Monday, January 28, 2013


This is the inevitable, and quickly-released 2 CD set from the December benefit for the New York-New Jersey area victims of Superstorm Sandy.  I guess these big all-star shows are now so commonplace, they've lost a bit of the Live Aid excitement that spawned them, but I still know lots of people who stayed glued to the set or net that night.  And there were certainly highlights for everybody.  People from casual fans to confirmed collectors singled out moments, whether it was a surprise appearance by Michael Stipe, or a possible last glimpse of The Rolling Stones.

I had my own favourites that night, and some I didn't enjoy.  Oddly, this is one of those instances where almost the reverse is true once I listened to this release, instead of watched it.  Springsteen was bugging me in his opening set, his broad theatrics for the audience didn't translate well for me at home.  But listening to Land Of Hope and Dreams and Wrecking Ball on the disc, well, they come across with power.   Roger Waters seemed smug in his section, and I'm not a big Floyd fan.  However, you can't deny the awesome auditorium experience he always gives, and listening to Comfortably Numb with guest Eddie Vedder, instead of viewing it, that's when I got the goose bumps.  The Stones sound pretty good on You Got Me Rockin' and Jumpin' Jack Flash, and The Who, stripped of the visuals of Townshend acting it up, knock Baba O'Riley out of the park.  I remember being thrilled with Billy Joel's set, because he simply got up there and played the hits with energy and good will, no theatrics, but that's what it sounds like on disc too, just straight-forward versions of the hits.  My point in the end is, it's a better concert than it looked.

There are always obvious clinkers in these things.  Of course Bon Jovi have an important role to play in any Jersey event, but they remain the most insipid rock band ever.  I hate them more than any other.  There, I've said it.  Alicia Keys is annoying on her two numbers, constantly telling the audience to hold up their cell phones, even singing the line in her song.  And I can usually find a chuckle or two in Adam Sandler's stuff, but really there's no need to include his rewrite of Hallelujah ("Sandy, screw ya"), it's tiresome the second time you hear it.

Of the much ballyhooed McCartney-Nirvana collaboration, it wasn't much to watch, and isn't even included here.  There's just one Big Mac number, his opening blast of Helter Skelter, which is too bad, because aside from the MacVana thing, it was a good set, with his standard charity singalong Let It Be thankfully absent, in favour of Wings rockers and more.  We do get the Stipe-Chris Martin acoustic Losing My Religion,  a couple of okay Eric Clapton numbers, and Martin's solo Viva La Vida, all worthy.  All together, there's only a few numbers to skip over, not bad for a double-disc set with a cheap price, proceeds heading to charity.

Friday, January 25, 2013


I had the pleasure of sitting around a campfire by the ocean this past summer, on Grand Manan Island, with several fine musicians.  It was the Summer's End Folk Festival, but the folks were long gone back to their homes, tents and cottages.  Musicians being musicians, and MC's being... hangers-on, we straggled down to the dark shore, sparked up a roaring fire, passed around a few (all mine, musicians are cheap), and they brought out the guitars.  Folk and country were the choices of this lot, all young but all firm lovers of classic pre-rock songs.  None more so than Daniel Romano, and none more real.  If you think for a moment this is some retro schtick he's doing, come on down to the campfire, where you play what you want and love.  Romano's the man-o.

This is solo album #3 of classic, golden era country for the founding City And Colour member, and the Nudie suit is fitting better than ever.  The music is as comfortable as a rocking chair on a front porch, pedal steels and choir-like harmony angels taking us to the right place, before country forsook western, and went uptown.  Now, as cool as that is, evoking George and Buck and Loretta and Mr. Bradley's barn, that's the relative easy part of what Romano does.  Hell, you could just study the Gram Parsons solo albums to get to that place, if you could play and sing that good (which he can).  What Romano does is write songs that are not only as good as the ones in that field and era, he also does them with his own twist, and a modern attitude and language.  Not obvious stuff though, he isn't singing about dot-coms and sticking in sly references to PlayStation 3 games.  It's the same fare as 50's and 60's country; heartache, bad luck, broken homes, alcohol, mama.  But Romano injects a twist, a 21st century male maturity of his generation.  These are guys who aren't afraid to cry over a love lost, but also know "It wasn't meant to be this time around, a new love can be found."  It's actually amplifying the emotion that always existed in Bakersfield and the best of Nashville.  Jones wasn't afraid to admit to a tear, and to his faults.  Take that, four generations of heavy metal groups that have come since.  Who knew country was the  mature music?

