Saturday, April 19, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JIM BYRNES - ST. LOUIS TIMES

Byrnes is one of the finest Canuck blues singers, but he's actually from St. Louis originally.  This album is a tribute to the songs he grew up with, most associated with the city and its great players from jazz, blues and soul history.  He's also penned some originals inspired by that rich legacy, and the glory of the album is trying to spot the original versus the more obscure covers, such is the high quality.  A few you'll recognize, such as W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, included here in a more rootsy interpretation, and Chuck Berry's Nadine, a little less frantic, the better to hear the awesome wordplay of rock and roll's first poet.

Producer once again by Steve Dawson, the master acoustic musician is the perfect collaborator for this, recreating everything from early 1900's jazz to Lonnie Johnson blues to Fontella Bass soul.  Highlights include an old St. Louis brothel number from Stump Johnson, The Duck's Yas Yas Yas, risque back then, but just funny now, as Byrnes is joined by old pal John Hammond to trade verses.  Situated between Motown and Memphis, it's fitting that the Fontella Bass/Bobby McLure number, You'll Miss Me (When I'm Gone) sounds equal parts southern and northern soul.  It's another fine duet, this one with Colleen Rennison of the group No Sinner.  Cake Alley is a true gem, an old horn number about a real place on the very poor side of town.

As for Byrnes' own numbers, Somebody Lied could have come out in the 60's and been a hurtin' soul ballad, and the spoken-word The Journey Home is quite poignant, a series of memories from decades ago, the band laying back and Byrnes reminiscing about the Cardinals and the intersection of the Missouri and Mississippi.  St. Louis gets left out of most conversations about American music, but in the year of the 250th anniversary of its founding, an old homebody has come back to speak up for its history.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CLASSIC ROCK ICONS

Don't know why you'd need this double CD, as you can turn on any classic rock radio station and hear the same songs pretty much daily.  Sweet Home Alabama, Rebel Yell, Maggie May, Takin' Care Of Business, American Pie, Rocky Mountain Way, it's got to the point where I turn the station when they come on, I've heard them so much.  I hate the idea these stations have narrowed the 70's down to the same few songs on their identical playlists, instead of simply going to the third or fourth biggest hit by any of these artists, just for diversity.

There, my griping is done, and actually there are a few more inspired choices on this double-disc.  You don't hear Grand Funk Railroad's We're An American Band that much, or Rare Earth's I Just Want To Celebrate.  It looks like compilation-makers have put a moratorium on George Thorogood's One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, and replaced it with Bad To The Bone, a good decision.  Joe Cocker's always welcome at the table, especially if we're talking older Joe, Feelin' Alright.  However, J.Geils Band should never be represented by Centerfold, no matter that it was their biggest hit.  That was their sell-out period.  In fact, all the 80's cuts here pale, including The Motels, Billy Squier, and especially Pat Benatar.  I'd rather hear Rocky Mountain Way again then anything by her.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RODNEY CROWELL - TARPAPER SKY



Fresh off his successful reunion with Emmylou Harris, which produced the Grammy-winning Old Yellow Moon album and major tour, Crowell returned to another pet project. This album was actually started back in 2010, but had to wait for the Harris work to finish. Those with a hankering for Crowell's literary country will recognize the core players here, folks such as Steuart Smith and MIchael Rhodes, the players he made his biggest hits with back in the 1980's.


Country radio has moved on since then though, and you won't find these tight rockers and heartfelt ballads topping the charts like She's Crazy For Leaving and After All This Time did back in 1988. However, you will hear fine musicianship and Crowell's great phrases as always. After drifting around the turn of the century, his biographical The Houston Kid album put him back on course, and since then he's been mining tales from his own past for inspiration, usually to great effect.


