Thursday, December 30, 2010



It isn't the first time Paul's acknowledged best has been given a deluxe treatment, but it is an improvement over the last version, and makes for a dynamite way to rediscover this old favourite.  As is the trend these days, there are a couple of different ways to get this, with the most expensive going for fifty bucks, with 3 CD's, a DVD, and a nice big book.  Far more affordable and sensible is the 2 CD - 1 DVD version, going for around $20.  You miss out on an audio documentary that came with the old reissue from the 90's, and it isn't really that great.

But the 3-disc set is.  In addition to the original album, you get a second disc of period singles and b-sides (Helen Wheels, Zoo Gang), plus several cuts from the One Hand Clapping documentary, which was basically Wings live in the studio playing cuts from Band On The Run and some others.  Then, the DVD is a gas, with the original One Hand Clapping film, which is very cool.  You can tell this is one fine live unit, even if Denny Laine comes across as either a complete moron or incredibly stoned.  Also, there are several promo films from the time, including a nice animation for Band On The Run, another for Mamunia, and footage in Nigeria, plus behind-the-scenes at the famous cover shoot.

So, if you're a fan, you'll love this set.  As for the original album itself, here's why it's his best:  It's one heck of a great production, with a great mix of rockers (Jet), ballads (Bluebird), and McCartney whimsy (Picasso's Last Words).  It flows, it has the feel of a journey, from the Band On The Run at the start, to the futuresque (for then) Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five at the end.  These aren't his best lyrics, in fact they are sometimes feeble, for instance the "Jailer Man and Sailor Sam" of the title track, or the plain nonsense of Jet.  What McCartney had learned by then is that it's more important if they sound right than if they win any Nobel votes.  Leave that to Dylan, this was arena rock he was crafting.  So while "I can't tell you how I feel/my heart is like a wheel" is far from his greatest line, "Let Me Roll It" is one of his best songs.  Go ahead, listen again if you haven't in awhile, and you'll find yourself pretty happy, if you're any kind of a McCartney fan.  Me, I think Ram is a better artistic effort, but that's another argument.

Monday, December 27, 2010



The folly of The Beatles' venture into commerce is well documented, with the whole Apple concept a miserable mess, from its clothing boutique to the film department to its electronics division all a joke and big money losers.  Such was the bad state of the books that the notorious Allen Klein was brought on board against Paul's wishes, to fix things.  This helped kill the mighty band, so Apple can only be seen as a failure.

Still, there was one good apple amongst the rotten ones.  The music division did have its share of hits and artistic triumphs, and since The Beatles records and subsequent solo albums ended up on the label, it was financially solid.  Yet like the group themselves, there was much experimentation, silliness, and vanity included in the label's output.

Most of the catalogue has been untouched in the CD and download eras, until now, with a new set of discs that cover the highlights and some obscurities as well.  Along with those full albums, there's also this compilation, a best-of from the label, that pretty much covers all corners of what they did, with the exception of any Beatles tracks.  There's the truly excellent band, Badfinger, represented here with their hits Come And Get It and Day After Day, plus the group's early track as The Iveys, Maybe Tomorrow.  The other hitmaker was cute singer Mary Hopkin, with her music hall singalongs Those Were The Days and Goodbye.  There's the one that got away, James Taylor, with Carolina In My Mind, inexplicably unnoticed until two years later and Sweet Baby James, for another company. 

As for the rest, you can't accuse The Beatles of not being involved or trying.  George recorded a bunch of Krishna Temple singers, John had a reggae group doing Give Peace A Chance, Paul wrote a soundtrack song for a brass ensemble, and Ringo played with whoever asked him.  Even buddy Billy Preston, fresh off his guest appearance on Let It Be, couldn't get a hit out of his singles, nor could early 60's hitmakers Ronnie Spector and Doris Troy.

Some of these tracks are pretty good (Preston), some questionable (Spector), and some just bizarre (the previously unheard King Of Fuh...get it?).  At 21 cuts, you'll find something worthy, and at least everything's interesting, which was the whole point, wasn't it?

Sunday, December 26, 2010



Back in 2008, I was interviewing famed British filmmaker Tony Palmer on the phone, and mentioned I was going to see the premiere show of Leonard Cohen's world tour that night.  Palmer was in a hotel in Toronto, and got excited, telling me he was trying to get a hold of Cohen, to try to track down an old film they had made together.  Would I pass on a note for him, asking Cohen to get in touch?  Well, the note was duly passed on.  I don't know if they hooked up, but the lost raw film was found, apparently in a Hollywood warehouse, and Palmer re-edited his long-missing film.

Palmer was given complete access to Cohen's 1972 tour of Europe, on stage, backstage, Cohen taking a swim in the nude, Cohen dropping acid, making out with a fan, crying after an intense show, and even home movies of Cohen not more than 2 or 3.  Palmer calls it "an impression" of the tour, and what an impression it makes.  This is warts and all, a tour at times on the ropes, dealing with crappy sound gear, a near-riot in Israel, and a highly emotional singer who is contemplating quitting touring and music all together.  It's probably pretty close to what every big-name rock tour was like in those days, a barely-contained chaos. 

Amidst this swirling existence, came the beautiful music each night, which thankfully Palmer kept at the heart of the film.  From powerful segments to full performances, the intensity of the performances matches the friction of the rest of the film.  The beauty of So Long, Marianne, Suzanne, Sisters Of Mercy and Famous Blue Raincoat is riveting.  An almost-acoustic tour, Cohen is aiding here by two other guitar players, a stand-up bass, two singers (including a young Jennifer Warnes) and famed producer Bob Johnston (Dylan, Cohen) on organ.  We're treated to an early, quite different version of Chelsea Hotel as well.

There are plenty of cinema verite moments, including nervous women propositioning Cohen, on-stage breakdowns, a stoned and distraught singer trying to cancel the rest of a concert, and plenty of journalist interviews.  In one, Cohen sums up his singing style better than anyone has as yet:  a combination of Montreal chansonnier, a European vocalist, and a synagogue cantor.  This is an essential document for understanding the life and success of Leonard Cohen, and helps explain why a solitary monk's life on Mount Baldy would be so appealing a couple of decades later.

