Tuesday, December 31, 2013


An expanded, two-disc version of The Velvet's second album, but don't think it's a quick cash-in on Lou Reed's death.  It was planned well in advance, as the work on the V.'s catalogue has been on-going.   There's even a recent interview with Reed in the booklet regarding the work, as well as quotes from the others.  Not as beloved as their seminal debut, the "Banana Peel" album with Nico, it's more in line with what the band was about, especially as a live act.  There's lots of distortion and noise, droning and drawn-out numbers, spoken word and individual assaults on the equipment.  Reed called it the first punk album, and has nothing but praise for it, mostly for its brash intensity. 

That confrontational feel will either turn you on or leave you upset.  These are not tight songs, and even the single, title cut is more about the amp noise than the bouncy rock, which Bowie played up on his famous live versions.  At just six tracks, there are some long, long passages, explorations of sound and repetition.  Sister Ray is a Reed rant;  The Gift a university short story written by Reed, recited by Cale with his Welsh accent, accompanied by the band.  When there are more concise songs (Here She Comes Now, I Heard Her Call My Name), again the volume level overshadows the structure and melody.  With its free jazz influences and street punk attitude, it was far ahead of its time, and still manages to be confrontational.

The bonuses are plentiful, with disc one filled out with seven cuts down post-album, the last recording sessions will Cale, familiar to major fans but placed in context here.  They include an alternate take of I Heard Her Call My Name, and the first take of Stephanie Says.  Disc two contains the full show from  April 1967 at New York's Gymnasium, which was sampled on the box set Peel Slowly And See.  A bit above bootleg quality, this is the best indicator of what the original band was about, with Cale's keyboards and viola getting workouts, the droning passages extended on stage, long instrumentals, tension and probably about 10 people in the audience getting it.  Such was the birth of something very important, although still after all these years, not entirely understood and certainly only for those who get it.

Monday, December 30, 2013


Eric Clapton is still God.  At least, when it comes to boxed sets.  The whole idea of the big, four-disc, career-spanning compilation started with E.C. back in 1988 with the release of Crossroads, which sold several million copies, and proved that there was a huge appetite for bonus tracks, booklets, and best-of cuts.  Since then, the Clapton vaults have regularly put forward deluxe editions, several live compilations, and remasters.  Unplugged just got that treatment in the fall, and now is followed by this forensic look at Clapton in '74-'75.

This was the return of Clapton from three years of mostly sitting on the sidelines.  Derek & the Dominoes had imploded, and he had developed a heroin habit that kept him from recording.  Finally clean, he headed to Florida to record with Tom Dowd, but didn't have a lot of ideas.  Luckily, he still had a few pals.  A band was assembled featuring a bunch of Tulsa players, and their laid-back groove perfectly fitted where Clapton wanted to be, far away from guitar heroics.  The result was 461 Ocean Boulevard, and the huge hit, I Shot The Sheriff.  It remains a strong album, filled with tracks fueled by the groove, whether the reggae feel of the hit, the chunky update of Willie & the Hand Jive, or the blues funk of Motherless Children and Get Ready.  It also includes one of his loveliest ballads, Let It Grow, showing his increasing interest in vocals and song craft over jamming.

It was so big, the cast reunited months later for the follow-up, There's One In Every Crowd, but unfortunately there were even less ideas going in, and precious little came out of the sessions.  Instead, the group tried to do much of the same again, with reggae, gospel and blues, even trying to reclaim a track originally scheduled for a second Dominoes album.  Clapton even felt the need to write a sequel to Marley's Sheriff, and Don't Blame Me picks up the story about the deputy.  It's actually pretty good, but shows that inspiration wasn't readily available.  The public picked up on it, and the album was a failure, not even making the Top 20.  The comeback was in jeopardy.

Luckily things were better on the road, where the band had been loving doing the 461 numbers, plus Clapton classics and blues jams.  A live album followed in '75, E.C. Was Here, restoring him to higher honour.  There are so many Clapton live albums (and natch, boxed sets of all-live), that it's hard to keep track, but this one is a good one, made better with an entire bonus disc of tracks on this collection.  Expanding the set with lots of favourites not on the original, 40 minutes has now blossomed to over 2 hours, and where the LP version included mostly lengthy blues numbers, this now has Sheriff, Hand Jive, Badge, Little Wing and lots more.  It's the highlight of this multi-disc set.

