Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween Party

When I was a kid, Halloween was my favorite holiday. It still is. This is the night for good spooky fun. I always thought you should dress up as something scary. But my friends didn’t necessarily agree. So, one year, I was a witch and my best friend was a UNICEF box. That was scary in its own way, but was not what I meant.

Danny Elfman: This Is Halloween


What then are the key elements for a great Halloween? Danny Elfman sets the mood with a catalog of scary costume ideas. This song opens The Nightmare Before Christmas, and does a great job of setting the mood. Here, it does so again.

Shivaree: Goodnight Moon


You need a properly creepy night. There should be a full moon casting strange shadows. A chill wind makes odd noises. Shivaree describes the night perfectly. The title refers back to the classic children’s book, and the song gives it a great spooky twist.

Dr John: Witchy Red


There should be scary stories. Dr John tells a dandy here. I imagine that, in Louisiana at this time of year, they talk in hushed tones of Marie LeVeau. Dr John’s character meets a modern-day disciple.

Rose and the Arrangement: The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnatti


And of course, there needs to be a party. Let’s have great live music and dancing.

What, you may ask, does that have to do with this song? Back when my wife and I were dating, xxxx-xxx years ago, we attended a Halloween contradance. We chose our costumes carefully, making sure we had a full range of motion. The band was assembled once a year for this occasion, out of the members of several local contradance bands. So there was a piano, fiddles, guitar, banjo, a flute or two, I think an accordion... It was a giant folk dance orchestra. We knew some of the musicians from other dances we had attended, but we had never heard any of them sing. So imagine our surprise when a traditional folk-dance piece suddenly medleyed into The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnatti. There was only one possible response: we kept dancing. So this song has a special place in my heart, and must be a part of any Halloween party I have anything to do with.

If you would like to know more about contradances, (like, what are they?), you can see what I wrote about them here.

Warren Zevon: Werewolves of London


Finally, you knew this one had to be in there somewhere. There may be hundreds of blogs posting this this week, but that is one way to define a classic.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

For a Song: Tam Lin

Fairport Convention: Tam Lin


Tam Lin is a song I must hear every year at this time. The threads of the tale twist like Celtic knotwork, and a chill October wind blows through the whole thing. Last year, I shared the song for the first time online, on Star Maker Machine. You can still read that post here. The song is a tale of travel between this world and the Celtic Otherworld, and that travel, according to tradition, is most easily accomplished at this time of year. The Celts called it Samhain, and it is the time when the barriers between the two worlds break down.

There is always more to learn about Tam Lin. In preparing for this post, I learned that there is an Irish reel also called Tam Lin. The reel and the ballad are clearly completely different pieces of music. I don’t know how the reel got its name, but I hope to find out. I will be featuring two wonderful versions of the reel next week.


Blog business: This post is the first of two special posts I am presenting this week as my Halloween party. Look for the next one soon. Preparing for this has proven to be more time consuming than I intended; that is why there was no album review this week. That feature will resume this coming weekend.

Also, the fund drive continues. Please give whatever you can. Thank you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Radio in the 80s

The music of the 1980s grew out of reactions to what was on the radio. Remember that, in the 1970s, radio was the main way people had of learning about music. AM radio in the 60s was all about the pop charts, but FM radio grew to fill a need to provide alternatives. In the 70s, that meant art-rock and the first wave of singer-songwriters. Meanwhile, the charts were full of lushly produced love ballads and the macho posturing of hard rock. A two word description of the music of the period might be, “artful pose”.

Towards the end of the seventies, some musicians sought to break away from that. The big idea behind punk was to smash down the pose, and present something real. Coming close on its heals, new wave confronted the artful aspect, by presenting ditties, songs the reveled in their disposability, and therefore made great party music. It is ironic that punk itself eventually became a pose. And some of those disposable new wave songs were created with such love that they have become impossible to dispose of. New wave music also reacted to the overt emotionality of 70s ballads by presenting an aloof attitude, and exploring themes of miscommunication and alienation.

Meanwhile, radical changes were in store for radio itself. By the mid 80s, MTV had become the main source of new music, with radio following its lead. As MTV scaled back their music programming later, the internet took over, and radio permanently lost its primacy. Meanwhile, radio stations were being bought up, and becoming parts of large corporations. This tended to homogenize what could be heard on the air. The corporate owners also created niche programming, so that a station might only play country, or only hits of the 70s.

