Tuesday, December 27, 2011


If you are a pathetic, ridiculous music collector who has to have every b-side, reissue, alternate take, soundtrack number, guest appearance, picture sleeve 45, best-of collection, and magazine article on your favourite artist, this column is for you.  We (because I am guilty as charged) are a pathetic bunch, having wasted what could have amounted to a very decent RRSP on buying multiple versions of the same song, shelling out $30 for an import CD just because it has one minor difference in one song that we feel we must own.  Right now, a couple of doctors I know are scribbling down "OCD" with arrows pointing at my name.  Stop snickering, we're all the same.

I got this jones for a handful of artists, but none more so than Costello.  Ever since I discovered in 1979 that he routinely released 45's with non-LP b-sides, I was off to the races, grabbing all those pricey British imports.  Even when he turned around a couple of years later and put them all on an easy-to-buy album called Taking Liberties, thereby rendering my investment near-useless, I was still happy, as the album had a couple more new-to-me tracks.  This has not diminished a bit since, and I've grabbed every reissue, deluxe version, DVD and stray 45 (he's still making them!).  I don't think anyone has been reissued more, with ever-expanding numbers of bonus cuts.  Take his debut, My Aim Is True.  There was the original Columbia album.  Then it appeared on CD.  Costello got the rights back, and teamed with Rykodisc, adding  several bonus cuts.  Those rights ran out, and it went to Warner/Rhino, who turned it into a double with many more demos and such.  Then the rights went to Universal, who at first sent it out in its original, no bonus cuts version.  Then they stuck it out as a Deluxe, squeezing the demos and such onto disc one, and adding a complete period live concert as the second disc.  It goes without saying I have owned all these.  At least I didn't buy it on cassette.  However, I recently bought the CD soundtrack to the TV show House, to get him singing a cover of Christina Aguilera's Beautiful.  On eBay.  Cost me $20.  It's not very impressive, don't do it.

I guess you won't be surprised that I have succumbed to the ultimate temptation offered by the Costello machine.  The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!! is a deluxe boxed set, limited to just 1500 copies world-wide.  It features music from his tour this spring with The Imposters, recorded at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.  There's one CD of music, and one DVD, with about two-thirds of the CD cuts the same as the DVD.  Then there's a four-track vinyl addition, a bonus of four more cuts.  Add it all up, you probably have most of the show, about two-hours of music.  And the price for this honor?  $249 if you order it from amazon.ca right now.  Gack.

These deluxe boxes are becoming the norm for the pricey collector market.  Pink Floyd did multiple disc versions for the reissues of Wish You Were Here and Dark Side Of The Moon, with The Wall coming out shortly.  The Rolling Stones have a few of them, the most recent being the Some Girls box.  The Who did Live At Leeds and Quadrophenia, and The Beach Boys have one for SMiLE.  These all feature more discs than the regular versions, five or six usually, or perhaps 180 gram vinyl versions, and a nice big box with a nice big book in it.  And the usual price is around $120.  So what justifies the doubling of that grand price for Costello?  Well, we get an autograph. At least, I think it's his autograph.  It would take a highly-skilled forensic examiner, maybe that guy on Pawn Stars, to judge if it even says Elvis, such is the hand-writing.  Yes, there is a very good hard-cover book, and there's a replica of the spinning wheel that was featured on the tour, which audience members spun on stage to select a song, The Price Is Right-method.  Still, this packaging isn't that costly, it isn't gold inlay, so what we're really paying for is the exclusivity, the elite membership in the club, the collectible value.  But of course, what's really happening here is that us life-long collectors just can't bare to have something out there we don't own.  It should have also come with a t-shirt that said SUCKER.

Oddly enough, the person to blow the whistle on the whole scam was Costello himself.  Shortly before its release, Costello put a message on his website advising people NOT to buy his new record.  Even he found the price ridiculous, and claimed to not know the record label was going to charge that much.  He advised people to who had that kind of money to instead invest in a recent, wonderful Louis Armstrong box, with hours more music, which Costello said was better anyway.  Now, cynics have weighed in, saying he must have known the price being charged, these details are carefully negotiated, and he did sign each one (I hope).  But it's possible he didn't, or his management didn't tell him, or they didn't ask, or something.  His father was very sick of late, and recently passed away, so it could have been the last thing on his mind. 

The kicker though, also came from Elvis's own pen, when he informed us that the individual parts of this set would soon be available separately to purchase, at a regular price.  Double gack.  So all this stuff I could have had for, like $40 bucks tops.  And all I'm going to get is a book, a box, and a scrawl for my extra two hundred?  Now I really want that SUCKER t-shirt.  Because there it is, also on amazon.ca, coming in February, the cheap version of the disc.

Of course I should have seen this coming.  It's just the sheer nerve involved in sticking this version out in advance of the other, and no full disclosure of the plans.  All the other super-deluxe boxes come out at the same time, and there's no subterfuge involved.  I know, buyer beware, and all that, and I'm getting awfully close to sour grapes rather than review here.  But I did believe, at the time of purchase, that this would be unique, highly collectible, and aside from bootlegs or file-sharing, the only source for this.  Since it is not, it is my opinion it is way over-priced.  By at least a hundred bucks.  I'm sure it took Elvis a couple of days to do all the autographs, but even he says it's a rip-off.  With a couple of books out myself, and hard-bound, high-quality paper, with tons of pricey photos, I know a bit about packaging, and still, there's a ton of profit on this.  $249 x 1500 equals $373,500 gross flying around, and somebody at Concord/Universal is smiling . 

Jeez music company suits, don't pick on your last customers.  We're the ones not downloading, and paying cash for everything, remember?  The last of a dying breed.  It's probably not a smart idea to alienate us.

Oh right, the music.  The show.  It's a lot of fun, there's this wheel, and real audience members, and it's one of the best-shot concert videos I've seen, and there's a go-go girl dancing in a cage, and Costello is acting this funny character, and The Bangles guest and go-go dance too, and Peace, Love and Understand and Alison, and lots of other old favourites and some recent good ones and even a brand-new song, plus an old one he'd never done live on stage before.  But you know what?  I think I'll wait to review it probably when the reasonably-priced versions come out, because with this special, limited-edition, ultra-hip, only the cool kids have it version, it's really not the same experience if you're not staring at his signature while you're enjoying the music. 

There's one born every minute, and today, that's me.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Tight, driving, groove-rich rock 'n' roll, served up by now-expert deliverymen The Black Keys and producer Danger Mouse.  Slicing in at just under 40 minutes, each song is between three and four minutes long, and the whole thing feels like an intentional throwback to 1974, albeit with that signature sound the group has developed.  You know, that buzzing guitar, heavy-duty slicing with fuzz.

This time though, there's more subtle moments, and in fact more mainstream touches.  Check out Sister, a funky, soulful number, but with surprising ELO touches, a synth line, an organ fill, that kind of thing. The 70's have never been more obvious in the Keys' sound.  Even the one time they stop that incredible pounding drum and fuzzy guitar, the acoustic guitar track Little Black Submarines sounds like something you'd find on a Traffic album.  But then it includes my favourite moment on the disc, when the acoustic track gives way to the loudest moment on the record, the second half of the song a scorching number with an old-school electric solo.  Again, that's such a 70's trick, and I keep thinking of all the groups I'm reminded of.  But spot-the-reference is only fun once or twice.  What really matters is that the stuff is all good, right through.

I can tell this album is damn good, because it zips by.  The first two times it played, I looked up in shock at the silence coming from the speakers, in what seemed to me to have been about 15 minutes, no more.  I think it's because of really clever pacing, and the uniformity of the song lengths.  Or maybe I'm overthinking.  Maybe, it's like the last words you hear sung on the disc:  "Don't let it be over". That's how I felt.

Friday, December 16, 2011


The worst you can say about this collection is that it's not a proper album.  Assembled from a variety of different sources, it's basically a grab-bag of styles and moods that WInehouse chose to explore over her brief career.  Everything from old standards to hip-hop, girl group pop to bossa nova.  Some go back to her two proper records, others were scheduled for the much-promised and never properly started third.  Then there's the duet with Tony Bennett, Body And Soul, her last recording session, from March of this year.

