Thursday, December 1, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LEONA BURKEY - GROUNDRUSH


Cape Breton-raised & Halifax-based, Burkey grabs your attention right off the bat on the opening track "Let Love Fill the Room," her compelling voice matched with a big electric guitar chord. This isn't going to be some soft folk singer-songwriter record. 

Sure, she's a singer-songwriter, and the folk feel is here, but so are lots of rock and pop moments, and just as many jazzy-bluegrass touches, with fiddle and mandolin prominent on several songs. There are grand melodic changes, major to minor, emphasizing the sweet/sad nature of her songs, a bit of melancholy, with lots of hope. I'd happily put her in the same school as Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Nanci Griffith, who proved you could write hit folk songs in the early '90s.

A crack team of high-end players is feature on the album, starting with producer A.J.H. Gillis, along with bluegrass ace Ray Legere on fiddle and mandolin, Phil Sedore and Roger Stone handling guitars, Kev Corbett multitasking, Terra Spencer playing piano and singing, Mary Beth Carty adding accordion, Robbie Crowell on keys, pretty much a Nova Scotia all-star squad. There's a strong sense of purpose in the songs, with heartfelt words that mean a lot to Burkey, and the players respond in their expert roles. "Ancient Waters" starts out quiet and pretty, a tender song from a mother to a child, but the message becomes more important, as backing vocals and Corbett's pedal steel build the urgency. "It's okay to wear your heart upon your sleeve/it's okay to love anyone you please/if that love's not right, it's okay to leave/trust your compass to point you where you need to be."

There's room for some lighter moments as well, including a fun cover of the 70's Susan Jacks hit "I Thought Of You Again," featuring Legere's fiddle turning it into a bluegrass number with a Johnny Cash boom-chicka-boom rhythm. I can't wait to check out her Fredericton show on Saturday, Dec. 3 at The Tipsy Muse, there are singles and a video out right now for the title track, and the full Groundrush album arrives Dec. 26, with more shows in the new year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DON OAKIE - COMING HOME


Yacht rock?  Not quite, but Ontario's Don Oakie did put off his music career for 35 years to build, wait for it, yachts. But the muse that first hit him back in the '70s when he was traveling the world and playing coffee houses always stayed with him, and he's finally been able to devote the time to record and release his debut, at the modest age of 70.

Seems he kept up his chops, and his knowledge of the folk music trends as well. Oakie shows he can handle lots of different roots styles, featuring his finger-picking guitar work. There's a righteous bluegrass version of "Folsom Prison Blues," a gorgeous instrumental called "Angels and Devils," and lots of blues and ballads. Split between originals and covers, instrumentals and vocal numbers, old tunes and new, it's pretty much a showcase of everything he's soaked up and stored for decades.

He sure isn't rusty. His instrumental take on "Ain't No Sunshine" is full of masterful, jazzy licks, with a delicious, mellow tone throughout. And "Steel Guitar Rag" has lots of showy fun playing. Six of the ten cuts were recorded in P.E.I., with ace guests such as fiddler Gordie MacKeeman, and one of the last recordings of the Acadian trad group Vishtan before accordion player Pastelle LeBlanc passed away. That song, "Laura," was written 45 years ago as a tribute to Oakie's mother, and what a pleasure it is to realize all this great music didn't just disappear. 

Monday, November 21, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MELISSA MARCHESE - MAD LOVE


Marchese is well-known in the Hamilton music scene as one of the strongest singers, but now she gets to show off her songwriting as well, with this vibrant debut. The seven tracks show off her pipes and stylistic range, but also highlight her brave and self-aware lyrics. She can open her heart, but also punch back, and also doesn't pull punches on big-ticket items such as climate change.

"Sirens" is the name of that tune, deceptively catchy and soulful, bolstered by big horns, which makes the song more of a call to action than a warning. It could have easily been just moaning and complaining, but instead, with the positive, uplifting music, Marchese is saying the situation is bad, but we all need to be willing to work: "If anyone knows how to make it better, call me now."

