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Archive for the ‘folk rock’ Category

One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

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In these days of iTunes, albums are probably obsolete. However, I still prefer to listen by albums, knowing how much care many musicians take to arrange material.

I have some thousand albums, all of which I’m slowly digitalizing while hardware like USB cassette players still exist to make the task easy. Choosing one over another is in many ways meaningless, since my favorites can differ depending on my mood and whatever song is running through my head when I wake up in the morning. However, if I had to choose my general favorites, in no particular order, the list would look something like this:

  • Breakfast in Bedlam by Malcolm’s Interview: Also known as “God’s Little Monkeys,” Malcolm’s Interview was a short-lived punk band in England during the 1980s. Hard-driving lyrics, strong song-writing, and the occasional reinterpretation of folk standards make this first album worth hunting down if you weren’t around when it was released.
  • Celtic Hotel by Battlefield Band: Anything by Battlefield Band in its innumerable incarnations is worth hear. But in this album, the lineup included songwriter Brian McNeill, and the group soars above its usual lofty standards. Standouts include “The Roving Dies Hard,” a romantic overview of Scottish history,“Seacoalers,” a bitterly defiant soliloquy about an independent beachcomber, and a cover of Sting’s “We Work the Black Seam.”
  • Titanic Days by Kirsty MacColl: Dubbed MacColl’s divorce album, this album is full of breakup angst, defiance, female fantasy, and even a chilling look into the mind of a serial killer, all backed up by MacColl’s characteristic wall of sound. Listen to this album, and you’ll understand why she was once described as “the Dorothy Parker of pop.”
  • Waiting for Bonaparte by The Men They Couldn’t Hang: Using a name that The Pogues discarded, TMTCH sound in this album like a Mersey-side rock band with a historical perspective and a political conscience. Especially strong numbers include “The Crest,” a father’s last words to his son about the family tradition, and “The Colors,” an account of the great English naval mutiny at the turn of the 19th century.
  • Hat Trick by the Mollys: Tex-Mex punk folk sounds like it should be a disaster. Somehow, the Mollys made the combination work, combining original songs that sound like their lyrics were written by a female Sean McGowan with cheeky re-working of folk standards like “All Around My Hat” and “Myrshkin Derkin.”
  • Small Rebellions by James Keelaghan: James Keelaghan is one of Canada’s major song writers. This album is a mixture of unionism (“Hillcrest Mine” and “Small Rebellions,” Canadian history (“Red River Rising,” and “Rebecca’s Song” local patriotism (“Gladys Ridge”), humor (“Departure Bay”) and quiet lyricism (“Country Fair”) – something for anyone who prefers intelligent lyrics with their music.
  • Love, Loneliness and Laundry by Leon Rosselson and Roy Bailey: England’s answer to Tom Lehrer, Leon Rosselson also has a quieter, if no less satirical side. He is joined here by the rich voice of Roy Bailey, and occasionally feminist folk singer Frankie Armstrong. Warning: “Standup for Judas” should not be played if you have invited Christian friends over. The same goes for “Abezier Coppe.”
  • Mothers, Daughters, Wives by Judy Small. Australian’s premier feminist folk singer in the 1990s, Small has one of the most expressive voices I have ever heard. The title song is a description of the lives of her mother’s generation and the roles available to them, so moving that it could probably reduce the most confirmed misogynist in the world into tears at the waste.
  • Angel Tiger by June Tabor: June Tabor’s voice sounds like that of a survivor, sad and depressed, but still struggling, with one of the most expressive voices ever to come out of England. This album includes her gut-wrenching version of “Hard Love,” a story of hard-won maturity, and “All This Wasted Beauty,” the song that Elvis Costello wrote for her voice. Expect to be literally moved to tears.
  • Elemental by Loreena McKennitt: With her harp and an expressive voice that can glide effortlessly up and down the octaves, Loreena McKennit is not heard so much as experienced. This is her first album, a collection of folk standards plus an arrangement of W. B. Yeat’s “Stolen Child” that has to be heard to be believed.
