Archive for August 2009
Escape from the Chicken Coop
It isn’t unheard for blues singers to cut a country album; Tracy Nelson did so four decades ago, and numerous other artists have explored their country sides.
On Escape from the Chicken Coop, Watermelon Slim- Bill Homans when he’s at home- cuts loose on a collection of mostly truck-driving songs, blurring the line between country and blues.
Having been a trucker for much of his life, Slim approaches the material with honesty; the self-penned songs- especially “Caterpillar Whine”, “300 Miles”, and “America’s Wives”¬- sound natural coming from the slide guitarist. A plum pitiful performance of “Wreck on the Highway” and a rousing “Hank Williams You Wrote My Life”- seal the deal.
Slim’s slightly slurred singing- whether caused by a tobacco plug, loose dentures, or a natural speech pattern- takes some getting used to, but once it catches, it doesn’t let go.
Recorded with top-flight Nashville studio cats, Watermelon Slim’s fourth disc for Ontario’s Northern Blues label continues his streak of superior releases.
Make It Real Records
I’m fortunate to have made some solid connections while writing over the past decade. As a result, I am fairly well supplied by independent labels and artists. The major label conglomerates ignore me, and that’s fine; I have a tough enough time finding the means to review much of what I receive in the mail. As I type, there are two knee-high piles of releases beside my desk, awaiting my attenting. I know, thy burdens are greater than mine.
Sometimes it takes a bit of something extra to make me notice a release from artists I’m unfamiliar with. Perhaps it is a surprisingly inventive or complete press package, like that which accompanied Willie Mack’s impressive album The Journey. Sometimes, a handwritten note will get my attention, especially one written on a page torn from a vintage Canadian tretise as did Woodland Telegraph’s Matthew Lovegrove. A beautiful package- such as those designed for Northern Blues by A Man Called Wycraft- certainly cause notice. While such artful touches aren’t in themselves enough to garner a positive notice, they may push a disc to the top of the listening pile.
There is absolutely nothing to recommend the Brotherhood release from Ontario’s Blackburn. Until you listen to it! Making the mistake of packaging an album in a generic cover, the Toronto soul brothers do their funk-influenced blues music a regrettable disservice. As a result, I’ve had the disc for months and hadn’t found inspiration to listen to it until this weekend. My bad.
Bringing The Neville Brothers immediately to mind- and not just because of a timely and inspired cover of Sister Rosa- the quartet produces a sound that is fuller than their numbers would indicate. Simultaneously, the disc- whipped off in two days last fall- has a very polished effect, with well-mixed vocals and the individual instruments fully discernable.
Lead singer Duane Blackburn has a smooth soulful blues voice, while Brooke Blackburn lays down solid rhythm and lead guitar effects. Brooke’s songs- Movin’, Survival, Talk to Me, and notably Four Brothers surpass blues clichés and Duane’s Soul Searching wouldn’t be out of place on a Mem Shannon disc.
Tying together the Blackburn revue is the rhythm section of Cory Blackburn and Mark Ayee, who propel each song with idiosyncratic grooves, allowing Duane to explore his Booker T-side with furious Hammond B3 flourishes.
Blues band albums are- to me- largely a dime a dozen. Mostly, I find them a bore, seemingly produced by a neverending stream of balding and goteed electric guitar wankers. Unfair, I know, but there you go. It takes something distinctive to find favour with me. Blackburn has It in their blend of funk, soul, and blues sounds, beautifully displayed on Brotherhood.
To be fair to the art direction team, the black and white photos of the band are well-lit and finely composed. The lettering on the album is clear and sharp. It just isn’t distinctive enough to ‘grab’ the eye, or at least my eye.
Check out their sample tunes at MySpace/com/blackburnbrothers. You may have to do some searching to find the disc for sale- I haven’t seen it in any area stores- but it is readily available from CD Baby, a company I’ve dealt with without regret in the past.
Visit http://www.polarismusicprize.ca/ in the weeks leading up to the Polaris Music Prize announcement and download free songs from the nominated albums each week.
In my Roots Music column today I advance several area roots events and review two albums that were released on Canadian labels earlier this summer- The Homemade Jamz Blues Band’s new one I Got Blues for You (Northern Blues) and Kelly Joe Phelps’s Western Ball (Black Hen). I’ve had both albums for awhile but only now found the words to review them, not to mention the space.
The Homemade Jamz Blues Band I Got Blues for You (Northern Blues)
Comprised of ten-year old drummer Taya Perry and her teenaged brothers Kyle (14, bass) and Ryan (16, guitar and vocals) augmented by father and songwriter Renaud on harmonica, The Homemade Jamz Blues Band surpass novelty with their second collection of original blues.
This is a mature sounding album, with as much in common with blues-based rock acts- think late 70s Pat Travers Band- as it does the southern blues tradition. This is attributable to Ryan Perry’s vocal phrasing and extended instrumental breaks. Additionally, the subject matter- hard headed women, ramblin’, misguided love and unfaithfulness- is adult in theme.
Minor quibbles aside- Taya never passes up an opportunity to give her cymbals a swat, even when a more subtle approach may be considered- I Got Blues for You is suitably impressive and the kids prove themselves a competent power trio.
It would be easy to dismiss the siblings as puppets of an overbearing stage parent, lack of such evidence aside. If presented in an unlabeled jewel case, nothing would indicate that the mean age of the band is thirteen. Acutely sequenced, the album begins raucous and builds in intensity despite modulations in tempo and tone. The recording has a live feel, and there are times when one expects applause over fading notes.
The real treats are the lead vocals and guitar. Ryan Perry has a deep-seated blues growl tempered by phrasing well beyond his years, reminiscent of Phil Lynott and Bill Sheffield. Heaven Lost an Angel is passionately sung, and his instrumentation on a double-necked 12-string is supportive of the song’s mood. King Snake and In the Wind provide additional examples of the singer’s mature dexterity.
Kelly Joe Phelps Western Bell (Black Hen Music)
One of the most expressive vocalists within the Americana genre, Kelly Joe Phelps has also long been recognized for his dexterity within various guitar styles.
On his latest album, Phelps sings not a word. Instead, in producing a nocturnal collection of eleven solo guitar instrumentals, the west coast native allows his 6- and 12- strings to reclaim their rightful place. Haunting and adventurous, the tunes never get bogged down in noodling. So balanced and spacious are the songs, it is difficult to accept that much of the album was improvised in the studio.
Much like an unfamiliar but fragrant coffee blend might be appreciated, Western Bell intrigues and challenges, with lingering flavours that ultimately soothe.
While listening, many names float along the notes- Richard Thompson, Leadbelly, Tony Rice, Jack Lawrence- but one is left with only one: Kelly Joe Phelps.
As always, thanks to the labels and publicists who continue to service me with music to review. And thanks to you for stopping by to read my thoughts. Now, go buy an album! Best, Donald
Originally published in the Red Deer Advocate July 3 2009
Lee Harvey Osmond
A Quiet Evil
Turn Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) loose, and odd things are bound to occur.
His latest collective, featuring Michael and Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), Josh Finlayson and Andy Maize (The Skydiggers), and Brent Titcomb (Brent Titcomb), mines deep, virgin musical ground; livelier and less nuanced perhaps than Iron & Wine’s Around the Well, it is every bit as engaging as Sam Beam’s rarities smorg.
Wilson has deemed the music ‘acid-folk’, but outside that meaningless moniker, the music is fairly indefinable. It isn’t what I would immediately label as roots music, but is has all the elements- original music, ties to country, rock, and folk, and textured vocals that shy away from pop gloss. The album seems dark, yet is soothing and enlightening. A Quiet Evil is half a world away from Dog Years, Wilson’s previous project, but is a raucous neighbor to his project with Bob Lanois.
It is an outstanding collection of variant music, by which I mean there are all types of sounds within the ten tracks, but they tie together into a cohesive statement. The presence of Aaron Goldstein’s pedal steel brings in shades of country, but the overall sound has as much in common with X and Los Straitjackets as it does Fred Eaglesmith.
Wilson sings in his voice- the guy couldn’t do anything else- and the results are as satisfying as ever. This time out he adds a bit of Larry Jon Wilson-like, half-spoken singing in several places, and that breaks things up nicely.
Margo Timmins brings calm refinement to the proceedings, and her featured numbers, including (You Drove Me Crazy) Now I’m Going to Stay That Way, are among the album’s many highlights. Parkland, a stream of consciousness ramble that describes the actions of a kid, and may be tied to the Kennedys…heck, I’m not sure what he’s doing; still, it would do Tom Russell proud.
A glorious album, I’m sure Lee Harvey Osmond will draw well at the Calgary Folk Music Festival later this month.
I’ve written a review of the Heather Berry & Tony Before Bluegrass album over at the http://lonesomeroadreview.wordpress.com site. Give it a peak if you are interested. Best, Donald
This past Saturday, I took the highway north to take in my (almost) annual day at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, I find it difficult to do more than a day at any music fest although there was a time when I could do three days in Calgary, three at Stony Plain, and then four in Edmonton; those days are long gone. In fact, this year, I needed to sleep away most of Sunday afternoon just to recover from my day at Gallagher Park.
Because I limit myself to a day at the EFMF, I do try to take in as much music as possible. I go in with a bit of a game plan as to which sessions I most want to catch, but try to allow for some spontaneity. This year I was very much looking forward to finally catching Rodney Crowell as he has been a long time favourite I haven’t caught in concert; I remember a scheduled Red Deer show in the early nineties was cancelled after only a few dozen tickets sold- and this after six consecutive number ones on the Canadian country charts.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the festival is well-established and there are usually not too many organizational surprises, leaving one to discover music without worrying about food (lots of vendors), water (two different locations with plenty of taps with potable water), potties (go early is my advice!), or discs (the CD tent is fully stocked, although some artists still don’t bring enough (or any) product to satisfy the demand). I’m estimating this is my tenth festival over fifteen years, and despite attending only the one day, I must admit I have never more enjoyed an Edmonton Folk Music Festival. It helps that the weather was sunny without being uncomfortably hot.
I got to the park in plenty of time to catch the opening sessions, and made a bee-line for Stage 2 for Newgrass, a pairing of Nashville’s The SteelDrivers and Mongolia’s Hanggai. I had checked out Hanggai’s Myspace site (http://www.myspace.com/hanggaiband) the day before and was intrigued at the interaction that may occur between southern bluegrassers and an Asian stringband. I was not disappointed.
Richard Bailey, the SteelDrivers’ five-stringer and one of the most in-demand session players in Nashville, had a huge smile on his face as he dropped in some basic fills while the throat singer and other members of Hanggai performed their music. Quite a bit of interplay occurred between the quintets, with Hanngai’s electric guitar player taking an extended break during one of the SteelDriver tunes- can’t recall which one.
This was my first chance catching the SteelDrivers, and they didn’t disappoint. Tammy Rogers has played Edmonton numerous times as a member of the Dead Reckoners, and her contributions to a song are always appreciated. Chris Stapleton’s growly blues vocals are as effective on stage as they are live, and Mike Fleming kept things moving along with a restrained approach to MC duties. The bands came together for a rousing closing on “The Drinking Song.” This was one session that ended much too soon, and it seemed that everyone on the stage left quite pleased with their collaboration.
Next up were my favourite Canadian alt-country band, The Swiftys. I was pleased to see Marc Ladouceur hanging around the stage area as the SteelDrivers and Hanngai performed, leading me to believe he might be sitting in with the band. And he was, performing on acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin. It became clear early on that Jody Johnson was no longer playing with Shawn Jonasson and Grant Stovel as a new bassman was on stage with them- and Jody was off to the side. Roger Marin was also sitting in on pedal steel, making the trio a quintet.
