Tuesday, April 30, 2013


A big year is planned for the Toronto faves, as they celebrate 25 years together.  This is the first of four quarterly packages in 2013 a 3-disc affair that has three concerts from the start, middle and current days of the band, each separated by 12 years.  The first two are on CD, while the third is a DVD shot last year at the Glenn Gould Theatre.

It's just mainstays Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson that are doing the partying for this, the band changing personnel so often that it's long been just them and hired players when needed.  But the dynamic duo have proven you don't have to be a big band to have a good partnership, and they've kept the spirit alive and well, as can be shown by these snapshots at various career points.

Disc one is from the dawn of the band, a half-hour at the Spadina Hotel, where they'd hold court back in '88.  Peter Cash was still in the band then, adding an another voice and writer, and favourite Monday Morning was already in the set list.  A hard-gigging act, they built their reputation on strong, smart entertainment.  This covers-heavy disc includes audience-pleasing numbers such as Peggy Lee's Fever that quickly becomes the theme song to Spiderman.  Another hip, jazzy tune reveals itself to be Led Zep's Whole Lotta Love.  Maize was the funniest front man on the scene.

The next set comes from the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto at the turn of the millenium, supplemented by 3 tracks from an Edmonton gig.  Maize and Finlayson were the only holdovers from the original group.  The obvious humourous numbers were no longer included, as by now there were plenty of fans that loved the band for their own numbers.  The covers they were doing were just plain cool now, like George and Tammy's Slow Burning Fire, and Jesse Winchester's Biloxi.  They had their own claims to fame by then, including A Penny More and I Will Give You Everything.

The DVD, shot in black and white, comes from October 2012, the live group now a full eight players, including violinist Anne Lindsay and duet singer Jessy Bell Smith.  Some old songs, some new, this time it's all original stuff, not a career retrospective, more of a statement of intent, that they plan to soldier on.  I'm glad they chose the DVD route for this, as it gives the viewer the full picture of Maize on stage.  He's still fun and full of life, someone who warms up the room with his personality, as well as being able to rock the joint.  Funny and brainy, and the songs are catchy.  I'm looking forward to seeing what else they have planned for the Silver Anniversary releases.

Monday, April 29, 2013


Well this is fun!  The ever-entertaining, one-time manager and producer of the early Rolling Stones comes out with a sequel to his 1966 instrumental album.  The guy's a card, but a loveable one, and as his satellite radio show, and series of three music biz books show, has some great insights.  But, covering the Stones for an album? What's the point?

Well, first off, this isn't some instrumental, elevator album.  There are several vocal tracks, and it's really a compilation of interesting artists that Oldham has found or drafted, doing unique interpretations.  And what a pleasure it is.  These are far from straight readings, and offer up some cool folks who take care to both pay homage, and to advance the well-known songs into new territory.
You'll know some of them, such as Elliot Easton who was once in The Cars, or Gary Lucas, considered one of the fines guitar guys, credits including Capt. Beefheart and Jeff Buckley.  Vashti Bunyan is a revered English folk singer, and The High Dials are Montreal indie-pop favourites.  Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals takes a track, and good old Al Kooper (he produced Freebird, doncha know) adds french horn.  Oh, and Johnny Marr drops by to add some guitar to As Tears Go By.  But this is far from an all-star tribute disc, as a variety of lesser-knowns handle many of the tracks, performing and co-producing with Oldham.

So, you get hits such as Paint It, Black and Under My Thumb (twice, completely different, one an instrumental) and more obscure, She Smiled Sweetly and Children Of The Moon.  Cheekily, he also includes Bitter Sweet Symphony, another poke at the poor Verve, who sampled a cut off his first volume of Stones Songbook for that hit, got caught, and had to give up the rights to their biggest hit now credited to Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft.  Oldham's still stirring the pot, adding to controversy just like he did for the Stones back in the riot days.

In case you're regarding this as a cynical grab by an old player, still latching on to 40-year old fame, consider this:  Oldham says he's done it because the music of the Stones didn't get covered as standards by jazz groups and orchestras like The Beatles' songs did, mostly due to the nasty image of the group.  He says he remains proud of the band and especially the great songs, and they deserve to be recognized as standards.  As usual, he has a good point.  And a good album.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Jones retired a few years back, supposedly to go play golf.  That didn't take, thankfully.  And since his un-retirement, he's been re-energized, playing with a fire that not only belies his age (79), but puts any discussion of age out the door.  There's simply no questioning his verve or dexterity, nor his continued artistic achievement.  This latest work finds him exploding into new territory, as his trio is joined by a savvy, swinging violinist, Josée Aidans.  Thus inspired, Jones has delivered six originals and six interpretations, with a mind to showcasing and incorporating Adams into the club.

So away we go with foursome, of various ages, gender, and mother tongue, speaking in synch on these melody-rich, shimmering pieces, typical of Jones.  His music is just so bright and alive, absolutely ear-pleasing.  While it may be still rooted in the 40's swing, there's jazz challenge here;  he and the trio (Eric Lagacé on bass, drummer Jim Doxas) can cut anyone.  Lagacé's solo in You Look Good To Me, well over a minute long at a nearly psychotic pace, should be knighted.  Doxas is as lyric as the rest, the young gun with a ton of ideas that surprise you.  Aidans is all over the songs, not just a guest, but diving fully into each track, sometimes weaving luxurious lines, other times ripping jazz licks, playful lilting solos that mirror the cascade of notes that come from Jones.  He's always there of course, ready to burst into flurry. Although it never feels like Oliver's show, the other three know they have to keep up with the Jones.

