Wednesday, January 29, 2014


I first ran into this duo at the small but wonderful music event on Grand Manan Island, NB, Summer's End Folk Festival.  It takes quite a trip to get there, including a two-hour ferry ride, but when you do, you're entertained by the likes of Catherine MacLellan, Old Man Luedecke and Daniel Romano.  This past August, I had no idea who Kacy & Clayton were, but I was immediately surprised, pleased and a bit shocked.  The pair are young cousins from rural Saskatchewan, Kacy Anderson still a teen, but close your eyes and they immediately transport you back a century or more.  This is the real stuff, folk songs performed with a bare minimum of accompaniment, from sad sea tales to brokenhearted lovers.  Some are well-known, ancient numbers (Pretty Saro), but others are in fact their own compositions, yet placed side-by-side you'd never know they weren't straight from the Child Ballads folk book.

Lots of younger artists are trying to play old folk music, and doing pretty well.  But I'll put K & C on top of that group.  Kacy has an amazing voice, truly haunting, always stirring.  She sings to your soul, immediately making the emotion rise in your heart.  Clayton Linthicum is a fabulous guitar player, his notes ringing out, whether it's gentle picking or country gospel with a happy skip (Let It Shine On Me).  There's not much else here, just occasional fiddle, organ, or autoharp added for emphasis.  Clayton can throw in a harmony part on the odd chorus too.  But mostly the two tell the rich stories with vocal and guitar, and a touch of echo. 

The song selections are surprising, too.  I've heard a lot of young interpreters playing the same old standards, not realizing they are well-known if you're over forty.  But some of these I've never heard in my decades of listening, and I've heard a lot of folk, friends.  They obviously know their stuff, and want to push past the normal.  And their own trio of originals, well, let's just say I was stunned to find out they weren't written by the poets of the past.  Wood View, with its Carter Family autoharp and close harmonies, is about a family plot that has seen too many young people join its ranks: "My sister she died as a baby, I guess it's all part of His plan."  Feels old, is new, and cuts through all the clatter of current pop music to deliver a most gorgeous and glorious sound.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


A big box of six DVD's, this is a look back on some groundbreaking tours and concerts held for Amnesty International.  A long time back, the charity discovered the power of connecting major stars and good music to their cause,   We watch how that got started in England, as explained in documentary features of the DVD's, learn the history and cause, and of course focus on some major concert footage along the way.

There are four concert events presented here, spread over the set.  The first is the all-day A Conspiracy Of Hope broadcast from 1986, from Giants Stadium.  The second is a multi-venue look at the Human Rights Now! tour of 1988 that lasted six weeks and visited cities around the world.  In 1990, much of the same cast reunited in Chile for a celebration show after the end of the dictatorship there.  And finally, 1998 saw a one-off concert to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Giants Stadium 1986 was a big deal, back when these televised concerts were still a novelty.  It was the year after Live Aid, so much excitement had built up for the show, which featured a slew of stars.  Headlining were The Police, reunited for the first time since Synchronicity, Sting having become a solo star.  U2 were becoming the hottest band on the planet, and Peter Gabriel had just come off his smash Sledgehammer.  Bryan Adams was hauling in the mainstream pop fans, and Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed were rock royalty.  Of course, there were plenty more acts on the undercard to fill up the day.  The trouble with this lengthy double-disc look at the show is that disc one is hit-and-miss, depending on the talent on hand.  Jackson Browne and Joan Armatrading, yay. The Hooters and Third World, unremarkable.  And at every one of these events, you can count on some bizarre performances.  This time, Joan Baez singing Tears For Fears' Shout takes the prize.  Neither Yoko Ono or Miles Davis was suited to the outdoors stadium, but their inclusion was mostly honorary.  Poor Little Steven, trying to eek out a solo career away from E Street, was just god-awful.  Perhaps it was because his two best songs were grabbed by others, I Am A Patriot (performed by Browne) and Sun City (U2).  It's still a big kick watching these vintage moments, and watching American kids starting to catch on to problems such as Apartheid.