I didn’t take notes during the show, and instead just sat back to enjoy the forty-minute set. They played songs from both of their albums including “Ridin’ High” and “Sweet Rose”. They dropped in Shuyler Jansen’s “Bottle of Wine” and Darrek Anderson’s “26 oz of Gin”, both recorded on their Ridin’ High disc, as well as a cover of Waylon’s “Sweet Mental Revenge.” I don’t know how much this line-up has been gigging, but they sounded quite tight and there were no noticeable slips. Knowing how much Marc likes the electric guitar, I was pleased to finally, after how many years, get to hear him play in a couple spots. Very nice, and complemented the band’s sound nicely. A strong set of electric barroom-inspired country music was enjoyed by a fairly large gathering of friends, family, and fans at stage two.
After touching base with acquaintances after the show, I rushed off the catch the final bit of a session featuring Tift Merritt, Sam Baker, Alana Levandoski, and Slaid Cleaves. To be able to listen to three of my favourites- four, if one includes Gurf Morlix who was sitting in with Sam- was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I don’t often enjoy the sessions that include a number of singer-songwriters taking turns playing their songs with little interaction. It often seems pretty stiff and awkward. Maybe it has to do with the mind-set of the songwriter.
Sam Baker was finishing up “Orphan” as I got to Stage 5. Slaid slipped nicely into “Drinkin’ Days” along with a backing duo whose names I didn’t catch. Tift was next up, and sang a beautiful version of “Something to Me” unaccompanied. Very nice, and a great way for my only chance to see Merritt at the festival to begin. Later, she moved over to the keyboard to perform “Good Hearted Man.”
I only caught a couple songs by Alana, one of which was a cover of “Those Memories of You” inspired by her dual love of Emmylou Harris and Brit-pop bands.
Sam Baker performed “Truale” and Slaid’s mando player was invited to drop in a four-second break. Gurf Morlix wrapped things up, playing it “weird and scary”, transforming the Stones’ “The Last Time” into a breezy gospel clap-a-long. A nice way to close things down.
The session- at least the portion I witnessed- didn’t feature a lot of interplay between the participants although many quips were exchanged and laughter was plentiful.
The mid-afternoon main stage performance was by Oysterband. I’ve long thought the Saturday afternoon 2:00 set as the toughest of the weekend. By Sunday afternoon, most folks are tired enough to sit down and just veg and listen. But on Saturday it seems the performers always face a sea of movement, lanes of wanderers in search of sustenance, shade, and lost pals. While it didn’t seem many were listening to Oysterband initially, John James’ personable interactions, encouragement of audience participation, and the band’s lively Celtic-rock hybrid seemed to bring things around. Fortunately, the sound system was cranked up loud enough that the set could be heard throughout the site, allowing one to indulge in green onion cakes and the like. I want to dive back in and explore their catalogue a bit.
I was a bit torn for the next slot. The Skydiggers were doing a concert set, and as they are a new-to-me favourite, I was tempted. But, in the end, seeing a bit of Fred won out- how can I attend any festival and not spend at least a bit of time being amused, enlightened, and offended by our Fred? So, I went over to the Megatunes session for Fred Eaglesmith and Loudon Wainwright III. Joining them at the far stage six were Danny Michel and Jill Barber, two singer-songwriters that don’t much interest me but whom I know have devoted and- judging by the crowd in attendance- sizeable fan bases.
This one had all the makings of a session disaster- too many chairs on the small side stage, too many hands setting up too much gear. The start time of 3:00 came and went with only Danny Michel appearing ready to go. Plugs, cords, and mics were still being manipulated by the time Fred and Jill were ready, and Loudon was still nowhere in sight. Of course, the biggest straw hat in the park had to sit directly in front of me, ta boot. I considered beating a hasty retreat, but elected to hang in. Loudon took the stage at seven past, and by about eleven after the hour things appeared set to go.
Jill Barber did a couple of her jazz-tinged songs of an earlier time. She has a lovely voice, but it doesn’t quite stick with me or hold my attention for very long. She did “Wishing Well” and “Be My Man” and audience loved that.
Joined by Bill Chambers, Fred launched into one of his ‘lesbian love songs’ “Wilder than Her,” offending half of the slope with an off-colour quip about gay pride and rainbows that I figure will somehow be edited out by the time this session is broadcast on Radio 2 August 27. He also pulled out “Rough Edges,” which I haven’t heard in years. That’s one of the many things I like about Fred, he is willing to pull out older songs and give them an airing on occasion. Some songwriters, well you have a fair idea of what you’ll hear, but with Fred all bets are off. Fred is able to do more in two songs than lesser entertainers can in an entire set.
Loudon performed a pair of songs from his upcoming Charlie Poole project that really interested me, and will encourage me to check out High Wide and Handsome when it is released.
Knowing that I would only likely hear another song from each of the performers, I decided to head back across the park for the 4:00 concert by Chumbawamba, a band I really wanted to experience. They were booked into the festival a few years back, but I missed their performance and since then I’ve purchased a handful of their discs and quite enjoyed them. I am also interested in them because of their refusal to fall victim to the ‘pop trap’, and have gone out of their way to maintain their values and aims while setting “Tubthumping” well behind them.
Chumbawamba Acoustic is a very impressive group- heavy songs, lightly presented. Two guitars, accordion, trumpet, tambourine, a pipe and usually four but occasionally five voices taking on the world. I spent a wonderful fifty minutes listening to them, and was absolutely impressed in every way. They engaged their audience- actually went a bit far with that and had a young gal from the audience come up to sing the first verse of “Ring of Fire” within “Charlie”- and were completely brilliant. They even dropped in a bit of “pissing the night away” into “Charlie.” I’m gushing, I know, but I just loved what they did. The did several songs from The Boy Bands Have Won (including “I Wish They’d Sack Me” and “El Fusilado”) as well as the chuckle inspiring ode to the joys and perils of social networking, “Add Me.” “Hanging On the Old Barbed Wire” brought things back to somber realties. I downloaded a couple albums last night- UN and Boy Bands-and can’t get enough.
