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March 30, 2017

Music Review: David Broza - The Set List


Cover The Set List David Broza.jpgAfter 40 years of performing music David Broza has a problem. It's really difficult searching through the amount of material he's produced to come up with a set list for any given tour. Titling his new greatest hit package The Set List, being released March 31 2017, is therefore rather appropriate. One could only assume this collection would contain the songs, and or performances, he would like to include in all of his shows.

For those who don't know Broza is an institution in his home country of Israel. However a good part of his early life was spent in Spain and England with his family and these influences show up in his music, especially the former. You can't help but hear the Flamenco influences in his guitar playing. It also won't be much of a surprise to know one of his most recent recordings was a collection of songs from Andalusia dating back to the days prior to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.

Unfortunately for Broza this greatest hits collection could never be a set list. For there are performances included in here which would be very difficult to reproduce ever again. Take for example the live recording of the song he first became famous for "Yihye Tov" (Things Will Be Better). While it was written in 1977 during the peace talks between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and has become an anthem of the Israeli peace movement, the version he has chosen for this release was recorded live at the biblical fortress of Masada in 2007 with special guests Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin.

Broza is obviously held in high esteem by his fellow musicians around the world. Even though they had only met twice, and that on stage, after his death the late American country iconoclast Townes Van Zandt bequeathed Broza two shoe boxes of lyrics. Ten years later Broza released Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt and has included the title song from that album on this release.

The second indication of the respect he's held in comes from the tracks included from the 2013 release East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem. Produced by Steve Earle and recorded over eight days in a Palestinian recording studio in East Jerusalem, Broza brought together musicians from both sides of the Jewish Palestinian divide to create this record of covers and original material. (As an aside a great documentary of the same name on the making of the album is currently showing on Netflix - a quick search of the service, no matter what country you're in, should bring it up)

The three songs included from those sessions on this disc include "One to Three", a powerful indictment of the war mentality that exists in Israel; "Ramallah/Tel Aviv", an homage to two of the largest cities in Palestine and Israel respectively sung by Broza and Palestinian singer Mira Awad; and the title song "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem" sung with Haiti's Wyclef Jean. Each of these songs represents another effort on his part to build hope for a better future for the two people of his country.

Whether the lyrics are in Hebrew, English, or Spanish Broza's songs are wonderful to listen to. Even if you don't understand the words the music itself is a wondrous mix of the Middle East, Spain, and points further afield. On this collection you'll hear everything from Oud players to Steve Earle's mandolin accompanying songs.

The Set List may never be performed in concert, but it offers a great retrospective of an amazing musician's career. If you've never heard Broza before this is a great opportunity to get to know the music and the man. If you're already a fan, this is a chance to at least listen to what he would consider his ideal concert.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: David Broza - The Set List)

July 21, 2016

Music Blu-ray Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps


Cover Rust Never Sleeps lg copy.jpgIn 1979 Neil Young released the LP Rust Never Sleeps and the double live LP Live Rust. Later that same year, the movie Rust Never Sleeps, basically the visual record of the second recording, was also released. July 1 2016 saw a Blu-ray version of Rust Never Sleeps, complete with remastered sound, released by Warner Brothers Records.

For the record, I saw the original movie when it was released in theatres back in 1979. However, given the years that have passed since, and my state of mind when seeing it, I don't think my memories are reliable enough to make any comparisons between the two. What I can say is I had forgotten the remarkable experience the movie had been. Not only was it far more sophisticated than most concert movies of the time, it also contained a number of theatrical elements not normally seen in a straight ahead rock concert from that era.

At this point in his career Young and his band Crazy Horse (Frank Sampedro guitar & vocals, Billy Talbot bass & vocal, and Ralph Molina drums & vocals) were a seamless unit who could match any rock and roll band note for note and riff for riff. Listening to them now one can't help but hear why every grunge rocker who came along in the late 80s early 90s owes a huge debt to this ensemble. They grind through songs with an intensity and a power that can be a little overwhelming. However, they, unlike many imitators, also know how to pull back and understand the impact a moment of silence can have on a song.

The movie opens much as the audience in the concert hall would have experienced the event. We're treated to the site of Young's stage crew dressed as Jawas, complete with glowing red eyes, setting up. This involves raising tarps to reveal oversized touring crates and erecting a gigantic microphone stand (a la the flag at Iwo Jima) to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock and The Beatles' "Day In A Life".

The last to be revealed is Young himself curled up asleep on top of one of the boxes. He then proceeds to perform a solo acoustic set starting with "Sugar Mountain" and "I'm A Child" while standing on the box. As he performs you realize the songs have been chosen deliberately to show the progression in his music. He travels from the youth and innocence of those early tunes to the person who has been tempered by life's joys and sadness in songs like "After The Gold Rush".
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After he finishes his acoustic set he lays down to sleep in a giant sleeping bag centre stage and the Jawas begin to set up the stage for the full band accompanied by stage announcements from the Woodstock Arts and Music Festival being played over the P.A. system. Once everything is set Young and Crazy Horse proceed into a set featuring some of his most well known songs from the 1970s and excerpts from the recently released Rust Never Sleeps LP.

While the majority of this set is electric he interjects two acoustic numbers, "The Needle and the Damage Done" and "Lotta Love", as a change of pace. The second half of the movie follows along the lines of a more typical concert film from the time period as its mainly shots of the band playing. However, there are a few surprises along the way which prevent it from becoming monotonous.

As the movie was originally shot in the low light atmosphere of a concert hall on film, there's not much even a digital transfer onto Blu-ray can do about the graininess of the image quality. However, the audio transfer is far better than one would have expected. The sound is so clear you can even hear the shuffling of the Jawa's feet as they move around the stage during the set up periods.

When it was released theatrically Rust Never Sleeps was considered to be something of a breakthrough in the genre of concert films. Not only was it more than just head on footage of the artist performing, there was also a semblance of a narrative. Never satisfied with doing the same thing over and over again musically, Young took this opportunity to tinker with a rather staid format and managed to make it more exciting.

Compared to the concert films that came after it in the 1980s Rust Never Sleeps looks rather primitive. However, given the limits the technology of the day imposed upon him, Young and his people created something which still manages to stand the test of time.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps)

June 21, 2016

Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - The Cedar Creek Sessions


Cover The Cedar Creek Sessions.jpgIn celebration of his 80th birthday (June 22, 2016) Kris Kristofferson will be releasing the two CD set The Cedar Creek Sessions on his own KK label. Recorded live over three days in 2014 at the Cedar Creek Studios in Texas (June 23, 24, and 25) the two discs are as close to a retrospective of his prolific songwriting career as can be crammed into a package of this size.

A proper recounting of his storied songwriting career would require far more than the 25 songs recorded during these three days. However, unlike most greatest hits recordings this collection isn't simply songs culled from past albums, these are brand new re-interpretations of the songs Kristofferson felt like playing over the course of the session.

Now the man has never had what one would call dulcet tones. Those of you who can remember the early days of his career will know he was born with a voice that sounded like it had been soaked in a whisky barrel and then smoked by playing a thousand bars. Age has not mellowed his voice any, but neither has it made it any worst for wear. Sure Kristofferson has a little bit more trouble hitting notes at either end of the scale, but that only gives the song's a new depth of character.

The sense of history his voice now personifies brings a new perspective to the songs. Instead of them sounding like they're about a particular moment in time, they now feel as if they were written in relation to a person's entire life. So, a tune like "Sunday Morning Coming Down, arguably one of his most famous, is no longer the Sunday morning repentance of a drunk, but the wistfulness of a person looking back through years and wondering what a simpler life would have been like.
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Those who are familiar with Kristofferson's vast catalogue will be delighted to hear gems that aren't played as often as they should. Chief among those as far as I'm concerned are "The Law is for the Protection of the People", "Billy Dee", and "To Beat The Devil". The latter is particularly great as it closes the second disc and the lines, "And you can still hear me singin' to the people who don't listen,/To the things that I am sayin',prayin' someone's gonna hear." are about as good an summation of any songwriter's career as you'll find. The fact that he wrote it about himself, and it is the last song in this collection, makes it even more powerful in this context.

Kristofferson is joined for this recording by a collection of great players who not only fill in the sound but support his voice perfectly. Shawn Camp on guitar, Kevin Smith on bass, Michael Ramos on keyboard, and Mike Meadows on drums add great accompaniment without overshadowing Kristofferson's uniqueness. There's also a special treat when he's joined by Sheryl Crow in singing the duet he wrote for Johnny Cash and June Carter, "The Loving Gift", a song Kristofferson never recorded.

Willie Nelson, no mean songwriter himself, said "There's no better songwriter alive than Kris Kristofferson. Everything he writes is a standard, and we're just going to have to live with that". While some might debate Kristofferson's status as the best songwriter alive, there can be no debating the fact he's one of the great singer/songwriters of our times. The Cedar Creek Sessions not only serves to remind us of the depth of abilities, but serves notice that he's not done yet. Which is some of the best news the music world could receive about now.

Image of Kris Kristofferson by Kate Simon

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - The Cedar Creek Sessions)

April 24, 2016

Music Review: Fanfare Ciocarlia - Onwards To Mars


Cover Onward To Mars Fanfare Ciocarlia.jpgFanfare Ciocarlia, Romania's premiere Romany brass band, are set to release their latest album on the Asphalt Tango label. Onward To Mars is due to hit North America April 15 2016. Its not only another example of the band's musical prowess, it also continues to show off their continued evolution musically.

Fanfare first became known to North American audiences through their amazing rendition of Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild", included in the soundtrack of the movie Borat. Their exuberant and flamboyant style of play, combined with each member's virtuosity, has garnered them praise everywhere. What is most impressive about the band is how they break any and all stereotypes people might have about brass music.

While they can wail away with the best of them and blow the roof off a concert hall, as this new release proves they also can play with incredible subtlety and finesse. On this album they've decided to continue the exploration of different musical styles they began with their previous release, The Devil's Tale. While that disc was something of a tribute to the jazzier side of Romany music, this one hearkens back more to the music they would play at festivals and weddings for a non Romany audience.

So we hear horas and another traditional Romanian music, but with, as the band's former leader, the late Ioan Ivancea, said "our very special gypsy touch, i.e. more warmth, more colour, and more shine". With seven of the disc's fourteen tracks composed by label mate Koby Israelite specifically to reflect this type of music we hear a new side to the band.

There is still the breathless pace, like watching a horse gallop across a field, and the incredible energy we've come to expect from the band. However, there are also nuances and intricacies to the music we've not heard before. They are also experimenting with some different types of music - the second song on the CD, "Mista Lobaloba", sounds like a collision between there usual sound and a the horn section of a Mariachi band.
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Than there's what I consider the most memorable track - their cover of Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You with guest vocalist Iulian Canaf. Without a single guitar anywhere to be heard they've turned this into a down and dirty blues tune which wouldn't be out of place in any juke joint. It doesn't hurt that Canaf's vocals could sear the paint off the side of a house. This is a show stopper.

If you've never heard Fanfare Ciocarlia you don't know what you've been missing. Hailing from Zece Pra˘ jini (meaning ten fields) a small village in rural Romania their families have lived in since feudal times, they continue to redefine brass band music. They're touring the US for the rest of April, you can find specific dates and locations at Asphalt Tangos' tour page. If they show up in your neighbourhood get yourself to the venue - hearing them on record is one thing - seeing them in person is like travelling to another planet.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review; Fanfare Ciocarlia - Onwards To Mars)

October 21, 2015

Music Review: Made Of Light Tymon Dogg


What do you mean you've never heard of Tymon Dogg? The man's only been playing and creating music for longer then most of you have been alive. Hell, he played with The Clash, for whatever sake you want to insert. (Sandinista, lead vocals and violin on "Lose This Skin") He also played with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros in case you've never heard of The Clash. If, by some chance you've not heard this mad man play, now's your chance, as his first solo album in more than twenty years, Made of Light, is being released October 20 2015 on the Thin Man Music label.

One of the first things you have to know about Dogg is while he's one of those folk who seem to be able to play any and every stringed instrument invented, the violin is his weapon of choice. When he plays on the violin he creates a storm of passion in his listeners. He can break your heart or raise your ire to the extent you'll march off to war. His dragging the bow across the strings can create a banshee wail that will cut a path through any opposition or drag a note from its depths that would wring a tear from a rock.
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Than there's his singing voice. It isn't what you'd call dulcet - in fact some might call it a high pitched screech. However, you can't be listening properly if you say that. Yes his voice is much higher than you'd expect (the first time I heard "Lose This Skin" I thought it was a woman singing) but oh is it compelling. It reaches out and grabs you by the throat and forces you to listen to what Dogg is saying. No one is going to claim that Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Woody Guthrie have or had great voices, but that's never stopped anyone from listening to them.

Musically Dogg's influences range far and wide. As you'd expect from his previous associations with Strummer there's plenty of the raw energy associated with punk. However, you can also hear everything from traditional British Isles folk to the most avant garde of jazz in his music. While there's some studio tricks and effects used on the recording, the majority of what you hear on the disc comes from what he is able to accomplish with his voice and instruments.

All of which makes for a perfect underpinning of his lyrics. There's the sarcastic and biting "Conscience Money", track one, which makes fun of those who give a pittance in charity to ease their guilt about their accumulated wealth: "Conscience money, conscience money/I made a million, I'll throw a penny back/I'll give them a crumb from a bursting sack/ When I drink Champagne I offer them the fizz/Conscience money, we all know it is."

The wealthy aren't his only targets though. He also takes aim at society's eating habits in general, specifically they way we produce the meat that we eat with the third song on the album, "Pound of Grain". What's good about this song is the fact he doesn't condemn the eating of meat or act all sanctimonious about being a vegetarian. (no idea if Dogg is or isn't one) Rather, he's simply attacking the waste and cruelty involved with its manufacture. "The hunter doesn't hunt anymore/He gets his meat like a vulture from a corner store/He must feel brave as he goes in for the kill and gets out his credit card and approaches the till."

However, he's not just a satirist, he also writes beautiful and hopeful songs like track seven, "As I Make My Way". As with all the best folk music its deceptively simple both musically and lyrically, which makes its message all the clearer. "When I was a young man my friend said to me/ Remember you're just a part of all humanity/Well I forgot, I strayed, in ego games I played/Now I recall that simple truth as I make my way". Throughout the course of the song Dogg shows how there are plenty of opportunities along the way for all of us to remember this simple lesson of compassion. We just have to listen.
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With Dogg you need to rid yourself of any expectations when it comes to what you're going to hear, because he's going to defy them. He keeps you off balance with both his lyrics and his music as he explores new motifs in both from song to song. What's even better is while he definitely has something to say, he's also a gifted enough musician to blend the music and the message into a seamless package.

Some people may not be overly thrilled with what he has to say or how he says it. But the world needs voices like Dogg's to keep us on our toes and to remind us of how much better we could all be as people. Without preaching or being overbearing, and with a great deal of humour at times, Made of Light does all of those things. If you've never listened to Dogg before, or you just haven't heard him in long time, now's the time - you won't ever forget the experience.

(Photo Credit for picture of Tymon Dogg performing Alison Clarke)

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Made Of Light by Tymon Dogg - (A True Indie))

May 21, 2014

Music Review: Golem - Tanz


Legend tells us that the 16th century rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel created a golem to protect the Jewish ghetto in Prague from pogroms during the Easter/Passover holiday season. A creature made of clay, the golem was brought to life when the Hebrew word for truth, emet, was carved on his forehead and put back to sleep when the first letter of the word was removed leaving, met, the Hebrew word for dead. While golems have been depicted as everything from shambling monsters to articulate figures akin to our idea of artificial intelligence, they are also a reminder of the struggles for survival Jewish people have faced through history.

Now aside from both being parts of Jew's European heritage, at first glance golems and Klezmer music have very little in common. However, Klezmer shares the same roots as the golem, as it comes from Central and Eastern Europe. The word Klezmer comes from the Hebrew words klei (vessel) and zemer (song) which when combined literally means instrument of song. Originally it was the word for any musician, and it wasn't until the 1970s it was used to describe the music of the Yiddish speaking people of Eastern Europe. Today the music not only draws upon its traditions, but has incorporated aspects of contemporary popular music.
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One of the great examples of how Klezmer has evolved is the Brooklyn based band Golem. Referring to themselves as "Not your grandfather's Klezmer band", the band sings in Yiddish, English, various Slavic languages and German, plays instruments traditionally associated with the genre (violin, accordion, horns) but infuses it with an edge that can only be called a punk rock sensibility. Their latest album, Tanz, on the Mexican based Disco Corason label, is a rollicking adventure in high energy anarchic music that still manages to capture both the spirit and feel of Klezmer.

Instead of singing songs about a way of life which no longer exists, Golem have taken the form and turned it into the means of expressing what's important to them today. While there are still some traditional songs included on the disc the majority, like the title song "Tanz", (Dance) are originals which they've based on the lives of people and experiences they are familiar with. "Tanz" is the story of a survivor of the death camps who went on to build a small fortune as an adult. Instead of worrying about what would become of his money, he lived life to its fullest. When he died, unmarried, childless and without a will nobody inherited his wealth. "This cash is only paper/Let's buy a fast red car/We don't believe in heaven/Just want to die happy/Tanz tanz tanz...dance!"

Alongside this life affirming, live for the moment song, you also have some very witty satire. "Vodka Is Poison" bases its lyrics on a Russian self-help tape designed to help cut down on the rampant alcoholism in the country. The lyrics are hysterical, "It makes you sickly, makes you cough/Makes you smell like dirty socks/Makes you happy, makes you free/Makes you wish you were me/Vodka - Yad." The song's lyrics are in sung in both Russian and English - I'm not sure if the English are a direct translation of the Russian - but if they're any indication of Russia's methods of trying to curtail excessive drinking I doubt any real dent has been made in the problem. While the song's lyrics are obviously not meant to be taken seriously, they are real enough to make us realize the ridiculousness of a self-help tape being used to cut down on people's drinking.
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However, not all the songs are humorous or even satirical, some like "7:40" deal with more serious issues. In the former USSR it was impossible for a Jew to go to medical school. The only way a cousin of lead singer Annette Eziekiel Kogan was able to receive medical training was by becoming a member of the very anti-Jewish Soviet armed forces. The song's title refers to the first time of day Orthadox Jews pray, 7:40 am. In the Soviet Union her cousin was forbidden to pray at any of the three times designated for prayer; 7:40 am (shacharit) 4:15 pm (mincha) and 8:35 pm (maairv) "Sacharit, mincha, maariv/I do no work on Saturday/Back home Jews can't go to med school/ When someone called me a kike/I stuck a finger in his eye/And now I'm free to daven (pray) as I like". (The cousin actually took out somebody's eye when he was called a kike - not surprisingly he emigrated to Chicago as soon as he was able)

Musically Golem somehow manages to combine the familiar plaintive sound of traditional Klezmer with the harder edge of their punk ethos. A great deal of their success comes down to them having not only mastered the original form, but also have a great deal of respect and affection for its traditions. It also helps that both Kogan and co-vocalist Aaron Diskin are able to sing with conviction and feeling in all the languages used on the disc. Instead of the clarinet you would expect to hear playing leads in a Klezmer band, Jeremy Brown on violin and Curtis Hasselbring on trombone accompany Kogan's accordion in pumping out the melodies while they are kept on beat by Taylor Bergen-Chrisman on bass and Tim Monaghan on drums.

While this mix of instruments might sound odd on the surface, once you hear them play you'll be hooked on the infectious music they're able to create. Golem aren't like any Klezmer band you've ever heard, but that's what makes them so much fun to listen to. There aren't too many musicians who have the ability to take a traditional form of music and bring it into the modern world while still remaining true to the genre's origins. Golem may not be your grandparents', or even your parents', Klezmer band, but that doesn't make them any less authentic or inspiring.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Golem - Tanz)

May 7, 2014

Music Review: Willie Watson - Folk Singer Volume 0ne


When immigrants from the British Isles came over to North America they brought the songs of Ireland, Scotland and England with them. As these people came into contact with other cultural influences (Spanish, African, French and the continent's indigenous population) the music evolved to reflect a region's population diversity. Today you can hear traces of this meeting of cultures in most North American popular music. However, it's in the music's most basic form, one man and one instrument, we hear the purest and most direct link back to its origins.

Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) are probably two of the names most of us associate with the popularization of what we call folk music today. Between the two of them they wrote and popularized some of the most well known songs in the folk music catalogue. Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is probably one of the best known songs in North America while Lead Belly's "House Of The Rising Sun" and "Rock Island Line" are staples for almost every folk, blues and country singer around. However, if you've ever heard recordings of either man you'll know neither sounded anything like the polished and well produced folk singers of recent eras, but more like what we'd call country singers along the lines of the Carter Family or Hank Williams.

While many have tried to emulate these old style folk singers, few have been able to capture both the sound and feeling of the music with any sort of credibility. One who has is the former member of The Old Crow Medicine Show, Willie Watson. His new solo release, Folk Singer Volume 1 on Acony Records is a collection of nine covers of traditional folk songs, and one original, that not only captures the sound, but the spirit of folk music as few have done in this generation.
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The songs on this disc are like an oral history of American life over the last hundred and fifty odd years. Written by musicians from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries the songs create a picture of life and beliefs that few history books deliver. For they aren't concerned with what so-called movers and shakers had for breakfast, rather they are about the lives of those on whose backs their empires were amassed. However, these aren't what you'd call political songs in the way we understand them today. Instead they remind us of the social conditions people lived under and the things which gave them reasons for hope.

It's only fitting Watson has included two songs associated with Lead Belly and opens the album with arguably his most famous song, "Midnight Special". While considered a traditional song, meaning it's not known who wrote it, the song was attributed to Lead Belly when he was recorded performing it while serving time in Angola Prison in Texas in 1934.
The version of the song Watson has recorded doesn't sound much like the one made popular by Credence Clearwater Revival most of us are familiar with as he's playing it solo and on acoustic guitar. However, it sounds far more like the song might have sounded when it was recorded by Lead Belly. The slow pace give emphasis to the song's plaintive lyrics and reminds you the song is about the hardships experienced by African Americans, or anyone, doing a hard labour prison sentence in the early part of the 20th century.

Another song recorded by Watson on this disc attributed to Lead Belly, "Stewball", is actually an adaptation of a British folk song from the 18th century about a racehorse named Skewball. Credit for the American version of the song is shared between Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie who adapted their version from one sung by American slaves in the 19th century. It was the slaves who changed the geography of the song from Ireland and England to America with the horse being born in California and its most famous race taking place in Dallas Texas instead of Kildare Ireland.

This is a perfect example of not only how the folk songs of Great Britain migrated to and evolved in, North America, but of how they came to reflect the passions of their new home. In the 1930s and 40s, when Guthrie and Lead Belly released their versions of the song, horse racing and the thoroughbreds who ran in them held the same iconic status among the general public as baseball players and boxers. Not only did the chance of winning big at the track offer people the hope they could break out of the cycle of poverty which gripped North America during the depression, there was always the hope the long shot, or the little guy, could triumph over the favourite Something any number of people could easily identify with, and dreamt about, at the time.
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Aside from the covers, which also include the very familiar "James Alley Blues" by Richard "Rabbit" Brown (famously covered by some guy named Bob Dylan) and the less well known "Rock Salt & Nails" by Utah Phillips, Watson has also included an original tune, "Mother Earth". Probably the most overtly political song on the disc, with its lyrics reminding us no matter who we are or how much wealth we accumulate during our life time we're all going to end up in Mother Earth's embrace, it sounds like it could have been written by any of his famous predecessors.

Authenticity isn't just about the lyrical content of the songs, it's about the way they are sung. By that I don't mean how polished they sound, I've heard some truly great folk songs ruined by people singing them like slick pop songs, but how well whoever is singing is able to make you believe in the song. Call it heart, call it soul, but whatever word you want to use there's no denying Watson has the almost indefinable quality to his performing which makes everything he sings on this recording ring true. His voice isn't the prettiest, and his adaptations of the songs aren't ornate or fancy, but there is a purity and clarity which gives them a potency you don't often find in solo performances.

With Folk Singer Volume 1 Watson has not only breathed new life into classic folk songs, he reminds us of their cultural and historical value. Not only are they are a passionate and intelligent oral history of North America, they are a reminder of the deepest roots of our popular music. We may have heard plenty of versions of these songs before, but I'll wager you've not heard them sung like this too often. Watson is like the missing link which ties the music of the past to the present. For while he has an obvious reverence for the songs' origins, he's not afraid to put his own stamp on them. Folk music has found a new champion, and it couldn't be in better hands.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Watson - Folk Singer Volume One)

January 21, 2014

Music Review: David Broza - East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem


There are some subjects I know not to talk to most people about, because they probably won't like what I have to say on the matter. Always having been slightly left of most anarchists I'm supposed to hold to certain opinions in order to not let the side down. Yet, I've always been of the opinion that being an anarchist means you can have whatever opinion you want and not have to toe any party line. Still that doesn't prevent most people I know from coming over all strange when I won't condemn Israel out of hand or give my unconditional support for the Palestinian cause. My problem is that I can see both sides of the argument and refuse to say either side is completely right or wrong.

Of course being of Jewish heritage probably does have some influence over how I feel about the issue. I can't help it, but if you've studied the history of Jews in the Christian world you'll know until the formation of Israel it was one of never being sure when your welcome in any country would all of a sudden run out. However, the fact the political leadership of Israel are enacting policies which have created conditions similar to those Jews suffered under prior to the creation of the state for other people is reprehensible. How can a country which was founded on the premise of equality for all and providing a safe haven for those who desired it do so on the backs of others? The situation as it now stands is so fraught with difficulty it's hard to hold out any hope for peaceful co-existence between the two people of the region.

However, every so often rays of hope do pierce the clouds looming over the region. One of the most recent is the latest recording from the Israeli musician David Broza. For East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, being released on S-Curve Records January 14 2014, was not only recorded in a Palestinian owned recording studio, Broza recorded with a multinational and multilingual group of musicians including both Israelis and Palestinians. A mix of original material and covers, the album was created as a means of showing the world that it doesn't matter what politicians say or do - there are still people on both sides of the divide who haven't given up hope of region's two people living together peacefully.
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Broza is a gifted guitar player and singer, and both talents are on full display in this recording. One thing interesting to note is this record marks the first time he has written songs in English, instead of his native Hebrew. He has recorded in English before, but in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience he has taken the risk of writing his original songs for this disc in English. He figured, rightly, if he wants an international audience to take notice of his message he needed to record it in an accessible language. In the same vain he brought in American recording artist Steve Earle to act as producer for the release in order to ensure he had a better chance of connecting with a wider audience. Appropriately enough, considering the album's content, he also covers Earle's song "Jerusalem", accompanied by Earle on mandolin and harmonica.

With lines like "That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem", one could say the song is part hope for a better future and part wishful thinking - especially considering the current state of affairs in Israel. However, hope and wishful thinking aren't things to be condemned or put down when people attempt to put them into practical application. In the 1970s Nick Lowe wrote the song "(What's so Funny 'bout) Peace Love & Understanding" as a response to the backlash against the pacifism of the 1960s. Starting with Elvis Costello's recording of it in 1979 on his Armed Forces album, musicians have been utilizing this song to remind us not to give up on hope. "I ask myself/Is all hope lost?/Is there only, pain and hatred, and misery?/And each time I feel like this inside/There's one thing I wanna know:/What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding?/What's so funny 'bout peace love & understand?"

Broza sings this song as a declaration of intent and as a challenge to those who would dismiss those who have given up on seeing peace in the region. He not only sings this, he also shows us an example of how Palestinian and Israeli can work together in harmony if given the chance. On this song, and on his cover of Yusaf Islam's (Cat Stevens) "Where Do The Children Play", he's accompanied by the Jerusalem Youth Chorus whose membership is made up of both Jewish and Palestinian youth. They are by no means a professional choir, but what they might lack in quality they make up for with their passion and obvious belief in what they are doing. Considering they have only recently celebrated their first anniversary their performance is as remarkable as the example they are showing to the world.

While there are other covers on the album, including a wonderful version of Roger Walter's "Mother", which are equally remarkable, it's the songs Broza has written himself, or collaborated on with others which still are the most powerful. Who he has chosen to collaborate with in this process is actually almost as important as the songs themselves. American/Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean co-wrote and performs on the cover track, "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem". Whose chorus of "East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem/Shalom, Salam" reminds us how similar the word for peace is in Arabic and Hebrew. While Jean's participation and performance are impressive, the truly amazing collaborations are the multilingual ones Broza has chosen to write and perform with Palestinian musicians.

"Key to the Memory" features lyrics by Broza set to music composed by Palestinian musician Said Murad, who also plays both on the song, while the lyrics are translated into Arabic by Mira Awad who sings on both this tune and another of his originals "Ramallah - Tel-Aviv". Like many of the songs on the disc these two songs feature a line up of musicians from both sides of East/West divide in Jerusalem. However, when it comes to multinational and multilingual collaborations the disc's closing tune, "PEACE Ain't nothing but a word" is the winner hands down. Broza and Earle wrote the English lyrics, Muhammad Mugrabi and Fadi Awad supplied the Arabic and Shaanan Steet the Hebrew - with the latter three also performing their own lyrics - while Earle wrote the music. Part rap, part traditional song, the lyrics are sung and rapped in all three languages.
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As the title implies peace in of itself doesn't really mean that much. What so great about peace if you're not free? "Peace ain't nothin' but a word/Unspoken and unheard/If I can't be free/Ain't any frame of mind/That I'm never gonna find/Gonna save me!" Broza and his collaborators understand peace in Israel is far more complicated than simply getting people to stop killing each other. There has to be mutual recognition and respect for each people's right to exist and be who they are. You can be a slave and live in peace, but what kind of peace is that?

Of all the songs on the disc, this one impressed me the most for its willingness to face up to the hard realities existing in the region. It proves Broza isn't just engaging in wishful thinking or is blind to the social political realities of his homeland. In the album's opening track, "One to Three". he sings "I was born into this reality/I was brought up with a war/That doesn't mean I must accept it/Don't wanna fight no more/Young people from all over/Stray off and cross the lines/It's a dialogue that we're seeking/And we're running out of time". He knows the reality, he's lived it all his life. However, he also knows the only way things can change is if people talk for real about the situation instead of merely mouthing platitudes or decrying what happens.

Any real peace between Israel and Palestine will only be accomplished by the people talking to each other and learning how to overcome their fears and distrust. Projects like Broza's East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem which bring together people from both sides of the divide, Jewish West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem, are only one small baby step in the right direction. However, its not only an example of what can be done by people when they put their minds to it, it's also an album of truly wonderful music. Hope comes in many packages, but this is one of the best you'll ever hear.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: David Broza - East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem)

December 17, 2013

Music Review: Neil Young - Live At The Cellar Door


It's sometimes easy to forget how long and varied a career Neil Young actually has had. Between his days with Buffalo Springfield, his work with Crosby, Stills and Nash, his remarkable solo career and his interests beyond music, he's crammed more into the past 45 years than most people can in two lifetimes. His longevity as a performer and an artist can be explained by his willingness to experiment with his music and constantly pushing himself in new directions. Sometimes the results haven't always pleased either critics or fans, but it hasn't prevented him from becoming one of the more respected, if somewhat enigmatic, figures in contemporary popular music.

Over the course of his career Young has given probably more concerts than most of us can even begin to calculate. However, unlike many, he's managed to hold onto control of recordings made of quite a number of these events and has put a great deal of effort into sorting through and remastering them before releasing any of them for public consumption. While an initial box set called Neil Young Archives Archives Vol.1: 1963 - 1972 has already been released containing a number of concerts from the earliest days of Young's career, he's also begun making various other concerts from that time available as solo CD releases. The most recent of them is Neil Young Live At The Cellar Door, available on Warner/Reprise Records, from a 1970 concert he gave in the Washington DC coffee house The Cellar Door.

The recording features Young performing solo on guitar and piano and playing songs from his then new release After The Gold Rush, his 1969 release Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, a smattering of tracks from his Buffalo Springfield days and a song that wouldn't show up on record until 1972's Harvest, "Old Man". Everybody has their favourite albums by Young, and one of mine has always been After The Gold Rush. So the opportunity to hear him perform songs like, "Tell Me Why", "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", the title track, "After The Gold Rush" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down" solo was what made this disc intriguing.
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I must say I wasn't disappointed. Even without the added production values and the additional instruments used on the studio versions of the songs, in particular "After The Gold Rush", they still retain the captivating power. In fact there is something particularly haunting about hearing him play the title track accompanying himself only with the piano. His always distinctive near falsetto voice stands out in even greater stark relief and makes the song's lyrics all the more striking. I've often wondered where Young's inspiration for the last verse of the song came from, and hearing them in this manner only reinforced my curiosity. "They were flying Mother Nature's/Silver seed to a new home in the sun./Flying Mother Nature's/Silver seed to a new home".

There was a science fiction book published in 1960, A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. set in a world recovering from a nuclear war. The end of the book has a group of monks flying children off to a new home in the stars in space ships. I've often wondered if Young wasn't inspired in part by the book, at least for the final verse of his song. However, no matter what his inspiration, the song remains as plaintive and frightening as it was the first time I heard it many years ago. The simplicity of his delivery and his willingness to let the words simply stand on their own reveals just how strong a song writer he is and remains.

It was also fascinating hear an acoustic version of "Down By The River" from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Anyone who has heard the studio version knows its one of Young's "grunge" rock and roll songs filled with crunching guitar chords and driving bass and drums. Live versions of the song usually feature an extended guitar solo somewhere in the middle as an exclamation point to the song's rather bleak subject matter. The version on this recording is simply Young on acoustic guitar and no leads. It comes across as a mixture between an old "murder ballad" and a traditional British isles folk song.
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Somehow, what had been a hard rock song was transformed into something which seemed to have its roots in another era. It makes you realize the power inherit in Young's writing. For when they are stripped down the their bare bones his songs not only don't lose anything, they actually gain a resonance very few contemporary artists can hope to match. I've always appreciated the level of intensity Young brings to his performances, whether live or in the studio. Hearing him performing in the intimate setting of this venue makes it obvious how much of himself he puts into to each of his songs and how he doesn't have to rely on amplification for power.

While I've always had an appreciation for Young's intelligence, this recording also gives you an opportunity to enjoy his rather quirky sense of humour. In his introduction to the old Buffalo Springfield tune "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong", which closes the recording, he displays an almost endearing irreverence for the way in which a rock and roll celebrity is supposed to behave. Obviously he's standing next to the grand piano he's going to be playing on the song, because as he's talking he's strumming on the exposed piano wires with his bare hand. He lets his audience know he's been playing piano for about a year now and thought it would be an interesting eccentricity to have a rider included in his performance contracts that a nine foot Steinway grand piano be made available for him at his shows. He then proceeds to tell us the song is about getting high, specifically smoking grass, and how that can be a problem when some of your friends, especially your girl friend, aren't as interested as you are in smoking dope.

The fact that he's idly strumming the piano's wires and giggling periodically while talking makes the whole thing very funny. Yet, there's also a sense at this stage of his career he's not completely comfortable directly addressing the audience. There seems to be a level of shyness about him as if he's not certain people are going to find him funny. However, once he begins singing, all traces of diffidence disappears and he becomes the same confident performer we've been listening to for the whole recording.

Neil Young has been, and continues to be, one of the more remarkable figures in popular music. Not only have very few others matched him in terms of their creative output, he's continually pushed himself to search out new challenges. Live At The Cellar Door is an opportunity to hear him at an early stage in his solo career experimenting with playing material in a manner different to the way in which it was recorded. While he has released other archival material over the last few years which have featured him performing solo it doesn't diminish this recording's value. Not only do you gain new appreciation for his gifts as a songwriter but as a performer as well. Recordings like this one serve to cement his reputation as one of the most important popular music artists of his generation.

(Article originally published at Blorgcritics.org as Music Review: Neil Young - 'Live At The Cellar Door)

November 16, 2013

Music Review: Tartit With Imharhan - Live From The Sahara


When the annual Festival Au Desert in Northern Mali was cancelled in 2013 due to the territory's occupation by terrorist organizations intent on imposing a very narrow definition of Islamic rule, organizers of the Festival were determined, if the world couldn't come to them, to bring the music of the Festival to the world. Formed in 2001 the Festival takes place during the traditional Tuareg (or Kel Tamasheq as they call themselves) annual gatherings called Takoubelt in Kidal or Temakannit in Timbuktu. Initially a celebration of Malian and Kel Tamasheq music and culture it has since expanded to include performers from around the world. The modern festival was created to help promote the arts and culture of the region and commemorate the 1996 peace treaty between the Kel Tamasheq people and the Malian government which ended nearly 30 years of sporadic rebellions.

For more then a thousand years the nomadic Kel Tamasheq have either been caravan leaders or herds-people crisscrossing the Sahara desert from Algeria in the north to Niger in the south. The end of colonial rule in the early 1960s, while meaning independence for some, saw the Kel Tamasheq begin losing access to their traditional territories and, as a result, their way of life was threatened. Since then, the expansion of cities and the encroachment of environment destroying uranium mining into the desert has made their situation more and more precarious. While armed uprisings and peace treaties between them and various governments in the region have occasionally bought them some breathing room, they have also been targeted for reprisals and attacks when governments decide to ignore the terms of the peace treaties when they become inconvenient.

After the rebellions of the early 1990s many of the rebels put down their weapons and picked up musical instruments instead. Through music they hoped to provide the means of keeping their culture alive by telling the traditional tales of the people through song and singing about the beauty of desert life. They also hoped to be able to raise awareness in the world beyond the Sahara of their situation. While many of the bands adopted modern instruments to play songs about traditional themes, primarily electric guitars, and were heavily influenced by the blues based music of American and British pop, some have retained more of the traditional elements of Kel Tamashek music.
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Normally the latter aren't heard as much in North America. However, thanks to the efforts of Chris Nolen, an American volunteer member of the Festival's board of directors and his newly formed Clermont Music label we now have a chance to hear performances like the one given by Tartit With Imharhan at the last Festival Au Desert on the CD Live From The Sahara.

Tartit are a group of five women who both follow and defy traditions for woman's music among their people. For while they employ the instruments normally used by women, the Tinde (a hand drum) and the Imzad (a violin) they also play the Tehardent, a stringed guitar like instrument, normally only played by men. For this concert, recorded live at the Festival Au Desert 2012, they were joined on stage by Imharhan, a band who have adopted the more conventional instruments of pop music. The first six songs on the disc are Tartit performing on their own. People familiar with the music of other groups from this region will notice some very sizeable differences in both their sound and the overall feeling of the music. The sound is rawer and far more, for lack of a better word, tribal, than the guitar oriented bands. Voice and percussion are what we notice the most, and the vocals are more along the lines of chanting then actual singing.

Naturally they sing in their own language, but the liner notes for the disc provide a description of the song's content, so we can at least appreciate what they are singing about. For instance in track one, "Dehebo" a man describes his love for a woman through the many things he loves about his people. In the Kel Tamasheq culture the women traditionally are considered the preservers of the culture and responsible for ensuring future generations learn the laws and responsibilities of what it means to be one of the people. In this song they use the conventions of a love song to tell their listeners what they think are the most important characteristics of their nation.

The third song, "Abacabok", is actually the first of two parts, its continued in track seven. It is dedicated to their great grandfather, a Sufi mystic, who had retreated from society to devote his life to his faith. In this song they talk about how their religion needs people like him. The description included says, thanks to this piece he returns to society. Now obviously they're not trying to bring the dead back to life, but they are invoking his spirit to remind people of the beauty of faith and Islam is not the religion of violence and oppression some have tried to turn it into.

It's for the second part of "Abacabok" Imharhan join Tartit on stage. All of a sudden a song played with the sparse accompaniment of percussion and non-amplified string instruments has its sound swelled by the inclusion of electric guitars and male voices. What was once a history lesson now becomes something which sounds like they are challenging their people to live up to the example set by the great-grandfather named in the song.
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It is perhaps fitting the final song on the disc, track nine Aicha Talammomt, is a solo performance by the male led Imharhan. For this is a song about the women of their people. Its lyrics describe them as the image of beauty, nobility and the source of all quality in the their culture. It continues saying a people without culture are a people without a face. While the face of the Kel Tamasheq the majority of world sees has been of the men, the men are the first to admit it's the women who have been holding their people together through fifty years of strife. They are the ones who have suffered the most because of the wars and droughts the Sahara region has endured during this time.

Playing this song during what has been a traditional gathering time for all the Kel Tamasheq is Imharhan's way of reminding their people of the importance of women to their culture. It also serves to warn of the danger their entire people face when the women are threatened or unable to live their lives in the way they should. With it being played on modern instruments, the band is not only reaching out to people of their own generation, they are talking to younger people as well in an attempt to keep these traditions alive. Unlike a lot of Western pop music, people don't just listen to the music and ignore the words of a song. Coming from a long history of griots - singers who can recount tribal and family histories - they are used to hearing and absorbing what's sung to them. So when a band like Imharhan sing, their audience will enjoy dancing to their music, but they will also listen to their words and remember them.

One thing you will notice is the quality of this recording isn't the greatest, even as live concerts go. However, you have to understand this concert was recorded outside in the Sahara desert under less than ideal conditions. Although the conflict in Northern Mali didn't start until a month after the Festival Au Desert 2012 was over, there were already worries about terrorist attacks and safety issues they hadn't had to deal with in previous years. This was on top of the normal logistical problems of holding a concert at least a two hour drive outside of Timbuktu in the desert. It's remarkable there's a record of any kind from this festival.

When the armies of Islam came down into North Africa nearly a thousand years ago the fiercest resistance they met was from the tribes of Berber descended nomads. They named them Tuareg - rebels against Islam - in reference to both their abilities as fighters and their determination to hold onto their own culture. A thousand years later they are still demonstrating those same traits. They may have changed their approach, using music instead of weapons, but they continue to fight for their survival even as the forces arrayed against them seem to increase all the time. Live From The Sahara, featuring the music of Tartit and Imhahan, is a great example of how the battle is being fought.

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Music Review: Tartit With Imharhan - Live From The Sahara)

November 7, 2013

Music Review: Bob Dylan - The Complete Album Collection Vol. One


How do you write about an icon? What are you supposed to say about somebody whose life and work have already been picked over with a fine tooth comb for the past fifty years? You could probably hurt yourself trying to write something original, and at the end of day discover it was still something somebody had already written. Even if you tried chipping away at his iconic status you'd find others had beaten you to it. While you could try and fall back on being as objective as possible, with people of this stature it's almost impossible not to let your personal opinions affect what you write. They've been such a part a of our culture's fabric for so long there's not going to be many out there who don't have an opinion about them one way or another.

I figure the only way I'm going to be able to get through this review of Legacy Recordings' Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is, aside from describing what it includes, to try and explain how Bob Dylan merits such a breathtaking career spanning retrospective. The only way I'm going to be able to do the latter is by relating my own experiences with his music. Hopefully this will give you some idea of how and what he has meant to the world of popular music since his first album in 1962.

The Complete Album Collection Vol. One contains 43 CDs including all of his studio albums ever released on the Columbia and Sony labels from 1962's Bob Dylan to his 2012 release Tempest. The set also includes six live CDs; Before the Flood (with The Band), Hard Rain, Bob Dylan Live at Budokan, Real Live (the last three newly remastered for this collection) Dylan and the Dead and MTV Unplugged. The final two discs in the box, Sidetracks, are made up of material originally intended for release as bonus features on one of Dylan's greatest hits packages; Greatest Hits Vol. 2, Masterpieces, Biograph, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 or The Best Of Bob Dylan Vol.2, but never released before. If you don't want to buy the 43 CD set, you have the option of purchasing the entire package as a limited, numbered edition harmonica shaped USB stick containing all the music in both MP3 and FLAC formats and a digital version of the hardcover booklet included in the box set. The booklet includes liner notes for each CD written especially for this package.
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With the CDs listing for over $200.00 and the USB stick more than $300.00, it seems like a lot of money to be asking people to shell out. However, even simple math will tell you the sticker price is still cheaper than the cost of even downloading each title separately let alone buying the CDs one at a time. So, if you're looking to pick up the entire Dylan catalogue in one fell swoop, plus some extra's thrown in, this is quite the bargain. However, what is it about Dylan that would make you want to own all of his CDs? What did he do that merits this type of attention?

I'm sure most of you have at least heard the quotes calling him the voice of a generation or the conscience of the people. But how is that relevant to those who weren't born in the post World War ll years, known to most in pop culture as the Baby Boomer or "Boomers" for short? The thing is, others might have slapped those titles on Dylan, but he was never one to really pay attention to what anybody said about him and always carved his own path. Unlike some who have been content to continuously plough the same furrow over and over again Dylan has constantly looked for new ways of expressing himself.

Even going back to his earliest albums you can see he was always more than just your simple folkie. While his earliest albums, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They are a Changin' (1964), owe a debt to his mentor Woody Guthrie, they owe as much to country/blues artists as well. Lyrically he was ranging from the intensity of calling for the death of arms manufacturers and those who sent people of to war in "Masters of War" to being downright silly in "I Shall Be Free". In fact he originally was going to call "Freewheelin'" Bob Dylan's Blues he was so interested in that style of music. Perhaps if he had people might have been less shocked when he showed up with an electric guitar in his hands.

To say the electric sound of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) was considered a betrayal by his fans is an understatement. They booed their hero offstage. From the Newport Folk Festival (although a teacher I had in school says part of the problem was the sound system was so bad nobody could hear anything if you were sitting more than three rows away from the stage) to the Royal Albert Hall in London England and across the UK his fans acted with derision and outright scorn. Today songs from that record are among the ones you're still most likely to hear played on "Classic Music" stations; "Like A Rolling Stone" and the album's title track "Highway 61". However, while those songs are the most well known, others like "Desolation Row", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Tombstone Blues" are the real heart and soul of the album as they show how far Dylan had wandered lyrically from the days of protest songs. He's started to look at the world through the unique prism of his eyes, creating a refracted and strangely hued world which spoke to people at a gut level instead of being issue oriented.

As you chart Dylan's progress and evolution down through the years based on his musical output you discover he was always changing and progressing. There was the Americana music he started producing in the late 1960s with The Band, which included albums like The Basement Tapes (not released until 1975 but recorded in the late 1960s) John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969). The latter was recorded in Nashville and featured a duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl From The North Country". While everyone around him was trying to blow the walls down with electric guitars and psychedelia, Dylan was once again charting his own path. As always he was more concerned with looking for emotional truth in his material than catering to popular taste or giving the people what they wanted.
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While I had first heard Dylan in 1966 at the tender age of five, hating the sound of his voice as I had just discovered The Beatles through the movie Help and thought that's what pop music should sound like, ten years later the combined effect of 1976's Desire and the live Hard Rain made a convert out of me. Those two albums plus 1975's Blood On The Tracks were nothing short of revelations. While the radio was full of mindless dreck here was a guy singing about ideas, weaving stories and standing up for what he thought was right. I still can't listen to "Hurricane", his song in defence of the wrongly convicted Reuben Carter, without getting chills. While some called the song naive and uninformed, Dylan was proven right when years later Carter was exonerated and found innocent of the murders he was said to have committed.

I don't know what would have happened if I had begun listening to him seriously a couple of years later when he went through his Born Again Christian faze. The lyrics are the most simplistic of his career - straight ahead Christian evangelizing. Musically they might have been interesting with Mark Knopfler and other members of Dire Straights playing on the sessions for 1979's Slow Train Coming, but I still can't listen to either this disc, or the two following Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). I'm sure I wasn't the only one who took some solace in Joni Mitchell's words when she said "It's just a phase Bob's going through".

It wasn't until 1985 when he hooked up with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to promote Empire Burlesque and 1986's Knocked Out Loaded I began to take notice of Dylan's work again. Once again he had changed and was going places musically and lyrically challenging. "Brownsville Girl" on the latter, co-written with playwright Sam Shepard, was 12 minutes long and marked his return to the beautiful storytelling of the mid-1970s. This is Dylan at his best. The storyteller and poet who can see and describe the world in ways nobody else can. Whether it's his flights of fancy like "Isis" from Desire or, as he's aged, his explorations of his own mortality, his songs are carefully thought out and intelligent.

What makes Dylan so appealing is his ability to speak to things we all have in common no matter what our age or status. (I think this is what I found most unsettling about the Born Again Christian period, the way it excluded so many where his music had always been so inclusive) Sure you have to listen to it to appreciate it (this isn't mindless music you can put on in the background) and he might make you work to understand what he's saying, but this is a small price to pay for the gems you will unearth in his words. You may not always agree with him or even like everything he's put out, but he is without a doubt one of the major artists of both the 20th and 21st centuries and continues to be so to this day.

Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is the most comprehensive retrospective of his career released to date. While others may have been equally prolific in their production or been more commercially successful, this set proves there's no one who can match Dylan when it comes to keeping us intrigued through his abilities as a lyricist and his desire to explore different musical styles. For those of you with the cash to afford this set, it will be worth every penny you spend as you'll have at your disposal the most diverse collection of music recorded by one artist in the history of pop music.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One)

September 24, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nelson - To All The Girls


Look at those who've endured the longest in popular music and you'll notice the thing they all have in common is they know who they are and what they are capable of. The really good ones have managed the fine art of both staying within their comfort zone musically and finding a way of not sounding like they're going through the motions. They may not deviate too much from what made them successful in the first place, but neither do they ever seem to stagnate or become boring. With some it's the force of their personality which keeps them interesting while others simply have a quality which makes them endlessly endearing to generation after generation of fans.

Since his career started back in the 1950s Willie Nelson has written some of the most iconic songs in country music ("Crazy"), had a crossover hit on popular music charts before the word was even fashionable ("Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys") and put out albums of everything from jazz standards to pop songs from the 1940s. He is beloved by everybody from the farmers whose plight he raises awareness of with his annual "Farm Aid, to country music fans, bikers, hippies and millions of people all over the world. He has recorded albums with artists from almost every genre of music, and not matter how incongruous the pairing might have seemed at first, the music has always worked.

You think a guy who just turned 80 would be slowing down now, but not Nelson. He recently signed with a new record label, Sony Music's Legacy Recordings, and his third album with them, To All The Girls, is being released on Tuesday September 24 2013. Each of the 18 songs on the disc features Nelson in a duet with, as the title suggests, a different female singer. Reading down through the list of singers who have joined him for these duets is like looking over a Who's Who of country music. From great old ladies Loretta Lynn ("Somewhere Between") Dolly Parton ("From Here to the Moon and Back") and Emmylou Harris ("Dry Lightning") to new stars Carrie Underwood ("Always On My Mind") and Shelby Lynne ("Till the End of the World").
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The roster isn't limited to women from country music either as he's also joined by another ageless wonder, Mavis Staples for a rendition of the gospel classic "Grandma's Hands" and Norah Jones on "Walkin". The one thing all of these women have in common is they each have their own distinct style. It's highly unlikely anybody is ever going to confuse Parton, Lynn, Staples or any of them with anyone else. Yet such is Nelson's ability, no matter who he's performing with, it sounds like they were made for each other.

What's always amazed me about Nelson has been his ability to sing even the most sentimental and contrived song yet somehow or other make it emotionally honest. There's something about his delivery and the genuineness of his voice which can turn the most hackneyed piece of pop or country music into sincere emotional expression. As a result, while there are some singers on this recording who I normally wouldn't listen to as I find their singing contrived, paired with Nelson I enjoyed their performances. Maybe they absorbed something of his integrity, or perhaps his talent is so vast it can cover up another's deficiencies. Whatever the reason, no matter who he's teemed with on this recording the results are just fine.

Of course some of the performances are better than others and to my mind there were a couple in particular that stood out. The combination of Nelson and Mavis Staples on the previously mentioned "Grandma's Hands" is probably the highlight of the disc. These are two of the great voices of popular music and to hear them together is to hear the form elevated to art. Neither of them have an insincere bone in their bodies and it comes through with every note and word they sing. The contrast between his mellow baritone and her throaty growl is amazing. They turn this very simple song into a testimony on the power of a grandmother's love to inspire somebody for a lifetime. Like all the best gospel music it will move you and make you feel better about yourself after listening to it whether you believe in the message or not.
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Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton probably aren't to everyone's taste. Both still carry the twang of their Tennessee backwoods upbringing in their voices like a flag proclaiming their heritage. However, unlike those who might try and affect this accent and end up being annoying, in the mouths of these two grand old ladies of country music its the sound of authenticity making their words ring true. Listening to them partnered with Nelson and the mix of their respective voices is like hearing the roots of popular music come alive in song. There's a power in each of their respective voices which is capable of sending a shiver up your spine. Hearing them together is as fine a treat as you could ask for.

I only recently discovered Shelby Lynne and was impressed with her the first time I listened to her. So I was happy to see Willie had included her on this disc. The version the two of them do of "Till the End of the World" is both touching and interesting. Lynne has one of those great throaty voices which gives all her material character. She sounds like a real human being singing about issues which mean something to her. The combination of her and Willie's smooth as properly aged whisky voice makes for a great meeting of sounds and turns the song into something special.

Willie Nelson is 80 years old, but you'd never know it listening to him sing. While some people's voices become rougher as they age his has become increasingly velvety. Like the best of that material it has a surprising amount of texture. So, while it laps against your ear like liquid gold its has enough of an edge to it to give it emotional depth. Hearing his voice mix and contrast with the various women accompanying him on this collection of songs is a reminder of what an incredible talent he is. For no matter who he works with, or what they sound like, he sounds like he was meant to sing with them. This is a wonderful album of great material performed with style and grace you'll listen to over and over again.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Nelson - To All The Girls)

July 21, 2013

Music Review: Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada


Long before there was a world music category I used to go to a record store in Toronto Ontario Canada called Sam The Record Man. It was a large ramshackle and rambling three story building which took up most of a corner lot on the major drag. The main floor of the building was taken up with popular music in the front and classical music in the back. Walking in off the street was like walking into bedlam, with different music playing out of a variety of speakers and posters advertising everybody from Elvis to the latest chart toppers. Just past the cash register was an old wooden stair case leading to the upper floors. Ascending you entered a quieter world where they stored both jazz and blues and a catch all section called folk.

In those days folk meant everything from Joni Mitchell to the massed pipes of The Blackwatch playing Scottish folk tunes on bagpipes. It was in this section you could also find music from almost every country on earth, everything from the traditional music of obscure island countries in the South Pacific to Inuit throat singers. Most of the records in this section were courtesy of people who travelled the world making what are known as field recordings. Using portable equipment they would set up shop literally anywhere, from somebody's living room to the fields where people were singing as they worked. What these recordings may have lacked in quality was more than compensated for by their authenticity.

The American music anthropologist Alan Lomax travelled all over the world making field recordings, with a strong focus on North and South America. In 1962 he made a trip to the Caribbean which included the outermost western island of Grenada. It was here he made the recordings of the fisherman and sailors who worked the boats plying the waters off the island now being released as the digital recording Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada by Global Juke Box Records.
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The fourteen tracks you'll hear on this recording don't sound anything like the nice clean gentrified stuff being passed off as sea chanteys in so-called pirate movies gracing the cinemas these days. In fact they're not going to sound much like any recordings you've heard anyone do of this type of music before. The closest thing to it might have been some of Harry Belafonte's calypso versions of old work songs, but those were cleaned up and made pretty for popular audiences. The first thing you'll notice on hearing these songs is you're not going to understand more than one word in 10 of what they sing. For even though you'll recognize the language they're singing as English, their island patois is so strong it's almost impossible to discern individual words.

The next thing you'll notice is the songs are chanted more than sung and while there are a group of men singing, they aren't singing as a group. Instead most of the songs take the form of what's known as call and response. One man, probably the crew chief or the person setting the stroke for men rowing a boat, will call out a line, and the rest of the men will either echo the line back or call out a response to the line as if answering a question. On occasion you'll hear the responding voices call out a variety of answers at once and it might sound confusing to our ears. However, no matter what is being said, or how many different things are being chanted in return, it's always done to the same rhythm as the initial call out.

Some of the songs have titles you might be familiar with, "Blow The Man Down" for instance, and that's not surprising. For these songs are versions of tunes which came from New England and Great Britain. The people of Grenada would have either learned them from sailors putting into port at the island or because they had ancestors who had been slaves on those boats. Wherever the songs came from though, they made them their own by adapting them to the music of the islands. So on occasion you'll hear traces of calypso, soca and even older West African rhythms under familiar sounding lyrics.
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On the majority of the tracks you're going to hear one voice more than others. The man's name is Charlie Bristol and his is the voice leading the others in the call and response. Like everyone else involved Bristol is obviously not a trained vocalist, but he has the type of voice which commands you pay attention. You listen to him calling out the cadences and you almost feel compelled to respond yourself. Even sitting at home you can visualize his crew and him at their oars and his voice easily being heard over whatever sounds the sea or the weather could send in opposition against him.

Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada is a fascinating collection of songs which gives the listener a glimpse into a way of life possibly dating back to early colonial times. While some of the track's may have familiar titles the way in which they are sung makes them unique. This is an introduction to a culture few of us have ever experienced and a style of music not heard as often as it once was. Even though the songs were recorded on what to us is primitive equipment the sound is remarkably clear and clean. As a historical record this is invaluable, but its true value lies in the enjoyment to be found in listening to these men sing. They might have sung these songs in order to ease the tedium of what must have been hard labour, but you'd never know it by the way they sound.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Various Artists - Roll and Go: Chanteys and Sailor Songs From Grenada)

July 18, 2013

Music Review: Various Performers - The Rough Guide To Flamenco


There's a story which says flamenco music has its origins in the 1500s when the Iberian peninsula was being reclaimed by the armies of Spain from the Ottoman Empire. Muslims weren't the only ones fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition who followed the armies hunting down heretics and infidels. Jews and gypsies who had lived relatively peaceful lives under Islamic rule were also being forced to either convert to the one true faith or die. It's said a group of Sephardic Jews and gypsies managed to elude the Inquisition for some time by hiding in caves surrounding the city of Catalonia. During this time they shared much with each other, including their music, and out of this exchange of musical ideas was born flamenco.

While the majority of those hidden in the caves were eventually caught, some escaped and took with them the ideas and sounds they had learned. Stories like these, while romantic, are hard to verify. However, a new release from the Rough Guide Label, part of the World Music Network, The Rough Guide To Flamenco offers at least the suggestion theres some truth to this story. One of the artists included on the disc is a Sephardic Jew singing a flamenco tune in the Ladino language of her people from the time of the Ottoman Empire in Spain.

Israeli born Yasmin Levy is only one of 13 different flamenco performers included on the disc. While each of them come from the same tradition of music, their songs are as distinctly individual as they are. From the family groups who continue the traditions of their Andalusian fore bearers to the modern groups who combine elements of pop, hip hop, Balkan, Latin and even the music of India with the familiar staccato rhythms of the genre, listening to this disc will show you flamenco is much more than you thought it was.
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The first four tracks on the disc, "Buleria Menor" by Son De La Frontera, "Por La Mar Chica Del Puerto" by Mayte Martin, "Cielo Azul" by Lenacay and "El Faro by Jorge Pardo and Agustin Carbonell (El Bola), take the listener from a Cuban flamenco mix, through traditional Andalusian to modern club beats and finally an exploration of jazz and flamenco. However, no matter if it's the club stylings of Lenacay or the soulful voice of Martin, at the heart of each song resides a passion and intensity you'd be hard pressed to find in any other music. Each of them seem to be built like a coiled spring which could explode at any moment, yet never does. The secret power of flamenco is the emotion it hints at roiling just beneath the surface. Like a hidden undertow beneath the seemingly calm surface of an ocean which could suck you under in a matter of seconds.

Yet at the same time, in spite of the passion and rawness inherent to the form, the music is also incredibly elegant. It suggests a certain amount of poise and formality no matter how it's presented. Perhaps it's the tightly woven rhythms of the music and the importance they play in each song which creates this impression. As we listen to the steady tattoo maintained by the strumming of guitars, accented by hand claps (and in some cases boot heels) and percussion accompanying the majority of the songs, one can't help but imagine the rigid pride and dignity of those performing. It's the kind of pride in who you are which creates an air of formality seemingly out of nothing. It's easy to picture individual performers in your mind's eye holding themselves straight and proud as they create this incredible sound. They might not be wearing fancy or elegant clothes, but there's nothing classier than hearing music which speaks of a people's history.

However, the elegance also comes through in how the music is performed. One of the best examples of this is the solo guitar of Carlos Pinana playing "Tarantilla". A third generation flamenco musician Pinana is a classically trained guitarist. His work combines the raw passion of flamenco with the smoothness and agility of his classical training. For just over four minutes his fingers strum, pluck and fly over his guitar's fretboard. One moment he's carefully picking out notes as if they were delicate flowers plucked from a vine and the next he's exploding into the fantastic flourishes which are the signature of flamenco. It's a remarkable display of virtuosity and artistry.
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Of course for sheer passion and pride you can't beat the contribution of Carmelilla Montoya. Performing since the age of seven she is both a singer and a dancer. Her contribution to the disc, "Carmelilla", is probably the epitome of what most of us think of when we hear the word flamenco. Her voice is raw emotion and she sings like her every word comes directly from her soul. Accompanied by guitars and hand claps, and what appears to be the sound of dancers stamping their feet as they move to the music, one moment her voice sinks into the earth's depths and the next its soaring among the clouds alongside the birds.

Just in case you fail to appreciate how diverse modern flamenco has become, the people at Rough Guide have also included a bonus CD by the Argentinian band Al Toque Flamenco, Buena Estrella. They combine flamenco music with their own country's tango to bring an extra bit of spice to what is already quite a flamboyant genre. Somehow or other they manage to bring this mixture off without it seeming like its too much or they're trying too hard to be different. In fact the combination of the two brings out the best in both genres and makes for lively listening.

The Rough Guide To Flamenco provides a great introduction to the genre for those unfamiliar with the music. It will also be interesting for those who have any preconceived notions of what flamenco sounds like as it shows the variety of ways in which the music is being performed today. While the traditional music continues to thrive, there are also those who are keeping the genre from stagnating by experimenting with form and style. Not every track might be to everyone's taste, but you'll be surprised at just how many different ways there are to play flamenco music. However, no matter how you play it, there's still something wild and untamed about flamenco which will get your heart beating and your pulse racing.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Various Performers - The Rough Guide To Flamenco)

July 13, 2013

Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn


When Ronnie Hawkins followed Conway Twitty's advise and moved up to Canada from his native Arkansas on the chance his style of rock and roll would catch on, he brought his band with him. While the rest of them fell by the wayside fairly early on the drummer he brought up from Arkansas stayed on when he hired on local Canadian youngsters to form his newest version of The Hawks, his backing band. Save for a brief time when the rest of the group travelled to England with Bob Dylan and he stayed home, Levon Helm was the drummer for The Band until they retired in 1978.

While primarily the drummer, he would also step out from behind his kit to play mandolin and was one of the key voices giving the band their distinctive vocal sound. While he didn't actually write any of the songs the group was famous for, it was his Arkansas growl fans associated with classics like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". If there was something odd about a group of musicians from South Western Ontario playing music with roots planted firmly in American soil, Helm's presence gave them an aura of authenticity. After The Band broke up Helm went on to do some acting in movies and kept on making music. However, it was the setting up of a 200 seat performance space in Woodstock New York, The Barn, which might prove his longest lasting legacy after his death April 19 2012.

Starting in 2004 Helm would host what he called Midnight Rambles featuring some of the biggest names in the music industry. Over the years he and his band were joined by the likes of Elvis Costello. Dr. John, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson and a host of others. When it was discovered the throat cancer he had beaten in the late 1990s had returned his dearest wish was the concerts at The Barn would continue after he passed. In an attempt to help out a bunch of his friends and colleagues got together to play some of his favourite tunes on October 3 2012 at the Izod Centre in New Jersey. That concert has now been packaged as a two DVD, two CD set from StarVista Entertainment called simply Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn.
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With Helm's long time guitarist Larry Campbell and producer/bassist Don Was acting as co-musical directors a plethora of musicians from all eras and genres sat in with one of the two house bands, The Levon Helm Band or an all star band assembled by Was for the night. As on any of these occasions where such a mixed bag of performers are assembled in attempt to provide something for everyone, inevitably there will be some you're not going to like. However, the real pleasure about an event like this are those people who take you by surprise and step outside their normal box.

One of the highlights of the night for me was Bruce Hornsby singing "Anna Lee". Accompanied only by Larry Campbell on violin, with Amy Helm and Theresa Williams singing harmonies, Hornsby sat on a folding chair strumming a dulcimer and sang the song with an aching simplicity. It was mountain music at its finest as the words and music floated out over 20,000 rapt audience members. It was one of those magical moments in music where it seems like the world is holding its breath so as not to disturb what's being created.

I've never been a big fan of Pink Floyd, so I'm not really familiar with what Roger Waters is capable of doing. After joining the band My Morning Jacket for a rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", he then stepped up to the microphone and sang a song I wasn't familiar with, "Wide River To Cross". It was the perfect choice for both the evening and the performer. The song, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, and recorded by Helm on his Dirt Farmer CD, was a poignant reminder of how Helm wasn't able to complete his personal journey. "I'm only halfway home, I've gotta journey on/To where I'll find, find the things I have lost/I've come a long long road but still I've got some miles to go/I've got a wide, a wide river to cross".

Water's voice might not be what it once was, but his delivery on this song was spot on. He showed an impressive emotional depth and range and allowed the song's lyrics to dictate his delivery. He, like Hornsby earlier, let himself be a conduit for the song and the charged emotional atmosphere of the evening. As a result he gave a remarkably soulful and honest performance.
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Of course there were some other fine performances on the night. Mavis Staples singing "Move Along Train" showed she can still hold her own on stage with people half her age. It was cool to hear Gregg Allman join his former band mate Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers for a solid rendition of "Long Black Veil". John Hiatt rocked his way through The Band's "Rag Mama Rag" while David Bromberg and Joan Osborne burned up "Don't Do It". However, in spite of these good performances, there was also a sense of something being off about the evening. Whenever anybody attempted to sing a Band song, try as they might, it just didn't sound right. I kept waiting to hear the distinctive vocal harmonies of the original which made the songs unique and they never appeared. Even when everybody came on stage for a finale of "The Weight", they weren't able to capture the sound which made the song so great.

That wasn't the only thing off about the evening either. There were names people were very carefully not mentioning either on stage or on the second DVD disc containing the interviews with those participating. For all everybody loved Helm, he didn't write any of the songs performed during this show. The majority of Band material performed was written by Robbie Robertson, and it was like he doesn't exist anymore. I also found it weird neither Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan were mentioned let alone taking part. After all, they were the two men who gave Helms his start and established him as a professional musician. Maybe Dylan was too busy, but why wasn't Hawkins there? He's still performing and would have fit in a lot more comfortably than some of the people chosen to perform.

Technically speaking you can't find any fault with the production of the DVD as both the audio and the video are clean and the recording sound's great in 5.1 Surround Sound. There's a couple of times where its obvious camera cues were missed as they are late focusing on a soloist, but you have to expect stuff like that at a live concert where there's been very little rehearsal. The second DVD contains interviews with all the performers, and to be honest I didn't wade through them all. The ones I did watch were the usual sort of thing, why they did the gig and when did they first meet/hear Helm. There was only one piece of rehearsal footage included in the special features and its pretty much identical to the performance given during the show. The two CDs in the set contain all the songs from the DVD so you can listen to the music anytime and anywhere.

Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn is a well produced recording of a concert given October 3 2012 in honour of Levon Helm and to try and ensure the continuation of the work he started when he was alive. Levon Helm Studios, of which The Barn where the Midnight Ramble performances take place is part of, is a place for musicians of all genres and ages to record, perform and learn. It was Helm's attempt to keep a little of the style of music he championed during his career alive and of interest to a new generation. In these days of slick commercialism the rough hewn honesty of his music and work will be sorely missed. While this isn't the perfect recording, like Helm, its heart is in the right place, which more than makes up for any flaws.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music DVD Review: Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn)

June 28, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride


The road trip has taken on almost iconic status in American pop culture. From Jack Kerouac's On The Road to quasi philosophical works like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance the road trip has come to be equated with both searching for personal identity and the quest to discover the truth about America. Part of the popular appeal for this type of story is they usually combine America's love for the automobile and their love of the rugged individual. However, no matter what they find out about themselves, most of those who make the pilgrimage in search of America discover its a country whose identity changes from region to region.

While many are loath to admit America has a multitude of faces singer song writer Willie Nile's latest release, American Ride, on Loud and Proud Records not only recognizes this fact but celebrates it. In some ways this album is Nile's personal road trip as he not only sings about America but about personal discoveries he's made during the course of his journey.

Nile has always managed the delicate task of fusing optimism with a realistic view of the world around him and this album is no exception. The opening track, "This Is Our Time", exhorts listeners to make the most of the opportunities presented to them enjoy the ride of life as much as possible. (Note: Track order in this review is based on an early promotional version of the disc and may differ slightly from the final release) Using the image of a train waiting in the station as a metaphor for life and encouraging people not to miss their ride isn't exactly original. However, as with all of Nile's songs intent and emotional honesty are what really matter and no one has ever sounded more sincere in their encouraging of others to live as fulfilling a life as possible.
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Yet Nile isn't blind to the harsher realities of life. However, he doesn't sing sentimental songs about the troubles of the world, instead he stares them straight in the eye and tells them what he thinks of them. "Holy War" is directly addressed to anyone who uses God to justify killing. Whether suicide bombers or those pointing a gun at somebody else because it's God's will his opinion of them is succinct and to the point, "God's holy, your not". It's not often a popular musician will let his anger and disgust show through so clearly in a song, but Nile has never been one to pull his punches and this song is no exception.

Nile lets his wry sense of humour come through on what is sure to be one of the most misunderstood songs on the album, "God Laughs". In it he has God going about his day and experiencing a variety of human emotions and generally acting like you and me. "God laughs, God cries, God looks for love between your eyes/God gives, God takes, God pumps your gas and slams your brakes/And why?/Because he's God". Maybe some will be offended by this humanizing of the deity, but if they do they're missing the point. Nile's God feels pain and happiness like you and me. He rejoices in our triumphs, mourns at our losses and grieves at the way we treat each other with such callousness. After all, if we're created in his image, doesn't that mean we and He reflect each other?

While these songs, and his cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died", are along the lines of personal discoveries, Nile does take us on an actual trip around America. The title song, "American Ride", has him travelling the length and breadth of the country and reminding us of the amazing diversity of music, and by extension, people, to be found from region to region. Starting off with a solo acoustic guitar, the sound gradually fills out as we travel further on his "American Ride". Crisscrossing the nation with a litany of place names and highways he makes it obvious he loves the country. However, there's also something elusive about his reasons for loving it. "Rolling cross the plains through the great Sioux land/As good a place as any where to make our stand/Some might say it's all a dream/Abraham Lincoln Martin Luther King/From rock and roll music to the be-bop jazz/To the unknown soldier giving all he has/From Ellis Island to the Redwood trees/You're untamed beauty got me on my knees".

His referencing of Sioux lands and the elusiveness of the equality dreamed of by two men who were both assassinated shows he's not blind to the country's less than noble past or the problems it still hasn't been able to solve. However, that doesn't mean he can't see or admire its beauty or recognize what has been created by the country's people. Unlike others who go off on a road trip searching for America, Nile already knows his country. While there are those who think blind obedience is the sign of a true patriot, Nile's ability to love his country in spite of its problems makes him seem a far greater patriot than somebody who says "my country right or wrong".

Nile is probably one of the most versatile songwriters and performers around today. He may not have what anybody would call a melodic voice, on occasion it sounds like gravel being scrapped over sandpaper, but the range of expression he can produce with it allows him to perform more styles of music than most people would even think of attempting. He can rip through a high speed rock song with ease and the very next instant be singing what's basically a traditional folk song, "The Crossing". As you journey through this album you'll find traces of country, blues, punk, soul, R&B, and nearly every other kind of music associated with American pop culture.

Not only can he play and sing all these types of music seemingly effortlessly, he can also write in each genre with equal ease. Listening to his songs it's easy to become caught up in the music and miss out on the lyrics. However, once you start paying attention to what Nile is saying you'll realize there's more to his material then what first meets the ear. His lyrics are deceptively meaningful as at first listen they sound rather straight forward. Yet, they not only stay in your mind, once you start thinking about them in the context of a song's theme, they reveal their hidden depths are made obvious. Unlike a lot of people he doesn't try to impress you with his vocabulary, instead he uses the same language most of use in everyday life. It seems that what's being said is far more important to Nile than how it is said.
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Like the great folk singers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg for example, Nile sings about the things he cares about in as straight forward and honest a way as possible. He may not strike people as a folk musician, however his music has the same sort of straight from the heart honesty and passion as anybody playing solo acoustic guitar. If you listen closely you can hear echoes of every great song ever written about America in his music as he asks all the right questions and searches for answers.Any answers he might find may not always be pretty and, they may not always be what people want to hear, but you know they're always going to be truthful.

American Ride is the latest instalment in Nile's recording of the journey he set out on back in the 1970s when he started out by playing coffee houses in New York City. It's been a great voyage up until now, and if this album is any indication, not only is it a long way from over, there's still plenty to hear and see from Willie Nile.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride)

(Photo Credit: Photo of Willie Nile by Lucas Noonan)

May 31, 2013

Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - High, Low and In Between & The Late Great Townes Van Zandt


Something I've never understood is why people romanticize alcoholics. Even worse is why they see somebody dying a sad and lonely death as a result of their addiction proof of their authenticity as an artist. Why can't they understand the drugs and booze which resulted in these people's death also prevented many of these artists from achieving their potential. Yet people like Graham Parsons have obtained near mythical status more because of the way he lived and died than through his body of work.

I mention Parson specifically because of his associations with country music and early attempts at marrying it with pop music. For while he has achieved a great deal of notoriety after his death one who was far more prolific and influential has until recently been largely ignored. For some reason, while his talent was always recognized by his peers, Townes Van Zandt, never managed to capture the public's imagination in the same way as people like Parson.

Maybe it was because he was genuinely unwell, suffering from severe depression all his life and diagnosed by the medical profession as everything from bipolar to manic depressive. Turning to alcohol to combat his depression only made matters worse and he spent a great deal of his life living in isolation.
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Most of his income came from other musicians covering his material as his albums didn't sell that well. However, listening to Van Zandt perform his own material makes you appreciate he was more than just a gifted songwriter and his influence extends far beyond people covering his material. Earlier this year a two disc set of studio out takes and demos, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972, was released. The recording sessions were made during what is considered Van Zandt's most productive time as an artist. Now, the label who released that collection, Omnivore Recordings, in conjunction with the Van Zandt estate, have released remastered editions of the two albums on which the bulk of the material from those sessions appeared, High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.

