Archive for the ‘John Wort Hannam’ Tag
Time for the annual ‘best of’ list which I never title ‘best of.’ I always go with Favourites because that is all I can go by: which albums have I listened to the most this past year, which ones have I most appreciated, and which ones do I feel are of an exceptional quality?
In previous years, I’ve written at length, but this year I am restrained by time (hmmm…Christmas Eve/Christmas Morning) and energy (I am bleeding exhausted!) Instead of separating things into genres, reissues, compilations, and other categories, I am just going to present Fervor Coulee’s Favourite Roots Albums of the Year. I am limiting myself to 15 titles this time out—I started out with a comprehensive list of about 80 titles under consideration, but willowed that down to 12 fair quickly, and from there it seemed like 15 was the right number for this year.
What did I notice over the course of 2015? One, I am really tired of folks—and you know who you are—who do good work, who promote the music, and who seem to care about bluegrass and yet use that term to describe just about any and all mostly acoustic, Appalachian-reminiscent music not mainstream country. It can’t all be bluegrass, folks. It just isn’t. Sam Gleaves? Not bluegrass, although there are a couple bluegrass songs there: nice album, though. Dom Flemons? Not even close. Dave Rawlings Machine? Are you even listening? Here’s the measure: if it is on the front page of The Bluegrass Situation…it’s not bluegrass.
I also noticed that there were fewer exceptional bluegrass albums released this year—plenty of mighty fine ones, but not that many that will go down as classics.
I noticed that I am listening to more 60s and 70s R&B/soul music than ever before, and that does take away time from roots writing. But rabba bing bang, I am loving those sounds, from R.B. Greaves to Gladys Knight & the Pips: pure dynamite.
I’ve also noticed that it is increasingly difficult to find the music I like in even the finest music stores. A real drag, that.
I’m also including the source of the music, in the spirit of full disclosure: some folks do worry about the ethics around receiving music for review without cost. I’m not one of them.
Here we go, with Fervor Coulee’s (Donald Teplyske) Favourite Roots Albums of the Year, 2015.
- John Wort Hannam- Love Lives On (Rebel Tone Records) Still Alberta’s finest contemporary, male troubadour, John Wort Hannam continues to meet the rising expectations that come from a decade of exceptional folk-based releases. Love Lives On has not yet displaced Two Bit Suit and Queen’s Hotel at the top of my Hannam list, but both those albums were also year-end favourites, and I enjoy the textures of his rhymes and the subtleties of his insights more with each listen. Singing of universal pleasures (“Over the Moon,” “Love Lives On,” “Gonna See My Love”) as adeptly as he does of specific moments in time (“Labrador”) and place (“Good Nite Nova Scotia,”) Wort Hannam has become a master of storytelling and songwriting. This sixth album is highlighted by the devastating “Man of God,” the song that will follow the songwriter to the end of his time. A beautifully conceived and recorded album, Love Lives On is a masterpiece. (Purchased at Blackbyrd Myoozik.)
- Dale Ann Bradley- Pocket Full of Keys (Pinecastle Records) While she hasn’t garnered the IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year award for the past three years, there is no arguing the consistency and strength Dale Ann Bradley brings to both her live performances and recordings. This self-produced album is one that I have listened to regularly since its release this summer. As the finest country and bluegrass often does, Pocket Full of Keys’ songs reveal the hardships of others as a panacea to our challenges, either providing a path for enlightenment or a realization that one’s own issues are not completely overwhelming: it could always be worse. Dale Ann Bradley doesn’t churn out albums. Analyse her vast catalog and one doesn’t find many tracks that appear to have been recorded simply out of favor or as filler. She is a bluegrass vocalist and true artist of substance and vision, and mentions in the album’s notes that she has always wanted to do an album herself, her own way. She has done it! Pocket Full of Keys is another in a string of significant recordings from bluegrass music’s finest voice. (Acquired via publicist)
- The SteelDrivers- The Muscle Shoals Recordings (Rounder) The SteelDrivers remain a dynamic, driving bluegrass band, a five-piece with a sound and an approach completely their own. The Muscle Shoals Recordings is their fourth album and the group just keeps getting better. The SteelDrivers are a song band, meaning that their strength doesn’t come from fiery instrumental prowess or sweeping vocal harmonies—although they more than hold their own in both those areas—but from the strength of their material. When they choose a song, they have done so for a reason, and it comes through in the performance. Murder songs, drinking songs, love songs, Civil War songs—The SteelDrivers can do them all, and they do so like no other bluegrass band working the circuit. Excellent. (Acquired via publicist)
- Barnstar!- Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! (Signature Sounds) This Massachusetts-collective does things differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a bit outside, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! Comprised of songwriters all of whom have music careers outside the band, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. Barnstar! is certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation. They have great songs, the best here perhaps “Cumberland Blue Line,” “Six Foot Pine Box,” and most definitely The Faces “Stay With Me.” Oh, and don’t forget Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County.” And “Delta Rose.” Dang, it is a terrific bluegrass album; not for everyone, mind. If you are looking for Pretty Bluegrass, it isn’t here. (Acquired via publicist)
- Buffy Sainte-Marie- Power in the Blood (High Romance Music) The winner of this year’s Polaris Music Prize, Power in the Blood is the type of album that either hits you from first listen or completely misses. Without judgement, whichever happens is likely a reflection of the listener. This is a powerful album that speaks across generations and cultures, one that can be appreciated both as a creative production to be experienced as a complete album and individually song-by-song. “It’s My Way,” “Power in the Blood,” and “We Are Circling” start the album off with substance and energy, and things just keep developing. She even pulls in some UB40. A wonderful recording. (Purchased at Wal-Mart; hey, I couldn’t find it in an independent shop.)