Thursday, December 23, 2010



Hey, here's a last-minute Christmas suggestion, and it's a really good East Coast CD, for the young or not-so-young rock fan on your list. The band is Slowcoaster, from Cape Breton, but please: no typecasting. They aren't Celtic, they are rock, and the new album is called The Darkest Of Discos. Slowcoaster is a big fan favourite in the college rock and live music circuit, known for an enticing blend of jam band, reggae, grooves, danceable tunes, all solidly structured and surprising. You never know what kind of rhythm you're going to get, except that all of them make you head to the floor to join in the energy.

Slowcoaster is blessed with an excellent singer in Steven MacDougall, and what's special about that is it makes the band stand out in their particular genre. Most jam bands don't really put the emphasis on the vocals, and there are lots that consider that secondary to the playing. But in Slowcoaster, MacDougall's lyrics and delivery are key, because there are some fine and different themes brought to table. On The Darkest Of Discos, we go into the modern rock club scene with some little dramas and metaphors for life. There are lots of fun plays-on-words, and I like MacDougall's take on life, he's questioning all the weirdness and emotional drama that goes on between people.
And on top of it all, there's that Slowcoaster trio, just guitar, bass and drums, but they make it count, a full wall of sound that just pulses. They'll slip into a reggae groove in the middle of a dance beat, and then jump back just as fast. In short, the disc is just as fun as the group's live show.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Gee, too bad Concrete Blonde didn't put this album out this year, what with all its vampire references. In these Tru Blood and Twilight times, Bloodletting would have fit in just fine, and singer Johnette Napolitano certainly could have been cast. But back in 1990, she was just another Anne Rice fan in a struggling L.A. band. That is, until the non-representative and extremely catchy Joey became a Top 20 hit, propelling the band to gold status.

Joey has always stood out on the disc, a spooky and dark collection. That's thanks to the melody, and excellent vocal performance of Napolitano, a strong and deep-lunged singer who never gets the props she deserves. The number was actually as serious as the rest of the album, a love song from a woman to her alcoholic partner. Match that with Tomorrow, Wendy, about a woman dying of AIDS (strong stuff for 1990), and the vampire theme, and you get that this batch of songs had a lot more going on than most Top 40 albums.

Perhaps Concrete Blonde just never found a sound that connected. It's well-played stuff, well-written, but here they were with a near-punk attitude just pre-Nirvana, but too studio polished for that crowd. An acquired taste perhaps, yet this album still stands out. The reissue includes six b-sides, all previously released but hard-to-find, including three live cuts and a pretty smooth version of Hendrix's Little Wing.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010



The first song here tells the tale. Frederick Squire's new disc, called March 12, starts off with a little old-fashioned tape feedback, the kind you got from open reel tape recorders. Then later in the tune, everything speeds up, the tape is playing at the wrong speed... and ha, how cool, Fred's producer or engineer or somebody has figured out how to replicate those old problems of the studio. Except it's not a replication, it's the real deal, the real reel-to-reel. And there's no hotshot producers or engineers around, Fred did it all himself, on vintage gear.

Hey, we used to call that low-fi, back in the day, back in the 1990's, when it was a hip thing to do, a direct reaction to higher-than-high tech studio productions, slick robotic sounds then dominating music. Low-fi went hand-in-hand with the early 90's re-imergence of punk, it's quieter, artier sibling. And we had one of the heroes of low-fi in New Brunswick, the beloved (by a few around the world) Eric's Trip in Moncton. Rick White and pals recorded their music in Rick's parent's basement on an old 1975 4-track reel-to-reel recorder. The thing was dated then.'s an antique.

And guess what? That's the same machine Frederick Squire used to record March 12. Rick loaned it to him, and he carted it off to his Sackville, N.B. home and garage, and started playing and writing. Fred is no newcomer, and has long had connections to the Eric's Trip crew. He was a member of the defunct Shotgun & Jaybird, one of the Sappyfest regulars in Sackville, has toured with Mount Eerie, and most notably worked a ton with Erics Trip member Julie Doiron, including lots of touring, and on her last album, which was produced by Rick White. And, he made an excellent disc in 2009 with Julie and Daniel Romano, all folk music covers.

After all this time playing well with others, Fred decided he should do his own thing for awhile, and get back to writing. The classic folk music of the Daniel, Fred And Julie project obviously had an impact on him, and the new material is intense, haunting, simply structured but lyrically potent. Some of the tunes even use standard and famous folk tales as a background, such as his reworking of Frankie and Albert into a cautionary tale called The Future Of Tradition, or his retelling of The Cuckoo, one of the oldest folk ballads, now set in modern times with an electrical lineman cutting down the pretty bird's tree home.

Given the studio limitations, Squire has done lots with the instruments and effects available to him. Whether piano or guitar-based, each song features some subtle layers and clever tricks. Unlike other low-fi creators, Fred doesn't bury his voice, and that's a good thing. He has a fine, low and melodic instrument, and its wisely recorded closely, and mixed up to be the dominate sound here. There's a couple of tracks here you'd think came out of a big pro mixing board, that's how good a recording he got on his voice.

Squire originally made part of this disc because he needed something to sell at his solo shows. He had been recording through February and March of 2010, finishing March 12, and he had a show that night, so he burned the tracks onto CDR's, called it that day's date, and voila, instant record. Blue Fog Recordings heard it, loved it, got some more tracks from it, and now we have this full-length release.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Lynne returns with a couple of discs for the fans, seemingly much more at ease now that she's self-producing and releasing her own work.  Her two-decade career has seen her battle record labels and genre labels, people eager to place her in a category and aim her at a larger audience.  But Lynne is a notoriously tough cookie, and her bluesy country-soul doesn't fit formats.  It does, however, fit your ears just fine.  On her new studio disc, written and directed all by herself, she's able to relax into the smokey and bittersweet tales at which she excels.  It's mostly lightly adorned acoustic music, guitar songs you can tell were beautiful on their own, now lightly layered with the right kind of moody backgrounds.  While there's some optomism and good humour on the first cut, Rains Came, that quickly falls away with Southern songs of alibis, unreturned calls, old dogs, and booze taking over.  Old #7 would be a perfect George Jones song.

