Tuesday, September 19, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE MILLER BAND - ULTIMATE HITS

Miller has always been an outsider in the music world, never quite fitting in with whatever scene he was working in. An early blues guy, he could have been hanging with players such as Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, but instead he and buddy Boz Scaggs ended up in San Francisco when the Airplane and the Dead ruled. Despite some hits, he dropped off the radar until The Joker made him an unlikely Top 40 star. Liking that, he squirreled away from a couple of years to craft a set of ridiculously catchy pop-rock hits that ruled the charts from the albums Fly Like An Eagle and Book of Dreams. But Miller didn't have the star power to sustain that huge stature, and he drifted off in the '80's, returning to blues when he felt, popping up just enough to avoid the Where Are They Now category.

He's still a staple of classic rock, so every few years another best-of pops up, and this is one of the most comprehensive, two discs and 40 tracks. That's where the actual breadth of Miller's career becomes obvious. There are lots of tracks from the big two 70's albums, including the hits Take The Money And Run, Jungle Love, Jet Airliner, Rock 'n Me and Fly Like An Eagle, they are also supported by much-loved album cuts like Dance, Dance, Dance and Wild Mountain Honey. There's also an excellent, previously unreleased demo version of Take The Money And Run that shows the painstaking work Miller did crafting those two albums.

If that's all you know about Miller, there will be lots of surprises. It starts with a previously released, but not very well-known piece of tape, made when Miller was five. It features him singing for his godfather, the one and only Les Paul, who says Miller is a talent already. If it was another, higher profile rock star, this would be a legendary story, but it's barely known even by fans of the faceless Mlller. The list of tracks from his early days is impressive, including Living In The U.S.A., Space Cowboy, Gangster of Love and Kow Kow Calculator. For several of the songs of this era, Miller uses recent live versions instead. Although I'd rather have all originals, these tapes have been glossed up so much, they really do mirror the regular studio takes.

The post-Abracadabra era is rushed through in just six tracks, a bit of a slight really, and the near-hits Ya-Ya and Wide River are ignored, but certainly most of the highlights are covered. Even if you have a single CD of Miller hits, there's probably enough different here to beef up your collection.

Monday, September 18, 2017

MUSIC STORY OF THE DAY: REFLECTIONS ON ANOTHER HARVEST FESTIVAL

Tommy Green Jr. and Sr. watch Matt Andersen at Harvest
Another Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival has finished, the 27th Fredericton has put on. I've seen almost all of them, including the very first, and watched it grow into one of the premier music festivals in the country. It has attracted plenty of big names over the years, certainly bringing in talent that would never play this far-flung, relatively small community normally, such as Phish mainman Trey Anastasio this year.

If you haven't had the pleasure before, Harvest takes over most of the downtown in Fredericton for six days, using every venue available, and making venues where they ain't. Tents huge and little are pitched in parks and parking lots, a few hundred to see Hollerado, a couple of thousand at Sloan, even more at Steve Earle and the Dukes. You can choose a local bar for a more intimate (but still crowded) evening, or snatch a coveted ticket to see Bruce Cockburn launch his national tour and new album in the soft-seat Playhouse. That's just for starters. Then there's all the free shows through the days and evenings, which can feature local newcomers or Juno winners such as bluesman Garrett Mason.

But I'll argue the stars of the festival aren't the music acts, as top-notch as they always are. It's the crowds. I don't mean the behaviour of the crowds, or the numbers that turn up, although these are both impressive. Crowds are made up of many individuals, and each person who attends Harvest makes their own unique experience. Each has their own story, which they are happy to share in between sets or in line. There's the group of six women, longtime friends, who go each year together. No partners allowed, nobody getting in the way of that special bond. They take the week off work, start early in the day, and don't let up the whole week, dancing and laughing at every show. There's the guy who moved away long ago, has spent most of his lifetime in Ontario, but returns just for that event each year, a holiday to see whatever old friends he runs into in the tents.

Those are common stories. Babysitters long ago found out there were small fortunes to be made Harvest week, as people would go out every night early and stay out late. It's getting to be as popular as Christmas as a holiday week, with many people requesting vacation days. There's actually a trending meme, musical notes surrounding the phrase, "It's the most wonderful time of the year," People greet you with Happy Harvest! And they talk. They talk to people they haven't seen in years, they talk to total strangers. They make new friends. and hang out for the night with people they just met.