- Chris Jones & the Night Drivers- Run Away Tonight (Mountain Home) With an immediately identifiable sound and a burgeoning catalog of stellar albums, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are possibly bluegrass music’s most underrated band. With Run Away Tonight, that has to change. Front-loaded with six original songs—seldom seen in an industry still tied to the tried, tested, and true—Run Away Tonight is one of the finest bluegrass albums released this decade.
Reminding listeners of no one as much as the legendary Country Gentlemen, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers perform bluegrass music with heart and drive. The heart comes from the depth of intensity revealed in every phrase and note sung by Jones, the New York native who has as rounded a bluegrass resume as one might imagine—expert guitarist, sideman, bandleader, songwriter, producer, broadcaster, gently acerbic humorist, playful photographer. The drive begins with Jones’ strong rhythm and lead work, nicely featured in the mix here, and continues through Jon Weisberger’s propulsive bass rhythm playing off Ned Luberecki’s classic 5-string approach and Mark Stoffel’s exquisite mandolin touch. Kudos to Jones and his co-producer Tim Surrett (Balsam Range) and Scott Barnett for this excellent sounding bluegrass experience—listening to this recording on a solid system is a sonic treat.
With an emphasis on the deceptively upbeat aspect of bluegrass, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers kick things off with the court and spark of “Laurie,” from which the album takes its title. Similarly, “Tonight I’m Gonna Ride” feels lively and freewheeling, but is appears as much about failed aspirations and last chances as it is the fulfilment of a dream. Casey Driessen, a Jones colleague from long ago, contributes vigorous fiddle to these two songs. Every song is worthy of attention, not something I write lightly or often. I have long advocated that Chris Jones’ name needs to be inserted into the conversations around Male Vocalist of the Year. Perhaps next time up, the professional members of the IBMA will agree with me. The Night Drivers are as good a band as there is. (Acquired via publicist)
- Amy Black- The Muscle Shoals Sessions (Reuben) Amy Black has become someone to be counted on to provide balanced and lively collections of contemporary Americana, featuring a blend of influences: folk, country, blues, troubadours of all variety, and—way deep down—hints of southern-flavoured soul. Years ago, I wrote that Black reminded me of Kate Campbell and that she had a singing voice “as natural and welcome as lemonade on a sweltering summer’s day, with an amiable tartness lingering within its sweetness.”
The Muscle Shoals Sessions has that absolutely infectious deep soul groove permeating every song. Spooner Oldham brings emotional and historical depth to the proceedings, laying out funky Wurlitzer and organ. Will Kimbrough is back. Vocal certainty is provided by the McCrary sisters, Ann and Regina. Notable horn players are also present, with Charlie Rose taking the lead and playing trombone, while Steve Herrman (trumpet) and Jim Hoke (saxophone) are featured.
Recorded in the legendary FAME studios, Black compositions like “Get To Me” and “Woman On Fire” sizzle with energy, while “You Gotta Move” and “Bring It On Home” are more passionate and controlled. Classics abound with “You Left Your Water Running” and Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” closing the disc with wisdom found only in the finest of songs.
When she laments, “I know I hurt you deep down inside, I know you’re angry I understand why,” one could be forgiven for believing Black to be interpreting a long forgotten Otis Redding gem. She isn’t, of course—the song is a new one, and is as strong as anything else on the album. Black’s performance here proves all the evidence necessary, should one require it, that she is legitimately a country soul singer of the most significant variety. She smolders without seduction—there is nothing here but genuine, aching need—while the band explores rhythms of the finest order. Black pays tribute to Don Covey and Etta James with a blistering rendition of “Watch Dog,” while her interpretation of “Gotta Serve Somebody” further elevates the album by exploring the more spiritual side of soul music.
Amy Black ‘gets it’ and hopefully we do, too. The Muscle Shoals Sessions deserves to be heard by all who appreciate the funkier, soulful side of roots music. Amy Black just keeps getting better.
- Pharis & Jason Romero- A Wanderer I’ll Stay (Lula Records) One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Without drifting toward mimicry, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements.
I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Jason Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything recently heard. Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her assertion.