"Cigarette Song," which may or may not be just about quitting smoking, gets down to the nitty-gritty about giving up that habit, and how any addiction makes you vulnerable. It's "Cold Turkey" versus "You've Really Got A Hold On Me." Marchese's "Gimme More" is funky and strutting, while "Sunshine" is a vocal tour-de-force, where you really get the full scope of both her power and nuance, the song having a Zeppelinesque Eastern flavour. You get the feeling there's a lot more waiting to come out from Marchese.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SHANGS - SONNY BONO TEAR DOWN THIS WALL


Hey, if you're a "cult-inspired spinoff of the legendary Simply Saucer," as this disc is proudly stickered, then I'm in right away. Actually, I was in for the group's last disc as well, 2019's Golden Hits of The Shangs, which marked the return of David Byers' psych-pop band to the recording scene after many years. 

Again, the original member of Simply Saucer is joined by old cronies from the Hamilton band, and previous Shangs members The O'Neill brothers, to craft more of the cultish craziness they love. And they love two things in particular: 1960's girl groups (their name comes from The Shangri-Las) and tales of old, weird Hollywood, especially nasty deaths of stars and starlets. 

These stories serve as the inspiration for the songs, sometimes as lyrics, other times as titles for instrumentals and musical themes. The centerpiece is the psycho-psyche number "High Noon" which tells the tale of the murder of the father of the famous 50's & 60's singing group The Lennon Sisters by a deranged fan, with an eerie throwback to the group's most famous song, "Tonight, You Belong To Me." What I love best about Byer's keen interest in these stories is that for each one, he tells the background stories in the liner notes, from the death of Japanese pop star Kyu Sakamoto, he of the 1963 #1 hit "Sukiyaki", in the world's worst airplane crash (520 dead), to Hollywood acid casualty Craig Smith (aka Maitreya Kali), who wrote songs for Glen Campbell and The Monkees before going, you know, nuts. Then there's that ultimate girl group, the women of the Manson family. 

There's interesting musical archaeology as well, with songs taking musical cues from the stories. Joanie "Johnny Get Angry" Sommers went into Bossa Nova sounds after her one-hit wonder pop career, which led to Byers' gentle Tropicalia number (Lying Here) In Brazil. And he found an obscure 1960's song written by Chip ("Wild Thing", "Angel of the Morning") Taylor, called "Just As I Need You," revitalized here complete with stellar guest guitar work by Hamilton jazz wizard Kyle Pacey. 

The Golden Hits album had more of a poppy, fun sound in the mix, whereas this set goes completely left field, with almost all the songs existing in that rarefied air between psychedelia, ambient, and free jazz. That's challenging as a casual listen, but the point is for the listener to take a deep dive into this unique, sometimes unsettling, but mostly fascinating form of storytelling.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHERRY RYAN - SHOUT FOR MORE

Newfoundland's Sherry Ryan has built a fine reputation over the past decade as a strong songwriter, direct and impactful. Her stories are plain-spoken and jammed with detail and observations, about home and normal people, and the richness in simple lives. Her unmistakable voice isn't pretty and perfect, instead, it's friendly and real, just like her characters. 

On this, her fifth album, Ryan delves further into the roots rock that drove her last one, 2018's Wreckhouse. She's just as comfortable with the twangy country of "Any Other Way," soaked in pedal steel, as she is with the rockabilly blues of "100 Miles," a song Jerry Lee Lewis would surely appreciate. There's a poppy number, "Open Up The Door," with horns and sweet hooks, and some folksy gentleness in "Sparrow." Lots of styles, and each one features another smart lyric. Best of them all (at least today's favourite) is "Old House at Black Brook," where she does what we all do, tell friends about a great old house on the highway they know, and give directions: "On your way to Clarenville, there on your left side, there's an old house tucked in a hill where beauty likes to hide." 