It's always worrisome when producers take raw materials, in this case vocals, build the tracks posthumously.  But since that's pretty much what her producers did anyway, you can't argue that they are over their bounds.  Winehouse sang, they added.  In fact, she had never met many of the musicians and voices on Frank until after the disc came out, such was the way Mark Ronson put it together.  So, away they went.

While not being a regular, cohesive disc, these are worthy cuts all.  Of course, it's her voice.  Like Aretha in her heyday, Winehouse had the ability to make everything ring, seemingly effortlessly.  She was a true singer, using her voice as an instrument, delivering both a tremendous performance and defining the mood.  When you find out that many of these tracks were the alternates, the discards in the pile, left aside for other arrangements, its hard to figure out why.  Highlights include a dramatic and very different arrangement of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? that makes a mockery of the original, the new Between The Cheats, which surely would have been a highlight of a third disc, and Half Time, dropped from the Frank album, but clearly no lesser number.  This is the rare disc to come out after an early death that enhances an artist's legacy.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


An insanely young and talented songwriter and singer, Gillis is just 21, but has already wowed everyone who has heard her, and continues to amaze on her new and second album.  The Ontario performer won Young Performer of the Year at the 2009 Canadian Folk Music Awards, but you could have just dropped the "young" from that title.  Also, I don't know genre to slot her in, other than great music.

She can rock out, ya.  She can haunt you.  That's the first three songs.  About a minute into number four, a bouncy banjo one called The Cove, after you've already figured out she a top singer, she opens her range up and starts hitting high notes and you realized she's got more tricks up her sleeve.  Then, the song toughens up and it sinks in that this is a number about those hunters that lure and kill the dolphins each year in Japan, the ones caught on video a couple of years back, and the protest against them.  This is strong stuff.

Next comes something extra-special, and like nothing I've heard before.  It's a fairy tale, a child's story with a moral, and so well done it will touch the most cynical of us all.  John And The Monster has to be heard to be fully appreciated, with the spoken-word start, the switch into a song, the tender and touching delivery, the ingenuity of the story.  A monster who can cure cancer?  The boy who finds him, but chooses to save him from being locked up instead of saving his own life?  Five minutes folks, I marvel at her ability to write and then polish that story into brief perfection.  I hope she's ready to turn it into a kids book immediately.

Another brilliant bit of story-telling comes in the tale of Cannonball Sam, the smartest sailor ever forced to walk the plank.  Next up is Snap Crack, a mystery-hipster-blues that Tom Waits could sing.  I could go on about each song, but I've run out of superlatives.

Normally when I see parental involvement, especially in major jobs such as production and co-writing, my instincts tell me there's trouble afoot.  However, not only is it clear Gillis comes fully deserving and talented to be an artist, she also had the perfect person to work with in-house.  Her father David is a champion fingerstyle guitar player, an award-winning songwriter, and obviously an able producer.  Plus, he's connected and smart to surround her with top-notch players, including Bill Dillon, Gary Craig and Kevin Fox.  I guess you could say she has an unfair advantage over all the other 21-year olds.  But this ain't Canadian Idol, this is the real deal, this is art.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Why, what perfect timing, this being December and all.  It's another offering from the group, the second of 2011.  This is part two of the sessions for the album released in January, The King Is Dead.  What we get is six tracks left off the original album, as they really didn't match the tone of that big hit for the band.  They include four solid studio originals, a home demo, and a deft cover of the Grateful Dead's Row Jimmy.

The songs go back to the earlier sound of the group, a little more folky, a little less calculated.  I wasn't a big fan of The King Is Dead, except for a couple of cuts, as I did find it too polished and forced.  These tracks feel like the band is more relaxed and therefore more true to what they do best.  It's energized and modernized folk, songs that feel almost traditional, but clearly crafted and happily played by youngsters.  The "demo", I 4 U & U 4 Me, is the sound of a great performing group recording off the floor, and the lack of polish and pretense is a sound I'd much prefer they chase.  Burying Davy is a takes them way back, a real British countryside number, circa 1750.  I don't know if I've ever heard a band better suited to covering the Dead either, settling perfectly into the staggering beat and almost off-kilter plucking and tinkling.  Plus, Jenny Conlee sounds beautiful behind Colin Meloy's countrified lead.

These tracks were leaked on-line in that weird official way that bands and companies do now to attract attention and buzz, figuring the publicity is better than the lost sales.  By the look of the 'net, it worked because fans and downloaders are crowing about some or all of them, especially lead track E. Watson, a major composition for the group.  I just hope there's enough buzz to keep them leaning in this more relaxed direction.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Remember when giant rock bands went on the road with a hot new album, and played most of it, throwing energy into these fresh songs, excited to introduce it to fans?  And remember when fans actually wanted to hear something new from their heroes, instead of a greatest hits show from the past, and didn't rush to the concessions and cans when the first unfamiliar notes were struck?

Here's what that was like.  The Rolling Stones were back after a few lackluster mid-70's years, fueled by that old motivator, one of them getting busted (Keith, Toronto, Heroin).  Created amidst that serious situation, and other external threats to the band (the rise of punk and disco), the Stones pushed back by incorporating shades of those new music styles, and simply being edgier than either.  While it may be the last time that happened, that doesn't diminish what a fine album Some Girls was.

And now we see, what a fine tour it was too, as the band cockily laid out a full seven of its ten cuts, in order, in concert.  This new DVD and Blu-Ray features a previously-unissued show from 1978, deep in the heart of Texas.  It's a rejuvenated band for sure, featuring new Keith foil, Ron Wood, now fully integrated, and only former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagen swelling the ranks (oh, plus stalwart Ian Stewart too, whenever he felt like plunking piano).  That's opposed to the last few tours, when actual official Stones are outnumbered by support players.  So kids, this is why some of us still snort about mega-concerts at Magnetic Hill and such, there's a DIFFERENCE.

"Go ahead," spits Jagger.  "Bite the Big Apple.  Don't mind the maggots."  He's singing about NYC, deep in decay those days, and if there's one thing Jagger could document, it was late 20th century turbulence.  You could tell Keith knew he was onto something, singing about the Twin Towers of depravity and depression that marked the city.  While Miss You may have felt a little disco, it was the darkness in those dance clubs he was really tapping into.  Anyway, watching Richards and Wood battling and riffing on stage, skinny and half-conscious, it just all seems so real, perfect, well done.

With the Some Girls songs the centerpiece, the group seems to almost rush through the opening four songs, desperate to get to the new stuff they knew to be so excellent.  Let It Rock is hurried and sloppy Chuck Berry, Jagger even forgetting the words, a throw-back to the 60's when opening numbers were often tossed off in order for the sound crew to get levels and the guitar players to get comfortable.  All Down The Line is pretty much the same thing.  Finally Honky Tonk Women reminds us this is the Greatest Band In The World, and Star Fucker reminds us they are the rudest, thank you Sex Pistols.   Then it's showtime, with When The Whip Comes Down leading off the new album set.

After that, we're back in familiar Stones territory, but at a rare peak.  It's the best Love In Vain I've seen, Jagger morphing into James Brown.  Tumbling Dice kills, Jagger back dancing and preaching.  God he's great tonight.  He's in total command now, jumping, pointing, teasing the audience, the front rows right at the edge of the stage, with no security perimeter in those days.  No giant inflatable penises, no props at all.  The comic relief comes from Mick slapping Ronnie on the bum during guitar solos.  Happy, Brown Sugar, Jumpin' Jack Flash.  They call them dinosaur bands now, The Stones and The Who.  But there was a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, and they were scary, dangerous, bad-ass motherfuckers, the best there ever was.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


This is perhaps my favourite kind of music DVD, a collection of live footage, mostly taken from TV shows and rare filmed concert appearances.  In fact, I bet there's two or three times this available, but they chose the less-is-more plan, and compiled a solid, career-spanning 90 minutes.  Plus, the bonus material includes a nifty 35-minute documentary from England's South Bank Show, so I can't complain, we're over two hours now.  Plus, you have to watch it twice, because there is a great commentary track featuring all four band members, reacting to the times, the clothes, the goofiness, the fans.  Tellingly though, David Byrne was recorded separately, cementing their status as Least Likely To Reform 80's band.

What a joy it is to see such early footage, way back to 1975, pre-first album, and while the band was still a three-piece, Jerry Harrison not on board yet.  And of all places, it's CBGB's, where the band were one of the stalwarts along with The Ramones, Blondie, etc.  There are embryonic versions of With Our Love and I'm Not In Love, and then, bam, there it is, a 1975, CBGB's 3-piece, different lyrics, Psycho Killer.  It's the New Wave version of finding film of The Beatles with Pete Best at the Star Club.  Then hop ahead a year, and here's this very shy, bizarre guy, Byrne, unable to simply introduce a song, any song, without messing it up.  To show us how incapable he was, there's a montage of just introductions captured at The Kitchen in NYC, and you have to wonder how this guy ever became an MTV star.

Yet, he did.  Watch Byrne and the band blossom, as they see their anti-rock star system bizarrely make them, well, rock stars.  Marvel at them on American Bandstand, doing Take Me To The River, a minor hit, and being interviewed by Dick Clark.  While they might have seem as cool as ice, the commentary track reveals how thrilled they were to be there, amazed that it wasn't just the artsy New York scene for them anymore.  By the time they were debuting bona fide hits such as Burning Down The House on the new, hip Late Night With David Letterman show, it was a night-and-day difference in confidence.

It was a different band, too.  They expanded in the latter half of the group's run, adding extra guitar, keys, percussion, vocalists, expanding to 11 members on some shows.  Again, we are watching them grow up, quite literally grow bigger, a night-and-day difference from the three-piece in less than a decade.  And then.. it died, and quite quickly.  After the muddle of True Stories (a totally unmemorable album and film), Byrne pulled the plug, and it's been.... testy.  That's why it's great to see the performance of Life During Wartime from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions in 2002, see how much fun they are having, and getting that confirmed by Tina Weymouth on the commentary track.  Plus, even though he doesn't deign to sit with the other three for such a recording, at least they have nothing but positive, and even loving things to say about each other.  Or rather, the people they see on the screen from those halcyon days.  It's an excellent DVD, a fun-filled two hours, and damn, you know, here's one band I wish could get back together, it would be a heck of a lot more appealing than The Police.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Sweet!  Not only do we get one of the truly excellent Stones albums, but for once the disc of previously unreleased stuff is ...  exactly what you hoped it would be, a whole bunch of pretty darn good new songs, some cool covers, and only one of them having appeared (in an alternate version) before.  12 full, actual Rolling Stones songs from 1977-78, and any one of them could have gone on the original album and seemed a good choice.  Score!

Some Girls stands alone in the Stones cannon, with no other work sounding like it, and no disc connecting so thematically.  Jagger was in charge, Richards was still struggling with the Toronto bust and his junkie life, Ron Wood was brand-new, and everybody had something to prove.  Jagger came armed with a group of songs reflecting the mid-70's mess that was New York City, as down and dirty as the place would ever get, barely holding off economic collapse and moral chaos.  Able to understand both the dance club hedonism of disco and Studio 54, and the polar opposite of punk (weren't the early Stones prototypes?), the band gave it back to both styles.  Miss You is a funky joy, while the triple-guitar threat of Lies, Shattered, and Respectable showed the Stones were totally contemporary.

I don't think I'm overstating the quality of the bonus cuts here.  Each one has some obvious quality that could have been explored into a finished track for the album.  I don't mean they are demos; these are finished or nearly-finished cuts, missing a better mix or a solo or a lyric, something to take them up that final notch.  Sugar Blue, the harmonica star of Miss You even shows up on two cuts, indicating they were strong contenders.  One is an unheard Keith number, a cover of a Waylon Jennings number, We Had It All, which in the end didn't fit with the parody-country of Far Away Eyes.  Country was obviously in the air during the sessions, with Mick singing Hank Williams' You Win Again here too.  What's missing from all these cuts is the gritty, claustrophobic feel of the album proper.

One of the criticisms of the bonus cuts on Exile On Main Street was the significant overdubbing and producing done by Don Was, to get the bare tracks up to release-level.  Here, there are reportedly lots of new additions, including new vocals, guitar parts, etc., but Was and Jagger (for the most part) have done a much better job matching the new parts with the old.  I'd still like to hear the unadorned numbers, to make my own decision, but hey, the artist should be the one to control these things while living.  Well recommended.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


The supple and sweet Montreal pianist wows 'em in this vintage 1990 concert recorded in Baden, Switzerland.  Unreleased until now, it's a brilliant performance by the under-praised Jones, smooth and perfect on yet another night.  His trio that night included Reggie Johnson on bass and fellow Canuck Ed Thigpen on drums.

Jones gives a bit of everything, from classics to blues to gospel to Gershwin, some originals and of course, some Oscar.  The more I hear Jones, the more I wonder if he'd lived in another city, would his star have shined brighter, without Peterson ahead of him.  Hearing his confident, rapid work, with total comfort on the keys, no sloppiness, all action all the time, I marvel at the skill and dexterity.  Yet there's not an ounce of vanity here.  He's in love with the music, and realizes the audience wants to hear such accomplishments as much as he wants to play them.

This is positive, bright, joyful material, with Jones' runs up the higher octaves dominating much of the show.  That delightful tinkling might be too showbiz for post-bop and beyond, but to me its ear candy.  I actually can't think of a better-sounding piano recording right now, at least one with the highs so rich and ringing.  Oh to be a barfly in Baden..

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I'm hard-pressed to name another U2 album I think is better.  Even if you have joined the 99% who think Bono should pay his taxes in Ireland and shaddup about everything else, it's hard to argue with this non-stop parade of hits and classics.  As home to "One", "Mysterious Ways", "Even Better Than The Real Thing" and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses", Achtung Baby is a high-water mark for the group's connection with songcraft, and it stands at a crucial time before they got REALLY overblown, with the Zooropa and Pop discs.

Not that the signs weren't there; "The Fly" introduced some sort of Bono character, and "Zoo Station" pointed to the tour concept, but they were still good songs for the most part, and rocked.  Yes, they were trying hard to be big, but they were grand gestures, and not empty.  Even the Singer still seemed connected to his audience then, able to admit he might be "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World".  This is one of the last great albums, in the old, L.P. sense, before downloads and single cuts took over.  Each song packs a punch, usually both musically and literally, and stands distinct.  It may be because of the unique situation of the recording.  The usual Lanois-Eno team wasn't really working in partnership; rather they were changing roles, and including the talents of Flood and Steve Lillywhite as well, depending on the cut.  For instance, on "Zoo Station", it's Lanois produced, Flood mixing and engineering, no sign of the others.  On "Even Better..", it's Lillywhite producing with Lanois and Eno, and on it goes for each cut, some combination of the bunch.

This is the 20th Anniversary edition, and is the norm now, you have a choice of how much extra material you want, and how much cash to drop.  The Deluxe 2 CD Edition is just fine for me, especially since the bonus disc is so strong as well.  Comprised mostly of b-sides, it is a great mix of outtakes, inspired covers and interesting remixes.  The excellent version of Lou Reed's "Satellite Of Love", which became a tour highlight, is found here, as is a cool take on the Stones' "Paint It Black".  The remixes of "Mysterious Ways" and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" are those rare beasts that add something to the tune rather than just mess with it.  The Super Deluxe set has 10 discs, including 4 DVD's, and costs $118 minimum.  Get this, the Uber Deluxe Box will run you $435, and seems to be mostly a limited-edition thing with magnetic parts and a pair of Bono's Fly sunglasses, I kid you not.  Look, I'm one of the rare music writers who still likes U2, but if you find yourself tempted by either of these monstrosities, we have got to get you outside more.

Monday, December 5, 2011


I'm pondering.  Can I recommend a 2 CD set not for the music, but for the booklet?  For its historic interest, rather than the actual quality of the music on the discs?  Here's the issue:  The Beatles didn't just pop up at George Martin's studio singing Love Me Do one afternoon, fresh-faced from the streets of Liverpool.  As we know, they had done long, hard time playing crazy sets for a tough clientele in Hamburg.  While they were there, a top producer, exec and hitmaker himself, Bert Kaempfert, liked them enough to sign them to a small contract, and record them with fellow Brit rocker Tony Sheridan.  Sheridan was the lead singer, and The Beatles got called The Beat Brothers for some reason.

