Monday, May 2, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ANGEL FORREST - ANGEL'S 11



Quebec's monster-voiced belter is arguably the country's reigning blues singer these days, having picked up the Maple Blues Award for Female Vocalist three years running. Her vocal prowess will always dominate a song, but here she comes up with a fascinating idea to save some of the spotlight for the guitar player too. Not just any guitar player; there are 11 of them, Angel's 11, as she has hand-picked some of the best Canadian talent to guest.


Much of the magic here is that the songs were designed for the guests. Writing with her partner Denis Coulombe, the pair matched songs with styles. So you get a player who is more of a rocker, Johnny Flash (Jean-Sebastien Chouinard), out of Garou's band and Cirque de Soleil's Elvis show, Viva Elvis, on the big opener, Hangman. Rob MacDonald, long-time performing partner with Rob Lutes, shines on the soulful All The Way. Steve Strongman lets some more jazzy notes come through on Spoil Me Up.


Each song has its own character, and the magic of the release is how Angel adapts to each, while many become a showcase for the guest. Paul DesLauriers, somebody capable of tremendous electric work, dazzles on acoustic for the track Goodbye, my favourite on a set full of highlights. This went from being a good idea on paper to being a fully-developed and very successful concept.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JONT & the INFINITE POSSIBILITY - SOMEONE TO LOVE ME



Halifax's Jont returns with a new three-track single, a taster for his next album,set for this fall. Like his 2013 release Hello Halifax, these are big, sweeping emotional pop songs, with epic beauty in each. The title cut is a rocker with heart, handclaps and horns, a joyful number for sure. The next, Supernatural, feature strings, glorious backing vocals and passionate vocals in a big ballad.


The final cut, This Windshield, has the same major impact while produced as a polar opposite, stripped back to Jont's solo vocal, a delicate guitar, and a far-away echo, this time a calm yet giant moment, the lyric about leaving one's mark on the world.


While we await the album, Jont and crew are hitting the road, with a selection of East Coast and Upper Canadian dates:

  • May 4 - Moncton, N.B., Plan B
  • May 5 - Fredericton, Grimross Brewing Co.
  • May 7 - Toronto, The Rivoli
  • May 8 - St. Catherines, ON., Cafe Mahtay
  • May 10 - Toronto, The Horseshoe
  • May 11 - Montreal, Brasserie Beaubien
  • May 13 - Edmundston, N.B., Cafe Lotus Bleu
  • May 14 - Saint John, N.B., Peppers Pub

Saturday, April 30, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VARIOUS - MOTORTOWN REVUE IN PARIS



What a show! Four of the biggest Motown acts, in their early prime, backed by some of the great musicians who made the original records, known in the future as the Funk Brothers. In 1965, Martha and The Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes and The Miracles had all scored major hits in the U.S., and the Tamla/Motown brand was starting in Europe as well. This prime package tour was put together to build the brand there, with a lengthy U.K. tour first, and then one night in Paris to finish off.


This 2-disc set is an expansion of the original, single album that came out after the tour, but this time we get the whole two-hour show, even the charming M.C. introductions in French. This is indeed a show, with the compere giving away to band leader Earl Van Dyke on organ leading the musicians known this time as The Soul Brothers through a three-song set of hot instrumentals, before bringing on Martha and The Vandellas. Their solid, five-song set included big hits at home such as Heatwave and Dancing In The Street, and the musicians do a strong job replicating the big Motown production on those numbers, helped out mightily by secret weapon Jack Ashford on production.


Little Stevie is up next, still a rowdy teenager and ball of energy onstage, probably the least-known to the audience then, but a barrel of fun. Riffing and jamming with the band, blowing his exceptional licks on chromatic harmonica, he caps off the first half with the hit Fingertips, as upbeat as you can get.