1988's event saw a different plan, with the touring lineup set in place:  Sting and Gabriel were the backbone, Tracy Chapman the new star with a conscious, Youssou N'Dour brought in the Third World, and Bruce Springsteen was the heavy hitter brought in to make sure the shows would be huge.  The DVD, instead of presenting one night, is done in a documentary style, travelling the world with the cast, and showing us everything from in-flight footage to press conferences to artists testimonials.  We also get partial sets from all. Gabriel, awkward in '86, has now figured out how to play to stadiums, and the power of Biko is perhaps the highlight of the set.  Springsteen is captured in wild, end-of-set abandon, the audience frenzy as huge as his stage presence on closer Twist And Shout/La Bamba.  Above all, we get the sense that these core artists were totally committed to the cause, and willing to stick their necks out every day on the tour.

1990's one day concert was meant to celebrate the liberation of Chile, and better human rights for the area.  Sting and Gabriel were back, this time joined by Browne again, newbies Sinead O'Connor, Wynton Marsalis, and Ruben Blades.  Oh, and New Kids On The Block.  Guess who were most popular?  Just goes to show you can bring all the high-minded ideals you want, but what really causes excitement is a boy band.

The 1998 Paris show was pretty much a cast reunion of the 1988 world tour, with only Sting unable to make it. Springsteen didn't have the band together, but instead did three acoustic songs, and it's always good to see him stripped back, it lets the songs come through.   Gabriel and N'Dour (a much bigger star in Paris than elsewhere) do a wonderful job on In You Eyes, obviously thrilled to be together again.  The rest of the show welcomes new blood to the Amnesty cause, stars of that period, and newcomers of note.  Shania Twain appears nervous and out of place, but good on her for standing up and being counted.  Alanis Morissette was still awfully big back then, but the songs haven't aged well.  Radiohead really came off well, Paranoid Android a good one.  As for extra star wattage, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were perhaps more interesting in that group than much of the Zeppelin time.

There is a lot of music here, most of it interesting.  There's also a lot of talk.  Not just in the concert documentaries, but as special features, mini-docs and messages spread all over the set.  It's highly repetitive, often repeating the same testimonials from the celebs.  Of course, you don't have to watch it all, and in one long stretch as I did.  It's an important message though, so it's good to let some in during the first viewing at least.  The music is what will draw you though, and this is a very generous look at these landmark concerts.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the con man caper has lots of attention, which means certain soundtrack interest as well.  With its late 70's setting we get a pretty good mixtape of vintage hits, most a little before that, but no matter.  It's not the usual overused soundtrack fare;  the biggest here, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Live And Let Die are that played out, and some are nice surprises.  ELO's 10538 Overture is one of the group's best and most Beatle-esque, and sounds great followed by the Wings tune.  Unfortunately, it must have been a package deal, as another, later ELO tune, Long Black Road, is a clunker.  The Jeff Lynne solo instrumental Stream Of Stars is actually pretty nice though. 

Hats off for the inclusion of the Bee Gee's How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, a gem that deserves more attention, as does all the group's early work.  Tom Jones' Delilah is overwrought, like all his hits, but still a hoot.  Blah to America's Neil Young rip, Horse With No Name though.  The rarer, original version of Don't Leave Me This Way, by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes is used over Thelma Houston's #1 hit, again a nice touch.  But scarily, there's also Donna Summer's breakthrough, I Feel Love.  For you younger listeners who want to know what the mid-70's were like, spin that, and you'll realize we didn't hate disco, we were very very afraid of it.  And, we were right.  Anyhoo, 10 of 15 cuts here are pretty cool, if you don't own them already, and it's a good spin from start to almost end.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Going solo after fronting the Cajun group Swamperella, Toronto's Soozi Schlanger opens up to include both humour and heartache, ranging from rockabilly to stripped-down acoustic to her own fiddle-fuelled fun.  With a big, real voice she can conjure up Wanda Jackson or Lucinda Williams, and make you wanna cry or sing along.  Most of all she writes straight-shooting, tell it like it is tales, whether they are from the woman's side of unrequited love among buddies (Just Friends) or the rowdy life of someone who just won't be tamed (Wild Pony).

