Holiday Gift Guide -
Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, and Folk CDs  
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland,
December 11, 2008

Folk, Blues, Celtic, Bluegrass

Thank God the holidays are here again. Now we can shove all that economic angst onto the back burner and talk about which of this of year’s roots-music CDs you might want to giftwrap for that folkie, blueshound, Celtophile, or bluegrass fan you need to shop for.

For more than five decades, Delmark has been a leading name in blues records and also is the nation’s oldest indie label. The Chicago-based outfit has celebrated its golden-and-change anniversary with 55 Years of Blues (Delmark), a hot two-CD compilation of material from marquee artists such as Junior Wells, Otis Rush, and Magic Sam, as well as lesser known performers like Sleepy John Estes and Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins. As the new movie Cadillac Records seems likely to rekindle interest in Chicago blues, this would be a timely pick.

Darker in tone is New Orleans piano professor Dr John’s latest release, The City That Care Forgot (429), a blast of fury at the Bush administration’s feckless response to Hurricane Katrina. On these 13 tracks, which contain some Dr. John’s best writing in years, the swampmeister is joined by Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco, Terence Blanchard, and others.

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder are longtime mavens of old-school bluegrass. Their latest offering, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947 (Skaggs Family), pays homage to mandolinist Bill Monroe and his original Bluegrass Boys: Earl Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chuddy Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on bass. Monroe originally recorded the 12 songs here during those storied years, and Skaggs and company do them justice aplenty with Skagg’ powerful tenor vocals and Kentucky Thunder’s stellar picking.

On the opposite end of the High Lonesome spectrum, former Hot Rize mandolinist and vocalist extraordinaire Tim O’Brien has a solo CD, Chameleon (Proper American), that features hip contemporary songwriting and his extraordinary instrumental work on guitar, banjo, Irish bouzouki, fiddle, and mandola. As O’Brien showed us at his recent WAMC Performing Arts Studio gig, his songs can range from lightheartedness to trenchant political observations, all delivered with incredible playing.

Ireland’s Kevin Burke, Brittany’s Christian LeMaitre, and Quebec’s Andre Brunet are the fiddlers three of the Celtic Fiddle Festival. Backed by guitarist Ged Foley, their most recent CD, Equinoxe (Loftus), offers traditional tunes from the British Isles, Canada’s Cape Breton and the French speaking lands where the fiddle is played. The trio, each a virtuoso player, offer a full buffet of fiddling: reels, jigs, slow airs, pipe tunes and even French gavottes.

The guitar is not a traditional Celtic instrument, but that hasn’t stopped Scottish fingerpicker Tony McManus from recording a new CD of traditional tunes arranged for the six-string. His new release, Maker’s Mark (Greentrax), is a picker’s version of the proverbial kid in the candy store—McManus was left alone in a room housing the $175,000 guitar collection of Dream Guitars founder Paul Heumiller, who let him record each track on a different, priceless ax. The result is a superb CD with sprinklings of jazz and world music over the Celtic subtext. This would be a perfect gift for any guitarist.

With 50 years of performing and around 30 albums to her credit, Joan Baez is the indisputable queen of folk music. Now the Achingly Pure Soprano is back, albeit singing in a lower range than that of her early Vanguard LPs, with Day After Tomorrow (Razor and Tie). On this record, one of her best in a long time, she is supported by Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, and others, and performs recently minted songs by songsmiths including Steve Earl, Tom Waits, Patti Griffin, and Eliza Gilkyson. Although you’ll find some of the antiwar themes you’d expect from a ’60s counterculture icon, many of the songs are, surprisingly, spiritual in nature. God is good, but Joan Baez is still great.

—Glenn Weiser

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Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2008 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  

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