Tuesday, May 16, 2023


Guitar virtuoso Don Ross didn't have to look far to find inspiration for his latest album, Water. It was right outside his home. When he wrote the songs, Ross was living in tiny Seabright, Nova Scotia, just minutes north of famous Peggy's Cove. Of course, the ocean spoke to him.

"It's been a theme throughout a lot of my life," says Ross, "having grown up on an island in the middle of the river in Montreal, and now for the last many years living in the Maritimes and always being right by the water. And then coming out the other side of the pandemic, it felt like resurfacing, an allegory for the whole thing."
Ross has since moved and now resides in P.E.I., where his spouse, musician Brooke Miller, is from. But the time in Seabright was crucial to the current state of his career. For much of the pandemic, he was pursuing an M.A. in orchestration online from the University of Chichester in England, quite a departure for someone recognized as one the world's great solo guitar players. Having not made an album for six years, he wanted to incorporate this new interest into this work.

"I kinda wanted to make a big, sweeping gesture with this record," says Ross. "I decided that I wasn't going to worry about guitar pyrotechnics or anything like that, I just wanted to make an album that really reflected who I was musically at this point in my life. I've been studying orchestration, so I did one piece with a full orchestra, a real 70-piece orchestra, there's a couple of other pieces with a string quintet (P.E.I.'s Atlantic String Machine), and then there's another piece with sampled orchestration, but it sounds like a real orchestra."

Ross's new skills have led him into new fields, including composing for the film and video game industries, scoring documentaries, and even a series of silent movies. As heard on the new album, more than just adding strings to guitar pieces.

"One thing does feed the other. I've always thought orchestrally as a guitarist anyway. I'm not really about the guitar, I'm not a guitar head, I don't collect guitars, and I don't listen to much guitar. I started playing guitar as a kid, and I realized it had all these properties to it, it was capable of playing melodies, harmonies, and inner voices. I wanted to approach it almost like you would a piano or an orchestra. So I've always been keen about being conscious about what I was writing, so you could almost take the piece off the guitar, and play it on the piano. It's not just guitar music for the sake of being a guitar player, I've never found that very interesting anyway. When the guitar is used in a really effective compositional, musical way, then I get turned on."

Forced off the road by the pandemic, and without an album for six years, Ross found his fans hadn't moved on. A Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the new recording met its goal in just 28 hours, and he eventually doubled the initial amount sought. That let him travel, hire the orchestra, and even bring one of his early heroes in for a session. Bruce Cockburn sings the lead vocals on his own composition, "Stained Glass," from his 1974 album Salt, Sun And Time.

"I used to play the album almost every night for about a year, as I was falling asleep," says Ross. "There was just something about that song, I would hear it as I was drifting off, I'd think to myself, what a beautiful song. I learned it from the record but never did anything with it, never performed it or anything. Then about six years ago, Bruce and I were at the same music festival in Alberta. I saw we were going to be sharing the same workshop stage, and I got in touch with him and said, 'Dude, can you do a bucket list favour for me, can we do a song together?' We bandied a few about, and I said, 'What about "Stained Glass," that's probably my favourite song of yours?' And he said, 'Oh my gosh, I pull that one out every once in a while, let's do that one,' and it worked out well."

Ross is back on the road, and about to bring the Water album home to the East Coast for shows. He's also bringing another guitar player he admires, Pipo Romero, who Ross first heard online, and subsequently worked with in Spain.  

"He's from the south of Spain, the heart of Flamenco country," says Ross. "He's terrific, people go nuts when they hear him. He's a cool young guy, he's so Spanish it hurts."

You can see Don Ross with Pipo Romero at the following:

May 18 The Guild, Charlottetown
May 19 Charlotte St. Arts Centre, Fredericton
May 20 The Fiddling Fisherman, Souris, PEI
May 21 The Carleton, Halifax

Wednesday, May 10, 2023


Backed by the same players (The Ramshackle Parade) who appeared on her popular 2019 Dylan covers album, Just Like A Woman, Rhaye has embraced that hybrid acoustic-electric sound. The rich instrumentation has potent and explosive moments throughout, giving the Saint John singer-songwriter a more powerful sound than on previous albums. That's letting her hit new vocal heights too, giving her songs lots of dynamic range. That's particularly effective, given her expressive voice. We knew she could charm, but on a cut such as "Snakes and Ladders," she shows she can punch too.

