Saturday, May 14, 2022


The East Coast Music Awards just wrapped up, and with many of the showcases happening just a couple of blocks from my house, it was easy to take in lots of sets. It quickly became obvious how much we've missed live music, and particularly this event during the pandemic. Sure, musicians have continued to release new songs and done online performances, even the occasional live show. But this was a full-on, Covid-be-damned, forget social distancing, old-school concert, band after band. And despite everyone's best efforts to make due the past two years, there's no comparison. Watching music on your computer just doesn't match up to being in the same room as the players, with a crowd of people.

It also became obvious to me how behind I am in the East Coast music world. In the three years since the last ECMA's, there's been a new wave of performers step up to the top ranks. Seeing them live drove that home, so it's time I got caught up on a backlog of reviews and spotlights.

I'll start with Alicia Toner, who has quickly risen from up-and-coming to star status. That's already been acknowledged nationally, as she won the 2022 Solo Artist of the Year trophy at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, for her latest album, Joan. The P.E.I. singer-songwriter has already had a varied career, starting out in classical music, as a violin player in the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, and then spending a decade in theatre in Ontario. When she first recorded five years ago, you could still hear a little of that larger-than-life theatre voice, but with the songs on Joan, she's found her more subtle voice for the touching ballads ("When I Was A Kid"), and a drama-free one for the rockers. She is now one effective singer.

"Call My Name" is a giant song, showing off every bit of her vocal prowess. It starts with moody, mysterious and slow verses, Toner singing sweet and pure. Then it explodes, and as the music thunders, she lifts and soars above it all, with opera-singer power. With a fast return to its quieter level and quick ending, it leaves you a little stunned at all the emotion she packed into that four minutes.

While she was singled out at the folk awards, I'd use that term loosely when describing her, as the Joan album is far more electric and intricate, and more pop than what I think of as folk. Produced by Stuart Cameron and Peter Fusco, acoustic moments are adorned with atmospherics, ringing and powerful accents and the occasional dirty guitar lines. But the production never becomes cluttered, as Toner's voice is allowed to be the main instrument throughout, as it deserves.

Seeing her live confirmed the energy and tension she brings to her songwriting, and why she's become an East Coast A-lister. The good news is a new album is on the way with the same team, and hopefully lots more concerts for everyone to check out.

Thursday, December 2, 2021


Here's the debut album from a fun folk quartet, with all members originally from Edmundston, N.B. They're quick to point out they are Brayon, not Acadian, but certainly share the same party approach common among their fellow Francophones. The group features banjo, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar and pounding drums, often reaching folk-punk intensity, somewhere between The Pogues and The Ramones, set in rural N.B. instead of Ireland or Queens.

Wild canoe trips, unfaithful husbands, cross-border smuggling and lots and lots of drinking feature in the songs, with some very rowdy and questionable characters. They are poor thiefs, pretty clumsy lovers, hopeless at romance but somehow still loveable losers, like in "Pardu mon char," where the hero loses his car ... in the river. If you see it, phone 261-6493. Of course it's all tongue-in-cheek, and the wicked banjo solos make it all a good time. 

In concert, the band is lots of fun, and dancing is not just encouraged, it's expected. They throw in a few surprises, such as a version of "The Partisan," the anti-Fascist anthem made famous by Leonard Cohen's translation, but here featuring the original French lyrics. You can catch the album launch at shows in Moncton this Friday, Dec. 3 at 6 pm at Happy Craft Brewing, and then the hometown launch in Edmundston at the Centre des arts, at 8 pm.

Sunday, November 28, 2021


The next adventure for some of the East Coast's alt-darlings, the group features former Dog Day and Eric's Trip members, and a surprising new sound blend. Basically you take the straight-ahead pulse of shoegaze, the hypnotic haze of psych and a heaping helping of pop melodies, and you get the candy-coated fizzy sound the group labels dream-rock. Works for me. 

