Metroland Christmas Gift Issue - 2003
CDs- Folk, Blues Bluegrass, and Celtic Music
Reviewed by Glenn Weiser  

For several years I've written an annual roundup of CD holiday gift recommendations of folk, blues, bluegrass, and Celtic music CDs for Metroland. Even though these releases are now longer new, they are still noteworthy - G.W.
Scratching your head trying to think of CDs for a folk, blues, bluegrass, or Celtic music fan? Relax—a recent trawl through some local record bins has netted a copious catch of fine new releases to tell you about, all in the St. Nick of time for your holiday shopping.

Because the earliest mention of a Delta bluesman dates from 1903, when W. C. Handy met an unidentified slide guitarist in Tutwiler, Miss., 2003 has been designated the Year of the Blues by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation. Martin Scorsese’s 7-installment PBS-TV series The Blues—A Musical Journey capped the YOTB commemoration, and Hippo has put out a killer 5-CD set, Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues—A Musical Journey (Hippo) as a companion to the series. Its 121 tracks chronicle the history of the genre from the first-ever recorded blues, Mamie Smith’s 1920 Crazy Blues, right up through contemporary greats Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo, and others. Virtually the entire pantheon of blues immortals is represented on this landmark compilation: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, B.B. King, etc. The liner notes by scholar Larry Hoffman detail a brief history of the blues, and are a valuable bonus to the set.

Also blues-noteworthy is Rory Block’s latest release, Last Fair Deal (Telarc). In addition to the traditional acoustic blues she is known for, the Chatham chanteuse offers original songs in the prewar blues style. In these 14 tracks her guitar work is polished and her vocals are on the money as she takes you down home.

Humorously titled as a nod to the various operatic tenor trios, The Three Pickers (Rounder) brings together bluegrass icons Doc Watson (guitar), Earl Scruggs (banjo), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin) and their respective bands in a 25-track North Carolina concert PBS filmed for its Great Performances series. The three perform as a trio, where they are joined by fiddler Alison Krause for three numbers, and then take turns heading up their bands for an evening of bluegrass standards, fiddle tunes, and old-time Appalachian songs.

Tony Rice—The Bluegrass Guitar Collection (Rounder) is a perfect choice for a six-string aficionado. In this anthology of 21 instrumentals that Rice has recorded with various outfits over his 30-year career, the North Carolina flatpicking champ is joined by a veritable who’s who of bluegrass heavyweights including David Grisman, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Norman Blake, Vassar Clemens, Bela Fleck, and brothers Wyatt and Larry. The music ranges from traditional fiddle tunes like Soldier’s Joy and Stoney Point to newfangled jazzgrass compositions. To boot, Rice owns one of the best-sounding vintage flattops in the world, a 1935 Martin D-28 formerly played by bluegrass guitar trailblazer Clarence White, and the combination of the tone of the instrument and Rice’s virtuosity is dazzling.

The more popular Celtic music gets, the harder it is to find the traditional kind. That’s why The Road Less Traveled (Shanachie) by Danu, a crack Irish band based in County Waterford who take their name from the ancient Celtic earth goddess, is such a treat. The septet consists of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh on vocals, Donchad Gough on Uilleann pipes and bodran, Tom Dorley on flute and whistle, his brother Eammon Dorley on bouzouki, Benny McCarthy on accordion and melodeon, Oisin McAuley on fiddle, and Donal Clancy on guitar. Split between vivacious dance tunes and Amhlaoibh’s alto singing, these 12 tracks are a purist’s delight.

In the wake of huge success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack CD, Irish supergroup the Chieftans recently went to Nashville and blended their traditional stylings with bluegrass and country artists there in a crossover album. Cape Breton fiddle whiz Natalie MacMaster has done much the same with her latest release, the 13-track Blueprint (Rounder). Joined by bluegrassers Alison Brown, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, she mingles the music of both sides of the pond with gratifying results. Here you’ll find old Cape Breton tunes like “Devil and the Dirk” and “The Ewe With the Crooked Horn” alongside not-so-traditional melodic outings such as “Appropriate Dipstick” and “Bela’s Tune.”

“Without Lonnie Donnegan, there wouldn’t have been a British music scene at all,” declared Van Morrison. This year we lost the founder of British skiffle, who, by playing American folk songs on an acoustic guitar and having the audacity to add a bass and drums, inspired the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney to form the Quarrymen and later set the world afire. The 25 tracks of Puttin’ On the Style (Sanctuary) cover the period from 1956, when his single “Rock Island Line” outsold Elvis in England, to 1962. On the day Lennon and McCartney first met, Paul sang the title song to John, and when you listen to Donnegan’s tenor singing you can immediately hear the influence it had on Lennon’s vocals. This is a must have for the folk fan and a worthy tribute to a musical pioneer.

At the Corner of Bleecker and Blues (Rykodisc) is a creatively conceived album that revisits the heyday of the Greenwich Village folk scene during the 1950s and ’60s, when you could drop into venues like the Gaslight or Gerde’s Folk City and catch white urban folksingers or rediscovered blues artists from down South. The 16 tracks of this collection feature famous singers like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly (whose “Where Did You Stay Last Night,” included here, was covered by Nirvana), and Ramblin’ Jack Eliot as well as lesser-known performers such as Barbara Dane and the Kossoy Sisters.

List of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2003 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.                      


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