The single, My Bonnie, was what caught Brian Epstein's attention, why he checked them out at the Cavern Club, and became the manager.  Kaempfert, with not much happening, let his contract with the band lapse.  Then things started happening, and you know the rest.  Meanwhile, these few Sheridan/Beat Brothers tracks ended up getting grabbed up and sent out all over the world, and even became hits, thanks to clever packaging and unsure purchasers.  They thought they'd get John or Paul singing, and they couldn't recall a Tony in the group.

There actually was one cut with a Lennon lead vocal, Ain't She Sweet, and another instrumental, Cry For A Shadow, that he wrote with George.  But the rest were Sheridan, and not great.  Still, those eight cuts that were found from the sessions have been press and repackaged many times, and still don't get any better.  That is, until they got put in this silk purse.

It's the 50th anniversary of the real recording debut of The Beatles.  In honour of that, the tapes have been obtained by Time-Life music, who do excellent historic releases, such as recent boxed sets from Hank Williams.  The value of this package is in the excellent liner notes, and wonderful photos and memorbilia pictured.  It's like a museum display, and despite reading about these recordings many times, I learned quite a bit from historian Colin Escott's notes, and saw photos I've never seen before from Hamburg.  This is a fascinating story, and to have it presented so well is a real joy.

Oh, there's the music.  Those eight cuts have several variations to them, including mono and stereo versions, different mixes used in Europe and the U.S., one re-recorded Sheridan vocal, added after The Beatles got hot, introductions in English, introductions in German.  With all that, eight songs become 34 different cuts, spread over two CD's.  It gets ponderous by the end of disc one, and the mono versions, and then you have to do it all over again in stereo.  Or, don't.  Just play the eight cuts once.  You'll notice the instrumental, Cry For A Shadow, is pretty darn good really.  The rest?  We don't need to hear anybody singing When the Saints Go Marching In as a rock n' roll song.  Just read the booklet.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Readers will know of my strange love affair with the music scene of Hamilton, ON, a city that adopted me a few years back and keeps inviting me to their annual Music Awards.  What can I say?  As loyal as I am to my beloved East Coast music scene, each time I visit The Hammer, I come back with more excellent music and memories.  As long as the well is full, I'm going to keep drinking.

How I missed out on Mary Simon before is beyond me, except to say that's the way it goes when you're being pulled 15 different ways, to check out various groups and acts.  She's released five CD's in her career, and showcased at the Awards in 2010, which I somehow didn't see.  I actually didn't see her perform this time either, instead only getting her helping out on mandolin and vocals for her friend Michelle Titian's set (more on Michelle at a later date).  But she did slip me her most recent disc, and whenever her name came up, people I respect said, "you know she's an excellent singer-songwriter, right?".

I do now.  No More Maybes grabbed me immediately, one of those rare listens where you keep waiting for something that you might not love as much as the last song, but not being disappointed, except when it ends.  A roots songwriter, Simon has that ability to surprise you, and even scare you a little bit with how emotionally direct her lyrics are.  In "Blue Eyes", it's a stare-down across the cafe, where she catches somebody checking her out;  "I have a weakness for your blue eyes".  There's no B.S. with this stuff, and since she's opening up her heart, she also gets to ask tough questions:  "If I asked you what you stood for, would the answer be waiting on your lips?", she asks a potential candidate, trying to gauge his morals as much as his charm.

All this comes packaged in twang-and-tough roots rock, think Lucinda without the twang, although she can also breeze into a little more melodic fare as well.  She has a deceptive voice, intimate and tuneful, but when she wants she belts a kick-ass chorus.  There's great guitar throughout, and another hallmark is the solid structure to each number, with memorable bridges and harmonies.  In short, we have a real songwriter here, folks.

So, that's the album, I'm loving it, but what takes it to the upper level is the what it leaves you with after you've finished listening.  I'm hit right in the heart with lines that won't go away;  from "Big Sore Heart", "Time to clean out the closet, time to make a brand new start/Old town, new life, sore heart/Big Sore Heart".  From "Curse", it's:  "More than hungry or tired, I'm just not wired/To be alone/This is my curse."  In "Goodbye", it's "I will say goodbye/Let the story of us gently die", in a sad ballad with deep atmosphere, reminded me of Aimee Mann.  As much as several of the songs rock, and are certainly empowered, the open emotion is near-overwhelming.  Big Sore Heart.

Check her out at www.marysimon.com

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Mr. Newman has been concentrating on his grand back catalogue for this past couple of releases, re-recording his classics as solo piano pieces, quite enjoyably.  He also did this concept on the road, presenting a few rare treats for lucky towns.

This live set comes from one of the great nations of Europe, in a show filmed for the BBC at an old London church now used for concerts.  The cozy audience was almost equaled in number by the BBC Concert Orchestra, who join in for about half the 22 songs.

I can't decide if I'm partial to the orchestrated songs, or Newman's own solo numbers.  For the most part, it's the uptempo cuts he handles on his own, often with his New Orleans-style piano, for favourites such as Mama Told Me Not To Come and It's Money That I Love.  But the orchestra sure does hammer home the poignancy on say, "Louisiana 1927" ("Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline").

I've seen this church before on other DVD's, and it's a visual treat, with its old exposed brick and huge windows.  The show was recorded in daylight hours, which is even better as we have the trees and sky in the background.  Trust me, it's one of the details that makes the difference in a concert DVD.  For repeat enjoyment, you get the entire show on CD as well.

As celebrated and lucrative his soundtrack work is, none of that Toy Story stuff is here, which is smart.  You've Got A Friend In Me is not quite as high on the Irony Scale as Short People and Political Science ("Let's drop the big one, they'll be no-one left to blame us").

Listening to old Randy Newman is always rewarded, even new versions of it.  It's not like his voice has changed much.  Plus, it's never been overplayed on classic rock radio.  If it had been, we might be a healthier society.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


This single-disc version is a frustrating little sampler for the much bigger, three-CD,1-DVD version that nicely does the compilation job.  The trouble is, it's listing at $109 freaking dollars!  Jeez, somebody forgot to tell Der Stingler that the music industry has tanked.  You can't be charging those prices anymore, unless you're offering hard-cover books, unreleased concept albums, actual autographs and naked photos.  I guess Sting already has enough money, and he can damn well do whatever he wants.  Maybe he's part of the problem.  You know, the 1%.  Occupy Sting.

Anyway, Mr. Rich Rock Star has frustrated me by refusing to issue a decent Greatest Hits.  I don't want a boxed set (especially at that price), nor do I want all his albums, not even one.  Just gimme the best songs, that's about all I can take.  The trouble is, there's one that is half-Sting, half-Police, and of course that means duplicating all your Police tracks, because you probably already own those classics.  Then there's the Field Of Gold best of, which only takes us to 1994.  The Best Of 25 Years gives us just 8 hits, one previously unreleased song, and 3 live numbers from the DVD that comes with the big box.  Sigh.

It just makes little sense to me to stick out a disc that purports to be his best, yet there's no Englishman In New York, Love Is The Seventh Wave, I Hung My Head, I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying, it's a big list.  Obviously the answer is a two-disc set, and that's what you can...in Europe!  I just want a blasted decent best of, is that so much to ask?  Every other artist, living or dead, has one, even those without actual hits.  And no, I am not paying a hundred bucks to get it.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Having just seen the reformed and fighting trim Diodes on their mini-tour of Southern Ontario, at the beloved This Ain't Hollywood in Hamilton on the final night of the swing, I can tell you the gang still has all the spirit that set them apart in the late 70's - early 80's.  Contemporaries of all the classic punks, the group played CBGB's in New York, hung with Blondie, The Ramones and Talking Heads, toured with U2 and Gary Numan, and were pretty much the poster band for scene in Toronto.  Such is the lasting esteem in which they are held, just weeks ago the group won a huge vote conducted by the Toronto Star to name the best Toronto band of all time.  It was a shocker.  Eat that, Rush!

Time to coincide with the mini-tour was the reissue of the band's third, and last, studio album.  Like all things Diodes, it had a shaky birth and existence, but now gets treated with due respect by their new label, Bongo Beat.  The master tapes had been lost in the shuffle label fights, and this had to be salvaged from a master used for cassettes and covered with Dolby.  But today's magic has saved the day, and six bonus tracks of demos, outtakes and a live number punch it up more.

Great current interviews and liner notes inform us that The Diodes had actually broken up for a few months before this album, after being dumped by CBS in 1979.  But, the corporate dummies neglected to realize that in the U.S., the label had just put out a collection that featured The Diodes infamous rockin' take of Paul Simon's Red Rubber Ball.  It became a minor hit, which led to calls for the group to hit the road and studio again.  The splintered bunch were cool with that, and had a bunch of songs too.  They also had their free agent status, since CBS had cut them loose.  They decided not to return to that company, because there were a couple of hotshot producers interested in them for their own new label.

Action/Reaction from 1980 gave the group a couple more decent-sized Toronto hits, Strange Time, and even bigger, Catwalker.  Like the other great punk bands of the day (Ramones, Teenage Head, etc.), much of the group's sound is undated, raw and snotty 60's-styled radio pop music.  This is the rejection of prog, singer-songwriter, southern rock, and the like, with the groups rolling back the clock to where the single was king and short, and mixing that with the similar-thinking Glam bands, Bowie, Dolls, Velvets, etc.  The songs had punch, noise, distortion, but also had lots of melody and smarts. 

I find they hold up better on stage now, but let's blame that on producers Willi Morrison and Ian Guenther, who were trying to get some kind of sound that doesn't hold up.  But The Diodes weren't the absolute best writers either, and the lyrics didn't exactly require too much analysis.  Or any.  Hard to beat the energy though.  The best bonus cut here is a ripping update of the Stones' Play With Fire, which goes double-speed one verse in, with classic punk-plucked bass, and a raw solo.  It seems old hat now, but in those days, a brilliant cover was all you needed to set yourself apart.  (One of the best moments here as well is when the song ends, and you here the audience at The Horseshoe pounding their draft glasses for the encore.  Man, I remember that!)

Best Toronto band of all time?  I dunno.  It's a good story of course, and I think it's marvelous that it's brought this band back to attention, and even introduced them to so many new and young people.  Action/Reaction has its charm, but it's very dated too, and not as skillfully made as most contemporary albums.  It's a cool and important time in Canadian music though, so check out The Diodes if they do more touring soon.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


I can't figure out whether she's bonkers or brilliant.  I'm leaning, as always, towards the latter, but maybe it's a bit of both, in a good way.  She's certainly uncompromising, that's for sure.  Here you get seven songs, the shortest just under seven minutes, the rest running up to thirteen-and-a-half.   She's one of the most critically-acclaimed female singers of the last three decades, but for much of the album she employs male singers.  And when she writes a song called 50 Words For Snow, it's exactly that, a singer listing 50 words for snow.  Even stranger though, is that some of those 50 words are actually phrases, some of which make little sense, and some seem to be from a completely made-up language.  Freaky.

These are odd things, and perhaps not what we want from favourite artists.  But Bush has grown and changed since Wuthering Heights and Cloudbusting and Hounds Of Love, and we might as well go along for the ride, because she's not going to make anything so easily digestible.  After all, this is somebody who composed and integrated part of James Joyce's Ulysses into one album.

So, we get a duet with Elton John, probably the most popular single artist of the rock era not named Elvis, and it's this incredible wordy number that's more like theater dialogue than a song.  Elsewhere, these dense, circular numbers start to hypnotize you.   At times you get lulled into enjoying them, and other times completely enthralled, wrapped up in where she's taking you.  I don't understand a blasted thing about this album's lyrics, I mean not a clue.  I haven't read any interviews with her in preparation, and certainly now I don't want to know, so I'm avoiding it.  At some point I'm sure my curiosity will get the better of me, but right now I'm happy letting it be some kind of mysterious, totally foreign work, because it's so cool.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Wilson's critical flag continues to fly high, thanks to this month's release of the legendary SMiLE sessions.  He's still a big draw on the concert circuit, too.  I think the new albums probably only sell to the hard-core though.  The last one was him squeezing Gershwin (a huge influence on him) through the Wilson method, and now he takes a stab at another icon, the Mouse House.

You have many different composers and styles to choose from when you enter the Disney world, from decades of hugely popular songs.  Wilson goes from When You Wish Upon A Star up to recent stuff from Randy Newman and Elton John, with varied results.  The hard truth is that this once-tremendous singer has lost much of the pretty and most of his range through his dark years of abuse, and his age, of course.  So when he's trying to hit the notes in a number such as Can You Feel The Love Tonight, it's kinda painful.  His crack band can handle all the Beach Boys-styled parts, but it just points out the problem with Brian's singing.  Ditto You've Got A Friend In Me, Colors Of The Wind, the nice stuff.

Where his voice does work well is on the older, and more fun numbers.  Not only does the vocal not matter as much, these iconic songs allow him to have more fun with the production and arrangements, his true and undiminished talent now.  He has the group get going on a medley of Heigh-Ho/Whistle While you Work/Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life For Me) that is a barrel of fun, especially when they start playing toy instruments and making workshop sounds.  One voice Wilson can still do is a child-like one, so The Bare Necessities captures the lightheartedness of the film and original.  And Kiss The Girl from The Little Mermaid comes across well recast as an early 60's number, something Wilson knows very well.

In the end though, it's a concept that smells more of brand marketing in a board room than a musical bare necessity.  Disney signed Wilson to its label, crunched the numbers, figured out that it could turn a profit, and get a little status from having him on board.  I'm not really sure what Brian's reasons are, other than it's another opportunity to be in the studio, which must be so rewarding for him.  So, smile for Wilson about this, but there's no real reason to buy it.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Pete Townshend's famous rock opera?  Why, Tommy, of course.  Townshend's best rock opera?  I'm going with Quadrophenia.  For all the beloved bluster for the deaf, dumb and blind boy, song-by-song, the tale of messed-up Mod Jimmy, trying to figure out his place in the culture clash that was 60's England, is a far more credible listen, and probably a more cohesive story.  Although an icon for the fans, Townshend always felt himself an outsider to Mod culture, but his proximity and status made him a perfect biographer, hung up as he was on the complexities of youth as they changed British society, one pill and one punch at a time.

As with Tommy, it is necessary to separate the Quadrophenia album experience from its latter incarnation as a movie, a tour, a soundtrack, and another of Townshend and Daltry's retirement hedge funds.  Just take this new reissue of the music, in its two-CD deluxe version, or the 5-CD, hardbound book and memorabilia-stuffed box set, with tons more demos and a new 5.1 mix.  There is a natural flow between the songs that makes you want to move along in the story, a feeling of beginning and end, a sense of the confusion and depression and the bottled anger Jimmy feels.  You enter the drab and gray world of cobblestones and clouds and cool, cool, rain, Jimmy searching for the real me.  Although their aren't a lot of famous individual tracks from the album (really, only Love Reign O'er Me and 5:15 get that status), almost each one has epic moments, as they tumble by:  Cut My Hair, The Punk And The Godfather, The Dirty Jobs.  I never remember the titles, but as soon as they role, I perk up, and go, oh, that one!

You'll have to be quite the little Who fanatic, or a deep-pocketed music nerd to go for the $130 Super Deluxe Limited Edition. Yes, that's what it's called, such a stupid name.  What you gain over the 2-disc set is 15 more demos, the 5.1 mix of only eight songs (weird), and all the extra ephemera.  I have to think $22 dollars will be the much more appealing option.  Quadrophenia is one of those albums that people don't often throw on, and you might not have even upgraded from your old vinyl, but I'd say it's ripe for rediscovery, Townshend on fire with the musical themes and melodies here, and certainly he was writing these amazing characters for Daltry and himself to inhabit.  The 11 demos on the 2-disc version show the intricate compositions and productions he was doing at his home studio, envisioning Daltry's wails, Moon's thunder, and the band's on-stage swagger.  Already fond of the early synthesizer, his patience and craftsmanship in building these near-studio quality demos is stunning, considering the limited technology of the time.  He had become quite the one man band, and although The Who versions are better, as always Townshend's demos prove great listening.  There are some significant differences from the final version, including lyrics and entire dropped sections.