While you might think there's something eerily prescient about the title of the latter, it was more of an example of Van Zandt's sense of irony than any foreknowledge he might have had about his death. It was on this album he recorded "Pancho and Lefty", later a hit for first, Emmylou Harris and then Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Ironically, after his death it was revealed during the last few years of his life Van Zandt had earned around $100,000.00 per year from royalties.

Musically Van Zandt was the place where country, blues, folk and gospel hung out together. While some songs, like "Two Hands" and "When He Offers His Hand" on High, Low And In Between are specifically gospel, the most memorable tracks are the ones which defy any specific classification. "You Are Not Needed Now" and "To Live Is To Fly" from the same disc and "Sad Cinderella" and "Don't Let The Sunshine Fool You" from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt resonate with a sound and a quality distinct to Van Zandt.
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It's like he had the ability to reach into the places we hide our innermost fears and desires and find a way of turning them into song. Yet, he doesn't try to manipulate our emotions or reactions through sentiment or any of the other ploys other songwriters employ. His lyrics reflect an uncanny ability to empathize with people's feelings. Listening to some of his songs you may wonder how he managed to read your mind because of the way he was able to articulate the secrete hopes, dreams and fears most of us keep buried in the deeper recesses of our souls. While his songs are always about something in specific, he managed to make it feel like he was singing about something you'd experienced. "When the bandits have stolen your jewelry and gone/And your crippled young gypsy, he's grown tall and strong/And your dread misconceptions have proven you wrong/Well then princess,where you plannin' to turn to?" ("Sad Cinderella" Townes Van Zandt, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)

When you hear him sing your first impression is of a rather thin voice whose twang reveals his Texas roots. Yet there's something about it which draws you into a song quicker and deeper than most singers. Maybe because his voice sounds so regular there's less of a barrier between him and his audience than if he had a more melodic voice or polished singing style. The raw simplicity of his delivery gives it an honesty and sincerity we aren't used to hearing. By eschewing the flourishes and decorative elements so many singers employ, material, which in other's hands would risk sounding mawkish, remains emotionally honest.

One of the oddest experiences of listening to both of these Van Zandt discs is hearing a song which reminds you of some other performer. The natural reaction to this is to automatically think, wow he sounds just like so and so. It's only then you remember the song was released more then a decade before the one it sounded like. That's when you begin to appreciate just how much of an influence he was on those who came after him.
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Like the human condition Van Zand't songs are funny, sad, emotional and sometimes just matter of fact. The dryness of his humour and his delivery make it easy to miss some of the subtler moments in his songs. One of my favourites is the chorus of "Pancho and Lefty", "All the federales say/They could have had him any day/They only let him hang around/Out of kindness I suppose". Who ever heard of a cop letting an outlaw "hang around" out of kindness? It's these little touches which distinguished Van Zandt from most of his contemporaries and those who have come after him.

Steve Earle was once quoted as saying he thought Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world and "I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that". Whether you agree with that sentiment or not after listening to Van Zandt's music is up to you. However one thing you won't be able to deny is this man was an amazing talent whose artistry has been overlooked for far too long.
When lessor lights are held up as examples of great talents because of our fascination with their untimely deaths due to substance abuse isn't it about time we start to recognize those among the troubled who were the truly talented? While his fellow musicians have always known the gift Van Zandt was to popular music it's about time for the rest of the world to catch up. You won't believe what you've been missing for all these years.

(Article first published at Blogcitics.org as Music Review - Townes Van Zandt High, Low and In Between & The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)

April 29, 2013

Music Review: Various Artists - Live From Festival au Desert Timbuktu


Near the end of February 2013 I wrote an article outlining the situation in Northern Mali and how the ongoing armed conflict had forced the cancellation of the annual Festival au Desert. This music and cultural festival has been held since 2001 in one of two places in Northern Mali to commemorate the peace treaty negotiated between the Tuareg tribesman of the region and the Malian government. The dates its held on in January of each year also coincide with the traditional gathering of the various tribal groups of Tuareg whose territory stretches North into Algeria and to Niger in the south. For such a scattered and nomadic people these annual gatherings were an opportunity to resolve any differences that might have come up during the year between tribal groups and to make plans for the coming year.

The modern version of the festival started off as a celebration of African culture, specifically the people of the Sahara Desert region but also surrounding countries as well. Since 2003 it has gradually expanded to include acts from other parts of the world with major pop stars like Robert Plant and Bono taking part. With the rest of the world not being able to come to the festival this year organizers have been working out various means of bringing the festival to the world. They are attempting to book various acts to tour both North America and Europe during the summer and fall of 2013 for special Festival in Exile concerts. Already shows are planed as part of Chicago Illinois's fall music festival season and across the sea in Norway during November.

In an attempt to give people an idea of the type of music they can expect at these concerts the festival is releasing the CD Live From Festival au Desert, Timbuktu April 30 2013 on the Clermont Music label. Recorded during the festival in 2012, the disc gives listeners an example of the incredible diversity of music and musical styles on offer at the festival. From artists who are well known throughout the world like Bassekou Koutaye master of the ngoni, members of the renowned Tuareg band Tinariwen playing with the Indo Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, (Tinariwen also backed up this guy named Bono at 2012's festival, but he didn't make it onto the recording) to groups playing traditional chants from Mali.
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While the title of the disc includes the word Timbuktu, the festival wasn't actually held in the city, its just merely the point of entry for those wishing to attend. Instead it was held a couple of hours drive out in the dessert from the city. Pictures of the festival site show a stage set up in the bottom of a naturally occurring bowl in amongst the sand dunes and scrub brush of the Sahara. Camels and land rovers dote the surrounding area as do tents of various sizes and construction. Modern nylon tents are nestled in beside the traditional felt and goat skin constructions of the nomadic Tuareg.

While you won't find the micro-brewery beer tents or the booths selling licensed memorabilia which dot the landscape at most modern music festivals you can watch camel races and appreciate the splendour of the multi-coloured clothes worn by men and women alike. You might also be tempted to adopt the turban/veil assembly worn by so many of the Tuareg men in order to keep the worst of the sun's heat off your head and gusting sand out of you mouth and nose. Away from the stage you may also take in performances in the various tribal encampments and listen to the ululating voices of women's groups or endless guitar jams.

However, everybody comes to see the performers who are gracing the stage and this disc contains a sampling of 18 tracks culled from all the music played over the course of the weekend. It starts with a simple welcoming speech in French - a hangover from colonial days maybe, but still the common tongue among the different people attending and performing. Even in the welcoming speech you might notice the sound is a bit rough. The recording was taken directly from the sound board and was limited to only two tracks. As a result there are times when the sound either distorts or is fuzzy as the equipment was simply not up to the task of containing the energy and enthusiasm of the performers.
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While some might find the iffy quality of the sound hard to take or even be put off by it, consider the conditions under which the recording was made. The concert takes place in the desert where electricity is limited which in turns limits the amount of equipment you're able to use. The priority would have been ensuring the crowd on hand was able to hear the music and the fact anyone even thought to hook up recording equipment to the two out puts available is amazing. Anyway, the sound may be rough. but it captures the feeling of being one of those lucky people crammed down near the front of the stage or sitting further back on a desert evening listening to the music.

You may never have heard of Baba Djire, Efes, or Orchestre du Takamba, the songs they perform or even understand what the songs are about. What you will understand while listening to this disc is what an amazing experience it is to be out in the middle of the Sahara Desert with the stars overhead and the sand around you listening to music. In this video trailer put out by the festival promoting the disc and the festival itself you'll find background information that not only summarizes the history of the event but the situation in Mali earlier in the year which forced organizers to cancel this year's event. Most of all it will provide you with the images from the festival which will supply the fuel your imagination needs to picture yourself standing in front of the stage with people from all over the world listening to some incredible music.

Like the festival itself Live From Festival au Desert, Timbuktu is filled with the raw passion of music being performed by artists who are not only musicians by profession but by vocation as well. They don't play out of any desire for celebrity or recognition, but because the music is their way of expressing who they are and what they believe in. You don't have to understand the lyrics to appreciate the sound of pure unadulterated passion. While the sound quality may not be up to the standards you're used to, the music is far superior to most of what you'll hear at more so called professional events. This is as close as you can get to being at Festival au Desert without actually travelling to the Sahara desert.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Photo of Festival Chris Nolen

April 23, 2013

Richie Havens - In Memorium


I was saddened today to hear the wonderful Richie Havens had died of a heart attack yesterday (April 22 2013). Havens had been flying under most people's radars for the last little while, popping up in occasional cameos in movies, but still producing some incredible music. Five years ago he releasedNobody Left To Crown and proved he was still as vital and active as he was when he first began performing back in the 1960s.

Like most people my introduction to Havens was via the Woodstock Music festival of 1969. First through my brother's copy of the record album and them watching a flickering print of the movie in a second run movie house nearly a decade after the festival had taken place. Watching this man pouring his heart out on screen amazed me. To later learn he had actually played for three hours and maintained that level of energy the whole time astounded me. It turns out none of the other scheduled performers had been able to make it on site in time because of traffic conditions and organizers asked him to fill in.

Havens was probably best known for his amazing ability as an interpreter of other people's songs. As he showed on Nobody Left To Crown it didn't matter whether it was the power rock of The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again", or the softer sounds of Jackson Browne, "Live's In The Balance", he could bring any song to life and make it soar in new ways. Unfortunately, his own ability as a song writer was often overlooked. On the same album he proved how he was every bit as capable of writing music as powerful as anybody else out there. One only needs listen to the release's title track where he bemoans the lack of real leadership in the world to realize how skilled he was. Not only could he pinpoint issues with unerring accuracy his artistry lay in making songs simultaneously poetic and accessible.

However, it's not just Haven's talent I'm going to miss, I'm going to miss him personally. Around the time Nobody Left To Crown was released I was fortunate enough to interview him. Most interviews with public personalities are limited to what are known as 20 minute "phoners". The person you're interviewing is doing about twenty of them in a row and you're supposed to ask pat questions about their new release and they give you their pat answers. That wasn't the case with Havens. He and I talked for only slightly more then a half-hour, but by the time we ended our conversation I felt like I had known him for years. He ended up by making sure to invite me to drop by a folk club in upstate New York where he still played on a regular basis, and I felt like he would be genuinely glad to see me if somehow I ended up sitting in the audience one night.
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If you read the interview you'll see I warn you in the introduction we both had a hard time staying on topic. We were supposed to be talking about the new album, but we'd become fascinated by some other subject and head wildly off in a new direction. However, what I most remember about our conversation was what a gentle, humorous and unassuming man he was. I remember him laughing about how he developed his very distinct style of playing guitar. He basically said it was because I wasn't very good and had to find the easiest way possible to play the thing. There used to be a page on his web site where he explained how this worked, but the link seems to be dead now. Here's how he described to me how he overcame the biggest obstacle facing him when he became a solo artist: "The problem was I didn't know how to play guitar, let alone tune one. But Dave Van Ronk and Freddy (Fred Neil) helped out and it was from them I learned how to tune my guitar down to D and learned the bar chords that I still play today. With those simple chords and that tuning you can play thousands of songs - it's great (laughter)"

It's impossible to capture in words on paper, or whatever this is, the truth of a person. However, based on the few precious minutes I spent with Richie Havens one afternoon I came to realize what a truly gentle spirit he was. It amazed me how a man could be so passionate about life and his art while still being filled with such kindness and awe for the work of others and the world around him. As a conclusion to my interview I offered up the words, the world would be a lot better off if there were more people like him in it. On the day after his death, I would change that to - the world is worse off for not having Richie Havens in it anymore.

(Article first published as In Memory Of Richie Havens on Blogcritics.)

April 9, 2013

Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere


When I was younger the mere site of an accordion would be enough to send me running. It was the instrument of Lawrence Welk and the worst sort of music imaginable. As my musical horizons broadened I learned this instrument, once the butt of so many jokes and derisive comments, had been unfairly maligned. Once you've heard zydeco and klezmer music you gain new respect for the accordion. However, nothing I'd heard before prepared me for what Koby Israelite does with it on his new release, Blues From Elsewhere, on Asphalt Tango Records.

While the disc has been out in Europe since March, its just being released in North America on Tuesday April 9 2013. The 16 tracks take you on a musical trip around the world as Israelite and his accomplices in musical adventurism blend genres and cultures in as extravagant display of virtuosity as I've ever heard. From North America to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and down to South East Asia probably the only continent missed out is Australia. Along the way you'll hear almost every instrument you can think of, with Israelite playing most of them. Yaron Stavi plays electric and acoustic bass on every track save seven ("Subterranean Homesick Blues"), 10 ("Rural Ghost") and 16("Kashmir"), while other guests join in on a couple of songs. Tigran Alexksanyan plays duduk and clarinet on "Lemi Evke", track 12, and "Kashmir", Ofir Gal adds electric guitar to "Lemi Evke" and John Telfer plays tenor saxophone on "Just Cliches", track 15.

While Israelite also contributes vocals, he has enlisted the aid of two highly contrasting, but equally powerful female vocalists for three of the songs. One of the highlights of the recording has to be his version of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" featuring Annique on lead vocals. It starts off sounding like it might be a klezmer version of the song as Annique sings the opening verse to accordion accompaniment in the sort of slow and almost mournful manner klezmer sometimes takes. Then, with a suddenness almost heart stopping, it rips into overdrive with Annique belting out the lyrics overtop screaming electric guitar to only have it drop back into her and the accordion again.
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On paper that might sound weird but believe me it's bloody amazing. You can check out the video for the song and it will give you a fairly good idea of how well it works. The video also gives you a good idea of Israelite's sense of humour. Dylan put out a short film for the song way back when and it featured him holding up pieces of cardboard with the lyrics to the song. Israelite uses a computer tablet to do the same thing, although its not necessarily displaying the lyrics, but random words which may or may not have anything to do with the song.

While Annique handles what could be called the Western vocal duties on the disc, she's also featured on the intriguingly titled second track, "Why Don't You Take My Brain And Sell It To The Night?", Mor Karbasi's vocals on "Lemi Evke" take us to the other side of the world. While Karbasi is famous for singing in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews in Moorish Spain, here she sings in Hebrew in what is described in the liner notes as Jewish blues. While it doesn't sound like any blues song you've heard before, there's no denying the weight of sorrow conveyed by Karbasi's voice. At one point she has overdubbed her own harmonies and sends her voice soaring up into the heavens overtop of her lead and you feel chills up your spine.

It's at this point that Israelite shows his genius for arrangements. For as Karbasi's voice is keening up in the higher registers he adds a clarinet to the mix. As you listen to what is apparently Karbasi's voice rising higher and higher on the scale you all of sudden realize she's no longer singing the harmony but the clarinet has taken it over and is carrying the notes even higher. The transition from voice to instrument is so subtle and beautifully done they could be interchangeable.
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While the two women guest vocalists stand out vividly the consistent star of the show is still Israelite. From the opening tribute to Johnny Cash, "Johnny Has No Cash No More", a burst of Cash sounding licks on accordion turned into just under two minutes of fun, to "Peckham Rai", a heady mixture of Western and Arabic pop music bridging the two worlds effortlessly, he shows he can play almost any instrument he lays his hands on. Even more important though is how he redefines the whole idea of world music.

According to genre classifications world music is sort of a catch all for any music, folk to pop, not readily identifiable as North American or British. Instead of partitioning music by ethnicity Israelite finds the common ground between cultures and weaves them together. His music is anarchy made real as it knows no borders or boundaries and ignores all laws and conventions. With the accordion leading the way he shows how a love of music can bring disparate cultures together without them having to surrender either their identities or having any one assume dominance.

Anybody who was fed a diet of Lawrence Welk will find it hard to think of the accordion as either revolutionary or an instrument of change. After listening to Blues From Elsewhere not only will you radically reevaluate your opinion of the accordion, but rethink the whole notion of world music. While others might dabble with music from other cultures to give their own music some additional flavour, Israelite immerses himself in all music equally. He knows it's our differences which make us unique and are a source of pride. His music not only celebrates those differences but also shows their potential to co-exist in harmony. It might just be for a few minutes in a song - but that's a start. We just need more people to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere on Blogcritics.)

March 26, 2013

Music Review: The Waterboys - An Appointment With Mr. Yeats


While many people think song lyrics and poetry are interchangeable, the truth of the matter is there are very few song writers whose work matches up against poetry. On the other hand, just because a poem is wonderful to read doesn't mean it would necessarily make a good song. For while lyrics are written with the intent of setting them to music, including such considerations as melody and rhythm, a poet rarely concerns him or herself with those issues. People like Leonard Cohen, who records his poetry as songs with little or no alteration to their lyrics or meaning, are an exception.

Maybe that's one of the reasons such a relatively small amount of pre existing poetry is set to music. Certainly there have been attempts, but considering the amount of English language poetry available, the number is insignificant. So when I heard that Mike Scott &The Waterboys had released an album of music based on the poetry of Irish poet William Butler Yeats I was intrigued. Originally released in 2011 in the UK on Proper Records An Appointment With Mr. Yeats is now available in North America.

The album was obviously a labour of love for Scott as it wasn't something he rushed into. Over the course of two decades he gradually chose and adapted the poems used on this recording. His intent was to make a collection of songs which would sound no different from other Waterboys' recordings, with lyrics written by a guest artist. "The best thing is when people don't realize they were written a hundred years ago, but just hear them and think, 'That's a song", he's quoted as saying in the press materials accompanying the CD.
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I don't think anyone is going to mistake the language of poetry written in the early part of the twentieth century for something penned today. I'm sure there are songwriters who may write about the same subject matter, Celtic and Greek mythology and philosophers of the ancient world like Pythagorus, but I seriously doubt they would use the same turns of phrase as Yeats. However Scott and the Waterboys have certainly succeeded in turning the poems selected into modern songs. Anyone familiar with the band's sound from earlier albums This Is The Sea and Fisherman's Blues will recognize their distinctive flavour throughout this disc.

The question is does this marriage of modern post punk pop and early 20th century poetry work? Some purists might find Scott's interpretations difficult and jarring because of the nature of their sound. However, if you listen to the lyrics accompanying the music, you'll realize Scott has done a wonderful job of creating music which expresses the emotions and thoughts in the poem. The song leading off the disc, "The Hosting Of The Shee", (or Sidhe) celebrates mythical Celtic warrior heroes. marching off to war. "The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round/Our cheeks are pale, our hair unbound/Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are apart/And if any gaze on our rushing band/We come between him and the deed of his hand/We come between him and the hope of his heart."

The music accompanying these lyrics express both the thrill of watching these mythical warriors of the fairy world marching off to war while at the same time capturing the effects of their passing on the natural world. As you listen to the words of the poem come together with the music you can visualize the wild and fey army marching through the world and nature reacting to their passage. It's as frightening and jarring as you might imagine it would be witnessing the passage of such creatures.

Of course Yeats didn't just write about mystical and ancient Ireland, he wrote about what he saw around him as well. Scott makes sure we remember that by including a version of "September 1913", Yeats' poem about what's come to be known as the Dublin Lockout. Labourers had gone on strike for better working conditions and were betrayed by the church and Irish politicians. In his poem Yeats asks is this what our freedom fighters died for? Did we throw off the yoke of one master only to trade it for another? "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone/It's with O'Leary in the grave".
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If that wasn't potent enough for you, Scott has also included a version of the simple yet haunting "Let The Earth Bear Witness". It's a beautiful prayer of remembrance for those who have the bravery to resist oppression in spite of the personal cost. Yeats wrote it as a general paean for all those who have given of themselves in the hopes others might have a better life. "They shall be remembered for ever/They shall be alive for ever/They shall be speaking for ever/The people shall hear them for ever/Let the sea bear witness/Let the wind bear witness/Let the earth bear witness/Let the stars bear witness".

Scott has chosen to identify the song with the Iranian people who took to the streets a couple of years ago in an attempt to change their world only to be crushed under foot by the regime. In the video for the song he sets the tune to footage of the protests and the ensuing crackdown in an effort to keep the memory of those brave people alive. Here again he and the band have created music appropriate to the poem's spirit and words by letting their simplicity and starkness speak for themselves.

In order to do proper justice to the diversity of thought and emotion found in the poetry of a man like Yeats a band has to be able to carry off not only a variety of musical styles but be willing to subjugate their own desires to the needs of the work. The Waterboys have the versatility and artistry required to take you out of this world into the realm of magic and myth and to bring you solidly back down to earth to face reality just like the poetry of Yeats did to its readers a 100 years ago. In the process of doing so they, and especially Scott as lead singer, turn themselves into conduits for the poet's thoughts and ideas. Like the best actors they remember its the message that's important, not the messenger.

An Appointment With Mr. Yeats is one of those rare treats in popular music where the words and music come together in a perfect marriage. Not only does the music reflect the emotional context of the words they accompany, but the band has also managed to find a way to create an atmosphere for each song which makes them living and breathing creations. Even better is the fact they do this while remaining true to the spirit of the poems and the poet's intentions. The words of William Butler Yeats have never sounded so alive and so real.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Waterboys - An Appointment with Mr. Yeats on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit for picture of The Waterboys Live In Dublin - Paul MacManus


March 5, 2013

Music Review: Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances


Field recordings are usually made with portable recording equipment in less than what anybody would consider ideal conditions with the result being less than perfect recordings as far as sound quality is concerned. However, since the earliest days of recording music they have been invaluable tools for preserving the music of cultures all over the world. Music anthropologists in the 19th century used wax cylinders to record everything from Native American singers to Appalachian folk music.

Field recordings of African American blues and gospel music were often most white people's introductions to both genres. Even today field recordings are playing an invaluable role in ensuring older artists' music is recorded and not forgotten. The Music Maker Relief Foundation has used field recordings to help bring the music of Southern blues artists who otherwise might have been forgotten into homes and concert halls around the world. However field recordings aren't limited to North American music. The Centre for Traditional Music and Dance's archive of recordings is a treasure chest of music from around the world. One of their most interesting collections of recordings were those done in the Balkans during the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Koenig.

His Balkan Arts Centre (the forerunner of the Centre for Traditional Music and Dance) was formed to help keep the music and culture of that region alive. Koenig's original recordings were made into LPs and 45s which he used to teach the folk dances of the region. However, they were never made available to the public. Now that's all changing. A box of the original vinyl records was found in the Centre and have now been restored. They are being released as a 13 part series of special edition vinyl EPs by Evergreene Music with the first release being Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances.
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Now don't worry if you don't have a turn table as every EP comes with a code which not only allows you to download the four tracks from the recording but also gives you access to liner notes, photos and additional audio files including a recording of an interview with Koeing. In the interview he talks about his experiences recording the music in communist Eastern Europe and why it was important then, and remains important today, these recordings exist.

Like most field recordings made prior to the digital age the sound quality of the four tracks aren't the greatest. However there are other compensations. This is music we would have no record of if these recordings hadn't been made. Folk music which encouraged nationalistic feelings, or celebrated ethnic differences, were strongly discouraged under communist rule in Eastern Europe. An entire generation grew up without knowing the traditional music of their culture. Recordings like these are the only way they have of learning anything about the music and the dances of their people.

Listening to the four cuts, "Zborinka", "Ruka", "Chukanoto" and "Dobrolushko Horo", the first thing you might notice is the similarities between this music and what we call "Gypsy" music. They both have a kind of wild abandonment to them and a heavy reliance on what sound to be stringed instruments. This only makes sense as Bulgarian folk music would have many of the same influences as other musics from the region. Like their neighbours in Romania, Bosnia and Greece, Bulgaria was at one point part of the Turkish ruled Ottoman Empire. You can hear this influence in rather high pitched skirling noise produced by the combination of a type of bagpipe and the violin.

The next thing you'll probably notice is the lack of anything like a bass line providing an underpinning for the song. Unlike the majority of the music we listen to which is built around a very distinctive beat there doesn't appear to be any one instrument responsible for maintaining the song's rhythm. However by listening closely you do hear the sound of a drum buried very deep in the mix. Whether that's intentional or a result of deficiencies in the recording process is unclear.
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However, even without the drum, you'll notice each of the songs has a pattern. Out of what appears to be a sort of free for all, with all the instruments playing leads at the same time, gradually evolves something we can discern as a carefully constructed song with a noticeable rhythm. The secret is to listen to the song as a whole, not the individual instruments, and then you'll be able to hear the song's pulse. This is the engine which propels the dancers who would move to the music.

It might be hard for us to remember this is dance music as it no way matches our idea of how it should sound. Even those of us familiar with other Eastern European music will feel somewhat lost as it doesn't have the definite beat of Polish Polkas or the Cossack music of Russia. No this is far wilder. Evoking the wind swept hills and crags where the shepherds who created it tend their flocks.

In fact it's hard to imagine this music ever being recorded in a proper studio setting. It sounds like it needs to be played out in the open air with its skirling notes being allowed to escape into the sky and the mountains. It's made to be played in the village square or on a hillside around an open fire not in the sterile environment of the recording studio. Thus we discover the real value of field recordings. They not only capture music, they capture the music and its environment like no other recordings can.

The four recordings on Bulgarian Folk Dances aren't, by any stretch of the imagination, high quality. However, they are exciting, exhilarating and a timely reminder that music used to be played for the sheer joy of making it and the chance it gave us to celebrate living. Listening to the music it's fun to try and imagine the kind of dancing it encouraged and the people who danced to it. How often have you been able to say that about anything you've heard recorded recently.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Balkan Arts 701: Bulgarian Folk Dances on Blogcritics.)

February 17, 2013

Music Review: Diana Darby - IV (Intravenous)


There's a very fine line between being dramatic and melodramatic in pop music. Two singers can use almost the same style of presentation with one of them going over the top and the other sounding perfectly believable. If there is one style of singing that lends itself to this type of abuse more than others I'd have to say it would be the ethereal voiced singer who barely whispers his or her lyrics. Like those who seem to think the louder I sing the more emotional I sound these believe the wispier I am the more sincere and earnest I sound.

Unfortunately most of them just end up being annoying. You either can't make out a word they're saying as their vocals are swamped by the inevitable atmospheric music they always seem to choose as accompaniment or when you can hear them their voice is so precious it makes you want to scream. It's as if they'd never heard the word substance and figure if they sound deep and mysterious enough the audience won't care they're not really singing about anything.

It becomes increasingly obvious how artificial most of these singers sound when you hear someone like Diana Darby. Her most recent release, IV (intravenous), on her own Delmore Recordings label, is a collection of twelve thoughtful and moving songs. Those familiar with her previous work will be aware of her very individualistic style of singing which borders on being lighter than air. However, Darby distinguishes herself from others both in the way her vocals are an organic extension of her material and her range of expression. She doesn't spend the whole recording whispering to us in a more earnest than thou voice. Instead she comes across as a real person, not some will of the wisp whose just nipped in from a New Age version of the fairy realm.
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With songs dealing with everything from mourning the passing of a pet dog to a fundamentalist parent who delights in telling her family they're all going to hell her material isn't what you'd call typical of pop music. The low pitched intensity of her voice suits this type of material. There's an introspective quality to the material which demands a certain level of quiet contemplation. As you listen you can see how her voice fits with her songs and any other vocal approach wouldn't sound right.

Sometimes the softness of her voice is an expression of compassion for her subject while at other times it makes her lyrics stand out with shocking intensity. "Looking For Trouble", the disc's opening track, is a lament for the death of her own dog sung in the third person. "You keep/looking for trouble/looking for trouble/Don't you girl/You think/He will come to you/But you/Don't know what he'll do". At first listen it's not clear what the song is about. In fact, unless you read her website and find out Darby's dog Trouble died recently you might think its about a woman who chooses to date the wrong guy all the time.

At first the lyrics seem ambiguous, but when you start to think about them in terms of losing a pet they make a lot of sense. You hear a noise and you turn around expecting it to be the animal and are reminded again of its absence when you don't see it. Looking doesn't mean you're searching for the animal, it means you keep thinking you'll see it. By singing about herself in the third person she prevents this song from becoming maudlin. She doesn't try and describe how sad or emotional she was made by the animal's death. What she details instead is what's it like to experience the hole left in our lives by the sudden absence of a familiar presence. Long after we think we're done with our mourning it still comes as a shock to realize whoever it is we're missing is never going to walk into the room again.

Darby doesn't try and elicit sympathy from us with her voice on this song with any forced trembling or other such silliness. She just gently talks about the circumstances. In fact by talking about her experiences in the third person it's like she's offering sympathy to those who have experienced what the song describes. In doing this she's able to create a bridge with her audience based on real emotions. She's able to take a subject which could easily lend itself to sentimentality and turn into a universal statement on death, loss and the grieving process.

It's hard to imagine what it would be like to have a person in your family who tries to force their religious beliefs down everyone else's throat. In the her song "Heaven" Darby describes a family whose mother spends her time telling her children they and their father are going to Hell. "My mother worries we were not Baptized/My mother worries we can't be with her/My mother says it's written in the verse/We won't go to Heaven/We won't go to Heaven". As in the previously mentioned song Darby describes what's going on without passing judgement or reacting emotionally to what the mother says.
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It's as if she trusts us to form our own opinions.Try and imagine how'd you feel if your mother told you stuff like "Your father's going to Hell because he's Jewish", or if you don't accept Christ as your king you'll go to Hell? She says lines like these and the ones quoted above with almost no inflection. The words stand out like bold type in dark black ink on a clean white sheet of paper. There's a starkness to them which makes you feel empty. What kind of person could say such cruel things to and about people they supposedly love? Maybe somebody who held to the same belief system as the person speaking those words would see it differently, but what kind of person would tell their children their other parent is going to hell?

Darby's songs aren't going to be for everyone. They're not innocuous pop songs with a bouncy beat and happy go lucky lyrics which are going to make you want to dance. What they do offer is emotionally honest takes on life told in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner. She does show occasional flights of whimsy which break the disc up. In the song "Ugly Little Toad" she creates a parable about sustainable living through her description of a toad who depletes the food in his little pond through greed. Cute and funny it still leaves no doubt in your mind what's she talking about and stresses the importance of sustainable living better than most so called environmental songs.

Darby is an intelligent songwriter with a unique voice. Unlike others who affect either an airy or an earnestly subdued tone when they sing, her quietness is a natural extension of her material. Introspective without naval gazing, when she turns her eye inwards she also manages to see beyond herself. So whether she's describing something highly personal like the death of her dog or talking about an issue, she finds a way of doing so which almost anybody will be able to identify with. Take some time out of your day and sit and listen to this disc, it will be time well spent.

(Article first published as Music Review: Diana Darby - IV (intravenous) on Blogcritics)

February 12, 2013

Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972


Popular music is littered with the corpses of performers who died before their time. Some of them burned out on drugs and alcohol, others went by accident and a few were killed by somebody else's hand. With many of them dying during what should have been the prime of their careers, their musical legacies are often clouded. A kind of cult of the dead seems to have sprung up around many of them distorting their true significance and preventing any clear eyed assessment of their music. Yet, while some have been elevated to near iconic status for apparently no other reason than their untimely deaths, others of real talent are barely remembered.

Of those who slipped through the cracks of popular music history not making the kind of impression on the public at large his music merited, singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt's story is probably the most poignant. Born to a well off Texas family in 1944 Van Zandt stood out even as a kid when he was recognized as having a genius IQ. However a diagnosis of manic depression (bipolar disorder) in 1962 led him to being institutionalized and receiving three months of insulin shock therapy which erased most of his long term memory. After flirting with a few other options; university (he was accepted into pre-law), the Air Force (rejected on the basis of being a severe manic depressive) he began to pursue a career as a singer songwriter in 1967.

During his life most of his success came from other people's recordings of his music. Emmlou Harris had a hit in 1981 with his "If I Needed You" and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took "Pancho and Lefty" to number one on the country charts in 1983. Musicians ranging from Bob Dylan (who claims to have every album Van Zandt recorded) to Norah Jones have cited Van Zandt as an influence and Steve Earle recorded an album of Van Zandt covers in 2009 simply entitled Townes. After his death in 1997, and the legal bother of figuring out who owned the rights to his music was resolved, his recordings started to show up in movie and television show soundtracks. Probably the most famous of these is his cover of the Rolling Stone's song "Dead Flowers" which plays over the closing credits of the Coen brother's movie, The Big Lebowski.
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Unfortunately a great many of the recordings he made during his lifetime, especially those when he was at his most prolific during the early 1970s, ended up being overproduced. Even the producer of those albums, "Cowboy" Jack Clement admits he went somewhat over the top. In the same review of a reissue of Van Zandt's 1968 For The Sake Of The Song which quotes Clement, the album is described as being so overproduced it would make a Southern Gospel album hang its head in shame. Thankfully it turns out there were recordings made of Van Zandt's material prior to Clement adding all his bells and whistles. With the approval of his estate Omnivore Recordings has put together a two disc set, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971 - 1972 featuring some of Van Zandt's best work.

The first thing you'll notice about Van Zandt is his voice. Initially it may strike you as being almost thin, lacking the timber or body we're used to in our pop singers. However, there's hardly anybody quite as mesmerizing. Something about his delivery or his expression leaves you hanging onto every word. You'll quickly realize what he's saying and how he says are of equal importance. The first song on disc one, the "Unreleased Studio Sessions", is a cover of the Jimmie Rodgers standard "T For Texas". While Van Zandt is faithful down to including the yodel refrain, his somewhat ironic delivery makes you question the sentimental nature of the lyrics. Yet at the same time, you know he's not making fun of the song. There might have been a girl called Thelma, but we can also tell by the way he sings the line, "T is for Thelma/that girl who made a mess outa me", she's not the one responsible for the mess he's in.

Then there's "Blue Ridge Mountains", the fifth song on this disc. Musically it sounds like your typical 'mountain music' song. One about the joys of life back home and how the singer yearns for what was the simpler days of his youth. Until you get to the last line of the refrain which opens the song, "I ain't comin' back here anymore". This prepares you for what's to come. For while he sings the song with a yearning quality we've come to associate with the "wish I were back home in the country" type of song, the lyrics tell you how he really feels. "I've seen this whole wide country over/from New York City down to Mexico/and I've seen the joyful and the sorrow/and I ain't comin' back here anymore".

Normally this type of song would have the singer saying just the opposite of the sentiments expressed in the previous verse. No matter what charms big cities and foreign locales have to offer, nothing compares to my old home. Well Van Zandt has no illusions. The wide world has plenty to offer and why in the world would anybody want to go back to living in the back woods after having experienced it? As this song makes obvious, false sentimentality had no place in Van Zandt's world. Others might pretend they would trade civilization for a dirt floor cabin with no running water or electricity, but not him.
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However Van Zandt was more than just irony, he could write and sing songs that would break your heart. "Sad Cinderella", track 11 on disc one, is about facing up to reality after having been treated as something special for no real reason. Whether through beauty, wealth or popularity individuals are elevated to the status of royalty and then just as suddenly have it all taken away. "When your magazine memory has spun you around/and you realize your lovers were just painted clowns/and outside the window you start hearing the sounds/where they're building a cross for to burn you".

Sung with no adornment save for his empathy and compassion, Van Zandt made this song into one of the most beautiful condemnations of what we do to people in our desire for celebrities. What's even more amazing is he wrote this in the early 1970s when celebrity worship was nothing compared to what exists today. It's a bittersweet reminder there're human beings behind the gossip and the headlines. It also shows off Van Zandt's uncanny ability as a songwriter to find those words which cut to the heart of a subject emotionally and intellectually without beating a point into the ground.

While many of the songs on disc two ("The Demos") duplicate those on the first disc, hearing Van Zandt sing them almost unaccompanied save for his guitar (a couple have a second guitar or other basic accompaniment) allows us even more of a chance to appreciate his voice. There's a rawness to his singing that's kind of like an exposed nerve. In fact some feel so personal it's almost as if your overhearing a private conversation between Van Zandt and the subject of the song. However, it's not all heartbreak and sorrow as he had a keen eye for the absurd and a wonderfully dry sense of humour.

For those of you who have never heard Van Zandt, and those who have always loved his music, the two disc collection Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 is a treasure to be savoured. Not only does it contain a great mix of his material and covers, his version of "Who Do You Love" will knock you on your ass, its him as he was meant to be heard. No strings, no horns or any of the other bells and whistles his producer piled on the songs after they were recorded. Just him and a band playing music unlike just about anything you've heard. You might think you recognize elements of others in some of these songs, but then you'll remember when he recorded them. He might not have gained the popularity or acclaim he deserved while alive, but his legacy is assured through those he influenced.

( Article first published as Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 on Blogcritics.)



January 30, 2013

Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - Feeling Mortal


People always seem surprised when they find out I like Kris Kristofferson's music. Maybe it's the fact I don't just like the songs he writes, but also like the way he sings them. Sure his voice sounds like its being pulled through a whisky soaked rasp that's been allowed to sit in a smoke filled room for a couple of days. There's also the fact the words he sings always sound like they had to fight to their way out of his chest in order to be heard. It's like he's only grudgingly willing to share these secrets of his heart and soul with us.

However, that's what makes his songs so powerful. There's nothing casual about either the emotions behind his songs or the manner in which he delivers them. As befitting a Rhodes Scholar (a scholarship awarded North American university students who mix excellence in academics and athletics that allows them to attend Oxford University in England) there is thought behind everything he does. Not once have I ever heard him cross the line from genuine emotion to cheap sentimentality in order to manipulate a reaction from his listeners. The direct result of what can only be careful consideration of both his lyrics and the music accompanying them. While you can check out nearly any album he's ever released, his most recent, Feeling Mortal, the first on his own KK record label, will give you all the proof you need.

There have been times in the past when Kristofferson's music has fallen victim to the machinations of some overzealous Hollywood or Nashville producer. While they have never quite succeeded in submerging his rough honesty beneath their saccharine coatings of strings and massed backing singers, they came close. Thankfully he started working with producer Don Was seventeen years ago and the results of that arrangement have been some of Kristofferson's cleanest and most honest work since the early days of "Me and Bobby McGee", "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "The Pilgrim".
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On Feeling Mortal Kristofferson has assembled a collection of ten songs reflecting the theme suggested by the title. Yet this isn't some attempt at atonement or a plea for forgiveness on the part of a repenting reprobate. It's just an honest self examination of who he is, where he's been and what he sees when he looks in the mirror. Take the title song's last verse, "Soon or later I'll be leaving/I'm a winner either way/For the laughter and the loving/That I'm living with today". The past might hold sorrows and regrets for mistakes he made, but he's not dwelling on them. Who knows what the future holds, but the present is still something to be celebrated and be grateful for.

Of course there are songs that look to the past. While some like "Castaway" reflect moments when he realized he was flirting with disaster by sailing close to the edge (" 'Cause like a ship without a rudder/I'm just drifting with the tide/And each day I'm drawing closer to the brink/Just a speck upon the waters/Of an Ocean deep and wide/I won't even make a ripple when I sink) others are almost defiant in their lack of apology for who and what he's been. The title of "You Don't Tell Me Me What To Do" should be a giveaway, but for all those a bit slow on the uptake Kristofferson spells it out for them with the lyrics. "So I sing my own songs/And I drink when I'm thirsty/And I will go on/Making music, and whisky/and love for as long/As the spirit inside me/Says you don't tell me what to do".

Even those songs which in the hands of others might descend into what I call hangover Christianity - repentance after a night's debauchery - are saved from a fate worse than death by both the sparse production values and Kristofferson's vocal delivery. Never what you'd be tempted to call flowery, his voice sounds even more lived in and care worn then ever. However, any deficiencies in his vocals are more than made up for his capacity to deliver each word of every song as if it were being wrung directly from his soul. No matter how hard you try you'll never be able to make him sound pretty or smooth out his rough edges. All of which pretty much guarantees a purity and honesty to his music that others can only dream of obtaining.
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The accompanying musicians, Mark Goldenberg guitar, Greg Leisz pedal steel, Matt Rollins keyboards, Sara Watkins vocals and violin, Sean Hurley bass and Aaron Sterling drums, play in support of Kristofferson and his voice. They are not so much a backing band as the framework or the backdrop for his songs. Playing underneath, around and beside, but never over top of his voice, they provide accents which fill the songs out without taking away any of the rough hewn honesty that gives them their power. You have to listen carefully in order to even hear Watkins' harmonies on some songs. However this is a great change from background singers overwhelming a lead vocalist.

I can't talk about this album without mentioning the final song on the disc, "Ramblin' Jack", a tribute to the great country folk singer Rambling Jack Elliot. In some ways though the song is also autobiographical with lines like "And if he knew how good he'd done/Every song he sung/I believe he'd truly be surprised" describing Kristofferson's own life and career just as much as it does Elliot's. However the song also reaches way back to an earlier tune Kristofferson penned, "The Pilgrim", which in its introduction he dedicated to a variety of people, Elliot included.

That song was filled with the spirit of young men living the life of rebellious poets taking chances and flaunting conventional wisdom. Now many years later those who still survive have grown older and wiser and have careers to look back upon. Yet this isn't a maudlin or sentimental wondering where the years have gone song. Nor is it a song filled with regrets or repentance. Its just a simple statement of fact. This is the life we led and what we did.

In many ways this song sums up the theme of the entire album. Kristofferson isn't asking anyone for their forgiveness or understanding, he's just looking in the mirror and telling us what he sees. This might trigger some memories of things from the past and he might feel regret for the way he treated some people. However he's honest enough to realize if given the chance to do it over, he'd probably do everything pretty much the same.

Like some aged whiskies Kristofferson is an acquired taste. His voice isn't what you'd call soothing or mellow and he doesn't try to please anybody but himself with his songs. Once you get past the initial bite his music will leave you with a warmth that fills you from the inside out. Feeling Mortal is a perfect example of the magic he works with song and music.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kris Kristofferson - Feeling Mortal on Blogcritics.)


January 16, 2013

Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra


I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Erin McKeown's new release Manifestra. The only examples of her work I'd heard to date had been YouTube videos of her performing solo and the satirical black comedy anti-Christmas disc, F*ck That she released in 2011. While I felt fairly comfortable in predicting this latest release wouldn't be as, shall we say, extreme as the former, I thought it would continue in the same pattern. A mix of agit-prop folk music and dark humour making wry but intelligent commentary on society today.

While there had been mention on her web site about a band, it didn't click in this was a permanent arrangement. So I was caught off guard when the opening song on the disc, "The Politician", saw her accompanied by the full compliment of a rock and roll band and effects galore. As the disc progressed it became increasingly obvious she was far more sophisticated and versatile a musician then I had realized. While I had previously been impressed by both her singing and guitar playing, not to mention her skills as a lyricist, this album shows she's much more than just another singer/songwriter plucking on her faithful six string and singing about the world's injustices.
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Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that type of music. However, to take the impetus behind it and create something far more musically and intellectually sophisticated as McKeown does on this disc is indicative of an artistry you don't see very often in pop music. Politics aren't limited to the decisions made by those we put in power and what occurs on the world stage trickles down into the fabric of our lives whether we know it or not. Without flow charts or pointers McKeown's songs go beyond the headlines and issues. What's done in our name as a country or a people will always shape our society. Like the proverbial butterfly wings flapping here being felt on the other side of the world, those currents are part of our pulse whether we know it or not.

"The nature of the jailer is/to do just what he pleases/but when we hang another man/part of us dies with him/lock up your soul piece by piece/then tell me just what love is", McKeown sings in "The Jailer". When it comes to arguments about capital punishment most people talk about vengeance or its effectiveness as a deterrent. Some might question a state's right to take a person's life and others play on people's fears. However, hardly anybody looks at the cost passed down to every citizen when a government kills their fellow citizens in their name. McKeown asks us to consider what's being taught when the law allows people to be killed. How can we really understand what love is when we sanction murder? When an individual kills another person it's a horrendous crime against love and yet it's not when the state does it? Doesn't anyone else find that confusing?

Even the more overtly political song, "Baghdad to the Bayou", isn't what I'd call typical of the genre. Instead of a litany of complaints or an attack on somebody or something it expresses the hope generated by the people's revolts that have been occurring around the world. "Street by street we will repeat/ the revolutions of the spring/you can't stop a people/when a people start to sing". Referencing both the Occupy Movements and the Arab Spring the song puts leaders everywhere on notice people aren't as inclined to be as unquestioningly obedient as they might have been in the past. The last line of the last verse, "We want accountability", capture what's been at the heart of each of those movements.
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In doing so MeKeown and co-writer Rachel Maddow have managed to bring back the feelings of hope these movements generated. Some of the dreams may have soured, Egypt has taken some nasty steps backwards and none of the occupations seem to have changed anything, but that doesn't mean people have gone back to sleep again. There have been too many examples in recent years of how a concentrated effort by a motivated population can be a powerful force for change. "Baghdad to the Bayou" is a spirited and timely reminder for all of us who may have forgotten what's been accomplished over the past few years.

Earlier I had mentioned being surprised by the variety of musical styles McKeown employed on this disc.In fact there's no two songs employing the same approach musically. Each song has been carefully arranged and produced so its lyrical content is given emotional and atmospheric context and support by the music. "The Jailer" is a punchy mix of R&B and jazz which underlines the potency of certain lines and gives the song a richness and texture that makes you take notice. Musically it captures the feelings of defiance the song expresses and the warnings of the dangers we face by abdicating control of our lives to a few powerful individuals without missing a beat or attempting to manipulate the listener.

I've chosen this song to cite as an example, but every song on this disc is a lesson on how to marry lyrics and music to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For while there's no denying the potency of McKeown's lyrics, by fleshing the songs out with additional instrumentation and careful orchestration their power is increased ten-fold. As part of this release McKeown has included a second disc, Civics, containing solo acoustic versions of the tracks on Manifestra. While you can hear hints of what the end results, it's like looking at an artist's preliminary sketches for a painting. You get the general idea, but they've nothing of the full impact of the finished product.

There are musicians out there who sing about issues and don't pay much attention to the music. There're far too many making music these days who have nothing to say and try to hide their lack of thought behind layers of sound. McKeown is one of the few who not only have something to say but the artistry and talent to create songs both intellectually and musically stimulating. Not only was Manifestra fun to listen to, it also makes you think. You can't ask for a better combination.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2012

My Ten Favourite Recordings of 2012


I don't have any idea the number of press releases I received over the course of the past year announcing yet another CD of music being released by someone. Conservatively I'd say they would have to numbered well into the thousands. Based on those numbers for me to claim I can select the ten best releases of 2012 borders on being ridiculous. However, out of the releases I released I offer you the ten I liked the most. These are the discs which have ended up on my I-pod and I will be listening to them for years to come. Hopefully you'll be encouraged to check them out and find out why I thought they were special.

Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - The Songs Of William Blake When most people refer to Americana or roots music they tend to forget about two important musical traditions. Redbone and her band created an album which blends the Native, African and Anglo/Irish/Scot American roots of North American music with the words of poet William Blake. The result are wonderfully vivid versions of Blake's work. With Redbone's splendid voice leading a masterful group of musicians you'll not only gain a new appreciation for the poems but broaden your definition of roots music.

Patti Smith - Patti Smith Live At Montreux 2005 As far as I'm concerned any release by Patti Smith is a special occasion. A DVD of her in concert is something to really celebrate, especially when its as well filmed and recorded as this one. Her regular band is augmented by the inclusion of lead guitarist and old friend, Tom Verlaine and they play a selection of tunes from her whole career to date. A live recording also is the chance to see her and the band step outside the box with improvised solos you won't find on studio recordings. Listening to Smith is great, being able to her watch her perform live is even better.

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind The fact the Ben Folds Five are a trio should tell you something about the band even before you first listen to them. Intelligent, witty and an ability to create finely crafted pop songs make this unlikely group of pop musicians not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Lyrics which make you think combined with music that veers between power pop and torch songs - sometimes in the same tune - aren't what I've come to expect from most bands these days. However, that's the beauty of this band - they defy expectations with panache.

Jason Collet - Reckon If there were any justice in the world of pop music everybody would have heard of Jason Collet. Funny, irreverent and emotionally honest he tackles both topical and personal subjects in ways everyone could take a lesson from. He manages to show how the former impacts individuals and turns the latter into statements with universal appeal. If you've never heard him before do yourself a favour and pick up this disc. Your won't regret it.

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years Sure Strummer has been dead for a decade now, but as this digital download of fifty plus songs culled from live concerts, unreleased tracks and the three studio albums he released with The Mescaleros shows, his music remains as vital today as it ever was. While more musically sophisticated than his recordings with The Clash, this music retains an edge which allows him to cut through the shit and get to the heart of a subject. For all you Strummer fans out there, and those who missed out on the Mescaleros' years, this collection is a must have.

Mark Knopfler - Privateering There are some guys still playing who you wish would just do us all a favour and retire already. Knopfler isn't one of them. This collection of songs proves he's still a master when it comes to song writing and guitar playing. His ability to write about a variety of subjects with sensitivity and intelligence is if anything even stronger then ever and his guitar playing remains some of the most subtle and beguiling in the buisness. As comfortable as a favourite sweater, but much more exciting, this is music you'll listen to for a long time to come.

Public Image Limited - This Is PIL It's been forty plus years since John Lyndon (aka Johnny Rotten) first set people's teeth on edge with his in your face image and iconoclastic music. He might not dress to shock anymore, but his music is still as unstintingly acerbic and challenging as it ever was. With this latest album from PIL he and the band show they are still musically interesting and fiercely independent. A great reminder of pop music's ability to unsettle and question the status quo with intelligence and wit.

Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal One of the great Texas outlaw musicians is back with another disc of gritty and real songs. Part autobiographical and part mythological his latest disc is an irreverent but heartfelt look at music and life. You won't hear any of Hubbard's music on your local country radio station, or any other radio station for that matter, mainly because he has a disturbing habit of speaking his mind. Honest, gruff and firmly rooted in reality its the best music to come out of Texas in years.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil After raising over a million dollars through her Kickstarter campaign to produce, promote and tour this album Palmer was thrust into the role of standard bearer for independent music producers. Almost lost amidst all the fuss was the excellence of the resulting album. While she made her name as a quirky and intelligent solo artist, this disc sees her step into the role of front person for a rock and roll band without missing a beat. More musically sophisticated than any of her previous releases, lyrically she's still as insightful and thought provoking as ever. While she's an adherent of the school of rock and roll as theatre, substance never takes a back seat to style. One of today's most exciting and dynamic performers has finally taken centre stage and pop music will never be the same again.

Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird Somehow or other Rudd manages to produce record after record of topical material without ever sounding preachy or self-aggrandizing. He makes no apologies for singing about the exploitation of the environment and how it endangers life on the planet. Playing a combination of traditional and modern instruments his music is the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. Simple and powerful his songs work on us both intellectually and emotionally without resorting to manipulation or guilt. He sings about facts, dreams and hope - asking us to join him and others in changing the way things are currently done. A brilliant musician and gifted songwriter he'll have you rethinking the way you look at the world.

Article first published as My Ten Favourite Recordings Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

December 11, 2012

Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition


I've never been a big fan of what most people call country music. The cheap sentimentality, the show business slickness and the simple mindedness of the ideas expressed by the majority of the mainstream performers has always left me cold. Too many seem more concerned with image rather than content. For a music whose roots lie in the folk songs of the British Isles and the dirt farms of Tennessee and Oklahoma that strikes the wrong chord with me. This is probably unfair and pejorative on my part, but like so much of today's popular culture the genre seems to have come to the conclusion that playing it safe by appealing to what they think is the lowest common denominator is the surest way of being a success.

So one of the nicest surprises I've had this year was the DVD We Walk The Line - A Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash and the voices it introduced me to. Not having heard her before I was quite unprepared for the power Shelby Lynne packs. When she walked on stage and sang Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", she blew me away and made me want to hear more of her. It was only shortly there after the press release announcing the release of Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition, on her own Eversorecords label arrived in my inbox.
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While the disc was originally released in 2011, Lynne has put together a special package consisting of two DVDs and two CDs for fans of her work. Like many other independents she raised the cash for this project though crowd source funding, in this case Pledge Music. Those who contributed to the project received the set in advance and depending on the level of their funding bonus gifts as well. However, the rest of us can purchase the set in its entirety at all the usual on line outlets. Considering it contains the original CD with five bonus tracks added, a live recording of her performing singing in the intimate back room of McCabe's guitar shop in California, Live At McCabe's, a short DVD documentary on the making of Revelation Road and a DVD of her performance at Union Chapel in London England, it sounds like a great package. it also includes a twelve page booklet with notes about each performance, lyrics to the songs from the original CD and the story behind each of the bonus tracks.

Once I started listening to the set I knew my first impression of her hadn't been wrong. I felt stupid for not having checked her out earlier - that's the problem with prejudices, it means you miss out on all sorts of great stuff - but this set provides a great opportunity to hear the many sides of Lynne. Although she really doesn't sound very much like her, I was almost immediately reminded of the great Iris Demont. I think it's because they both are so tied into where they came from. They don't just sing about their backgrounds, but sing with their feet planted firmly in the roots of the people and land that shaped them. As with Demont, part of that background for Lynne is her Christianity.

Under most circumstances the mixture of Christianity and country music is enough to make me run for the hills. However, Lynne is still an exception to the rule here as well. Maybe its simply because of the overall depth of her sincerity, but her expressions of faith remind you there can be something beautiful about the act of believing. She doesn't feel like she's claiming moral superiority, trying to convert you or threatening you with eternal damnation if you don't join her club. It's a part of her life that comes out in conversation now and then just as any other subject comes up. Since her songs are her conversations with the world it stands to reason the topic will be raised.

The title song of the disc, "Revelation Road", is an example of this. Typically one would expect a song with a title like this to be about being saved with a capital "S". However, the song is more about how we're all searching for something and how our own certainty keeps us from finding our way and hearing what's important. "Bible thumpers rest your fists/Haters rest your ire/You're both too young to know you're mute/Unconscious to the choir". In fact a number of the songs on the album reflect this theme of searching for a path. From relationships to dealing with the past, Lynne's song's are an honest examination of just how difficult it is to place your feet right.
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"I Want To Go Back" is a brilliant examination of how easy it is to fall into the role of being a victim and wallow in the pain of your past."Oh why does it feel so right to hurt so long/Is it just what I'm used to/Does my heart need these scars to keep me alive?" I don't think I've heard anyone sum up the irony of how easy it is to be comfortable with the emotional pain caused by abuse in the past because its what you're used to. When you've been conditioned by life and events to act or believe a certain way, the idea of change, even for the better, is terrifying.

Of course, dealing with these themes don't make Lynne's songs exactly cheerful. However, as she says to her audience on the Live At McCabe's disc something along the lines of, "Sorry about bringing you down, but you have to expect that from country music". Needless to say her tongue is planted firmly in her cheek, but at the same time she's giving fair warning that's she's not messing round singing about inconsequential stuff. While the nature of her material makes it obvious she wears her heart on her sleeve, both the CD and the DVD of her live performances really bring that home.

Maybe it's just the sight of her standing up on stage alone under the harsh glare of the stage lights on Live In London, the concert recorded at Union Chapel, that accentuates how little she hides from her audience. With the songs stripped back to their bare essentials of voice and single guitar her words and the way in which she expresses them become our only focus. Being petite, blonde and sort of waif like it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying she looks vulnerable, but that's not the case. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to stand up alone and sing the type of songs she does. Watching her perform live not only confirms the honesty of the emotions being expressed in her songs, it also reveals the inner core of iron necessary to write this type of material.

Rounding out the package is the short, about 11 minute, documentary on the making of Revelation Road. There are no interviews, no voice overs or any of the other things you'd normally associate with a "making of" type of thing, instead we're treated to something a lot more interesting. The camera simply follows Lynne around. From her office where she's working on song lyrics down to the studio where we see her laying down everything from lead vocals to the bass and harmony tracks. Be warned, the air turns a little blue when she struggles with the bass line, but that's all part of her reality and makes her that much more human. What's really nice is you have the feeling that the camera was just left running during the whole session and she forgot it was even there. Either that or she's so absorbed in what she's doing nothing is going to distract her.

If like me you're not very familiar with Lynne's work, than Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition will ensure you learn a great deal about both her and her music. If you're already a fan, and even if you own the original release, the two live recordings, the bonus tracks and the mini-documentary will still make it worth your while to buy a copy of this box set. The honesty and integrity of Lynne's material make her a rarity in the world of today's popular music no matter what genre people want to put her in. In her voice and her music you hear echoes of generations of mountain singers mixed in with lyrics about trying to get by in today's world. As far as I'm concerned that's what country should sound like, and Lynne has it down cold.

(Article first published as Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition on Blogcritics)

October 24, 2012

Music Review: Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - Songs Of William Blake


We hear a lot about Roots music and Americana now a days, but do we ever stop to ask ourselves whose roots people are talking about? Whenever I hear people talking about Americana music I can't help thinking of the movie Songcatcher. A music anthropology professor travels to the Tennessee hill country to record so called mountain music and discovers the people are singing the songs their Scottish and Irish ancestors brought over from the old country. This so called American folk music is transplanted songs of another culture sung with new accents. Of course there are other roots aside from the Anglo/Irish/Scotch in the music of the Appalachians. There were the Native Americans who were the area's original inhabitants and the African Americans who were brought in as slaves to work the land. While the former might not have contributed much directly to the music it was their land it took root in. The latter contributed the banjo, the instrument no self respecting roots music group can live without.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me that a woman of Native and African descent would put out a disc of music with lyrics taken from the poems of the 18th -19th century British poet William Blake set to the sounds of all three of the region's inhabitants. The Garden Of Love: Songs Of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project is one of those wonderful meetings of minds and culture that come along once in a while that literally take your breath away. On the surface it might sound like the most outlandish thing you've ever heard, setting the words of William Blake to the music of North America. However, there's a long tradition of adapting his words to music - the British hymn "Jerusalem", taken from the short poem "And did those feet in ancient time" from the preface to his epic Milton A Poem is the best known example. Of course history has shown us there's an equal precedent for adapting the work of the British Isles as American folk music.
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There was always a very strong spiritual streak to Blake's work and while it was firmly rooted in Christianity he expressed it in terms transcending the confines of doctrine. Instead of poetry worshipping his God directly, he wrote pieces of gratitude for what he saw as the gifts given humanity by its creator. The poems Redbone has elected to adapt praise the natural world around us, love and the gift of freedom. These themes are not only universal, but are ideally suited to the unique combination of musical traditions Redbone draws upon for this disc. There's a rawness and honesty of emotion in Blake's poetry that requires it be set to music capable of expressing their ideas in an as unaffected and straightforward a manner as possible. However, it also requires the music to be emotionally and spiritually honest and powerful.

I don't know about anyone else, but as far as I'm concerned I can't think of anything more emotionally and spiritually honest than either African American gospel music or traditional Native American music. Nor can I think of anything more unaffected and direct than old time mountain music. When you listen to what Redbone and co-composers Aaron Whitby and John McEuen have come up with to accompany Blake's poems on this disc I think you'll hear just how well these work together. There's a body and a depth to the music you don't normally feel with just straight ahead country as elements of both Native and African music are interwoven with it. The arrangements are such that in those songs where all three elements come together they sound like three part cultural harmony. While the European derived music might be in the forefront most of the time, without the other two strains you just know the tune wouldn't be the same.

To pull something like this off you need incredibly skilled musicians. Thankfully that's the case here as the people playing on this disc have the ability to play at level equal to the sublime nature of the lyrics. As well as composing, co-producing and arranging, McEuen also plays banjo, guitar, dobro, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp and lap dulcimer. Well that might seem like an album's worth of instruments he's not a one man band. There's also David Hoffner on keyboards, pump-organ, accordion, hammered dulcimer and tack piano, Mark Casstevens on guitar and harmonica; Byron House on upright bass, Debra Dobkin percussion and Keith Fluitt, Michael Inge, Ann Klein and Mary Wormworth on backing vocals. Rounding out the bill are special guests David Amarm flute, Lonnie Harrington Seminole chant and rattle on "A Dream" and Jonathan Spotttiswoode recites "Why Should I Care for the Men of Thames".

Save for "Men of Thames" Redbone handles the lead vocals on all the songs and also adds traditional chants and rattles as required. While the band is important, without somebody with as gifted a voice as Redbone the whole project would collapse. In the past she has shown herself capable of singing traditional native music, R&B and soul with grace and style. However, this sounds like the music she was born to sing. She seems to only need to open her mouth and start singing the words to this music to open a direct channel to her heart and soul. Every word and every note she sings not only rings true, she also imbues them with every ounce of passion she apparently possesses. Yet there's nothing melodramatic or overblown about her performance. She makes herself the perfect conduit for the words and music so we hear Blake through the filter of the music's soul without any unnecessary garnish.
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What that means is while the lyrics retain the original meanings given them by Blake, they also take on new meanings because of the music and the arrangements. When Redbone sings the final verse in "The Garden Of Love"; (the introduction from Blake's notebook for Songs and Ballads) "And I saw it was filled with graves/And tomb-stones where flowers should be:/And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds/And binding with briars, my joys & desires"; we hear Blake's condemnation of the clergy for taking the joy out of his religion and we hear how Christianity was used as a weapon against Native people.

Redbone is able to perform this type of delicate balancing act throughout the course of the whole recording. In some cases they are rendered as African American spirituals, "I Rose Up At The Dawn Of Day", while others, "Sleep Sleep Beauty Bright" are played in a way that captures what must have been Blake's original intent with the poem. It might seem an unusual combination this mixture of Native, African and European American cultures and the words of William Blake. However, together they create music that not only crosses cultural and racial barriers but can more honestly be referred to as Americana than most. The work of Blake as interpreted by Martha Redbone and the Martha Redbone Roots Project give proof to the words of another great British poet, "John Keats""A thing of beauty is a joy forever".

(Article first published as Music Review: Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - Songs Of William Blake on Blogcritics.)

October 19, 2012

Music Review: VulgarGard - King Of Crooks


The other night I watched the DVD of the movie Moulin Rouge! for the first time in about a decade. While I enjoyed the movie as much as I did the first time I watched it, one scene in particular stood out, a tango performed to the old Police tune "Roxanne". In particular I was fascinated by the actor singing, a man named Jacek Koman. Upon further investigation I discovered he was an expatriate Pole living in Australia working as an actor. Even more interesting was the discovery he's the lead singer of the band called VulgarGrad. After being blown away by a couple of videos of the band performing on YouTube I wanted to hear more.

While they don't have a physical CD available in North America, you can download it through iTunes or order a hard copy of King Of Crooks through Indie CDs.com (there's no direct link to the album, so you have to use the site's search engine to find the listing). They also have a seven inch single, in yellow vinyl called Limonchiki which can be ordered from the German label Off Label Records or downloaded through Bandcamp. This might seem like a lot of trouble to go to in order to get a recording by some obscure band from Australia. However, once you hear them, I'm sure you'll agree they're worth the effort.
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VulgarGrad play adaptations of music that springs from the Russian criminal culture, specifically the thieves songs (blatnye pesni) performed by, for, and about criminals in the prisons, gulags and seedy bars of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Drawing upon the work of performers dating back to the 1920s, including one of Stalin's favourite singers, and contemporary Russian groups who incorporate the blatnyak style and content into their music, VulgarGrad create songs firmly rooted in tradition but which are updated for audiences who don't speak Russian. While still sung in the original language, musically the songs have an appeal that makes their lyrics' vocabulary irrelevant. It is not only almost impossible to prevent yourself from dancing to their music, there is something about Koman's delivery of the lyrics and the band's playing that makes them irresistible.

Koman has one of those voices which definitely sound lived in. It scrapes over his vocal chords like a rasp, but instead of sounding harsh and abusive to the ear it catches our attention and holds us riveted. Not only does his voice have character he also has masterful control over inflection. It's amazing what he is able to suggest by the slightest change in intonation or emphasis. Drawing upon his training as an actor he creates characters appropriate for the songs. Thieves come in all shapes and sizes and Koman doesn't just sing about one, he sings for many of them. Watch him in the video below as he struts across the stage like a bantam rooster, and know the pride and cockiness of a thief who has just scored. Yet on other songs he is equally convincing when dealing with other, less boastful, subjects.

Of course there is something about the music that lends itself to sounding boastful. Maybe its the heavy syncopation of the beat or the way the melody swirls, but listening to it you can easily visualize two thieves trying to top each other with their outrageous stories. Anybody who has heard what most of us would refer to as Cossack music, the stuff which inspires dancers to perform incredibly high kicks from squatting positions, will know something of what I'm trying to describe. Imagine a mix of jewish Klezmar, Romany violin and Dixieland jazz performed to what sounds like a cross between a Tango and a slow Polka beat and you'll have a good idea of what they sound like.

While that may sound incredibly complicated in the hands of the musicians in VulgarGrad it sounds like second nature. Aside from Koman on vocals the band consists of Andrew Tanner (contrabass balalika), Renato VaCirca (drums), Ros Jones (trombone), Adam Pierzchalski (trumpet), Nara Demasson (guitar) and Phil McLeod (piano and accordion). According to their web site they've been together since late 2004, and are a sort of on again off again arrangement depending on member's availability and schedules. With Koman working in both Poland and Australia the band's rehearsal and performance schedule is obviously limited. However listening to their most recent effort, the single Limonchiki, this doesn't seem to have affected their quality. They still play with a type of reckless abandonment which can only be successfully carried off by the tightest of bands.
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Of course one can hear traditional Eastern European style folk music fairly easily these days. From Ukrainian folk dance troupes to any number of excellent Romany or Klezmar bands there are plenty of examples of this type of music being performed by groups based in North America. So why should you make the effort to check out some obscure band from Australia? One good reason is they're not slaves to tradition. Sure their music is steeped in the spirit of the thieves songs and the folk traditions they sprung from, but at the same time they add elements of jazz and pop music which give the songs an extra punch.

In most of these types of bands the horn section is primarily concerned with emphasizing the rhythm. Very rarely are you going to hear a trumpet or trombone solo in a traditional folk band. That's not the case here as both Jones and Pierzchalski take their turns playing leads. What's really impressive is how nothing they, or any member of the band for that matter, does sounds out of place. What could descend into a chaotic mashup in the hands of less proficient musicians achieves the perfect balance of sounding like anarchy while actually being tightly arranged. They not only play the music of society's outsiders, but they manage to imbibe it with outsider spirit by adding their own elements to a traditional sound.

VulgarGrad are not your typical folk group playing "ethnic" music. Their sources of inspiration aren't quaint costumes and homespun melodies. It's the sound of an empty shot glass of vodka being slammed on a table, whispered deals in a back room, prison doors locking and the raucous laughter of all night bars. Their music comes from a world of sly winks, knives in the back and whore house bands. It's down and dirty and some of the best fun you'll have listening to music. Just don't your back on it.

(Article first published as Music Review: VulgarGrad - King Of Crooks on Blogcritics)

October 12, 2012

Music Review: Terakaft - Kel Tamasheq


Where ever you find indigenous peoples you find they are known by the name their conquerors gave them. From North America where we refer to nations by the names we gave them instead of how they refer to themselves in their own language, to the Northern Sahara where the people are known by the name given them by the armies of Islam - rebel against Islam - Touareg. (The written language of these people was originally symbols which do not correspond directly with the letters of our alphabet. So they are written out in the various languages of those who have come into contact with them to sound correctly. So Touareg can be spelt Tuareg and Tamasheq can be spelt Tamashek.) That of course isn't the name they have for themselves, they call themselves Kel Tamasheq - those who speak Tamasheq.

So when the group Terakaft called their latest CD, Kel Tamasheq, released on the World Village label October 9 2012, you know they don't do it lightly. The title is a bold statement of self identification and the CD is an assertion of who they are as a people. With recent uprisings in Northern Mali being blamed on a force supposedly made up a combination of Tamasheq rebels and Islamic fundamentalists it's important the world is reminded who the Tamasheq really are and what they've been fighting for since the 1960s. As musicians like Terakaft and others have served as cultural historians for their people since the 1980s, they are the best prepared to act as cultural ambassadors to the rest of the world.
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They have assumed this role in the past, but upon reading the translations of the lyrics that come with this CD there's a sense of urgency absent on previous recordings. While earlier CDs have focused on extolling the virtues of the nomadic life or lamenting the loss of traditional territories, Kel Tamasheq talks specifically about the reasons their people have rebelled in the past. It's as if the band is asking the rest of the world compare what they felt was worth dying for in the past to what's happening in Northern Mali right now and to see the differences. While maybe they'll regret not pointing out the bleeding obvious, as in, hey what fundamentalist would have anything to do with a people Muslims still call rebels against Islam, taking the high ground by stressing their own positives rather than calling attention to another's negatives has always been a hall mark of Terakaft's material.

Thus the majority of the songs on the disc have lyrics which extoll one or more aspects of life among the Kel Tamasheq. However there are the occasional references to the nature of rebellion that seem to be questioning the validity of the recent uprisings in Northern Mali. In "Imad Halan" ("The Volunteers") the band sings, "I am stunned at your involvement/Which does not support those who work./If this is the revolution you want to provoke/I can see it coming from afar". While here they are expressing their shock that any of their people would be involved with an uprising involves outsiders which doesn't help their own people in "Bas Tela Takaraket" ("There Are No More Morals") they offer a more direct commentary on the revolt. "Our culture has escaped us/Those who were warriors before, armed with sabres/Those from whom we have inherited our ancestors/We continue in their path/We will not submit/Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy".

Here they are expressing their worry over the loss of their culture as demonstrated by people picking up weapons for the wrong reasons. Previous generations, those who fought to preserve the culture, are the ones that should be emulated. The last line, "Nor will we make an alliance with the enemy" serves notice they know the people supposedly fighting in the name of the Kel Tamasheq in Northern Mali are doing nothing of the sort. It goes against everything previous generations of warriors fought for to join with those whose goals don't include restoring the rights of their people. The title of the song suggests fighting for any other reason is wrong and is a sign people have forgotten key elements of their culture.

Of all the songs on the disc the title track, "Kel Tamasheq", is the one which exemplifies the band's attempts remind their own people to let the world know who they are. "Kel Tamasheq, you must know/It is the time to proclaim to the world/And to no longer be hidden/The one you love purely and sincerely/Whether it is in life or death/No matter the connection, separation will come/In this world or the next." The first three lines are fairly straight forward - it's time to stand up and let the world know we exist. However, the last four lines seem a bit of a puzzle at a first glance as they don't appear to have anything to do with opening. At first I thought there might be a problem with the translation (the lyrics are translated from Tamasheq into French and then French into English). Yet if you look at other songs on the disc you'll see how this type of abrupt change is common and a number are written in the same sort of elliptical and allegorical manner.
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Thinking about what little I know of the Kel Tamasheq culture and their oral traditions of story telling and what I also know about traditions in Islamic poetry, where personal expressions of love are used to express one's love of god or country, these lines make a little more sense. What I came up with was their love of their land and way of life will endure even unto death. One way or another this love will let them be distinguished from everyone else, even if it's only after they are dead. Unfortunately I'm not steeped enough in the legends of these people to be able to delve any deeper. But it does fit into what I know of their fierce love of independence and their long struggles to preserve their traditional way of life. We will be free, even if it's only after we die

One thing you will notice about the band's songs is how the lyrics are usually only one or two statements in length. These are sung to the accompaniment of music that is almost trance like in its nature. A hypnotic drum beat underscores everything and acoustic guitar and bass emphasize the rhythm over which they are sung/chanted. Electric guitar adds both another layer to the beat, as well as rising out of it for short bursts of lead work. These are like flashes of lightening cutting across a desert sky creating stark silhouettes making specific objects stand out from the rest of the landscape. While the guitar offers one kind of punctuation to the songs Naida and Yamina Nid El Mourid's background vocalizations bring the sound of the desert to life.

While some of their vocal harmonies to Liya Ag Abil's (guitar vocals), Sanou Ag Ahmen's (guitar, bass and vocials) and Abdalah Ag Ahmed's (guitar,bass and vocals) leads are what were used to, they also periodically interject the high pitched sound women traditionally make to send men off, or to welcome them home, from any type of trip and from battle. Raw and emotional, the sound seems to emit somewhere deep in their souls. and can make you break out in goose bumps. The overall result is an amazing combination of the traditional and modern. However, even the modern element of electric guitar is played in such a manner as to accent the traditional rhythms of the music as it accents the percussion.

Some of the members of Terakaft had first hand experience with fighting for the independence of their people before they put down their guns and picked up guitars to continue the fight in a different way. Their songs remind their own people about their culture and traditions and attempt to educate the world at large about them as well. It's a role that has recently taken on new importance as it's become vital to ensure Kel Tamasheq are not lumped in with those who are using their people's name in an attempt to give credibility to the recent armed rebellion in Northern Mali. By telling the world this is what we believe in and what we have fought for in the past Terakaft makes it very clear this was not a Kel Tamasheq rebellion. Let's just hope the world listens.

Article first published as Music Review: Terakaft - Kel Tamasheq on Blogcritics)

October 2, 2012

Music Review: Jason Collett - Reckon


There are some musicians who are, for lack of a better way of describing it, in your face. There's nothing subtle about them and you know immediately whether you're going to like them or not. Then there are those at the other end of the spectrum. They are so subtle that you barely notice them but for some reason you can't get them out of your mind. There's something about what they do with their music and lyrics that keeps pulling on your heart and mind and compelling you to listen to them over and over again.

The first time I listened to Jason Collett's new release Reckon on the Arts & Crafts label, it felt like it had come and gone like a puff of wind. Something that had briefly ruffled my hair without having any lasting impact. Yet, the second time I listened not only did every song sound familiar I found myself singing along with the choruses on about half of them. Music that had seemed to run together all of sudden had become a series of distinct tunes with intricate arrangements. During the first listen there might have been a couple of points where something grabbed my attention. However the next time through I was amazed to hear songs performed in a variety of genres with lyrics both intelligent and moving.
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While I don't know if this says more about my inability to listen than anything else, I do know that most of the time if a disc doesn't grab my attention the first time through I don't bother with it again. Yet that wasn't the case on this occasion. Collett had reached inside me, grabbed my attention and held on tight without me even noticing. One of the way he manages to do this is his voice. It's not what you'd call powerful nor does it have any really distinguishing characteristics that make it stand out. Yet its compelling all the same. Old time folk and country singers appealed to their audiences because their voices were familiar. It was like listening to somebody you knew singing. Collett has something similar going on. When he sings it doesn't sound like he's up on a stage singing down at you from a great distance. Instead it sounds like he could be sitting in the chair opposite you in your living room or on your back porch.