The title track might be a little misleading, given its sunny optimism and easy-going feel. It's more of an outlier on an album that features as much darkness as light, and lots of dramatic details. In a song like "Sunshine Baby," she can effortlessly make us feel relaxed and happy, so to hit us right after with "I Won't Break," with its unsettling atmosphere and intense emotions, is effectively jarring. She counters the heaviness with beautiful instrumentation and voices, a potent blend.

There is a series of four very high-quality, effective videos from the album out so far, which add a whole other element, seeing the group deliver these various moody moments. Rhaye, a professional visual designer herself, has an excellent way of presenting images and colours, so that is a big part of her appeal. She's planned a big fall tour for the album, so keep these dates in mind.

Thursday, Sept 28 - Charlottetown, PEI - Trailside Music Hall
Saturday, Sept 30 - Saint John, NB - Imperial Theatre
Thursday, October 19 - Halifax, NS - The Carleton
Friday, October 20 - Shelburne, NS - The Osprey Arts Centre
Saturday, October 21 - Fredericton, NB - Charlotte Street Arts Centre
Monday, October 23 - Montreal, QC - Casa Del Popolo
Tuesday, October 24 - Toronto, ON - The Dakota Tavern Presents: Four Play
Wednesday, October 25 - London, ON - Aeolian Hall
Thursday, October 26 - Hamilton, ON - Mills Hardware
Friday, October 27 - Ottawa, ON - The Redbird Live 
Saturday, October 28 - Smiths Falls, ON - Station Theatre

Thursday, April 27, 2023


Gaio put out an EP ten years back, just out of his teens in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but then went off to school, including in Fredericton doing an MA in Creative Writing at UNB. It seems that his creative streak extended to music still, as he wrote some of the songs during those days. Once he moved to Toronto and started working, he found he still had the music bug and finished up these ten tracks for his first full album.

Right from the opening squelch of radio static and stations tuning in and out, the message is clear: he's inspired by the golden oldies stations he heard growing up, playing classic AM radio pop and rock singles. Opener "1949" contains shoo-wop backing vocals, lyrics about taking daddy's car to the beach, and lots of pumping piano and strumming guitars. 

These are light-hearted and loving takes on classic forms but combined with lots of 2023 energy. "Cry Over You" is doo-wop with a sloppy edge, Gaio getting overly dramatic for the break-up number, even yelling "I hate you!" instead of singing. There's a comfort food warmth to all these sounds, such as the sweet backing vocals and the catchy choruses, but those are camouflaging lots of smart rhymes and themes of nostalgia. Instead of mimicking 60s and 70s production, the songs are far more rough-and-ready instead of polished, along the lines of Joel Plaskett, or the Weezer-like soft-loud treatment on "Standing On Your Doorstep." 

There's a big blast of sunshine in most of the songs, particularly "So Much Younger Then," a great summertime, driving, and guitar tune. The whole album says it was a lot of fun back in the day, and it's still lots of fun now.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023


Brian Bourne has come a long way since his first pro band gig in Fredericton in the mid-'70s. Back then, he was playing with friends he met at UNB in a band called A Joint Effort. 

"Our very first live gig was at the Fredericton Exhibition," remembers Bourne. "We followed the trained seals, honest to God. And because of that show, we got a gig at the Hilltop," a landmark local pub still going strong.

Such humble beginnings have turned into a fifty-year music career for Bourne, the last three decades spent with East Coast allstars Rawlins Cross. But even A Joint Effort showed lots of excellence. The band's lone LP, the live A Final Effort, is now considered a freak-folk classic, with original copies currently being offered online for around $800. 