Songwriters were thinking about all of this as the late 70s became the 80s became the early 90s. And sometimes, they wrote music about it.

Elvis Costello: Radio Radio


Elvis Costello thought about how listening to music on the radio could limit or broaden, but mostly limit, your choices. And his conclusions became a classic. Costello considers how a musician must rely on radio to gain and hold an audience, and how this can dictate what and how you play. This is both more and less true now than it was thirty years ago. Radio formats are stricter than ever, and maximizing your reach on the internet may mean making artistic compromises too. But it is also easier than ever to seek out unusual music.

Thomas Dolby: Radio Silence


Where Elvis Costello’s radio tries to dictate what kind of music he makes and sells, Thomas Dolby’s serves to expose him to the world. Radio Silence is all about keeping secrets and maintaining privacy in an age of communication overload.

Wall of Voodoo: Mexican Radio


Stan Ridgeway of Wall of Voodoo presents radio in a foreign language as a metaphor. Lines of communication are open, but no communication is occurring. There must also be mutual understanding, no matter what the technology.

Chris Whitley: Dust Radio


In all these radio songs, Dust Radio gives off the most puzzling signal. Chris Whitley even emphasizes this. The song ends with a potential listener retuning the radio to try to get a better signal, and getting other stations by mistake. Whitley seems to be saying that this relationship feels so strong to him that it must be giving off its own signal, but it is nevertheless a private thing.

R. E. M.: Radio Song


R. E. M.’s Radio Song brings us full circle. R. E. M. had been a cult band throughout the 80s, never achieving mass success. By 1991, they were leading off an album with this song, about how a song can get stuck in your head. There is a definite element of sour grapes here. Ironically, the second song on this same album would get stuck in a lot of people’s heads. It was called Losing My Religion.


Fund drive update: Thank you to my first donors. Your help is greatly appreciated. I have also received useful advice from someone who could not afford a donation, but wanted to help. That means a lot to me. Thank you as well.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

David Grier - Evocative


What are the qualities I look for in instrumental music? As with vocal music, it must reward close listening. But instrumental must also be pleasant as background music. And, for me, there is one more test. Too long ago, I lived in a space that allowed me to indulge my love of oil painting. I also used to write fiction, and very occasional poetry. For all of these creative endeavors, I found that music helped. There could not be any words to distract me. And, the more finely crafted the music was, the more it enhanced my own creativity. Mozart and Miles Davis were favorites for this. And now, David Grier’s album Evocative must be added to that list. As I gave this one repeated careful listens to prepare for this review, I actually had an idea for a painting pop into my head. Sadly, I cannot do anything about it.

It is a not very useful fact, when listening to Evocative, that David Grier has won awards for his bluegrass flat-pick guitar playing. There is very little trace of bluegrass in this music, and none of the flashy playing one might expect from an award winner. What Grier does show here is his skill as a composer and arranger, and his generosity as a band leader.

The band is Grier on electric, acoustic, and baritone guitar; John Gardner on drums; Paul Franklin on pedal steel; and Jeff Taylor on electric piano, organ, accordion, and pennywhistle. You may have noticed that there is no bass player. There are guests on bass on six of the album’s ten tracks. Two more are solo guitar pieces. But that still leaves two ensemble pieces with no bass. And, on those tracks, the bass is not missed. That is because Grier gives each arrangement just what it needs, never cluttering matters or piling on instruments. Grier calls on other guest musicians to provide color and texture, and does a great job of varying these elements.

The album opens with Meditate. The acoustic guitar introduces a simple repeating pattern. Soon the drums, electric guitar, and electric piano join in, each adding to the pattern and expanding it. But the time the solos start, the original pattern has become more complex, but it is still recognizable. This builds to a climax, and then comes down just the way it built up. The same simple pattern on the acoustic guitar is all that remains at the end.

The harmonies on the album belong firmly in folk/ country territory. But many of the songs are built like jazz tunes. There will a statement of theme, usually by the acoustic guitar, followed by variations played by the other solo instruments, and then a restatement of theme in the guitar, to finish. The instruments providing support and rhythmic motion often vary their parts in subtle ways in response to the soloists.