There's also something about his voice which makes it memorable and unique. While he has the same high, lost/lonely quality, as Neil Young, his voice is in a lower register and has more of a tonal range than Young. However, what you'll really notice is his voice has character. You can tell by listening to him that he's experienced almost everything the world can throw at somebody. You can hear, heck you can almost see, both what's scarred him and what's given him hope. While there are times when he gets angry and times when he can be biting in his satire, you can hear he's neither tired of the world nor does he believe he's seen everything it has to offer either.

Of course you also hear a lot of this reflected in the lyrics of his songs. Now some of the place names mentioned won't be familiar to those outside of Canada, but the circumstances his songs describe are universal. There's the young woman in the ironically titled "Miss Canada" who moved from her home in the Maritimes when the fish stocks disappeared in the hopes of finding work in the oil fields and tar sands of the West. You have to wonder what work she thought there'd be for a woman out there. "She takes off her dress/in a Fort MacMurray motel bedroom when the boys cash their cheques in the fields of Black Gold/Back home the cannery's closed and the fishing boats don't hardly fish no more/She came out West/hoping to make the best of it/It wasn't what she planned/but who can draw a line in the tar sands/money's a fast talking bird in the hand". Obviously this isn't a song about a beauty pageant contestant, but the young woman in the song is much more emblematic of life in Canada than anybody bearing the title of "Miss Canada" is liable to be.

To me the line "money's a fast talking bird in the hand" says far too much of what people are being forced to do in order to keep body and soul together. "Miss Canada" is the first of three songs in a row which are related to what politicians euphemistically refer to as an economic slowdown. It's easy for them to talk about the necessity of cutbacks and restraint, but they're not the ones who have to suffer for it. There's almost no pause between "Talk Radio" and "I Wanna Rob A Bank" which follow "Miss Canada". You have to wonder if the latter isn't the answer to the dilemma expressed by the person in the former.

I'm sure all of us have heard people call into radio shows and talk about their lives. Well "Talk Radio" is the voice of one of those people, somebody who's obviously at the end of their rope. "What is happening to me?/I have done all the right things/I'm a Christian, God fearing/ I work hard for my family/I have a gun and I believe in the values of the country/and my life is collapsing". Spaced over just a bit more then two minutes of music that's the song's lyrics in their entirety. Delivered slowly with only basic musical accompaniment it comes across as a cross between a lament and a whine. So it catches you by surprise when before the echoes of its last notes have even completely died away the crunching guitar and opening lyrics of the next song burst upon you.
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When after the first chorus of "I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank" finishes and we hear; "I think it's only right, what's left don't even put up a fight/Someone's got to save the day/even Jesus would say it's okay to wanna rob a bank/ don't you wanna rob a bank?/Just like Jesse James/but I don't want to rob no train/ I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank." It's possible Collett is referring to Jesus throwing the money lenders from the temple, but it's equally possible we're hearing our good Christian with the gun from the previous song finding a solution to his problems. If that's the case I have to wonder how that would make anarchist types who would normally support knocking over a bank feel? Is it only okay if those doing the knocking over are "politically correct"?

On the surface Collett is expressing the frustration we all feel at the government bailing out banks while poor people are losing their houses. However I think he's also reminding us that everybody, not just the Occupy Wallstreet people, are feeling the same things. Think about the guy who genuinely believed in God, country and the flag who is all of a sudden forced to confront the fact the latter two really don't give a rat's ass for him. He's going to be a lot more angry and disillusioned than any so-called anarchist. He's going to have even more cause to want to knock over a bank than anybody else. Collett does a good job of forcing us to put ourselves in his shoes and realize his pain is every bit as real as everybody else's.

That's what I meant about Collett's stuff being subtle. There's layers of meaning in almost every song and they pick away at you, forcing you to listen to them again and again to try and track the train of his thoughts. Of course there are also songs like "Don't Let The Truth Get To You" which don't mince any words. Lines like, "the fools on television not taking any sides/modern journalism is just little tongue tied" in response to their reporting verbatim what the politicians have to say about the state of the world make it obvious what he thinks of television news. That's the sort of thing that will grab your attention and stick with you, but there's even more waiting to be discovered beneath the surface. Musically the disc ranges from folk, to rock to pedal steel country, but that's almost incidental to what's going on in Collett's head.

There's a wealth of ideas to be found on Reckon expressed in a myriad of ways. However instead of having to wade through reams of rhetoric to appreciate them, you only need to sit back and let them wash over you as gently and inexhaustibly as the tide. Jason Collett proves that intelligent songs don't have to either complicated or hard work for their audience. As a bonus the CD release of Reckon comes with a second disc, Essential Cuts, a retrospective of the best songs from earlier releases. If you buy the LP version you'll be given a code which will allow you to download the bonus disc. Either way its a great package of music from an exciting and interesting musician.

Photo Credit: Photo of Jason Collett by Victor Tavares

(Article first published as Music Review: Jason Collett - Reckon on Blogcritics.)

September 18, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929


At one point the Turkish Ottoman Empire stretched from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and on into Northern Africa. While it had long ago lost its toe hold in Western Europe in Spain, the rest of the Empire lasted until the end of WW l. Allied with the Germans during that conflict they not only found themselves on the losing side in the war, great swathes of the territory they had previously occupied were lost during the war. By 1918 it had shrunk back to pretty much present day Turkey's boarders. Needless to say these defeats were the cause of fairly intense internal strife and political upheaval in the time following the war. As a result large numbers of Turks of all backgrounds; Christians, Muslims and Jews, sought refuge in other countries and a great many settled in the United States, specifically New York City.

There they joined the already sizeable group of ethnic Armenians who had fled persecution in the Empire. The rounding up and arresting of Armenians in Turkey has never been officially recognized by even present day Turkish governments, but it is thought close to a million ethnic Armenians died between 1915 and 1923 during mass forced marches from their homes in Turkey to Syria. However, a number managed to escape the roundups and immigrated to the United States. No matter what their ethnic background one thing all of these refugees had in common was their love for the culture and music of their homeland.
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In the liner notes to the triple CD set To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, now available as a digital download from the Tompkins Square Label, it's explained how during the period covered by the disc there was a great outpouring recording and performing of this music. While the onset of the depression brought an end to this, and countless other activities, the recordings made during these 13 years were by musicians of all stripes. From those whose careers had included being members of the court of the last Sultan to performers of Jewish, Greek and Armenian folk music.

Instead of dividing the three discs up by ethnicity the compilers of this collection have found a much more interesting and novel approach. Each of the discs contains music fitting a specific theme that the producers have identified as the three major reasons for the music's creation in the first place. So disc one is subtitled "Naughty Girl - Dances & Joys", the spirited music played by the refugee musicians in order to forget their troubles; disc two, "I Wish I Never Came: Nostalgia, Yearning & Pride" for the songs they played when they were missing what they left behind; and three "Notes From Home: US Releases For Ottoman Emigres", are songs taken from recordings made in the Ottoman Empire and imported to the United States.

As a result this compilation is able to give listeners an incredibly accurate view of the diversity of sound that was being made by the refugees in New York City during this period. For on each disc you'll find Islamic, Armenian, Greek and Jewish music rubbing shoulders with each other as they offer up their interpretations of the theme in question. Since many of the recordings were originally recorded at 78rpm, and some even are from wax cylinders made in the 19th century, their quality ranges all over the place. However there's something about being able to actually hear the needle moving over the surface of an LP that actually augments rather than detracts from the sound. For along with the slightly tinny quality, which isn't unique to these recordings but something I've noticed all songs remastered from this time period seem to have in common, the surface noises which come through help to set a mood of time and place.

Obviously most of us are going to know little or nothing about the types of music represented on these discs or the musicians playing the individual songs. Thankfully along with the three disc set you can also download a PDF of the original booklet that accompanied the hard copy. Not only does it provide the historical context necessary for the listener to understand its significance in the history of American music, almost every song is accompanied by a blurb giving the history of the performer and the song. Some of the many fascinating characters you'll be introduced to on this set include Abudul Hal Hilmi (born 1857 died April 1912) who is still considered one of the greats in Arab classical music. "Ya Binit, Ya Bidha" (pt.1) is half of a nine minute composition in which he improvised on a single line of text from an Arabic folk song.

As the recording was made in 1909 the quality is not very good. However, in spite of the muddy sound you can still tell there was something remarkable about this man and his vocal abilities. Contemporary descriptions of his performances have described him as transporting his audiences. Music historian Ahmad Al-Jundi is quoted in the booklet describing Hilmi's voice; "When he starts, with the first breath, he initiates in you a sense of a enchantment and ecstasy". Unfortunately he also made heavy use of drugs (hashish, opium and cocaine) and alcohol in order to access the feelings necessary to create that type of reaction among his audiences and died after an excessive night of partying. While he never recorded in America, this track was taken from a Lebanese recording imported into the US, there were others, equally fascinating characters, recording in the States.
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Garbis Bakirgian had been a court musician playing classical Turkish music for the Sultan in his native Constantinople (Istanbul). He travelled extensively throughout the empire and lived in Alexandria, Cairo and Jerusalem before moving to the States in the early 1920s at the urging of musician friends. When none of the major labels proved interested in recording Turkish music he founded his own label, Stamboul records, and released seven albums. While he may not have had the same sort of ecstatic impact on his listeners as Hilmi, his career lasted well into the the 1950s. He even recorded a session with Atlantic Records in 1948, founded by fellow Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun, but it was never released.

While I've mentioned two male vocalists the material covered on this three disc set is by no means limited to men or vocals. Unfortunately the instrumental pieces are the ones which are the least well preserved and the hardest to listen to. One of the reasons is the pitch the instruments were played in originally was very high and the distortion caused by the disintegration of quality over the years has not been kind. The result is a sound which might have been delicate when first recorded is now so high pitched as to be uncomfortable on the ears. However, there are enough pieces where the sound has survived relatively intact to give you a good indication of the talent of those involved in these recordings.

Aside from the music the last three tracks on disc three are recordings by Ian Nagoski the person primarily responsible for its existence. Not only did he compile the collection, he also did the research and the sound restoration. On these tracks he provides you with more details about the history of Ottoman music in America in general and elaborates on the background set out in the booklet. Think of them as being like the bonus features on a DVD - a sort of making of and behind the scenes look at the CD.

It's amazing to think there was this an entire subculture of music being recorded and played in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. While most of us were aware of the diversity of immigration to North America, I don't think I had any idea there was such a thriving community of Turkish immigrants. Depending on the timing of their arrival in the US a good many of them had left the country under duress because of the roundup, deportation and murder of Armenians that occurred during and after WW l. However it wasn't just Armenians who left the Ottoman Empire, and many were renowned musicians. So here in the new world it was as if they had turned back the clock to a time when Christians, Muslims and Jews were able to find common ground through music in the Ottoman Empire. These recordings provide listeners with a sampling of the music they all played and loved no matter what their background. While they may not be of the finest quality they still make for fascinating listening.

Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916 -1929 on Blogcritics)

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees


Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
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In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
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While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

September 12, 2012

Music Review: Mark Knopfler - Privateering


A couple of years ago when I man admired and respected was dying I was asked to prepare an article to be published when he died. Basically an obituary, but also an appreciation for a talented man who through fate, bad luck and his own demons never really received the recognition he deserved. While I was able to supply the nuts and bolts of his career and give my opinion I knew if I wanted to people notice I'd need to have a quote from a not only a familiar name but one whose opinion would carry some weight. While there was an obvious choice I didn't hold out much hope of hearing back from him as he didn't know me from a whole in the ground. However, to my delight and heartfelt appreciation, it was only about a week after I sent out the email request I heard back from Mark Knopfler.

He hadn't worked with Willy DeVille since the late 1980s when they had made the Miracle album, which included the theme song for the movie The Princess Bride, "Storybook Love", which had garnered DeVille an Academy Award nomination. Yet in spite of that he wrote a beautiful and gracious letter saying what he had appreciated about DeVille's singing and the pleasure he had making his minor contributions to the album (his words not mine). Listening to his new release, Privateering, on Universal Music September 11 2012, I'm reminded once again not only of Knopfler's talent, but the simple elegance of spirit that infuses both his music and everything about the man. It's not a thing you can point your finger at and say look there's an example, there's just something his music exudes which cocoons you with its warmth of heart. Like a magic cloak you can wrap around yourself to protect you from the privations of the world.
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This latest release, in its basic form, is a two disc set containing 20 tracks ranging from electric blues to traditional sounding folk from the British Isles all performed with his usual understated excellence. You also have a choice to buy the release as double LP; a deluxe set including an additional CD of rehearsals for his last tour packaged in hard back book format or you can go the whole hog and purchase a box set which includes the two CDs, the two LPs, an additional bonus CD of three songs, a documentary DVD called A Life In Song, a card with code allowing you to download a concert and a numbered art print. However, no matter which version of the release you choose to buy you can count on hearing superbly played music and a guitar which sings like no other.

In one of the books in his The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy the late British author Douglas Adams spent a couple of paragraphs rhapsodizing about the way Knopfler played his Fender Stratocaster. He called it the most beautiful sound in the known universe, even more beautiful than the sounds made by some sort of love dragons. In fact, Adams went on to say, if these love dragons happened to hear Knopfler play, they would just pack it in, weeping in frustration over their inability to match the quality of his playing. Now Adams was known for his hyperbole, and of course he was a science fiction writer, so its doubtful the love dragons in question really exist. However, his point about the sensuous beauty Knopfler is able to create with his Stratocaster wasn't exaggerated.

In his typical understated fashion though Knopfler flashes his talent only rarely. Unlike others who seem to feel the need to be constantly saying look at me, he is quite content with sharing the spotlight with those he plays with. Oh sure he'll take his solos, and be it slide, acoustic or electric guitar they are all things of beauty, but they're only one part of a song, not the song's reason for being. (Note: For some reason the order of songs on the download I received for review purposes seems to bear no relationship whatsoever to the order they appear on the actual release. So in order to avoid any potential confusion I'll only refer to tracks by name.)

Listen to a song like "After The Bean Stalk", a delta blues type ode to Jack's life after successfully pilfering from the giant in the sky three times, and you'll hear what I mean. Both Kim Wilson, harp (which I have to assume is harmonica since there's nobody credited with playing harmonica) and Tim O'Brien on mandolin, have their instruments featured far more prominently than anything Knopfler does on this song. You'll also notice as you listen to the disc how this track is emblematic of the release's theme of there's no easy ride in this life. There aren't any magic beans that will magically make your troubles all vanish: "Oh, Mama what's the matter now/Oh Mama what's the matter now/I'm still up in the morning to get behind the plough." Even after three trips up the bean stalk you still have to get up and work the fields if you want to eat.
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Even on a song which lends itself to uncorking a guitar lead, the rollicking honky tonk "I Used To Could", Knopfler holds back to allow his long time keyboard associate Guy Fletcher to share the spotlight with Wilson's harp on the solo breaks. At the same time though, both the piano and the harp make the most sense in this song about driving 18 wheelers. The harmonica catches both the loneliness of the road and, along with the piano, brings the rhythm of the wheels eating up miles of highway to life. This combination works perfectly with the lyrics. They not only manage to capture the difficulties of life as a long distance trucker but the appeal it can have to a certain type of person, all without sentimentalizing the experience or making the driver into some sort of hero: "GMC Cannonball going like a train/All down the 40 in the driving rain/All those horses underneath the hood/I don't do it no more but I used to could".

What I really appreciated about this disc is how easily Knopfler is able to cross the ocean musically from his adopted land of blues and country music back to his homeland's folk traditions. "You Two Crows" sees him swing back from the rainy highways of America to the rainswept moors of the British Isles. The uilleann pipes of Mike McGoldrick are enough to bring a shiver to anyone's spine, and they set the tone for this tale of a shepherd and his dog out in the rain contemplating life. Taking shelter from the rain and drinking from his flask he questions his career choice; "And once again I ask/What made you think/There'd be a living in sheep/Eat,work,eat,work and sleep." However, the two crows of the title, looking for carrion to eat, but most of all survivors, seem to give him the strength to continue; "And I raise my flask/To the clearing skies/To you sweepers/You carrion spies/To scavenge and survive/If you can do it so can I."

Its a beautiful and haunting sounding song, but like the other tracks its firmly rooted in reality. The farmer has chosen a hard life for himself and knows damn well he's going to have be as tough and ornery as any crow in order to survive. There's nothing romantic about this rainswept heath, no brooding heroes or beautiful heroines wandering looking for lost loves, only mud, dirt and the hard work of making a living from a herd of sheep. Yet, even here, in this tough and dirty song, you can feel the love Knopfler has for his subject. The respect he holds for the people who have to get their hands dirty, in one way or another, in order to get by. As he says in another song, "Corned Beef City"; "You don't ask questions/When there's nothing in the bank/Got to feed the kids/And put diesel in the tank." Sometimes people don't have much choice and they do what is necessary in order to survive.

Like the gentleman he is Knopfler doesn't judge any of the people he sings or writes about. There's not many people who can sing about the realities of having to make a living with compassion and understanding without pontificating. Not only does Knopfler avoid those traps, he doesn't make the mistake of romanticizing these people either. These aren't odes to the salt of the earth, these are songs about people. Of course these are songs, not essays on the plight of the working man, so they also sound wonderful and are played with the seemingly effortless skill of all Knopfler's creations. To make this combination work successfully it takes a person with equal amounts compassion, understanding of human nature and musical ability. Mark Knopfler is such a person.

Photo Credit: Artist photo by Fabio Lovino

(Article first published as Music Review: Mark Knopfler - Privateering on Blogcritics.)

September 1, 2012

DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax


In the early 1960s New York City, specifically the Greenwich Village neighbourhood, was host to what came to be known as the great folk music revival. The coffee houses and clubs in the area featured a variety of acoustic music and poetry readings for audiences made up of young, mainly university students. people looking for something more from popular culture than just a good time. It was an odd mixture of people playing traditional bluegrass, old time country, blues and topical protest music. While a great many of these new young performers looked to people like Woody Guthrie and other former musical activists as their inspiration, there were some who looked further afield.

The Friends Of Old Time Music (F.O.T.M.) was founded by three young musicians who took it upon themselves to search out and bring to New York City an older generation of blues, folk and bluegrass musicians and arrange to have them perform. It was after two of these concerts in 1961 that ethnomusicologist and field recorder Alan Lomax invited the performers and a collection of the current crop of younger folk musicians back to his apartment in the Village for an impromptu sing a long and get together. He also arranged to record and film the proceedings. Now, more then fifty years after the footage was shot the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive and Media Generation have edited and cleaned it up as much as possible for release as the DVD Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass. Currently available for sale via the Media Generation web site (the link above) it will start showing up in retail outlets on September 11 2012.
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The disc is divided into two parts, thirty-five minutes of footage from those two evenings they were able to salvage and interviews with one of the founders of F.O.T.M., John Cohen and the man who shot the footage, the late George Pickow. Needless to say the latter, shot in 2010, is a lot more polished than the original footage, but both are equally fascinating. For instance we find out from Pickow that the event wasn't as spontaneous as some might have been believed as the BBC had asked Lomax if he would be able to provide them with footage of American folk singers. He also mentions the fact Bob Dylan was in attendance one of the two evenings, but was under firm instructions from his management not to let himself be photographed, so he just sat in a corner listening and smoking pot.

The actual footage doesn't have a very promising start as the opening shots of Alan Lomax welcoming us to his apartment are overexposed and the audio is broken up with static. Thankfully once it moves into the actual performances it improves and the majority of it is in far better shape than you'd expect. Aside from a couple of places where you can tell those who re-mastered the sound had to do some doctoring, it's remarkable how clean it is. Cohen's bluegrass trio from the time, the New Lost City Ramblers, are the first group to appear, and its funny to see the trio crammed together in a corner of the apartment with audience members sitting on couches tapping their feet and nodding their heads in time to the music.

During his portion of the interview Cohen starts pointing out members of the audience, including a very young Maria Muldaur and others who have since gone on to make names for themselves in either music or one of the other arts. It gives us an indication as to how amazing a time it must have been for these young artists living in New York City. Judging by those gathered in Lomax's living room, not only were they surrounded by others their age of like mind and interest, they had ready access to older more experienced artists for inspiration and guidance. It's no wonder so many talented people had their start during this time.

Among those captured on tape were old time Appalachian folk singer Roscoe Holcomb who was the inspiration for the term high lonesome sound for his ability to sing in a near falsetto; Clarence Ashley, accompanied by his band which included a young Doc Watson in singing the classic "Coo-coo Bird" and Memphis Slim with Willie Dixon on pump organ and acoustic bass respectively. Aside from playing a couple of tunes each, all were also interviewed by Lomax and talked about the type of music they played. What's really interesting is how these three groups of musicians from such distinct backgrounds and playing different types of music, all talked about what they did in the same way. It was music which came from life experience and the heart no matter if it was country, bluegrass or blues.
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Of the younger generation immortalized on camera from those two nights, only one of them would be at all familiar to audiences today. Ramblin' Jack Elliot was still relatively young when he was filmed here singing Woody Guthrie's song about serving in the merchant marines. According to Pickow Elliot had taken it upon himself to learn as many of Guthrie's tunes as possible in order to ensure they would continue to be performed. At the time this recording was made, Guthrie was confined to the hospital bed where he would spend the rest of his life slowly dying. There's something rather poignant about seeing people already establishing his legacy before he's dead in anticipation of a day when he's gone.

Someone who is nowhere near as well known today as he was in the early 1960s is Peter LaFarge. Long before there was any really organized push for recognition of Native American rights, LaFarge was writing songs about their situation. A member of the Nargaset nation which was almost pushed to extinction by the end of 19th century he had been raised by members of the Tewa nation on the Hopi reservation in New Mexico. He worked as both a rodeo rider and singer until he broke his leg badly and had to give up riding. Here we see him singing his song "Ira Hayes", made famous by Johnny Cash. If his performance appears unusually theatrical that's not surprising, he studied acting and came to New York City as a cast member in a play.

His death in 1965 is still considered mysterious as it was officially put down to a pre-existing heart condition. but friends thought he may have committed suicide. Unlike others in the folk scene he never made any concessions to popular trends by toning down his politics or making his music more commercially accessible. However his influence can't be underestimated as it was because of him Cash recorded the album Bitter Tears, devoted to the status of Native Americans, and which included six songs by La Farge. The clip of him performing shows him at his uncompromising best. In his comments Cohen says at the time he thought La Farge was a little over the top, but he now realizes he was just ahead of his time.

While obviously neither the sound nor video quality of the performance part of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass are what we're used to, all things considered, they are better than we have any right to expect. However, far more significant is the opportunity this film represents. Not only is it a record of a time of unprecedented artistic growth and experimentation it also shows how, while this new generation may have been looking to the future, they built on the solid foundation of the music of previous generations. When that's coupled with the opportunity see and hear those who showed up at Alan Lomax's apartment it makes this an invaluable document. Of course, the music is great and it's a lot of fun to be a part of such an intimate gathering. No modern unplugged concert you've seen can match watching these great musicians hanging out in the casual atmosphere of Lomax's living room.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax on Blogcritics)

August 6, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: Various Performers - Johnny Cash We Walk The Line


I often have trouble with tribute concerts, concerts where a collection of performers gather to perform the music of one specific musician. It's been my experience people far too often get caught up in the event and the iconography of the person being honoured and forget about the reason they're honouring him or her - the music they created. The larger and more significant a figure it is being celebrated the larger the likelihood is of this happening. So it was with some trepidation that I started to watch the DVD of Johnny Cash: We Walk The Line - A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash, being released August 7 2012 by Legacy Recordings, as there's probably no bigger icon in American music than Johnny Cash.

Since Cash's death there have been a number of tribute albums released and any number of people have taken to covering his music. While there have been some amazing versions of his songs, everything from punk All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, one of the best, to hip hop, Johnny Cash Remixed, they've not been able to capture the entire essence of the man and his music and why it appealed to such a cross section of society. To be honest the only reason I even bothered to check out this latest effort was because I read that Don Was was musical director and had helped put together the lineup. I've been impressed with events similar to this one that Was has been involved with, so I thought it would be worth taking a chance on.
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The concert, which took place back in April 2012 in Austin Texas, was the kick off to this year's celebrations in honour of what would have been Cash's 80th birthday. Over the past couple of years Legacy Recordings, in conjunction with the Cash family, have been releasing collections of Cash recordings that have been laying around in vaults for years. As their contribution to the birthday proceedings, not only are they releasing this DVD/CD set, but the same day will also see the release of four CDs of Cash's music, each celebrating a different aspect of his musical character. The Greatest: The Number Ones, The Greatest: The Gospel Songs, The Greatest: Country Songs and The Greatest: Duets. Looking at the track listing for each of these CDs will give you a clue as to how it was always impossible to pigeon hole Cash - even when you divided his music up by genre or style.

The country songs were culled from a list of a hundred Cash had considered essential for his daughter to be aware of and include everything from "Long Black Veil" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to his version of "The Gambler" (which he released before Kenny Rogers). However, as far as I'm concerned it's the duets collection which is the most telling. Naturally it includes "Jackson" and "If I Were A Carpenter" which he and June Carter Cash were famous for singing together. Yet unlike what you'd expect from this type of compilation they're not all love songs performed with a female vocalist. In fact nine of the fourteen tracks feature him singing with another man - everyone from Bob Dylan, "Girl From The North Country", to George Jones, "I Got Stripes".

Which is why anything less than even an attempt to reflect the idiosyncratic nature of Cash's musical tastes and his appreciation for all types of music would have made this celebration of his music a failure. My worst fear was it would turn out to be a gathering of Nashville types twanging their way through his music and sucking the life out of it by covering them with rhinestones and cheap sentimentality. Seeing that both Willie Nelson and Kris Kristoffersson were among the performers was a relief and the fact the African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, were also in the line up was also a good sign. However, there were a number of names on the list I didn't recognize which still troubled me. However, I should have trusted my initial reaction to Was' involvement, because nearly each person involved went the extra distance to try and capture the essence of Cash's spirit.

Film actor Matthew McConaughey hosted the evening and wasn't too obvious about reading from the teleprompter - in fact as the night went on he loosened up more and more and was obviously starting to enjoy himself. (One of the special features is him doing a credible job of performing "The Man Comes Around"). Was and executive producer Keith Wortman compiled their ideal Cash set list and each of the invited performers were asked to select the Cash song they'd like to perform. In the special features Wortman says he and Was were pleasantly surprised when they compared their list with the list of requests submitted by the performers and the two were almost identical. Something that people are bound to wonder about, is how many of the songs are ones Cash didn't write. Yet it's only by variety of styles he recorded that one can really appreciate him as both an artist and a human being. How many people out there do you know that can perform both "Hurt" and "Why Me Lord" with equal sincerity and credibility.
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Which is why you need as diverse a group of performers who were gathered together in Huston that night to bring Cash's music to life properly. Highlights, at least for me, included "Get Rhythm", performed by pop singer Andy Grammer. He injected some much needed fun right from the start by doing hip-hop style vocals percussion and by so obviously enjoying himself. Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the "house" band (Don Was bass, Greg Leisz steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Arnoff drums and Ian McLagan keyboards) rocked the house with his version of "Hey Porter", Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Ol' 97s, tore the stage up with his version of, what else, "Wreck Of The Old '97", Ronnie Dunn brought out the trumpet section from a Mariachi Band for his version of "Ring Of Fire" and Lucinda Williams broke everyone's hearts with her rendition of "Hurt".

Nearly everyone of the twenty tracks on the disc are worth mentioning but there are a few more which stood out in particular. Putting the Carolina Chocolate Drops on stage was a beautiful move by the show's organizers, as it not only reminded people of the African American roots of so much of Cash's music, it also showcased one of the best string bands in America today. If their version of "Jackson", and leading the ensemble in a gospel style version of "I Walk The Line" to close the night, doesn't have people scrambling to buy their records there's no justice in the world. Yet for all the youthful exuberance on display it was still the two old guys, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, who stole the show. Maybe it's because they represented a tangible connection to Cash through so many years of associating the three of them together that made the heart swell listening to them perform, but it was also just great to see them on stage again.

Kristofferson first joined Jamey Johnson for a rendition of his "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and then he sang "Big River". Kristofferson's voice hasn't weathered the years that well, but for all its current limitations there's still something wonderful about listening to him growl his way through anything. On the other hand Nelson's voice seems to be becoming more and more velvety as he ages. First performing "If I Were A Carpenter" with Sheryl Crow, then "The Highwayman" with Shooter Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnson, and finally, as a special feature on the DVD but included on the CD, "I Still Miss Someone", he sounds even more effortless then ever. It's like he just opens his mouth and liquid gold rolls out as a balm to ease your wounded soul.

The special features include interviews with nearly everyone of those performing or involved with the concert. What struck was how many times somebody said a variation of "you'll find Johnny's music in the record collections of everyone from punks to middle of the road country fans". That one man had something that could appeal to such a huge cross section of the population says something about both his abilities as a musician and who he was as a human being. There's probably no one person in popular music today who can connect to that many people. Even finding the right mix of performers whose combined talents come close to matching what Cash was able to accomplish with his music is a nigh on impossible job. But on this night in Huston they came as close as I think anyone will ever come. No matter what your reason for liking Johnny Cash there's something in this collection for you. If anybody was looking to find a way to establish common ground between all the disparate elements in American society today the music of Johnny Cash would be a great foundation to build upon.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash [DVD+CD] on Blogcritics.)

May 23, 2012

Television Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live


String quartets come in many shapes and sizes but you can normally predict what they're going to perform. Beethoven, Mozart perhaps even some Bach or other composer from the recognized classical canon. While there have been exceptions to this rule in the past, the most obvious being the Kronos Quartet doing their rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze", even they have worked from carefully scored and arranged material. The idea of a string quartet coming together to create their own works is almost unheard of; for those creations to be the result of improvisation unthinkable. The idea is so improbable that it would require those involved to be uniquely talented and blessed with the immense good fortune of having hundreds of seemingly disparate ideas come together in the face of almost impossible odds.

Those of you who have listened to the CD The Goat Rodeo Sessions featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Stuart Duncan on violin/banjo/mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass and piano and Chris Thile on mandolin, guitar and violin will have already experienced the stars lining up in just the right manner to allow the improbable to occur. However it's one thing to do this in the safety of the recording studio where mistakes can be corrected though over dubs and the opportunity to do second and third takes, but it's another altogether performing the same music live. So pushing the envelope a little further they are taking their show live and thanks to the great folk at Public Broadcasting System (PBS) you'll be able to see them on Friday May 25 at 9:00pm (check local listings) in an hour long special The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live.

I don't think it will be spoiling anything for anyone by telling you watching them perform the music they created in the studio live makes you even more aware of their incredible accomplishment. Listening to the CD was awesome enough, but it's only seeing them perform most of these same pieces on stage that the enormity of their achievement is brought home. For now you see first hand not only the complexity of each person's part, but how incredibly difficult it must have been both creating and bringing them together to a make single entity. With Thile serving as de facto band leader/concert master/host the four opened the show with the piece I think epitomizes their efforts "Attaboy".
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This piece reflects the musical background of each performer and simultaneously shows the listeners both the difficulties they faced creating the music on the disc and the means they used to overcome those difficulties. Listening to it on CD one could hear how their diverse approaches to music blended to form something which was literally greater than the sum of its parts. However, watching them perform you are able to witness how they managed to accomplish this. The first thing you notice is the high level of communication going on silently in front of you. From the moment Thile counts them in to start the piece and sets the tempo on his mandolin there's never a moment when they aren't either listening or looking at each other for cues and, perhaps, encouragement. A nod here, eye contact there, and the tempo changes or somebody starts a solo or a solo ends and the rest join in. It's as fascinating an example of watching co-operative music in the making as you'll ever see.

As on the recording the four musicians are joined on stage occasionally by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. She and Thile serve up beautiful vocal harmonies with lyrics specifically created for the recording sessions. On stage, as on CD, their voices add another layer of texture to the sound being created by the four instruments. In some ways they are like a calm in the middle of a storm as they seem to allow everyone from the audience to the performers a pause in which to breath between the thunder and lighting of the instrumental pieces. For there is an intensity to what the quartet are creating and performing on stage that listening uninterrupted might have been too overwhelming. Those couple of moments of calming influence allow us to appreciate the instrumental sections all the more.

Aside from the excitement of being able to see these four men in action, there are two other great reasons for watching them on television this week. First is seeing them react to playing in front of an audience. There's always an exchange of energy between performer and audience in a live situation that changes the dynamic of the music is some manner or other. When the audience began to clap the tempo - and when was the last time you saw that happen during a concert by a string quartet? - you could see the band react in delighted surprise. I don't think they had expected or anticipated audience participation and it appeared to push them to even greater levels of exertion, if possible. Each piece from then on seemed to soar a little higher and strive to reach a little further.
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The second, and just as important reason for watching, is to see the expressions on their faces while they are performing. Normally watching a string quartet in action is an exercise is studied formality. Everyone seems to be playing as if there lives depended on them looking intensely serious. Brows are furrowed and faces locked in intense stares of concentration. Well I don't think I saw one furrowed brow, let alone a serious face, on stage during the entire hour of this quartet's performance. From Thile's almost impish grin as he bends over his mandolin (Is it just me or does he reming anyone else of a young Jude Law?), the sly smiles on Duncan and Meyer's faces to Ma's spontaneous grins of delight as he listens and plays, there's not a straight face among them. These guys are so absolutely delighted to be where they are at that specific moment in time you can't help but feel privileged to be part of this performance even as an audience member.

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile created something special when they recorded the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Now they are bringing that something special to life on PBS stations around America on Friday May 25 2012 at 9:00 pm. If you aren't able to see it that night, or your local PBS station ends up not carrying it, don't despair, its being released on DVD as of May 29 2012. Whichever way you end up watching, believe me, this is an experience no music lover will want to miss.

(Article first published as TV Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live on Blogcritics)

May 16, 2012

Music Review: Kiya Heartwood - Bold Swimmer


I don't know about anyone else but I've always resented people telling me I should listen to, or even worse like, a certain performer because of who they are or what they sing about. Just because somebody agrees with me politically has no bearing on their abilities as a musician or the quality of the songs they write. Some of the worst tripe I've ever heard being passed off as music has issued from some of these so-called important singer-songwriters. Giving someone a good review just because of their politics, gender or skin colour is as biased and unethical as giving them a bad review for the same reason.

I might take things like the conditions under which a recording was made into account when reviewing a disc, but making what a person is more important than what they can do is not somewhere I'm ever going to go. In the 1980s and 1990s I knew people who would tell me it was my duty to like certain, more often than not women, performers because it was a way of showing solidarity with the people you supported politically. There were a couple of them who I actually liked, Ferron and Holly Near are still names I remember fondly (That doesn't mean either of these women are dead or stopped performing, just means I've not heard anything they've done recently). The rest of them were all so busy competing for the "more earnest than thou" prize they forgot that music should be an expression of the soul first and foremost and everything else is secondary. Your content can be as politically progressive as Che, but if you don't sound like you're putting your heart into it, who cares.

Six years ago I reviewed a disc by the folk duo Wishing Chair and was impressed by both their musical abilities and songwriting skills. So when somebody contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in reviewing a solo recording by one of the two women in the group I said yes. It turns out Kiya Heartwood is just as good a solo performer as she is when working as a duo. Her new release, Bold Swimmer, is a great collection of material that ranges stylistically from rocking blues to what I'd call country, but most would probably call folk.
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In spite of the success of people like Bonnie Raitt there's still a lot of macho bullshit attached to the playing of electric blues and rock and roll. I'd long ago become sick and tired of guitar players obviously in serious need of therapy regarding issues of inadequacy, and never bought into the "chicks are only good for two types of banging - tambourines and me" that still seems to predominate rock and roll. Unfortunately that attitude is so ingrained that even today the majority of woman performers in the mainstream of music aren't going to be laying down hot guitar leads while fronting a band. All of which means releases like this one aren't going to get the attention they deserve. If it were only the consumers who were losing out I'd just say your loss suckers, but unfortunately it also means Heartwood, and probably countless other women performers, aren't receiving the attention they deserve.

One of the first things you'll notice about this disc that distinguishes it from most other recordings of this kind is there aren't any songs about a lover treating the singer badly on it. I don't know what it is about blues based rock that people think they have to write about being cheated on all the time. If I never hear another he/she broke my heart tune it will be too soon. Can it be so hard for people to think of anything else to sing about? There's eleven tracks on Bold Swimmer and not one of them qualifies as a he/she done me wrong song. Even the love song on this disc, "I Love You" is just a nice and simple tune speaking directly to the subject of why the singer loves her partner without undue sentimentality or any of the histrionics one normally associates with love songs by both male and female singers.

I don't know if "Cross The Line" is quite what others would call a love song, as its a raunchy blues number singing the praises of going that one step further than PG relationships normally go, but it and the song right after it,"Take Me", are the only other songs on the disc that come close to qualifying. The other thing separating these two tracks from the type of love song you normally hear from women singers is there's not a single note of pleading with some guy for acceptance. No promises to love somebody faults and all, or any, of the other conciliatory statements women are expected to make in order to obtain true love in popular culture.
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While these tracks are good, and in fact there's not really a weak number on the disc, two tracks that really stood out were "Change (is gonna come)" and "Lights Of Austin". In the case of the former the lyrics were the primary attraction while in the latter it was the overall sound that captured my attention. Too many political songs are nothing more than self-righteous rants by people feeling guilty for making a killing in record sales and box office receipts. It's rare to hear someone take the time and effort to analyze their own reactions to events in the world.

In "Change" Heartwood sings about how anger and frustration aren't the answer and are self defeating if we want change. Sure there are lots of reasons to be angry, and she lists quite a few of them, but in the long run we only hurt ourselves and those who need our help with anger. Real change can only be accomplished with hope for something better. This doesn't mean we should just sit back and hope things get better, but we need to find a way to effect change without anger being our motivating force. It's a powerful message that needs to be heard more often, one that offers an antidote to the rhetoric of hate you usually hear from political types of all stripes in this day and age.

"Lights Of Austin" shows Heartwood is more than just your typical folk rock performer. Musically it might fall into that catch all category of "Americana" or "roots", but those labels don't seem to do justice to the song's emotional depth. With it's simple acoustic guitar introduction gradually being embellished by the other instruments, she sings about the importance of following your dreams, whatever they maybe, as far as possible. It's a topic that's ripe for being turned into sentimental tripe, but Heartwood avoids any of the musical and lyrical cliches that you'd normally find in this type of material. There are no swelling strings or crescendoes of any sort, just a good simple song about living a life which generates stories that can be told long into the future.

Heartwood's singing voice is ideally suited for the type of material she's chosen to create. Its roughness suits both the bolder rock and roll/blues numbers and the slower country/folk tunes. With the former there's the power needed to sound convincing without having to strain and sound like she's working too hard while with the latter it gives the material the extra little edge of authenticity required to make them credible. Combine this with her abilities as a songwriter and composer you have an album of music that is more than a just a cut above what you'd normally hear these days from a solo female performer. You have something that's good no matter who wrote or performed it.

Don't listen to this disc because its something you feel like you should do, like pretending you enjoy eating something because its good for you, listen to it because its a damn good album. Pleasures don't always have to make you feel guilty, and just because something's good for you doesn't necessarily mean it tastes bad. Kiya Heartwood's latest recording is proof positive that you can be nourished by music and enjoy it too.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kiya Heartwood - Bold Swimmer on Blogcritics.)

May 11, 2012

Music Review: The Georgia Sea Island Singers -Join The Band


When the Europeans started importing African slaves to the new world in North America they took plenty of measures to ensure they remained passive. They made sure to split up families as much as possible, separate tribal members so slaves wouldn't have a common language and did their best to deny them the use of anything that could be used as a drum. With the latter they hoped to cut them off from any vestiges of culture, including religion, they might have retained from their previous existences in Africa. By taking away all traces of identity, familial, tribal and cultural, they hoped to weaken any resolve they might have had for rebellion. As a final step they proceeded to convert them to Christianity in the hopes its promise of good behaviour being rewarded in the afterlife would keep them docile and compliant.

The one thing their new masters couldn't take away from them though was their voices. Over the years the slaves developed their own culture centred around vocal music. The majority of music that evolved in this period fell into one of two categories - work songs that were sung in the fields and gospel music. The former usually consisted of words and music whose rhythms would mark out a pace to accompany their work or served as instruction on how to carry out the job at hand. As the slaves were kept illiterate by their masters they had to develop oral traditions in order to communicate. So both the hymns and the field songs served the dual purpose of educating and entertaining.

While this pattern was repeated pretty much throughout the slave owning areas of North America and the Caribbean, in some of the more isolated communities unique cultures arose. While all the vocal music retained elements of the slave's African heritage, in some areas, mainly where there was less contact with European society, more of the original culture was retained. The Georgia Sea Islands are a string of costal islands off the Atlantic coast of the United States which stretch from South Carolina down to Florida. While the islands are today home to high end resorts, plantations used to dot these islands. The slaves who toiled there were isolated from both whites and Africans and developed their own distinct culture built around the Gullah language, a kind of mixture of Spanish, English and African dialects.

The Georgia Sea Island Singers was formed in the early 1900s by freed slaves and their descendants in an effort to preserve and educate people about their culture. However they might not have received the attention and renown they have obtained if folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax hadn't taken an interest in them in the 1930s. They have since gone on to perform for presidents of the United States, other world leaders and some of the best known concert stages in the world. Even though Lomax "discovered" the group in the 1930s he didn't make his first field recording of them until 1959-60. Its these recordings that are the basis for a new release from Global Jukebox and Mississippi Records, Join The Band.
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One of the first things you'll notice is how the songs are almost completely a cappella save for the occasional accompaniment provided by fife, guitar and banjo. While most of the songs on this recording are sung in English musically you'll notice quite a difference between them and what most of us associate with African American gospel. Like their ancestors were forced to do, they use vocal harmonies in lieu of drums on a number of tunes to mark the beat. It's wonderful to hear how these voices are incorporated into the songs to suggest drums. You can tell they're voices and they don't do anything as obvious as sounding out a beat, but still manage to sound like a rhythm track.

The fife provides a high whistling counterpoint to the earthy quality of the lead vocals on the songs its utilized. On the first tune I heard it, the third track of the disc "Oh Day", it caught me completely by surprise as the song opened with just the fife. After two bars the fife is joined first by handclaps, then the vocals and finally a guitar keeping the beat. Throughout the song the fife continues to repeat the same sequence of notes over and over again until it to becomes a part of the tune's overall complex rhythm. The more you listen to the tune, the more you realize the complexity of its arrangement. There are three vocal lines not only singing different lyrics but doing so with their own unique beats while the hand claps, the guitar and the fife are providing three different layers of accompaniment.
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This seems to be a hallmark of The Georgia Sea Island Singers. On the surface their material appears to be simple choral arrangements but upon closer listening you hear more than was initially perceived. Listen to a song like track six, "Adam In The Garden", and at first you're paying attention to the male voice doing the lead vocals. But pretty soon you find yourself almost literally sinking into the tune. It's as if you become more aware of what's going on the more listen. From the foot stomps marking out the basic beat, the complex hand claps and the various vocal lines each one takes on a life of its own that pulls you in. In some of ways these songs are the sum of their parts and more than the sum of their parts at the same time. It sounds a weird thing to say, but once you hear how each part is a distinct entity on its own and then how it fits in with the other components in the tune you'll understand.

While occasionally voices are out of balance, as if one group of singers was standing too close to the microphone, on the whole the sound is surprisingly clear. Considering this was a field recording made originally in 1959-60 it's remarkable how so many elements can be heard in each song no matter how softly something is being played. Combined with the remarkable music created by the members of the choir, this recording becomes more than just another historical record. Its a wonderful collection of music from one of the more distinct cultures in North America and a great introduction to a group who is still going strong today. The Georgia Sea Island Singers are not just a link to history, they are a living breathing example of a distinct culture.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Georgia Sea Island Singers - Join The Band on Blogcritics.)

April 25, 2012

Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - The Funhouse


With the advent of computers and the accompanying ability to exchange ideas and material over long distances almost instantaneously, popular musicians in North America have had the opportunity to experience a far greater selection of musical influences then prior generations. While the music industry's inherent conservatism has ensured the mainstream hasn't been overly affected, there has been a definite increase in the number of independent musicians looking further afield than their own backyard for inspiration. The best of these groups don't just copy what they hear but find a way to meld their new influences with the music they grew up with to create something unique.

With their latest release, The Funhouse on the United For Opportunity label, Caravan Of Thieves gives listeners a great example of this trend in action. First of all there's the band's complement of players. Instead of the standard mixture of bass, guitars, keyboards and drums Caravan Of Thieves are composed of a core of violin, acoustic bass and acoustic guitar. On this album they've broadened their sound to include, quoting from the notes on their web site, the kitchen sink and then some. Banjos, ukuleles, resonator guitars and various things that can be banged percussively are the main ingredients in the stew of instruments used, but there are also many unrecognizable and unattributable sounds and noises to be heard throughout the disc. Without a hard copy of the CD attributing each and every squeak and squawk it's impossible to identify all of them, but to be honest the mystery does add to the albums cachet.

As you can tell by the title of the disc they've built the disc around the central theme of a travelling carnival complete with Funhouse, fortune tellers, rigged games and mysterious dark corners where unexplainable things happen. While the Funhouse of the title and the carnival atmosphere created by the music can be taken literally, they also exist on another level as well. For the world you are ushered into with the opening track, "The Funhouse Entrance", bears many similarities to what's around us everyday save the perspective has been slightly skewed, as if you're looking at it through one of those funhouse mirrors which distorts reality. However instead of taking reality and twisting it out of shape beyond the point of recognition, they merely change the lens we view events through. The result is a chance to see things from a perspective we don't normally have the opportunity to experience.
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Check out "Monster", their fun and tongue in cheek take on love songs dealing with the way love can effect somebody. "On the slab down in the basement/in the laboratory/there's a new subject under the covers/I recall the days before the transformation/before the amputation of my heart....Love made a monster out of me!" Using the whole Frankenstein story as an analogy to describe an obsessive lover is brilliant. Not only does it poke fun at all the broken hearts to be found in most pop music love songs, it's great to hear anybody singing about so-called romantic love in less than glowing terms and in such a macabre manner. Sort of like receiving a Valentine with black borders accompanied by a dozen dead black roses.

Of course just to let you know the difference between the world of the Funhouse and the real world they leave you with a warning to close out the disc. "The Funhouse Exit" makes sure you're prepared and know where the real monsters lurk. "Don't put your feet on the outside dear/There are monsters and goblins and politicians everywhere/...overcrowded schools with education overseen by ghouls/". The list of dangers lurking around corners in the real world goes on to include "doctor's with hatchets" and "Bankers and other vultures" all out to take pieces out of you when and however they can. A real horror story if I've ever heard one!

Musically Caravan Of Thieves has cast a wide net when it comes to their sources of inspiration. One would think because of the composition of the band they would have taken the easy way out of leaning heavily on Romany influences. While there is no doubt they do owe a debt to the Eastern European branch of that musical tradition, you can't help but notice they owe just as much to the music halls and cabarets of pre WWll Europe. In fact quite a number of their pieces on this recording put me in mind of Kurt Weill and the music he wrote for Bertol Brecht's plays in pre Nazi Germany. Slightly wilder and with perhaps less of a polka influence than Weill's compositions, but the same brash and brassy attitude which challenged audiences and forced them to pay attention to what was being said and done on stage.
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However, they don't deny their own musical heritage either. For underneath a great deal of the wild and wooly playing the music almost constantly swings along to a beat reminiscent of 1920s and 1930s jazz. On this disc you can hear influences from the Dixieland stylings of New Orleans to the dance bands of Harlem from those eras. What's really quite amazing though is while this sounds like an incredible hodgepodge of styles and traditions to cram within one recording, an almost sure recipe for chaos, the result is a delight to listen to. Caravan Of Thieves has managed to blend everything together to make a vibrant and exciting sound with twice the energy and intensity of any rock and roll band.

Musically inventive, lyrics full of sly humour and gentle cynicism and all served up on a platter garnished to reflect the dark mysteries of a travelling carnival make this one of the more entertaining listens I've had in a while. It's not often you find a band whose sense of humour and intelligence are matched by both their musical talents and an ability to put spurs to their listener's imaginations. You not only listen to their lyrics and appreciate their music, but you find yourself visualizing the atmosphere they create. When you put this record on be prepared, you sure won't be in Kansas anymore.

(band photo by Michael Wientrob)
(Article first published as Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - The Funhouse on Blogcritics.)

April 23, 2012

Music Review: Yva Las Vegas - I Was Born In A Place Of Sunshine And The Smell Of Mangos


Seattle is famous for being the birthplace of Starbucks, the town that produced Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and popularized grunge as a rock genre. Being famous as the home of corporate coffee might be something a lot of people would want to live down, but being able to lay claim to Cobain and Nirvana as native sons has assured Seattle its place in rock and roll history. Nothing, not even the embarrassment of Courtney Love, can diminish the fact the town gave birth to the first significant American post punk rock and roll band. However Nirvana and grunge haven't been the only musical exports the city has given to the rest of the world, just the ones they're most famous for.

Born in Venezuela in 1963, now Brooklyn based, Yva Las Vegass spent years in Seattle's music scene. While she does have a Nirvana connection, she and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic briefly formed Sweet 75 in the mid 90s, from the sounds of it not many will have heard of her till now. While she's never stopped making and creating music, homelessness, drugs and being an unapologetic gay woman of colour have all contributed to her flying under most people's radar. While the media likes safe dykes like Ellen, and if they're feeling daring Melissa Ethbridge, Vegass would go over as well as Huey Newton at a Klan rally with most of them. She just can't be sold to middle America no matter how you cut it. According to documentary filmmaker Wiley Underdown who made The Life And Times of Yva Las Vegass: Giving Success the Middle Finger she also had the problem of being "a pretty good representation of the inherently self-destructive type", a great artist but not somebody who can function in everyday life.
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I can't speak to the state of Vegass' personal life or temperament, but judging by her most recent release on Moniker Records, I Was Born In A Place Of Sunshine And The Smell Of Ripe Mangos, March 13 2012, she not only has passion to burn, but she's as talented and uncompromising a musician as I've ever heard. Of the nine tracks on the disc only two of them have English language titles and lyrics and they're called "Crack Whore" and "Pussy In Your Eye". She's completely unapologetic for the fact the rest of the disc is in Spanish. In her press comments she says in twenty-first century America everybody should at least have conversational Spanish. While some might find that statement off putting, those who do aren't going to be exactly in her demographic anyway.

Being a Canadian I don't have any skill in Spanish, so unfortunately I can't speak to the content of the majority of the songs. However if they're anything like the two English language tracks they're going to challenge listeners' beliefs about everything from civil rights to sexual politics. What can you expect from a release where the performer introduces herself prior to the first song as a "Mother Fucker"? "Crack Whore" tackles the issue of racism head on and will hopefully leave any white hipster who listens to it feeling incredibly uncomfortable. In it Vegass asks why is it when white friends ask her to go buy crack for them she's the one who ends up being called the crack whore? They're so cool because they use drugs, but when they want any they are too scared of the "types" of people who sell them to buy the stuff themselves.
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While she delivers part of this song talking over her guitar exclaiming her bitterness at the death of the civil rights movement, when she does sing it's in surprisingly sweet, almost wistful, sounding voice considering the lyrical content. One would expect, and understand, a song about such an emotionally charged subject to contain a lot of anger. However, while Vegass does allow anger to show through periodically, her ability to modulate the emotional tone of the song is what makes it powerful. After a while the constant drone of anger becomes just so much noise to be blocked out. By changing it up, by showing the hurt and disappointment racism can cause as well as the anger, she keeps our attention. The range of emotions makes the song far more real to us and offers a glimpse of the true nature of the wounds caused by racism.

It was this type of subtlety that impressed me most about the recording. Being an experienced street performer myself I know the types of things you have to do in order to get people to pay attention to you. First of all volume is key when you're competing against traffic noise and occasionally that means sacrificing nuances in tone and touch. While there are still times when Vegass' tends to declaim instead of sing, she still displays far more versatility with her voice than most solo acts. You don't have to be able to speak the language to understand the overall emotional content of most of her songs. Some people might wear their hearts on their sleeves, she wears it on her voice and it makes for captivating listening.

Musically Vegass' guitar playing borders on belonging to what I call the "strum und drang" school. Hard strumming that sounds impressive to start with but eventually becomes monotonous. However, she has skill to burn when it comes to her guitar. She might play fast and loud but her ability to mix various Latin styles with her rather straight ahead punk approach keeps the music fresh. She also knows when to dial it back so that she gives herself room to build instead of playing at a fever pitch all the time. Sure there are a couple of songs that start pretty close to over the top but she carefully works breaks into them making sure they aren't a complete assault upon your senses.

Yva Las Vegass is never going to be the darling of the liberal collage student set because she's too real. She wears the scars from her battles with the world proudly and doesn't really care if people can't cope with them. She's not about "empowering" her audience by singing about issues and playing to their middle class guilt. She sings about life from a perspective that very few of us have had to experience and does so with honesty, integrity and passion. Perhaps she would be more successful if she was willing to compromise by singing more songs in English or singing about subjects less likely to offend people, but that's not who she is. Genuine artists are few and far between in the music industry these days and we should be grateful there's at least one or two still out there who won't back down from what they believe in. Forget "Viva Las Vegas", it should be Viva Yva Las Vegass.

April 22, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933


The history of North America over the past hundred to two hundred years is split into two distinct stories. The history of white people and the history of people of colour, mainly African Americans. Originally white people came to these shores as conquerors and African Americans came as slaves and well into the twentieth century each had their own version of American history, While whites had the American dream which promised them if they worked hard they would be a success and create a good life for themselves and their family. It wasn't until the last quarter of the twentieth century that African Americans even began dreaming of being treated as equals under the law in America, let alone having a comfortable life.

So in the the 1930s when ex-banker turned ethnomusicologist John Lomax talked about preserving the distinct African American culture that had grown up out of segregation he wasn't being racist, he was just making an observation based on current societal conditions. He also knew there was little chance this culture would survive even the least amount of integration. If he wanted any chance of making an undiluted record of its music he'd have to go places where segregation was strictly enforced. As the prison populations were strictly segregated and the inmates were living in conditions similar to those they would have experienced as slaves, he thought prisons represented the best opportunities to record African American music in as pure a form as possible.
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Judging by the collection of recordings being released under the title Jail House Bound - John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 by Global Jukebox and West Virginia University Press, his assumption was correct. Using the primitive portable recording equipment available at the time Lomax went from prison to prison in the South making recordings of the songs the African American prisoners used to sing while doing forced labour. In these songs you'll hear the influences of everything from the tribal drums of their home lands, gospel, blues and the field songs slaves once used to help pass the time while picking their master's crops.

It was during these recording sessions that Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbeter, more commonly known as Leadbelly, the man who wrote folk/blues staples "Good Night Irene", "The Rock Island Line" and "I Got Stripes". While Leadbelly doesn't appear on any of these recordings, nor is any of the material as polished as his work, you hear the roots of his songs in almost every track. Which of course was the point of these recordings after all. While titles like "The Midnight Special", "John Henry" and "Grey Goose" have long since become popular, most of the material is no where near as widely known. There are some titles which might sound like they should be familiar, "Long Gone", "That's Alright Honey" and "Alabama Bound", but they sound little or nothing like the songs which bear the same or similar names today.

For while quite a number of the songs included in this collection had previously been recorded as popular tunes or went on to become popular, what you hear on this record are versions that wouldn't have been heard outside of the African American community. There are work songs where we can still hear the cadences and rhythms that were used to help coordinate the efforts of men working together. "Steel Laying Holler" used to be sung by men unloading heavy steel rails from flat cars and "Track Lining Song" was used to help in the lining or straightening out of railroad track.
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Than there are songs like "Black Betty", which some prisoners claimed referred to a whip used to punish them while others said it was the name given to the prison transfer truck, and "My Yellow Gal", a song about a mixed blood lover, whose lyrical content was specific to the people singing it. What white singer in the 1930s is going to sing about the beauty of their mixed race lover or how would anybody at that time who hasn't been in jail know who Black Betty was? Most listening to the latter wouldn't have idea it wasn't about some women who treated men badly.

Naturally the sound quality isn't going to be what most are used to, but all things considered its of a higher quality than I expected. Some of the tracks are pretty scratchy and in places there is some distortion, but I was honestly surprised at how good a job Lomax was able to do with the equipment at his disposal. It does say in the accompanying booklet he wasn't satisfied with some of his results and would occasionally make return visits to redo a recording if he thought he'd have a chance improving on the original. Obviously those who have put this compilation together have sifted through who knows how many recordings and picked the best ones possible. However, they're still on par with other field recordings I've heard that were made decades later using far more sophisticated equipment.

The thing is though, the roughness of the sound adds an air of authenticity to the recordings. It would be hard to believe they had been collected in prison farms in the 1930s if they were pristine. Anyway, the rawness of the end result seems somehow suited to the material recorded. The people singing weren't necessarily trained vocalists or even musicians. They were inmates in prisons who had more enthusiasm and passion than skill. These were the songs they sang working on the chain gangs, picking crops and in the prison chapels for each other's and their own comfort. Hearing them flaws and all makes both their music and their situation come alive. You really have the sense of being transported back in time and given the chance to observe a unique moment in history.
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In an interview recorded with John Lomax that's included in this collection he talks about his intent behind making these recordings. While it's hard not to be put off by his use of vernacular common to that era for referring to the subjects of his recordings the very fact he went to the time and effort to make them is what you need to remember. Most white people at that time wouldn't have considered anything African Americans, especially those in jail, produced worthy of their notice, let alone worth recording for posterity. In his own way Lomax was also recognizing how America was divided along racial lines and how that resulted in a distinct culture for each race.

These recordings are fascinating listening because not only is the music great to listen to but because they give us a glimpse into another era. The idea that African Americans might have had their own distinct culture in the 1930s would not have been something most of white America would have been willing to recognize. The music on these discs not only shows how strong and vital that culture was, but makes it obvious how much that culture influenced, and continues to influence, American popular culture.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 on Blogcritics)

April 17, 2012

Music Review: Eamon McGrath - Young Canadians


Being old enough to remember when David Bowie released the song "Young Americans", it was the title of Eamon McGrath's new release, Young Canadians, on White Whale Records which attracted my attention. Probably a stupid reason for wanting to hear a CD, especially as it was pretty obvious from the press release about the disc McGrath's music would have nothing in common with mid 1970s Bowie. However I've purchased or chosen to listen to something for stupider reasons and not had any regrets, and I could only hope this would be the case on this occasion.

Thankfully McGrath's work is not something anybody should regret listening to. For those wishing to have it classified or categorized for them, I'd guess most would say his work falls into the folk/punk genre. I'm not even sure what that means myself, but since he mixes acoustic and electric instruments and his songs range between the quiet introspection one expects from folk and the anarchic abandon of punk it would seem to fit. However I'd hazard a guess that he didn't sit down and say, "Hmm I think I'll create an album of folk punk music". I've the feeling that if it were musically appropriate to the content and context of a song he wouldn't hesitate at incorporating a funk groove or twelve bar blues. The sense I have from listening to this one album is he wouldn't limit himself or his material through arbitrary boundaries. The needs of a song would far outweigh the need to fit into an easily defined niche.

Maybe it was the title of the disc which triggered this thought, but after listening to the disc I couldn't help but remember something I had happened across years ago regarding the arts in Canada. The quote implied they were heavily influenced by the long winters so much of the country experiences and the stark landscapes which dominate its wild spaces. While that might sound like a tempting theory, the reality is the majority of artists in Canada live in urban centres far removed from the wild and its only in the far north the winters can last for what seems like ever. However, there is a quality to McGrath's work both musically and thematically that suggests both the raw energy and stark beauty of Canada's wilderness and the introspection associated with the long nights of winter.
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That's not to say his music is either depressing or bleak. Personally I don't find anything depressing or bleak about winter or the wild anyway, but I realize some would automatically make that association. Try and imagine a vista of evergreen forests brushed with snow climbing the side of a sun washed mountain and the awe it inspires. For while the songs on this album may not be safe and civilized like most pop music, they also have a far greater chance of having a lasting impact on you in much the same way the rough beauty of nature in winter will impress itself upon you far longer then a field of corn or other tame image. Like both winter and real unspoiled nature there's something a little intimidating about McGrath's work, but that's part of what makes al of them so compelling.

The disc's opening track, "Eternal Adolescence", starts off with a brief, piercing whistle of guitar feedback. It cuts out abruptly to be replaced by an acoustic guitar carefully picking out a tune and its soon joined by McGrath intoning the song's opening lyrics. While rock and roll songs in the past might have declared "I hope I die before I get old", McGrath looks at the trade off you make for the eternal adolescence of rock and roll. How do you fit a life into the lifestyle of constant touring and late nights? You can have "Eternal adolescence" but "the schoolyard is insane". What happens if you meet someone, the eternal adolescence wars with the desire for the companion and "rock and roll won't ever be the same". The lyrics are deceptively simple, the final minute of the song sees him simply repeating "rock and roll won't ever be the same" until the music ends. However, it's not hard to get the message of how the stereotyped rock and roll lifestyle doesn't really mix well with adulthood. The underlying conflict described in the lyrics is emphasized by the way the music switches back and forth throughout between distortion and gentle guitar. It creates the uncomfortable feeling of someone being pulled in two directions at once,
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Even more conventionally sounding rock songs like "Instrument Of My Release", track two on the disc, have their disconcerting moments. In this case lyrics like "I saw your picture in a magazine/how'd you end up with a man like me?/someday I'm going to trade my black holes for memory/an instrument of my release/an instrument of my release", aren't what you'd call typical for a song about regrets. Normally these songs are either full of self pity and recriminations designed to elicit pity for the person singing instead of those who have suffered through their behaviour. Not in this case, as you're left wondering what kind of stupidity did this guy indulge in that resulted in black holes instead of memories. Even the line "How'd you end up with a man like me?" which has all sorts of potential for self pity is delivered in such a way the listener wonders what somebody would have to do to another person in order to ask such a question.

Vocally McGrath is never going to win any awards for having dulcet tones or smooth as silk harmonies. Than again that type of voice wouldn't work with the music he's playing. Ironically there are probably any number of rock singers who would sell their souls to sound like him. Ever since Dylan popularized rough textured vocals as being a kind of voice of the people, singers have been trying way too hard to sound "authentic". Of course if you have to try sounding authentic it sorts of defeats the purpose, but nobody seems to have quite understood that yet. McGrath doesn't have the greatest range but he more than compensates for any technical deficiencies in his vocals with his intensity and the effortlessness of his delivery. Like other great vocalists he doesn't sound "emotional". Instead his voice simply gives life to his song's lyrics through his ability to communicate the meaning behind each word. Not just the dictionary definition either, but what they mean in the context of the song and to him personally.

As for the title song, "Young Canadians", well I'll leave you to decide what you think of it, but I was right in thinking it was nothing like Bowie's "Young Americans". In fact, while you really can't make a rock and roll album any more without sounding like something that's gone before, McGrath has created something that uses those familiar elements in ways that make them sound new again. He's taken all the best elements of rock and roll, country and folk and grafted his unique vision of the world onto the framework. The resulting album doesn't make for easy listening as it challenges the listener both musically and lyrically and forces them to pay close attention to each song. It won't be to everyone's taste, but if you're like me and want something more from your music than just escapist entertainment, its the album for you.

(Article first published as Music Review: Eamon McGrath - Young Canadians on Blogcritics)

April 13, 2012

Music Review: Zdob Si Zdub - Basta Mafia


Why is it everybody is always so surprised when other cultures aside from our own evolve and change to suit the times. It's like we want them to stay stuck in the past playing their interesting "folk music" and dressing up in their "traditional" costumes for our entertainment. Unfortunately that music and those costumes, if they ever really existed outside of some romantic vision offered up by people outside of the culture, have very little to do with the realities of life in the 21st century. There's nothing wrong with honouring the traditions of the past, but any culture that can't continue to evolve runs the risk of stagnating and losing its power to speak to its own people.

For many years the image of the Eastern European musician playing a fiddle or a balalaika and wearing colourfully embroidered clothing has lingered. Who knows where this image came from initially and whether or not it had any validity. Even if it did to assume a people whose population is spread over thousands of square miles would play the same types of music let alone dress the same is not just unrealistic but insulting. Cultural stereotypes are dangerous because they allow people to think of those in question as somehow less then or different from normal. It then becomes easy to discriminate against them, because they aren't like us.

The fall of the iron curtain was supposed to usher a new era of freedom and hope for all of Europe and parts of Asia. What nobody seemed to count on was the fact that millions of people were going to have to be absorbed into an economic system that was already feeling the strain of supporting its own people. It's quite frankly a miracle the economic meltdown we're witnessing in Europe took this long to happen. During times like these there are always those who, usually at the point of a gun and by knowing which wheels to grease, manage to accumulate a great deal of wealth and power at the expense of others. This has been the situation all across Eastern Europe and Asia where power vacuums were formed with the fall of governments.

So expecting a new generation of Eastern European musicians to be content with putting on cute cultural displays after what they've lived through is ridiculous. I don't know about you, but I'd expect to hear something that reflected what's going on in their lives. Which is exactly what you get from the new release from Moldavian basedZdob Si Zdub's. new release, Basta Mafia on the great German Asphalt Tango label as an import in North America February 14 2012. Its a brilliant piece of work combining biting political commentary and messages of hope for a better world played over a wonderful melange of styles as the band employs everything from folk to punk, and almost everything in between, to get their message across. Yet for all the variety, and the lack of cohesion that it might imply, each song is connected to the rest by the elements they all have in common.

It's hard to put your finger on what those might be initially, but it gradually becomes clear that although one song contains elements of hip hop and another grunge, they all have the same point of origin. The brass section which emphasizes the beat and the fiddle scrawling out the melody beneath the guitar on some tunes are indications of the group's background; not because they're the only people who use those instruments but because of the way they are employed and the sounds they make. Listening to the band you hear elements representing the myriad of musical influences their region has experienced over the generations. There's the fiddle music that speaks the defiance and freedom characteristic of Romany music, traces of the Flamenco guitars of Spain, belly dance rhythms of Northern India and the brass bands of Istanbul.
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Of course no one's going to confuse Zdob Si Zdub with the "ethnic bands" of Hollywood movies. Not with songs like the title track "Basta Mafia" with its lament of the freedoms promised by the fall of the Iron Curtain being hijacked by Free Market gangsters. "And the west wind feels so cold/ because they've put freedom on hold" or "Many people gave their life/ for the values aimed so high/but some still love guns, it's easier to win/it's easier to move in the gangster's skin" aren't exactly the kind of lyrics one expects to hear sung from the steps of your typical peasant's cottage.
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It's important to remember the members of Zdob Si Zdub probably grew up not only with the turmoil of the end of communism, but being from Moldavia, once a province in the Soviet Union, some sort of civil unrest if not civil war in the period directly after the collapse of governments throughout Eastern Europe. So their lyrics are tinged by the violence they've seen and contain some of the bitterness you'd expect from seeing dreams of freedom soured. However, the real surprise is to find they haven't given up hope and still sing about what could be possible. It's really kind of humbling to hear people who have been through what they have singing lyrics like, "and I'll say it again and again/it's more than a dream/we are free/you can never put it away".

As you might have gathered a good many of the songs on this disc's lyrics are in English. In an attempt to make this disc more accessible to Western audiences they have worked with an English language composer, Andy Schuman, to make sure their lyrics were translated properly. There are still a couple of songs in Russian, but with the majority in English Western audiences will have no problem enjoying and appreciating this amazing band. Musically they're as exciting and as intense as as any band you'll hear in the so called alternative scene in North America and lyrically far more insightful and intelligent than any of the so called "politically active" bands you'll hear anywhere.

If you've missed real alternate music or are just looking for something different from what you hear all the time on the radio and other sources of music, Zdob Si Zdub will be a pleasent surprise and a welcome relief. A great band for their times and great music for all time, they have a truly unique sound and a perspective on the world that's a lesson for all of us.
(Article first published as Music Review: Zdob Si Zdub - Basta Mafia on Blogcritics.)

April 10, 2012

Music Review: Kayhan Halhor & Ali Bahrami Fard - I Will Not Stand Alone


For most of us in the West classical music calls up visions of men in tuxedoes and women in long gowns playing highly formalized and rigidly controlled music. This is the last type of music we'd ever associate with any sort of improvisation with the musicians there to serve the wishes of the composer as interpreted by the conductor. Unless they're a soloist of very high standing they have little or no say in how the music sounds and what it expresses.

So it might come as a bit of shock to find out that the traditions surrounding classical music in other cultures actually encourage improvisation. For, while in countries like India there are certain formal patterns of structure adhered to, within the form there is plenty of room for the musician to interpret the music. As the performances of music is considered a personal spiritual journey, a means of expressing a connection to the gods, it can't help but change from individual to individual. India is not unique in having this kind of musical tradition, and considering the cross-pollination of culture between the two countries down through history, it's not surprising to find a similar tradition has existed in Iran since the twelfth century.

Persian classical music, like many others where there was originally nothing committed to paper, involves a long and involved training period for anybody wishing to perform it. First of all a student has to memorize a canonic repertoire known as radif (literally translated as order) comprised of over 200 model pieces of music known as gushehs. These gushehs are grouped together as progressions of modally related pieces into twelve distinct dastgah (systems). Once a musician has memorized not only all the gushehs individually and collectively in their respective dastgah, they are ready to begin creating. Unlike the West where we have specific pieces of music to perform, the radif is not something that is actually performed as an individual piece of music, but serves as the starting point for creative improvisation.

Of course listening to music the theory behind it usually flies out the window as you get swept up in the sounds and emotions being generated by the artist in question. Such is the case with I Will Not Stand Alone the latest release from Kayhan Kalhor on World Village Music in February 2012. The recording features Kalhor playing a variation on the traditional Middle Eastern four stringed bowed instrument, the kamancheh, called a shah kaman accompanied by Ali Bahrami Fard on a hammered dulcimer type instrument known as a bass santor. If you had any thoughts that the conditions described above for the creation and playing of music were restrictive they will be quickly dispelled as you listen to what these two men are able to generate between them.
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Looking at a picture of a kamancheh - the shah kaman has a slightly deeper tone then the original - you'll be amazed at the quality of sound Kalhor is able to create with what looks like a very simple instrument. With only four strings and a resonating chamber made out of a gourd covered by an animal skin you'd think its sound would be limited or at least thin. I don't know whether its the virtuosity of the player or a matter of appearances being deceiving, but on this recording it seems to have the ability to sound like most of the bowed four stringed instruments in an orchestra. From the heart stopping emotional clarity of a violin, the rich texture of the cello to the mid tones of the viola Kalhor not only covers almost the entire musical scale as we know it but its emotional equivalent as well.

Serving as a combination percussion and bass Fard's bass santor not only offers a rich counterpoint and underpinning to Kalhor's playing, he adds the additional element of being able to emphasize the rhythm through his use of the hammers required to play his instrument. Any expectations we might have as to its limitations based on our experiences of bass instruments in other compositions are quickly dispelled. For Fard does far more than merely play a simple bass line instead he plays a melodic accompaniment in the lower register that is every bit as involved as Kalhor's lead instrument.
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In the liner notes accompanying the recording Kalhor describes the eight pieces of music as having their origins during a period of unrest in Iran. He's unclear as to whether he's talking about the revolution which saw the overthrow of the Shah back in the 1970s or the more recent period of turbulence and its unsuccessful attempt to push for reforms. Whenever the period was, he describes it as one of the most difficult periods in his life, "where darkness and violence seemed to be taking over". Out of this period came the realization that music has the capability to open what he refers to as doors of hope and he made the choice to play his music for the people for this reason. The actual playing and recording of the music was a way for him to break out of the isolation he felt because of the unrest and connect with those around him - hence the title I Will Not Stand Alone

Listening to the music after reading these notes one can't help but be struck how well it captures the journey he took from darkness to light. The titles of individual pieces aren't what you'd call an accurate indication of their musical content, you'd think tunes called "The Laziest Summer Afternoon" or "Dancing Under The Walnut Tree" would be light hearted and carefree when the former sounds nothing at all like any idle summer day I've ever had and the latter bears no relation to dancing. Perhaps something was lost in their translation from the original Farsi, but I think he's commenting on the sense of disconnect he must have felt witnessing scenes of violence and trouble on beautiful summer days. Idyllic conditions have no bearing on how humans behave. It can be a beautiful day and people can still commit atrocities as easily as if there were a horrible storm taking place. The distance between the meaning conveyed by the title of the song and the story the music tells us captures that horrible irony better than anything I've heard before.

Everyone of these pieces has an emotional depth that far outstrips most music we're used to hearing, whether popular or classical. Kalhor has taken the basic skill set required to play Persian classical music and has built a collection of pieces that explore both the depths the human spirit can sink to and the heights it can ascend. You many have trouble believing this is the work of only two men playing given the multitude of sounds, tones and emotions they are able to express, but it is only Kalhor and Fard and their two instruments on each track. If you've never experienced non-European classical music this recording will be an eye opener for you. It will dispel any doubts you ever had of music's ability to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries. The gulf between the Iranian and Western governments is huge these days. Listening to recordings like this one help to remind us the divide between the people of our respective cultures is far smaller than some would like us to think.

(Article first published as Music Review: Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard - I Will Not Stand Alone on Blogcritics)

April 9, 2012

Music Review: The Unthanks - Diversions Vol.1 The Songs Of Robert Wyatt & Antony & The Johnsons


There are some artists who make an indelible impression on you from the first moment you see and or hear them perform. The first time I heard and saw and heard Antony of Antony and the Johnsons was his performance of "If It Be Your Will" on a DVD recording of a tribute concert for Leonard Cohen. Not knowing what to expect, when he opened his mouth and began singing and that amazing voice issued forth, my heart almost stopped. I've heard other male tenors and contra tenors before, but none of them with the ability to put so much of themselves into their singing. Listening to his recordings with Antony & The Johnsons, and various other recordings he's made accompanying other performers since has only served to convince me of his genius. Yet how well would his material translate when performed by someone else? Would his songs be as captivating without the unique qualities of his voice giving them emotional depth?

