Debra Cowan's Among Friends: A Night at the Folk Club

Among Friends
Muzzy Music MHM812
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Here’s a CD that worth ordering online (dcowan@DebraCowan.com). The life of an independent folk musician is such a peripatetic one that performers delight in those tour stops that welcomed you like a family member. One of Massachusetts-based singer Debra Cowan’s favorite haunts is the Bacca Pipes Folk Club in West Yorkshire, England. Back in 2012 she decided to make a homespun live album, Among Friends, which she mostly sells just at her shows and online. For those unfamiliar with the concept, folk clubs once proliferated though, alas, they are increasingly rare these days. Think a organized version of a house concert in that they book entire seasons rather than one-off events, but they have the same intimacy as house concerts. That is to say, performers generally play before dozens rather than multitudes and those in attendance are hardcore devotees of acoustic music.

Among Friends is typical of folk club offerings––a few well known traditional songs (“Darlin’ Corey,” “Star in the East”), a few covers, lots of audience participation, and easy interaction between performers and spectators. Cowan has a big voice––one that can make you quake without instrumentation. Her take on “Darlin’ Corey” is one of my favorites of that old chestnut. We also hear her being a bit silly on her piratical cover of Jerry Bryant’s “The Dreadnaught Mutiny,” and in prodding the audience into a faux opera refrain on “Good Fish Chowder.” One of the crucial elements of cultivating a home away from home is knowing what’s important to locals. West Yorkshire was once a British mining and industrial center and retains strong working-class identity. There are several fine labor songs on this collection, including covers of two John O’Connor songs––“A Cold Day in November” and “Carpal Tunnel.” Two other standouts are “The Great Fast Food Strike,” the inspiring tale of how six Ohio McDonald’s workers stood up to the tyrannical clown who managed their shop; and “Dad’s Dinner Pail,” a nostalgic remembrance of shop culture.

Call this one a small gem––one as unpretentious as, well, a well-established folk club filled with locals that cherish a pleasant night of song.  --Rob Weir


War Horse, the Play: Imagination Trumps CGI

Joey the 'Horse'
I’ve just had a glorious and magical evening. After getting shut out of the play War Horse in both New York and London, I finally caught it in a local cinema, courtesy of a National Theater Live broadcast from London. Viewing an NT Live! production in an American cinema isn’t as good as strolling the South Bank of the Thames before taking in a show, but it’s cheaper and the view is better. But that’s not what has me juiced about seeing War Horse.

The play is touching, sweet, and moving–a sort of My Friend Flicka adapted for the trenches of World War One. A cynic make say that the narrative is a bit ‘thin,’ and so it is, but it’s a different kind of storytelling. It’s the kind that lives in the imagination and asks viewers to fill in the blanks in ways that films, video games, and CGI effects sometimes fail to engage both brain and heart. For those who think maybe we’ve become too slick for our own good, the play proves that the simple done well triumphs detached sophistication. Think I exaggerate? Director Nick Stafford did something very few have done: he kicked Stephen Spielberg’s butt.

As I’m sure you know, in 2011 Spielberg brought War Horse to the screen. It was neither a hit nor a bomb. The movie cost $70 million to make and it covered costs in the U.S. market–just barely; it ranks a mere 22nd (of 27) on the Spielberg movie moneymaking machine. The play War Horse made more on American stages than Spielberg on the screen. The London numbers are astronomical–as are those in Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Dublin, and Berlin. In addition, they play generates millions more though NT Live broadcasts. Now consider that there are roughly 260 professional theaters in the entire of the United States and over 40,000 movie screens. Spielberg’s film may have made marginally more money through foreign and DVD releases, but if you break it down by revenue-per-venue, Stafford creamed him.

How did a guy working with a bare stage, a revolving turntable, some sticks, a swath of torn sheet, a slide projector, and puppets trump the king of movie fantasy? Simple: Stafford beat him at his own game. Spielberg told us the story; Stafford made us feel it. Spielberg showed us; Stafford asked us to dream. Spielberg gave us stunning detailed visuals; Stafford gave us bare bone essentials and invited us to imagine. The play’s ‘horses’ are little more than thin metal rods and gears held together by cable and covered in strips of leather. As many as six puppeteers at a time work the ‘horses,’ some partially visual inside the exoskeletons and others in plain view manipulating the puppets. Except, soon, we don’t see them at all. In our mind’s eye chestnut red “Joey” and midnight black “Topsoil” are mighty steeds. There is a moment in the play in which Joey is an awkward colt being trained by teenaged Albert. As he is being galloped around and around in a circle, the colt puppet frame vanishes and Albert is astride a stallion. The audience gasped. Game, set, and match to Stafford.

But I have not come to bury Stephen Spielberg–rather to praise flights of fancy. We live in an information age, but we sometimes take this too literally. Too much information can overwhelm; it can also blunt creativity, fantasy, and thought. Sometimes we confuse images with imagery. Like him or not, Stephen Spielberg is a master storyteller, but at least in this case, he gave us too many pictures and left too little to the imagination.

I was exhilarated when I left War Horse. I felt that sense of wonderment that was so strong when I was a boy and (alas!) is under exercised by most adults, me included. I experienced the rapture that comes from actively engaging in a story rather than passively receiving it. It was–magic. All hail the wizards, shanachies, tellers of tall tales, wordsmiths, raconteurs, fabulists, poets, actors, minstrels, sleight-of-hand con men, and other casters of cantrips who amuse us, but also have the power to make us muse.  Rob Weir


A New Matt and Shannon Heaton for St. Patrick's Day

Tell You in Earnest
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Just in time for St. Paddy’s Day–a new CD by Matt and Shannon Heaton. This Boston-based duo is best known for their spirited instrumental duets–Matt on various guitars and bouzouki, and Shannon on flute and accordion. This time, though, they dust off their vocal chops on a tight ten-track release themed on conversations between men and women. It opens with “Cruel Salt Sea,” a delightful variant of “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight” (Child Ballad # 4) in which the rogue is the victim, not the maiden. Okay so the lady goes down with her paramour in “Demon Lover,” but most of the dialogues between the sexes are less harrowing than these two. In fact, the Heatons have impressively assembled songs in which women tend to fare better than men. If you think that’s an easy task, sample some old ballad texts and get back to me. Poor Johnny ends up love struck and alone in “Lovely Annie,” William returns to Nancy in “Mantle of Green,” and soldier Ted comes home to his mother, “Mrs. McGrath,” albeit missing his legs.

These song titles may sound familiar to you. Indeed, most are centuries’ old. But one of the release’s small surprises is that most of the arrangements are less familiar. Another is the vocal work. Shannon usually stands before the microphone with her flute; if you’ve not heard her sing much, you will be pleasantly surprised by her warm and melodious tones. Matt also takes a few leads. He lacks Shannon’s range, but his light tenor voice offers contrast–always important for a duo album. The one misstep, in my view, was the decision to rearrange Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightening” as if it might be a recent Irish ballad. This song screams out of for grit, attitude, and insouciance, not a smooth rendition. and especially not one in which the guitar plays, so to speak, second fiddle. But nine out of ten will get you an A- and that’s pretty darn good. And I bet there’s one thing on this album you’ve never heard: the Thai ballad “Mon Rak Dawk Kam Tai” arranged for cello and electric guitar. Okay, it’s not a St. Patrick’s Day selection, but wash down your curry with a Guinness and you’ll be fine.

Rob Weir  

PS--The album won't be officially released until April 5, but you can order it now and hear bits of it on the Heatons' Website.