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Valerie June plays Lead Belly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ | Smithsonian Folkways

UnknownValerie June interprets ‘Irene (Goodnight, Irene),’ one of Lead Belly’s signature songs, prior to the Lead Belly at 125 all-star tribute concert at the Kennedy Center in April 2015.

Source: Valerie June plays Lead Belly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ | Smithsonian Folkways


Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers: A second chance to hear what we first missed

There are few people reading this who will be familiar with Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers. They were British, lasted only between 1972 and 1975, had about 400 gigs3003a150756bf16a840967062067da26 and just two albums. Their main claim to fame is that they were linked through members with Brinsely Schwarz, itself a relatively obscure British pub rock band known mainly to Brits of a certain age.

Perhaps this album will change that. It should. The two CD, 44-song anthology will be a thrill to anyone with a soft spot for the Grateful Dead and their ilk. It is a series of rags, country boogies, American 1960s/70s country rock that sound as if they should have come from Palo Alto rather than the scruffy pubs of London’s Balham.. It may have something to do with the fact that co-founder Martin Stone spent some time in later ’60s San Francisco.

You get the feel right from the start with “Living Out Of My Suitcase”, a paen to bands without work and homes (with a Ry Cooder-ish slide). Skip forward a few tracks and you have “Fiddle Dee”, a raw banjo/fiddle affair that you might hear at the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, VA, but was performed in the back room of some London dive.

The U.S.-West Coast sound come through beautifully on “Desert Island Woman” (although I do have to wonder how many mangoes there were in grungy Britain at the time).

It is not clear why the band did not make it. One reason may have been that the kind of Americana being offered at the time was not a crowd-pelaser in Britain. This was the period wedged into the outgoing prog rock and the about-to hit punk rock. My own love of Americana (Little Feat aside) only began when I crossed the Atlantic for a few years. I would not have been impressed going into a pub in 1974 and hearing this.

But I would now. This anthology is great listening. A real second chance to hear something that was missed at the time.

New sounds: Torgeir Waldemar

First off a confession. I know little about Torgeir Waldemar. The press blurb says he is Norwegian and that while he has cultivated a pure, acoustic sound before we are not getting a bit more rock on his new album “No Offending Borders”,  due out on March 17.

I do know that I listened to the track “Bottom of the Wall” and liked it. Here it is:

Hark! The Herald Albions sing

61s8hj4u1ml-_ss500Just in time for the stocking-stuffer season, The Albion Christmas Band has brought forth a new album of – no surprises here – Christmas songs to go along with its annual tour of British folk venues and cosy theatres. It is an eclectic mix of poems, jigs and soaring paens to the ancient winter solstice season.

The band only shows up at this time of year, of course, but it has deep roots in British folk and folk-rock. Its bassist and main poetry reciter is Ashley Hutchings, founding member of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band, of which this is one of many offshoots. On guitar and vocals is Simon Nicol, eminence grise of  the many grises that make up and have made up Fairport.  Simon Care, of reggae-folk fusion band Edward II and his own four-man trio (!), plays a dangerous melodeon and waves the odd Morris bell. The vocal queen of the ball – right up there in talent with British folk icons Maddy Pryor, Jaqui McShee and the late Sandy Denny – is Kellie While.

What they do – and have done again with the new album – is take travellers down a musical road into the folky heart of British Christmas. It is chestnuts roasting on an open pub fire .

“Magic Touch” has one immediatley recognisable song – a haunting rendition of “Silent Night” in English and the original German that features While in her finest goosebump mode. She does the same throughout, including with the traditional “Gower Wassail”.

Care, meanwhile, turns “Fairytale of New York”, the punkish Pogues hit, into a Morris dance track that loses nothing of its bite.

The readings include a half-sung “Christmas Eve, 1914”, relating the famous tale of British and German soldiers rising up from the World War I trenches to pay football and swap cigarettes duing an informal truce at Christmas that almost brought the war to an early end.

A poignant recitation on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, it is a reminder to those of us living in peace how lucky we are. So, for that matter, is the whole album.

Honouring Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett

By my colleague, guest blogger Mark Heinrich:


Credit: Jo Randall

The hometown of Syd Barrett has unveiled a suitably psychedelic public artwork and staged a concert of his songs to commemorate the visionary founder of the Pink Floyd rock group, but he would have laughed off the tribute, his sister says.

Barrett was the main songwriter and lead guitarist in early Pink Floyd, with explorations of distortion and feedback that influenced many musicians. The band went on to super-stardom but  Barrett flamed out in drug-induced madness in the late 1960s and retreating to life as a recluse.