Bourne, who plays bass and the complicated Chapman Stick, joined Rawlins Cross in time for the group's second album, 1991's Crossing The Border. That's when the group expanded from its Newfoundland beginnings to become an Atlantic Canadian powerhouse. 1993's Reel 'n' Roll defined the sound of East Coast Celtic Rock, a driving rhythm section behind a front line of pipes, whistles, accordion, bouzouki, and all manner of acoustic instruments.

The classic lineup of Bourne, Howie Southwood, Joey Kitson, Geoff Panting, Dave Panting, and Ian McKinnon is being honoured at this year's East Coast Music Awards with the special Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award. It's to be presented at the Music and Industry Awards Part II, held at the Marriott Harbourfront Hotel in Halifax on Sunday, May 7 at 11 AM. The band, of course, will play a tune as well.

Bourne is quick to deflect any personal praise for the award and sends it right back to the fans. "The audience is part of this award, because that's half the show, always," he says. "Pretty well everybody, I think, has a fear of getting up in front of a crowd and showing your stuff. That's kind of why we do it anyway. It's always exciting and you hope that the crowd likes it. You just hope everybody in the band is hitting their mark at the same time, and get it out there, get that message and that sound out there. And having people out there that appreciate it, that's the gift, that's the treasure."

Bourne says the band appreciates the crowds more than ever. The audience, and new fans, have followed them through one sort-of break-up in the early 2000s, and still come out in droves when Rawlins Cross returns to the stage every two or three years. Last fall's Atlantic Canadian tour for the new Sunrise album featured sell-outs and a great spirit on stage.

"We haven't worn each other out," says Bourne. "We don't live in the same town, and there are long stretches where nothing's happening with the group. It's a joy to get together, and you just feel so young again, back to the job at hand, which is taking over the world."

He thinks one of the keys to the renewed excitement each time the band gets together is that they first record new music, from EPs to full albums, and then tour with the new material. "That keeps it fresh, doesn't it? That was always the rule of thumb back in the bar band days, learn a new song every week so people aren't getting stale up there, something to keep you on your toes."

While it's called a Lifetime Achievement award, Bourne says there's still more life to come for the group. "Why not? There's work to be done. There was a break for about six years, but since then we've been together but not active all the time. So it's not a breakup, and it's not a reunion every time we get back together. The plan is to just carry on."

They're carrying on right away. After the group gets the award on May 7, they immediately hit the road for a celebration lap around Nova Scotia. There are shows in Guysborough on Wednesday, May 10, Truro May 11, Windsor May 12, Annapolis Royal May 13, and Lunenburg May 14. After that, there are several summer festival dates in the works.

Bourne even laughed and suggested he'd be happy to play the Fredericton Exhibition again, to celebrate his 50th anniversary of music-making. Please, please let there be trained seals too. 

Monday, April 24, 2023


Photo by James West

With just a few days to go until the start of the East Coast Music Awards week in Halifax (May 3 - 7), it's about the time that ECMA CEO Andy McLean pauses for a moment and realizes just how big a job the group has ahead of it. McLean feels this is the most ambitious ECMA ever.

"Thirty full-time and contract staff, 320 volunteers, just the number of pieces, I think we all kind of went, wow, that's a lot," says McLean. "My main thing was to not underdeliver for the 35th anniversary, so I'm pretty confident we have achieved that."

That's taken a lot of ramping up in the Covid era, to get back to the pre-pandemic heights. Last year's event in Fredericton, the first in-person after two years of virtual activity, was a bit smaller as people were still weary of close quarters. 
ECMA CEO Andy McLean

"Ten weeks before the event, I still wasn't sure what public health measures were going to come in," says McLean. "We had to plan for online as well as in person, and there was a little bit of hesitancy for people to gather again. But after the first mixer and glass of wine, the masks seemed to come off and everybody had a great time."

Halifax always holds the biggest ECMA's, and 35 is a pretty impressive birthday, so the goal for the organization was to take it all one step further, with more events, more special programming, and more music opportunities for those going, and those watching at home.