Unfortunately Lynne falls for that old standby, the Christmas record.  Apart from a couple of okay new ones she penned herself, it's all the usual numbers here, Rudolph, Silent Night, White Christmas, yadda yadda.  Even though she owns one of the great female voices of our day, there's not much life in the acoustic blues treatment given the songs.  The disc is too low key, and it sounds like she'd rather celebrate by herself, or cry into a stiff egg nog.

Monday, December 13, 2010



This concert recording is subtitled a greatest hits live, but that's a little misleading.  It's actually a 1980 concert from the ever-excellent Rockpalast TV show from Germany.  These were no-nonsense, strait-ahead concerts, the artists allowed to do what they do, with solid camerawork and lots of quality artists taking part.  Like Austin City Limits DVD's, you know you're going to get a good product, and all that's needed is a good show from the artist.

For this show, we're getting Armatrading at a crucial time in her career, as she was moving from her more folkie material into New Wave-edged rockers.  For this tour she put together a full band, with two guitars, keyboards, sax, and the redoubtable Richie Hayward on drums, in between the old and new versions of Little Feat.  Softer favourites such as Willow, Love And Affection and Down To Zero still make the setlist, but the new Joan is on full display when the group brings out material from the then-new Me Myself I album.

This was the stuff that helped break Armatrading into the wider North American market, and for awhile it looked like she might even become as big a concern here as she was in England.  It was her top-selling album in both both England and the U.S.  And while the bite she added to her songwriting was fresh for the times, it hasn't really aged as well as the best of her songwriting.   While I was looking forward to those jagged numbers such as When You Kisses Me, in the end it was Love And Affection that left me warm.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010



Okay, I gotta admit, I'm getting to the point where I almost loathe to see that an artist is releasing a Christmas album. If there's a horse, or donkey in this case, that's been beaten to death, it's the Christmas album. Every year, there's another and another and another, and it's been that way since the 40's. Blame White Christmas I guess, one of the biggest selling hits of all time, from good old Bing Crosby. In fact, there's some pretty serious information that it may be the biggest selling single of all time, with estimates of over 50 million copies sold. Since then, everybody has been trying to latch onto that sleigh ride, no matter what the genre of music.

I can't even tell you how many bad Christmas albums I've heard in my job as a music reviewer, but it's dwarfed only by the number of mediocre ones. The number of decent ones ain't bad, I know there are several hundred in my "I could play that again" part of the office. Good or great ones? There's a hundred. Okay, get my point here? The world has enough Christmas music already.

So, it was with a big amount of skepticism that I took the news that one of my local homies, Matt Andersen, was doing one. Here's Matt at a crucial point in his career. The New Brunswick native has been been wowing crowds around North America, with high profile gigs opening for Old Crowe Medicine show, and doing his second Vinyl Cafe tour with Stuart McLean. But here he is treading water with that old standby, the Christmas disc. I guess it can't hurt, everybody does one at some point. But it's not about to light more fires for him.

And then...I cracked it open. You know what? I feel like a kid at Christmas who's been fooled into thinking his present is going to be dull. It's like I've unwrapped a box that says socks, but inside is the brand new hot video game I wanted. I can't begin to tell you what a relief and joy it was to hear this music. Relief first, because it was clearly obvious this was indeed one of those rare, stand-out discs you have to have this season. Joy, because it has opened my ears to a whole new way to hear Matt. He's thought of as this great blues guitar player, energetic and exciting on stage. And sure, folks have also noted what a fine singer he is. But on the Spirit of Christmas disc, we hear him almost completely as a singer. Yes, there's blues, and country blues and folk blues here, but there's carols and covers and traditional numbers too. And what makes Christmas music shine for me is excellent singing. Matt not only lets loose, he gives some of the best vocal performances I've heard on some of these well-known and not-so well known songs. If you have any doubts at all, check out his version of O Holy Night. Just sayin'. It stopped me in my tracks.

Matt's brought in a smart choice of producer, songwriter Dave Gunning, who knows his way around the friendly folk sound which dominates the disc. For material, Matt's come up some high quality songs of his own, from the sentimental blues number My LIttle Country Church At Christmas Time, which of course is something he truly knows about, coming from rural NB, to the fun and rockin' Ol' Nick and Rudy, which sounds like a great Elvis song. He's also come up with some rarely heard numbers by modern bluesmen, including Chris Whitely's the Lonely Shephard to Rick Fines' Country Christmas Blues. I'm giving applause for that, too, because it keeps the disc interesting, hearing songs you're not familiar with, instead of the usual cliche numbers.

So for a music reviewer, I've already had the best present I can get at Christmas time: a new Christmas album I can love, and look forward too every year. Heck, I could play this one in June.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010



Back in the late 80's, all sorts of cultural sounds were being remodelled, updated and cross-referenced, and becoming part of the World Music scene. Turns out we had a few of them in Canada, and one ripe for the picking was the sound of Celtic music. Great Big Sea and Spirit Of The West would soon be famous for it, but predating them slightly was Rawlins Cross. Formed in St. John's, the group would soon expand to involve members from all four Atlantic Provinces. Along the way, they created a unique fusion, mixing traditional Celtic instruments and arrangements with a hard-driving rhythm section, and a powerful lead singer in low-voiced PEI native Joey Kitson. The group's signiture tune described it best: Reel 'n' Roll.

After becoming national concert favourites and perennial scoopers of East Coast Music Awards, the group parted company at the end of the century. But the past two years has seen a flurry of activity, from a greatest hits package to renewed touring. Now comes this first studio album in 12 years. They really haven't had to change a thing. The mix of Celtic and rock still works well, and despite all the exposure the genre has had in the wake of its invention, Rawlins Cross still sounds fresh in a big East Coast sea of fiddles and pipes. It's a big band, a big sound, and these are smart, inventive players.

While the basic approach hasn't changed, on Heart.Head.Hands the band is still trying out new fusions of Celtic colours and other cultures. Sometimes these are rousing successes, such as the instrumental track Jigs, where the group deconstructs the jig style with varied instrumentation, fast plucking and odd chords, giving the mix a Grecian feel, plus the feeling of being inside a workshop, a music-making factory. The vocal song Demons opens with a drone, and mixes in a North Aftrican vibe, again a eerie and succesful blend. Other attempts aren't so appealing, and feel like somebody said, "Let's try reggae! What about if we go to Brazil on this one?"

