In Heavy Rotation

Reviews by David McGee




Ian & Sylvia

Stony Plain

Some time in the recent past Sylvia Tyson was rummaging through an old cedar chest in search of memorabilia for the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. One of the lost treasures she exhumed was a trove of quarter-inch tapes containing some 70 songs, all captured live at Canadian venues when she and her then-husband Ian Tyson, as Ian & Sylvia, were arguably the most important folk group in Canadian history an, as a pioneering singer-songwriter duo, looming large in the general history of folk worldwide. “I hadn’t thought about [the tapes] for years,” Sylvia told The Globe and Mail’s David Friend. “I suddenly realized there was a bit of a treasure trove there.” Let us say Sylvia is guilty of understatement. The Lost Tapes is a magnificent find, capturing Ian & Sylvia at the peak of their artistry together, voices blending beautifully in rich textures framed by captivating, uncluttered arrangements enabling the lyrics to sink in to open-hearted listeners awaiting transcendent moments, more than a few of which the duo delivers here.

‘Four Strong Winds,’ Ian & Sylvia, from The Lost Tapes

‘How Long,’ written by Rick Nelson and featured on his 1970 album, Rick Sings Nelson, touchingly rendered by Ian & Silvia in a performance from The Lost Tapes

‘The Last Thing on My Mind,’ Ian & Silvia, from The Lost Tapes

The two-CD set is segregated into a side of Classics and one of Previously Unreleased performances revealing the breadth and depth of the then-spouses’ musical odyssey. Of course the Classics side includes monuments such as a mesmerizing rendition of Ian’s “Four Strong Winds,” wherein the strength of Ian’s tenor and the fragility of Sylvia’s quavering harmony produce an epic of hope and hopelessness alike; and Ian’s elegant country ballad “Summer Wages,” a tale of heartache and lost love surfacing in a portrait of an itinerant worker’s lot in life. Highlights of the Previously Unreleased disc begin with a spirited workout on Ian’s “The Last Thing on My Mind,” and continue in eclectic fashion on a warm and tender take on Lefty Frizzell’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” (it was about to be a hit for Johnny Rodriguez, and darn if Ian doesn’t deliver a quavering vocal that’s almost a dead ringer for Johnny Rod’s); a honky-tonkin’ take on Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen”; two Buck Owens classics with Sylvia taking the tear-stained lead on “Crying Time” and Ian leading the way with broken-hearted wailing on a bluesy, steel-drenched treatment of “Together Again.” Arguably the biggest surprise–beyond the mere fact of the entire album’s existence–is the pair’s understated, country-rock treatment of “How Long,” with a despairing Sylvia warily navigating a physically and emotionally debilitating breakup, lost, forlorn, not knowing what to do next. Piercing and poignant, it was written by Rick Nelson, a most underrated songwriter, and released as the A side of a single off his 1970 album, Rick Sings Nelson, a long player comprised solely of Nelson-penned tunes and the third in a triptych of albums presaging the country-rock movement (the other two being 1966’s Bright Lights and Country Music and 1967’s Country Fever). More and more it’s looking like what Sylvia uncovered in her cedar chest is the archival find of the year. —David McGee


Glenna Bell

Acclaimed Houston-based singer-songwriter Glenna Bell returns in grand fashion with a seven-song celebration of freedom, commitment, abiding passion, truth and the persistence of memory. In her captivating, tremulous voice, Bell delivers her impeccably crafted songs with so gripping a sense of commitment as to bring chills at times. Such disarming intensity is especially haunting on the heartache waltz titled “Right Here Beside Me,” wherein a departed lover is eerily evoked in a trembling chant of “you’re right here beside me” over weeping pedal steel. In a similar vein, the stark declaration “you will make it,” a repeated sentiment in the like-titled song, delivered from the edge of despair over a lonely acoustic guitar, portends not survival but inchoate inner tumult, despite the singer’s seeming optimism that “you’ll contend and you’ll contend again.” On the other hand, the ragtime-based “So Many Good Times With You” celebrates a joyous relationship in the here and now, whereas the old-school-styled folk anthem “Let Freedom Ring” calls for “every woman, every man” to join together in pursuit of inevitable, positive change. Rarely has a septet of songs packed so visceral a punch. NOTE: Let Freedom Ring is a digital-only project available solely at the Glenna Bell website listed at the top. —David McGee

