GRACE GRIFFITH – Passing Through (Blix Street Records G2-10108)

Passing Through
Thanks to Irene Young for the photo. For more info on Irene visit http://ireneyoungfotocom

When the Maryland singer was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease in 1998, it cut short a career that, as well as working as a physical therapist, had seen her front two Celtic folk outfits, Connemara and the all-female Hag, partner Susan Graham White in Hazlewood, win numerous Washington Area Music Association Best Female Vocalist awards and sign a deal with Blix Records (the label she urged to sign her friend Eva Cassidy, just prior to her death in 1996), who reissued an expanded version of her self-released 1993 solo debut, Every Hue and Shade, as Grace.

While battling with the incurable illness, which causes, among other things, tremors, slowness of movement, and rigidity in the limbs, Griffith still managed to record and release a further three albums, the last, My Life, in 2006. Today, Griffith lives in Assisted Living accommodation in Washington, has problems walking, can no longer play guitar and has difficulty with her vocal control. However, she was determined to release one final album. So, in 2012, she began work on Passing Through, a collection of folk and Celtic songs, sometimes recording a complete number, sometimes just a word or sentence, with the support of long time producers Chris Biondo and Lenny Williams.

Although initially planned as an a capella project, once the vocals were complete, an array of musicians contributed to bring instrumentation to the sparse and subtle arrangements, among them Celtic harpist Sue Richards (to be heard on a lovely reading of Yeats’ ‘Down By The Sally Gardens’ and Anne Lister’s ‘May Morning’), frequent multi-instrumentalist collaborator Marcy Marxer on, among other things, flute, mandolin, guitar and bouzouki,   and, effecting a Hazelwood reunion, Susan Graham White, who adds vocals to the piano accompanied ‘Brigid’s Shield’, a self-penned Celtic ballad from her own Sounding Land album.

Given the crystal purity and rich warmth of Griffith’s soprano (a quick reference would be a cross between Cassidy and Judy Collins), you’d never guess the effort that must have gone into the singing, certainly not on the album’s two unaccompanied tracks, the traditional folk-styled ‘The Wood Thrush’s Song’, on which Cary Creed, Lynn Hollyfield and Jody Marshall provide background harmonies, and the solo vocal of ‘The Leaves of Autumn’, a reflective meditation on the changing seasons written specifically for the album by Jennifer Cutting.

Elsewhere, while hewing to the folk genre, the material ranges from the traditional to the relatively contemporary, the obscure to the very familiar, embracing ‘Bridget O’Malley’, a violin and cello accompanied Scottish ballad popularised in the 60s by Andy Stewart, Sydney Carter’s pealing ‘Loud Are The Bells of Norwich’ and a smoky, jazz-guitar backed reading of Nat King Cole evergreen ‘Nature Boy’.

As well as the tracks recorded for the project, there’s also four previously unreleased numbers that never found their way on to the previous albums, the gently jaunty, upright bass tumble of ‘Way Of The World ‘featuring Griffith harmonising with herself, the traditional ‘I Wish My Love Was A Red Red Rose’, a lovely, tender version of Rick Kemp’s pledge of friendship, ‘Deep In The Darkest Night’, originally recorded in 1983 by Maddy Prior, coloured by piano and whistle (though the sleeve notes say accordion) and, arguably the highlight among several standouts, a keening roots-country cover of Emmylou Harris’ ‘Cup Of Kindness’. The album closes with a a previously released bonus cut, the piano and cello accompanied version of Betsy Rose’s ‘Water, Fire and Smoke’ from her 1993 debut, and I defy you to hear any loss in the quality of her voice and delivery between then and now.