Back in the regular Celtic rock, Rawlins Cross simply can't be beat in this country. The title cut drives home the album's theme of craftsmanship and strong moral fibre, and check out the rockin' electric guitar-bagpipe duel on Singles. That instrumental has the hardest edge of any track here, and shows how Rawlins Cross is still one of the great party bands.

Monday, December 6, 2010

REVIEW OF THE DAY: Kate & Anna McGarrigle - Odditties


The death of Kate McGarrigle spurred on her sister Anna to finally get around to this long-conceived archival project. It's a collection of twelve tracks cut from the early 70's to 1990 for various reasons, none of them released before. They go back to their first folkie roots, including a version of the beloved Log Driver's Waltz, different than the one which we're familiar with from the famous NFB short. The sister's love of Stephen Foster is on display, songs weighed down with the dust of the 19th century, their voices certainly suited to lyrics about Civil War sadness. The live recording of A la Claire Fontaine from 1976 is sub-bootleg quality, but its muffled and distorted sound once again gives authenticity rather than distraction, and is beautiful in its connection to both Quebec culture and the pure folk tradition. Also en francais is a Cajun hoedown called Parlez-nous a boire, a studio version of a concert favourite.

Another song with dodgy fidelty but tremendous value is called Louis The Cat, a story about a pet who changes a family's lives, only to break hearts when he becomes lost. It's from a living room recording in the early 70's, complete with car horns, creaking pedals and chirping birds. It shows, unadorned, their amazing sibling voices, with harmonies so special, and unison so perfectly matched. The McGarrigle Sisters forays into the rock world are also touched on, with As Fast As My Feet a sister-song to Love Over & Over from their pop period.

The McGarrigle Sisters simply did not release enough music, for my money. Of course, their sales were never huge, and had dwindled in the past two decades. Yet their live concerts were always a treasure trove of musicianship and beauty, and hopefully there are more finds to match this wonderful collection. A boxed set would be nice.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Fafard's instrumental prowess is already established. His past three instrumental albums have proven him one of the country's top guitarists, with a Juno nomination and lots of acclaim in the national folk community. But the axe is only part of his show, and this time out he's made a full vocal disc, consisting mostly of classic blues and folk, done acoustic. There are a whole lot of standards here, from Spoonful to Come On In My Kitchen to John Hardy. Fafard rips through with his customery virtuoso playing, here sticking to dobro with a slide. And while he rips and zips his way through, what sets this collection apart is what's also featured.

Fafard and producer Steve Dawson (who has quickly become a big favourite of mine) don't just stick with the acoustic, they move it into a whole new sound. Joining Fafard is double-bassist Gilles Founier, and violin and viola player Richard Moody. The trio dig deep into the classic material, finding patterns and places to weave and harmonize with their sliding and plucking. The viola is especially effective, its slurred, bowed tones a wonderful new partner to the blues.

The two modern covers here don't work as well. Lyle Lovett's If I Had A Boat and Richard Thompson's 1952 Vincent Black Lightning are both excellent songs, but Fafard adds nothing to them, they were already stripped down and the original singers are much better. That's actually the major criticism here: Fafard is not really that much of a vocalist. His gruff voice doesn't have much range or power. The older songs work much better because they were originally done by similarly limited singers for the most part, and require a weary sound, which he can handle well. Given the excellence of the playing, and the mighty trio of stringed things, Cluck Old Hen is an overall winner for folk and blues fans.

Saturday, December 4, 2010



So I've immersed myself in these Bee Gees DVD's the past couple of nights, while hiding out home alone, so nobody could see me.  There is perhaps no other group that can bring out such a visceral reaction, from joy to sheer hatred.  As a trial balloon, I updated my Facebook status to announce I was knee-deep in their music, and I got more comments than anything else I've ever posted, save my birthday.  There were sneers, jokes, kudos, and there was the usual great amount of venom.

Even the Bee Gees know why so many people hate them.  There's no question they became the whipping boys for committing the crime of disco.  Barry Gibb, as seen in the new documentary In Our Own Time, admitted at the group's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame that he knows the huge backlash to disco pretty much soured the last three decades of their career.  In the DVD they claim to be quite happy to have held the flag for disco, given the 30-million sales of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.  Yet of course, they weren't even making disco music, it was music you could dance to, the group's take on soul and r'n'b.

So, it's difficult to get a handle on my own feelings about the music.  Watching the live concert set One Night Only from 1997, I'm impressed and repulsed in equal measures.  The cheesy Vegas act makes me gag, but the songs are, to my ears, brilliant.  It's the current hipster believe that early Bee Gees is cool, and certainly such gems as Run To Me, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, and To Love Somebody remain wonders.  But the further Saturday Night Fever moves into the past, the more I can appreciate Jive Talkin', Night Fever, and Nights On Broadway, even with Barry's falsetto and gold chains.  Heck, I can even find some newer songs I like.

The documentary includes lots of vintage clips from Australian TV shows and explains the origin of the family band.  Nothing's left out, including the first sibling fight and break-up in 1970, the failure of their early 70's albums, the accidental rebirth Jive Talkin' brought them, the drug and alcohol death of brother Andy, and the more recent death of Maurice.  Brand-new interviews with the remaining brothers are direct but like the rest of the world has discovered, this is no easy story to tell, there's no closure to the documentary, no answer to the big question:  Were the Bee Gees brilliant or brilliant at making candy floss?

The concert's okay, you really don't need to watch it more than once, if at all, but the documentary will serve you well, with lots of good archival material.  After two days and some soul-searching I can say for me, I really do love a lot of the band's music, even what's been incorrectly labeled disco all these years.  Having said that, I'm still going to be a little careful where I admit that.  We're all friends here, right?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Ryan Cook has a singular and polished sound that crosses genres, and makes him one of the more interesting singer songwriters in the East Coast community.  He comes from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and was raised on a large dairy farm, which certainly gives him some actual country roots, something most people who work in the current country climate don't actually have. But he really didn't want to be, or start out to be a country performer. He actually started out doing punk rock and heavy metal. Like many musicians who progress though, he soon discovered songwriting, and with it an appreciation for all sorts of sounds.

The current Ryan Cook does get put into the country side of things, although he has lots of influences going on. You can hear plenty of roots music in there, with banjo and accordian and mandolin, bluegrass sounds when the fiddle and fast picking is added in. His writing includes the classic Canadian folk tradition, the cool places and people you'll meet and see around these parts. He also can fit in a little acoustic jazz to the sound. 

