His Bob-ness joins Yeats, Beckett and Eliot

landscape-1476375102-bob-dylan-nobel

In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.

Finally, the gilded, ceiling-high white doors opened, and there he was, ambling into the opulent room, followed by France’s flamboyant minister of culture at the time, Jack Lang. He was wearing a snazzy, tux-like black jacket over a sharp white shirt, sleek dark pants and, I couldn’t help noticing, cowboy boots. As flashbulbs went off, Dylan seemed like a deer caught in the headlights. He looked haggard, eyes half open, as if he’d just been roused from bed, without a shower and“ one more cup of coffee before I go”. We were separated only by a low velvet rope. I could have reached out and touched him.

It was almost unnerving, being so close to the figure who’d been my hero and constant companion since high school, when I put on my father’s copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan for the second time, and began listening to the lyrics. (The first time I thought what I heard was a joke…)

As Jack Lang spoke briefly about Dylan’s music and “poésie”, Bob rocked nervously side to side, glancing about, twitching. He appeared “lost in Juarez” or “old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”, an ordeal merely to remain still. Lang then reached into his pocket for the illustrious medallion and closed in to affix it around his neck. Dylan stiffened, as the Culture Minister embraced him on both sides of his cheeks in that winning Gallic manner. Awkwardly, Dylan took out a crumpled piece of paper, and muttered: “Mille mercis.” Seemingly relieved that was over, he said in English, a bit more audibly, with his hand over his heart: “A thousand thank you’s.” For the first time, he actually smiled. Briefly. Dylan stayed another 30 seconds or so for the photographers (“Bob! Bob…!”) and poof, he was gone. The Jokerman had made his escape.

image-13

(Lucie McNeill photo)

He’d been before us no more than five minutes. As is almost everything about Dylan, the entire experience was surreal. One can expect something just as strange IF he appears before the Swedish Academy to pocket the Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10. There’s no guarantee he will show up at all.  The night the Prize was announced, Dylan’s “never-ending tour” played, appropriately, Las Vegas. (On Oct. 30, he’ll be in Paducah.) True to form, he said not a word to the audience about anything, least of all the astounding recognition of his life’s work. And so far, not even an official statement. Is anyone surprised? If there is one constant of Bob’s oddball, reclusive life, it’s this. He has remained, from the beginning, a contrarian. As University of Toronto literature teacher Ira Wells wrote perceptively in the Globe and Mail: “It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base.” Like a true artist, and I am one of those who consider Dylan the Shakespeare of our age, he lets his work speak for itself. And what a legacy it is.

People who criticize the Nobel Prize going to “a songwriter”, miss the point. Dylan is so much more than that. His vision and lyricism over more than 50 years is out there all by itself. It goes far beyond his terrific protest songs and mind-bending rock canticles of the 1960’s. There is a reason so many books are written about Dylan by serious literary critics. For all the greatness of Bowie and Prince and Springsteen, that doesn’t happen with their music, outstanding as it is. Bob Dylan has treasured words all his life. He uses them in a way no songwriter has, before or since. (Leonard Cohen comes close, but lovely Leonard has never come close to the over-arching influence of Dylan, who changed the face of music. They are mutual admirers of each other, by the way.) At 75, Bob’s mystifying muse continues to drive him forward. The Nobel Prize is for an exceptional body of work, not for a bunch of good songs. In the words of the Academy, it went to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I couldn’t be happier over their decision.

rs-bob-dylan-44fb3c74-0652-41be-8bd5-7339167eed0a

A final note. While dismissed by many who just like his “old stuff”, Dylan’s output following his lost decade of the 1980’s is exceptionally rich and rewarding, containing some of his best songs. But they are no longer anthems of a generation. They don’t impact society the way Dylan did all those years ago. So they tend not be listened to all that much. And, as always, some are put off by his voice, now in heavy croak mode. But Dylan still knows how to wind it around his consistently-brilliant, deep lyrics. Plus, his veteran band fits him like a glove. Start with the under-rated Oh Mercy (1989), all the way to Modern Times, released in 2006 when Bob was 65, which I would put in the top five among all his albums. I could go on and on.

Never expect the expected from Bob. A reverse chameleon, changing to ensure he does not fit it. Frank Sinatra covers, anyone? As he sang more than 50 years ago:

 And if my thought dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

 A few years ago, I put together my list of Dylan’s Top 100 Songs (reduced a bit). It wasn’t easy. So many favourites didn’t even make the cut. Imagine, not just a few great songs, but more than a hundred. Anyway, here it is, with selections more  or less chronological. Enjoy and nitpick away.

Song to Woody.    He Was a Friend of Mine.    Who Killed Davey Moore?

John Brown.    Lay Down Your Weary Tune.    Blowin’ in the Wind.

 Girl from the North Country.    Masters of War.    A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

 Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.    Farewell, Angelina.    Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

 The Times They Are A-Changin’.    The Ballad of Hollis Brown.    When the Ship Comes In.

 Boots of Spanish Leather.    With God on Our Side.    One Too Many Mornings.

