Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, There Is No Other

If you haven’t heard Rhiannon Giddens yet … well, just listen:

Gifted with a glorious, classically trained voice plus extraordinary skills on banjo and fiddle, equally at home with African-American spirituals, Celtic “mouth music” and opera, Giddens is the kind of protean musician that comes along once in a generation.

Founding “postmodern string band” the Carolina Chocolate Drops, writing music for Bob Dylan’s words on The New Basement Tapes, winning a MacArthur Genius fellowship, acting in CMT’s Nashville series — Giddens has gone from strength to strength in a remarkably short time, earning every step up in her meteoric rise.  Seeing her live in the summer of 2015, I walked away giddy, as she and her band effortlessly filled a Cape Cod town hall with irresistible rhythms, utterly committed performances that ran the gamut from a tear-inducing take on Dolly Parton to funked-up Appalachian folk tunes  —  and that powerful, powerful voice.

For her third solo album (after 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn and 2017’s Freedom Highway), Giddens has teamed with Italian pianist/percussionist Francesco Turrisi, who  filters early Mediterranean folk music through the prism of jazz.  Recorded in Dublin, Ireland in five days with minimal preparation and few overdubs, There Is No Other soars, sears and astonishes — breaking your heart one instant, healing it and setting off fireworks of exhilaration the next, commanding your attention throughout.

Words can only approximate the sweep of traditions and times woven together here.  Folk ballads from Appalachia, Italy and England, jazz via Hermeto Pascoal (a Brazilian collaborator with Miles Davis) and vocalese pioneer Oscar Brown, classical arias by Carlisle Floyd and Samuel Barber — they’re all subsumed into the spell that Giddens (on banjo, violin and viola) and Turrisi (on piano, accordion, lute, banjo, and percussion) conjure up.  This music is warm, determined, melancholy, driven and delighted by turns, seamlessly flowing from one track to track, each its own thing, each part of a greater unity.

And Giddens’ singing — again, gorgeous beyond words.  On “Gonna Write Me A Letter” and her own “I’m On My Way”, she’s an unstoppable force of nature; on “Pizzica di San Vito” and “Briggs’ Forro”, a rippling vocal breeze above dancing beds of rhythm; on “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Trees on the Mountains”, the cry of a broken heart devastated by life and love; on “Brown Baby” and her gospel-tinged “He Will See You Through”, the voice of maturity, determination and hard-won belief.  Nothing human is foreign to her — the wisdom of generations and the optimism of youth come together to devastating effect.

I recommend There Is No Other without hesitation — it’s one of those albums that Duke Ellington might have termed “beyond category”, resonating deeply with the core of our shared humanity.  As Giddens and Turrisi put in in their liner notes,

From the beginning of our musical partnership we have been struck with the commonality of the human experience through music; how instruments, modes, and the very functions of songs and tunes are universal from culture to culture.  There are very real and documented yet unheralded historical links between many of the instruments we play; and yet others of the connections we have here arise solely from our artistic instinct; but either way, the overwhelming feeling we have is that there is no Other.

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi tour North America from September to November; tour dates are here.  In the meantime, listen to There Is No Other for yourself:

— Rick Krueger

In Concert: Progtoberfest 4, Part 2

As I exited the CTA Green Line on a crisp, clear Chicago Sunday, Reggie’s Rock Club and Music Joint beckoned with the promise of Progtoberfest’s final day: twelve hours of sixteen bands on two stages. Constantly unfolding delight or endless endurance test? Only one way to find out.

(Notes for after the jump: links are provided to bands’ online presence — website, Facebook or Bandcamp pages — wherever possible.  An asterisk [*] by a band’s name means I bought one or more of their CDs at the event; A cross [+] means the band didn’t have CDs for sale — but their music is now on my want list.  Here we go …)

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Continue reading “In Concert: Progtoberfest 4, Part 2”

soundstreamsunday #111: “The Gay Goshawk” by Mr. Fox

1200px-Mr.FoxBob and Carole Pegg formed Mr. Fox in 1970 in the wake of Ashley Hutchings’ early rehearsals for Steeleye Span (having I suppose not passed that audition), made two eccentric albums that writers on the British folk revival still can’t really sum, and were done in both their marriage and the band by 1972.  Critics claim it was uneven live performing, a hard-to-parse new music approach to folk rock, or lack of vocal heft that singers like Sandy Denny or Maddy Prior brought to their respective groups… I put my money on a general learned restlessness you can hear in the music itself, in their very Reynardine-esque name.  Oddball northern England raps butted up against drones, earthy fuzz bass and respirating bellowed instruments, and original songwriting.  Decades later these would earn the band a reputation among acid folk revivalists, but Mr. Fox were less Trees or Mellow Candle, more John Cale as filtered through the Yorkshire dales, even as Bob possessed the patented nasal drawl requisite to any respectable folk act of the period and Carole’s fiddling was appropriately rustic.

A gay goshawk came to my window sill,
The snow it fell fast and the stars stood still,
Oh, won’t you take me in from the storm,
Won’t you take me between your sheets so warm?’
Gold was the colour of his wings so fair,
His eyes they were bold and of silver so clear,
As I laid his brown body upon the pillow,
He became a man, live as a willow.

‘Don’t breathe a word, don’t scream, don’t shout,
Or I’ll turn the whole world round about,
I’ll lay the moon flat on the land,
Twist a rope out of flying sand.’
Whispering women say I have been beguiled,
Now the deed’s done, she must care for the child,
Jasmine’s the colour of his hair,
A nut brown boy with a silvery stare.

The night has gone and the seasons slip by,
Knowing seducers still give me the eye,
But on cold winter’s evenings alone I walk,
I watch and I pray for my gay goshawk.

Penned by Carole Pegg, “The Gay Goshawk,” from Mr. Fox’s self-titled 1970 debut, with its pounding tom and killer fiddle drift, is a lesson in folk-inspired songwriting and in shrugging convention.  No other British folk rock outfit could touch it in terms of both originality and faithfulness to the spirit of the tradition being upheld, although Brass Monkey’s “Fable of the Wings” dwells in a similar landscape.  Evidently the song had staying power for Carole, who recast it over four decades on with, naturally, Tuvan throat singer Radik Tülüsh.  Sly Mr. Fox.

*Image above, Mr. Fox live, circa 1970.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #110: “Twa Corbies” by Steeleye Span

twacorbiesThe power in “O Fortuna” — last week’s entry on the infinite linear mixtape — is in its performative setting, the text from Carmina Burana, enlivened, engulfed, by Carl Orff’s score.  Liquored- and sexed-up Goliards may have written it, may have given it a chant or two in its 12th-century time, but it was Orff who saw its dark potential and thus defined it.  It’s the magic in the most successful pieces of music, and why the idea of performance (whether it’s a live rendering of a piece or a feat of studio engineering), the act of putting on a mask, is such an important counter to its parallel, authenticity, with its passing and uncaptureable fire.

The conceits of performance make any “folk” revival possible, and while the makeup may be thickly applied at times — whether it’s a young Bob Dylan doing his best to carry himself like Woody Guthrie or Gillian Welch’s plaintive approximation of Appalachia — it’s a path to something deeper, a striving towards the elemental.

When Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention in late 1969 to form Steeleye Span, something like this may have been on his mind.  In bringing together two couples rooted in Britain’s folk music scene, Maddy Prior and Tim Hart, and Gay and Terry Woods, Hutchings was continuing a search to find a balance between the traditional and contemporary, which would soon lead him to form another keystone of the revival, the Albion (Country) Band.  The Woods’s left after the first record, 1970’s Hark! The Village Wait (Terry would go on to be one of the essential Pogues), and increasingly over the next decade Steeleye would be vocalist extraordinaire Maddy Prior’s vehicle, but the debut captures the spirit of the BritFolk moment, with Hutchings and Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks giving a rock anchor to traditional flights.

“Twa Corbies” brings the darkness, recounting a conversation between two crows about making a meal of a dead knight.  Based on “The Three Ravens,” the song was first published in 1611 but in all likelihood has a far deeper past.  Steeleye makes the most of it, Prior’s clarion call washed in the ragged-but-right chorus of her bandmates.

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t’other say,
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’
‘In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
‘His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s taen another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.
‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.
‘Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
Oer his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.

The chunky lo-fi crash apropos a murder of crows murks in the background, conjuring its medieval vibe as baldly and surely as Orff might, electric guitars not detracting from the proceedings.  We’re there, with the band, with the corbies, pikin’ at the bonny blue een.