There's a lovely suite of three songs for Saskatchewan, of all places, but why not?  Inspired by nature, The Saskatchewan Suite honours Prince Albert's sunrise, Regina's sky and Saskatoon's spirit, traveling from ballad to swinging blues to be-bop.  It recalls the thematic compositions of Ellington and of course, Oscar Peterson, and sits as a centerpiece highlight in the collection.  Such grace.  A national treasure?  Oh yeah.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


The next installment of this terrific new birthday series from Motown.  These are 3 CD sets, including every A and B-side recorded for the label.  There's a big bonus with this one as well, since the 45 sides only filled up two discs.  Disc 3 is a treasure-trove of all completely unreleased tracks covering the group's entire history.  More on that in a moment.

Although known for a good handful of huge hits, The Vandellas remain criminally underrated, and really were undervalued even back in the day.  Although for a short time they were the label's top female group, they were overtaken by The Supremes, and stayed in that group, and Ms. Ross's mighty shadow for the duration.  But not only were some of Motown's greatest songs and productions done for group, most of their B-sides and failed 45's were gems too.  That makes this set especially tasty.

It didn't take the group long to get up to speed.  After a failed debut in 1962, they broke into the Top 40 with their next one, Come And Get These Memories.  Berry Gordy has always claimed that was the song where the Motown sound finally came together, thanks to a great production from writers Holland-Dozier-Holland.  The Funk Brothers slip into an easy groove, the Vandellas do great harmonies, and Martha Reeves slides high and low, a distinctive and classy voice. 

In those days, if you had a decent hit on the label, they'd keep the team together to see how long the magic would run.  Good thing, because next time the H-D-H team delivered the exciting Heatwave, as infectious a track as has ever been made.  It's hard to decide what makes this song, the driving tempo, the combination of piano and drums, the clever lyric or the urgent vocal.  The excellent b-sides start here as well, with the country, blues and jazz touches featured in A Love Like Yours.

Quicksand was next, repeating the formula and beat of Heatwave, a typical tactic of the day, then the smart Live Wire followed.  Oddly, In My Lonely Room didn't hit, and that meant a change in writer-producer teams was in order, per Motown's tactic of shaking things up after a failure.  So in came Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter.  They brought with them a tune they'd been trying to cut with Marvin Gaye, who had written some of the lyrics.  There are many excellent Motown hits from this era, and you can start a great argument among fans trying to pick the very best, but certainly Dancing In the Street would have as good a claim as any.  It has the best opening flourish, and the best opening lines:  "Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand-new beat?"  It is song that you want to hear over and over again, even though we've all heard it hundreds of times.  And then it ends too soon, you want it to keep going.  And how about that big beat that accents the whole track?  The excellent liner notes hear tell us that it was Hunter whipping snow tire chains against a piece of wood, a chore so demanding his hands were bleeding.

Now Stevenson had the hot hand, but H-D-H weren't exactly hurting.  They were starting to score with The Supremes, and unfortunately for The Vandellas, many of the best girl-group songs went that way.  While the trio of writers did send Nowhere To Run to The Vandellas, and the group was still getting great material from others, the spotlight had shifted and their records were getting shoved aside for the latest Supremes hit.  A great example of that is the fate of the H-D-H track Jimmy Mack, recorded in mid-1964, but ignored by the brass.  Finally, Reeves had enough of the lack of attention, and appealed to Gordy.  Stunned to hear the cut over two years later, he ordered it out, and in went Top 10 in 1967.

But H-D-H left the label, and Motown was changing.  Despite great material and performances, superior cuts such as I Can't Dance To The Music You're Playin' and Honey Love couldn't break into the Top 40, and slowly but surely, the group fizzled out by 1972.  Of course, we're just talking chart numbers (and sales) here.  For listeners, there are even greater benefits here, because the songs are uniformly strong, and certainly unfamiliar to most.  Therefore disc two is just as fun for the discoveries.

Now here's what really blows me away about this set.  Motown has already released an entire two-disc set of vault recordings of Vandellas material, plus assorted odd cuts on a variety of CD reissues over the years, and somehow they've managed to find another complete 75-minute CD of even more unheard tracks.  And it's all great!  There are cuts here that could have been hits, and certainly nothing that couldn't have been put out on albums.  There are songs by the A-list writers and producers, plus fascinating covers.  How about The Doors' Light My Fire, in a completely different arrangement?  My favourite is a 1965 cut called S.O.S. (Girl In Distress), the title alone worthy of attention.  A little perspective is in order.  We're talking about a company of about 200 people, pumping out recordings at a phenomenal rate, with accomplished playing and unique ideas.  They would do these sessions in mere hours, and then shelve half of them, the slightest imperfection that might keep them off the top of the charts enough to doom them to obscurity.  With the stable of artists at the label, we're talking thousands of cuts over the golden years of Motown.  Yet we all marvel over the slim output of any number of superstar groups, like they're God's gifts to songwriting.  This country just gave the Juno Album of the Year to Carly Rae Jepsen.  I think I can, and might, just listen to Motown for the rest of my life.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


A sixth collection from the B.C. troubadour.  Penner's dramatic sounds come partially from a different time.  The title cut feels like a prison holler, a desperate blues from a condemned man.  This Could Be You Anthem is a Harvest outtake, but lonelier, no James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt easing the pain.  No Consequence, with its distorted vocals and trashcan percussion, is nasty gospel tale:  "You wanna ride with no consequence/may the good Lord take you in self-defense."  Memphis is folk-rap, a banjo tune with hip-hop rhythm.

