Wednesday, July 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE GALPINES - SORRY MOM

Baby-hating, foul-mouthed liquor pigs, mired in debt and often in jail, even their mothers have denounced The Galpines. Well, not their real mothers I'm sure, and New Brunswick festival-goers and party animals have taken these four Moncton women to their hearts. The comedy country outfit sends up our redneck ways, from online shopping addiction (Visa Bill Blues) to living via Instagram (Hashtag Blessed). And sometimes, it's just for the shock value ("My dog is better than your baby.")

Fans will know many of the songs on the group's second release and first long-player, as they've been playing them to great reaction for months, and pretty much every song they write is instantly memorable. Go To Sleep has served as a lovely opening number, with those old-timey harmonies, like something that could have been on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Except that movie didn't feature some drug-and-booze addled festival goers trying to have a three-way but the baby wakes up and ruins everything.

If you shock easily, you don't want to go here, but if you have a sense of humour about four-letter words and questionable morals, and like comedy with your harmonies, The Galpines are absolutely entertaining. Plus, they don't like litterbugs, so there's a good lesson in here. One at least. 

The group is launching the album this Saturday, July 21, at the Parkindale Hall in Elgin, N.B., and are promising surprise musical guests, so I'm sure it's going to be a party. Then the band is continuing a busy summer of tour dates, including (gasp!) their first shows in Ontario and Quebec, including one at the Dakota in Toronto Aug. 31. That oughta show them stuck-up Upper Canadians.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JENNIFER IRVING - LET 'EM IN

Formerly of the Nova Scotia group Drift a few years back, Jennifer Irving did drift away for a bit, into a photography career, kids, a move to Saint John and other adulting. Music was just on the back burner though, and now she returns with a debut solo EP, four cuts from three different sessions. It's an interesting variety from the singer-songwriter, thoughtful lyrics across the board but some dramatic style shifts.

The first two cuts, Weight and Well Enough, were made with Halifax producer Daniel Ledwell, and feature his well-known layers and textures. Irving adds to that a level of mystery, and intriguingly, a Spaghetti Western flavour. The third cut, Lines, was done with Charles Austin, another Halifax mainstay. While still featuring a rich sound, that track highlights the acoustic guitar sound of Irving's music, along with a bit of atmosphere. The final cut, Someday, is less spacious, Irving's vocals echoed and less prominent, brushed percussion joining the acoustic guitar along with a few bells and a haunted vibe. Toronto producer Snappy Homefry is the collaborator on this bit of electronic folk.

Irving proves a bit of a chameleon on the EP, adapting her voice to each atmosphere. On the mystery movie cuts at the start, she's moody and distant, while the acoustic tracks feel more warm and transparent. In each song though, her singing is compelling, and I like that she has these different sides.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: AL BASILE - ME & THE ORIGINATOR

My biggest complaint about modern blues artists is that a lot of the run-of-the-mill ones put such little effort into their lyrics. You know the ones, singing about being done wrong by their baby, or waiting for the weekend to let loose. Then comes the guitar solo. Ones who work hard on their lyrics stand out, and Al Basile is certainly one of the best. No surprise, since his other career is as a well-respected poet. While those two aspects always meet in his music, his new album is something special, a true combination of poetry and the blues.

The album is made up of spoken word pieces before each song. Some are part of a narrative, while others are true poems. The story is about a fictional musician, who has a stroke of blues luck. In drastic need of inspiration to help him write songs, but not being good at words, he deserves an old trunk filled with writings, author unknown. The journals are easily adapted into lyrics, and they help his band become stars. We here about how that all goes down, how the musician notices the lyrics mirror his own life, and how, in true blues fashion, fame and fortune doesn't mean happiness. His band mates and friends turn out to be not so trustworthy, his marriage fails, but life's ups and downs bring his strength.

The songs relate to the narrative, and were made to follow the arc of the story. They were recorded with the musicians knowing the spoken section each was following. Produced by the redoubtable Duke Robillard, the mood is right for each one, and it's one of the most engrossing listens I've enjoyed. Basile, already a strong performer, is an equally captivating narrator. His plan almost backfires, as the stories are so engrossing I found myself waiting for the songs to end to hear the next bit of reading. That was just the first listen though, and the music proves strong as well, giving me renewed appreciation for his lyrical abilities. I can't think of a similar blues/story album before, and it's certainly a fascinating listening experience, half-audio book, half-cruising music.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHARLES LLOYD & THE MARVELS + LUCINDA WILLIAMS - VANISHED GARDENS

Here's a pleasant-plus surprise. Veteran jazz sax and flute player Lloyd fronts a group of consummate players, including guitar maestro Bill Frisell and pedal steel and dobro giant Greg Leisz. They also play with Lucinda Williams, and Lloyd and Williams met and developed a mutual admiration. First she asked him to guest at a show, then he asked her, and then this collaboration was born. Lloyd and the Marves do five jazz instrumentals, and Williams takes the lead vocals on the other five songs. Four of them are her compositions, three older ones, one brand-new, and the last a cover of the Hendrix classic Angel.

Jazz fans will find lots to enjoy, as the genre-bending Lloyd has quite a team in the Marvels. The rhythm section is made up of Lloyd's longtime team of Reuben Rogers on bass and drummer Eric Harland. Frisell and Leisz help Lloyd veer off in every direction, from blues to country to free-form squonking. It's adventurous, mostly melodic, and fun, hearing players who can work in so many styles.

For Lucinda fans, it's a revelation. Here she stretches past her usual roots style, and adds a whole new level to her vocal style, with extra notes and nuances. On her own robust albums, there isn't a whole lot of room for such vocal subtlety, but here there's more pacing and less volume, allowing her to shine. She clearly enjoys the changes made to her material by this group. She's also chosen songs that are from her more poetic side, and that brings extra strength to the verses. Match that with the exceptional performances from Lloyd and the group, and it will lead the listener to a whole new appreciation of Williams.

Monday, July 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WANG CHUNG - ICON

Come on, we all know it ... Everybody have fun tonight, everybody Wang Chung tonight. There. Don't you feel better getting that out of the way? Darn catchy though, and a pretty brilliant move, putting the band name in the hook of the song. We'll never, ever forget it.

The bigger question is whether there's anything else to remember. And you know, they actually aren't a one-hit wonder. If you'll remember, Dance Hall Days was a pretty decent-sized hit, a couple of years before Everybody Have Fun Tonight. And the follow-up to that monster, Let's Go!, was also hit the Top 10, and it's a quite good track. Then there was the soundtrack to the film To Live and Die in L.A., which produced a decent title cut. So there's a few things there, and if you skip over the ubiquitous you-know-what, this isn't a bad listen, even with that glossy 80's production. A version of the group still tours the oldies circuit, with pals Cutting Crew. Oh by the way, Wang Chung is the Chinese phrase for yellow bell, the first note in their classical music scale. Which makes no sense, "everybody yellow bell tonight." Go figure.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MOLLY JOHNSON - MEANING TO TELL YA

The Halifax Jazz Festival gets underway this coming week, has a stellar lineup, and opening night features a fantastic free show. It's starring none other than Canada's premiere jazz-soul singer, Molly Johnson. And wouldn't you know, she's got a killer new album out too.

It's produced by none other than Larry Klein, who has managed to do a decent job in the same role for Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman and Norah Jones over the years. He knows how to showcase the finest female singers, and that's just what you want with Johnson. She has one of those voices, the kind that you want to enjoy every syllable she sings, the last faded "sss..." on the end of a line. This is a particularly punchy, upbeat set for her, mostly originals, and some well-chosen covers. There aren't too many singers who can bring out the groove in Leonard Cohen's Boogie Street, and make a classy version of Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues as well.

Her previous release was her tribute to Billie Holiday, Because Of Billie, so Johnson had a bunch of her own songs saved up for this one. Gone has a big groove, almost a rocker, while Stop, written with Klein and David Baerwald (David & David) is a jazzy modern ballad, with an emotional lead from Johnson at her smokiest.