Grier is equally adept at slow or fast numbers. Road to Hope is a beautiful ballad for guitar, accordion, bass, and drums. Four Dogs Jogging takes off at a gallop, with fiddle and banjo joining in. This may be the most purely exciting piece on the album. And Grier also paces the album well, placing As Easy As Falling Off a Log, a bluesy solo piece played on baritone guitar, in the middle of the album for a quick breather.

I should take a moment to praise the quality of the soloists. In my review of George Strait, I talked about the sweet sound of Stuart Duncan’s fiddle playing, and that is equally true of the three tracks he plays on here. Scott Vestal only plays banjo on only one track, but he displays a great talent for switching without seeming effort between rhythmic background playing and solo turns. And Grier himself gives his electric guitar a smooth singing voice, while playing parts on the acoustic clearly state his ideas while also helping to provide a solid rhythm to build off of.

So here is a wonderful set of instrumental music. The moods and textures vary, but never sound fussy. The whole thing sounds like a coherent whole. And this is music that takes me places, probably a different place each time I listen. Regardless, I look forward to making my next trip.

David Grier: Road to Hope

David Grier: Four Dogs Jogging


The fund drive is still going on. If you would like to donate without having to write something, please feel free.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fund Drive

I would like to thank everyone who stops by here. I hope you have discovered at least one artist you never would have heard otherwise.

Now I find that I must do something that is difficult for me. Readers/ listeners, I need your help. I have an old computer that has been giving ominous signs lately, and I fear that I will soon have to replace it. To put it simply, I do not have the means to do so. So I am having a fund drive. I know times are hard, but any help you can give would be greatly appreciated.

I'd like to make this fun. Send me a message with your donation. Include a suggestion for a For a Song post. Make the case for why that song should be included. I may use your message as the post if I take your suggestion. Or I may do the song, and credit you for the suggestion.

If you would rather not send a song suggestion, send a comment about the blog. Why do you like it, or what could be better? Have fun with this. And I'll try to find a way to share the best ones.

Whatever else happens, I will not choose what to publish based on the size of your donation. I don't want anyone to feel left out because they can only help in a small way. Also, I make you all a promise. Any funds raised in excess of what I need to replace the computer will be used for expenses related to the blog.

Finally, let me thank you all for your help.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Street Scenes

First of all, let me give a special thank you to my fellow contributors at Star Maker Machine, for their help gathering songs for this post. And let me say that I have left plenty of street songs for a possible future theme there, if anyone is interested.

It’s not hard to find songs whose titles are street names. But it is rare to find that the song is literally about the place. Rather, street names represent, in the minds of the songwriters, a state of mind associated with a place. The most successful of these songs imprint these associations into the minds of the listeners. The better known the song, the harder it becomes to ever see that street name again without making the same connection the songwriter did.

Richard Shindell: Mercy Street


Mercy Street is entirely a state of mind. The song was inspired by the author Anne Sexton. Sexton was a mental patient who suffered from severe depression. She took to writing as a form of therapy, creating poems, and eventually a play, 45 Mercy Street. This therapy created some enduring art, but did not save Sexton’s life. She committed suicide in 1974. The darkness in the song represents her depression.

I could have posted Peter Gabriel’s original version of the song. It is certainly worthy. But Richard Shindell is a musician who always finds his way to the emotional heart of a song, whether it be his own or a cover. I chose his version because I want more people to know about his work.

Nellie McKay: Manhattan Avenue


Manhattan Avenue is a beautiful jazz ballad. The music leads you to expect a sumptuous love story. But Nellie McKay uses this musical setting to depict an impoverished street, inhabited by both muggers and children. Despite the starkness of the setting, dreams also live here.

Gerry Rafferty: Baker Street


Baker Street addresses a character who came to the city seeking excitement, and found loneliness and alienation. After eloquently describing his state of mind, Gerry Rafferty gives him a way out. He can return to the town he came from.

My long time readers may be surprised to see this song here. The basic four piece rock band is augmented by horns and a large string section. There is extra percussion. This is the type of 70s production that I often rail against. But here, all of the elements of the arrangement make sense. The lushness of the arrangement, compared to the content of the lyrics, forms a nice irony. This is a 70s production that works. And that is why this song never sounds dated, when so many others do.