  • The Shouting End of Life by OysterBand: This album catches OysterBand in its electric rock phase. Opening with the pro-environmental “We’ll Be There,” the album waxes lyrical in “By Northern Light” and “Long Dark Street,” switches into comedy with “Don’t Slit Your Wrists for Me,” and ends a rock version of Leon Rosselson’s anthem, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
  • Frivolous Love by Pete Morton: With a punk voice but a quiet sound, Morton specializes in enigmatic but moving lyrics, such as “The Sloth and the Greed” and “The Backward King.” The album also includes one of the best ever recordings of “Tamlyn.”
  • Memento: The Best of Maddy Prior by Maddy Prior: Frequently the lead singer for Steeleye Span and the occasional collaborator of June Tabor, Prior is one of folk rock’s best-known vocalists. This album covers a few folk standards, as well as Prior’s own considerable song-writing skills, which are on display in such numbers as “Commit the Crime” and “Face to Face,” as well as “Rose” and “Alex,” her odes to her children. But by far the most interesting song on the album is “The Sovereign Prince,” which contrasts Elizabeth I with the frivolous English girls who live in the world that she created.
  • The Texas Campfire Takes by Michelle Shocked: While I’m dismayed by Shock’s recent anti-gay sentiments, I have to admit she still writes effective music. This album is her version of the bootleg album that launched her career without her permision, The Texas Campfire Tapes, after she had regained the rights. It contains both the originally released songs and the unedited versions she rightly prefers.
  • Growl by Ray Wylie Hubbard: To his frequent regret, Hubbard is best-known for the outlaw country hit, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” However, this album shows Hubbard is more complicated than that old hit would suggest, offering a unique combination of blues and rock, and songs that are vignettes of the American South that could have come from the pages of a William Faulkner novel.
  • Red Roses for Me by the Pogues: This early album shows The Pogues at their best. Their musicianship is displayed in instrumentals like “The Battle of Brisbane” and “Dingle Regatta,” and the strength of their lyrics in “Boys from County Hell” and “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go.” The Pogues even take the time to cover Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilida” and fellow Irish rakehell Brendan Behan’s “The Old Triangle.”
  • From Fresh Water by Stan Rogers: Stan Rogers never released an album that was uninteresting, but this is by far his strongest. Part of his Canadian region recordings, it focuses on songs about Ontario. As might be expected from Rogers, many of the songs are about ships on the Great Lakes, including “White Squall” and “Lock Keeper.” Others are about Canadian history, such as “McDonnel on the Heights” and “The Nancy.” Still others are about the dreams of ordinary Canadians, including “Flying,” which is probably the only memorable song ever written by hockey.
  • Amnesia by Richard Thompson: The English guitar legend has dozens of albums to his credit, but Amnesia has a claim to being the best of them all, with all ten songs being winners. Its ballads include “Gypsy Love Song” and “Waltzing’s for Dreamers,” its had-edge material, “Yankee Go Home” and “Jerusalem on the Jukebox. It ends with“Pharoah,” a metaphorical social commentary unlike any you’re likely to have heard.
  • Singing of the Times by Tommy Sands:A peace activist in Irelands, Sands starts this album with, “There Were Roses” about The Troubles. Other songs like “Children of the Dole” and “Your Daughters and Your Sons” sound like activist anthems. However, some of his works, like “Humpty Dumpty” and “I’m Going Back on the Bicycle” display a sly sense of humor, and “Peter’s Song,” an elegy for a fiddler, is simply beautiful.
  • All Used Up by Utah Phillips: Nobody ever went to a Utah Phillips concert for his guitar playing. But if you like story telling or want to hear about the Wobblies and the great North American labor movements through their songs, this album is a great place to start.
  • Restless by Sam Weis: With her twelve string guitar and husky voice, Weis was a standard on the folk circuits of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s before she retired to small town Washington to paint abstracts. Restless show her ability to write moving, original love songs, such as “Rubicon” and “Moment to Moment,” as well as her outstanding guitar work in songs like “Train to Big Sur” and her cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.”

You probably haven’t heard of most of these performers, especially if you live outside of Canada or the United Kingdom, and maybe not even then. But that’s why I list them – because if you do take the trouble to track them down, you’re unlikely to regret the effort.

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Do you get the sense of history repeating,
Have you made the same mistakes again?
Can’t you see me smiling in the bathroom mirror?
It’s a greeting from the beast within.
– Oysterband, “Walking Down the Road with You”

Over the years, Oysterband has provided some of my more memorable concert experiences. A few days after hearing their rocked-up version of an old Morris song, I heard them in a pack-to-the-limits concert at the Savoy. I’ve heard them shake the mirrors at the Commodore, and, on one especially memorable occasion with June Tabor at the Plaza of Nations, where they ended by covering the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” complete with dry ice. Having missed them last year when they were in town, I wasn’t about to miss them this year.

Saints are drawn to the desert,
Moths to the candle flame,
You know there’s going to be trouble,
But you go there just the same.
– Oysterband, “Meet you there”

Rock (so far as the term has any meaning any more) is supposed to be a young person’s music, but you wouldn’t know that by the band or the crowd. Bass player Chopper (who I persist in thinking of as the new member of the band although he has been playing in it for decades) is solidly into middle-age, and drummer Dil Davies, the real newcomer, is hardly into middle-age at all, but the three originals band members must each be hovering a year or two on either side of sixty. Guitar player Alan Prosser looks leaner than in earlier years, violinist Ian Telfer more like a bearded Scottish sailor than the Presbyterian elder or aging punk of previous visits, while John Jones looked like he dyes his hair, but all of them looked immensely fit and focused. As for the crowd, it varied from ten to seventy year olds, with the median age somewhere in the mid-fifties.

The spirit of a troubled life
Is all I have to give to you,
The simple curse of a wayward life
Is all that I can bring to you.
-Oysterband, “Over the Water”

The first half of the night was dedicated to recent albums. In fact, the first three or four songs songs were the opening tracks of Meet You There, the band’s latest album of new material, which is some of the strongest twenty minutes of folk rock I’ve heard in years. Starting with “Over the Water,” the band quickly moved on to “Meet You There,” “Walking Down the Road with You,” and “Here Comes the Flood,” which I’ve always thought was an apt summary of the band members’ generation of Brits, as well as their free-thinking leftist politics.

I haven’t prayed since God knows when,
My teeth are unAmerican,
Socialism’s orphan child,
Unimpressed, unreconciled,
Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m not:
Here comes the Flood.

– Oysterband, “Here Comes The Flood”

The rest of the fifty minutes was filled out with material from other recent albums, as well as John Jones’ signature song, “Native Son.”

For I was born to tell the truth and run,
Remember me, remember me,
It was all for love, the crazy things I’ve done,
Remember me, I’m still your native son.
-Oysterband, “Native Son”

People were dancing by the third song, and nine out of ten bands (if not ninety-nine of one hundred) would have counted the first set as a success. Oysterband never seems to have forgot that it started thirty years ago as a dance band, because it never fails to orchestrate its playlist, building the energy and alternating fast numbers with just the right number of slow ones, while encouraging the audience to sing the choruses (although, with last night’s partisan crowd, I suspect that the audience could have song all the songs with the band if given the chance).

Maybe we don’t know right from wrong,
Maybe we don’t know what we’re here for,
Maybe it’s time to sing along:
This is an uncommercial song.
-Oysterband, “Uncommercial Song”

However, the first set didn’t quite reach the highest level of energy that the Oysters are capable of, and I suspect that the band was aware of it and spent the interval overhauling its playlist. When the band took over the stage for the second set, its members had plainly come prepared to do battle with their own expectations of themselves. Without waiting to be announced, they launched into Meet You There’s “Dancing as Fast as I Can.”

You can trust in the power of music,
You can trust in the power of prayer,
But it’s only the white of your knuckles
That’s keeping this plane in the air.”
– Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

Then, barely leaving room for applause between songs, it dove into a history of its own career – one inspired, I suspect, by the recent re-recordings of some of its past songs to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary. Much of the material was political and social commentary, and all of it hard-driving musically. Audience participation, already high, rose even higher, orchestrated by a grinning John Jones.

In the middle of a good time,
Truth gave me her icy kiss,
Look around, you must be joking,
All that way for this?
-Oysterband, “All That Way for This”

I seem to remember the energy at previous Oysterband concerts rising even higher than it did last night. But if the first set was more than most groups could aspire to, the second set was one that most couldn’t imagine. By the time the band returned for an acoustic version of “Put Out the Lights,” both the musicians and the crowd were happily exhausted, and more than content to call it a night.

Everywhere that I have been,
Leaves its message on my skin,
So many prophecies and signs,
So little time, so little time.
– Oysterband, “Put Out the Lights”

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