Sherry Ryan has managed to get off the Rock for a few days and tour the album around at some Eastern Canadian dates. She's wrapping up that tour with a show in Fredericton on Thursday, Oct. 27, at the Tipsy Muse Cafe. Then it's back home for what's described as "an intimate album release party" at Kula Co-op in St. John's on Nov. 5. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RAWLINS CROSS - SUNRISE


Rawlins Cross has always been a great band to represent the whole East Coast music scene. Somehow, they find the perfect sound or the best line, to sum up the whole thing. On the group's 11th LP, it's found in the song "Tides," where the group turns an old cliche on its head to make it Atlantic-themed:  "Gently rocking on the tides that bind us." 

The band has been doing this for 33 years now, mixing genres, provinces, traditions, and new sounds, coming up with what I always think of as Reel 'n' Roll, after their early East Coast anthem of the same name. With one foot in the rich musical heritage and the other in celebratory, anthemic rock, the music proves you can embrace tradition and innovation at the same time. It's a place where pipes jam with electric guitar on "Leave the Light On," and accordion and whistle handle the melody along with a pounding rhythm section on the new single "Love Is Alright." Add in the full-throated Joey Kitson, sounding as ever like a pirate trained at Julliard, and you have this special blend that could only come from this place.

The band reconvenes every couple of years or so for an album and tour, and this is the first time back since the start of the pandemic, and luckily there are lots of tour dates through the fall. Catch the group at:

Oct. 21    - Glasgow Square          - New Glasgow, N.S.
Oct. 22    - Highland Arts Theatre - Sydney, N.S.
Oct. 23    - Capitol Theatre            - Moncton, N.B.
Oct. 24    - The Playhouse             - Fredericton
Oct. 26    - Confederation Centre  - Charlottetown
Oct. 28    - Rebecca Cohn              - Halifax
Oct. 29    - Th' YARC Playhouse   - Yarmouth, N.S.
Oct. 30    - Astor Theatre               - Liverpool, N.S.
Nov. 5      - Holy Heart Theatre     - St. John's

Monday, October 17, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVE GUNNING - THE SAME STORM


It's impossible not to like Dave Gunning. He's the friendliest, most pleasant, humble, and appreciative musician on the East Coast, and one of the funniest too. I saw him entertaining the crowd at the Lunenburg Harbour Folk Festival this past summer with a ten-minute shaggy dog story (it was actually about a dog) before he even played a note. Seriously, I'd pay to hear him talk.

Luckily, he can also sing, play, produce, and write great songs, often about the Maritimes but universal in their humanity. Like Gunning, these are small-town and straightforward folks, and the tales celebrate generations on the land and water. Both hard times and good ones come and go, and everything is approached with quiet dignity. "My Father's Tools" is a quintessential Gunning lyric, a grown son working with that inheritance, knowing someday he'll pass it on to his child. Of course, it's not just the tools, it's the example of how they were used, "straight as a rule."  Another one also co-written by longtime colleague Jim Dorie is "Viola's Song," the story of the courageous Black businesswoman arrested at a New Glasgow movie theatre for sitting in the whites-only section in 1946. Gunning knows it's a story that must be kept alive: "We've come so far since then, but the worst keeps happening/and we're right back again like nothing's changing." Gunning's songs make you want to be a better person and appreciate all that we have here in the Maritimes. 

He's on the road again, with these new songs, old greats, and I'm sure some more ridiculous jokes. Catch him soon at:

Wednesday, Oct. 19 - Charlotte Street Arts Centre - Fredericton
Thursday, Oct. 20     - Water Street Dinner Theatre - Saint John
Friday, Oct. 21          - The Dunn Theatre                 - St. Andrews, NB
Sunday, Oct. 23        - Second Wind Music Centre   - Florenceville-Bristol, NB
Monday, Oct. 24        - Trailside Music Hall               - Charlottetown