The Beatles: Penny Lane


Gerry Rafferty’s character dreams of a place like Penny Lane. Here every street corner is home to a friend. The warmth of an actual nighborhood has never been described better.

Penny Lane is also a fine early example of The Beatles and producer George Martin’s mastery of the recording studio. It is difficult to appreciate now just how innovative the production on this was.

XTC: Respectable Street


XTC provides a depiction of the dark side of small town life. Here, familiarity breeds contempt. Everyone knows, and judges, everyone. And these judgments include observations of all manner of hypocrisy.

I have always said that what kills a punk band is that they learn to play their instruments. That happened very quickly to XTC. Respectable Street retains the raw energy of punk, but adds a crispness in the guitar parts, and a rhythmic sophistication that is almost funk. The vocals, similarly, retain the strong emotion of XTC’s punk roots, but are sung rather than shouted.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

For a Song: Fast Enough For You

Phish: Fast Enough For You


Fast Enough For You is almost a perfect pop ballad. It has chiming guitars and a soaring vocal line. It has just the right touch in the production: there is no wall of strings, or a horn section, or chorus vocals from a cast of thousands. Any and all of these touches would have killed this song. And it has a line that perfectly expresses how love grows over the course of a relationship: “I’d be happy just to watch you age.” Of course, the song uses the standard format of verse, chorus, v- hey, what just happened?

This is, after all, Phish. In fact, there is only one verse. Then there is the first chorus, then an instrumental break, then the second chorus, then a coda to finish. The instrumental break does not contain the vocal melody, but, structurally speaking, this is the second verse. Because they are playing within a conventional song structure, this doesn’t sound odd. The lyrics to Fast Enough For You are enigmatic, but they seem to describe a situation where one partner in a relationship wants things to move much faster than the other. Once the situation is stated with words, Phish elaborates on the emotions of the situation with their instruments instead of their voices. And they make it work. Most people wouldn’t, and probably shouldn’t, try this with their songs.

So maybe this is a perfect pop ballad after all. But only because it’s Phish.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Raina Rose - End of Endless False Starts


There is a singer/ songwriter I know of. She has a limited vocal range, and her vocal lines sometimes seem limited as a result, but she manages within these limitations to be remarkably expressive. Her guitar playing doesn’t call attention to itself, but, on rare occasions it comes out that she is a fine player. But the main draw is her words. She writes the kind of enigmatic lyrics that can make close friends get into heated discussions about their meaning, but, with no agreement reached, the conversation is fascinating.

No, I’m not talking about Suzanne Vega. I’m talking about Raina Rose.

End of Endless False Starts is Raina Rose’s latest release. Rose sings in a voice with a deceptive sweetness to it. I kept expecting the album to dissolve into new-age vapidness, but it never happens. In fact, Rose’s voice has a strength to it that creeps up on you slowly as you listen. Her guitar playing is a highly rhythmic strumming, with occasional fingerpicking mixed in. Producer John Elliott creates varied textures for the songs, starting with mostly acoustic instruments initially, then adding distorted electronics in the middle part, and pulling back to the softer sound at the end.

Before I go on, I want to tell you a little about myself. I mentioned that Rose’s lyrics are enigmatic, and I interpreted them through the filter of my own experience. I am the youngest of three boys. When I turned eighteen, my father gathered the family together to tell us that he was leaving my mother. My mother nursed her hurt for several years, and my parents never got back together. But eventually, they became friends again. In due time, I got married. My wife and I had four years together before my daughter was born. Eventually, we also had a son. We are still together, and I don’t foresee that changing.

Now, let me tell you what I hear in Raina Rose’s words. End of Endless False Starts describes the evolution of a relationship. The album begins with Are You Still in Love With the World? When the two characters meet, one or both are on the rebound from a painful breakup. As they set aside the emotional baggage, Desire, physical, emotional, and intellectual, takes over. They become an item. Blind Cyrus reveals that she is a traveling musician, one who suffers a sudden attack of homesickness in the middle of a performance. Air & Water skips ahead in time. Now they have had a son and a daughter, and the children are ready to go off on their own; the couple are about to get reacquainted, after living for the children for so long. The River backs up, to look at their hopes and fears from when their son was born.

Suddenly, in Misaligned Tires, the music changes abruptly. What had been a sunny sound, with only occasional clouds, abruptly turns dark and threatening. The song describes a wild and dangerous ride. He leaves her all of a sudden, as she wrestles with her pain and anger. It’s an amazing and startling moment on the album. After some time has passed, she realizes that she still loves and misses him. This is eloquently expressed in This Ain’t My House. Finally, in Not Not Love, they get back together. The relationship now has a sense of fragility that was never there before, and this is captured beautifully.

The album closes with Starts With a Low Hum. Everything seems to be in turmoil again, and the lyrics here were the most opaque to me of any on the album. But what I think may be happening is that the mother is seeing her experiences repeated in her daughter’s life. All of the old feelings come back in a rush.

Sprinkled throughout all of this are religious allusions and images that I cannot interpret. So there could be a whole other layer of meaning that I am completely missing. What I know is that the words are fascinating, and the album as a whole is compelling and emotionally real. Raina Rose is hard at work on her next one. I hope to have a report here when it’s done.

I should also mention a peculiar thing. There are ten songs listed on the album cover. But, if you pop the disc into your computer, you will discover that there are twelve tracks. Track eleven is a minute and a half of silence followed 20 seconds of odd noises. But track twelve is an extra song called I Would Like to Kiss Everyone. I was strongly tempted to post it here, to make sure everyone got to hear it. It has a great groove, and a very imaginative arrangement. I don’t think it fits in with storyline of the album, but it is a treat.

Raina Rose: Blind Cyrus

Raina Rose: Misaligned Tires

Friday, October 9, 2009

Corners of the World: Women of Africa

Australia and North and South America are conquered lands, their native peoples relegated to a minor role in their societies. Asia and Europe have cultures that have resulted from the shifting of power through a series of wars, but their native peoples, the winners among them, have defined their cultures. Africa is different.

Africa is a land of tribal people who have been exploited by a series of slave takers and colonizers who have taken what they wanted and then left, or have been forced out, leaving chaos in their wake. Her people are often displaced. And tyrants rise and fall, while the African people endure. So there is a tremendous amount of material for songs. The traditional cultures of Africa are no longer pure, but their values remain. And the history of the people is preserved in song, as is the record of important current events. This is true in many tribes, both north and south of the Sahara Desert.

There is a running argument among aficionados of world music about “cultural imperialism”. The idea is that Western people are somehow destroying traditional cultures by infiltrating their societies with the evils of Western music. So, you might just as easily hear Michael Jackson or King Sunny Ade on the streets of Lagos. But the musicians of modern Africa do not see this as a problem. They embrace good musical ideas from anywhere, and fold them into what they do. Many travel to Paris to record, taking advantage of the superior recording facilities there, and some even stay. But their music always retains qualities that are uniquely African.

The stories to be told, and the cultural cross-pollination, are key elements of the work of the female African artists I am featuring here. And they also possess five of the finest voices on the planet, in any culture.

Miriam Makeba: Pata Pata


Miriam Makeba was known among her fans as Mama Africa. Her international success was partly an accident of politics. She was an outspoken opponent of Apartheid in her native South Africa, and she found her self exiled from her native land when she left the country on a tour. When she tried to come home, she found that her passport had been revoked in absentia. So began her journeys throughout the world, spreading her music wherever she went. Along the way, she always made a point of preserving something of her heritage in her music, but she was also influenced by the music she found wherever she went.
Pata Pata was one of Makeba’s first hits, and one of the songs that made that fateful tour possible. Musically, the song combines the traditional music Makeba grew up with and American doo-wop, which was very popular in South Africa at the time. South African musicians would continue to develop this vocal style in there own way. The music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo was perhaps the ultimate flowering of this trend.

Oumou Sangare: Saa Magni


Oumou Sangare’s mother was a sumu, a professional singer who performed at ceremonial occasions. Her father abandoned the family to take a second wife when Oumou was two. Her mother became depressed, and was often unable to perform. So, at age five, Oumou began helping her mother with her performances. She also sang as she sold bottles of water on the streets. In short, she used her voice to do whatever was necessary to raise money so that her family could eat.

It’s hard to imagine that ever being an issue for Sangare again. She has become one of Mali’s best known singers, and established herself with international audiences as well. But her early concerns are still with her. Sangare is known for songs that break with tradition by addressing the plight of women in Africa. In particular, she has taken a strong stand against polygamy and arranged marriages.