Now, this is quite the flip-flop from punk and metal, and Cook says it happened when he worked in a nursing home. He used to perform for the residents, and they would ask him to play songs by artists such as Hank Williams and Tom T. Hall. He started paying attention, and found his own voice in this older-styled country. That led him to start an acoustic-based group, and put out his first album Hot Times in 2008. He got attention as a country act, and even won a Music Nova Scotia award for Bluegrass recording of the year.

Country did indeed pick him up, and he got radio play and touring dates. Arriving in Nashville in 2009, he made some strong local connections and ended up recording his new album there. It's called Peaks And Valleys, and has just been released. This isn't one of those take-the-money-and-run Nashville studio productions. Often secondary studios and over-seasoned session men make quick bucks by allowing just about anybody to book time and do quick and easy productions just to have the words Recorded In Nashville on their disc, like it somehow makes it better. In fact, most of those released are hack work. Here Ryan Cook really is surrounded by some of the best the city has to offer, including the fabulous banjo player Alison Brown, whose forays into jazz and world music have revolutionized the instrument. But the real important thing here is Cook's songs. He's a strong lyricist, and he combines that with lots of interesting music ideas, not least of which is that touch of happy jazz licks, even an old-fashioned clarinet in there. Word-wise, Cook avoids the usual cliches and writes about places and people you'll feel a connection to. There's a good one that name-checks the Gaspereau Valley region of Nova Scotia, for instance. Just another of the peaks and valleys of the area, and life, that Cook puts in his material.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

REVIEW OF THE DAY: Best of Soul Train DVD


The American Bandstand of soul music, this long-running TV series probably meant more to the African American community than any other show. There was an obvious message: This is our music, it is great and the world's best, and this is to celebrate our culture. In guest James Brown's words, "say it loud, I'm black and proud." Over three discs, we get some truly wonderful music, from artists at the peak of their powers, including Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Isley Brothers, Aretha, and the Jackson 5. Although the program stretched into this century, this set concentrates on the 70's, when for my money, the music was best.

While there many great moments here, there are several problems with the collection. First and foremost, most of the acts appearing on the show perfomed lip-synch. While this was pretty typical, it also means the moments are forced and less special. Marvin Gaye struggles and jokes with it, The Commodores are painful, and most disappointingly, The Jackson 5 just aren't special at all. But there are several magic moments as well. Bill Withers is tremendous, and Lean On Me and Use Me never sounded better. James Brown's J.B's wreck the joint, so accomplished live. Stevie Wonder does a medley of hits just at the piano, with the famous Soul Train dancers singing along to Sir Duke and Ma Cherie Amour. And hearing Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin duet on Ooo Baby Baby, with Aretha playing piano is a milestone moment in soul.

You do have to wade through the mud to get to the gems. Don Cornelius did wonderful work creating and producing the show, but we don't need so much of him hosting, all the standard intros and animation openings included. If those had been cut out, it would have made for a faster-paced, more watchable product on DVD. His interviews on the show are excellent, but the modern-day chat added as a bonus on each day is one of the most tedious Q and A's in the history of boxed sets. And the dance numbers, while a major part of the show, are cool only as historical artifacts now. Skipping chapters never felt so right. It's a pity more live performances weren't found to replace the many dull spots that would have jumped this set up to a must own.

Sunday, November 28, 2010



Back in 2006, Jackson Browne took a trip to Spain, a country he loves. This time, he was able to convince his old playing partner, multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, to come along. This was a major coup, as Lindley is not only a great player, he is Browne's most sympathetic foil, the second star of Browne's 70's heyday, as heard on the Running On Empty album and others. Keeping things simple for the trip, it was Browne and Lindley acoustic, joined by various Spanish music stars, friends of Jackson. Oh, and wisely, recording gear.

The results are this beautiful, Spanish-flavoured double-disc, Browne happily moving into the milieu, already well-versed in the sounds and even the language. It's pretty fun hearing him chat in Spanish to the crowds, relaxed and ready to integrate. The guests are featured as back-up players, percussion and such, or as much as lead vocalists, transforming Browne songs such as Take It Easy into new creatures, almost unrecognizable.

While all this is interesting, the real highlight for fans will be the stripped-down and closely-recorded highlights of Browne's catalogue, sounding fresh and powerful. Early gems such as Late For The Sky, Your Bright Baby Blues and For Everyman sound alive again. One can even gain a new appreciation for later, less popular work now that it's stripped of its rock band production, on the songs I'm Alive and Looking East. By the time Running On Empty and the Love Is Strange/Stay medley arrive, old fans will be back in the joy once felt when those records were hits.

The two key moves here are the return of Lindley, one of the very best sidemen, and the return of Browne to what he really is: not a rock star, but a singer/songwriter.

Saturday, November 27, 2010



A bit of an wordy title, but it certainly describes what you're getting here.  This 2-DVD set includes the four episodes of the famous 60's variety show that The Beatles guested on.  It's the original broadcasts of the hour-long programs, from start to finish, including the vintage commercials.  Now, that alone is an interesting sociological set of artifacts, with everything from Pillsbury dough to laundry soap being hawked (addressed to the ladies, of course).  As TV shows go, Sullivan's hasn't aged well at all.  The old-fashioned variety show format is cool enough, with its parade of acts, including jugglers, acrobats, singing actresses (Mitzi Gaynor?), magicians, and comedians.  The trouble is, they largely suck, especially the stand-ups.  The bizarre Soupy Sales does a a dance parody he calls The Mouse, which apparently was big news for 20 minutes back in '65.  Borscht Belt regular Myron Cohen is literally incomprehensible.  And impressionist (and future Riddler) Frank Gorshin does the same old crap, from Sinatra to The Duke, a lesser Rich LIttle.  Only the music holds up, including numbers by Cab Calloway, Cilla Black and of course, our main attraction.