See Molly Johnson at the free show Tuesday, July 10 at the Waterfront Stage at 8:30 pm, along with the Halifax All-Star Jazz Revue. That features the city's top players, including drummer Dave Burton, Jamie Gatti on bass, Geordie Haley on guitar, keyboard player Sylvio Pupo and Chris Mitchell on sax. There are plenty of other tempting shows throughout the week as well, including sets from Chaka Khan, The War On Drugs, Alvvays, Matt Andersen and the Mellotones, Whitehorse, Daniel Caesar, Charlotte Day Wilson and lots more.

Friday, July 6, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GRAHAM NASH - OVER THE YEARS

I like this format quite a bit. Disc one is a basic best-of, all the hits written by Nash for CSN, Crosby-Nash, and his solo albums, while disc two is all demos, most of them previously unreleased. Some of the demos are those favourite hit tracks, while others are lesser-known but really charming stripped down. It's two very different ways of going through Nash's career, both of them worthy.

You can argue who was the better writer in CSN until the cows come home, but certainly Nash was the best commercial writer. His melodies were always catchy and his lyrics easily digested. Those delightful ditties, such as Marrakesh Express, Our House and Teach Your Children, were the singalong favourites that cleared the way for Crosby's hippie trips and Stills' guitar workouts. And he pretty much saved the band by writing the hits Just A Song Before I Go and Wasted On The Way, which propped up middling efforts later in the group's career. When pushed, he could get angry too, and Chicago, Immigration Man and Military Madness gave him an another dimension rather than just being a softy. No question though, of his colleagues (not including Young), he has been most consistent and deserving of a hits collection. It also allows folks unfamiliar with his solo or duo efforts to hear fine songs such as I Used To Be King.

The demos collection is more exciting, since it's almost all new, and quite interesting. We hear him putting down solo versions of Marrakesh Express and Horses Through A Rainstorm back in London, the former famously rejected by The Hollies, a final straw for Nash as he quit the band and fled to L.A. Horses was supposed to be a CSN track, and was first heard on that group's '90's box set, fully recorded, but here we get the acoustic treatment. Marrakesh is obviously a quality number even in its raw state, but the CSN treatment was magic. Teach Your Children was pretty bare-boned as a demo, again one that came alive with the band. Nash moved to piano writing shortly after that, and his demos became more vibrant at that point, more melodic. Simple Man is gorgeous, and could have been released just like that. Wind On The Water, a little bit more advanced of a demo, with piano and guitar, is a clear blueprint for that solid Crosby/Nash cut. Just A Song Before I Go, with piano and harmonica and none of the layered harmonies, is more haunting. And Wasted On The Way is far less jaunty, which makes this easily the better version. This set could have been another ho-hum best-of, but instead is really a must-own for CSN and Nash fans.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SUGAR BROWN - IT'S A BLUES WORLD ... CALLING ALL BLUES!

I submit, for your consideration, the next hero for the Marvel Universe. Real name: Ken Kawashima, born to a Japanese father and a Korean mother, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960's. Raised in Bowling Green, then moved to Chicago. Day job: Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. Avengers name: Sugar Brown. Nighttime job: Blues superhero. While going through his studies in Chicago, Kawashima became immersed in the famous blues scene, and began a tutelage under some of the local legends with names such as Taildragger, Rockin' Johnny and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. He walked away from it all to get that Ph.D., but after establishing himself in the rarefied air of Upper Canadian academia, found himself unable to resist the call of the wild. In 2014, he reclaimed the Sugar Brown name, and now has issued his third LP, all of them stellar.

Brown has that gritty, real sound that every blues player wishes they could get, but seldom can. It's authentic, and authoritative too. Seems our scholar was studying up on a few subjects in Chicago, as he deftly moves from style to style, including the good-time jump blues of Dew On The Grass, the acoustic country blues of Brothers to the low-down, hard times cut Lousy Dime. He's aided by some superior players, including Toronto roots guitarist Nichol Robertson, stalwart drummer Michelle Josef, classy piano man Julian Fauth, and even his old Chicago mentor, Rockin' Johnny Burgin on guitar. Brown's a deft writer, able to hit classic themes, and is doing all original material, fresh and articulate, but still sounding like all those classic influences.

The final piece of the puzzle comes in the overall sound, captured on two-track analog tape, and vocals recorded using a vintage 1930's microphone pre-amp. It adds that special bit of low-fi, and makes it easy to compare Sugar Brown to the greats. He's definitely got the stuff. Somebody call Stan Lee.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EL COYOTE - EL COYOTE

Now here's some Canadiana. Folks from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Alberta and B.C. end up living in Montreal and making a country album. Well, alt-country, or in other words, old school country with folk melodies and thoughtful lyrics, and in this case, a beautiful sound and haunting vocals and harmonies. The six-member group came together from Friday night kitchen singalongs. There are three singer-writers; Katie Moore, Michelle Tompkins and Angela Desveaux, and players Joe Grass (dobro, pedal steel), Mike O'Brien (guitar) and Andrew Horton (bass). All are experienced performers in various Montreal groups, and this is their first release under the El Coyote banner.

Each of the singers has a true, classic roots voice, natural and easy to enjoy. The harmonies are gorgeous, soothing even, so comfortable do they blend. Mostly these are country ballads, with 19th century folk touches, and even some Western influences. But there's still that little alt- edge, so it's never a homage to old timey sounds. The best I've come up with as a description is Cowboy Junkies visiting the McGarrigle family for a parlour session. The language is certainly older rather than modern; they sing of time and tide, and a false-hearted lover. But even cuts like Lighten up Diane and the uptempo cut Tip Jar feel more like they are set in the 1950's than today. Delicate acoustic picking and Grass's hypnotic pedal steel and dobro dominate the instrument sounds, while wisely never getting in the way of the voices. I haven't heard a combo like this since the Trio recordings of Emmylou, Linda and Dolly.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DENIS PARKER - BEEN SO LONG

There are certain musicians that are crucial members of a music scene. Their work, not just the art they create, but the service they do, is what makes a scene vibrant. This is done via support, camaraderie, influence and leadership. I think I'll call them "backbone" musicians, for lack of a better term. Denis Parker is certainly one of them. The blues singer has weathered the changing scenes of the music industry for 50 years, and is the dean of the scene in St. John's, NL. He's put out his share of albums, and for almost 20 years was head of the Music Industry Association of NL. He's celebrating that 50 years with a new album, and a launch party Saturday, July 7.

Interestingly, his recording career actually began in England, where he's from. Parker was part of the British blues scene in the '60's, and eventually got his recording start in, wow, Abbey Road Studio. He even recorded his debut around the same time as The Beatles were recording their Abbey Road album. Parker was in a group called Panama Limited Jug Band, the chief songwriter, and that group's two albums on the hip Harvest label are hugely collectable this days. But he soon after cross the pond for Newfoundland, and has served as a player, educator and organizer since. So hats off to a remarkable career.

Meanwhile, the new album is just what Parker knows best, acoustic blues, just him, his guitar, a little accompaniment when called for, and something special, harmony vocals from his daughter Sarah Parker-Charles on a few cuts. It's a grab-bag of 19 tracks, recorded intimately, which is the perfect way to hear Parker. He owns this style, his vocals are mesmerizing, and the simplicity captivating. You can hear every bit of that 50 years' experience, on old favourites Trouble In Mind, Kokomo Blues, Canned Heat, or on his own material in that vein, some of them numbers he had composed and set aside years back, only to be rediscovered for this.

Like the best blues performers, Parker has improved with age. You can join the birthday bash Saturday at Fred's Music in St. John's with Parker doing a full set at 5 PM.

Monday, July 2, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MARK FOSSEN - RESTLESS

A relatively new recruit to the East Coast, Mark Fossen has spent a decade busking and gigging the country and beyond, playing festivals and releasing single tracks and videos. Now the B.C. native has landed in Antigonish, N.S., and has celebrated with his first full-length, called Restless. Produced by Jim Bryson, who's been quietly doing novel things for Canadian folk acts, this set has Fossen's emotional and searching tunes given a whole bunch of cool levels and shifting soundscapes. Like he's done on P.E.I. singer Meaghan Blanchard's upcoming release The Great Escape, Bryson has emphasized the mood in each of Fossen's cuts. It's not with unnecessary noises but rather with moments of quiet and calm, beautiful tones, mystery, and just the right bit of volume at the right time.