*Image above by Sam Black.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

 

soundstreamsunday #90: “A Spoonful Blues” by Charley Patton

patton_crumb2While John Fahey was working on the set of songs that included “Sunny Side of the Ocean,” for The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965), he was completing his master’s thesis in folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, the first biography and analysis of the work of blues guitarist/singer Charley Patton.  It was published in paperback form in 1970 and is now considered a classic of blues literature.  (Like most early Fahey endeavors, original printings go for exorbitant sums.  However, indulge yourself here for free.)  Fahey’s obsession with Patton is clear but also realistic, and contains in it the reach and grasp of a true scholar.  One gets the impression he probably could have rattled this off in his sleep, despite the occasional dry stiffness no doubt desired by his thesis committee.  Fahey’s point: blues and folk scholarship was missing out big on players like Patton, who for years had been written off as being past the cut-off point of interest of circa 1928, i.e., more influenced by records than oral tradition and thus not worth bothering over.  The racism banked deep in this position aside, Fahey argues successfully that the atmosphere of non-direction in the recording studio for blues artists of Patton’s era (1929-1934) in particular — a result of A&R men having no idea what black communities wanted in the “race records” they were promoting to those same communities — gave players like Patton freedom to perform more naturally than they might otherwise, and produced work that provided a window into African American existence in the Mississippi Delta in the first half of the 20th century.

Fahey’s efforts notwithstanding, Patton remains a dazzling mystery, dead and mostly forgotten for over thirty years before Fahey’s scholarship and the debts acknowledged by artists like Bob Dylan.  Far wilder in lifestyle and presentation than that other King of the Delta Blues, Robert Johnson (himself no stranger to the on-the-edge, rough life of an itinerant Delta musician) Patton’s repertoire was also more diverse, and his showmanship as much a part of his legend as his musicianship to the people who knew him and had seen him perform (to the extent that Son House expressed surprise to Fahey on hearing a Patton record Fahey played back for him, not recalling his friend’s potent guitar prowess but instead Patton’s “clowning”).  While Patton’s legacy never attained the rock’n’roll sanctification accorded Johnson’s work — there’s no equivalent for Patton to Cream’s cover of Johnson’s “Crossroads” or the Stones’ “Stop Breaking Down” — his work constitutes in its rawness an essential rock document, the direct antecedent to the entire career of Howlin’ Wolf (who Patton mentored), and thus by association Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits.  So if Robert Johnson is closely associated with classic blues rock as exemplified by Cream and the jam bands that followed, Patton can to some degree be claimed by artists who inhabit rock’s lunatic fringe.  This isn’t, of course, an all-or-nothing proposition, but just one possible, shifting observation.  Patton was a punk.

Continue reading “soundstreamsunday #90: “A Spoonful Blues” by Charley Patton”

The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams

by Rick Krueger

In our casually audiophile age of 96 kHz/24 bit BluRays and 180-gram virgin vinyl, it may be hard to comprehend what a difference digital recording made when it came of age in the late 1970s.   I remember cueing up Keith Jarrett’s Concerts: Bregenz, München and being blown away as much by the background silence, the clarity and depth of the piano sound, and the extended dynamic range as by Jarrett’s freewheeling improvisations.  The compact disc was still in the future — but at that point, after suffering through muddy, distorted mass-produced pressings of way too many albums, it seemed like that future was all upside.

Classical record companies were the most fervent backers of digital recording from the beginning; the prospect of “perfect sound forever” made both corporate executives and their target demographic (single men with money or credit to burn — surprise!) salivate in anticipated ecstasy.  Certainly, as I built a classical collection during graduate school, the word “Digital” on the front cover of a record always counted in its favor.

That’s one reason I picked up the album pictured above.  Another reason: I’d already heard some fine Mahler recordings by the young conductor Simon Rattle, precociously helming the scrappy City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.  And there was one more burning question: was Benjamin Britten right about Ralph Vaughan Williams?

Continue reading “The Albums that Changed My Life: #6, Songs of Travel & On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams”

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series: Trouble No More, Volume 13 / 1979-1981

by Rick Krueger

I’m not a hardcore Bob Dylan fan, but I admire quite a bit of his work: the early folk music, leading into the groundbreaking electric stuff (basically what’s in The Original Mono Recordings box set); Blood on the Tracks and Desire; the recent run of “old guy plays the blues” albums that started with Time Out of Mind.  I’m also grateful that Dylan’s music has midwifed some of the most resonant work by highbrow rock writers like Greil Marcus, Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray, along with poet Christopher Ricks’ masterful Dylan’s Visions of Sin.

To top all that off, Dylan’s Bootleg Series is, in my mind, one of the best-curated rarities/reissue series from a major artist.  Every volume has been at least an interesting listen for me, and I consider the last two releases, The Basement Tapes Complete and The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 (as well as Volume 4, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert) downright essential.