 The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.    Chimes of Freedom.    It Ain’t Me Babe.

 To Ramona.    My Back Pages.    Subterranean Homesick Blues.    She Belongs to Me.

 It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.    Maggie’s Farm.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit.     Mr. Tambourine Man.    It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

 Gates of Eden.    Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.    It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

 Like a Rolling Stone.    Queen Jane Approximately.    Ballad of a Thin Man.

 Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.    Desolation Row.    Visions of Johanna.

 Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.    I Shall Be Released.    All Along the Watchtower.

 I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.    I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.    I Threw It All Away.

 Day of the Locusts.    Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.    Forever Young.

 On a Night Like This.    Simple Twist of Fate.    Shelter From the Storm.

If You See Her, Say Hello.    Tangled Up in Blue.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.    Hurricane.    Romance in Durango.

 Black Diamond Bay.    Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

 Gotta Serve Somebody.    Slow Train.     I Believe in You.    Every Grain of Sand.

 Angelina.    Blind Willie McTell.    I and I.    Jokerman.    Licence to Kill.

 When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.    Dark Eyes.    Political World.

 Everything is Broken.    Man in the Long Black Coat.    Most of the Time (bootleg version).

 What Was It You Wanted?    Series of Dreams.    Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.    Highlands.

 Not Dark Yet.    Cold Irons Bound.    Mississippi (first bootleg version).

High Water (for Charley Paton).    Things Have Changed.    Nettie Moore.

 Workingman’s Blues #2.    The Levee’s Gonna Break.    Ain’t Talkin’.

 Thunder on the Mountain. Dignity.    Red River Shore.    Huck’s Tune.

 Tell Ol’ Bill.    ‘Cross the Green Mountain.    It’s All Good.    Titanic.

0000418847

Advertisements

SONATAS SCORE BIG, SUPER BOWL BLANKED

187463564The treasured Leila Getz, described in the program as “Head Honcho” of the Vancouver Recital Society, welcomed us with her usual enthusiasm. “Thank you for choosing András Schiff over the Super Bowl. The magic begins.” And indeed, it did.

Moments later, the stately, 62-year old master pianist, wearing a knee-length black tunic, walked out from the wings, acknowledged our applause, sat down on the cushioned bench, rested his hands on the top of the piano for 20 seconds of contemplation, and began to play.

While gazillions tuned into the greatest annual event in the history of the world, aka the Super Bowl, which surpasses even the Eurovision Song Contest in global importance, I sat entranced, with hundreds of others at the packed Vancouver Playhouse, for Schiff’s virtuoso recital. And to think, my first reaction when I discovered the cultural conflict between Super Bowl L and this long-ago booking was to ditch Schiff.

How could this life-long sports fan not prefer the performance of helmeted, gridiron goliaths bashing away at each other during those engaging snatches of football sandwiched between eight hours of commercials? Luckily, after one unsuccessful attempt to unload my Schiff ducat, I came to my senses. Denver and Carolina? Snore me big. Plus, I had PVR. András Schiff, it was.

The program by the renowned Hungarian-born maestro, no “hairy hound from Budapest” he, was sublime, even to these unclassical ears. Entitled The Last Sonatas, the program featured four pieces of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert, all written during the composers’ final year of life. So there was a poignancy to them, too.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking of the Super Bowl, and how glad I was to be missing it. For one thing, András Schiff played 90 minutes straight. No half-time. Not a single time-out. No five-minute break for commercials every time he switched composers. Lovely. And mesmerizing.

Furthermore, what happened on the keyboard was easily the equivalent of what was taking place on the football field. You don’t believe me? You think a sonata is just a sonata? Take a gander at the commentary by wordsmith extraordinaire Donald G. Gislason in the programme notes.

Which is better? Another lame pass by Peyton Manning or the Star Wars-tinged Allegreto from Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major K. 570 “with its recurring tick-tock beat, [summoning] up the mechanical world of clockwork music, and [featuring} some robotic C-3PO-style humour in its cosmic leaps and mock-confused meanderings of imitative counterpoint”? To say nothing of Mozart’s ability to provide more than taco chips and chili at halftime. “[He is] like a celebrity chef challenged to create a multi-course meal using only a few ingredients,” Gislason tells us. “Mozart is masterfully economic in this movement, constantly re-using his material over and over again, making garnish and main course at will.”

I was hardly sorry to have missed all those third-and-outs by Manning and “Fig” Newton, when I got to hear the second movement from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A Major D. 959: “A tour de force of compressed emotional energy that explodes into near-chaos in its middle section. It opens with a simple, sparsely textured, repetitive lament that circles fretfully round itself like a madman rocking back and forth in his hospital chair. More wide-ranging harmonic ravings lead to an outburst of unexpected violence and eventually to a dramatic confrontation.” Just like Von Miller taking down Carolina’s haughty, pouting quarterback.

catgch8wwaahdef

And okay, there have been worse half-time shows than Beyoncé, the Mars guy and Coldplay, but Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major Op. 110 gave them a pretty good run for the money. “Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprises, dramatic pauses, and other raw signifiers of loutish humour,” enthuses Gislason. “The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents”. With the added thrill of “[hearing] the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme…” A true pop sonata by that 57-year old hipster, Ludwig van. I slay, indeed….