That leaves lots of room for Fossen's warm delivery and searching lyrics. Rocky Mountain Kiss looks back at an old West Coast love, thinking about it at a vulnerable time, and realizing it wasn't aching for the person, but missing that feeling of being in love. The cut Sometimes gets into intense territory, Fossen clearly one able to tap into his feelings, such as when he has to "..search for you in bottles of wine/when my heart is beating overtime." Songs with such heart on display could be mushy, but Fossen and Bryson add lots of power throughout, from gutsy guitar to some sneaky banjo to subtle strings. Or in Ghost, Fossen adds a falsetto harmony to a couple of lines, sounding a bit like Robbie Robertson in Somewhere Down The Crazy River. That's a good vibe, and this album has lots of that kind of warmth.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LOVE UNLIMITED ORCHESTRA - THE 20th CENTURY SINGLES, LOVE UNLIMITED - THE UNI, MCA AND 20th CENTURY SINGLES

If you think you know Barry White, that low, smooth-talking lover man from those '70's hits such as Can't Get Enough Of Your Love Babe and You're The First, The Last, My Everything, that's just one-third of what he was up to during that decade. The producer-writer-arranger had a grand vision of what he wanted to accomplish, one that developed slowly over several years and then exploded with a huge run of multi-million sellers. The other two parts of his empire are featured in these collections, both of which feature his writing and production.

Love Unlimited was actually where it all started. They were a trio of women, one of whom became White's wife, who had a hit called Walkin' In The Rain With The One I Love in 1972. It was unique, featured the classic soul female trio but with a funky update. Then there were sound effects of rain, and of all things, a phone conservation between two lovers. The male voice, well that was Barry himself, and fans went nuts for that sexy voice. The song went gold, and while he went about finding new hits for the trio, he also got signed to do his own solo tracks based on his guest appearance. That of course went crazy, starting in 1973. White put together a large group to accompany his hits and Love Unlimited too. It featured top-level L.A. session players, and film orchestra players too.  It became known as the Love Unlimited Orchestra.

White's next move was to get the Orchestra on record. Some of the flip sides of Love Unlimited's singles were instrumentals, and soon White started giving the orchestra the A-sides, with December of 1973 seeing Love's Theme do the most surprising thing. An orchestral, early disco instrumental, it hit #1, and now White had three different hit-making acts, all under one roof. He was in charge of it all, and pumped out gold record at an alarming rate, becoming just as big internationally. 

The Love Unlimited Orchestra is two discs, which includes A and B-sides, plus 12-inch extended cuts of some. That gets a little tiresome, as the sugary-sweet orchestra, strings over funky grooves, didn't advance much over its career. They did start making movie themes near the end of the '70's, disco versions of the themes from King Kong and Superman, as well as a take on Shaft, so there's some welcome melodies there, but you'll have to be quite a fan to want repeated listens. It's easier to get into the Love Unlimited trio, who were a good trio, still doing the classic soul singing, but with disco grooves driving the beat. They had four chart hits over a couple of years, and probably could have had more, if White hadn't got so wrapped up in his own platinum success. Still, the trio and the orchestra were part of White's touring act too, so they all got to take part in those glorious times. I'd pick up the single-disc set on the trio if you're a soul vocal fan.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SUPREMES - SING HOLLAND-DOZIER-HOLLAND (EXPANDED EDITION)

Like most Motown acts in the '60's, The Supremes were kept busy in the studio, as writers and producers tried out all sorts of material, looking for hits. Unlike most others, the hits weren't elusive for the trio. They had access to the best material from the best production and writing team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, responsible for all their biggest hits to that point. Since they had so many tracks in the can, this 1967 album was put together as an afterthought, with cuts left over from their previous release, The Supremes A' Go-Go, the group's first #1 album. It was also the first-ever album by a female group to top the charts. The trio was rivaling The Beatles as the top vocal act in the world.

The album had a couple of huge hits to lean on, You Keep Me Hangin' On and Love Is Here And Now You're Gone, both of which went to #1. As with assorted b-sides and leftovers, it was easy to come up with a 12-track release. But rather than slap-dash, this was all top-quality material, as H-D-H didn't waste their precious time with the group. Several of these tracks had come to life as potential singles, which is confirmed by writer-producer Lamont Dozier in the liner notes. That includes Mother You, Smother You, its only problem being an awkward title. I'll Turn To Stone was one that had been recorded earlier by the group, but was then given to The Four Tops who got the single release. Also found on the disc are Supremes' versions of hits by other Motown artists, Heat Wave (Martha & the Vandellas) and It's The Same Old Song (Four Tops). That was the Motown equivalent of filler material for albums; instead of wasting a new composition, they'd recycle proven hits among their other acts, sometimes even using the same backing track.

This expanded edition is beefed up to two discs, with a whopping 51 tracks, although there's significant repetition. The 12 album cuts are here twice, in mono and stereo. The rest of the tracks are technically unreleased, although several are alternate mixes of the album cuts, extended or early takes. Most are pretty similar, but a few feature altered parts that are noticeable. Also included is the big hit that followed the album, The Happening, another #1 that wasn't included on any album at the time, so it happily finds a home here.

The rest of disc two is made up of a newly-released live set.  There is a Supremes At The Copa album, but it's from 1965. This concert was from the group's third appearance at the famed club, in 1967, and features their more sophisticated nightclub act. Berry Gordy always felt the future for his acts was in the adult market, once they grew too old for the teen record buyers, and he had a point. But the slick showbiz style would go out of favour soon, and hearing the young trio doing material such as Put On A Happy Face and The Lady Is A Tramp, plus a medley of all their early hits is disappointing these days, compared to the better parts of the show, full versions of You Keep Me Hangin' On and I Hear A Symphony. This is an important show though, as it's the last recorded concert of the original group, with Florence Ballard about to be replaced by Cindy Birdsong. That's actually the reason these tapes exist, as they were made to give to Birdsong so she could polish up on her parts.

As with previous expanded editions of The Supremes' albums, this is a high-quality package, with excellent research and track notation, historical notes, and even a reproduction of the souvenir tour book from that era. What frightens me is the threat to the future of such releases, with the talk of the elimination of the CD format growing. This type of set would be easily over $100 if released only on vinyl, and their probably wouldn't be a market for that, while putting it out only as digital files would mean we wouldn't get the booklets and great packaging. Save the CD!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - WELCOME TO THE BLACKOUT, CHRISTIANE F., BAAL

Here's the latest batch of Bowie, which continues unabated. The biggest news is the first wide release of Welcome To The Blackout, a live album from 1978 that came out on vinyl only on Record Store Day, now available on CD and digital services. The other two are vinyl re-releases of side projects from the early '80's, making sure everything gets reissued in every conceivable way. These are so-called "bricks and mortar" releases, meaning they are only available in actual physical stores, kind of like Record Store Day all year long.

Welcome To The Blackout is from the Isolar II tour of 1978, the same tour that gave us the Stage live album. By the track list alone, you'd think it's pretty much the same, but there are quite a few differences in the performances, for a couple of reasons. The recordings for Stage were done in April and May in the U.S. leg of the tour, while this one comes from London's Earl's Court in July at the end of the tour. The band is looser, more experimental, having fun, and even Bowie is playful, adding a few vocal asides. They play a live version of the song Sound and Vision that night, the first time that Low track had been tried in concert, a rare addition for a tour that had featured identical set lists almost every night. The biggest difference is the rather rigid approach of the earlier shows, the icy stance of the synth music replaced by some pyrotechnics led by guitar whiz Adrian Belew. If you've only heard the original Stage album, you won't recognize the order of the songs here. Stage moved things around quite a bit, starting with a side of Ziggy Stardust, but here you get the songs in the same order as the original concert (plus the addition of Suffragette City, not included on the regular edition of Stage).

The soundtrack to Christiane F. has long been a favourite of Bowie fans from the late '70's era, as its basically a greatest hits of the so-called Berlin years. It includes Station to Station, Stay, TVC-15, and a unique version of "Heroes"/Helden, an edit of the original with some of the German language version cut in. The German film was pretty bleak, the story of a teenage drug addict in the Berlin underground of the late '70's, and became a cult favourite in these parts thanks to Bowie's appearance as himself in a concert scene.