This album isn't completely soaked in memories, but they do provide some of the best moments. The title refers to his poverty childhood home, Jesus Talk To Momma is a letter to his own mother through her savior, and various uncles, grandparents, and characters show up. It's not a full concept piece like Houston Kid, and some of the songs are just for fun, like his Cajun homage Fever On The Bayou, or the rocker tribute to a helluva woman, Frankie Please.


It's all stuff fans are by now used to, which is of course, good news, because the quality is right up there. It does feel a bit like business as usual for a bit, until Crowell drops a bombshell. He's always had a way with a sentimental love song, but God I'm Missing You is one of his very best yet. "Time stretches to shape you right out of thin air/But it can't hold the image, if I blink you're not there/God I'm missing you." You should own this album for this song alone.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GORD DOWNIE, THE SADIES, AND THE CONQUERING SUN

It sure looks good on paper.  The combo of one of the country's greatest front men, and arguably the best band around immediately has the promise of something grand.  And so we've been waiting, seven years now this has been brewing.  Having heard them live 18 months ago, I still wasn't sure what to expect.  You know what?  It sounds just like Gord Downie fronting The Sadies.
What I mean by that is that neither party has changed much of how they sound.  Downie brings the drama, his gruff, tense story-telling in full flight.  The Sadies riff and smash through some tunes, turn up the psych machine on others, some alt-country here, full-out rock on others.  "It Didn't Start To Break My Heart Until This Afternoon" explodes with punk/Neil Young-Rust Never Sleeps intensity.  Budget Shoes has The Sadies Spaghetti Western style, and Downie's slightly surreal dream state lyrics, hard to understand but words that sound just grand.  Devil Enough has that great Sadies trick where they have three different music sections in a tune, slow, medium and fast, with some of that great country picking from Travis Good. Demand Destruction is kind of poppy, in a post-Byrds world, a lighter break from the fine flow of guitars, drums and words.

The group is touring this summer, and it feels much more like a real band than other similar projects, and certainly not like a Gord Downie solo album.  Sometimes these dream team projects don't yield good results, but in this case, what looked good on paper sounds pretty fine too.

Monday, April 14, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BOB DYLAN - THE 30th ANNIVERSARY CONCERT CELEBRATION DELUXE EDITION (DVD & blu-ray)

It's been a long time since you could see this fine concert, originally broadcast back in 1992, 30 years after Dylan's debut hit the shelves.  Had they known he'd still be cranking them out 22 years later, they might have waited, but even then Dylan was the acknowledged king of them all, country, rock, folk, soul, everybody ready to pay homage.  The line-up is as impressive today as it was then:  Johnny and June Carter Cash, George Harrison, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Willie Nelson, Lou Reed, Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and on and on.  Surprisingly for such a mash-up, the performances themselves were top notch as well, ranging from professional to inspired.

Given the star power, it's interesting that some of the very best moments come from unexpected performers.  Johnny Winter rips into Highway 61 Revisited, giving the other guitar heroes a lesson in roadhouse blues.  Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam were new upstarts at the time, and showed how the already-old chestnut Masters Of War was still very much relevant.  Ron Wood won the Dylan sound-alike contest, and delivered a smashing Seven Days, a cast-off Bob had given him for a solo album.  The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were there as old Greenwich Village comrades, and took Madison Square Garden down to coffee house size with a rousing When The Ship Comes In.

The stars did their part too, especially a boisterous Petty and company, already well-versed in Dylan rock after serving as his touring band in part of the 80's.  They rocked the place with Rainy Day Women #12 and 35 before joining Roger McGuinn for the required Mr. Tambourine Man, still sounding fresh and world-changing.  Neil Young was in great spirits, relishing playing All Along The Watchtower, with the mighty house band of Booker T. and the MG's cranked up.  The controversial appearance by Sinead O'Connor is here, nearly booed off stage for her recent Pope-slamming antics on Saturday Night Live, as she responds with an impromptu version of Bob Marley's War.  You'd feel sorry for her, except that during the encore she was still pouting, standing cross-armed and frowning, clearly trying to make her point at the expense of Bob's night.