This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted. This is a stunning acoustic folk recording. (Acquired via publicist)
- Kathy Kallick Band- Foxhounds (KathyKallick.com) As is Tim O’Brien, Kathy Kallick is always a bit of an adventurer and you can never be sure what her next recorded outing might bring. When she has the band with her, you are assured high-quality, literate and respectful bluegrass music: they never take their audience for granted, never rest on their laurels. Such is the case with Foxhounds, an album that starts off with a new song in tribute to Bill Monroe and continues with an exciting exploration of the range and depth of the bluegrass tradition. There are old songs including “Banjo Pickin’ Girl,” a lively rendition of the first Richard Thompson song I ever encountered (“Tear Stained Letter,”) and a bright and spirited take on a Monroe instrumental, “Kentucky Mandolin.” But the album’s greatest strengths lay within Kallick’s new songs including “So Danged Lonesome,” “Longest Day of the Year,” and “Snowflakes.” Especially enjoyable is the fiery “I’m Not Your Honey Baby Now,” a song to which I will continue to return. The band is top-notch throughout, and all members are featured in a variety of ways including vocally. (Acquired via publicist)
- Corb Lund- Things That Can’t Be Undone (New West Records) Corb Lund’s tenth album of (mostly) rural rooted, countryside music, Things That Can’t Be Undone shows Alberta’s favourite son writing even more concisely than previously while tackling subject matter both heady and impacting (“S Lazy H,” “Weight of the Gun,” and “Sadr City,”) heartfelt (“Goodbye Colorado” and “Sunbeam,”) and slightly frivolous (“Talk Too Much” and “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues.”) While Lund has for years provided engaging music that was obviously influenced by folks like Tom Russell and Ian Tyson, he has increasingly infused his songs with his own individuality. This album continues that journey. (Legal download)
- Ron Block- Hogan’s House of Music (RonBlock.com) One of the most thoughtful minds in bluegrass, and a danged fine banjo and guitar player, Rob Block is best known as one-fifth of Alison Krauss & Union Station. He has recorded a series of well-received albums, in my opinion the first of which (Faraway Land) is a modern classic. Here he goes back to his roots and influences, recording an instrumental bluegrass album filled with classic (but not too overly familiar) songs. Having purchased digitally, I don’t know who is playing what or where, but I suppose I don’t really need to: it is completely wonderful. (Purchased via iTunes)
- Willie Thrasher- Spirit Child (Light in the Attic) Three of Willie Thrasher’s songs were featured on the groundbreaking triple album set of last year, Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985, a release that would have topped my chart last year had I heard it then. Spirit Child is a reissue of Thrasher’s 1981 album, and it spent a solid week in my car once I bought it. I may not understand everything on this album, but I think I get it. Folk, rock, and country influences abut to create a remarkable listening journey. (Purchased via eMusic)
- Jayme Stone- Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project (Borealis Records) With a multitude of collaborators, Jayme Stone cuts a wide swath through the legacy of Alan Lomax: it is much like putting a collection of Smithsonian Folkways albums on random, and one becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the intensity of the wide-ranging performances. There is mountain music here, island and African sounds, English and Scottish folk songs, and blues, ‘grass, and chants all performed to the highest levels of performance that retain the ‘authentic’ (whatever that means) and natural state of the songs. (Purchased via iTunes)
- Jerry Lawson- Just a Mortal Man (Red Beet) As I’ve headed further into the rabbit warren that is vintage R&B and soul, I have found few modern practitioners of the art that appeal to me: even the best seem to try just a little too hard. Not Jerry Lawson. It sounds like the music just flows from him, and when he launches into a song a deep as “Wine” or as sad as “Never Been to Memphis,” you know you are experiencing the real thing. (Purchased via eMusic)
- The Cox Family- Gone as the Cotton (Rounder) Forgive us for thinking we might never again hear new music from The Cox Family. It has been almost twenty years since Just When We’re Thinking It’s Over, and excepting an appearance in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, not much has been heard from Alison Krauss’s favourite Louisianans. Given the quality of the music contained on Gone Like the Cotton, an album started in 1998 and completed within the last year, it is surprising that Krauss and Rounder Records didn’t consider buying the project from Asylum and the Warner’s group at some point in the ensuing years. Eventually, and thankfully, the impedance to unveiling the album was removed, the recorded files were located and freshened with new vocals from the current lineup of the Cox Family siblings Evelyn, Sidney, and Suzanne complementing father Willard’s vocal takes from the late 90s.