Well a new release by the British folk group The Unthanks, named for lead singers and sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, being released in North America on Rough Trade America February 7 2012 seemed like a great opportunity to see how Antony's music held up in the hands of others. To be honest I had never heard of The Unthanks and only had a vague sort of awareness of the other song writer featured, Robert Wyatt. It turns out Wyatt is the former lead singer of the British 1960s group Soft Machine who, after a nasty fall left him paralysed from the waist down, went onto develop a career as a singer songwriter in Europe and the United Kingdom.

As for The Unthanks they are another in the long line of British folk groups whose roots are firmly embedded into that island nation's musical history. Unlike folk music here in North America with its topical/political associations, in the United Kingdom the genre is far more literally representative of the "folk" of the country's various regions. In the case of the Unthanks that's Northumberland, best known for its wide open moors, bloody past and having once been an industrial heartland. Not having heard any of their music prior to this recording, I don't have any means of comparing this new recording with their other work. However, judging by their history they've not shied away from tackling material most would consider outside folk music's traditional purview. No matter how progressive they are I'm sure there aren't many others in the genre who've covered everything from King Crimson to Tom Waits.
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So this foray into covering other's music isn't something new for the band. What is unusual is they had done a series of live concerts dedicated to performing the works of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons. The tracks on this CD are taken from two concerts they gave at the Union Chapel in London England on December 8 and 9 2010. Diversions Vol 1 opens with five tracks taken from the Antony & the Johnsons' release I Am A Bird Now plus one song, "Paddy's Gone", from the single "You Are My Sister". The second half of the concert, and the CD, are nine of Robert Wyatt's songs taken from five of his solo releases. At the actual concerts the audience was given an intermission between the two sets and you might just want to hit pause for a few seconds after the last Antony & the Johnsons' tune to give yourself time to prepare for the change in atmosphere that occurs with the change in material.

What is most impressive about this CD is the remarkable way in which the Unthanks are able to capture the almost ethereal quality of Antony & the Johnsons' music and convey the emotional intensity behind his highly personal material. Antony's songs are akin to paintings in the way they present a variety of self-portraits of the artist. Exploring themes such as sexual identity, "For Today I Am A Boy", "Bird Gerhl" and "You Are My Sister" all deal with that subject with remarkable candour and sweetness, it makes it extremely difficult for someone other than the writer to perform them with the honesty required for them to touch a listener in the same way as the original.

While both Rachel and Becky Unthank have strong singing voices with impressive ranges, they very wisely don't attempt to match Antony's unique style. Unaffected and pure, with a raw sweetness of their own, what their voices might lack when it comes to the ethereal quality that gives Antony's work its emotional integrity, is more than made up for by their obvious honesty. Like great actors who allow themselves to become conduits for a writer's words, the Unthank sisters have done their best to let the lyrics speak for themselves. Where others may have tried too hard, and in the process spoiled the purity of the song's emotions, they have let the material guide their performances instead of forcing their own interpretations upon it.
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However no matter how good a job they do with Antony's material, it's the songs by Robert Wyatt that allow them to show the qualities that had one of their recent albums voted onto two of Britain's more reputable newspapers' lists of the previous decades' best recordings. Hints of this quality, musical ability mixed with a certain homespun warmth, had shown up in their chatter in between the songs in the first part of the show with the comments the sisters made to each other and the audience. Wyatt's material, rooted as it is in the same folk traditions from which the sisters spring, is more of a natural fit for them not only musically but culturally. This isn't to say they are lacking in musical sophistication, because the arrangements by the band's producer and keyboard player Adrian McNally aren't simplistic by any means, but it feels like they have far more of a natural affinity for work based on more traditional folk stylings.

Wyatt's songs seemed to liberate the band more and the second half of the CD was far more exuberant, especially a rousing rendition of "Dondestan" that sounded like it included some of the clog dancing the sisters had promised their audience earlier on in the show. Of course not all of the tunes were "dance" numbers. "Free Will And Testament" for example was equally as introspective as anything done in the first half of the show, but regardless of its tempo The Unthanks seemed a little bit more relaxed and open playing this music. In fact the last time I had heard a concert with this unique a mixture of musical professionalism and "down home" atmosphere was watching Kate and Anna McGarrigle perform.

Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs Of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons will not only give those who appreciate the music of the artists being covered a chance to hear evocative and thoughtful interpretations of their work, it offers listeners an indication of t The Unthanks versatility. The fact they are equally capable of performing the work of two such different artists with almost equal comfort and ability is astounding. For those like me who had never heard them before, it makes for a remarkable introduction to their music and whets your appetite for more. That it was recorded live in front of an audience makes it even more impressive and left me hoping they'll consider touring on this side of the Atlantic ocean some time in the near future.

(Photo Credit: Pip April)
(Article first published as Music Review: The Unthanks - Diversions Vol 1: The Songs Of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons on Blogcritics.)

November 25, 2011

Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones

Once in a while a pop musician comes around who makes little or no impact on the public but earns the respect and admiration of their peers. In most cases these are individuals in possession of an exceptional talent who have ended up outside the public eye of their own volition. Usually it's because they have no desire to play the game required for commercial success. Either they've been badly burned by the industry and want to have nothing to do with it anymore or they've decided their independence is more valuable to them than success.

In the late 1970s Willie Nile was on the verge of international stardom. The industry was dubbing him the next "big thing". After Springstien he was going to be the next Bob Dylan, the voice of a new generation and all the expectations that went with the designation. It wasn't just hype either as fellow musicians quickly recognized he was something special. Pete Townshead specifically requested Nile as the Who's opening act for their 1980 North American tour while more recently Lucinda Williams has said if there was any justice in the world she'd be opening for Nile not the other way around.

Instead of cashing in on his accolades in the 1980s, Nile chose to walk away to preserve his independence. Going almost a decade without a record contract, but never stopping writing and performing, he put out two releases in the early 1990s and then nothing else again until 2000. It was another six years before he released Streets Of New York, which was then followed by three live recordings in quick succession in 2007, Live In Central Park and 2008, Live at the Turning Point and Live From The Streets Of New York (also on DVD). This was followed by 2009's House Of A Thousand Guitars on his own River House Records label.
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It's obvious having his own record label has agreed with Nile as he's now released his third new studio disc in the past five years. The Innocent Ones made its way into stores in North America on November 22 2011 after enjoying a successful release in Europe in 2010. The eleven cuts on the disc are Nile's usual mix of power pop anthems, thoughtful ballads and rock and roll for the sheer fun of it. There aren't many popular artists these days who are capable of doing a credible job of any one of those types of material let alone all three. Yet Nile seems to have no difficulty in switching gears from one mode to the other and performing each with equal ability.

With the exception of "Sideways Beautiful", which he wrote on his own, all the songs on the disc were co-written by Nile and his long time musical cohort Frankie Lee. The two men have a knack for creating songs deceptively simple musically and lyrically. You don't need to be needlessly complicated to write an intelligent song. Far too many people these days seem to feel that their music won't be taken "seriously" unless they clutter it up with convoluted lyrics that a cryptographer would have trouble deciphering or complicated tunes which nobody really has any fun listening to. If you have something to say doesn't it make more sense that people understand what you're talking about and enjoy listening to you say it? Lee and Nile are not only masters at writing intelligent lyrics that speak directly to their listeners, they've not forgotten that rock and roll is supposed to be fun. Who decided that the only way pop music could be taken seriously was by sucking all the life out of it anyway? Thankfully Lee and Nile weren't listening to whoever made that decision.

When was the last time you listened to a CD and found the music so infectious that you caught yourself singing along with the chorus of a song the first time you heard it? How many times has a song's lyrics caught your attention so vividly you were able to pay attention to what they were saying without making any effort? Not only are the tracks "The Innocent Ones", "Song For You" and "Rich And Broken" from this disc capable of doing this, they do so without you feeling like you've been manipulated. Too often songs rely on cleaver "hooks", catchy arrangements or melodies, and cheap sentimentality to capture our attention. That's not the case with any of the songs mentioned above, or the rest of the material on the disc either for that matter.
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Aside from the fact they are well written and intelligent, what makes them so compelling is Nile's abilities as a performer. By no stretch of the imagination would you say he has a beautiful voice, but it has the rough hewn honesty so many strive to emulate but which can't be faked. Whether he's excited, happy, sad or just having a good time, as listeners we can always tell because his voice doesn't lie. The compassion in his voice when he sings, "For every heart that's broken in two/I'm speaking your name, I'm lighting a flame/ I'm singing a song for you" during "Song For You" is so genuine that you can't help believing him. He isn't just singing these words, he lives them, and if he could he'd find a way to comfort the lost people of the world he would.

He's not just compassionate either. In "Rich And Broken", he not only sings about the wasted lives of young starlets like Lindsey Lohan and the other party girls with genuine regret, he accepts the fact that our society, our craving for celebrity, has to accept some responsibility for what's happened to them. "She's oh so rich and broken/There's part of her that's yet to be awoken/She's rich and broken...and she's mine"..."With first name recognition/She's a walking fashion fiction getting high/Bye Bye Bye". Not only does he mourn the lost potential all these people represent and how our cult of celebrity has taken away their identities by reducing them to a meaningless name, the three words "and she's mine" are him accepting his share of the blame for being part of a society that thinks celebrity worship is normal.

Willie Nile is that rarest of musicians, a true independent. He's turned his back on record contracts twice because of the compromises involved working with studios and forged his own path for the last two decades. The result is pure unadulterated rock and roll music and lyrics sung from the heart with more genuine emotion in one song than most people can squeeze out of themselves over the course of a career. Like the bards of old, Nile seems to have found a way to tap into the human condition and create songs that are both topical and timeless. He finds universal themes and imbues them with his own unique blend of compassion and intelligence in the hope that he might make a difference. So when he sings "So if you get knocked down you gotta' take a stand/For all the outcast, dead last who need a helping hand" on the song "One Guitar" he gives you hope that maybe if people do raise their voices together they can make a difference. It's at least worth trying anyway don't you think?.
(Photo Credit: Christina Arrigoni)
(Article first published as Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones on Blogcritics)

November 23, 2011

Music Review: Folk Uke - Reincarnation

Being the children of famous people can have it's advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side is the automatic recognition that comes with sharing a well known name. On the downside there's having to live up to everyone's expectations of what the name signifies. On top of that there's also having to deal with those who will whisper about people only making it because of their relations. So, in the end while having a famous name might get your foot in the door, you're going to end up having to work almost twice as hard as the next person in order to gain the respect you deserve for your efforts.

For a lot of people the temptation might be to run as far away from their family name as possible in order to prove they can make it on their own. However, there shouldn't be any reason for them to have to do that. If you have talent it will show through no matter who you are or who you perform with. When Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie released their first disc as Folk Uke a few years ago they not only proved they could stand on their own two feet as song writers and performers, they also made no secret of their family ties. Let's be real, Willie Nelson's and Arlo Guthrie's daughters aren't going to be able hide from the world who they're related to, so they might as well own up to it. So both dads appeared on the first record in support roles.
Cover Reincarnation by Folk Uke.jpg
While the first CD was fun to listen to the duo relied more on their sense of humour and intelligence than their musical abilities to impress listeners. There were only a couple of moments which hinted at the true nature of their talents. Songs like "Shit Makes the Flowers Grow" and "Motherfucker", seemed like deliberate attempts to distract listeners from the natural sweetness of their voices and how suited they were to an older style of country/folk music. Now, with their second CD, Reincarnation, being released on November 22 2011 on their own Folk Uke label, the duo, as can be seen through their choice of material, have far more confidence in themselves and their abilities as vocalists.

The opening track on the disc, a cover of Harry Nilsson's "He Needs Me", tells the listener right away the direction Guthrie and Nelson have moved in. Nilsson's material requires just the right touch or it could easily slide into sentimental mush. Like a great many of his songs its deceptively simplistic while demanding a great deal from any who attempt to sing it. The temptation would be to go over the top emotionally in an effort to "make something" of the song. However, it's the song's very understatement which makes it so powerful, and Nelson and Guthrie understand that perfectly. Their vocal arrangement is simple enough to allow the song to speak for itself, while the unaffected sweetness of their harmonies captures its emotions without getting in your face.

Of course being who they are they haven't completely abandoned their rather wicked sense of humour. "I Miss My Boyfriend", with guest vocals supplied by Skeeter Jennings, is one of the most biting and non-politically correct songs about abusive boyfriends you're ever going to hear. In a letter from his prison cell an abusive boyfriend confesses to his girlfriend how he's had a wife all along. Not to worry though, for while dragging your wife around by the bra turns out to be against the law, he'll be out in a couple of years. With its sweetly sung chorus of "I miss my boyfriend/ will you hit me/give me the beating of my life/take off your belt now/leave me a welt now/treat me just like I was your wife", some might think the tune doesn't take the subject seriously enough. However, if that's the case, you need to look up the word irony in the dictionary and then listen to it again.
Folk Uke Amy & Cathy In A Graveyard.jpg
Still, the lasting impression you take away after listening to this disc is that of two wonderful voices raised in song. Whether it's the country type tear jerker "Long Black Limousine" or the title song "Reincarnation" - a love song that truly crosses all boundaries - Guthrie's and Nelson's vocals are a pleasure to listen to. Even on the aforementioned tear jerker they bring an honesty to lyrics that in other people's hands would sound cliched or downright stupid. They both seem to have the innate ability to open their mouths and sing unaffectedly. Whether one of their own creations or covering somebody else's material they have the confidence in themselves to simply serve as the song's interpreters and let it speak for itself.

On top of that their voices seem to have been made to sing with each other. Listen to the way they build their harmonies on "He Needs Me" and the effortless way their voices intertwine. It's not often you have the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the sound of two voices working together so well. In fact you have the feeling that it wouldn't matter what they sang, and it would sound great. However, the music they've chosen here not only suits their voices perfectly, the songs also show their remarkable emotional and intellectual range as performers.

Both Nelson and Guthrie could easily slide over the edge into being cloying and sweet, and probably make a killing in the adult easy listening market, but thankfully they've taken a different direction and we're the ones reaping the benefits. They might have famous musical parents, but this latest release only confirms that Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie are deserving of recognition in their own right.

(Article first published as Music Review: Folk Uke - Reincarnation on Blogcritics.)

October 31, 2011

Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb

Those of you whose primary experience with recorded music has either been with CDs or downloads will understandably probably not share previous generations' appreciation of album art. Even the name, album art, hearkens back to an era when music was released on long playing (LP) records made of vinyl. Instead of the 5 inch by 5 inch covers that now adorn CDs, designers would have a canvass of approximately eighteen by eighteen inches when creating the art for an LP. There was nothing quite like the experience of walking into a large record store whose walls were adorned with years and years worth of record covers. Sometimes you'd go into a record store merely to flip through the bins of LPs and revel in the diversity of artwork and design.

While a sizeable percentage of covers were made up of pictures of the bands striking some kind of pose or another, even some of them could be interesting, or at the very least informative. I used to be able to get a pretty fair indication of whether I'd be interested in the music on offer from the way in which a band displayed itself. However, it was albums with artwork on their covers that would have a better chance of capturing my attention. First of all they were a refreshing change from pouting rock stars trying to look dangerous and secondly some of it was genuinely fascinating. There were quite a few occasions where I would buy an album without knowing anything about the band simply because I liked the art work so much. What was amazing was how many of those recordings I ended up liking. While there were a few which didn't live up to the promise of their art work, most of the time if the cover art appealed to me so did the music.

Cover art has also been a pretty accurate reflection of the overall state of the music industry, especially when it comes to popular music. From the early to the late 1960s as the music became freer and more expressive the cover art became wilder and more experimental. From Andy Warhol pop art on Velvet Underground covers to Peter Max's art work for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine it was a period where almost anything went. Of course this explosion of freedom of expression wasn't just limited to popular music, it was in all the art forms.
Cover The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb.jpg
Famed American underground cartoonist and illustrator Robert Crumb said in a recent interview how he had given up being a commercial artist in 1968 and was amazed he could get his crazy comics published in the so called underground press at the time. There might have been little or no money in it at the time, but it was total freedom of expression in his chosen medium. While Crumb is best known for his comic work from that time, it was also when he made his first contribution to the world of record cover art when he was offered the then princely sum of $600.00 to do the cover for Big Brother & The Holding Company's album Cheap Thrills. While he probably could have parlayed that cover into more jobs for record companies, Crumb has never been a particular fan of popular music, except for rock and roll from the mid 1950s to around 1968, and lost interest in it altogether by 1970.

However a new collection of his artwork, The Complete Record Cover Collection, being published by Norton Books in the US on November 7 2011 and Penguin Canada October 25 2011 reveals a side of Crumb that many will not have been familiar with - his passion for recordings made in the early part of the twentieth century. Contrary to the book's title, cover art for records is only one component of Crumb's music related art works as the book is replete with everything from illustrations of musicians from various parts of the world to logos and business cards he's designed for a variety of independent record companies and stores. As you look through the book the first thing you'll notice is not only the wide range of projects he's taken on over the years, but how much more incredibly diversified he is as an artist than is commonly realized.
Robert Crumb Self Portrait.jpg
Crumb is probably best known for the rather flamboyant and exaggerated style of his comics; a style that is highly reminiscent of cartoons of the early part of the twentieth century. Looking at his illustrations, or even many of his comics, you can almost hear that old time cartoon music playing underneath them. You just know the characters would have a bounce in their step as they walk jauntily down the street to the sound of a ragtime band if they are happy and if sad trumpets would roll out long mournful notes echoing their disconsolation as they sob their hearts out. While the cover for the Cheap Thrills album and some of the other art work in the book utilize that style, you'll see how he's able to gradate his style between the over the top cartoon work and realism as requirements and inspiration dictate.

While I've heard any number of people dismiss cartoons or illustrations as something of a lessor cousin to painting when it comes to the visual arts I've never agreed with that assessment. You only have to look at what Crumb is able to communicate with some of the work in this collection to come to appreciate that while what he does may not be framed and on gallery walls, his work has a validity of its own that makes it the equal to much of what is categorized as "serious" art. Even at its most exaggerated and cartoonish his cover art not only captures something of the nature of the artist who is being represented, it also gives you some insights into the time period the music is from.
Cover Cheap Thrills Big Brother And The Holding Company By R. Crumb.jpg
However for pure artistry nothing beats the portraits of various musicians scattered throughout the book. Some of them, Frank Zappa, Woody Guthrie, Lighting Hopkins, Merle Haggard and George Jones are of famous folk, others are of obscure country and blues players and a third group are of anonymous musicians from various parts of Europe. Yet no matter who they are each of the pictures captures some intangible quality of the person that stimulates your imagination in such a way you find yourself either remembering what details you know of the person's life or trying to imagine something about them - what their life was like and what playing music meant to them. While for some of them he's used old photographs as his source material, Crumb's illustrations imbue what were obviously posed pictures with far more life then the original portrait could possibly have contained.

While the book appears to be laid out without any discernible order, record covers and logos for vintage record stores share pages and musicians from the 1920s stand shoulder to shoulder with others from the early part of the twenty-first century, that actually adds to the fun of scanning through the book. Not only does it mean that each page contains examples of Crumb's diversity as an artist, but it makes looking through the book that much more interesting because you're never quite sure what to expect as you flip from one page to the next.

This is the time of year when publishers are flooding the shelves with coffee table books of various sorts in anticipation of the upcoming present buying season. The shelves of your local bookstore are going to be filled with collections of photographs of everything from the glamorous to the infamous, buildings and cute animals and of course the obligatory photo album of the Royal Family and the new Royal Couple. In a crowd like this The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb stands out like a speck of gold in a sea of nickel. If you're going to buy one coffee table book this season make it the one with a spark of life and subversive enough to bring some much needed spice to the season. In an age of conformity and homogenization people like Crumb are needed more than ever. His artistry is as unique today as it was when he first started out and its high time for him to receive the recognition he deserves.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb on Blogcritics)

October 15, 2011

Interview: Robert Crumb - Illustrator and Musician

Robert Crumb is probably best known from his career as a comic book artist, specifically from the world of underground comics in the United States in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s. Characters such as Mr, Natural have assured Crumb's name will endure amongst comic fans for years to come. However, talent like his does not pass unnoticed and his work has graced more than just the pages of comic books. Aside from illustrating Crumb has another passion, early twentieth century popular music. Over the course of his career drawing comics he has also been steadily amassing a portfolio of music related art work. He's designed everything from record covers to business cards and letter head for small companies to promotional material for concerts and record stores.

However he's not limited his passion for music to just illustrations and is not only an avid collector of old 78 RPM records of his preferred music, he has also become an accomplished musician in his own right. Most recently he lent his talents as a mandolin player to the Eden and John's East River String Band recording Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, but he's been playing music since his days as leader of the Cheap Suit Serenaders back in the late 1970s. While some of that music is readily available the same can't be said for his music related illustrations. However that's all about to change with the forthcoming release of The Complete Record Cover Collection from Norton Books in November of 2011.
Cover The Complete Record Cover Collection by R. Crumb.jpg
I had the good fortune to be offered the opportunity to put some questions to Mr. Crumb regarding this new book and the music that inspired it. I forwarded my questions for him by email, and what you're about to read are his answers exactly as he wrote them. A fascinating man with an amazing talent, hopefully the following interview will provide you some insight into how his passion for music developed and how that translated into his artwork. I'd just like to thank Robert Weil at Norton Books for setting the interview up and Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer them. Enjoy.

1) When did you first discover music? What was it about the music you heard that captivated you?

 When did I first discover music?  I first discovered music on April 23rd, 1947.  No, just kidding.  I don’t think people “discover” music, as there is always some kind of music around from the time we are born.  We just become gradually more aware of it as we grow.  In the modern world with its pervasive mass media, the first music most of us become aware of, aside perhaps from nursery songs, is mass-produced popular music.  I remember as a kid in the late 1940s -- early ‘50s hearing the popular music of the time coming from radios.  I recall that it had a mildly depressing affect on me... Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Vaughn Monroe, Frankie Lane, Patti Page, Thersa Brewer.  There was something unspeakably awful and dreary about this pop music of the time.  In general I have had a loathing for popular music all my life, except for the period of early rock and roll; 1955-1966.  I liked some of that music, and still do.  I really lost interest after about 1970.

The first music that really “captivated” me was film and cartoon sound track music from the early days of the “talkies,” the early 1930s, which I was exposed to from watching television in the 1950s.  Early Hal Roach comedy shorts such as “The Little Rascals” and Laurel and Hardy were shown over and over again, and the background music in these reached deep into me, I’m not sure why.  Much later -- decades later -- I learned that these great bits of background music in the Hal Roach comedies were all composed by an unassuming, behind-the-scenes music business man named Leroy Shield; he is still relatively unknown and forgotten.

Then at age 16 I discovered that this kind of music could be found on old 78 rpm records of the 1920s and ‘30s.  That was a great revelation, and from then on I became an obsessive collector of old records.  At first my main interest was the old dance orchestras and jazz bands that sounded like the music in old movies and Hal Roach comedies, but then I started listening to old blues 78s that I found.  They sounded strange and exotic to me at first, but I grew to love this music  -- blues of the 1920s -- early ‘30s.  Then I discoverd old-time country music.  Again, at first it sounded crude, rough, but this music, too, I grew to love.  From there I went on to find that old Ukrainian and Polish polka bands of this same period -- 1920s - early ‘30s -- were also great, and then I found old Irish records -- wonderful stuff -- Greek records, Mexican, Carribean, on and on. Over here, living in Europe, I found great old French music, Arab/North African music, sub-saharan, black African music, Armenian and Turkish music, even Hindou Indian music, on the old pre WW II 78s.  So now, you can imagine, I have a pretty big collection of these old discs -- 6,500 of them, more or less, an embarrassment of musical riches.

2) Illustration became your first primary means of expression, not music, what held you back from pursuing a career as a musician?

From an early age I had a strong desire to play music but there was no one in my immediate environment to show me anything.  My parents had no interest in music beyond listening to pop radio.  I started on my own at age 12 with a plastic ukulele, and a pamphlet showing how to tune the thing and some chord positions.  Ironically, my mother’s father had been a musician, playing string instruments -- banjo, mandolin, guitar -- but he died when I was only a year old.  None of his children showed any interest in learning to play music.

As with comics and cartoons, I learned to play music just by working at it on my own, with no formal lessons. But I did not possess a “real” instrument til I was in my late 20s.  It was not until then that I finally met others my age who liked and played the same kind of music as me.  I have always enjoyed playing music but never particularly enjoyed performing in public.  though I did play many gigs with various bands, I never got over feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious in front of an audience.  A career in music did not interest me.  I already had a “career” as a cartoonisht/artist, anyway.  Plus, there really is no such thing as a career in the kind of music I like to play.   You gotta have a regular job and play old-time music on the side, for the pleasure of it.
Robert Crumb Self Portrait.jpg
3) Aside from those illustrations directly related to music, album covers, promotional materials etc. what if any influences did the music you love have on your art work?

None that I can perceive. 

4) Your first commission for an album cover was, I believe, for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. How did that come about?

In 1968 I was living in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. ZAP Comix had already come out and I was beginning to be well-known in the hippy subculture.  I was approached by someone in the “Big Brother” band to do the album cover.  I was not crazy about their music but I needed the money.  We (my wife Dana and I and our son Jesse) were living on public assistance, or welfare, at the time.  Columbia Records offered $600 for doing the cover.  That was big money to me at the time.  Actually, I was drafted at the last moment, as the band was not happy with the cover produced by the record company.  I had to “pull an all-nighter” to get it done.  I took some amphetamines and cranked it out.  I remember finishing the work as the sun was coming up over the house tops outside my window.  You can do that kind of thing when you’re 25.


5)  Did you start actively seeking out gigs doing album covers after that, or did you think of it as a one off deal at the time? 

I’d given up on being a commercial artist by 1968, and had found to my complete amazement that I could do my own crazy comics and get them published in the hippy so-called “underground” press.  There was little or no money in it, but who cared?  It was TOTAL FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION in my chosen medium -- print!  It was the hippy era, man, survival was “transcendental.”  We didn’t worry too much about money.  That came later, when my work actually started to MAKE money, then there were lots of money problems, I was buried under money problems by the mid-1970s.  But that’s another story.

The only other album cover work that interested me much was making covers for reissues of the old music from 78s that I loved, and that I usually did in exchange for -- guess what? -- 78s!  I’m still doing this today.

6) The majority of your album covers appear to reflect your taste in music - old time country, traditional jazz and acoustic blues. Were there gigs you turned down because they weren't from one of those genres and if so why? What is it about that type of music that attracts you more than others?

I’ve turned down a few offers to do album covers for rock bands -- not much.  I don’t need the money, I hate the music -- Why do it?

What is it that attracts me to old time music of the 1920s and ‘30s?  I don’t know.  I could go on about how the older music sounds more authentic, less contrived, more home-made, etc.  But I’m not sure that really explains it.  Some kind of neurological fixation  I don’t know.  Who can explain these things?  You tell me, why do you like what you like?
Cover Cheap Thrills Big Brother And The Holding Company By R. Crumb.jpg
7) What's your process for creating the cover art for an album? For Eden and John's East River String Band's most recent recording, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, you created an image based around the disc's title featuring the musicians playing in the disc, but what other attributes influence you?

Creative processes are a hard thing to talk about, and there are so many different processes or approaches.  For instance, in the case of Eden and John’s East River String Band, the idea for the cover was suggested by them.  I liked their idea and used it.

8) You were one of the musicians on that album, mandolin. When did you start playing and performing music? Why a mandolin? 

I “graduated” from the ukulele in my 20s to the tenor banjo.  For many years, I just banged out chords on the banjo, then I branched out into the guitar and the mandolin, in my ‘30s.  I’ve also fooled around on piano and accordion.  I tried the fiddle for a while, but gave up on it as it sounds pretty awful until you get good at it, after a lot of practice. Now I think I should have stuck with it.  By now I’d probably be at least serviceable on it, if I’d persisted.  I’d be able to get through, you know, “Home Sweet Home” or “Oh Suzanna,” stuff like that.  That’s about my speed anyway.  I never achieved virtuosity on any instrument, plus, I play string instruments backwards, left-handed, which is a serious handicap, although it didn’t stop Jimi Hendrix.

“Why a mandolin,” you ask.  Why not a mandolin?  Okay, yeah, by now it’s like, an antique instrument, right?  One reason I took up the mandolin is that it’s a very easy instrument to learn, much easier than either the fiddle or the guitar.  I gave up on the fiddle and took up the mandolin.  You can play something resembling music pretty quickly, with only a little practice, on the mandolin  That’s why back in the golden age of string instruments, the 1890s - 1920s, there were mandolin clubs all over the place.  These clubs were full of ordinary people, lots of young people, kids, teenagers, as well as older people.  There were also banjo clubs.  They’d play together in huge ensembles, just for the pleasure.  Electronic media killed all this;  radio, movies, jukeboxes, then television.  Television delivered the coup de grace to widespread, grass-roots, self-made recreations.  They just sat and viewed, they were hypnotized... zombies... They watched anything that was on... It held them spellbound.  That was another thing the hippies sort of rebelled against... for awhile at least... But the media is now more powerful than ever.  We’re hooked... There’s no escape... It’s changed, though... Now it’s, you know, “interactive”...

9) What similarities and differences have you found in your creative process as a musician and as an illustrator?

Music and drawing pictures and writing... totally different things... I would not call myself a “creative” musician.  I don’t compose my own music, I don’t do fancy improvisations on my instrument.  When playing, I’m happy if I can play a tune smoothly, rhythmically, bringing out whatever beauty is in the melody itself... That’s enough for me.  I’m not trying to “kick ass” when I play music, or anything like that.  The drawing is something else again.

10) Among the illustrations included in the new book, R. Crumb The Complete Record Cover Collection are a series of portraits of jazz, blues and country musicians of the past. Some of them are taken from packages of cards you created. Where did the idea for these collectibles come from and were you able to choose who you included in each series? If yes to the latter what criteria was used for selecting who was to be included in each set?

I was inspired by the old baseball bubblegum cards to make those musician cards.  Yes, I chose the performers, the categories, everything.  I was looking for some way to pay tribute and to evangelize for this music that I loved, music that was so buried under the avalanche of later popular music.  Some of those musicians or groups that I drew have never even been commercially reissued since the original 78 was made back in the ‘20s.  Mumford Bean and his Itawambians, for instance.  Are they obscure enough for you?  They made one 78 in 1928, two sides.  Never reissued.  That’s how fanatic I am.  The French accordion players are even more absurdly esoteric.  Those didn’t even sell well in France.  Nobody’d ever heard of them!

11) Of all the music related illustrations you've created are there any in particular that stand out and why?

No, not really.

Once again I'd like to thank Robert Crumb for taking the time to answer my questions for this interview. If you're unfamiliar with his artwork check out his web site. You'll soon see why he's fascinated people for ages with his work. If that whets your appetite for more, or if you're already a fan, then your sure to enjoy the work on display in The Complete Record Cover Collection when it hits the shelves some time in November.
(Article first published as Interview: Illustrator and Musician Robert Crumb, Author of The Complete Record Cover Collection on Blogcritics.)

October 9, 2011

Music Review: Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash Bootleg Vol. 3 - Live Around The World

Sometimes concert settings are the best places to see a band in order to appreciate them and sometimes there not. There are a ton of variables which can come into play and impact the quality of a performance, some beyond the control of the band and others which are their responsibility. The venue, the crowd, equipment problems and even the touring schedule are things beyond most band's control these days, and each of them can have a hand in determining how a concert comes off. However a band can also become complacent from playing the same music over and over again and while they might not make mistakes in their performance, the risk of them merely going through the motions instead of giving their all to a performance is always real. Finally there are those performers who can't be counted on to show up in the right state of mind, so to speak, for a concert, if they even deign to show up at all.

Now a days those who fall into the latter category are far fewer then they once were. With popular music becoming such a big business the industry has become far less tolerant of such behaviour. Performers who can't fulfill their commitments are liable to soon find themselves without recording contracts no matter how talented they might be. Unfortunately, the history of pop music is filled with stories of those whose lives ended before their time because the individuals weren't able to control their excessive behaviour. Thankfully there were also some who were able to stop before they went too far down the path of self destruction and find a way to stop the bleeding before it was too late. One of the most famous of those was Johnny Cash.

While we might never know the depths to which he sunk personally the forthcoming release, Johnny Cash: Bootleg Volume 3 - Live Around The World, on Legacy Recordings October 11 2011, a collection of Cash's live performances from 1956 to 1979, provide a glimpse of how close to the edge he came at certain points in his career. You only has to listen to his behaviour and demeanour on stage in the early to mid 1960s compared to how he was from the late 1960s on to appreciate the difference between the two stages of his life. In fact, one of the most amazing things about this new two disc CD package is how it manages to capture the arc of his career.
Cover Johnny Cash Bootleg Vol. 3 - Live Around The World.jpg
From the early days, the Big D Jamboree in Dallas Texas in 1956, when he was still young and caught up in the excitement and thrill of being a musician; the middle period, performances given at the New River Ranch, Rising Sun Maryland in 1962 and at the Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island in 1964, when he was on the verge of losing control, to when he turned it around and began again, a 1969 concert in Long Binh Vietnam at an NCO club, a command performance at Richard Nixon's White House with the Carter family in 1970 and excerpts from concerts as far afield as Osteraker Prison in Sweden 1972 and as close to home as Exit Inn, Nashville Tennessee 1979.

While that distinctive voice never changes through the years, and he never makes any of those mistakes you would normally associate with substance abuse, there's something awfully uncomfortable, and almost embarrassing, about listening to Cash's performances in the middle period. Whether it's because he sounds like he's trying too hard to be the life of the party by doing his imitation of a record with a skip in it during the concert in Maryland or making bad jokes while playing "Rock Island Line" at the Newport Folk Festival, or some underlying nastiness that comes through on occasion, he comes across like the drunk at the party who everybody spends the evening trying to avoid. They are especially difficult to hear after listening to the opening three tracks taken from the Texas concert in 1956, where he comes across as happy and excited, just glad to be invited to the party.

So it's something of a relief to listen to the recording of the 1969 concert at the NCO club in Vietnam to hear the Johnny Cash we're all more familiar with. For while you won't notice many differences in the quality of his performance or the sound of his voice, what you will notice is he's no longer trying to prove himself the life of the party or acting the fool. Instead of being there for his own ego he's there for the audience and it makes a huge difference. Cash's music has always spoken to people in much the same way Woody Guthrie's did because of his ability to put the things that matter to us to music. He can sing about everything from his belief in his saviour to what it's like to be a dirt farmer and on some level or another we'll all understand what he's talking about.
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In those middle years when he was more concerned with showmanship and following a path of self destruction you can hear how the stories, while not lost, were certainly diluted. All you have to do is compare the way he sings the same songs at different points in his life in order to notice the difference. When I first received my copies of this two disc set I was surprised to see how so many of the songs on the first disc were under two minutes in length, including songs I could have sworn were much longer whenever I'd heard them before. The reason is he was rushing through most of them and barely even listening to the words he's singing. The contrast between those performances and the ones in the later years, when he is taking the time the material requires, is so strong you can almost reach out and touch it.

While it's hard to listen to Richard Nixon introduce Cash for the White House performance in 1970, that concert is one of the discs highlights as far as I'm concerned. First of all there's the fact that he's joined by the entire Carter Family for all thirteen tracks, and no matter whether you agree with the Christian message of much of their music or not, you can't help but appreciate their music. It also represents a chance to hear a piece of American music history as you listen to America's first family of country music singing with one of the men who first started merging it with African American blues. Of course the irony of hearing Cash singing "What Is Truth" to "Tricky Dick" is nothing short of priceless.

Needless to say the disc contains nearly all of everyone's favourite Cash tunes including "Big River", "Give My Love To Rose", "Boy Named Sue" and "Walk The Line" to name but a few. However, I was personally more thrilled to see some of his covers of tunes like 'Sunday Morning Coming Down" Kristofferson and "City Of New Orleans" by the late Steve Goodman included. Those are tunes, especially the latter, I've had a hard time tracking down recordings of Cash singing, so to find them as well as a couple of others is a real bonus.

While the quality of some of the recordings isn't great - the two tracks recorded in 1976 at The Carter Fold are scratchy and the ones from the Exit Inn from 1979 sound like everybody, crowd included, are off in the distance - that doesn't depreciate this release's value. Most of the time collections of this sort shy away from casting the artist in a less than perfect light. Here though, whether intentionally or not, the producers have given listeners an incredibly accurate history of Cash's performance career. It's not always the prettiest of pictures, but it's an honest one, and it makes you appreciate the road the man travelled all the more. Cash himself might have winced upon hearing some of those recordings, but I'd like to think he was honest and brave enough to have been okay with them being released. He always wore his heart on his sleeve, was always honest about who he was, and this release carries on that tradition.

(Article first published as Music Review: Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash Bootleg Volume 3 - Live Around The World on Blogcritics.)

October 8, 2011

Music Review: Jordi Savall & Various Artists - Hispania & Japan: Dialogues

It's hard to imagine two countries as different as Spain and Japan having enough in common musically for someone to create pieces combining elements of both cultures. Yet that's exactly what Jordi Savall, cellist, composer and one of Spain's foremost performers of Western early music utilizing period instruments, has done. (Early music defined as being either from the Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque periods - roughly from 500 AD to 1760 AD) In 2006 he released The Route Of The Orient which set out to recreate in music the voyages of Spanish Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier (Francisco Javier). Not only did Xavier, who lived from 1506-1553 travel the East with stops in Mozambique, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and China, he was the first European to ever visit Japan.

In his attempt to win converts to Christianity Xavier relied heavily upon music, setting his religion's texts to a country's native melodies in order to make them more accessible. In the original recording Savall gathered together musicians from the various countries the missionary had visited in order to recreate what these pieces could have sounded like. It was during the research and performances surrounding this recording he also met various Japanese musicians with whom he became friends. It was following the catastrophes that struck Japan last year he, along with musicians from Japan and Spain created Hispania & Japan: Dialogues, being released through Harmonium Mundi on the Alia Vox label October 11 2011, focusing on the specific pieces Xavier used in Japan.

Upon his arrival in Japan Xavier, and the Portuguese missionaries accompanying him, walked through the country singing Psalms. The Japanese people who flocked to see these strangers in their midst, were fascinated by their singing. In 1605 a publisher in Nagasaki printed Mauale ad Sacramenta a volume containing nineteen of those pieces. This is significant for not only being the beginning of Western music in Japan, it also provided Savall and his musicians with a template from which they built their recordings. In fact, while they have made use of a couple of other European and Japanese songs, "O Gloriosa Domina" (O Glorious Mistress), a Gregorian chant from that volume, provides the inspiration for more than half the music.
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Much as Xavier incorporated regional melodies, the Japanese musicians on this recording have improvised music for the song. However, instead of simply having them create new versions of it, Savall has given them far more room for interpretation. You won't hear somebody singing the psalm in different ways to various arrangements of Japanese instruments. Instead they have created pieces which attempt to capture the essence of the music. The opening piece is a beautiful example of this with Ichiro Seki, playing a type of Japanese bamboo flute known as a shakuhachi, creating a haunting piece of music which makes use of his instrument's ethereal qualities to establish the proper spiritual context for the music to come. Over the course of the first half of the recording Savall intersperses these improvisations with recordings of the song as it would have been performed in Europe during the sixteenth century. Ironically, at least to my ears, it's the Japanese interpretations which seem more capable of transcending the earthly realm and leading one's thoughts heavenwards.

This isn't a slight against the Spanish musicians or the music they play. I think it has more to do with the differences in the natural qualities of the instruments being played and the two cultures' approach to religion. Western religion, and by extension its music, has always felt more human centric than its Eastern counterparts. For while Christianity stresses personal salvation, many Eastern religions focus on spiritual enlightenment. By obeying a set of rules Christians hope to secure their place at God's side while Buddhists strive to become one with the universe. Listening to the Japanese musicians on this recording you can hear the difference between music praising individuals who control one's fate and that which celebrates the wonder of creation. Even here, where they are each working from the same material, the distinction is obvious. It doesn't mean one is better than the other, it's a matter of personal preference which of the two will stir your soul the most, yet there can be no denying there is something far more otherworldly about the Japanese music than the Christian hymns.
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Yet, in spite of the differences between the two traditions, musically and religiously, neither the juxtaposition or combining of the two is ever jarring or discordant. Unlike some forced marriages of West and East which ring more false notes than true, this work recognizes and celebrates the distinctive elements of each style instead of trying to meld them together. It's like listening to the same story in two different languages with each telling taking on all the flavours and characteristics of the tongue recounting it while the core elements remain the same. What you gradually realize as you listen to the pieces on this recording is how not only do the two compliment each other, they also complete each other. In fact, listening to the two types of music being played separately and then coming together in pieces towards the end of the CD, you begin to realize how the two together make up a whole by filling in gaps in the other you didn't even know existed before.

Hispania & Japan: Dialogues comes packaged with a book which supplies the details behind how the project came into existence, a breakdown of the musicians involved and the instruments being used and pictures taken during performances of the piece. Enclosing it all is a separate cover which is a reproduction of a piece of Japanese art depicting the landing and travels of St. Xavier in Japan. While the packaging and the music are equally beautiful, the fact that the money raised through its sales will be donated to aiding the relief efforts in Japan makes it even more precious.

The old saying of "Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" may have been written by Rudjard Kipling in reference to India and the West, but its often been quoted by those wishing to stress the impossibility of us ever finding common ground with anybody East of Europe. However, Jordi Savall and the collection of Japanese and Spanish musicians he's gathered around him prove the lie in that statement over and over again with Hispania & Japan: Dialogues. For instead of looking at cultural differences as some sort of impenetrable barrier they have seen how they actually compliment each other to help form a more complete picture of the world we live in. So not only have they created some beautiful music, they offer a timely reminder that differences aren't something to worry about, they are something to celebrate. Instead of worrying about how others can be more like us, or we like them, isn't it better to see how all of us fit together as pieces in the puzzle making up a portrait of our world?

(Article first published as Music Review: Jordi Savall & Various Artists - Hispania & Japan: Dialogues on Blogcritics)

September 28, 2011

Music Review: Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie - Various Performers

July 14 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known to most people simply as Woody. While September 27 2011 might seem a little early to begin celebrating that event, when you stop and consider the impact this one man from Okemah Oklahoma has had on popular culture, specifically popular music, in North America and the rest of the English speaking world, you'll realize even if we spent every day from now until December 31 2012 looking through the body of his work we'd only barely begin to scratch the surface of its significance.

Just to begin with there are the musicians around the world who he influenced. Everyone from folk music icons like Bob Dylan, mega stars of rock and roll like Bono of U2 and punk rockers like the late Joe Srummer of the Clash all have cited Woody as one of their inspirations. Woody had the unique talent of being able to look at huge impersonal events like the depression and find a way of expressing how it affected people on a personal level. Not just the farmers suffering through the dust bowl either. He could write with equal empathy about miners, textile workers, field hands, bus drivers and soldiers. Not only could he give voice to their stories, he did so in words they understood and a voice that sounded like their own. However he didn't just write about the poor and oppressed, he wrote about everything. He wrote what is perhaps the most stirring song ever written celebrating his own country, "This Land Is Your Land", a celebration of the hope for the potential it represented.

When he died 1967, after spending nearly his last thirteen years of life hospitalized by the Huntington's Disease which killed him, he left behind a massive legacy of unpublished writings, including song lyrics, poems, manuscripts for books, plays and note books. Woody's son Arlo once said that it was always dangerous to have his father as a house guest, because he was constantly writing song lyrics. If he couldn't find any scraps of paper to write stuff down on you could wake up in the morning and find your walls covered as his inspiration wasn't something that was going to be denied. It's only been recently that his family has begun the labour of love of bringing those unpublished works to life. In 1998 British folk/punk singer Billy Bragg joined with the American band Wilco to release Mermaid Avenue a collection of previously unreleased Woody songs, which was followed a couple of years later by Mermaid Avenue Volume 2.
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Now to kick off the celebrations of the centenary of Woody's birth 429 Records is releasing Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie featuring twelve songs inspired by the writings of Woody Guthrie by a collection of performers spanning five generations of American popular culture. From Woody's contemporaries, Pete Seeger and the late author Studs Terkel; those who have picked up Woody's torch to become voices of protest today, Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti and Jackson Browne to a real surprise Lou Reed. They and the six others involved have either taken previously unrecorded songs by Woody or, like Jackson Browne, were inspired by entries in Woody's journals.

No matter what the source, each of the songs captures one of the myriad elements of Woody's voice. What's particularly fascinating about this collection is how it continues where the Mermaid Avenue collection left off and gives us a chance to appreciate the breadth of subject material that captured his attention. Pete Seeger, accompanied by Tony Trischka, ruminates on the nature of music and why it matters so much to humanity on "There's A Feeling In The Music", while both Ani DiFranco, "Voice", and Studs Terkel, "I Heard A Man Talking", tackle the subject of lyrics. While Terkel's is a straight recounting of a conversation overheard in a bar, both DiFranco's and Seeger's songs show an introspective side of Woody revealing just how much thought went into what appeared to be so spontaneous. As we hear in both songs Guthrie's work was rooted in an artistic philosophy based on honesty and universality that was as every bit as intense as any political ideals his music might have expressed.
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Of course you can't ignore the social justice aspect of Woody's music, and "Wild Card In The Hole", performed by Madeleine Pevroux and "Old Folks", sung by Nellie McKay are two fine examples of Guthrie's approach. Less typical of the genre, and an indication of what made him so special is "The Debt I Owe" put to music by Lou Reed. Initially it appears to be about a man wandering through a deserted Coney Island amusement park worrying about the hole he's in financially. However we soon realize those aren't the only debts eating at him. No the ones he's really tortured by are those he owes for how he's treated the people in his life, both in the present and the past. Reed is the perfect performer for this piece as he's able to capture the bleakness of the man's soul with the right level of detachment in order to prevent it from descending into a self-pitying wallow. Its as wonderful a commentary on the compromises and bad choices forced on so many people, usually at the expense of others, by the conditions of modern living as you're liable to hear anywhere by anyone.

The final song of the recording shows us a side of Woody Guthrie the public has only recently begun to discover. We don't associate him with love songs, but as is apparent from Jackson Browne's fifteen minute song, "You Know The Night", (a shorter version was prepared for radio and released on August 15 2011 and can be heard on line at this web page) based on a thirty page entry in Woody's journals talking about the night he met his second wife Marjorie Mazia, it's not because he never gave the subject any thought. The song is an unabashed confession of love combined with a wonderful compiling of reasons for that love coming into existence. All that sparks the desire and need one person feels for another, from sexual attraction to intellectual compatibility, are dealt with as Woody/Jackson run down what it was about her which attracted him. Yet its far more than just a shopping list of reasons for falling in love, as the song itemizes not only what the observer sees in the person across from him, but the feelings each evokes in him. The song is filled with the joy and fears of a man finding himself inexplicably falling in love, and expresses the wonder we all feel when we know we've met the person we believe we're supposed to spend the rest of our life with.

Woody Guthrie should be a national icon in the United States for the way in which he was able to express the hopes and dreams of people who normally don't have a voice in his music. The anti communist witch hunt of the post WW II era followed by the onset of the disease which killed him not only denied him the opportunity of writing and performing, but also ensured his music and name were kept from a great many people. It wasn't until the folk music boom of the 1960s that he was "discovered" by a new generation, and even then it was only as the guy who inspired Bob Dylan, not in recognition for his own work. Sure school kids around the country might have been learning the words to his most famous song, but nobody was telling them who he was or anything about the rest of his music.

Woody wrote about subjects nobody wanted to talk about, the plight of migrant workers, dirt farmers, share croppers and how the greed of a few could hurt so many. Those weren't popular topics in the post war boom days and in the 1960s most people were more concerned with avoiding being drafted and getting stoned then fighting for the rights of poor farmers in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Yet if you stop and listen to his songs, any of his songs, you'll realize they have the unique ability to speak truths without preaching, tell people's stories without sentimentalizing them, and speak to something we all have to one degree or another, our hearts.

In Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie we hear twelve American singers, musicians and writers from across the generations offer us their interpretations of material he wrote that has never been heard before. Yet somehow, no matter what format they were presented in or their subject matter, there was something familiar and comforting about each of them. It was like hearing the voice of a loved one you'd thought never to hear again all of a sudden whispering in your ear. From now until the end of 2012 let's hope that everybody has the chance to share in the experience of hearing that voice. Maybe by the end of celebrating Woody Guthrie's centenary, he'll be appreciated for the artist he was and along the way open a few more hearts to the possibilities for justice and joy in the world.

(Article first appeared as Music Review: Various Artists - Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie)

August 30, 2011

Music Review: Tinariwen - Tassili

Do you remember back to the days of your high school English literature classes learning about literary devices like foreshadowing and pathetic fallacy? The latter, imbuing events in nature or inanimate objects with human emotions to help create atmosphere and to intensify mood, was the one teachers always trotted out during the study of any of Shakespeare's plays. Unlike most of the modern writers we would study in high school he understood the power of natural imagery and how it could evoke reactions at a visceral level. Perhaps that was because in the era when he was writing nature still had far more of an impact on the day to day lives of people. Today, unless its a storm of some magnitude, like a hurricane or tornado, we can pretty much carry on blithely ignoring the elements. Oh rain and snow might inconvenience us slightly on occasion, but for most of us they don't dictate our food supply or our overall chances of survival.

While you'll still see the occasional reference to "angry storm clouds" popping up in writing, the use of pathetic fallacy appears to have waned with our continued disassociation with nature. The further we move away from the natural world, the less she becomes part of our frame of reference. For instance, when we refer to a place as being our home land we are referring to the space defined by lines drawn on a map and a name representing a social/political entity not the land itself. Your far more likely to read an urban landscape described using natural terms, the canyons of Manhattan, or man made articles being imbued with human emotions, the angry tooting of a car's horn, than references to natural events in order to create mood. No longer able to identify with nature, we look to what we are familiar with and designate it as a replacement.
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This was driven home to me recently while listening to, and reading the translations of their lyrics, the newest release from the Kel Tamashek (more commonly referred to by the name given them by conquering Arabs, Touareg, or rebel) band Tinariwen. Tassili, being released in North America on Anti Records Tuesday August 30 2011, wasn't recorded in a studio in the midst of some urban centre. Instead it was recorded in the Sahara dessert in southern Algeria. The band spent five weeks coming up with material and recording it inside a large tent offering only minimal protection from the elements. For while this is a band who experienced some international success after playing at music festivals all over the world, they have never lost sight of who they are and their reasons for making music.

While the romantic image of band members riding camels with an electric guitar slung over one shoulder and an automatic rifle is appealing, times have changed. True some of the founding band members participated in the uprisings in Niger and Mali while recording music on cassettes that broadcast the message of the rebellion; a rebellion and a message designed to promote and protect the rights of a nomadic people from the policies of repressive governments. With peace treaties now signed supposedly offering the Kel Tamashek guarantees, their situation remains fragile as years of drought and encroachment on traditional territories have wrecked havoc on their world. Perhaps it's because of this for this recording the band has relinquished their grips on electric guitars in favour of acoustic and utilized unamplified percussion in order to forge an even stronger connection to both their environment and their traditions. Now, just as much as during the rebellion if not more, their people need reminders of who they are and why the desert is an important part of their lives. They may no longer be carrying machine guns, but Tinariwen are still actively fighting to ensure the survival of their people. It's not just the subject matter of the songs communicating to the listeners now, it's the manner in which it is being presented. This is very much a case of the media being as much a part of the message as the message itself.

Those who have listened to Tinariwen will know of the almost trance like quality of their music. How it seduces and entices you to let your mind sink into an almost dream like state in an attempt to reproduce some of the sensations created by living in the dessert. One can almost imagine the vistas of sand spreading out in an endless tableau before you as you listen. The lyrics, in Tamashek, and sung/chanted primarily by front man Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, wash over the steady throb of the percussion and scratch of the electric guitars, occasionally interrupted by an outburst from one of the guitars. These burst of sound are like alarms reminding us to not to be hypnotized by the environment as while the sands may appear lifeless and barren they actually team with life and sudden changes.

On Tassili the band's new approach not only allows you to go deeper into the atmosphere they have always created, it conveys far more of the emotional and spiritual bond their people have with the desert. The intimacy of the acoustic instruments and the focus required to play and record on location has strengthened the ties their music has with the environment to the extent its influence is an almost palpable presence. You would think that this type of recording would be the least likely for the band to start introducing performers who come from other places into the mix. In fact one would almost expect the inclusion of North American guest on the album to be jarring interruptions that would take away from what they were seeking to create.
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However, that's not the case. I don't tend to read liner notes prior to listening to a CD as I want to create my own impressions of the music without being influenced by what anyone else has to say about a recording. On my first listening, even though the contributions of outsiders included vocals sung in English on the third track, "Tenere Taqhim Tossam", by Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV On The Radio and horns by New Orlean's Dirty Dozen Brass Band on the fourth track, "Ya Messinagh", they barely registered. I was so caught up in what the band had created, and the additions were so carefully worked into the mix, the contributions of the other musicians were merely another part of the whole experience Tinwariwen were creating. Even on listening a second and third time, knowing there were additional musicians involved and listening for them, it didn't make any difference.

It would be easy for a band in Tinwariwen's position, gaining international acclaim and being lionized by pop stars like Robert Plant and Carlos Santana, to drift away from who they are and lose their focus. However, instead of succumbing to any potential temptations to make their music more accessible to wider audiences they have moved in the opposite direction to return even closer to their roots. It's as if they have decided that after introducing us to their world, they are now prepared to take us another step deeper into it. On the other hand one always has to remember the circumstances under which they began playing music in the first place. They may have put down the rifles and the fighting might be over, for now, but the war is far from done.

As the world encroaches further and further into their traditional territories and more and more of the Kel Tamashek are being forced to leave the desert to live in cities, they are being disconnected from the life and traditions which gave them direction as a people. Tinwariwen, and other Kel Tamashek bands and musicians are continuing to do their best to ensure the survival of their people and their culture through their music. They know they can't keep the rest of the world at bay, hence the inclusion of those sympathetic to their music and cause on the album, but with this disc they are telling their audience, both Kel Tamashek and the rest of the world, we can still be who we once were no matter what the rest of the world throws at us. This beautiful and haunting recording is not a plea for help, rather it is a statement from a proud and dignified people proclaiming their right to live as they want to and celebrating who they are and the land they love.

(Band photo by Marie Planeille)

Article first published as Music Review: Tinariwen - Tassili on Blogcritics)

July 30, 2011

Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II

It's easy to see how at first glance it would be hard to find any connection between punk rock and Mariachi music. With the former being all black leather, short cropped hair and three chord angry music and the latter being flamboyant costumes, intricate musical arrangements and romantic themes they appear to be world's apart. In fact the gap appears so wide between the two the idea of bridging it seems almost ridiculous. However, it's not without precedent for American popular musicians to either be influenced by Mariachi or to play Mariachi tunes themselves.

First there were all the Latin tinged pop songs of the early 1960s (ever hear of a song called "La Bamba" or a guy named Richie Valens?) and the show bands from the same era with their Bosa Novas, Rumbas, and other assorted Hispanic influenced dance tunes. Listen carefully to the old Phil Spector wall of sound songs from the 1960s and you'll hear castanets, bongos and other Spanish influenced percussion holding the songs together. For those looking for that influence in bands with a harder edge I'd like to point you in the direction of a guy named Carlos Santana or how about a band called Los Lobos? Then there was the Mink DeVille Band of the 1970s who drew heavily upon the sound of the Lower East Side of New York City for songs like "Spanish Stroll". When he went solo, Willy DeVille, the band's lead singer, went so far as to release a Mariachi version of the old Texas blues number made famous by Jimi Hendrix "Hey Joe".

One shouldn't be so surprised at the widespread influence of Spanish music - they were the first European power to establish colonies in the Americas after all. Remember, the lands which people are now so concerned about keeping Mexicans out of were territories stolen from the Spanish through conquest. Texas, New Mexico, California and others were all Spanish until they were invaded and conquered by America. African American blues and gospel and British folk music get so much of the credit for developing rock and roll, we tend to forget the third major influence on popular music in North America. So if any group of American musicians, be they punks or rappers, decide they want to sing Mariachi music, it's really not that much of a stretch. All that matters is how well they do it, and their intentions in performing it.
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All that being said, when I first heard about Mariachi El Bronx, punk band The Bronx's excursion into Latin music, I had my doubts about the whole idea. Mariachi music isn't the easiest music to play and requires band members to play instruments most musicians in Canada and the US aren't overly familiar with. While the basic six string guitar has proven a popular import from Spain (no, neither it or the banjo are American as the banjo came over with African slaves and the guitar with soldiers returning from the Spanish American wars at the end of the 19th century) others essential to the Mariachi sound aren't as well known. The huge oversized base guitar known as guitarron, the round backed vihuelas, five stringed guitars, and even folk harps with twenty-eight to forty strings.
However, after listening to their second recording in this incarnation, Mariachi El Bronx II, which will be released on the White Drugs label August 2 2011, I'm not only convinced of the sincerity of the band's effort, but was blown away by their ability to carry it off. Expanding their line up to include Vincent Hidalgo (son of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo) and the Beastie Boys' Alfredo Ortiz means they have sufficient musicians to meet the demands of the music's more complex arrangements and a Latino presence to ensure they keep faith with the music, and keep faith they do. What's so wonderful about this record becomes obvious right from the first song "48 Roses", their complete and utter sincerity when it comes to performing the music.This isn't some camp joke at the expense of the music, these guys are genuine in their attempts to not only play the music but to capture its heart and spirit as well.

Now I don't know enough about the technicalities of Mariachi music to critique the band on how well they are playing all the subtle nuances those more familiar with the genre would be aware of. However what I can tell you is they do a magnificent job of sounding like they know what they're doing musically. From the rhythms of the guitars and guitarron to the melodies played on trumpet and accordion, they have mastered the elements that make the music so instantly recognizable. The only thing the least bit disconcerting is how un-Hispanic the lead vocalist sounds in comparison to how Spanish the music sounds. Yet what's slightly jarring in the beginning ends up being reassuring. The fact that they are singing naturally, without affectation of any kind, is further proof of the band's sincerity.
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Whether the song is about a guy who is in trouble because he has four girlfriends, the opening "48 Roses", about hope in the face of hardship, "The Great Provider" (which has the wonderful line "faith isn't magic it's just keeping my foot in the door") or the guy pleading with the girl to give him a chance even if her family don't think he's good enough for her, "Norteno Lights", the music and lyrics work together beautifully. The feel and tempo of the music not only create a thematically appropriate atmosphere for what each song is about, it works with the lyrics to help tell the song's story. Instead of the swelling strings we're used to hearing in order to clue us in that the singer is in the grips of some really strong emotion, here they do everything from providing joyful counterpoint to a moment of happiness or work together with other instruments to create any number of emotional settings.

Unlike most pop songs which will tack on strings almost as an afterthought, Mariachi music is very carefully orchestrated and arranged. It's a sign of just how good a job Mariachi El Bronx have done that each of the tracks on their latest release are beautiful examples of the above. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it's like listening to a chamber music ensemble where one of the instruments is also a vocalist. Perhaps because there's less emphasis on horns and brass instruments than there is in jazz or show bands it reminds me more of classical music than anything else. But I also think its the way everything works together to create a whole in a way that I've only heard in classical music before. All of which means these guys have done a remarkable job in making the jump from playing punk rock to playing Mariachi music.

Mariachi El Bronx II is not just an album that's remarkably good for a group of punks, its a remarkably good album period. The music ranges from being infectious enough to drag you to your feet to start dancing to introspective enough to have you listening to a song's lyrics and nodding in recognition. On the band's web site they talk about how living in California you hear Mariachi music being played all the time which is definitely not the case up here in Canada. Thankfully the boys in Mariachi El Bronx have taken their fascination with the music and let it inspire them to start performing it, giving those of us not lucky enough to live near where Mariachi music is played the opportunity to hear it anyway. This is a great album of great music by a great band - what more could you ask for?

(Article first published as Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II on Blogcritics)

July 18, 2011

Tinariwen Denied Visas To Enter Canada

Well it hasn't taken Steven Harper's newly elected majority government in Canada very long to embarrass Canada internationally and send a chill through the Canadian artistic community at the same time. The Malian based, internationally renowned Kel Tamashek band Tinariwen has been denied visas to enter Canada in order to perform twice in the past couple of months. First they were turned down for a visa so they could perform as scheduled at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and then when they re-applied in Los Angeles in order to make it to the Vancouver Folk Festival they were turned down again. It's not as if this is the first time the band has travelled to Canada as they've been performing here on a regular basis since 2004.

So why have they all of a sudden been denied entry to Canada? It can't be because of security problems as they have had no problems with gaining admission to the United States for that part of their North American tour. In fact if you check out their touring schedule listed at their web site you'll see they're booked to play almost every major music festival in Europe and around the world this summer, except of course for Canada. When asked for comment as to why they denied the band their visa's this year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada refused to say anything except each application is assessed on its merits. According to the spokesperson quoted in the Globe and Mail on July 15/11, Johanne Nedeau, they consider the profile of the event, invitations from the Canadian hosts and whether letters of support were received.

Okay, so the first event they were turned down for was the Winnipeg Folk Festival which has been on going since 1974. According to figures released by Tourism Winnipeg in 2009 the folk festival creates 244 jobs, generates $25 million in economic activity and its impact on Manitoba's Gross Domestic Product is around $14 million. For those of you who don't know Canada that well, Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, is not one of the richest provinces in Canada. It doesn't have the industry of Ontario, oil wells of Alberta or the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. It needs any little boost it can get and the Winnipeg Folk Festival with its annual attendance of over 70,000 per annum is not small potatoes.
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Artistically the festival has been attracting performers from across North America and around the world since it began. This year's festival was promising to be more of the same with acts like k.d Lang, Blue Rodeo, Lucinda Williams, Blackie and The Rodeo Kings and Little Feat from North America mixing with international performers like Omar Souleyman from North Africa, actor Tim Robbins and his Rogues Gallery Band and Toots and the Maytals from Jamaica. Not only do they hold there annual weekend concert series, the festival also runs year round programming to encourage and develop local talent and introduce young people to international music. I would think that qualifies them as a pretty high profile event both artistically and economically.

The Vancouver festival didn't get started until 1977, but it has more than made up for its late start by now. Being in a larger metropolitan centre hasn't hurt, and being on the West Coast of Canada also allows them access to bands in Asia that other festivals don't have. This year's acts include mainstream artists like Roseanne Cash, Josh Ritter and Gillian Welsh as well as international artists like Cassius Khan, Emmanuel Jal and Tinariwen - oops, not them, they weren't allowed into Canada that's right. The Vancouver festival is one of the major international folk gatherings each year. Bands and performers from around the world make sure to include it as part of their touring schedule. You wouldn't believe how many times I've requested information from publicists about whether their band was going to be performing in Canada only to find out they would only be showing up in Vancouver for the folk festival and nowhere else.

So I think we've established that both the Vancouver and Winnipeg Folk Festivals are significant events in the year's calendar, and we know Tinariwen was invited by each of the festivals to perform. As for the letters of support, upon finding out about the band being denied a visa for Winnipeg, two Canadian Members of Parliament wrote letters supporting their application for entry to perform in Vancouver. Yet somehow or other despite all the requirements for granting of a visa being met, Tinariwen still weren't allowed into Canada. One really has to wonder what was motivating the decision to refuse them entry.
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Tinariwen are fast becoming one of the biggest draws on the international music circuit. Support from main stream musicians like Robert Plant and others has given them a much higher profile than most international bands. Preventing the band from playing at these two folk festivals will definitely have an impact on their box offices as each event had scheduled them for a headlining concert - they were to have to been the opening night act in Vancouver. If one looks at the results from the last election, both British Columbia and Manitoba gave a healthy majority of their seats to the Conservative Party - so on the surface there doesn't appear to be any reason for political motivation. However, those most likely to attend and/or organize either one of these festivals are not the types who are liable to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is the same government who has already cancelled funding for a theatre festival because they did not agree with the content of a play performed in its previous season. Toronto's Summerworks Theatre Festival had its funding cancelled by the Department of Canadian Heritage because they staged a play the government didn't like. Only weeks before the festival is scheduled to begin they have been told its 2011 grant of around $48,000 was being pulled, an amount that represented 20% of the festivals budget. The message is clear, there's no such thing as arms length arts funding in Canada and if the government doesn't like you or your politics you can expect to be screwed over in one way or another.

Vancouver and Winnipeg's folk festival have paid the price for not representing Steven Harper's vision of Canada by having one of their biggest draws refused entry at the border. While cutting funding to artists is still the easiest way to silence them the government is also showing itself willing to find new and inventive ways of punishing those it can't touch through funding cuts. What kind of message is our government sending when it cuts funding to artists who express opinions different from their own and arbitrarily prevents others from crossing our borders? The one I'm hearing is if you don't agree with us we're going to make you suffer. In the long run it will be the people of Canada who suffer the most as we're gradually cut off from freedom of expression. Preventing Tinariwen from gaining admission to Canada is only the tip of the ice berg representing the beginning of what looks to be a big chill artistically in Canada. Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada have five years to do what they want, and it looks as if they're off to a flying start in reshaping the country in their image.

(Article first published as Tinariwen Denied Visas to Enter Canada on Blogcritics)

June 14, 2011

Music Review: Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra Versus Fanfare Ciocarlia - Balkan Brass Battle

Ah, gypsy music! The wild violins, the flamenco style guitar, the hammered strings of the cimbalom, the deep rumble of a double bass and the careening clarinet accompanying a tortured voice singing of love, religion, troubles and other aspects of their marginalized lives. In spite of the fact there are Romany people living across a span of territory stretching from India to Spain in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, most people tend to latch onto this one, very romantic, notion of what their music should sound like. While its true there are bands where the violin is important, the music can not only be radically different depending upon which country those who play it reside in, even within a single country it can change from province to province and town to town.

For not only were the Romany a nomadic people who absorbed the musical influences of those whose territories they passed through, they were also survivors who learned quickly how to adopt the music of the local dominant culture so they could earn their keep as entertainers. While in some cases it has become difficult to tell whether the Romany have adopted local folk traditions or vice versa, in others the non Romany influence is obvious. When the Ottoman Empire of Turkey swept up the Danube River through Eastern Europe, until they were halted at the gates of Vienna from entering the West, they brought with them a sound that was new to European ears. While marching bands, military bands especially, are now commonplace, they were first introduced to Europe by the conquering Turkish armies. Throughout the territories they occupied they brought with them their love of brass bands and those wishing to perform for the new rulers quickly learned to play what would sell.
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Not only did the Romany people under the Ottoman Empire pick up brass music, they gradually developed their own distinct styles of performance which reflected both their own musical heritage and the regions of Europe they lived in. Although it's only been recently this style of music has made its way over to North America, it is easily as popular and well known as what we refer to as "traditional" Romany music elsewhere. The Guca Festival of brass bands in Serbia, featuring Romany bands from across Europe, is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year and routinely draws over two hundred bands who compete for the title of champion brass band of Europe. One of the most celebrated contestants was Serbian native son the Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra, who, after receiving unprecedented high marks from all the judges in all the categories at the 2001 festival, no longer competes but performs as a special guest every year. Needless to say they were shocked when whispers began reaching their ears of a band of part time musicians from a small town in Romania who were gaining international recognition and acclaim and being talked about in the same reverential tones usually reserved for them.

Fanfare Ciocarlia from the tiny village of Zece Prajini, Moldavia in north eastern Romania were one of the last brass bands in the country. With no tradition to draw upon, and almost no contact with the outside world during the communist era, they developed their own unique approach to the music. Barnstorming through Western Europe and even North America, they have wowed audiences everywhere they've been. Somehow, the two bands never crossed paths until a few years ago, although each had been asked about the other by fans. Until now the two bands have never shared a stage, let alone been in the recording studio together, so there has been no way for aficionados of the music to compare the two and perhaps decide which is the better.

All that has changed with the release of Balkan Brass Battle on the German Asphalt Tango Records label and a whirlwind tour of European cities under the same name. The CD features both solo and combined performances from the bands, four tracks of each, as they stage a semi-mock competition for the title of King of the Romany Brass Bands. For those of you, like me, whose only previous experience with brass bands has been limited to marching and military bands or those euphemistically referred to as stage bands (massed brass instruments playing pop tunes a la the James Last Band) the music of these two groups will be nothing like you've heard before. Sure the instruments are the same as those used by the other types of bands, but the music produced is something else all together.
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I'm not even going to attempt to pass judgement on which of these two bands deserve the title of King of Brass Bands, but I will say that after listening to both of them I'll never be able to sit through any other type of brass music recital. It's like the difference between listening to a Muzak rendition of Jimi Hendrix and listening to the real thing. Aside from the occasional solo performance from the best jazz players, I've never heard these instruments played with the energy, passion and soul as they are in the hands of both these bands. Of the two the Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra are probably the one which sounds most like bands you might have heard before. However that's only because trumpets play a larger role in their sound than they do in Fanfare Ciocarlia. Occasionally you'll hear something in their trumpet playing that might strike you as familiar, the high silver sound we've come to identify with Mexican/Spanish trumpet playing for instance. But that's only one moment in one song and you quickly realize they have more ways of coaxing sound out of trumpets than you'd have thought possible.

Any of you who have seen the movie Borat will have already been exposed to Fanfare Ciocarlia as they were the band covering "Born To Be Wild". While the novelty of listening to that played on brass instruments made it fun to listen to, you'll soon realize how much more there is to this band than this tune. First of all, while it might have seemed like they were playing fast and furious on that rendition, judging by what you hear on this disc the reality is they were only playing at about half their potential speed. Unlike other bands who play flat out, the thing you quickly understand about Fanfare Ciocarlia is they aren't rushing. No matter what speed they play at each note is distinct and clearly defined so that we feel and hear even the smallest nuances. Unlike their Serbian counterparts whose main weapon is the trumpet, Fanfare are led into battle by their woodwinds, clarinet primarily, which gives them a much more distinctly Eastern European sound. You can easily believe how at one time Romany musicians joined forces with Jewish Klezmer bands when you hear the almost plaintive sound of the clarinet dart like a small bird through the thunder of the brass rhythm section.

While individually each band is a force to be reckoned with, on the four songs where they combine forces you have to wonder how the studio walls stayed standing under the onslaught. It's not just because of the volume of sound they produce, but because of the intensity of their music. In fact its hard to believe that the CD you're listening to has managed to capture all that was created during the recording sessions. Listen to the sound of the band member's voices in between and before the tracks and the joy and excitement they express just from being involved in the process. You'll quickly become aware of the limitations of even our most sophisticated technology. There's no way in hell it could have captured what all those voices represent during the recording of the music. We are able to hear the music and a good deal of the passion that has gone into its creation, but we can't see the smiles on the musicians faces, the laughter in their hearts or the pride in their souls.

If you are lucky enough to be in Europe at some point over the course of the summer of 2011 and you have the opportunity to witness one of the Balkan Brass Battles that will be occurring in cities throughout the continent, don't pass it up. Judging by what has been captured on this CD it will be a concert experience unlike any you have had before or are likely to have ever again. The rest of us will just have to make do with this recording, and be grateful that it at least exists. For those who have never experienced the uninhibited ferocity of either Fanfare Ciocarlia or the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra this disc will be a revelation as to what a brass band is capable of producing. Even those who might be familiar with one or other of the two bands will be amazed at how they each push the other to new heights. After listening to Balkan Brass Battle you'll feel like you've never heard brass band music before as everything else will pale in comparison.

(Article first published as Music Review: Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra & Fanfare Ciocarlia - Balkan Brass Battle on Blogcritics.)

April 18, 2011

Music Review: Azam Ali -From Night To The Edge Of Day

Is there anything more romantic than the image of a mother holding her babe in her arms and crooning a lullaby? I'm sure to most of us the idea conjures up images of times long since gone by. Lovely scenes of women sitting by a flickering fire with her baby at her feet in its cradle as she gently sings it off to sleep. The idea that a woman nowadays would have the time to sing, or even know, cradle songs is seems impossible. In our highly sophisticated and fast speeding world it's more likely mothers would have a recorder programmed to play soothing music to help baby nod off then have time in her day to sit with the child and sing.

This isn't a criticism of anything, it's just a fact of life. Anyway, lullabies weren't necessarily the sentimental thing we think they were. The image projected above is a highly romanticized version of reality probably. Sure mothers in the past have sung their babies to sleep, but the songs haven't all been about passing maternal love through music or attempts to soothe children to sleep. In some traditions cradle songs were the beginnings of a child's education. It was with them they would begin the process of learning communication as these were the first words they would hear. The songs would also mark the start of their initiation into the culture of their people and their subject matter would cover everything from simple morality to basic awareness.

In our selfish world we see lullabies as a means for a woman to build a one on one connection to her child. While that is all very well and good, it also means the child's first impressions of life are that it is the centre of the universe, and that universe revolves around one figure only. It may seem inconsequential to some of you how or what is sung to a child in a cradle, but if their earliest impressions are the world exists to gratify them and say nothing about what their responsibilities to the world will be, what kind of person do you imagine them growing up to be?
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On her newest release, From Night To The Edge Of Day on Six Degrees Records, Azim Ali has set down versions of the cradle songs she sang for her son. In exile from her Iranian homeland she wanted to ensure he was steeped in the culture of her people and their religion. So she sang him a mixture of traditional lullabies and adapted songs that would not only teach him about who he was, but his place in their world. Not being blind to the schisms that have set Muslim against Muslim over the years she chose to sing more than just songs from her Persian heritage, and the songs collected on the disc have been deliberately chosen to reflect the ethnic diversity within Islam.

Unlike in the world at large this means that Kurdish songs rest peacefully next to those from Turkey and Iraq, Sunni and Shiite stand together and the lesser known people of Azerbaijan are just as important as everyone else. While the songs are sung in the languages appropriate to their country or culture of origin, Ali has provided translations of each song in the CD's accompanying booklet. While a quick glance might make it appear that the songs are fairly typical protestations of a mother's lover for a child - the usual make the child the centre of the universe thing - closer attention will see there are phrases scattered throughout them to begin to open a child's eyes to the world around it. "You will not be mine for long" sings the mother in the traditional Iranian song "Mehman" (The Guest), recognizing that a child is only temporarily a parent's possession and he or she should use this time wisely to sleep while they are still sheltered.

