LUCY KAPLANSKY – Everyday Street (own label)

Everyday StreetAlthough she released Tomorrow You’re Going, a collaboration with Richard Shindell, in 2014, it’s been six years since Kaplansky’s last solo album. Primarily available direct from her website, Everyday Street is her eighth and, a reflection of her live shows, the most acoustically-based work she’s recorded, accompanied by just multi-instrumentalist Duke Levine on assorted guitars and mandolin with harmonies from Shindell and Shawn Colvin. Recorded over just four days, many in just one take, it mixes original material, co-written with her husband, Richard Litvin, alongside four covers that have been live staples over the years.

Charting themes of joy, friendship, family, loss and discovery, it opens with the simple fingerpicked ‘Old Friends’, an aptly titled duet with Colvin, that both recalls their times singing together in the early days of the Greenwich Village folk scene and marks the end to a chapter when, for whatever reasons, they had a falling out.

Thoughts turn to family on ‘Sixth Avenue’, an 11th birthday eve musing on how your children grow up before you realise it, from a “little face covered in ice cream” to letting her cross the street on her own to join her friends until “the crowd is all I see”.

Spending time with her daughter while she’s still young remains the focus for ‘Janie’s Waltz’, from whence comes the album’s title, celebrates the mundane pleasures of everyday life, the walk to the park and the wonders of a child discovering the world as, “amazed by a tiny blowing leaf/You have to chase it and pull away from me”. Likewise, the countrified strum of ‘Day Is Done’ finds her kissing her goodnight, wishing time would slow down, her daughter impatient for it to move on.

‘Keeping Time’, on which Shindell sings harmony, initially seems to tread a similar path, singing of morning walks after dropping her daughter at school, parents walking with their kids, but it narrows the focus to become a tribute to the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a neighbour, recollections of seeing him with his family “scruffy and smiling/After school in the yard”, and recalling the shock on hearing how “the movie star father”, the “neighborhood king” had been found dead from “chasing the dragon.” The song serves as both a poignant memory, but also a reminder of the fickle nature of life where “the cruelest undertow/Is stronger than all a man builds and loves/And dreams and knows”.

Further into the running order comes the mandolin-led strum of ‘Thirty Years Begin Now’, a Townes Van Zandt-like number celebrating her marriage to her husband, remembering their wedding day (“we stood beneath an antique quilt/Our multithreaded canopy/ee cummings words were read”) three decades earlier, reaffirming the promises made and the feelings in her heart.

Turning to the covers, the first is something of a surprise, being her reading of the Scottish traditional ‘Loch Lomond’, given an atmospheric electric guitar intro before unfolding as a weary, regret-stained lament for a relationship that has run its course, Kaplansky bringing a hint of a Highlands accent to her vocals. Second up, she nods to one of her influences with the Appalachian-hued, mandolin-strummed Nanci Griffith’s ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ evoking her formative years in the 80s Greenwich Village folk scene. She follows this by adding her name to the roll call of those who have covered Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, a piano-backed arrangement highly respectful of the original. The final choice is a terrific National steel-flecked reinterpretation of Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’ that swaps his blue collar teenage defiance and reckless romanticism for a far quieter approach without ever diluting the passion about breaking free.

The album ends on one final original, not a new number but rather a reimagining of ‘The Tide’, the title track of her 1994 debut, its lyrics capturing frustration (“now I see this anger/Is the horse I choose to ride/Now you say you want something nice from me/Well if you find it, take it, it’s on me/In the meantime don’t bother me/The tide has washed the nice from me”) and wildness (“I could drink you under the table/I could drink you out of town”) a contrast to the sense of contentment that infuses the new songs. She may still be the “sad-eyed little girl/On a tightrope … singing/As she passes through this world”, but these are now songs to make you feel grateful for the life you have lived and accepting of the experiences rather than treating it as a confrontation.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.lucykaplansky.com

‘Old Friends’ – live on the sofa with Shawn Colvin:

A Tribute To Jack Hardy – available now

Jack Hardy

In honor of the fifth anniversary of his death, Smithsonian Folkways presents A Tribute to Jack Hardy, featuring 26 previously unreleased recordings of Hardy’s songs by an illustrious group of performers, all of whom cited him as a key influence and a personal friend.

Performers include album producers Mark Dann and David Massengill, joined by contemporary folk standouts including Nanci Griffith, Suzanne Vega, Jonathan Byrd, Red Molly, Lucy Kaplansky, Brian Rose and many more. Jack Hardy himself, known as a welcoming host for weekly songwriting workshops who also founded the Fast Folk magazine/label, is also included via two unreleased tracks recorded shortly before he died.

The 105-page liner notes include Hardy’s “Songwriter’s Manifesto,” complete lyrics, photos, and personal tributes, anecdotes, and essays from the participating singer-songwriters.

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The Jack Hardy Band – ‘Ponderosa’:

JOHN GORKA – The Bright Side of Down (Red House Records)

gorkaIt’s been a while since I last crossed paths with a John Gorka album, but, listening to this, his twelfth, I’m pleased to find a seamless transition from my memories. Indeed, if anything he’s now so seasoned that he makes everything feel effortless, delivering a sound that’s as comfortable as your favourite old slippers.