The newest song and title track, written by Sidney and Suzanne, is a nearly-unadorned family biography. With only the minimalist of guitar accompaniment, the siblings sing of their grandparents, their parents, and their community with devotion and love. It is a stunning and appropriate closing to a heartfelt recording, one that captures in four minutes a lifetime of experience. The result is a type of country music that is seldom encountered in contemporary times. Beautifully executed with confidence that comes through on every song, Gone Like the Cotton is a masterful recording. (Acquired via publicist)
By limiting myself to 15 titles, I’ve not been able to include folks like Ryan Boldt, The Honey DewDrops, Big Country Bluegrass, Tim O’Brien (for his SOS Series), Rex Hobart, Anna and Elizabeth, Samantha Martin, Dar Williams, Donnie Fritts, Pop Staples, Gordie Tentrees, The Hillbenders, Norma MacDonald, and a whole lot of other very fine artists. A great deal of excellent roots music was released in 2015. Thanks for checking in at Fervor Coulee; hopefully we’ll see you in 2016. Donald
A bit more than a year ago, I became aware of a novel published the previous year. When I finally saw the book in a bookstore, three things immediately struck me:
1. There was a banjo on the cover, albeit of the dreaded six-string variety;
2. The novel was entitled Hang Down Your Head, a moniker that calls to mind to even the most pedestrian of roots listener “Tom Dooley”/”Tom Dula”; and
3. Upon examination, it was apparent that the story was set in Edmonton.
This final detail reminded me that I had previously read a review of the book somewhere, but all I could recall was that it involved a murder at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. Anyone who has attended the fest in the last ten years has likely fantasized about killing someone (usually morons with scruffy beards and dance hands who talk all through Rodney Crowell’s set…) while in attendance.
I purchased the novel and read it. My intent here today is not to review the book- it is two years old- but I found it a little uneven the first time through, and this feeling was reaffirmed the other night upon re-reading. It is predictable in places, awkward in others, and yet the book has so much going for it, including lots of south side Edmonton references and as much roots music discussion.
The protagonist through whose voice the story unfolds is flippant, pithy and a bit snarky and given to tangents that only serve to endear her to similarly minded people. Naturally, I quite fell for Randy Craig, given her internal dialogues and vivid descriptions about “Stackalee,” Edmonton’s summer festivals, the LRT, Rutherford North, the Tory Turtle, Yianni’s Taverna, and the vision of Moses Asch. It is MacDonald’s imperfect style of ‘writing within Craig’s head’ that I most enjoyed: she could have ‘got there’ more quickly, but the journey would have been much less rich for the sake of brevity.
I write this today because I noticed that the latest local bestseller from MacDonald has recently been released. O, and the Edmonton Folk Music Festival is approaching, although tickets for all but seniors have been sold out since the day they went on sale.
While reading the book a year ago, I made notes on the many roots music references I especially appreciated thinking that when MacDonald published her next novel, it would make a timely little Fervor Coulee piece. Of course, those notes were lost in the move and are not scheduled to resurface until twenty minutes after I hit Post on this.
Other than the novel’s title and the murder at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, what does all this have to do with roots music you may still be asking yourself. The backdrop of the plot is that Randy Craig, the accidental protagonist, is working at the University of Alberta’s Smithsonian Folkways Collection Project. Briefly, her term position is to listen to the Smithsonian Folkways collection and write little snippets to accompany the recordings on the website devoted to the Moses Asch collection housed at the university. This allows Craig- when she isn’t stumbling further into a series of murders and assaults- to make many roots music observations. Sometimes these get in the way of the plot (hence, my comment about unevenness above), but for me they add a great deal of colour and make the entire book more engaging.
Here I am going to attempt to highlight some of my favourite lines/references in the book, and link to sound bits and video found on the web, where possible linking to a song mentioned in the book. I’m dividing them into ‘roots music/Smithsonian Folkways’ related, ‘General’, and ‘Edmonton/University of Alberta’ related.
Roots and Smithsonian Folkways favourites from Hang Down Your Head:
1. “I had the feeling that Maybelle (Carter) would have been someone I’d have liked a heck of a lot if I’d ever met her.”
2. My favourite, because it almost slips by the reader- “What sort of name is ‘Eck,’ anyhow?”
3. A couple extend conversations around the roots of the Tom Dooley/Tom Dula story, as well as characters named [Black] Jack Davey and Barbara Allen.
4. “I love Doc Watson’s voice; it was as mellow as honey running in the hot sun…”
5. References to and observations made about Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, murder ballads and Childe ballads, James Keelaghan, “Down By the Henry Moore,” and Tanglefoot, as well as dialogue contributions from the likes of Ferron and especially Tom Paxton, who provides significant background on the family in the middle of the murders.
General passages or allusions/references I liked:
1. A Jerry Orbach mention! (One of my great regrets is not running down Orbach at a Montreal airport when I recognized him from a distance.)
2. “I maintain that Tom Waits would be nowhere without [Dave] Van Ronk to carve the pathway for him. Of course, that could also be true for Rod Stewart and Kim Carnes, who I had long suspected were the same person (of course, once I heard Bonnie Tyler, I realized they were both her.)”
3. Thinking of her mother, who feared apartment life should her behaviour (such as late night baths) negatively impact on her neighbours, Randy muses, “She, of course, had no idea of the basic indifference of man any more. She had been raised in an age of manners and etiquette, which is something we have somehow managed to lose along the way to the twenty-first century…the world was just more and more rude and irritable each day.”
4. A lovely comparison between homesteading in northern Alberta (Chris and Sally Jones country, for a roots reference) and life in the Appalachians.