Which brings me to a suggestion I’ve thought of making to the festival’s A.D., Terry Wickham. I think it may be time to let go of the mid-day main stage performance. Many (most?) people appear to have trouble focusing on the music during the middle of the afternoon when the stage is so far down the hill from many of the audience. Judging by the number of folks in the food lineups, under the shade of the sheltering tent, and just wandering the grounds, I wonder if the slot might be better used by having seven extended concert sets going instead of one main stage performance.
While a Fred Eaglesmith, Chumbawamba, or Tift Merritt- or for that matter, The SteelDrivers, Hot Tuna, or Joel Plaskett) may not warrant a full, main stage set, they are more than deserving of greater than forty-five or fifty minutes to show their wares. Perhaps if one scheduled a series of 80-minute concert sets between 1:30 and 3:00 on all the stages, more engagement may occur between listeners and performers.
I know I would have much rather had the Oysterband play to a really enthusiastic but smaller audience than have them playing to a sparsely populated hill of half-listeners. Just a thought.
Next up was Texan Sam Baker, again accompanied by Gurf Morlix. I love his voice and approach to songwriting. He did a couple songs from the new album Cotton including the title track and “Moon.” I don’t mind his penchant for borrowing lyrics at all as he makes the traditional words fit his characters and their situations so effectively. He punctuates his singing with an oddly lively picking style that is appealing.
“Waves” is up there with “75 Septembers” for impactful songs of sustained commitment and aging. Baker has a way of singing that is unlike anyone I can think of off the top of my head. It is a hesitant yet melodic singing-speaking voice that is attractive. He’s top drawer, engaging, self-deprecating, insightful. I enjoyed the set immensely. And yet…
When Gurf Morlix gets a chance to do one of his songs- and Sam turned things over to him twice during the nine-song set- it is magic. He doesn’t blow Sam Baker off the stage- they are too different in approach for that to occur- but when he is finished a song like “Crossroads,” one thinks, “Damn, that’s how it is done.”
They are like two visual artists of very different styles. One is grounded in realism, texture, and details, the other is into poetic uses of colour within impressionistic murals. I’m not sure which is which, but I enjoy them both as they are completely compelling when sharing their music.
But note to Sam- don’t ask for requests from the audience when you can’t hear what they are yelling! Just play your songs.
So that was the day in the sun. Next up were the main stage acts, supper, and such. After having my fill of green onion cakes, we settled in on the hill for the main-stagers. I didn’t hear much of Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit, but we were ready for Patty Griffin.
According to my friends, I’ve seen and heard her at the folk fest before, but I don’t remember her. I don’t think I’ll recall much of this performance as well. I don’t find her music terribly appealing, although I am definitely outvoted in that regard within our small group. My ears perked up for a version of “Silver Wings”, but I would have a real hard time recalling any of her other songs. It wasn’t unpleasant by any means, but just more suitable to an audience that doesn’t include me, I suppose.
Iron & Wine was next. I have to be honest, I own several Iron & Wine albums and EPs but without liner notes I don’t know one Sam Beam song from the next. Strangely, I’m okay with that ignorance. I just like the sounds. And on the main stage, standing alone in a revolving spotlight, he alternately banged and strummed his guitar- making the bass notes count- and sang. And for an hour or so, the crying babies, squabbling couples, (loudly) reuniting friends, and other annoyances faded away. I’m told he sounds like Jethro Tull/Ian Anderson, and that was a good thing, I believe. I didn’t recognize a single song, and that has more to do with the way I listen to Iron & Wine than anything else. I just love the music. It was a great set, very enjoyable. The word ethereal is used a great deal when describing music that causes other words to be inadequate. I think I now know the meaning of the word.
Okay, that isn’t completely true. I didn’t fully enjoy the set. I had gone all day without having any conflicts with any other attendees. I had even mentioned this to my friends- the chatterers seemed to be missing this year. Well, all good things come to an end.
I hope you are reading this! If you want to gush about your friend’s knitting, discuss the dental crown you lost, compare and discuss the relative merits of hoodies and zippered sweaters, and….Why come and do it on a hill surrounded by folks who are actually trying to listen to the freakin’ music? I will never, ever understand it.
I do understand and embrace the social aspects of the folk festivals. Over the last twelve or so years, more often than not I’ve attended festivals with a small group of friends, and recently that group has included a great wee lad. We chat relatively quietly, we catch up, and then we listen. That is the part I don’t get- why would you pay money and ignore world class artists who are sharing their innermost thoughts and observations? A mystery.
Back to the hill.
When the lights go down, things do change. When the sun finally sets around 10 o’clock, and darkness engulfs the hill, it is really quite spectacular. I remember both of the Joans (Baez and Armatrading) marveling at the effect of the candle-covered hill. With the candles on our side, and the downtown skyline on the other, a better setting for a festival of this type is hard to imagine. And, amazingly, people tend to quiet down as well! Bonus.
Rodney Crowell was next, the act my group and I had been waiting for, and he was amazing. Fronting a three-piece band, including Cicadas compatriot Steuart Smith for the first time in nine years, Crowell focused largely on material from The Houston Kid and later albums. “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design” and “Moving Piece of Art” started the show, setting the tone for an evening of music played with maturity and good taste. “Still Learning How to Fly” seemed especially poignant, and “I Wish It Would Rain” seemed to capture the audience’s attention. I was especially pleased to hear “Closer to Heaven,” if only to howl “I love Guy Clark” along with Rodney.
More than halfway through the show, Crowell started reaching back into his extensive catalogue. “Leaving Louisiana” and “Til I Gain Control Again” got things going while an amped up take of “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” was blistering, and on this familiar tune Crowell and his band demonstrated that a country band can rock without resorting to recycled Van Halen riffs.
While at an afternoon session (I’m told by an ecstatic Cheryl) Crowell dipped into the songbooks of George, Hank, and Merle, the only cover on this night was a spell-binding rendition of “Pancho and Lefty.” Introduced by Crowell as “one of the greatest songs ever written,” he launched into the song and made it sound new. I think this version may get Waylon and Willie playing dress-up out of my head, and perhaps I can enjoy the song now as others do.