So, all in all, with the help of a few, pretty fair country composers, András Schiff was my Super Bowl MVP, man of the match in every way. (In fact, the Stupor Bowl, still plodding along when I got home, was so boring, I wound up switching to curling, as its no offense and numbingly-long commercial breaks came to a stultifying close.)

I never bothered with the PVR.

 

DAL RICHARDS, THE BANDLEADER WHO ALMOST LIVED FOREVER

 

Dal Richards

I certainly didn’t know Dal Richards well. But I knew all about him, and I loved running into him. How often do you get to shake hands and say ‘hello’ and ‘thanks’ to a living legend? Vancouver’s King of Swing had a gig every New Year’s Eve for 79 years, which, as the whimsical Richards never tired of pointing out, must be some kind of world record.

This year, Dal didn’t make it. The bandleader, who really did seem like he would live forever, passed away five days short of his 98th birthday on, yes, New Year’s Eve. No one ever accused Dal Richards of not having a sense of occasion.

The thing about Dal was not only his accomplishments as a terrific bandleader and musician, but that he kept on playing. The years rolled by, and you kept wondering, will this be the year Dal Richards finally hangs up his baton, clarinet and sax? But he never really did. He carried on his joyful work well into his 98th year, until a bout of illness near the end stilled him at last.

Richards was a living history of Vancouver, playing all those joints, dives and booze cruises that have long since passed into the city’s past. And of course, he also had the best regular gig of all, at the swank Panorama Roof on the top floor of the Hotel Vancouver, where his swing band became an institution. Their show was broadcast nationally on CBC Radio for years. Decades later, according to Vancouver Sun chronicler John Mackie, Dal could still recite the mellow announcer’s introductory words by heart: “It’s Saturday night, and the CBC presents the music of Dal Richards and his Orchestra from the Panorama Roof. High atop the Hotel Vancouver, overlooking the twinkling harbour lights of Canada’s gateway to the Pacific, it’s music by the band at the top of the town.”

 

vpl-81557a-dal-at-hv-1951-art-jones-photo

His run there lasted until 1965, when, as Richards ruefully observed, rock and roll hit like a tidal wave. Big bands were suddenly quaint relics of a bygone era. They now had to scrounge for any gig they could get. On New Year’s Eve 1965, as he told John Mackie, Richards found himself lugging all his stuff up the backstairs of the old Boilermakers Hall on Pender Street for the only date his band could corral. Richards went into hotel management.

Yet he continued to maintain a band for occasional side gigs, and he never gave up his run at the Pacific National Exhibition. A monument on the fair grounds attests to his 77 straight years of PNE appearances. That, too, is surely a world record of some kind, and likely a record for the entire galaxy, as well.

Then, surprisingly, in the teeth of the heavy metal era, big bands mounted a bit of a comeback. Dal Richards was back in demand. His afternoon “tea dances” at the venerable Commodore Ballroom drew surprising crowds, and he was reborn as one of the city’s leading musicians. Probably half the city has now seen him play at some point. A medical miracle, and a legend to the end.

Dal-Richards

One of the many things I liked about Dal Richards was the fact that he was not some kind of musical recluse, pouring over sheet music, just waiting for his next gig. He was out and about, a man about town. You never knew where you might bump into him, just being a citizen. I’ve seen him at Bard on the Beach, the memorial service for Drew Burns at the Commodore, and just this fall, at a B.C. Lions’ game. For those who don’t know, Richards had a special attachment to the gridiron Lions. His name is forever synonymous with the team’s famous fight song, Roar, You Lions, Roar, which Richards and his band used to play live at Lions’ games. Their recording of the song is still played at B.C. Place after every touchdown by the home team.

Dal also showed up at the opening of the False Creek streetcar run for the 2010 Olympics. Well, someone had to play Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Brilliant journalist that I was, I asked him if he remembered the old Vancouver streetcars. With that wonderful, ever-youthful twinkle in his eye, Dal, then 91, replied: “I remember the horse and buggy.”

RIP, Dal Richards, a happy, happy man. I’m not sure anyone brought more joy to more people in this good old city than you did. May you do the same up there in that Big Band Ballroom in the Sky.

For fans and those few new to the Richards legend, here is John Mackie’s terrific obituary in the Vancouver Sun.

http://www.vancouversun.com/richards+vancouver+king+swing+dies/11625321/story.html#ixzz3w1fNkcov

Poignantly, the last of the Vancouver Courier’s  best quotes of 2015 came from Dal Richards. On the secret of his longevity, Dal said: “I still sing and I’m still blowing my horn, playing with the saxophone and clarinet, which is good for the diaphragm. And I lead a pretty healthy lifestyle and I still take singing lessons.”

And here is Dal Richards at the age of 96, looking a lot more youthful than the aging scribe (me) beside him.