5. MacDonald’s use of the word ‘chesterfield.’ ‘Nuff said.
Edmonton/University of Alberta references:
1. About the U of A campus- “It’s a shame that most students leave the campus for summer work or holidays back home just as the U of A is beginning to look like everyone’s dream of collegiate life.”
2. Remember when I mentioned ‘pithy’ earlier? From the same page as the above- again, writing about the U of A campus “Abandoned by all except grade school teachers hoping to escape the classroom by getting advanced degrees and becoming principals.” Ouch.
3. Mentions of John Wort Hannam and Mike Stack, and an especially nuanced discussion about Ben Sures. O, and Colin MacLean!
4. “The worst thing about hot weather in Edmonton is that you feel incredibly ungrateful if you complain about it. So much of the year is spent bundled so that you have no exposed flesh to freeze within ten seconds, that when some hot weather comes…you feel as if you can’t voice an opinion about it.”
5. “The southerners know how to celebrate their “Shortnin’ Bread” and “Jambalaya” , but as far as I could think, only Bill Bourne had immortalized “Saskatoon Pie.” I know that song isn’t “Saskatoon Pie,” but I couldn’t find it anywhere, and the line from the book was too good to pass up.
All in all, Hang Down Your Head is likely to provide any roots music fan with several hours of entertainment as the murder mystery unfolds as well as countless hours of Internet sleuthing to uncover performers and songs mentioned. The book provides lots of quips about the sociology and minutia of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, most of them kind but sometimes (and gleefully) edging on snarky.
Hang Down Your Head and other Janice MacDonald titles including the new Condemned to Repeat are available at (some) Edmonton bookstores, including Audreys. If you aren’t near Edmonton, the Amazon and Chapters/Indigo behemoths have it as well.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
It is getting to that time of the year when I must finalize my Polaris Music Prize Top 5 albums of the year. For those who are unfamiliar with the Polaris Music Prize, its mission statement reads thusly:
“A not-for-profit organization that honours, celebrates and rewards creativity and diversity in Canadian recorded music. Polaris recognizes and markets albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history. it is adjudicated by selected music journalists, broadcasters and bloggers.”
I am one of those fortunate to be entrusted with considering Canadian albums released between the beginning of June and the end of May. See previous winners here. It is a good to great experience, and I’ve been involved (I think) going on six years now. I was invited onto the jury as a roots music writer, and that is a position I continue to take seriously; at this point, it doesn’t quite matter to me if the Metric album is better than the Suuns or Metz albums (and who knew Belinda was still recording- “Subway Dances,” anyone?). I believe my mandate is to advocate for the roots albums, and try to bring them to the fore of consideration.
Regrettably, I haven’t been terribly successful. From where I sit, the popularity of indie-rock, arty-minimalists, dance and dirge, and just plain flighty shite (and don’t even get me started on eastern bias) is just too widespread for the (very) few of us who seem to listen to anything vaguely folky, country, rootsy, or (heavens) ‘grassy to ‘break through.’ And that is okay- when you have more than 200 writers considering and arguing over music, something has to be lost in the din. Usually, that is roots music. Again, from where I am sitting: I’m guessing the advocates of modern thrash metal and jazz are at least thinking similar thoughts this month.
I wasn’t terribly active on the Polaris jurors’ discussion forum this past year, largely due to pressures associated with life and work. I advocated for a few albums, but don’t really expect my words to influence anyone else on the jury. There was no shortage of quality roots albums released over the past year, and I am fighting with myself over which album to slide into the #1 slot.
My initial Polaris ballot is what I am considering today. I need to vote #1 to #5 (and the results are tabulated with positional weighting) early next month for my favourite albums of the past year. After everyone’s initial ballots are tabulated, a Long List of 40 make the cut for additional consideration, and that is when I’ll worry about the Metz, Metric, and Suuns albums. For now, I need to consider the roots, and nothing but the roots.
I regret that I didn’t purchase J.R. Shore’s third album State Theatre until a couple weeks ago. I’ve spent considerable time with it since, and it is definitely going on my top 5 ballot. But, does it end up at #1? Do I ‘throw’ my support behind an album that I know has absolutely no chance of making the Long List, or do I consider an album that may actually have a fighting chance? That album would be Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s epic Psychedelic Pill, an absolutely monumental release- one that has mesmerized me since first listen. Their Americana album, a recording that I found pedestrian and inconsequential, is also up for consideration and seems to have received wider acclaim than Psychedelic Pill.
I would hate for vote splitting to cost Neil a placing with Psychedelic Pill, especially if my weighted vote could have made a difference, but am having some trouble placing it ahead of State Theatre, the album I came here today to write about.
