Archive for the ‘folk’ Category

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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Album Review: Bert Jansch – Heartbreak

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

While American folk music has never had an especially deep resonance with me, the British Isles variant has long spoken to me somehow. There’s something about the European traditional flavor in UK folk, I suppose, that touches me. Many of the rock artists I’ve long treasured have had their music informed to various degrees by folk. Perhaps that’s why I’m more likely to enjoy a Nick Drake album (or a Jethro Tull record!) than something by Pete Seeger.

But I would never claim to be an aficionado nor an expert on the genre. Yes, in my voracious, never-ending quest to read about a wide array of music, Bert Jansch‘s name has come up countless times. Generally it’s in the context of citing the Scottish guitarist as an influence upon someone or other. But until I received the new reissue of his 1981 album Heartbreak (available from Omnivore on stunning clear vinyl in a lovely and sturdy gatefold sleeve that must certainly better the original), I hadn’t actually heard his work.

Seeing the release date, I had some misgivings: folk – as with many musical forms – wasn’t at anything near its apex at the dawn of the 1980s. Would Heartbreak be filled with then-trendy (and now hopelessly dated) production filigrees? Well, technically speaking, some of the things one might fear are indeed present, but damn if they don’t work,and well. Though it’s not credited as such, that sounds unmistakeably like Coral electric sitar in the hands of guitarist Albert Lee on “Up to the Stars” and “Is it Real?” among other tracks. And while Randy Tico is credited on the sleeve with playing “Fender Bass” (one supposes this is to warn purists that Heartbreak is not an all-acoustic affair), it sounds as if Tico shaved off the frets for these sessions.

Jansch’s voice is distinctive and achingly beautiful; he’s one of those singers – like the underrated Al Stewart, one of those artists who has been greatly influenced by Jansch – whose voice is instantly recognizable; hear a few seconds of him singing and you know it’s him. On Heartbreak, Jansch weaves his story-songs through delicate, fetching melodic landscapes. Far less quirky/bizarre than, say, Roy Harper, Jansch paints pictures with his music, often (as on the lengthy, truth-in-advertising-titled “And Not a Word Was Said”) leaning in a very bluesy direction.

A few participants’ presence warrant mention. The crystalline production of brothers John Chelew and Richard Chelew belies the fact that Heartbreak was their first sessions as producers. And despite her MOR reputation, Jennifer Warnes‘ vocal harmonies on “Wild Mountain Thyme” invites favorable comparisons to Sandy Denny‘s work on Led Zeppelin‘s “The Battle of Evermore.”

Jansch’s cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” is inspired; with his player he conjures a sensibility out of the song that neither Elvis nor John Cale could have ever imagined. His reading of “If I Were a Carpenter” is more conventional but no less beautiful. Throughout Heartbreak – though it’s nominally a folk record – Jansch and his fellow musicians create an aesthetic that rock fans should find quite warm and inviting.

Jansch’s career had its ups and down after Heartbreak, including some brief reunions with his former group, Pentangle. He succumbed to lung cancer in October 2011, leaving behind a solo catalog of some two dozen albums plus his work with Pentangle and as a guest on many other recordings.

Postscript #1: there is also a 2CD release of Heartbreak from Omnivore; it contains fourteen tracks compared with the orignal’s (and vinyl reissue’s) ten.

Postscript #2: I have received unofficial word that early vinyl pressings of the 2012 Heartbreak reissue are in erroneously-pressed “collapsed monaural.” I cannot verify this assertion with 100% accuracy, but to my ears, it’s quite possible. That said, true or not, my enjoyment of the vinyl Heartbreak is not diminished one iota.

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