Anyone who has been a fan of the McGarrigles will be familiar with multi-instrumentalist Chaim Tannenbaum. Friends with Kate and Anna at high school in Montreal, he joined their group, the Mountain City Four, in the mid-60s and, after a brief hiatus as they went their separate ways, reunited with the sisters for their debut album and subsequently played on a further eight of their albums. The relationship also led to his involvement with Kate’s then husband, Loudon Wainwright III, first serving as executive producer on 1984’s I’m Alright and then going on to play on a further ten, as well as producing several of them. He has also been a regular touring member for both Wainwright and the McGarrigles.
In addition, he’s also appeared on albums by both Martha and Rufus Wainwright, Linda Thompson and Beck. However, in all that time, content to remain the background, he’s never released anything of his own. But now, at 68, encouraged by producer Dick Connete, with whom he worked on Loudon’s Grammy-winning High, Wide & Handsome, he’s just recorded his debut album. In keeping with his quiet, modest and somewhat studious persona (he’s also a teacher), it’s an understated but impeccably tasteful affair that draws on his formative exposure to the work of Guthrie, Seeger and other singers and songwriters from the early years of American folk music. As such, there’s several traditional tunes here, Tannenbaum restricting himself to either banjo or guitar, with one excursion on piano, while various guests provide the other instrumentation, most notably long time cohort David Mansfield on violin and slide with Wainwright providing backing vocals on three of the numbers.
The album makes its bow with just voice and guitar on a simple just under two-minute reading of Rev. A.W. Fletcher’s much recorded ‘Farther Along’ before being joined by Wainright, Mansfield, Connette (on percussion) and backing vocalist Margaret Glaspy for a fine piano-backed version of prison work song “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos”, apparently learnt from a Lonnie Donegan recording, with Tannenbaum’s reedy vocal investing spiritual dimension. The traditional repertoire continues with the violin and guitar arrangement of the lazing, whistling ragtime ‘Coal Man Blues’ and, with just Connette on harmonium, the celebration of a tipple or two with the hymnal-like ‘Moonshiner’, the ‘too ra loo la roo la roo’ refrain nodding to Irish roots.
A fuller sound returns with ‘Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit’ which features accordion, tuba, trumpet and taps for a frisky, thigh slapper riverside spiritual learned from the recording by Luther Magby, though, even earlier, is the waltzing ‘Mama’s Angel Child’ which, featuring mandolin-banjo, stems from the canon of Sweet Papa Stovepipe, aka, African-American bluesman Johnny Watson, who’s thought to be the earliest example of an American bluesman recording.
The first of the four Tannenbaum originals is something of an epic, the near ten minute semi-spoken ‘London, Longing For Home’, on which, backed by cornet, accordion, clarinet, flugelhorn and euphonium, he recounts a sojourn in London with its crowds, dirt, rain, tradition and mouths full of brown broken teeth, namechecking Acton and Tottenham and interpolating the chorus of the classic homesick longing of traditional American folk song Oh Shenandoah.
He mentions Milton, Marvell and Dickens here, but it’s another English literary source that underpins the Music Hall-like ‘Business Girls’, a London-set poem by John Betjeman set to music variously by Erik Satie and Tom Gilbert and featuring French horns, violin and cello. It’s back to self-penned material for ‘Brooklyn 1955’, a simple voice and guitar exercise in nostalgia of summers spent watching the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field before they moved to L.A. It’s not autobiographical (he’s a Yankees fan), but it does address the feeling of being in exile from your own past, its markers gradually eroded.
Tracking back in time to the 30s, a rosy glow hangs over the album’s best known number, tuba and accordion accompanying him on a short slow ballroom waltzing rendition of the Hartburg, Rose and Arlen romantic evergreen ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’. Then comes what must have been the most moving, but also the most difficult number to include as he’s joined by Wainwright, with Marcus Rojas on tuba, for his tribute to his late friend Kate McGarrigle on her own achingly wistful homesick anthem ‘(Talk To Me of) Mendocino’, a song he must have performed with her many times, and here given a beautifully heartfelt and reading that brings a lump to the throat.
The album ends with the final self-penned number, ‘Belfast Louis Falls In Love’, an eight-minute shaggy dog storysong about seizing romance when and where it offers itself that mentions Cagney, Garbo, Caruso and Coltrane and sports such philosophical observations as “there are men who think the future is all bicycles and ice cream”, staying in Ireland as he’s joined by Wainwright for a rousing 58-second a capella coda of shanty ‘Paddy Doyle’ taken from a recording by Ewan MacColl.
From Broadway to Appalachia, from the antebellum South to sepia tinted memories of New York, Tannenbaum brings warmth and honesty, running his fingers through the dust of American folk music, stirring up sparkles and a sense of a world we have lost as it shimmers in the light.
Artist’s website: http://storysoundrecords.com
‘Brooklyn 1955’ – official video: