Archive for the ‘folk’ Category

Book Review: Wounds to Bind

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

The 1960s music scene was populated with people who – if they survived – have tales to tell. First-hand witnesses to (or participants in) the social and cultural upheavals that changed the way we looked at the world; movers and shakers in the development of new and groundbreaking musical forms: those are the stories we enjoy reading.

With due respect to Jerry Burgan, one of several guitarists in folk-rock group We Five, his new book Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution is not a leading exemplar of those kinds of stories. This is not to say that his tale isn’t interesting; it most certainly is, and he (aided by coauthor Alan Rifkin) tells his story in brilliant detail, with much shade, light and color.

But the thing is, We Five are notable in equal parts for having one hit (the gloriously spine-tingling “You Were On My Mind”) and, it must be said, for being on the periphery — as opposed to being an active part –  of the scene. As worthy as “You Were On My Mind” was and is, the group didn’t write the song – Sylvia (Fricker) Tyson composed it. And Burgan didn’t come up with We Five’s inventive arrangement: guitarist/arranger Mike Stewart did that.

To his credit, Burgan never casts himself in the role of hero/protagonist: he never makes outsized claims as to his importance. Instead he places himself as close-proximity witness to the events that unfolded around him, and his recounting of the story maintains his sense of awe and wonder. Wounds to Bind isn’t a score-settling tome: Burgan has good things to say about (nearly) everyone with whom he worked. Still, Wounds to Bind does present one man’s perspective on the folk rock scene of the mid 1960s.

Burgan is at his rhapsodic best when writing about the arrangement and recording of “You Were On My Mind.” His (and Rifkin’s) written deconstruction of the song and its genesis serves to highlight the brilliance of the We Five version of the Ian and Sylvia tune. In fact, theirs is less a “version” and more a rethinking: in addition to changing the lyrics (for airplay), Mike Stewart and company created lyrical emphases that didn’t exist in the original, and added instrumental flourishes that made the song a timeless, transcendent piece of earnest folk-pop-rock.

Burgan’s recounting of his time on the road in Dick Clark‘s traveling revue is also a richly rewarding read. Of particular note are his characterization of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and his telling of a Thanksgiving episode in rural West Virginia. And Burgan rightly highlights the significance of having drummer John Chambers in the band in a time when mixed-race groups were highly unusual (to say the least). And his stories about We Five (by then on the downhill side of success) performing in front of ultraconservative audiences in Texas and Utah are well-told and (rare within the context of the book) simply hilarious.

The fact of the matter remains that We Five never capitalized on the success of their lone hit single. Near the book’s tail-end, Burgan recounts a recent conversation with Jerry Moss, co-founder (with Herb Alpert) of A&M Records, the label that released We Five’s music. Moss apparently has fond memories of the first We Five album, struggled to recall the second…and as for the third? Nothing. That same reaction likely holds true for even the hardest of hardcore sixties folk fans: nothing We Five did post-”You Were On My mind” got notice, and – based on Burgan’s telling of the story – not a whole lot of it was all that memorable anyway.

And therein lies the challenge in a book such as Wounds to Bind. The story that most people want to know about takes place within the space of a few years in the middle of the 1960s. But of course Burgan can’t just leave it like that; doing so wouldn’t make sense. So a chunk of the book (arguably a disproportionate amount) is given over to discussing events post-”You Were On My Mind.” Sadly, it gets less and less interesting – and farther from the core of the folk-rock story – as it goes along. Anecdotes about Burgan and his wife playing desultory gigs in Las Vegas and Reno are more than a little depressing, and his memories of Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Van Dyke, and Gary Lewis are serious downers as well. And though Burgan makes no apologies for it – nor should he – the story of him moving into pharmaceutical sales seems to exemplify the “selling out” that so many sixties luminaries railed against.

That said, Burgan makes it clear that he – unlike pretty much every other figure from that era about whom I’ve ever read – was largely apolitical. And a guy’s gotta eat. So while no one’s questioning his life choices, a significant percentage of Wounds to Bind covers material that’s just not all that compelling.

Sad, too, are the fates met by all of Burgan’s ex-bandmates. Wounds to Bind does “solve” the “mystery” of whatever happened to vocalist Beverly Bivens, but that story might be met by most readers with a resigned shrug and a sigh. Surprisingly little is discussed about Burgan’s wife Debbie’s role as Bivens’ replacement in We Five (documented on the now-rare Return of the We Five and Catch the Wind LPs), beyond the author making clear again and again the Debbie didn’t much care for touring (or drugs).