I also remember, as a college freshman, reading Jann Wenner’s review of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming in Rolling Stone.  Wenner knotted himself into a human pretzel trying to reconcile the free-spirited, hippie picture of Dylan he had built up for himself with a new album of — shudder — “born-again Christian” music.  It was unintentionally hilarious.

I’d argue that Slow Train Coming was really more of an “lost Old Testament prophet” kind of record — and thus in line with Dylan’s long-term aesthetic.  It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was quite good — and there were occasional fine songs on the other “Christian” albums, especially “Every Grain of Sand” from Shot of Love.

Thus, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series, Volume 13 /1979-1981 is definitely on my want list.  8 CDs plus 1 DVD of live and unreleased studio material, to be issued (like King Crimson’s Sailor’s Tales) on my birthday, November 3.  I really need to find some long-lost rich relatives!

More info here.

soundstreamsunday: “Drowning in the River Half Laughing” by Joe Henry

joehenry2 - EditedJoe Henry always tells it like it is.  What this “it” is depends on his song or object of the moment, but if artistry is about honesty then here’s a man who can be a W. Eugene Smith one minute and a Romare Bearden the next.  His is an Americana in context, wrought with a realism that has to, must, consider the world beyond the borders of his song.  And yet his skill at creating a complexity of life within the three- or four-minute lengths typical of his work belies this, so that his portraits are breathtaking and you are standing next to him, watching and hearing him compose a complete picture.

1990’s Shuffletown recalls both the chamber folk-pop of Cat Stevens and the improvisational glow of Astral Weeks, T-Bone Burnett’s restrained production going live to two-track and allowing a breathing space that played against the channel-filling fashion of its time.  I remember, then, marveling that an album like this could even get made anymore, much less thought of.  A modern record with a backroads feel that doesn’t get lost in bucolic moods or sentiment, it is more defining in its sound and in its genre than it gets credit for.  At its core — and the same could be said of Morrison’s and Stevens’ records — is an immediately recognizable voice, for Henry’s finesse with language is honored by a vocal delivery that is hip to its own thing, knows it limits and its power and its text.  It’s also full of hooks, patient in its timing, finding and following melody in Shuffletown‘s deep dusks and twilight.

“The moon is losing ground, drowning in the river…”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Pran Ka Mwen” by Lakou Mizik

kanaval2016-lino - EditedI will never know, I mean KNOW, what a lakou is, in the same way that a Haitian will.  It is a backyard, a coming together, a process, a form, a spirit.  It is a community and a memory of communities stretching back through time all the way to the only successful slave revolution in recorded history and beyond.  A summation and a celebration.  It’s also just a freakin’ party, where all the significance of what Lakou means ends up in the bottom of a bottle of rum.

Lakou Mizik built itself as an experiment of sorts, coming out of 2010’s Haiti earthquake with a purpose, to revisit traditional Haitian music and recast it for a world pop culture tied to YouTube, not radios.  In full disclosure I know this band, or they at least they know my house, as I hosted them for dinner (and yes, rum), a road-weary touring unit criss-crossing the states.  The songs they sang in my living room included this gem, a homebrew version of “Gaya,” a raveup with Michael Brun that otherwise looks like this:

Their lone LP Wa Di Yo is the ultimate lakou.  The beautiful “Pran Ka Mwen,” featuring vocalist Nadine Remy and Steeve Valcourt’s gorgeous guitar, and a chorus of cornets and percussion, is the gem in the goldmine (well, then there’s “Poze” …).  This is joy drawn from the ashes, as brave a get down as any I can think of.

“I came on earth to live in peace
Down here on earth, we are all one”

Lakou Mizik: https://www.lakoumizik.com/home

Lakou Mizik on bandcamp

Lakou Mizik on Amazon

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Matty Groves” by Fairport Convention

fairportconvention2With deep roots in the mountains of north Georgia, young Hedy West presented authenticity and authority in her singing of old time folk music.  By the early 1960s she had become a mainstay of the growing traditional music revival in America, having written the often-covered “500 Miles” and dazzling audiences with her fluid clawhammer banjo style and clear, naturally inflected, singing voice.  By the mid-1960s she was touring Europe, singing and playing with like-minded fellow travelers of the British folk revival.  But if you’ve heard of Hedy West, even if you’re acquainted with the American and British folk revivals, you’re an exception.  She kept a low profile, and her career as a musician was wrapped tightly with her political activism.  She was no rock star — although many thought her the best of the “girl” folk singers of the era.*

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Hedy West

Following Hedy’s death in 2005, a collection of recordings and papers — including hundreds of tapes of interviews with her grandmother Lillie Mulkey West that in themselves are a storehouse of Appalachian culture — made their way to the special collections library where I worked at the University of Georgia.  As my colleague Christian Lopez and I started working through some of the boxes in 2010, we found pictures Hedy had taken of two young men in a flat, sometime in the mid to late 1960s.  We were flabbergasted: they were Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy.  Both of us were fans of these two, knew their work and their cultural impact on British rock and folk music.  And it’s an interesting thing, Hedy taking these pictures.  Like West, fiddler Swarbrick and guitarist Carthy were leading lights of their folk revival, in Britain, often recording as a duo.  According to Swarbrick, in an email response to Christian, the three traveled Europe together, and it was  “on the banks of a river in the former Yugoslavia” that Hedy played for Swarbrick and Carthy a tune called “Maid of Colchester.”  Why, you might ask, was Christian emailing the ailing Dave Swarbrick regarding this tune, and why should it be important in any way? To condense a long story, I started as a Martin Carthy fan because I was a Steeleye Span fan because I was a Jethro Tull fan.  And, by the time I saw Carthy play his adaptation of “Famous Flower of Serving Men” in 1991 in a community center in a London suburb, also on my radar was the tune “Matty Groves,” from Fairport Convention’s live record, House Full (recorded 1970, released 1986 — of course, “Matty Groves” was the epic track of their seminal album, 1969’s Liege and Lief).  Swarbrick was Fairport’s fiddler on these records, and anyone familiar with British folk-rock and with half an ear knows that the central tune for “Famous Flower of Serving Men” is identical to the extended jam-band outro of “Matty Groves.” Carthy identifies the tune to “Famous Flower” in the liner notes to 1972’s Shearwater as “Maid of Colchester,” learned from one Hedy West.  Christian had emailed Swarbrick to see if we could close the loop, since Fairport’s “Matty Groves” pre-dated Carthy’s song.  Swarbrick confirmed that his and Carthy’s source for the tune was the same, and it was indeed Hedy West.  Our minds were fairly blown.  Two keystone songs of the British folk revival and British folk rock rely on a riff brought (back?) from America, by a woman who as far as we know never recorded the tune herself.

As sung by Sandy Denny in 1969, “Matty Groves” is a song of adultery and tragic murder that became the centerpiece — along with the riff monster “Tam Lin” — of Fairport’s pinnacle album.  Denny and founding bassist Ashley Hutchings left Fairport weeks after the release of Liege and Lief, and while Richard Thompson would stay for one more album, by 1971 he had embarked on a solo career.  But between the departure of Denny and Thompson, Fairport Convention hit its stride as a live band, touring widely. For the first time without a female lead singer, the group indulged its triple attack of guitarists Simon Nicol, Thompson, and fiddler Swarbrick, trading vocals depending on the tune.  The addition of Dave Pegg on bass gave them a heavier sound, and what sounded on Liege and Lief a bit thin was overpowering and raw live.  By the time they hit a residency at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in September 1970, they were on fire, delivering absolutely devastating versions of Thompson’s new song, the mighty “Sloth,” as well as a huskier, rocked-out “Matty Groves.”  With Thompson singing lead and the others in support, the tale takes on a dark, derelict tawdriness, unlike the tragedy it was in Denny’s reading, and when at the break they launch into, yes, “Maid of Colchester,” they may as well have been the greatest rock band on earth.  At breakneck speed, Thompson demonstrates why he is who he is, while Swarbrick’s performance is electric and Dave Mattacks’s drumming dependably dynamic and fully engaged, as it always was and is.  According to Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer — for who else would it be — during Fairport’s stay at the Troubadour Led Zeppelin stopped by, sat in, and the music that happened was “not fit for a family album.”  No doubt Zep loved their Fairport, if only based on the evidence of Denny’s presence on “Battle of Evermore,” but beyond that there is in this music a ragged-but-right universal tone that both bands were following at the time and in their own ways.  As Hedy and others before them had done, they took what they needed from the ancient songbag and made it something else, in the spirit of Art.

*This from A.L. Lloyd, who was sort of Britain’s Pete Seeger.  Seeger, for his part, also held Hedy in high esteem.

Image above: Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick, 1970.

soundstreamsunday playlist and archive