Category: Susan Werner

Susan Werner, Classics:
Covers of Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel and more!

February 21st, 2009 — 09:13 pm

Pianist, guitarist, and singer-songwriter Susan Werner has built a career on performing a particularly potent form of contemporary folk — one which balances a fluid and nuanced sense of delivery with an unusually loose, almost jazzy sense of time in which every moment counts, and can be stretched out to maximum effect. I’ve seen Werner several times throughout her career, in large venues and small, and I’ve always been impressed by her ability to connect with the audience through song, and connect the song to our hearts.

But though the power of her classical training is evident in her masterful range of emotion and expert technique as a vocalist and keyboardist, and though the few covers she has performed over the years have certainly benefitted from her ability to perform, Werner is no mere interpreter of song. Her songwriting is wry and intelligent, infusing the everyday with poignancy; her everywoman’s eye gets to the heart of the matter, regardless of whether the subject is personal or political.

Her intimate, deliberate delivery, coupled with an eye for ennobling the ordinary, has long made her a darling of the coffeehouse set, where she stands out against so many syncopated strummers as someone who gets a genuine thrill out of giving every moment the meaning it deserves, and who has the precisely honed talent to deliver on that promise. And though her brand new album Classics, released just this month, represents a departure from her usual folk style, it was the promise of this talent, as applied to cover song, which was my entry point for the album.

The songs on Classics come from the pop canon of the sixties and seventies; cover fans will find familiar source material here, from Simon and Garfunkel to Marvin Gaye to Bob Marley, and as expected, each song is treated with the vocal power and nuance to make it sparkle and shine. But what makes Classics both unique and noteworthy is the way it doubles up on the usual source material, framing each cover in the instruments and genre settings of chamber and classical music, as performed by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. The chamber music arrangements add a second layer of coverage, setting popular lyrics and melody in familiar classical styles and motifs just as familiar to the average listener as the pop songs themselves.

It’s a daring approach, both as folk and as a sort of mash-up. Pairing Cat Stevens with a Bach string quartet seems like a stretch on paper. Putting Stevie Wonder up against a Chopin piano-and-strings setting sounds less like a productive collaboration than a parlor trick, an intelligent sort of froth doomed to be no more than nifty, and to be fair, until the familiar Chopin refrain kicks in at the end, it’s more parlour jazz than folk. But whether you call this folk or just a product of the folk process from a musician with the credibility of a master’s degree in theory and a decade or more of praxis, in the end, there’s no denying that with the release of Classics, Werner reveals a talent for arrangement which rivals her abilities as a chronicler and performer, pairing the two familiar genres so adeptly, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the way these songs had always existed, if only in potential.

Indeed, Werner is in rare form here, bringing all her various strengths to bear on the project, and revealing new ones in the process. And if, in the process, she reclaims classical chamber music as a real material for the folkprocess, it only demonstrates just how much wonder and power there is left to construct and discover from that process, when tackled by someone with the talent, training, and sheer ability, and a single, startlingly new concept.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a few streams from Classics, shared with permission…followed by a collection of older covers, and the usual bonus coverfolk. Head over to Susan Werner’s website for a few more streams from the album, and then pick up your own copy of Classics.

  • STREAM: Susan Werner: A Hazy Shade of Winter (orig. Simon and Garfunkel)
  • STREAM: Susan Werner: Maybe I’m Amazed (orig. Paul McCartney)
  • STREAM: Susan Werner: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (orig. Marvin Gaye)

…some older covers, from diverse sources:

  • Susan Werner: Vincent (orig. Don McLean)
    (from Time Between Trains, 1998; includes original hidden track)

…and today’s bonus coverfolk, which features two lovely covers of Susan Werner originals by folk trio and festival darlings Red Molly, who formed around an afterhours campfire after a late-night mainstage session that included Werner herself.

Special thanks to fellow fan and Star Maker Machine contributor Susan for helping me out with so many of the covers posted today. Serendipitously, Susan even posted one of my favorite Susan Werner originals over at SMM to close out our week of train songs — those interested in following the thread should definitely head on over.

1,046 comments » | Classical, Red Molly, Susan Werner

Death, Impending: Coversongs for an old friend

September 28th, 2008 — 10:40 pm

I was planning to use this weekend’s entry to celebrate the impending one year anniversary of Cover Lay Down. But last night the cat turned up yowling pitifully under the shrubbery along the front porch, and he wouldn’t come out. We couldn’t find a flashlight; in the end, my wife lit a tiny candle in the rain, I heaved aside the overgrowth, and she reached into the darkness to reel him in, his body limp.

That he didn’t tear us to shreds as we extricated him from the shrubbery was tellingly out of character. When we finally pulled him into the house, he was too unsteady to walk. When he tried to take a drink, he slumped against the edge of the bowl, tipping it into himself.

We tried to make him comfortable in a crate, and headed upstairs to bed, but at four, my sleepless spouse couldn’t take it any more. She bundled him up into the car, and drove almost an hour to the all-night vet clinic, where a battery of tests pointed to congestive heart failure, or worse.