Some mention is made of the 2009 compilation There Stands the Door, a best-of/rarities CD that shows We Five to far better effect than did their A&M releases, highlighting the fact that the group drew influences not only from folk (such as the group Mike Stewart‘s brother John was in, The Kingston Trio), but Tin Pan Alley and show tunes. That focus suggests that – had We Five held together and been better marketed by A&M, they might have had a shot at a place in the music scene not unlike Spanky and Our Gang achieved. But because A&M had their hands full with “adult” pop (The Tijuana Brass, Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66, The Baja Marimba Band), and viewed We Five as too far into the rock sound (ironic considering how little regard its members had for rock music in general), things never went that way.

At its best, Wounds to Bind is a fascinating memoir of an important time in music and culture. Unfortunately, at its worst, it’s simply not all that compelling. Many glaring errors (one moment The Raiders’ lead singer is named Marc Lindsay; the next’s he’s Mark Lindsay, then Marc again; that’s just one example of several I could cite) suggest that Wounds to Bind could have benefited from an editor’s careful once- or twice-over.

Verdict: a qualified recommendation. Parts One and Two are well-written, essential reading, and those who get that far will want to read the rest, but Part Three is downbeat and less rewarding for the reader.

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Concert Review: J Mascis, Asheville NC, Septermber 28 2014

Friday, October 10th, 2014

A Guest Feature by Annelise Kopp

J Mascis is the loudest acoustic show I’ve ever seen. During his September 28, 2014 show at Asheville NC’s Grey Eagle, J was seated onstage with two guitars nearby, and surrounded by three large guitar amplifiers. By his side were two large bottles of coconut water. For nearly the entirety of the show, Mascis sang and played with his eyes closed, occasionally opening them to turn a page in his song binder, switch guitars, or on rarer occasions look down at the stage, or – rarer yet – into the crowd.

Mascis is most famous for being a founding member of Dinosaur Jr, the influential band who have been playing since the 80s. I had the pleasure of seeing Dinosaur Jr play at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse in 2009. It was the loudest show of any kind that I’ve seen to date. Seeing J Mascis play in the intimate context of the Grey Eagle offered a new, and welcome, perspective.

Watch “Freak Scene” (Dinosaur Jr, 1988)

Mascis has steadily maintained his solo career alongside his involvement in Dinosaur Jr; his solo dates began as a string of one-man acoustic shows. Dates on his 1995 tour were recorded, and yielded his first album, Martin + Me, which was released in 1996. Though he’s considered a guitar virtuoso, Mascis’ solo work has been more subtle in its musical expression.

Watch “Listen to Me” (J Mascis, 2011)

Though he’s taken on an acoustic, folky sound in much of his solo work, what J is doing to a guitar can be classified as shredding. His raspy vocals layered over fuzzy – albeit more delicate – guitar melodies illuminate not only what J has contributed to Dinosaur Jr and the role he has played in the development and growth of their sound, but also the parts of his expression that just don’t fit into that vessel. When one listens to J’s solo work, it’s easy to think, “this is Dinosaur Jr!”

In 2011, Henry Rollins (once Black Flag frontman and now public speaker, actor, activist, musician (and the list goes on), opened for Dinosaur Jr on their Bug tour, revisiting their 1988 album in its entirety. For Rollins’ opening set, he broke from the spoken-word format he’s toured with in recent years, instead choosing to interview Dinosaur Jr, one of his favorite bands. Rollins, in a related radio interview for Seattle’s KEXP, queried the band: “You guys have been touring consistently throughout the 80s the 90s, and bravely and triumphantly through this new century as well. What does touring and playing as often as you all do mean to you? Still enthusiastic about playing every night? Is it still fun?”

Mascis, infamous for his elusiveness and brevity in interviews, came out with, “More than ever, yeah. I like it a lot better now then when I was a kid. I was… I dunno… more ungrateful I guess… and just kinda depressed or something.”

And you’d almost have to feel that way. Mascis has hardly taken a break from playing shows since playing in hardcore band Deep Wound with Lou Barlow (with whom he founded Dinosaur Jr just a few years later). That was in the early 1980s. Some twenty years later, Dinosaur Jr and J Mascis are still touring. Amidst this, Mascis has continued to release new albums with Dinosaur Jr, release solo material, and be involved in innumerable other projects.

Mascis has recorded with Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene; played banjo on one of The Hold Steady’s albums; played guitar on GG Allin’s Hated in the Nation; and provided lead guitar tracks on Thurston Moore’s Trees Outside the Academy (which was also recorded in Mascis’ home studio).

It’s through his music that J connects with his fans. In spite of his insular stage presence and disinterest in exposing himself to interviewers, J communicates volumes of meaning through his work. His most recent solo albums, Several Shades of Why and Tied to a Star are accessible to Dinosaur Jr fans and new listeners alike. Still, like an intimate conversation with old friend, the experiences are different and illuminate interesting, sometimes profound, parts of who J Mascis is. Apart from J’s solo work in the context of Dinosaur Jr exists a catalog of work that speaks for itself through its different stages of maturity.