The rest of the bonuses aren't that interesting.  The sessions for 461 and ..Every Crowd really didn't include much of note, even though there's lots of out-takes.  The best addition is Clapton's one-off single release, a reggae-fied version of Dylan's Knockin' On Heaven's Door.  A final discs features 30-plus minutes of cuts done with bluesman Freddie King at the same time, with Clapton and his band, but again, it's not noteworthy stuff, more for completion's sake.  The final tally here:  Six discs, the first 461 and it's bonuses, the second There's One... with its extras, three and four offering up tons of concert material, disc five the Freddie King sessions, and the sixth some audiophile mixes, the 5.1 and quad versions of 461, for those who dig the big sound.  The package is cool, an off-sized box, like a thin photo album, the essay passable, the music hit-and-miss.  Possibly worth it to fans for the grand live stuff, and the improved sound for 461.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


One of the nice things about having a birthday at Christmas time (two days before) is that I get to start opening gifts before the rest of you.  I don't get the most extravagant presents, as close family members usually figure they are going to be spending on me twice, so they give the little one for the birthday, but that's okay by me.  Because often, the little one is music.

This time, among other things, I picked up the new Stones concert flick, Sweet Summer Sun, Hyde Park Live from this year's 50th reunion shows.  After playing select North American dates, the Stones brought it all back home, returning not only to London, but to the site of their famous 1969 show.  That one had a lot of meaning, being the first for new guitarist Mick Taylor, the first since the death of founder Brian Jones, and pretty much the British Woodstock too.  There were lots of highs and lows that day, and supposedly the sound stunk and the band wasn't much better.  No matter, it's a piece of music history now, and this set meant lots to both the audience and the band.  Who would have thought the Rolling Stones could have a sentimental side?

The two-plus hour show pretty much boils the Stones down to what they've been the last 20 years or so.  The set concentrates on the middle, glory years with the big songs, Street Fighting Man, Jumpin' Jack Flash, Sympathy For The Devil, Brown Sugar, You Can't Always Get What You Want.  Start Me Up is the opener, Satisfaction ends it, there are a couple of nods to earlier days with Paint It Black and Ruby Tuesday, and not much past 1980, aside from an obligatory stab at a new cut, this time Doom And Gloom.  Keith gets his mini-set, including Happy.  And that's what everybody is with that safe setlist.  So the only real questions left are whether this time they can still do it, and what shape are they in?

Mick looks great, a poster boy for geriatric health.  He's not lost a step, perhaps only his leaping ability is lessened.  His voice still sounds great, but it's a bit thinner now.  He leads by example and charisma more so than vocal strength.  Keith, well, he never was the picture of health, but it's quite amusing to see his facial features starting to sag, his nose puffy, and his ears sticking out.  And he's put on some stomach weight as well.  I'm not trying to be catty here, it's a DVD you know, and the visual is a big part of it.  Ronnie could pass for a 1975 version of himself under the right light, and Charlie's kinda seemed like a senior citizen since the 80's anyway.  The stage set, and the entire setting are quite attractive, a woodland space filled with over a hundred thousand, and a matching creation, with its own forest motif for Mick to frolic in.

There's not a great load of drama passed on in this film, and for the big 50th shows, perhaps it's even a bit of a let-down, because there were several of them, and the group certainly hasn't called it quits.  So really the only theme present is the return to Hyde Park, isn't that cool?  As for guest stars, thankfully none of the young divas that Mick likes to invite were present, only Mick Taylor got to share the limelight, fittingly so.  The concert had been a kind of rote affair until then, and his presence did seem to goose everybody a bit mid-show.  They should have let him stay on for more than two numbers. 

It's well-shot, the sound mix is excellent, the scenery great, there's some really good montage work with Stones fans showing off their t-shirts and tattoos.  It's not the group's greatest performance of course, and it could have done with a couple more surprise song selections, but not a bad way to wind down after a birthday feast.  Maybe you'll get this in your stocking.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Eric Bibb is one of the best modern interpreters of classic blues, so to hear him advancing the genre is even more thrilling.  Always a fan of everything from world music to soul and gospel, Bibb mixes and matches, fearlessly adding what might be considered non-blues instruments and arrangements, proving it's all blues, if that's where you're coming from.  Horns, strings, African instruments, something called a Turkish saz played by a Scandinavian, this ain't another Robert Johnson songbook, thank goodness.

The cut Now is a pretty soul ballad, piano-based and a trumpet solo, something Phillip Wynne or Luther Vandross might have cut.  They Know is bare bones acoustic, delicate, with wind-swept strings joining in.  But Can't Please Everybody is pure Staples Singers, with a horn arrangement straight out of Allan Toussaint's and The Band's Rock Of Ages.  Freedom Train takes Richie Havens to Africa, while Death Row Blues is a reminder that not only can he do acoustic blues, he knows how to write a new one that matches the old classics.