As an encore, Crowell came back unaccompanied with quiet, gentle benediction that I just can’t identify although I know I’ve heard it before; it reminded me a little of “Forever Young,” but I couldn’t figure it out. (Edit: Two years later…”Earthbound,” I do believe.) He swung into “I Know Love Is All I Need” with the band rejoining him before the song’s conclusion.
A perfect performance, in my opinion. Too often I am disappointed in performances on large festival stages from my favourites, but not this time. Even lacking the Columbia hits and our being several hundred feet from the stage, Crowell kept me engrossed the entire performance.
My friends left after Rodney, and I decided to move to another location for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. I knew I wouldn’t stay long, no matter how good they were because of the two-hour commute home, but I wanted to be close to one of the video screens. I found a wonderful spot, and I think it may now be my favourite secret location, on a steep incline that no one else seems to sit on.
The tweener for this slot was Ashley MacIsaac accompanied by Quinn Bachand, a thirteen year-old guitar wizard. One could almost hear the hill collectively sigh, “Ashley, all is forgiven. Welcome back, lad!” The attention-seeking behavior of the past was forgotten as the duo electrified those remaining in attendance. They did three numbers, the middle of which was a dreamy, passionate fiddle tune that was lovely. Bookending this sensitive number that really showed off MacIsaac’s gifts were a pair of up-tempo leapers with which one more readily associates with the Nova Scotian. Seeing MacIsaac mouth the chord changes to Quinn was like watching the skills of one generation being passed down to the next, which I guess it was. I’ll be on the lookout for more music of this type from MacIsaac and I won’t be surprised to see him making a return visit soon.
The seven-piece Dap-Kings opened the show Wilson Pickett-style, with a horn rich instrumental, firing up the audience with an extended introduction to the revue while getting the lower bowl on their feet. By the time Jones joined the boys, the hill was rocking to the soul-fest. “How Do You Let A Good Man Down?” got things jumping, and “Nobody’s Baby” kept it going. A couple tunes later and I was making my way to the bus, wishing I could stay later. But, knowing it would be 2:00 AM before I got home kept me going toward the exit as midnight approached.
What a day! I can’t remember the last time I left a music festival so drained and satisfied. I was unable to catch several favourites, including Chuck Brodsky, Kimmie Rhodes, The Skydiggers, Spirit of the West, and Great Lake Swimmers, and I still haven’t caught up to Sierra Hull. Hot Tuna intrigued me, especially after I realized who was playing with them- Barry Mitterhoff. Dang! I even missed Dick Gaughan, something I never thought I would do. Too many choices. A friend suggested I hear The Wooden Sky, but I was unable to. I bought their disc instead, unheard and only on my pal’s advice. I must say, Ross has me figured out as I’ve quite enjoyed the album already.
A last thought- It was nice to see a mention of Gilbert Bouchard in the festival’s program guide. I won’t pretend Gilbert and I were friends, and certainly have no desire to overstate our relationship. But for several months from 1984 to 1986, Gilbert was a close acquaintence. He was the first person to give me a chance to write about music and was a brutal but supportive editor. His taste in sherry not withstanding, without his involvement, I likely wouldn’t have followed a path that has included writing.
As always, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival appeared to be excellently organized, and my experience was entirely pleasant, excepting a half-hour of chatter-chatter during Iron & Wine. For those of you not in the Edmonton area, consider putting this fest on your vacation planner; but get your tickets early, as the fest tends to sell out quickly. www.efmf.ab.ca
Thanks for dropping by Fervor Coulee. While I’ve been a bit neglegent in posting lately, I have been listening to a great deal of excellent music and plan on writing a few reviews and comments in the next week. I am fortunate to be able to hear so much music sometimes it is hard to sort ones thoughts and remain focused for the extended period of time I require for writing. So, excuses aside, I’ll get at it so please stop by again. This week in my roots music column, I reviewed two recently released discs. Gordie Tentrees is a songwriter based out of Whitehorse and he has just released the strongest of his three albums, Mercy or Sin. Rhonda Vincent has had a huge impact on the bluegrass world since returning to the music on which she was raised, and her live presentations have always been crowd-pleasing. With Destination Life Vincent has revitalized her music, and has released what I feel is her strongest, most complete album in years. So, head on over to the Red Deer Advocate newspaper site http://tinyurl.com/l92274 and give them a read, please.
Because I sometimes write long, the editors had to chop a bit of the Tentrees review to make the column fit; I am well aware that I went a wee bit over on my alloted allowance. So, I’ll paste the last few sentences here:
Producer Bob Hamilton (Hungry Hill) keeps things flowing, and his steel guitars show up when Tentrees sets aside his Dobro.
Alfred, as are but two of the dozen songs, is a Tentrees’s original, and is mined from territory similar to that explored by Corb Lund and Ridley Bent. Bert Jansch’s Rambling’s Gonna Be the Death of Me is provided a dark, concentrated interpretation, while Same Old Blues comes from Indio Saravanja and provides the album with what could serve as its subtitle- “brand new song, same old blues.”
And I thank you for your continued interest. I’m off to the Edmonton Folk Festival, and will write some reflections upon my return. Donald
Scattered thoughts about music while on vacation…and after
Recently, I was very fortunate to go on vacation with my wife to a destination we had both- but mostly me- longed to visit, Greece. While I’ve never previously visited Europe, I had developed an affinity for Greece through an interest in mythology that can be traced back to elementary school. Years of casual study, including a first-year university course in Greek Mythology and teaching of ancient Greece to middle schoolers, had instilled in me an appreciation of Greece, its art, history, geography, and mythology.
Nothing prepared me for this experience. A land of photographic beauty, the reality of Greece is even more impressive. Sweeping coastlines and seemingly arid orchards are the introduction to a land where the word history actually means something. Seeing monuments, artifacts, statues, frescoes, and walkway mosaics hundreds and thousands of years old was entirely impressive. And the food! My gosh, some of it was wonderful, delicately seasoned and simply prepared.