Soozi has a knack for dropping a line that'll knock you back a couple of steps.  Describing the flotsam in the slim crowd in the rundown Old Queen's Hotel where she's playing, she informs us "Three out of four sittin' at that bar have been there since '72."  Falling for the sweet talker in Pointy Alligator Shoes, she admits "I slipped from the ledge of my common sense/and I hang off the edge of each lie that you tell."  She wraps up her stories nice and neat, you feel like you've gotten to know the characters well, and your heart's been nudged.  Soozimusic has a lot going for it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Kitchener, Ontario's Soulstack returns with thick and sweet soul, ten originals and a sanctified cover of the barn burner This May Be The Last Time.  The key here is how well the band plays together, guitars weaving in and out, the rhythm section pulsing, and Mark Wessenger's keys leading the charge.  Great vocals, too.  Guitarist Jonathan Knight handles the leads, and the gospel-influenced harmonies have that rough but right on southern feel.  Knight deserves extra kudos for the production, with the mix and the arrangements quite a joy to hear, each instrument distinct, rising to the front for leads, and perfectly filling the right spot in the song. 

There are several standout tracks;  Friend covering the smooth ballad side, with rich and tasty chords and a blue-eyed soul vocal.  Hangin' In The Kitchen brings the funk, Tom Bona's big drums driving a cool syncopated groove, sounding like the Tower Of Power rhythm section.  Not The Only One sees Knight and Wessenger share the vocals on a big feel-good number, featuring rich organ and a Lowell George-worthy slide lead.  Want You To Stay has some of the best chords since Al Green's heyday.  Through it all, the playing is impeccable, a totally successful album.

Monday, January 13, 2014


Bruce cleans out his closets from the past decade or so, making available some old tracks that didn't make the final cut on albums, and puts to disc a few covers he's enjoyed playing the last few tours.  There's no big picture to the album, other than a look at his influences, and the appearance on seven of the twelve cuts of Tom Morello.  The Rage Against The Machine guitarist has been a pal and frequest sparring partner during this period, now even an auxiliary E Streeter, after subbing for Miami Steve during a leg of the last tour.  So there's a bit of his stirring and loud guitar here and there, and some songs of the downtrodden, their mutual interest.

Some of the cuts go back far enough to include instrumentation by Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, the two E Streeters no longer with us.  Others are brand new recordings, even if the songs are old, reflecting Springsteen's interest in them during the last tour.  There's High Hopes and Just Like Fire Would, two obscure covers where Morello is featured strongly.   We finally get studio versions of a number of cuts familiar to followers, American Skin (41 Shots) and The Ghost Of Tom Joad.  Skin is one of Springsteen's most controversial numbers, written after a fatal police shooting of an unarmed man, that earned him the ire and protests of police in New York.  This version of Tom Joad features Morello on co-lead vocal, a favourite of the duo's when doing guest spots.  Both have shown up on live recordings before, and are probably a little more powerful in concert.  The new songs, or at least new to us, are a mixed bag, from the string-filled ballad Hunter Of Invisibile Game to the funky groove of Harry's Place.  The latter isn't much, another tale of mobsters with an odd sound for Springsteen, and Morello sounding completely out of place trying to toughen up the slick sound.  There are better new numbers though, including Down In The Hole, which he probably first jettisoned for sounding too much like I'm On Fire.  Frankie Fell In Love features one of his most over-used names in the title, but it's the old good-time party sound that fits all those Frankie characters, and a welcome upbeat moment among the many serious numbers.

As a grab-bag of leftovers, it beats most anyone's attempts of course, and you can tell Springsteen was working as hard on these cuts as any others to make them as good as they can be.  Really, it's just a notch below his better albums.  Perhaps knowing it wasn't quite up to a classic collection, there's a great bonus in the CD/DVD version;  from a show in London last summer, when he performed the entire Born In The USA album from start to finish.  That alone will be more exciting for certain fans than the new tracks, and you certainly can't argue this isn't value for your money.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Eaglesmith has landed again, delivering as always a solid collection of thoughtful stories, rich in detail and full of groove.  There's mystery shot through this one, from the vintage studio echo sound to snapshots of hurt characters in the tracks.  The touchstone is the sound of 1966, garage band arrangements right down to the Farfisa and organ tones from producer Scott Merritt.  Guitars twang, there's hand clap percussion, sharp drums snap out.  Above it all sings the weary and road-tested troubadour, writing for all the folks in all the small halls he packs day in and day out on his constant travels.

