Various Artists: Beautiful Star: The Songs Of Odetta

One of my favorite music blogs Wears The Trousers recently started their own record label, and their first release will be a tribute to legendary folk singer Odetta. As a great fan of Odetta’s (I had the privilege of seeing her perform live at Mountain Stage), I’m so glad that Wears The Trousers showed her due respect by selecting a talented group of contemporary female singers to carry on her grand legacy. The tribute will be released on November 30th and all profits from its sales will be split between two charities (The Fawcett Society and The Women’s Resource Centre) that benefit women.

Linda Draper’s softly buoyant, harmonica-accented rendition of “Sail Away” opens the tribute, but it is Ane Brun’s haunting croon of “If I Had A Ribbon Bow” that truly conjures up the musical spirit of Odetta.

The pop sheen of artists like Gemma Ray and Haunted Stereo seems a little out of place here. “900 Miles” and “Santy Ano” are substantial enough songs to anchor any vocal and these versions are certainly catchy, but I think other singers (such as Dayna Kurtz and Pamela Means) would’ve been better suited to the kind of music Odetta recorded. Fortunately, this is the only remotely negative remark I can make about the album.

Madam’s eerie Patti Smith-like wail of “Waterboy” and Kellli Ali’s delicate interpretation of “All The Pretty Little Horses” are absolutely gorgeous.

Sandy Dillon’s live acoustic recording of “Can’t Afford to Lose My Man” and Josephine Oniyama’s “The Gallows Pole” are superb recreations of Odetta’s unique brand of gritty fierceness and mellow femininity.

The album includes two versions of “All My Trials,” one by Anaïs Mitchell and the other by Marissa Nadler. I personally prefer the first cover by the incomparable Anaïs Mitchell. Marissa Nadler’s atmospheric take is unquestionably pretty, but Mitchell’s inflective vocal phrasing better represents the organic nature of Odetta’s music.

Katey Brooks belts out “What A Friend We Have”, while Arborea puts a gentle, wistful spin on “This Little Light of Mine” for the finale.

Track List:
01 Linda Draper: “Sail Away Ladies”
02 Ane Brun: “If I Had A Ribbon Bow”
03 Gemma Ray: “900 Miles”
04 Anaïs Mitchell: “All My Trials”
05 Haunted Stereo: “Santy Anno”
06 Madam: “Waterboy”
07 Sandy Dillon: “Can’t Afford To Lose My Man”
08 Ora Cogan: “Motherless Child”
09 Josephine Oniyama: “The Gallows Pole”
10 Pepi Ginsberg: “Beautiful Star”
11 Society Of Imaginary Friends: “Another Man Done Gone”
12 Marissa Nadler: “All My Trials”
13 Kelli Ali: “All The Pretty Little Horses”
14 Katey Brooks: “What A Friend We Have”
15 Liz Durrett: “Chilly Winds”
16 Arborea: “This Little Light Of Mine”

Ora Cogan – Motherless Child (mp3 expired) *

*mp3 posted w/ permission of label

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Odetta: 1930-2008

I don’t often post here when celebrities die, but I was sad to hear about the recent death of Odetta due to heart disease. When I attended the legendary singer’s performance at Mountain Stage several years ago, I didn’t know much about her. Since then I’ve learned that Odetta was best known for her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, and that she counted among her fans Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and JFK. History aside, Odetta gave one of the most powerful and captivating live sets I’ve ever witnessed and I’m sorry that I won’t have the opportunity to see her again.

Maria Muldaur: Yes We Can!

Maria Muldaur’s Yes We Can! will be released on July 22th. Muldaur departs from her signature romantic blues sound for what she calls her first protest album. She covers thirteen peace-centric tunes originally recorded by Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Allen Toussaint, Buddy Miller, Edwin Starr, and even Garth Brooks, and is backed by “The Women’s Voices For Peace Choir” composed of legendary female singers, activists, writers, and other prominent women. Among them are Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Phoebe Snow, Odetta, actress Jane Fonda, Holly Near, Kimberly Bass, Rhonda Benin, Linda Tillery, Keta Bill, Annie Sampson, Jeanie Tracy, Valerie Troutt, Indian holy woman Amma, Maria’s daughter Jenni Muldaur (when is this girl going to record a solo album?), and authors Anne Lamott, Marianne Williamson, and Dr. Jean Shinoda.

Muldaur says regarding her thirty-fifth recording: “What’s been weighing on my heart and mind so heavy it hurts is the sad, deplorable, alarming condition of our Planet today – wars, nuclear proliferation, global climate change, rapid depletion and rape of the Earth’s once bountiful resources, genocide, poverty, starvation…If things in this world continue the war they are, there soon won’t be any people to make romance and babies, and no place to do so either!”

The opening cover of Earl King’s “Make A Better World” is adequate, but the lukewarm melody isn’t the best setting for Muldaur’s rough edged voice. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” is a much better fit, though I do wish there was as much depth to the arrangement as there is in Maria’s vocal. I think I would have enjoyed her soulful renditions of Edwin Starr’s “War” and “Why Can’t We Live Together” much more if I hadn’t heard similar versions on Joan Osborne‘s How Sweet It Is.

