of the fun of listening to and studying American roots music are these moments when the past seems impossible present. Miller also KILLS "Hesitation Blues" with one of the best covers I've ever heard of this song (and whoowee I've heard a lot!). The other songs on East Side Drag are all originals, and it's honestly pretty hard to tell them apart, which is a huge compliment to Miller. He's writing songs that sound like they came out of some Kansas City dice game, so full of old-school hokum and ragtime finger-picking, that they'd do any old 78 collector proud.
I've been following guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps pretty much since his first album, recorded in Portland and featuring revelatory takes on old country blues songs. He's gone to some pretty cool and sometimes pretty strange places with his music, usually based on lap steel traditions, but also recently fingerpicked guitar. But I wasn't prepared for his newest album, Brother Sinner & The Whale, at all. It's not so much a throwback to his earlier, more traditional work, it's actually almost a prequel. It sounds like the album he could have started with, but that's really more of an auditory illusion than anything else. The key to Phelps has always been his remarkable subtlety as a musician, and the illusion of his new album is that he's able to make completely new music sound impossibly old. Maybe not as old as Jonah, the biblical tale that inspired some of the songs on Brother Sinner & the Whale, but certainly as old as the gospel blues 78s that inspired the folk revival. The songs on Brother Sinner and the Whale tap that always-rich crossroads of biblical old world mystical doom with the music of the steamy American South. It's a crossroads that's inspired about a million singers and it's also one of the richest veins in our hybrid American society. Over a century ago, classical composers struggled to find a sound that was uniquely American, bringing in Native American chants, or old-time fiddle tunes to their orchestral works, but the South had already invented the quintessential American sound by bringing the stormiest parts of the ancient Bible into the hottest parts of the Southern states. Standout tracks on Phelps' new album include the rolling rhythms of "Goodbye to Sorrow," the softly gentle "Pilgrim's Reach," the lovely melody of "Spit Me Outta the Whale," and the old-school Phelps fingerpicked guitar on "Hard Time They Never Go Away." It's impressive that by going completely back to his roots, Phelps has managed to find something completely new to say with his music. Only the best artists can pull that off.
PS: If you want to know more about Phelps' perspective on the new album, be sure to check out this excellent interview, "Playing With All Ten Fingers," with No Depression's Doug Heselgrave.
Cedric Watson et Bijou Créole. Le Soleil est Levé.
Ok, technically this came out in 2011, but I didn't get hip to it until 2012, so I'm counting it for this past year. Hope you don't mind!
Cedric Watson is proof-positive that traditional music can still have amazing power and can still plumb new depths in the hands of a younger generation. He's the kind of artist that grew up with his feet in two worlds, both the old-school world of his elders, where he learned humility as a student of Creole fiddlers like Ed Poullard, and the new-school world of the digital generation. He projects an aura of detached cool as a performer, with his aviator shades and mohawk, but offstage he's an excitable traditionalist, happy to talk for hours about obscure aspects of Louisiana Creole culture and language, and more than a little bit outspoken as well. Ever the student of the elder generations, his new album features the equally outspoken scholar of Creole fiddle, D'Jalma Garnier, on bass. D'Jalma also tours with Cedric and company, and brings a great older generation perspective to the group. With young Cajun Charles Vincent on drums, and Creole washboard player Desiree Champagne, Cedric's group Bijou Creole is hot hot hot. Proof positive: their KEXP in-studio on The Roadhouse with Greg Vandy:
Cedric's new album, Le Soleil est Levé, was released in 2011 and features a refreshing, new sound for the band. Following his interest in Creole culture around the world, and following his travels around the world learning from other Creole musicians, Cedric is the only young Louisiana Creole artist bringing a larger world perspective to the music. On "A Kiss Ain't A Contract," he channels the Dominican Republic's merengue accordion traditions that he's been learning from Montreal artist Joaquin Diaz, on "La Danse Kalinda" he takes Louisiana Creole music back to its African roots through the famous "kalinda" dance, and "Tu Vas Jamais Me Comprendre" has some kind of smooth Latin soul that I wish I could label more accurately. It's a dizzying journey through Cedric's travels and influences and it's a remarkable feat for such a young musician to be able to bring a cohesive new sound to the old traditions. Of course, his prime influences are still very much on display, with the looping Zydeco accordion riffs of "Jour par Jour," the hardcore Creole la-la of "Allons Nous Autres," and the eerie-as-fuck fiddling that the Cajuns and Creoles love so much with "I'll Live Til I Die." With Le Soleil est Levé, Cedric cements his place as the brightest light among the next generation of Louisiana Creole musicians, AND he shows that he's got music the world needs to hear.