Like Rick Danko, Eaglesmith sings with a voice soaked in sadness, rough and beautiful.  The words are simple, but the stories complex and truthful, like Engineer, where he sings about the love who left him: "Somebody ought to tell that paper boy throwing it up against my door, I sure could use some news/It's been too many years, I've cried too many tears, I've paid too many dues."  But he has fun too, like on Can't Dance, admonishing security for trying to stop kids in the crowd from enjoying the show.  Whether he's singing about himself, or any of the thousands of unsung heroes of rock and roll, from the 60's to now, Eaglesmith gets the magic of the moment, and why his fans really get it, too:  "I love my electric guitar, I love it when I play it way to loud/I ain't ever gonna be a star, but I sure do know how to please a crowd."  From the dreamy waltz of Drunk Girl to the Tex-Mex honk of Train Wreck, Eaglesmith taps into the best sounds around.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


The fourth in Block's series of tributes to her mentors and blues masters (Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson), this time she covers the work of Mississippi John Hurt.  Block met Hurt during his rediscovery in the early 60's, and soaked up his powerful playing and signature country blues.  As her choices point out, Hurt was as much an influence on the folk world as blues, with his versions of Candy Man, Frankie & Albert, Stagolee and Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor as close to definitive as there is.

The key to Hurt's arrangements was his dancing guitar, the notes plucked with equal strength and beauty, a touch of ragtime rhythm.  As Block tells us, he put his whole body into the playing, what she refers to as the "Mississippi John Hurt bounce energy."  She's able to capture the joy in his performance, but also notes these were classic early blues and folk lyrics, filled with sex and murder and such.  It's just his overwhelming personality that gives them the good time feeling.  But as we know, things didn't go so well for Frankie, Johnny and Albert.

Block's a wonderful guitar player, and handily carries the whole album solo.  In addition to ten Hurt numbers, she pens her own connection to him, describing their 60's meeting and his playing as she saw it then.  Humble, happy and a wizard, Hurt was unique among the early blues greats, with nary a murder conviction, death by poisoning or years on Parchman Farm in his past.  Yet he still had a ton of great songs.

Monday, January 6, 2014


The maligned third album from Tull, coming just after their breakthrough hit Living In The Past in England and Stateside success supporting Led Zeppelin on tour, and just before the big sound of Aqualung.  The group was still feeling its roots, not quite at the storytelling epic sound that would see them through the 70's, and a touch of blues left over from their beginnings.  Ian Anderson himself doesn't care for much it, but it does have some friends among the rest of the band, old-time hippies and Tullheads. 

This package includes the original album, non-LP singles of the day, and a bunch of alternate mixes and variant mono and stereo takes, plus a DVD with the 5.1 and PCM mixes, all done under the fingers of star U.K. mixer Steven Wilson.  He's getting quite the rep for cleaning up everyone from Prog bands to XTC, and the results are easily the cleanest, brightest versions of this work.  That's all very good for existing fans, but for those with just Aqualung and Thick As A Brick in the collection, is there more to discover?  I think so, you'll find some solid, if understated material that certainly includes the hallmarks of the Prog-ish Tull days;  Anderson's acoustic with Martin Barre taking some edgy leads, busy drums from Clive Bunker, and the recently added piano of John Evan, a classical fellow who fills in the sound well between Barre and Anderson.  There are those jagged little runs they love, flute doubling electric, piano doubling guitar, almost jazzy phrases that are unique to the band.  Few could mix heavy and pretty so well.

Highlights include With You There To Help Me, Nothing To Say, and For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me, name-checking the Apollo 11 shuttle driver, stuck alone while the other two moon-hopped.  Hardly cornerstones of the Tull hits selection, but all worthy on their own.  As with all the early albums, Anderson's lyrics are always worth a listen, plainspoken and interesting, far from boy-girl romance and also avoiding most late 60's cliche.  Song structures were also a surprise each time out, with different sections and speeds, never verse-chorus-verse.  It's just that nothing grabs you as much as Aqualung.

As for the bonuses, there are actually some more memorable numbers in the singles, a couple of which were sizable U.K. hits.  Again, Teacher, Sweet Dream, 17 and The Witch's Promise aren't that well known, but probably stand out a little more than the Benefit tracks.  Unfortunately, including several versions of each among the bonuses makes the second disc too repetitive for repeated listening.  Teacher gets aired twice on the end of disc one, and four more times on disc two, U.K. version, U.S. version, mono, stereo etc.  What is great about the deluxe package is the wonderful booklet full of current interviews of most of the band (Evan now out of touch in Australia), where they debate and disagree about the value of each cut, Anderson being the grouchiest, placing it in the bottom third of all Tull releases.  You gotta love a good curmudgeon.