Created by Penner with just cohort Jon Wood and a spot of guest brass, the two have a deft touch for taking basic folk instruments and shifting the whole thing slightly out of focus.  Ukeleles, banjo, guitars, stomps and claps are done like they've played for a couple of centuries, but then the trickery comes in, textures that take us out of the present and into a less conscious place.  Yes, it's just some sort of plug-in effects, but the point is how well they do it.

Funny thing is, it's never eerie, or negative.  These are serious songs, visceral, about big feelings and fears, but altogether human, and tentatively hopeful.  I'll go back to the gospel music comparison, there's certainly some fear, but there's more faith.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Out of Toronto comes The Treasures, alt-country with an edge, sharpened by long runs in the city's club scene.  The hard work has paid off, as they've come up with a set of strong originals, a group sound that's all their own, and an energy that comes across on this debut album.

What's grand about the band is how they slide back and forth across the country line, with three singers and no shortage of ideas.  Lead track In The Meantime gets the Gram Parsons influence out of the way quick, with a number that could have been on the Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace Of Sin, complete with the Memphis Horns.  There's a couple of loose, Stones-like numbers, a la Dead Flowers.  Crossed The Wrong Woman is even tougher, loud guitar and three-part harmonies, searing slide guitar and a nasty delivery.

Producer by the absolutely right guy, Colin Linden, the songs were captured largely live in the studio, again a great choice, because you don't want this stuff polished.  You can hear the band members playing off each other, finding the right twang, getting the right sound as a unit.  Perfect for fans of The Jayhawks, early Wilco, Blue Rodeo.  Perfect for me, then.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Ontario blues man Antonik returns with his second release, following the success of his 2010 self-titled debut.  While that one put his name out there, this time Antonik's taking an interesting, somewhat humble approach.  The whole theme of the album, lyrically and musically, is putting others first.  The lyrics reflect it, and it extends to the music as well, as he drafts in several well-known pals to handle everything from solos to lead vocals.

Cruising through a variety of styles, from soulful, smooth and catchy to jam band funk to straight electric blues, Antonik drafts a cast of characters to fit the parts.   Josh Williams of the Fat Cats takes the lead vocal and keyboards on the horn-driven Turn To Shine.  Mike Mattison, the singer with both The Derek Trucks Band and Tedeschi-Trucks brings his whiskey soul sound to the Southern-styled Broken Man.  The great Shakura S'Aida handles the mic for Come From A Good Place, while Suzie Vinnick chimes in with harmonies.  This one's a peach, with the smooth vocals offset by some nasty electric leads from Antonik.  Other guest include MonkeyJunk's Steve Marriner on harmonica, Richard Underhill arranging the horns, and Julian Fauth on keys.

When he does sing, on six of the eleven cuts, Antonik shows he has no problems in the vocal department.  Despite letting so many folks take star turns on the tracks, he really proves himself in all the important ways.  The songs are all originals, and all over the blues map, a lively and confident set.  And his guitar shines throughout, again with a variety of sounds and styles, dirty and loud to aching and subtle.  Antonik's not just getting by with a little help from his friends, he's using their talents to make a good thing even better.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Marshall's one of a kind.  A cellist equally adept at jazz and classical, old and modern, she composes a variety of pieces that blur the genres and confound your expectations.  Here she leads her jazz quartet plus a couple of guests through a mix of instrumentals that feature anything from standards to avant-garde, and even invents a new way to play her axe.

The title cut comes from an experiment, where she took a pencil, flipped it around to the metallic end, and used it to tap her cello strings, creating a percussive, staccato sound.  For The Birds has an equally interesting sound to start the piece, mimicking avian chatter, and I don't know how she got that.  Using all her training, I Remember Johann Sebastian is a jazz/classic blend.  It opens with a piece based on a Bach cello suite, and then lets the group improvise around the standard I Remember April, the intention being to show what Bach might have been like if he'd been born these days and working in jazz.

Heady stuff, but still, a delightful and easy listen.  The solos are rich and lively, not just from Marshall, but also guitarist Andrew Scott, who contributes several smooth runs and tasteful, melodic chord sequences.  Bass player Don Thompson is equally enjoyable, with lots of ear-pleasing lines.  But in the end you'll sit back and marvel at what Marshall can do with a cello, whether it's the funky, dirty sound she gets on Summer Sizzle, or when she switches to formal classical technique, it still blends with the jazz combo.  Cello in jazz may not be new (Ray Brown had an album called Jazz Cello in 1960, and there are several examples around today), I can't imagine anyone takes it as far, and at the same time, makes it sound so effortless.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


This is the kind of story that music fans love, especially those collector types who relish a big find of an obscure older artist, whose music languished unheard for years until being rediscovered.  All the elements are here; a vintage album from the 70's, which didn't hit but should have.  Previously unreleased recordings, cared for and guarded by the musician while they stayed hidden in the vault.  A performer who's name still meant something to a tiny few, keepers of the flame.  A connection to something famous, an answer to a trivia question.  And best of all, the great question, whatever happened to?

