CHAIM TANNENBAUM – Chaim Tannenbaum (Storysound 161-017)

Chaim TannenbaumAnyone 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.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Brooklyn 1955’ – official video:

Older Than My Old Man Now – Loudon Wainwright III

As his new album’s title relates, Loudon Wainwright III is Older Than My Old Man Now — his old man, of course, being the late Loudon Wainwright, Jr., the esteemed Life Magazine columnist and senior editor.

“Singer-songwriter contemporaries of mine have recently taken to writing memoirs and autobiographies,” notes Wainwright. “I decided I would try to tell the story of my swinging life in a three and one-half minute song.”

He’s speaking specifically of the album’s lead track “The Here & the Now,” which features jazz guitar great John Scofield and backing vocals from all four of Wainwright’s children — Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche and Lexie Kelly Wainwright — as well as two of the three moms, Suzzy Roche and Ritamarie Kelly. But the album as a whole reflects the stage he’s reached in his life, and as he so wryly puts it, the “death ‘n’ decay” that inevitably accompanies it.

One track which cuts directly to the issue, “The Days That We Die,” remarkably brings together three generations of Wainwright males.

“My Dad wrote the recitation, and I’m singing with No. 1 son Rufus,” says Wainwright. “That’s my grandson Arcangelo Albetta — Martha’s kid — I’m walking with on the beach photo that’s part of the CD artwork. Not only that, but Loudon Wainwright I is referenced in the title track, so in fact there are five generations represented on the album!”

Wainwright’s father, who died in 1988, also wrote the recitation that introduces the album’s title track. “Please believe me when I say that collaborating with my long gone progenitor at this late date felt pretty damn big,” says his son, who also lifted the opening line of “Double Lifetime” from one of the notebooks that his father used to carry around with him to write in.

Another key family member who is no longer living, Wainwright’s ex-wife Kate McGarrigle (the mother of Rufus and Martha), is represented by “Over The Hill” — “the one song we wrote together, way back in 1975.” Martha Wainwright accompanies her father vocally on the track, as does multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Chaim Tannenbaum, his “musical sidekick and sounding board” for over 40 years. Suzzy Roche returns to sing on “10,” and even Wainwright’s lab/pit/chow mix Harry, who’s been featured (in the lyrics) in a number of his songs in the last few years, appears on “Ghost Blues” and the bonus download track for the album “No Tomorrow.”

But Older Than My Old Man Now, which was produced by Dick Connette (producer of Wainwright’s 2009 Grammy-winning High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project), boasts stellar participants other than family.

“One voice singing a lot about death ‘n’ decay can be a bit wearing so Dick and I brought in other singers to help with the heavy lifting,” says Wainwright. “The venerable Chris Smither testifies with me on ‘Somebody Else,’ for which High Wide & Handsome alum Rob Moose wrote the string arrangement. Barry Humphries, a.k.a. Dame Edna Everage, does a duet with me on ‘I Remember Sex.’ He and I were romantically linked in two episodes of Ally McBeal a few years back, and I’ve been besotted ever since. There is no greater living and performing legend than Barry Humphries, for my money. And he’s even older than I am!”

Older than Wainwright, too, was another personal hero who guests on Older Than My Old Man Now — folk music legend and 2 time Grammy winner Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

“After making pilgrimages to Jack’s shows for half a century now, for me to sing and play with him on an album was nothing short of a dream come true,” he says, referring to “Double Lifetime.” “Recording this song with him — perhaps my foremost musical father figure — was a gas.”

One other old friend is noteworthy: Robin Morton, a founding member of legendary Celtic group the Boys of the Lough.

“We’ve known each other since the early 1970s when we were young hell raising/up-chucking Turks on the folk music scene together,” recalls Wainwright. “It was great fun to begin recording Older Than back in May at Robin’s studio in the tiny Scottish village of Temple — just a wee bit south of Edinburgh.”

And from High Wide & Handsome also came the likes of guitar and banjo player Matt Munisteri, cellist Erik Friedlander, pianist Paul Asaro and bassist Tim Luntzel. Together, the new album’s personnel create song treatments ranging from basic guitar-and-vocal to sophisticated string settings — together with some swinging funk provided by Scofield.

Loudon Wainwright III came to fame when “Dead Skunk” became a Top 20 hit in 1972. Born in Chapel Hill, N.C. in 1946, he had studied acting at Carnegie-Mellon University, but dropped out to partake in the Summer of Love in San Francisco.

He wrote his first song in 1968, “Edgar” (about a lobsterman in Rhode Island) and was soon signed to Atlantic Records by Nesuhi Ertegun. Clive Davis lured him to Columbia Records — which released “Dead Skunk.” His recording career now consists of 25 albums, also including last year’s five-disc retrospective 40 Odd Years and his most recent studio album 10 Songs For The New Depression (2010).

Wainwright’s songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Rufus Wainwright, and Mose Allison, among others. He has collaborated with songwriter/producer Joe Henry on the music for Judd Apatow’s hit movie Knocked Up, written music for the British theatrical adaptation of the Carl Hiaasen novel Lucky You, and composed topical songs for NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered and ABC’s Nightline.

Also an accomplished actor, Wainwright has appeared in films directed by Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Christopher Guest, Tim Burton, Cameron Crowe, and Judd Apatow. He has also starred on TV in M.A.S.H. and Undeclared, and on Broadway in Pump Boys and Dinettes.

Made me howl with laughter one minute and then emotionally take me to places were other CD’s fear to tread…

Darren Beech