As for the man himself, well, it was typical mumbling Dylan of those days, a little clearer than the awful Grammy appearance but less than riveting.  For this DVD, we finally get to see him do a solo Girl From The North Country, which had been done as a final encore after the broadcast ended.  There are also some interesting bonuses, including three songs cuts from the broadcast:  John Mellancamp doing Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat (yawn), Nancy Griffith with Carolyn Hester, singing Boots Of Spanish Leather (subdued, okay), and Booker T and the gang with Gotta Serve Somebody (right on).  The 30-plus minute behind-the-scenes documentary is the best bonus, with rehearsal footage, interviews, Sinead singing I Believe In You, the song that was scheduled, and a good sense of the awe that was going around with all these luminaries in one place.  Pretty much a must-own if you like any of the above.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BACHMAN-TURNER OVERDRIVE - NOT FRAGILE 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION

If all the BTO hubbub at the recent Juno awards whetted your appetite, here's the group's biggest album, now in deluxe edition.  It isn't overly stuffed, just the original album on disc one, with eight live cuts on disc two, 33 minutes total.  Not Fragile is the album that took the band over the top, containing the hit You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, number one in various countries around the globe, and turned them into international stars.  Not bad for a scrappy, no-nonsense hard-rockin', hard-touring group from Canada.

There's no great art to BTO, just guitar, a band that rocks, and catchy tunes.  Randy Bachman had the knack for making basic songs memorable, and even the heaviest stuff here gets its fair share of hooks.  They get called a hard rock band, but given what has come since in the metal world, that phrase doesn't really fit anymore.  Sure, the power chords and plodding tempo of title cut Not Fragile gets closer to Black Sabbath, but there's far more melody on the rest of the stuff.  What it was then was perfect for the new touring world of hockey rinks, and that's where BTO cleaned up, hundreds of gigs each year.  Fred Turner, as always, handled the tougher songs, while Bachman took the handled the verse-chorus-verse things.  One of the best parts of their music was the fancy guitar Bachman could add, such as the delicate acoustic work on Rock Is My Life, This Is My Song.  There are nice jazzy moments, heard on the live cuts too, which help push the music above the many generic rock bands of the time. 

Roll On Down The Highway is another nice one, again with great guitar, another excellent single that doesn't get the props it deserves these days, relegated to second status after You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet.  Album cuts Freewheelin', Sledgehammer and Blue Moanin' all have their charms as well.  Now largely overlooked in the pantheon of rocks gods in the U.S., where they were multi-platinum huge in 1974, at least Canada continues to do right by them, Hall-of-Famer's from our fair land.

Friday, April 11, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KEIFFER MCLEAN - DRAMA IN THE ATTIC

A 2013 nominees for Young Performer of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, 20-year old McLean is from Regina.  This is his first full album after an EP earned him all the attention last year, and brings a fresh, fun approach to his acoustic tunes.  The instruments are outside the norm, with unique combinations and arrangements.  Opener Slow-Mo-Ocean starts with keyboard mixed with bowed double bass, before acoustic guitar and percussion turns it upbeat.  On the break between verses, a fun horn section of trumpet, trombone and tuba joins in.  The next verse adds a toy piano, before some wordless vocals against the trumpet take it into the air.  That's a lot in a folk song.

Several of the songs have a lo-fi feel, slightly over-recorded vocals give them a demo feel, bedroom music rather than studio clean stuff.  It adds to the intimacy, even with all those various sounds coming at us.  Lyrically the playfulness continues, at times recalling the sillier side of Beatles White Album era, or McCartney's fragments from Ram.  The lovely melodies only add to that.  McLean has some chops on acoustic as well, lots of nice finger work fills in the space before yet another fascinating part drops in, whether its a clarinet line or trumpet solo.  The words come thick and fast and interesting, all in all a wonderful listen.