Baal is an EP of the five songs performed by Bowie in the BBC play by Bertolt Brecht. The songs are translations of the originals, with mostly new music, and Bowie did studio versions with producer Tony Visconti after the performance, so he could release them as a new project. It even sold a fair amount, mostly on Bowie's name alone, as they are certainly not rock. These are from the art/cabaret school, part of the story as well, but still enjoyable on their own. Well, enjoyable if you don't mind, say, Bowie's version of Alabama Song for instance, and it certainly has a good amount of fans; It just not, say, Rebel Rebel. It's more a completist thing, but at least with these vinyl reissues, you have that choice again

Monday, June 25, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PETE YORN & SCARLETT JOHANSSON - APART

As the only member of The Avengers able to calm down The Hulk, Johansson has no problem chilling out alt-rocker Yorn on this five-track EP. It's their second collaboration, but first since 2009's album Break Up, and her first collection since then. Of course, she has plenty of other hobbies to keep her busy. It's Yorn who initiates these things, calling on his friend when he wants a woman's point of view in material about relationships. They were friends before, and as he's said, it helps she can sing.

There's nothing remarkable to her voice, but nothing to get upset about either. She does offer that cool, brooding counter to his tenderness, and they blend well in harmonies. I could go for a little more fun though; the best track is Bad Dreams, which has the most life to it, and Johansson gets to stretch past her regular role, with a little energy. Yorn certainly knows how to rock, but seems to go with the moody stuff here, leaning on the tech and echo. True, it's dreamy, and that was the point. There's not a lot of room for variety on a five-cut release. Maybe if they decide not to wait another decade, they could rock out a bit next time.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STILL ON THE RUN - THE JEFF BECK STORY (Blu-ray)

"There's everybody else and then there's Jeff Beck." That's a pretty great statement, especially coming from a well-known guitar player, Joe Perry. "I don't even know what he's doing half the time." That's a pretty stunning statement, considering it's Eric Clapton talking. There's a whole lot of other stars ready to praise Beck through this documentary, from Jimmy Page to Rod Stewart to Dave Gilmour, but more importantly over the course of the film we are able to understand what sets him apart. That's a tough thing in music, showing what makes someone great and different, especially when we're up at that level of expertise. Clapton, Page, Gilmour, the late George Martin and various band mates from over the years, famous or not, point out the characteristics and inquisitive nature that makes him tick. Martin points out that more than anyone else, the guitar is Beck's voice, and that's the way to listen to him. Our eyes and ears do the rest.

Just as remarkable is the steadfast way he kept going for the music rather than the fame. Hearing his story from The Yardbirds til today, it's obvious he only ever made decisions based on integrity instead of money and applause. He quit The Yardbirds two dates into a North American package tour that had the band doing three songs on a bill with lightweight pop stars. He broke up the famed Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood) two weeks before Woodstock. He'd start new groups to learn and advance, and generally follow his muse. He sat out great stretches of the '80's and beyond, not for lack of offers but because he didn't feel he fit in the button-pushing technology of the day. The last decade, the guitar player who could join any band or have the most famous people back him, instead chooses to play with relative unknowns but excellent musicians he's met, often women who excel equally as their male peers.

He seems remarkably humble and even-keeled, although since he's not interested in show biz gossip and star worship, the documentary doesn't dwell on any of that. All we really learn about him personally is that he loves working on cars just as much as playing music. Fair enough, In biographies you generally, and rightly, look for important clues from an artist's personal life that have affected their art, but Beck does seem to be that singular person who is exactly as he seems. The big emotional highlight of the story is a memory of being taken to the Hollywood Bowl during The Yardbird's first American tour, and thinking what an honour it would be to play it, and then having that happen finally like, 45 years later, long after it was due, and still being so proud and awestruck over it. It's probably a really good thing that he's not over-the-top famous like those other stars singing his praises, because it's kept him refreshingly humble.

Bonus features: Not much, a five-song excerpt from a 2007 show in Montreux, but of course, he's awesome.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHANNON SHAW - SHANNON IN NASHVILLE

Richly produced at Dan Auerbach's Music City studio, with all his bells and tricks and thickness, Shaw has the big and interesting voice to pull off such lushness. She falls somewhere between early '60's girl group and James Bond theme-singer, natural, compelling but not a show-off or vocal gymnast. She knows how to put a lot of emotion and mystery into the tunes. Auerbach adds all the drama, digging into a ton of production tricks and little treats from his grab-bag of '60's strategies.

It's really a master class in sounds and layers, Auerbach able to take all the early '60's techniques and apply modern effects and depth in the multi-channel pallet. For instance, everything doesn't have to be drenched in the same echo, he can do that to individual parts, in various amounts. Cymbals can come to the front, backing vocalists can be more ethereal, strings can explode on entrance. Spector, Bacharach, Brian Wilson, they'd all nod with appreciation, if not a little jealousy about how their old tricks can get repurposed with such ease. Meanwhile Shaw's characters are in a constant state of upset, heartbroken, confused, rejected, alone, haunted. Leslie Gore would understand.This one's especially made for vinyl fans.

Friday, June 22, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALONE WITH CHRISSIE HYNDE (DVD)

A fascinating and very different documentary on Hynde, which instead of the usual talking heads and archival footage, has the camera following her around from city to city, doing what she does. A lot of it involves being alone, something she is not only used to, but has come to realize she prefers. It was also the name of her last album with The Pretenders, so it fits beautifully. Hynde of course has always been an interesting character, and she still is, maybe even more so, with age and wisdom.

Hynde shows us the upside of being solo personally, from being able to spend months on her new interest, painting, to all the quiet time she finds to stroll gardens in London or stores in Paris, shopping for clothes. She goes back to her hometown, Akron, and talks about the her childhood, and the loneliness of middle America. There are laugh moments too, clowning around with her pal Sandra Bernhard on her radio show, and joking with the documentary crew, pretty much a running conversation through the whole 90 minutes. There were probably dozens of hours of footage that got edited, and I have the feeling it was all interesting. I don't think she can have a dull conversation. In the end, you're left with a much better understanding of her, definitely more normal than your usual celebrity. She's very down to earth, and pretty much likes what she likes, and does what she does, and would rather be left alone. Sounds pretty normal.

What about the music then? There are a few songs spread throughout from recent shows, but it doesn't give you the full experience. So wisely this DVD includes a real treat, a full show from the original Pretenders lineup, on the famous German TV show Rockpalast, from 1981. That's just after the release of Pretenders II, with the band at their peak, before the OD deaths of original guitar and bass players James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon. I wouldn't call that a bonus, I'd call it a double-feature.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAT LEPOIDEVIN - CAPTAIN MYLES & THE SPR

Fun! Pat LePoidevin's new one is a concept sci-fi trip to outer space and the future, as seen through the eyes of two explorer kids. Captain Myles and Lucy are two members of the Society of Planet Research (SPR), a group of future kids who build a space ship out of discarded parts from junkyards, and go on an adventure. It's a deceptive little adventure that seems childlike on the surface but is all about relationships, both childhood and adult, responsibility (adults kind of fail at that one), where we're headed down the road, and all this crazy technology we're getting so used to and dependent on.

That's just my reading of it, LePoidevin probably has a few other tricks up his sleeve embedded in the story and the game. That's right, the game, because there's a video game too, over at www.patlepoidevin.com. I'm no gamer, so I'll stick with the tunes, which are pretty easy-going and easy to follow, which is preferable in a concept album. It's good to have a story that's understandable. Musically, it's your basic indie with a twangy guitar doing much of the talking, along with LePoidevin's plaintive telling of the tale.

It's a tour too, as LePoidevin's taking the rocket ship on the road. He's waltzing through the Maritimes to start, with shows in the following:

Friday, June 22 - Governors' Pub, Sydney, N.S.
Sun., June 24 - Buddha Bear Cafe/Holy Whale Brewery, Alma N.B, 3 PM
Sun., June 24 - Baba's Lounge, Charlottetown, 8 PM
Friday, June 29 - Broad Cove Hall, South Shore, N.S.
Sat., June 30 - The Seahorse, Halifax
Thurs, July 5 - The Commune New Glasgow, N.S.
Friday, July 6 - The Capitol, Fredericton
Sat., July 7 - Red Herring, St. Andrews, N.B.