After going to the Bruce Cockburn show, I was standing in the tent crowd watching the antics of The TransCanada Highwaymen, the new supergroup made up of Chris Murphy of Sloan, Steven Page (ex-BNL), Craig Northey of Odds and Moe Berg (The Pursuit of Happiness). All hits, and lots of laughs. Next to me was a woman holding the new Cockburn album, signed from the show, and we started talking about him and the Highwaymen. It was Phyllis Grant's first time at the festival, and she'd made the trek from Pabineau First Nation on the North Shore. Grant is an interdisciplinary artist, a filmmaker for the NFB, an animator, a rapper, a writer, and community leader. She was asked to be an official Canada 150 Ambassador this year, a tricky job for someone who is Mi'gmaq. The idea that the country is only 150 years old is a ridiculous idea for a people that has been on the land for millenia. But she accepted, so she could use the position to celebrate the resilience and achievements of First Nations people, and as a way to open up dialogue in the community. A Harvest hello led to an eye-opening conversation for me.

Another night I got a note from the musician Tommy Green Jr., in town for Harvest, asking if we could meet before the Matt Andersen show, so he could hand over his latest release. A good chat was had, and later we were joined by his father, Tommy Sr. It only took about two minutes to discover we were the same age, had attended UNB the exact same years, and knew about 50 of the same people. How we hadn't met during all that time was a surprise, and Tommy Jr. was loving it. He confided how great it was to have his dad join him at the concert, as the above picture attests.

These are small moments, but day after day they add up at Harvest, for me and everybody else that makes up that crowd. People often talk about community spirit, but it takes special events to bring out those moments when the chemistry is just right. Of course, not everyone will take part, have positive experiences, or even enjoy a music festival like this. But when so many do, it really is a special community event, and that's what has made the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival such a success.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID MYLES - REAL LOVE

My first thought on hearing the lead track Night & Day was wondering what kind of effect producer Daniel Ledwell had used on Myles' voice to make him sound like a vintage rockabilly singer. It turns out, apart from a little reverb, he used nothing. That's because Myles, after a little vocal work on his tired pipes (he tours constantly), he has returned to his more natural range, which he used way back on his first recordings. He's able to croon almost Elvis-like on some low tones, as the Myles band grooves semi-acoustically on that cut and the title track, clearly influenced by late '50's singers and production.

This isn't a genre celebration though. Cut three, Night After Night, introduces a noir-orchestral sound, complete with Kinley Dowling's strings, a mysterious mood, a pulsing R'n'B chorus and the big backing voices of Reeny and Mahalia Smith. Knock Out has the sly Mussel Shoals country-soul sound, spare and all groove. If You Want Tonight could have been cooked up at a cowboy campfire, or the lead singer of a doo-wop group's solo number underneath the streetlight.

It's retro but it's not, because there's such a huge mix of styles, mostly old dogs, but a few new tricks too. Myles has grabbed bits and pieces from favourite records and performers, mostly '50's and early '60's, from all over the pop spectrum of that day, and used them at will, so that the influences are never really singular and are hard to identify. Meanwhile, the lyrics are mostly timeless, but if anything, are more modern. In the song Stupid, he asks "If you met Mike Tyson, would you try to start a fight?" In the end, it's simply a reflection of Myles, an old soul in a handsome new suit.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BRUCE COCKBURN - BONE ON BONE

Bruce Cockburn reaches another milestone later this month when he's inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, but instead of a victory lap, this new album sees him at the top of his game. It's a welcome return too, as he hasn't released a new album of songs since 2011's Small Source Of Comfort, after putting all his creative energy into his 2014 autobiography Rumours Of Glory, and a new daughter born during that time as well. But the bug returned when he accepted an assignment to write a song for a documentary on the poet Al Purdy, an experience when led to all these songs.

It's always good news when Cockburn puts his spirituality forward, a particular and unique faith that also encompasses his world view and personal politics. It's also heard loud and clear in several songs here that have a blues-gospel feel, aided by members of his church choir on lively vocals. Returning too are long-time producer Colin Linden (Blackie & the Rodeo Kings) and his core rhythm section of Gary Craig and John Dymond, pretty much the top roots group in the country. Everything from Cockburn's gentle trance-hymn 40 Years In The Wilderness to his cover of Rev. Gary Davis's Twelve Gates To The City is from that well where music is food for the spirit.

