I discovered Bruce Cockburn’s music in the summer of 1994 – the year that his great album Dart to the Heart was released. I was in my mid-20’s, lacking any real focus or direction in life, and I immediately connected with his music as a calming and fulfilling presence in my life. When I’m full of angst and anxiety, feeling the weight and responsibility that comes with being a father and husband and provider – coupled with the awful news cycles of our present day – I can “go to the well” of Bruce’s music to ground me and put everything in perspective.
“40 Years In The Wilderness” is one of Bruce’s new tunes, released on 2017’s Bone on Bone, and has that subtle spirituality you’ll often find in Bruce’s music. There’s an obvious connotation to Jesus, who spent 40 days and nights in the Judean desert, tempted by Satan. Bruce compares it to his recent move to San Francisco with his wife and young daughter, and his return to church after a forty year absence:
After I wrote my memoir [2014’s Rumours of Glory], I hadn’t written a song in four years. I started going to church again, after not having gone for decades. There was a sermon about Jesus being baptized, which is when he really figures out who he is. He’s shocked, and he runs out into the desert to figure it out. That struck me with considerable force. I felt like I’d been struggling with that issue for 40 years. I’d started to identify myself as a Christian in the 1970s, and here I was, 40 years later, back in church. And I’m living in San Francisco now, with my wife and child. I never would have imagined myself living on the West Coast. But it was an answer. I went with it. I went west in another one of those cosmic moments. This song is about accepting those invitations. 
It’s really a gorgeous song, with a chorus that will stick with you after a couple listens. You’ll hear Mary Gauthier singing background vocals here too.
Lucky for me, I’ll be seeing Bruce in concert this Tuesday in Tempe (with a band, [!] which I haven’t experienced since February 2000).
I was trying to fulfill just a part of my domestic obligation by folding some laundry this morning, and, because laundry foldin’ also just happens to be one of the most opportune times to really listen to music, I fired up the new Guy Clark record, My Favorite Picture of You. Now, I’m only one listen through, but I can tell you that if you’re a fan of great, evocative songwriting, quality finger picking, and well crafted acoustic folk/’country’ tunes, then pick it up (it is Guy Clark after all, the legend).
It was song number two into the album, the title track, that really perked my ears – a melancholy, wistful ode to his favorite picture of his girl. In this case, the girl is his wife Susanna, who lost a battle with cancer just last year at the age of 73. Put into that context, the words that Guy put to paper for this tune are all the more heartbreaking and beautiful.
I found this video tonight, with Guy alone in his home explaining (and showing) the picture behind the song before singing it. It’ll put a lump in your throat. Bet on it.
Best television discovery of late? Without a doubt, it’s Later…with Jools Holland, a BBC2 music show that showcases 4-5 artists per show in a unique way: all bands & artists are set up in studio at the same time in a circle, with each performing a song at a time (with Jools as emcee, introducing the acts). It’s really a neat dynamic, as it’s pretty easy to tell that it raises the game for the musicians, who are not only performing for a live studio audience, but to their musician peers standing feet away.
The first Jools show I watched straight through a few weeks back featured the Stereophonics, Low, the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, Melt Yourself Down, Yasmine Hamdan, and John Grant. Two of the artists stuck out for me – the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra and John Grant. If you want a great summer album to accompany a BBQ or poolside relaxation, definitely spin Lee Thompson’s latest album, The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatius. Lee is the sax player and one of the founding members of Madness, so that’s an instant indicator of its ska-cool quality…
But I was really blown away by John Grant. It’s music that’s hard to describe – electronic folk, maybe? Very melodic, great harmonies and sounds, both acoustic and synthetic. It just really caught on with me. One of the standout tunes on his new album, Pale Green Ghosts, is “GMF”, a tune whose tender and sensitive opening instrumentation unleashes into some eye opening and interesting lyrics – especially the chorus:
But I am the greatest motherfucker
That you’re ever gonna meet
From the top of my head
Down to the tips of the toes on my feet.
So go ahead and love me while it’s still a crime,
And don’t forget you could be laughing
65 percent more of the time.
You could be laughing
65 percent more of the time.
And it’s hooky enough that you’ll be singing along by the time the chorus rolls around for the second time. There’s a lot of analysis yet to be done on this record, but it’s clear that Grant, who is openly gay, does not shy away from the subject. But it’s only one dimension of this unique album and artist. The strange opening sounds of the opener “Pale Green Ghosts” pull you right in (headphones recommended) and don’t let go until the end.