At the end of the show, Mascis exited stage right, eyes mostly to the floor as he stepped just outside the door, lingering briefly before returning to the stage. True to everything we’ve ever known of Mascis, the charade of the ever-standardized-encore was performed listlessly. He returned to play one final song and killed it. The crowd cheered, respectfully, because seeing J Mascis play live is seeing a modern legend.

Watch the full KEXP interview with Henry Rollins & Dinosaur Jr

Watch J Mascis’s 1993 interview with kennedy on Alternative Nation

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Album Review: Bombadil — Tarpits and Canyonlands

Friday, September 26th, 2014

With a slightly more arty take on the approach favored by bands like Fleet Foxes, on Tarpits and Canyondlands, Durham NC-based Bombadil crafts a music that feels like equal parts Americana, baroque art-pop, and quirky Van Dyke Parks-styled worldAmericana. Metallic-sounding tack piano forms the centerpiece of many of the disc’s arrangements, but out-front vocal harmonies figure largely in the group’s sound, too.

But before you start thinking that Tarpits and Canyonlands is some sort of bandwagon-jumping exercise designed to glom on to the success of Fleet Foxes and their ilk, consider this: the album was originally released back in 2009, upon which it sank with nary a trace. A number of serious setbacks contributed to the album’s failure-to-launch, but the most serious setback occurred when band member Daniel Michalak (“considered the band’s driving force,” sayeth the press kit) was waylaid with a serious – and incapacitating – medical condition called neural tension. So despite some early positive reviews, Bombadil disappeared from sight, taking the promise of Tarpits and Canyonlands with them.

After five years(!) of treatment of most ever kind, Michalak started to get better. But things went slowly…very slowly. In 2012 Bombadil finally took to the road for a tour, which went well.

Well, now it’s 2014. Earlier this year the band – rightly convinced of the quality of their largely overlooked 2009 album – reissued Tarpits and Canyonlands. But they didn’t simply burn up a stack of CDs. Oh, no: Tarpits and Canyonlands has been given the most lavish reissue/repackage one can imagine. A sprawling 2LP vinyl set comes housed in the sturdiest gatefold sleeve I’ve ever seen, complete with artwork and extra goodies that border on the precious. But for a standout album of its quality, the lavish treatment makes sense.

The band’s baroque Americana somehow feels warmer and less stilted than (gotta mention ‘em again) Fleet Foxes; there’s something up close and personal about the production values that makes the whole affair seem, well, friendlier. Yawning cellos lean up against gently picked acoustic guitars; odd bits of distorted guitar rub uncomfortably against martial snare drum blasts; the net effect is difficult to classify, but worth the time spent unwrapping its charms.

In connection with the reissue, Bombadil returned to the road; the next several weeks will see the band take a southern swing, with October dates in Ohio, then Virginia, two dates in their home state of North Carolina, two in Georgia (Atlanta and Athens, natch), and three in Tennessee (Gatlinburg, Nashville, and Knoxville.

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Festival Review: Transfigurations II, Part 1

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

It’s not easy putting together the lineup for a music festival. All sorts of competing forces work against each other in the planning process. You want a lineup that’s cutting-edge, but you need to keep it accessible enough to sell tickets. You want an eclectic lineup, but you also might want to make selections based upon some sort of overarching theme.

The organizers of Transfigurations II – a celebration of the anniversary of Asheville NC-based Harvest Records, previewed here – threaded the needle with this year’s festival. The lineup drew from a wide array of genres, wide enough to appeal to aficionados of the out-there as well as to the mildly adventurous festival-goer.

I wasn’t able to make it to either of the first two nights – held at local Asheville clubs – but I enjoyed an afternoon and evening on Blennerhassett Island in nearby Marshall NC, site of the Saturday segment of the festival. Set up across three stages, the festival featured a small outdoor stage near the water for solo- and small acts (amplified acoustic and such), a large outdoor stage, and an indoor stage in the gymnasium building of what used to be a school. I bumped into a friend at the festival, and in conversation, we decided that the crowd numbered around 500-800 people, a nice size if you’re attending. I estimated the crowd’s mean age to be about half my own, but there really was music for all tastes here. Food and beer lines weren’t overly long, and one could get as close to the performer as one wished (more on that later).

Upon arriving, I caught a few minutes of the tail-end of Steve Gunn‘s set on the big outdoor stage. My initial impression – commenting on both the band and Gunn’s vocals – was that the whole thing sounded a bit like The Grateful Dead backing Greg Lake.

Next, Asheville-based Angel Olsen appeared on the small outdoor stage solo, accompanied only by a solidbody electric guitar. Her angsty, heartfelt melodies were delivered by the amped-up, slightly distorted guitar, yet she played in a folky style. Her vocals included a fair amount of what might be termed yodeling. Not exactly my cup of tea, but Olsen is clearly very good at what she does, she seems quite free of artifice, and the sizable crowd (which grew as her set went on) was enthralled, thoroughly enjoying her performance.