Quadrophenia never became the same beloved piece as Tommy, largely I think because the subsequent tour was a minor disaster at times, with Townshend's beloved synths and such duplicated on backing tracks that inevitably failed at key moments.  So while the piece itself deserved to be heard in its entire rock opera production, it quickly got pared down to two or three songs among the rest of the hits, and not revived until recently, when The Two had to come up with some other reason to reunite again.  I can assure you I'm having a much better time with this disc than I have with any version of Tommy over the years.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Back for another go-round, Arden certainly doesn't have to do covers, but says she was asked and convinced by producer Bob Rock.  Must have been a paycheque deal, I can't really see why either would be desperate to do it.  However, let's mark it on it's artistic merits and interest value, instead of getting all snippy.  See, I have to have these conversations with myself all the time.  Glad you could join me.

Arden's interesting personality comes out in this covers set, as it did on the first.  You get the usual suspects, a couple too many in fact (Love Hurts, You Don't Own Me, the must-have Fleetwood Mac song), and the quirky old chestnuts with some of her personality injected (Que Sera Sera, This Girl's In Love With You, Is That All There Is?).   But then somebody, one hopes Jann herself, reached a little deeper in the data banks, and came up with some surprises.  As an old Top 40 fan, I tip my hat to the Motels' Only The Lonely, and Dorothy Moore's Misty Blue.  The real head-scratcher is a cover of The Smiths' Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me, which opens the disc.  She doesn't make it her own, and it stands out in its relative obscurity, so it must be that she really just loves it.  More satisfying is a cover of one of her own songs, written and recorded (but not yet released) for her pals in SheDAISY, who also sing backup here.  It's a fine story-song, and did deserve to find a home on one of Arden's own discs.

I just wish it wasn't this one.  As much as I enjoy a good covers set, and as much as I like a lot of her choices here, its the producer I have a beef with.  Rock's recorded this in way too glossy a setting, with all smooth sides and no edge.  It's a squeaky-clean sound, and even sounds like it's been put through a processor set to "cotton candy".  I am no great technical whiz, but something's unreal about the effect, and I've never felt that way before about any of her discs.  In the end, this makes the disc music for fans of polyester. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


And so we bid adieu to R.E.M., a band which tried so hard to remain relevant, or at least tried to keep themselves interested.  But despite every attempt, they couldn't beat back the inevitable, and as predicted, never overcame the loss of drummer Bill Berry.  He didn't so much mess up the mix when he left, as he did let the air out of the thing.  They tried everything, it seemed;  they recorded a lot, they took big breaks, they played lots live, they stopped touring, they tried a new sound, they went back to their earlier sound.  They were soft sometimes, and loud others, and defiant over the dwindling status until the very end.  Yet their legacy will be so easy to write; with Berry they amassed an impressive string of artistic triumphs, but without him, hits and passion dried up.  The albums, while initially seeming to hold some magic, inevitably paled to the past, and a series of bland titles (Up, Reveal, Accelerate) hid groups of songs where nothing stood out to sit with the old numbers.

Nowhere is that more obvious that this new double-disc best-of.  Once we get past New Adventures In Hi-Fi, and Berry's departure, the best cuts are either an old number revived for a previous hits compilation (Bad Day) or Peter Buck's Brian Wilson tribute (At My Most Beautiful).  And if you can name any other tracks from their later albums, kudos my friend, you're one of the rare fans.

So now that the retirement is official, we can all breath properly again, and pay homage to the first half of the band's career, without feeling guilty and disloyal.  Two-thirds of the tracks come from those days, and it's so easy to pick 'em, they fall off the discs like the biggest, juiciest apples.  Radio Free Europe, Driver 8, Fall One Me, It's The End Of The World As We Know It, The One I Love, Stand, Losing My Religion, Shiny Happy People, Everybody Hurts, Man On The Moon, What's The Frequency, Kenneth?, what a streak.  Like The Rolling Stones, we don't think of them as a singles band, but they sure knew how to make 'em. Maybe that's what happened to this band in the end, they just lost the ability to distill it in three minutes.

For the buyer, this set offers three final attempts, recorded this year in aborted sessions for another ill-conceived album.  And once again, none of them has any energy or spark to burn them to your memory.  It's as strong a two-disc set as you'll get otherwise, with all the must-own's here, and for the first time, the early I.R.S. years are compiled alongside the Warner material.  A rare song or two might have sweetened the pot, but that would have meant further reductions from the latter part of the career, perhaps an even bigger embarrassment  for the band.  They probably should have either packed it in earlier, or embraced live touring as their future, but at least they tried.  What each member does next should proof very interesting.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Seger doesn't get quite the props he deserves, considering the decent quality of many of his hits, and his strong live act, which made him a Detroit legend.  Like Peter Frampton and Springsteen, he toured and toured and toured again, conquering one market at a time, until the rest fell like dominoes by the mid-70's.  As for his hometown, he was a god.  Those with long memories might also recall a time when "play Bob Seger" was yelled at bar bands as often as "Free Bird". 

It all went south when he sold out with that Like A Rock hit, which was pounded into the airwaves as a Chevy ad.  Of course, it's a match made in Motor City, but it was still a time when that wasn't considered cool.  Neither was the disco-funk of Shakedown, from the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack.  It might have given him a #1, but it also killed what was left of his core audience. 

Listening through this double-disc does provide lots of highlights though.  I always liked Mainstreet and Night Moves, and Rock And Roll Never Forgets is one of the best songs about the rebels growing up, with "sweet sixteen's turned thirty-one".  Some of them were played so constantly, it's permanently ruined the effect, but there's a reason Old Time Rock And Roll, and Against The Wind were monsters.  The compilers gave us a good look at the live show too, with versions of Travelin' Man and Beautiful Loser that show how he owned the hockey rink.

This set is part of the comeback that's been coordinated this year, with a major touring schedule, and a couple of new singles that have found a certain audience  Tellingly, they are covers, Tom Waits' much-heard Downtown Train, and an old Little Richard romp, Hey Hey Hey Hey.  Both are here of course, but neither feel right, and we're left to wonder if rock and roll did actually forget Seger, or simply gave him the boot.

Monday, November 21, 2011


So, I am home and it is over.  It's been another fun-filled trip to Hamilton for the annual Hamilton Music Awards, and as always, after four such trips, I marvel at how connected I feel to the city's music scene and the dozens of friends I have made there.  The culmination of the conference was Sunday night's awards show, and the after-parties that continued long into Monday morn.  On a night bittersweet due to the Tiger Cat's disappointing loss to Winnipeg, it gave several hundred music fans a reason to be cheerful, and a lot of great live music.

Oh, and I got a job offer.  Co-host of the awards show, along with comic Shelley Marshall, was local rock godfather Tom Wilson.  Wilson and I have squared off at this gig each time, mostly over his mangling of the pronunciation of my last name.  I've had to resort to using him as a comedy punching bag, leaving him staggering and acknowledging my superior abilities.  Last night, he simply gave in to the inevitable, and told his band mate in Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Colin Linden, that he wants me to join the group, complete with my own Nudie Suit to match the trio's.  I'll act as some sort of MC, I guess.  I appreciate Tom's offer, but judging from Colin's facial expression and lack of enthusiasm, I'm guessing there's going to have to be a band meeting about this.

Blackie did perform at the Awards last night (without me), as did others from the cream of Hamilton's music scene.  Doing his first big hit, Painted Ladies, was Hamilton native, and Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Ian Thomas.  On hand to help present the award was his great friend, and colleague from Lunch At Allen's, Murray McLauchlan.  That allowed me to have a catch-up with Denise Donlan, who is married to McLauchlan, who was one of the contributors to The Top 100 Canadian Singles book.  She's been one of the major players in Canadian music, in her executive positions with MuchMusic, Sony Music and CBC Radio.  One of the artists she helped while with Sony was Jeremy Fisher, who also wowed the crowd with his live performance.  The sidelines were also filled with presenters and musicians straining to get looks at new acts with big buzz, hard rockers Monster Truck, and alt-country comers The Dinner Belles.