I had heard a few songs from J. R. Shore’s State Theatre on the radio, but those slivers didn’t prepare me for the intense experience of listening to the album as a whole. Shore is from Alberta, and there are three undeniable truths when it comes to this province: 1. highway lane change signals (and roadside urination) are completely discretionary; 2. if you’re under 60 years old and have never supported a Conservative, you’ve never voted for the ruling party; and 3. we know how to churn out singer-songwriters. We take credit for Ian Tyson, and have listened to, praised, and had life-altering moments wtih everyone from Leeroy Stagger, Maria Dunn, and Steve Coffey, through to Ruth Purves Smith, Ralph Boyd Johnson, and John Wort Hannam, not to mention his Corbness. And a couple of those artists will be in my Top 5, not that they stand a chance of breaking through to the Long List.
State Theatre is a two-disc package, the second of which is an e.p. of covers, including requisite readings of Neil Young (“For the Turnstiles”) and The Band (“W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”), along with honourary Canadian Tom Russell (Shore messes with the rhythm of “Blue Wing” to make it his own, and I’m not yet sold on his interpretation but I’m getting used to it), Gram, The Dead, Prine, and such. Of the eight covers, the only one that I can’t recommend is an unnecessary stab at “Redneck Mother,” a song that went stale somewhere around 1977.
The original songs on disc one make State Theatre Polaris-worthy. Like ‘great’ artists, Shore isn’t satisfied being any one thing: a poet, a critic, a historian, a songwriter, a guitar player on a stool. He is backed by a full band, often playing history drenched rock n roll as if they were booked from 1968, and perhaps they were- I don’t know them. (The keyboard player is named Garth, but he isn’t Hudson). Some songs are piano-based, others guitar; some gentle and meandering, others raucous and concise.
The subject matter is as diverse, from a Negro Leagues ball player (“Charlie Grant”) and “Poundmaker” to more recent stories of an everyday woman who found herself a focus of attention (“Addie Polk”) to an indulged artist (“Dash Snow”), industrial deaths made all the more relevant given world events (“146”) and a trans-Atlantic journey of wandering (“MS St. Louis”).
Shore’s songs unfold like so many blankets of sound and lyric- you can roll in them, they comfort you, and when they get too heavy, you can toss them off and bask in their residual warmth. As with John Wort Hannam, Si Kahn, and John McCutcheon, there is greatness here, and if he slides into Randy Newman’s shoes a bit too easily, who am I to begrudge a man his influences?
For those reasons, and more, J. R. Shore is making it tough on me. I haven’t spent as much time with this album as I have other albums this year, but I think State Theatre transcends the country, and his genre, whatever it is.
Other albums that I want to be in my Top 5 are Maria Dunn’s magnificent if narrowly-focused Piece by Piece, John Wort Hannam’s Brambles and Thorns, John Reischman’s Walk Along John, and Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever. If you are keeping score, along with Psychedelic Pill, that makes six albums, and I haven’t even mentioned Cara Luft’s wonderful little album Darlingford, Daniel Romano’s polarizing Come Cry With Me and Linda McRae’s beautiful Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts. Or Ralph Boyd Johnson’s heartfelt 1723 9 Street SW. Of all of those albums only three- Young, Romano, and Lund- have a hope of making the Long List. However, I believe they are all worthy. If you haven’t heard them, do some exploring.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
A very poor quality snap of John Wort Hannam in Leduc Saturday evening.
The John Wort Hannam Trio did a “pretty good” show in Leduc, Alberta this past evening, Sept. 29, 2012. The Fort MacLeod-based singer and songwriter featured a number of songs from the new Brambles and Thorns album (due October 2 from Borealis Records). Among the songs featured were “Pretty Good,” the clever “Great Lakes,” Lee Roy Stagger’s “Radiant Land,” the humourous “Damn Tattoo,” as well as the Alberta-proud “Out Here” and “Ain’t Lonesome Enough,” a song that was inspired by a recent sojourn into country music listening. (And I trust JWH knows “I Fall to Pieces” was written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard!)
The evening’s most impactful song was the one written for John’s life-long friend, the apt and well-constructed “Beautiful Friend.” As well, John dusted off “Dickson’s Slough,” a song from Dynamite and ‘Dozers that has been resurrected for Brambles and Thorns.
John was in as good of voice as ever, and positively presented himself and his music to an appreciative audience, the majority of which didn’t appear to have been familiar with his music before the concert. His increasing resemblance to both Raffi and Fred Penner was only slightly off-putting.
I don’t recall any songs from Two-Bit Suit being performed, a bit of an oddity as the title song, Damn It Gwenivere, and Infantryman are always appreciated. Requiem for a Small Town, Come Back to Me, Church of the Long Grass, Gypsies Grove, and a song in tribute of Fort MacLeod’s Empress Theatre were also performed. It was especially good to hear “Scotsman’s Bluff” and “We’re Gettin’ By” again. No “Pier 21,” though.
The sound was excellent, a nice change from the Red Deer venue I’ve heard John at the last few times I’ve seen him.
All in all, a pretty darn good night that was well worth the 45-minute drive home.