Elsewhere Romano tells the tale of a barfly, his life wrecked by whiskey nights, living at the bottom of a bottle.  What we find out is that he was left for adoption by his mother; boo-hoo, that's an old story.  Ya, but here's the twist.  He's the Middle Child of the title, an older sister kept by mommy, and then a new baby brother joined, also loved.  He's driven to drink and ruin, tormented by this knowledge, never to find out why she left the middle child.  That's another fine thing about Romano;  while the tent poles of the story are the traditional country themes, the tales inside the song are fresh and unique.  Brand-new short stories are found in every one.

He also goes to great lengths to give us the whole feel of an album circa 1962.  In those days, you'd get a mix of songs, including the ballad weepers, the honky tonk numbers, maybe a gospel-style, and that wild card, the novelty song.  Usually these were groaners, Hee-Haw jokes and bad puns.  Romano gives us two, the deliciously bizarre twang of Chicken Bill, a talking tale that hints at something akin to the Kids In The Hall's Chicken Lady skit.  The other, When I Was Abroad, is a double entendre title, where we're left to guess if he's a traveler, or sexually confused.  With both these songs, the punch lines are never delivered, leaving us to laugh and wonder.

Now, I'm not sure if Romano plans this stuff out.  I think it just comes naturally to him, this is his country and he's not on some mission other than making the music he loves.  There's beauty and good times and sorrow and laughs here, and above all, fine sounds.  That's a great statement right there, all you really need.  It just so happens he's also making the very best era of country music relevant today.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


I love it when friends send me albums that I haven't heard about, and they turn out to be gems.  Not living in the centre of the universe (Toronto), I wasn't familiar with Dutra, although she's well-established and admired in that scene, I come to find out.  I'm a sucker for strong songwriters, and she hit  me with that particular sucker punch, a sneaky left to the heart.

Rule #1 in music criticism is don't quote the press release, and I'd venture half the reviews you'll ever read feature the authors training gamely to come up with their own words that re-write the same bio and descriptions offered up in the "one-sheets" that get mailed out with the albums.  Today, I say screw it, I'm not going to do any better than the praise offered up by Ron Sexsmith:  "A clear and unaffected voice and songs that are soulful, unpretentious and timeless."  Ya, well, Ron's good with words, ain't he?  He also has first-hand knowledge of Dutra's talents, having co-written one tune here, and singing close harmonies on that and another.  He's hit the nail on the head here, as Dutra's work certainly doesn't belong to any trend or decade.  Sometimes she's more straight-ahead country, others times she heads towards folk or singer-songwriter productions, but it all comes with direct, emotional lyrics that take you directly to the heart of the matter. 

Here's a good example, from Time Will Tell:  "One day I was born/One day I will die/My lover will make me smile/One day he will make me cry."  Stripped-down to the core, these words are simple and complete, the impact foolproof.  Makes these relationships seem darn scary, doesn't it?  Later she likens being in love an unknown as great as the biggest question of them all:  "Only time will tell if there's a heaven, if there's a hell/And what will come of me & you."

The album is full of excellent cameos, from harmony singers and instrumentalists.  Suzie Vinnick is perfect on the gospel number Mama Taught Me How To Pray, with Old Man Luedecke bringing the old-time banjo.  U.S. roots hero Kevin Welch  co-wrote Nowhere Left To Fall, and brings a Merle Haggard authenticity to the vocals.  Sexsmith delivers his unique harmonies, always finding a different, better note than the one most would choose.  Justin Rutledge sounds like he was born to sing with Dutra on his two numbers.  And behind it all is producer/multi-instrumentalist Les Cooper (Jill Barber, The Good Lovelies).  Sometimes he lets the country come to the fore; elsewhere he adds more to the mix, coating piano, bass, and more in echo, placing some instruments much higher in the blend than usual.  I applaud it all, this could have been a straight country album, and a very good one, but its variety and experimental side make it even more interesting.  For those who like an intimate experience with an album, a headphone discovery of layers of riches in repeat listens, and like me, a tiny tear here and there, Dutra's got the goods.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


