Posts Tagged ‘Folk Show’

As I’ve noted before in these pages, I’m a big believer in the George Santayana aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Hand in hand with that: Those who don’t know the past are also missing out on a lot of good music.

Which leads to this: In late summer 1981, I purchased Dan Fogelberg’s The Innocent Age. I was 16. I don’t remember the whys or wherefores that led me to plunk down the money for what was a pricey double-LP set. I didn’t own anything by him and wasn’t familiar with his work beyond, I think, “Same Old Lang Syne,” a single he released in late 1980 that got airplay on Top 40-oriented WIFI-92 and “adult rock”-minded WIOQ, both of which I listened to on occasion. I may have heard “Hard to Say,” the single he released the previous month, as well, but can’t say for sure. Regardless, singles alone didn’t cause me to part ways with my cash – I was a kid on a budget, after all. Fogelberg also wasn’t a hip figure within my circle, so I’m sure the recommendation didn’t come from a friend. No, it was more likely due to a review – perhaps the one that leads off this no-bylined roundup of new albums that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 13th…

In any event, I listened to it. Liked parts of it, Side 2 especially, but as a whole found it overlong and – dare I say it? – boring. As I said, however, I was just 16. Joan Jett, among others, beckoned. MTV, too. Which is to say, The Innocent Age soon gathered dust in my LP collection. I doubt I thought of Fogelberg again until 1985, when I read a review of High Country Snows in (I think) Rolling Stone. I picked up that LP not long thereafter and…well, it’s a thoroughly delightful album, one I’ve returned to many times in the years since. I even played its bluegrass-flavored songs on the Folk Show on Penn State’s (at the time) student-run radio station, WPSU, from late ’85 through early ’87, side by side with favorites from New Grass Revival and the Seldom Scene. It didn’t spur me to further investigate his oeuvre, however, or even go back and give The Innocent Age another go.

Flash forward to August 2020, when – for reasons I will explain at a later date – I gave The Innocent Age a spin via Apple Music. I liked what I heard far more than I did way back when; the songs and sides I originally found bleh resonated with me in a way they didn’t then. (Sixteen-year-old me is no doubt scoffing at my adult tastes.) A few weeks later, I listened to the 2017 Live at Carnegie Hall release, which captures a 1979 performance, and…wow. I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times in the months since. I then gave a listen to his 1972 debut, Home Free, and was pleasantly surprised by what I heard.

At first, I considered spotlighting some or all of those albums in my occasional Essentials series once my Remember December navel-gazing exercise was done. In the weeks between then and now, however, I came up with something that I hope will be more fun: a slalom through his discography, most of which – obvious from the above – I simply don’t know. Beginning tomorrow, and going in order of release, l’ll spotlight one of his albums each month, offering critical insight alongside historical context, plus whatever else I can dig up.

I am not a Dylanologist nor do I play one on this blog, though I do consider myself a Bob Dylan fan. In 1979, at the age of 14, I purchased my first Bob Dylan album, Slow Train Coming, and despite disliking the LP’s religiosity, continued on the journey, hopping aboard the box cars known as his Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Vol. II albums and riding the rails to Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A-Changing, Another Side, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, though not in that order. The red and blue Rolling Stone Record Guides, as always in those years, were crucial engineers in my journey.

In the mid-’80s, when I was one of several rotating deejays on the folk show that aired on Penn State’s student-run radio station every Saturday and Sunday morning, his early works were staples of my shifts. I also came to know a few of his ‘70s-era albums simply by playing their tracks on the air, as odd as that may sound. (A skip in the live Hard Rain album haunts me still.)

Anyway, as the times of hand have rotated around my life’s clock, a smattering of his latter-day works also entered my collection, including the 3-CD Biograph overview, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind and the Greatest Hits Vol. III set, as “Dignity” was and is a latter-day favorite of mine, plus his recent Rough and Rowdy Ways LP, which to my ears is one of the year’s best. (It’s too soon for me to contemplate my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honors, but I’m sure it will be in the running.) More often than not, however, when I’m in a Dylan mood, I turn to those ‘60s sides – Freewheelin’ and Bringing It All Back Home, especially – or The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall) and Vol. 9 (The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964).

I’m also a fan of cover versions – not just of Dylan songs, but of the genre itself (if it can be considered a genre). At their best, covers shed insight into both the singer and the song. The Sid & Susie Under the Covers albums still receive play in my day-to-day life, as does Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John. (What can I say? I’m weird that way.) And First Aid Kit’s renditions of a few Dylan tunes on Election Night 2016 said much about them, while simultaneously demonstrating the utter timelessness of the songs themselves. 