IMG_3724.JPG

CHRISTMAS CAROLS AND MY 10 WAYS TO A COOL YULE

2669643

A confirmed atheist from birth, I nevertheless fell under the spell of Christmas carols early on in my twisted, hippie life. I well remember a time when, in the days leading to Christmas, CBC Radio would broadcast the singing of carols every morning from the Timothy Eaton’s Store in Toronto. And this was no professional choir. The singers were the shoppers, and whoever else showed up to carol at 8.30 a.m., when the half-hour live broadcast began. Complete with coughing, the grave, echo-y announcements of the next carol, the audible rustling of the carol sheets and finally, the glorious sound of all those voices raised on high, it was an indelible part of my “child’s Christmas in Newmarket”.

I can tell you they never did Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Frosty the Snowman. Maybe a spirited rendition of Jingle Bells might have slipped in, but these were the real carols, the ones we seem to have forgotten how to sing in this age of cultural sensitivity. You know, with all that stuff about the heavenly hosts, angels on high, shepherds watching their flocks, “three Kings of Orient are” (tried to smoke a rubber cigar….) and so many other elements of the wondrous Christmas story back there in Bethlehem, how still we see the lie. Who knew what “lowing” even meant, until Away in the Manger?

These marvellous carols were everywhere at Christmas when I was a kid, and mercifully, they did not start until well into December. They still mean Christmas to me, and I miss them, for all the excellent, non-carol seasonal songs out there (“The fire is slowly dying/And my dear we’re still good-bying/But as long as you love me so/Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”)

Another musical tradition that’s gone by the doors is combing record store shelves for yet another album of Christmas music. I’ve got a lot of them. I once ran into the great Roy Forbes at A & B Sound’s extensive Christmas Music section. He was on the same annual quest for musical treasures, as I was. Alas, A & B Sound is long gone, and so are record stores with large selections of Christmas music beyond Bing Crosby, Michael Buble and a few lacklustre others. Is there nowhere to buy Christmas Turkey by the Arrogant Worms, or Yogi Yorgesson’s I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas?

Anyway, enough of that. Herewith, restricted to records I have at home, my Top 10 List of Favourite Christmas albums, the last you are likely to read this year. It is Christmas Eve, after all. Better late than never.

  1. “What a remarkable boy…”

 I just realized I can’t really pick a 10th album and eliminate so many other fine albums I cherish as part of my cool Yule. Here are some of them: The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (Kate and Anna McGarrigle), Santa Baby (best of my many CD collections, led off by Sarah MacLachlan and River), It’s Christmas (Quartette), Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas, The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, if only for The Rebel Jesus), Christmas With the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.), A Merry 1940’s Christmas (Collection by Collector’s Choice Music), A Merrie Christmas to You (Blue Rodeo), Christmas (Two albums, same title: Bruce Cockburn and Colin James), Bright Day * Star (The Baltimore Consort), A Very Special Christmas (Springsteen, U2, The Pointer Sisters, The Pretenders, Madonna et al, for the Special Olympics) and, of course, the unforgettable rarity, Kolędy W Wykonaniu Zespołu (Z Kościola Akademickiego Św. Anny W Warszawie).

  1. Soul Christmas

 Nothing says Christmas like Clarence Carter’s salute to festive ribaldry, Back Door Santa. Was there ever a naughtier “Ho Ho Ho”? Other highlights: Otis Redding’s White Christmas (no comment…), and The Christmas Song by King Curtis.

Image 15

  1. Handel’s Messiah.

 No Christmas is complete without this magnificent oratorio. There’s really nothing quite like it. When I’m not at a live performance or tuning in to CBC, I like to listen to a highlight package I have on Phillips Classics, featuring…oh never mind. I’ve never heard of any of them. Me bad. But it’s great. I’m not religious (see above), but surely, as some have suggested, when he penned the Messiah, Handel was touched by the hand of God.

  1. Selection of Merry Christmas

 As you might be able to tell by the title, this comes from a cheapo record store in Hong Kong that specialized in likely pirated knock-offs. But it’s a great two CD collection of just about all the Christmas songs I like, both carols and non-carols. There’s not a Frosty, Rudolph or mommy kissing Santa Claus in the bunch. I’ve got a lot of traditional Christmas carol records, but I chose this one because of the mixture. Hard to beat Der Bingle closing out the 36-song set with the best Christmas song ever written by a Jew, White Christmas. And, as a special treat, tho oddly, there’s Billie Holiday’s version of God Bless the Child.

  1. A Child’s Christmas in Wales

 And of course the version read so beautifully by its author, Dylan Thomas. I’m not sure why anyone else bothers to try. I notice something different and delightful every listening. The last time, it was the way Thomas refers so anonymously and yet so memorably to “the uncles” and “the aunts”. No names, but you picture them perfectly. A tip of the hat to the CBC’s Sheryl MacKay and North By Northwest for airing A Child’s Christmas in Wales every year in the week before Christmas.