One of the things I like about the Canadian folk scene is that its ahead of the curve, forward-thinking, and not stuck up its own past.  British folk is forever in a battle over keeping it traditional, and anyone breaking the mold gets nudged out into the popular world.  Americans think folk is about guitar players and Greenwich Village, still confused which category Bob Dylan fits.  Then they hear a fiddle and call it bluegrass.  Oh don't mind me, I'm just cranky.  Anyway, Canada, forward-thinking folk that we are, have these musicians always trying out new stuff, creating new groups, and the best thing is, they get slapped on the back and celebrated for it, nearly right away.  Take The Fretless, for example.  They've only been a group since 2011, just have this one album, Waterbound, and it won them the Instrumental Group of the Year, and the Ensemble of the Year at the 2012 Canadian Folk Music Awards this past November in Saint John, NB.  And I'm going, who the frig are The Fretless?

They are four young string players (three violins, one cello), based out of Vancouver Island.  Classically trained, the four came together with a purpose:  to take fiddle and folk tunes, and re-imagine them in a string quartet setting, losing none of the fun and energy, but incorporating the sophistication and multiple parts.  Think of the difference between one voice and four; that's what the quarter does to a fiddle tune.  It's not high brow, you'll recognize the styles and melodies if you're a fan of Celtic and old-time.  But you've never heard soar so much, and never heard so many ideas flying about.  The intricate arrangements are a joy as each new part is weaved in.  And of course, the playing is impeccable.  Each member is an accomplished performer already:  violinists Trent Freeman, Ivonne Hernandez and Karrnnel Sawitsky (all also double on viola), and cellist Eric Wright.

Genres come and go so fast, they mean little in the final scheme, a tribute to the new creations by this group.  There are touches of classical, jazz, and every form of fiddle tune, echoes of Cape Breton and Quebec and the Appalachians.  Modern and classical techniques are welcome, but standard usage is not.  Even ballads are filled with contagious energy.  While none of the group sing here (Hernandez does on tour), there are two vocal tunes, featuring guests Ruth Moody and Norah Rendell.  Both have echoes of the mountains in them, lonesome numbers from tough times.  Title cut Waterbound is from the mighty pen of roots star Dirk Powell, a favourite of T-Bone Burnett, and its one of his best numbers, mysterious and mixing old-time and new folk.  Moody's vocal is as sublime as the string playing.  Rendell has a Irish voice, and her Harder To Walk These Days Than Run is a joy, matching the violins trill for trill for thrill.

I hope I've at least piqued your curiosity, it's awfully hard to describe the overall beauty of this disc, hearing is believing.  The group is already sparking up the festival circuit, and the magic is here right now.

Monday, January 21, 2013


One might be tempted to call this group Tom Wilson's side project, his time-filler when the others in Blackie and the Rodeo Kings aren't available.  One would be quite wrong saying that.  With this second album, Wilson shows this more experimental group is just as central to his music-making as is the roots-rock of Blackie, and he puts just as much effort into the group whether playing live or in studio.

LHO lets Wilson explore his bluesy, darker side.  This is slower, more atmospheric, and certainly scarier stuff than his Blackie or solo material, night-time music for those who refuse to sleep before 5 AM.  There are few verse-chorus-versus structures, or 12 bar workouts, but instead sinewy, unfolding mysteries that build in tension over a hypnotic melody.  Once again Cowboy Junkie Michael Timmins handles production, which is sparse and spacious, Wilson's voice recorded softly but way up in the mix.  While acoustic guitar, deep bass and soft drums keep the songs going, instrumental touches are flown in like Vegas guest stars, including all sorts of percussion, from vibes to blocks, the smallest solo touches of dobro, synth, harmonica, and horns.  Most of all it sounds dark, like somebody turned the lights off in a very big ballroom; the band is still playing, but you can't see what else is going on around you.