Until recently, however, I wasn’t familiar with the Nashville-based, Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift. She came to my attention by way of Twitter, believe it or not, as folks I follow also follow her (or vice versa); as a result, her tweets occasionally popped up in my feed. One day, and I don’t remember exactly when, her cover of Dylan’s recent “I Contain Multitudes” appeared.

Her vocals are smoother than Dylan’s gruff intonations, obviously, and the gravitas that drips from his every syllable is missing from hers – but it’s replaced by an intangible that’s difficult to articulate, yet equally hypnotic. It’s akin to eyeing a landscape from a glider rather than a plane, I suppose. The former, if I’ve done my research right, skirts the clouds; the latter, on the other hand, flies above them. Either/or, it’s quite cool. I ordered the LP the same day from her BandCamp page, expecting the delivery to be near the release date listed there – August 14th. Then, earlier this month, she released a rendition of “Queen Jane Approximately” that features a Byrdsian texture. Again, quite cool.

The LP arrived on Monday with a note thanking me for purchasing the album, but – let’s be real – the nice note would mean little if the album itself didn’t live up to those first two teaser tracks. No worries, however. It does. Emma’s vocals capture the emotional raison d’être of the songs, with her inflections adding depth and all the other things that turn a cover song into a reflection of the performer’s own soul.

To my ears, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is the standout of the eight songs. Emma captures the nuances of the lyrics, seemingly living them while singing them. The other tracks, as evidenced by the above two videos, also skirt the clouds, shedding a welcome perspective. Another immediate favorite is “The Man in Me” from New Morning, a Dylan album I’m not super familiar with. (That’s another notch in the album’s favor, actually: These aren’t the usual Dylan songs that get covered.)

My main criticism of many albums in the CD era and, now, digital age is length. Too often, artists release hour-plus affairs that would be stronger if they’d trimmed it to 40-or-so minutes and allocated the other tunes to b-sides (or whatever the digital version of those are). The reverse is true here, however, as the listener is left wanting more. I highly recommend Blonde on the Tracks, and look forward to exploring the rest of Emma Swift’s oeuvre.

For those curious, here’s the song list with their album home in italics:

Queen Jane Approximately – Highway 61 Revisited
I Contain Multitudes – Rough and Rowdy Ways
One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) – Blonde on Blonde
Simple Twist of Fate – Blood on the Tracks
Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands – Blonde on Blonde
The Man in Me – New Morning
Going Going Gone – Planet Waves
You’re a Big Girl Now – Blood on the Tracks

    

When was it? Fall of ’85? Spring of ’86? Difficult to say, but I suspect it was sometime in the spring that I first heard 10,000 Maniacs. They were one of several of the era’s new folk-flavored acts that I discovered while deejaying the weekend Folk Show on Penn State’s studio-run radio station at the time, WPSU. (It’s now a professionally-run station, with WKPS filling the void for students.)

I’ve written about those times before, but for those who haven’t seen those posts: It was a two- or sometimes three-times a month gig, depending on the schedule laid out by Folk Show overlord (and friendly grad student) Jerry, and – aside from the occasional 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot – usually meant I had to be in studio by 6 a.m. On a Saturday. Or Sunday. After a night of…well,  I won’t say debauchery, but it was college…and State College, the home of the Penn State mothership, is nicknamed “Happy Valley” for a reason. But me waking at 5:30 a.m. and hiking across campus while bleary-eyed was a rarity. I (usually) got a good night’s sleep beforehand.

I also prepared. During the week prior to a shift, I stopped in the station and flipped through the LPs in the massive library, mapping out my playlist. I generally focused the first hours on folk-rock old (Byrds) and new (Long Ryders) before, around 8 a.m., trading in that palette for one that mixed more stereotypical fare (Joan Baez, Holly Near, Pete Seeger) with up-and-comers (Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega).

At some point, too, I began bringing in treasures from my own collection; and also became adept at tossing aside my planned platters and programming on the fly. I’d queue up Side 1 of a Fast Folk Musical Magazine sampler, introduce the first track and then slip out of the booth and into the library for 5 or 10 minutes in search of something, though I usually didn’t know what that something was. That was how I stumbled upon The Wishing Chair, the major-label debut of 10,000 Maniacs, in fact. Someone may have mentioned it at a staff meeting, which was how I discovered Suzanne Vega, or I may have recognized it from this review in Record magazine. I decided to give it a whirl. I can’t say for sure, but I likely went with the first song on Side 1, “Can’t Ignore the Train.”