For those of you in the U.S., you can catch Jools Holland on Palladia HD network.
A simultaneous tip of the hat, high five and hearty kudos to whoever’s responsible for bringing the hilarious Canadian “rockumentary” Cock’d Gunns to the Fuse music channel. First of all, it’s one of the funniest music spoof/comedies I’ve ever seen (seriously, it’s right up there with Flight of the Conchords and Spinal Tap in my opinion).
I’ve already watched all 13 episodes detailing the adventures of Reggie Van Gunn (guitar), Dick Van Gunn (bass), Barry Cicarelli (drums) and Keith Horvak (manager) in their quest for a record deal, riches and fame. Unfortunately, the 13 episodes (shot in 2008-2009) are all that currently exist. One thing is clear – Cock’d Gunnsmust return for more seasons. So Fuse, thanks for getting the ball rolling, and for introducing me to these insanely funny (and delightfully vulgar) people. I’ve fallen hard for these north of the border misfits.
Morgan Waters, the comedic genius who plays Reggie, is currently part of Toronto pop/rock band Sweet Thing. His bandmate is Nick Rose, who I discovered on Episode 8 as background music during the final scene (Reggie and Becky walking into the motel room together for a night of _?_. You’ll need to watch it…).
With the help of Shazam, I discovered Nick’s tune, “Wintersong” – a melancholy, yearning vibe which reminds me of those slower Ryan Adams tunes I love so much. Just a beautifully crafted song. His entire album, Oxbow Lake, is an equally impressive 38 minutes of rootsy folk.
I’ve always got my ears to the ground, listening for that next great song. It can be found anywhere, even in a show like this – amongst the Cock’d Gunns classics like “Piss Helmet” and “Party Eyes.”
One thing I’ve quickly found about Canadian singer/songwriter Fred Eaglesmith is that he has a hell of a lot of great songs. As I skip around his catalog on Spotify (sorry Rdio, you ain’t stocked on your Fred), I’m constantly floored by another knockout tune. The latest to catch my ear is “Betty,” from Fred’s latest album 6 Volts.
It’s not only the hard luck story of Fred’s lady, who has skipped town with Fred’s gun, leaving him to wonder what it is she’s running from: “Is it the money / Is it the drugs / Is it somebody that you used to love”; but it’s also the bad ass rhythm and cadence of his vocal delivery. It just sounds so…COOL (for lack of a better word).
This Boss guy sure knows how to endear himself to a crowd, doesn’t he? Last night in Berlin, Bruce kicked off the show with “When I Leave Berlin” by British folk artist Wizz Jones. I’ll admit to knowing next to shizz about Wizz, but turns out he’s one of the most revered, influential folk artists to come out of the UK. “When I Leave Berlin” was the title track of his fourth album released in 1973.
Not sure how the song got on to Bruce’s radar. It’s likely that he’s a Wizz fan, or maybe just as likely he Googled “songs about berlin” a few days before the gig? Who knows? Bruce does, actually.
But at any rate, watching this video earlier today was the first time I’d knowingly heard the tune. And the warm, heartfelt spirit that emanates from Bruce to the Berlin crowd was enough to put a smile on my face and a mist in my eyes. Maybe it’s the combined macht of my Bruce fandom and my German heritage, but it sure is a beautiful thing to behold…
The last couple of weeks has been a whirlwind of activity for me and my family. It was our first vacation out East as a family – stops in Boston and NYC, and our first visit not only to the great state of Rhode Island, but to the storied Newport Folk Festival.
Staying in town at the Newport Harbor Hotel, right on the water, made for an ideal location. Especially since it’s located right across the street from the Newport Blues Cafe, where Deer Tick & Friends entertained all weekend.
On Saturday, we took the water taxi across the harbor to Fort Adams State Park, where the festival is held. On Sunday, we unwisely chose to drive our rental car. Yeah, not recommended if you don’t like sitting in a parking lot for an hour.
At any rate, the festival itself was a blast for all of us. The only down side was that I missed a lot of acts I would have loved to see, but there were conflicts with other artists. So sadly, I I completely missed Elvis Costello (who brought along the Imposters), Emmylou Harris, the Cave Singers, Mavis Staples, Trampled by Turtles (speedgrass!), among a few others.