Putting the average X-Factor sob story into stark relief, that she has delivered an album of such beauty and, yes, grace, in such debilitating circumstances is astonishing and inspirational, but it’s   her singing not her illness that should be the prime focus, and that is a thing of wonder that needs no qualifications.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

Debi Smith’s ‘Hits & Holidays’ Strike Just the Right Note

DebiSmithOn Debi Smith’s latest album “Hits & Holidays” the vocalist with the three-octave range–– a member of the much loved U.S. folk group the Four Bitchin’ Babes and The Smith Sisters––turns her gorgeous vocals to an array of songs celebrating everything from Christmas to Collector Car Appreciation Day (That’s July 9th, by the way!).

The delight is that the diverse collection works beautifully. Although Smith has a voice that challenges the mastery of household-name divas, she never allows her styling to get overly stuffy or maudlin. Instead, she balances sentimentality with just the right amount of wit to make most of the album a play-all-year spin.

Doc Watson, Mike Auldridge, Tom Paxton and Marcy Marxer are among the artists who make appearances on this recent release. But despite the A-list guests, Smith’s vocals steal the show.

The classic ‘O Holy Night,’ ‘Pie,’ a cover of a Watson song, and ‘Keep on the Sunny Side,’ (upon which she duets with Watson) are among the stand-out tracks. Perhaps the most stunningly beautiful track, though, is ‘Mother’s Hands.’ Smith, a parent herself, sings with the heartfelt wisdom of someone who has experienced the joys and sorrow of life and love. But, again, the songs on this album don’t take listeners on a sentimental journey. For pure fun, take a listen to ‘Chevy Impala,’ which Smith wrote with her husband Michael Jaworek.

The bottom line: Whether it’s a holiday or not, Smith’s latest album is a hit.

– By Nancy Dunham


Cathy and Marcy – Rockin’ the Uke

Pete Seeger loved it. So did George Harrison. And now Baltimore-area based duo Cathy Fink and her musical partner Marcy Marxer are continuing to champion the lowly ukulele most recently with their new 13-track release “Rockin’ the Uke.”

Of course that’s nothing new for the duo, especially Marxer who has inspired the “Marcy Marxer Kala Signature Ukulele.” Still, it’s nice to be in good company with uke rocker Jake Shimabukuro whose version of “While My Guitar Gently Sleeps” was praised by many including George Harrison’s widow, Olivia. And of course British folk rock legends Fairport Convention have recently added their new song “Ukulele Central” from their 2011 album “Festival Bell” into their repertoire.

“We were at a Peter Frampton concert and he is the proud owner of the Marcy Marxer Signature Ukulele,” said Fink recently. “We think of this as the third renaissance.”

If that’s so, the duo has done plenty to jumpstart it including their diligent work with the annual Uke Fest at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Md. The event lures hundreds of new and veteran players who not only join in the hopes of breaking the Guinness Book of World Records’ 851-uke player record set in London in June 2009, but just to have some good times. The event is preceded by uke lessons for the newbie and diligent, but they certainly aren’t mandatory. Attendees can even buy ukes at the event and dive into the action.

“When you can look at putting the instrument in the hands of people, it really gets them engaged,” said Fink. “It helps people of all ages take a step beyond passive listening. The youngest person we’ve had was three and the oldest was 97. There are a huge number of teens that play and make up their own songs.”

Any that doubt the uke’s versatility need only listen to Cathy and Marcy’s latest disc that moves from classic folk and Americana with songs such as the “Hukilau” song to Hawaiian themed tunes to “Dark Eyes”, influenced by Django Reinhardt .

“We wanted to cover some territory that hasn’t been done,” said Fink. “That’s one reasons we took the “Hukilau” song. Everybody knows it but it isn’t really on their radar. It’s been on our radar for a long time.”

Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider the Grammy Award winning duo has recorded a host of albums that move from folk to string to children’s music. In a way, this album combines many of their musical passions.

“It has inspired us a lot in our songwriting,” said Fink of the uke. “We were in Hawaii a couple of years ago an wanted to write a song about the history of the uke and ended up making it a celebration of the uke. What makes [some of the songs] come alive is the addition of the cello and banjo. You have a ying and yang that makes it double fun. That is a combination that we have really, really enjoyed a lot.”

By Nancy Dunham