In some ways, Natalie Merchant’s years with 10,000 Maniacs equate to a somewhat lengthy college career – though those of us who became fans at the time didn’t recognize it as such. As this Rolling Stone article (which I spotlight here) recounts, she joined the group as a shy 16-year-old girl, often singing with her back to the audience, and left as a confident woman.

The 10-CD Natalie Merchant Collection skips all of it. Which is fair.

Looking back, however, I think it’s obvious that many of us started a journey together during that pre-history era. Whether we date our fandom to the early-‘80s indie days, rocked in The Wishing Chair, hopped aboard the “Peace Train” or traveled to “Eden,” and traded tapes on the pre-Internet boards of Prodigy or AOL, doesn’t much matter, anymore. We were young.

We graduated to adulthood and, now, middle-age together. That, in essence, is what the collection charts. It features her seven studio albums, beginning with Tigerlily and ending with Paradise Is There (bookends, in a way); a disc of new songs alongside older ones redone with a string quartet; and another disc of rare and previously unreleased tracks. There’s also a CD-sized booklet that contains lyrics, song personnel and plenty of pictures, though no laudatory essay chronicling her artistic journey – the latter is somewhat customary for such box sets, but isn’t missed.

We can hear the trek for ourselves – and relive our life’s journey, for that matter – in the grooves. Those albums include two of my Albums of the Year in Tigerily and Motherland; runners-up in Leave Your Sleep and Natalie Merchant; and others that I enjoyed, though thought flawed. (Live in Concert, my top pick for 1999, is curiously absent; one hopes that plans are afoot to release an expanded edition in the future.)

The one album that I most misjudged was Ophelia. On my old website, I wrote that “while an admirable concept, the album’s overarching theme (the many facets of womanhood) weighs on the individual songs to the point that, save for a few, one can’t tell them apart.” I singled out “Break My Heart” as its best track and dubbed “Kind and Generous,” which I now thoroughly love (especially in a live setting), “simple-minded mishmash.”

And “Life Is Sweet,” which I now rank with her best songs? I only mentioned it in a months-later addendum, and then just to say that, while I’d come to like it, it paled in comparison to Maria McKee’s similarly themed song of the same name.

I’d call them equals, now.

Of course, a collection that features so much of the old – all things most longtime fans will (or should) already have – does make one question the necessity of it. But the two discs of new and new-to-us material are well worth the price of admission.

The ninth disc, titled Butterfly, includes three new-to-us songs set beside seven older ones, and features Natalie accompanied by a string quartet. The title track wafts like a breeze on a late-spring day while, lyrically, a smart metaphor about fate and chance flutters like a spider’s web billowing in the wind. There’s a foreboding in many of the lyrics, such as “Baby Mine”: “There’re so many things you’ve got to fear/It’s making me ache to see so clear/So many things you’ve got to know/It’s making me ache/You’ve got to grow.”

The redone older songs are Paradise Is There, Part Two, in a sense, but come off somewhat better due to their dispersed sources – three from Ophelia; two from Leave Your Sleep; and one from Motherland. Though it may be new to some, to my knowledge the Ophelia outtake “She Devil” first appeared on the two-CD edition of 2005’s Retrospective.

The 10th disc, Rarities, is a sheer delight. True, some of the tracks have been available on various compilations, such as her cover of Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game”…

…and “The Gulf of Araby” is from the aforementioned Live in Concert album, but – all in all – the disc is a five-star alternate history.

Among the nuggets: her takes on the Kinks’ “The Village Green Preservation Society” and the spiritual “Sit Down, Sister.” (She needs to release an album of spirituals. Just sayin’.)

My only other observation: I wish that an additional disc of rarities had been included, if only to have everything in one place. And, too, I’d hate to think that her many Tigerlily-era bonus tracks, such as Joni’s “All I Want,” the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Irma Thomas’ “Take a Look” and the Aretha-Dusty medley of “Baby I Love You”-“Son of a Preacher Man,” have been lost to time…

…or copyright issues, given the way videos come and go from YouTube.

Anyway, the set is inexpensive – $50 for 10 discs. For young fans, honestly, it’s a no-brainer. Order it and the 10,000 Maniacs’ 2-CD Campfire Songs compilation. For longtime fans hesitant to re-purchase much, if not all, of what they already own, I’d say that…hey, it’s $50. A cool package. Nice booklet. Great music. The songs you know will take you back; Butterfly will make you think; and Rarities will make you smile.