The odd thing is, we asked all these questions and went through this a decade ago.  Inspiration Information was reissued in 2001, and everybody went ga-ga for it, comparing him to Prince and Sly Stone and Michael Jackson, and looking forward to new material and a resurgence.  And nothing else happened.  Otis, it turns out, has very clear ideas about his music, and has no interest in playing the games unless he gets to put out what he wants, his way.  It's taken until now for him to structure a deal where he gets control, and gets to release his long-awaited follow-up album, here packaged with the original Inspiration Information from 1974.  I guess that's what you can expect from a guy who's always longed to be a one-man band.

Otis was a child prodigy, playing drums on-stage with his father's band at age 5.  Dad was legendary band leader Johnny Otis, the musician, bandleader, recording artist, producer, and discover of Etta James and others.  Shuggie quickly became a hot-shot at several instruments, as well as a studio craftsman, and started making records in his teens.  Al Kooper put him on a Super Session disc; Frank Zappa had him on bass for Peaches En Regalia.  His second album in 1971 included the cut Strawberry Letter 23, which became a huge hit for The Brothers Johnson.  The future looked bright indeed.  By '74, Otis was recording almost completely by himself, yes, much like Prince would a decade later.  Done over three years, Inspiration Information was his true coming-out, and unlike any other pop or R'n'B offering. 

Perhaps it was the idiosyncrasies of his technique, and his reluctance to play well with others, but the album never took off.  While there are tremendous pop moments, smooth soul with hooks and riffs to die for, there were also interludes, instrumental bits, and entire songs built around the primitive drum machine of the day.  You just hear the hit album lurking inside this record, but Shuggie himself was not inclined to produce a polished, more accessible effort, like Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder were doing at the time.  Even though he had no trouble with the funk and disco that would soon dominate the field, Otis wanted his next album to be recorded the same way.  He couldn't get any takers.

That's where the second disc comes in.  He never stopped making music, or he adds, making attempts to interest the record industry.  But there was always a rejection at the end of his attempts.  On Wings Of Love, we hear some of the original cuts from the mid-70's that would have come out, and we follow his progress through the intervening years.  The guy still grooved, and still to his own beat.  Fireball Of Love, from 1977, is pure gold, and could have easily been a hit in a couple of decades, and certainly predates the dance-funk of the Commodores.  The disco groove is killer, and the guitar solos awesome.  Remember, this is all from one guy.  It is inconceivable that somebody didn't want this, and they probably did.  I get the impression that Shuggie probably wouldn't have agreed to the contract.  And I can see why any sensible record label wouldn't sign the guy.  You'd want him to re-record vocals, for instance.  The balance isn't quite right, they are too thin.  On other tracks, the whole thing sounds worn out, like the tape has been overdubbed and played way too much, as he polished and obsessed.

But that was then.  It's an old argument, and it doesn't matter anymore.  With time passed, all this music can come out the way Otis wants it, and now we can choose to enjoy it with its faults, or consider that those very faults are an important part of what makes it great.  There's so much to process; Otis was classically trained, wrote his own arrangements, brought in string and horn players when he felt.  He was trying out new gear all the time, experimenting with synths as they developed, using all kinds of studio effects, and really piling on the sounds.  Is it too much?  Sometimes, yet it still impresses.  It's a truly interesting collection, from start to finish, and quite the story too.  I really haven't made up my mind if find it all excellent, but some is, and I have the feeling it will grow on me in the next few weeks.  I'll certainly recommend it though, if just for the discovery.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Oh, people go on and on about Leonard Cohen out there doing it on stage at 78, and Dylan still on the Never-Ending Tour, but heck, Willie's turning 80 on April 30th, and he looks better than either of them.  He probably is roughing it a bit more than the others too, out there on that bus much of the year.  Plus, he makes an album a year, something he's done since 1965!

You never know that you'll get from a new Nelson recording, but this one has the feel of something a little more special, 80th birthday and everything.  He's in his mellow mood here, a little Spanish guitar, lots of covers of old popular songs from the jazz era to the 50's, and a relaxed, jovial vibe.  The mood of celebration continues through the recording, as it was made with his long-serving band, Willie Nelson and Family, the same crew that takes it on the road month after month.  There's a nice moment when he calls for "little sister" to take a solo, the beloved Bobbie Nelson on piano.  The easy vibe they give these numbers could only come from a group absolutely comfortable with each other.

Willie's comfortable with the material, too.  This is the stuff he grew up with.  The 40's standard You'll Never Know lets him croon a sad one, while Walking My Baby Back Home gets into a nice swing.  The Irving Berlin title track gets a little bluesy, and Carl Perkins' Matchbox is about as rockin' and modern as it gets.  All the while, Nelson punctuates the tunes with his signature solos, Mickey Raphael adds his tasteful harp, and Bobbie shows what a true team player she is.  Ya, Willie has gone this route before, several times, but it's not Stardust this time, not orchestrated.  This is the band alone, have a grand birthday party, and nothing feels old about the music or the man.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Name-checking his close-knit touring group in the title, this album reflects Earle's live  set-up these days, a set of roots-folk-country-rock that gets back to his core music.  This is his first disc he's done with just the Dukes (and Duchesses), and comes directly from their hard-touring schedule of the past few years.  There's the acoustic weariness of the title cut, a view of the more desperate times in the U.S. via the road.  Calico County takes the opposite approach, a guitar rocker from a rough redneck's life, "Friday night dogfight suckin' on a meth pipe".  Earle's characters aren't pretty, because a lot of what he sees isn't.