Wilson being Wilson, he breaks out a few classic songwriter numbers along the way as well.  There are three tracks that could have easily made a Blackie disc, and make for good changes of pace, including the acoustic set closer Deep Water, sung with guest Margo Timmins, in all her languid glory.  Lee Harvey Osmond is always open to friends, and here regulars Ray Farrugia, Aaron Goldstein and Brent Titcomb are joined by a stellar cast of pals, including Colins Cripps and Linden, Skydiggers Andy Maize and Josh Finlaysan, vocalists Astrid Young and Oh Susannah, and the wonder that is Hawksley Workman.  Each one of them knows a few things about mood and shadows; a superb cast for this Album Noire.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Singer-songwriter Powell has been playing originals for over a decade, with a couple of E.P.'s behind him, but this is his first long-player.   With a base in Toronto but roots in the Prairies, he has an organic feel, a lot more big skies in his music than tall skyscrapers.  It's folk-rock with an upbeat feel, a fellow traveler with the likes of Jeremy Fisher and David Myles, acoustic guitar to the front, a good groove in behind, with some pickin', drums snapping along, bass slapped and a smile on all faces.

It's some sort of Canadian genre I think.  Similar gentlemen from the U.K., say David Gray or James Blunt, also have sincere and rich voices, but are way, way too serious and self-referential.  Sappy, even.  Powell, even at his most mellow, as in the song This Cigarette, a heartbreak number, just tells it like it is with a good image, thinking of her while having a smoke, lingering thoughts making taking a drag, a drag.  And he's not about to ring tears out of you; he lets that drop quickly, moving into the album's biggest rocker, Insecurities, with its electric riffs and advise to "turn the lights down low 'til we lose our..." (see title).  Anyway, we do this whole guy-with-guitar and cool voice so much better, because, I guess, guys like Powell are a lot more real.  Plus, this is the basic bonfire style of strumming and singing that's been passed on from lumber camps to summer camps to Gord Lightfoot to Blue Rodeo.

Mostly I like how laid-back and warm Powell makes his songs sound.  Even when you find out that the song Freja is named after his daughter, and is about protecting and loving her, there's no lingering sentimentality, just a good feeling you take into the next song.  And anyone who can write a song called Toronto and make it sound dramatic and compelling, well, the guy's got some talent.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Marvin Gaye was unpredictable by the time he hit the 70's.  He'd fought the control Berry Gordy held over most Motown artists, eventually proving the label owner wrong and out of touch by scoring a huge hit with What's Going On.  Gaye had won artistic control, and set about to do what enthused him, rather than what would sell.  Turns out what he really wanted to do was compose.

Some of his contemporaries had recently had success with the so-called Blaxploitation film genre, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield writing themes for the heroes.  Gaye jumped at the chance, but took it one step further.  Not content to offer up some tunes based on the lead character, instead he set to actually score the whole thing, cues and all, jumping into that complicated bit of work turned art form by the likes of Ennio Morricone, John Williams, and the like.  Too bad the film sucked.  Trouble Man was a bomb, but Marvin delivered a gem of a soundtrack.  The title track, the only real vocal performance on the disc was a decent-sized hit, coming on the back of What's Going On, and the album sold ridiculously well for a mostly-instrumental release, but most fans just shoved it away, waiting until he delivered Let's Get It On the next year.

The disc has always been a favourite of funk fans, and those who don't get bored by instrumentals.  And it's been growing in stature, as the achievement becomes more obvious.  Now comes this deluxe edition that adds a ton of sounds, piecing together all the sessions that went into the work.  As Gaye couldn't write musical notation, he worked with a series of arrangers that scored his ideas onto paper.  But aside from that, he dove into the process, getting into the script, working to write for each scene and individual need of the film.  He composed several tracks that were recorded conventionally, but also went in with a film orchestra.  Some of this was supplied to the filmmakers, other tracks were taken back to the studio so Gaye could compile the album version of the music.  So there are really two different recordings, the music that was used on the film, and the collection of tracks that Gaye decided would make the album.  Then there's the out-takes and works in progress.  Many cuts feature a bit of both sources, as Gaye overdubbed his own sounds on top of the orchestra bed. 