After the intermission, Van Dyke and the band is back for three more set-up songs, before The Supremes take over. They are given a lengthier set, seven songs, clearly the stars in ascendance for Motown. The group is moving into its more sophisticated, adult concert phase at this time, Berry Gordy seeing them as a Vegas-type act in the long run, so the set includes a couple of show tunes, including People. Apparently the choreography was bang-on, we learn from contemporary reviews, so too bad we didn't get to see film as well.


The night ends with headliners The Miracles, Smokey and the gang in full vocal flight, with all the oohs and ahhs in perfect sync. Tuxedo-clad, they do the smooth thing on Ooo Baby Baby, but then loosen the ties for a big finish on Mickey's Monkey.


Not all is perfect here, especially a technical issue with the lead vocal microphone which mars the first few seconds of both The Supremes and The Miracles sets, but that's minor compared to getting the whole document. This now becomes the best representation of a Motown show in the heyday of the label, and a great addition for fans.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STURGILL SIMPSON - A SAILOR'S GUIDE TO EARTH



If this is country, I'm Garth Brooks. I figure after all the abuse the genre has taken over the years from the rigid radio formats and cookie-cutter artists, the inevitable reaction was the most talented of Nashville's newcomers would go somewhere wild and far away. Simpson isn't a cowboy, he's a space cowboy. He's got the right twang, and a killer pedal steel player, but everything else is a mirror opposite of what country has been used to.


This whole album journey, for instance, isn't on the prairie, it's on the ocean. There are strings, but not the Nashville sweetening kind, these are atmospheric layers and swaths, like a good alterna-indie artist would add. And horns? Country horns? Not to mention, it's the Dap-Kings soul section.


Of course, everybody knows that the last decade of corporate country has just been old pop music with a hat. Simpson makes the point, and buries it, by covering Nirvana's In Bloom, and doing it as the most country-sounding song on the album. It's already become legendary.


If that's all not enough (and it should be, good lord this album is good), you'll find all these soul-searching lyrics, worthy of the great country writer/philosophers of the '60's, Merle and Loretta and Johnny, only insanely modernized. His sea stories aren't old shanties, these are about modern, poor Americans with nowhere to go but the Armed Forces, "just another enlisted egg in the bowl for Uncle Sam's beater." Seas, as in overseas, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, no end in sight. Once again, you can't get anymore anti-Nashville, he's protesting not just a war, but the whole militarism culture that keeps making the weapons, and creating a market for them.


Hard to say if this is game-changing. This is selling, it's the #1 album on the country charts, but you won't find Simpson on country radio. Really, there's no point beating your head against the wall of mediocrity there; at best Simpson's success will let a few more like-minded writers slip through the cracks. But it's going to be a blast to see how he follows this up.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JENNY BERKEL - PALE MOON KID

Jenny Berkel has just released her new album, Pale Moon Kid, and has set out on a Canadian spring tour, the start of months of road work. She's doing her first U.S. visit in the summer, plus has a European jaunt lined up for the fall. It's probably a good thing she'll be on the road, because it means she won't move.

"I don't know why I keep doing this but honestly, I think I've had between 20 and 30 postal codes since I left my parents' place as a teenager," Berkel admits, sounding exasperated at herself. "If I could tell you why, I would, because then I could tell myself."

Well, at least it has given her lots of material to write. Her new album features cuts directly related to Canadian places, with titles such as Winnipeg and St. Denis, and others that reflect geography or nature, such as Lilac, Lily, Wealth in the Country, and Blue Lit Air. She says she has a lot of affection for the places she's lived, despite the fact she leaves so readily.

"It's funny because I constantly feel this yearning to settle into a home, but I just keep leaving home," she says. "So ya, a travelogue, but a travelogue of my own movement from home to home."

Pale Moon Kid was produced by the classic country monster Daniel Romano. Berkel used to be in his band, and her sister Kay still is. It's an interest dynamic, as Berkel tends towards the calm, while Romano is big and brash, with an in-your-face sound.

"My favourite kind of music is music that feels really intimate, like somebody's whispering in your ear, so that was my goal," she explained. "When I write, I focus a lot on my lyrics because I want to have that as a bit of a centerpiece. So the production is surrounding that, I suppose."