But what I did catch made up for it. Here are some of my top moments from my first, and not to be my last, Newport Folk Festival:
M. Ward | A lot of people would question my sanity for attending the Newport Folk Festival, and missing Emmylou Harris’s closing set. But it had to be done, because M. Ward was stacked up against her, playing inside the Fort Adams Quad. Matt Ward roped me in a few years ago when I heard Post-War, and when he came out on stage alone with his guitar, and – after an instrumental warm up – launched into Post-War’s “Eyes on the Prize”, I knew I’d made the right decision. The first 30 minutes or so of M.’s set was very intimate, and about as downtempo as it can go. “Poison Cup”, a slowed down version of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, “Sad, Sad Song”… and one of the highlights of his set, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Story of an Artist” – a song I was not familiar with, but was absolutely moved by, especially with M.’s flourishes on piano. Dawes joined in for the last few songs of the set, including spirited versions of “Never Had Nobody Like You” and “Roll Over Beethoven”. There’s something very zen and calming about M. Ward. It was a great set.
Delta Spirit [Full set on NPR] | Having discovered Delta Spirit’s music early this year, and going cuckoo for their latest release, History From Below, their set at Newport was my #1 must see of the weekend. Matt Vasquez and the band did not disappoint. Only 4 of the 13 songs in the set actually came from their latest album. Half a dozen came from their first release, Ode To Sunshine, and the rest were new tunes. The band has been recording their third full length this summer in a Woodstock, NY church. The live tunes from ‘Ode’ were great for me – I haven’t spent near enough time with the album, and the songs were great live. In particular, “Trashcan” and the set finale, “People Turn Around”, the anthemic chorus having the whole crowd singing along. What a great band.
Pete Seeger in the Lego ® Duplo KidZone tent | With my wife and two young daughters in tow, we quickly discovered the shaded comfort and entertainment of the Lego Duplo KidZone tent (ideally placed next to the Magic Hat Beer Pier!). Among the arts & crafts & Legos was a small stage for short performances for the kids while the main stage was between acts. The primary act “in residence”, if you will, over the weekend was Elizabeth Mitchell & You Are My Flower. They welcomed such guests as The Low Anthem, Freelance Whales, and the PS22 Chorus from Staten Island. But we were also treated both days to the legendary Pete Seeger – 92 years old and still going… It was a privilege to sit front & center with my kids and listen to stories and songs from a folk icon like Pete. Among other tunes, we were treated to “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain”. I captured some of it…
Middle Brother [Full set on NPR] & Dawes | As the clock ticked on Sunday afternoon, it was time to uproot the family from the KidZone tent and make our way within the walls of the Quad to catch Middle Brother’s set. For the uninitiated, Middle Brother is made up Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), John McCauley (Deer Tick), and Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit). Their debut record, Middle Brother, was released earlier this year. I’ve gotta say, I hadn’t spun the album too many times up to this weekend, but after hearing the songs live (with Dawes as the backing band – these boys are busy), I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for the album. The set was loose, wild and fun – no surprise with this cast of characters. My favorites: “Portland”, sung by McCauley (a Replacements cover), “Blood & Guts” sung by Goldsmith, and “Middle Brother” with special guest Jonny Corndawg. The emotional peak came between Middle Brother and M. Ward’s sets, when Dawes performed a couple of their own tunes (since they were backing both acts, there was no equipment change needed). The song was “When My Time Comes”, from their first record North Hills. With McCauley and Vasquez joining into sing, and the knowledgable crowd eating it all up, singing along at full tilt, it was truly a moving moment – a highlight of the weekend.
The Felice Brothers [Full set on NPR] | This band from the Catskills definitely has their own unique thing going. And with their latest album, Celebration, Florida, they’ve really taken off into another realm, with a really creative bend of folk and electronic sounds. So it was cool to see them live on the main stage. The opener, “Murder by Mistletoe”, set a perfect tone. Mellow, mysterious, and featuring the vocals of singer Ian Felice – a voice that probably gets compared most to Bob Dylan, but has another edge to it as well.
Carolina Chocolate Drops [Full set on NPR] | I got up nice and close for this set on the main stage. The CCD’s are an old time string band keeping traditional African American music alive – we’re talking 19th and early 20th century African-American music. Bringing that 21st century flair is a new member, beatboxer Adam Matta. He teamed up with singer Rhiannon Giddens for a scatting / beatboxing exhibition they called “diddlybox”. It was cool to hear that interspersed among the old time jug n’ banjo tunes like “Baby Ain’t Sweet” and “No Man’s Mama”. Rhiannon has a beautiful, powerful voice, and the other main Chocolate Drop Dom Flemons is a character, interjecting lots of humor into his performance. Cool stuff.