Probably the most poignant lyrics of any of the songs on the disc are to be found in the one written especially for Ali's child by Palestinian oud player and singer Naser Musa. "Faith", is a beautiful song of hope for a better world for the child to grow up in. This from the pen of a man who has lived as a refugee for the majority of his life is a small miracle in itself, that it comes from a region where hate is far more common than hope is almost beyond belief. What would the world be like if people everywhere could rise above themselves and their situations to wish for a world where "childhood will be restored to the smiles of youth which were deprived of compassion" for those who are inheriting the earth from us? If parents around the world could find it inside themselves to whisper words of this sort into their child's ears instead of passing along our own prejudices as is our habit wouldn't the chances of peace be greatly improved?
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Musically Ali and those accompanying her on this disc have created a lush combination of traditional Arabic music and modern technology. While the club scene has what it calls its trance music, after hearing the arrangements and playing on this disc, you realize it is a pale facsimile of what can be expressed with the genre. While any of the former I've heard seems designed to reduce people to a drone like status, unthinking and unemotional automatons blissed out on their electronic drug noise, this music enlivens the senses instead of numbing them. Like the Dervishes of old who would use dance and music to obtain a higher state of being that would allow them to open themselves up to the glories of the universe, the music created by Ali and co-producer (and husband) Loga Ramin Torkjan is designed to open the listener up not close them down.

Of course Ali's rich and expressive voice is the focal point, but all the instruments are distinguishable within the mix of sounds each song is composed of. Here trance music does not mean simply a drone of sound lulling you into submission, it is instruments working together to form a texture or atmosphere that opens your mind to the emotions and mood of each song. True the intent of a lullaby is to send an infant safely off into sleep, but while some would employ them simply to put a child to sleep, these songs are also shaping the nature of a child's dreams allowing him or her to have their first experience, in one way or another, of the world beyond themselves.

Azam Ali's collection of lullabies gathered from throughout the Islamic world is a reminder that parents the world over dream of a better world for their children. While the songs point out the differences between our cultures in some ways, the love a parent feels for a child isn't unique to any one people. What we do with that love and how we express it dictates how our children see the world and what they bring to it. If more parents were willing to offer the kind of messages found on this CD to their children, messages of love, hope and faith, don't you think they'd have a chance at a better life? Isn't that worth at least making the effort to ensure the messages we pass on to our children aren't the same ones we were given?

(Article first published as Music Review: Azam Ali - From Night to The Edge of Day on Blogcritics)

April 10, 2011

Concert Review: Jackson Browne Live In Kingston Ontario April 8 2011

I'm beginning to understand why some performers stop touring. Aside from the wear and tear it takes on them personally and how it takes them away from family and loved ones, there's having to put up with the array of idiots who show up for concerts. Why is it that people think that attending a concert gives them permission to act with complete disregard for either the performer or those in the audience around them? Perhaps more pertinent is the question why a facility would not only be unequipped to enforce their own policies, but create an environment which fosters this sort of behaviour. We are asked to pay upwards to $100.00 per ticket to attend an event only to be forced to put up with drunken assholes carrying on conversations at the top of their lungs, people talking on their cell phones during the concert (and talking loudly enough to make sure they can hear themselves over the music) and having our eyes continually assaulted by the illegal use of camera flash equipment.

Sure concerts are going to be boisterous events; a large group of excited people brought together to listen to something as stimulating as popular music isn't going to be restrained. However, considering that, is it really a good idea to sell alcohol, and allow people to take cans and bottles back to their seats, during these events? Isn't that just adding gasoline to a fire? When I used to attend concerts back in the dark ages of the late 20th century everybody entering the arena was at least patted down to see if they were carrying anything and bags were opened to make sure no one had camera, recording equipment, or bottles. The latter would be confiscated while in the case of the former the person carrying them would be given the option of either leaving them with security personal and collecting them after the concert or turning around and going home.

Last night, Friday April 8 2011, someone who I've been wanting to see since the late 1970s performed in Kingston Ontario. To be honest I never thought Jackson Browne would show up here, but on Wednesday, April 6 2011, I found out he was going to be playing at the local arena, the K-Rock Centre. After a brief flurry of e-mails I was able to not only arrange for tickets to the event but permission to photograph with Jackson Browne's management/public relations team in California, Jensen Communications. I had originally asked about the chances of interviewing Browne, and they were most apologetic saying that no on site interviews were being conducted, but would I be interested in tickets and a photo pass. Even though I had already purchased tickets on my own, I gave them to a friend for a birthday present, I was thrilled. Not only could we attend the concert, my wife, who has among many careers been a professional photographer, would be able to take photos. Sure there were stipulations, no flash, only during the first three songs and only from the designated area, but since we figured no one else was even going to be allowed to take photos, this was great.
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While I'm enormously pissed off at the facility for not only their inadequate security and lack of staffing in the arena - there was no one in the section I ending up sitting in to show people where their seats were, even after the concert started, which resulted in people trying to find their seats on their own in the dark - I have to say the individual working with the media not only did a fine job, she went above and beyond what was required. She not only did her best to accommodated the needs of each photographer, she made sure my wife who suffers from vertigo was escorted directly to her seat.

Of course by then I was wondering why they had even bothered with requiring us to sign a permission release for taking photos as the whole damned arena exploded with flash eruptions the second Browne took the stage. Not only that, but the press photographers were all forced to cram themselves into a nook beside the stage and shoot sideways across while standing on wires and cables. They were also the only ones who apparently had to surrender their cameras before they were allowed into see the show, as while all around me people were taking pictures my wife's cameras were sitting at a security station.

What about the concert itself? Well it was Jackson Browne on his own, either sitting at a piano or with a guitar, running through his entire repertoire. It should have been an amazing experience, as the man is one of the most heart-felt and gifted singer writers around, and at times it was. When the audience allowed him to sit and play he immersed himself in the music and transported us along with him. Initially he attempted to keep things loose and friendly, allowing the audience to suggest songs and happily agreeing with the requests. Unfortunately, due to the audience, this process gradually became a distraction. As a result, every time he tried to talk to the audience he was shouted down by requests for the same four songs over and over again.

Thankfully Browne's a wonderful enough performer he was able to rise above the circumstances and deliver moments of pure magic. There aren't many people who can sit alone on stage and command one's attention to the extent he was able to on this night when given the chance. "Fountains Of Sorrow" has always been one of my favourite songs of his, and his performance of it was everything I could have wished for. That's not to say there was anything lacking with any of the material as Browne didn't skimp or hold back ever. There were songs I was disappointed not to hear, but some of his material just wouldn't translated from the full band sound to solo that well. Although I would have preferred to hear "Looking East" and "I'm Alive" over crowd favourites "Rosie" and "The Load Out/Stay" any day of the week.
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That being said, he did a remarkable job of taking familiar pieces and transposing them for solo performance. The versions of "Running On Empty", "Taking It Easy", and "The Pretender" he delivered on this night were not only adapted for solo performer, they seemed far more introspective than the studio versions. Slowed down, and without a rock and roll accompaniment propelling them, the first two songs were far more coloured by the patina of memory then ever before, and much more emotionally powerful for it. To be honest I'd never been the biggest fan of either song, as I thought that Browne had been a bit young at the time to write something as retrospective as "Running", and there was always something just a little distasteful about "Taking It Easy", its homage to 1970s California Me Decade hedonism, always rubbed me the wrong way. However, as they were performed on this night, more then thirty years after each were written, there was a certain wistfulness for days gone by - a loss of innocence mourned and life was simpler then - (not better ) that lent them a compelling air neither have had before and far easier to accept and believe as a result.

Quite a number of songs he played over the course of the evening could have easily be called memory songs. Not nostalgia for a better time, but a looking back on the hopes and dreams of a generation. A song I hadn't heard before, and the title escapes me, recounted an encounter he had with a young woman during a concert forty years ago. He introduced it with a rather sheepish laugh about the days of "free love" (which resulted in the disappointing but hardly unexpected reaction from the idiots in the crowd). What could have been an awkward or sentimental song in the hands of another was under Browne's delicate touch a sweetly gentle reminder of what was actually meant by the "free" in free love. It was something individuals could control, not another commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. It was free not in the sense of everybody should take what they want from whomever they wanted, but in it is the one thing that is ours to give as we choose, which makes it all the more precious.

Jackson Browne has shown he has the ability to transcend the usual simplicity associated with the popular music format through the depth of his integrity and his heart centred music. Compassion, humour, intelligence and an acute awareness of the world around him combined have over the years allowed him to write songs that speak truths about subjects as diverse as love, war and the human condition in general without ever falling into the trap of sentimentality, offering simplistic solutions to complex issues or knee-jerk reactions. Seeing him in performance one can't help but be struck by his generosity of spirit and the genuineness of his sincerity..

However that doesn't mean time has not had its effect on him, but like an oak age has merely made him sturdier and increased his substance rather than wearing him down and eroding his message. Proof of this can be found on his most recent release, Love Is Strange, a two disc recording of concerts he gave in Spain with his long time confederate, musician and polyester fashion statement, David Lindley and various friends of theirs. It's only a pity those of us who attended the concert in Kingston Ontario on Friday April 8 2011 were not given the opportunity to appreciate Jackson Browne's abilities to their fullest. It's a shame when such a talented artist's performance is overshadowed by a facility's inability to properly stage an event. Only Browne's extraordinary abilities allowed those in the audience there for his music a chance to enjoy the experience at all as Kingston's K-Rock Centre failed dismally in its responsibilities as host.

(Photo Credits : Jackson Browne in concert Eriana Marcus. Portrait of Jackson Browne Danny Clinch)

(Article first published as Concert Review: Jackson Browne - Kingston, Ontario, April 8, 2011 on Blogcritics.)

March 24, 2011

Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down

Musical styles come in and out of fashion as often, if not more frequently, than clothing styles. However, unlike trends in clothing or other transitory fads, many of the musical genres which become flavours of the month had their small pool of adherents who both played it before it became popular and continue to play it long after its popularity has waned. Ironically it's not even those who have been playing and keeping the genre alive who are usually the ones who enjoy the benefits of their style's fifteen minutes in the spotlight as they aren't usually the types a record company feels comfortable with as star material.

Once the brief flurry of interest in the genre has died down most go back to being played and appreciated by those who had all along, while everybody else has moved on to the next "new" discovery. Sometimes the only record to mark a genre's passing is if a commercially viable form of the music is created which allows for the creation of a new top one hundred chart in its name. Aside from that, for most of the world it's as if the music ceased to exist as miraculously as it appeared. Thankfully, that's not usually the case, it's just that the music is out of the public eye again, but it's still being played and recorded if you know who to look for.

Ever since the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? was released about a decade ago there have been periodic revivals of interest in what's called everything from roots music to Americana. Now most of the songs used in the soundtrack were familiar to people already, but what made them so fresh was they were performed in the style they would have been during the time the movie took place. Instead of the overblown production that's been associated with country music for the last thirty or forty years, the songs were stripped down to their basics and sounded amazing. Somehow or other though, that point got lost, and it's become harder and harder to hear the music played as it was originally.
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Thankfully, for those who want to hear this music played as it should be, there remain select groups of musicians scattered around the country dedicated to keeping the legacy of this music alive. One of the finest examples of this are Eden & John's East River String Band. Eden and John are Eden Brower (ukulele, kazoo and vocals) and John Heneghan (guitar and vocals), and on their latest disc, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, the band is rounded out by Robert Crumb (mandolin), Pat Conte (fiddle) and Dom Flemons (guitar). (For those wondering, Robert Crumb is indeed the illustrator of underground comics from the 1970s. Not only does he play with the band on occasion, he has created all their album artwork).

On this disc the band has focused on traditional songs and adapted and arranged them to suit their needs. One of the first things you'll notice when looking at the album credits is the lack of any mention as to who has written the material. These songs have obtained the status of being so ingrained into the social and artistic fabric of American culture who wrote them no longer matters; they are a part of the country's cultural heritage in the same way songs like "John Barley Corn" are part of the heritage of the British Isles. In fact two of the titles on the disc are most likely ones that a high percentage of Americans will hear at least once in their lives and whose names will be recognized by nearly as many: "Oh Suzanna" and "Swanee River".

Both songs were written by the first great composer of American popular music, Stephen Foster, in 1848 and 1851 respectively. A product of their times, their original lyrics aren't what anybody would call racially sensitive as they were written in faux slave dialect, and in the case of "Swanee", have the narrator yearning for life on the plantation and by implication life as a slave. Both songs gained their initial popularity through being performed in "Minstral Shows", white performers appearing in black face singing and playing Dixieland jazz style music. While this may sound offensive to us, the songs were a reflection of contemporary attitudes and in no way diminishes their quality musically.
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While these two songs are well known, others of the fourteen included on the disc have a slightly more obscure provenance. Take "On The Banks Of The Kaney", it was originally recorded in 1929 by Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, a Choctaw Indian string band from Oklahoma. From what little I was able to find out about this group they wrote and recorded songs for Choctaw audiences and were discovered playing at the Choctaw Indian Fair in Mississippi. Just like the fact there were African American string, or country/bluegrass type bands, back in the 1920s and 1930s has almost been forgotten, probably very few people are aware there were Native American bands as well. That alone would make contemporary recordings of this song and the others on the disc worthwhile, but these are more than just dusty pieces of history of interest only to musicologists.

For, as performed by Eden and John and friends they sound as fresh and alive as if they were written today. The combination of their enthusiasm, energy, skill and the sense that all of them are having the time of their lives playing the songs on the disc make it far more enjoyable to listen to than the majority of contemporary music. There's something irrepressible about Eden's vocals which makes her sound like she's tapped into the secret of knowing how to have the best time in the world. She and the rest of the band might take their playing seriously and are as good a group of instrumentalists as you'll find anywhere, but they don't take themselves seriously and always remember to have fun with what they're doing. Maybe it's the fact that a kazoo features predominately in the mix on quite a number of tunes (I've always had a soft sport for a well played kazoo), but listening to this disc was the most fun I've had listening to music in a long while.

With all the the talk of Americana and roots music, the irony is how much of the real roots of American popular music is still being ignored today. Or even worse, far too many people forget that it was meant to be listened to and enjoyed. They forget that it was performed at county fairs under tents so people could try and forget about the troubles of the world for a little while. Sure its important culturally as it integrated African and European music in ways that had never happened before, but it was also the dance and good time music of the day.

The music on Be Kind To A Man When He's Down comes from another age - spanning the years from just before the American Civil War to just before WWII - but it can bring a smile to your face and a spring to your step far more readily than most of what passes for popular music today. In these days of war, famine, pollution and other horrors it's hard to remember there was a less cynical time when music could make you feel glad to alive. This album is not only a collection of timeless treasures, it's a reminder that popular music can be fun. Be Kind To Be A Man When He's Down is available in both CD and 180 gram yellow vinyl. If you have a turntable buy the LP as that way you can not only enjoy a full sized piece of Robert Crumb's art, but I have a feeling this is the type of music that will be best appreciated listened to on a turntable.

(Article first published as Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down on Blogcritics.)

March 17, 2011

Music Review: A Hawk and a Hacksaw -Cervantine

A couple of my pet peeves are things I call cultural colonialism and cultural appropriation. In some ways they're close to being the same thing, in that it usually involves a person of one culture stealing from another for a variety of reasons. Quite a number of times it means a member of the dominant Western culture looking upon something from across the world, seeing it as exotic and then picking out the bits and pieces of it that amuse them without ever bothering to learn about the context they came from.

In some ways it's a lot like putting on a police officer's uniform because you like the way it looks and then walking the streets. You may look like a cop on the surface, but the reality is you nothing of what doing the job involves. Most of those who are cultural appropriators are guilty of something similar. They dress themselves up in the trappings of a culture without knowing what it really means. Whether it is the pop star who picks up the sitar because it sounds cool or the new age musician who tries to make themselves sound more "spiritual" by using Native American flutes in their compositions, it amounts to little more than thievery.

However, music is supposed to be a universal language is it not? We're always hearing stories of musicians from different backgrounds getting together and being able to find common ground through the instruments they play even if they can't speak each others language. There are also classical musicians who spend years studying and training in order to be able to play whatever music they chose, including pieces written by composers from other cultures and times. Their study have not only given them the technical ability to play a multitude of music and styles, but the means to understand the context they were written in. If a musician is willing to immerse themselves in a culture, or the music, then he or she will be able to play it, no matter what their own background.
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Which goes a long way in explaining how a band from New Mexico in the United States can play the music of the Balkans and Eastern Europe and sound like they were born to it. On their most recent release, Cervantine, on their own L&M Duplication label and distributed by Midheaven, A Hawk And A Hacksaw perform eight glorious songs which not only sound like they're being played by people from their originating regions, but people steeped in its musical traditions.

Starting in 2004 core members and founders, Jeremy Barnes (accordion and percussion) and Heather Trost (violin/viola) made a pilgrimage through Eastern Europe learning and experiencing the music of the Roma, Hungary and the Eastern European and Asian influences that have permeated both. For two years they were based out of Budapest, Hungary and toured Europe with some of that country's finest musicians. They have played on the streets of Amsterdam with Roma, a road outside of Jaffa, in Israel, for Palestinians and Hassidic Jews and in a small village in Romania, in a house with no running water, recorded with the famed Fanfare Ciocarlia (The band who play "Born To Be Wild" in Borat) However, in spite of the obvious influences these adventures have had on the band, they say they have no interest in simply recreating the music they've heard or in being some kind of ethnographic sampler.

All it takes is just listening to the opening track on the CD to hear they how well they live up their word. Sure "No Rest For The Wicked", a knock down, drag out, wicked, almost eight minute long instrumental piece, starts off sounding like your fairly typical Roma/Eastern European/Klezmar mix - which when you think about it isn't so typical to begin with - but they throw in this sudden break where the music slows to almost a stop, and when it picks up again the song has morphed into something different. In some ways it's almost as if they've taken the title of the song and translated it into musical action; the music might slow down, the beat might change, hell even the tune might not always sound the same, but there can be no rest for the wicked.

They've got a crazy sense of humour these folk who call themselves Hawk and a Hacksaw. But they also play music that shakes the earth. It's got a pull you can't help but respond to; something that reaches right inside and appeals to some part you might not even know exists and sets your blood to stirring. They've tapped into something that would be downright scary if it weren't so exhilarating, and then translated it into music. Perhaps it's because they are able to draw upon musical traditions from cultures normally in opposition to each other, like Turkey and Greece in "Mana Thelo Enan Andra", and create something beautiful out of a centuries long hatred, that we respond so readily to what they have to offer. On the other hand it could be just because they are such bloody wonderful musicians and they could play anything and make it a miracle of sound.
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While the majority of the emphasis is placed on the instruments, when their is need for a vocalist Stephanie Hladowski steps centre stage and is a match for anything her band mates throw at her. Her voice is filled with the raw passion of a violin scrapped raw by its bow but her control is such that she can turn it from a caress into a challenge in the blink of an eye. There is none of the awful refinement to her that you'll find in pop singers and their meaningless songs of adolescent romance, instead you'll hear the grief and joy of lives lived to their fullest echoing through her singing.

The instruments you'll hear played on this disc are as diverse as the countries represented by the music. Chris Hladowki's Greek bouzouki, Issa Mallug's Turkish dumbek and riq, Samuel Johnson's trumpet and flugelhorn, Mark Weaver's tuba and euphonium and Charles Papaya's bass drum and cymbal swirl, keen, pound, stomp, and soar in a kind of frenzy that occasionally borders on the chaotic, but which never actually loses control. Listening to them play is like watching the funnel cloud of a tornado and being amazed a thing of such uncontrolled power can hold its shape.

Listening to Cervantine you'll hear the sound of the Balkans, mixed with Klezmer, rhythms from Turkey and tinges of the Latino sound of the band's native New Mexico. While on the surface that sounds like it has the potential to be a discordant mess, Hawk and a Hacksaw somehow weave it all together to make incredible music. Anyone who ever doubted that the music of such diverse cultures could be brought together in harmony only needs listen to this band at work to become a believer. This is truly world music.

(Article first published as Music Review: A Hawk And A Hacksaw - Cervantine on Blogcritics)

February 24, 2011

Music Review: Johnny Cash - Bootleg Vol. ll - From Memphis To Hollywood

One of the things I dislike most about the music industry is the way the compartmentalization of popular music limits people's view of each genre to the industry's definitions. As a result most people's perceptions of each musical genre are limited to what they hear on the radio, meaning the majority only hear the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what they each have to offer. This has been going on for ages of course, which along with bad drugs and greed explains why there are still people to this day who are convinced Duran Duran are representative of music in the 1980s and have never heard of the Talking Heads.

As far as I'm concerned the genre which has been most misrepresented over the years though has been country, or, God help us, country and western, music. Each new generation of radio listeners, and now video watchers, has been presented with the lowest common denominator as representative of the entire genre. All of which means is decade after decade we've been swamped with sentimental songs about broken hearts, cheating wives/husbands and undying devotion. Kenny Rodgers, Shania Twain and a cast of assorted other slick and polished figures may have made the industry millions of dollars with their cherished cross over appeal, but they also created such a horrible misconception of the genre large numbers of us would never have discovered its real potential except by accident.
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What they call country music these days has its roots in the Anglo/Scot/Irish folk songs brought over by those who settled in the Tennessee mountains. They adopted the banjo from the African Americans, who had brought with them from Africa, and the six stringed guitar soldiers returning from the Spanish American wars brought home with them from Cuba. Lyrics of old songs were changed to suit their new lives and for a largely illiterate population it was easier to learn song lyrics than read the hymns in church each week resulting in the creation of simple devotional songs based on familiar Bible stories. With the depression in the 1920s and people being forced on the road the music spread across the country. It was only natural people like Woody Guthrie used the same tunes they had heard at home as the basis for the material they wrote out in the world, whether protesting about working conditions or describing life trying to survive the dust bowl.

Unfortunately, based on what I had heard on the radio, I knew nothing about that type of country music until much later in life. Which is one of the reason I was so late in coming to Johnny Cash. It wasn't that I had never heard of him, it was, if I paid any attention at all to him it was to simply lump him in with what I was hearing on the radio and not bother checking out his music. Of course the first time I heard him that changed. How can you hear his voice and not be affected by it? Even when he's singing some of his more sentimental stuff, the type of song in another person's hands that would have you reaching for a bucket, there's a quality of honesty to his voice which makes it impossible not to believe him or ever doubt his sincerity. For those of you who may never have experienced, or maybe somehow forgotten, what Cash's voice can do to you, the latest release from Legacy Recordings of previously unreleased or unheard material from the earlier part of his career, Bootleg Volume ll - From Memphis To Hollywood, available to purchase on February 22 2011, provides ample examples of what made him so damn special.
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The two disc set, with extensive liner notes giving the history of each piece, is divided up according to the year the material was recorded or performed. Disc one, the 1950s, is divided up into four parts. The first part is an entire radio broadcast, including Cash reading commercials for the Home Equipment Company, that was originally broadcast on August 4 1955. This show was the first recording ever of Cash and his band, The Tennessee Two, Luther Perkins on electric guitar and Marshall Grant on upright bass, performing live and his nervousness shows during his in between song patter. However it's the songs that really matter, and what struck me the most is if I hadn't known these were recorded in the fifties, there was no way I could have told you by listening to him when the broadcast had taken place. Even at this early stage in his career he sounds like the voice of ages; a voice that carries the scars of having seen the best and the worst of what humans are capable of doing to each other.

The second part was for me the most intriguing, and best part of this disc, as the fourteen tracks, feature Cash accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. These are the earliest versions of some of his most famous material: "Walk The Line", "Get Rhythm", "Belshazzar" and "Leave That Junk Alone" to name just a few. Recorded between 1954 and 1957 when he was still with Sun Records they are not only an indication of the multiple directions his career would take thematically, but musically as well. Even this early acoustic version of "Get Rhythm" can't hide the fact it had all the elements required for a classic rock and roll song and Cash does an amazing job of making it move with just his voice and guitar. A couple of songs later he's moved over into gospel, and while "He'll Be A Friend" is a typical country gospel peon in praise of Jesus, "Belshazzar" is an Old Testament rocker more along the lines of what you'd expect to hear in an African American church.

What really shines through on all the demos, and on all the tracks on this early disc for that matter, is his voice. All the expressiveness he would become famous for is there, as is the rough hewn quality, if a Tennessee oak could sing it would sound like Cash, making his a voice an audience could identify with far easier than any polished pop star. Long before Dylan draped himself with the "voice of the people" mantle a la Woody Guthrie, Cash was not only singing in a voice that sounded like your neighbour's, he was singing about things you were familiar with. In rural communities across the country his was the one voice they probably heard from the outside world they could recognize as being one of their own. Yet, even today, when some of the material is dated or might sound a little hokey, these songs appeal because you never once doubt his sincerity. He's not trying to sell you a line or convince you to be who he is, he's just telling you what he believes with an integrity you can't help but respect.
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Disc two is primarily B sides of singles and other material that never made it onto albums when Cash was signed to Columbia Records in the 1960s. Some of them have made it onto records in other versions - his recording of Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings" for instance was not only on Dylan's Nashville Skyline but recorded as a duet with June Carter Cash and again with Waylon Jennings. (If you've never seen it you should really check out this video of Cash and Dylan recording "One Too Many Mornings") The main thing you'll notice about the material he's doing in the 1960s is how Cash was starting to expand his base. It wasn't just Dylan's music he was performing, he was also reaching way into the past to record American folk music by Steven Foster, "There's A Mother Always Waiting" plus contemporary stuff like "The Frozen Logger" by James Stevens and "Girl From Saskatoon" which he co-wrote with Johnny Horton. (It has to be the earliest popular music references to the town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada - of course the Guess Who raised much confusion among their American fans by naming a song "Running Back To Saskatoon" - but that was years later).

There's also an oddity on this second disc, "Shifting, Whispering Sands", featuring a spoken word performance by Lorne Greene. This song was recorded in 1962 when Pa Cartwright was riding high in the saddle every Sunday night on Bonanza. This is definitely the lowest point of the disc as far as I'm concerned, but thankfully it's not too long and easily forgotten what with twenty-four other songs on this disc. There were also some pleasant surprises as well. I hadn't known Cash had written one of my favourite sarcastic songs, "Foolish Questions", and his dry delivery is absolutely letter perfect as he pokes fun at people's habit of asking stupid questions.

Even on such stinkers as the Lorne Greene piece, Cash's presence shines through. He had a voice which probably would have allowed him to sing the phone book and still be able to keep an audience riveted. Bootleg Volume ll - From Memphis To Hollywood gathers together close to sixty demos, unreleased tracks and other material from the 1950s and 1960s which proves that right from his earliest recordings Cash's voice was unique in music in the way it allowed him to connect to his audience. There have been few artists before, and since, Cash who have been as genuine in their delivery of their material and these two discs testify to his greatness. If you've never really appreciated his voice before, this collection can't help but impress upon you just what a gift it was and how the world is a lot less interesting now that its gone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Johnny Cash - Bootleg Volume ll - From Memphis To Hollywood on Blogcritics.)

February 16, 2011

Music Review: Andrea Gauster - Reverie & We're Not Lost

Love songs on Valentine's Day are usually about as appealing to me as a prostrate exam. In fact, now that I think of it they have a lot in common. Both involve someone you don't know well being a royal pain in the ass and inflicting themselves upon you for no other reason than they can. At least the person doing the prostrate exam has something passing for an excuse for trying to make tears well up in your eyes which is more than the person singing about either their broken heart or their truest love can say.

It's obvious I'm a cynical bastard who can't be moved by anyone or anything. Well you're only half right. I am a cynical bastard and have had my fill of watching people have their emotions manipulated by politicians, singers, advertising executives and all the other whores out there trying to get you to open your wallet by squeezing your heart with sentimentality and false feelings. None of which means I can't be moved by genuine emotions, including songs about the weirdness that passes for relationships between human beings. You see my problem isn't so much love songs, it's the fact they usually reduce something as complex as the interaction between two human beings to a pithy phrases or cute hook.
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All of which means that when I come across someone who not only makes the effort to delve a little deeper than normal into those murky depths, but does so with intelligence and flashes of quirky humour, I want to make sure as many people know about them as possible. So the other night when my wife came home and said she had seen this really amazing young woman performing I was intrigued enough to listen to the two CDs she brought home with her. Most of you won't have heard of Andrea Gauster yet, or probably know any of the material from either her six song debut CD Reverie or her follow up full length release from August 2010, We're Not Lost, both on the Toronto Canada based independent Broken Window Records label, but you should run, not walk, to either buy or download either one you can get your hands on as soon as possible.

The first thing you'll notice about Gauster is the fullness of her voice. In a world filled with pop tarts with squeaking out three minutes of drivel about either their cheating boy friends or their undying devotion to the same, the shock of hearing a voice with range and expression was so great I didn't even start listening to her lyrics until playing her CDs a second time. What got to me was the complete absence of artifice; there was no climbing up into the nether reaches of a scale in an attempt to show the depth of her emotion, just a real woman's voice singing. The hardest thing for any performer to do is to simply be, to open up and let their voice come out the way it wants dependant on how what you're doing or saying affects it.

There are very few performers out there who are either allowed to or let themselves be that exposed and vulnerable when they sing. By that I mean honesty, not wearing a bleeding heart on your sleeve to show the world what a sensitive guy or gal you are. As I was listening to Gauster singing I was puzzled as to why she was one moment reminding me of the wonderful Canadian folk singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle and then the next moment making me think of the haunting country/gospel voice of Iris DeMent. While the four women sound almost nothing alike what they share is that wonderful ability to centre themselves in their material and let it guide their performance.
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As I implied earlier the majority of the songs on her recordings are about what goes on between two people, which for a lack of a better term are usually called love songs. However, there's nothing usual or typical about any of Gauster's material. I mean how many love songs do you know with titles like "Tandoori Chicken"? Yet listen to the lyrics and its full of the mundane shit in life that passes between two people which somehow add up to a relationship and love. "Your underwear on my floor/your blond hair in my Tandoori Chicken/I cooked all day/come sit down this should not go to waste". Now, that's not what you'd call romance, but the song is all about familiarity breeding love. How "when your flaws are the reason I love you just the way you are", is more a proclamation of love than a dozen roses or avowals of eternal devotion will ever be.

Of course she also deals with the some of the nastier aspects of the games we play when it comes to the couple thing in a kind of stream of conscience babel about another woman called "Secrets". "And am I so wrong to wonder why/you can live your life lost in your mind/a place so empty, you have betrayed/every thought but how to get laid". But then she admits to something of her own feelings of inadequacy by saying she doesn't know how to compete with a woman like her "and though I try on most days/to put on a face I can display/I sometimes wish I could pay the world to look away". Yet she still manages to find a defiant note to end on, for even though she likes pleasure just as much as the next person she's not about to make it her life's work to find it. "I choose to see the world I'm living in /that doesn't mean I'm not enjoying it/oh I'm enjoying it/ya I quite like it/so eat shit".
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What makes this song work so well is how much of what's really behind the words Gauster lets through while singing. There's a real sense of how difficult it is for her to not envy the other, obviously more physically attractive woman, and how much she's warring with her desire to put her down in order to feel better about herself. As a man there have been times in my life where I've run through the same gamut, putting down the guys who seemed to be able to get laid whenever they wanted as shallow and vacant while part of me was eating my heart out with envy. There comes a point though when you grow out of that and realize you both can't, and don't want to, play that game and you don't care what anybody has to say about decision not to.

What's really quite amazing about both the EP ReverieWe're Not Lost is Andrea Gauster's ability to pull you into her material when basically she's a solo act accompanied only by her guitar. Sure other instruments make their appearances on various tracks, but the production team have done a great job of keeping her front and centre at all times so our focus is squarely on her. With a less interesting performer, or one lacking what's necessary to hold a listener's attention, that can be a recipe for disaster. However that's not the case with either of these discs as the combination of Gauster's vocal abilities and song writing talents are more than enough to keep a listener's attention.

Andrea Gauster is a rarity (aside from her musical career she's also a medical student at Queen's University in Kingston Ontario) as she's not only able to write songs about relationships based in reality, she's able to sing them in a way that rings true. By the time you read this Valentine's Day will most likely have been and gone but that shouldn't stop you from running out and buying one or the other, if not both, of her releases and listening to some of the best songs about love and the whole damn thing you'll have heard in a good many years.

(Photo of Andrea Gauster taken by Bob MacKenzie February 10 2011 at The Mug & Truffle, Kingston Ontario)

(Article first published as Music Review: Andrea Gauster - Reverie & "We're Not Lost on Blogcritics.)

February 13, 2011

Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree

I can still remember the first time I heard a recording of Lotte Lenya singing. It was the original cast recording of the first English production of the Kurt Weill, Bertol Brecht play The Threepenny Opera. While the rest of the cast sang their material with the glossy voices you expect in American musical theatre, Lenya's voice was as coarse as rough sand paper and a wonderful relief from the parade of characterless voices which had proceeded it. Brecht and Weill's biting piece of social commentary had been turned into a pretty piece of musical theatre with Lenya's performance being the only tie to its roots in the political theatre of Germany in the 1920s and 30s.

Brecht hadn't been interested in creating pieces of escapist entertainment, and strove to rid performances of the sentimental attachment the audiences made to the characters in a play. His theory of "alienation" was to constantly remind the audience they were watching actors on stage performing in a play so their intellect wouldn't be clouded by forming any sort of emotional attachment to the characters. He wanted performers with real and gritty singing voices; people who weren't your typical matinee idols playing the romantic hero to the young ingenue. While there was far more to his alienation technique than his preference in actors, its something to keep in mind when listening to Gypsy In A Tree, the new CD from Sanda Weigl (she is referred to by her first name only) on the Brooklyn NY Barbes Records label.
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For while Sanda was born in Romania her family moved to East Berlin in the early 1960s. As a child she had loved to watch the gypsy street musicians in her home of Bucharest, and quickly learned to sing the songs she heard them performing and had even been a child star on Romanian State television. In Berlin, her aunt, Helene Weigel, who was not only Brecht's widow but had taken over the running of his company The Berliner Ensemble, Sanda under her wing and introduced her to Brecht and Weill's style of musical theatre. From there she graduated to being the member of a rock band and also winning the Dresden International Song Festival when she was 17 with her rendition of a traditional Roma (Gypsy) tune "Recruit". In 1968, when the Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put down the reform movement, she joined an underground student group to protest the invasion and East Germany's oppressive rule and was subsequently arrested, sentenced to three years of hard labour and then exiled as an enemy of the state to West Berlin.

In West Berlin Sanda returned to the theatre and her first love, the music of the Roma she had heard as a child. She began performing again with a band made up of musicians from the Tom Waits (music and lyrics) and William S Burroughs (book) musical The Black Rider which was originally staged in Germany. Encouraged by Black Rider's director, Robert Wilson, she and her husband emigrated to New York City to allow her to further her singing career. Since her arrival in New York City she has continued to perform and released her first disc in 2002, Gypsy Killer, and now, nine years latter, she has finally released her follow up. Ten of the eleven tracks on Gypsy In A Tree are traditional Roma songs which Sanda has adapted and arranged with the help of pianist Anthony Coleman and her current band, avant-garde jazz musicians Shoko Nagai (accordion, piano and Farfisa organ) Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (percussion).

While Sanda sings in Romanian (the booklet accompanying the CD provides copies of each song's lyrics in Romanian, English and German) the music builds off the traditional melodies to reflect the many cultures and countries both Sanda and the Roma have been influenced by and travelled through. So while the opening song on the disc, "Intr-o Ai La Poarta Mea" (One Day In Front Of My Fence) sounds like it could have been lifted directly from the stages of Brecht and Weill's 1920s Germany, the very next song, "Un Tigan Avea O Casa" (A Gypsy Had A House) shows definite signs of modern jazz influences.

However, no matter what musical style has been incorporated, Sanda's vocals are so mesmerizing they are the listeners primary focus. She has a range that would be the envy of any musical theatre performer and an expressiveness that conveys meaning even though we might not understand the words she's singing. Reading the English translations of the songs alone doesn't convey the depth of feeling behind the lyrics, and Sanda is able to imbue each of the songs with what is necessary to convey the layers beneath the surface.
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Take the song "Jandarmul" (Gendarme - Romanian Gypsy word for a member of the cavalry) where a horseman refuses to give a young Roma girl a lift as she trudges along barefoot in a muddy road. On the page it sounds like she merely wishes him misfortune when she asks, "Oh Lord, dear Lord, make the rains so heavy/ That all the land is flooded/The horse stumbles in the mud/And the roads are no more". Somehow, Sanda is able to express through the soldier's attitude towards the young girl the disdain the majority of Romanian society has for the Roma, and the fatalism this has bred in response. It's as if the young girl is saying, fine if the world is going to make it so hard to walk and not offer any assistance, it might as well do away with roads altogether. Yet there's also an air of defiance, as she also seems to be saying, no matter what the world does to us we will continue on our journeys.

In some ways the songs on this disc are the blues songs of the Roma. For a great many of them reflect the pain of the Roma along the lines of "Adu Calu' Sa Ma Duc" (Bring My Horse It's Time To Go) which features an exchange of farewells between lovers who are being forced to part because of circumstances. "Bring my horse it's time to go/ I must leave this place/Where luck wants no part of me/If luck were with me/I wouldn't be punished thus/Torn away from you/My heart is always weeping". Much like blues musicians sing about misfortunes and bad times in an attempt to take some of the sting out of a people's bad experiences, Sanda does the same with her material. While those lyrics are potentially maudlin, listening to the sound of her voice as she sings them, you experience something similar to what you feel when listening to a great blues singer sing about her man doing her wrong. It's not just about this one incident, nor is it about feeling sorry for yourself, these songs are a way of making sure you don't brood about the bad things in life by proclaiming them to the sky and not letting them rule you.

In the early part of the 20th century when Romanians would hire Roma musicians to play for family events like weddings and other celebrations, they were forced to keep out of sight of the guests to the extreme of having to sit in trees if they were performing outside. Gypsy In A Tree takes its title from that reprehensible practice, but while the songs on the disc might have lyrics which talk about the hardships the Roma have faced, and continue to face this day, Sanda's performance make them more than just laments. With an obvious empathy for the material and the people who created it, Sanda is able to convey the strength of spirit of a people who have not only survived this treatment for centuries, but have managed to create a strong and vibrant culture along the way.

While it may seem like an odd combination, a Romanian vocalist accompanied by three Japanese musicians, performing traditional Roma material, their approach has been the perfect combination of respect and experimentation to bring the songs to life. Of course the combination of great songs, great musicians and a spectacular vocalist is usually a winner, and that's the case here.

(Article first published as Music Review: Sanda - Gypsy In A Tree on Blogcritics.)

February 6, 2011

Music Review: Susan McKeown -Singing In The Dark

You'd think we'd have matured enough by now we could talk about mental illness openly and honestly. Instead the stigma attached to even the most basic of emotional difficulties is so great most people are still loath to even admit they're seeing a psychiatrist or therapist. All you have to do is watch people squirm and try to change the subject when you bring up the fact that you've been seeing somebody to help you deal with emotional problems to understand what I'm talking about. The only thing worse than dealing with the rest of the world's reactions to your circumstances are the way the majority of the medical profession - especially those who treat them specifically - deal with mental illnesses.

They see their job as doing their damnedest to take your square pegged self and make you fit into the nice little round holes society wants us all slotting into. The problem is that far too much of the time its been trying to fit into those little round holes that have caused you all the problems in the first place. The usual answer offered by the profession is to medicate the crap out of you so you don't notice the shit that caused you to slip off the rails. So if you've been having the perfectly normal reaction to the tensions of living in our world today of having anxiety attacks they'll pump you full of pills to deaden your emotions and turn you back into a mindless sheep content with career, house in the suburbs and the ability to swallow what you hear and see in the media as the gospel truth.

While for some that might be the answer to their troubles, others might find that a cost their not willing to pay for easing their minds. It's probably no coincidence that throughout history artists, specifically poets, have been troubled by what we would call mood disorders. What has been commonly referred to as the "artistic temperament" may actually have been an indication of something deeper: depression, manic/depression, anxiety or some other form of emotional imbalance. During their lifetimes a great many poets lived lives of intense suffering and poverty as they were shunned by "normal" society and it was only in their art they were able to find solace. The insights into human nature and emotions which have been the hallmarks of some of the world's great poetry, ensuring their places in history, are in most cases a result of the writer suffering from some sort of trouble of the mind.
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When singer/songwriter Susan McKeown began researching her family tree she was startled to discover the high incidence of disturbances among the creative members of her ancestry. Fascinated by this correlation she set out to discover more, and soon realized her family wasn't an anomaly. In an effort to try and reduce some of the stigma attached to people dealing with these issues McKeown has created an album adapting the work of poets who wrote about those feelings. The result, Singing In The Dark, is a beautiful and haunting collection of work capturing both the emotional highs and lows experienced by the creative spirit.

McKeown has gathered together the work of poets throughout history whose work either reflects their own struggles with emotional imbalances or has something to do with the subject. Trawling through the ages she has reached back into our earliest works, "Mad Sweeny", whose origins lie in the 5th century and travelled through to modern times and Leonard Cohen's "Anthem". Along the way she pays her respect to writers on both sides of the Atlantic including Lord Byron, "We'll Go No More A Roving" and John Rowland, "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" from England; Nula Ni Dhomhnaill, "The Crack In The Stairs" and James Clarence Mangan, "The Nameless One" from Ireland; Theodore Roethke, "In A Dark Time" and Anne Sexton "A Woman Like That (Her Kind)" from America and Spaniard Violeta Parra, "Gracias A La Vida" (Thanks To Life) amongst them.

As you can tell from their titles these songs, poems, go places most of aren't used to, or interested in, going when listening to music. However, there's a reason these works have survived and are around today for McKeown to have adapted, and that's because no matter how depressing you might think the topic at hand is, there is something uplifting or compelling about each of the works. Part of that is McKeown's abilities as a performer and her incredible command of her voice which allows her to sing one song, "The Crazy Woman" by Gwendolyn Brooks, in an aching tenor and another, Cohen's aforementioned "Anthem" in a rich alto.

The material isn't hurt by the fact she has surrounded herself with what is obviously an amazingly gifted group of musicians and technicians who have helped her bring her vision to reality. I mention the latter because as I was listening to this disc I couldn't help but notice how cleanly the songs have been mixed so each instrument sounds like its been nestled in a cocoon keeping their integrity intact while still being obviously only one small piece of a much larger picture. With the variety of instruments being used it would have been easy for the sound to have turned to mud, instead it is crystal clear.
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Musically she also has some surprises in store for listeners. Upon reading the disc is composed of songs adopted from poems dealing with mental illness, one could almost be forgiven for assuming the material is going to be full of sweeping electronics, melodic strings, and other typical means of creating atmosphere. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the amount of fuzz being used on the electric guitar on the Roethke piece opening the disc and the rocking lead guitar searing through the adaptation of Sexton's piece that follows. While in the opening track the fuzz serves as a contrast to McKeown's voice, on "A Woman Like That", she develops the roughness of voice to match the guitar. I like the irony of her dealing with a topic that's been subject to so much misconception by shattering a great many of the preconceived notions most people would have had about how this type of material would be presented. Just because its poetry doesn't mean its going to be pretty or precious. Of course if you think about it, with such gritty subject matter it makes sense for the music to be equally real.

However, no matter how interesting and well played the music on the recording is, its still the words which lay at its core. Here's where McKeown shows her amazing capacity for understanding the various aspects of emotional conditions. The material reflects not only a variety of experiences but the diversity of emotions felt by those who deal with them their whole lives. Again expectations are probably going to be dashed as in spite of what anyone might think, people suffering from emotional disturbances, even sever ones, are still quite rational and aren't necessarily depressed or manic all of the time. In fact one of the more prevalent emotions you can hear being expressed on this disc is hope. Whether its in the firmness of the convictions expressed by the woman in the "The Crazy Woman", "I'll not sing a May song/A May song should be gay/I'll wait until November/And sing a song of grey", or the knowledge that even when the darkness seems complete light still has a chance as Cohen's "Anthem" makes sure to point out, "Ring the bells that still can sing/Forget your perfect offering/There's a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in/That's how the light gets in".

There's no denying though, there are some pretty torturous paths being followed by the minds of some of the poets she has drawn upon. However when you read about their life stories, or the history surrounding a specific piece, as described in the CD's liner notes, you will see how a great many of these writers were pushed into darkness by their circumstances. Too often we tend to look at someone's behaviour and judge them without searching beyond to see what might have caused it. The number of abused women who are punished for being overtly violent, put into anger control programs, or worse, for lashing out at those who have been torturing them is only one indication of how deeply we are failing those dealing with emotional disorders.

Easing their burdens shouldn't be so difficult, and Susan McKeown's is another voice being raised on their behalf in an attempt to demystify these types of "illnesses". Not only does Singing In The Dark offer moral support, a portion of the proceeds from its sale are being donated the following groups helping people: National Alliance on Metal Illness (NAMI), Fountain House, BringChange2Mind and The Mood Disorders Support Group (MDSG). This is an album of spectacular singing, great musicand intelligent lyrics in support of a good cause - what more could you want?

(Article first published as Music Review: Susan McKeown - Singing In The Dark on Blogcritics.)

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music

The cello is not most peoples idea of a glamourous musical instrument. Even in the world of classical music, where there have at least been pieces of music written specifically for it, it plays second fiddle (couldn't help it) to its sexier kin in the string section, the violin. Outside of the concert hall it receives even less recognition, for while instruments like the trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, violin, and even its larger cousin the double bass have become staples in the world of jazz, you don't often hear a cello leading a jazz combo or showing up in your average rock band.

What most people don't realize, save those who have taken the time to sit and listen, is the astounding variety of sound and the wondrous richness of tone a cello can produce. As a child my parents decided, in spite of an almost complete lack of aptitude, I should play an instrument as part of my education, and I somehow ended up paired with a cello. For three years I learned proper bowing and fingering techniques, but it was soon obvious I was no match for the demands of the instrument, surrendered to the inevitable and stopped inflicting myself upon the poor long suffering music teachers in my school system. However, even my pitiful scraping of the strings were enough to convince me that in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing the cello would sound wonderful.
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All of which brings me to the intriguing new project released earlier this month by Six Degrees Records entitled Chamber Music. Normally the term chamber music refers to pieces performed by a condensed version of a symphony orchestra with the number of musicians reduced from its usual over a hundred to around thirty or forty. In this case though, we're dealing with something even less traditional as cellist Vincent Segal of France is joined by the kora playing Malian Ballake Sissoko. While this may seem like a strange combination at first glance, a twenty-six string traditional harp like African instrument being paired with an instrument from the European classical repertoire, the gap between the two men and their instruments isn't actually that large.

Both Segal and Sissoko, while trained in the classical traditions of their instruments, have worked in what most would considered non-standard genres musically before. For Segal this has meant working with everything from jazz combos to hip-hop groups while Sissoko has collaborated with people like Taj Mahal and contemporary composers. At the same time the music both men were initially trained in has far more in common than you'd think. In spite of increased exposure due to the proliferation of world music labels there is still the widespread misconception that music from African countries is either high energy pop music or tribal based drumming. Sissoko's training was in a much different type of music as like his father and grandfather before him he had been prepared for the role of historian, praise singer and bard for his people. The music he played was designed to help tell stories and create an atmosphere that was conducive to people listening to him, not to pulling them on their feet.

Even if you don't know anything about the two men or their backgrounds, as soon as you listen to them playing together the connection between them and their music is obvious. From the opening, title track "Chamber Music", to the closing song on the disc, it sounds as if they have been playing together for decades. First of all the two instruments compliment each other perfectly as the kora, much like a European harp, has a light almost ethereal sound that blends beautifully with the cello's rich, earthy tones. However, instead of the cello being relegated to being a support instrument, as is the case most often in European classical music, playing the bass line to the higher pitched instrument's melody, the two men have created pieces in which neither is confined to any set role.
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Some of the pieces are based on traditional African melodies Sissoko suggested and in those Segal has improvised an accompaniment. It's fascinating to hear the sounds of the two instruments interweaving as Segal mixes bowing, plucking and slapping his strings to create a solid foundation for the complex tunes Sissoko picks out on his kora. Then there are tunes like the more jazz sounding "Oscarine" where the leads they pass back and forth build off each other in much the same manner as you'd hear in any jazz combo. On this occasion the contrast between the sounds of the two instruments is at it's most striking and potent, pulling the listener into the music through our anticipation for the next interesting combination of tones.

While the disc is primarily a collection of instrumental tunes, the two men are joined by Malian Awa Sangho on the track "Regret". The song is a tribute to Sissoko's late friend, singer Kader Berry, and is a stirring and emotional piece in which you can hear the feelings of the title expressed in almost every note. Sangho's vocals are a third instrument and serve as a focal point for both the listeners and the two other instruments. While the cello delves into the depths of regret one can hear in the singer's voice, the kora echoes the sharpness of the pain felt from the loss of a dear friend.

Musical collaborations between cultures used to be few and far between. Times have changed however, and we are starting to see more and more musicians searching for the common ground which will allow them to work with others from different traditions. While it might seem a cellist trained in European classical music would have little in common with a traditional Malian kora player, Chamber Music proves otherwise. This is a wonderful combination of sound and style that will both surprise and delight listeners from all backgrounds

(Article first published as Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music )

Music Review: Dhoad: Gypsies Of Rajasthan -Roots Traveller

While everybody assumes the people most refer to as Gypsies, who prefer the name Roma, are travellers. In fact the common stereotype we have of the Roma is they travel around in caravans stealing from regular hard working folk like ourselves. Since most decent hard working folk tend to spit on the Roma as soon as look at them, their opinions and views, on the whole, can probably be safely disregarded. Even the one part of the picture they manage to get partially right doesn't even begin to tell the story of these people. For, if they are such wanderers by choice, why are there permanent Roma settlements throughout Eastern Europe?

The people we call the Roma are descendant of folk who left the Rajasthan province of Northern India some time during the early part of the first millennium. The best guess is their migrations began around the same time the Mogul Empire began its expansion into Northern India from Persia. Maybe they were simply fleeing the fighting, or maybe they had no wish to live under the rule of this new Empire, we'll never know for sure. What we do know is they began to make the long trek West following the Silk Road through the Middle East and eventually made their way into Europe following the Danube River. A wonderful documentary movie, Latcho Drom, retraces the route they took through visits with musicians in each of the countries the Roma have settled in.

As with any diaspora of people, not everybody left, and there are still many in Rajasthan who are the descendants of those who didn't make the migration. However, as their role in the history of the Roma has been a relatively recent discovery for the world at large, we still know only a very little about the people and their culture. Aside from the movie mentioned above, their music was also featured in the film When The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan, a documentary which followed the North American tour of Roma musicians from all over the world. Unfortunately both movies only offered samples of the type of music on offer from the people of Rajasthan and releases by individual bands from the region were scarce and hard to come by.
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Thankfully that situation looks like it's beginning to improve. While there might be something slightly cynical about a few thousand year old culture being "discovered", a benefit is the increased availability of music from the region. One such example is new disc out on the very good international music label, World Village Music, from the French based Rajasthan band, Dhoad: Gypsies Of Rajasthan, called Roots Travellers. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the review copy I received didn't contain the DVD included with the CD as a bonus feature. However judging by some of the stills you can see of them performing at their web site, both dancing and fire breathing appears to play a role, it has the potential for being quite the spectacular.

Dhoad are now the third or fourth group of musicians I've heard from this region of India and my experience this time was no different from the previous occasions. The difficulty faced by Western audiences listening to music from India is we are so unfamiliar with the both the scale in use and the sound of the instruments, no matter what region its from, initially, it all sounds the same. So don't be surprised if Dhoad, in spite of the word Gypsy included in their name, at first listen sound little or nothing like Roma music from the West and a whole lot like most everything else from South East Asia.

However as you start to pick out individual instruments within the mix you'll begin to hear patterns in both the instrumental work and vocal stylings that have things in common with bands in Romania and other European communities. The first of the disc's ten tracks, "Banno", is a good example of this as what catches your attention are the vocals and the multilayered rhythm of the tabla. The vocals have the high pitched, almost falsetto, nasal quality I've come to associate with male singers of a certain style from India and the tabla being played in a time signature my body raised on the basic syncopation of the West - everything a multiple of two or three - just can't recognize. Yet, when a break occurs and the vocals and tabla fall away leaving only the sound of their harmonium type instrument playing, all of a sudden there's a note of familiarity. In it I can hear the accordions of the bands from Eastern and Western Europe. It's not just the way the instrument sounds that is familiar, but the way it is being used. Both the tempo it is being played at and the quality it is adding to the music are identical to the contribution made by its Western counterpart.
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When the second set of vocals kicks in on the same track anybody familiar with other Roma bands will hear startling similarities between this singer's voice and vocalists in other bands. It might have been just my imagination, but there was even something about the way the language sounded that was somewhat the same as what I've heard sung by some Romanian Roma. Of course there are other songs on the disc where Dhoad are deliberately sounding like other musicians. "Rajasthani Reggae" starts off with an obvious nod in the direction of Jamaica - which doesn't really have much to do with Roma music no matter how you look at it, but is in keeping with the disc's title of Roots Travellers. They might not be the first band from outside the Caribbean to take a stab at a reggae tune, but theirs is one of the most original ventures into that genre you'll ever hear.

One of the most difficult things about listening to the music of another culture is avoiding the trap of interpreting what you hear based on the criteria you would use when judging music you're more familiar with. We tend to make decisions about someone's emotional state based on the sound of their voice. In most cases, even in the instance of listening to a song in another language like French or Spanish, we would be completely justified in our efforts as we share many vocal indicators in common with most Western languages. In the case of this recording though, all of those preconceived notions have to be discarded as the vocal clues given off by the singers aren't ones we're going to be familiar with. In fact if we judged them by our standards it would sound like all of the songs were plaintive appeals dealing with grief of one kind or another.

Listening to this disc is an adventure, a real journey into unknown territory. If you approach it with an open mind you will find ways to appreciate the music you hear for what it is, not what you anticipate music should be. Listen for the interplay of melody and rhythm, the intricate patterns made by the weaving together of the vocalists' harmonies, the tabla and other instruments to create a tapestry of sound both rich and colourful. While those who have an understanding of the music of South East Asia will obviously get more out of this disc than others, there's still plenty for the rest of us to enjoy. Don't think of this disc as a door that's closed to you, rather think of it as an opportunity to begin opening a door to a new world. You might feel a little lost at times, but you'll soon develop your own map for finding your way around.

(Article first published as Music Review: Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan - Roots Travellers on Blogcritics)

December 1, 2010

Music Review: Various Performers -Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s

After more than five years of reviewing what feels like thousands of different music CDs a great many of the titles I've covered have vanished into the haze of my memory. It's one of the reasons I don't review nearly as many titles as I once did, there's only so many different ways I have of saying basically the same thing over and over again for music that's all beginning to sound suspiciously similar. For someone to stand out enough for me to remember not only their name, but exactly what they've done, means there was something remarkably distinctive about them. In some cases that might mean they were such an absolute horror show that you can't help but recall them with a shudder.

But as in the case of the Eden & John's East River String Band's disc, Some Cold Rainy Day, there are recordings where a love of the material being performed combines with the skill and passion necessary to bring it to life results in the creation of something truly special. On the above album Eden and John went deep into the past of American popular music for their material and play the tunes on instruments - vintage archtop guitar and resonator ukulele - from the era. However, these are not just lovingly presented museum pieces, Eden and John throw so much of themselves into the pieces they take on new life and are just as relevant as anything written today.

It turns out that John Heneghan, the John from the group's name, is not only a fan and performer of music from the 1920s and 30s, he's also an avid collector of recordings from the era. Blues, jazz, country and Hawaiian are only a few of the genres that are apparently represented in his vast collection of old 78 rpm discs. It was this resource that Heneghan drew upon when compiling the latest release for the Dust To Digital label. Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s And 1930s is a three disc collection of over sixty tunes that cut across race, genre, geographical boundaries and gender. While the historical significance of this release is obvious, its a brilliant snap-shot of the variety of popular music created during those two decades, listeners are also going to be surprised and delighted by the material for its own sake. In fact you'll probably even experience quite a sense of regret that this music has been forgotten over the years, as a great deal of it is every bit as good, if not better, than most of what's being written today around the same themes.
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I think what might surprise people the most is how graphic some of the material is. If Tipper Gore had problems with the "Mature Content" of rap songs, I wonder what she'd make of songs with titles like "Let Me Play With It" or lyrics like those of the song "Pussy" where the singer talks about stroking his woman's pussy. The sexual innuendo isn't exactly subtle and the double entendres fly fast and thick in quite a few songs, but especially on the second disc of the set, subtitled "Lust". Oh and if you think only the male singers are raunchy, well you really have led a sheltered life haven't you. Don't worry, Mississippi Matilda will set you straight as she sings to you what's it like to be a "Hard Working Woman". There's also songs that won't offend the more delicate sensibilities out there as well like "Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me", the original version by Eddie Peabody not Tiny Tim. It's still done on ukulele, and still annoying, but make sure you listen closely to the lyrics, you won't regret it.

While there are a few other familiar names that pop up in the credits and titles; Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt are probably the three most widely recognized names; the reality is that even they aren't what you'd call household names anymore. While some of the material and the people performing them have very rightly been swallowed up by the mists of time, the majority are tunes well worth listening to, and if there were any justice in the world, would still be listened to on a regular basis today.

As previously mentioned the second disc in the set contains material that revolves around the theme of "Lust". Each of the other two discs are similarly organized with the first focusing on "Love" and the third on "Contempt". While you might be tempted to skip over the first disc in order to sample what "Lust" and "Contempt" have to offer (Love songs are a dime a dozen these days, but how many good contempt songs have you heard recently?) don't let yourself be prejudiced by thoughts of contemporary songs. Where else are you going to hear bands like Banjo Ikey Robinson and His Bull Fiddle Band or Little Kimbrough and Winston Holmes and songs with titles like "That's What The Bachelor's Made Out Of " (Taylor's Kentucky Boys) and "Insane Crazy Blues"? (Charlie Burse with Memphis Jug Band) Believe me when I tell you they don't write love songs like these anymore, and while not all of them are going to appeal to everyone, the great thing about this collection is if you don't like a tune - skip ahead to the next because its going to be something completely different from what's come before.
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Of course some of the best titles are to be found on the "Contempt" disc; "You Gonna Look Like A Monkey When You Get Old", "Wimmin-Aaah!", and "Its A Shame To Whip Your Wife On Sunday". The latter very pleasantly reminds listeners that there's no need to whip your wife, or do any manner of things on Sundays, as there plenty more days of the week for you to take care of those tasks without violating the Sabbath. While there is great material throughout the collection, there seems to have been something about "Contempt" that inspired people that little bit extra. Not only are there more songs on this side than either of the other two, there's no denying that on the whole they're a good deal more interesting. It's been said that love and hate are the opposite faces of the same coin, but in the case of popular music from the 1920 and 30s it seems like people might have spent a little more on despising then they did on adoring.

A lot of trouble has been taken with creating an appropriate package for the music on these three discs and you can't help but appreciate both the artwork and the photographs used as covers, labels for the CDs and in the accompanying booklet. The booklet and the disc's gatefolds are adorned with period photographs reflecting the title's themes and each disc comes complete with a label done in the Art Deco style of the period.

Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is a veritable cross section of American popular music. What's truly wonderful about it is that no matter what genre the song, it predates the era of slick presentation and commercial concerns whose end result was to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator. This is a trip back to the days when not all popular songs sounded alike or adhered to some industry dictated formula for success. The material on these discs are the real roots of American popular music, but much of it has been forgotten or ignored over the years. While unfortunately a great deal of what was recorded in the time period represented by this collection has been lost, the samples offered by it give us some indication of just how rich and vibrant our popular music culture once was. If nothing else, maybe this collection will inspire people who hear it to seek out more of the same and others to open their eyes to the limitless possibilities of popular music.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s on Blogcritics.)

October 27, 2010

Music Review: Hank Williams - The Complete Mother's Best Recordings

Hank Williams was only twenty-nine years old when he was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in Oak Hill West Virginia. The previous night he had been loaded barely conscious into the back seat of a Cadillac. His body wracked with agony from back surgery that had never been allowed to heal properly, emotionally and physically exhausted from the break up of his first marriage and a killer touring schedule, he had passed out in the back seat of the car never to wake again. He had a history of battles with the bottle and by 1952 promoters were leery of booking him as there was no guarantee that even if he showed up he'd be sober enough to go on. However, for two years, from 1949 to 1951, he had dominated the Billboard charts with a series of number one hits and was one of the most popular performers in America.

In 1951 alone he performed 130 shows across Canada and the United States. While that may not seem like a lot to some people, you have to remember this was in the days before bands had tour buses or you could hop a plane to take you across the country in a few hours. Hank and his band, The Drifting Cowboys, did all their travel by car, which was exhausting enough on its own. However, most weeks, no matter where they were, they also had to make sure they were back in Nashville for Saturdays in order to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Aside from touring and recording, in 1951, Hank was also featured on a fifteen minute radio spot every morning that was broadcast across the midwest and the south. From 7:15 am to 7:30 am kitchens in thousands of homes would have the pleasure of Hank's company brought to them by the good people of Mother's Best Flour.
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As there was no way he could record the shows on a daily basis, each time he and the band were back in Nashville they would lay down a number of shows that could then be broadcast over the airwaves at some time in the future. Remarkably the original acetate recordings of all those old radio shows somehow survived the years. While a couple of box sets have been released in the past couple of years with highlights from those shows, for the first time ever Time Life has gathered them all together in one package, Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings. The sixteen disc set, fifteen CDs and one DVD, comes complete with an accompanying hard covered book detailing the history of the collection, details of each broadcast, letters from Hank Williams Jr and Jett Williams, and a map of the United States and Canada detailing the elder Williams' tour stops during 1951. The entire collection is contained within a replica old fashioned tube radio which plays back an excerpt from one of old broadcasts. The set is not available in stores or on line retailers and can only be purchased through its web site. While this might feel a little inconvenient, believe me when I say this collection is worth any extra trouble it might take to get your hands on it.

For while there are plenty of recordings of Williams' music out there today, these radio shows are something special. Not only do they give the listener the opportunity to hear Hank performing some of his most famous material live, they provide insights into both his character and the wide range of his musical influences. For unlike commercial radio today which serves mainly to fill empty air with noise, programs like the Mother's Best shows were often the only human contact isolated farmers would have on a day to day basis. Remember there was no means of mass communication in the early 1950s and in rural areas farmers would only see their neighbours on rare trips into town and at church. That voice, first thing in the morning for fifteen minutes, coming through the radio might be the only one outside of their family they'd hear for days on end.

So there was a casual, almost conversational tone to these shows that you'd never hear on today's radio. Williams sounds like he was just dropping by to sing some of his favourite tunes for his friends out there at the other end of the transmission. You can be guaranteed that each broadcast would contain at least one gospel or old time song that everybody would be familiar with along with one of Hank's current favourites. Often times he would use these broadcasts to try out his new material so you'll also hear versions of his hits that you'll have never heard before.
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You'll also gain some understanding of the extent he went to in an attempt to keep his first wife Audrey happy. While she had aspirations of being a country singer, she was nowhere near being in the same league as her husband. However as his fame grew, so did her resentment about his success and in an effort to keep peace in the Williams' household he included her in many of these broadcasts. Quite frankly the songs she's featured on, either singing with Hank or by herself, make it obvious that she really shouldn't have been let anywhere near a microphone. Audrey obviously didn't appreciate his efforts at trying to make her happy as when they divorced in early 1952 the settlement gave the bulk of his money to her.

The story behind how these recordings came to light and are finally being made available is almost as fascinating as the music itself. The DVD included with the set tells how Jett Williams, who was born shortly after his death, first discovered she was Hank's daughter, then her discovery that the acetates of these recordings existed. What followed after that were the extensive legal battles she and Hank Williams Jr. had to go through to gain the rights to all of the recordings, some of which had fallen into other people's hands. As well as telling the story behind the recordings, Jett also talks about what it meant to her to have this record of the father she never knew. For her they turned him from a figure of legend into a real person as for the first time she was able to hear him talk, joke around with his band, and sing songs that had special significance to him.

The DVD also features her in conversation with two surviving members of The Drifting Cowboys, Don Helms and Big Bill Lister, and one of the radio show's recording engineers Glenn Snoddy. The conversation took place in 2008 and just two weeks later Helms died of a stroke and a year after that Lister was also dead. While at first the conversation is rather stilted as Jett can be seen reading her questions off cue cards to all the men, gradually the depth of feelings that the men obviously felt for Hank starts to shine through as Helms chokes up on several occasions.

The fifteen disc collection covers the period of Hank Williams' life when he was at the peak of both his creative and performing powers. We hear every aspect of his performing career from his hit songs to the morality tales he recorded under the name of Luke The Drifter. There are also some strange oddities like the Venereal Disease public service announcement included on disc fifteen which features Hank narrating a story of a young girl who contracts syphilis. Some of the material, like that featuring Audrey, might have been better off being left to gather dust in some vault, yet they all go to helping us gain a deeper and clearer understanding of who Hank Williams was.

These recordings are also a testament to the wonders that digital technology is able to produce as the sound quality is truly remarkable. If you close your eyes and sit back and listen you can just about visualize Hank and the boys sitting around the studio on a Saturday morning swapping songs and stories just like any group of friends. Like so many who would come after him Hank Williams' life was cut short by the demands he placed on his body through hard living and his desire to create music. Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings Box Set brings a little of him back to life for us and future generations to enjoy. After listening to even one of the discs in this collection you'll soon discover what so many others the world over have come to understand, a little Hank Williams goes a lot further than a lot of anyone else.

(Article first published as Music Review: Hank Williams - The Complete Mother's Best Recordings on Blogcritics.)

September 17, 2010

Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen- Songs From The Road

It's not often that items are released within a couple of weeks of each other about the same artist where one was originally recorded some forty years before the other. It's especially rare to have two DVDs about the same person with that time difference surfacing one right after the other. The number of performers who have endured from the 1970s to now are few enough as it is, but for there to be anything new under the sun from the past not yet released that is actually worth viewing is as remarkable as the longevity required for them still to be performing today.

Leonard Cohen has actually been around a lot longer then since the early 1970s, but the DVD scheduled for release on August 31/10, Bird On A Wire, was of the never before seen film made of his 1972 European tour. (As of now the DVD has still not been released due to "concerns" on the part of Cohen's current label - you won't even find it listed yet at either the distributor's web site or at Amazon.com) Now two weeks later, September 14/10, Columbia Record's Legacy Recordings has released Songs From The Road a collection of twelve songs taken from Cohen's 2008/2009 world tour. Available as a CD/DVD package and Blu-ray, the songs are taken from eleven of the many venues Cohen performed at during his two years on the road, with two from his November 2008 concert at London's O2 Arena.

While twelve songs might not seem like much of a representation of a career that has spanned nearly five decades, that's not the point of this release. Instead it was an attempt to capture some of what the recording's producer, Ed Sanders, calls the tour's special moments. As we see in the special feature documentary included on the DVD, "Backstage Sketch", it was Cohen's habit at the end of each show to go directly from the stage to a waiting vehicle which would whisk him back to his hotel. Accompanied by only his tour manager and Sanders he would usually not even mention the show just performed. However, over the course of the tour there were nights when something special would have happened on stage which would compel Cohen to talk about the show. Each of these songs represent, either in Cohen's or Sander's estimation, one of those moments on the tour.
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Ironically, just like its predecessor from 1972, Songs From The Road opens with Cohen's Tel Aviv concert. In September of 2009 Cohen played to some 50,000 people at the Ramat Gan Stadium. While that might seem like a strange environment for a performer whose material is as intimate as Cohen's, you can't help but be amazed at his ability to connect to an audience no matter what its size. As he and the band work their way through a beautiful rendition of "Lover, Lover, Lover", the camera pans out over the stadium where the entire audience appear to be holding green light sticks which are swaying in time to the music like some eerily glowing field of grass. Even more than actually seeing the audience react to the song, one can't help but be impressed by the connection it demonstrates exists between Cohen and his audience or the implied power it represents. Yet, the appreciation he shows for their applause when the song ends is so genuine, it's his humility that leaves the strongest impression.

It doesn't seem to matter where he's performing, or the size of the crowd, each of the songs on this DVD manage to capture the sense of communion existing between Cohen and his audience. This is not your typical rock and roll tour with its crowd of worshippers, instead there appears to be a genuine feeling of reciprocity between the performer and his audience. After each song the applause is deafening and Cohen responds by standing before them humbly, either doffing his hat in recognition of their response or saying a genuine "Thank you friends", constantly surprised at the strength of their reaction.

No collection as small as this one will satisfy every fan of Cohen's, but what I liked about it is the mix of classics and lessor known pieces. "Bird On The Wire" and "Chelsea Hotel" are followed on the disc by "Heart With No Companion", "That Don't Make It Junk" and "Waiting For The Miracle", three songs that you won't often find on any greatest hits collection. "Heart", with its decidedly country feel and slightly tongue in cheek presentation, watch for the three back up vocalists doing some line dancing in the instrumental break, was an example of the rather surprising lightness of spirit that pervaded Cohen's performances. This was, after all, the guy who became famous for cutting a rather brooding and romantic figure. However, even though his material has lost none of its emotional intensity, there was prevailing sense of optimism to the proceedings.
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Perhaps the explanation lies not in what was being performed, but in the fact that both audience and performers were taking such joy in being present. This was something that went beyond the audience merely appreciating Cohen and the band's renditions of the songs, and is hard to define. Unlike other concerts where there is a clear demarcation of roles for both performer and audience, the line at these concerts seemed to blur somewhat. It was like the connection between the two was so strong each song became an experience to share, not something one sat back and passively observed.

One of the best examples of this is the recording of Cohen's performance of "Hallelujah" recorded at the Coachella Music Festival in California. Normally multiple stages are in operation at once, but festival organizers arranged it so Cohen's performance was the only one scheduled and he performed for the entire festival crowd. With a crowd that size standing in front of a stage you'd expect to notice people being distracted or looking around. Not on this night at this moment. Every face seemed riveted on the slightly stooped grey suited figure holding the microphone; hanging on his every word and awaiting their cue to start singing along with the chorus. As producer Sanders says in his notes, if he had to pick a moment as a highlight from the tour it would be hearing the tens of thousands of voices raised in a chorus of one word at the end of the song - Hallelujah.

Naturally the sound and visual quality of this CD/DVD package are excellent with the on stage visuals being exceptionally well done providing both wonderful close ups during solos and excellent full band coverage when required as well. However don't look to the special features for any startling revelations or insights into the artistry of Leonard Cohen. While the short documentary, "Backstage Sketch", introduces us to all the other people on the tour; band members, roadies, tour manager and even the tour accountant, Cohen himself only appears incidentally.

While Tony Palmer's film, Bird On A Wire from 1972 provided viewers with extensive back and off stage footage of Cohen and his band, the tour itself was plagued by horrible sound problems. As a result the footage from on stage was limited and not of the quality we're now used to. It was more than adequate considering the conditions and the time, but compared to what you can see and hear on Songs From The Road you truly comprehend the advantages our new technology has given us over films made in the past. While Bird On A Wire might have given us a better understanding of Cohen the man, Songs From The Road allows you a deeper appreciation of Cohen the performer and the amazing bond he has with his audiences.

(Article first published as Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Songs From the Road on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

DVD Review: Tony Palmer's Leonard Cohen - Bird On A Wire

In 1972 Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen was at the height of his popularity both in his native country and abroad. The antithesis of the rock and roll gods who normally dominate popular music and fill venues where ever they play, Cohen captivated audiences and listeners with the unabashed sexuality and intellect of his work. Even today, with him well into his seventies, he remains a charismatic figure and retains the ability to enthral audiences the world over. Somehow, even those who might not have sufficient knowledge of the English language to grasp the nuances of his words, are held as if in thrall when he climbs on stage. A true troubadour of the heart and soul nothing seems to impede his ability to communicate with an audience.

However, what we have witnessed over the last couple of years, whether in person or on DVD, are a master in his declining years. Though, even now there are few performers today able to match his power to connect with an audience, what must it have been like to see him when he was at the peak of his prowess? While the release last year of footage taken from his performance at Isle Of Wight in 1970 gave us some idea as to his abilities, the conditions in which the concert took place - due to rioting by the audience and other crazy circumstances he ended up not taking the stage until around two in the morning - did not make it ideal for viewing him at his best. While it was amazing to see him calm down close to half a million people who had gone as far as setting fire to the stage after nearly five days of bedlam, it wasn't what anyone would call a typical Cohen concert, if there could be such a thing, from the period.

Two years after that performance Cohen embarked on a twenty city tour that would take him from Dublin Ireland to Jerusalem accompanied by a film crew under the direction of British documentarian, film,theatre and opera director, author and critic, Tony Palmer. Probably best known for his astounding seventeen part television history of Pop Music, All You Need Is Love, by 1972 Palmer had already directed twenty-three movies including concert films of Cream, (Cream Farewell Concert 1968) Frank Zappa's 200 Motels and the documentary Ginger Baker In Africa. For some reason though, Cohen wasn't happy with Palmer's edit of the footage and requested it be re-edited by a person of his choice. Unfortunately the result was so botched that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who had commissioned the film, refused delivery and it was never broadcast.
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Fast forward to 2009 when Palmer was informed that the original footage, something like two hundred cans of film, had been found in a warehouse. While some of the footage was in dubious condition, the sound was in perfect shape. So Palmer set to the painstaking task of sorting and restoring miles of film with the result that almost forty years after it was originally shot Bird On A Wire, has been released on DVD, distributed by MVD Entertainment. While the story behind the movie is almost enough to make it worth seeing in itself, you'll soon discover this is no mere curiosity piece. Rather it is a masterful piece of work by a gifted and experienced documentary film maker.

The film follows Cohen and his band off and on stage as they wend there way east across Europe from Great Britain until their final two concerts in Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Palmer has chosen to open the film with footage of the second to last concert in Tel Aviv, where once again we find Cohen in the position of having to try and pour oil onto troubled waters. This time it's not the audience who riot, but the security personnel who go over the top. At one point during the concert Cohen invited audience members at the back to come and sit down in what he saw as an open space in front of the stage so they could hear and see better. Perhaps he should have checked with the bouncers before hand, for when people started to come down to the front of the stage and sit, they were forcibly removed. In spite of Cohen's pleas for restraint things quickly descended into chaos and the concert couldn't go on.