IMG_5111“Arete is the Aristotelian word which translates into ‘virtue,’ ‘goodness,’ or ‘excellence’ in any field. For Aristotle, Arete had many associations: intellectual, social, as well as defining a person’s moral nature. A more contemporary definition of Arete is the aggregate of qualities that comprise good character. In the context of this magazine, it means a forum for thought and reflection.” So reads the editor’s note inside this, the fourth issue of the short-lived Arete: Forum for Thought.

It was a bimonthly West Coast-based magazine that never made it East – or, if it did, it never made it to the magazine racks of the suburban Philly bookstores I frequented. I discovered it, I think, in mid-1988 via Writer’s Digest magazine, which mentioned its need of articles and reviews. I submitted some album reviews; the editor(s) bought a few (at $25 a pop) and printed one in the second issue – my take on Brian Wilson’s 1988 eponymous album. I submitted more; they bought a few and printed one in this, the January/February 1989 issue – my thoughts on Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road. I submitted more; they bought a few and…I don’t know. Free copies stopped arriving in my mailbox, so I have no idea what, if anything, they printed.

Anyway, by the time this issue reached me, I was leading a work life led by many a former English major: retail. The year before, I signed on with West Coast Video, which was attempting to expand into the CD market, and managed the CD department at a store in Philly’s Andorra shopping center, across the street from the apartment complex where my grandparents once lived. It was a thankless job in just about every respect, but I did well enough in it that, in early ’89, the division head expanded my responsibilities to include the Bala Cynwyd store.

It was in Bala, one Saturday afternoon in late February, that a cute brunette walked in, slammed her purse on the counter and said – no, demanded, “Where the hell are the Nanci Griffith CDs I ordered?” I’m exaggerating, of course, but that was how Diane and I met. She was impressed that I not only knew who Nanci Griffith was, but was familiar with her music. (I discovered her during my Folk Show days via a Folkways compilation – this one, in fact.) I, in turn, was pleased that she liked the Flying Burrito Brothers, whose new best-of I recommended to her.

So, today’s Top 5: January/February 1989 – as in, things I was listening to at the time.

nanci_one_fair1) Nanci Griffith – “More Than a Whisper.” Nanci, for those unfamiliar with her, is a Texas-bred singer-songwriter who learned her craft in large part – as so many of her generation did – from Townes Van Zandt. The live One Fair Summer Evening, released in late 1988, is a wonderful summary of the first phase of her career; and this song, originally released on her 1986 Last of the True Believers album, was (and remains) one of my favorites by her.

IMG_51162) Steve Earle – “Copperhead Road.” I’ve always liked good setups. I tried to create one with this review, though – reading it now – it didn’t quite succeed: “On his previous two albums, Steve Earle sounded cocky, occasionally substituting attitude for substance. He came across as a country-punk rebel, a good ol’ boy who admitted he was an angry young man at heart. The songs themselves were rough-edged wonders, though a few were cliche-ridden creations that seemed like last-minute studio stitch-togethers. On his last album especially, it appeared Earle was traveling down Hank Williams Jr. Boulevard, that stretch of highway where talent’s just as likely to get chucked out the window as an empty beer bottle.” Next paragraph: “But on Copperhead Road, Earle proves himself capable of creating first-rate country-cum-rock. Simply put, it’s one of the best albums of the past year.”

(Despite it not working the way I’d hoped, I was proud of the Hank Jr. reference, as I was a once-huge fan – and still am of his late ’70s/early ’80s output – but that’s a post for another day.)

3) R.E.M. – “Orange Crush.” There, in the review next to mine, is Holly Gleason’s perceptive take on Green, R.E.M.’s major-label debut: “No doubt, cries of ‘sell out’ have already begun from those begrudging the band’s ever-growing audience.” I remember those cries well; and, in fact, they’re still there, in some corners of the Internet. Green may not have been R.E.M.’s finest work, but it was damn good.

4) Indigo Girls – “Secure Yourself.” I was, for a time, a huge Indigo Girls fan, and saw them not once, but three times this year – opening for Neil Young in June and twice in August, when they headlined at the TLA on back-to-back nights. The last two were good, if somewhat short, shows – very distinct voices that blended well together, and their occasional lyrical preciousness was disarmed by their sense of humor and smart choices of cover songs. One highlight: Amy played part of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Another: they sang an Elton John song – “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters,” I believe, but I could be confusing it with another Elton song. But then…I don’t know. It’s kind of what I wrote about Pat Benatar in the last Top 5; I moved on.

5) Ciccone Youth – “Into the Groovey.” Another band I liked for a time: Sonic Youth. They released a few albums that I enjoyed leading up to this twisted side-project, a tribute (or something) to Madonna and the music of the ‘80s.