PS22 Chorus | I have to mention my kids’ favorite. PS22 Chorus is made up of 20-30 5th graders from a Staten Island school. They sing contemporary hits, with a few of the boys and girls taking lead and really belting out some impressive vocals. Our family favorite was their version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. Not only did PS22 play the Harbor Stage, but they also made it over to the KidZone tent where my kids sat front and center and watched them perform, including “Rolling in the Deep” – a song that firmly implanted itself in our brains all weekend.
David Wax Museum [Full set on NPR] | This was one of the pleasant surprises of the festival for me. DWM combine American and Mexican folk music, with guitars, a horn section, violin, and even a young dancer in a traditional Mexican dress performing a zapateado – basically on top of a mic’ed box, tapping the percussion with her feet. Lots of latin rhythms, and a very fun, high energy performance to take in.
It was the first sellout in the history of the festival, 10,000 people strong. Walking around, I sensed not only a very easygoing, friendly vibe, but also the sense that I was surrounded by avid music lovers like myself. I sure do love being among the like-minded – those who live & breathe every note of the music they listen to.
Newport was an A+ experience, one I hope to repeat some year soon.
NPR Music, God bless it, has most of the weekend’s performances available for streaming right here.
Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three play old timey western swing straight out of the 1920’s and 30’s. There’s something about this NPR Tiny Desk concert with Pokey and his boys that make me smile. It’s downright captivating and joyful. What’s old is new…
I’ve been completely floored – I mean profoundly impacted – by Greg Brown’s Freak Flag.
From the first notes of “Someday House” to the last delicate notes of “Tenderhearted Child”, the album flows with beauty and wisdom and grace, all delivered in Greg’s low-low-lowdown baritone. He’s always been one of a kind, this folk singing troubadour from southeast Iowa. Now in his early 60’s, he’s managed to take a look at the world around him and write some of the most heartfelt and genuine songs around. Whether it’s singing of love for a woman (“Lovinest One”), love for a child (in the deeply moving album closer, “Tenderhearted Child”), trepidation about where our country is headed (“I Don’t Know Anybody In This Town”, “Mercy Mercy Mercy”), or looking at religion and man’s thirst for something more on the other side (the gorgeous “Let the Mystery Be”) – he does so with the utmost humor and humility.
There are memorable moments – both musically and lyrically – all over this album; really well written words, shuffles, chord changes, etc. that make me smile, nod my head, and in the case of “Tenderhearted Child”, even tear up. If you’re a dad, and you can listen to these lyrics without misting up, then something’s wrong…
I wish that we could leave you
A world that knows no war
where of all God’s children
would never suffer any harm
May you not give in to bitterness
May your heart stay undefiled
May your love never fail you
I will always be your dad
even when you leave home
call me when you’re sad
Okay, maybe it’s not difficult to tap into the strong emotions a father feels for a child, but this song really digs in deep.
Those deep family bonds are evident in “Freak Flag”, the title track, as well…
Well my dad preached a message of love
I heard him say on the day he passed on above
He said “Use what you got son
to raise a hopeful cry”.
Dad I heard what you had to say
I try to hold to it every day
I’m your boy
I’m gonna let my freak flag fly
The song also touches on coming of age during Vietnam, and love of country (“I’m an American, I’m gonna let my freak flag fly”), and goes on to raise the flag “for every soul gettin beat down” and “for every child who sees the light and turns around”.
All this may seem like some deep, serious stuff. But Greg delivers it all in such a fresh, inspiring roots and folk sound; great hooks, wonderful melodies, and a sense of humor that brings a smile to your face.
I’m only scratching the surface here. I haven’t even touched on the opening songs, “Someday House” and “Where Are You Going When You’re Gone”, the latter which features one of the catchiest grooves and cadences I’ve heard in sometime. The guitar work is fun, twangy, and funky – right along with the lyrics.
This album is an adventure. I feel like these great songs are coming from someone who’s been around the block – someone who knows; who makes you pause, take notice, and appreciate what’s around you. Greg Brown is some kind of Shaman of the Corn Fields.
Simply put, the songs on Freak Flag make me Happy. I can’t recommend it enough.