It turned out to be the best of both worlds, as Romano kept the in-your-face vocals, but in a mostly gentle setting. And when the song called for it, such as Winnipeg, Berkel was open to some explosions of sound.

"That one took a surprising turn when we recorded it because it has a pretty grungy chord progression in the chorus, and I wrote it like that, but I don't really listen to grunge music, and I don't do rock 'n' roll, you know?" she said. "But I wrote that chorus and I really liked it, and it essentially had to be recorded the way it was, and it was a surprise, but I'm really happy with how that one turned out."

You can hear how the rest turned out as Berkel continues the early days of her tour. She's touring with Michael Feuerstack, at the following East Coast shows.

  • Wilser's Room, Fredericton, N.B., Thursday, Apr. 28
  • The Seahorse, Halifax, Saturday Apr. 30
  • Doktor Luke's, Sydney, N.S., Tuesday, May 3
  • Back Alley Music, Charlottetown, Thursday, May 5

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALEX HARVEY - THE LAST OF THE TEENAGE IDOLS

Would you buy a 14-CD, $230 box set from an artist you'd barely heard of?  That's what's being offered here to North Americans, from a guy who barely got out of Europe even in his heyday in the mid-'70's, certainly never had anything near a radio single or Top 40 album over here, and at home was best known for a Tom Jones cover, done tongue-in-cheek.  Of course, that doesn't mean he wasn't good, and maybe great.

Alex Harvey was the leader of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band out of Scotland, a unique mix of glam, proto-punk, hard rock, live theatre and cabaret, working through the 1970's.  I certainly had never heard most of his albums, although available here, and had no idea he'd had quite a long career before then.  Turns out Harvey was a contemporary of all the early British rock and blues acts, met the Beatles while they were still the Silver Beatles, opened for the Stones and was another graduate of the Hamburg school of rock.  But unlike those famous names, the big break didn't come along, at least in those early times.  Like his pal David Bowie, whom he influenced, he had a string of singles and albums that never caught on.  And that's where this massive set begins.

Harvey actually got a recording deal out of his Hamburg residencies, back in 1963, when he was belting out classic early rock, songs such as Framed by Leiber and Stoller, a hit for The Robins and Richie Valens.  Harvey was hardly a conventional singer.  First, he had a rough voice, good for belting but prone to wildness.  Second, he had a great big Glaswegian accent that made some lines undecipherable.  Third, he was as much a showman as singer, putting together all his influences from trad jazz to skiffle to r'n'b to rock 'n' roll to the pub work into a scorching stage presence, helped along by his street-tough upbringing in Glasgow's roughest area.  He was by most accounts one of the very best of his time, but was always the opener, never the star.

There are lots of fine moments during his '60's output, as he tried out various sounds and changed with the times.  A full-on acoustic blues album is included here, just Alex and his younger brother Les, doing classic Lead Belly numbers and the like.  It's a fine showcase of Les's early talents, and he went on to Stone the Crows, an up-and-coming band in the early '70's, but tragically Les was electrocuted on stage.  Alex sounded good in this vein for the most part, but had a tendency to screech off-key at the loudest moments.  Again, it probably went down great live.  There are a full six CD's of 1960's material before he formed his eponymous band.

By the days of flower power, Harvey had still not broken through, and accepted a working wage in theatre, joining the pit band of the new musical, Hair, as the guitar player.  Hardly a starring role, but he loved it and the environment, further increasing his theatrical influences.  Finally, some old bookers from the Scottish scene sought him out, and coaxed him back into the game, believing the mighty singer would work great in the new decade.  After a misstep with one band (including an unknown Mike Oldfield), Harvey was hooked up with some new, much younger Scottish hotshots, and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band was born.

