Saturday, September 22, 2012

Political Music: New CDs from Bill Bourne and Annabelle Chvostek

Just when you think you’re on top of all the stuff you need to review, the mailman arrives and drops a pile of CDs into the mailbox. I pile them up in front of my computer so I remember the order in which they arrived. I simply don’t have time to listen to all of them. I’ll pop one in to the CD player every once in awhile and try to work through it, but if it’s a good one I get distracted from what I’m supposed to be doing, and if it’s a bad one I may never give it another chance. And when I say a bad one, I don’t necessarily mean that the artist and his/her music has no redeeming qualities, I simply mean it didn’t grab me on first listen. The trouble with having so much to listen to is that you may never get back to something just because so much more has arrived in the meantime.

I caught Albertan Bill Bourne in concert a few months ago when he was touring an album called Bluesville. It was a revelatory show (and CD) featuring a band with an African guitarist that provided incredible energy and drive behind Bill’s acoustic guitar and distinctive voice. Before the show, Bill sat in the lobby of the theatre, on a chair, tuning up, just him and his big old Gibson. Then he walked over to the stage and began to play just the same way. Bill and that big old Gibson. They both grace the cover of his new CD, Songs From a Gypsy Caravan, on True North Records. The portrait was painted by Bonnie Roberts and captures Bill’s intensity and his focus and is representative of the music on the CD.

The CD is solo, just Bill and the Gibson and a foot-stomp box. Well, for a stinging change of pace from the finger-picked bluesy folk songs that comprise the rest of the album, he does pick up an electric guitar for “We Animal” which he plays bottleneck style. Bourne is a political person. His Facebook page is filled with links to new items that give one pause, or make you shake your head. His songs range from the spooky opener, “Scent of the Bloom,” which gets into the head of a sociopath, to Bill’s renditions of traditional folk songs like “Hand on the Plow” (which appeared on Bob Dylan’s first album). Bourne’s guitar playing is assured, and his voice is strong (reminds this listener of John Hiatt). After the African experiments of Bluesland this is a fascinating reversion to a stripped-down sound. Whether solo or with a band Bill Bourne is unafraid to take us to new places.

Annabelle Chvostek spent two years as one of the Wailin’ Jennys assisting with their Juno nominated album Firecracker. After going solo (again) in 2007 she released Resilience which many saw as her solo debut (even thought she had put out three of her own records previous to joining the Jennys)! Now she has put together a band called the Annabelle Chvostek Ensemble and released a new and powerfully political CD entitled Rise. Produced by ex-Rheostatic Don Kerr and mixed by Roma Baran and Vic Stoll the album sounds great. Its full sound features guest vocals by Bruce Cockburn and Oh Susanna, guitars by David Celia and percussion by Debashis Sinha, but this is completely Annabelle’s album. It starts with her mandolin riff leading into “End of the Road,” a song about the students’ Occupy movement in Montreal, and features a percussive backing of casseroles dishes played by Don Kerr and Annabelle. This echoes the pots and pans the students banged on earlier this year as they protested Bill 78 in Quebec. The second song is called “G20 Song” which refers to the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. Having just spent last weekend in Muskoka where the Harper government built a lake (in a county which is filled with lakes) one understands the attitude of protest that led to the unfortunate violence and oppression of that weekend in June.

Did I mention that the album was political? How appropriate in Woody Guthrie’s 100th anniversary that songwriters continue to take on the government in lyric. The third song is “Baby Sleep ‘till Sturovo” and the lyrics seem to capture a long history in only a few verses.

“River Danube flooded high
I’m in the train a-rolling by
Water reaches toward the track
Hilltop castle safe from attack

What used to be, what used to be
The saviour or a sword through the belly
Red as the spill at the factory
Brought by the empire’s own army”

It goes on to conclude:

“Count your seed and store them well
Save them from the after-hell
A fruitful garden will again swell

Baby sleep ‘till Sturovo
Then we gotta pack up and go
Baby sleep ‘till Sturovo
Then we gotta pack up and go”

I think I would want to “pack up and go” too. Not sure if Chvostek is talking about a specific incident, or is just describing fleeting images as her train passed the city. Either way the song is one that you won’t forget.

In fact, that’s true of the whole album, in fact. As mentioned above, guests include vocals from Bruce Cockburn and Roma Baran, who adds Weissenborn guitar to “Ona (In Toronto I Get More Hugs, In Montreal I Get More Kisses)”. Chvostek wrote ten songs for the album, and plays a variety of instruments from mandolin and guitar to accordion, kanjira and tuba! The CD concludes with two covers. Lou Reed’s “Some Kinda Love” from the Velvet Underground’s third album (1968) is taken at a slow pace, and features Annabelle’s own acoustic guitar over subtle percussion. She sings so much better than Lou! The last song is “Equal Rights” by Peter Tosh. It’s the message not the reggae that matters here.

“Everyone is crying out for peace yes
None is crying out for justice

I don't want no peace
I need equal rights and justice”

Annabelle Chvostek has given us an album that speaks to the state of the world in 2012, and wrapped the message in a beautiful acoustic wash. She’s as mad as hell, but she tells it to you with such style that you’ll be listening to her for a long time.

The pile of CDs got a bit shorter, but then the mailman arrived and dropped off some new blues music from Chicago, and Irish guitar player, an album of Andean Blues and a bunch more. When will it end? For this week, these two discs from north of 49 will do just fine.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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