Small towns have changed, and not for the better.  One guy's so rattled by this, he's "thinkin' 'bout burnin' the Walmart down."  There's a rollicking New Orleans number, pure defiance from that beleaguered city:  "Gonna spoil my day/Give it your best shot/Another hurricane?/That all you got?"  The band really cooks on the very old-fashioned Love's Gonna Blow My Way, a parlour jazz number with old-time fiddle from Eleanor Whitmore.  For those Treme fans, those numbers and another New Orleans one, After Mardi Gras, are all from the TV series in which Earle stars.

He tells it like he sees it, whether it's his tale or other folks.  Pocket Full Of Rain is his look back at his drug days:  "Yeah I can still remember when it used to kill the pain".  It's not all misery though, and in 21st Century Blues, he sums up living today with a laugh, "Have to say it ain't as cool as I hoped it'd be/No man on the moon nobody on Mars/Where the hell is my flyin' car?"  Good point, Steve.  The times may have failed to live up to expectations, but this is the Steve Earle album long-time fans have been asking for, and they houldn't be disappointed.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Of all the very greats at Motown, the Four Tops get the least amount of respect and chatter, probably because they were the least troubled or controversial.  The Supremes had the Berry Gordy-Diana Ross soap opera, and the poor treatment of the others.  Marvin Gaye had drugs and a violent death, and David Ruffin of The Temptations wasn't far behind.  Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder were unique and fascinating characters.  All the Tops had was tremendous talent.  Even if they don't get the TV movie of the week, the group's songs remain among the most beloved of the Motown classics.

The Four Tops reigned, err, supreme during the golden era of the label's hits, 1964 - 1967.  Almost everybody at Motown was scoring huge hits at the time, but the Tops had perhaps the best run of them, thanks to a convergence of several weapons.  First, the songs and productions they were being granted by Holland-Dozier-Holland were the most mature they had, certainly heavier topics than The Supremes were doing.  There was drama and tension in numbers such as Seven Rooms Of Gloom and Bernadette, and even Baby I Need Your Loving wasn't lighthearted, this was desperation on the charts.  Second, the greatest singer of them all, Levi Stubbs, was the one doing the pleading.  No softy like Smokey, no cuteness like Little Stevie, Stubbs had true muscle in his voice, power that shook the radio.  Third, the Funk Brothers really latched onto this material.  Some of their greatest moments can be heard in the Tops' hits.

Reach Out I'll Be There can be argued as the very best Motown production of them all.  A #1 hit from 1966, the intensity of the song is felt in both the incredible Stubbs vocal, and the driving track.  The special highlight here is James Jamerson's bass line, the career highlight of this genius of the instrument.  The peaks and dramatic tension of the track are overwhelming, forcing Stubbs into more and more desperate notes.  The end of the song is almost a relief, you feel so bad for the guy.  The string of singles that followed were all close to this milestone, a run of tunes that rivaled all the top groups of that or any day:  Standing In The Shadows Of Love, Bernadette, 7-Rooms Of Gloom, You Keep Running Away.  And then it all went wrong, fast.

No group was better served by Holland-Dozier-Holland, and none felt their departure from Motown harder.  When the trio fell out with Berry Gordy and quit the label, there was no natural team ready to take over.  Various producers and writers tried, and there were smaller successes, but the last five years at Motown saw the group floundering, with only a few more songs hitting the charts.  Some of those were terrible choices, most notably attempts at recasting the group as mellow interpreters of hippie-soul, with Still Water (Love) the worst of that.  Then there were the covers.  H-D-H had done a great re-working of Walk Away Renee before they left, but trying that again for the execrable MacArthur Park was a slap to the group's standards.  A series of duets with the Ross-less Supremes provided better fare, but the days were numbered, and the group left for renewed success in mid-70's with other labels.

This is a tremendous package, collecting every Motown A and B-side, including 14 England-only sides, where the group enjoyed bigger hits than the U.S. in the later years.  Of course all the great ones are here, but the b-sides offer up almost as many excellent performances, showing how deep the well was.  Similar sets that present A and B-sides in order suffer from quality drops on the flip sides, but not here, and even into the non-HDH years there are decent numbers.  The three CD's come housed in an over-sized hardbound package, with extensive liner notes for each track.  It's the way you want to own these great songs, housed with all due respect.  Similar packages have just been issued for Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Diana Ross & the Supremes, and The Temptations.

Friday, April 12, 2013


It's quite a second career Levon Helm enjoyed.  With the deaths of his Band-mates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, his own near-demise from a first bout of cancer, the fire at his Woodstock barn/studio, financial messes, and a long-standing feud with Robbie Robertson, Helm had enough grief to destroy most mortals.  But he survived it all, and forged a Grammy-winning recording career in the new millenium.  Plus, his fund-raising weekend jam sessions, the weekly Ramble, brought back an honesty and intimacy between the musicians and the folks who made the trek to see them play with passion, for the joy of it.  Somewhere along the line, The Weight became the anthem of roots and Americana music, and Helm the spiritual leader.  Kids not even born when The Band was working took Levon to their hearts.