The group renderings of Toussaint’s “Yes We Can, Can” and the Buddy Miller/Victoria Williams jug band tune “This Old World” are fine enough and would undoubtedly be impressive in a live performance, but the famous ladies that make up the “Women’s Voices For Peace Choir” are natural leads and thus not the most harmonious background singers. The exceptions are the traditional “Down By The Riverside” and the finale “Everyone In The World”. The former unites these illustrious feminine voices into an anti-war gospel choir and the latter weaves them together into an ethereal, exotic hush.

A surprising favorite is the gospel style cover of Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free”. The majestic presence of Odetta, Joan Baez, and Holly Near with Muldaur transcend the original. It is worth purchasing the album just to hear these four eminent female voices together in one song.

In the end, it’s three Bob Dylan anti-war songs that prove to be the stand out tracks on Yes We Can and possibly the most powerful performances of Muldaur’s career. The album finally comes alive with the riveting “John Brown”, as the bluesy song gives Muldaur the proper outlet for her rich voice. “License To Kill” and especially the spine-tingling reworking of “Masters Of War” are also truly stunning.

The bottom line is that Muldaur has a substantial voice, these are significant folk songs, and there are some truly breathtaking moments on the disc. But objectively, her vocals don’t mesh nearly as well as with most of these tunes as they did on last year’s marvelously sultry blues collection Naughty, Bawdy & Blue (#8 on my Top Albums of 2007). This won’t matter to people who are more concerned with the lyrical message of peace, but I feel that the vocal performance and musical arrangements are more important when a singer chooses to cover the songs of others rather than write something original.

Maria Muldaur – Masters Of War (mp3 expired)

Maria Muldaur Official Site

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Shout, Sister, Shout: A Tribute to Rosetta Tharpe

Shout, Sister, Shout: A Tribute to Rosetta Tharpe features Odetta, Joan Osborne, Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Michelle Shocked, Phoebe Snow, Janis Iain, Marcia Ball, Victoria Williams, and more covering the songs of legendary soul and gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe was a pioneer of the electric guitar and her songs have previously been recorded by Elvis, Johnny Cash, and many others.

Rosetta Tharpe, also known as Sister Rosetta, was best known for her blues and swing versions of gospel standards recorded with Decca Records in the 1930s and 1940s. She played electric guitar, and performed with greats like Sidney Bechet, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong. She was also a regular performer at the infamous Cotton Club.

The album begins with Joan Osborne’s bluesy, soulful rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”. I’ve said before that Joan Osborne is a sadly overlooked and underestimated vocal talent. She proves that once again here. The song also features a lot of handclapping, courtesy of Osborne and each of The Holmes Brothers.

Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt both perform on “My Journey To The Sky”. Raitt plays guitar, while Muldaur’s voice alternates between her usual smokey blues tone and a wailing half-yodel. Muldaur was a key element to the creation of the tribute, gathering together many of the other artists for the project. She had the fortune of seeing Rosetta Tharpe perform live with The Staple Singers in 1962.

Toshi Reagon’s version of “Rock Me” is a funky, swaying rock song that sounds completely modern.

Odetta’s rich voice could make any song sound classy and full of meaning. Here she joins The Holmes Brothers in covering “Two Little Fishes And Five Loaves Of Bread”.

Michelle Shocked does a low key, bluesy, gospel cover of “Strange Things Happen Every Day”, which Tharpe originally recorded in 1944 with The Sammy Price Trio.

Maria Muldaur, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehl, and Tracy Nelson perform a jazzy, big band cover of the title track, “Shout, Sister, Shout!”. It’s the big draw of the album.

Phoebe Snow joins The Holmes Brothers on “Beams Of Heaven”, originally a duet between Sister Rosetta and Marie Knight. “Precious Memories” by Sweet Honey In The Rock has an oldfashioned spiritual sound.

Marcia Ball sings lead on the swinging “I Want A Tall Skinny Papa”, with Tracy Nelson, Maria Muldaur, and Angela Strehl as backing vocals. And it’s nice to hear the raspy vocals of Victoria Williams again on “My Lord And I”, accompanied by The Holmes Brothers.

Rory Block’s voice is deep and soulful on her twangy, blues cover of “Stand By Me”. Maria Muldaur and Tracy Nelson again join forces on “Up Above My Head”. And Joanna Connor’s strong, throaty voice can be heard on “Don’t Take Everybody To Be Your Friend”.

The album is worth purchasing simply for the Maria Muldaur songs, particularly “I Looked Down The Line (And I Wondered). Muldaur is up there with Odetta when it comes to the pure power and richness of her voice.

Marie Knight re-recorded “Didn’t It Rain” for the finale of the tribute. She toured and recorded with Sister Rosetta for over a decade back in the 1940s.

The album also features a fantastic bonus video of Sister Rosetta Tharpe herself performing “Down By The Riverside”. It’s a black and white clip of Rosetta singing the song and playing her electric guitar with a choir.

MC Records

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