So, what has all of this got to do with country music? I’m not sure what this piece is going to look like when finished even after thinking about it and mentally outlining it for a month. But I’m going to try to demonstrate the importance of music in my life, how it never leaves my mind for an extended period, what I love about a simple country song, and my disappointment with the current and long-lasting state of commercial country music.
Since the time I was a bit more than ten, I think I’ve known that music would have significance in my life, that I think about it more than and in different ways than other people. Not better, just different. To me music is important and is seldom in the background. For me, music is to be absorbed, digested, and appreciated.
Like many others of my generation- and likely prior and subsequent ones- I can remember sitting up late at night attempting to tape the hits of the day off of the radio. I clearly remember attempting to record favoured selections of the 630 CHED 100 songs of 1975 on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. “Bad Blood” by Neil Sedaka was number one, I believe. I think Elton John’s “Island Girl” was on there as well. “Listen to What the Man Said,” still my favourite Wings song, was also captured on a frequently reused BASF cassette and I seem to remember “Fly, Robin, Fly” on there as well.
What I think may have been different from the experience of others involved in similar pursuits was my frustration at missing the first note or two of songs. Realize, I’ve got a little rectangular box of a cassette player propped up against little more than a clock radio speaker- and I’m getting pissed because I’m missing some of the intro notes to AM broadcast songs. Fidelity was obviously not the issue or concern! I think my frustration was because I recognized that the entire song was important, and those initial notes were vital to my future appreciation of the songs. I’m not sure most other eleven year olds worried about such things. Maybe I’m mistaken, but in my circle of street hockey players, I’m certain I was the only one involved in such activity.
From this early attempt at making a mix tape, I started acquiring singles and albums. Frequently at the expense of my older brothers, I started a wee collection of recordings- a 45 of the previously mentioned Wings song, Olivia Newton John’s country singles, one by the Hans Staymer Band, “Hello Central (Give Me Doctor Music)” that I think I still have in a box downstairs. The first albums I bought were 25 cent school-garage sale finds- Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s Déjà Vu and Every Picture Tells a Story. I played the heck out of those albums and realize now that possibly the first place I heard a mandolin was on that Rod Stewart album.
The first album I bought from a store was a KC & the Sunshine Band compilation; I wish I could claim it was something more impressive, perhaps Guy Clark’s first album or a Townes Van Zandt, but I can’t. The first country music 45 I recall buying- and it may not have been the first, but it would have been one of the first- was “Teddy Bear’s Last Ride” by Diana Williams. I was actually looking for the Red Sovine song and thought this was it; turned out I was wrong, but it did impact me and was maybe the first time I realized songs could have ‘answer’ recordings. Yes, it was a manipulative, wimpy arse song, but it made me tear up every time I listened to it.
I’ve always been a sucker for a sad song. The first songs I remember singing all the way through were tear-jerkers from the 60s- “Leader of the Pack,” “Last Kiss,” and especially “Teen Angel.” I remember doing chores on the farm and belting out the words- accurate or not- while struggling with buckets of chop. Since we left the farm when I was eight, I know I was doing this at an age many kids may have been singing nursery rhymes. And, with reflection, I’ve come to accept that those songs and ones like them- “Patches,” “The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia,” and “The Night Chicago Died”- were in many ways the nursery rhymes of childhood. Explains a little about my future twistedness.
So, we’ve established I’m a music geek and have been for a long, long time. I’m okay with that. It is the way I am. But, getting back to the Greek holiday, it was this trip that (again) brought to the fore the depth of my obsession with music. So, skipping ahead thirty or so years…
The realization is refreshed. It may have been when I was nodding off in the sun in Greece, surrounded by German, Polish, and Russian tourists, and the surf started singing to me the refrain: ich lieb dich nicht du liebst mich nicht aha aha aha. I knew why “Da Da Da“ was in my head- I had recently placed it on a mixed disc I made in anticipation of the flight to Greece- but that the surf would bring it to mind was a little disturbing.
Or it may have been on the same Cretan beach when a six- or seven-year old Romanian kid started banging out “Rock and Roll High School“ on two stones picked up off of the sand. Not just once, but repeatedly, keeping the beat perfectly timed so that, in my head, I’m singing, “Rock, rock…rock and roll high school.“ The rhythm maintained was lively, smooth, and welcome, and I can’t help but believe that I was witnessing a primal connection that started long before the brothers from Queens.
I am definitely not like other people. I find music everywhere, even in the surf and in spontaneous rock slapping. And the lengths I’ll go to acquire music, and the way I worry about music, is a bit disturbing. I took a thumb drive with me on this holiday for one reason- so I wouldn’t miss one of the download offers off of Steve Forbert’s website. Every few weeks, and sometimes every few days, Forbert’s webmaster posts a live song or two at steveforbert.com, and I didn’t want to miss one of the limited time offerings, as we are in the midst of the Pink Cassette songs from 1981. And I wasn’t disappointed, picking up a couple songs as well as a bonus of “Matchbox.“
I spent many hours preparing mixes for my Sony mini-disc player in anticiaption of the full days of traveling we would be spending getting to Toronto and Athens and back. I’m pretty sure no one has listened to Dale Ann Bradley while approaching Athens on a nine and a half hour leg from TO. And I’m glad I put together the recordings as I was able to make connections between songs I had never before noticed: Suzi Quatro’s “She Knows“ owes a bit to The Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t.“
My biggest and most obsessive thought while on the island of Crete was, “How will I recharge this thing (the mini-disc player) for the flight home?“ My initial attempts at using the adapter in our hotel room had not been successful, but I eventually got it charging. Crisis averted.
We go out for an evening of Cretan music and food at a country taverna (which turned out to be an open-air, mountain theatre) and notice that the bourzouki is buried too low in the mix for my taste, being dominated by an electric keyboard. And my initial response is to go speak to the guy on the soundboard…only there isn’t anyone on the soundboard and really, what were the odds anyone else cared? (From the amount of cheap wine all the tourists were drinking, I’m guessing not very likely!)