While his passing in 2012 was no real surprise, once the cancer returned, the outpouring of sadness was.  The love for Levon had exploded.  A tribute was natural, but in this case Helm once more needed those fans and admiring musicians.  His dying wish was that the Rambles would continue, the Woodstock area barn/studio would stay open.  So this concert from last October was arranged, the biggest Ramble of them all.  At 20,000 seats, it was far from the 200 or so a normal Ramble would accommodate, yet the love still flowed.  It was anchored by his Levon Helm band, natch; the crack batch as always led by Helm lieutenant Larry Campbell, and featuring daughter Amy Helm on vocals.  Star players wandered off and on, including co-producer Don Was, G.E. Smith, and best of all, the great Garth Hudson.  At 75 years, he's now even more of a marvel than before, improvising new bits to his trademark solos on Chest Fever and The Weight.

The star power here is sterling.  It's not really the usual benefit bunch, but rather the names that play all the great festivals, the roots stars.  John Hiatt leads a raucous version of Rag Mama Rag, born to sing the song.  Lucinda Williams get soulful on Whispering Pines.  The duo of Greg Allman and Warren Haynes pay respect to Long Black Veil.  Mavis Staples, a great influence on the original Band sound tears up Move Along Train.  And the young Grace Potter does a terrific job of I Shall Be Released, while clearly overcome by emotion, calling it a life highlight.

Helm was all about integrity in his music, and made a lot of friends in different fields, so it's a pretty diverse group.  Eagle Joe Walsh plays with pedal steel whiz Robert Randolph on Up On Cripple Creek, while Nashville boys Eric Church and Dierks Bently are equally welcome.  Hip acts share with mainstream, as Ray LaMontagne is backed by John Mayer for Tears Of Rage.  Perhaps the oddest pairing comes from My Morning Jacket, joined by Rogers Waters, the biggest star to take the stage that night.  Turns out he and Helm bonded when Helm, Hudson and Danko guested on the Berlin concert of The Wall, and Levon blessed him with his very own ball cap.  Waters still has it, and brought it on stage as a treasured possession.

Everybody comes on stage for a grand finale of The Weight, which sure beats Let It Be for an all-star closer at this type of show.  Musically, it's a tremendous show, helped out by the excellent Helm band, complete with horns and vocalists who know the parts inside-out.  Vocally, there are some ragged moments, mostly from guests having to sing out of their range, to match the well-rehearsed arrangements by the backing players.  And, well, Waters ain't much of a singer for The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, but there are too many other great moments to counter that, such as Jakob Dylan representing the family well on the old Clarence "Frogman" Henry favourite of The Band, Ain't Got No Home.  27 songs in all, well over two hours, a bonus disc of rehearsal footage and interviews, if you love Levon or the music he championed, get a couple of like-minded friends over and watch this.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


There's a ton of buzz about this Toronto band, including folks who saw them showcase at the recent Canadian Music Week.  It's a pretty interesting lineup, fronted by co-lead singers Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis.  As opposed to most bands, they share the vocals on each song, with a raw dynamic that's more he said, she said rather than harmony duets. 

Each has their own persona; Fay can sing, Dreimanis is very gruff, raspy, nasty.  Blistering, intense roots-rock is going on behind, bass-heavy and guitars loud.  The closest comparison I can muster is the early X albums, although these singers are even more distinct, polar opposites really. 

The effect is cool, too.  Fay takes a line, then Dreimanis, coming together in the chorus like a twisted Sonny and Cher.  Fay can be sweet and dreamy, while he's growling so much he sounds demented.  Somehow they blend, and somehow the music does as well, dreamy parts with synth meeting dirty blues.

There's nothing like seeing a buzz band live, and July Talk are on the road right now, playing Friday in Moncton, NB.  Here are the dates:

04.12.13.  Plan B - Moncton
04.13.13.  Lava Vodka Bar - Fredericton
04.14.13.  Carlton - Halifax
04.17.13.  Neat Coffee Shop - Burnstown
04.18.13.  Merchant Tap House - Kingston

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Spacey? Oh my yes, as the Montreal group get further out there, while still hanging onto a tether rope tied to a bit of rock structure.  It's dreamy, pretty, but a little spooky too.  Despite all the lovely sounds, there's an edge, always some undercurrent of distortion or noise threatening to grow louder.

Each song is like a big, fluffy pillow, with either Olga Goreas or Jace Lasek singing on top. Instead of the verse-chorus-verse, the layers are added, guitars and keys sail in, get echoed and multiplied, gently distorted and sail away again, revealing more vocals.  Lasek sings the number with the most Beach Boys influence, The Spector, a match for Brian Wilson's Feel Flows, "Can you hear me knocking?/From the other side of the beach".  No room for raucous guitars on that one, but there are plenty of others where hypnotic and tough lines show up, including At Midnight, which is Crazy Horse aboard the space shuttle.