Musically, Sangare takes traditional instruments and rhythms and combines them in nontraditional ways. More recently, she has begun to work with Western musicians and sounds, blending them seamlessly into her music.

Rokia Traore: Sabali


Rokia Traore also hails from Mali. Her father was a diplomat, so she grew up traveling to many countries, and was influenced by everything she heard. But Traore also had a solid grounding in the traditional music of Mali. So she plays guitar, and puts balafon, (a wooden xylophone-like instrument), and n’goni, (a small three-stringed lute), together on the same song; traditionally, this is never done. Traore’s later work has included collaborations with the Kronos Quartet and a cover of Billie Holliday’s The Man I Love. She also appeared in a play about Billie Holliday.

Traore writes most of her own material, and her songs are about interactions between people. Childhood is a topic that particularly interests her.

Mariem Hassan: Magat Milkitna Dulaa


The Saharawi tribe gave the Sahara Desert its name. They once lived what is now Morocco, when it was under Spanish control. But the Saharawi still talk about the “Marcha Verde”, the green march, when the Saharawi were forcibly exiled to refugee camps in Algeria. This happened when Mariem Hassan was 17. That was about 26 years ago.

Musicians in these camps have the job of preserving the traditional culture, and they are also charged with spreading the word of the Saharawi’s plight to the world. Mariem Hassan has become the best known of these musicians. It’s easy to hear why.

Angelique Kidjo: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)


Finally, we have Angelique Kidjo, from Benin. Kidjo was a self-taught singer at first, learning by singing along to James Brown records. Later she added formal voice training. The result is one of the most powerful voices in the world. But Kidjo can also sing with great subtlety when the material calls for it.

Kidjo was inspired to begin writing songs by the example of Miriam Makeba. Eventually, the two would meet, and Makeba would declare Kidjo to be her musical sister. Like Makeba, Kidjo used her fame to speak out against injustice, and Apartheid in particular.

Kidjo’s music starts in Africa, and follows the journey around the world. So she has explored the music of Brazil, the Caribean, and of course the United States. Wherever Africans were taken, their music has evolved, and Kidjo has incorporated those evolutions into her music. So it seemed appropriate to feature her unique take on Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Jimi Hendrix’s original is transformed into a showcase for Kidjo’s unique blend of influences.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

For a Song: Shining Star

Earth Wind and Fire: Shining Star


My week has gotten off to a dark start. I posted for my last review a tragic tale of doom. And our theme at Star Maker Machine this week is Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse. Not exactly light listening or reading. It’s very important stuff, but it hasn’t exactly lightened my mood. So I wanted this week’s For a Song to be something up. I needed the breather.

Shining Star certainly fills the bill. But I hated the song when I first heard it. It was all over the radio when it first came out. I was a kid, and my friends and I used to like to make fun of the falsetto vocals.

But I eventually came to love funk. And Shining Star is a fine example of the form. Take the drums and bass, add keyboards for color. Add to the rhythm with the guitar parts. And then punch the whole into the stratosphere with the horn parts. Just try to sit still as you listen to this.

The words to Shining Star express encouragement that life is full of boundless possibilities. Just what I needed right now. “Shining star for you to see, what your life can truly be.”

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hector MacIsaac - The Legend of the Black Donnellys


This may well be the most unusual CD I have reviewed here. Hector MacIsaac’s The Legend of the Black Donnellys is what might be called a folk opera. MacIsaac has set out to dramatize in words and music a tale that is as well known in his native Canada the tale of Jesse James is here in the United States. The album consists of alternating tracks of narration and song, all telling the tale of almost 60 years of the Donnelly family. For my review, I have taken two songs and presented them out of context. This will give my readers a sense of the sound of the music, but some of the words will not make as much sense as they should. I have chosen the two songs I am presenting mostly to showcase the different singers, with one solo and one ensemble piece. I will try to fill in the blanks, but there is no substitute for listening to the entire album. MacIsaac has told the tale far better than I could hope to.