Of course, Cockburn's no softie, and his righteous anger and biting observations are still powerful. False River takes on the Kinder Morgan pipeline project in B.C., while Cafe Society puts us in the coffee shop overhearing the cappuccino drinkers making inane comments on current events. Elsewhere there's an instrumental, a song in French, and of course, Cockburn's tremendous guitar work, all the touchstones and moments we've cherished over his 50-year career. This album has the qualities that should leave it placed among his very best.

Bone On Bone will be launched Friday, Sept. 15 with a show at the Fredericton Playhouse during the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival.

Monday, September 11, 2017

MUSIC NEWS OF THE DAY: MARTHA WAINWRIGHT HEADLINES FIRST SHOW OF HARVEST FESTIVAL

Martha Wainwright is still touring in what she calls the "record cycle", which means in support of her latest album, Goodnight City, which came out last November. She heads to the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival as a sidebar to a set of U.S. and Western Canadian dates in October, a quick jaunt east from her home in Montreal to play Fredericton and two nights at a small club in P.E.I.
 
That means she won't bother with her band for the trip, but she often plays solo, and lots of her fans prefer the openness that brings to her set. "It's gonna be me and the guitar," Wainwright says. "It's so different, obviously it's less about the record, and way more about the songs. When you're playing it solo you have the freedom to divert somewhat. And the connection with the audience when you're playing solo is a very different thing as well. I have a tendency to stop in the middle of songs and talk, I'm very chatty, so it creates a different vibe. Solo can also be a lonelier existence, so I would not want to do it all the time. I like the companionship of the musicians, but there's also a great power in being up there on your own."
 
It also means she doesn't stick to the usual promotional duties for a new album.
"I'll be doing songs from all of my records, and even some songs that aren't on records, so more of a retrospective at this point," she says. "It's more interesting for me to do it that way."
 
It's pretty interesting for the audience as well. She says people shouldn't expect a slick performance. "I show up with the guitar, sometimes I break a string and I'm scrambling around," describes Wainwright. "There's not much artifice. There's a preparedness from the last 20 years of doing it, but what I'm showing is myself, or these days, a side of myself that's on display. I enjoy it that way."
 
Much of Wainwright's career has been about honesty. She has laid a lot out there in her songs for people to see, and not much has to be read between the lines. Marriage, family, fears and feelings all are grist for the mill, but she points out it's not about the facts, it's the emotions that she explores.

"My most well-known song, which was about an argument that I had with my father (songwriter Loudon Wainwright III), I'm sure that was upsetting to him." It was called Bloody Mother F***ing A**hole. "It was something where you're really going for it, it was very beneficial for me, and I don't take that lightly. I think that people really appreciated the rawness of it, even more than it being about somebody in particular. And I think that that's sort of what I'm striving for, not so much talking about my marriage and my kids specifically, but more sort of about these feelings that we all share that sometimes don't get spoken about in pop music."
 
Although born in New York, Wainwright spent of much of her youth in Montreal, along with her brother Rufus. She's been back in that city for four years, but still doesn't quite know where she fits in the Canadian music scene.

"I've always felt a bit of an outsider," she says, "although I'm very much an insider, being that my family are musicians and coming from this Canadiana tradition through my mother (Kate McGarrigle). When I was in the States as a singer-songwriter, although my music was folk-based, it was never particularly Americana, and I wouldn't call it Canadiana either.

"My career really started in England, as happens to a lot of songwriters. It's certainly what happened to my father. I also play a lot in Europe, and a lot in Australia, so there's an international element to what I do, and certainly North American, but I don't find that the songs are particularly placed, in a sense of place. I find that they are more living in a kind of emotional state more than anything, certainly more than political or topical. They're a little borderless."
 
Borders and boundaries, geographical and personal, will be happily ignored onstage at The Playhouse in Fredericton Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 7:30 p.m., as Martha Wainwright plays the first show of the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival. Brent Mason and Jessica Rhaye open.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BRENT MASON - HIGH WATER MARK

The backbone of the Saint John, N.B. music scene, Mason's always been a rootsy singer-songwriter, but here throws a curveball with a few "country-ish" numbers, as he describes them. The first two cuts fall in that description, especially The One That Got Away, aided by the excellent Ray Legere on fiddle and mandolin. But just as soon as I started the "Brent's gone country" notes, The Other Side Of Blue came grooving over the speakers, a tight little funky number with the Maritime master organ player Kim Dunn adding the smooth, and Saint John singer Jessica Rhaye providing a striking backing vocal, as she does on four cuts in total here.