Unless you lived through it, it's impossible to relive the excitement the Beatles appearances generated.  The first show, from February 9, 1964, smashed viewership records in the U.S., and changed music and pop culture for everyone in North America.  Elvis's climb had been slower;  The Beatles went from a rumour to the most talked-about act overnight.  Anyone interested who missed the first broadcast could tune in two more weeks in a row, as the group returned with their hits She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand, All My Loving and Please Please Me.  Now, most of us have seen these clips and the shots of the screaming crowds many times, but it's cool to have them all in one place, and just plain bizarre to watch the wooden Sullivan trying over and over to convince the worried parents out there what "fine young people The Beatles are, which is surely the key to their success."  Yes Ed, politeness is the number one asset for a rock band.

The fourth show is a later one, with the band returning on September 12, 1965.  Instead of the slightly nervous, highly-rehearsed group that appeared 17 months before, now The Beatles are confidant, relaxed, and total pros.  They had grown quickly, and the material showed it, as the set list includes I Feel Fine, Ticket To Ride and Help.  Paul does a solo turn on Yesterday, a huge hit single in North America only, and Ringo gets to sign his party piece, Buck Owens' Act Naturally.  It's also the single best episode of the four here, with comedian Marti Allen actually funny, and Cilla Black a fine addition.

If you don't have any memories of the 60's and the importance The Beatles held, it might be hard to understand what all the fuss was about.  Today, there's absolutely nothing shocking, and hardly even exciting about the group's performers.  However, this is exactly how it happened, and in the combined worlds of TV and music, it's hard to come up with anything more important.

Thursday, November 25, 2010



Betwee 1975 and 1978, Bruce Springsteen couldn't release the all-important follow-up to his breakthrough album Born To Run. Mired in a lawsuit with his former manager, the litigation forced the delay of what became Darkness On The Edge Of Town. During that time, Springsteen played as much as he could, but also started piling up songs, writing at a furious rate. Dozens were recorded, many were reworked, and most discarded for the final album. He probably would have released another in between if he could have, and now we get an idea of what that might have sounded like.

The Promise is made up of 21 tracks from that 1976-77 period (22 actually, there's a hidden one) spread over two discs. The title cut is a famous one in Bruce lore, often bootlegged. It's the direct follow-up to BTR's Thunder Road, even naming it in the lyrics. Mournful, it was okay, but a little bit gimmicky in its Part Two subject matter. And there you have it, the reason these songs were never used, or drastically altered along the way. Unlike the almost-flawless Darnness album, most of these songs are pretty good, but not quite there.

There's some well-known ones in here, including Fire, a big hit for the Pointer Sisters later. Springsteen plays it too straight on this retro-rockabilly number, and it's still missing a crucial note change in the chorus melody, that the Pointers nailed, and which actually made it a better record. Because The Night went on to become a better song in co-writer Patti Smith's hands too, although Bruce comes close here. Racing In The Streets needed a lyric overhaul and a strip-down to make it much better on Darkness than this early, full-band take. And Candy's Boy was far too soft and slow until it got speeded up and darkened as Candy's Room.

Most of the tracks have never seen the official light of day. Separately, each one has lots going for it. When you hear them collected, you get the sense that Springsteen wanted to continue to emulate great rock and roll from the past, as on the Spector-Orbison blend on Born to Run. You hear echoes (and lots of added echo) of Springsteen's beloved Top 40 radio of the mid-60's, with big horns and girl group backing vocals, and lots of up-tempo numbers to dance to. However, they sound like studio tricks at times, as the E Street Band has been turned into a jukebox bent on reclaiming a sound rather than moving forward on its own.

If indeed an album made of some of this material had come out in 76-77, it might have actually been a step back for Springsteen. While it would have been fine and fun, it might also have been judged

lightweight and too happy by critics and fans, who could have been looking for more Born To Run epics. That's exactly what Springsteen did finally deliver with Darkness, a dark and brooding rocker on fire, which fit the times.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Harlan Pepper - Young And Old

Psychedelic roots music?  Alt-Americana?  What the heck are these kids doing?  And yes, kids for sure, they look like babies, and the Hamilton quartet's ages can't add up to 80.  Yet here they are sounding like old souls, or at least exactly what Greg Keelor wants the music world to sound like.

Their debut disc is perfectly titled, as the band mixes classic roots sounds with a completely new take on where you can go with your imagination.  Some songs are happy hillbilly singalongs, featuring banjo, harmonica and brushed drums, while others are space jam with soaring effects-laden guitars and some synthy keyboards.  Their live show is already providing audience favourites from the album, with the kids up front chanting along to Reefer (I wonder why...) and groovin' to the good-natured humour of Great Lakes, the band's tribute to all five of 'em.  Mentored by Blackie/Junkhouse/Lee Harvey Osmond mainman Tom Wilson (his kid Thompson plays bass in the band), the group has learned if you give them both acoustic and electric, everybody has something to love.  They are all sterling players already (again, this is a group of barely-legal age members) and seem to be learning fast and furious.  Fits in perfectly with the Great Lake Swimmers/Olympic Symphonium fans out there.  Young and Old just won the group two trophies at the Hamilton Music Awards, for New Artist/Group of the Year, and Folk/Roots Recording of the Year.

Monday, November 22, 2010


With Luke Doucet, and his Album of the Year award.
Hats off to the organizers of The Hamilton Music Awards, and the music community of that strong city.  Once again, it was a fine celebration of the city's scene, in a place that begs to be discovered and honoured by the rest of the country.  This is the third time in the past four years I've been invited to attend the event, and each year I come away with a huge respect for the work being done there, so often overshadowed by the attention payed to Toronto.  And Toronto, to its shame, continues to largely ignore both the legacy, and the strong talent base there.

Yet, oddly, the musicians who either come from the area or have chosen to move there, are a good part of the backbone of today's music scene.  There's Luke Doucet, for instance, the winner of the Album of the Year.  And of course, the heart and soul of Hamilton, Tom Wilson, who has given so much through his career, from The Florida Razors to Junkhouse to Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to his latest project, Lee Harvey Osmond.  His son Thompson is part of the excellent new group Harlan Pepper.  I finally got to see this band live, what an incredible show, with these kids playing and signing roots music like they were 50-year old vets, but with an excited young audience jumping up front.  Wilson Senior played after, with Lee Harvey Osmond celebrating its second anniversary live gig.  I was lucky enough to see that very first show as well, and the energy they are putting out on stage is so positive and joyful.  And different!  Only Wilson and company could pull off this combo of raw rock and atmospheric wandering, that they call acid jazz. Joining them for the special night was old Junkhouse pal Colin Cripps, who is currently subbing for Greg Keelor at Blue Rodeo gigs, as Greg continues to care for his hearing problems.  Doucet, his partner Melissa McClelland, Harlan Pepper, Lee Harvey Osmond, Cripps, and many others who list the Hamilton area as home, are highly recognized in the country, but rarely mentioned as Hammer musicians.