"I just wanna know what's true," sings KC Spidle, echoing many of us, feeling locked down and looking inward. It does feel, I'm sure unintentionally, like a record for our time. it's scary out there, better to be inside where this lovely blanket of jangly guitars keeps you warm and safe. Meanwhile drummer Meg Yoshida (Dog Day, etc.) keeps it all together and smoothly, albeit gently, rocking. Chris Thompson, Kate O'Neill (both from Moon Socket) and Evan Cardwell add layers and breezy harmonies. As the new Omicron variant (and cold weather) chases us all back indoors, please cuddle up with this.

Thursday, November 18, 2021


There are basically two types of Christmas albums. The first, and most common, is an artist putting their own spin on the standards, whether they are fun jingle bell numbers or beloved carols and hymns. Sometimes they put one or two of their own on there but the emphasis is on the familiar.

The other, quite challenging set is when someone writes a whole new collection of songs, treating it like a true, brand new album. Challenging, because you aren't just coming up with a few new songs, you're immediately in competition with all those classics that people love and (mostly) never tire of hearing. So basically you have to write something as good as say, "O Holy Night." And then do it 10 more times, in order to stand out.

Gallant has chosen the latter path, and put all his talents to work. There's no light-hearted throwaways in these new songs. Each one features his great storytelling skills, whether they are about the Christmas story of the Holy birth, the universal theme of being kind to each other, the longing we feel at the holidays, family ties, tradition, and even a little one-on-one affection. Of course you have his heart-tugging voice, with that melancholy edge that adds the needed gravitas, and his usual excellent melodies. 

Among the standouts are "The Innkeeper," a retelling of the Christmas story from the vantage point of an innkeeper with no rooms left, and a late-night knock from a couple, the woman about to give birth. Gallant doesn't have to fill in all the holes, you get the picture. The Innkeeper gets a weight lifted from his soul. "The Gift" is a modern Christmas miracle, subtitled A Nurse Story. Their Christmas Eve is spent on a 12-hour shift, bringing a little bit of love to patients who need it the most. Gallant doesn't forget the festivities though; the cheeky "All I Want For Christmas" is a fun, slightly risque duet with Patricia Richard ("All I want for Christmas is to be a little naughty/That'd be nice!").

Another clever idea on the album features different music settings for several of the songs, to go along with the theme of Christmas Day on Planet Earth. There's a Parisienne feel to one song, a Middle East setting of course, an obvious East Coast kitchen vibe, and on the title cut, the voices of Black Umfolosi from Zimbabwe. Along with Patricia Richard's excellent singing across the collection, and great acoustic tones plus a couple of rockers, it's a well-rounded set musically as well. I always make a point of listening to as many new Christmas albums each year, and this is one of the best I've heard in years, and certainly one of the premiere sets of new tunes in a long time.

Gallant's taking his Christmas show on the road in a few days, covering most of the Maritimes. I hope he's learning every one of these songs for the show.