Six or seven October shows are listed at http://www.johnworthannam.com/John_Wort_Hannam_Website/HOME.html
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Alberta’s Arts Days, while a bit of a fabrication on the part of the government, has its benefits including a performance this Saturday evening by Alberta’s answer to Guy Clark, John Wort Hannam. John is playing in Leduc, and I plan on driving up to the McLab Theatre housed within the high school from which I graduated. Hmm, just occured to me: the first band I attempted to write about- and whose lead singer was the first I interviewed- were Edmonton’s The Models, and the gig and interview occured at Leduc Composite. Thirty-three years later…
Information about the gig and John Wort Hannam, who has a new album coming out October 2 (his first for Borealis) available at http://www.johnworthannam.com/John_Wort_Hannam_Website/HOME.html If he has copies for sale in Leduc, I’ll be purchasing one and will let you know what I think. I’m anticipating that it will be as good as Maria Dunn’s recently released Piece by Piece.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
To quote Stompin’ Tom Connors, it’s Canada Day up Canada
way, and in honour of our great Canadian celebration- marked traditionally by hailstorms, watching the NHL Free Agent Frenzy on TSN, and mega-sleep-ins to recover from a school year (6 PM last evening until 7:45 this morning, a personal best perhaps)- I thought I would offer up 10 Roots Songs for Canada Day.
Not a list of the 10 greatest Canadian songs, or my favourites even- just 10 songs to consider pulling off the shelf or downloading (legally, dagnabit) this DFKADD (day formerly known as Dominion Day).
- “8:30 Newfoundland” Mike Plume Band- Okay, maybe
this is the best roots song itemizing the charms and challenges of our fine
country. As a proud Canadian- one who doesn’t usually agree with our governments’
decisions- this song is 4:08 of joy. I haven’t been to all the places mentioned, but that doesn’t make it less appealing- we’re all tied together, especially those of us who watched lots of CBC in the 60s and 70s, by the fact that we know what ‘8:30 Newfoundland’ means. Originally released on 8:30 Newfoundland 2009
- “Acadian Driftwood” The Band- Maybe the band’s finest moments this side of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” A stylized account of the forced exodus of the Acadians from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and their eventual settlement in Louisiana. I took my Canadian history courses in university, but I never really understood the expulsion of the Acadians until I started to understand the meaning behind and context of “Acadian Driftwood.” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until I was well out of university. A great listen: a solid groove, a story clearly told, and wonderful vocal performances from the triad of Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel. Originally released on Northern Lights-Southern Cross 1975
- “O Saskatchewan” Matt Masters- As a reluctant Saskatchewanian for a few years, I came to appreciate the province in ways that others- like me, once upon a time- simply can’t because of our stereotypes and our willingness to go for the easy joke. Saskatchewan has always been viewed by Albertans as the poor cousin to the east, but it really isn’t that different from us, save the mountains. Yes, you can see your dog run away for three days out on the prairie, but the same can be said for most of Alberta. The real Saskatchewan is pretty magnificent and I got to explore a bit of it living in
the north country for a few years: you don’t know Saskatchewan until you’ve
walked the Methye Portage three different times and been left breathless each
time at the view of the Clearwater River as you break through the bush at that
final ridge. Matt Masters doesn’t get much off the Trans-Canada in his view of
the province, but we’ll forgive that as his appreciation for Saskatchewan
appears genuine, and the album gets its release today. Originally released on All-Western Winners TODAY, July 1, 2011!
- “Do You Know Slim Evans?” Maria Dunn- As we see labour and worker rights eroded weekly in our country- ask the postal workers and Air Canada workers about that- it is good to reflect on the sacrifices of those who came in previous generations and made the choices necessary to allow others- including those workers who today benefit greatly from their efforts while speaking negatively of unions- to lead more satisfying and fair lives. Maria Dunn’s We Were Good People is a wonderful collection of songs telling the stories of those who really founded our province. In short, Slim Evans was a labour organizer who was accused and convicted of misusing union money; he had diverted funds to feed the families of miners on strike during the winter of 1921-22. Every story tells a picture, and this album does more than that- it allows the seldom heard stories of Albertan pioneering labour organizers, political rabble-rousers, and ordinary people to be shared. Originally released on We Were Good People 2004
- “Out on the Weekend” Doug Paisley- A list of Canadian roots songs without Neil Young would be akin to an issue of enRoute without Neil Young being represented on the in-flight audio program. I chose to go with this cover by Doug Paisley rather than Neil himself because, well frankly Neil isn’t too dang Canadian these days, is he. As part of Mojo magazine’s never-ending quest to recreate every single album released between 1965 and 1975, Harvest received the honour last fall and this track is one of the standout performances. Whether we head toward L.A. or not, what Canadian hasn’t had the urge to “pack it in and buy a pickup”? Originally released on Harvest Revisited 2010
- “Prairie Town” T. Buckley- From an Albertan I’m convinced will become a household name in roots circles, “Prairie Town” is songwriting perfection in under four and a half minutes. This one has the lonesome qualities of the finest songs, crafted with an eye for detailed images that resonate with anyone who was raised on or near the prairie, built upon decisions of love and home. Do you stay or do you follow? Originally released on Roll On 2010
- “Love Shines” Ron Sexsmith- A power pop masterpiece. Everyone knows Ron Sexsmith doesn’t have the most commercially accessible voice, but it does have its appeal. The recent documentary about Sexsmith and his journey to find himself- not to mention album sales- shares a title with this number, and much like the movie this song has a slow build that sucks you right in until you’re hanging on every phrase and sound. Beautiful. Originally released on Long Player, Late Bloomer 2011.