Confused?  Marvin worked a lot, and was always tinkering in his creations.  He had lots of ideas, like using the latest synthesizers on top of some of the songs.  He overdubbed sax solos, vocal ad libs, and was still working away when he had to quit and deliver, as the film was coming out.  Finally all that can be found has come out in this painstakingly compiled set, a real case of archeology.  The regular disc is here, easy enough, but so is the entire film score, which had to be sourced from a combination of studio tapes and original prints.  It's really two different albums, plus the various sessions Gaye did later back in the studio.  Just to figure it out, you have to read along with the booklet, scratch your head and think a lot.

So, do ya want it?  It still just has one hit, and one real vocal song, Trouble Man.  And it's still the same issue, unless you're an instrumental fan, it's not going to grab you.  But, if you want a really interesting blend of soul, funk, jazz, all with Marvin's classic 70's groove, subtle and sweet, grab it, and dive in, this is rich stuff.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Has an album ever started so completely at odds with what it would become?  The sweet chimes, tinkling bells that introduce track one, Sunday Morning, are the antithesis of the noise and darkness we'd soon be exposed to.  The jaunty little ballad, with its odd-sounding chanteuse on vocals wouldn't have been out of place on any number of pop albums of the mid 60's.  There was something off about her singing though, too low and amateur.  And the gentle, laid-back song did hold some mystery.  Imagine the surprise listeners of the day got on track two, when some sort of garage band swaggered in, their gruff lead singer telling us in great detail how to score heroin in New York, in I'm Waiting For The Man.

Lou Reed could write a Sunday Morning because he'd done time in sub-Brill Building songwriting pits, supposedly to come up with fluff for the radio.  But he really wanted to rock like nobody else before.  Finding a like-minded classical experimentalist in John Cale, a Welsh prodigy in New York, who was game for subversion, they happily took on the patronage of Andy Warhol.  The scene-maker foisted actress-model Nico on them to sing four numbers, for better or worse, and the combination actually worked in the album's favour, supplying a break in the onslaught, and a realistic voice for Femme Fatale.

The album was full of some of the most stunning, even shocking, moments in recorded music to that point.  Lyrically, we had open hard drug use, S&M, decadent parties, the lifestyles of the people on the edge.  Musically, Cale was scraping cellos, creating drones, and making sounds that clashed instead of searching for harmonies.  The rest of the band was going for caveman minimalist, with assault rifle guitar.  Plus, there were all sorts of art and literature influences going on, pure bohemia.

This fabled album didn't just explode from the ether; at times you can hear the Dylan in the lyrics, the Stones in the music.  But Reed was speaking a lot more plainly about taboo subjects, and he and Cale had some wild ideas about sounds.  However, they were barely above amateur status in the studio, and a lot of the roughness to this album is down to the fact that they weren't all that proficient on their instruments, or knowledgeable about recording.  Baffled engineers and producers all struggled with the tracks at times.  Moe Tucker's drum is a hollow thud on Heroin.  Run Run Run sounds like a high school band's contest-winning demo.  There She Goes Again sees them recast as The Byrds.  But for all its many flaws, it's still not lost its edge 45 years on.

Since the last reissue of the disc, much has come out to add to the story and mythology of its creation, so this major repacking is much deserved.  It comes in two versions, the 2-CD deluxe edition, and a lavish, 6-CD package for you fanatics with deep pockets.  Regular folks will find much to love with the cheaper set, including the famous Norman Dolph acetate.  You might remember it made headlines all over the world when it was discovered and bought for a quarter from a New York street vendor.  The white-label pressing turned out to be the only copy of an earlier studio session for the album, completely different versions or mixes of the tunes.  That's here, as well as alternate takes from the proper album sessions, and even a lengthy rehearsal tape with Nico.  There are a ton of differences to check out, alternate lyrics, lengthier instrumental sections, all the stuff train-spotters love.  All together, its two 75-minute CD's, all based around the original album.

If you do feel like it, the 6-CD version includes Nico's debut solo disc of a couple of years later, and a bunch of live recordings of varying quality of the original band, as well as grand deluxe packaging.  But really, you're going to get all the juicy stuff on the two-disc version.