When Olsen finished, I walked the couple-dozen steps to the indoor stage where Quilt would perform. They hadn’t quite started their set yet, so I walked up front to take a closer look at their onstage gear. I was surprised and delighted to find a Rheem combo organ. Rheems are somewhat rare beasts; as combo-organ.com notes, the company is best known for their water heaters (no, really). The Mark VII that Quilt had was in excellent shape, unexpected for a keyboard manufactured 1966-68 or so. Though I had never heard the group, I knew that Quilt was described as “dream psychedelic,” and that alone was enough to pique my interest. Seeing the Rheem organ suggested to me that they might be (or at least sound like ) the genuine article.

Indeed they were. The four-piece stuck mostly to original material from their two albums, and while there was a faint whiff of “Paisley Underground” about their sound, for the most part their hypnotic-yet-catchy songs didn’t sound like anyone else in particular. Though this was a daytime set in a sunlight-filled gym, eventually the sun moved just enough (Blennerhassett Island is surrounded by mountains) so about mid-set, the room dimmed a bit.

That meant that the way-cool vari-lites and projections cast the desired effect upon the group, giving them a look highly reminiscent of the photo on the back cover of The Velvet Underground With Nico. The kind of music they played – though more hooky than even the Velvets’ most pop-oriented tunes – only heightened the similarity. My comment at the time was, “I have t-shirts older than them, but they ‘get’ it.” I bought their (vinyl) album at the merch table as soon as their set was over.

Click to read Part Two: The Clean, Reigning Sound, and Lee Fields & the Expressions.

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Hundred Word Reviews for August 2014, Part 1

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Some familiar names and some true obscurities are highlighted in this, the first of five sets of five capsule reviews. This week I’ll review 25 albums, arbitrarily limiting myself to exactly one hundred words each.


Gene Rains – Far Away Lands: The Exotic Music of Gene Rains
Exotica – that early 60s genre featuring wide-panned stereo, vibes, “jungle” percussion and all manner of whoops, bird calls and such – was a big seller; the genre’s two primary exponents were Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. The lesser-known Gene Rains cut three albums that are in the same league; all are long out of print and rare. This new compilation from Real Gone Music collects the best from those LPs, and adds an excellent new liner note essay from Randy Poe (and a lovely cheesecake cover featuring MeduSirena). This disc should be considered essential for fans of the genre.


Pete Seeger – Sing Out America! The Best of Pete Seeger
There seem to have been at least sixty compilations that have attempted to provide some sort of overview to the musical legacy of folk master and American treasure Pete Seeger. Some are long out of print; other remain available. Well, here’s another one. Sing Out America! features fifty tracks, variously credited to The Almanac Singers (an aggregation that also included Woody Guthrie), The Weavers, and Seeger solo. One can’t assail the quality of the music herein, but lack of liner notes and/or discographical info (recording date?) means that this set is a great listen, but unsatisfying as a historical document.


Peggy Lipton – The Complete Ode Recordings
Those of a certain age remember Peggy Lipton as a star of TV’s The Mod Squad (“One black, one white…one blonde!”). But they may well be surprised to learn Lipton had a recording career. And unlike some artists-turned-singers (see: Clint Eastwood), the recordings Lipton released on her self-titled 1968 LP and a handful of later singles show her to be a commanding vocalist. The nineteen tasteful Lou Adler-produced sides (including four previously-unreleased songs) owe a lot to the Laura Nyro school. Lipton composed a number of the tunes, and they hold up nicely alongside readings of classics like “Stoney End.”


Eric Clapton – Behind the Sun
Some insist that Eric Clapton should have hung up his guitar after 1970′s Layla and Assorted Other Love Songs. Clapton didn’t often rock very hard after that (the brief Cream reunion notwithstanding). This 1985 album – newly reissued on SACD – has its rocking moments, though it more often veers toward breezy, easy listening. Behind the Sun is easily identified as a product of its era: Simmons drum sounds abound; prominent synthesizer sounds are equally dated. In places it’s reminiscent of Roger Waters‘ 1984 The Pro and Cons of Hitchhiking (on which Clapton played). Not bad, but definitely not great.


Various Artists – Chicago Bound: Chess Blues, R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll
England-based Fantastic Voyage has carved an excellent niche in the world of compilation albums. Their thoughtful collections have provided tidy surveys of long-lost music, more often than not from the USA. The legendary Chess label was home to a staggering list of classic artists, and this 3CD set brings together some of the best sides from artists including Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. It also highlights the work of lesser-known acts including J. B. Lenoir (“Eisenhower Blues”) and Bobby Saxton (“Trying to Make a Living”). Chicago Bound is up to Fantastic Voyage’s typical high level of quality.