‘Let Freedom Ring,’ Glenna Bell, from Let Freedom Ring: Songs for a New Generation


The Ebony Hillbillies
EH Music

By way of the vanished past and the tumultuous present come eight gifted artists assembled in New York City by violinist/vocalist Henrique Prince. A modern-day extension of the black string bands of yore—Prince’s study of this tradition took him beyond the Mississippi Sheiks into the music’s obscure 19th century origins—the Ebony Hillbillies have entertained and educated adults and children alike from the streets of New York to the Smithsonian Museum. On this, its fifth CD, the group’s old-timey sound (shaped by fiddle, banjo, washboard percussion, shaker bones) evokes, on the one hand, bygone eras in the jubilant bones- and fiddle-fired title track and horrific modern-day tragedies rooted in racial animus in the grinding call-and-response blues of “Another Man Done Gone (Hands Up Don’t Shoot Me).” On the other hand, the mood lightens via testifying vocals and a funky, percussive arrangement of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” whereas a tender part of the heart is caressed in a rustic treatment of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and yet another in the stately, penultimate benediction, “Where He Leads Me (I Will Follow).” Listen, absorb and and be moved. —David McGee

‘Another Man Done Gone–Hands Up Don’t Shoot,’ Ebony Hillbillies, from 5 Miles from Town


Blue Highway

It’s a remarkable achievement in any genre for a band to survive largely intact for 25 years, and even more remarkable to mark a quarter-century together with one of its finest albums. So it is with the venerable bluegrass quintet Blue Highway on Somewhere Far Away. It doesn’t hurt to have three of the four founding members—Tim Stafford, Wayne Taylor and Shawn Lane—recognized as top-tier songwriters, singers and pickers, or to have new member Gary Hultman stepping into Rob Ickes’ very large shoes on resophonic guitar and simply making his presence felt markedly throughout. First and foremost, Blue Highway has been about songs, and on that score they hit it out of the park here. Whether recounting a turn-of-the-20th-century old timer’s poignant reflections in the strutting “Both End of the Train”; anticipating a nostalgic return to the old home place in the gentle shuffle of “Dear Kentucky”; or tenderly enumerating the simple joys of a simple life in “I Already Do,” enhanced as it is by heart tugging mandolin and resophonic solos, Blue Highway sings of the stuff of life, with a singular depth of feeling and profundity. —David McGee

‘I Already Do,” Blue Highway, from Somewhere Far Away: Silver Anniversary

Andy Statman
Shefa Records

Since emerging in the 1970s, string and reed instruments virtuoso Andy Statman has produced consistently remarkable work, not the least being re-energizing klezmer music for new generations of roots music fans. On his latest album he returns to one of his principle influences, namely bluegrass music, and in particular the music of bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe. In true Statman fashion, however, no Monroe tunes are covered; rather, Big Mon’s style and sensibility inform a baker’s dozen Statman originals, with empathetic support from a bevy of fellow instrumental masters and with such sonic clarity as to give the affair a live, spontaneous feel. The gracefulness of Monroe’s mandolin playing is reflected in Statman’s elegant soloing on the title track’s gentle bluegrass swing, whereas the sheer, rambunctious, adventurous spirit of the music Monroe made informs breathtaking solos by mandolin, guitar, clarinets and cornet on the rollicking “Statman’s Romp.” On “Reminiscence,” suitably introspective, Statman’s tender picking is spiritually enhanced by Glenn Patscha’s church organ support and a heart tugging coda courtesy the Statettes clarinet contingent. Jazz, gospel and pure mountain strains elsewhere make this ride worthy of the Monroe and Statman legacies both. —David McGee