Zachary Lucky’s new EP, Saskatchewan, makes me sleepy. In the best way. Not sleepy because I’m bored, but sleepy as if someone I loved was giving me a nice back rub, or the kind of sleepy I get when there’s a fire in the hearth and the sun has set and I just don’t care what’s on tv and all I want to do is close my eyes and soak in the warmth. I think this must be a familiar kind of sleepy, since I first heard Zachary Lucky's music through the equally sleepy folks at Slowcoustic. They, like me, revel in acoustic folk songs sung with the deep weariness of a harsh Canadian winter. The EP as a whole has a light country bent, but when is a pedal steel ever unwelcome? Zachary’s voice cracks ever so lightly when singing about the loneliness and wistfulness of relationships lost and the cold of the snow. Winter is her, and though I can’t stop thinking about the little bit of Seattle summer we got, this is indeed the perfect album to welcome wintertime.
Packwood. self-titled EP.
I learned about Packwood from the excellent Australian roots music blog Timber & Steel, who are big fans of this songwriter and zen banjo master from down under. But you don't need to know much about Packwood to fall head over heels in love with this new album. All you need to know is this: Banjo + 50-Piece Symphony Orchestra+ Gorgeous Songs. Got your attention now? It sure got mine! Honestly, this is one of the most original albums I've heard all year. The combination of gently built clawhammer banjo melodically thatched huts and the rich lushness of a full symphony is a wonderful game changer that I hope will encourage other artists to branch out. This is the kind of music guaranteed to soothe your soul and lower your heart rate, which I think has a lot of value in this tense 2012 holiday season. The songs are burbling little streams of thought that touch on songwriter Bayden Packwood Hine's upbringing in rural New South Wales. Word is that Bayden made a big splash in the Australian folk scene with his debut album, and wanted to greatly expand the sound for his new EP. Working closely with Sydney-based composer Ella Jamieson, the two sculpted the symphonic arrangements around Bayden's hushed songs and deeply thoughtful banjo playing. The only drawback is that the EP is relatively short at about 20 minutes. But there's no doubt that I'll be watching Packwood closely for a hopefully upcoming full-length and to see what direction his new music will take.
Check out the cute claymation video for my favorite song from the album, "Bats":
The Lost Brothers. The Passing of the Night.
2012. Bird Dog Recordings.
The buzz this year was all about singalong Americana acts like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, The Stray Birds and Shovels & Rope, so it may not be a surprise that the The Lost Brothers, who tread a similar path but with just as many lovely harmonies and catchy folk songs, got a bit lost in the shuffle on my, and perhaps other reviewers', desks. From the lovely singing on the opening track "Not Now Warden" that reminds me of the old Western music classic "Cool Drink of Water", to the frenetic banjo-uke and old-timey country blues lyrics of "Bird in a Cage," I could certainly make the case that The Lost Brothers are actually folkier than the aforementioned other acts. But however you cut it, The Lost Brothers' new album, The Passing of the Night, easily stands up to any other Americana success released this year. Formed by two Irish musicians, Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland, who met in Liverpool, the duo formed up in UK dive bars before making the leap to the US. They toured nationally in October of this year, opening for well-loved Irish roots musician Glen Hansard, so I'd hazard to say that they likely built a strong fan base in the States. This 2012 album, The Passing of the Night, was produced in Nashville by Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs and released on his Readymade label. Evidently the album was cut in a quick five days. Sometimes that's how you make hte best music. Without thinking too much, just enjoying each other's company and rolling your way through some beautiful songs. The Passing of the Night is a great showcase of their songwriting, and on this album the two clearly wear their American roots music influences on their sleeves. Well done, lads!