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Album Review: Dave Van Ronk — Inside Dave Van Ronk

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

I’m not a folkie. When it comes to acoustic based music of the folk sort, my tastes are fairly limited: I own a decent-sized stack of Bob Dylan albums, that cat-chewed first Peter, Paul and Mary LP I got from my parents’ collection, and a few Phil Ochs albums. And that’s about it. I prefer the British Isles/European folk styles of Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson, and, well, Donovan.

But I’ve long been familiar with the name Dave Van Ronk, albeit only on a surface level. What I knew of him could be summed up in a sentence or two at most: he was part of that whole Greenwich Village scene, along with people like Rambin’ Jack Elliott. I had never heard a note of music by either of them, though. Still, when the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis was released, and I started hearing Van Ronk’s name more often, I figured it was time to give a listen. (The film takes some of its cues from Van Ronk’s life, I’m told; I haven’t seen the movie.)

As it happens, Concord Music Group, owner of the Fantasy back catalog, shrewdly chose right-about-now as the time to reissue Inside Dave Van Ronk, on vinyl and CD. So availing myself of a copy, I sat down to take in some folk. But first, I turned to my trusty and well-worn copy of the seminal rock-crit treatise, Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia. Wrote Ms. Roxon:

In the sixties, an age of lyric tenors, falsettos and angelic boy singers, Dave Van Ronk, who sings like a combination truck driver-lumberjack, seems strangely out of time and out of place. But if you’ve ever heard him after an evening of Judy Collins-Joan Baez sweetness, and if you’ve heard what he does with Joni Mitchell‘s “Both Sides Now,” giving it the gritty third dimension of a man who’s been there, then you know his time is coming.

Roxon was prescient about a lot of things, but Van Ronk’s time never truly did come. Or maybe it did. While he never shifted a whole lotta units, this was folk music, after all. But he was a respected, revered figure in the folk world, and his twenty-or-so albums are highly regarded within the folk idiom. Allmusic.com rates several of his albums as four-to-five star releases, and not a single rated one is less than three stars.

He began his recording career in 1959, and his fourth LP (recorded in early ’62) was released in 1964 as Inside Dave Van Ronk. On the record, Van Ronk performs unaccompanied acoustic guitar readings of a dozen tunes, all traditional numbers. And to the first-time listener, he sounds a bit like an American version of Nick Drake, albeit with a much gruffer voice and a simpler approach on the guitar. The choice of English folk tunes (“Fair and Tender Ladies,” to name one) alongside more recognizably American ones (“Kentucky Moonshiner”) heighten the similarity.

The Fantasy reissue isn’t a straight reissue f the original LP; no, it also includes the LP Dave Van Ronk / Folksinger (recorded in April ’62 at the same time as the Inside tracks, but released in 1967; go figure). It’s a mix of traditional tunes with some more modern numbers. So the CD features 25 tracks.

The two albums are very much cut from the same cloth, and it makes good conceptual sense to reunite the music all into one place. His reading of Reverend Gary Davis‘ “Cocaine Blues” is more rough-hewn than Drake’s version (included on the bootleg Tamworth-in-Arden). But it honors its source relatively faithfully. Van Ronk plays guitar and sings on the Folksinger tracks; he switches to the more expressive 12-string for Inside, and adds a bit of dulcimer, autoharp and harmonica as well. All the tracks are spare and unadorned, and sound like what they probably are: recordings made in a single pass, with Van Ronk pulling songs from his own repertoire and playing them the same way he would at a Village coffeehouse.

If that description sounds appealing, you’ll likely enjoy an hour-plus of Dave Van Ronk as presented on this set. The music makes no pretense to be anything more than it is: Van Ronk’s not musically arguing for the timelessness of these folk tunes. He’s merely presenting them for you to react however you see fit.

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Album Review: Los Lobos — Sí Se Puede

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

It was eight long years ago that I first reviewed a Los Lobos album, a then-new best-of compilation called Wolf Tracks. And I had added some of their music to my collection many years earlier, with a purchase of the La Pistola y el Corazon vinyl LP in 1988. So while I’ve not followed their career as closely as perhaps I should have, I’ve known from the start that these Angelinos were adept at chronicling the Latino/Norteamericano experience in a way few others could even attempt.

What I didn’t know until very recently is that while their breakout EP Just Another Band From East L.A was released in 1978, it wasn’t their debut: an even-earlier collection of songs was put together in 1976.

Conceived as a charity album with all sales proceeds going to United Farm Workers of America, Sí Se Puede featured the band backing various vocal collectives. And coming from a band that was still some years away from hitting the relatively big time, it’s a revelation.

As one might expect, there’s a strong worker-centric vibe to these songs, all selected by television producer Art Brambila, the man who conceived of the overall project. Brambila gathered local singers together in a studio (with session time donated by Herb Alpert) with the then four-member Los Lobos to record the ten tracks that made up Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can). A few weeks later, the project was completed, and 5000 copies were pressed on vinyl, to be sold as fundraisers. In 2014, original copies are impossibly rare: the two online outlets where one usually looks to find used vinyl (musicstack.com and discogs.com) have none, nor does ebay. Gemm.com does indeed list one, for a mere $1409.18 (plus shipping).