  1. Blue Christmas

 Listen to Elvis Presley’s definitive version of Blue Christmas, then open a vein, weep, or down another vat of whiskey. But that’s far from all on this keeper of an album. Renew your cheer with the best rocking version ever of Here Comes Santa Claus and even, gasp, Santa Claus is Back in Town. Carols and White Christmas, Too. As good a selection of Christmas songs as there is, beautifully sung by Elvis at the peak of his career. This album has had many re-issues. My vinyl version is a fairly early one, but not the original.

Image 13

  1. Bluegrass & White Snow, A Mountain Christmas

 It’s hard to imagine how this Christmas bluegrass album by Patty Loveless could be any better. A sublime mixture of traditional carols beautifully sung by Loveless, bluegrass instrumentals and some sweet, Loveless originals. In fact, this is the album I put on for a jolt of Christmas spirit, whenever I feel dragged down by shopping among the masses (talk about cattle lowing…) and my never-far-away Scrooge-like gloom.

  1. Phil Spector’s Christmas Album

 The coolest, most frantic, most waaay out there Yuletide collection ever. The mad genius put his legendary Wall of Sound and “stable” of wild girl singers to work on a dozen classic Christmas songs, and the result was pure magic. From the first notes of White Christmas by the amazing Darlene Love, to the final strains of Silent Night, it’s a wild, wild ride. There are stops along the way for Frosty the Snowman by the Ronettes and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by the Crystals. Inevitably, perhaps, someone recently observed , Grinch-like, “Who’d’ve thought such a great Christmas album could be produced by someone who became a crazed murderer?”

Image 14

  1. A Charlie Brown Christmas

 Pretty well a perfect album, combining both swinging jazz melodies and the spirit of Christmas. The music is so gentle, yet so evocative. Does anything say Christmas more than the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s version of O Tannenbaum? And it fits the animated, TV classic like a woolen mitt. I recently re-watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time in ages. I’d forgotten how movingly it depicts the Christmas story. Yes, the manger, the shepherds, the star on high, the carols, and those lovely passages from the New Testament, which were such a part of my Christmas, too, all those years ago. I’m not a believer, as I’ve said, but who could deny the wonder and narrative drama of the birth of Jesus. I still love it, and these days, at Christmas, I kind of wish it were more prevalent.

  1. En Riktig Svensk Jul.

No record takes me back to magical Christmas mornings in Newmarket more than this wonderful collection of traditional Swedish Christmas tunes. I’m not sure who bought it or when, but it seemed to be always on our ancient turntable, as we unwrapped our presents. At least one of these songs shows up in Ingmar Bergman’s movie masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander. With a rollicking pace pretty well all the way through, the record puts a lie to the widespread theory that “jolly Swedes” is an oxymoron. It meant most to my mother, who came from a Swedish-speaking family in Finland. She grew up with many of these songs. We lost her just after Christmas seven years ago. I still play the album every year, but now there is a touch of sadness. RIP, mom. God Jul och Gott Nytt År!

Image 10

Finally, I do have a Grinch side, so it’s only fitting to also nominate two of the worst Christmas albums I know. I’m sorry, Bob, but one of them is your recent croaking collection, Christmas In The Heart, tho I do love Must Be Santa. The other, candelabras down, is Twas The Night Before Christmas by the late, flamboyant phony Liberace.

Image 10

On that ludicrous note, Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ADIOS, BUENVA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB

Image 10

It was a magical night, mixed with a heavy dose of poignancy, as the vaunted Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club made its final appearance in Vancouver. There will be no more tours. Many of the aging Cuban music stars we got to know and love from Ry Cooder’s venture to Havana in the 1990’s are no longer with us.

Only five Buena Vista originals remain, and one of them, the incomparable diva Omara Portuondo, will soon be 85. She could barely walk onto the stage at the sold-out Chan Centre. As soon as the music started up, however, her fountain of youth kicked in, transfixing us still with the haunting power of her voice and an aching ability to caress the lyrics. Spanish really is the loving tongue. For most of her short set, we were on our feet, showering her with the adulation befitting a legend who toured with Nat King Cole and began singing and dancing at the Tropicana Club way back in 1950. Legend, thy name is Omara.

The other old-timer who held centre stage for his own mini-concert was Eliades Ochoa. Although a relatively youthful 69, his strong voice now has a husky rasp to it Otherwise, he was the same endearing cowboy, clad in Johnny Cash black, with Stetson and a guitar, who was such a part of the initial group. In addition to his consummate musicianship, there is a lovely sweetness to Ochoa that just makes you smile when he’s on stage. Not only that, he shared his concern about the environment. Introducing a song about “la luna”, Ochoa noted: “Because of climate change, we may all end up living on the moon…”

(The other originals were trumpeter Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal, who stayed in the background, energetic laud player Barbarito Torres, who seemed to have aged barely a whit, and the 54-year old “kid”, Jesús ‘Aguaje’ Ramos, band director and trombonist extraordinaire.)

The now familiar saga of the Buena Vista Club remains one of my favourite feel-good stories. All those once celebrated veterans of the pre-Castro years of Cuban son living out their years, gradually forgotten as the revolution ticked on. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Ry Cooder drops in from some kind of music heaven, and they become world-famous. At their age!