The Lost Brothers: Not Now Warden
The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra. Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow.
Victoria, British Columbia collective The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra really earn the "orchestral" name with their new album, Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow. I did a double take when I looked at the credits and saw only five people in the band. It makes me kinda laugh at all those classical orchestras that need about a hundred players just to fill up an auditorium. These guys kill it with just five guys. At times it sounds like there's a whole string section, and even when it's just one instrument (fiddle or accordion especially), the sound is impossibly full. It might be a combination of excellent recording engineering and hot musicianship that makes it like this. Regardless, these guys put out a great sound! It's hard to pin down all their influences, but I guess I'd think of them as an indie-folk bluegrass stringband, if that helps at all. They're definitely part of a larger scene of Canadian roots musicians making beautiful progressive music, and share some similar qualities to another great Vancouver roots dance band, The Paperboys. I can imagine they're a hit on the Canadian festival circuit. I hope they get a chance to come down the American festival circuit soon!
OK, it might be a bit strange to add a hip-hop album to this list, but the beauty of Seattle-based DJ/producer OCNotes is that he transcends these kind of labels. I've talked to him about it and he really doesn't give a shit who likes his music, or what we call it. And with his staggeringly diverse use of samples, you start to wonder if this really is hip-hop. The guy's a mad genius, and pretty much everyone knows him in the Seattle scene. His reputation comes from his ability to mix up any genre that tickles his fancy into a delicious beat stew. I first saw him live at THEESatisfaction's CD Release party in Seattle. I got there a bit early and was thinking of taking a walk around the neighborhood until the main group came on (yep, I'm THAT kind of dickish music reviewer), but OCNotes' opening DJ set rooted me to the spot. I kept telling myself I'd leave after the next track, but each track was better than the last, and he kept spinning the energy in the room up and up. I was enraptured by his music, after already having fallen in love with his art through his killer online remix of The Jungle Book's "I Wanna Be Like You" from Louis Prima.
With Moldavite, OCNotes has put out another hoppin' Seattle beats epic. It's a whirlwind tour through his insanely cluttered mind, kind of a garage sale of blendered music. There are 33 tracks, mostly ranging around 3 minutes. OCNotes touches on classic soul ("Towers"), gritty Seattle doom-and-gloom ("Brick House"), creepy Hitchcock strings remixed ("Himalayan Trader"), cool jazz horns ("Floor Dust") and even spins off into impossibly weird directions like remixing an Inuit(?) song for the opener, "Weight of the World." If you're wondering what the streets of Seattle sound like today, this record is the key. It sounds like a burbling rain gutter on a dirty urban street, backlit by neon light. You know, musically speaking. Moldavite is for sale on Bandcamp and you can't preview the music much, but if you want to really get into his music, hit up the very excellent earlier albums Secret Society or Doo Doo, or especially The New Generation, a surprisingly beautiful all-guitar based album. Or hit up OCNotes remix of the soundtrack to the old Michael Jackson film The Whiz, Emerald City Sequence. Or jeez hit up his two new albums since dropping Moldavite, Pre Future Post Modern Love Songs: Aka AlienBootyBass, or the quick EP What's Your Sign. Clearly this guy has creativity exploding out of his being, and you'd do well to hitch up to the OCNotes train in 2013 to see what new, crazy music he can come up with.