‘Reminiscence,’ Andy Statman, from Monroe Bus


Villalobos Brothers
Villalobos Brothers

From the spirited, freewheeling album opener (“Xalapa Bang”) with its lively lead vocal and jazzy, seemingly improvised dialogues between violins and keys; to the romantic Spanish-guitar enhancing the tenderness and romanticism of the love song “Destino”; and especially in the rich, decidedly foreboding soundscape augmenting the tragedy described both frankly and poetically in “Hombres de Aricilla” (a searing lament for students attending a teachers college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, who disappeared after their school was attacked by police in 2014), Somos (the telling translation: We Are) finds the Villalobos Brothers, natives of Veracruz, making their move on the U.S. market in powerful, socially-conscious fashion. Classically trained violinists, the three brothers are joined on guitar (and as a co-writer) by their gifted childhood friend Humberto Flores Gutierrez. The original songs address corruption, injustice, intolerance, greed, violence both local and global but from a standpoint of promoting inclusiveness and tolerance, never heavy-handed and nigh on to spiritual in their conviction. Rooted in Mexican traditional music with flourishes of classical, jazz, rock and folk evident, the music is delivered with energy and urgency, a real sense of the moment. Altogether unforgettable and compelling. —David McGee

‘Hombres de Arcilla,’ the Villalobos Brothers’ lament for students attending a teachers college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, who disappeared after their school was attacked by police in 2014, from Somos


Marley’s Ghost
Sage Arts

For three decades-plus Marley’s Ghost has delivered adventurous, roots-oriented albums notable for instrumental virtuosity and soulful vocalizing. On the heels of 2016’s acclaimed, Larry Campbell-produced The Woodstock Sessions, and in the spirit of the group’s enduring 2006 long-player, Gospel: How Can I Keep From Singing, comes another powerful, surprising outing, again produced by Campbell, reflecting the bluegrass gospel roots of Messrs. Wheetman, Wilcox, Phelan, Littlefield Jr., Fletcher and Nichols. Nine of the dozen tunes are traditional evergreens, most celebrating rewards awaiting us in the afterlife, all performed with soaring emotions and close, multi-part harmonizing reminiscent of great southern gospel quartets such as the Blackwood Brothers. With Campbell’s warm soundscape lending the proceedings an intimate feel, the band delivers in and out of the box in abundance. Consider the delightful tropicalia feel infusing “Run Come See Jerusalmen,” the title track’s backwoods, banjo-driven mountain gospel setting, the classic bluegrass gospel workout on Flatt & Scruggs’ “So Happy I’ll Be” (featuring a tasty, upper neck guitar solo by Phelan channeling Carl Perkins) and a fiddle-fired Sons of the Pioneers treatment (!) of “Standing by The Bedside of a Neighbor.” Herein, ye are set free, soul ascending. —David McGee

‘Run Come See Jerusalem,’ Marley’s Ghost, from Travelin’ Shoes


Rebecca Demaine and the Dave Miller Combo
Summit Records

Swinging and serene, playful and deeply emotional, fueled by smart vocalizing and solid, empathetic musicianship, the fifth album teaming Bay Area-based pop-jazz chanteuse Rebecca Dumaine with the combo lead by her pianist father Dave Miller is a thoroughly enjoyable outing. Herein the players infuse new sensibilities into memorable 20th century classic pop standards ranging from 1930s entries by the likes of Rodgers and Hart (a sprightly “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,” featuring tasty, to-the-point solos by pianist Miller, bassist Chuck Bennet and guest guitarist Brad Buethe supporting Dumaine’s joyful, Nancy Wilson-ish interpretation) to the 1980s (a swinging, sensuous take on Grover Washington’s 1980 Bill Withers-penned smash, “Just the Two of Us”). Among the delights: an earthy, Latin-tinged take on Schertzinger-Mercer’s “Tangerine”; a frisky, Portuguese language version of Jobim’s “Só Danço Samba” energized by Miller’s fleet-fingered, Shearing-like soloing; and the album closer, “Que Reste-t-i/I Wish You Love,” a laid-back gem of a groove—dig Buethe’s tender, understated guitar solo–on the original French language version from the legendary Charles Trenet. It may not knock your socks off, but Chez Nous will get under your skin. —David McGee

‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,’ Rodgers and Hart’s 1930s-era gem, featured on Chez Nous by Rebecca DuMaine (vocal) accompanied by the Dave Miller Combo, with Dave Miller on piano and guest guitarist Brad Buethe

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