Since then, we’ve spent an exhaustive day at the vets, a family waiting, gathering hope and losing it again, finally coming to accept the sad truth that after sixteen years of perfect health, Jacob is just too sick to go on for much longer. But I think we knew it in our hearts already, the moment we lost him to his nausea and pain. And though he is still technically with us now, the best we can do is make him comfortable, and hold him into the night.

I’m not a cat person, but Jacob’s place in our lives has always been much bigger than furballs on the laundry, the occasional half-eaten mouse at the door. Once, the cat was our only child, adopted off the streets, loved against our better judgement. Back when we were working food service, living in sin out of a series of truly awful apartments, Jacob was the first thing that made us bigger than just ourselves, and we doted on him as he grew, carrying him over our shoulder even as we moved and stretched, until we finally began knocking him down the hierarchy to make room for a dog, and, later, our two beautiful girls.

In the last few years I’ve taken him for granted, focusing my energies on our own kids. I’ve pushed him away, claiming allergies and limited attention, even as his origin story became a favorite bedtime story for each of my children in turn. I regret that loss keenly tonight.

Now the kitty sleeps the drugged, logy sleep of the dying, his core temperature dropping, his kidneys burned out beyond repair. He hasn’t eaten, and he won’t walk. The girls went to bed all cried out, their faces puffy from a long day of disappointment; my wife’s heart is broken, and we struggle to put words and brave faces to our grief as we ask the children to understand what it means to plan for painless death as a final gift of love.

But in the meantime, my small independent partner, brave mousehunter and constant companion, the only other man of the house, suffers in his newly-made bed. And since I cannot do anything else for him, I am left to grieve in the only way I know: by writing, and sharing, and praying out loud.

Grant me this forum, folks. It’s all I have. We’ll celebrate another day. For now, here’s a short, slow playlist of loss, for a beloved family member’s bedside vigil.

642 comments » | Bill Morrissey, De Dannan, Doug Marsch, Emmylou Harris, Eric Anderson, Greg Brown, Jill Sobule, Susan Werner

Red Molly: Never Been To Vegas (Gillian Welch, Susan Werner, Elvis and more)

November 7th, 2007 — 11:42 am

Though I spend plenty of time at the foot of the stage, I don’t usually care much for live recordings: I prefer the perfection of the studio to the roar of the imaginary crowd, and poor sound quality bothers my ears. But every once in a while, when there’s a good engineer at the sound board, something truly special results. Such is the case with Red Molly‘s strong first full-length album Never Been To Vegas — which, when added to their four-song in-studio EP, is the sum total of their recordings.

And, with the exception of a few previously-sung notables by Red Molly dobro player Abbie Gardner, every single song on these albums is a coversong.

The three folksingers that comprise Red Molly — Gardner, bass player/mandolinist Carolann Solobelo, and banjo/guitarist Laurie MacAllister — met around covers, so it’s no surprise that their entire recorded output consists of them. Formed from the early morning remnants of a latenight songcircle high above the darkened mainstage of Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, the trio returned to the festival two years later to win the highly-competitive FRFF Emerging Artist showcase. (Full disclosure: I’m crew chief for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival teen crew).

Since then, the girls of Red Molly have toured with the other 2006 showcase winners, opened for such luminaries as Jonathan Edwards and John Hammond, and come back to Falcon Ridge as featured performers, wowing crowds and winning admiration from fellow musicians with their sweet harmonies and full acoustic sound. Throughout, they’ve been playing covers — banking admiration for such time as they might return to either their own solo work, or a fuller existence as the rarest of American folk creatures: the folk group.

Mostly, Red Molly’s interpretations lean towards the Americana end of folk music — coverchoices include Gillian Welch, Hank Williams, and old traditional folk/gospel songs such as Darlin’ Corey and When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder. But regardless of subject, their tight crystal-clear harmonies and brightstringed musicianship bring each song forward as a gift to be shared, a glittering gospel.

Today we feature a trio of songs from the folktrio’s Never Been To Vegas, with kudos to engineer Dae Bennett for changing my mind about live recordings, even if this one turns out to have been recorded in a studio, not a coffeehouse. Don’t forget to check out the bonus songs below for a sweet pair of covers from their self-titled EP, and a wonderful version of You Gotta Move by Abbie and fellow 2006 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Showcase winner Pat Wictor.

  • Red Molly, Caleb Meyer (orig. Gillian Welch)
  • Red Molly, Coal Tattoo (orig. Billy Edd Wheeler)
  • Red Molly, Blue Night (orig. Kirk McGee)

Support these fast-rising, red-wearin’ women by buying Red Molly, plus solo albums from Abbie, Laurie, and Carolann, from CD Baby via the Red Molly website. While you’re there, follow the link to pick up this year’s Naked Folk Calendar (the girls of Red Molly were the November 2006 pin-up); all calendar profits go towards health insurance for struggling folk musicians.

Today’s bonus coversongs:

  • Red Molly wrings new life from old Elvis-covered chestnut Are You Lonesome Tonight…
  • …and jams through Susan Werner’s Yellow House
  • Abbie Gardner and Pat Wictor wail the doublesteel blues on You Gotta Move (orig. Mississippi Fred McDowell)
  • Previously posted: Red Molly covers Patty Griffin

34 comments » | Abbie Gardner, Billy Edd Wheeler, Elvis, Gillian Welch, Kirk McGee, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Red Molly, Susan Werner