Amongst my most enjoyable hours on the trip was a morning and early afternoon wandering the streets of Fira on Santorini. We were due to leave the island late that afternoon, and with the temperature approaching 38 Celsius, my wife was uninterested in additional wandering. So, I set off- again, with the mini-disc going- for a solo exploration of an art gallery and maybe some lunch. John Cowan started me on my journey, but by the time I got to the walkways overlooking the Aegean, I was well into The Trinity Sessions Revisited. Turns out, the Cowboy Junkies are a good listening match to the blues, browns, and whites of Fira, as is Cry, Cry, Cry with Dar, Richard, and Lucy’s voices blending to provide an incongruent but somehow fitting soundtrack to the Greek isle. I sat in a little restaurant- The Flame of the Volcano- looking out over the harbour formed by the caldera eating mousaka, dolmades, and tzakziki with some nicely chilled white wine, listening to James Keelaghan’s ”Cold Missouri Waters“ and Buddy Mondlock’s “The Kid“ and realized that I was experiencing perfect moments. Perfect for me, anyways- others would likely have been bored stiff.
By the way, if ever on Santorini, visit The Flame of the Volcano- it is a nice little ‘mom and pop‘ place but is tricky to find- walk up the donkey stairs about thirty metres, and just when you think you have missed it, it is right there. Lovely stuff.
In Athens, I found a compact disc store of the like I haven’t experienced locally in years. Three stories of CDs along with additional floors of games, DVDs, and books. Metropolis was the name, and they had a huge selection of all types of music, with extra attention- it seemed- to the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I found things I had looked for without success- Sylvain Sylvain’s first album (paired with his second) for around $10 CDN- and could have spent hundreds of dollars on music without even trying. As it was, I controlled myself and limited my purchases to a few things I really ‘needed‘- the Sylvain disc, an Animals compilation, a copy of Think Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, and a Romeo Void 2fer.
So, all of these musicial moments led us back to the airport, and a ten-plus hour flight back to Toronto. And, in interest of saving the mini-disc batteries for later in the journey, I turned on the Transat in-flight music selections. I bopped along to an hour of disco early in the flight, even discovering a group I had heard of- The Gibson Brothers- but can’t remember hearing. “Cuba“ is a quality song. And then I thought, let’s give the country line-up a try.
I’ve attempted to listen to current country music any number of times over the past several years, on flights or during long drives. And it never works. But this time I tcommited myself to holding out for the full hour and actually listen to the music. Outside of a Nanci Griffith tune and a few predictable classics (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,“ “I Walk the Line,“ and “Your Cheatin‘ Heart“) I must say the picking were mighty grim. While the themes covered in the songs should appeal to someone like me- home, leaving home, growth, and doubt- I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to listen to drek from Doc Walker, Taylor Swift, Montgomery Gentry, Zac Brown, or Kid Rock when there are performers and songwriters such as Darrell Scott, the members of Drive By Truckers, Chris Knight, Kate Campbell, Gordie Tentrees, Fred Eaglesmith, Steve Forbert, and hundreds more recording music about the same matters, but so much more intensely and insightfully than the hacks I heard. I tried to listen, but shortlydug out the mini-disc player and lost myself in Rodney DeCroo.
This experience led me to think about sketching out a treatise on the demise of commercial country music as I know it. Imagine my surprise when I returned home and found just such a commentary within my email inbox from one of my favourite people. Tina Aridas is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, songwriter, and bluegrass music promoter who I met through the BGRASS-L. Being like-minded individuals, we normally agree on the state of things in our wee bluegrass world, share an appreciation for Nick Lowe, and loath the toady writing that too freqently passes as journalism- no matter how artfully written it is- within the bluegrass world. In mid-July, Tina fired one of her semi-frequent salvos into the din that is the L, with country music her target. Since Tina is several times the writer I’ll ever be, I’ll allow her thoughts in place of mine:
I don’t have cable TV, so I feel remote from popular culture. However, sometimes there’s a little time when I’m traveling to sit in front of the TV in the motel room and get a good dose of what’s on television. And my favorite place to go is CMT. Boy oh boy, is that fun or what? I spent an hour this past Friday night and in that whole hour I heard (and saw) not one song or performer who would pass for country music, in my opinion. It was all rock with guys in cowboy hats and boots singing songs about their roots and songs about how country girls are the best (with shots of girls who didn’t really look like what I’d think of as country girls, but who am I to say) and songs about how city girls like country boys, all the while posing in this very strange (and uncomfortable-looking) way, with one shoulder hunched a bit higher than the other, legs a bit bent and knees apart (sort of like they were riding a horse but with the horse missing), pointing with one or two fingers at the audience (or the camera). Very silly stuff. I heard songs by Kenny Chesney, Trace Adkins, Jason Aldean, and a couple of others I don’t remember, as well as female singers Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire, Kelly Pirkle, Taylor Swift, and some others I can’t recall. Golly, there’s more country music in bluegrass music these days than there is in country music.
So, my question is: Am I missing something? Does anybody on bgrass-l think this stuff is country music?
And in those few sentences, Tina captured much of my thoughts. To answer her question, No- I don’t consider that country music. But I’ve also now come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter to most folks that the music they call ‘country’ isn’t country. Country music has changed, and has changed so radically that I don’t think we can ever go back. There will always (I hope) be a few rebels out there waving the flag- the Dallas Waynes, the Dale Watsons, the Robbie Fulkses, et al.- but for the majority of the population, the soft pop and retread rock currently labeled Country Music is just fine, thank you. Of course there is always bluegrass to fall back on, perhaps the last bastion of true country music, and the Americana alt.s and folkies populating the sidelines.