As usual, the main event is near the beginning, with the Awards Gala happening Thursday night, May 4, at the Scotiabank Centre. The show is being hosted by This Hour Has 22 Minutes' Trent McLellan, and features performances by Natalie MacMaster, Neon Dreams, Fortunate Ones, City Natives, and lots more.

"We have two stages running, so we can cram as much music in as possible," says McLean. "There are going to be 13 performances and 15 awards given out, so I'm going to claim that we have the most live music of any awards. And there are some special moments that haven't been announced yet too, which look back on the ECMA's."

ECMA Gala Host Trent McLellan
The entire Awards Gala is also available to stream at ECMA.com, and is also being broadcast nationally on the Rogers platform, along with the pre-show Red Carpet, which starts at 6 PM. Then it's full-on live music all over Halifax and Dartmouth until Sunday.

"Over 200 individual showcases this year, in 11 official venues," says McLean. "And we've added these partnered stages, regular venues in Halifax that are not official venues but want to book music, so they are on board and booking ECMA artists that aren't official showcases. So that makes 24, 25 venues that are going to have live music."

The second batch of trophies get handed out on Sunday at 11 AM, which includes the honorary and industry awards. That show is also getting more attention, and with the recent addition of The East Pointers now features five performances. Plus the other daytime hours are filled up, especially in downtown Halifax. Saturday afternoon sees Argyle Street blocked off for the Dairy Farmers of Canada ECMA Fan Fest, a free event featuring JRDN, DeeDee Austin, Kellie Loder, and Neon Dreams.

Photo by Michael Bourgeois

There's also a daytime start to the whole event on Wednesday, with the official kick-off happening at noon at the Grand Parade. It's an opening blessing at the Wije'winen (Come With Us) Cultural Circle, a special partnership with the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre. That's a big, ongoing part of the week each day on the Grand Parade, with lit teepees, a sacred fire, on-site Elders, and drumming, dance, and song.

"It's going to be an amazing opportunity for our international delegates to witness the rich Indigenous culture," says McLean. "That started with St. Mary's in Fredericton, we had that partnership, and that's going to be something that the ECMA will continue to develop as we move through the regions, and moving forward."

Anyone who recalls the humble beginnings of the ECMA 35 years ago in the Flamingo Pub in Halifax definitely knows how the awards and the entire East Coast music industry have moved forward in that time. All the schedules, ticket info, and the mobile App can be found at ECMA.com.

Thursday, April 20, 2023


Some things you know are just going to work great, even when it's still just an idea on paper. A'Court, Spiegel, and Vinnick are three of the most enjoyable roots/blues players traversing Canada these days. Vinnick and A'Court need no introduction to blues and festival music fans, as multiple award winners and excellent songwriters and performers. Spiegel's a relatively newer name, having been introduced to Canadian audiences just a few years back, from his native Australia. There he's a blues icon and one of the country's very top guitar players and has been wowing crowds here of late with his dynamic stage shows.

After crossing paths and hanging out, strong bonds were forged between Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Australia, and the idea of joining forces was judged a perfect one. A national tour resulted, which hit the East Coast this week, as well as a new album, combining all their talents. Vinnick's bass playing has won her a Maple Blues Award in that category, she's that good, so she handles that as well as acoustic guitar duties, while Spiegel and A'Court trade off lead and rhythm duties, and all three sing and write. That's the stage show, and the album, no need for anything else other than this super-talented trio.

The album is all original, aside from one lone cover song, "Sunshine Blues" by Bahamas, sung by Vinnick. She also contributes the dynamic "Better Angels," a heartfelt play for compassion in our messed-up world. It features beautiful harmonies from the trio and reminds me a lot of, say, a great Jann Arden single. I'm singling out songwriting first because this is far more than simply a guitar player's album, which it easily could have been. These people are grand writers and singers too, and that really makes the collection strong, from fun foot-stompers such as Charlie's "Dancing at the Dirty O" to Lloyd's classic acoustic blues, "Alligator Shoes." And yes, there's grand guitar too of course, found on two riff-happy instrumentals, A'Court's Latin jam "El Fuego," and the group co-write "Bo Jinx," full of true guitar-hero playing.