Really, it's not fair to count off the influences and elements the band brings in, because it's a buffet, beauty in one row, textures and sounds in the next.  Analog synths get a real workout, but you'd never call them a synth band, with the basic guitar-bass-drums-vocals on each number.  Nor are they a guitar band, but there's certainly a ton of that.  They are just plain imaginative, with great ears for sounds and treatments that keeping taking each song to the next level.  And Her Eyes Were Painted Gold has some amazing vibraphone and xylophone parts that blend perfectly with the vocals, as they take over from the previous lead instrument, distorted guitar.  See, there's that beauty/edgy blend again.  The sky's the limit, and maybe not even that.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Pangman delivers a jazz style rarely heard these days, the early swing of the 30's before big band took over, and when there was still violin, and most importantly here, unamplified guitar.  Important, because the special guest is guitar gem Bucky Pizzarelli, who's been playing since the 40's, and fits this stuff like a glove.  There are echoes of Django, Grappelli, Cab Calloway, and sophisticated club jazz.

Pangman has a sassy voice, with the fun of those musical days coming through crisp and clear.  She can put a growl in the more swinging numbers, and bop along with the horns, race along with the guitar, and slide with the violin on the softer ones.  Most of all though, this is good-time music, with lively arrangements and lots of spirited moments from Pizzarelli and the rest of the fine players.

You'll recognize Stardust of course, there's a Fats Waller number, and maybe a couple of more if you have a good collection from the era, but for the most part these aren't the usual standards.  Her version of Jimmy Cagney's Shanghai Lil is a treat, a show-stopper that goes from a whisper to some big belting, and you can imagine the big dinner club where this would have been performed.   Best of all are the Pangman originals, four of the thirteen here, absolutely vintage in sound and lyric, and certainly of grand quality.  You'll think they were some Tin Pan Alley compositions you'd never heard before, right down to the "pitchin' woo" line in It Felt So Good To Be Bad, which could have been sung by a flapper of the day.  For those who think they don't make 'em like that anymore.

Monday, April 8, 2013


Bragg teams up with producer Joe Henry here, and his crack band of sympathetic regulars, made up of Jay Bellarose (drums), Greg Leisz (guitars, etc.), David Piltch (bass), and Patrick Warren (keys).  This is the same crew that's made discs for talents as diverse as Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright III, Solomon Burke and Bettye Lavette.  They are a stellar crew, and provide Bragg with the best backing he's ever had on disc.

Normally, that's a good thing, but in this case, it takes a bit to get used to it.  He has always been better know for strapping on an electric and spitting out a solo number, (A New England), or making a bright, poppy piece such as Sexuality or Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards.  Even his more recent work with the Blokes was more rough and ready, and collaborations with Wilco on the Woody Guthrie tracks for the Mermaid Avenue project were about feel, not precision.  And of course, Bragg's no vocal giant with his very working-class English delivery.

So it's odd to hear the mandolin-acoustic bass-piano-percussion artistry of Your Name On My Tongue, as Bragg struggles to hit the notes.  A better singer wouldn't sound so out of place.  Similarly, the acoustic strumming on Tomorrow's Going To Be A Better Day is way too precise and classy, and I'd rather hear Bragg's clunky hands knocking out the chords on a complaining electric.

At the same time, these are some of the better songs he's written since the 90's, including Swallow My Pride.  Bragg's always been at his best when deflating the male ego in relationships.  And while he's not the first person you'd expect to do some Scripture-quoting, he knows a good philosophy when he reads it, repeating the verses in Do Unto Others.  And the old wit is on display as well, with the line "If you go chasing rainbows, you're bound to end up wet."

I think it was a good idea, but just not the right match-up.  His voice just can't handle that kind of quality backing.  Plus, the playing is too restrained.  The song There Will Be A Reckoning could use some fireworks behind it, to match its words about those who spread intolerance.  I'm hoping I get more used to it as time passes, because I do believe this is his best in awhile, which makes the production even more frustrating right now.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Yipes, I have a new favourite acoustic duo.  B.C's husband and wife duo have it all, and by all, I mean all.  They sing beautifully, alone and in harmony, play tremendously, write brilliant material, cover great, obscure traditional numbers, and to top it all off, Jason Romero is one of the world's best banjo-makers.
The duo perform in the old-time roots style, either two guitars or guitar and banjo, in close, rich harmony with mountain twang.  Their own material has a sadness and a beauty, and is infused with wonderful authenticity.  They know that the key to making timeless songs is to find the universal, ancient themes, that focus on life's hard and unfair moments.  Pharis in particular has written five songs here on her own that break my heart.  The opening number here, Sad Old Song, which is actually a pretty, infectious mid-tempo number, puts us in the middle of a performance:  "And the whole room dies down when you sing out a sad song/One little voice to carry the room along."  And oh man, she has that voice.
Jason's songs are more uptempo usually, and showcase his deft fingering.  The title cut is pure Jimmy Rodgers, with better playing and singing.  His work on the old traditionals, such as Wild Bill Jones, are as authentic as possible, a complete understanding of the high lonesome sound.  It also sounds like these two have been singing together for decades, but they only met in 2007, after both establishing themselves as talented performers.  It's the best union since Gillian Welch met Dave Rawlings, and just as musically fruitful.  Vintage roots at its finest.

Friday, April 5, 2013


Somehow, John Denver got hip again the last couple of years.  Now, this is largely due to younger people finding his music in their parents' collections.  For some of us who lived through it, it's a bit hard to stomach this.  While he wasn't Barry Manilow, he hardly rocked, and there was a hint of show biz in his aww-shucks appeal.