Monday, June 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BARRA MACNEILS - ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

It's been a long time between albums for the MacNeil clan. The last was a Christmas album in 2013, and before that, not counting collaborative releases or live shows, it was All At Once in 2005 when the group last recorded a proper set of new stuff. Not that they haven't been busy of course; touring throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe has seen them earn their nickname of Canada's music ambassadors, considered one of the top groups in the Celtic scene.  They must have been itching to do it; the new album has kicked off a string of live dates the last few months, partying it up in Toronto this week. Having caught one lately, I can report they're kicking up a storm.

What has always set the group apart has been the flexibility of the family, each member able to bring something different to the table. That means they can be as trad as can be for the purists, but can also throw in a couple of curve balls with some modern pop sounds. Here we get an instrumental jig to start things off, "Welcome To Boston," but by cut three, Living The Dream, it's a track with a funky beat, singing about modern conveniences and overspending, getting their house with "a satellite dish and a couple of cats." Of course it's delivered so fresh and fun, it fits in well with all the lively Celtic stuff. And by the next track, Ribhinn Donn, which Lucy sings entirely in Gaelic, a lovely number able to stir any heart. The men show off their vocal prowess too, on the a cappella The Underachiever, which sounds like some ancient sea shanty but features a modern lyric about the trials of someone who can't get ahead. Daisy could be a standout track on any singer-songwriter record, Lucy shining again, only the slightest trad touch coming from the driving bouzouki line. Clouds Under My Feet is even more surprising, with its Euro-beat and thick bass and drums, Lucy channeling her inner Annie Lennox. Pretty crafty, these MacNeils, yes they're Celtic, but they're Celtic-plus.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE LUCKY LOSERS - BLIND SPOT

Gritty and funky, The Lucky Losers come from the Bay Area of California, and are the duo of Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz. Most of their songs are built around their strong vocals, either duet or solo, and a devotion to the '60's/'70's Stax/Volt/Hi Records sound. They do that exceptionally well, including a vein of the psychedelic blues that came along at that point, and lots of modern, electric grooves.

Backed by a team of West Coast all-star players, the duo leave lots of room for those musicians to shine as well, and the album features a ton of stand-out parts, including some blistering solos from guitarist Laura Chavez on Supernatural Blues and fun violin by Annie Staninec (Rod Stewart) on Make A Right Turn. Berkowitz provides a soulful harmonica thoughout as well, a necessary ingredient for the grit. Berkowitz and Lemons have a cool blend, with his smoother, higher range and her gutsy toughness, although she can get sweet too, providing the second part in Bulldogs & Angels. Most importantly though, it's all new material, the two each writing a wide selection of material, with lots of social comment, not just the boy-girl stories that duets albums often get stuck on. It may be based on a retro sound but it still feels fresh and forward-moving.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMMYLOU HARRIS - THE BALLAD OF SALLY ROSE (Expanded Edition)

Given Harris's iconic status, it's surprising to realize she had her share of flops too, and fell out of favour in the country world for a long stretch. Now she's Americana, the ultimate roots artist, but back in 1985 she was still considered a Nashville star. That is, until this concept album. She called it a country opera, and it marked her first release after her personal and professional split with producer Brian Ahern. Instead it was made with new partner Paul Kennerley, the songwriter who bequeathed her the hit Born To Run (not the Springsteen one). For the first time since her obscure 1969 folk debut, Harris would write all the songs, quite a departure for an artist who had made her name with striking cover versions, known as the singer's singer.

Harris had a story she wanted to get out, a personal one. Sally Rose was based on herself, and this was a re-imagination of her time with the legendary Gram Parsons. Harris had sung harmonies at his side for a year, and had made it her career goal to continue his music after he died. The story told of Sally Rose wasn't true-to-life, and a lot more than just the names were changed. It had been mythologized, but the point was clear, Sally loved The Singer, as Emmylou had loved Gram.

Country radio had loved Emmylou, but didn't for the singles from this album. They were perhaps a little too involved in the plot, not obvious and easy to digest, and even too smart. That translated into diminished album sales and a lack of tour buzz too. Wouldn't you know it, Harris had made the most substantial album of her career, and also just torpedoed it. She went back to covers soon after, and spent a decade bouncing around stylistically before teaming up with Daniel Lanois for Wrecking Ball, attracting a new audience that became known as Americana, and once again feeling confident in her writing skills.

What everybody realized now is that not only could she write, she was fantastic, and this album was a gem. The story of Sally Rose's climb to fame while The Singer declines is actually more like A Star Is Born rather than the Gram-Emmylou tale, but no matter, the individual songs are tight and the tale fun to follow: "You better move fast 'cause tickets are tight/if you wanna see Sally Rose pick it tonight."

This reissue comes with new liner notes explaining the story and what happened, including Harris's own: "The album was a bust in commercial terms." Now it comes with a second disc of the original acoustic demos of most of the album tracks, and in many cases I like that stripped-down takes just as much if not more. The hope from all involved is now it will find a larger audience, and her new roots fans would be wise to go back and discover it.

Friday, June 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ERIC CLAPTON - LIFE IN 12 BARS (Blu-ray or DVD), LIFE IN 12 BARS (Soundtrack)

While you think you may know everything about Clapton, you'll still find lots to learn in this documentary, made with his blessing and participation, but not his interference. Director Lili Zanuck was given access to all the footage and photos he'd been storing up, and carte blanche for a story line. Clapton doesn't really have much to hide, as he told all, quite painfully, in his autobiography several years back, so the all the booze, drugs, infidelity, obsession and heartache was already on the table. What Zanuck was able to to do was invite more people to give their observations. They don't pull punches, especially exes. A real find was one of his oldest friends, an early bandmate from his first groups, The Roosters, one Ben Palmer, who stayed around as Cream's road manager, and then a friend. He's able to bring us lots of insight into what drove Clapton. Also Clapton's aunt, who witnessed some of the terrible hurt his mother caused in his life, was able to show how that trauma affected him through his adult life. In the end though, it's Clapton himself who has the best perspective, able to sift through all the lies and failings in his life, the wasted years as an addict and alcoholic, and his inability to form a genuine relationship, until conquering all those demons after the death of his son, Conor. The film really ends with the release of the cathartic Tears In Heaven, except for some well-earned accolades and his significant charity work, but that's okay, we get the point that he got his act together and the drama largely ended.

One thing the film fails to do is showcase just what an exceptional guitar player he is, focusing on the life story as it does. That's solved too, with the double-CD soundtrack. There are of course tons of Clapton collections available, from box sets to live-only compilations to blues-only to a dozen or more best-ofs, but this certainly is one of the better overviews. Playing through this mostly-familiar material, the inventiveness and sheer excellence hit home, especially going quickly from style to style, as he did in the late '60's. Going from the Bluesbreaker's All Your Love to Cream's crazy pop of I Feel Free to the power of Sunshine Of Your Love to his historic solo on The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the breadth of it all is spectacular. The film wisely used his guest playing on Aretha Franklin's Good To Me As I Am To You, two giants in their heyday.  There are a few cuts with that "previously unreleased" asterisk beside them, although nothing too important. There's a live version of Cream doing Spoonful, but at over 17 minutes, it feels like you had to be there to enjoy it. A song recorded for the aborted second Derek and the Dominos album, High, gets its first official release here, although it's been well-bootlegged over the years, and isn't much to write home about. Better is a live Little Wing from that same band, and the original, 6'50" version of I Shot The Sheriff is a nice extra treat. The other treat is that there's nothing after 1974 except Tears In Heaven, but that's just me being catty.

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DANA SIPOS - TRICK OF THE LIGHT

Dana Sipos likes being outdoors, in the woods or biking and canoeing around, so it's fitting she's playing tonight (June 15) on Ministers Island in St. Andrews, N.B. It's an outdoor show at the amazing Bath House on the historic Van Horne property, only accessible during low tide. No doubt it will be a wonderful evening experience, starting at 7 p.m.