There's a message here too, which is shared through each track.  Most of the music is about freedom and hope, the old message kept alive.  He writes, "Did you ever ride the Freedom Train?  It broke down for awhile, but it's back again".  Bibb's grabbed a hold of it, despite all the tough times of late, and is telling us not to let go, freedom will win out:  "Every bird in the sky knows a change is going to come, by and by."  It's an album full of every kind of optimism for a blues fan.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Hey, why not do something nice with your CD money this Christmas, and order a disc that's going to help a fine musician?  Of course, buying any CD helps an artist, but here's one in rough shape who could use a hand, and you get some excellent music as well.  I know, these benefit collections can be a little weak sometimes, but not this one.  Slim is Slim Dunlop, lead guitarist for The Replacements, beloved by more than a few for their late 80's to early 90's sloppy but poppy, aggressive albums.  Dunlop suffered a serious stroke in 2012 that has left him in need of 24-hour care for the rest of his life, an extremely expensive proposition.

Enter his musical friends.  At the start of 2013, a series of singles started appearing, one a month, in extremely limited quantities.  Each came with unique artwork on the sleeve by Replacement Chris Mars, and were only available by auction.  Stars and pals lined each side, starting with The Replacements, Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson and a couple of ringers (Mars didn't want to get back into music).  The 45's brought in huge bucks, as fans and collectors leaped at the offerings.  Now that the run has ended, you can buy all the songs on this CD, as well as get a second disc of unreleased cuts also considered for the 45's.

Almost all the songs were written by Dunlop.  He had his own solo career going, and despite being in Westerburg's shadow all these years, was a fine writer in much the same vein.  In other words, if you like The 'Mats, dig in, and dig some of these folks.  There's Lucinda Williams, sounding like she would have been right at home in The Replacements.  Steve Earle gets in the spirit, coming pretty close to his old wicked ways.  Jakob Dylan is a revelation on Ain't No Fair (In A Rock 'N' Roll Love Affair), growing growly and seedy.  And check out Jeff Tweedy, with his son Spencer on drums, doing the best song on the set, Dunlop's The Ballad Of The Opening Band, a tear-jerker about the guys who never make it past the club scene.

The ones who didn't make the singles turned in fine work too.  A Woodstock bunch called The West Saugerties Ale & Quail Club get their neighbour, The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian, to join them on harmonica on one of Slim's favourite songs, an old James Burton instrumental called Love Lost.  Mars shows up, paying tribute to his pal with a number he wrote in response to Dunlop's stroke, called When i Fall Down.  And there's a second version of The Ballad Of The Opening Band, by an outfit called LP.ORG.  Don't be fooled, because when you open the credits, you find out it's pretty much The Jayhawks, Minneapolis brethren of Dunlop's, doing another stand-out job, almost the equal of Tweedy's.  This has been a huge success as a fundraiser so far, and the musical results are just as good.

Monday, December 16, 2013


I have been bombarded, no, assaulted with version after version of every known Christmas tune the past three weeks, from White Christmas to Let It Snow, by such giants as Lady Gaga, Carly Rae Jepsen and Kelly Clarkson.  I don't want to hear another version of Santa Baby, be it Bieber, Blige or Buble.  So here I am, ready to trim the tree, but what to play?  I want the Christmas mood, but I nee to chill out from all that bombast of the latest pop-Xmas albums.

Here's the perfect antidote.  The tree is in the stand (that's the hard part, get that over with before the music), now it's time to turn on the Fireplace Channel, and slap one of these two new gifts from the Magi into the player.  Both are instrumental, elegant and relaxing.  Ed Henderson is a B.C. classical guitar whiz, known for his supple playing, and orchestrations and scores for theatre, film, the Olympics, etc.  He's also brother to Bill, of Chilliwack fame.  On Winter Child, he gives us what we want:  Christmas carols, beautifully performed and arranged, just Ed and guitar, no overdubs.  There are the ones we know, such as O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, played gently in the normal key, and then a lovely surprise near the end as he raises the song an octave.  His own compositions are in the same mood, sometimes as stand-alone pieces, and others as new beginnings or endings to well-known songs, such as his whistful new opening to Good King Wenceslas.