What was going through the minds of 90-year old Compay Segundo, 79-year old Ruben González, 71-year old Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, as they left their modest rooms in crumbling Havana for the bright lights of New York and a concert at Carnegie Hall? On Wim Wenders’ affecting documentary, you could virtually feel them pinching themselves, staring out at the rapturous audience, their faces lit with such joy and emotion. Yet they were far from over-awed. Their swagger and aplomb from the old days remained intact.

Buena-Vista-Social-Club®-©-Donata-Wenders-1998-onstage-at-Carnegie-Hall1

The day after their Vancouver appearance, we dug out the Buena Vista Social Club video (no DVD for us) and enjoyed it all over again. But this time there was the added, bittersweet reminder of the missing, so full of life back in 1998. In a nice touch, on a large, backdrop screen, the Vancouver concert ran silent profiles of members who had died, with many black Unknownand white photos from their early performing days when they were kings.

Meanwhile, their first CD remains the best-selling world album of all time. It charmed everyone, everywhere. The music is so infectious, with that rollicking Cuban beat, yet so simple -– songs about a couple going to the beach, an apartment burning down, someone heading off to the store and, of course, the enduring enchantment and mystery of love. Always sung with passion.

Many of those at the Chan were Spanish-speaking, and there’s nothing quite like an Hispanic audience. Many were soon up out of their seats and dancing wherever they could find a bit of room. It was great. Although many of the backing musicians had past connections with the original performers, organizers wisely injected some youth to the band. Singers Idania Valdés and particularly Carlos Calunga reminded us how it must have all looked and sounded at the Tropicana Club all those years ago.

All in all, it was a wonderfully satisfying night from musicians we will never see again. I couldn’t help think of the last few lines of Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas, the best poem ever written on the passage of time.

“Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

         Time held me green and dying

     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Gracias and adios, amigos.

buena-vista-social-club

A FOLKING GREAT WEEKEND

IMG_3241 For the first time in many years, I was without my constant companion at this year’s Vancouver Folk Festival. And my cousin’s young ‘un had the nerve to get hitched on Friday, the Folk Fest’s opening day, so I missed the fabulous Pokey Lafarge, when he still had a voice. Still, I had a blast.

Artistic director Linda Tanaka managed once again to assemble a vintage brew of the known, the barely known and the unknown into an eclectic, heady mix of outstanding music. There were fewer ultra-headliners than unusual this year, and yet the festival was terrific. All these people I’d never heard of. How dare they be both young and great…?

Not everything was perfect.

The legendary Birkenstock 500 dash to earn a good tarp place in front of the main stage wobbled on Days One and Two. But by Sunday, organizers got it right, and the 9 a.m. run was one of the smoothest this panting old codger can remember. (Let’s hope rumours that the “first come, first in line” tradition will be scrapped for a lottery are nothing more than the bureaucratic imaginings of someone who doesn’t get out much….).

And why o why, is the bass so often turned up to an unbearable level? Although it’s not nearly as commonplace as it used to be, for which I am thankful, when it does happen, the pain blasts through my feeble brain like a U-2 rocket. But hey, in spite of an unforgiving, broiling sun that had aging folkies clawing for shade, this was a wonderful few days of music.

Herewith some highlights.

BEST QUOTE. Vancouver’s one-of-a-kind Frazey Ford, at a workshop featuring songs of the human heart: “For songwriters, when you get dumped, it’s money in the bank.” Beside her, the ever-cool Basia Bulat completely lost her sangfroid and split a gut laughing.

BEST WORKSHOP: the aforementioned “Messin’ with the Wrong Heart”, featuring Bulat, Ford, Jenn Grant, pride of Halifax, and two luminous singers from the hot Brooklyn indie band, Lucius, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessing, clad in flowing, airy frocks of vivid yellow. In addition to their standout songwriting (heartaches and all), the performers displayed an appealing sisterhood and mutual admiration that made this a very special workshop. There was also a nice touch at the end, as the Lucius “girls” resurrected that fine old, Ian and Sylvia chestnut: You Were on My Mind. If you’ve never heard of Lucius, by the way, try this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcu5zJtWndI IMG_3264 BEST ANECDOTE: spun by Adam Cohen, son of Lennie, baby. Finding himself at some sort of odd Hollywood party, he looked around and noticed Tom Waits, there with his young son and wearing, naturally, a fur coat. Eavesdropping, Cohen heard Waits tell his kid to touch the drapes. “That’s silk,” he said. Then, he instructed him to touch the sofa. “That’s velvet,” father Tom affirmed. Finally, Waits asked his son to touch his coat. “And that’s fur,” he rasped. At that point, Waits saw Cohen listening in. Whereupon, he explained to the mystified Canadian, in his famous gravelly voice: “It’s never too early to teach your kids about fabric.”