That's just the start of the East Coast tour though, as Sipos promotes her new Trick Of The Light album. Always keen on pushing the boundaries of folk, it's unclear where and when her songs are set, both musically and lyrically. Both Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Mountains show up, but are they places or states of mind, those iconic folk spots? The language and references are equally blurry. The hurricanes approaching in Lily In The Window could be today's bad weather or last century's, as the singer thinks they are payback for wicked ways: "Too much moonshine, not enough God-fearing," she sings. But in another weather number, Windsong, drivers notice the glow of the nearby power plant. There's more great observation later in that song, as they drive by "under the watchful eyes of the bovine, chewing hard and staring us down."

The music is based around Sipos' haunting, 19th century voice, a tremendously evocative instrument in itself. She lingers over words, "walking in the rain" becoming a slow stroll over several notes. Producer Sandro Perri, equally adventurous, puts a combination of old instruments and new sounds around her, including violin, which matches her voice -- or vice-versa. Her own gentle picking is matched with piano or keyboards and light percussion, and the occasional eerie bits of electronics surprisingly make it feel more ancient that modern. To put a final ribbon on it, everyone's favourite eccentric, Mary Margaret O'Hara, joins to add vocal calisthenics on When The Body Breaks.

In addition to Ministers Island, Sipos plays Saturday, June 16 at the Arts and Culture Centre in Sussex, N.B., Monday June 18 in Antigonish, N.S. at the Townhouse Brewpub, plus a few house concerts in N.S. Then she's at the Full Circle Festival in Windsor, N.S. from June 22- 24, and the Oakdene Centre in Bear River, N.S. on Monday, June 25.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THOMAS STAJCER - WILL I LEARN TO LOVE AGAIN?

Poor Thomas Stajcer. Joel Plaskett's had him locked up inside of the bunker that is his New Scotland Yard studio, where Stajcer's the in-house engineer. Wouldn't you know thought, that anyone with such good ears would be a musician as well. While he's been slaving away on Plaskett's various projects (and his own, he's also produced albums for others), he's not just been working on his studio tan. Stajcer's debut has arrived, and it's a full country opus. Looks like we got us another country outlaw here, with some rough-and-ready real stuff, like those Waylon and Willie hits of back in the day.

Stajcer's album is a song cycle about the Sad Cowboy, one with a broken heart, who's faced with the titular question. "Now there's a million pieces of me, is there someone out there who can make me complete?" he wonders, and there's no clear answer, only hope for the desperate. He takes us through all the stages of hurt, from anger to hope of reconciliation to despair, each one in a different shade of country. There are weepers and barroom ballads, twangy rockers and one old-fashioned shit-kicker, How Long Could I Wait?, which hints that our cowboy may be coming through all right in the end.

The album doesn't land until July 6, but now's the time to catch Stajcer, as it looks like he's taking a few weekends off from the studio for some live gigs. He's at the Union St. Cafe in Berwick, N.S. on Friday, June 15, then at The Well in Miramichi, N.B. on Saturday, June 16. On Thursday, June 21 he's at the Trailside Music Cafe in Mt. Stewart, P.E.I., then the next night at the Sportsman's in Charlottetown. June 26 sees him in Antigonish, N.S. at the Townhouse, July 5 is the Carleton in Halifax, and July 6 catch Stajcer at the Trellis Cafe in Hubbards, N.S.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ENNIS SISTERS - KEEPING TIME

The unmistakable family harmonies will always be the highlight of the Ennis Sisters' albums, but this is one to watch for the songwriting especially. Maureen is the writer, and responsible for 10 of 11 cuts here, with a theme of time passing, and using it wisely. Much of that was inspired by the recent passing of their father to dementia, and is partially in honour of him, and partially about transitions we all go through.

Produced by NL countryman Alan Doyle (two co-writes as well), the album has all the trad music bells and whistles (quite literally) but feels far more contemporary thanks to the subject matter, Maureen's way with melodies, and the vocal arrangements, which show the group's pop sensibilities as well. While many of the songs are poignant, none are sad, but more reflective. Of particular grace is the title cut, written for Karen's wedding day, and her dance with her father, with lots of mentions of past waltzes and places and times shared. The album wraps up with the lone cover, the CSN hit Wasted On The Way, with a new arrangement for their voices rather than those other harmony guys. With its message about time wasted on the way, it wraps up the theme well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVE ALVIN AND JIMMIE DALE GILMORE - DOWNEY TO LUBBOCK

Here are two troubadours who took different paths but ended up at the same destination. Alvin came out of California and the punkish roots of The Blasters, while Gilmore was an instigator in the country folk of Texas. But its clear it's all the same thing in this set. In a first-time collaboration, Gilmore and Alvin tackle a set mostly of classic Americana, churning their way through just about every influence they've had, like they couldn't wait to make music together and can't decide what to do next, there are so many options.

Alvin and Gilmore co-wrote the title cut, a fun biographical nod to their hometowns and the roads they've taken. Alvin brought one more original, Billy the Kid and Geronimo, two icons with something to say about these days. The rest run from blues (Lightnin' Hopkins' Buddy Brown's Blues), folk (Guthrie's Deportees) to early rock (Lawdy Miss Clawdy), delivered with either Gilmore's distinctive twang or Alvin's lived-in gruffness. The common trait in everything, from the material to the partnership, is authenticity. Even when Gilmore pulls out the chestnut Get Together, he manages to remind us it actually had a great message and lyric before being a hippy cliche. Meanwhile, Alvin brings passion and fire, obviously relishing the opportunity to play with a fellow traveler. Live shows and a promise of more to come make this feel like a beginning rather than a victory lap.

Monday, June 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BESIDE BOWIE - THE MICK RONSON STORY SOUNDTRACK

This is the companion soundtrack to a new documentary about the under-praised and often-overlooked hero of the Spiders From Mars, Mick Ronson. He's best known as Bowie's foil on those early albums, first appearing on The Man Who Sold The World, and then Hunky Dory, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and Pin-Ups. His role was far more than simply the guitar player Bowie leaned on, literally and figuratively. The soft-spoken, simple gent from Hull was blessed with tremendous talent and classical training, and conceiving of many of the arrangements and ideas on those Bowie classics, as well as many iconic solos.

That's just the start though, as this soundtrack points out. His music-making included an early take of Elton John's Madman Across The Water (unreleased at the time, but later included on a reissue) that he absolutely owns. There are his own solo albums, which all had moments, and his long partnership with Mott The Hoople's Ian Hunter, including the gigantic Once Bitten, Twice Shy. Even this collection doesn't tell the whole story though, as Ronson's productions included Lou Reed's best solo album, Transformer, John Mellancamp's American Fool, and Morrissey's Your Arsenal. In each case those artists have praised Ronson for being absolutely full of great ideas that greatly helped the albums. Mellancamp goes to great length explained how Ronson turned a junk-heap song, Jack and Diane, into a huge hit with his arrangement ideas.

With all that to consider, the soundtrack is a bit underwhelming, the Ronson solo tracks not that well chosen, and a couple of tribute tunes from pals Joe Elliot of Def Leppard and Mike Garson of Bowie's groups nice but not necessary. Of more interest is the inclusion of two cuts from the Freddie Mercury tribute concert held in 1992 in Wembley Stadium, Ronson once again at his old bosses' side for All The Young Dudes and Heroes. Ronson himself died a year later from liver cancer. Can't wait to see this doc.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE HILL - ONE MAN BLUES ROCK BAND

Considering his explosive, dynamic performances, it's surprise that Hill hasn't released a live album before in his two-decade career. One of the most heralded Canadian blues players, including a Juno in 2015 for Best Blues Album, his one-man-band live shows have the energy and sound that any quartet would kill for. Here it's all on display, from his electric mastery to haunting acoustic numbers, there's never a moment when you ask, 'Gee, what would he sound like with a band?' It's simply not necessary.