My gosh, the list is so long:  celebrated blues performers Harrison Kennedy and Steve Strongman, Teenage Head, The Forgotten Rebels, Daniel Lanois, Crowbar and King Biscuit Boy, and this year's recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Skip Prokop, founder of The Paupers and Lighthouse.  I've hung with them all at the Hamilton Music Awards, and that just scratches the surface.  They are all, to a fault, wonderful people, talented musicians, and so proud of their Hamilton roots.

There's so much going on.  This year I had the pleasure of hosting the Rising Star evening, with 12 local acts, ranging from Grade 6 to University age.  Dawn and Marra, two young women writing and performing their own material, were chosen the best of the night, their excellent folk-rock songs and voices showing a promising future.  They'll get a good boost in that way, thanks to a prize package including studio time at the world-famous Grant Avenue Studios, founded by Lanois.

I always get a surprise or two at the awards, and the big one this time was sitting backstage at the awards, and finding out the guy beside me was Gaz from the British group Happy Mondays, who now lives in Burlington!  He has a new project on the way, which he describes as Beach Boys meet hip-hop, with some live shows that he promises will be more events than concerts.  Alert the British media, one of the their favourites is now in The Hammer.  Delightful fellow, by the way.

Oh, and the bars.  As a professional music reviewer, it is my sworn duty to go to clubs and taverns across this land and check out the local scene.  This is a tough job that require me to stay out late and drink local beer, and watch super live music.  I just want to say how fun I find the clubs in Hamilton, especially This Ain't Hollywood, The Corktown, The Casbah, and the West Town.  I am also happy these clubs aren't in my hometown, because I would be in serious trouble.  These are excellent music venues.

It was also great to see lots of old and newer friends, and meet new ones.  Out-of-town friends included Ralph Alfonso of Bongo Beat Records, Barb Sedun of EMI Publishing, Sarah French of Sarah French Publicity, returning Hamiltonians, musicians Dave Rave and Natasha Alexandra from NYC, music publicist Lisa Millar from Ottawa, and then there are all the great people of Hamilton I have met and can proudly call good friends now.  There are so many, consider yourself listed here.  Of course hats off to the people behind the Hamilton Music Awards, who once again invited me and cared for me so well:  Jean-Paul Gauthier, Connie Stefanson, Lynda Henriksen, Stacy and/or Tracy, and Aimee were my family for five days.

Photos are coming, and my brain is slowly clearing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Springsteen, U2, Paul Simon, etc. - The 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Concerts

A year ago, a huge, 2-night tribute was held at Madison Square Garden for The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame's 25th birthday.  As opening speaker Tom Hanks makes clear, rock and roll was invented in the U.S., so this certainly is the American/Rolling Stone Magazine official version of what constitutes its finest moments..  Officially blessed and sanctioned favourites U2, Springsteen and Metallica hold court, with guests such as Mick Jagger, Fergie and Billy Joel along to cameo in the middle of their sets.

We can all argue the merits of who is and isn't in the Hall Of Fame, but the important thing here is whether the concerts make for a good DVD.  Rolling Stone trumpeted this as one of the great live shows of all time, but star power alone doesn't insure this.  Usually multi-artist formats almost always include messes and missed cues, egos and tantrums.  Technical problems (edited out) marred Stevie Wonder's set for instance, and apparently Aretha Franklin was wacky to work with.  And even editing can't make everything seem perfect.  U2's set, featuring Jagger, Fergie, and Will. I. Am falls flat.  The band can't replicate the sinister edge of Gimme Shelter, featuring Fergie and Jagger posing.  U2 just aren't set up to be somebody's backing band.  But Springsteen's crew can sure do it, as they prove with fine guest appearances by Sam Moore and John Fogerty, and on a stunning modern take on The Ghost Of Tom Joad with Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello.

Crosby, Stills and Nash sound much better than normal, with fine versions of Woodstock, Almost Cut My Hair, and in great harmony on Jackson Browne's The Pretender.  When they join Paul Simon for Here Comes The Sun, it's goose-bump beautiful.  Jeff Beck, subbing for an ailing Eric Clapton, was suburb, a real revelation.  So there are plenty of highlights, a few stomach-turners (anything with Sting), and a couple of truly amazing moments, which make this a must-own set.  Three discs, including several bonus songs not included on the original TV broadcast.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


 Bob and Skip Prokop photos courtesy Kyle Weir

 Bob and Skip Prokop
photo courtesy Michelle Neumann

This is the third time I've been to the Hamilton Music Awards, and the event continues to impress me.  Hamilton has a rich music scene, one of the country's most important and varied.  Hamilton's musicians are supportive of each other, and pay no attention to genres or hipness.  They know what is good for one is good for all, and are proud of their home city.  Historically, this is the place where Ronnie Hawkins, Levon Helm and Harold Jenkins came to spread the rock and roll fever in the late '50's, Jenkins soon to become Conway Twitty.  The area has been home to Crowbar, King Biscuit Boy, Teenage Head, Lorraine Segato of Parachute Club, Daniel Lanois and many more.

Each year the Awards celebrates local people who have left their mark on the local or national music scene, and this time the honour goes to Skip Prokop, founder and leader of the group Lighthouse.  Skip was born here and grew up in the Steel City, learning the basics of his trade by becoming a champion drummer.  By his late teens Skip had hit Toronto, and formed the group The Paupers out of the Yorkville Village seen of the 60's, and the band became the first Canadian pop act signed to a major U.S. record deal, managed by Albert Grossman of Dylan fame.  After they sputtered out, Prokop formed Lighthouse, based on his concept of a rock band with full horns and strings.  The group became one of the top live acts in the world, and scored two massive hit singles, One Fine Morning and Sunny Days, both of which were voted into The Top 100 Canadian Singles book.