BEST MAIN STAGE ACT BY A COUNTRY MILE: the legendary African powerhouse from Benin, Angélique Kidjo, who, at 55, showed as much dancing and prancing, fire and desire, charisma and melisma (look it up…), swirling and twirling as a pre-jowly Mick Jagger ever mustered at the peak of his preening. Her performance, complete with a dynamite band and some low-key but right-on political messaging, was mesmerizing. I didn’t even mind all those “young people” crowding in front of us older, sit-down folkies, who had risen at the crack o’ dawn to earn our coveted spots. We all stood and danced. For her final number, the show-stopping Afirika, Kidjo ventured right into the frenzied masses to help us with the song’s rousing chorus. Then, she materialized on stage again with a long line of dancing young people plucked from the crowd, including several tireless 10-year old girls, who couldn’t stop bouncing up and down. As the song went on and on, we grew ever more delirious, hoping it would never end. It did, of course, but I cannot remember a more dynamic closing to the Vancouver Folk Festival in all my 30 or so years of blissful attendance. (The lame, official closing of the festival after that was a complete anti-climax.) This gives you a sense of Afirikahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LInq0EioZjg

BEST PERFORMER IN A BLUE AND WHITE, POLKA DOT DRESS AND RED COWBOY BOOTS: Lindi Ortega, hands down.

BEST CONCERT FEATURING HEARTFELT COVERS OF CLASSIC CANADIAN SONGS: The charming, brother and sister duo, Matt and near-neighbour Jill Barber. Their version of Ian Tyson’s Summer Wages, one of my all-time favourite songs, was a festival highlight. But they also did lovely covers of Gordon Lightfoot’s Steel Rail Blues, Comes a Time by Winnipegger Neil Young, and, quelle surprise, the haunting French resistance song, The Partisan, which Leonard Cohen made sort of Canadian by including it on one of his early albums. (These comments about the song by Cohen are quite interesting… http://genius.com/Leonard-cohen-the-partisan-lyrics) I really enjoyed the gentle songs of the Barbers, reminding us that not all enjoyable music has to puncture our ear drums. IMG_3247 BEST PERSON I’D NEVER HEARD OF OVER WHOM I KIND OF SWOONED: Eileen Hodgkins, the out-there, tap-dancing, portrait-of-Eileenukelele-playing, bandana-wearing, cowboy-boots-from-Chilliwack devotee and all-round, irrepressible, effervescent spirit of the Perch Creek jug band from Oz. I hope she likes adjectives, too. Others in the band, complete with washboard and jug, were also great, particularly her wise-cracking sister Camilla, who kept referring to you-know-who as “My Sister Eileen”. The first song I heard them do was I’m a Woman, another long-time delight of mine, best sung by the equally irrepressible Maria Muldaur (then Maria D’Amato) of the famous Jim Kweskin Jug Band. So I was won over right there. They were just so much fun, as this shot of Camilla’s “wild sister Eileen” attests. IMG_3266 BEST SONG I NEVER TIRE OF HEARING: Mary Gauthier, as real a person as there is in this crazy world, and her searing, unforgettable, Mercy Now. I last saw her in Trondheim, Norway, a week after the bombs and shootings in 2012 that took the lives of 77 Norwegians, most of them young people. Never was Mercy Now more appropriate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IT7NiFpJmvI

BEST IDLE THOUGHT BY ME: Listening to a soft, beautiful, Scottish fiddle tune, as I read about the mad, musical mayhem going on simultaneously in Pemberton, I thought there’s still a lot to be said for quiet and tradition in the music world. It has a sweetness all its own, and I wondered if, later in life, the 40,000 raucous, fun-loving fans then camped out at Pemberton would come to appreciate the worth of music that wasn’t blasted out at them through mountain-sized speakers. Oh, and also learn to pick up their garbage, before heading home…

BEST DESCRIPTION OF WHY WORKSHOPS SOMETIMES CREATE A MAGIC ALL THEIR OWN: A fellow from the Gaelic band Breabach suggested to musicians from another band that they merge their next number. “We’ve got a tune you’ve never heard before, and you’ve got a song we’ve never heard before, so it should work.” It did.

BEST TWO COVER SONGS IN A ROW: By Marlon Williams, the rising young Kiwi crooner, who wowed just about everyone who heard him sing. During his solo concert, Williams did a heartfelt song by the late, great Townes Van Zandt, followed by, yep, one of the best country songs ever penned, He’ll Have to Go, which became a massive hit for Jim Reeves. How often have I sung along to this all-time hurtin’ song? “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone/Let’s pretend that we’re together, all alone./I’ll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low./And you can tell your friend who’s with you, he’ll have to go.” Oh my aching heart.