These are almost all originals, just a couple of covers, including the set-closer Voodoo Child. Using no boards, loops and such, Hill covers bass, percussion, and rhythm needs, and adds harmonica to use acoustic tunes, all when called for. Most of the time, he simply roars. Hill likes to blast away, and these are tunes that showcase his ability to crank it up a notch with his playing. You can hear the crowd getting more carried away as he builds up those numbers as well, knowing they are in the presence of one of the best. His vocals are passionate as well, so even a mid-tempo ballad like Emily has strength and guts, without any guitar solos to lead the cheers. There's good variety throughout, with Nothing New something dark, dirty and dangerous, evoking Howlin' Wolf. Band? He don't need no stinking band.

Friday, June 8, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BEACH BOYS WITH THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA

I'm usually not that keen on these projects where they mess with the originals, adding elements to the familiar hits. It kinda seems like sacrilege, no? Or another precocious idea to milk more money out the cash cow for record companies. This one intrigues me however, as The Beach Boys music yields lots of opportunities to had some interesting orchestral parts, already being quite advanced in structure, arrangement and performance, and no doubt Brian Wilson would have loved to have a symphony kicking around when he was doing some of these productions. He was also on board with allowing the project to happen, so why not just approach it with open ears?

The set kicks off with an opening symphony piece called California Suite, just to introduce the orchestra. That moves right into the famous opening of California Girls, and the orchestra backs off, as there are certain bits that are so iconic, and in this case perfect, you don't want to mess with them. That's followed by Wouldn't It Be Nice, and I was a bit surprised at how little the orchestra was used on these cuts, given their dynamic productions. It's almost as if the arrangers didn't feel there was much of a place for the symphony. Surprisingly, it's an old rock 'n' roll number, Fun Fun Fun, that is the first to truly benefit from the added orchestra, as we get a bit of a surprise hearing the new parts on such a familiar cut. Sloop John B is another that gets an interesting opening, and it becomes apparent that this is the best place for the orchestra to get involved, adding new starts, endings and links to the pieces, already so well produced. There are a few stand-outs certainly. Bruce Johnston's underrated Disney Girls from 1971's Surf's Up album gets a full orchestra through the whole song, and it really does lift the song to a new level. As for Kokomo, well, it's always going to be a love-it-or-hate-it number, and no amount of flutes and tympanis can change that.

In My Room has some nice new moments, to bolster the harp that was already on the track (courtesy of Mike Love's sister Maureen, trivia buffs), and Darlin' is even beefier with the orchestra cooking along on the rocker. They save the best for last, and it's a real surprise, Good Vibrations, where the whole orchestra plays along. And it works very well, not wrecking the classic but instead giving it a new feel, more sweeping and grand. It may not improve on the original, but it's not offensive, it's just different, and really, why not? If anything, I'd say the people involved might have been a little too tentative and conservative with the arrangements, fearful of complaints.  A few more cuts could have used the full-on treatment.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL MCCARTNEY - WINGS GREATEST, THRILLINGTON

The latest McCartney reissues are being pushed on coloured vinyl, but I'm just as thrilled to get these two on CD, two much welcome additions to my collection. Wings Greatest is the classic 1978 hits package owned by many on vinyl release, but since surpassed by collections such as All The Best and 2016's Pure box. There's a solidness to this single-disc set though, every cut a hit, and no debatable choices, even if you're not a big fan of, say, Silly Love Songs. In fact, there were so many hits McCartney could choose from for the set, he left off Listen To What The Man Says, which was too bad, and other Top 40 hits such as Helen Wheels and Venus and Mars/Rock Show. Since it was before such annoying numbers as Goodnite Tonight, Say Say Say and Ebony and Ivory, it's simply a stronger listen, with Band On The Run, My Love, Jet, etc. It just feels like an essential benchmark release for McCartney too, as it was the first appearance on one of his albums for such singles as Another Day, Live And Let Die, Junior's Farm, Mull Of Kintyre and Hi, Hi, Hi. I always admired the fact he continued releasing singles in between albums well into the '70's, the old British way of doing things.

The other album is on wide release for the very first time, apart from its inclusion on the pricey super-deluxe version of the Ram box reissue. Thrillington was a legendary lark for McCartney, released back in 1977 on the sly, without him being credited. The cover story was that Percy "Thrills" Thrillington was an eccentric British musical genius, who had taken McCartney's 1971 album Ram, and created a full orchestral version of it. It was a scam, the whole thing done by McCartney. It was released semi-secretly, and it took months for the secret to be widely known. By that point, the album had disappeared, and it's been a rare collector's item since, original copies going for a hundred bucks or more. Now, there's a tongue-in-cheek element to the music too. Richard Hewson, who had done the strings for Let It Be cuts such as Long and Winding Road, arranged and conducted, Paul produced, and the thing at times had a cheese factor, like those '60's instrumental pop hits albums, the James Last Orchestra, those kinds of things. One cut even has the sound of a dog bark as a kind of vocal throughout. At other times, it's really interesting, with similar instrument usage as Brian Wilson did on Pet Sounds. There are quite a few people (I'm one of them) that are passionate about Ram, and consider it McCartney's finest, so to hear these reinterpretations is very interesting. I've always known about, but had never heard it, and I must say it's much better than I thought it would be.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MATT STEELE & THE CORVETTE SUNSET - HALF GIRL HALF GHOST

Matt Steele is from Kentucky and ended up in Halifax, but that's another story. The story behind this second album from his band, following 2016's Songs For Catherine Anne, is equally interesting, and pretty intense too. It follows a partially-autobiographical situation that goes through a manipulative relationship, lost love, overcompensation, mental health trials and addiction. Somehow it all comes out in some of the most upbeat and exciting guitar rock in the true Halifax pop explosion tradition.

With lots of stabbing guitars, revved-up choruses and sweet lead lines, the band tears through eight bold numbers easily described as power pop. The buzzsaw attack of It Won't Happen Again is a brave face in a bad place, "I don't scare easy, I don't fall apart." Rescue Ship is a nautically-themed rebound number: "I've been deep down in my own Marianas Trench, plumbing the depths just to see how bad it can get." There's lots of fine lines, sarcasm, false bravado and hope too, all packaged like a perfect Friday-midnight rock show at the best club in town. If this album had a motto, it would be "Life's crazy, hand me that guitar."

If you're looking for a perfect Thursday night rock show at the best club in town, check out the album launch dates this week for Half Girl Half Ghost. Steele and Corvette Sunset will be at the Seahorse in Halifax Thursday, June 7, Peppers Pub in Saint John Friday night, Back Alley Music in Charlottetown Saturday afternoon for an in-store, and then Saturday night it's Hunter's Ale House in that fine city. Nick Faye and the Deputies support each show, while Hello Delaware join in for Saint John and Charlottetown.

Friday, June 1, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE YOUNG NOVELISTS - IN CITY & COUNTRY

Ooh, I like a good premise, and that's what The Young Novelists have given us on their third album, In City & Country. As opposed to the dreaded concept album, which tries and usually fails to deliver a cohesive story line, an album with a good premise is one that gives you several songs (although not necessarily all of them) based around one idea. Here, literate folkies Graydon James and Laura Spink look at small towns vs. big cities, getting out into the country from their Toronto homes. This isn't some loaded idea of city kids getting in touch with nature though; writer James is a professed farm boy who loves small towns (and covered bridges, he stuck one on the group's last album cover). But the couple love the city too, and here are looking at the magic in each, while keeping mind that city people generally feel there's nothing to do in a smaller place, while rural fans complain about the soulless nature of metros and suburbia.

It's fun to follow that thread, hearing lines like "Even the cities are calling out," from the title cut. In Two Of A Kind, you can hear them describe the town of Goderich, ON, as they relate the story of a love triangle dilemma. What's even more cool about the premise is that they actually went to several places to do research on events, the geography, and to soak up the local attitude. Of course, you don't need to follow any of this, you can just enjoy the performances. I love the harmonies from the duo on each song, not just saved for choruses but often heard through much or most of a track. It's folk-rock, closer to calm for the most part, but they do get in your face at times, Come Round Again a sharp guitar-drums rocker, still with those twin lead vocals though. Lots of the songs have clear '60's pop harmony influences, and I'd compare some of them to the wistful, baroque quality of middle-period Byrds cuts such as Goin' Back and Wasn't Born To Follow.