Thankfully, Concord Music Grop has remedied this situation, after a fashion. On March 11 (this week) the label has reissued Sí Se Puede in digital-only format. And while that might be a slight disappointment to those who cherish the physical artifact, the music itself makes getting an mp3 version worth making the exception.

Most of the tunes are in Spanish (in all or in part), but a lack of familiarity with the language won’t diminish your enjoyment. “Mana is Now” featuring Geree Gonzales and Tierra sounds not wholly unlike what Linda Ronstadt did on 1987′s Canciones de mi Padre. And the artist known here only as Ramon fronts Los Lobos on “Yo Estoy con Chavez” (“I am With [Cesar] Chavez”), a new folk tune based – fittingly enough — on the melody of Woody Guthrie‘s “This Land is Your Land.”

There’s plenty of traditional Mexican sounds to be found here; Los Lobos turn in primarily acoustic performances, though the lack of electric instruments doesn’t mean a corresponding lack in energy. Lots of accordion, fiddle and harmonica give these tunes – lovingly arranged by the band – an authentic and homespun (yet thoroughly professional) feel overall. The highlight of the entire collection is one of three tracks on Sí Se Puede to feature Carmen Moreno, the lovely, flute-laden “Sangre Antigua.”

Fans of the band will absolutely want to add this to their collection, as will anyone interested in a socio-musical document of the concerns of California farm workers in the mid 1970s. Originally done as a way to raise funds for UFW, today it’s simply a fine collection of music.

Note: You may also enjoy my review of Los Lobos’ 2010 album, Tin Can Trust.

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Jamie Laval’s “Christmas in Scotland”

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

A deep love and understanding of Celtic cultural and musical traditions; a foundation of classical training; and a fresh look at celebrating the Holiday season: that was the recipe for “Christmas in Scotland: Seasonal Music and Stories from Celtic Lands,” a holiday show at Asheville’s Isis Theatre on December 27, 2013.

Hosted by award-winning fiddler (and Asheville resident) Jamie Laval, “Christmas in Scotland” featured music and storytelling focused on the season. But not, perhaps, the season you’d think. While Laval acknowledges that “we have our own signature music from Appalachia,” he notes that “by the time Scots-Irish settlers came to this area, the Christmas music tradition had already been well-established. A lot of the traditional carols that we all know and love had existed for centuries.”

“Those were village dance tunes,” he explains. “The church took a hold of them, slowed them down, and added Christian-based lyrics to them. By the time the settlers came here, the tunes were thought to be regular Christian Christmas carols. But if you look way back, that changeover from being pagan-based holiday music had already long since taken place.”

And it’s those pre-Christian traditional village folk dance tunes that Laval and his compatriots would play at this special performance. “I’ve made my specialty in really, really ancient Scottish music, Laval says. “And I try to give a fresh spin to it.” Laval is well-suited to such an ambitious goal: he began his formal musical training in British Columbia at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, where he studied classic violin. But he quickly fell in with the region’s folk traditions. “My first summer job was playing chamber music in the lobby of a grand old lodge,” Laval recalls with a chuckle. “Everyone who worked at the hotel had a tendency to spend off-days at the grange hall dances. So after being in music a very short time, I started doing square dances, barn dances.” Initially, those folk dance events were a mere sideline and hobby for the young fiddler. “But,” he continues,” over the years, as I pursued a classical career in symphony playing, I got better and better at the folk music.” He says that he eventually devised his own style, a “signature rendition of Scottish and Irish” traditions within the framework of the Celtic music format.

“Ten or twelve years into classical music,” Laval recalls, “I realized that my heart was really leaning more toward folk music than classical. I made a decision to turn a corner. He went out in style, though: his final classical gig was Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, performed with the Seattle Opera. “A grand send-off,” he laughs.

Celtic music is handed down through note-for-note re-creation of the tunes. Asked if he finds that relatively strict format limiting or liberating, Laval chooses the latter, and attributes it to a characteristic one might not think to associate with the style: groove. And, unlike classical, “the liberating part is that there’s no requirement to be faithful to a score.” In folk music, Laval points out, “it’s perfectly permissible to re-render the music in a different tempo, a different harmonic structure, with different emotion.”

Reflecting on the universal appeal of folk music, Laval suggests that humans are “hard wired for rhythm.” Moreover, he says, “I understand the depths of emotion that come across through folk music.” That, he says, is due in part to the fact that “folk music is the product of not one composer, but a collective body of people as the music is passed from one generation to another. It gets imbued with the sentiments of each of its contributors. And so the music ends up being an expression of a people, of a whole culture.” In Celtic music, Laval hears the “yearning and longing and struggle and triumph that’s built into that long tradition.”

