By Jeff Burger
In the late 60s and early 70s, Ian and Sylvia Tyson were among the brightest lights on the Canadian music scene, not only as performers but as composers of some of the era’s best folksongs. Their marriage and professional partnership fell apart in 1975, but in the current century, they’ve been garnering fresh attention via solo CDs as well as tribute albums. A multi-artist collection of covers of Ian’s compositions, The Gift, came out in 2007, for example, and in 2017, the great Tom Russell issued Play One More: The Songs of Ian & Sylvia.
Now we have a two-CD, 26-track collection of previously unreleased performances from the duo themselves that Sylvia recently unearthed while looking for material to place with the National Music Centre in Calgary. Though culled from a variety of early 1970s shows (no specific dates are listed), the set flows well; it makes you feel as if you’re listening to one concert.
Regrettably, the program includes only three originals, but they’re all lyrical and musical gems: “Four Strong Winds,” which Neil Young has called the most beautiful song he’s ever heard; “Summer Wages,” which is just about as terrific; and the lesser-known, upbeat “Four Rode By.” (Among the missing: Ian’s wistful “Someday Soon,” which Judy Collins memorably recorded, and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind,” a 1965 smash hit for California’s We Five.)
Perhaps the same instincts that helped Ian and Sylvia write great songs helped them spot fine ones to cover. Be that as it may, first-rate material dominates the rest of the program, which features such tracks as Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind”; Mel and Tim’s “Starting All Over Again”; Harlan Howard’s “Heartaches by the Number” (a 1959 chart topper for Guy Mitchell); Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” (a hit for both Faron Young and Patsy Cline); Buck Owens’s “Crying Time” (the huge Ray Charles hit, heard here in a duet by Sylvia and singer Lucille Starr); Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen”; and two standards often associated with the Carter Family, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Keep On the Sunny Side.”
As these titles suggest, the set taps multiple genres; country predominates, but there’s also blues, folk, pop, R&B, and even a number from rocker Rick Nelson. Ian and Sylvia handle it all well. Granted, they (and especially Ian) will likely be best remembered as writers of some classic songs. But as this collection will remind you, they were also a capable and versatile vocal duo.
Commander Cody and His Western Airmen, Live from Electric City. This CD, recorded at a Washington State music festival in September of 2018, finds Cody (aka George Frayne) performing with three longtime cohorts: bassist/vocalist Tim Eshliman, pedal steel and electric guitar player Sean Allen, and drummer Steve Barbuto, all of whom contribute vocals. The party-ready set, which profits from some virtuoso guitar work and honky-tonk piano, includes such well-known numbers as “Don’t Let Go,” “House of Blue Lights,” and “Truck Drivin’ Man.” It’s largely excellent, but I’d take issue with Cody’s liner notes assertion that “this is the best album I’ve done in 45 years.” There are a few weak moments, such as the puerile “They Kicked Me Out of the Band”; and to my ears, previous Cody recordings of some of these songs packed more punch, thanks partly to horn sections and prominent sax that are missing here.
Bill Scorzari, Now I’m Free. According to his website, New York–based Bill Scorzari originally planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer; and in fact, he did graduate from law school. It’s a good thing he had second thoughts, though, because Scorzari—who first played a guitar at age eight—seems to have been born to make music, as this third album confirms. Like the songs on his last CD, 2017’s Through These Waves, the ones here are all original, deeply personal and affecting; and Scorzari’s earthy vocals, which are just a bit less sandpapery than Dave Van Ronk’s, drive them home. With any luck, this guy is going places, and chances are, you’ll want to follow along for the ride.
Flamin’ Groovies, Live From The Vaillancourt Fountains. This 1979 San Francisco concert recording showcases the Flamin’ Groovies’ strengths while also helping to explain their failure to attract more than a cult following. The high-octane 16-song set includes “Shake Some Action,” “First Plane Home,” and four more of the group’s own compositions. But covers dominate, among them Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock” and “Around and Around,” Moby Grape’s “Fall On You,” the Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” the Beatles’ “From Me to You” and “Please Please Me,” and the Stones’ “Paint It Black” and “19th Nervous Breakdown.” The performances are capable and never less than fun; but the Groovies don’t add much to the material they cover; they mostly just evoke the fine originals.
Shane Alexander, A Life Like Ours. Three years after releasing Bliss, Shane Alexander is back with his seventh solo album. Like its predecessor, this self-produced effort mixes introspective, contemplative lyrics with mellow, folk-based, largely acoustic instrumentation. This gentle music isn’t designed for the dance floor; it’s more like what you’d want to hear while lounging in a hot tub with a glass of Chablis. Alexander wrote or cowrote everything except for “Nights in White Satin,” the Justin Hayward number. It’d be hard to beat the original but Alexander’s version, which sticks to the Moody Blues’ arrangement, is nevertheless excellent.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.