I particularly enjoyed another friend getting an award.  Each year the HMA's honours someone from behind the scenes in the music industry who hails from Hamilton, who has made a major contribution over their career.  This time it went to music executive Kim Cooke, who I first met during his time with Warner Music.  In his 24 years at the label he signed up several major acts in the country such as The Odds, Great Big Sea, Sarah Slean and Colin James.  Since he left that company, he's worked with Maple Music, and now has his own label, Pheromone Records, where Slean and The Odds showed their loyalty by rejoining him.  He also just opened up Revolution Recording in Toronto, a new glowing and shiny studio that's the buzz of the tech side of things.  Most importantly, he's a gem of a guy.

As for the trophies, it was Fisher who took the night, with three awards, including Album Of The Year, Male Vocalist, and Songwriter, all for his latest album, Flood.  The Dinner Belles took Best New Group, and Alternative Country Recording of the Year, and the group's keyboard player, Greg Brisco, took the honour for that instrument.  Blues singer Rita Chiarelli, took Female Artist and Best Blues.  Monster Truck grabbed Rock Recording of the Year.

If you have a desperate desire to see me hand out two of the awards, as well as display some of the scintillating wit that has so captivated Tom Wilson, the awards show is televised in a couple of weeks.  You might also like to catch some of the excellent music performances.  It's going to be on CHCH TV, which is available across the country to Bell Satellite viewers, since I get it here in Fredericton.  It's going to air Saturday, Dec. 10 at 7 PM Eastern time. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Hamilton Live.  Some graying punk rock, some energetic speed metal, old-fashioned hard stuff from teenagers, a beloved roots rock band, some classic alt-country sounds.  You can see it all in the Hamilton scene, just bouncing around from club to club on any given night.  That's what the Hamilton Music Awards has showcased for us, this week.  Here are some of my scattered memories, caught between cab rides and award presentations.

Last night featured the highlight concert of the awards, by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.  The group doesn't really have a home town, as the members come from different areas of the country, but in a way Hamilton would be its spiritual centre.  Tom Wilson is indeed from here, still lives here, and was certainly in a great mood, dropping old and new city references, and memories of seeing Lighthouse as a kid in the very hall he was playing last night.  The band was in great form, with Colin Lindon ripping off some amazing solos on guitar, Stephen Fearing showing off his excellent pipes as one of the truly underrated singers in the country, and Wilson...  well, Wilson owned the building of course.  His Lean On Your Peers was the highlight, his tribute to the hardcore Hamilton heroes, known ones and unknown, some passed on, but still with plenty of spirit felt in the city.  Mentions of Frankie Venom and Tim Gibbons bring cheers in this place.  They were allowed off the stage after five encore songs. 

After that it was over to This Ain't Hollywood, given the Top Venue award earlier at the Industry Awards portion of the weekend.  The show featured a return to the city of an old favourite, The Diodes.  Hamilton loves this 70's-80's band, especially since they are now doing some short tours, with the promise of more to come.  It's been a banner year or so for the Toronto group.  In my book The Top 100 Canadian Singles, the band grabbed a surprising #23 appearance with Tired Of Waking Up Tired, as voted on by 800 music pros and nuts across the country.  Then this summer, the Toronto Star ran a poll/competition for readers to pick the best Toronto band of all time, and shockingly, the group won the whole thing.  They are clearly on a buzz from that, and played this mini-tour to great success.  It's the original lineup, with two of the members coming back to Canada as they have lived in England for many years.  Opening with their famous cover of Paul Simon's Red Rubber Ball, the band ripped through their catalogue, including numbers from the just-reissued album Action/Reaction, which I'll review in the next few days.

You can also expect reviews of other Hamilton artists I've seen this week, including Michele Titian and The Dinner Belles.  Hamilton Music Week ends tonight with the Awards handed out, which I'll report on after.

Friday, November 18, 2011


So the next big event at the Hamilton Music Awards is the Rising Star Search.  It's the second year for the competition, and like last year, I'm going to be the MC.  To say it's already a success is an understatement.  Last year, 16 groups were chosen, from a ton of applicants, from early high school students to somewhat established groups in their 20's, all hoping to grab top honours.  For good reason, as the prize package alone is worth it.  It includes, most importantly, an autographed copy of The Top 100 Canadian Singles!  A-ha-ha.
No, the real prize is the combination of goods and services that any young band needs, from photo sessions to studio time.  As mentioned yesterday, runners-up Weekend Riot Club turned their prize into a 3-track debut disc, which just came out.  The winners from last year went even further.  They are Dawn and Marra, a young folk duo both in their teens, and already becoming established.  Although it wasn't even part of the prize package, they scored a coveted opening slot on the big Harvest Picnic show near Hamilton this summer, with the likes of Daniel Lanois, Emmy Lou Harris, Ray Lamontagne, Gord Downie, Sarah Harmer and more sharing the bill with them.  I got a chance to see them play this year at the conference, and you can tell they have grown in confidence and experience.
They also used their win to record a first disc, which I reviewed back in June of this year.  Since it's Hamilton week, it's the perfect time to revisit that disc, as I present the Best Of Bob and Hamilton (really just an excuse for me to write less this week as a run around watching Hamilton bands at the conference).  Here's that original review:

The winner of the Rising Star Search were a duo, two young women from nearby Dundas, 18 and 16, named Dawn and Marra.  It was quickly obvious, even with just two songs allowed, that these two had a spark, and a desire to perform.  I'm not talking about the "look-at-me" narcissism you see on Idol shows, or among high school class clowns.  These two wanted to share what they do.  What really impressed most people was that they also wrote their own songs, already.  You can be a great singer, a fine musician, but add songwriting to that mix, and you've turned a corner.  That's the thing about music -- somebody has to write it.  Fine voices, good arrangements, harmonies, confidence playing just by themselves, Dawn and Marra has everything you'd want to see in a professional duo at club, and here they were just starting out.

Fast-forward to, well, today, half a year later, and I have the new, and first Dawn and Marra album, Never Ask Me Why.  Using the buzz and support from the Hamilton Music Awards, they've done exactly what you'd hope they would:  made a strong debut album, played almost every weekend since, and staked out an immediate future in music.  The disc is all original, ten cuts, done in their singer-songwriter style. Marra Koren sings lead and harmony, and handles bass duties, while Dawn Larsh writes the bulk of the songs, also sings lead and harmonies, and plays guitar and ukulele. Quite good ukulele in fact, there's a couple of cool numbers with that as the base instrument, a different sound for sure.

Dawn and Marra are still learning, and there's an awkwardness at times with the lyrics, or times when they still sound like teens.  But mostly on this disc, and live, they're showing their strengths in performing and writing.  Already they stand out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


The Hamilton Music Awards and Conference is off and running with a successful first day.  Most music conferences are for the artists and the industry, and fair enough.  You expect that, for them to work on their careers, networking and such.  The HMA's have taken a different approach.  The conference is actually for students interested in the music world as a career.

High school and college students get to come to workshops and seminars in a variety of topics about jobs on the stage and behind the scenes.  You can get in-depth with the world of a pro bass player, hear how to become a producer, or find out what music companies are looking for from songwriters these days. This year the stars heard from stars such as George Pettit of Alexisonfire, Juno nominee Emm Gryner, and Christopher "Black Velvet" Ward. 

One of the people on stage was locally-raised Canadian music star Ian Thomas, recipient of this year's lifetime achievement award.  Thomas first hit in the late 1960's with the group Tranquility Base.  In 1973 came his breakthrough with the smash Painted Ladies, a Cancon classic.  That turned into a long and stable career, with performing (Lunch At Allen's), songwriting (for Santana, Chicago, America, etc.) and voice work.  The talented actor and mimic had the young audience giggling away at the revelation that he was Snap, of Snap, Crackle and Pop fame, from the Rice Crispie commercials.

I also caught up with a group I had first met last year, participating at the Rising Star Challenge.  Weekend Riot Club did really well at the competition, coming in second out of 16 acts chosen to showcase.  For that, they received a significant prize package, which included studio time at the famous Hamilton recording centre, Grant Avenue, founded by local Daniel Lanois.  It was a blast to come back a year later and find out what they had done with it. 

I got to hear the results in a forum where young musicians brought their demo and finished recordings to be heard by media professionals.  That group including reps from music publishing, A&R for a major label, and a top engineer/producer and now-label exec.  In an honest and sometimes brutal critique session, the musicians got some strong first impressions and tips from the talent scouts.  They all agreed that the top music they heard that hour belonged to Weekend Riot Club.