The Young Novelists are bringing their thing to the East Coast over the next few days.  You can catch them in Fredericton at Corked Wine Bar on Thursday, June 7, at the Parkindale Hall in Elgin, NB on Friday, June 8, in Rice Point, PEI at a house show Saturday June 9, and then at The Carleton in Halifax for Sunday, June 10.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELVIS PRESLEY - THE GREAT PERFORMANCES / THE 3 COMPLETE ED SULLIVAN SHOWS (DVD's)

These two double-DVD sets offer unique views of Presley at important points in his career. The Great Performances is perhaps a misleading name; it is in fact three documentaries covering his career. Two are narrated by his life-long friend George Klein, who met Presley in Grade 8, and was an early supporter as a DJ, staying in touch right up until the King's passing. The third is narrated by Bono, and that one covers the very early Elvis, from his breakthrough as Sun Records until appearing on Ed Sullivan, a tumultuous 12 months. It's more of a standard documentary, while the other two hour-long pieces are basically a bunch of TV and movie performances, interspersed with some home movies, rare footage and even some interview clips. I don't mean to diminish these though, it's fabulous stuff, including lots of important appearances. There's the first-ever TV guest spot, on the Dorsey Brothers program, and then the most controversial, the Milton Berle show which caused all the complaints about his sexy hip-shaking. That led to CBS only filming him above the waste when he appeared on Ed Sullvan the first time.

There's so much Elvis footage, the filmmakers actually ended up doing medleys of the image, combining shots from the '50's onstage with Scotty, Bill and D.J. Fontana, later stuff when the crowds got really busy, right up to Vegas Elvis. Footage, footage, footage. There's Elvis and Priscella's wedding, his parents at the airport as he flies off to join the army, some really interesting news crew stuff of Elvis in court, arrested for punching a guy who was hassling him at a gas station. That's the nice thing about officially-sanctioned films like these, they get all this great stuff that other directors would not have access to. The flip side is that you don't see him in a bad light, but I guess we all know what that was like anyway, he's been the butt of jokes for decades now, and these films are great reminders of his real excellence.

The other collection features the three original Ed Sullivan shows from September 1956 to January of 1957 featuring Elvis as the guest star. Not just the performances, these are the whole shows, from start to finish, including the many commercials for the sponsor, Lincoln/Mercury ("The Big M", as they were calling it). I've seen the Elvis songs lots of times, but never the full shows, so it's kinda cool, watching these dated but fascinating programs. TV shows were still trying to figure out what worked best on the medium, and the Sullivan show simply put everything on. There were the circus acts, Broadway musical snippets, comedians, jugglers, a kid's choir from Ireland, impressionists, clowns, and a dog act. Sadly, there's no Topo Gigio (look him up) but there is Senor Wences, the puppeteer/ventriloquist. Lots of them are somewhat bizarre, the dying gasps of vaudeville, and lots are dull, like the lame Broadway performance. Interestingly, one of the shows feature the debut of one Carol Burnett, who does a pretty decent comedy routine. The famous boxer Sugar Ray Leonard appears, strangely, a week after he lost his championship to an unknown. He'd probably been booked because they figured he'd win, but instead he had to endure the smug advice of Sullivan, a former sports writer who obviously thought he knew something about the fights. And something I'd forgotten or didn't ever know, was that Sullivan himself wasn't hosting the first show where Presley appeared, he was in the hospital, and actor Charles Laughton subbed for him.  And yes, we see Elvis, shot from the waste up, delivering Don't Be Cruel, Love Me Tender and Hound Dog, by now transformed into a confident, exciting performer who smirks and teases his screaming audience, clearly knowing he owned the world. He'd already had lots of TV exposure, on Steve Allen's show, six times on the Dorsey's, and Berle's as well, so Sullivan didn't make Elvis a star, but that was his biggest appearance to that point. Sullivan learned his lesson with rock and roll stars from that, and made darn sure he got The Beatles a few years later.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE DAWSON - LUCKY HAND

Here's my take on instrumental albums. Generally, I find they don't have much variety. I'm not talking jazz here, or classical, I mean those occasional releases by guitar pickers, made for fans of guitar playing, who know their way around finger-picking and alternative tuning and the like. I still enjoy some of the old rock 'n' roll instrumental groups from the early '60's, Booker T. and the MG's, surf music, Duane Eddy, they all had novelty, and usually you were only sticking around for a song or two. But stick an acoustic guitar album on, and I'm bound to lose interest and fade out.

Unless it's Steve Dawson. Superlatives abound for his playing, and I'm sure there's plenty to rave about here for you fans of guitar. Dawson is also a tremendous songwriter, performer, producer, singer, all those things as well, who records some of the best-sounding roots albums going for people such as C.R. Avery, Jim Byrnes and Christa Couture, as well as his own gems. When he decides to go instrumental, it's time to listen close, because he's going to do something different and surprising, with a theme he wants to explore. In the past he's gone deep into blues, Hawaiian, pedal steel, even rock. This time, it's a set of original fingerstyle and slide guitar pieces, and I guess the best way to describe them is as value-added. In much of the album, the main addition is a string quartet. No mere sweetening, these strings are put to work in full arrangements, prepared by Dawson's old recording partner Jesse Zubot (Zubot and Dawson) doing those honours, along with adding his own violin. And when it isn't the quartet, there are horns and woodwinds, again arranged by Zubot. Meanwhile Dawson is providing all sorts of different textures on various guitars, the effect being a set impossible to date other than post-19th century, with influences and subtleties from all over.

Even pared down to a couple of instruments, the arrangements and movements within the songs are captivating, something to follow intently rather than allow to blend in the background. The strings are dynamic, sympathetic yet proudly following a strong path of their own, with some fascinating note combinations. Of special interest and my personal delight is the appearance of famed Nashville harmonica ace Charlie McCoy, who does just as much exploring on the tune on which he joins Dawson. Anyway, hope I didn't insult too many guitar instrumentalists, but the point is, Dawson makes his album different, fascinating, and very listenable.

Monday, May 28, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MEAGHAN BLANCHARD - THE GREAT ESCAPE

P.E.I.'s Meaghan Blanchard has been known, rightly so, for her gorgeous homespun vocals and her country-flavoured songwriting. Her latest album, The Great Escape, is a game-changer. She's moved a bit away from the country stylings, although not altogether, with a sophisticated and moody production from Jim Bryson (Oh Susanna, The Skydiggers, Kathleen Edwards), which highlights a remarkable selection of songs. Before I ramble away with various reviewer platitudes which you may or may not gloss over, let me stop -- ask for your attention -- and say, simply, these are some seriously great songs here, with exceptional lyrics. Blanchard has a big heart, and wants her words to mean something. And connect they do.

Like some of the very best roots songwriters, Blanchard presents a series of stories on the album that look at the lives and struggles of regular people. In When You're Gone, she tells us about the older woman who believes no-one's going to write about her when she's gone. Blanchard sets the scene, letting us settle in at the table with her, observing "She's got two stoves in the kitchen, one to keep the house from freezing, one for the bread." In Angelina Bridgette, we meet a farmer's daughter from the last century, who decides to make it on her own, save her pennies and move to the Boston states, a classic story of independence for a woman from the Maritimes. The title cut is about her own independence, after a couple of years of personal change, moving in the other direction, further into rural P.E.I., appreciating nature and her own choices.

There are a couple of more playful numbers, but overall it's an album with a tone of empathy, and every so often Blanchard hits a note or two that seem to go straight to her heart, incredibly poignant. At the album's centre is the most powerful number, called The City, a modern folk gem, slow and delivered in her most haunting, spectacular tone, "a city where children never cry," about the horrors facing children caught in war zones. That's the one you'll remember a long time after hearing it.

Blanchard is starting to tour the album, which is going to be released coming up in June. Importantly, she's appearing in Fredericton Wednesday, May 30 at Dolan's. It's the inaugural show in a new series called Up Close and Personal, which sees an early start, 7:30, so you live music fans in the city might want to make extra effort, to show your support for more options in live music. And, because Blanchard's just made this awesome album, and you get to be among the first to hear the songs.