Monday, July 27, 2015

Album Review: Amy Black, The Muscle Shoals Sessions

Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The very mention of that little town in the southern United States always catches the attention of a true music fan.  It is a place of historical significance, a true melting pot of musical genres that had led to some of the greatest recorded music in history. Artists like Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, The Staple Singers, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and Willie Nelson are just a few of the legends that have created some of their best work in those hallowed studios. Indeed, when artists record at the FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, magic happens. How could it not? The artists, from the lead singer, to the producers, to the musicians, all push themselves just that little bit more. 

Such is the case with The Muscle Shoals Sessions (Rueben), the latest release from Amy Black. For this project, Amy takes her music in a completely different direction, fusing soul, country and blues.  This move from her comfort zone pays off handsomely, as this record is one of the most underrated albums of 2015.  It's a stellar piece of work that is unique to the Americana landscape today.  

The album kicks off appropriately with a sultry version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home", starting with a simple guitar and Black's powerful vocals. This introduction gives way to a purely funky version of this classic, and it sets the bar high for the rest of the album.  Black re-introduces us to the spoken word concept in a portion of the Spooner Oldham/Dan Penn written "Uptight, Good Man", a performance that perfectly captures the message for women to not settle for anything less than the good man they desire.

"Watch Dog" perfectly captures the everything that you would expect from an album paying hommage to the history of the music of Muscle Shoals.  Originally a hit for Etta James, Ms. Black breathes new life in to this soul classic with her powerful vocals and backed by a piercing horn section and outstanding background vocals by Ann and Regina McCrary (of McCrary Sisters fame).  From this great funky number that's built for dancing, the album moves to one of its real highlights. "Starting All Over Again" is a beautifully written song about the painful realization one feels when they realize they must dial the relationship back a step or two.  She captures the emotions perferctly, detailing the tough task ahead with the hope that the relationship will move forward and prosper with this step backward. It's an adult song for an adult subject. 

While there are some brilliant selections that have been covered on this record, this is more than a cover album. Not to rest on her laurels, Ms. Black makes valuable contributions to this album with her own songwriting.  She takes us to the back rooms and the back waters with the swampy-sounding groove of "Get To Me."  "Woman On Fire" kicks things back up a notch with a pounding back beat that helps capture the sultry feel of the song, which once again highlights Ms. Black's vocal prowess and showcases what the McCrary's can bring to a song with their backing vocals. "Please Don't Give Up On Me" is a beautiful song of regret and apology, it is one of the finest songs on the album. If the goal for Amy Black was to contribute songs that stand with the spirit that is the music from Muscle Shoals, than we can conclusively say, mission accomplished.

This is a finely crafted album that pays hommage to one of the truly great music centers in the world.  It's an authentic and pure tribute to Amy's roots and the sound that has defined music for generations. She's got the soul, she's got the funk and she captures it all on this record.  With "The Muscle Shoals Sessions", Amy Black moves to the front of the class among Americana's finest and most diverse singer-songwriters.  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mariposa Folk Festival Musings - Part 2

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It’s been just over two weeks since Mariposa 2015 wrapped up and the wonderful memories still linger.  While the main stage had its share of brilliant moments, it was the action on the side stages that were the story of the weekend.

The number of side stages at Mariposa give those in attendance the opportunity to see several acts at one time in a setting that is different than on the main stage.  The side stages are definitely more intimate and, as evidenced in the Mariposa Pub Tent, can turn interactive.  The first such setting that we experienced was the Songwriters Session featuring Irish Mythen, Doug Paisley, Cheryl Wheeler and Adam Cohen.  Wheeler and Cohen would appear on the main stage later that afternoon/evening.  What's most impressive about the daytime sessions (called "workshops" by the Festival) is the opportunity for the songwriter to tell the story behind the song.  For example, Cheryl Wheeler was able to expand on how "When Fall Comes To New England" came to pass. It's a wonderful, descriptive Gordon Lightfoot-esque tune about, well, fall in New England.  The more intimate setting allows for great banter between the artists, as witnessed with Irish Mythen and Cheryl Wheeler.

The real "come to Jesus" moment took place on the Ruth Stage at the next workshop.  A tribute to the songs of Gordon Lightfoot which featured Rick Fines, Tim Chaisson of the East Pointers, Ash and Bloom, Doug Paisley and Turbo Street Funk brought out the man himself in a surprise appearance.  Following Tim Chaisson's version of "Sundown" to open the set, Mr. Lightfoot casually walked to the stage and took a seat to watch the ensemble perform many of his best known hits, as well as some songs from deep in the Lightfoot lexicon. When Mr. Lightfoot appeared, the crowd responded as if greeting a king.  Considering what Mr. Lightfoot has meant to the Mariposa Folk Festival over the decades, it was an appropriate response.

There were many highlights in this one hour session, with the only complaint being that it was only a one hour session.  Doug Paisley performed an outstanding version of "Early Morning Rain", one of Mr. Lightfoot's most widely covered songs, and told a story of meeting Mr. Lightfoot at an autograph session at Sam The Record Man, the once iconic record store in downtown Toronto, Ontario.  Ash and Bloom performed a stellar versions of "Summer Side of Life" and "Rainy Day People", while Rick Fines provided a bluesy take on "Ribbon of Darkness."  The ballsiest performance of the show was "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Turbo Street Funk, with a horn section replacing the iconic guitar riff.  All the artists did Mr. Lightfoot proud and were all deserving of the ensuing standing ovation.