The band has turned the three Grant Avenue tracks into a 3-song EP called Rubber Bullets, and it's available now on iTunes, and in local stores.  It's rockin' stuff, and Melissa Marchese is a strong and feisty singer.  Along with writer Mike Chetcuti, the duo is working hard to establish the group identity, polish the sound and shows, and get the word out.  Just a year old as a group, the label reps were complementary about their progress, and I was pretty thrilled with the development they've shown in the time since last year's awards.  It just goes to show that in the end, hard work wins.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Hi, it's travel day, that means I'm heading to Hamilton and arrive in the Hammer this evening, ready get the actual Hamilton Music Awards going.  Day one, Thursday, is the annual conference, which is where the industry comes to town to pass on knowledge and expertise to interested young people.  It's unique I believe.  It's a day-long event for high school and college students, where they can learn from industry pros and musicians what they could possibly do in the music business.  I'm MC'ing the whole day, so I gotta get prepped! 

What with the travel and the prep time, I'd better not spend too much time reviewing and writing, so I thought I'd do the class thing, a rerun.  But it's a Hamilton artist, so that's fair, and it's somebody nominated for awards on Sunday, plus it's somebody you really should know better.  Sharon Musgrave is up for three awards:  Female Artist, Female Vocalist, and Soul/R'n'B Recording of the Year.  Here is my original review of her disc as it first appeared at launch time back in February.


The former William Orbit colleague fronted the Bass-O-Matic project in the '90's, singing and co-writing on the international hit Fascinating Rhythm and other tracks on two albums.  Now she works out of the Hamilton area, and has had a string of projects on her own label the past ten years.  Her smooth soul voice fits almost anything, from old school to hiphop to club to jazz, and it's all here, as well as a taste of reggae and Soca, and even some of her poetry spoken over a track.

While there's that little bit of everything for lots of styles, most intriguing is Musgrave's positive vibe that links track-to-track.  More than feel-good music, it's actually life-affirming and almost spiritual, at least for those whose spirituality comes from believing and loving one's self.  And not in some New Age-y or Dr. Phil message; rather it's just simply strength through self-motivation.

With a handful of remixes added on, Outflow will appeal mostly to dance fans with soul leanings.  Musgrave and co-producer Peter Grimmer give everything a clean and solid groove, aided by Hamilton guitar monster Brian Griffith, and she adds several compelling stories that will keep you listening at home too.  Although you'll be forgiven if you get up and dance by yourself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Hamilton Week continues, as we count down to the start of the annual Hamilton Music Awards and Conference.  It begins Thursday in the city affectionately known as The Hammer.  Readers will no doubt be puzzled by this Maritimer's fondness for the Ontario steel town, and for explanation I direct you to yesterday's column, which gives a brief history of my involvement, and keen interest in the music scene.

What I've noticed is that you'll find something for everyone in Hamilton, and it's a very supportive musical community.  It's not uncommon to see a table with a greying punk from the 1970's, a classical string player, a jazz hand, and a soul singer, shooting the breeze.  They'll play on each others records, and they have each others backs.  Everyone knows it's a hard road, being a working musician, especially when it's difficult to grab the nation's interest from their area (Toronto media indifference is my theory).  So, hard work makes for better musicians, and it happens in each genre.

Today, we look at the blues, and it doesn't surprise me it's popular there.  Like the Maritimes, Hamilton can be a gritty spot, with its industrial core.  This blue collar aspect reminds me of places such as Sydney, NS and Saint John, NB, where industry rules.  Bars are still bars in Hamilton, and there are several good ones I like, which feature live music, pub fare and put-a-pitcher-in-front-of-me service.  I'll take that on Friday night, thanks.

From the blues scene of the city comes Steve Strongman, who has it all.  He can sit himself done and play solo, wailing away, or get up with an electric band, and rip you a new one.  Strongman is one of the country's best guitar players.  I know, I know, everybody says their hotshot local is one of th country's best, but in this case, he currently has the proof in hand.  He's been nominated for a Maple Blues Award for best guitar player of the year.  This puts him in the top five, and it's no half-baked system saying that.  The nominations come from a panel of over 50 blues writers, critics, broadcasters, festival organizers, that kind of quality, and from right across the country.  So to get past all the warring factions and home town supporters, you have to have some pretty serious credibility.  Those awards are coming out January 16th in Toronto by the way.

Strongman's ready to drop an acoustic blues album on us at any point, but for now is enjoying the guitar attention with his most recent electric disc, Blues In Colour.  On that album, you get a full display of what the guy can do, as the main player in a small band setting.  He has a fabulous clean tone, and his work has a lot of 40's and 50's feel to it, uptempo and moving.  This is when the jook joint stuff started coming into the Chicago clubs, and electricity turned on all the players, when B.B. ruled the roost with class.  That's how i think of Strongman, somebody who can pull off those sweet-sounding solos.  Elsewhere on the disc, he slows it down, making the thing cry, and he adds a mean slide to some modern sounds too.  Add in a good, high-pitched voice with a bit of urgency, and Strongman, to me is the complete package.  Well, that plus a great blues name.  He's always a highlight to hear on my visits, and he's building a strong national reputation as well.  Mention him to your local festival.

Monday, November 14, 2011


I am hitting the road again, on another musical adventure.  One of the best parts of my gig is getting invites to the various music conventions and award shows in the country.  Some I attend as a reporter, and file stories for CBC.  Others I asked to come and actively participate, as a guest speaker, panelist, or MC.  It's all good.

One that has become a highlight for me is the annual Hamilton Music Awards.  This will be the fourth I've attended over five years, and only illness prevented me from going that other time.  It started in 2007, with the publication of my first book, The Top 100 Canadian Albums.  There were quite a number of Hamiltonians in that list, including Daniel Lanois, Teenage Head, Crowbar and King Biscuit Boy.  The organizer thought I'd fit in.  Since then, It's been a blast getting to know the area, and its many exciting musicians.

Because Hamilton is so close to Toronto, it is often forgoten in the major media.  Its own outlets do a fine job, but generally Toronto reporters won't venture forth to cover issues from that city's perspective.  Given that the population base of the Hamilton-Burlington area is edging towards a million people, that's a big chunk of Canada going unreflected.  This certainly happens to the music community there, and that's why I feel like I've been charged with some sort of mission  to help get the word out.  I'm happy to do it.

So, I head to Hamilton Wednesday, and will no doubt get more new CD's to hear once I arrive.  Until then, I'll focus on the some recent Hamilton releases.  The Arkells are actually having no trouble getting the word out to the rest of the country, which is great news of late for the rock scene there.  The young band won a Juno for their debut disc, Jackson Square.  You can't get more Hamilton than that, by the way, Jackson Square is the big mall right in the middle of the downtown, connected to the market, and boasting the usual huge food court/hang-out.  It was definitely a message sent out by the proud Hammer residents.  The new disc, Michigan Left, named after a highway sign no doubt, features lots of local references as well, from the Escarpment to the 403.

The album feels like a car drive, constant movement, bouncing around southern Ontario from Windsor to Toronto.  Each song has some sort of travel or trip in it, such as a bus stop. That makes sense to me, it's an area where people plan their day around the drives they need to make, the possibility of traffic jams, and the huge areas around them they have to negotiate.  The group gets into that headspace, plus the all-consuming job is always there, too.  Blue collar is mentioned, evening shifts, going for coffee.  In other words, this ain't pretty, it's gritty, just like Hamilton.

The Arkells are young, and I like the fact they don't simply sling loud guitar music.  They've made an effort to write strong, thoughtful, melodic songs.  There are several that are bright, up, and joyful, celebrating the real-life situations described in the lyrics.  It's downright feel-good, something I've found missing in your basic rock band of late.  And back to the lyrics, it's not just the settings and descriptions I like, there are good lines too; "This campfire won't last forever, the Hip have only wrote so many songs."  Bahhahhhahhahah.  Classic Canadian reference there.

So, Hamilton Week begins here on the Top 100 Canadian blog.  Join me for more as I head to the Hammer, culminating in the Awards themselves Sunday night.