The tree is looking good, time to change the pace, settle back, enjoy it and a cup of eggnog, too.  Enter jazz pianist Mike Janzen, much admired for his trio and orchestral work out of Toronto, but here solo.  As with Henderson, he's looked well back for inspiration for his Carols album, choosing sacred work, mostly familiar, some obscure.  Here he finds wonderful ways to put a fresh face on each, retaining the melody, but adding new excitement.  Angels We Have Heard On High starts off with the verse as we all know it, but after the first chorus, gets a small addition, connecting to the verse again.  But the second time through, this new part is expanded on, and the third time even more so.  It's a brisk, pulsing interlude, his right hand notes flying like fiddlers'.  The new arrangements seldom deviate far from the original, but enough to make them, and the whole disc unique.  God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, recast as a New Orleans saloon number is just a lot of fun, and Little Drummer Boy gets a bit of boogie.  Best tree-trimming party ever.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Sweet-voiced vet Hoskins teams up with go-to drummer Craig for this sublime disc, full of radiant, laid-back numbers.  Each highlights Hoskins' writing and singing, with simple but rich backing.  Craig sets the groove, Hoskins drops in evocative guitar lines with rich harmonies, and then we get carried along in the words and voice.

Sorry for the obvious comparison, but there's a bounty here for fans of Paul Simon.  Images rush at us, as we're placed inside conversations and observations, scenes of life laid out for us in first person:  "I am crippled by doubt in this house that is not my home."  Hoskins' high-pitched voice adds drama the further up the scale he goes.  The interplay between guitar and vocals will make you think about Jeff Buckley too. Craig meanwhile is all subtlety on the kit, putting just as much mood into each song.  The percussion is right up front in the mix, but surprisingly quiet too, and full of sound personality.  He's recorded so well here, the kind of mastery found on the several discs he's done with Colin Linden (who drops by for a guest appearance on slide on one cut).  Two big Canadian talents at the top of their games here.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I still haven't got my head around the Coen Brothers making a film about the folk music world of the 50's and 60's, but at least I figured the music would be worth it.  Ably assisted by T Bone Burnett, the soundtrack features a mix of period recordings and brand-new music created and performed for the film.  Not just lip-synch'ed either; the Coen boys insisted on filming actual live performances, which meant they had to have actors who could pull that off.

The gem of those is Oscar Isaac, who plays the Davis character.  He has the voice to pull off these numbers, sounding very much like the type of performer found in Greenwich Village in those days.  The Davis character is based on Dave Van Ronk, one of true talents and great characters of that scene.  One of his live cuts, Green Green Rocky Road, is also found here.  The music side is beefed up by some major modern talents, including The Punch Brothers, Nancy and Norman Blake with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, and a full associate producer credit for Marcus Mumford, who arranged and performed some of the cuts with the actors.

You'll have to remember it's a movie, and the soundtrack gives you a sampling of the styles you'd find in those times.  The overly-earnest reading of The Last Thing On My Mind by Tom Paxton, as performed by Stark Sands and the Punch Brothers, is the kind of commercial folk aimed at a broad audience when the scene took off thanks to the Kingston Trio and others.  There's even a political comedy number, Please Mr. Kennedy, featuring co-star Justin Timberlake.  The treacle is there for film reasons, and can still be enjoyed.

Then there's the elephant in the room, and the soundtrack tackles the Dylan issue by scoring a coup.  They got the rights to use an unreleased studio take of his song Farewell, previously only found on one of the Bootleg Series discs, in a different version. One hopes, and expects, they've done as fascinating a job with the film as they have with the soundtrack

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


How can Young give us Archives Box 2, when he still keeps adding to Box 1?  This latest addition is a 1970 solo album from a Washington, D.C. club, Young on a tour playing just acoustic guitar and piano.  He'd just released the splendid After The Goldrush, most of which lent itself to the solo treatment, so we get fresh versions of those classics, a walk through some older classics, and typically for him, three songs that hadn't been released at that point.

Young has already released a solo acoustic record from this tour, Live at Massey Hall, recorded just a few weeks later.  Do we need two?  Well, the set list is almost completely different.  Back at the Cellar Door, in the last few days of November and early December of 1970, he was still concentrating on After the Gold Rush, playing the title cut, Birds, Tell Me Why, and Only Love Can Break Your Heart.  By January of 1971, he'd moved on to early versions of songs that would make up the next disc, still a year away, Harvest.  Such was the rate songs were pouring out of him at the time. Two albums' worth, plus several more that didn't make the cut at the time.  Here we get the playful Bad Fog Of Loneliness, a live favourite that wouldn't see the light of day until the Archives Box, plus See The Sky About To Rain, which would be held until 1974's On The Beach.  And the Harvest songs were already creeping in here, an excellent version of Old Man, fully written by this time.