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Every Christmas holiday, I have my own tradition where I like to dive into more time-consuming pleasures, since there's a little more spare time around.Over those roughly two-weeks, I find the pace slows down enough that I can devote a few hours to, well, myself.  Let's call it a mental holiday.  When I was a teen, I remember reading and re-reading The Lord Of The Rings trilogy each Christmas break for several years.  Later in life, it became a tradition to watch The Godfather movies.  Yes, even the much-maligned third.  Of late, my tradition has become wallowing in some big ol' boxed sets, taking in their four, five, or more discs.  Thanks to some generous and much-loved friends and family, I usually end up with a couple or three, this year no exception.

I've already written about the Clapton Slowhand set, and now I've just finished the 4-CD, 1-DVD 10cc collection.  Now here's a band we've all heard of, and know a couple of songs, but that's it.  One of the biggest Top 10 groups in England in the 70's, they never really broke down the doors here.  Now, a sentence like that is usually followed by: "..and I don't understand why."  In this case, it's perfectly obvious.  For the most part, they made complicated, overly-intelligent pop, defied a ton of rules, and were very British about the whole thing.  Their music was fused with humour and irony.  These are all the things that radio programmers avoid in North America, so despite a dozen or so major U.K. hits, only the easily-digested I'm Not In Love and The Things We Do For Love found them any love here.  But such was the high quality of those numbers, including the brilliant production and studio mastery, they were hug hits at least.

And so it was with 10 CC, real wizards of the studio, and the pop song craft.  They were one of a kind, a four-headed set of equally-talented chaps, with some 60's pedigree and experience, who then teamed up to knock the U.K. scene on its head, post-Beatles.  Each of them (Graham Gouldman, Eric Stewart, Lol Creme, and Kevin Godley) could sing, write, play any number of instruments, and in Stewart they had a sonic specialist who could engineer and produce.  They had their own studio, Strawberry, so they were in effect a self-determined bunch, with no one else in the mix.  Plus they were equals, democratic, and supportive.  The perfect band as it were, the mythical one every group hopes to be but never is.  The only group I can think of that comes close is our own Sloan.

They were also quirky and mischievous.  They didn't just want to create great songs, they wanted to subvert the process.  Their goal was to throw out the rules, whether it was song topics, structure, tradition, you name it.  If it could be turned upside down and monkeyed around, they'd do it.  Being 60's guys and studio boffins, they could write in all the classic styles, and therefore, re-write in them as well.  Starting out, it was early American rock and roll that was the target.  English hits Donna, Rubber Bullets, and Johnny Don't Do It were genre songs, remodeling Jailhouse Rock, car-crash numbers, and teen idol dramas.  But they'd roll different ideas into each, even different singers.  Sweet and Slade were listening, obviously.  It quickly became obvious that this was a group with a big sense of humour, as they came up with gems about Charles Atlas-type adds for body-building (Sand In My Face), and even took the piss out of themselves and the rest of the rock scene (The Worst Band In The World).

Not satisfied putting out pastiche-rock, the group soon challenged themselves even further, coming up with epic productions and grand story lines, like the tail of a hooker in Paris and a tourist out of their depth, Une Nuit A Paris.  This type of track featured all four of them coming up with grand elements, technological advancements, and an attention to detail that few could afford; but then, they did own the studio, and really preferred it over touring.  Plus, they were having a ball.  The fine essay that comes with the hard-bound book in the box points out they paved the way for many, including Queen, and I'd have to agree with that, as well as the observation that they weren't really rock star material.  They had no set lead singer like Freddie Mercury, no theatrics on stage, no glamour or sex appeal.    Even though they were often singing about American topics (The Wall Street Shuffle), the U.S. pop world really wasn't made for a song about insider trading.  As for one called Life Is A Minestrone, that's British wit that still doesn't translate.

I'd say you get all you need from this box.  Disc one has all the early hits, from the original four days.  Disc two gets into the band as led by Gouldman and Stewart, after Godley and Creme decided to get out of that rat race and became a successful duo on their, their biggest hit being Cry.  There was still good material for the two-piece 10 CC (The Things We Do For Love, Dreadlock Holiday), but into the 80's things sputtered out.  Disc three gives us the best of the album tracks, and the fourth is devoted to b-sides, some clever numbers equal to the rest in ingenuity. 

