Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Here at the start of another Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, I'm searching for something new to say. It's not an anniversary year, there's no big changes, thankfully no natural disasters to deal with as they have in the past. They've already got over the now-annual cancellation of Gregg Allman, so whaddya say? We all know its many successes, and everybody's ready to have fun.

Well, sometimes you have to put things in perspective. Step back and look again. Going each year, doing the stories over and over again, I forget what it used to be like. 10 years ago, for instance, this was a very successful festival for sure. But it wasn't as big, it didn't attract as many major acts, or have as many venues or free stages and it wasn't as long, either. The thing has doubled in size.

There's another difference that is really important. Back then, it was one of the festival's goals to expose local Maritime talent. Put these higher quality local acts on stage as often as possible, let them open up for the bigger acts, 3rd on the bill, and hopefully something would grow. They started a Rising Star contest for new groups to come out, with the winner getting to play on one of the big shows. So, what's that led to?

Now, it's obvious. The first winner of the Galaxie Rising Star competition was Flat Top, featuring Matt Andersen. I was there, a judge for the show, and people really liked the band, and that big guy destroying the guitar. Matt went solo and ..well... here we are. Matt doesn't open up shows any more. Matt headlines shows, his own, Thursday night at the Mojo tent. I mean, headlines, top act. Thirty bucks a ticket. If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have told why that would never, ever happen. He's not the only one. David Myles is co-headling Saturday night at The Playhouse with Steven Page. Look at almost every show, and there are locals up there, and nobody is complaining, everybody's happy about it.

It's not just in Fredericton where this is happening for Andersen. Next week sees the release of his latest album, called Coal Mining Blues. This is Andersen at a different level, folks. After years of constant touring and exposure, Matt has built up a national fanbase. He's the talk of festivals across the country. Calgary, Winnipeg, all the right ones. Now, he has the disc to match that buzz. His Christmas album this past year was a great lead-up. It was a very strong seller nationally, in some surprising places, such as Ottawa. All the planets are aligned, and Andersen has delivered with this new album.

Recorded this past spring in Woodstock New York, Coal Mining Blues was produced by Colin Linden, Bruce Cockburn's producer, and a member of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. It was done at Levon Helm's studio, a nice twist of fate, as Helm is now playing the festival too. Helm's daughter Amy actually sings on some cuts here, a great foil to Matt's rich belting. In a world of auto-tuned vocals and sampled beats, here is the real thing: dymanic, passionate singing and playing, by a man who lives and loves the music. His fingers fly, he never wants to stop picking. Tremendous, live-in-the-studio solos liven some songs, beautiful, soulful, eyes-full-of-tears singing charms others. Working with an expert in Linden, great performances came out, and the right instruments were used for the right colours. Plus, as always, Linden was able to capture the real sound of real acoustic instruments. It's a treat to hear what can happen when a talented guy like Andersen meets up with someone who can get the best from him.

All this would be good, and good enough, but Andersen has also written the best songs of his career. The title track was inspired by his recent move to Cape Breton, and is pretty much a classic already, a touching portrait of the coal miners of the region. Better still, there are no songs here that are filler, or feature sub-par lyrics, or are just shells of words, an excuse to jam. It's top drawer stuff from start to finish.

I've been hearing from people across the country about this album for months now. Industry people say it's going to sell. Colin Linden said flat out the guy is an amazing talent. Reviewers keep singling him out at their local festivals. So, the next time you go see a local band, and think, hey I like this, it's pretty good, trust your instincts. Don't think, oh, they're just local people, they can't be as good as the real stars.

Maybe in ten years they'll be the headliners.

1 comment:

  1. I saw and heard Matt Andersen at Blue Skies this summer - a force of nature! Great to hear about the new album.