Tuesday, January 27, 2015
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID WIFFEN - SONGS FROM THE LOST & FOUND
Wiffen bounced around the country in the '60's, playing folk and rock and country. It was a move to Ottawa that put him on the map, as he joined in with the scene there, making friends with folks such as Bruce Cockburn and Sneezy Waters. That led to him joining the group Three's A Crowd in 1966, along with Brent Titcomb. Mama Cass loved them, got them a record deal and co-produced their album Christopher's Movie Matinee, and the group toured all over North America. Eventually Cockburn and Colleen Peterson joined (among others) but the group never did break through. Wiffen was certainly noticed though, and released the solo album David Wiffen in 1971. It included his best-known song, the evergreen Driving Wheel. That tune became a favourite for folk rockers of the day, with Tom Rush and the The Byrds making it well-known. Its popularity has stayed strong to this day, with Cowboy Junkies, The Jayhawks, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and even Rumer covering it. Wiffen became a go-to guy for material, with many others raiding his catalogue, including Jerry Jeff Walker, Ian & Sylvia, Harry Belafonte, Anne Murray and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
Coast To Coast Fever is his classic album. Co-produced by Bruce Cockburn and Brian (Anne Murray/Emmylou Harris) Ahern, it featured Wiffen originals and numbers by friends Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Willie P. Bennett. That says it all, it has all the right players, producers and songs, but frustratingly could not punch through to a wider audience. It is, however, the kind of album that singer-songwriter fans speak of with reverence, Wiffen a peer to great Canadian songwriters such as Cockburn, McLauchlan, Valdy and Gordon Lightfoot (all were nominated for the JUNO award that year for best folk album, with Lightfoot winning.)
Fans of that album will certainly find lots familiar in this new collection. There is his rich storyteller voice, deep and wise, road-weary and hurt. Some of them are full band production, bolstered by Ottawa pals such as drummer Richard Patterson and guitar player Gary Comeau, both from '60's group The Esquires. Several are more spare productions, where there's no unnecessary cluttering of his acoustic sound. For the most part any additions to his guitar and vocals are background touches, harmonies and spare keyboards, second guitar parts. Most importantly, here are new words, new melodies, shot through with a blues that wasn't heard among those other contemporaries. Minor keys are common, the songs touching and striking. Your Room is about a crushed lover, with a stirring and beautiful melody, and tremendous guitar work from Frank Koller and Wiffen. Rivers feature in several of the songs, a source of hope and escape from those blues. Cool Green River, with its relaxed lope and pedal steel cheer, has a the titular river as the place where he'll take his love, to express himself in almost classic verse: "So give me your heart dear, say we'll never part. I'll put it in an envelope with all my greatest hopes." Add in a couple of fine covers, one by the young Ottawa folk writer Lynn Miles, and a classic Rolling Stones number, No Expectations, Wiffen somehow able to turn it into something tender. For anyone who ever thought they'd like to have another album to follow Coast To Coast Fever, I think it just happened.