The story of Memphis Minnie often gets overwhelmed in writers' desires to highlight her as an anomalous "female" blues artist, despite the fact that the first recorded blues artists were women, and women have a huge place of pride in early blues. These same people keep insisting that singers like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ma Rainey and others aren't really blues. Wikipedia defines "classic female blues" as an early 20s mix of folk blues and urban theater, and lays the weight of this made-up genre on some of these early women blues singers. But what the hell is that supposed to mean? That it's not blues unless you lived in the deep country? That male blues singers are still empirically blues even if they spent time in medicine shows or urban theater genres like vaudeville? Memphis Minnie is a great example of a blues singer straddling the lines between the city and the country, and a great example of urban blues, whether or not she's considered so or not. It's past time we started looking at these early African-American musicians as savvy entrepreneurs and entertainers looking to move old traditions into the neon noise of the cities, rather than reluctant tradition bearers. It's past time we started looking at Memphis Minnie as an amazing blues artist primarily, rather than some kind of "outlier" because she's a woman.
Maria Muldaur's new album, ...First Came Memphis Minnie, is a wonderful portrait of Minnie as a fully-fledged artist of grace and power. Muldaur sings her songs with a voice that sounds part cabaret, part blues shouter, part hokum. The opening track, "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," is a key Memphis Minnie song that Muldaur infuses with the same edgy grit that made Minnie famous. Since it's a tribute album, Muldaur also cedes the lead to other great blues singers who are indebted to Minnie's music and legacy. Bonnie Raitt nails down "Ain't Nothin' in Ramblin'", Alvin Youngblood Hart duets with Muldaur on "I'm Goin' Back Home," and Rory Block brings out a seriously spicy side to "When You Love Me." There's even a intense cut from Koko Taylor, evidently recorded in 2007 before her death. But Muldaur is the star here, and it's wonderful to listen to her dive into Memphis Minnie's repertoire with such relish. She doesn't try to copy Minnie, or to copy her style, but sings it like she loves it, bringing in urban and rural blues influences alike and mixing it all together into a great brew. It's a masterful tribute album and surely something that will help spread the Memphis Minnie gospel even farther.
Mike Cullison & The Regulars. The Barstool Monologues.
Joedog Records. 2012.
By and large, the world of singer-songwriters is a world ruled by ego. It may be tough to hear, but many singer-songwriters are so focused on their own music and their own world, that it feels at times like there's hardly a viable community among the lot of them. That's why artists like country singer-songwriter Mike Cullison are so important. Artists with a larger vision than their own songs, and more love for the music than desire to be the center of attention. For his new release, The Barstool Monologues, Cullison generously opened up his songbook and his album to a good number of other Nashville singer-songwriters, and asked them to be a part of his idea of his vision, ceding lead vocals to them in most cases, something I found surprisingly unusual. It's all part of the album's vision: a dark night at a Nashville bar, with Cullison narrating the various characters that come through the front door.It's a great formula too. Before each track, Cullison comes on with his deep Southern drawl and introduces the character of the next song (for "Good and Evil" he introduces the character Ruby with the phrase "This girl is built like a brick outhouse with no bricks missing, a ball of fire if I've ever seen one"). Then one of his songwriter friends bursts into the song, and each song here is a finely crafted country classic, let me tell you.
Highlights include Tiffany Huggins Grant's stunning vocals (a master class on pitch-perfect country singing) on "As the Cold Sets In," some great lyricism on "Prayin' for Rain" ("Let forgiveness fall, wash away the stains/ Yeah, we all got reasons to pray for rain"), and Cullison's own gritty vocals on the stellar opening track "Wish I Didn't Like Whiskey." Not every track is perfect of course, but huge kudos to Cullison for allowing so many other artists to be a part of his fascinating vision. Because of this, the album as a whole is a joy to listen to, and definitely the kind of music you'd want to listen to again to get all the nuances. Country music writer Juli Thank at Engine 145 has called this album "country music's version of The Cantebury Tales," and I think that's a wonderful way to characterize this album. With The Barstool Monologues, Mike Cullison shows that master songwriting can't be bought or bartered, but must be earned, and the powerful cadre of friends he brings along is proof of Music City's respect for his craft.