Monday, June 27, 2011

Elton John Still Wants Some Punch

Back in February, we reported Elton John's enthusiasm for bluegrass experimentalists Punch Brothers as described to Rolling Stone.

In the 28 April issue (sorry, I was out of the country for a bit), he was back at it:
The Punch Brothers are the best jam band I've ever seen. It's like Miles Davis meets bluegrass. I've already talked to them about working together -- I want to make a record with them that combines the Band and Fairport Convention
Wait, wait... "That combines the Band and Fairport Convention"?

Ok, so I'm obviously psyched that Elton John wants to make something that sounds like Fairport Convention. I'm totally in favor of this.

But it doesn't seem like combining The Band and Fairport Convention would be all that much of a stretch, does it? I mean, Fairport Convention's 1969 album Unhalfbricking includes "Million Dollar Bash" from The Basement Tapes, which features The Band, as well as Dylan's "Percy's Song" and "Si Tu Dois Partir" (the French translation of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now"). And in general, it seems like Fairport and The Band are working a lot of the same musical territory.

So "Miles Davis meets bluegrass," I'll give that one to Sir Elton, but he needs to work a bit harder on who he wants to mash-up with Fairport Convention.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Coen Brothers to Make Dave Van Ronk Film?

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the Coen Brothers might make a movie about Dave Van Ronk based on the book The Mayor of MacDougal Street.

Mike Regenstreif spread the news over at Folk Roots / Folk Branches and included some nice memories of his encounters with Van Ronk.

Van Ronk's Going Back to Brooklyn was a signature album for me during my early teenage years. (What 13-year-old wouldn't memorize "The Whores of San Pedro" and then go around singing it at summer camp after all?) I also was a huge fan from an early age of his recording of "Cocaine Blues" to be found on the Blues with a Feeling disc that collected recordings from the Newport Folk Festival. By my late teenage years, I was listening to the classic Vanguard sides that Van Ronk recorded and just learning a whole lot about the blues.

I saw Dave Van Ronk twice -- once at the Old Songs Festival, where he told some risque story that mildly offended my eight-year-old ears and then later on (when I was a bit more equipped to appreciate such things) at the University of New Haven, where Van Ronk sadly struggled to keep his breath on stage.

I can't say that I listen to Van Ronk all that much these days, although interestingly enough, some sort of best-of album became part of the soundtrack for my recent bus ride from Galway to Dublin. I sat there, listening to "Cocaine Blues," and thinking to myself, "Man, if I could just learn to play this song..." Well, maybe that should be a new goal for the summer.

Regenstreif appropriately cites Tom Russell's "Van Ronk" from his album Hotwalker in which Russell gives the rundown on what it was like to hang out at Van Ronk's place. It's a great piece and one that Tom nicely ornaments live, too, although here is the album version for you:

"Shut up and listen!"

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pub Sessions in Galway

Well, here I am at the Dublin Airport, drinking one last good-tasting Guinness before I fly back to the States. (Or at least, I hope I'm flying back -- it's already been a five-hour delay.)

Following the historic first meeting of the European Political Science Association in Dublin at the Guinness Storehouse, I took the morning train from Dublin to Galway because I had been told that Galway was where to find music in Ireland. Well, no joke.

On my first evening in Galway, I found my way into Taaffes Pub. The session was already going, featuring accordion, fiddle, bouzouki and bodhran. The tunes were good, and it was fun to watch the fiddler listen to the box player and figure out the melody with her fingers before joining in.

I stuck around there for a good bit before heading down to The Quays, which was a little bit less crowded and yet also featured a tighter session with just accordion, bouzouki and bodhran.

The accordion player was John O'Halloran who had a wonderful touch, making the melodies smooth and flowing but adding in nice ornamentation. He had fun with the instrument, too, providing some sound effects as necessary for people walking by or asking questions.

From there, I moved on to Tig Coili. And this was the mother church. I watched a trio of tenor banjo, fiddle and bodhran for a while, and then I asked the gentlemen next to me (who was in fact the bodhran player from the session at Taaffes) if he knew who the musicians were. Well, the bodhran player was Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh, one of the founding members of De Dannan. The banjo player was Brian McGrath who has played with De Dannan and then on a good number of albums by other Irish musicians. And the fiddler was Mick Conneely.

These three were terrific -- one and all. Mick Conneely's fiddle was completely lyrical with his double-stops adding rich tone and texture to the tunes. Watching Ringo McDonagh was a clinic on how the bodhan can be played -- his skillful use of the left hand to mute the drum and shift the tone as needed. And then Brian McGrath had all of these wonderful trills and other ornamentation on the four-string banjo; he pushed the melody along with a rolling force.

And that was just the first evening!