What we don't know at the time, and which gradually becomes clear over the course of the film, is at some point early on in the tour something had gone wrong with the sound equipment they were using. As a result the band had to make do without the use of on stage monitors - meaning they were virtually unable to hear themselves - and the whole system eventually feeding back if they exceeded a certain volume. On one occasion we saw Cohen invite those in the furthest reaches of an auditorium who were having difficulty in hearing to come up and sit on stage with the band so they could hear. It's a testament to the respect audiences held Cohen in, that when he asked that only those who were truly having difficulties come up on stage, they listened to him. Instead of the mad rush you might have expected upon the issuing of this invitation, only those who weren't able to hear came forward while everybody else stayed in their seats.
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While that is a rather extreme example, it typifies how well the film captured the rapport Cohen had with his audience. Some of the lighter moments included him chiding the audience for starting to clap for a song after he'd only played a few chords, reminding them that all his songs sound the same because he only knows a couple of chords so how could they possibly know what song he's about to sing? What's truly remarkable about those moments are how warmly the audience responded and the affectionate laughter that met these and other self-deprecating comments he would make.

Aside from the fact that some of the footage was in black and white and it was obviously shot on film, such was Palmer's skill as a director there were times while watching it is easy to forget the footage that is nearly forty years old. It was far harder to maneuver cameras and crew in those days, yet somehow he and his people managed to not only capture remarkably intimate concert footage, they were obviously so unobtrusive Cohen and those around him acted as if they were unaware they were being filmed. (There is one memorable moment, however, where Cohen is talking to a very pretty women visiting back stage and he turns to face the camera and comment on how hard it is to chat someone while being filmed) As a result the footage taken offstage captures life on tour; backstage before and after a show, in transit, interviews with the press, and the interaction between the band members; far better than I've ever seen it depicted.

While all of this is interesting, what really makes Bird On A Wire a treasure is what we see of Cohen himself. The expression wearing your heart on your sleeve might have been coined for him at this stage in his life as he can't hide how he's feeling from anybody, including his audience at times. However, at the same time he exudes a sense of power that allows him to stand up in front of his audience and almost reprimand them like a parent would a misguided child and they actually listen to him.
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Like all artists he's plagued by the desire for his work to be perfect, and if it can't be it shouldn't be seen. At one point he stops his show in Jerusalem because he's not happy with the quality of his performance and takes the band off stage, uncertain as to whether or not he'll continue with the show. It's not about pride, or if it is it's the right kind, because he refuses to cheat the audience by giving them anything less than what he considers his best. He eventually does go back on, and the audience doesn't want him to leave. Eventually he has to come back on stage after multiple encores to tell the audience that he and all his band are back stage crying right now and couldn't possibly do another song.

While there are none of the special features we've all come to expect from modern DVD packages included on the disc, there are some lovely surprises in the packaging, Aside from a nice sized booklet with each page containing collages of pictures, quotes, and clips from newspaper articles about Cohen, a replica of the poster for the film and what looks to be a postcard sized replica of promotional artwork of Cohen from the 1970s are also included. Naturally the image quality and the sound reproduction are limited by the condition the film was found in and the technology used to shoot it in the first place. However, all things considered, and this is a sign of a remarkable restoration job, they are probably better quality than anybody had any right to hope.

Bird On A Wire by Tony Palmer should be compulsory viewing for anyone wishing to make a documentary about a concert tour. Its combination of impeccably filmed concert footage and fly on the wall off stage reporting makes it probably the best movie of its type that I've ever seen. It succeeds in presenting an intimate portrait of one pop music's more enigmatic and charismatic figures. This is Leonard Cohen as you may never have seen him before and definitely won't ever again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Bird on a Wire on Blogcritics.)

September 2, 2010

DVD Review: Bob Brozman - Par Avion

The first time I heard Bob Brozman was a few years back and at the time I was amazed at his abilities as a blues guitarist and vocalist. Aside from John Hammond Jr. I'd not heard another contemporary musician performing solo acoustic blues and be able to hold my attention for not only the length of a CD, but a ninety minute concert on DVD as well. So I was really surprised when talking to the publicist who had supplied me with those discs that he wasn't considered to be primarily a blues performer. Here was a guy who sounded like he was burning a hole in the neck of his resonator guitar his slide was moving so slickly, and yet blues was only considered something he did on the side. How could that be possible?

Well it turns out that Brozman is one of the few people around who justly deserves to be described as a world music performer. Unlike the majority of people who happen to be given that label only because they were born in a non English speaking country, Brozman actually plays music from all over the world. If it can be played on a stringed instrument, seemingly any kind of stringed instrument, there's a damn good chance he's played it at some point in his career. From the islands of Hawaii, Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, the Okinawa Islands, Papua New Guinea, India, France, to the blues of his native America Brozman has travelled the world for thirty years seeking out new music and new musicians to play with.

While there have been individual recordings made of most of these musical collaborations, for the first time music lovers have an opportunity to view clips of Brozman and those he's worked with in action. A new DVD, Par Avion, for sale only through his web site, is a montage of video clips, still photos and of course music, dating back to his early days as a street musician in the early 1970's. While age and dubious equipment means the quality of some of the clips aren't the highest, it doesn't prevent the DVD from being a incredibly fascinating document.
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The movie opens with a couple of stills showing Brozman from his street musician days when he was making his living by travelling around America busking for a living. From there we move to 1978 for some faded black and white footage from Boulder Creek California for two tunes, "Ukulele Spaghetti" and "Shake It And Break It". Even at this age we see Brozman is already a virtuoso on his beloved resonators as he rocks the house on both a ukulele and guitar version of the old metal instruments. Combined with a clip from a local San Francisco news show in 1984, on which he's seen playing "River Blues", these pieces of video give viewers an indication of just how good a player Brozman is. With a voice like Leon Redbone and a dexterity on the fret-board like no one else, it's obvious he could have easily been a huge success playing only the blues.

However, this is the man who once said in an interview, "If you're bored it usually means your boring", and he sure wasn't about to let himself be either. The next few clips are from 1986 in Kailua Kona Hawaii and feature Brozman playing Hawaiian pedal steel. This is a style of music that even then had long since gone out of fashion, and in an interview done at the time he admitted that when he played those types of events he was usually the youngest person performing as nobody else his age or younger seemed interested in the genre anymore. It turns out he learned how to play it listening to old 78 rpm records of Tau and Rose Moe, Hawaiian musical stars of the 1920s. Somehow or other Tau heard of Brozman and in 1988 invited him to their home in Oahu. The result was a recording of Hawaiian pedal steel and lap blues unlike any that had been released in decades.

While the video clips from the recording session are faded black and white and over exposed in places, the sound quality is still crisp and clean. However the best moments are footage of Tau and Brozman sitting together jamming on their lap slide guitars against the backdrop of the Pacific ocean and lush green of the Moe house grounds. This section of the film ends with a beautiful shot of the two men walking along the beach together with Tau telling Brozman how much they appreciate a young guy like him from the mainland helping keep their music alive.

We then continue to hop skip and jump around the world and through the years with Brozman to watch him play swing music for ballroom dancers in Vancouver British Columbia in 1992, give a brief introduction to resonator guitars for a Japanese Television documentary in '94, and then down to Santa Cruz California to play some intricate jazz/blues with Martin Simpson of England. The hectic pace continues onto Okinawa, Reuion Island, Papua New Guinea, peppered with occasional stops at music festivals in Quebec City in Canada where he's seen performing with his friends from around the world including Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, Rene Lacaille and Granmoun Lene from Reunion, and Debashish and Subhashis Bhattacharya from India.
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From what I've described I'm sure Par Avion sounds a rather disjointed affair, jumping all over the place as it does. However, when putting the clips together editor Daniel Shane Thomas has taken the time to build in transitions which provide some on screen text background as to where we are going and who we are about to see perform. Of course the other connective devise is the movie's subject matter, Bob Brozman. You can't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm, and obvious love, for the music he's playing and this, more than anything else, that serves as the through line for the movie. Brozman is not your typical musical tourist, taking what he likes best of other people's music and incorporating into his own. Rather he's there to learn how to play the music of whatever region he's visiting, and then record it with the local musicians. Therefore, with each new place visited we learn a little more about the fascinating common language human beings from every part of the world share - music.

Bob Brozman lives for and loves music and he's chosen to share some of what he has loved most over the last thirty years with us through the DVD Par Avion. If you've never heard or seen him play before, you've missed out on a truly extraordinary individual and musician and should take this chance to get to know him. The disc is only available through his web site, but it's well worth your while to make that little extra effort to pick up a copy. You'll be introduced to a whole new world of music.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Par Avion on Blogcritics.)

August 23, 2010

Music DVD Review: Jackson Browne -Jackson Browne: Going Home

A couple of years ago I was interviewing Francis Jocky, a singer/songwriter from The Cameroon in Africa, and was rather taken aback by his answer to my question about early his musical influences. "I started being interested in music when I was eight years old, and I was listening to Bob Marley, Randy Newman and Jackson Browne". While it's pretty typical for a kid from Africa to have been listening to Marley, and the fact he was listening to Newman was surprising, what really shocked me was he had heard of Jackson Browne let alone had listened to him in the Cameroon. While I've been listening to Browne's music since somewhere in the 1970s, it's always seemed to me that he's some sort of well kept secret. For a guy who has been playing professionally since he was seventeen and released more records than I can remember off the top of my head, it's remarkable how many people I've met seem to have either never, or only vaguely, heard of him.

Part of that is due to the nature of the music industry, with its your only as well known as your last hit record attitude, and part of that is due to the fact you weren't going to hear any of Browne's music on mainstream radio at any time through the 1980s or 1990s. Long before it was popular, or safe, to be writing and recording music critical of American foreign policy, Browne was one of the few mainstream musicians who put aside his career ambitions to write a series of albums containing songs openly critical of the Regan administration and American Imperialism in general. Writing songs critical of Oliver North, and all the other right wing heroes of the day, quickly assured your songs wouldn't receive radio play during either the Regan or Bush Sr. years. So, by the time that decade had ended the man who had written "Taking It Easy", "Late For The Sky", "Doctor My Eyes" and "Running On Empty" - FM radio hits through-out the 1970s - had disappeared off most people's radar.

I often wonder if the Disney Channel knew exactly who Browne was back in 1994 when they presented Jackson Browne: Going Home, now being re-issued on DVD by Eagle Rock Entertainment, to television audiences. Maybe they thought they were presenting the heart warming story of somebody's comeback or something, because I can't see them knowingly giving a ninety minute special to somebody as politically outspoken as Browne. However it managed to get on the air, Going Home is a fascinating mix of documentary and performance footage summarizing Browne's career to that point giving fans an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of the man and his work and those unfamiliar with him a chance to see why his influence has been felt half way around in the world in The Cameroon.
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Interviews with Browne and others, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley, not only tell the story of Browne's life but allow the viewer to understand this guy isn't your standard issue rock star. We learn from Browne about his jazz playing father and how he grew up in that rarest of things in twentieth century America, a fully integrated household as his father would often rehearse his multi-racial band at home. Not only would that influence him musically, but it would also help shape his way of looking at the world and his social conscience. For as we quickly discover from the conversations with others, even in the days before he was writing "political" songs, he was participating in, and promoting, benefit concerts for various causes.

While there are plenty of pop stars who seem more than willing to lend their names to causes or appear at events, its quickly obvious that Browne doesn't just view them as photo opportunities to salve his conscience like so many others do. One of the most telling scenes in the documentary is a clip of him with having a very serious conversation about the pros and cons of nuclear power with one of the arena staff where one of these events took place. Not only does he genuinely engage and listen to the person he's talking to, he treats him and opinions as equals. How many pop music stars can you think of who would not only take the time to have that conversation but treat the person with that amount of respect?

However, while its fascinating to learn about how Browne helped the Eagles launch their career when they all lived within a block of each other or that he started out his career when he was seventeen at Andy Warhol's "Factory" in New York City, my favourite parts of the movie are those when he's filmed hanging out with his old friend, multi instrumentalist David Lindley. For those who don't know Lindley he's one of those folk who seem to be able to pick up any stringed instrument and make it sing. Yet according to Browne what truly distinguishes Lindley is his love of polyester. Lindley wears some of the most god-awful, eye watering and nausea inducing polyester clothes made while performing. Browne takes an almost perverse delight in commenting on Lindley's wardrobe, and in the process reveals his wonderful sense of the absurd.
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Then there's the music. The movie contains twenty-one of Jackson Browne's songs performed everywhere from him sitting in the back of a car travelling with his son, a rehearsal hall with his band as they prepare for an upcoming tour, a recording studio, and finally in front of a studio audience specially brought together for the taping of this special. It's during the latter that he's joined by special guests Nash, Crosby, Lindley and Jennifer Warrens. The songs span his career to that point from early classics like "Before The Deluge" and "Doctor My Eyes" to "Lives In The Balance" and "I'm Alive" from albums released in the 1980s.

To be perfectly honest I wasn't a big fan of most of Browne's contemporaries in the Southern California soft-rock/country scene as I found it mainly insipid and emotionally vapid. So much of it seemed to combine the mawkish sentimentality of the worst country music with boring middle of the road pop - think The Eagles "You Can't Hide Those Lying Eyes" and you'll get the picture. All you have to do is listen to any song of Browne's and you immediately hear the difference. Not only are they far more musically complex and interesting than anything done by those he supposedly influenced, lyrically he has the ability to take highly personal material, with the potential for being self-serving and cliched, and create something that speaks to people on a universal level. We can listen to a song he sings about his own experiences and recognize something of ourselves in it no matter what the topic.

As far as production values go you really couldn't ask for anything better considering the date of the original recording. With DTS Digital sound and the option of either Dolby 5.1 surround or Dolby Digital stereo the audio quality on the DVD is excellent and the video, 4:3 format, is of equally good quality. While some might be disappointed by the lack of special features the movie itself contains more than sufficient musical and biographical content about its subject to keep even the most ardent fan satisfied. While you may wonder at the value of a sixteen year old film, because of the insights it gives the viewer into Jackson Browne and what makes him tick combined with the amount of music included, it remains a valuable addition to any serious music fan's collections. Whether you're a long time fan of Browne's work or know little or nothing about him, Going Home will go a long way towards explaining the its appeal to an eight year old boy in The Cameroon.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Jackson Brown - Going Home on Blogcritics.)

July 14, 2010

Music Review: Johnny Cash - Setlist: The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live

Periodically record labels will throw together greatest hit packages culled from the back catalogues of their biggest stars. Now a great deal of the time one is tempted to dismiss this type of thing as the cynical manoeuvring typical of the industry as they attempt to sell consumers the same product for a second time by merely putting it in a fresh wrapper. However, once in a while they do come up with a fresh idea and deliver something worth while. One such series that has all the appearances of being a good idea is the new Legacy Recordings Setlist collection. While they've still gone into their back catalogues for some of the material, some of the discs promise previously unreleased material, and all them promise an interesting collection of live performances.

If their intent with the series was to choose material that gave listeners a good general overview of a performer's range, than judging by the package they've put together for Johnny Cash, Setlist: The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live they've done a remarkable job. For not only have they taken tracks from live performances Cash gave at various times and locations during his long and storied career, they've chosen songs that reflect the wide variety of styles and genres Cash played. Of course they're are a number of songs from his recordings at Folsom and San Quentin prisons, two of his most famous live recordings, but did you know he had also made a live recording in a prison in Sweden? I sure didn't know that, but there are two tracks on here from a recording made at Osteraker prison in October 1972. Hearing that familiar Cash voice speaking Swedish as he introduces "That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine" to his audience is almost worth the cost of the disc alone.
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To be honest, types of songs like the one above - sentimental country music - are the ones I liked the least among Cash's repertoire. However, stuff like "I Still Miss Someone", "I Got A Woman", and the medley of "Darlin' Companion/If I Were A Carpenter/Jackson" (from live shows at Madison Square Gardens, Folsom Prison, and Ryman Auditorium respectively) were, and still are, favourites for many. Omitting them would have given a false impression of his career and the music he played. I'm sure there are songs on this disc I like others won't appreciate, but that's part of what made Cash so special, his ability to appeal to so many different people. How many other performers do you know who have had tribute albums created for them by everybody from gospel groups to punk bands? Not many I'd bet.

Fittingly this collection begins and ends with tracks taken from recordings he made in prisons. Back in 1968 when Cash recorded Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison it was a risky thing to do as far as his career was concerned. Those were the days when prisons were places they sent people to forget about them, the idea of rehabilitation was even more of a joke then it is today, and playing for the inmates, aside from Salvation Army bands looking for converts on a Sunday, was unheard of, especially by pop stars of Cash's status. However, as he explains in "Man In Black", track three on this disc taken from a live recording made in 1971, Cash made a point of speaking for those who didn't have a voice. For all their supposed subversiveness and rebellious nature, there were very few rock and roll stars in the late 1960s who were prepared to climb out of their Rolls Royce and play for inmates. Cash not only talked about having a social conscience and caring, he walked that talk, and you can see proof of that in the number of concerts he gave in prisons, and not just in the US.

If there was any more proof required of just how much Cash was willing to risk to put his point across one only has to look at where and when track eight, "What Is Truth", was recorded. In 1970 Richard Nixon had been president for two years, was well on his way to escalating the war in Vietnam and one year away from ordering the National Guard from opening fire on University Student's at Ohio's Kent State Universtiy. The Republican establishment was not the place you were libel to find a sympathetic audience for a song about young people being justified in speaking out against being killed fighting wars overseas or that said they were a voice of truth. However that's exactly what Cash did when he sang that song at Nixon's White House in 1970. I have to wonder at the applause you hear when he finishes. I can just see Tricky Dick grimacing in the front row trying not to order the secret service to gun Cash down.
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No Cash collection would be complete without some gospel tunes, and thosee included on this collection come one right after the other; "Belshazzar" which was recorded at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 1969 and "Children Go Where I Send Thee" recorded in Denmark in 1971. The first is a real fire and brimstone number with deep roots in the Old Testament while the latter is an old spiritual of a much more joyful nature. The thing about Cash is that you never doubted his sincerity when he sang gospel, as he not only obviously believed in what he was singing about, but tried to live his life according to those beliefs. All you have to do is harken back to his declaration of intent in "Man In Black" and his performances in prisons if you require proof.

While some might be disappointed that "Ring Of Fire" didn't make it onto this collection, the last four songs on the disc should make up for its omission. "Wreck Of The Old 97", "I Walk The Line" and "Big River" from the recording at San Quentin Prison and "A Boy Named Sue" from the Swedish prison recording, round it out nicely. As with any live concert a performer can't play everybody's favourites, but Setlist: The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live does a fine job of picking songs that reflect the many sides of Cash's musical personality. For those looking for either an introduction to, or a reminder of, Cash's great talent, you can't go wrong with this disc.

(Article first published as Music Review: Johnny Cash - Setlist:The Very Best Of Johnny Cash Live on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Music Review: The Fishtank Ensemble - Woman In Sin

After reviewing or critiquing god knows how much music over the last five years I've discovered a pattern I tend to fall into. Although there are a few performers who I've followed for years and will continue to do so because of their ability to keep their work fresh by continually discovering new ways of presenting their ideas, too often a person or group will be initially exciting only to end up being disappointing by sticking to the same formulae repeatedly. While I can understand the if ain't broke don't fix it mentality to a certain extent, in my opinion when it comes to the creative process that only leads to stagnation and boredom. There are more times than I'd like to count over that I've been really excited by the first couple of discs a performer or group have put out to only become frustrated and bored with them by the third disc when they continue to do the same thing over and over again.

As a result I've been reviewing a lot less music of late. It just seems harder and harder to find somebody or some band interesting enough to even give a listen to let alone review. Maybe part of the problem is the number of press releases finding their way into my inbox on a daily basis using the same group of adjectives to describe whatever genre of music they happen to be promoting. Everybody, from blues to death metal, seem to be fresh and exciting, or at the very least invigoratings. So many bands are being described as alternative these days I'm falling back on Ellen Page's line in her roller derby movie Whip It and asking "Alternative to what?" How can you be alternative when you sound like a thousand other bands out there?
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Thankfully I tend to exaggeration, if the scene were as bad as I describe it sometimes I think I'd blow my brains out. There are still bands and musicians out there who provide genuine alternatives to the mind sapping pabulum that passes for popular music on the radio these days. One who I've just been fortunate enough to stumble across are a four piece outfit who go by the really odd name of The Fishtank Ensemble. They've just put out their third release - on their own label - called Woman In Sin, and I can guarantee you'll be hard pressed to find a more eclectic collection of songs gathered onto one CD anywhere. The lead singer, Ursula Knudson, used to sing opera; violinist, Fabrice Martinez is from Paris and studied with Gypsy violinists across Europe; guitarist Doug Smolens used to hang out with Billy Idol and Slash before becoming hooked on flamenco and running off to Spain to learn from masters in the caves around Granada; while Djordje Stijepovic started playing bass with local Romany bands in Serbia when he was thirteen until moving to the US where he joined a band with Lemmy from Motorhead and Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats.

Okay, so these folk have been around a bit and bring some pretty strange influences to the table with them, but how does it all blend together and are they any good? Where to start? I've listened to the disc three times now and each time I've come away even more amazed then I was the previous time. I could tell you about Knudson's incredible range as a vocalist - how she can soar right up the scale and sing scat up there that will put your heart in your throat and then turn around and growl her way through a rendition of "Fever" that will leave you so hot and bothered a cold shower won't help. I could also tell you how Stijepovic's bass accompaniment on that song will make you think he's channelling Charlie Mingus and how he can also play slap bass in a way that you've never heard before, and might not ever again, when he leads the group through a Balkan dance number called "Djordje's Rachenitza".

Than there are the two lead instruments, well at least in most bands you would consider the guitar and violin the leads, but here they are content to be equal members of the band. Either Smolens or Martinez could easily dominate any ensemble they played with they are such virtuosos, and on the pieces where they step forward you can't help but let your jaw drop at their playing. However what impressed me the most about the two of them was their versatility. There are many violinists and guitarists who can play one, maybe two, and even sometimes three different styles of music well, but these two seem able to handle anything you can think of. Torch songs, flamenco, gypsy tear the floor up dance music, jazz standards, and the rest of their repertoire are all played with an ease that's not only deceptive but mind boggling when you realize their complexity. In fact they're both almost too good for their own good. They are so effortless in their playing you can almost miss noticing their excellence.
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Most of the time when you hear a band being described as world music it usually means they play something that's not recognized as being pop music within our limited definition of that term. The Fishtank Ensemble actually do play world music as they are inspired by not only their different nationalities but an international variety of musical interests. While one song might sound like it comes from a demented cabaret populated by characters from a Kurt Weil opera another is redolent with the raw, naked passion of loss you'll only hear in the truest and scariest flamenco, and a third has echoes of a rain swept street in late night Paris. From small mountain villages in the Balkans to the urban sharpness of a hot jazz spot, The Fishtank Ensemble will take you on a musical odyssey that will leave your head spinning and hour heart soaring.

I listened to my first pop record back in 1965 when a baby sitter played me her daughter's 45 of the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand". In the interim forty-five years I've heard more music than I can possibly remember because the majority of it has been forgettable. Every so often though a musician or band has come along that won't let me forget them because of what they do and how they do it. For me its always been those bands who don't adhere to any set pattern and are always pushing themselves off into new directions who leave the greatest impression. With their third release The Fishtank Ensemble have shown that they are not only gifted musicians but also unafraid to take risks. That has the potential to be a memorable combination - we can only hope they're able to maintain what they've started.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Fishtank Ensemble - Woman In Sin on Blogcritics.)

May 30, 2010

Music Review: John Prine - John Prine: In Person & On Stage

I can't remember the first time I saw John Prine performing live except it was sometime in the 1970's. It was either at the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto Islands or at Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus. Like all folk singers only part of the attraction of seeing him perform in person was the chance to hear favourite tunes being sung live as half the fun are the stories they have to tell between songs and their personalities. Let's face it you're not going to see a folk musician for the fancy high tech show they're going to put on. You want to share in an experience that only the combination of them and their music can create that never seems to be captured on a studio recording.

So I've always considered the idea of a live recording something of an oxymoron as far too few of them manage to recreate the feeling of being part of a community of people taking part in something special. No matter how much of the in between song chat or crowd noise that might be included you still feel like you're on the outside looking in cut off by a pane of glass or something similar. Now it's been a long time since I've listened to a live John Prine recording, mainly because the ones that I've heard before were disappointments for the reason described above, yet I decided to give it another try with the release of John Prine: In Person & On Stage on Prine's own Oh Boy Records label. Aside from the chance that this disc might bring him to life like previous ones hadn't, there was also the attraction that special guests were spotted throughout the disc helping out on old favourites.
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Maybe it's because recording technology has improved (or those involved paid attention to how Arlo Guthrie records his live albums) but from the opening track, "Spanish Pipedream", to the final cut, "Paradise", it's like having Prine and his various accompanists being invisible presences in your living room. I'm not sure how to describe it, but there's the rawness and immediacy that you'd expect from a live performance. Each of the instruments stand out in the mix in about the same way you'd expect them to if you were hearing them on stage instead of being artfully blended together as they are in a studio.

The songs themselves have been lifted from various performances over the past couple of years and represent an interesting cross section of his career including some favourites that he hasn't performed in a while like "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore". No matter what stage of his career the songs are from they each are performed with an enthusiasm that you only find in a live show when a performer is able to channel the energy generated by his audience back into his presentation. Normally I find audience noise included in live recordings to be self serving and boring, but in this case it's used sparingly and only serves to emphasize how well Prine has connected with them.

A couple of years ago Prine put out a recording called In Spite Of Ourselves which featured him singing with some of his favourite female singers. One of those was Iris DeMent with whom which he sang the title song of the disc. "In Spite Of Ourselves" was originally written at the request of Billy Bob Thornton to be played over the credits of a movie he and Prine were appearing called Daddy And Them and it was highly appropriate for the movie. However since not many people probably ever saw it, for as Prine mentions in his introduction it went straight to video, thankfully it also a hysterical song in its own right. Part of the reason the song works so well is Prine and DeMent sound like they were born to sing together, as is borne out again later in the disc with their version of Prine's "Unwed Fathers". Neither has what one would call a smooth voice, but it's the rough edges that make them interesting and that catch in the ear.
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While their voices might work together because of their similarities, sometimes opposites can make just as strong an impression. I've never heard Sara Watkins before, but she joins Prine for a beautiful rendition of one my favourite songs by him, "The Late John Garfield Blues". Not only does she supply some great vocals, she plays a lovely fiddle line in the middle of the tune which accents and highlights its emotional depth. A couple of tracks later Prine is joined by Emmylou Harris for a wonderful version of his "Angels From Montgomery". The contrast between his growled out lyrics and her delicate sound are a delight and give what's all ready a poignant song even more strength.

John Prine's music has never been what anyone would call structurally complicated. However its simplicity is what gives it strength because that allows his ideas and personality to shine through. While studio recordings have the capacity to reproduce a great deal of what makes him special, seeing him live has always revealed a little something more. Until now none of the live recordings I've heard have been able to bring the experience of a John Prine concert to life for people to enjoy at home. That's all changed with the release of John Prine: In Person & On Stage. For those of you have never had the pleasure of seeing him in person, or want to relive your memories of having seen him live, this is the best opportunity you'll have without actually attending a concert.

(Article first published as Music Review: John Prine - In Person & On Stage on Blogcritics.)

May 12, 2010

Music Review: Crash Test Dummies Oooh La La

The Voice!. Its the first thing that strikes you and that which forms the most lasting impression upon everyone who has ever heard a song by the Crash Test Dummies; lead vocalist Brad Roberts' voice. There's probably no other singing voice in popular music quite like his rich, sonorous baritone/bass, and its been the distinguishing mark of the band since their first hit "Superman" back in the early 1990's. Of course the band was more than just their lead singer, but without Roberts' round tones they would have been just another slightly ironical folk/rock group among many.

Sure their songs strayed into territory that others might have avoided quirky lyrics and a bite not normally found on popular radio. However we all know how intelligence and originality can actually be a hindrance to a career in popular music, and here again the voice is what saved them. Its mellow tones were so deceptive that it could make any song's lyrics sound unthreatening and sort of soothing. How else can you explain a song like "Androgynous" receiving airplay. Not even Canadian content rules (in order to keep their licences radio and television stations in Canada have to broadcast a certain percentage of material that qualifies as Canadian made) would have been sufficient to get tunes like that on the air without the soothing qualities of Roberts' voice.
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Not being stupid people the band always seemed well aware of that fact, one merely needs to watch the video they made to accompany their contribution to a Christmas album one year, "The First Noel". A faux family scene where Papa Brad, complete with World's Best Father coffee mug, and Momma Ellen Reed sing Noel to the "children" to explain the real meaning of Christmas parodies every earnest explanation seen or heard in the best television families. Never being afraid to bite the hand that feeds them is of course what also makes the Crash Test Dummies so appealing - Roberts has been known to interrupt performances of their big hit "Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm," with a diatribe about the song being used in a French commercial for cheese: "A bunch of words viewers won't understand followed by mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm". With the release of their newest recording, Oooh La-La! on May 11th/10, Roberts has taken an approach, that intentionally or not, pokes fun at the industries obsession with technology.
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He teamed up with producer Stewart Lerman, (Antony and the Johnsons and The Roaches) to create a series of songs utilizing old analog music toys. We're talking toys in the literal sense here with weird names like Optigan - an organ using celluloid discs to project the sound of other instruments playing specific styles of music like big band, country, blues and so on, to serve as an accompaniment for those sitting down to play it, and Omnichord which looks for all the all world like a plastic autoharp with keys instead of strings. Now if you think that some digitalized instruments sound artificial, believe me when I tell you that some of these old analog toys from the 1960's and the 1970's make them sound stunningly accurate. So to say I was a little worried about what Oooh La La! would sound like was a bit of an understatement. Thankfully for all of us the use of the toys was more inspirational than actual, so while their presence is felt in some cases, the songs aren't awash in tinny plink plinks.

They do seem to have translated into a new buoyancy of spirit when it comes to Roberts' song writing though. For instead of the rather ironical, if not downright cynical at times, world view that used to permeate his music, there's a lighter more optimistic tone to most of the tunes on the album. There's even an honest to goodness love song for heaven's sake as he rhapsodizes about his relationship with his wife on "And Its Beautiful". However this isn't some schmaltzy effort like you'd hear from most people, its an elegant testament to his wonder at the miracle of the nature of his relationship. Lyrics like "We turn our water into wine/ it's something we do all the time/ it doesn't cost a single dime/ And its beautiful" are remarkable for both their simplicity and their ability to convey so much with so little.

Even his song about the disappointment of a love unrealized, "You Said You'd Meet Me (in California)" isn't bitter or angry. Instead it goes to the heart of the matter by talking about the heart's longing for what didn't come true. Likening the ache of loss to the sound of a siren's call out in the ocean raises echoes of the longing any of us have felt when our love hasn't been reciprocated. Here, and in "And Its Beautiful" Robert and Lerman have made judicious use of the toys that inspired the songs through having them create an effect rather than weaving them completely into the fabric of the song. In the case of "You Said.." it becomes like a calliope from a worn down carnival or circus that wheezes plaintively through the introduction of the song sounding like the winding down of hope and the failure of expectations.
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I have to assume that Roberts and Lerman also played most of the instruments on the recording as unfortunately aside from Ellen Reid there are no other credits mentioned in the promotional material as to who played what on which track. Reid does her usual wonderful job complementing Roberts' baritone with her crystal clear vocals and proves that she has the voice and character to be a front person in her own right with her lead vocals on the CD's final cut "Put A Face". While far more traditional folk fare than the rest of the disc, her vocals give it a power you'll not often hear on simple guitar strummed songs.

No matter how distinctive Roberts' voice is, without Reed's contrasting sound there would be the real risk, through no fault of his own, of monotony setting in. He's remarkable in how much character he is able to express within his range, but a baritone/bass can't express the range of emotions needed to make for a completely satisfying musical experience. The balance achieved by the two voices is what has given, and continues to give, their songs a depth of feeling and emotional honesty rare to find in popular music and the way they intermingle can send shivers running up and down your spine.

While this may not be a typical Crash Test Dummies recording, if such a thing even exists, it contains enough elements from the bands hay days to satisfy old fans while still managing to break new ground and explore different means of expression to prevent any signs of stagnation from setting in. While the novelty of the "toys" might appear to have the potential to be a distraction, they have been so successfully integrated into the tunes I doubt you'd notice unless you knew about them as they have about the same impact on a song as any modern day effect. Oooh La La! is as fine a collection of well crafted, emotionally honest pop songs as you're liable to come across anywhere this year. Even if the packaging is not quite the same as we're used to its what we've come to expect from the Crash Test Dummies.

For those who are making plans to see them on their current tour in support of Oooh La La! you'll be hearing slightly different versions of the songs than from what appears on the disc as they won't be touring with any of the toys. In fact it won't even be the full line up from the past as only Brad Roberts and Ellen Reid accompanied by Stuart Cameron on guitar will be heading out on the road. It should be interesting to hear how the songs hold up to being performed in this more stripped down setting. I doubt they'll be coming to Kingston Ontario, people only do if their tour bus breaks down between Montreal and Toronto, so if you happen to catch them in concert I'd love to hear about it.

Article first published as Music Review: Crash Test Dummies - Oooh La La! on Blogcritics.

May 6, 2010

Music Review: Ana Moura - Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To The Fado House)

Searching the Internet for information about the Portuguese folk music known as Fado realizes few conclusive answers as to its origins. Although most sources seem to agree that it first gained widespread popularity in the 1800's, they are universally vague as to where, how and when it first developed. Like North American blues music originally offered African Americans the means to help relieve the pain of their day to day existence, fado, played on the street corners and in the brothels of working class districts in Lisbon and other metropolitan centres, provided the poor and working class of Portugal with similar relief.

Whether or not, as some claim, it came as a dance from Africa that the poor adapted or from homesick sailors at sea as others insist, by the twentieth century it was the most popular form of music in Portugal. One need look no further than the three days of official mourning declared by the country's Prime Minister in 1999 upon the death of Amalia Rodrigues, who had been the genre's biggest star since the 1940's, to understand the depth of its popularity.

Traditionally fado is performed by a trio comprised of a singer and two instrumentalists playing Portuguese Guitar, a type of twelve string, and a classical guitar. There are two distinct types of fado; that of the poor in Lisbon and that which had its beginnings in the university town of Coimbra among the students and professors. The latter is less concerned with the pain of everyday life and more poetical in nature as its themes focus on love and friendship. However no matter where it, or what type, is being played the essential element of saudade is shared. Roughly translated in to English as a longing, or nostalgia, for unrealized dreams, it is expressed by lyrics that speak of a yearning that can't be satisfied or fulfilled. It's this highly fatalistic world view that gives the music its shape and the sense of longing audiences look to hear and see in performers.
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At one time the performances by women were highly stylized affairs.They would stand slightly in front of the two guitar players with their head covered by a shawl and barely move for the length of their show. It was only through facial expressions and hand gestures that they were able to communicate any additional information their vocals and the song's lyrics were unable to express. While times have changed and there has been some slackening of expectations among audiences with regards to how fado is presented, the demand that the performer still be able deliver on the promise of saudade hasn't relaxed in the least. Just as we still expect a blues performer to "feel" what he or she are singing, a knowledgeable fado audience won't accept anything less than the genuine article.

Now in spite of my one quarter Portuguese heritage I can't make any claims to being a fado aficionado. However, I am quite capable of listening to a voice and recognizing genuine passion when I hear it, no matter what language it is singing in. From the opening bars of Ana Moura's Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To A Fado House), released in April on the World Village Music label, I knew at once she was the genuine article. Maybe hers isn't the type of voice to sing blues as we know it, but there can be no mistaking feeling and passion when they are so obviously present. The seventeen songs on the disc are in a variety of musical styles and show quite a number of different influences that she brings to the music, but no matter the tempo or the style her voice is without fail believable at all times.

Moura exhibits not only wonderful range as a singer, but control as well. There is no strain to be heard when she holds a note or as she goes up and down the scale. Unlike so many popular singers who attempt to make what they are doing sound difficult in order to impress us, there is a glorious ease in the way she moves through a song. Even better, as far a I'm concerned, she's not one of the school who think the louder and more piercingly I sing the more emotional I'm being. While it may result in you receiving a million dollars a gig in Las Vegas, try it in a Fado House and you'd be booed off stage. (During the reign of the dictator Salazar in Portugal Fado performers were forced off the streets and brothels and confined to "Fado Houses" and in these "Houses" tradition still holds sway)
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Aside from the variety of musical styles on the disc distinguishing her from more traditional fado performers, Moura also changes things up somewhat by increasing the number of her accompanying musicians and utilizing a wider assortment of instruments than is usual. While the sound is still guitar dominated the inclusion of bass and acoustic bass on some of the tracks not only gives the music added texture, but gives some of them a jazz feel. While there's an obvious appeal to the starkness of the original sound as she performs it, by adding the bass to the mix Moura, and her arranger/producer/composer Jorge Fernando, have found a way to compliment it without changing the overall intent of the music.

In fact, everything Moura and Fernando have done on the disc that might be considered a modernization, or change from tradition, has been implemented in such a way that when compared to the more traditional songs they sound like natural progressions. Instead of forcing a sound in order to make it more appealing to a new generation, they have been very careful to build on the existing base so it's still respectful of the original.

Of course that task is made easier by Moura herself. Listening to her you never doubt her sincerity, even if you've no idea what she's singing about, and you can't help but feel the passion she is expressing. You don't have to speak or understand Portuguese to feel the longing that underlies each song or appreciate the haunting beauty of the material. No matter what or how she is singing it sounds like she is keeping the spirit of fado alive in the song. What's most impressive as far as I'm concerned is how closely the feelings she generates while singing match up to the meanings of the translated lyrics for each song. I can't count how many times I've listened to a song in a language I don't understand and completely misconstrued its meaning based on the singer's presentation. With Moura you can count on the fact that what you're feeling when she sings is exactly the feelings generated reading the lyrics.

You may not speak any Portuguese or know the first thing about fado music, but that shouldn't stop you from appreciating Ana Moura's recording Leva-Me Aos Fados.This is a wonderful recording of beautiful and haunting music that won't fail to touch your heart. If you've forgotten what true passion feels like, this will serve as a timely reminder.

(Article first published as "Music Review: Ana Moura Leva-Me Aos Fados (Take Me To The Fado House) at Blogcritics.org)

April 1, 2010

Music Review: Jim Guttmann - Bessarabian Breakdown

One of the things I resent most about recent trends in popular music, and the technology that drives it, has been the use of bass as a weapon instead of an instrument. Every time one of those cars drives by with the bass cranked so high that you can hear its doors rattling in the frame (a friend who worked in an auto body shop told me they would get three cars a week on average needing doors re hung or with frames out of alignment due to the damage caused by their sound systems) I can't help think what a horrible legacy for the instrument of Charles Mingus. Subtlety and delicate phrasing have been replaced with ear shattering assaults that passes for keeping time. How is that music?

Thankfully there are still those out there who serve as reminders that the bass is an instrument to be reckoned with and are able to create music that won't leave you bleeding from the ears. All one needs do is listen to the new disc released by bassist Jim Guttmann, Bessarabian Breakdown to be reminded of what the instrument is capable of. Using the klezmer music of Eastern European Jews as his basis, (Besserabia, now part of Moldova, lies between Russia, Romania, the Ukraine and the Black Sea and before WWll had a Jewish population of over 200, 000) Guttmann and those accompanying him on the disc, have come up with some rather surprising results.

Certainly one will hear the clarinet and violin so often associated with klezmer music, but not only have they added some new twists and flavours to those arrangements, they have created some successful mixed marriages with Latin and contemporary jazz. I have to admit when I read about klezmar/Cuban, or Latin, in the press material accompanying this disc, I thought it was a typo or somebody had dropped a couple sentences from another press release into the one for this album. Even after assuring myself that it was indeed referring to the disc I had in front of me, I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of Latin klexmer music. However, listening is believing, and once you've heard "Descarga Gitano" and "Cuando El Rey Nimrod", like me you'll no longer have any doubts as to what's possible.
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While the first is a wonderfully orchestrated piece complete with horn section, saxophone, guitars, Latin percussion, and Coro ensuring it has that full sound we've come to expect from the style of music, somehow it also retains something of the plaintive air characteristic of Klezmer music. "Cuando" on the other hand is a simple trio featuring Guttmann's bass accompanied by drums and guitar alone. For those who have forgotten what a bass sounds like, how a stand up bass, or acoustic bass, can be the lead instrument in an ensemble simply because of the player's ability and not because of the amount of noise the instrument is making, this song will be a treat.

While Guttmann had stepped forward earlier on the disc in their rendition of Johnny Mercer's "And The Angels Sing", sort of a delicate popular number along the lines of some by Cole Porter or Nat King Cole, I think that "Cuando" allows him to show off his versatility as a player and musician to greater advantage. Here the phrasing is far less sentimental, with more depth of feeling contained in the notes than in the earlier piece, and Guttmann's playing is able to capture all the nuances needed for us to appreciate its complexity. If you thought somehow that this was a fluke, wait for his solo turn, the final cut of the disc, "Firn Di Mekhutonim Aheym"

Aside from the Mercer tune the other ten tracks on the disc are arrangements of traditional songs. While its interesting to hear old tunes being given new arrangements in order to see what if anything more can be expressed with them, I still found some of the older, more traditional versions of the songs touched me the deepest. "Sadegurer Chusidl" (Take Off That Shmatte) with its mixture of violin and accordion, supported by guitar, bass, and percussion, captures the simplicity of the original music, while also bringing to life the layers and textures that existed in the music to begin with. There is grief buried in this music best revealed by the intimate setting created by the smaller ensemble. While it's easy to sentimentalize the fiddle with thoughts of Hollywood movies, listening to Mimi Robson play on this tune and others, one can not fail to appreciate how she captures both the joy and sadness of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

That's not to say pieces like the disc's opening "Philadelphia Sher" or the title track "Bessarabian Breakdown" aren't wonderfully exuberant pieces that are a joy to listen to or are lacking in emotional depth. It's just when there are more instruments playing and the sound whirls around you like dancers, the excitement generated by the performance outshines any one emotion that might be generated by the music. In that case it's easy to become caught up in the "fun" of the music and perhaps miss out on any of the deeper or subtle meanings being conveyed.

The musicians assembled for this disc reads like a who's who of the world of klezmer, and it shows through in every piece as they take the music in directions you wouldn't have thought possible from hearing more conventional bands. However, no matter what shape a song takes, it manages to capture something of the spirit of the music, even the Mercer tune is given an Eastern European feel that belies its origins, and transports the listener across time and space to another era. The world that gave rise to klezmer music might no longer exist, but discs like this one not only preserves the memory of the music, it keeps it alive by injecting new life into it.

March 12, 2010

Music Review: Tomoko Sugawara -Along The Silk Road

I've never been one for sustained doses of light, ethereal music that floats around sounding pretty, but in the end has little or no substance. You know what I mean, its the kind of stuff you'll hear wafting out of stores that seem to sell primarily candles or offer some sort of spiritual renewal in exchange for a large investment of capital. Like the ideas being sold in those stores, the music is usually a co-opted, watered down version of some other culture's ideas being passed off as something original. Aside from the way it mal-treats music, the other major crime it perpetrates is the manner in which it abuses perfectly good instruments creating the impression they are somehow only good for creating this schlock.

Two of the instruments that have suffered the most at the hands of this industry have been the harp and the flute. Whether the concert variety of either instrument, or one of the many traditional types unique to various cultures around the world, they have been reduced to only pale imitations of their true capabilities. With their long association with angelic hosts harps probably have it worse than flutes, but with the "discovery" of the Native American cedar flute in recent years, both have become the instruments of choice for the vacuous and vacant.

Needless to say I was less then thrilled when I received a CD of harp and flute music in the mail, and under most circumstances I would have simply ignored the disc and gone about my business. However, a quick scan of both the press release accompanying the disc, and the disc itself, made it clear harpist Tomoko Sugawara was cut from an entirely different bolt of cloth than the perpetrators of the crimes described above, and her forthcoming disc, Along The Silk Road, being released on March 11/10 on the Motema label, offered the promise of something different and exciting.
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First of all there was the instrument she was playing on the disc, a type of harp which was first known to be played in 1900BC in Mesopotamia. The kugo, or angular harp, is not only one of the earliest examples of a plucked string instrument, it was also one of the more enduring ones as it was in use up until 1700AD in some Islamic countries. Even more fascinating is the fact it was in common usage along the length of the Silk Road - the historic trading route that connected the Far East with the Near East and could be found in China, Korea, and Japan as well as Egypt and Muslim occupied Spain. However the advent of the frame harp, the instrument most of us visualize when we think of a harp, in Europe around 800AD marked the beginning of the end for the kugo, and it had passed out of use in the Far East by 1100AD and gradually vanished entirely.

The kugo Sugawara plays was created from plans she and music archaeologist Bo Lawrengren developed based on a harp of its type pictured on a reliquary box painted in the 6th or 7th century BC. The thirteen pieces on her CD are a cross section of the various cultures where the angular harp was used, thus offering listeners a musical tour of the ancient world stretching from Spain to China. However, instead of merely trying to recreate the music of those times, many of the pieces are by contemporary composers from the countries where the instrument once held sway. These are balanced by pieces from its original heyday, dating back as far as the Tang Dynasty in China and 13th century Spain and Iran. While "The Waves Of Kokonor" and "Wang Zhaojun" have been transcribed and adapted from their original to better suit the range of Sugawara's harp, "Qawl" by Quth al-Dinal-Shirazi (1236-1311) of Iran is taken from the original's vocal part, which, along with the title's percussion line, is all of the song that has survived. Sugawara is accompanied by percussionist Ozan Aksoy on this track playing the bendir, with each of them adding improvised elements to flesh out piece.

The booklet that accompanies the CD offers detailed notes on each piece of music, including the modern composers explanation of how they tried to accommodate an instrument none of them had ever heard or seen played. While their talk of scales and tunings will be lost on any but those who are musicians, what is clear is that this is brand new territory for all of them. However, listening to the pieces one can't help thinking they've done an amazing job as the first thing you notice are the amazing variety of sounds and textures the instrument is capable of producing. Sugawara creates music with her kugo I would have never associated with a harp in the past. Her duets with alto flutist Robert Dick, "Shakugo I, II, and II" by Robert Lombardo, avoided all the usual cliches one has come to expect from this type of pairing, with the composer taking full advantage of both instrument's capabilities. While there are moments which can be described as ethereal within them, they are anchored by earthier elements that utilize the lower range of both their scales.
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While a flute and harp duet is pretty much what one would expect from this type of disc, harp and percussion are not what most would call a likely pairing. However, three of the selections on this disc, the previously mentioned "Qawl" from Persia (Iran) and "Cantiga de Santa Maria, No. 249 and No. 213 composed by King Alfonso X of Spain (12221- 84), show the kugo's versatility with Sugawara pairing with Aksoy on bendir and darabukka to great effect. There's nothing soft or fragile about this harp's playing, especially on the very robust Spanish tunes. In spite of their sacred sounding names they contain elements remarkably similar to those found in more contemporary secular dance music like tangos and flamenco. (It came as no surprise to learn that Alfonso's court was heavily influenced by his Moorish neighbours who ruled the South of Spain and he had both Islamic and Jewish courtiers at his court) Sugawara's phrasing in these tunes in particular sound far more like a lute, or even a guitar, than what one would normally expect from a harp, and offer a perfect counterpoint to the lively rhythms being played by Aksoy.

Along The Silk Road might feature a type of harp as its solo instrument, but this is not harp as we've come to expect it to be played based on recent examples. Everybody involved with this project, from the composers to the performers, have gone out of their way to allow Sugawara's instrument's capabilities to be explored to its fullest, thus creating a disc of music both diverse and exciting. This might be an ancient instrument that has not been heard or seen in performance for hundreds of years, but it sounds far more vital and alive than any harp recording I've heard in years.

January 28, 2010

Music Review: Marta Sebestyen - I Can See The Gates Of Heaven

For most of us the countries of Eastern Europe, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria in particular, remain places of either mystery or romance. When we think of them we either visualize dark and mysterious forests and mountains populated by the likes of Dracula or werewolves, or dark and handsome men and women singing and dancing round campfires all night long. What we fail to realize is that for over a thousand years these countries have experienced every major cultural influence in Western history. The Danube River has long served as a migratory path for humans moving from the Near and Middle East into the West, which means that everybody from invading armies to refugees fleeing conquerors have passed through the countries surrounding it.

The early Celtic tribes, the ancestors of the people we know as the Romany (gypsies), the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire, and countless others have brought their beliefs, music, and stories to the region. While some of these travellers were only passing through, many of them stayed and settled in isolated pockets through-out the three countries. While the larger metropolitan centres may not differ too much from their Western counterparts throughout the world, in the smaller rural communities dialects that have died out elsewhere continue to be spoken and you can still hear the songs that were sung hundreds of year ago. Geographical isolation has played no small role in this, as cut off from outside influences old traditions haven't had to compete against the modern world until recently.

While there has been an upsurge of interest in some Eastern European music, it only becomes clear when you start listening to something like Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen's, latest release, I Can See The Gates Of Heaven, on the World Village Music label, how little we've scratched the surface. Subtitled "Hungarian religious and secular songs", the disc provides the listener with an introduction to the amazing array of music that exists in Hungary today. For these aren't "museum" or "ethnic" recordings of songs only hauled out to be played as display pieces or as examples of cultural heritage, these are part of the living and breathing culture of Hungary today performers by Sebestyen in concerts all over the world.
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On I Can See The Gates Of Heaven Sebestyen has put together a collection that represents a cross section of the different styles of music to be found in Hungary, or where Hungarian is spoken. (There are Hungarian speaking communities across the border in Romania's province of Transylvania) It was the Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok who first exposed the world to the joys of his county's folk music by incorporating it into his symphonic compositions. However Bartok's role in uncovering the hidden treasures that still existed through out the country is probably of equal, if not greater, importance as it was through his efforts that so much of what people like Sebestyen perform today has survived. So it's not surprising to find Bartok's name listed in the credits for the first song on the disc, "Vision" as collector of one of the tunes it incorporates.

What Sebestyen has done in putting this disc together has been to create a series of medleys representing the various regions and dialects of Hungary. Each of the eight tracks on the CD are made up of at least two, and in some cases as many as seven, different songs which when blended together give the listener a good idea of the nature of a particular region's music. So "Vision" is comprised of two pieces, both of Moldavian Csango origins, "I Have Walked On Mountains And Valleys" and "Mary's Lullaby". What's amazing is that throughout the disc, whether it's two combined as in the opening track or seven like in the sixth track, "Valiant Knight" (Rare Hungarian dance melody, "Farewell To The Reigning Prince", "Jumping Dance", "The Nationalist Soldier Is Pure", "Heyduck Dance", and "Jumping Dance") you can't tell its a medley. Each part has been so seamlessly integrated with the other, thematically and musically, if Sebestyen hadn't told us we would never know they weren't originally single pieces.

I imagine most of you, like me have some pretty set ideas on what you think you're going to hear listening to Eastern European music. Either something that sounds like gypsy music or a Cossack flavour, with violins and other stringed instruments playing a predominant role. What you're not going to be expecting to hear are bagpipes, tin whistles, and something that sounds suspiciously like pan pipes from South America (listed in the credits as a shepherd's flute). In fact the only stringed instruments you're going to hear on this disc is something listed as an oriental fretless lute and a zither. There's also two instruments listed in the credits that are unique to this part of the world. The tarogato is a clarinet like instrument and is actually quite modern having first been made in the late 19th century, while the fujara is a traditional bass flute played by shepherds in the region for centuries.
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Sebestyen is an amazing singer, she also plays tin whistle and drum, who seems able to effortlessly find any note on the scale no matter how low or high it might be. While all the songs are of course in Hungarian, we're still able to have a good idea of what the song is about due to her ability to express character and emotion with her voice. Unlike some singers who are content with just sounding good, she takes the risk of taking her performance a step beyond that by imbuing it with an emotional honesty that crosses all linguistic barriers. Joining her on this disc are two splendid musicians, Balazs Szokolay Dongo who plays all the wind instruments and Matyas Bolya who handles all the plucked instruments. Both men display a virtuosity on their instruments that make them ideally suited to meet the demands of this disc as they appear to be comfortable playing any and all styles and techniques that come their way.

I Can See The Gates Of Heaven is not only a wonderful introduction to the world of Hungarian music, its a disc of great music. Vocalist Marta Sebestyen has a voice you can listen to for hours on end, and the material on the disc is equally captivating. Rid yourself of any preconceived ideas you may have had about Hungarian music because your in for a big surprise when you listen to this disc, but its one of the nicest surprises I've had in a while.

January 21, 2010

Music Review: Jerry Leake - Cubist

The Cubist movement in painting, spearheaded primarily by Pablo Picasso in the early years of the twentieth century, attempted to represent all possible views of a person or object on a two dimensional surface. The resulting chaos of shapes and colour resulted in images that seemed to bear no resemblance to reality, yet have managed to strike a chord in viewers so that they have become some of the most famous works in modern art. Picasso's Guernico, his cubist representation of the German bombing of the Spanish city of Gurenico during that country's Civil War in the 1930's, is as now readily identifiable as many of the works of Leonardo De Vinci and other traditional painters from previous eras.

However, this does not prevent hearing the word cubist bringing images of disjointed faces, with noses in places you'd normally expect to find ears, to mind. So when I first read the title of percussionist Jerry Leake's new CD, Cubist, released through his own Rhombus Publishing imprint, I couldn't help thinking that listeners would be in for a bit of a dissonant ride. For if one were to try and literally express cubism with music, wouldn't you have to try and show all the sides of the music at once? What kind of noise would that result in? Would you have to play songs backwards and forwards at the same time in order to hear everything?

Thankfully Leake and those who have accompanied him on this new CD haven't taken it quite that literally. Instead what they have done is reached out to the world's various traditions of music to explore what each has to offer and combine them on one recording. The title of the disc refers not to the structure of each song as much as it does to its content as it presents the many faces and sides of music from around the world. Everything from classical Indian to hip hop are performed using traditional as well as modern instruments. Whether its Leake himself on tabla and balafon, or Mister Rourke spinning turntables, it seems like they've attempted to integrate as many conceivable instruments as possible into this project.
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This still sounds like it could be a recipe for chaos, as the idea of following traditional music from Tibet up with a rap song doesn't really sound very appealing. However, the result, while a little frantic in places, ends up being far more coherent than you'd think. While the nearly eighty minutes of music on the disc are divided up into sixteen tracks, I seemed to always end up listening to the disc as if it were one long composition. That's not to say that the individual tracks are not distinct onto themselves, but they also have enough in common the flow from one to the next is so natural that you barely notice any transition.

Each of the songs has used one culture as its base, and then been built up around that. For instance the opening track of the CD, "Aldebaran", opens with a decidedly Far Eastern sound that continues through out the track. The gongs and bells which serve as its opening fade out to be replaced by violin playing the melody, but the theme they began is continued by the glockenspiel that punctuates the rhythm. Nearing the mid point, the gongs and bells return, and, much like the bridge in a pop song, acts as a break between the opening and concluding halves of the song.

Throughout the disc each track has one predominant theme, but underneath layers upon layers of percussion instruments from various places around the world are being played. Listen, for example to the thirteenth song on the disc, "Chrysalis", and underneath the lead percussion instrument, in this case tabla, and the guitars playing the melody, you can hear a variety of bells, shakers, bells, gongs, and other instruments punctuating the sound. While this could have become an unholy mess resulting in nothing more than noise, through careful engineering and skilful playing it ends up sounding as if the various percussion pieces are working like the voices in a barbershop quartet singing in perfect harmony.
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By placing each instrument at a different point in the stereo spectrum during recording you hear each individual sound clearly. As a result you can almost visualize the instruments laid out in a line and "see" how they are working together in harmony. Even as one replaces the other, a shaker is removed and a gong is sounded, the tabla is a consistent sound in the centre of the line holding them all together. Much like a lead singer provides the melody for others to harmonize to, it provides the beat which every other instrument relates to.

Not every song is so complex, but each of them combine elements in a similar manner as the one described above with the same amount of success. In this way each of the disc's sixteen tracks not only allow the listener to experience the different ways in which rhythm and melody can be expressed, they also contribute to the overall "picture" the CD is creating of music. There's no way that one song could present all "sides" of music in the same way that a cubist painter is able to with his subject matter on canvass. The result would be a horrible cacophony. By creating a series of individual tracks that work together as a whole, Leake overcomes that obstacle and presents as true a vision of cubist music as I think possible.

Cubist is not only an interesting experiment, the music on the disc is well played and intelligent. Combining elements from various traditions and styles is not an easy task, but Leake and those he has chosen to work with on this disc have done an excellent job in finding interesting and exciting ways to do it. Not only have they found a way to ensure each style retains its own distinct qualities, but they have also found a way to ensure they work together in harmony.

December 24, 2009

Music Review: Top Ten Listens Of 2009

Well here we are again at the end of another year and its time again for everybody who critiques and reviews music to stick our necks out and name our favourite listens of the past year. Being as its the last year of a decade some are even being brave enough to try and come up with "of the last ten years" list. I've still not decided on whether or not I'll give one of those a stabs, it was difficult enough as it was choosing ten from this year's crop of releases that the prospect of sifting through ten years of music leaves me chilled.

This is by no means any sort of definitive list of the last year's best music, that would be impossible for any critic to come up with no matter what he or she might claim. First of all there's no way anybody could listen to all the music that's released over the course of a year - I alone must receive two or three press releases a day announcing some new CD, half of which are for bands and musicians I've never even heard of let alone planning on listening to. For all I know I could have missed out some brilliant piece of music without knowing it. Heck I probably don't eve listen to half the music that comes through my door, let alone the press releases that end up in my in box.

So for what it's worth, and in no particular order, here are the ten CDs of goodness knows how many I listened to over the past year, that stood out the most. It's a pretty diverse group of recordings which seemingly have very little in common. However, what they all share is an extra something that made them stand out from the pack in my mind. I've provided links back to their original reviews and what passes for the band's or individual's web site so if what you read is intriguing you can check them out in more detail. However, if you really want to understand why they meant more to me than anything else I listened to over the last three hundred odd days, I'd suggest giving them a listen and reaching your own decisions.

Songs Unrecantable by Ersatzmusika is as hard to describe in a few sentences as the disc's title is obscure. Sultry voiced lyrics roam over top of a mix of European sounding folk and the occasional jarring guitar capturing the mood of unease and uncertainty facing displaced persons everywhere. The majority of the band are Russian born and now make their home in Germany, and while they don't speak directly about that experience, the sense of loss and confusion that imbue so much of their work capture the state of mind of stateless people everywhere. This is folk music from the concrete blocks of apartments where we segregate our immigrants, of the people who have no home to go back to, but who aren't yet at home.

House Of A Thousand Guitars Willie Nile: As comfortable sitting down at the piano to play a ballad as he is searing the paint off the walls with burning guitars, Willie Nile's music marries the street smarts of New York city to a troubadour's sensibility to create intelligent, boisterous, and emotionally charged music. One of the great mysteries of pop music is why he's someone you think you might have heard of, while far lessor talents garner headlines. New York city's best kept secret for nearly thirty years - isn't it about time you heard of him?

Renegades Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Strings. Jazz flautist Nicole Mitchell is one of the foremost musicians of her generation. Band leader, innovator, composer, and superlative performer she is constantly pushing her music to the boundaries of what's been done before and beyond. However her willingness to experiment never overreaches her musical abilities so the results are as lyrical as her instrument of choice. Here she is joined by her string ensemble and her flute soars over the textures they create. Any hesitations you may have had about listening to avant-garde jazz can be put aside as Mitchell makes it as approachable as possible without watering it down.

Siwan Jon Balke The music of the Andalusian region of Spain has its earliest roots in the Sufi poetry of the ninth century. For Siwan composer Jon Balke has gathered together some of today's most innovative musicians alongside those steeped in the history of music to create a series of modern interpretations of traditional songs. Using poems and song lyrics dating back to the tenth century representing the three major cultures that thrived in the region, Islam, Sephardic Jew, and Spanish, they bring the music to life using modern instruments while retaining its traditional essence. A timely reminder of just how much Western culture owes the Islamic world when it comes to music.

If I Had A Key To The Dawn Lily Storm Lily Storm has one of those voices which bring new definition to the word haunting. Which makes it perfect for this collection of Eastern European cradle songs that evoke all the mystery and wonder of dark forests and silent mountains. Unlike North American lullabies, with their sickly sweet sentimentality, these songs range from dirges for a dead child to earnest pleas for their survival. Even without understanding the lyrics, they will pierce your heart and remind you there was a time when the birth of a child was not something to be taken for granted.

Saints And Tzadiks Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg. If anyone had told me that you could combine traditional Celtic songs with old Yiddish folk songs successfully before I listened to Saints And Tzadiks I would have thought they were nuts. Yet after hearing this collection of songs sung in English, Gaelic, and Yiddish its hard not to believe they weren't written to be sung together. The interplay between McKeown's alto and Sklamberg's tenor make for some of the most beautiful harmonies you'll ever hear, and their version of "Johnny I Hardly Knew You" will give even the most fanatical war monger pause for thought.

Let It Go State Radio Every once in a while it's good to be reminded that popular music can be a tool for social change without the music's power or artistry being compromised. To do this with sincerity, and yet still create music that's honest and fun is far more difficult to do that you'd think. Not since the heyday of the Clash has a group managed to mix politics and pop music in as seamless a manner as State Radio - Listen to one song and you feel empowered, listen to a whole album and you feel anything is possible. They definitely give you hope for the future.

Estes Mundo Rupa And The April Fishes. Singing in French, Spanish, and English Rupa and The April Fishes take you on a whirlwind tour of musical influences. One moment you're listening to the sounds of a Paris cafe, the next Mexico. Infectious and inspired they not only make it impossible to sit still while listening, but stop for a moment and read the translation of their lyrics and you'll hear stories that will open your eyes to the world in a way you've not heard before.

Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth. New York city is a place of excitement, creativity and dark secrets. Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth have created an album that not only brings all those aspect of life in New York city alive, they do so in a manner that doesn't gloss over the good or the bad. Not only that, it's also some of the best rock and roll music you'll hear this year.

Imidiwan: Companions Tinariwen. From the Northern Sahara desert Tinariwen are the leaders of a rebellion being conducted by electric guitars and pulsing rhythms. The Tuareg nomads of the Sahara have gradually seen their traditional territories eaten away by uranium mining and the encroachment of urban sprawl. While armed rebellion has been somewhat successful, their music has opened the world's eyes to their plight in a way no gun ever could. Compelling and irresistible, their music carries you deep into the heart of the desert and reveals the stark beauty of their lifestyle. They're not asking you to live like them, only to let them live the life they want - and they do it with such passion and love it's hard to argue their right to do so.

December 1, 2009

Music Review: Marta Topferova - Trova

The usual course taken by immigrants and their families when coming to North America is for the older generation to hold on their former culture while picking up enough English to get by. Children, either born over here or those who are young enough when they arrive to not have had time to become set in their ways, are far more quick to assimilate as they are immersed in the new world's culture through their educational experiences. Five days a week for most of their waking hours they live in the new environment, speaking the language and adapting their behaviour so they can fit in.

Yet what happens if they end up in a multinational city like New York in the US or Toronto in Canada, where depending on the neighbourhood you might very rarely hear English spoken on the streets? Sure they may receive their education in that language, but the children they play with in their neighbourhood might speak anything from Spanish to Russian among themselves and with their parents. Growing up in that type of environment there is going to be less pressure on them to blend in with some homogenous image of America or Canada. So not only will they not be in a hurry to forget where they came from, they stand a good chance of being influenced by what they see and hear around them.

Such was the case with Marta Topferova who was eleven years old when she and her mother and sister arrived in America from what was then Czechoslovakia. Not only was she influenced by the new dominant American society around her, she fell under the sway of Latin American music, while still retaining a desire to be connected to the land of her birth. While her musical early education was in classical music, her professional career has followed a far less conventional path. There are plenty of examples of musicians who perform in more then one ensemble or group, it's not often that each of the groups not only plays a different type of music, but performs in a different language.
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Topferova not only records in her native Czech, but the two major languages of her new homeland, English and Spanish. Not having heard any of her other recordings I can't speak to her success in either of the them, however, if her newest release Trova, being released on the World Village Music label December 8th/09, and her ability to perform in Spanish and play Latin music are indications of her overall quality, she is a rare talent indeed. In fact, even if she were to perform nothing but the Latin music you hear on Trova she would have to be considered a singer, songwriter, and musician of extraordinary capabilities.

Trova is not only the root of the Spanish word for troubadour, the wandering storytelling musicians of the middle ages, but is the name of a traditional Cuban music movement. Both meanings of the word are fitting to the nature of this album as not only did Topferova set out to create songs reflecting the Caribbean influences of Latin music, there is definitely something of the troubadour about her. The material she performs on this disc, both the eight she wrote and the three traditional tunes she's interpreted, are either stories about the world around her or expressions of emotions, a repertoire similar to those wandering minstrels of old. Of course she's also a bit of a wanderer, as this disc of Latin music, featuring Spanish musicians, was recorded in a studio outside Prauge in the Czech Republic.

As for the music and the songs themselves they are wonderful to listen to and feel as they work that magic on you that only well performed Latin music seems capable of doing. Now I'm not talking about the stuff you hear on radio that passes for Latin music these days that sounds like the performers are more concerned about the smiles plastered on their faces than the emotional content of their music. Although Topferova claims this disc is more upbeat then her previous release, you can still feel the heat of the Caribbean sun making sure nobody moves too quickly. Each phrase, whether sung or performed on an instrument, is savoured and expressed to its fullest without ever being taken over the top.
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With all the material being sung in Spanish, without the liner notes to hold onto while listening to the disc, one has to rely on the feel the music generates, and the expression in Topferova's voice in order to guess at song's meanings. What was most impressive for me about Trova was even though I was unable to understand specifics of individual songs, the overall feelings that they generated in me meshed with what I read after the fact in their English translations. For while the music is inherently sensual, and there is a languidness about it at times that evokes a particular atmosphere, there are enough moments in each song expressing its individual characteristics we are able to discern something of each ones nature.

While a lot of credit has to go to the musicians accompanying Topferova; Aaron Halva (tres,accordion, & background vocals), Roland Satterwhite (violin & background vocals), Pedro Giraudo (acoustic bass & background vocals) and Neil Ochoa (congas, bombo,cajon,pandeiro, bell and cymbal), its her abilities as a vocalist that push this disc beyond merely being nice to listen to. When she sings she sounds like she is expressing the very soul of the music, giving voice to the story in the notes and echoing the heart beat of the rhythm. At times as smoky as a late night spent drinking rum, at other times echoing the sound of calm waters washing ashore at sunset in a secluded bay, she is able to communicate a wider range of emotion with just the sound of her voice than most singers are capable of no matter what lyrics they are given to sing.

I've heard any number of Spanish speaking vocalists over the past few years, and while I have to admit my ear isn't the greatest, Topferova sounds as at home in that language as anybody else. Maybe this is what is meant by somebody being a "World Music Musician", that they are able to play the music of their world, whatever that world might be. With Trova it's obvious that although she was born in Eastern Europe and raised in North America, a very big part of Marta Topferova's world is Latin America.

November 18, 2009

Music Review: Stace England And The Salt Kings - The Amazing Oscar Micheaux

While its well known how popular music has changed throughout the years, its not often that popular music is used to document the changing of the years or figures in history. Popular music is usually considered far too frivolous a thing to deal with the weighty matters of history. History books are always about the rich and powerful and the decisions they make affecting the type of people who listen to popular music - so what kind of contribution could it make to recounting the important events of the past?

The thing is, when history is only about the wealthy and powerful, it ends up being only told from their point of view. As a result people like Carnegie and Rockefeller become heroes while the union organizers who fought them and their thugs for things we now take for granted, like the forty hour work week and child labour laws, are still depicted as villains. For the longest time it was only through the songs of those eras by people like Joe Hill, framed on a murder charge and shot by Salt Lake Police, that versions of events aside from the ones in the history books existed. Recently there have been moves towards more populist versions of history as people like Howard Zinn try to recount events from different perspectives.

So, not only is there a tradition of popular music giving us a different perspective of history, there's now also more of an interest than ever in finding out more about when on "behind the scenes", so to speak, of the big events in history. Over the last few years Stace England and his band the Salt Kings have put out two albums, Cairo Illinois and Salt Sex Slaves, which have been done just that by recounting events that you won't find a record of in most history text books. With their latest album they've moved into the twentieth century in order to give us not just a glimpse of events but a person. The Amazing Oscar Micheaux, available for download now and being released in the new year on Rankoutsider Records, introduces listeners to America's first major African-American film director.
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Between the years of 1919 and 1948, Oscar Micheaux was the only black homesteader in South Dakota, published seven novels, and wrote, produced and directed forty-four movies staring and about African-Americans. His first movie, The Homesteader, was based on his experiences in South Dakota, but if a movie about a black homesteader dealing with racism wasn't bad enough, Within Our Gates his second feature, depicted whites raping black women, attempting to lynch black families, and showed the Ku Klux Klan as criminals and vigilantes. While that may sound like a pretty accurate depiction to us, you have to realize that D. W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation released in 1919, depicted just the opposite; black men trying to ravish delicate white beauties, and the Klan heroically preserving white honour.

It wasn't only whites that Micheaux managed to upset, various black civic groups were unhappy with his rather unpleasant habit of attempting to always show the truth on screen. Some of his movies dealt with the very contentious issue of passing; where fair skinned black people attempted to "pass" as white people and not suffer the same discrimination as the darker complexioned members of their community. In fact God's Stepchildren, his 1933 movie on that subject, was picketed at its premier in Harlem by black community leaders and members of the communist party for being racist. However it was more usual for white communities to be unhappy with his work, whether from their depiction of a drunken and lecherous reverend in Body And Soul (which featured Paul Robeson's film debut), or his continuing to challenge Griffith's stereotypes by having African-Americans standing up to the Klan and running them off.

Each of the twelve tracks on England's release either deals with one of Micheaux's movies or provides us with a glimpse into the world in which these movies were released. While track one, "The Homesteader", taken from the name of both the novel and film based on Micheaux's experiences in South Dakota as the only black homesteader, talks about the struggles of settler to eke out a living, track two takes a somewhat different approach. "Vendome" was the name of the theatre in Chicago where Micheaux's film The Homesteader was shown and it brings to life the excitement African-American people must have felt about seeing themselves depicted accurately on the big screen. "Folks like us up on that silver screen/Two reels in we're going to be celebrating".
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Appropriately enough the final song on the disc is taken from the final movie of Micheaux's career, The Betrayal. While the director had hoped to create one last epic to cement his legacy, the three hour plus movie made in 1948 was universally panned. For the first time he received mainstream press attention, The New York Times, only to see them cut the movie to shreds, and even papers that had been his staunch allies turned on him. The song's lyrics reflect both how the director, by sticking to his guns, burnt a lot of bridges and alienated people during his career, and the results of those actions. "What will do when they have forgotten/All is forsaken and friends you have none/You can't go home over smouldering bridges...

As is usual for England and his band, with help from friends on some tracks, they employ from a multitude of genres to help tell the story. While the music might not be from the era represented by the disc, what they've chosen for each song has the appropriate feel to deliver the emotional message they are trying for. It might not have been the music that Micheaux would have chosen as the soundtrack for his silent movies, but it sure works as an introduction to it.

Once again England has taken an overlooked piece of American history, this time a person, and opened our eyes to what we've been missing. Intelligent and musically as interesting as ever, England and the Salt Kings make another convincing argument that popular music has a role to play in helping us tell our histories. With The Amazing Oscar Micheaux they have not only done the great service of ensuring a remarkable man is not overlooked, but are doing their best to rekindle interest in the work that makes him important. Aside from the CD, the band is also doing multimedia performances featuring clips his films (Micheaux clips accompanied by tracks from the CD are on line as well) and live performances of an original score to the movie Within Our Gates - a performance which won them praise at the Rome International Film Festival in 2009.

In the future, when they go to write the history of our times, we should hope the equivalent of Stace England And The Salt Kings are around to help ensure the complete story is told. Without people like them who knows what or who might be forgotten or overlooked.

November 1, 2009

Music Review: Kitka - Cradle Songs

When the Iron Curtain came down at the end of WWII effectively splitting Europe into East and West, in some ways it only emphasized a division that had existed long before the rise of Communism. Ever since the Roman Empire split in two with the East being ruled by an emperor in what was then Constantinople (Istanbul in present day Turkey) and the power in the West remained seated in Rome, the two halves of the same continent have moved in different directions. When the Empire in the West collapsed it descended into what we now refer to as the Dark Ages, while the Eastern Empire flourished becoming a centre of trade and culture.

To the rest of Europe there has always been something mysterious and slightly dark about the eastern countries. They have deep and dangerous forests where unknown creatures lurk and high mysterious mountains that could be home to any sort of nameless dread. It's no real coincidence that the story of Dracula was set in Romania. These were places where witches lurked in glades waiting to lure small plump children to their death and spells could cast enchanted sleeps that lasted hundreds of years. Now it may seem odd to mention all of this in connection to a recording made up of lullabies, but the CD being released by the San Francisco based women's vocal group Kitka, Cradle Songs on their own Diaphonica label, isn't what most of us would expect from songs nominly used for putting children to sleep. In fact some of them sound like they would give most children nightmares rather than sweet dreams.

Of the eighteen tracks on this CD thirteen have Eastern European roots, two are Jewish - which amounts to being about the same thing when it comes to music - one Russian/Ukrainian, one American, and one, "Nani, Nani, Kitka Mou", is made up of fragments of songs from around the world. However, and given their predominance it's not much of a surprise, it's the Eastern European songs that leave the strongest impression on the listener. While translations of the lyrics are supplied in the booklet that accompany the CD, we can't help be effected by the sound of the music and, in some cases, their almost dissonant harmonies, which give the tunes an eerie almost scary sound.
Cradle Songs Cover.jpg
True, the lyrics to the songs when translated into English belay some of the strangeness of the music. However, the contrast between the gentle nature of the words and the offsetting sound of the music end up making the pieces sound even more alien in some ways. How can we reconcile the one with the other? Part of the problem is what we have been conditioned to expect a lullaby to sound like through our exposure to Hallmark card like expressions of sentiment that are meant to pass for emotions. In much the way the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have been turned into the saccharine tales we see presented by the good folk at Walt Disney - try comparing the cartoon version of Cinderella with the original Brothers Grimm tale some day if you want to see what I'm talking about - lullabies and cradle songs have been diluted into sweet and airy tunes.

