Woody Guthrie At 100! Live At The Kennedy Center by Various Artists

July 31, 2013

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I can’t help but think that if Woody Guthrie had only written one song, “This Land Is Your Land,” he still would have been remembered as a brilliant musician. His career extends far beyond just that one composition, as he has achieved the status of one of America’s poet laureates of the 20th century.

Woody Guthrie would have turned 100 in 2012, so last October 14, artists such as Judy Collins, Rosanne Cash, Jackson Browne, Donovan, John Mellencamp, Lucinda Williams, Tom Morello, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott gathered at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to celebrate his life and music. Now, a CD/DVD has been released to commemorate this centennial concert. PBS presented some of the concert as a part of a tribute to Guthrie, but the Woody Guthrie At 100! Live At The Kennedy Center package contains eight performances not shown on the television special, and adds some archival bonus footage.

It is always interesting to hear today’s musicians interpret Guthrie’s words and music. His songs have a timeless quality that allow an artist leeway in interpreting the stories. Judy Collins (“Pastures of Plenty”), Donovan (“Riding in My Car (Car Song)”), John Mellencamp (“Do Re Me”), Sweet Honey In The Rock (“I’ve Got to Know”), and Rosanne Cash (“I Ain’t Got No Time” and “Pretty Boy Floyd”) all provide modernized versions of his music while paying tribute to the originals. Various backing instruments and musicians, plus vocal harmonies and even some a cappella vocals update his folk classics.

During the last 20 years Nora Guthrie has invited some musicians to compose music to Woody Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics. Lucinda Williams (“House of Earth”) and Joel Rafael (“Ramblin’ Reckless Hobo”) were present to perform their newly created songs on which they now share writing credit with Guthrie. Rafael channels Bob Dylan in approach, while Williams brings country passion to her performance.

The CD and DVD contain basically the same song list, although the DVD contains two spoken word performances by actor Jeff Daniels. The DVD has very good clarity and sound and manages to present the flow of the concert well.

The bonus material is short but sweet. Especially so is Woody singing “Green Back Dollar,” “John Henry,” and “Ranger’s Command.” It allows one to travel back in time to an America that is long gone but which provided the heart and soul for his music. The only issue ts the shortness of the clips. Still, they are a fine example of Guthrie’s style.

The final two tracks were ensemble performances of “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and “This Land Is Your Land.” They remain two of the more memorable songs in U.S. history and are prime examples of Guthrie’s ability to paint pictures with his lyrics. With Woody Guthrie; it always comes back to the words.

Woody Guthrie died October 3, 1967, at the age of 55, from Huntington’s disease. Woody Guthrie At 100! Live At The Kennedy Center is a nice celebration as it connects his music and life to the present and looks ahead to the future.

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All The Good ‘Uns by Ian Tyson

July 24, 2013

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Ian Tyson will turn 80 in September and is considered one of the grand old men of the 1960s folk revival movement. Recording with his wife under the name Ian & Sylvia, they released a dozen albums during the 1960s and early 1970s and are considered early proponents of the country folk movement.

As a solo artist, beginning in 1973, he has consistently issued albums of quality music with lyrics that paint pictures. He has remained a folk singer who has a strong connection to the land and environment. He has now returned with his second compilation release, this one titled All the Good ’Uns Vol. 2. It is the follow-up to 1996’s Vol. 1, which brings his career up to date by gathering 19 tracks from his last five studio albums. So if you have lost track of his music and career, or just want a sample of what he has been up to for the past 14 years, then this is an album for you.

His songs have a comfortable feel to them. Whether singing about the cowboy life of the west or delving into his personal feelings about his life’s journey, he is grounded in the folk traditions he helped establish. The music is sparse at times but it is enough to support his always entertaining stories.

His voice changes from track to track. He injured his vocal chords a number of years ago and adjusted his delivery accordingly. Now fully recovered from an operation, he has regained much of his lost range, so be prepared for some differences in approach throughout the album.

Overall it always comes back to the songwriting for Ian Tyson. Songs such as “Land of Shining Mountains,” “Little High Plains Town,” “Fiddler Must Be Paid,” and “Charles Goodnight’s Grave” all have a wistful appeal as they deal with a vanishing time and the aging process.

His latest release brings another part of his long career to a fitting close. At nearly 80, he continues to work on his ranch and tour regularly and will no doubt remain active in the studio. All The Good ’Uns Vol. 2 is an album of stories and songs as he pauses to embark upon the next decade of his life.


Four Strong Winds 45 by Ian & Sylvia

March 19, 2013

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Ian Tyson and Sylvia (Fricker) Tyson were a Canadian folk duo whose career, (1959-1975), lasted longer than their marriage, (1964-1975).

They were an important part of the 1960s folk revival movement. They recorded 13 albums during their career, which sold millions of copies, but they never had a chart single in the United States. In their native Canada their cover of the Gordon Lightfoot song “Early Morning Rain” topped the Singles Chart and their own “You Were On My Mind” reached the top five.

Their most famous composition has been recorded by dozens of artists and is most associated today with Neil Young. “Four Strong Winds” was the title of their 1964 album and a single released in the United States. While it had no chart action, it remains the definitive versions of this classic folk song.