Nov. 25 - Georgetown, PEI - Kings Playhouse

Nov. 26 - Chester, NS - Chester Playhouse

Nov. 27 - Arichat, NS - The Island Nest

Nov. 28 - Parrsboro, NS - The Hall

Dec. 2 - Saint John, NB - Kent Theatre

Dec. 3 - Fredericton, NB - The Playhouse

Dec. 4 - Moncton, NB - Capitol Theatre

Dec. 5 - Summerside, PEI - Harbourfront Theatre

Dec. 8 - Liverpool, NS - Astor Theatre

Dec. 9 - Wolfville, NS - Acadia University

Dec. 10 - Lunenburg, NS - Opera House

Dec. 11 - Halifax, NS - Spatz Theatre

Dec. 12 - Truro, NS - Marigold Theatre

Dec. 14 - Pictou, NS - deCoste Theatre

Dec. 15 - Sydney, NS - Highland Arts Theatre

Dec. 16 - Port Hawkesbury, NS - Civic Centre

Dec. 17 - Antigonish, NS - PJ Baccardax Hall

Dec. 18 - Charlottetown, PEI - Confederation Centre

Sunday, November 14, 2021


Straight outta gritty Hamilton, Paul Wootten and Stephen Foster first teamed up in the '90's in the bluesy The Crawlin' Kingsnakes. Getting back together in 2018, they put together a solid backing band featuring a revolving crew of folks from Hammer legends Crowbar, Simply Saucer and Junkhouse. Now comes a second album, with a wider release and buzz, enough to get them a recent nomination for a Maple Blues Award, for best new group. 

The concept is simple enough, a love of tight, nasty '60's R'n'B, electric blues that you have to move to. Simple idea, but that means the very best playing, and the ability to put down a groove that won't let up. Then there's the material. You can't just get up there and play covers, and Wootten and Foster write tunes that sound classic but are brand-new.  "Glory Train" has a great theme, jumping on the blues train, playing with Brother Ray, and Sister Rosetta. "Shot'a Rhythm 'n' Blues" makes it even clearer, bringing up the great ancestors like John Lee Hooker and Sam & Dave in a track that would have even the most lethargic tavern-goer rush the dance floor. And "Shotgun Wedding" ("She was seven months gone/and he was none too quick") is in the grand tradition of "You Never Can Tell" and "I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock 'n' Roll)." 

The guitar licks sting, the piano rolls, the backing singers and horns add all the right fills, and every cut feels like a party. In fact it reminds me a lot of Doug & the Slugs if they had been strictly an R'n'B band, and I don't make that comparison to one of Canada's very best show bands lightly. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021


"That fierce love" Ramolo sings about in "Quarantine Dream" is not something to take lightly. Raw emotion is soaked through the whole 10-song set, our searches and hopes, the desire to feel as deeply and bravely as we can. Dreams are referenced throughout, but there's no difference between the waking and sleeping ones, they are all about what we truly long for, intimate connection, fulfillment.

Maybe it's her Mediterranean passion. She sings about coming alive in "Italian Summer," for her that special place where everything comes together, "that sweet sunkissed beauty." Bliss slips out of the sensual pop of that song, but others are more haunted folk, that dream state, where her vocals become ethereal. There's even a splendid and very different take on the common theme of being a musician on the road. "Road Kill" is an eerie, middle of the night trip to the next show, and the other-worldly feel of darkness alternating with the white lines, like a scene from a David Lynch movie. The songs leave one unsettled and inspired, each in the best way.

Thursday, October 21, 2021


Canada's progressive string quartet The Fretless aren't the first such group to do an album of modern covers, or add guest vocalists. But often those sets are larks, a bit of fun, and a way to draw attention from the pop audience. You're not going to find such stunts here, no novelty string arrangements of "Highway To Hell" or a set of beloved Fleetwood Mac classics. Instead, the singers are interesting experimenters, and the songs are for the most part somewhat obscure. They were chosen from a list the group had of works they felt would benefit from their particular style of arrangement, and a strings and vocals-only treatment.

Even if you do know the song, you'll barely recognize it, which is a great thing. Feist's "My Moon My Man" has an otherworldly quality here, with Scottish folkie Rachel Sermanni accompanied by some delightful swirls. Nashville couple Freddie & Francine match the beauty of the moody melody from Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" with their fine vocals. And the group, along with Lady Phyl, turn "Wondering Where The Lions Are" into something unrecognizable but wonderful, retaining only the lyrics as the strings sail into eternity. 

Both Dan Mangan and the Bros. Landreth got to work with the group on reimagined versions of their own songs, Mangan on "Troubled Mind" and the Bros. with "Let It Lie." For my ears, it's great to hear songs stripped of beats and 2020 cliches, and brought back to a more musical place; witness the version of Alessia Cara's "Stay" with Nuela Charles for that. There's a little bit of me wishing The Fretless would remake, like, everything.