Here they are replete with references to Goddesses of fertility like in "Megruli Nana", the second song on the disc, where not only is Nana a Georgian word for lullaby and mother, but is also traceable to an ancient oriental Goddess of fertility and light. "Nana (sleep), my darling. The child resembles the sun and the moon". Throughout the disc variations on the word nana (nani, and nanourisma - Romanian and Albanian respectively) show up, and in each case the same multiplicity of meanings is implied. "Kakhuri Nana", the ninth song on the disc, starts off with "I'll sing nana to you. Go to sleep, little rose", where nana could mean lullaby. However it finishes with "In mother's bosom you have found your sweet home." Which could either imply being rocked to sleep in your mother's arms, or being buried in the ground in the earth Goddesses arms.

Not the most cheerful or delightful of sentiments is it? However it represents the reality of a people who would have lived with a high infant mortality rate. Lullaby's that offer comfort to both the child and the parent would have been common if they had to wish a child safe journey very often. Even today we talk about somebody being in the cradle of their saviour's arms when they die, especially in gospel songs. Therefore its not much of a leap for lullabies and cradle songs to do double duty for mourning and easing a child into sleep for the night.
Kitka-2.jpg
The eight women of Kitka take it in turns to sing leads on the various songs while the others supply harmonies and background vocals. While some of the songs are quite straightforward in their arrangements, it's the more complex ones where they really shine. Here the distinct personalities of each voice comes clear, and instead of merely sounding like another choir singing a sweet song, they take on character that increases our interest. In some instances it appears they are each singing a different harmony, and it's those songs in which we can really feel the power of the music they are singing. These are also the songs which allow us to hear just how different the songs of Eastern Europe are from what we are used to, and the skill required to bring them to life.

Cradle Songs not only offers the listener an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Eastern European choral music, but is a fine example of what the human voice is capable of creating. Kitka are by far one of the most exciting and challenging vocal ensembles you're going to hear in North America, and their music is always an enchanting delight to listen too. This disc is a perfect example of why they have gained a reputation for performing difficult music with grace and style. When the Iron Curtain came down at the end of WWII effectively splitting Europe into East and West, in some ways it only emphasized a division that had existed long before the rise of Communism. Ever since the Roman Empire split in two with the East being ruled by an emperor in what was then Constantinople (Istanbul in present day Turkey) and the power in the West remained seated in Rome, the two halves of the same continent have moved in different directions. When the Empire in the West collapsed it descended into what we now refer to as the Dark Ages, while the Eastern Empire flourished becoming a centre of trade and culture.

To the rest of Europe there has always been something mysterious and slightly dark about the eastern countries. They have deep and dangerous forests where unknown creatures lurk and high mysterious mountains that could be home to any sort of nameless dread. It's no real coincidence that the story of Dracula was set in Romania. These were places where witches lurked in glades waiting to lure small plump children to their death and spells could cast enchanted sleeps that lasted hundreds of years. Now it may seem odd to mention all of this in connection to a recording made up of lullabies, but the CD being released by the San Francisco based women's vocal group Kitka, Cradle Songs on their own Diaphonica label, isn't what most of us would expect from songs nominly used for putting children to sleep. In fact some of them sound like they would give most children nightmares rather than sweet dreams.

Of the eighteen tracks on this CD thirteen have Eastern European roots, two are Jewish - which amounts to being about the same thing when it comes to music - one Russian/Ukrainian, one American, and one, "Nani, Nani, Kitka Mou", is made up of fragments of songs from around the world. However, and given their predominance it's not much of a surprise, it's the Eastern European songs that leave the strongest impression on the listener. While translations of the lyrics are supplied in the booklet that accompany the CD, we can't help be effected by the sound of the music and, in some cases, their almost dissonant harmonies, which give the tunes an eerie almost scary sound.
Cradle Songs Cover.jpg
True, the lyrics to the songs when translated into English belay some of the strangeness of the music. However, the contrast between the gentle nature of the words and the offsetting sound of the music end up making the pieces sound even more alien in some ways. How can we reconcile the one with the other? Part of the problem is what we have been conditioned to expect a lullaby to sound like through our exposure to Hallmark card like expressions of sentiment that are meant to pass for emotions. In much the way the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have been turned into the saccharine tales we see presented by the good folk at Walt Disney - try comparing the cartoon version of Cinderella with the original Brothers Grimm tale some day if you want to see what I'm talking about - lullabies and cradle songs have been diluted into sweet and airy tunes.

Here they are replete with references to Goddesses of fertility like in "Megruli Nana", the second song on the disc, where not only is Nana a Georgian word for lullaby and mother, but is also traceable to an ancient oriental Goddess of fertility and light. "Nana (sleep), my darling. The child resembles the sun and the moon". Throughout the disc variations on the word nana (nani, and nanourisma - Romanian and Albanian respectively) show up, and in each case the same multiplicity of meanings is implied. "Kakhuri Nana", the ninth song on the disc, starts off with "I'll sing nana to you. Go to sleep, little rose", where nana could mean lullaby. However it finishes with "In mother's bosom you have found your sweet home." Which could either imply being rocked to sleep in your mother's arms, or being buried in the ground in the earth Goddesses arms.

Not the most cheerful or delightful of sentiments is it? However it represents the reality of a people who would have lived with a high infant mortality rate. Lullaby's that offer comfort to both the child and the parent would have been common if they had to wish a child safe journey very often. Even today we talk about somebody being in the cradle of their saviour's arms when they die, especially in gospel songs. Therefore its not much of a leap for lullabies and cradle songs to do double duty for mourning and easing a child into sleep for the night.
Kitka-2.jpg
The eight women of Kitka take it in turns to sing leads on the various songs while the others supply harmonies and background vocals. While some of the songs are quite straightforward in their arrangements, it's the more complex ones where they really shine. Here the distinct personalities of each voice comes clear, and instead of merely sounding like another choir singing a sweet song, they take on character that increases our interest. In some instances it appears they are each singing a different harmony, and it's those songs in which we can really feel the power of the music they are singing. These are also the songs which allow us to hear just how different the songs of Eastern Europe are from what we are used to, and the skill required to bring them to life.

Cradle Songs not only offers the listener an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Eastern European choral music, but is a fine example of what the human voice is capable of creating. Kitka are by far one of the most exciting and challenging vocal ensembles you're going to hear in North America, and their music is always an enchanting delight to listen too. This disc is a perfect example of why they have gained a reputation for performing difficult music with grace and style.

Music Review: Hank Williams -Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings

Once upon a time there was no such thing as cable, satellites, or the Internet - not even dial up let alone DSL. In those days televisions and radio stations relied on individuals owning antennas on their houses that would reach up into the sky and pick off signals as they'd pass by. Thirty years ago I still used to be able to lay in bed on cold clear night in Toronto Ontario and pick up radio stations in Chicago and Detroit that managed to punch through the crisp air with blues and R&B we never heard up north.

Now a days you can't turn a radio dial without hitting noise of some sort at every point on either the FM or the AM band. Yet at one time there used to be such a thing as dead air on the radio - when all there would be is silence. In rural communities in the States, especially in the South, a housewife's day would be well underway before the first programming of the day started up. At around 7:00 am every morning with the husband headed out the door to start work on the back forty, or tending the livestock in the barns, and the kids off to school, she'd be over the sink up to her elbows in soap suds when the voice of Cousin Louis Buck would come over the radio. That was the signal for the start of fifteen minutes of Hank Williams on Nashville's WSM radio station - home station of the Grand Ole Oprey - brought to her by Mother's Best flour and feed.

In 1951 when Hank Williams wasn't on the road, and had a spare moment or two, he'd be in a studio in Nashville pre-recording fifteen minute morning shows that would be broadcast Monday to Friday across the South. Seventy-two of these tapes have managed to survive over the years and Time Life is now ready to release its second set of recordings culled from these shows. Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings will go on sale as a three disc set on Tuesday November 3rd/09, while individual discs from the set are being released as independent recordings at selected retailers in the United States.
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The three discs each represent a different facet of Hank's character and his music. Disc one are his hits; "Cold, Cold Heart", "Move It On Over", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", and many more old favourites. Disc two is called "Southern Harmony", but it could just as easily been called Old Time Gospel, as its an entire side of old gospel tunes, with some having roots as old as 17th century England. The final disc is a collection of homilies and stories that Hank recorded under the name of Luke The Drifter. Either spoken word or recited verses, to our ears they might come across as being corny and hackneyed, but they were aimed at his unsophisticated and very religious audience of farmers and their wives who would have appreciated the story's simple axioms.

Each of the discs not only contains a collection of material taken from various broadcasts, but includes as an added bonus a complete Mother's Best broadcast built around the disc's theme. Regardless of whether or not he's doing a gospel show, telling tales, or singing some of his hits, each of Hank's shows start off with him and the boys doing the opening of "Lovesick Blues" from which he segues into introducing the show, its sponsor, and its host, Cousin Louis Buck. There's only enough time for a couple of tunes as well as fitting in the necessary mentions of Mother's Best Flour And Feed in the fifteen minutes allotted for each show, but Hank and the Drifting Cowboys deliver the goods each time. It might sound funny to us selling house wives flour for baking and feed for their livestock all at once, but the majority of the show's audiences are going to be a farmer's wife who not only has to feed her family, but think about the care of the livestock as well.

The real treat about these recordings, especially disc one, is that you get to here Hank completely relaxed. Some of the songs he's not performed outside of the recording studio before, and he and the guys are just winging it, with Hank calling out the solos for each member of the band as their turns come up. "Cold, Cold Heart" for instance was only released on record in February 1951, while the recording for the show it was featured in was probably made in January of that year. This means that Hank and the boys hadn't played it outside of the recording studio before this, and you can hear in his delivery just how fresh the tune still is for him.
Hank Williams Mother's Best Flour.jpg
The same relaxed atmosphere permeates all three discs, with the boys in The Drifting Cowboys, making interjections between the songs, and Hank and "Cousin" Louis trading banter and conversation throughout. Although I can't agree with their comments about the beauty of the gospel tunes, some of them with their talk of Christ's bleeding wounds while on the cross, "How Can You Refuse Him Now", made my blood run a bit cold. However it gives you a look into some of the darker recesses of William's brain where guilt and fear sit holding hands. "At The Cross", the ninth song on the disc, shows how deep the roots of Southern Christianity go, as its a reworking of a 17th century Passion hymn, "Alas! And Did My Saviour Bleed" by English churchman Isaac Watts. The Puritan themes of blood and suffering run throughout most of these songs, and in Hank's performances we can see the roots of today's Christian conservative movement.

The final disc contains the work of Luke The Drifter, the pseudonym that Hank's record label, MGM, forced him to use to record collections of his spoken word pieces. While they're not quite as bad as the gospel tunes when it comes to their subject matter, to our ears they're not exactly heartening or inspiring. Ironically most of the advice Luke The Drifter dispensed Hank himself ignored. Like his gospel music, I think these pieces represented his yearning to be something other than who he was, and signified some of the guilt he felt about his lifestyle. Remember by this time he was living on pain medication and booze because of deterioration to his spinal column. At one point on the second disc you can hear him mention about having to sit down in order to sing, and there are times throughout all three discs when the pain you hear in his voice has nothing to do with the song he's singing.

The series of radio shows Hank Williams Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings was drawn from recordings made in the last year of Williams' life. They were a friendly voice to lonely housewives across the South on many a morning. When your closest neighbour is miles away, and your life doesn't extend much beyond the confines of your house and church, hearing Hank Williams' voice weekday mornings was one of the only things you had to remind you that a bigger world existed beyond your yard and kitchen.

Listening to Williams on these discs you get the feeling that he understands exactly what and who he represents to his listeners as he tries to entertain and inspire where he can. We may not be able to relate to some of the material he sings, but that in no way stops us from appreciating what he's doing. These recordings are close to the last stuff that Hank ever put down on tape, and they're a fitting testimony to what makes him such a beloved figure in the annals of music.

October 29, 2009

Music Review: Group Bombino - Guitars From Agadez Vol.2

It was while watching the DVD documentary Palace Of The Winds that I first really started to see the similarities between the situation facing the Tuareg of the Sahara, indigenous peoples in North and South America, and Australia. While all of them are dealing with poverty, institutionalized racism, and the gradual erosion of traditional territories in the face of encroaching civilization and the exploitation of natural resources, the biggest cause of friction between them and the rest of the world, is their desire to be left alone to live their lives as they have for longer then many of our so called societies have even existed.

Unfortunately there's always some reason why it's vitally important to interfere with a people's lives and the Tuareg of North Africa, especially in Niger, have been learning about that the hard way in recent years. When uranium was discovered in the Agadez region of the country the usual promises were made guaranteeing them economic benefits from the mining operations and the protection of their traditional way of life. As detailed in the film Ishumar, les Rockers Oublies du Desert (Ishumar, The Forgotten Rockers Of The Desert) by French director Francois Bergeron, all the people of the region have seen so far is an increase in cancer and birth defects among those living close to the mining operation. None of the economic benefits promised have been fulfilled, and even jobs in the mines are being filled by outsiders. In 2007 the situation came to a head again with uprisings in both Mali and Niger, with Agadez and uranium being the hot spot in Niger. Peace talks brokered by Libya in May of 2009 appear to have brought a level of calm to the area again, but the government is also going ahead with the construction of what is being billed as the largest uranium mine in the world and there is no word on whether or not the conditions that gave rise to the rebellion in the first place have been addressed.
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What, you might be wondering does all of this have to do with a review of a CD? Well since the uprisings of the 1980's, music has played a major role in the Tuareg rebellions through the messages of hope and resistance it spread throughout the region. A sign of how effective they were is that the first cassettes issued by the now internationally renowned band Tinariwen were banned by the Niger and Malian governments and owning them was a criminal offence. In 2007 when the next wave of rebellion started up, new voices were singing out for justice for their people, and at the forefront were Group Bombino and their recording Guitars From Agadez Vol.2.

Originally released as an LP, its now been re-issued as a CD on the Sublime Frequencies label. The music on this release was recorded in 2007 just as the rebellion was taking hold. A year later the leader of the group Omara Mochtar (Bombino) was in exile in places unknown, Agadez was cut off from the rest of Niger by land mines and the only way in and out of the town was by military escort. Like many of Sublime Frequencies recordings, Guitars From Agadez Vol. 2 was not recorded in a studio, but on location with the performers in various locales. In this case the first four tracks of the CD are from the bands archives, while the last five were recorded live in the desert in 2007 by field recorder Hisham Mayet.

Mochtar, who was born in 1981, like other Tuareg musicians of his generation, makes no secret of the influence bands like Tinariwen and the others from the first musical uprising have had on him. Listening to the songs on this disc you'll hear the familiar hypnotic guitar work that has come to be emblematic of the Tuareg sound. However, it's how Mochtar and Group Bombino use that as a foundation for their own creations that makes them so riveting. The first four tracks are much what we've come to expect from the music of the desert, with the voices and the guitars creating an almost trance like state while the rhythm seductively sways like solitary trees caught in a desert wind.
Group Bombino.jpg
It's when we hit the live recordings though that Mochtar starts to show his distinctive style as he seems to feed off the energy of the desert. His guitar seems to take on a life of its own, unloading bursts of energy that sear the night air and shoot up like sparks from an exploding log in a fire. While there aren't any accompanying lyric sheets for this disc, let alone translations into English, there's an unmistakable message being delivered by the music. There's a raw, almost primal energy being unleashed during these five tracks that speaks of freedom and independence in a way that doesn't need to be translated. This isn't music that's going to make you feel particularly safe, but than again there's nothing safe about true freedom. Never the less the chills this music sends up your spine aren't from fright, their caused by the excitement of knowing there are still those out there pushing to live on their own terms, not what's dictated to them by others.

If there's anything that scares oppressive regimes it's people who dare to defy them by advocating truth and freedom. In 2007 when the Tuareg were taking up arms against the Niger government newspapers reporting on the rebels were being shut down by the police and the military. While a peace accord signed in May of this year ended open hostilities and a journalist imprisoned for over a year on charges of sedition for reporting on the Tuareg rebellion has been released, the Niger government has been cracking down on civil protest against corruption through arrests and intimidation.

The environment in Niger doesn't look like it's going to be getting any healthier for the Tuareg anytime soon, and bands like Group Bombino face real danger as long they continue to speak out on behalf of their people. As the liner notes for the CD say - this is the music of the rebellion, and you can hear that in every note they play and every word they sing.

October 28, 2009

Music Review: The Blind Boys Of Alabama (And Friends) - Duets

I'm not a religious person, but I've always understood how a person's faith can inspire them to produce great art. One only needs look at the religious paintings produced throughout the centuries by artists of all faiths for proof of just how many have looked to the divine as their muse. However, no matter how beautiful a painting or inspiring a sculpture might be, it never seems to be able to match the way music is able to communicate an artist's beliefs. Perhaps it's because we experience music on a much more visceral level than the visual arts, its a living, breathing, thing after all while the visual arts are static, its able to elicit the greater emotional reaction. As a test, compare the way you feel while listening to Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" from his Ninth Symphony to the way you react while looking at pictures of Micelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel, there's sure to be quite a difference.

Even non-religious people like me can't be failed to move while listening to faith based music. As I have the same reaction listening to traditional Sufi poetry from the middle ages as I do listening to European classical work, Native American pow-wow singers, and Jewish cantors, in my case it has nothing to do with being moved by the power of the message that the artist is delivering, but the way in which they are making the delivery. While there are some, there aren't many contemporary musicians who are able to bring that level of passion to their music.

So when I learned that the gospel group The Blind Boys Of Alabama were releasing a collection of recordings they had made with contemporary musicians, I was intrigued. What kind of impact would playing with a gospel group, singing gospel songs, have on popular musicians? Would they be able to rise to the occasion, or would the music sound forced, or, even worse, insincere? I don't know if it's the power of the music, the passion of The Blind Boys, the talent of the performers who have joined them, or a combination of all of the above, but each of the fourteen tracks on the CD Duets, on Saguaro Road Records is not only a pleasure to listen to, but far more sincere than just about anything you're liable to hear on pop radio these days.
Blind Boys Of Alabama Duets Cover.jpg
Now, on the whole the performers who join The Blind Boys on this disc are pretty much the type you'd expect to have the ability to make a success of playing gospel music. However there are a couple of real surprises on this disc, performers who I know I considered the least likely ever to perform a gospel tune. I mean it's no surprise to hear blues players like Charlie Musselwhite ("I Had Trouble"), Bonnie Raitt ("When The Spell Is Broken"), Susan Tedeschi ("Magnificent Sanctuary Band"), and John Hammond ("One Kind Favour") sound just as at home singing gospel tunes as they do their normal fare. Blues, especially traditional acoustic blues, is only a small step removed from the church in the first place. When performed by players as steeped in the blues and its history as those four are, who feel each and every note they play or sing as if its being wrung from their hearts, that step is almost non-existent.

Although country gospel doesn't normally move me in the same way as other forms, there's no denying the relationship between the two genres either. So folk like Randy Travis and bands like Asleep At The Wheel ("The Devil Ain't Lazy"), are just as at home playing gospel tunes as blues players. Of all the mainstream country singers that sprung up in the 1980's, Travis was one of the few whose sincerity you could never question. Maybe it was just because his voice poured out like molasses, but it always sounded like he was singing directly from his heart. So there's no real surprise that his contribution ("Up Above My Head (I Hear Music In The Air)") is just as impressive as anyone else.

Although Ben Harper is best known for his rock playing, anybody who saw his contribution to the benefit for New Orleans, From The Big Apple To The Big Easy, a few years back won't be surprised at his soulful performance of "Take My Hand". There will be a similar lack of surprise I'm sure that both Marva Wright ("How I Got Over") and Solomon Burke ("None Of Us Are Free") do equally magnificent jobs on their contributions. However there were two names in the credits that might raise some eyebrows. Both are men whose work I admire, but who I really never would have associated with gospel music: Lou Reed and Toots Hibbert.
Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama .jpg
Toots Hibbert, lead singer of Toots And The Maytals, first came to international attention with the song "Sweet And Dandy" when it was included in the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff. Hibbert's long association with reggae, his 1968 recording "Do The Reggay" is credited with being the originator of the genre's name, makes him seem an unlikely candidate for singing gospel. However listening to him singing "Perfect Peace" along with the Blind Boys, reminds you that reggae was more than just another form of pop music. It too was born out of the passion of belief, either for the Rastafarian faith or for the fight for civil rights in Jamaica. His voice cracks with soulful energy and you can't help but feel his passion for the material.

However hard it might be to picture the man who gave the world "Walk On The Wild Side", "Heroin", "Sweet Jane", and other classics of the seamier side of life in New York City, signing a tune called "Jesus", it's a far better fit than you'd expect. His almost matter of fact delivery when he sings has always belied the passion in his music and that swirls beneath the cool exterior of his stage persona. You can't sing about AIDS ("Halloween Parade") or any of the other social and political issues Reed has tackled in recent years with the amount of intensity he's shown without there being a well of passion to draw upon. Don't look for any histrionics, or anything else out of character for him in his performance of "Jesus", but listen to the subtle changes in his voice and you'll hear the depths beneath that still exterior.

While the performances on Duets are uniformly excellent, even better is the fact that the songs included in the collection aren't the typical ones you'd expect to hear under the circumstances. To be honest I don't remember hearing any of them before. Perhaps to people more familiar with gospel music than me these titles are well known, but I was pleased to be hearing material that was new to me. While the majority of the performances on this disc are much like you'd expect, there are also a couple of excellent surprises as well. It just goes to prove that passion comes in all shapes and forms, but it ends up sounding just about the same no matter what fuels it. This is great music sung by great performers, what more could you want.

October 17, 2009

Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen -Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970

When 600,000 people showed up for the third annual Isle of Wight music festival in 1970, things quickly got out of hand. The tiny island off the east coast of Great Britain in the English Channel was overwhelmed by this invading army. Compounding matters were the huge number of people who showed up at the concert without tickets in the hopes of a repeat of what happened at Woodstock the year prior. Organizers there had thrown open the gates and declared it a free concert when countless numbers showed up without tickets ensuring that trouble was kept to a minimum.

Unfortunately those behind the Isle of Wight festival were less understanding and the event disintegrated into an ongoing battle between the people outside the fence squatting on the hill they called Desolation Row after the Dylan song of the same name, and those running the show. Acts who they had supposedly come to see were booed off the stage, Kris Kristofferson can be heard saying they look like they're going to shoot us. It was into this seemingly unsalvageable mess, after five days of insanity, that Leonard Cohen made his way onto stage. During the set that preceded him, Jimi Hendrix, someone had set the stage on fire, (not Hendrix), and although the fire didn't faze Cohen, the fact that the keyboards had been destroyed did. He refused to go on stage unless another piano could be found so his producer and band leader Bob Johnson could accompany him and the rest of the band.

In the end, it wasn't until something like two in the morning when he made his way onto stage, and in spite of the crowd's ire and impatience he didn't rush. Watching him stare out into the darkness, unshaven, and baggy eyed from lack of sleep at the beginning of Murray Lerner's film of the event, part of the two disc DVD/CD package Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970 being released on October 20th/09 by Legacy Recordings and Columbia Records, you feel a moment of fear that the crowd will tear him to pieces. Then he launches into "Bird On The Wire" and you can almost hear them settling into the palm of his hand.
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The DVD is an amazing record of the power of Leonard Cohen as a performer. The cameras never leave the stage, except for a couple of moments when they shoot the darkness to show people lighting matches at Cohen's request -"Can everyone light a match so I can see where your are"? - and that makes you feel as if Cohen and his band are a pocket of light and power within a sea of darkness. If you didn't know about the events leading up to his performance you wouldn't be able to guess that any of it had occurred as you can barely even tell that the crowd is out there. It's only after each song is played and the cheering begins that we are even aware of them. Even when Cohen is simply speaking there's not a sound to be heard, as if no one dares to interrupt him.

Interspersed through out the original film are present day interviews with Kristofferson, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Bob Johnson, offering their perspective on both the festival and Cohen. Often times I find interjections like that to be annoying and tend to distract from the original film, but on this occasion the producers have done a very clean job of interjecting the present day material into the original footage. They serve as interesting footnotes to what is happening on stage, and help us develop a clearer picture of what we're on the screen.

Musically Cohen is at the peak of his prowess, he was about thirty-five years old, and his record. Songs From A Romm, had just hit number two on the British pop charts. The concert at Isle of Wight was just one stop on his very successful European tour that year and he was accompanied by a band that included Charlie Daniels on fiddle and bass. In spite of the fact that they are all obviously feeling the strain of the weekend's events and the lateness of the hour, the band never once flagged and played beautifully. There's a great moment during "Tonight Will Be Fine" when Charlie Daniels gets up from his chair and joins Cohen centre stage for a fiddle solo. The juxtaposition of the two men is extraordinary and has to be seen to be believed, as Daniels looks like a hulking bear next to Cohen and far too big to be playing anything so small as a violin. Yet there they are sharing a microphone playing and singing their hearts out respectively.
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While the DVD doesn't include all the music from the concert Leonard gave that night, in fact it doesn't even present the songs in their right order, it's still one of the best concert recordings I've seen for how it captures the spirit and intensity of a Cohen performance. The CD half of this two disc set contains the complete concert performed in the exact order as Cohen played that night in August of 1970. Here again the producers have done a great job in capturing the energy of the live performance by not attempting to make the sound quality perfect. By leaving in a great many of the glitches that used to be standard in the days of analog recording of live concerts they have made it possible for the listener to gain a more complete experience of what it must have been like to be at that concert.

While a lot of fuss has been made about Cohen's current tour and what an amazing performer he is today, the slick and sophisticated performance captured on the Leonard Cohen Live In London DVD pales in comparison to the raw passion and intensity revealed on both the CD and DVD parts of Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970. This is a raw and intense vision of a poet at work wooing his audience with words, music, passion, and intellect. Like those in attendance that night you're pulled into Cohen's vision of the world from his first word and only as the music fades away over the credits of the DVD or the last track on the CD do you find yourself re-surfacing. This is an opportunity to experience Leonard Cohen in a way that you've never experienced him before and its not to be missed.

September 29, 2009

Music Review: Trio Ifriqiya - Petite Planete

I don't know when my fascination with Moorish Spain began but it has been ongoing for a while now. At a time when the rest of Europe was clouded over by superstition and disease it was a bastion of civilization and relative tolerance. For although ruled by Muslims, Christians and Jews were both allowed relative freedom of religion. Both did have to pay an additional tax for the privilege of being allowed to practice their own religion and the more fanatical members of the Islamic community spoke out against them, however compared to the way Muslims and Jews were treated in Christian communities, it was a bastion of tolerance.

In our history books we talk of the period known as the renaissance as if it were a miracle that sprang up out of the earth. When in actual fact it was the influence of Moorish Spain that provided both the knowledge and the impetus for the great re-birth of art and learning. That influence continues through to this day primarily through the music of Andalusia. When the Christian armies marched on Spain, with the Inquisition in tail, Muslims, Jews, and Gypsies (Roma) were faced with the choice of fleeing, conversion, or burning at the stake. While the Jews and Gypsies seem to have mainly chosen more tolerant European destinations, the Muslim population took ship across the Mediterranean to Algeria in North Africa. Its there that they have kept alive the words and music of the songs that were created in Andalusia.

While there are some who continue to perform and create music much as it was made more then five hundred years ago, there are others who draw upon the traditional sounds and combine it with modern influences. Trio Ifriquiya, Didier Freboeuf (piano), Faycal El Mezouar (vocals, violin, ud (oud), and percussion), and Emile Biayenba (percussion) use the music of Andalusia as the core for the eleven pieces on their latest release, World Village Music label, and broaden its scope by incorporating traditional and contemporary jazz, and each performer's musical influences.
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Of the eleven tracks on Petite Planete five are from the traditional Arab/Andalusian repertoire, according to the liner notes specifically from the Granada region of Spain, while the balance are one original composition by Mezouar and five by Biayenba. Mezouar is the impetus behind the trio, as he was deeply steeped in the traditions of Andalusia during his schooling where he not only learned the instruments he plays, but the Sufi poems that were the music's original inspiration. Freboeuf brings a modern jazz sensibility to the group with his piano, while Biayenba, founder of the drum group Les Tambours De Brazza from the Congo in central Africa, opens the door rhythmically to the rest of Africa and the world.

Yet no matter if they are playing one of Bizyenba's or Mezouar's originals, or if the jazz piano of Freboeuf is taking the lead, Andalusia is never far from the surface. Whether it's the interjection of the ud, the sound of Mezouar's vocals, a trill in the melody evoking the older music, or something about the quality of sound generated by a hand drum, there's always something that will pull us back to that centre again. What I found most intriguing about the more modern compositions was that instead the songs building upon a foundation of the Andalusian music, they start from the contemporary and build to old. It's almost as if they were showing us how, no matter where you start, or with what, you will always come back to this point of origin.

While both Frebouef and Bizyenba play key roles in the music, Mezouar is the heart around which this trio beats. As the one with the direct connection to the source of their inspiration if he falters, or strikes anything resembling a false note, the whole ensemble will fail. However one only has to listen to him sing a few notes to have any doubts about his sincerity or his skill dispelled. His voice brings to life songs whose lyrics could have been penned centuries ago and makes them sound as alive and inspiring as if he wrote them himself. Listening to him you can visualize in your mind's eye the open courtyards and minarets of Moorish Spain with their whitewashed walls and the elaborate mosaic pattern of their tiled floors.
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Yet this is not just some journey into the past but rather an exploration of the past and the present meeting in harmony and the music of one culture working with others while maintaining its distinctive flavour. With each man bringing his own particular influences into the mix the music becomes a meeting place for styles and traditions. As a result, while we never lose track of the Andalusian core, we are almost always aware of a much wider world existing outside of that particular time and place. At times the sum of the three parts; jazz piano, the rhythms of central Africa, and centuries old Arabic music, becomes a whole that is unique to the moment it was recorded. Even more intriguing is the fact that although you can hear the distinct parts, simultaneously you hear them blending into one.

The music of Andalusia influenced the musicians of Medieval Europe both in style and content. Minstrels and troubadours alike, with their songs about love and devotion accompanied by a lute or harp, wouldn't have taken the form they did if it hadn't been for the music of the Ottoman Empire. Now, more then a thousand years later, that same music is still providing a blueprint for musicians. Trio Ifriqiya have drawn upon the same source material that so many others down through history have and not only brought new life to an ancient tradition but have created new sounds of their own. Petite Planete is a perfect example of how looking to the past is sometimes the best way to find something new.

September 20, 2009

Music Review: Fanfare Ciocarlia - Fanfare Ciocarlia Live & Best Of Gypsy Brass

Somewhere near the Hungarian border in Romania lies a town so small that it doesn't even show up on the country's roadmaps. The trains don't stop at Zece Prajini, you have to tell the conductor which piece of farmland, indistinguishable from all the rest, is the one you want to be let off at, if you plan on travelling there. According to those who live there, a hundred years ago their families asked permission of the area's landowner if they could move their village from a desolate hilltop where they had been forced to travel miles each day for water and fire wood, to this valley where life would be somewhat easier. Easy is a relative term when you're Romany living in Eastern Europe, and they were grateful for any kindness.

The one way the inhabitants had of supplementing their incomes was the fact the village was famous for its brass band.They would be booked to play weddings and other events requiring music by neighbouring communities for miles around and over the years their reputation continued to spread and grow throughout the region. It was their reputation which drew a young German music enthusiast, Henry Ernst, to come and seek out this tiny village and its brass bands. He had been travelling through Eastern Europe searching out, and recording if possible, Romany musicians where ever he went, and he eventually heard of these amazing brass musicians who lived somewhere in Moldavia at the eastern edge of Romania.

The miracle is that he ever found the musicians the world has come to know as Fanfare Ciocarlia, let alone launched them on an international career. Yet now instead of playing weddings for Romanian farmers who were just as likely to stiff them as pay them because they were gypsies, and who was going to believe their complaints of being ripped off, they now play concerts on stages the world over and are fast becoming international stars. If you've seen the movie Borat than you know their music as they were the brass band who tore through "Born To Be Wild" for its soundtrack. Realizing that there are plenty out there who might not have had the opportunity of experiencing Fanfare Ciocarlia, their German record label, Asphalt-Tango, is releasing Fanfare Ciocarlia Live, a two disc CD/DVD package, and Best Of Gypsy Brass, a greatest hits package on a high quality 180 gram vinyl LP.
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The title Fanfare Ciocarlia Live is slightly deceptive, because aside from containing a recording (the CD) and a film of a 2004 concert they gave in Berlin, the DVD includes; the hour long documentary on the band, Iag Bari (Brass On Fire), an interview with the late elder statesman of the band Ioan Ivancea relating a history of the village and the music that has grown to define it, super 8 film the band members shot of themselves, and a variety of video clips of the band. The concert, both the film and the CD, are wonderful as they give listeners a chance to hear and see what happens when the band's intoxicating music meets a live audience. It's a wonder the roof doesn't blow off the concert hall with the amount of energy being generated by the combination of the band performing and the fervour with which the audience throws themselves into dancing to the music.

Yet, what's equally amazing about Fanfare Ciocarlia are the nuances and subtleties that you hear in their music. I don't know about anybody else, but normally when I think of a twelve piece brass band made up of tubas, trumpets, saxophones, percussion, drum, and a clarinet, noise is the first thing that comes to mind and music second. However, these guys do things with brass instruments that I've never heard from anyone. Even when they're playing at breakneck speed, so the music is pouring out fast and furious, every note is distinct and the music speaks to something inside of you on an emotional level that conventional bands can't hope to match. It's hard to describe the experience, except to say the music manages to capture the full range of the human emotional experience while blowing the doors out.
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In Iag Bari we travel back to the early days of the band when Henry Ernst was still skidding his car through unpaved roads, where the mud and icy slush came halfway up his hub caps, in order to rehearse the band for their third CD. We attend the wedding of a band member's daughter, meet the people in the village, and are taken inside their homes. Most are still heated by stoves, electricity is rudimentary at best, and pony carts are the predominant form of transportation. It's only when flash to shots of them on tour, with Henry steering their bus across Europe, that we remember it's 2004 when this movie was shot. This isn't the world of I-pods, cell phones, and personal computers that you and I take for granted.

One of the most telling scenes in the movie for me was the band members meeting with a Eastern Orthodox priest, and going over their plans for restoring the church in the village. They have pooled their earnings from touring and record sales so the village can have the first officially recognized "gypsy" church in Romania. The smiles that crease their faces when the priest tells them the project has been approved, and it will be consecrated are wonderful to behold. They may be on the verge of international success and becoming the darlings of the World Music scene, but that doesn't change who they are and what's important to them. Perhaps it's that sense of community that they carry with them onto stage when they perform that makes their music so special, They aren't just Fanfare Ciocarlia when they climb on stage, they carry with them the history of their village and the stories of all the people who live there.
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While the CD/DVD package takes us only up to 2005 in telling the story of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the LP Best Of Gypsy Brass takes you right back to the earliest recordings the band made and then carries you to their most recent triumphs including their infamous recording of "Born To Be Wild". I'm not sure what motivated Asphalt Tango to release this on LP instead of CD, but the music is still the music no matter how you present it, and this greatest hit's package is a perfect introduction to their music for someone who hasn't heard them before. Not only do the songs cover the entirety of their career but they also give you a good idea of just how diverse their sound is.

In the interview with Ioan Ivancea on the DVD where he talks about the history of Zece Prajini and the music they play, he makes a very telling remark. The people of this village he says have always had to toil in the fields, do hard physical labour, and work with their hands. As a result they've developed great lung capacity and have calloused and misshapen fingers. You couldn't imagine any of them even trying to play a violin or other instrument which requires delicate fingering, so it was only natural they gravitated to brass instruments. He also recounts how in the days when the Ottoman Empire ruled over this part of the world, the Turkish armies were always accompanied by brass bands, which would either lead them into battle in an effort to frighten their enemies or blow the fanfares that marked the coming of dignitaries. So not only were they suited to the instruments because of the nature of their existence, these were also the instruments the people of the area were most familiar with.

Fanfare Ciocarlia have gained the reputation as one of the supergroups among Romany musicians and are justifiably respected and appreciated where ever they play. With roots that are not only planted firmly in the soil of their home village, but the history of Eastern Europe, their music resonates with the sound of the human experience in a way few other bands can ever hope to emulate.

September 17, 2009

Music Review: Various Performers - Footsteps In Africa - The Soundtrack

About a month ago I reviewed a DVD, Footsteps In Africa: A Nomadic Journey, which was purportedly a documentary about the Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara desert. However, Kiahkeya, the group responsible for producing the film, didn't just set up cameras and film their subjects like most documentarians as they had an agenda to promote. The group of "artists" who were responsible for shooting the movie weren't there to report on the living conditions of the Tuareg, or their struggles to hold on to their traditional way of life in the face of encroaching civilization. No they were there to try and capture the "experience" of being a nomad, and to show how the nomadic way of life has something to teach all of us.

The movie was as annoying as it sounds, in that you didn't learn anything about the Tuareg, except a couple of simplistic aphorisms spoken by a couple of members of the older generation about water being power in the desert and the necessity of sharing. Since those responsible for the movie also believed that part of the "secret" of being a nomad was passed down from generation to generation in the music they decided to experience that as well. However instead of merely listening and recording any performances given by the Tuareg and others, they had to participate and instigate what they called "jams". While there was some footage taken at The Festival In The Dessert of Tuareg musicians and dancers, it was hard to tell what was staged for the film and what wasn't.

Now, with the release of the movie's soundtrack, Footsteps In Africa, available as a download through I-Tunes, it's made clear how much of the music in the movie was actually created by Tuareg, and how much was instigated by the movie makers. Aside from two songs by the Tuareg band Tinariwen and a recording of Habib Koite, a Malian musician who is neither a Tuareg nor a nomad, performing at the Festival In The Desert, the rest of the music on the soundtrack disc was either made by a member of movie's crew, Jamshied Sharifi, a new age musician and film score composer or the result of "jams" between members of the production company and various groups of Tuareg.
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While the two cuts by Tinariwen, "Assoul" and "Alkhar Dessouf" are as good as usual, and can be heard on the band's own recordings, Koite's recording doesn't do him justice as the sound quality is not very good and his vocals distort. Unfortunately those are the highlights of the disc as the rest of the music is really not that interesting. Sharifi's incidental music for the film was much what you'd expect as it was merely filler and not really that interesting. Even when listening to it on the soundtrack I couldn't remember hearing it in the film.

I suppose the film makers wanted to create the impression that they were gathering field recordings of the Tuareg when they recorded the music they refer to as "Jams". Field recordings are just what they imply, recordings of people playing their indigenous music made on location using portable recording equipment. Normally these are made by music historians or anthropologists in order to create an authentic as possible recording for posterity and study. Normally those recording the session do not participate or instigate the performances, but act as passive observers so they can be sure of creating the most accurate record possible.

However that's not the case here as in each of these "jams" musicians from the folk at Kiahkeya are involved as at least participants, if they didn't instigate them. While there is no doubt that some of what you hear is traditional Tuareg music, there's no proper context for it to tell us what significance the music could have for the people, nor is their any attempt made by those recording it to interpret what, if anything, is the meaning of what is being sung. For instance, what is the significance of the "Red Ladies Tent Jam", why is this music important to them. Is there any significance to the fact that the women are playing music together at this location, or is it just where everybody happened to be hanging out when the film makers instigated a performance?

One of the things the people behind the film claim is that within the music of the Tuareg there are messages about humanity's relationship with the earth. The film, and hence the soundtrack as well, are vehicles to allow the message of their music to be heard. Unfortunately neither the film nor the soundtrack give that argument any credence as they don't allow the music of the Tuareg to speak with an unadulterated voice. Aside from the two songs by Tinariwn, there isn't any music in either the movie or the soundtrack which speaks with the voice of the Tuareg alone. While it is true that most cultures create music which gives insight into their lives and their history, the soundtrack to the movie Footsteps In Africa, like the movie, speaks with the voice of the film makers, and what they have to say isn't really that interesting.

September 15, 2009

Music Review: Terakaft - Akh Issudar

I've never seen a desert, save for on film, let alone set foot in one, so have no understanding at all of what life in that environment would be like. Sure, I have a vivid imagination, and looking at the endless vistas of sand under an unremitting sun I get the general idea. However, I seriously doubt anybody who hasn't lived with those conditions for an extended period of time can ever fully appreciate or understand what it's really all about. Even if I were ever to spend any time in the desert it would only be as a tourist not someone who lives there without the escape clause of coming back to a life where sand isn't everywhere and water is usually no further away than the nearest faucet.

The Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara desert have been there for as long as anybody can remember - which means dating back to at least prior to Mohammed and the coming of Islam. Their traditional territory spanned the caravan routes from the Mediterranean Sea in the north which carried trade goods and produce from the port to countries in land.. Mainly herds people, they would move with their flocks of goats and camels from water source to water source in a perpetual cycle of the seasons. However with the discovery of Africa and the eventual break up of the land into countries - primarily Algeria, Mali, and Niger - their mobility and land have been restricted. Since the 1960's there have been three armed uprisings among the Tuareg because of persecution and loss of territory, with the most recent still simmering in Mali.

It was the second generation of rebels, those who fought in the uprisings in the middle of the 1980's, who began the musical rebellion which brought the Tuareg and their music into the public eye. The most famous of these groups is Tinariwen who were formed in 1982 but spent the first seventeen years of their existence underground as their music was banned by the Algerian and Malian authorities because of its political nature. Two of the original members of Tinariwen, Kedou ag Ossad (guitar and vocals) and Liya Ag Ablil (guitar, and vocals), have joined forces with Sanou Ag Ahmed (guitar and vocals) and Rhissa Ag Ogham (bass and vocals) to form Terakaft, which gave its first concert in 2007 at the now famous Festival Au Desert in Mali, and recorded their first album, Bismilla (The Bko Sessions) later that year.
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Having been a fan of Tinariwen for a few years now, I was very excited to stumble upon Terakaft's second release, Akh Issudar, at their label's, World Village Music, web site while preparing another review. Released almost a year ago in October of 2008, this disc will come as something of a surprise to those expecting all Tuareg music to sound alike. While there are some similarities in sound between Tinariwen and Terakaft (Tinariwen's leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib contributed a song - "Islegh Teghram" - to Akh Issudar), and their songs share the same concerns and address the same themes, you're not liable to mistake one for the other any time soon. The potency and the power are the same, as is the obvious urgency of their message, it's the manner of its delivery that's different.

If Tinariwen are the rallying cry that travels across the desert like a wind, than Terakaft are the whisper spoken around a campfire passed by word of mouth from encampment to encampment. For those of us who don't speak Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg, we might not understand the specifics of the messages being given in each song, but that doesn't prevent us from forming an overall impression. Listening to the songs you can't help but form images in your head of the desert they and their people have walked through for centuries. You may not be able to understand what they are singing about, but you can't help but feel how important it is to them.
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Listening to Terakaft I hear a sound that echoes with the resonance of the wide open spaces around them and the high vault of the sky above them. It's not necessarily a pretty or pleasant sound either, for there's nothing particularly attractive about emptiness. Sure it implies freedom and quiet, but it also suggests a barren and stark environment where life is harsh and difficult. That they love their land and take pride in who they are is obvious through the sounds of their voice ringing in harmony, yet they don't project any illusions about their reality either.

While each of the fourteen songs comes with a brief description of its theme, the lyrics supplied in the booklet accompanying the CD are all in their original Tamashek. For example the title song of the disc, "Akh Issudar" has a brief statement telling us the Tuareg have a saying; "Aman iman, akh issudar": Water is life, milk is survival". Other songs are accompanied by what I can only assume are quotes from their lyrics like: "The desert is my country, I love it and I will never divide it" ("Tenere Wer Tat Zinchegh"), or, "The roads are cut off, and the borders closed. It's forbidden to travel" ("Haran Bardan"), and "My soul burns while my people are under the yoke." ("Arghane Manine"), which tell you all you need to know in order to understand what they are about.

Terakaft were supposed to be touring the Unites States in the next little while, but have unexpectedly cancelled. When I heard that piece of news I didn't think twice, stuff like that happens all the time in the music industry. However after listening to this disc, and knowing that the Tuareg rose up again this year in Mali and Niger and some fighting is still ongoing in Mali , I have to wonder what's become of the band members. Francois Bereron, the French director of the film Desert Rebels, a documentary about Tuareg and French musicians playing together, was arrested and jailed for six month when he went to Niger in 2007, as was one of the people interviewed in his movie on suspicion that they were sympathetic to the rebels. Terakaft are not only sympathetic with the rebels, but two of its members took part in the armed uprisings in the 1980's and their music is overtly political in a way that Tinariwen's isn't. There's also the fact that they aren't as well known on the world stage as their compatriots, so could possibly disappear without there being too much fuss made about it internationally.

I hope I'm wrong and nothing has happened to any of these men who make such glorious music. However, when you love something as much as they love their people and their land, and are as obvious about it as these men are, there are those who will see you as a threat and act accordingly. When you listen to the music of Terakaft on their CD Akh Issudar the depth of their passion for their subject is obvious. Unfortunately for them what they sing about is a land without borders and a people who aren't defined by a state, and that's not welcomed in the twenty-first century.

September 11, 2009

Music Review: Harry Manx - Bread And Buddha

There's always been a fine line between what's interesting and what's tedious when it comes to acoustic music. For while some performers seem to have the knack for imbuing a song with the heart or soul necessary for bringing it to life, others can sing the exact same song and it will just lay there like a wet dish rag. It doesn't even seem to matter how skilled or unskilled the performer is either, for their fingers could skip and skim over the fret board of their chosen instrument and sing with the voice of the angels, and still bore you to tears. Yet the person whose voice sounds like gravel and who can only strum the few basic chords making up the bare bones of a tune, can break your heart or bring a smile to your face that will light up the darkest night.

People who have listened to folk music, acoustic blues. or country for any length of time will be familiar with this phenomenon as they have will undoubtedly heard plenty of examples of each over the years. While undoubtedly a listener's individual tastes and preferences in music have hand in deciding whether a song has emotional depth or not, the musicians can't escape being responsible for the quality of their music. Perhaps the most disappointing are those who you start off liking because what they do is interesting enough to hold your attention. However, over the course of a few CDs their music doesn't seem to change, or the novelty of their style begins to wear thin, and you begin to notice deficiencies in their sound.

About five years ago a friend of mine introduced me to the music of Harry Manx, who played an interesting mixture of Western and Indian music. He had studied for twelve years under an Indian master on an instrument known as the Mohan Veena. Shaped like an oversized guitar and equipped with an additional set of "sympathetic" strings that give its sound a quality similar to a sitar, its played in the same manner as a lap slide instrument. Taking advantage of these properties, Manx has married traditional Delta blues with the sound of India. While one can't help but admire the skill that's gone into playing and creating the music, and there is something undeniably captivating about the elegant, almost ethereal, sound he can produce at times, after listening to his forthcoming release, Bread And Buddha, coming out on September 15th on his Dog My Cat Records label, I can't help but feeling there's something missing in his music.
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Don't get me wrong, the music is still expertly played as Manx is as skilled as ever and those who are accompanying him are equally adept. However, there's also been no change in what's being presented either, and after four CDs of hearing elegantly played blues and acoustic music, I find myself wishing for a little more rawness, or a hiccough of some sort or another to break the monotony. I like my blues music, and my country, to be a whole lot rawer and earthier than Manx seems willing to play. The lack of emotion and passion, that to me are the hallmark of those genres, can only be ignored for so long before the music starts to wear thin.

With its complicated, intricate, and intertwining rhythms, and the way it piles layer upon layer of themes on top of each other, Manx's style is ideally suited to classic Indian ragas. There the musician almost approaches his subject sideways, gradually building the picture he or she is trying to create until the audience can feel it on many levels. However the music he is playing on this disc, and his other releases, needs a more direct approach and requires a performer to commit him or herself to a song immediately. Whether it's the vocals or the instruments, the audience has to believe the performer right from the outset for the songs to have the emotional impact they require to be effective, and that's not happening on this disc.

It's especially obvious on his cover of the song "Long Black Veil". An old melodramatic, tear jerker of a country song, it tells the story of a guy who let's himself be hung instead of admitting he was in bed with his best friend's wife at the time the murder he's charged with was being committed. There's two ways you can ruin this song, one being by chewing the scenery and really overplaying it, but also by going to far in the opposite direction and not giving it enough. While there's no way Manx will ever be accused of being guilty of the former, although maybe that's what he needs to start shooting for, he definitely makes the song way too bloodless.
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Ironically he has chosen to reduce the use of his trademark Mohan Veena on this disc, for instead of its absence giving his music more emotional oomph, those deficiencies have become even more obvious. On the two songs where it is employed we are given beautiful demonstrations of its haunting qualities and how adept he is with the style of music the instrument was initially created to play. So when he switches to playing more conventional Western instruments and genres, but retains many of Indian music's sensibilities, the problem stands out in very sharp relief. The mellowness and subtlety he employs on the former, don't have what's needed for the latter.

Harry Manx is a highly skilled musician who plays any instrument he get his hands on with elegance and style. Vocally he has a decent range and his delivery is as smooth and graceful as his playing. Unfortunately a great deal of the music he plays calls for rough edges that he doesn't seem to be able to deliver. When he picks up his Mohan Veena, and plays music that is Indian influenced the difference is immediately obvious, and those songs transport you in a way the other songs don't. While Manx is able to accomplish his version of fusing East and West technically, stylistically and thematically it doesn't quite work as there is an emotional void that leaves you feeling the songs are incomplete.

September 4, 2009

Music Review: Les Triaboliques -rivermudtwilight

I'm not a musician, but I don't see how anybody can play the same type of music day in and day out for years on end without getting bored. Surely after a couple of decades of playing blues based rock and roll a guitar player would want to explore something else, if for no other reason than to open their minds to new ideas that could be incorporated into their genre of choice. However that doesn't seem to be the case with the majority of popular musicians out there, as they appear quite content to keep doing the same thing over and over again with only a few minor variations along the way.

All of which only serves to make the work of Les Triaboliques on their soon to be released, September 8th/09, disc rivermudtwilight, on the World Village label, all the more impressive. Les Triaboliques are Ben Mandelson, Lu Edmonds, and Justin Adams, guitar players who began their popular music careers during the British punk era playing with bands like Magazine and The Dammed, or in the case of Adams, as sideman for people like Sinead O'Conner. They are the first to admit that American music of the twentieth century was the first and major influence on their music, but unlike others their musical voyage didn't stop there.

Perhaps it's only fitting that Justin Adams has become well known for his work with the Tuareg nomad band Tinariwen, as he, Edmonds, and Mandelson, have been musical and literal nomads. Wandering the world, from Siberia to North Africa and stops in between, each of them has absorbed a variety of influences that has broadened their musical horizons far beyond what we normally find in popular music. It seems only natural these three wanderers would eventually end up together when the winds blew them back home to Great Britain, where they all originally hail from, pooling their talents and experiences to make this recording.
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The eleven tracks on the disc not only represent their multiple influences but also the huge variety of instruments that each of them have taken up. Brilliantly, what they've decided to do is not wed an instrument to its country of origin - ie have an oud only play Turkish music - but have used them where they fit best and feel most appropriate no matter what an individual piece of music's background might be. Naturally some of the results might sound a little startling to your ears, especially until you get used to the sounds of the various instruments, but if you can put aside any preconceived notions on how a song is supposed to sound you're in for some delightful surprises.

For, while Adams sticks mainly with the instrument he's mot familiar with, guitar, Mandelson and Edmonds get to show off their versatility on instruments like things called a thee planktone, cumbus, bow bus, or khomuz. Now I doubt if I could have told you those names before listening to this disc, and even now I doubt I could recognize them by their sound (the only thing lacking in this disc is the fact that they don't break down which instruments are used with which song), I do know they are being played extraordinarily well. For it becomes abundantly clear that this is not just some affectation or dalliance on the part of these guys to pick up other instruments because they sound "cool". You can't do the things they've done on this disc without having spent a serious amount of time studying, practising, and playing. This isn't a group of guys simply hacking around for the fun of it or to make themselves look good. They are three musicians who are so passionate about what they do that they've exerted a lot of time and energy into how to make it h more interesting for themselves and of course those who listen to it.

One of the best examples of this is probably the medley of "Hora Anticuta Draga" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". You haven't lived until you've heard the latter played on what sounds like it must be the barizouki. Aside from the version sung by Michael Burdon and the Animals, I can't begin to count the number of times I've heard this song performed by an endless succession of bar bands, and yet hearing these guys play the song it's like I was hearing it again for the first time. Instead of it being almost the challenge that it usually sounds like, they've managed to capture its more plaintive nature and turn it into a genuine plea for understanding.
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Each song on this disc has been given the same careful consideration that they've shown towards "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" when it comes to choosing the instruments to be played and its arrangement. As a result, even on songs that you're most familiar with you'll hear something new. Yet at the same time they haven't gone out of their way to change songs just for the sake of changing them. It's extremely difficult to play a song written by somebody else and retain its core while giving it your own interpretation, but that's exactly what Les Triaboliques have done.

What's even more impressive is the fact that they've taken on the extremely difficult task of performing songs from other cultures as well as their own and not sounding awkward. Too often you'll hear somebody playing a song from another country, or singing in a language other than their own, and it sounding affected or false. Yet listen to Edmonds singing "Gulaguajira" ("I The Dissolute Prisoner) in it's original Russian, you don't think about the fact that he's singing in another language - in fact I didn't even notice he was until the second time I listened to the song - because he is so completely involved in the story of the song that you can't help but believing in it.

When you're an established popular musician it's very easy, and acceptable, to keep doing much the same thing over and over again. However there are those who aren't satisfied with just playing variations on the same theme endlessly and so push themselves and their music in new directions. Justin Adams, Ben Mandelson, and Lu Edmonds have pushed further than most on their new album rivermudtwilight and the results are remarkable for not only their integrity, but for their quality as well. It's not often you get the chance to hear music as well played and lovingly presented as the material on this disc so don't miss out on it.

August 23, 2009

Music Review: Orchestra Of Tetouan - Escuela de Tetuan Tanger - Musique Andalouse

After the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City in September of 2001 the unfortunate but unhappily expected backlash against Islamic people and all things Muslim took place. It didn't matter that those responsible for the act were no more representative of Muslims worldwide then right wing extremist Christians trying to bring about Armageddon represent the majority of their faith, if you looked Arabic you became the enemy. (Believe me I know - I'm dark skinned of Jewish descent and "look" Muslim enough for the red necks that I had my share of "towel heads" thrown my way, which would have been laughable if it wasn't so sad and scary).

Thankfully there are some saner heads in this world and though it took a while to get off the ground individuals and organizations around the Western world began work geared at countering the image of all Muslims as fanatical terrorists. MENA Music (ME - Middle Eastern and NA - North African) was set up in New York City in 2006 by Kazko Kawai a Japanese American who has lived in the US since 1985. Her thought was that through music she could enhance mutual understanding between the Arab world and her new country. MENA are committed to bringing the best musicians of the Middle East and North Africa to North America in order to develop audiences for the music from those regions. Ironically the orchestras which have been brought to North America to date have predominately been ones playing music that originated in the west. Andalusia was once one of the cultural capitals of the Ottoman Empire which stretched from Istanbul through the Middle East, North Africa, across the Mediterranean into Spain, parts of Austria, Bulgaria, to the former Yugoslavia and most of the Balkans.

While under the Ottoman rule Christians and Jews were allowed the freedom to practice their religions and in some cases hold positions of real authority. (In Cordoba the principal advisor to the Caliph was Jewish) After the Reconquista, when the Spanish retook their former territories, there was no reciprocation of tolerance. Under the Inquisition Muslims, Jews, and gypsies were forced to flee, convert or burn. It is the descendants of refugees in North Africa, primarily Jewish and Muslim, from this era who have preserved and developed the musical and poetic traditions from the Middle ages that from the basis for today's Andalusian Music.
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The Orchestra Of Tetouan were formed in 1944 in Morocco and is now into its third generation of musicians playing the music of their ancestors and are about to embark on a tour of the American Mid-West sponsored by MENA. So far dates have been announced in Madison, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Bloomington with tickets for the Boston and New York concerts , September 23rd and 24th respectively, currently on sale and available for purchase by following the links at the MENA home page However those wishing a preview of what's in store can search out a recording the Orchestra made a few years back on the Pneuma label called Escuela de Tetuan Tanger - Musique Andalouse (The School of Tetuan Tangiers - Music of Andalusia)

While there have been recent recordings made that have featured music from that period re-interpreted for modern and Western instruments, they don't really prepare you for listening to the real thing. Although a recording like Siwan by contemporary musicians and singers is based on the same traditions, and is beautiful in its own right, in reality it has little in common with the original music. For while there might be some similarities in arrangements, there's not much else in the original for a Western listener to hold onto that's familiar.
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Everything, from the strings to the vocals, are higher on the scale than what most of us are comfortable listening to. In fact, I have to admit that it initially set my teeth on edge. However I encourage you to persevere, for although it might be work to listen to for the first little while, once you become accustomed to the difference you begin to feel it's power. While the lyrics are of course incomprehensible if you don't speak Arabic the music is not without it's power. Gradually what was annoying becomes enthralling and you're swept up in the swirl of sounds and the hypnotic rhythm tapped out on the goblet drums and tambourine of the percussionists. Of course it's not too surprising that we find the music initially alien to out ears as the instruments used aren't ones we're liable to hear everyday, and the ones we are familiar with are tuned to different keys and played in ways we're not used to.

The lute, violin, and viola might all have been used at one time or another in Western music, and some of you might have heard a zither, but the rebab a one to three stringed bowed instrument, one of the central instruments in the traditional orchestra, will be unknown to most. The music relies heavily on periods of improvisation on the part of the players called taksim or taqsim which literally translates as division, interspersed with vocals. Each taqsim is based on a complex system of modes or melodies and rhythms, with each melody being a combination of twenty-four different quarter notes and each combination having its own mood associated with particular feelings. There are one hundred and eleven distinct rhythmic patterns that a musician can use, the simplest being the rajaz based on the rhythm a camel's hooves make on the sand. Obviously the taqsim chosen will reflect the mood of the vocals in order to provide the proper atmosphere for their theme.

The majority of the vocals seem to have been taken from Sufi poetry which used human love as a metaphor for divine love. As a result this music has the distinction of being secular and divine simultaneously. While a true appreciation of this music would only come with a better understanding of which combination of notes is associated with which feelings, it is still possible to listen to this music and appreciate it for the magnificence of the spectacle and the way it manages to hold your attention. There is something about the combination of the sound and the beat that is enticing, and gradually, almost without noticing, you'll find yourself held by the plaintive keening of the vocals, the shifting sands of the rhythms, and the mysteries of the melodies.

The music of Andalusia was known as the music of love, and while we may not completely understand the message being delivered by the Orchestra of Tetouan, we can't help but be fascinated by it. If you have the opportunity to catch one of their concerts when they are in the US this fall, check them out - it will be an experience unlike any you've had before.

August 21, 2009

Music Review: Watermelon Slim - Escape From The Chicken Coop

People are always surprised to hear that I like country music. I'm not sure what a country music fan is supposed to look like, but whatever it is I'd hazard a guess that I don't fit the image. On the other hand the country music I tend to like isn't the stuff one hears on the radio on a regular basis, so maybe that explains a good deal of people's confusion. For as far as I'm concerned the stuff that gets passed off as country music on the radio these days is just so much sentimental twaddle which shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as music written by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Graham Parsons, and Emmylou Harris.

I don't seem to the only one dissatisfied with the rhinestone and Stetson crowd either as in recent years there's been a resurgence of interest in, for lack of a better word, traditional country music. Whether it's people rediscovering the joys of an old Hank Williams tune, or new performers recording songs that harken back to the older sound, it appears people are finally getting sick of the plastic heart that beats at the centre of mainstream country. Oh they've created all sorts of new categories within which to slot this new stuff; Americana, alt-country, or even roots music; so they can keep calling the shlock on the radio country, but when you hear an album like Watermelon Slim's new release, Escape From The Chicken Coop, on the Northern Blues label, there's no disguising who or what it really is.

Now most of you probably know Watermelon Slim as a blues artist, one of the most well respected and awarded blues artists in recent memory as he's won almost every award offered to a contemporary blues performer at the Blues Music Awards for the last three years. However Bill Homans had a life before he became Watermelon Slim that included serving a stint in Viet Nam, being the only veteran of the Viet Nam war to release an album of protest music against the war, driving eighteen wheelers, picking watermelons (hence the stage name) and even some petty larceny for a while. It was the truck driving though that sounds like it was the worst and meanest of all those jobs at least in terms of the wear and tear it took on Slim.
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Now looking back at his history the real surprise is that he hasn't recorded a country album before this. It may sound like a bit of cliche, but there's not many other genres that lend themselves to stories about the lonely life of an eighteen wheeler driver than country music. The problem is of course how much of a joke the country song about a trucker has become. However I'm betting that ninety per cent of the songs that fed the joke weren't written by guys who ever sat behind the wheel of one of those behemoths, let alone drove loads of industrial waste for crooked bosses like Slim did.

Those of you who have heard Watermelon Slim before knows his music comes from his heart and he's not one to gloss over real emotions with sentimentality or pretty words, and this disc isn't any different from his other recordings in that regard. In fact there's really not much difference between this disc and any of his previous ones. For when you come right down to it good country music sings the blues as well as any blues song ever has. Anyway, Slim is still the same compassionate and honest person he was before, so the lyrics, and the stories they tell, of his new material is as real and sincere as ever.

There's a couple of songs on Chicken Coop whose titles might make you wonder a little bit, and if it were anyone else songs like "American Wives" and "Should Have Done More" might have ended up being maudlin tear jerkers. However Slim is able to take the subject matter of how difficult it is for the wife of a long distance trucker to make ends meet and the regret felt by somebody for not being willing to help out a panhandler and create songs that touch you in a real way. Part of that is his ability to bring a scene to life with his words so you can see what he's talking about in your mind's eye as he's singing. You see the harried and worried woman in her kitchen and can imagine the cracked tile flooring and her furrowed brow as she tries to work out how she's going to feed her kids, pay the rent, and the bills with the little money her husband was able to leave her with while he's out on the road.
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There's nothing romantic about that image anymore than there is anything romantic about the image he creates of the man feeling remorse over refusing to give someone a handout. These are both real people whose thought processes we can identify with even if we may not have been in their exact circumstances. Like a good story teller Slim brings situations and circumstances to life so anybody listening can find a way to relate to them even if they've never actually experienced it themselves. I have the feeling it wouldn't matter what genre of music he was singing and he could still write a song that everybody could take to their hearts.

Slim isn't a complicated guy, he's not out to change the world with his music or anything silly like that. Yet what he does with his music is nothing short of miraculous. Everybody talks about the little guy, the average American out there slaving away to try and make ends meet, but the reality is that hardly anyone ever gives these people a second thought or cares enough to tell their stories. Slim hasn't forgotten what it's like to have a thankless job whose only reward is to keep the devil at bay by providing shelter and food for the family. There's no glamour or glory in this life and what dreams there might have been have long since flown away. Where others might make some sentimental palaver about these folk being the backbone of America, Slim doesn't try and disguise the hardships and difficulties that's their daily bread.

Escape From The Chicken Coop proves that not only is Watermelon Slim a great blues artist, but he's a great song writer. There hasn't been a songwriter whose been able to capture the lives of Americans in quite the same way Slim does since Woody Guthrie stopped writing. While others may try and write these types of songs they just don't have the understanding or the life experience to do them justice. Like Woody before him, Slim has been down the same roads as the people he sings about, and he sings about them honestly and sincerely. Call this disc what you like, country, folk, or blues, but in the end its a collection of great songs and that's what really matters.

August 8, 2009

Music Review: Arlo Guthrie - Tales Of '69

Being the son of one of the most revered folk singers in the United States hasn't always been easy for Arlo Guthrie. It's not every child who has to come home from school and ask his dad to teach him the lyrics to a song he wrote because everybody else in his class knows the words to "This Land Is Your Land". It sounded funny at the time, hearing Arlo recount that story during a documentary television special about his famous father, Woody Guthrie. Some people never overcome the shadows cast on their lives by the deeds of their parents, and an incident like the one described above could have been a disaster. However, in this case it didn't take long for the son to establish himself as a singer and songwriter in his own right.

It was in 1966 that he wrote the song that would make him famous the world over, "Alice's Restaurant", and later released an album and stared in a movie of the same name. For those of you who somehow might have missed hearing about it, the song recounts - in detail - the story of how Arlo and some friends of his were arrested for littering Thanksgiving Day and his subsequent visit to the draft board and how his criminal record from the incident impacted on that visit. Of course "Alice's Restaurant" was only one song in Arlo's arsenal, and by 1969 songs like "Coming Into Los Angeles" and "The Motorcycle Song" had further cemented his reputation by the time he appeared at the Woodstock Muisic Festival in Bethal New York in 1969.

Now that big concert in 1969 wasn't the only gig Arlo had that year, and the folk at Rising Son Records, the label Arlo put together for his family and friends, have uncovered some old tapes in the basement from another concert he gave just before he went down to Woodstock. They've done all the usual magical stuff that can be done with digital re-mastering, and the result is Tales Of '69 which is scheduled for an August 18th/09 release, pretty much forty years to the day that Arlo would have been saying "New York State Freeway is closed man" before singing "Coming Into Los Angeles" for 500,000 people.
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As anybody who has ever seen Arlo in concert knows half the fun are the stories he uses to introduce the songs. So aside from the fact that three tracks on this disc are songs that have never been released before, if you were wondering about the attraction of buying a forty year old collection of live songs, it's for the way Arlo performs them and introduces them. Sure we've all heard "Coming Into Los Angles", his cautionary tale of trying to bring controlled substances through LA Ex, but you've never heard it introduced with Arlo giving the audience real estate advice in advance of the quake that's supposed to move the West Coast further east. Suffice to say he's talking about buying beach front property somewhere in the Mid-West.

The disc kicks off with "The Unbelievable Motorcycle Tale", probably better known to most as simply "The Motorcycle Song", and its presented in all its gory original details here; including the audience cheering when he and his bass player (who was in the side car) go off the cliff and are saved from certain death because they land on a cop car whose occupant doesn't survive. This version also includes the startling story of the undercover pickle who is working as a police informer. Something that you'll notice quite quickly when listening to this disc, is that this younger version of Arlo Guthrie is one heck of a lot more militant then the current model, and a lot more frank in his talk about drug use then what you'll hear from folk now a days.

The little asides that he gives out during some of introductions, and the content of a couple of the previously unreleased tracks, makes this pretty obvious, but it's the version of "Alice's Restaurant" he performs on this night that really brings it home. Having just seen Arlo performing the song during its fortieth anniversary tour I had assumed I knew the song intimately - heck I even used to have the whole damn thing memorized. However, aside from the tune and the chorus, I didn't recognize a thing about the version of the song he sang on this night back in 1969. First of all there was no mention of any garbage, officer Obie, or of the boys sitting on the Group "W" bench at the draft board. The story he spun on this night was all about the intrigue involving a new secret weapon - a rainbow coloured roach. (For those unfamiliar with drug parlance roach is the term given to the butt end of a marijuana cigarette, or joint as they say).
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It's a hilarious story involving spies from Russia and China discovering the secret rainbow coloured roach in Alice's Restaurant and sneaking off with it back to their countries in the hopes of creating the ultimate secret weapon - a bomb that will get the populace of the United States "bombed". Of course when American security services find out about this they send a group of agents down to the restaurant to see if they too can get their own roach - they need to devise a means of defending the red, white, and blue from this horrible threat. They not only discover their own roach, but one that's the biggest roach ever seen, some four foot long and a foot around.

Well the story goes on from there to include both the Russians and Chinese making use of tape to adhere roaches to missiles. Lydon Johnson and Hubert Humphry, (President and Vice President respectively of the United States as the incident took place prior to the 1968 election of Nixon) and everybody else running the government licking and sucking on that giant roach and getting high and devising literally blanket protection for continental United States. That image alone, of LBJ and Hubert Humphry getting stoned, makes this song worth listening to, but for those of you like me who have heard the "traditional" version countless times, it's a treat to hear a version unlike any I've ever heard before.

Tales Of '69 is not only great because of the different versions of old favourites it includes alongside songs that have never been released before, its also a chance to take a glimpse back in time to when things were a whole lot different then they are now. Hearing a young Arlo Guthrie singing some of the songs that we've all come to identify with him when they were newly written makes you appreciate even more how he's able to still keep them sounding fresh forty years later. Young or old Arlo is a delight to listen to and this disc is no exception.

August 6, 2009

Music Review: Susan McKeown & Lorin Sklamberg - Saints & Tzadiks

Although the diaspora of Jews from Israel began as early as 8th century BCE, it was the destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem in CE 70 by the Roman Empire that finally succeeded in scattering their population throughout the known world. Over the next century or so communities of Jews were established from India to Great Britain, and a period of mourning was declared which included a Rabbinical edict banning secular music.

The ban lasted to the middle ages, and the music that developed after was much like the language, Yiddish, that was used in daily life, a hybrid of the various cultures and people they found themselves living among. So you can hear Slavic and German influences in both the music they played and the language the lyrics they sung. Therefore it's not difficult to see Jewish music easily adapting itself to work with most other cultures. However, the idea of mixing Irish and Jewish music together still seems at first blush as maybe pushing that envelope a little too far. Can Gaelic and Yiddish have enough in common for such an effort to be possible? Yet that's exactly what Susan McKown and Lorin Sklamberg have done on Saints & Tzadiks, a new release on the World Village Music label.

This is nothing new for this duo, they won a Grammy award three years ago for their first collaboration, Wonder Wheel, so there are plenty of expectations for them to live up to with this recording. Well I haven't heard the previous work, but all I can say is if anybody finds Saints & Tzadiks a disappointment they need to consider having their ears checked for hearing loss. Each of the twelve tracks on this disc are a wonder and a joy that tap into the wide range of emotions both traditions are famous for. What's really wonderful is that for two cultures with plenty of reasons for music to be replete with sadness, the collection on this disc does more than just break your heart as they have uncovered treasures to lift the heart and well as making it ache.
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While the majority of the tracks are sang either in Yiddish, Old Irish, (Gaelic) or English, some are actually a mix of all three. "Prayer For The Dead" starts off by blending together the old anti-war song, "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya", with the Yiddish song "kh'bin Osygeforn felder,velder, oy'vey!" (I've travelled across fields and forests, Oh woe), sung in alternating verses by McKown and Sklamberg respectively, and then concludes with the singing in Gaelic and Latin of "Deus Meus Adiuva Me" (My God come to my aid). While McKown sings the part of the young woman not recognizing her beloved come home from the war for all the body parts he's missing in "Johnny", Sklamberg sings of finding the corpse of a soldier in a field and wondering who will do the funeral rites for him. Finally they conclude with the haunting prayer, written in the 11th century, asking God to fill the soul with love and sunlight.

The effect of the three songs blended together in this manner changes what are nominally anti-war songs, and songs about misfortune, into a prayer for something better. For, after hearing the litany of sufferings brought about by war, the beseeching a God to be filled with light and love is made much more powerful and turns the song into something more than the sum of its parts. The two principle tunes blend sufficiently well together they don't sound out of place being alternating verses of the same song, while the contrast between the two, ensures they become more than just one culture's lament by emphasizing the universality of suffering.
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Like I said earlier this is more than just a disc about how horrible it is to be either Irish or Jewish as the two also have some fun. " My Little Belly" is an old Yiddish children's rhyming song that lists off various ailments by running through the various body parts with the two vocalists alternating verses. Sklamberg in particular has fun with making himself sound as plaintive and suffering as possible. "The Hag With The Money" is another combination of three songs, this time three Irish tunes; "I'm In Arrears", "The Hag With The Money", and the instrumental "I Buried My Wife And Danced On Her Grave". This time the two alternate singing the Gaelic verses of the first song, and then McKeown sings her verses of "The Hag" in Gaelic and Sklamberg sings it in English and Gaelic. The story that's told by stringing the three together is a warning to all women of means - don't be marrying a guy in debt or you just might find him dancing a jig on your grave.

While the material is equally wonderful throughout the disc, listening to how McKeown's and Sklamberg's voice mix and contrast is the real marvel. Sklamberg has a beautiful tenor with which he communicates a wide range of emotions in all of his singing, while McKewon is a husky voiced alto with a rich sound. While it initially sounds like her voice will overpower his as they're not competing with each other that's not a problem, and the way in which their voices compliment each other is a marvel. If you can imagine two voices dancing and alternating who is leading as the music behind them shifts, you'll have a good idea of how well they work in tandem. Each of them serve as a perfect conduit for the meaning of their songs, so even though much of the material isn't sung in English listeners, should have no problem drawing a general idea of each song's emotional tenor.

Even if you need to acclimatize yourself to the idea of Yiddish and Gaelic material being sung together, you can't help but be moved and impressed - even awed - by what Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg create on Saints & Tzadiks. The combination of their voices and the material being sung is as powerful as any music I've listened to in the past. It's not often that secular music is able to obtain the heights of beauty one would normally associate with religious music, but this recording iss as full of passion and wonder as any oratorio to a god.

July 28, 2009

Music Review: Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae

Normally trips down memory lane are exercises in sentimentality that have little or no interest to anybody save for those directly involved in the events being rehashed. When such excursions are married to popular music the results are as varied as people's individual tastes and how they choose to remember their own past. It's difficult to generate enthusiasm for these exercises in nostalgia if you actually lived through the era in question, especially when the music designated as being representative of the times doesn't appeal to you now anymore then it did when it first polluted the air waves. Duran Duran don't appeal to me now anymore then they did back in the 1980's and I really can't see how anybody can look back on music like that with anything other than nausea. However, there's a difference between those sordid attempts at pretending there was anything worth remembering about bad pop music and embarrassing clothing trends and celebrating a specific genre of popular music.

In Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae the musicians who were at the forefront of performing this precursor of reggae reunited in Kingston Jamaica to record and perform some forty years after the genre's heyday. The documentary movie made of the reunion follows them around the city checking out their old haunts and into the studio as they re-record their rocksteady hits. While the movie has only received limited release, it opened on July 24th/09 in four cities in Canada, the soundtrack, Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae was being released on the Moll-Selekta label.