- “I Like Trains” Fred Eaglesmith- As a farm kid, I can still remember the thrill of waiting at the crossing at Duffield as the train passed through town. Sitting in the red Ford pickup, counting the cars, waving at the engineer and the crew in the caboose…those are memories as fresh today as they were when they happened forty years ago. All kids like trains. Only folks like Fred get to write about them. I love the phrase “shake the gravel loose”- it captures the trembling that you felt as a kid as the train
roared by. Originally released on Drive-In Movie 1995.
- “Sometimes I Think I Can Fly” Suzie Vinnick- Sparse blues. If I could play music, it wouldn’t sound anything like this. But I wish it would. Originally released on Me
‘N’ Mabel 2011.
- “Pier 21” John Wort Hannam- This is where the journey started for many Canadians of previous generations. Like Maria Dunn and I suppose Robbie Robertson, John Wort Hannam gives life to Canadian history, and any one of a dozen of his songs could have had a place on this list. With the exception of its Native people, Canada is a country of immigrant stock and JWH captured that experience in this song from his debut:
“He said Go Laddie Go, Go Laddie Go, Find your dreams over on Pier 21, He said Go Laddie Go, Go Laddie Go, But don’t you ever forget where you’re from.” Originally released on Pocket Full of Holes 2003
And that sums up Canada Day for me- “Don’t forget where you’re from!” We or our ancestors might have come from Scotland, Germany, Ukraine, India, and anyone of twenty-four dozen other countries, but we’re Canadian. And let’s not forget it.
Now, go play some Trooper.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
BTW- I posted a similarly-themed but different posting of 10 Canadian Bluegrass songs over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=770
It takes a lot to get me out of the house, but I seldom miss an opportunity to catch John Wort Hannam live. Fort McLeod’s most famous folk resident stopped by for an appearance at The Hideout, Red Deer’s newest bar and grill featuring live music.
As always, John was in excellent form and voice. On this evening, he was joined by fiddler Scott Duncan. I don’t believe I’ve previously heard JWH with accompaniment, so I was intrigued from the start.
What is it about an energetic fiddler that makes any set better? That was certainly the case tonight/last night; in some places Duncan simply added additional life or texture to the songs, and in other places- as on “Infantryman”- brought a sense of increased solemnness.
Kicking off his performance with the apt “Requiem for a Small Town” (“How about we get all dressed up, go out and get all messed up”), JWH covered most of the essential ground within the 22 songs performed, including a couple choice covers.
“Annabelle,” JWH’s revisioning of “Long Black Veil” had Marty Robbins got a hold of the Marijohn Wilkin/Danny Dill classic, was another early highlight. One in a series of peaks, as expected, and complete with toe-tappers and knee-bouncers and a couple almost sing-a-longs. Actually, the most crowd participation came on a song I hadn’t heard before, a lovely children’s lullaby entitled “Chompy, The Head Biter-Offer.”
I’m always pleased when a familiar song ‘pops’ on a particular evening, and for me on this night that song was “Gypsies Grove.” The line “My boots may be dirty but my conscience is spit polish clean” hit me as particularly impressive, even though I’ve heard it twenty or more time while listening to Dynamite & Dozers.
“Two-Bit Suit,” “Church of the Long Grass,” Sweet, Sweet Rose,” “Tonight We Strike,” and especially “Wheatland” all sounded great and met with appreciation from the audience. I love that lyric “I guess some of us are wheat, and some of us are chaff.”
“Lucky Strikes” was performed late in the evening, long after many of the listeners had departed, and the evening ended with a gentle performance of “50 Miles.”
As for the covers, in honour of the never-ending winter we’re experiencing- including a blizzard JWH had to drive through on his way to Red Deer- Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family” was trotted out for (hopefully) one last time this spring. I’d never heard him perform Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway” before so that was a most excellent treat. Duncan’s fiddle added a lonesome despair to that one. Nicely done. But now that I reflect, I wasn’t surprised when he started to introduce the song, so maybe I have heard him do it previously. Doesn’t matter, the duo nailed it.
A bit of a strange venue for a folk show certainly. I’m not sure if a pool-table laden bar and grill is the best atmosphere to experience JWH, but so be it. If he’s willing and the booker is too, I’m game. I’d never visited The Hideout before tonight/last night, but I’ll be back- it is quite a nice place, very roomy. The beer was cold, and it was good to see 40 or so folks come out specifically to hear John.
John Wort Hannam is next in Vermillion on Saturday night before heading to Calgary and Fort McLeod for performances of The Gift, the Ian Tyson tribute before heading to California and Ontario.