The DVD is jammed with 25 cuts, including a bunch of their (mimed) Top Of The Pops appearances, some live concert stuff from TV shows (better for sure), and their 70's promo videos.  These last ones are pretty forgettable, as they stand miming the song or do some silly acting of the plot, typical pre-MTV stuff.  That's surprising considering Godley and Creme went on to become one of the most in-demand directing teams of the MTV era.  But it just goes to show that anything this talented bunch tried, they mastered, once they dissected it, and put their own spin on it.  10 CC remain a hard nut to crack with casual listening, but sitting down and paying attention to all the talent was a good project for my holiday season, and I certainly developed a much stronger appreciation.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


35 years on, Slowhand remains one of Clapton's commercial triumphs, but still manages no better than a split decision among fans.  It is a record featuring the two sides that polarize his audience.  Cocaine, the lead track, contains one of his most famous riffs, and is a high point in modern guitar rock.  But it is directly followed by Wonderful Tonight, the mellow hit that caused many to throw in the towel on the former blues god.  And so it would be ever since for Clapton, still considered a guitar hero, but still serving up ballads for the adult contemporary market whenever a new disc arrives.

This super deluxe edition comes heavily packed (and priced), with four discs, and a 180-gram vinyl pressing of the original album.  Like many of these mega-boxes, it holds attractions for the two kinds of super-fans:  the audiophiles, and the collectors.  For the sound people, you have your choice of formats:  the CD, the vinyl, the hi-resolution stereo, and the 5.1 surround sound.  If it's add-ons you want, the original album is supplemented with four finished tracks from the album sessions, three of them previously unreleased, and a two-disc live concert from April of 1977, just a few days before Slowhand was recorded.  I'm a member of the bonus-track club, and this a pretty good haul in that category, with a surprisingly good concert, and really good out-takes.

In these days of seemingly every demo and studio jam being harvested for box additions, it's actually a pleasure to not have to wade through minute mix differences and discarded variations to find something new.  Here, you get what you want, four quality cuts that could have made the album but were placed back in the vault until now.  Well, three of them anyway.  The traditional blues Alberta has long been a live favourite, appeared on the massive hit Unplugged, and finally snuck out in this studio version on the 90's compilation Blues.  The other three are total surprises though.  Clapton does Lightfoot?  Yup, a take on his 1972 Don Quixote album song Looking At The Rain.  I rarely say this, but it's a shame LP's of the day weren't at CD length, as all four of these cuts deserves to be heard and included with the others, and would actually have made the album stronger.

The live set is from the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and features the same band he'd take into the studio for the Slowhand sessions.  Not that we get a preview; the only number they would tackle from this set is Alberta.  Instead it's the No Reason To Cry tour, and it reads like a greatest hits up to that point.  Two singles from the album are offered up at the start, Hello Old Friend and Dylan's Sign Language, and then the gates are opened.  Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, Blind Faith, classic blues covers, it's as close to an essential Clapton set as one could put together:  Layla, Can't Find My Way Home, Further On Up The Road, Badge, I Shot The Sheriff, Key To The Highway.  The band was one still considered fondly, anchored by Americans Carl Radle, Dick Sims, George Terry and Jamie Oldaker, a gang more interested in feel and soul than the slicker pros Clapton would work with come the Phil Collins-80's era.  There's no shortage of live Eric Clapton discs in the world, but this was a surprising and welcome listen, something I'll return to.

Which leaves the original album, and it actually has aged well, perhaps better than expected.  It also includes the charming Lay Down Sally, one of the best of Clapton's laid-back grooves.  Next Time You See Her is another strong original, and then there's a fine version of the John Martyn classic May You Never.  Of course, most of North America would never hear Martyn's version, so it doesn't feel like a cover.  Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's Mean Old Frisco would have been equally obscure to the bulk of Slowhand buyers.  The nice instrumental Peaches And Diesel ends things off way too soon for my money, but that's a good sign of course, and now we have the bonus cuts to complement the listen.  As far as Clapton solo albums go, it stands up with the very best of them, Clapton and 461 Ocean Boulevard.  Budget-conscious consumers may want to opt for the far-less expensive two-disc Deluxe version, which includes the four bonus tracks, plus a truncated version of the live concert.