A decade after his death at 60, the university city of Cambridge where Barrett and other Floyd members grew up launched an artwork named “Coda” in his memory at the Corn Exchange music venue where he re-emerged for his last, abortive, gig in 1972.

Mounted to a wall, “Coda” is a psychedelically patterned, mirrored aluminum box with a central circle showing a whirring bicycle wheel with moving images of Barrett materialising at irregular intervals. It is a surrealist play on Barrett’s famous silver guitar and his whimsical song “Bike” on Pink Floyd’s first album, “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, as well as on the avid cycling culture of present-day Cambridge.

There was also a concert to mark the occasion, featuring Men on the Border, a Swedish rock band specialising in Barrett’s quirky post-Floyd solo oeuvre and backed up by the Sandviken Symphony Orchestra. They began with Barrett’s signature sonic Floyd freakout, “Astronomy Domine”. A spacey, dreamlike light show complemented the music courtesy of Peter Wynne Willson, who designed the spectacular stage pyrotechnics pioneered by Pink Floyd in the Barrett era.

But Barrett would not have been impressed by the tribute, and probably would not have attended it, said Rosemary Breen, his sister who did much to care for him during his decades of self-imposed isolation.



“He would have laughed at this, seen it as ridiculous. He never felt he did anything special, he was just having fun. He didn’t understand the idea of celebrity or the commercial side of things, it went totally over his head.”
“With his mental makeup, it stopped being fun, he got so tired and he couldn’t carry on” under the pressure of constant touring and demands for more hits. “I encouraged him to go back to painting and he did (for the rest of his life). That was probably his most natural cultural outlet in the end.”



Jack Monck, who played bass in Barrett’s last band Stars and witnessed his on-stage meltdown at his final public gig, said the man he knew bore no similarity to his Pink Floyd brilliance.

“The guy who had so much creativity and drive in the beginning was gone. It (tribute) was probably overdue, but it’s a bit of a cult, this thing,” Monck said after the concert.
Barrett’s breakdown lurked in some of his songs – one of his two solo albums was titled “The Madcap Laughs “- and it influenced Pink Floyd’s frequent lyrics about alienation and absence as the band evolved into a mega-successful pop phenomena.

A “conversation” with Nobel laureate Bob Dylan

“I called Bobby Z this morning and asked him what his first reaction was when he received the telephone call about winning the Nobel and he said he told the committee member “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend!”.

Then i said ‘”C’mon Bobby, how do you really feel?'” and he said “Like a rolling stone.”

So I said, does this make you feel old? He said “Well, I do feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door.”

Asked where he wanted his prize money sent, he said it wanted it hand delivered in Swiss cash to “Desolation Row”.

How does one get there,  I asked.   He said: “You take Highway 61” then  take a left when “You’re lost in Juarez” or when you feel like you are “One too many mornings and a thousand miles behind,” whichever comes first.

Asked what he would do with the money he said : “While money doesn’t talk, it swears. Obscenity, who really cares. Popaganda, all is phony.”

So i ended the conversation telling Bob: be careful, “All the money you make will never buy back your soul.”

He said : “Hey I seem to have heard that somewhere before, long, long time ago”.

With thanks to my colleague and musical buddy Phil Pullella

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry can’t get enough of train songs

dsc_0044There is very little that gets the folk/country juices going more than a good American train song. Something to do with the workers who built and ran the railroads plus the traveler who  criss-crossed the country trying to make ends meet. Haunting tales of hard times and the glory of America’s vast spaces.

British folk/punk/political activist Billy Bragg and his Grammy-winning alt-Americana colleague Joe Henry have gone a bit further in this splendid album. They took a train from Chicago to Los Angeles recording along the way – in carriages, on station platforms, waiting rooms and so on. The result is an emotional work that has a rawness to it that fits perfectly with the subject.

The two men have voices that might have been made for each other. For example, the most famous song on the album (at least as far as a general listener might be concerned) is “Gentle On My Mind”, one of Glen Campbell’s big hits. Henry takes the lead with his country tenor while Bragg’s gravelly bass carries it to soaring levels. Ditto Woody Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby” – the steel rail’s humming.

Bragg, however, takes the lead in grittier song’s like “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”, the Jean Ritchie song that Johnny Cash put as intro track on 1979’s “Silver”. Bragg may be from England – the blue-collar east London borough of Barking – but he might as well be from Kentucky when he sings of being born and raised in the mouth of the Hazard Hollow.

Other fine tracks include classics such as “John Henry”, “Railroad Bill” and “The Midnight Special” – many of which are punctuated by the sounds of the railroad such as slaming doors and that peculiar sound of a steam whistle in the distance.

All aboard!