The tale of the Black Donnellys is as much a part of Canadian folklore as Jesse James is here. The Donnellys were a Catholic family from Tiperrary in Ireland. In Ireland, they were called Blackfoots, or Blackfeet, which I gather was a derogatory term for those who sympathized with the Protestants, and by extension, who favored British rule. The Whiteboys were a secret society who committed acts of violence against Blackfeet. The Donnellys fled to Canada, hoping to find a life free of fear where they could persue their dreams. But the “troubles” followed them to the new world. Budelph Township, in Ontario, was an Irish enclave, and a lawless one in the manner of the American West. The Donnellys started to make a good life here, but the tale ended tragically.

To tell all of this, MacIsaac his created a work for four singers and one narrator, each portraying a different character.

Hector MacQuarrie plays Johnny O’Connor, the narrator; he has the most to do, but does not sing. But his speaking voice carries the necessary emotional range without ever overacting. Much of what he narrates is what the Donnellys told him of their history; the character Johnny O’Connor enters the story fairly late, and the emotional tone of his performance changes as he begins to relate his personal recollections.

Brian Farrell sings the part of Jim Donnelly, the patriarch of the family. His performance must convey the hopes of the move to the New World, the sense of hardships endured, and eventually, the premonition of his own death. And Farrell does all of this beautifully.

Emma MacIsaac has the most important role, that of Johannah Donnelly, the family matriarch. And she delivers an outstanding performance. You can feel the strength of this woman, and sense that she is the glue that holds the family together. Her sorrow is palpable. Late in the proceedings, there is a duet between her and William Donnelly which is an emotional tug of war between a mother’s all too real fears and her son’s righteous anger; the song, Why Should I Give a Damn?, is an emotional high point of the album.
Hector MacIsaac himself sings the part of William Donnelly, the son who becomes the leader of the family. MacIsaac shows the greatest emotional range of any of the singers. His character falls in love. William survives the tragedy at the center of the story, and goes through a range of survivor’s emotions. His love of Maggie Thompson, the woman he hoped to marry, has a different quality than the love he has for his parents. William goes through several different kinds of anger. And MacIsaac brings this character to life, using different tones of voice for different feelings.

Finally, Junior Fraser sings one song as Constable James Carroll. This is the only character voiced on the album who is not on the side of the Donnellys. In his only song, Fraser must portray a man attempting to justify something that he knows, at a deep level, is wrong. Fraser does a fine job with a character that we mostly do not like. It’s something of a thankless task, but he does it well.

The music is acoustic, with electric bass, and Celtic flavorings. There is tasty fiddle work, and occasional pipes and whistles. But mostly, the instrumental work does not draw attention to itself; the focus is on the words and the singers.

To fully appreciate what MacIsaac has accomplished here, you need to set aside the time to actively listen to the entire album in a single sitting. This is a complex, and very powerful, kind of story telling. You will find it time well spent.

Hector MacIsaac: Maggie Thompson

Hector MacIsaac: Ride William! Ride!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

For a Song: The Road

Danny O‘Keefe: The Road


I was looking at the moon, and I noticed that there was a bright object close by it in the sky. I speculated that, with the moon almost full, the object must be a planet. Checking into it, I found that this was Jupiter. And I thought of the line, ”You’re right about the moon, but you’re wrong about the stars.”

Of course, the line comes from the song The Road. And here is the original version, by Danny O’Keefe. Most people, if they know the song, think Jackson Browne wrote it. It was on Browne’s album of songs about touring, Running on Empty, and it fit right in. But Browne saw no reason to write a new song about a musician’s hopes and fears of his life on the road, when such a perfect example already existed. Although Browne turned in a fairly faithful cover, the song, in his hands, came off almost as ironic. After all, Jackson Browne was famous enough then, and to this date, that no one was ever likely to forget who he was.

But far too few people know the name Danny O’Keefe. O’Keefe was a “songwriter’s songwriter”. His work was known mainly to other songwriters, many of whom championed him by performing his work. His other well known song is Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues. Usually, a songwriter’s songwriter eventually has a breakthrough and becomes known in his own right. Tom Waits and John Hiatt are fine examples of this. But, for Danny O’Keefe, that breakthrough never came. And I have no idea why not. Happily, O’Keefe is still working. Maybe his break will still come.

In the meantime, his version of The Road still rings true. As fame continues to elude him, O’Keefe still writes his songs, and takes what joy there is in giving others even momentary pleasure through his music.