About half of the songs are done at the piano, Young telling the audience he'd only been playing seriously for about a year.  You can tell, as he sometimes searches for the chords.  It doesn't hurt the performance though, as the shaky nature has always fit him well.  He adds some drama to Expecting To Fly, hammering on the important chords at the end for dramatic effect.  The biggest surprise comes when he plays, for the first time, the guitar burner Cinnamon Girl at the keys.  It's the sloppiest number here, but also the most musically intriguing, with some pretty interesting chords being used to replace the famous riff.  It may be better on guitar, and better still with Crazy Horse, but this a fascinating version, especially given the number of times we've heard it with electricity.

As for the format, I'd pick up the 180-gram vinyl copy, a lovely and warm-sounding album, which will take you back to the days of spinning Young's classics on your table.  It's only fitting.  Here's hoping there are more and more of these Archive releases, as virtually every era of Young's touring career reveals something vastly different.

Monday, December 9, 2013


I don't know about you, but if I hear one more jazz-folk-country-lounge-poet from the desert, well...  that will be two.  Gelb is pretty much on his own over his massive career, on his own or leading Giant Sand (or Giant Giant Sand), and he pretty much sums up his idiom here.  It starts with "Well...welcome to the desert," and then the wry humour begins:  "It's become increasingly more expensive...".  The setting drives the sound, which is wide and open, shifting like the sands, never standing still in one musical form.  What does stay still is Gelb's own take on singing, which is half-whispered, half-spoken, and the other half kinda sung, somewhere between older Leonard Cohen and younger Neil Young.

As usual, guests help out, including Bonnie "Prince" Billy in a duet on the first cut, Vortexas, and the delightfully out of place KT Tunstall on another, throwing things further off-center.  M. Ward is along on guitar, Andrew Bird on violin, and an actual jazz bassist in frequent colleague Thoger Tetens Lund, who gets to pluck away on stand-up on the jazzier cuts.  When I say jazz, it's more like demented lounge playing, sounding like guys who have been playing the same hotel bar for the same 20 drunks for way too long.

As for the concept, it's something about grabbing onto coincidence when it happens, and allowing it to lead the way.  This phenomena seems to happen to those living in Vortexas, which is more a state of mind than the 51st member of the union.  Really though, don't worry about it, the idea is to enjoy the language, not the meaning, the same way the Coincidentalist goes along with coincidence but doesn't search for the meaning of them.  Or, you can just wonder, who the heck is this guy?  For my money, he's the top desert-based jazz-folk-country-lounge poet working today.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


What a band.  Celebrating 40 years (the first decade in obscurity in east L.A.), the group runs through a career and genre-spanning set that highlights their Mexicali start, their emergence into a roots-rock group, and their further exploration into intricate, challenging sound exploration.  That they can do this in one set and still keep everyone interesting is, I suspect, the reason they've been around so long.  Plus, they still do La Bamba justice, and have never been pigeon-holed by that lone commercial breakthrough.

They start off with The Neighbourhood, a ghetto snapshot which sets the right tone; this band has never left its roots, and still draws its best inspiration from the streets.  Multiple percussion layers and sharp acoustic guitar punch through, plus there's the great sound of Steve Berlin's sax.  Mexican music is still prominent in their sets, the well they return to, the rhythms they incorporate into everything else they do.  There are a couple of great Hidalgo and Perez soul-touching numbers, Tears Of God and Little Things, sensitive songs run through with hurt.  It's that balance of the emotional lyrics with the celebratory rhythms that provides the ebb and flow to the set.  By the end of it, a one-two punch of their own favourite, Set Me Free (Rosa Lee) and a La Bamba/Good Lovin' medley, the party wins out, as it should.  Great sound too on this, an all-around gem of a live album.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


The Pack never actually made an album together; this is a compilation of cuts from their individual Christmas records stuck together years later.  So you get a track from Frank, another by Dean, then one from Sammy.  What, no Joey Bishop?  Of course those dudes sit nicely together, so it's not a mixed bag, it's from a day when singers sung, dig?

Dino's so cool.  Even on Rudolph he has to get a bit hip, and change the name to Rudy.  Sammy's even more swingin':  Jingle Bells gets a "Jing-jing-jingle in the morning" remake.  No such playfulness for Frank though; the Chairman takes his holiday serious, and we get the full-throated versions from his mid-50's period, with a chorale and big Jenkins arrangements.  His silken takes on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing are the heart-tugging opposites to Dean and Sammy's ho ho ho.

I've spent the past week listening to the latest Christmas offerings from every side of the current pop spectrum, with pretty much lukewarm results.  Nobody does it like these classic guys, and you'll do no better in your holiday listening.

Friday, December 6, 2013


In all the Black Friday-Cyber Monday hoopla a few days ago, it was nice to see music getting some attention for Christmas presents.  Just a few years ago, CD's were at the top of the list for gifts, and even before that, there wasn't a Christmas tree in town that didn't have a 13" x 13" package underneath it.  You knew it was an album, you just didn't know which one.  With fewer and fewer shops selling music now, and more and more downloading, they just aren't the go-to gifts anymore. 