And that culture – with its long-held pre-Christian traditions – was the focus of the “Christmas in Scotland” show. “This is a chance to put together the kind of lineup I don’t usually get to play with,” says Laval. He customarily performs solo or with a very small group. Bigger ensembles usually necessitate large venues and large stages, with the accompanying divide between performer and audience. Laval promised that “Christmas in Scotland” at the Isis, would be “intimate, but yet I get to work with dancers. And that’s always fun.”

An edited version of this feature ran in the December 25, 2013 issue of Mountain Xpress.

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Album Review: Woody Guthrie — American Radical Patriot

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

Most Americans know the name Woody Guthrie. What they know of him beyond that – and/or their opinion on what he means to popular culture and music – varies widely. He’s an often misunderstood character, and as so often happens, human tendency toward a sort of reductionist thought tends to try and simplify him, to distill his essence down to a short wiki entry.

His body of work is an inconvenient presence to that sort of approach. The man wrote at least 3001 songs (that’s how many that have been officially catalogued by his official foundation) and there were certainly more. He recorded extensively, as well. And a new compilation brings together a thematically linked set of recordings dating mostly from the 1940s and 50s. Woody Guthrie: American Radical Patriot collects for the first time in one place all of the Library of Congress recordings Guthrie did with historian Alan Lomax, his Bonneville Power Administration songs; demos he did in hopes of supporting public health initiatives to combat venereal disease; and songs to support the WWII war effort. Six CD document that material, and a detailed annotation guides the listener along.

The sessions with Lomax are a rich combination of stories, songs and story-songs. In a small studio, the two men sit (with occasional sips of liquor), and Lomax – employing the polite fiction that the two had only just met – asks Guthrie to reminisce about his life as a youth in dust bowl Oklahoma, his move to California, and myriad other topics. For his part, Guthrie recounts jokes, tells heart-rending stories of death, and regales Lomax with vivid slice-of-life tales.

And quite often – sometimes without prompting, sometimes with encouragement from Lomax — Gurthrie sings and plays songs. His own tunes occasionally, but as often as not, songs he learned from others. Traditional songs adapted to his style, these tunes include “Greenback Dollar” and “The Midnight Special” (the latter written and popularized by Guthrie’s friend and another of Lomax’s session subjects, Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly).

Guthrie sings of love, of his god (“Jesus Christ,”) of American folk heroes and antiheroes (“Billy the Kid.” “Pretty Boy Floyd”), and of the struggles between the haves and have nots (“The Jolly Banker”).

The last of these leads toward a discussion of a question given deep coverage in the pages of American Radical Patriot‘s stunning book: was Woody Guthrie a Communist? Evidence is presented, and in the end the reader/listener is encouraged to make his/her own decision, but the liner essay author (Bill Nowlin, though one has to look hard to find the modest author’s name or credit) clearly believes – and argues convincingly – that Guthrie was in fact a “commonist” rather than a member of any sort of organized school of thought. Guthrie’s own half-jesting words on the subject: “I ain’t a communist necessarily, but I have been in the red all my life.” Nowlin suggests Guthrie was a sort of quasi-Christian socialist, and the songs in general support that view. More than anything else, he was a champion of the common man, of the downtrodden, the voiceless.

Though amazingly plain-spoken and a voice who articulated the persona of the American common man, Guthrie was indeed complicated. His views often changed. Early on he used the N-word, until taken to task by a radio listener. (He immediately stopped using the offensive term.) His views on the glories of American frontier expansionism led him to paint a negative portrait of Native Americans in one of the songs he cut for the BPA (“Roll On Columbia,”) though Nowlin suggests — again, convincingly so — that had Guthrie been called out on this, he likely would have rethought and rewritten the lytic.

Too, he was decidedly anti-war until the sinking of the USS Reuben James by the Germans in 1941. Guthrie went on to serve in the quasi-governmental Merchant Marines, and later the US Army. He recorded many anti-fascist songs including “Reuben James” and “Whoopy Ti-yi, Get Along, Mr. Hitler.” American Radical Patriot collects those tunes as well. While at first glance Guthrie’s populist sentiments might seem at odds with the idea of recording in the employ of the Federal government, closer inspection shows that it’s not at all inconsistent. Guthrie saw the federal government as a counterweight to some of the more anti-populist tendencies of state governance; in many ways he’s the polar opposite of the misguided, mean-spirited and short-sighted 21st century so-called “tea party” mentality.

The new set also includes innumerable goodies, but here’s a rundown of the most significant among these. First, there’s a DVD including a 99-minute documentary film Roll On Columbia; eleven of Guthrie’s songs are included. The liner notes – in a chapter entitled “The Bonneville Power Administration Recordings” — tell the story of one man’s heroic stewardship of films (including Guthrie’s music) that were ordered destroyed during the dark days of McCarthyism.