A joint Canadian and Swiss co-production the movie probably won't get much distribution action south of the border, so the CD might just be Americans only opportunity to check out the greats of the rocksteady era coming together to play their music one more time. Judy Mowatt, Leroy Sibbles, Rita Marley, Sly Dunbar, Marcia Griffiths, and Hopeton Lewis might not be familiar names to most of today's audiences. Reggae fans might recognize the names of the three women from their time as the "I-Threes" singing harmonies for Bob Marely (and in Rita's case, as Bob's wife); Sly Dunbar as the drumming half of the ubiquitous reggae rhythm section Taxi Squad; and Leroy Sibbles from his days as the lead singer of the Heptones and his subsequent successful solo career. However, most of the other people involved in this won't be known to many people outside of Jamaica, as rocksteady didn't seem to travel off the island.
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Before any of them made names as reggae stars, they were playing and recording rocksteady. In a lot of ways it seems like the main difference between rocksteady and reggae was the amount of recognition and money the performers received as compensation for their efforts. The music, at least what's been recorded on this disc, doesn't sound much different from reggae, save perhaps that it's lighter on the bass and a bit more up tempo. What makes these songs so important is they represented the beginning of the move away from ska music, which had dominated the Kingston music scene until the mid 1960's, that would eventually lead to reggae.

It was rocksteady that slowed the music's tempo and added the heavy bass that has become such a distinctive part of the reggae sound. It was also these new performers who first started to write lyrics about love and conflict. Listen to a song like "Sounds & Pressure" by Hopeton Lewis and you hear elements of both ska and reggae. The peppy horns have always been a feature of ska, but here the music is at a slower tempo and is propelled with the slower, almost insistent beat, that distinguishes reggae. Unlike reggae though there is a definite lightness to the music. While they might be talking about subjects like needing to find work or your love leaving on the next train like in U-Roy's classic "Stop That Train", the music just doesn't seem anywhere near as dense as reggae.

Listen to Ken Boothe singing "Freedom Street", with it's exhortation to walk down freedom street in order to rid the world of war and injustice. The message might be heavy but the music is a lot brighter than what you'd hear if it was sung by someone like Marley or Tosh. There is a pop element to the songs that is lacking in reggae, and you get the feeling that it doesn't take itself anywhere near as seriously as reggae does. Of course there's another big difference, you're not going to hear anybody mention Jah, or any talk of Rastafarianism for that matter, in these songs.
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Now listening to these songs there's something else you have to keep in mind, the average mean age of the people recording them has to be at least somewhere in the sixties. These songs were all recorded in 2008 at the old Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston where many of the songs were recorded the first time - forty years ago. I can remember when Leroy Sibbles came to live in Canada in the late 1970's to escape the political violence that was tearing the slums of Kingston apart, and he wasn't a young man then. Yet hearing him on disc now, he sounds no different then he did all those years ago.

The same goes for all of the performers on this disc. Judy Mowat's voice is as strong and powerful as it was when she first recorded "Silent River Runs Deep" or when she Rita, and Marcia were singing harmonies for Bob Marley. These folk are ageless wonders, and they are superbly backed by musicians just as capable as they are. The rhythm section, anchored by the incomparable Sly Dunbar on drums, is so tight that you can drop a penny on it and it will bounce in perfect time. Songs like "Shanty Town (007)" sound as good now, if not better, thanks to improved recording techniques and technology, then they did when I first heard them on the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall from the early seventies.

Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae is a wonderful collection of music from an amazing group of musicians who made history forty years ago by paving the way for people who went on to become far more famous than most of them ever did. It amazes me that rocksteady never caught on in the wide world in the same way ska and reggae did outside of Jamaica. It's far more infectious than reggae and much more accessible than ska, meaning there's no reason why it shouldn't catch on with a wider audience even now. According to Sly Dunbar a lot of Jamaicans would say they prefer rocksteady to reggae because it had better sound, singing, playing, and better instrumentation. Well, while some might argue with some of those specifics, it's easy to see how somebody could prefer rocksteady over reggae. If you've never heard this music before this is the perfect opportunity as your not going to find anybody who can perform it better than the people on this disc. One warning - there's over sixty minutes of music on this disc so be prepared as once you put it on you're not going to be able to sit still until the last note fades away.

July 24, 2009

Music Review: Selaelo Selota - Lapeng Laka

Anyone who has listened to any amount of music from Africa will quickly notice the different flavours it acquires dependant on the region it's from. Once you have become familiar with the characteristics of a region's music, it becomes easy to identify where a performer hails from simply by listening to them play. Although that has to be qualified with the proviso that the person plays music that has at least been influenced by the music from that region. If they've succumbed to becoming a part of the great melting pot that is popular culture that's a different story, but for the most part, no matter what genre they're ostensibly supposed to be playing, you can usually pick up some clues as to which part of the continent they come from.

While a great deal of the music we're hearing these days is coming from the North West of Africa and the Sub Saharan region, the region which has been most consistent over the years in producing music that has reached beyond its borders has been Southern Africa, and specifically South Africa. Even during the days when the country was an international pariah due to minority rule and apartheid, the music of South Africa was making itself heard. Either through the efforts of ex-patriots like Hugh Masekela or foreigners like Paul Simon recording with local performers, we became familiar with many of the different traditions that colour South African music.

Ironically it seems like since the end of minority rule the amount of new music coming out of South Africa has slowed to a trickle. In the past few years, judging by the items I've been offered for review by most of the "world music" labels, all anybody seems to be interested in is what's happening up north. However that doesn't mean there isn't anything happening musically in South Africa, or that there isn't musical territory in that country yet to be discovered. A fact that's brought home by Lapeng Laka, the latest release from jazz guitarist Selaelo Selota now available on the Sony label.
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This isn't the first recording that Selota has made that bears the influences of his home province of Limpopo or to be sung in the language of the sePedi people who live there. However for nearly the past decade he has been dedicating himself to establishing his reputation as a jazz player through study and performance. That Lapeng Laka is a return to the roots of his music is made clear through its meaning in the sePedi language -"in my house". However, like many other musicians who have begun to explore other genres of music, he's not simply content to play old tribal melodies on traditional instruments. Instead he's reached back to incorporate the traditional folk-tales of the region and its music into what he's been doing for the last number of years.

While it's all very well and good to play traditional tribal music on traditional instruments, by not allowing a culture to grow and expand it becomes stagnant. However it takes a delicate touch to manage something like this without completely ruining the original music. There have been some horrible examples of people merely sampling traditional music and welding it onto electobeat technology and making a mockery of what was once beautiful and sacred. However with a musician of the calibre and creativity of Selota, it's clear from the moment you listen to the first song on the disc that's not something you have to worry about in this case.

It's only fitting that the disc opens with the title song, "Lapeng Laka", as it opens the door to the "house" of music that Selota has built for us to listen to. His guitar is the foundation for the rest of the house, and it has all the smoothness and elegance that one has come to expect from the great jazz players. At the same time he's incorporated what are obviously rhythmic elements of the traditional music into his playing as it traces patterns you don't normally hear from jazz players. As the focal point of the music the guitar could come to dominate what we're listening to, instead it serves as the core around which everything else coalesces to form each song.
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Surprisingly Selota also supplies the vocals on this disc, it's not often a jazz guitarist can sing as well as play, and his voice is more than up to the task of blending the vocal lines in with the rest of the music. With the lyrics in sePedi we obviously can't hope to understand what he's singing about specifically, but the music and the tone of his voice do manage to convey a general sense of hopefulness to all the music. According to the notes at Selota's web site a great many of the songs are derived from the folk tales of his home province, but without being able to understand the lyrics the specifics of each of those will be lost on listeners.

However, that doesn't mean that you won't take away an appreciation for the music and the culture of the Limpopo province. For Selota has worked very hard to ensure that musically the disc is as strongly flavoured as possible by traditional sePedi music while at the same time making it accessible to those who won't be familiar with its sounds or the language the songs are being sung in. It's hard to describe what the music sounds like, but there's a gentle flow to it that evoked images of rolling grasslands and horizon lines that stretch off far into the distance. The little I do know about the geography of South Africa is that there are such vistas to be found in the country and its easy to picture Limpopo as one such area.

Selaelo Selota has done the remarkable job of finding just the right balance between the traditional and the new to bring the music of his native province in South Africa to life. What makes this recording special is that he has managed to do this without seeming to sacrifice any of the music's unique regional qualities while making it accessible to a wider audience. It's been a while since we've heard a new voice from South Africa, but as this recording tells us there's still plenty that's new left to be heard from that country. With people like Selota leading the way there's reason to hope that this is just first of many new recordings that we'll hear from South Africa in the near future.

July 11, 2009

Music Review: Tsuker-zia Frank London & Lorin Sklamberg

When you mention Jewish music to most people they will most likely either think of Fiddler On The Roof, groups of Kibbutzim dancing Israeli folk songs, or maybe even Klezmer. However most people don't associate Judaism with religious music, and for the longest time music was forbidden to Jews by Rabbinical edict as a symbol of their mourning the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. Yet, by the middle ages those strictures were relaxed and instruments were once again to being used to help celebrate religious feasts and secular events.

Of course with such a huge break in their own musical tradition, and the fact that most Jews were now living in Eastern Europe instead of Jerusalem, their music was heavily influenced by the folk music of their gentile neighbours. Like Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jews of Eastern Europe for day to day usage, you can hear traces of everything from German, Polish, Czech, to the Romani (gypsies) in Klezmer and Jewish religious music. While Klezmer music has obtained a level of popularity recently and there are any number of recordings available, the same can't be said for the religious music. However two musicians who were instrumental in creating the interest in Klezmer music through helping found the band The Klezmatics have now begun making recordings of Jewish religious music as well.

Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg have just released Tsuker-zis on the Tzadik label, a collection of fourteen songs celebrating various holidays and aspects of Jewish religious life. The title is Yiddish for sugar sweet, and according to notes accompanying the release Jewish imagery often uses sugar metaphorically to describe the divine sweetness of our lives. That doesn't mean the songs on the album are sickeningly sweet, rather they are expressions of the joy the various holidays bring to people. For even a holiday as intimating sounding as Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, can be considered joyous as its a part of the overall sweetness of the divine in a Jewish person's life
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However, you'd be forgiven for wondering what kind of disc of Jewish religious music features an Armenian oud player, Ara Dinkjian, a tabla player from North India, Deep Singh, and an electric guitar player, Knox Chandler, whose credits include Cyndi Lauper, the Psychedelic Furs, and Siouxie & The Banshees. Well, when you consider that trumpeter and keyboard player London has worked with everyone from Itzhak Perlman to LL Cool J and vocalist and accordion player Sklamberg has taught Yiddish singing from Maui to Kiev, the fact that they have elected to work with three musicians from such diverse backgrounds makes a little more sense. Anyway, remember the Jewish musical tradition that has inspired this recording drew upon a wide variety of musical influences to begin with. It only follows that modern day adaptations of these songs should follow in their footsteps by drawing upon the world around them as well.

Right from the opening track, "A Sukkah Of Branches", you realize you're in for something completely different from what you're used to if you've heard any Jewish music before. While I have to admit that swirling, atmospheric keyboard music was the last thing I expected to hear when I hit the play button, it not only suited what they were doing with that song in particular, it served as an overture to the whole recording by giving you fair warning of what was to come. This isn't another "ethnic" recording that would look good on stage in "authentic" clothes accompanied by "traditional"cuisine for those looking to take a Disney world tour of cultures.

Instead of merely being content with recreating music as it would have been played five hundred to six hundred years ago, the musicians have found new ways to turn music into a celebration of the presence of the divine in people's lives. While four of the tracks either are composed by, or include text written by, others, the remaining songs are either originals or new arrangements of traditional songs. Not only does this make the music more relevant to a modern audience, it also has the added benefit of allowing them to make the music accessible by including instruments not normally associated with the Jewish tradition.
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Now that doesn't mean they have done anything stupid like disguise what it is they are singing about by hiding the fact that the songs are about religious celebrations. With titles like "Our Parent, Our Sovereign", "The Lord Sent His Servant", and "Elijah The Prophet Bought A Red Cow" it's pretty hard to miss the fact that the songs aren't just pretty little tunes or interesting music to listen to. In fact even just listening to the music without knowing the titles, or understanding every word being sung should be enough to let you know what's going on.

For somehow these five musicians have created music that no matter what your belief system communicates the joy and sweetness that's to be found in the act of believing. However, even if you should somehow miss the point from the music, once you hear Lorin Sklamberg start to sing you can't help but understand what the music is about. I'm not one to use the term divine inspiration lightly, but when you listen to Sklamberg sing you can't help but feel like he's been inspired by something beyond the mundane. It's hard to describe, because he's not doing anything overt like engaging in histrionics or any of the other melodramatic things some singers do to indicate their "sincerity" and "passion". Yet, there can be no doubting the depth of his passion or the level of his sincerity. He has integrated himself into the ensemble as another instrument to the point where he sounds like he's giving voice to their feelings letting you know its the message that's important, not the messenger.

Taken as a whole Tsuker-zis celebrates the belief in the divine on a universal level even though its content is specific to one religion. For even if you're not Jewish, you can't help but be moved by the what the musicians involved have created in the name of that belief. If you're Jewish you will definitely be moved by this disc, but if you're willing to listen with your heart as well as your ears, you can't help but be moved no matter who or what you believe in.

July 7, 2009

Music Review: J B Beverley & The Wayward Drifters - Watching America Role By

Country music sure has changed since the days the people of the Appalachians were singing the songs their Scottish and Irish ancestors brought over with them from across the water. Not only does the majority of so-called country we hear today bear no relationship to any of those traditional songs, listening to it you'd be hard pressed to understand why the heck it is even called country as it has nothing to do with country life or the people who live it. What far too many of these groups, or performers, have done is use the sentimental nature of the old folk songs as inspiration for their material and wrap the result in the tinsel of pop music.

That they still seem to think they're qualified to sing songs about farmers, long distance truckers, and the beauty of trains is a bit of a joke, especially when you consider the closest most of them have come to any of the above has been passing them in their converted tour buses. It's no wonder that the majority of what you hear on the "country charts" sounds about as sincere as a politician caught with his hand in the cookie jar or an evangelical preacher with a prostitute. While recent years has seen something of a revival of interest in the traditional style of music, the chances of you getting to hear it on the radio on a regular basis remain slim to none.

However, if you're willing to stray away from the radio dial and venture off into un"charted" territory you'll have a far better chance of hearing music with a whole lot more substance. One of the bands off the map are J B Beverlry &The Wayward Drifters. They've just released their second recording, Watch America Roll By on their own, Helltrain Records label.
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Nowhere on any of the twelve tracks on Watching America Roll By are you going to hear a voice catch in order to simulate emotion as the lead singer, J B Beverley, doesn't need to resort to such fakery. He sings with a voice that sounds like its been scarred not only by what he's experienced personally, but by the empathy he feels for others and their stories. While it's important for a singer/songwriter to have been around the block a few times and had his or her share of what life can throw at you, what's just as important is how they express that in song. You can sing about yourself and be full of self pity, or you can sing about yourself in such a manner that everybody can identify with what you're talking about as you've taken the personal and made it universal.

Beverley is one of the latter, so even when he's singing a song about how he's always been alone in "Me And My Blues", anybody whose ever felt like they're destined to spend their life by themselves will feel like he's singing about them. Of course there's some songs that you're not going to identify with directly, but even on a track like "Interstate Blues" where he sings about the band travelling around paying their dues, we're drawn into the song in such a way that we can understand what he's talking about.

It doesn't hurt of course that the band plays some of the most infectious honky-tonk style of country that I've heard in ages. They swing through every song with a joie de vivre that at the least will set you toes to tapping or get you up dancing. Yet at the same time the music doesn't prevent you from listening to what he has to say either. Which is a good thing because you wouldn't want to miss some of the song's lyrics no matter how much fun you're having with the music. In particular I like "They'll Only Play My Music When I'm Dead" where he takes a few pokes at the Nashville establishment and how they regulate the music that gets played. However he's not really bitter or angry about it, as he turns the song into a bit of a joke with stuff along the lines of if he wants to support his dear old mom he needs to eat some lead, because they'll only play his songs when he's dead.
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Of course it doesn't hurt that all the members of the band can handle their instruments as well as anybody you've ever heard pick up a banjo, mandolin, guitar, or acoustic bass. While Beverley handles the lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Dan "BanjerDan" Mazer burns up leads on banjo, mandolin, and dobro, and Johnny Lawless lays down the rhythm with his double bass. As the core of the band these three are the old time equivalent of the rock and roll power trio in the way they can lay down honky-tonk country blues. While their sound is augmented by some friends on this disc, you can tell that even on their own these three would put on a great show. In fact they're so good that you don't even realize until the album's finished that they don't use a drum kit or any sort of percussion at all.

There are very few bands who call themselves country that I can stand listening to anymore, so coming across a band like J B Beverley & The Wayward Drifters is like finding a pocket of clean air in the middle of a rush hour traffic jam. What makes them so damn refreshing is the fact they aren't trying to imitate old time music by singing songs written hundreds of years ago, or singing about subjects they know nothing about like farming or hard rock mining. They sing about the world today set to music that's timeless and in voices that we can all relate to. Some of the edges might be rough enough for you shave yourself with, but that's part of what makes their sound so honest and their songs so real.

If you don't think that country music has to be accompanied by rhinestones and big hair and your sick and tired of songs written about a country you don't recognize, than you need to be listening to J B Beverley & The Wayward Drifters. This is country music that speaks to everybody, not just pretend cowboys who've never had to get their boots dirty.

July 3, 2009

Music Review: Kimi Djabate - Karam

I always find it very funny when someone says to me they really like "African Music" and then become almost insulted when I ask them which country's music they're talking about. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and hope they're only stupid and not being deliberately insulting by implying that a continent filled with more countries, cultures, and peoples than North and South America combined could possibly be represented by one style of music. Still it's hard not to laugh at them when they become indignant when asked for specifics.

Of course that's being a little unfair as most types of music played in Africa, with the exception of popular genres, aren't specific to one country but to a region of the continent. Of course that's only because the borders of so many countries bear no relation to traditional tribal boundaries. As a result some people have found that they now live across the border from other members of their own tribe. While others, like the nomadic Tuareg, have found that travelling across their territory now involves crossing four or even five borders. Looking at a map of Africa, it's easy to understand why you wouldn't know the location of Guinea-Bissau. The tiny former Portuguese colony is crammed between Senegal to the north, Guinea to the south, Mali to the east, and the Atlantic ocean on the west. It's one of the most impoverished countries in the world as the majority of its people survive through subsistence farming.

Still, like other West African nations, they have their own musical history, and Kimi Djabate, is one of the contemporary links in a chain that extends back in time hundreds of years. Centuries ago his ancestors had been travelling musicians from Mali. The king, of what was then Guinea, loved their songs so much that he invited them to stay and offered them the territory of Tabato, where Djabate was born. Born into a family of Griots - musicians who are keep track of their tribe's history and tell the stories of the people through song - Djabate started playing music when he was three years old. His first instrument, the balafon (a type of xylophone), remains his primary instrument to this day. However as his forthcoming release, Karam July 28th, on the Cumbancha label shows, he's expanded his repertoire of instruments to include guitar and various types of percussion.
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At the age of nineteen, in 1994, while touring Europe as part of the national musical and dance ensemble of Guinea-Bissau, Djabate decided to settle in Europe and has based himself out of Lisbon in Portugal ever since. Listening to the fifteen tracks on Karam, all of which he wrote, one can hear that while he has stayed attached to his musical roots, he has also reached out to graft on some new branches to create his own sound. While still at home he had been sent off to neighbouring territories to learn some of the regional differences available close at hand, but he also took it upon himself to learn about music that was from even further afield. Since landing in Europe he's continued that musical education and now you can hear traces of everything from Nigerian Afrobeat, blues, jazz, to Cuban being used when appropriate to the material at hand.

Of course like all Griots, first and foremost Djabate is a vocalist. As it was their responsibility to be able to sing a family's or tribe's history, Griots by necessity have voices that make you want to listen to them. However this doesn't mean being loud or overpowering, it means having a voice that draws you into a song. Djabate isn't going to overpower anyone with voice, but there's something about his melodic tone that captivates the ear and holds your attention. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that the majority of the material on Karam isn't sung in English. Yet, in spite of that, you find yourself wanting to try and hang on to every word he sings.

Perhaps it's the subtle power of his music that ensnares the listener. With the balafon and acoustic guitar switching as lead instruments the overall sound of this record is far less rhythm heavy than one would probably expect. In fact, there are occasions that the music comes close to being too understated, but is saved from being trance or sleep inducing by Djabate's precise playing of the balafon. Unlike a drum the sound of this instrument is very mellow and instead of propelling a song, it moves with it, emphasizing and breaking up the flow like punctuation does a sentence. Grown accustomed to popular music that's pushed forward by a full drum kit supported by electric bass it takes a while for our ears to get used to the type of interplay of rhythm and melody employed by Djabte's, but once you do you'll find it just as effective as any other style.
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Although living in Europe Djabate's focus remains firmly fixed on Africa. He sings about the social and political realities facing his people including the rights of women, the fight against poverty, and about freedom. The last is particularly important to his homeland as its history has been checkered with civil wars and military coups since their independence in 1963. With one of lowest per capita mean incomes, around seven hundred American dollars per year, and an average life expectancy of around forty-five, Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world. What little infrastructure it had was destroyed during a civil war in 1998-99, and a military coup in 2003 has only increase its instability. As a Griot Djabate tells the story of his people in his music, and right now its not a pretty picture.

This goes a long way towards explaining the subdued tone of this disc. It would be hard to be too exuberant when singing about those topics. Yet even so the music isn't depressing to listen too. While we may not be able to understand the exact words that he's singing, the tone of his voice communicates that he has hope that things can improve. In spite of what I referred to as the subdued tone, there is an infectious quality to the music that gradually encourages you to move to the music. Normally you're not going to want to dance to songs that only bemoan fate, as the music can't help but reflect the spirit of the lyrics, so the fact Djabte's can inspire you to move tells you while things might not be so good right now there's no reason to give up hope for the future.

Kimi Djabate, like so many other West African singers we're hearing today, comes from a long line of singer/storytellers, and he carries on that role with his own music. However, instead of merely speaking for one village, or even one family he speaks for his country and his continent. His use of music from traditions other than his own and his softly insistent voice combine to ensure that while we may not understand what he is saying, we are not only compelled to listen but take away a good sense of what he is talking about with each song. Don't worry if you've never heard of Guinea-Bissau, or know next to nothing about the north-west of Africa, with people like Kimi Djabate around as long as you're willing to listen you'll learn quickly enough.

July 2, 2009

Music Review: Lily Storm - If I Had A Key To The Dawn

It's probably a hangover from watching too many Hollywood movies. but when I think of Eastern Europe I can't help seeing in my mind's eye a dark and mysterious landscape. Gloomy forests climbing the sides of sharp mountains suddenly give way to deep lakes under whose surface lie mysteries better left undisturbed. It's hard to imagine the sun ever shining in this environment, let alone it ever being daytime, as if it exists in a state of permanent twilight. It's in woods like these you'll find the gingerbread cottage of "Hansel and Gretel", or perhaps chance upon a girl in a red cloak making her way to her grandmother's house.

However, in spite of the darkness, there's also a haunting beauty which can take your breath away in the same way that plunging into an icy mountain stream will leave you gasping for air and in pleasure at the same time. Yet it's a beauty that seems tinged with sorrow, like a heartbreaking poem or song. Perhaps it's an overly romantic view of something I know very little about, but it's also based on knowing some of the history of the region and the hardships faced by a great many of those who have lived there. Subsistence farms carved out of available land, continual invasions by one army or another, and the twentieth century's contribution to horror - ethnic cleansing after the fall of Yugoslavia and the death camps of WWll.

A new release by vocalist Lily Storm, If I Had A Key To The Dawn on her own Songbat Records label, of primarily traditional songs from that region shows, no matter the country or language, the music does nothing to dispel those impressions. Whether Russian, Armenian, Albanian, Romanian, Bulgarian or Hungarian each of the songs she performs on this disc are beautiful but hint at sorrow in their music and lyrics. Yet for some reason there is nothing depressing about them either, as the honesty of emotion exhibited by each song is beautiful onto itself.
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One of the hardest things about singing in a language, or as in this cases languages, that your audience is not going to understand is to communicate with them the nature of the song. Although Storm has included translations for all the lyrics they aren't really needed to make these songs work for us as she shows herself capable of expressing their overall feeling with her voice. What I really appreciated about her singing is this is the type of situation where a singer could very easily give in to the temptation to over emote in order to get their message across. Storm not only refrains from doing that, she is also able to imbue her voice with character that gives the listener an idea of the story behind the song as well as the emotional content.

As for the material itself they remind you that folk music can be in the right hands a genuine expression of a people's experience. Whether a lullaby or a love song these tracks are devoid of the sentimentality that are the hallmark of so many contemporary songs that deal with similar themes. First of all they employ poetic imagery to convey their ideas that you would never find in even the best folk songs in North America let along most popular music today. Not only does this give the material greater emotional depth, it also allows for an ambiguity of meaning that makes you have to think about the song's real meaning.

The opening song of the disc for instance, a traditional Ukrainian lullaby called simply "Sleep Child" is only two verses long, but contains a world of meaning. A mother tells her child to sleep and she will cover it with leafs and leave it by the water. From Moses on down there's a long history of hero legends where the baby is set adrift by its mother and goes on to become a great leader after being rescued. However, the same lyrics could also express a young mother's frustration and resentment at being tied down to a squalling baby and her desire to be free of the noisy and demanding thing. Listening to the way that Storm sings the song you notice a certain amount of ambiguity in her voice, and a definite lack of anything that can be construed as heroic. While you wouldn't be able to discern the alternative meaning from just hearing her performance, you can tell that this isn't your typical lullaby.
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Of course having the translations also makes a world of difference when it comes to appreciating some of the nuances of material. The sixth song on the recording, a Hungarian piece whose title is translated as simply "Love, Love" is both an ode to the pain of love in general and a long ago love in particular. "And for my love of long ago/what I wouldn't do/the water of the sea/I'd scoop out with a spoon/and from the bottom of the sea/I'd gather small pearls/and for my love of long ago/I'd make a pearl wreath".

What starts out sounding like one of those poems that are describing the lengths somebody would go to in order to express their devotion for their lover, is quickly turned into something else by the last word in the song. The singer isn't going to drain the ocean one spoonful at a time to make a necklace celebrating love, no, it's to make a wreath to place on its grave. Of course that the music accompanying the lyrics sounds like a dirge, and Storm sounds like she's just lost her best friend, gives you a good idea of the singer's mood and their opinion of love even without understanding what she's saying.

Probably when most of us think of the music of Eastern Europe we either think of the colourful and exuberant folk dances of the Ukraine, the fiery music of the Romani, or perhaps even polkas. If I Had A Key To The Dawn, from the atmospheric photographs included in the accompanying booklet and on the cover, to Lily Storm's magnificent singing, brings a different side of that part of the world to life. Listening to the music on this disc reminds you that just as there is beauty to be found in the darkest part of a forest, it can also be found in the expression of some of our darkest feelings. A song from the heart is a beautiful thing no matter what language its in or what its about. You may not have thought that a broken heart could be as beautiful as a lover's kiss before, but after listening to this disc you'll see how it's possible, and you'll understand how tears are just as special as a smile.

June 28, 2009

DVD Review: Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement

It was in the 1950's that the United States of America began to pay the price for the years of treating African Americans like second class citizens. Refusing to be segregated and denied a voice in the selection of their government any longer, African Americans began campaigns of protest and education in an attempt to be treated equally. It wasn't only the Southern States where segregation and other forms of discrimination were practised, but it was states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi where they were most enshrined either by law or custom, or both.

Therefore it was these states that became literally the main battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's. People from all over North America congregated in the South to show their support for the movement by taking an active role in their protests. Sit in's were staged by black people in white only dining facilities, bus seats in the front, white only sections, of municipal vehicles were occupied, voter registration drives that ensured black people previously shut out from the polls were able to vote, and people marched in the thousands demanding equal rights. The battle they faced wasn't an easy one as they were routinely attacked and beaten by both the police and mobs, and there were deaths among both the white and black protesters.

Now as the churches were key in galvanizing the people in the South, it should come as no surprise that when the protesters turned to song in order to comfort themselves and keep up their spirits, their first thought was the spirituals that were sung in church. It was easy to identify with songs taken from the stories of Moses leading his people to freedom, and it was those songs that were first sung and even adapted to suit the needs of the movement. However, as the recently released DVD of the documentary Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement shows, spirituals weren't the first or only music that were part of the movement. It also shows how the music of the African American community grew to reflect the changing moods of the people as the needs have changed.
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Narrated by Louis Gosset Jr. Let Freedom Sing traces the history of music protesting the situation of African Americans from Billie Holiday's performance of "Strange Fruit" with it's graphic descriptions of black people hanging from trees as the result of lynching, to Public Enemy's songs about life in today's urban core. However, as befits its title the majority of the movie's focus is on the relationship between the music and the quest for equality. Interviews with musicians and former freedom riders are interspersed with footage of protests of the era helping to both recreate the era for the viewer, and providing first hand accounts of what the music meant to those involved with the events depicted.

As was mentioned earlier, spirituals were the backbone of the movement to begin with, but gradually songs from both outside the church and the black community became just as important to the people on the ground and in getting the movement's message out to the world at large. Young white musicians like Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were key in ensuring that young educated white audiences in the northern states at least were aware of the issues, if not inspiring them to take an active role in protesting. Perhaps the most famous song associated with the civil rights movement of the early 1960's was "We Shall Overcome" and there's a nice little bit with Pete Seeger, where he makes sure to stress that all he did was introduce the song to people, and they were responsible for its genesis into the powerful protest song it became.

While some of the conversations with the musicians were interesting enough, some of them have bore a striking familiarity to ones that I'd seen in other documentaries before. The interviews that were most fascinating were those with individuals who had been active in the movement. Not only were they each articulate about their experiences, they were also able to tell us just what music had meant to them and how it had helped them through difficult times while protesting. Music not only has the power to inspire crowds, as it did in one man's memories of spending the whole night in jail singing, it also could give individuals the strength to stand up to the abuse heaped upon them by the counter demonstrators.
Time Life
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While there's no denying the veracity of the history that's being presented in Let Freedom Ring, and on the whole the music is a decent cross representation of the era as it related to the civil rights movement, there was a little too much emphasis on the music that had crossover appeal for white audiences in the 1970's. While there was acknowledgement of the rise of black power, that whole aspect of the history was skirted over aside from a brief speech given by Stokely Carmichael and some pictures of various Black Panther members like Angela Davies. Perhaps most annoying was there was almost no mention of Malcom X, any references to Huey Newton and his false arrest on manslaughter charges or any of the various efforts made by the FBI to discredit not only the Panthers but even mainstream leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

The other problem I had with the movie is although it refers to itself as being about music and the civil rights movement, in actual fact it's about music and the history of African Americans struggle for equality. If you're going to use a title as inclusive as civil rights, you have to include all those groups who are striving for acceptance; Hispanics, Gays & Lesbians, Native Americans, women, illegal immigrants, and the disabled. While it's true that in the 1950's and 1960's the focus of civil rights activists was on the African American community, the latter part of the twentieth century saw other groups struggling for acceptance as well. While it was good that the movie included events that happened beyond the borders of North America by talking about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, if they're calling themselves a movie about the civil rights movement they need to be more inclusive.

While the movie Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired The Civil Rights Movement does a good job showing the connection between the fight for equal rights for African Americans and the popular music of the community, it's an incomplete and slightly misleading history as it leaves out references to key figures and events. Even if we accept it's title at face value, that the civil rights movement was only concerned with African Americans, it's still an inadequate job of telling that history.

June 23, 2009

Music Review: Jon Balke, Amina Alaoui, Jon Hassell, and Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche - Siwan

The common perception most of us have of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire until the fifteenth century is one personified by the title the period is designated as; The Dark Ages. Its depicted in our histories as being marked by the spread of the Black Plague, ignorance, and superstition. It wasn't until the miracle of the Renaissance, which literally means re-birth, that Europeans began to drag themselves out of the mud and filth and started to create beautiful art and rediscover the teachings of the ancients. Reading most standard histories of the time you could get the impression this awakening was somehow spontaneous; one morning people just woke up and looked at the world differently.

The reality is that the knowledge was never really lost and not all of Europe had descended to the same depths of ignorance, only Christian Europe. Al Andalus was the area of Spain ruled by Muslims until 1492, and during those dark ages all the so-called lost knowledge and arts were alive and kicking. Everything from the concept of zero in mathematics, philosophical concepts of the self which would have seen you burnt at the stake in Christian Europe, to the arts and music, thrived in the city states of Cordoba and others through out the region. Muslims, Christians, and Sephardic Jews lived in relative harmony and there was a free exchange of ideas and learning between scholars of all three faiths. It was from here that the knowledge which fuelled the so called Renaissance trickled into Italy, France, and other countries.

How much of this beauty and knowledge was lost when the Spanish Inquisition purged the region of heretics and non-believers by forcing Muslims and Jews to either convert, flee, or burn, will never be known. However much of the great poetry and ideas on music were preserved and passed on. The music was probably the easiest to spread as wandering minstrels and troubadours would have carried tunes and lyrics across borders and passed their ideas on. It's this music, and the poetry that sometimes supplied the lyrics for it, that forms the basis for a collection of music being released on ECM Records under the guidance of Norwegian pianist Jon Balke on June 30th in North America.
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Siwan, the title of the disc, is the word for balance in Aljamiado, the Latin-Arabic hybrid language spoken in medieval Andalusia, is a collection of eleven tracks, nine of which feature the work of poets from that region married to music inspired by the era. The earliest song, "Thulathiyat" was written by the Suffi mystic Husayn Mansour Al Hallaj who lived between 857 -922 AD while Lope de Vega's "A la dina dana" demonstrates how the influences of the era lived on after the re-conquest as he lived from 1562 - 1635 and is considered one of the major voices of the golden age of Spanish literature for his plays and prose. The booklet accompanying the CD not only gives a history of each song and the poet who wrote it, but their lyrics in the language they are sung in, either Spanish or Arabic, and an English translation.

Jon Balke has an extensive background in both jazz and world music with credits including compositions for theatre, dance, and chamber orchestras. The three other main musicians, vocalist Amina Alaoui, trumpeter Jon Hassell, and violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche each have experience and talent relevant to the work at hand. Alaoui and M'Kachiche are Moroccan and Algerian respectively and both have extensive backgrounds in the history and playing of the music of Al Andalus. Jon Hassell's musical experiences have seen him studying from Europe to India and he has created what he calls "fourth world" music - music without borders that combines classical,pop, secular, and sacred elements from all over the world. With these four serving as the nexus, and the rest of the musicians drawn from traditions and cultures ranging from traditional Persian to early European music like baroque and renaissance, everybody involved has had their musical experiences influenced by what was born on the Iberian peninsula.

As for the music itself, I'm struggling to find the words to describe it. If you're familiar with any of music from North Africa, Spain, Persia (modern Iran), or renaissance Europe, than you're bound to recognize elements in each song no matter what language they are sung in. In fact there are times while listening to various songs that you'll swear you've heard it before as patterns that you've heard in another context will tug at your memory. However, all of the compositions have been created for this recording. What Balke and his fellow musicians have done is compose music which reflects the depth and breadth of the influence Muslim Spain has on us to this day. It shows, no matter what anybody would have us believe, that Islam is one of the cornerstones of Western culture, as the philosophy and thought that went into the creation of the music from that region continues to strike chords of recognition with us today.
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One of the great wonders of Siwan aside from the beauty of the music, is the singing of Amina Alaoui. While all the musicians are wonderful, it's around her voice that the nine tracks with lyrics live or die. The more I hear female vocalists from traditions other than North American pop or European opera, the more I realize why I've always felt there has been something lacking in our music. There's nothing forced or controlled about Alaoui's voice like what were used to. While I've always been able to admire the technical prowess of an opera voice, its lack of human warmth has always left me cold. Alaoui's voice is every bit as technically proficient as any I've heard sing opera, but she has the humanity they lack. Rich like velvet her voice also retains the rawness of human emotion that allows us to identify with her song even though we may not speak or understand the language she's singing in.

Carl Jung talked about the idea of race memory wherein we remember things that date back thousands of years through a type of collective unconscious. While some of that has been formed by specific associations like religion and language, some of it we share in common with all humans. In some ways the music on Siwan is like that as you recognize it without actually knowing any of the songs on the disc. However, what's important is the music on this disc is beautifully sung and wonderfully played. It doesn't matter what you know or don't know about history, or even if you give a damn about who influenced who. Listening to this disc is an experience that transcends any of those concerns, proving once again that regardless of what anyone thinks or does, great art exists in a world of its own.

June 8, 2009

Music Review: Take Me To The Water: Immersion Baptism In Vintage Music And Photography 1890 - 1950 Various Performers

It's not a sight you're liable to see that often anymore, at least not in big cities in the northern United States and Canada. A congregation of people gathered by a river, stream, or other body of water deep enough to submerge a person in. Ritual, mass public baptisms in a natural setting, like the banks of a river, are as foreign to most of us these days as the rites carried out by distant cultures in far off lands. Aside from practical matters like finding a body of water clean enough near a major population centre that you'd want to be immersed in it, the whole deal seems like a relic from the past.

Now I'm not saying that full immersion baptism isn't still practised today, there are too many Christian denominations and sects that see it as an integral part of their practice. However, I can't see the practice being as wide spread now as it was in the earlier parts of the twentieth century and before simply because people in general don't have the time for such elaborate rituals when it comes to their religion. Now I'm no expert on the matter, but I'd say as the practice was always limited to the Protestant denominations, specifically the various Baptist churches, that the actual number of people who participated in these rituals was always a minority. As times, and people's attitudes towards religion, have changed, I'd think that minority has gradually been reduced.

All of which make Take Me To The Water, a CD of baptismal music and sermons from the first half of the twentieth century released by the Dust To Digital label, as important as it is intriguing. As their name implies Dust to Digital specializes in rescuing pieces of Americana from the dust of history and restoring them as much as possible. In this case they have gathered together old recordings of sermons and music associated with full immersion baptismal celebrations on a CD and reproduced a collection of seventy-five photographs of+ baptisms from the same time period.
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While listening to the music and the various sermons on their own gives you some indication of what these ceremonies meant to those who participated in them, listening to them while looking at pictures of people gathered for, and participating in, baptisms gives you an even deeper appreciation of just how significant these events used to be. While the posed images with everyone standing solemnly facing the camera are an indication of how important these occasions were to people, it's the images of the actual baptisms that communicate the joy experienced by those taking part.

Let your eye wander away from the focal point of those shots, the minister and the person being baptized, and look at the faces of those observing. Their eyes are glued to the action in mid-stream as if it were the centre of the universe. In some of the photos you can even spot those caught up in the throes of ecstasy as they have thrown themselves into the passion of witnessing a loved ones affirmation of faith. Perhaps this is one of the reasons these ceremonies are uncomfortable for us, as we aren't used to open displays of passion when it comes to our religious practices. Compare that scene to the average Christening held in a church in front of the font where the priest or minister sprinkles a few drops of water on an infants forehead. Aside from the involvement of water, the two ceremonies have almost nothing in common.

While the pictures tell one part of the story the twenty-five songs and sermons on the CD give us an even better idea of the passions generated by participating in an outdoor baptism ceremony. It begins right from the opening track with Rev, J. M, Gates, recorded in 1926, leading his congregation in singing "Baptize Me" and introducing it with a sermon about how anyone who is born again needs to be baptized. Aside from the fact that the good reverend is a powerful speaker, it's the sound of those listening to him shouting out their agreement that drives home the intensity of the feelings that are generated during one of those events.
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While a great many of the tunes and groups performing them are liable to be unknown to anybody but an avid collector of Americana, there are still some recognizable names among the performers and song titles gathered together on this collection. What collection of early twentieth century gospel music would be complete without a contribution from the Carter Family? This is no exception as they perform "On My Way To Canaan's Land". While they don't match some of the African American choirs in terms of passion, there can be no doubt at the depth of their sincerity when they sing about being "Baptized in Jesus' name"

Both the musical recordings and the pictures in the book show the effects of age as the former are full of hisses and pops, while the latter are stained or even ripped in places. Not only does their condition do nothing to reduce their impact upon us, it gives them an air of authenticity that makes them all the more powerful. Original source material of this nature allows us to experience events without anyone's opinion or viewpoint obstructing our view. It's the difference between reading a history of an event written long after it took place, and reading an eyewitness account of the same incident. What you lose by having a slightly narrower focus is more than compensated for by the vividness of detail generated by its immediacy.

The Dust to Digital label has done a magnificent job of putting together packages that bring very specific periods of the past to life. Take Me To The Water lives up to the high standards they have established with their previous releases. It offers the opportunity to experience, as much as possible without actually being there, the old time public baptisms that were once an integral part of the fabric of life for a great many North Americans. This package gives us all an opportunity to appreciate just what a wonderful thing faith can be, and the joy and pleasure it can bring. That's a lesson we could all stand to learn, as we have somehow managed to twist faith into being weapon these days instead of the celebration it once was. Who says we can't learn anything from the past?

May 23, 2009

Concert Review: Leonard Cohen Live In Kingston Ontario

From the moment he ran onto the stage of Kingston's K-Rock Centre to the moment the last echoes of the sound of the band, crew, and him singing from the "Book Of Ruth" faded into applause and bows, Leonard Cohen held our hearts and souls in the palm of his hand last night (May 22nd/09). Normally I wouldn't feel either comfortable or safe surrendering that much of myself to anybody, but not only wasn't there much I could do about it in this instance, I doubt any of us gathered together last night could have been in safer or better hands. As a poet, singer, novelist and song writer, Cohen has always delved into deep emotional waters, but when you see him in concert he not only tells you about those experiences, he becomes your guide through them.

Cohen's first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies was published in 1956 and his first recording,Songs Of Leonard Cohen, was released in 1967, and since then has released twelve books, fourteen albums, and been in front of audiences almost continually either reading or singing his work. At seventy-five the one time enfant-terrible of Canadian poetry has evolved into a grand master/guru to whom people around the world now turn for their heart's easing and their soul's comfort. For where he was once perceived as dark and brooding, cut from the same cloth as Lord Byron and the Romantics of the nineteenth century, as his locks have greyed people have allowed themselves to see past the image they tried to create for him, and let his words and voice reach them instead.

Which is exactly what happened last night as Cohen performed songs from nearly his entire repertoire of recordings for an audience that clung to each word he said and every note that he and his band sang or played. Eager as a child and humble as a supplicant, Cohen stood before us with hat in hand (literally and figuratively) asking us to join him in celebrating something most of the world would have us deny - our emotions. He coaxed, teased, joked, and cajoled us into breaking down the walls the world builds around our hearts, while simultaneously providing the reassurance required to allow us to do so in public. Unlike those who would manipulate you with their music in order to make you react in a specific way, Cohen offered the audience the opportunity to feel whatever it was we needed in whatever amount we required.
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Having just recently reviewed the DVD Leonard Cohen Live In London, a recording made earlier during this current tour, I was slightly worried that I would have spoiled the experience of seeing Cohen in concert for myself as he would most likely perform the same show here in Kingston as was recorded in London. While it's true that the majority of the material was the same, including the sequence in which they were performed and the patter between songs, the difference between even the best that modern technology has to offer and seeing Cohen perform live is immeasurable.

Aside from the fact that the experience of being amongst a crowd of people sharing the same excitement and pleasure of witnessing the performance can never be re-created, there were nuances of his performance that didn't show up on the DVD. No matter how good your sound system is, it will never be able to match hearing him sing or recite in person. I had no idea just how rich and deep his voice has become until I saw him last night. At times when he descended to the bottom of his register you could swear his voice was rising from the floor through the soles of your feet to make its way up into your body. Now I've been to concerts where the base has been so heavy that it's made your chest hurt from the pressure, but this wasn't the case as it was more like a caress than an assault like on other occasions.

Another difference is the fact that a camera is selective and you only see what it wants you to see, so on a recording you miss what's happening outside of its singular focus. I've no idea if they did this during the Live In London concert, but on this night during the singing of the lines "White girls dancing", his back up singers, The Webb Sisters, performed simultaneous backwards cartwheels, something which definitely didn't show up in the DVD footage. That was just one of many asides or moments that can only be experienced by seeing a live performance.
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However, what it comes down to in the end is the music, and Cohen and his band on stage are even more impressive in person than they are on tape. You'd think that after months on the road performing the same songs over and over again they would reach the stage where the material becomes somewhat stale. Well, if it was the case, you couldn't tell it by the performance I saw last night as they attacked each song with a joy and enthusiasm that brought the audience to their feet time and time again. Songs like "Suzanne", "Bird On A Wire", "Famous Blue Raincoat", "Closing Time", and "Dance Me To The End Of Love", which audience members must have heard many a time before, sounded as fresh as if we were hearing them for the first time again.

Some concerts that you attend you may remember a song or two in particular as highlights, while others are just a blur of excitement and noise. However once in a while you are fortunate enough to be part of an experience. Last night watching Leonard Cohen was one of those occasions. There were moments when the impulse to surrender to the wash of emotions being generated by listening to the music was so great that it was impossible not to just sit back and close my eyes and let myself go. I haven't done drugs in over fifteen years, but nothing I ever took in the hopes of expanding my consciousness ever came close to matching the experience of riding on the waves generated by what was happening on stage last night.

Leonard Cohen is seventy-five now, so who knows how many more times he's going to be motivated to tour again. It's been fifteen years since his last tour, so there might not even be another. Don't miss the opportunity to see and experience him in concert as it will be unlike anything you've ever enjoyed before. Last night, May 22nd/2009, he was in Kingston Ontario changing a few thousands lives for the better, and his tour is continuing across North America and Europe for the rest of the year so you've still plenty of opportunities to see and hear him sing before this tour wraps up. In a world filled with mass produced and sterile products, a Leonard Cohen concert is a very unique and human experience that shouldn't be missed.

May 18, 2009

Music Review: Inbar Bakal - Song Of Songs

It's not often that we think of popular music and the Old Testament in the same breath. Heck even the majority of today's gospel music looks to the New Testament for its inspiration. However, when you consider the source of the new release Song Of Songs on the Electrofone Records label, the Old Testament connection makes a lot of sense. Inbar Bakal was born in Israel and is a descendant of Yemenite Jews whose traditions have long included putting their belief to music.

Like all young Israelites Bakal did her years of national service, as part of an anti-aircraft battalion, before embarking on the career of her choice. While that choice was always destined to be music, (her grandfather, a famous kabbalist thought by some to be able to predict the future, told her when she was sixteen that she had a big star in the sky that said she was going to be a singer) it was only after she gave up a career in the armed forces and moved to Los Angeles that it came to fruition. It was the same grandfather who inspired Bakal's version of the traditional psalm that is her release's title track, Song Of Songs. For while many consider the sensuality of that particular psalm to be an allegory for the love between man and God, her grandfather believed it was about love fro a woman, because it is truly divine.

That should give you a clue as to the fact that although this disc might look to the Old Testament and traditional Jewish music and culture for its inspiration, its not what you would call religious music. Bakal is very careful to enunciate that while she takes great pride in her Yemenite heritage and has a very traditional sense of her culture, she is not especially religious. Nor, at least judging by her approach to the music on Song Of Songs, is she so wedded to her traditions that she's unwilling to tamper and experiment with the music using the technology available to today's musical performers.
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While listening to the disc you'll also notice she's done a little more than just add a few technical advances to the music. She's put together a band that's comfortable with the instruments and musical styles of a great many different cultures through-out the Middle East and the Mediterranean. This means that intermingled with the sound of instruments like the oud which is native to the region, you'll also hear the strains of a bouzouki and piano mixed in. Of course the most obvious additions are those that were added in the production room; electronic sounds and rhythms.

There has been a noticeable trend among younger international musicians towards modernizing the sound of their parent's and grandparent's music with decidedly mixed results. While some have been able to strike a delicate balance between the old and the new, others have shown themselves to be far to eager to discard what it was that made their music special in the first place. Thankfully that's not the case with Inbar Bakal as she and her producer Carmen Rizzo have demonstrated they share an awareness of just how far they can push a song in that direction before it loses the distinctiveness that gave it character in the first place.

While Bakal sings in a mixture of Hebrew and English, the lyrics of her songs are another way in which she brings the material into the modern world. The song "The Bride" is a great example of this as its actually two songs in one that deals with the difficult subject of an arranged marriage. In the first song we are given the bride's perspective. She begs her family not to marry her off to this man whom she abhors and their answer is a resounding no. The "second" part of the song deals with the wedding itself and serves as a contrast to the bride's misgivings and reluctance.

What I appreciated most about Song Of Songs was the ability that Bakal and her producer showed in finding the balance between the modern and the new and the traditional and the innovative. Neither the use of instruments from the other cultures nor the manner in which they used production values interfered with the inherent beauty of the original music. You can not only feel the power and the passion of music that's been handed down from generation to generation, but Bakal's love and respect for what she's doing as well.
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Listen to the title track, "Song Of Songs", and you'll hear just how well she's able to blend the modern and the traditional. She has taken the words of the psalm and turned them into not only a wonderful love song, but a song that also celebrates the wonders of love. You can hear within the litany of praises for the lover's attributes her belief in what her grandfather called the divinity of love between people. Instead of the usual sentimental tripe normally heard in contemporary love songs, she has created a piece of music celebrating the awe and wonder that such feelings can exist between two people. After listening to "Song Of Songs", you can't help believing those emotions are so rarified they have to be a gift from some higher power or another.

Of course it doesn't really matter what the music is like if the person at the centre of the band can't deliver the goods. Thankfully Inbar Bakal delivers on the promise that her grandfather predicted for her when she was a teenager. Not only can she write wonderful songs, she has the vocal abilities to bring them to life. The two most obvious are her range and the amount of expression she's able to project no matter where on the scale she is singing. Some singers are able to climb and descend the scales at will, but lose their ability to project emotion at certain points. That's not the case with Bakal, as she is equally capable of letting you know what's being felt by the subject of her material whether she's singing in a low throaty growl or whispering at the upper end of the register.

The only complaint I have to make about Song Of Songs is that at six songs it ends far too quickly. In fact this disc is so short its really more an EP release than a full length disc. Than again, I suppose that's better than having to listen to a full length disc of really bad music, and never wanting to hear a performer again. For, there's one thing for certain, after listening to this disc you're definitely going to want to hear more. This is a collection of wonderfully crafted songs performed with passion and skill by a talented and expressive singer that successfully melds modern technology and ages old traditions.

May 15, 2009

Music Review: Casey Driessen - Oog

When you're told that someone plays the violin, or even the fiddle, you would be forgiven for thinking a recording of theirs would most likely either be of classical, country, or bluegrass music. Sure there're occasional recordings of jazz music done by violinists and you'll sometimes hear a violin as a featured instrument on a popular music CD, but those are exceptions to the rule. Therefore, when I was sent the newest Casey Driessen CD, Ogg I wasn't expecting anything much different from what I had heard from other musicians.

However, nothing you have heard before can quite prepare you for the experience of Casey Driessen. For although he's playing the same instrument, more or less, that other violinists have played in the past, what he does with it, and the music he records, is altogether unique to him. Listening to Oog the first time was like stepping into a maelstrom; at first the music pushes you one way, and the next moment it's pulling you another, so you don't ever quite get your bearings. He even denies you the comfort of anything like a discernible genre which would help you get your bearings.

However, a quick read of the extended liner notes provided at his web-site goes a long way towards helping you find your bearings. "I wander and wonder with open eyes and ears..." he writes, and then continues to explain how he finds his inspiration in the work of other artists, both visual and musical, the forces of nature, and "that difficult to pinpoint personal inner well where emotions and experience become one." Listening to Oog (the Dutch word for eye by the way) with this in mind at least gives us a context within which we can place the material, while the notes for each song give specifics as to what inspired him to create it.
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"Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets", the third track on the disc, would appear at first glance to be one of the more obvious examples of how Driessen has turned his observations into music. For in the note about the song he tells us how he spent time one afternoon observing a gang of yellowjackets and hummingbirds competing for the nectar contained in a hummingbird feeder. However he cautions us not to expect to hear something literally representing the two creatures, for the majority of the tune had been written prior to him having witnessed the conflict, he merely finished writing the tune while watching them.

Well so much for the liner notes being of any help in deciphering the music, I don't think he could have been any more obscure if he tried. What the heck is he doing calling a song "Hummingbirds Vs. Yellowjackets" if its not about the creatures in question? However, he does say is that it was written in harmony with them, which means the music should at least reflect something about the experience in general. The funny thing is, that when I listened to the track again keeping what he had written about it in mind, I immediately visualized myself sitting outside in a backyard on a brilliantly lit sunny day, the type of day where both hummingbirds and yellowjackets would be out and about.

While there's none of the angry buzzing that one might expect from a conflict between angry insects and other creatures, the atmosphere Driessen creates with the music brought to mind the environment where the situation could exist. If you've ever stretched out in a backyard on a lazy afternoon where trees cast pockets of shade that contrast with bright patches of sun, and bumblebees float from flower to flower getting drunk on pollen, you'll begin to understand what he's talking about when he says the music is in harmony with the activities of the title creatures.

Of course this is only one piece of fourteen on the disc, and only begins to tell the story of Casey Driessen and Oog. He's also an avid experimenter in both form and style as can be seen with what he does on track seven, his rendering of Bill Monroe's bluegrass tune "Ashland Breakdown", and the approach he took for recording the ninth track "Lunar Cages". Instead of being merely satisfied with covering another's tune, Driessen takes "Ashland Breakdown" apart and literally puts it back together backwards. He learned the melody of the tune backwards and after recording it flipped it around and played it back "forwards".
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What he ended up doing was recording both backwards and forwards melodies and rhythms for the song and then playing them back together. It had to be one of the weirdest listening experiences I've ever had, hearing the same bit of music being played backwards and forwards at the same time. It felt like you were standing on a train track listening to the sound of two trains approaching, as you could actually hear the music moving in two directions at once. You can't help but be impressed by the mind that came up with that idea, and like he says, "everybody likes a backwards solo". Although you're not going to hear any hidden messages in this one.

"Lunar Cages" uses an old cajun fiddle technique known as "fiddlesticks" where the instrument is set to an open tuning and a rhythm is tapped out on the strings using small sticks. While his percussionist, Matt Chamberlain, established the initial beat on one fiddle Driessen wrote a melody that would float on top. The song itself was inspired by watching the lunar eclipse of February 2008, while the "Cages" of the title is a nod to John Cage and the pieces he created by rapping on the strings of pianos with a hammer. This time the piece is not only inventive in form, but the quality of the music is equally impressive. The thrum of the violin strings as they are being tapped by Chamberlain creates a beautiful harmonic sound that forms a backdrop for the other instruments to gradually build over while they simulate the slow eclipsing of the moon.

Casey Driessen is not what anyone would call your average fiddle player, and by no stretch of the imagination is Oog your average collection of fiddle tunes. On the other hand, if you come to the disc with an open mind and a willing imagination, I can guarantee you an experience unlike any you've ever had before listening to someone play the violin. While you may not like everything he does, you can't help but admire Driessen's intelligence and the spirit of creativity that drives him to explore his instrument's potential to its fullest. Music would certainly be a lot more interesting in general if there were more musicians as willing to take risks like Driessen.

May 13, 2009

Music DVD Review: The Blind Boys Of Alabama - The Blind Boys Of Alabama Live In New Orleans

In North America, the gospel music that originated in the African American churches of the American South provided the foundation for the majority of our popular music today. So it's not too surprising that its popularity has spread far beyond the confines of the church and is appreciated by audiences of all faiths. In fact, these days you're just as liable to hear gospel music performed in a bar on Friday night as church on Sunday morning. Of course there's more to gospel's appeal than the fact that it sounds like some of our popular music. There's also the fact you're not likely to hear any other genre of music played with the amount of passion and the depth of feeling that you're liable to hear at your average gospel concert.

Therefore, you just have to know a concert featuring The Blind Boys Of Alabama and special guests like Dr. John, Susan Tedeschi, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band among others, is going to be something a little extra special. How special though, you don't quite realize until you've seen it, and thanks to a new DVD, The Blind Boys Of Alabama Live In New Orleans on Saguaro Road Records, everybody can see just what an amazing concert it was.

The concert took place in the spring of 2008 at the Tipitina club in New Orleans, and the DVD contains all sixteen songs that were played that night, plus a feature on the making of the Blind Boys' CD, Down In New Orleans. That CD represented the first time the group had ever recorded in New Orleans, and it had featured a number of musicians from the city. The concert at the Tipitina was a means of celebrating that release and a chance to play some of the material from the disc live with people involved in the recording and a few of the band's close friends. Now I've heard plenty of gospel music over the years, and seen quite a few concerts both live and taped, but I don't think I've quite seen one as potent as the concert recorded on this DVD.
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When you look over the track listing for this concert you're going to see a lot of familiar song titles; "Amazing Grace", "Down By The Riverside", "People Get Ready", "Free At Last", and others you know equally well. However don't let that lead you into thinking that you can give this a pass because you've heard the tunes before. I can honestly say that if you haven't heard the Blind Boys of Alabama play them, you'll not have heard them sung quite like they are sung here. "Amazing Grace" has to be one of the most well known gospel tunes ever written, and the one even people who don't like gospel can identify almost from the opening notes. Well, all I have to say is, boy are you going to be surprised when you hear the Blind Boys sing that one.

They've changed it into a deep and slow blues number that sounds for all the world like the Animals singing "House Of The Rising Sun". At first I was really taken aback because not only didn't it sound like any version of the song I'd heard sung before, but also because it sounded unusually dark and brooding for a gospel song. However, once I got over the initial shock and began listening to it carefully, I was able to appreciate what an amazing job they done with it. Instead of being a joyful celebration of faith, they had turned it into a song that reflected the mood of struggle the song's lyrics depict. For the first time I was able to understand what it meant to be lost, and just how hard the struggle to be found really could be.

The first guest to join the Blind Boys on stage was blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi. Now, I've always thought of Tedeschi as a guitarist first and a vocalist second, but after hearing her on this disc I've changed my mind. When she first joined them it was to sing and play guitar on "Free At Last" and "People Get Ready". While she didn't have much opportunity to cut loose on her guitar like she would normally, she did have the opportunity to sing a verse or two on each of these songs, and then again during the grand finale of "I'll Fly Away" that closed the show. Each time she opened her mouth to sing, she absolutely blew me away with her power and the quality of her voice. She has one of those wonderful throaty voices that sound raw with passion without sounding affected. You could tell by her performance that she was just loving every second she got to spend on stage with the Blind Boys and enjoying the opportunity to sing these songs.
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That was a universal among all the guests, and you couldn't help but be carried away by everybody's enthusiasm. While Dr. John, Marva Wright, and Henry Butler were all equally as good as Tedeschi in their own rights, none of them were able to match what the Preservation Hall Jazz Band brought to the proceedings. "Down By The Riverside" is probably as old a chestnut as you're going to find when it comes to gospel songs, having been played to death by everybody from folk groups to school choirs. So it's quite some feat to make that song sound like you've never heard it before, but that's exactly what the combination of the Blind Boys and Preservation Hall manage to do. They imbue it with so much life and style that every other version I've ever heard before paled in comparison. You felt that if you could only get everybody singing along on "I ain't going study war no more" we'd have peace in our time before you knew it.

Listening and watching the The Blind Boys Of Alabama Live In New Orleans is to truly understand the strength and glory of gospel music. While the members of the group might see it as their mission to be spreading the "good news" of the gospel, even those who aren't of their faith can't help but feel uplifted and joyful by what they hear and see. Passion and faith of that magnitude cross all boundaries of religion and creed, so it's not a matter of what you believe in, but of sharing in the joy of believing. There can never be enough joy in this world, but with people like The Blind Boys Of Alabama around we're always guaranteed permanent pockets of joy and hope.

April 21, 2009

Music Review: Various Performers The Rough Guide To Gypsy Music Vol.2

Descendants of nomadic people from the northern Indian province of Rajasthan, the Romani, commonly and erroneously referred to as Gypsies (the word gypsy comes from the Greek word Aigyptoi and comes from the story given out by the Romani that they were exiled from Egypt for sheltering the baby Jesus), began their western migration into Europe around 1100AD. In spite of being predominantly Christian, some are Islamic, they have been persecuted to an extent only equal to that suffered by Jews, since their arrival.

While a good deal of the prejudice against the Romani stems from their nomadic lifestyle marking them as notably different from the majority population, the darker complexion of their heritage is also a contributing factor. However, in spite of, and maybe because of, this persecution, a sentimental and romantic image of "The Gypsy" has developed in the West. Somehow Romani men are all passionate, and slightly dangerous, lovers, while the women are fiery and gorgeous seductresses. All of them, no matter what their gender, dance the Flamenco to the sounds of a wild violin around a roaring fire.

Now while it is true that the Romani from Spain, specifically Seville and the Catalonia region, were responsible for the development of flamenco music, that represents only one segment of their population. Music and culture changes from country to country, and even from region to region within a country, and as the Romani have travelled throughout Asia and Europe, their music has come to reflect the variety of cultural influences they have brushed against. Like everyone else they too have felt the impact of technology upon their lives, and new generations of Romani musicians, like their contemporaries the world over, are making use of it to help generate their music.
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A new release from the World Music Network, The Rough Guide To Gypsy Music (Second Edition) , attempts to show the diversity of music played by the Romani people as the fourteen tracks range from the expected flamenco guitar, brass band ensembles, and the sounds of northern India. While a couple of the groups represented on this disc have managed to reach international audiences in the past, Fanfare Ciocarlia and Taraf de Haidouks are probably the best known, very few of the other names will be familiar to many people.

If there is one complaint to make about the disc, aside from the title - isn't it about time labels stopped using Gypsy and began using Romani - it's the fact that its focus is a little too narrow. Sure they have an adequate representation of the various styles of music, but there is a tendency to lean towards horn dominated groups with some of the other styles not as adequately represented. That's not to say to say you won't hear violins, guitars, and the other instruments that are traditionally associated with Romani music, but on a causal listen those tracks where there isn't a horn playing stand out in sharp relief. I can understand their desire to get away from the stereotypical "gypsy violin", but there's more to the music than horns as well.

Two of the groups that do stand out because of their noticeable differences from the rest represent on the one hand the easternmost area of the Romani's range and on the other nearly their westernmost point in Europe. Son De La Frontera are from the birthplace of Flamenco, Seville Spain, while Musafir are a group of musicians playing the music of Rajasthan, India. Both groups have built upon the traditional music of their predecessors to develop a sound that is both familiar and new at the same time.
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Listening to Son De La Frontera play "Un Compromiso" one hears not only the expected sounds of vibrant flamenco, but the sounds of Cuba mixed in as well. All that is stirring and inspiring about flamenco is still there, but they've also added the element of the Cuban steel string tres that gives the sound a harder edge than you'd normally expect. While the additional guitar might give it some extra spice, it's still the power of flamenco that makes this track so moving. These five performers are as powerful as any I've heard before as their voices soar in stirring harmonies and the music stomps fire into your veins; you hear this one song and you're going to want to hear more.

While the performers in Musafir aren't actually members of the tribal group who are the ancestors of today's European Romani, and wouldn't probably play together if they lived in Rajasthan, they do play music that is representative of the region. While some of the influences on their music - Indian film music and Arabic pop music - wouldn't have been around to influence those who migrated into the west, they would have been hearing the classical music of Northern India and the Islamic devotional music that also makes up Musafir's sound. Listening to their song, "Barish" you hear elements of classical Indian music; the steady beat of the tabla, the buzzing sound of a string instruments sympathetic strings resonating as it's strummed, and the familiar vocalizations, blending seamlessly with the more modern influences. It's an ear catching sound that at first attracts your attention because of its novelty, and then successfully holds it because of its energy and beauty.

The Rough Guide To Gypsy Music Vol. 2 contains music by obviously skilled performers who share a passion and a love for the music they play. While it goes a long way to dispelling the myth that Romani music consists solely of wild violins, and includes music representing many of the geographical regions they inhabit, it still felt like they hadn't cast their net wide enough. There are just a few too many songs by bands that sound too much alike for it to be an excellent disc instead of merely a good one. As a bonus, World Music Net is throwing in a previously released disc Introducing Bela Lakatos & The Gypsy Youth Project, a dynamic collection of Hungarian Romani music originally released in 2006.

April 14, 2009

Music Review: Trembling Bells Carbeth

In the late 1960's a new type of band appeared on the British pop music scene that combined elements of traditional British Isle folk music with modern instruments and psychedelic rock. Groups like Fairport Convention, Renaissance, and individuals like Bert Jansch, were famous for their wonderful instrumental work and breath taking vocal harmonies. While incarnations of each of the two bands are still active today and keeping that sound alive, the current crop of musicians interested in the same field are prone to tinkering with the old formula.

Judging by their debut album, Carbeth released on Honest Jon's Records, the four person band Trembling Bells have a similar affection for the music as their predecessors. Yet instead of being merely content to emulate them, they've also added some distinctly unique flavouring of their own into the mix. For while some elements of their sound; distinctive vocals, acoustic instruments, and a passion for early music stylings, are common to both generations of folk groups, Trembling Bells has spread their net somewhat further afield than Great Britain.

Your first indication that this isn't going to be quite like anything else you've heard comes right from the opening track on the disc, "I Listed All Of The Velvet Lessons". For although there's the expected soaring soprano female lead vocal singing what sounds like a tune written when central heating meant a fire pit in the middle of the room, the horn that sounds like it sprang from a parade through the streets of New Orleans is something new. On top of that, throughout the disc there are moments of discordance verging on cacophony which prevents the music from becoming overly precious and introduces an element of darkness absent from those earlier bands.
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The core of Trembling Bells are percussionist/drummer Alex Neilson, the above mentioned female soprano, Lavinia Blackwall, also handles the keyboard chores, Ben Reynolds plays guitar, harmonica, and chips in on vocals, and Simon Shaw is on bass. The sound on Carbeth is rounded out with the inclusion of trombonist George Murray and viola player Aby Vuillamy. While the former helps push the band into uncharted territory for a traditional folk group, the latter keeps them firmly rooted in the early music sound expected of them. If you think of them as the two extremes of the band's sound, you begin to get an idea of just how different they're from what's come before.

For although the titles of their songs sound appropriately medieval; "I Took To You (Like Christ To Wood)", "Willows Of Carbeth", and "Garlands Of Stars", the majority of them aren't about to inspire anybody to start Morris dancing on the village green. In fact most of them have a definite split personality when it comes to the music. This is especially noticeable on those songs where Blackwall takes the lead vocals as her beautiful soprano is a sharp contrast to the music playing behind her. Whether it's the keyboards swirling dervish like or the trombone playing blues tinged jazz, her voice is made to stand out so much it's purity plays against itself to the point where it almost jars against the ear. Like a sharpened knife her voice cuts and wounds and is one of the clearest indications that Trembling Bells aren't sentimental in their approach to traditional music.
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While some might find this approach disconcerting when they compare it to what they're used to, it seems to me a far more honest approach to the music than the overly romantic, and rather cloying sounds, of others. There was nothing easy about life during Medieval times when for the majority it was a struggle merely to survive. If you didn't die of disease or starvation, the back breaking work of merely staying alive would ensure you didn't live past forty. Trembling Bells may not sing songs about pestilence and famine, but the qualities they've imbued their music with dispels any notions of this era being some sort of rustic paradise.

Lest I've given you the impression that Trembling Bells are simply a discordant bunch of noisemakers, let me reassure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Their songs are all marvellously crafted and superbly played pieces of music performed by extremely talented individuals. It takes an incredible amount of talent and skill to push music to the very edge of dissonance without ever falling over into discordance and they show a fine ear and a deft touch by never allowing that to happen. Like the best avant-garde jazz they might give the impression of chaos, but the reality is they always know exactly what they're doing.

Trembling Bells may have deconstructed the traditional folk music genre, but that doesn't mean they are without affection for it. In fact, I think their efforts to breath new life into this style of music, their desire to give it a more authentic feel, shows the depth of their appreciation. Certainly the music on Carbeth is not easy to listen to, and requires a certain amount of effort on the part of the listener, but the result is something far more rewarding than anything previously attempted in this field. If you come to this album simply hoping to hear a rehashing of what's been done before you will be disappointed. However if you're willing to listen carefully and allow the music to work its magic on you - you'll be amazed by what they have to offer.

April 9, 2009

Music Review: Jake Shimabukuro Jake Shimabukuro Live

It's been difficult for me to take the ukulele seriously as an instrument ever since I saw Tiny Tim squeak his way through "Tip Toe Through The Tulips" in his annoying falsetto. To be perfectly honest up until a few years ago I did my best to avoid anything remotely connected to the instrument because of the association. I first started to overcome my prejudice while listening to the multi-instrumentalist virtuoso Bob Brozman and learnt the instrument was capable of doing much more than I had originally thought.

However, it's only now that I've listened to Jake Shimabukuro's forth coming release, Jake Shimabukuro Live (April 14th/09 on Hitchhike Records), that I've truly come to appreciate the ukulele. After listening to Jake play you can't believe that he's playing something with only four strings. There's plenty of guitar players out there who would be hard pressed to do what's he's capable of doing with four strings with their six strings.

The nearly twenty tracks on Live range from Shimabukuro's interpretation of classical pieces, to his renditions of such pop classics like "Thriller" and George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps. What's truly amazing about the show he puts on is he holds your attention as a completely solo act; there's no band, nor orchestra, and nothing on tape backing him up. It's just Jake and his ukulele.
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The ukulele is a four string, two octave instrument, making you think that it must be extremely limited in the the sounds that produces. Not if you're a performer like Shimabukuro as he's able to squeeze sounds out of his instrument that will have you swearing he's playing a regular guitar. There's none of the "plink-plink" sound one would normally expect from a high pitched instrument like it, nor does he use it simply to keep rhythm by strumming a few chords. Instead he's turned it into a lead instrument that rivals the mandolin for its intricacy, and the guitar for its diversity of sound.

Although the first thing you're bound to notice when listening to Jake Shimabukuro is the speed at which he plays, what impressed me the most was that unlike other technically proficient players he also plays with a lot of emotion. Even though it seems like his fingers are flying almost all the time, either up and down the fret board or picking, he doesn't neglect the emotional content of his material either. Certainly his cover of something like "Thriller" is primarily an example of technical prowess. However his performance of "Bach Two Part Invention In D-Minor" makes you forget what instrument he is playing as the beauty of the music is the focus, not his talent or his technique.

Listen carefully to the song that made him famous, his cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and you'll soon find that you're again forgetting about the instrument he's playing and becoming wrapped up in the music instead. While it's a little strange at first to hear the song being played as an instrumental, eventually you begin to hear the lyrics being "sung" in his playing. As the notes are picked to form the tune that is so very familiar, the melody comes to life with such passion and love that you soon forget its not being sung. I've heard many attempts to play instrumental version of pop songs, especially ones by the Beatles, but this is the first time I've heard one that manages to capture the spirit of the original song.
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It's not just classical music and pop songs that he brings his remarkable talents to bear on either, for one of the earlier tracks on the disc is a cover of the Chick Corea tune "Spain". Now I was never much of a fan of Chick Corea's music when played by him, as they ran far more in the direction of pop music than jazz for my taste. Hearing Shimabukuro playing the piece gave it a dimension that it lacked before and I found myself appreciating the song more than I ever did when it was performed by the composer.

Part of that might have been the novelty of hearing the song being played on ukulele, but if that were all there was to it, I would have lost interest after only a short while. While it might have been the instrument that captured my attention in the first place, it was Shimabukuro's ability to breath life into the music that held it for the entire length of the piece. There's something about how he plays, perhaps it has to do with a deftness of touch or the precision with which he plays each note, that allows you to hear and feel each note no matter how fast he's playing, which pulls you into the piece and holds you fast until its completed.

Listening to track fourteen, "Sakura Sakura", a traditional Japanese folk song that's normally played on the thirteen string Japanese instrument know as a Koto, you really appreciate that ability. This is one of the slower songs on the disc and somehow he makes each note ring as if far more strings were involved than just the four at his disposal. Each note is allowed to resonate to maximum effect before he strikes the next one, allowing the listener to feel it completely. There's an intensity to the performance that almost makes it unbearable, so in some ways you're relieved when the song ends because each note is so beautiful that you quickly become overwhelmed by them.

To many people the ukulele is a novelty instrument and not to be taken seriously. However, when you hear Jake Shimabukuro play you're quickly disabused of that notion. In his hands it's comparable to any stringed instrument, whether bowed or plucked, and capable of playing any genre of music. Jake Shimabukuro is an amazing musician who is not only technically skilled, but able to plumb the emotional depths of any piece of music he attempts. This is a magnificent recording by an amazing performer that shouldn't be missed by anybody who genuinely appreciates great music.

April 8, 2009

Music DVD Review: Leonard Cohen Leonard Cohen Live In London

I have to admit the first time I head Leonard Cohen I didn't get it. Of course I was all of thirteen years old at the time and was much more into electric guitars and noise than the quiet introspection Leonard had to offer. Thankfully I matured and learned there was more to life than I had previously thought and his music and poetry started to make much sense to me. Since then I have dipped into his work periodically, and like a warm bath that eases aching muscles its always been a much needed balm to my soul.

So when I heard that Sony Music was releasing a DVD of Cohen's most recent tour I was thrilled, for even though I'll be seeing him in concert next month (May 2009), having a permanent record of the event that I can access whenever I need rejuvenation was just too good an opportunity to pass up. If Leonard Cohen Live In London managed to capture a small percentage of what the man has to offer as a poet and a performer I would have been content. As it is, I don't think I've ever seen a concert movie capture the essence of a performer and their material as completely as this one did with Leonard Cohen.

From the moment Cohen bounded on stage (it's hard to believe he's seventy-five years old) to the closing notes of the finale twenty-five songs later, I've never felt closer to a performer while watching him or her on film as I did during this DVD. With the improvements in technology it's nothing new for cameras to be up on stage with the performers capturing the most intimate details of their performance as was the case with this recording. However, whereas in the past it's always felt as if there was a barrier between me and the performers no matter how close the cameras were able to shoot, this time it felt like Cohen and his band members would turn and address you personally at any moment.