Puff The Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary

February 14, 2013

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Peter, Paul and Mary were important figures in the 1960s folk revival movement. They had a smooth pop sound, which was perfect for AM radio play at the time. They were closer to the mainstream than many of their folk contemporaries and as such introduced folk music to a vast new audience.

“Puff The Magic Dragon” of “Puff” was a song that many people associated with the drug culture. The trio always insisted it was just a simple song.

It was released during early 1963 and peaked at number two on the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Hot 100.

Peter, Paul, and Mary were one of the most commercially successful folk artists of all time selling tens of millions of albums and having 20 of their singles reach the pop charts.


Pretty House by Liz Mitchell

December 4, 2012

So what does a trauma physician do in her spare time? She returns to her first career as a singer-songwriter and releases a debut album.

Several decades ago, Liz Mitchell began her music career as a folk singer in the Joan Baez tradition. She took advantage of open mikes and played small clubs in the greater Boston area. Voice problems and life in general caused her to put that career on hold and complete her medical training. Now, 16 years into her medical career, she has returned to her music and released her first album, Pretty House.

She has one of those voices that is a gift from god. It is a clear high soprano with a wonderful tone that can just soar and inspire. It is a voice you may be able to train and hone, but other than that it is a gift.

She is still a singer-songwriter in the folk tradition, although her music has taken on a pop sheen. The focus is usually on the lyrics, as the music is stripped down and very subtle at times. She is a pianist and that instrument sets the tone for
her sound. Also on board are upright bassist Paul Kochanski, violinist Joyce
Andersen, cello player Kristen Miller, clarinetist Billy Novick, oboe player
Arkane Setiawan, mandolin/guitarist John Curtis, and producer/accordion player Tom Eaton. Her piano sound is sparse. The strings serve the purpose of filling in the gaps and are a good accompaniment for her voice.

She wrote 10 of the 11 songs, but the one she did not write is a wonderful cover of a famous song. Her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is riveting. The a capella beginning, the gentle piano, and the strings flitting in and out form a perfect background for her to interpret the lyrics. She slows the tempo a bit and understates the vocal. The fact that she is a female vocalist also puts a unique spin on this oft-recorded classic.

Her original songs have a personal quality to them. “Karine” is the poignant story of the death of a patient. The bright lyrics cannot cover up the ultimate tragedy of sudden loss. The reason is never explained, which makes the story all the sadder.

Many of her compositions are thoughtful love songs that have elements of loss that just about everyone has experienced at some time in their lives. “After All” takes a different path as it explores passion that survives the passage of time.

Pretty House is not upbeat but it is thoughtful and interesting, resonating in the places of the heart. It is a good listen with a warm fire and your favorite beverage.

Article first published as Music Review: Liz Mitchell – Pretty House on Blogcritics.


A Wild Bird Flying by The Stone Coyotes

November 10, 2012

The Stone Coyotes are a family affair from Massachusetts who spend most of their time in the state of Texas and its vicinity. They consist of vocalist guitarist/keyboardist Barbara Keith, her husband/drummer Doug Tibbles, and son/bassist/lead guitarist John Tibbles.

Keith’s career extends back to the late 1960s when she was discovered playing the Greenwich Village circuit. She was basically a folk singer in the Joni Mitchell vein but with a little more bite. Her second 1972 self-titled album for the Warner Brothers label is one of the great lost albums of the early 1970s. She met her husband at the time and walked away from the music industry, not becoming really active again until the formation of the Stone Coyotes during the late 1990s. In the interim, in addition to her family, she became a noted songwriter, with her compositions being recorded by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Lowell George, Tanya Tucker, and Delaney & Bonnie.

The Stone Coyotes have now released their 11th studio album titled A Wild Bird Flying. Keith has mostly left her folk heritage behind in favor of a rock sound. Her songwriting skills have remained intact as she can still write catchy melodies with incisive lyrics. What has improved is her guitar work and especially her ability with a slide style.

The album’s leading title track establishes their sound. The Tibbles lay down a bass and percussion foundation, the lead guitar is layered on top, and finally, Keith’s bluesy vocals drive the song along. “Powder Keg” is an energetic rock romp. “Your Fall from Grace” slows the tempo down as the sound gradually builds, plus the subtle and subdued vocals add to the atmosphere.

The Stone Coyotes always keep it interesting. “Sing Me a Hymn” is a mid-tempo rocker with a nice honky tonk piano sound. “Red Letter Day” is a prime example of her developing slide guitar style. “You Got Rolled” brings the album to an upbeat and rocking conclusion.

The Stone Coyotes are a band without pretensions who appear comfortable with their style and sound. A Wild Bird Flying is basic rock and roll at its best.

Article first published as Music Review: The Stone Coyotes – A Wild Bird Flying on Blogcritics.


Soulful Shade Of Blue 45 by Buffy Sainte-Marie

September 11, 2012

The career of Buffy Sainte-Marie has passed the fifty year mark. She has had moderate commercial success down through the years but sometimes is best known as a songwriter having composed such tunes as “Up Where We Belong” and “The Circle Game.”

She has only had three top 100 singles during her career with “Mister Can’t You See” being the sole entry to reach the American top 40.

“Soulful Shade of Blue” was typical of of her single releases. She was a folk artist who always kept it simple which allowed the focus to stay on her poetic lyrics. While the single did not chart, it was representative of her work and sound. Any of her compilation albums are worth a listen.