The next day, I headed off to the Aran Islands for a tour but then found myself back at Tig Coili. And once again found myself in the presence of a great musician or two. And not just in their presence but sitting a mere five feet away! On the Monday-night melodeon, it was Bobby Gardiner. I didn't know it at the time (or else I would have talked Southern Connecticut with him), but Bobby Gardiner had emigrated to New Haven to work on the New Haven Railroad in the early 1960s. During his ten years on the East Coast of the United States, he played with noted Irish musicians like Joe Cooley and Joe Deranne (and also served in the U.S. Army, according to Wikipedia). He was yet another great box player there in Galway and was joined by Brian McGrath on banjo, Anna Faulkner on fiddle and (I think) Richie Cunningham on the bodhran.

You would never know who it was playing unless you asked. These were just the boys down at the pub playing the tunes. And so there I was, armed with a pint of Guinness, and taking in the sounds.

I ended up that second night at the An Pucan Pub, listening to a duo perform a mix of instrumentals, dance tunes (with dancers) and songs. The song selection ranged from Dougie Maclean's "Caledonia" to Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel." Because of amplification, the scene was a little less intimate than at the other pubs, but it was also nice to hear some songs being sung.

On my final day in Galway -- after a tour of Connemara -- I went back again to Tig Coili and found John O'Halloran leading another session. This time he was joined by Liz Hanrahan on the fiddle and by a bones and bodhran player whose name I never caught. And at some point, a local named Willie was egged on to sing a song or two -- he needed a bit of help on some of the lyrics, but the crowd remained enthusiastic and relatively quiet for the unamplified singing. And then I rounded out the evening with some more music at An Pucan, where a band with harp and pipes was playing -- some new instruments to end my journey to Galway!

Punk is Dead; Long Live Punk

Neil Genzlinger has a nice piece in the New York Times about punk rock history tours being conducted in New York by Jake Szufnarowski (from the band Tragedy -- see here) and John Joseph.

The article only hints at the best stories that are told on these tours:
Mr. Szufnarowski will show you the spot outside Irving Plaza where he was beaten to a pulp after a Warren Zevon concert (an episode he parlayed into free passes to countless other shows there). Mr. Joseph will bring you to the sidewalk where, he says, he was stabbed in a sort of drug-dealer-versus-punk-rocker turf war.
And then I was particularly fond of the following:
[Joseph] won’t use the name “East Village”; he still likes “Alphabet City.” (The avenues, back when he arrived, were ranked thus, he said: “A, you’re adventurous; B, you’re bold; C, you’re crazy; D, you’re dead.”)

Also, referring to the Continental as a "B-level club" strikes me as wrong -- it was a "C-level club," part of the "C circuit" along with Coney Island High and CBGBs (both of which are now-defunct, so maybe The Continental did get an upgrade).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Now You Know: Justin Roth

Justin Roth is a rare talent--an amazing guitarist, a charming performer and a writer of catchy acoustic songs. Although I periodically get to see him play showcases at Folk Alliance or hear him play a few songs when he is in town for songwriting group, I have not seen him play a full show in a couple years. So it was a rare treat to see his Saturday St. Paul show at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse, celebrating the release of his new CD Now You Know. The new songs are more introspective and moody than his previous work, perhaps due to the fact he wrote and recorded the album while living alone in the Colorado Rockies. Expanding his straight acoustic sound to include more layers of vocals and ambient textures, Justin recorded all the parts himself, including all the additional instrumental parts. I was interested to see how he would approach doing these songs live without any extra musicians or loops or anything. I am happy to say these new songs were just as sweet without the added parts. Here's what he played...

SET 1:
- Trembling Like a Train (been singing this for awhile but it's now finally on an album--one of my faves!)
- Spaghetti Junction (instrumental named after the tangle of highways in downtown St. Paul)
- Out of the Blue
- This Winter (As Justin put it: "This song has lots mini me's singing with me on the record." He joked about cloning himself and then trying to bring all the mini me's on the road with him and trying to figure out how to fit them in his car and not feed or pay them. I think he can forego that because it sounded pretty dang good with just one Justin.)
- Surrender
- She Dances
- Shower With a Friends (hilarious song about conserving water by showering with a friend)
- Fatima's Waltz (a beautiful guitar instrumental he wrote--a fan favorite)

SET 2:
- There and Back Again (his second Hobbit-inspired guitar tune)
- The Siskiyou Line
- Now You Know
- The Last Time
- Forgiveness
- Ones to Hold Onto (Gave a shout-out to his musician friends in the audience, including Brianna Lane, Barb Ryman and me, Mother Banjo. Then he dedicated this song to catching up with old friends. I've always liked this older song of Justin's but the energy and guitar work on this was particularly nice.)
- Dead Horse Trampoline
- Shine

Encore: Love's Not Through With You Yet (a Darrell Scott tune he covers on the the new album)

All in all, a great show. It is no wonder that John Gorka has said: "Now you know-Justin Roth has come into his own."