The mythical folk group of Kate and Anna McGarrigle Mountain City Four reappears

The surviving members of the Montreal band performed alongside family and friends last week to mark the release of an archival album, featuring the sisters’ first recordings.

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Anna McGarrigle, who has kept a low profile in recent years, is standing on Parc Ave. outside Ursa, the small venue run by her niece Martha Wainwright, talking about her first band, Mountain City Four.

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They were a big deal in the Montreal folk scene of the 1960s and have mythical status, because it was the first time that Kate and Anna McGarrigle sang together professionally. The Quebec sisters would go on to be among the most acclaimed figures on the global singer-songwriter scene in the 1970s.

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“I think of endless rehearsals, which also happened to be our social life,” Anna said. “Just making music all the time. That was the main thing. That’s why we all attracted each other, because we all liked to sing. It was fun. We wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t fun.”

Mountain City Four got together for a magical concert in Ursa last Thursday. Original members McGarrigle and Peter Weldon were joined on stage by friends and family, including two former band members who joined later in the ’60s, McGarrigle’s husband Dane Lanken and Chaim Tannenbaum. Others who performed included McGarrigle and Lanken’s daughter Lily Lanken, Wainwright, and Kate and Anna’s sister Jane on piano.

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The original Mountain City Four lineup consisted of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Weldon, and Jack Nissenson. Kate died in 2010, Nissenson in 2015. Thursday’s live set was held to mark the release of the first Mountain City Four album, featuring live and studio recordings from the ’60s and ’70s, plus a song by 2012.

That night, listening to the songs, Anna felt the loss of her sister, who died of sarcoma at the age of 63.

“Just now it was on speakerphone and I could hear Kate’s voice, and obviously I miss her terribly and I miss Jack,” she said. “It would have been great if they could have been here. It’s funny that Martha and Kathleen Weldon (Peter Weldon’s daughter) are going to sing one of the songs that Kate and I sing, Motherless Children. I spend a lot of time with Martha, and she’s like Kate to me. When I’m at her house, I feel like I’m with Kate.”

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Mountain City Four did not write their own material. They covered folk, blues, and traditional songs, and the eclectic repertoire is evident on the self-titled album, which includes several songs recorded live in 1963 at the Fifth Dimension, a coffee shop on Ste-Catherine St. There’s The Log Driver’s Waltz, one of the most famous songs written by his friend Wade Hemsworth, sung here by Kate; the Elvis Presley hit written by Bill Monroe, Blue Moon of Kentucky, with Kate and Anna on lead vocals; Lead Belly’s song All the Good Times. The album ends with a 2012 La Sala Rossa recording of the traditional Shenandoah number, with Nissenson leading the way.

The band continued to play into the ’70s, often opening for Kate and Anna and playing on many of their studio recordings. The new album includes the first recordings of Kate and Anna.

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The driving forces behind the album’s release were Weldon and Jane McGarrigle, who are a couple. Weldon had a lot of old reel-to-reel tape lying around, and they felt this music had to be heard. Engineer Fred Bouchard cleaned up the original tapes, which were “almost beyond repair; the material on the original tapes was almost impossible to listen to,” Weldon said.

“What I like about this is that it’s so damn eclectic,” said Weldon, who worked for years as a professor of physiology at McGill. “None of us were considering a career in music, so we sang anything and everything. Anything we liked, from an Elvis Presley transcription of a Bill Monroe song to a Bach piece or an Israeli song. Lots of gospel songs. We loved the Staple Singers and old archival recordings of 1920s and 1930s blues and gospel singers like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson.”

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“Peter played this for me and I thought this is criminal not to be released to the world for people to hear because I thought it was beautiful,” said Jane McGarrigle. “The beautiful young voices and some intricate original harmonies, and the performance was beautiful. It just sounded fresh and had a real complement. I was determined that one way or another we would get this out. And by God, we did it.”

The album has been released by a Los Angeles-based legacy record company, Omnivore Recordings. For more information, see omnivorecordings.com.

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