At times, as with the waltzing ‘Bright Side of Down’ he reminds me of classic Tom Paxton while at others there’s echoes of Bruce Cockburn,  notably so on the laid back ‘Thirstier World’, a timely (and metaphorical) renewal song about the approaching spring and its victory over long winters, a season and theme to which he returns on ‘Really Spring’. There’s a touch of Cockburn too on the opening ‘Holed Up Mason City’, written after being snowed in while returning home after a tour, which, despite the Cajun flavoured accordion, has a similar jaunt to ‘Wondering Where The Lions Are’. As musicologists will know. Mason City was from where Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper took their last flight and both are referenced here, a reminder that he has an easy but effective way with an image or a phrase as on ‘Outnumbered’, a fingerpicked love song with steady tap beat rhythm, where he sings “I was never a player, maybe in song but not in love

Unfortunately, the downside of Gorka’s mellow mood is that sometimes the lyrics are rather less inspired, the lazy and undeniably catchy fiddle and banjo dappled ‘Mind To Think’ rhyming damage with sandwich, ham and cheese apparently, while the otherwise smartly written appropriately bluesy JJ Cale groove ‘Procrastination Blues’ with its soulful female oooh ooohs succumbs to the obvious cliché of ‘don’t put off till tomorrow what you can fail to do today’. And it will take a massive effort of will not to wince at the cooingly catchy but twee overload of ‘Honeybee’’s “the only girl worth thinking of, the  honeybee doodle bug.”

Thankfully, Gorka’s warm voice, relaxed delivery and hummable melodies are ample distraction in such moments and any minor blips are more than compensated for by ‘High Horse’ (with its hint of John Prine), one of the album’s two best  numbers, which addresses the economic downturn where “the neighbourhood’s gone quiet since the good jobs went south” as the narrator asks an old friend for help “for Gracie if not for my sake” and talks about memories and “scissors for thoughts”. Likewise on the musically circling title track and second standout where, joined by Eliza Gilkyson and Lucy Kaplansky on the chorus, he sings of hope and survival, observing that “maybe the key is thoughtful words and deeds to open up the voices of your dreams.”

There’s one non-original number, an unadorned, acoustic guitar accompanied ‘She’s That Kind Of Mystery’, a song written by the late Bill Morrissey who is also the subject of ‘Don’t Judge A Life’, a moving, emotion-stained tribute to his friend sung with breathy tenderness as he asks us to “measure a life by what was best”, closing with a reminder of love and mortality and that “we are here and then…..we’re not”.

Celebrating 30 years since he first found fame at the Kerville Folk Festival, it’s a little late in the day to be a game changer for what has been a steady and acclaimed if commercially unspectacular career, but anyone who’s followed him on the journey will be more than happy.

Mike Davies

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Artist website: www.johngorka.com

Award-Winning Songsmith Susan Greenbaum Announces This Life

Susan Greenbaum committed the first sin of musicians: She quit her day job. After working as a corporate executive in Fortune 500 companies, she traded her power suits for performing and songwriting. Since then, the Harvard graduate is poised for success, having won several national songwriting awards, including the Smithsonian Songwriters Award, The Philadelphia Songwriters Project and released four albums independently. Now, Greenbaum is releasing This Life, her most insightful and engaging songs to date, distributed by Compass Records Group this January 31st.

Not only were the songwriting trophies a boost to Greenbaum’s career change, she won a national competition to be the opening act for Jewel and enjoyed overwhelming success on the tour, welcoming thousands of new fans. Prior to This Life, her most recent album of all-original songs, Hey, Hey, Hey! was lauded by Billboard for having songs with “hooks that drill into your brain; smart, organic production; and lyrical substance to make the music an interactive experience.”

Her success has not come without sacrifice, as the tragedy of personal loss lends itself to the depth to Greenbaum’s songwriting. The album-opening “This Life” is a reflective letter to her brother who passed away from brain cancer; she wrote the song a week before her wedding. “I was thinking about how he wasn’t going to be at my wedding but maybe he was, maybe he is somewhere safe and healthy and not in pain and able to at least look down on all of us. That’s the whole idea of the song­—a conversation with him.” Greenbaum instills a glimpse of hope and recovery in her music, even in songs inspired by tragedy.

The album is far from somber and includes high-energy singles such as “Big,” a lively recipe for fame and fortune. “It’s very me, it’s funny and cynical and it’s unafraid to really look at things and be blunt and honest and there’s positivity in it and there’s reflection in… It’s like, ‘Chop chop! Let’s get to it, let’s get famous!’” The album includes lighthearted love songs like “Penny on the Sidewalk” and even a novelty bonus track lamenting the consequences of the indecision of squirrels.

Recorded in Nashville at Compass Sound Studios and produced by Garry West and Alison BrownThis Life includes such esteemed musicians as multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Todd Phillips on upright bass, and the banjo of Alison Brown on the tracks “Virginia, the Home of My Heart” and “The Squirrel Song.” Says Greenbaum of the recording process, “Garry and Alison are very right-brained as well as very left-brained, and I am too, so we worked very well together. I had no idea what was going to happen, but it was one of the smartest risks I’ve ever taken!”

Greenbaum draws big, enthusiastic audiences who delight in her lively, diverse and powerful performances. Greenbaum has toured as a solo artist, playing such storied venues as The Bitter End in NYC, The Birchmere, Bethlehem Musikfest, Floyd Fest and Rams Head Tavern. In addition to touring with Jewel, she performed an acoustic set with Dave Matthews Band violinist Boyd Tinsley; sharing bills with Jill Sobule; and opening for Kenny Loggins, Patty Griffin, Dar Williams, Janis Ian, Jim Messina, Todd Snider, Tuck and Patti, Iris DeMent, Lucy Kaplansky, Lloyd Cole and Catie Curtis. Susan also endorses W.L Gore’s Elixir Strings.

Unafraid, brazen and under five feet tall, the dynamic Greenbaum shares an empowering message: “If you have something you know you love to do and you want to do it, you can do it! Follow your dreams!”

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