Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cowboy Junkies revisited

I just turned 50, and I’m happy to announce that I’m skipping giddily into my second half-century. Yeah, it's a time for musing, to be sure, but I'm of the opinion that aging gets a bad rap. There’s something delightful about accumulating experience, and something equally comforting about amassing a seemingly endless sea of touchstones and allusions through individual and collective memory. What we’ve done, where we’ve gone, books we’ve read, events we've witnessed, and oh so much music we've enjoyed – it's the ongoing reflection on all these, either deeply or as hints of allusion – that adds luminance and luster to where we are in the present. Heady, sure, but 50 does that.

The whole thing – this living in the world – is far more enjoyable thanks to the rich cultural anchors we latch on to along the way. Musically speaking, new friends come and go, and some you hang to for the long haul. For me, the Cowboy Junkies are such a band, a musical family that creates meaningful art that enriches my enjoyment and understanding of this earthly pale. That’s what good art does, and this Canadian family does it with lyrical beauty and musical depth. I’ve eagerly awaited each new release over the course of several decades, and it’s this history and appreciation that makes the release of the CD/DVD set Trinity Revisited such a delight.

Two decades ago, the Junkies cemented their sound and musical personality by recording, in the space of one November day in 1988, a set of twelve tunes in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. With The Trinity Session the three Timmins siblings – guitarist/songwriter Michael, vocalist Margo, and drummer Peter, along with bassist Alan Anton, defined the Cowboy Junkies sound. Their original material was dark and spare, evocative, elegiac, and utterly captivating, from the lover’s lament “Misguided Angel,” to the sliding bass hook and Margo’s haunting vocals on “Blue Moon Revisited (Song For Elvis).” They were putting their remarkably original sound on old and new traditions, from the dirge-like take on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” to their remake of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” which put Margo Timmins on the map as one of the most unique voices in music. It was a brilliant, influential album, and launched an illustrious career, one I’ve followed closely ever since.

Trinity Revisited features the Junkies back in Holy Trinity, singing the same songs, with a stellar set of guest musicians. The music has gained depth and context after two decades, but sounds wonderfully fresh in these takes. Guests include Natalie Merchant, who shares vocals with Margo on “Misguided Angel,” Vic Chesnutt, longtime Junkies musical companion Jeff Bird, and the hugely talented Ryan Adams. It’s great stuff, no doubt.

But the real beauty here is the sound and sight of the DVD. The band and guests sit in a circle, with masterful lighting by Eugene O’Connor and Johnny McCullagh, whose carefully placed spotlights and on-stage candles impart a warm glow to the church, with the stained-glass windows adding further ambiance. Listening to the audio CD doesn't capture the beauty of the DVD, so wonderfully filmed by Pierre and Francois Lamoureux. It’s a fitting tribute to the original recording that made the Junkies famous. Not to mention a nice birthday present for an old guy like me. Thanks, Junkies.

Photo of Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies' website.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Appleseed Recordings 10th Anniversary Sampler

Sowing the Seeds: The 10th Anniversary

Soon after Appleseed Recordings was founded in 1997, this fine label gained critical acclaim with the release of Where Have All The Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger. A folk music festschrift, Where Have All The Flowers Gone featured 37 different versions of songs associated with Seeger, and put Appleseed on the map as a folk label to watch. The album contained all new recordings by luminaries like Bruce Springsteen, Odetta, Billy Bragg, Jackson Brown, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Paxton, Bruce Cockburn, Roger McGuinn, and other well-known folk musicians. Gathering such musical talent together was impressive feat for a small, relatively unknown record label.

Over the last decade a long list of progressive musicians have recorded for Appleseed, attracted by the label’s philosophy succinctly stated in their motto: “music that sows the seeds of social justice and conveys the timeless essence of the folk tradition.” This ideal is embodied by the looming presence of Pete Seeger’s voice and vision, as well as the ethics of label founder Jim Musselman, a former attorney who worked with Ralph Nader in the 1960s. Those familiar with Appleseed were quick to spot the roots of Springsteen’s recent Pete Seeger tribute recordings back to Appleseed’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone.

Appleseed has thrived over the last decade, amassing an impressive catalog of over 80 CDs by a range of respected artists. Sowing the Seeds celebrates the label’s musical legacy, and serves as a great sampler of the label’s talented roster, which includes Pete Seeger, Eric Andersen, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Peggy Seeger, and other folk icons.

Highlights abound. There’s Joan Baez and Jackson Browne’s duet on “Guantanamera,” as well as Tom Paxton and Anne Hill’s “There Goes the Mountain,” a song that resonates regionally as mountaintop removal ravishes Appalachia. There’s also “If You Miss Me on the Back of the Bus,” by Kim and Reggie Harris, a rousing sing-along that features Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame. The label has become home to a number of 60s folk-rock legends, such as Donavan and John Stewart. Stewart, the former Kingston Trio star who penned the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer,” passed away a few months ago. He released a handful of excellent CDs for the label.

There’s a strong anti-war theme on this sampler, and it shows up in a powerful version of “Bring Them Home” featuring Pete Seeger, Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, and Anne Hills trading verses. Canadian folk singer Eric Andersen and Haitian hip-hop star Wyclef Jean join forces on Phil Och’s potent ballad, “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land,” while another Canadian, Bruce Cockburn, delivers a stylized version of Seeger’s take on the Biblical book Ecclesiastes, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which was a hit for the Byrds in 1966.

Speaking of the Byrds, the band’s founder Roger McGuinn recorded a CD of folk songs for Appleseed, Treasures from the Folk Den, and his version of the traditional “Dink’s Song” appears in this collection. Also included is a cut from David Bromberg’s great acoustic blues album from last year, Try Me One More Time, the first recording by this master in 17 years. You might remember Bromberg singing tunes from CD during his excellent gig at Floydfest in 2006.

Several new recordings add further luster to this sampler. First and foremost is a duet with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” In this rendering, Seeger’s spoken dialogue simultaneously evokes 21st century America and the dust-bowl Depression era of John Steinbeck, adding further depth to Springsteen’s already powerful ballad.
Ani DiFranco recorded a new version of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” for this CD. In her take, Pete Seeger’s Vietnam-era song sounds like it could have been written about the war in Iraq. Donovan adds a new version of his classic “Universal Soldier,” his 1965 hit that still stands as one of the finest anti-war songs ever written.

Seeger adds a few more new tracks for this sampler, including the darkly humorous “The Ross Perot (George Bush) Guide to Answering Embarrassing Questions,” a song co-written by Seeger and author Calvin Trillin, and sang by Seeger and his grandson, Tao-Rodriquez Seeger (who fronts his own fine band, The Mammals).

For the record: versions of this have been published in other sources by the Bantering Bibliocrat.