There are lots of East Coast dates, there were sold-out shows across the rest of the country, so grab your chance to see this trio, the energy will be great heading into these final concerts.

Apr. 20 - Saint John, NB - Imperial Theatre
Apr. 21 - Florenceville-Bristol, NB - Weldon Matthews Theatre
Apr. 22 - Annapolis Royal, NS - King's Theatre
Apr. 26 - Pictou, NS - deCoste Theatre
Apr. 27 - Liverpool, NS - Astor Theatre
Apr. 28 - Lunenburg, NS - Opera House
Apr. 29 - Windsor, NS - Mermaid Theatre
Apr. 30 - Truro, NS - Marigold Theatre
May 1 - Fredericton - The Playhouse
May 3 - Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL - Lawrence O'Brien Arts Centre
May 7 - Torbay, NL - Jack Byrne Arena

Thursday, April 13, 2023


I keep reading about how live music will never be the same, after Covid and thanks to ridiculous Ticketmaster prices. Well, I think people gotta forget about their mega superstar shows in cities and look at how we do it out in Festival Land. One of North America's very best (and it has been for a couple of decades), Fredericton's Harvest Music Festival, has just announced its lineup for September, and it's like Covid never happened. It's back to the size and high quality of before the pandemic, featuring a finely-curated lineup of big live music stars, reliable favourite veterans, and well-chosen newer acts that are making waves with their festival sets.

Harvest is going with a "getting our Mojo back" theme, thanks to the return this year of the well-loved Mojo tent, missing in the downsized Covid era. That means there will be a full 23 ticketed shows this year, the same number as 2019, after only 16 last year. Plus, there will be about twice as many free sets on various side stages, and all the extra events at all sorts of pubs and pop-up venues.

Taking a look at all the other music festivals in the wider area, including the Maritimes, Quebec, and New England, seriously, I can't find a reason to travel elsewhere. Harvest pretty much equals or betters everyone else's lineup on a night-by-night basis. Each venue, all within a couple of blocks of the next, has two or three excellent acts, from opener to headliner. Take a look at the fourth, fifth, and sixth lines of the above poster, the fine print.. These aren't the headliners, but there are names there that I'm sure many music fans will be excited about seeing. So, it's top to bottom top quality.

Let's look at some highlights. Harvest gets the first show of a new tour by what is called Trey Anastasio with Classic Tab. That's Anastasio going back to the sound and band configuration of the classic Trey Anastasio Band (TAB), a four-piece including keyboards, and very much in the Phish style. And Harvest gets it first, jam fans. Kaleo, best known for its huge hit "Way Down We Go," has become a big touring act thanks to a fantastic live show featuring its heavier blues-rock mixed with surprisingly sensitive tunes. Plus, they're all from Iceland, which is just cool. Trombone Shorty is simply one of the greatest New Orleans performers of any generation. Gov't Mule continues its huge popularity, and Matt Andersen ... well, we'll just consider that a sell-out right now.

I'm especially pleased with the solid lineup of Canadian acts from several different fields, from the alt-rock of CanRock faves Broken Social Scene, to the Brandi Carlile-approved folkie Allison Russell. Plus there are more great names such as Daniel Lanois, Joel Plaskett, Big Sugar, Wide Mouth Mason, and David Myles. Heck, I'd go to a festival with those five names alone. And as usual, there's a huge commitment to East Coast artists as well, great pairings such as Slowcoaster featuring Carmen Townsend, and Wolf Castle with Olympic Symphonium.

You know, I've been going to this festival since its very first year, when I stumbled into a downtown bar by accident, and discovered Holly Cole singing Marvin Gaye songs just for the fun of it. Every year I expect to be jaded (my natural inclination) and not care a whole lot when the lineup is announced. But every year, I take a look and shake my head in wonder of what Fredericton accomplishes with its festival. Tickets go on sale April 20.