I first got to see Kate and Anna McGarrigle live at the New Victoria Theatre on February 19th 1977 when they had just released their debut album, the eponymous ‘Kate & Anna McGarrigle’ and were about to release their second ‘Dancer With Bruised Knees’. There’s no set list available for that night and 44 years later, there’s nothing in my memory bank but just a couple of months later they played at The Bottom Line in New York and played 6 tracks from their debut album and 6 from their second so I’m guessing the set list in London would have been something similar. Although I can’t remember what they played, I can remember the shambolic nature of the gig. At times they didn’t know what song they were singing next and what instrument they should be playing but it was terrific fun and a superb never to be forgotten evening and it was joy hearing songs from an album I loved the moment I heard it and still love, all these years later.
The album starts with the jaunty ‘Kiss And Say Goodbye’ which gets the album off to a joyous start. Written by Kate, it starts with a barrelhouse piano and Kate’s soulful voice before some “whoopees” come in, then brass and even a saxophone solo from Bobby Keys before for the first time we hear the sister’s fabulous sibling harmonies which are a big feature of this and all their albums. This is followed by Anna’s ‘My Town’ a sad tale of leaving home. The third track is Kate’s ‘Blues In D’ a song that sounds as if was recorded in New Orleans in the 1920s – in fact the whole album has an old-timey, rootsy, homespun, analogue feel that gives it a timeless quality that has lasted well into the digital age. Then comes what is the album’s best-known song, the gut-wrenching ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ which was covered by Linda Ronstadt (amongst others) and used as the title of her bestselling 1974 album. This is followed by one of the three covers on the album, Wade Hemsworth’s ‘Foolish You’ which is given an Appalachian feel with the use of banjo, accordion and fiddle. The six track is the wonderful, wistful and much covered ‘(Talk To Me Of) Mendocino’, Kate’s song about leaving New York and travelling across the USA to California and is probably the finest song about crossing that vast continent of which there are many. And that’s the end of side one – well this is an 1977 vinyl album after all!
Side two opens with the jaunty, brass led ‘Complainte Pour Ste Catherine’ the only song on the album that’s sung in French by the French-Canadian sisters. This is followed by ‘Tell My Sister’ written by Kate who sings about the weatherman forecasting bad weather and how she has to escape it and get home to blue skies and to see her sister and her mother. The place with terrible weather she needs to escape from is ‘That green and pleasant land between the channel and the sea’ i.e. England! The third track on side two is another cover ‘Swimming Song’ from Loudon Wainwright III, Kate’s soon to be ex-husband and father to Rufus and Martha. It’s another song with an Appalachian feel featuring banjo and accordion. This is followed by ‘Jigsaw Puzzle Of Life’, a waltz written by Anna which contains the marvellous lyric ‘We are like interlocking pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of life’ which could refer to her husband, journalist Dane Lanken but could just as easily be about her very close relationship with Kate. The penultimate track is Kate’s ‘Go Leave’ which is almost certainly aimed at the departing Loudon and contains the heart-breaking and heart-felt lyric ‘Go leave, don’t come back. No more am I for the taking but I can’t say that my heart’s not aching – it’s breaking in two’. Backed by a simple acoustic guitar, Kate’s plaintive solo vocal defies the listener not to have a tear or two in their eye by the end of the song. The album ends with the uplifting gospel song ‘Travellin’ On For Jesus’ with its choir of friends and family backing the sister’s lead vocals. The last word on the song and the album is ‘Amen’ – so be it.
Superbly produced by Joe Boyd and Greg Prestopino and recorded at A&R Studios in New York and Sunwest Studios in Los Angeles, the sisters are backed by some of the finest session musicians around such as Steve Gadd and Russ Kunkel on drums, the aforementioned Bobby Keys (probably between Rolling Stones sessions) on saxophone, Lowell George, David Spinoza and Andrew Gold on guitar and Red Callender on bass with Kate and Anna themselves on keyboards, banjo, accordion and piano etc.
It’s somewhat surprising that two unknown, French Canadian songwriters came up with one of the finest Americana albums of all-time but with this album they certainly did. Coming in at just over 35 minutes, it may be short but it’s perfectly formed (apart from its awful cover photo). With the sad death of Kate in 2010, the sisters as an act are no more but they leave a legacy of nine masterful albums which will live on forever, reminding us of what superb singer-songwriters and musicians Kate and Anna McGarrigle were and it all started with what I’m offering up as my personal “Classic Americana Album”.