Though it’s of practical use to very few people, the set also includes a 10” 78rpm disc. The record includes an alternate recording of “The Biggest Thing that Man Has Ever Done” (originally cut for the BPA) and a flip-side recording of Bob Dylan covering Guthrie’s “VD Blues.”

The physical package itself is beyond amazing. Housed in a hardcover package designed to look and feel like an old-time “record album,” American Radical Patriot may well be the – from a visual/tactile aesthetic point of view – one of the most impressive box sets ever put together. The 60pp book (not a booklet!) bound inside is essential reading, though readers are advised against attempting to do so while listening ot the CDs. And if all that three-dimensional stuff isn’t enough, an e-book (also available on Disc One as a PDF, and in hard copy form for a nominal additional charge of about $13.50) presents a much longer and more in-depth version of the book included in the physical set.

As a cultural icon, Woody Guthrie, his oral histories and his music are all exemplars of the best qualities of the American experience. That a package such as American Radical Patriot is created to honor him is one of those why-didn’t-they-think-of-this-before things. But here it is. Simply essential.

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July Capsule Reviews, #2 of 3

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Here are four more capsule reviews that fulfill my twin goal of (a) clearing off my desk and (b) getting the word out about some music you’d almost certainly otherwise miss. Today’s selections are of a progressive bent. As is my standard procedure, my self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 150 words on each album.

Tim Morse – Faithscience
I will admit my bias right up front: when I see the surname Morse and a title that includes the word “faith,” I go “uh-oh.” While I delight in the knotty compositions of Spock’s Beard and related American progressive acts, that group’s former front man’s religious predilections are not my cup of tea. But Tim Morse has nothing to do with all that. He’s an author/music journalist (Yesstories) and member of a Yes tribute band (Parallels). But Faithscience – a concept record (sort of) based on the life of Charles Lindbergh(!) – sounds nothing like Yes. A few sonic splashes of Kansas here and there, but overall this varied musical excursion reminds that intelligent (and not overwrought) prog rock is alive and well in the USA. You just have to look a bit harder to find it. Morse’s clear voice adds a pop sensibility to his ambitious compositions.

Judy Dyble – Talking With Strangers
Fans of classic-, folk- and/or progressive rock might recognize the name Judy Dyble. She was a founding member of Fairport Convention, and she sang on the demo version of the embryonic King Crimson‘s “I Talk to the Wind.” But she’s been largely out of the limelight since that release (the album’s press one-sheet claims that Dyble “promptly retired to the English countryside to raise a family.”). Talking With Strangers bears some sonic similarities to Fairport Convention; Dyble’s English folk roots inform her songwriting and arrangement. He gentle voice is less forceful than that of Annie Haslam, but the songs on the album are (unsurprisingly) reminiscent of Renaissance. It helps that Dyble’s list of heavy friends includes Robert Fripp, Ian MacDonald, Tim Bowness (No-man) and Pat Mastelotto. While her original songs are strong, her reading of the Greg Lake/Pete Sinfield classic “C’est la Vie” is the highlight here.

Zenit – The Chandrasekhar Limit
Yeah, this kinda thing is my favorite kind of progressive rock. Lots of shade and light, shimmering acoustic guitars, ambitious melodies, clear singing. Long, sweeping compositions – the shortest track here is under three minutes, but three of them run twelve, seventeen and 24 minutes long – allow plenty of space to go in a number of musical and lyrical directions. Musical points of reference include Peter Gabriel-era Genesis as well as some more modern artists. Some welcome space-rock influences in “Awaken” call to mind Animals-era Pink Floyd; that’s a style of music well worth exploring. Elsewhere there are hints of jazz, tropicalia and world music, but Zenit never sound like a bunch of dilettantes when they travel to these other styles. “PiGreco” serves up dizzying time-signature fiddling, but weds it to a hard-rocking lead guitar passage. The Chandrasekhar Limit is a nice mix of classic and modern.

Jann Klose – Mosaic
This release doesn’t really fit into the progressive rock bag. Klose comes by his musical variety honestly, having been born in Germany but raised in Kenya and South Africa as well. Whatever influences those countries had on his music are subtle; it’s hard to pin him down to a particular style. His forte is writing, playing and singing straightforward, infectious songs. Oftentimes he sounds a bit like Crowded House (without the Kiwi accent), but in other spots his breezy tone recalls heartland American acts like Tom Petty. Sparking-clear production allows the songs to shine. Klose knows his way around a hook: listen to a tune like “Know What’s Right” and you’ll find yourself humming that melody for days afterward. No tune on the aptly-named Mosaic is like another, but all ten cuts fit together seamlessly. The tuneful Mosaic is rocking enough to please those who insist on some grit.

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