BEST NON-EXPOS BASEBALL HAT: By the time I arrived on Saturday, Pokey Lafarge had lost his voice. While his vintage, old-timey band carried on, Pokey sat forlornly mute on stage, strumming his guitar. But what was that St. Louis ball images-1cap he was wearing? I didn’t recognize it. A few hours later, I came across Pokey sitting by himself at the CD signing table, looking glum. I took a chance that he could whisper, at least, and asked him about the hat. “Do you know the Federal League?” he whispered. I said I did know about the short-lived, outlaw league from a hundred years ago. “St. Louis had a team in the Federal League, and this was their hat,” said Pokey. “The Terriers.” Cool, I replied, in that winning, hipster way I have, and ambled on, leaving Pokey blessedly silent, once more. All in all, another great festival. Thanks, folks. See you next year. (picture below by Naomi Moses)IMG_5113

MY B-LIST OF SONGS FOR CANADA DAY

acyb04_19470013-eng

Well, hello there, Canada. Another birthday, eh? Dominion Day is my favourite holiday of the year, a time for us all to set aside those petty differences over just about everything the you-know-who gang does in Ottawa, and celebrate being Canadian. My Canada includes a Prime Minister who loves hockey and gets excited about finding Franklin’s ships up north. It doesn’t include an ugly monument to “victims of communism” beside the Supreme Court of Canada, nor a massive Mother Canada statue scarring Cape Breton’s beautiful Highlands National Park, nor…(fill in 50 blanks here)….but never mind. Happy Dominion Day! What’s that? It’s now called Canada Day, you say? Pity!

I usually celebrate Canada Day with a list of good old songs that best exemplify the spirit, history, beauty and character of this grand land of ours. The usual suspects are always at the top: The Great Canadian Railroad Trilogy, Northwest Passage, Four Strong Winds, Sudbury Saturday Night, Let’s Go Bowling, Ontario-ari-ari-o, and so on.

This year, I’m opting for something different. Being the kind of obscure guy I am, herewith my list of 10 fine songs about Canada that you may not know. They are compiled from my own collection of vinyl, CDs and cassettes (alas, no 8-tracks). So you will notice there are no relatively recent songs evoking where we live, such as Sam Roberts’ fierce Canadian Dream or Joel Plaskett’s bittersweet True Patriot Love. Folk, of course, looms large. Apologies for not being more tragically hip, and additions gratefully acknowledged. But it’s my list, and I’m sticking to it.

banner-canada_music

  1. Stan Rogers: Free in the Harbour. A lovely, evocative song about the heartbreak of having to leave the fading outports of Newfoundland for the “riches” of Alberta. A way of life gone. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbjEmEifZp4
  1. The Band: Acadian Driftwood. The timing of the expulsion of the Acadians is a bit off (history is hard), but there are references by the boys from southwestern Ontario to the Plains of Abraham, cold fronts and the lure of winter. A terrific Canadian version of The Band’s big hit, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=te7KW4K-00E
  1. Spirit of the West: The Crawl. Could there be a more Canadian song than this rollicking combination of sea shanty and drinking song? Become an expert on the geography and pubs of West and North Vancouver. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2N37oQmdlrU
  1. James Keelaghan: Stonecutter. A powerful tale of the stonemasons called out of retirement to help rebuild the Parliament Buildings, after they burned down in 1916. The fledgling young apprentices had all been called to war. No video, but here are the lyrics. Well worth the iTune purchase. http://lyrics.wikia.com/James_Keelaghan:Stonecutter
  1. Barra MacNeils: The Island. Anthemic tribute to the history and enduring lure of Cape Breton. I guess it is pretty well known back east, but not out here in this parched part of the country. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apD1IuE5Lwo
  1. Stringband: Dief Will Be The Chief Again. Written by my good friend Bob Bossin, this is certainly the best song ever written about John Diefenbaker, and maybe about any Canadian politician. “Everyone’s happy back in ’57, and nobody’s happy since then.” Available right at the end of this Bossin jukebox compilation. http://www3.telus.net/oldfolk/jukebox.htm#dief
  1. The Byrds: Blue Canadian Rockies. Yes, by the Byrds, but from their best and one of my most-loved albums ever, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It doesn’t get any better than this. Sorry, Wilf Carter, but Gram Parsons kills on this country classic, written by the legendary Cindy Walker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJkXkvLNs6U
  1. Grievous Angels: Crossing the Causeway. There’s no sadder Canadian tradition than Maritimers leaving “the folks back home” for Toronto in search of work. Few have captured the poignancy better than this song by Charlie Angus (now an MP) and his band. “I wipe my tears on the kitchen wall.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSN_dZB55wg
  1. Sadly, besides suggesting anything from my numerous La Bottine Souriante casssettes, I have little to offer in this list category from Quebec. Robert Charlebois’ Québec Love talks about taking up guns. Yikes. And so on. So I include, instead, by far the best known song about La Belle Province, it’s unofficial anthem, Mon Pays C’est L’Hiver by Gilles Vigeneault. It’s wonderful. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CH_R6D7mU7M
  1. Finally, no Canada Day list would be complete without Stompin’ Tom Connors, even if The Hockey Song and Sudbury Saturday Night are too well known. Of course, he has a myriad other Canadian classics. I’ve opted, appropriately for his great Cross Canada. Sing it loud. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=012Bo_iihpI

Happy CA – NA -DA Day!

(As a bonus, here’s the Travellers’ maple syrup version of Woody Guthrie’s famous song, This Land is Your Land. We have our own identity, after all. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwLyVl11iV4 )

Canada Flag