The weekday workshops are a great opportunity to discover the amazing talent that exists in this country.  If one could identify the most influential artist over the course of the entire event, the weekend indeed belonged to Irish Mythen.  Originally from Prince Edward Island, Irish Mythen has travelled and resided in many parts of the world.  It is this worldliness that she brings to her writing, which is so incredibly skilled, deep and raw that her work demands that you pay attention.  Her workshop set with the Hamilton, Ontario based celtic band Poor Angus was the highlight of the weekend. The stage presence and chemistry between both acts sharing the stage was infectious, the interaction with the crowd was outstanding, and the performances were the talk of the festival.  To watch Irish Mythen, and to listen to her perform is an emotional experience.  She is one of the most important artists in music today and not to be missed if she comes to your town.

The memories of the 55th edition of the Mariposa Folk Festival will remain for a long time. From the artisans selling their wares, to the wide selection of food for purchase, to the lakeside setting and of course the incredible and varied styles of music, the future of Mariposa is looking very bright.  What impressed me most about the festival was the people.  Fans attending the weekend festivities are among the most welcoming, generous and kind people one could ever hope to meet.  They unite once a year for a common purpose, and that is to celebrate the genre of music that inspires love for one another.  Virtually everyone is welcome under this tent.  You can truly live the saying at Mariposa: sing like no one is listening and dance like no one is watching.  And if they are listening and watching, they will cheer you on and on and then join in your fun.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mariposa Folk Festival Musings Part 1

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One of the longest running folk festivals took place last weekend over the course of three days on July 3, 4 and 5 along the shores of Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe in Orillia, Ontario.  The Mariposa Folk Festival took place for the 55th time and in part 1 of a two-part story, we'll talk a little about the festival and why you should go and focus on the headliners of the weekend.

With this being my first experience at Mariposa, I wasn't sure what to expect.  I knew it would be a great time, but I've been used to attending mainstream country music festivals such as Jamboree In The Hills and the Havelock Country Jamboree.  The Mariposa experience is incredible. It is a treasure on the Canadian musical landscape.  The music is first rate, from the main stage to the side stages that operate during the day, and the Mariposa Pub Tent that operates well in to the evening.  You can have virtually any kind of experience that you're looking for at Mariposa.  If you want to have a big party, you can do it.  If you would like a quiet and reflective time, Mariposa offers Tai Chi and yoga classes in the mornings.  If you want to eat first class food and drink first class beer, Mariposa has you covered in that regard as well, with food and craft beer selections to satisfy any palate. An artisans area and artist merchandise tent are also on hand if you wish to purchase music, instruments, clothing and so much more.  Mariposa will take place on July 8, 9 and 10 in 2016, so please join in the fun next summer.

Of course the main reason everyone attends the Mariposa Folk Festival is for the music. This years' lineup featured headliners Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams and Adam Cohen closing out the shows on each night respectively.  Supporting on the main stage on Friday night was legendary singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb.  Many of you may not have heard of Jimmy Webb, but you have definitely heard his songs.  Performing with a grand piano as his only accompaniment, Mr. Webb kicked off the show with "Highwayman", which was a number 1 song in 1985 for Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, collectively known as "The Highwaymen."  Next up was Mr. Webb's anti-Vietnam Way song "Galveston", which was recorded by Webb's longtime friend, Mr. Glen Campbell. It was quite interesting to hear Mr. Webb speak about the relationship he had with Mr. Campbell given that some of Campbell's biggest and most famous hits were written by Mr. Webb. Other Webb-penned hits that were written for other artists include "MacCarthur Park" and "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress."  

Mary Chapin Carpenter closed off the mainstage festivities on Friday night and delivered arguably the finest all-around performance of the weekend.  Performing with a two-piece backing band, Ms. Carpenter delivered a wonderful acoustic set that included some of her biggest hits from her mainstream country music days.  A stripped-down version of the Lucinda Williams written "Passionate Kisses" breathes new life in to an already stellar song about everyone deserving happiness in their lives.  Ms. Carpenter's own "The Hard Way" was performed flawlessly with its message of strength while dealing with adversity hitting home with many in the audience.  New music was also introduced with the beautifully written "The Things That We Become" performed and introduced as coming out on an as yet unreleased album.  

Saturday and Sunday headliners included Lucinda Williams and Adam Cohen, son of the late, great Leonard Cohen.  Two showstealers of the main stage on the weekend were complete surprises.  Ruth Moody delivered a beautiful set of Americana and bluegrass, a set that featured a bluegrass version of the Bruce Springsteen hit "Dancing In The Dark."  One of the most talented musicians in the world performed several sets over the course of the weekend, as Gordie MacKeeman and His Rythym Boys set the bar high for Ms. Williams prior to her appearance.  Gordie MacKeeman is one of the premier fiddle players in the world today, and that's not an exaggeration.  A pure entertainer, he can work the crowd, sing, play fiddle and tap dance.  They deliver a show that is not to be missed.  The future of Americana is indeed bright with the likes of Ruth Moody and Gordie MacKeeman on board.

As if the mainstage show in the evening wasn't enough, there were many incredible performances during the daytime on several stages throughout Tudhope Park.  Part two of this write up will talk about those.  You won't want to miss it, I promise.  In the meantime, check out this clip of Lucinda Williams performing West Memphis from the Mariposa Folk Festival on July 4, 2015.  Enjoy!