Yet taken on their own, many of Denver's songs do stand up, when played now as folk, roots and country numbers.  Here, an eclectic group bring out the best of them.  And it's no surprise that Denver's biggest crossover hit, and most cheesy one, found no takers.  There's really no redemption for Thank God I'm A Country Boy.  Other songs with a more serious take on that love of rural America make for better choices.

His first solo hit, and one of his best, Take Me Home, Country Roads, pretty much set the theme for these tunes, the desire to get out of the city and back to the land, back to family and goodness.  It's interesting that it wasn't the hippie version of the day, the commune people.  In Denver's songs, Ma and Pa are still working the farm, and he's reconnecting with that warmth.  Still, they resonate today, there's no denying it.  Brandi Carlisle, with Emmylou Harris on harmonies, does a strong version, centered around the great singing on this memorable lyric, giving it more of a jug band flavour.

What Denver did for West Virginia with that song, he did twenty times over for Colorado.  In fact, he took his stage name from the state capitol, and following the success of his signature hit Rocky Mountain High, moved there permanently.  Those nature-and-mountain loving numbers provide some of the best covers here.  Allen Stone's version of Rocky Mountain High is delicate and passionate, and shows Denver at his best, with a pretty melody and grand descriptions:  "I've seen it raining fire from the sky."  Mary-Chapin Carpenter's take on I Guess He'd Rather Be In Colorado shows his sensitive writing could be quite earnest and touching.

It's certainly not a collection made for original Denver fans, but rather it aims at everyone from hipsters to nu-hippies.  Dave Matthews is here, and J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.  Train get to do Sunshine On My Shoulders, and Old Crow Medicine Show do their old-time thing on the old-time honouring Back Home Again.  The biggest surprises come from My Morning Jacket, reviving Leaving On A Jet Plane, the number Denver wrote that became a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary, and ..shock... a strong-sounding Evan Dando, back from God knows where, and making the number Looking For Space sound like a post-grunge confessional from someone who's lived and learned.

Yes, I lived through the Denver years, a time when you had so few radio stations that you had to put up with the lighter fare to get to the other gems on the Top 40.  We'd cheer for Grand Funk Railroad, Wings and Elton, cringe when The Carpenters or Denver came on.  To this day, I've never owned one of his records.  This tribute disc may actually make me do something about that.  Or perhaps this is a better way to hear him these days.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


When your nickname is The Screaming Eagle of Soul, you have a lot to live up to.  For anyone who saw Bradley's over-the-top shows at last year's Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, or his N.B. debut at Sappyfest in Sackville, you'll know he delivers.  And when I say over-the-top, I mean it in the best way, the old-school soul way.  He's a dynamic vocalist, channeling pure emotion into his avian swoops.  And he's also well-schooled in the funk, a James Brown disciple.  My only concern with seeing him first before hearing a record, was if he could tone it down, and find songs that don't seem too corny and dramatic.

Shouldn't have worried.  Bradley's too real, too sincere, and has been through too much personally to let that happen.  Finally getting a chance to record and escape a rough life in his 60's, these are songs that have to get out of him; joy, sorrow, love and loss, yes, all screaming to get out, to be heard.  Technically, he doesn't have the best range or tone, but its all in the honesty and the topics.  When he sings a cliche such as "I got the love", heard from so many over the years, as he does on opener Strictly Reserved For You, I'm buying it.  From a lesser human but technically superior singer, I'd think it filler lyric.  For Bradley, it's an entire statement.

As for the music, well, this is Daptone Records, which means brilliance in recapturing the glory days of 60's and 70's soul and funk.  There's a little bit of every kind of soul of the pre-disco days, from Memphis to Philly to Motown, never copying any of them, always blending what they borrow.  And the horns.  Take Bradley away (not that I want this) and you could just listen to the great charts. 

For his first six decades, Bradley was a victim of life.  Saved now for us all, it's a much better thing to be a Victim Of Love.  Scream on, great Eagle.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


It's nice to see this back on the radar, Faithfull's surprising and surprisingly successful comeback from 1979.  It sure was a shocker, mostly for its attitude and language.  Way before Alanis Morissette was declaring her mind in striking words, and venting on disc, Faithfull was making it all real.  Her cover of John Lennon's Working Class Hero was already loaded with the F-word, but former 60's naif Faithfull made it seem even tougher.  Most powerful was Why'd Ya Do It, her own composition eviscerating a former lover, which went even further, including both of the nasty C-words, and the very rare S-word. Well! 

It's a pretty good album overall, with the title cut a great groove, and her take on Shel Silverstein's The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan also a charm.  The other four cuts are more rote, as the producer Mark Miller Mundy attempted to find a way to update her sound through synthesizers, which was only partially successful.  In truth, it was her wrecked voice that was all that was needed.  Being an addict living on the streets will do that.

This two-disc set includes a wealth of bonuses, including the original mix of the album, which had, hmmm, less synth and more guitar.  I like it better.  There are also three more versions of Broken English, and a longer mix of Why'd You Do It, fair enough.  The more interesting inclusion is her own recording of Sister Morphine, the Stones cut for which she had belatedly received writing credit.  The drug sorrow would haunt her through the 70's, and really only came to light when people heard this album and found out what she'd gone through after leaving the Stones orbit.