With the success of Record Store Day, retailers latched onto Black Friday for a second such event pre-Christmas.  While it doesn't have quite the notoriety as its spring counterpart, it is getting pretty exciting for music fans, because of the special releases that come out on that day.  And, as opposed to the Record Store Day items, these ones are available to one and all, and you don't need to get down to the local indie store and line up on a Saturday.  Most of them stay available too.  For instance....

Vinyl is a big part of both the Black Friday and Record Store Day events, and this gem from 1998 wasn't released as an LP back in those digital days.  It has certainly kept its stature over the years, and is one that collectors were highly keen on seeing in the vinyl format.  For the uninitiated, this project came about when Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora came upon thousands of her father's finished lyrics in his archives, which had never been recorded.  If there were melodies, they had been lost with his death.  Guthrie's recording career had pretty much ended by the late 40's, as is illness progressed, but his writing didn't stop.  Best of all, there were all kinds of great lyrics there, from his well-known socially-conscience numbers to kid's songs, straight love songs and novelty numbers.  She decided some of it should be heard, and sought out the right people.

Guthrie selected British folkie Billy Bragg to lead the project, a devotee of Woody's, but a modern writer as well.  He got that she wanted the new music and recordings to be current, not a copy of what Guthrie had done fifty years before.  To that end, Bragg sought out other collaborators, wanted a rock edge, and brought in Wilco, at that point an Americana roots band.  A couple of smaller roles went to Natalie Merchant and blues guitarist Corey Harris.  The singing was split between Bragg and Jeff Tweedy, Wilco was the band, and the music writing was split between the camps.

They left much of the political material behind, instead focusing on the high-quality songwriting that rarely seemed dated.  Highlights include California Stars, a song still in the Wilco setlist today, given a easy-going modern rock treatment, a simple but beautiful song about lying under the stars, holding hands and resting weary bones.  Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key, by Bragg, is more on the folk side, but with the kind of bones that lets a song live for decades.  It's a look back at Guthrie's own past, with a wink.  And while Ingrid Bergman is a dated reference, it's too irresistible to hear Guthrie's lyrics about wanting to hook up with her for Bragg to have passed that one up.  Bragg pretty much handles the acoustic, straight-forward side, Wilco gets to rock it all up, like on the kid's song Hoodoo Voodoo, and the edgy Christ For President, the kind of bold statement Guthrie could make to shake up they way folks thought then (and now).

With the roots-rock production, lots of acoustic guitar and no dated trickery, this is a natural for vinyl, and sounds warm and woody.  You get a heavy 180 gram pressing, and the fifty-minute album is split over four sides instead of crammed onto two, so the audio is bold and wide.  And there's something about this release that's just right for vinyl, given the history.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Ah, Thomas.  That's how The Who referred to it, mocking its opera importance.  The war horse has held up surprisingly well, its reputation still solid in its fifth decade.  Long familiarity has drilled the plot home to us, and the movie certainly helped explain the story lline.  We don't have to think and listen at the same time to catch the plot.  When you can just sit back and listen, it's a grand album, lots of instrumental glory, some great anthems, a bit of humour and a surprisingly fluid pace from start to finish.  Townshend, despite the pressures, really pulled it off.

Read all about the trials of being the leader/writer of The Who in 1969 in the excellent hard cover book included in this four disc box.  Echoing the previous packages done for Live At Leeds and Quadrophenia, you really get a solid set, the packaging alone probably costs $30 to manufacture.  Then you get Tommy four different ways:  The album remastered on CD, another with a brand-new Blu-ray mix, then a full live reading taken from various concerts in 1969, and finally the album as heard in Townshend's famous demo recordings, a job at which he was a master.

The live CD is a terrific listen, the band able to recreate this complicated, long work with unflagging energy and full dynamics, considering there were just the four of them.  Daltry is front and centre, but Townshend is co-lead singer, taking songs such as The Acid Queen, to promote Daltry as the Tommy character.  When they cut through with Pinball Wizard, it's a thrill, even in your living room.  As fans of Who lore will know, each Tommy show that year was recorded for a live album, but after listening to hours and hours of shows, Townshend got bored and decided to just record at Leeds instead.  The story went that he told the sound man to dump the tapes in the landfill.  It turns out that wasn't true, and although they are a little under top fidelity, it's quite listenable and the editing is great, making it seem like one complete concert.