Wednesday night at the opening reception for the Hamilton Music Awards, I got to interview Skip on stage for the audience.  He is one of the most entertaining storytellers in Canadian music, with great tales about performing at the Monteray Music Festival, turning down a gig at Woodstock, drumming for Janis Joplin and Mama Cass, and being a major player in the introduction of the CanCon regulations.  It was a thrill to touch just some of these topics.

With that, the book launches for The Top 100 Canadian Singles are over, for now anyway.  I've gone from coast to coast, loving every minute of it.  Thanks to all who came out.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010



I'm sure as soon as these three started singing and playing acoustics together, they went "Ooo, we sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash!" Now everybody's saying, "Ooo, they sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash." Ya, maybe the so-stoned-we-can't-sing 80's version, sure. These ears find the blend of Dhani Harrison, Joseph Arthur and Ben Harper's voices positively grating at times. None of them are exceptional singers, often the parts they sing are thin, and the harmonies have no spark. Apart from some occaisional strings, a bit of drums and lots of handclaps, its all voices and guitar strumming, like any bunch of hippy kids in any town. I'm sure this will go over well with the younger side of the Dave Matthews crowd, but it's the kind of project that gets completed only because of the hip names involved. There is hope for the future on one track however, the only different song on the disc, the ballad Fistful Of Mercy, which wins because of its haunting melody, and the delicate strings. Finally the voices sound right, massed on the chorus, intent on making a good song instead of a concept. Oh ya, the Dhani kid sounds like his father.

Monday, November 15, 2010



Oh God I want to love this album. First off, it's Elton, and say want you want, with every disc he puts out, I'm desperately hoping he can recapture the Tumbleweed Connection/Madman Across The Water sound. He's been trying to do that for his last several studio albums, but with limited results. Then, it's Leon. I love Leon Russell, and have since the Carney album of 1972. By now if you have any interest in this project, you've no doubt heard the story of Elton searching out his old hero in obscurity, and rescuing him for this new disc with producer T-Bone Burnett. Good on ya, Elton, you're right, Russell is somebody we should hear from again.
So, I want to love this album, but I can only like it. It all sounds great, with Russell and John in fine voice, and sounding excellent together. It is a true collaborative effort, with the duo trading lead and harmony vocals, and the co-writes coming from combinations of the Russell/John/Taupin partnership. You can hear Bernie and Elton striving to find that classic Tumbleweed sound, and coming oh so close. The best efforts are on ballads such as The Best Part Of The Day, Russell and John trading verses and singing the chorus together, and Elton has always had a deft hand at crafting emotional piano numbers. Russell brings some of his gospel boogie to the mix, which helps get a bit of tempo to the thing, but it's long and heavy on slower songs. So, there's nothing to complain about, except an overall lack of a couple of killer tracks. I do take pleasure in hearing Leon sing again, it has been missing in my listening life, and a co-write with Taupin, I Should Have Sent Roses, is up there with some of his best songs, such as A Song For You and This Masquerade. Recommended, but I wonder what could have happened if they had waited and worked until they had two more solid rockers? So close.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Here's the deal:  I figure I have this blog, and I don't always have news related to the Top 100 Canadian Singles and Albums empire, I might as well do something with it.  And what I do more than anything else is listen to new discs and watch new music DVD's.  And since this is about music, why not give you some of my music reviews?  I've been doing this for 30 years, so I figure I might as well keep going.

So, instead of doing a bunch of them, I have decided to send out one a day.  These will be new, or relatively new releases.  Let's call it:



Finally available on DVD and Blu-Ray, this is quite possibly the best of the many, many live Rolling Stones sets you can get.  It's a bit murky and dusty, shot on a dark stage with no audience footage, and the cameras almost entirely focused on Mick and Keith, but that's the show, isn't it?  This 1972 set is from the Exile On Main Street tour of the U.S., with the band at it's peak, Mick Taylor handling the leads.  Mick's preening was much less over-the-top, in fact it was pretty much perfect, before it got oversized for the stadium crowds and video screens.  He's still fascinating here, instead of eye-rolling and camp.  And Keith sounds great, his words still understandable instead of slurred, his harmonies helpful.  Taylor really makes the difference though, his solos ripping through the songs.  His slide playing on All Down The Line alone beats anything Ron Wood would do in 35 years.

What strikes me most is set list.  Here's a band with a pile of Top 40 hits to its credit, yet the Stones have jettisoned those days, with no Satisfaction, Get Off Of My Cloud, or Paint It, Black in sight.  Instead they've successfully grown up with their audience, and now the adult years start with Jumpin' Jack Flash, and include Brown Sugar, Bitch, Tumbling Dice, Street Fighting Man and Gimme Shelter.  It's no surprise the songs from this era have formed the core of their show ever since, it's the golden age of the Stones.

Highlights include the two Micks trading solos on Midnight Rambler, Jagger blowing a brilliant harp solo, and letting out a hoot of joy when he finishes, a huge smile on his face.  And the cleaned-up sound lets us focus in on Richards' rhythm playing, Charlie's cymbal work, and the overall dynamics the Stones still brought to the blues.  It's certainly a must-own concert, as opposed to the ten or so other live DVD's you can get of them.  It's available as a single disc, with a few minor bonuses, or as much pricier Deluxe Edition, a big square box priced at over a hundred bucks, which includes the recent DVD Stones In Exile, plus a third, exclusive disc of interviews and footage from TV and the Australian tour, plus various nick-knacks and swag. 

Monday, November 1, 2010


 Chris Murphy of Sloan and Cynthia Kitts, Sloan fan, in Halifax
 Bob being interviewed by CBC Vancouver's Jenna Chow

 Outside CBC Vancouver
 Gallery Connexion's Maggie Estey, our host for the Fredericton book launch
 An Acoustic Sloan in Halifax
 Grant Lawrence, MC of the Vancouver launch at Zulu Records
 I really like Bob's book...
 No, your new book is much better Grant...
Fredericton High School class of '78 reunion in Vancouver.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


 Your humble author and Chris Murphy of Sloan
 Murphy interrupting my big speech
 Chris and Jay Ferguson with Underwhelmed producer Terry Pulliam
 Jay and MC/Hosr Mike Campbell
 Campbell grills me on why Nickelback didn't make the Top 100
Chris tries to claim Underwhelmed should have finished #6