Harvey had been putting away ideas and songs for years, waiting for such a moment, and the right band.  He had some originals, as well as some of his old repertoire, and the first SAHB album was called Framed, after that very same early rock hit he was still covering with passion.  But now, he and the band exploded onto the scene, now Harvey fronting a hard rock band with great players, including a lead guitar guy who appeared in creepy mime makeup. It was a show, along the same lines as Alice Cooper, without the snakes or too many props.  Harvey had kept his working class roots all along, and his songs reflected that at a time when rock stars were getting pretty aloof.  So his fans were coming out to celebrate their culture, one of their own.

Harvey invented a series of characters and stories, in line with his interest in comic books, such as Vambo (eerily similar to Rambo).  Often these story-songs were the highlight of live shows and albums, although never a full concept such as Ziggy or Tommy.  But the albums were never quite up to what the band could do on stage, and that was finally captured in 1975's Live album, which became their most popular.  It was also where the cover of the Tom Jones hit Delilah came from, sort of a soccer crowd singalong version that became the single-biggest moment in Harvey's career.  The group was on the cusp of punk, but had too much talent and showbiz for it, although they were certainly admired by that crowd.

After Delilah, the group did an album of mostly covers, looking for that further connection, and then quickly fizzled out like many others, swept under by changing musical times.  Harvey worked solo for a bit, trying to find a new group worthy of his leadership, but nothing gelled.  He was making a new attempt when he died of a heart attack in 1982, aged 46.

Many of these albums have been out-of-print, or unavailable on CD, and lots of cuts, especially the live material, were unreleased before.  It's not an entirely complete set of Harvey's work, but really there's only some judicious editing to later solo work and the like, and only a taste of the odd Alex Harvey Presents The Loch Ness Monster, where he and family members interviewed residents of the famous Scottish lake about their encounters with the beast, an album done for K-Tel.  The hardcover book is well-done, with a lengthy history and lots of photos, especially some good casual stuff rather than the standard press photos.  So, back to the original question; it's the kind of thing you might pick up hoping to like, and find yourself drawn into the story.  Truthfully, it's a better story than a career, but there was some pretty adventurous stuff going on at the start and middle of SAHB, and you may even join the cult.  You might want to stream a few tunes before the big investment, however.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JEFF BUCKLEY - YOU AND I



Buckley's mother, Mary Guilbert, has been pretty selective with what she has allowed out of the vaults for posthumous releases, trying hard to keep the integrity of his work intact, while the demand for more has been pretty strong. In the liner notes here, she explains that there is a ton of stuff in the archives, but much of it is of dubious quality, simply the nature of the young artist recording everything for posterity. Since his short career featured only pretty much amazing material, it's tricky to put out anything but that.


This batch of recordings comes from the time just after Buckley had been signed to Columbia Records, when he was the toast of New York, doing solo shows in cafés full of remarkable cover versions as well as a few of his own numbers. That was when he was introduced to the rest of the world with the Live at the Sin-é EP in 1993. To start the recording process, he went into a demo studio and laid down a bunch of his many covers and a couple of originals, just him and the guitar, same way he did his shows.


Famously Live at Sin-é featured a ten-minute cover of Van Morrison's The Way Young Lovers Do, and as future releases showed, Buckley had not only impeccable taste, but a way to reinterpret the great masters that made them his own. Here, he takes on Dylan (Just Like A Woman), Sly and the Family Stone (Everyday People), Zeppelin (Night Flight) and most surprisingly, a couple of Smiths tracks, including The Boy With the Thorn in his Side. Best here was the Led Zep, Buckley showing off his vocal chops, soaring higher, purer than Plant could, while plus cooking on guitar, making it a funky adventure.


There's something missing from these performances compared to the café ones with the live audience. The spark isn't all there, on some cuts he's not going for it as he did when trying to impress the small crowds, such as the Sly Stone number. A version of his own Grace, soon to be the title cut of his debut album, does impress in this stripped-down manner, and the passion in his recording of I Know It's Over by The Smiths is quite something. While Buckley may never have envisioned these seeing the light of day, I think his mother made the right choice, they increase my appreciation as a fan.