Mason himself is singing strongly as well, perhaps inspired by the turnout of plenty of East Coast players, as well as his regular band and multi-talented producers Grant Heckman and Tim Davidson. With more Saint Johner's, such as Mike Biggar, Dann Downes and Tomato/Tomato's Lisa McLaggan involved, the disc threatens to break into a party at times, such as the boogie number I Can't Quit You. But there's still room for Mason's trademark observations of the real and sometimes rougher side of the local streets. Snowdrift is the one that will stop you in your tracks to think for awhile, a story about young women from First Nations brought into the city to turn tricks. Mason's never afraid to sing about things most of us would rather avoid or ignore.

Mason has album launch shows scheduled towards the end of September and into October, but first he's doing a special show Tuesday, Sept. 12 at Fredericton's Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival. He's joining Jessica Rhaye for a joint set at The Playhouse, opening for Martha Wainwright, starting at 7.30 p.m.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

MUSIC NEWS OF THE DAY: ALEX CUBA, REENY SMITH BRING POSITIVE SOUNDS TO HARVEST FEST




On the surface, the pairing of veteran Cuban musician Alex Cuba and relative newcomer, soul/R'n'B singer Reeny Smith, seems an unlikely mix. But the two performers, who share the bill for a Saturday evening show at this year's Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival in Fredericton, turn out to be an inspired double-bill. What they share is a belief in positive, life-affirming music.

Smith, from Halifax, opens the show, and while it's not her first time at the festival, it's her first star billing. Last year, she joined her friend David Myles for backing vocals, something she's also done for his brand-new album out this week. But this time, she's back with her full band, and Fredericton will finally get to hear what Nova Scotia crowds have been raving about for a few years now.
 
Michael Richard Photography
Although still described as an emerging artist at 24, Smith has been performing since she was five, including the choirs of her family's church, Saint Thomas Baptist in North Preston, N.S. Both her father and grandfather, Wallace Jr. and Sr., were members of the famed Gospel Heirs, and her father now directs the Hallelujah Praise Choir. If that's not enough, blues fans will know her uncles Carson and Murray of the Carson Downey Band.

Her own career took off in 2011, when she started winning awards and scholarships in the province. By 2014, she started performing major concerts such as the Halifax Jazz Festival, and Canada Day and Natal Day public shows.
 
She's now recognized as an extraordinary vocalist, and has just begun releasing her own singles, including the brand-new East Coast hit, Survive. A new E.P. is planned for later this fall.

For Smith, it all goes back to those choir shows she has spent her life doing, making sure the audience feels energized.

"Just try to have people talking about it afterwards and wanting more," she says. "We put together a show that's upbeat, and there's also some very strong ballads that we do. Overall it's such a great, musical show. I think that's the biggest thing that's missing from the industry right now, the musicality has just gone out the window. We want to play real songs, real music and give people what they paid for."

Alex Cuba may be a veteran, but he still has the same hopes for his audience. The Northern B.C.-based singer and guitar player is making his debut at Harvest this year, and comes with a truck-load of accolades. He has a couple of Junos, a Latin Grammy, and two Grammy nominations, plus a brand-new album, Lo Unico Constante. It was love that brought him to Canada in 1999, and on this new album, he returns to his roots, with songs influenced by the singer-songwriters of Cuba that he listened to growing up.

Cuba's songs have several direct messages in the Spanish lyrics, including advice to take it slow, know yourself, don't keep making the same mistakes. But the advice is aimed at himself, not the listener. "I think it's the most powerful way to communicate, when we put ourselves on the line," he explains. "You never want to come across giving people orders for free, nobody asked you. So the best way is to always talk about yourself, and chances are somebody will see themselves in it."

The songs on the new album are largely acoustic, with that rich rhythm and percussion behind. You don't have to speak the language to pick up on his affirmative lyrics. "I see music as the biggest, most precious gift we got from God or whoever we attribute these powers, so therefore why not use that gift to keep spreading love," says Cuba. "Music for me is sacred, very positive."

Cuba is bringing his three-piece band with him, comprised of bass, drums and a percussionist. He calls it his best group ever, as for the first time he's been able to work with all Cuban players, but ones like him, who all have a knowledge of North American sounds too. "When I want to funk, we can funk, when I want to rock, we can do that too."

Reeny Smith and Alex Cuba will be at the Fredericton Playhouse on Saturday, Sept. 16 starting at 7:30 p.m.