Sometime between those early Olivia and Teddy Bear singles and the time I walked away from commercial country music, I became interested in the history of the music. Beginning with some deleted Waylon and Jones albums, I started down the path of country music. Some paths peetered out rather quickly, such as my facsination with Charly McClain. Others just kept going and going, such as my journey from Emmylou, Carlene, and Rosanne which led to Guy, Rodney, and Skaggs. From Ricky Skaggs I went to Monroe and Marty Stuart, which led to Doc Watson and eventually Ralph Stanley. Guy Clark led to Townes and other Texas troubadours. Rosanne led back to Johnny Cash and eventually the Carter Family. And the dusty footsteps kept going and going. As I delved deeper into country music, the more I found to appreciate.
When did this decline in modern commercial country music start? Maybe with Brooks and Dunn? It doesn’t matter. The fight is over. We’ve lost. And please don’t think I’m just some tired old guy stuck in the 70s listening to his orange-label George Jones records. There was a time not too long ago when the majority of my CDs were commercial country- everyone from Randy Travis, Highway 101, and The Judds, to Jim Witter, Kathy Mattea, and Johnny Cash. Even in the past five years, I’ve continued to listen to buy country music albums if seldom listening to country radio. Albums by Alan Jackson, Gretchen Wilson, Mark Chesnutt, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Ian Tyson, the Dixie Chicks, and other ‘mainstream’ country artists have found their way onto my shelves, and I’ve enjoyed them. So I’m not pining for the past as much as lamenting the present.
There was a time when I listened to commercial country music and enjoyed it. I appreciated the sentiment of the songs, the mix of the instruments, and the expression that came through in heartfelt vocals. Yes, there was a great deal of the music that I couldn’t stand- John Michael Montgomery, anyone? Ty Herndon, perhaps? Lorrie Morgan and Faith Hill? But somewhere along the line about 1995, I started drifting away. The balance tipped and the ‘good’ no longer outweighed the gorb music.
But I fear the pendulum has swung so far the other way- to where Billy Ray Cyrus almost sounds ‘traditional’- that there is at least one generation and likely more out there who not only have no understanding of the roots of country music, but no interest in seeking such knowledge. To them, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, and Darius Rucker have as much country cred as necessary. That is, not much.
And I need to temper this with acknowledgement that what I consider ‘country music’- the Georges, Junes, Lorettas, Martys, Merles, and Ola Belles- stepped away from the music of the Roy Acuffs, Hank Williamses, and Maybelle Carters that preceded and influenced them. However, there was a cord that was maintained back then, connecting the musics. And that cord has become frayed and exists now as only the thinnest of threads. Would Roy Acuff recognize Lady Antebellum as compatriots? Somehow, I doubt it.
But that’s okay. Country music history is littered with those who took the industry by storm, and who faded away even more quickly. Anyone heard from Mindy McCreary, Diamond Rio, or Julia Roberts lately? So I feel safe in saying that folks who made part of my Athens to Toronto flight so miserable- Carrie Underwood, Tara Oram, Rascal Flatts, and their ilk- will soon fade away into a bad memory. And maybe, some day in the future there will come the time for another wave of fresh music to hit country music and country music radio. What did Steve Earle call it? The Great Credibility Scare of 1986? But that wave, which included Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and even Dwight Yoakum, didn’t sell enough records and quickly dissipated.
Over the past decade, I’ve noticed a splintering in the music that is of interest. Whereas once we thought of music as rock, country, folk, classical, soul, blues, and easy listening each of those genres now has various fissures within them. And as the music evolves and mutates, some sounds that develop are going to alienate a population of listeners, resulting in fewer people having a shared experience within the same music. I guess it makes sense that what is now considered commercial country could and has morphed into something I barely recognize as ‘country.’
That splintering has mirrored the increasing number of ways folks acquire or listen to music. Again, that shared experience of everyone in a community listening to one of three or four radio stations has been lost- and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing- and has been replaced by innumerable retail, illegal, on-line, and social networking means of hearing music.
Where does this leave me? I guess I’ll just have to continue the meandering journey that started all those years ago when I was learning “Joy to the World” and “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” on the bus ride home from school. I’ll graze the Internet for stations that play the music I want to hear- hey, WDVX!- until they are no longer allowed to broadcast internationally. I’ll continue to purchase the majority of my music digitally from a variety of vendors while supporting the retail outlets that continue to stock product of interest. I’ll catch live acts that come through the area as much as possible, and support them through my writing and purchases. I suppose I’ll eventually fall into the satellite radio world, where one can find channels that are a little more streamlined and allow a listener to be selective.
And, more than likely, I won’t make another attempt to listen to commercial country music- that which is played on radio- for a long while. I’ll stick to my music collection and listening to the music that now resonates with me- bluegrass (although cracks of blandness are starting to appear there as well), folk- whatever that is, Americana, and the various offshoots of what has become known as roots music. I’ll miss turning on the radio and hearing a simple country song that connects with images of my past or strikes a chord within my current emotional framework. I’ll have to work a little harder to establish those bonds with song. By now, I’m used to that and have found that the journey of finding new or old music that is meaningful is certainly a worthy endeavour. I’ll find it- I always have.
While my childhood and life aren’t nearly as sepia-toned and romantic as that he writes about, Antsy McClain pert near sums things up for me in his tune ”Captain Midnight.” Reflecting on late night radio djs who shaped his life- much like the CHED and K-97 djs did mine- McClain sings:
…As the radio played the soundtrack to my life. They cut a place deep In our hearts, following the stars and record charts, Connecting every song we loved to a special place in time.
Those who are currently listening to commercial country music, and have listened over the past fifteen or so years, have likely made those connections between the music of their time and their lives. Their connections are as significant as those I made. That I can’t stand much of current country music doesn’t matter. It is what it is. But for those folks, that is the music that is going to mean something- as hard as that is for me to comprehend. That it isn’t ‘real’ country music as I- and Tina- understand it doesn’t and won’t matter to them or to the industry.
As Lou- in a coherent moment- stated in an episode of Californication, “It’s not just the music- it’s how and when you hear it.”
Commercial country music is dead, at least to me! And I’m not too broken up about it.