The demos are fun as well, with some variations from the final product, which was altered for late lyric upgrades during the studio sessions.  Interestingly, there are almost completely different demos that the ones found on the 2003 double CD reissue, only three of the 25 cuts previously released.  This means completists now have to own both versions, but it's a case of the more the merrier in Whoville.

I don't imagine you'll see this set come out cheap for Boxing Day sales.  They cost too much to make, from the mixing and mastering, the compilation of the book, and the expensive, thick packaging.  However, you won't question its value once you hold it and listen.  It took two hours to read the book, four hours to listen, and I'll be playing that live disc more than a few times.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


The Christmas cavalcade continues, with a seasonal favourite.  Every year, another version or repackage of these discs comes out, sometimes new material, sometimes just some shuffling of the recordings from past years.  For 2013, 26 years old, it's simply a couple of reissues, oh well..  Now, saying that, we are talking about one of the most successful collections ever, and it has managed to line up A-listers each time they look for songs for the Special Olympics.  So if you don't own it, or possibly have never replaced your original cassette (it's that old), here's a couple of new ways to buy it.

The original collection has  been reissued, now called The Story and the Music, thanks to the inclusion of a DVD looking at all the good deeds and recording sessions over the years.  That's nice, but really, just a one-time watch.  It is one of the better rock-era Christmas compilations, featuring lots of exclusive recordings.  Now, we are talking 25 years ago, so A-list is a bit different these days; many of you might wonder who Alison Moyet is, and The Pointer Sisters might need an introduction to some younger listeners.  But Sting, Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Bon Jovi and U2 are still heavyweights.  Bono and the boys do a fine job on the Spector classic Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), while I could probably do without hearing Nicks croak her way through Silent Night once more.  Hard to fathom, but at the time of release, Bruce Springsteen's live version of Merry Christmas Baby was a rare treasure to fans; this made it common.  Despite the presence of the hated Bon Jovi, I always have a soft spot for this set, and even like Whitney Houston's Do You Hear What I Hear, but she did church good back then.  You'll probably know most of these versions, they are now staples of radio and most malls once the holidays arrive.

The other new set is a kind of best-of selection from the various editions of the discs over the years, under the Icon series banner, lower-priced best-of's from Universal.  That means less tracks and time, only 11 songs here, and whoever picked them did a rotten job.  C'mon, Lennon's Happy Xmas (War Is Over) was only licensed for the series (free I'm sure), not newly recorded, so it should hardly be the lead cut, and it's on every friggin' compilation anyway.  Same goes for the Elvis cut, albeit a great version of Blue Christmas.  Again, with the Jon Bon Jovi (gag), and Wham!???  Nobody gives a Christmas crap about George Michael anymore, let alone his early days.  Carrie Underwood, Josh Groban, Rod Stewart in faux-crooner mode, where are all the great numbers?  At least Tom Petty gets included, but give me 20 minutes and I would have put together a better mix tape.  Avoid this one.


Let's get the Christmas album season in high gear.  There's been quite a few released this year, and while as usual most of them look pretty standard (full of standards) and some quite awful (most of the celeb/country ones), there are a few well worth mentioning.  Skydiggers is certainly one of the latter, a lovely little project to wrap up the group's 25th anniversary celebrations.  Each season this of 2013, the 'diggers have released a new offering to honour the birthday, and it ends with this five-track EP of festive numbers.  We get two covers, two traditional songs and a surprise new offering.

Joining mainstays Josh Finlayson and Andy Maize for this collection are friends and touring band mates, plus a welcome back to departed but still contributing member Peter Cash, who also did a special anniversary show with the group earlier this year in Fredericton.  Bumped up to the top ranks is singer Jessy Bell Smith, more and more a featured performer live and now on disc.  Here she handles duet vocals with Maize on all the tracks, and takes the lead on John Prine's Christmas In Prison.  She also chimes in nicely behind Maize on the other modern cover here, The Pretenders' favourite, 2000 Miles.  Both are strong choices, not often covered so we're not sick to death of them.

Of the traditional songs, Good King Wenceslas is pretty common, but not by the rock/roots crowd, and it's cool to hear it as a guitar song.  Maize puts a lot of soul into it, vocally and with a good turn on trumpet too.  Bonus marks for picking one of my very favourite carols.  This one's been out before, but here has a new mix by Cowboy Junkies' Michael Timmins.  Poor Little Jesus is nicely obscure, and the band does a grand job turning it into an Emmylou Harris kind of number.

The wild card is perhaps the only song ever written by two sitting members of Parliament.  Church Bells Ringing comes from NDP'ers Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash (Peter's bro).  Set in Toronto on Christmas Eve, it's a lonely night on Dundas Street, church bells not helping, another city guy wishing he was home, which could be the church or could be the town he's thinking about.  It's a gem and final proof there's soul in the House of Commons, even these days.

Monday, December 2, 2013


This is the documentary recently shown on PBS, covering birth to death in two hours.  Filled with friends, band mates and family, it's somewhat clean and nice, with Hendrix portrayed as a genius guitar player, humble and prolific, the message being he just wanted to make music.  There's nothing particularly new in the story, although the footage is prime, lots of rare film of important concerts, from his breakthrough days in England down to his last appearance in Germany just days before his death.  If you don't know the Hendrix story, this is an excellent way to be introduced.  If you are familiar, it's the visuals that will keep you interested.

The star interview is from Paul McCartney, who does an excellent job explaining Hendrix's explosion on the English scene, and how hip London fell in love with him.  McCartney saw it all, from his debut club performance to his first major London theatre gig, and it's rare the Beatle speaks in awe of contemporaries, being as he was pretty much top of the heap.  His enthusiasm gives you a great indication of how perfectly Hendrix captured the English scene.  His take-over of the U.S. was a bit slower, and the film makes a good point that Monterey Pop only opened the door, but it took months of constant touring to really achieve top star status.  By 1969, he was the top concert draw in North America, the key player to make your festival a success.

None of the really touchy stuff is explored here; the drugs are referenced, but only casually.  The money, the management, and the messy legacy of legal disputes, overdubs, reissues and such is not even brought up, as the film ends with his death.  Even that is not even explored, the cause not mentioned.  We're left with this picture of a giant who walked the earth briefly, amazing all.  The only negative, and it's a minor one, comes from producer/discoverer Chas Chandler, who split with him over the amount of takes and re-takes he was doing, just because he was bored.  Dirt, you won't get, thanks to this official family portrait.  Still, their point is simple, the guy was a wonder.

The film itself is a keeper, and you get a ton of bonus footage with the DVD.   There are three different concert appearances, four to six songs each:  Miami Pop Festival in 1968, New York Pop Festival in 1970, and the newly-found footage from that final Germany show, September 6, 1970.  None of it is pristine but in some ways it's more special than professional footage, knowing we're lucky to have it.  A final bonus is a Top Of The Pops appearance from 1967, doing Purple Haze, Hendrix as absolutely cool as can be.  At three hours in total, this is a prime package.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


This is a straight reissue of the 4-CD box set, from 1991, except in smaller packaging.  And why not?  It's a good one, and let's be honest, there's not much the trio have done on their own or separately that needs to be updated since then.  And disc four of this was already a bit spotty, as the 80's weren't exactly kind to them either.  You could pick apart what happened to them, but let's just say, for at least Crosby and Stills, there were copious amounts of drugs involved.  Too bad, but we shall revel in the late 60's and 70's output at least.

The early 90's were the heyday for box sets, and the best ones were bonanzas.  Thanks to the Dylan and Clapton examples, boxes came filled with previously-unreleased tracks, many of them wonderful treasures we didn't know existed.  The big attraction here were CSNY cuts (of course), and there are several, either different mixes or versions, and even a couple of heretofore unknown ones.  Highlight #1 is the cut Horses Through The Rainstorm, a Nash songs written with Terry Reid, that the group deemed too pop for Deja Vu.  Balderdash I say, it's a keeper, and wasn't Our House light and breezy too?  Then there's the studio version of The Lee Shore, a number previously only found live, on Four Way Street.  Not the strongest Crosby number, but as always the vocals our sublime.  Man In The Mirror is a live version of the Nash solo cut, on a CSNY tour.  See The Changes is a CSNY take from 1973, from one of the several aborted sessions they did, trying to get back together.  Best of all those is Homeward Through The Haze, another one-off session in 1974, the track later reclaimed for a Crosby/Nash album.  It's just the four of them, voices and acoustic guitars, still with the magic.

There are plenty more previously unreleased tracks here, including different mixes of the group's first two, classic albums (Crosby, Stills & Nash, Deja Vu).  For the most part, the compilers did a fine job including all the various other releases over the 70's and 80's, finding the best as the quality diminished.  Stills has the best solo work, especially his Stills album, and the Manassas project with Chris Hillman and various others, but also crashed the worst, down to the unlistenable Thoroughfare Gap album of 1978.  I especially like the CSN album cuts from 1977, not the album everyone hoped it might be at the time, but there's some nice stuff there, and I always thought Just A Song Before I Go was a great little number.  Some box sets have too few cuts or miss some key ones, and others have way too much.  This one came out just right.  Oh, it's also half the price I paid for it in '91 now.