Sunday, May 31, 2015


It's a strange reality where the biggest stars of a music scene weren't the bands, or even the fans. In Toronto's original punk scene, the biggest players were The Two Garys. Gary Topp and Gary Cormier didn't perform the music, they presented it, loving the bands and finding places to present it. First they brought The Ramones to the city, a cultural lightning bolt similar to the first time the Sex Pistols played Manchester. Then they found a spot willing to put on nightly shows, The Horseshoe Tavern on Queen St. West, hardly the trendy street then it would become. While they booked little-known bands they loved, such as The Police, The B-52's and Talking Heads, they also provided one of the few spaces for the up-and-coming groups of the home scene.

While they are only talking heads in a pair of DVD documentaries covering this pivotal era for Canadian music, The Garys truly did open the doors for a huge change in the sound and culture of downtown Toronto, something that would soon be spread across the country by the media based in the city. Filmmaker Colin Brunton had the bright idea to film the last-ever punk concert produced by The Garys at The Horseshoe in 1978. Called The Last Pogo, it's become a legendary night over the years, thanks to the minor chaos (shut down by the police because of overcrowding) and major line-up of first generation punk.

The original film is less than a half-hour, but opens the window on a punk night in Toronto the Good. Far less famous than London and New York's scene, there were still some high-quality bands (Teenage Head, The Viletones), and fascinating could-have beens (The Scenics, The Ugly). With just one song per group, and few audience shots, we don't get the whole picture, but this was pretty much a on-the-fly effort, and there are strong visuals of most of the groups, and we're lucky to have this piece of history.

The legacy of that night comes to fruition nearly forty years later, with the colossal documentary The Last Pogo Jumps Again. This time, Brunton and co-director Kire Paputts spent seven years making the ultimate look at the entire scene of punk Toronto from 1976 - 1978, with side trips to Hamilton and London, ON. Now we get it all, over three hours and tons of footage and fun. More well-known names come into the scene, including The Diodes and The Demics, crazy characters, sad ones, violent ones, wild ones.

The film makes its case, that the Toronto scene has been woefully under-appreciated. Teenage Head especially are one of the best bands the country has ever produced. But it succeeds even more as a look at a cultural community, and how a small group of people influenced art, society, a city and a country. The Garys, other members of the arts world, the fans, and the musicians believed strongly in something, and now history shows how right they were.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Tyson continues to add to the language that he invented back in 1986 with the Cowboyography album. This is more modern art for that most traditional of people, the ranching community of the west on both sides of the border. This cowboy music isn't the old tales of the Roy Rogers characters, these folks drive trucks as well as ride horses, and deal with mortgage holders far worse than rustlers. But the spirit and history of the west still informs the music, just as nature still dominates the lives. Some things change, some things stay the same.

At 81, Tyson's putting out albums at a pace that embarrasses bro-country stars a quarter of his age. So there's no need to quibble over the inclusion of some covers and re-makes here, especially when it gives him the chance to sing the classic Will James again, his tribute to the Quebec-born, Saskatchewan-raised convicted cattle rustler-turned-cowboy artist and author. It's one of his very best, a personal look at how western tales inspired his life, and of course continue to be passed on.

The five brand-new songs show Tyson still at the top of his lyrical power, spinning stories of romance, hardships, hard work, hell and high water. Most exciting is a new co-write with Tom Russell, his closest comrade-in-song from south of the border, the pairing that brought us the beloved Navajo Rug some 30 years back. Wolves No Longer Sing also features on Russell's new album, a themed collection about the west. It's about modern change, with children selling ranches and urban sprawl swallowing up open land, about the idea that its all been sold for next to nothing. But there's hope at the end, that nature and music will return. These tough western guys are all poets at heart, you know.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


If you're familiar with the bands The Watchmen and Thornley, you might know the common member, bass player Ken Tizzard.  Originally from Newfoundland, Tizzard has moved around a lot in his career, from province to province, band to band, and style to style.  After leaving Thornley he started a solo career that is now five albums deep, but pinning him down is still difficult.  If you played this new album back-to-back with any Watchmen or Thornley album, you wouldn't recognize him.  But that goes for the solo albums too.

This time out, Tizzard found himself interested in acoustic music, country-folk specifically.  He'd been touring with just an acoustic trio, and wanted to capture that sound.  So he put a ban on electric instruments for the album, added drums and dove in with some well-crafted story-telling.  Inspired by time on the road with fellow Newfoundlander and song crafter par excellence, Ron Hynes, Tizzard came up with a series of character-driven lyrics.  Among the best tunes here are 37 Bullets, which looks at the Bonnie & Clyde story, but not through the eyes of the main characters.  Instead he invents a life of a teenage girl from a coffee shop who sees Clyde in a robbery early on, and falls in love with the dashing character. 

He's taken to this style well, with evocative writing and great sympathy for the regular folks in life.  Everything is recorded in one take off the floor, no polishing, and the warmth and humanity comes through. Tizzard's a wizard at re-invention.

Monday, May 25, 2015


Clayton-Thomas has been the big voice in front of big bands for a long time, going back to Blood, Sweat & Tears, and continuing through his solo jazz career. This time out, he cuts it back to a tight, five person all-star team, a jazz combo to record this batch of intimate classics.

You'll know them all; Stardust, As Time Goes By, Summertime, Nature Boy, etc. They are so well known, you have to really put everything into them, or they can fall flat. Clayton-Thomas really makes them his own. It's a sturdy combination of emotion and skill as he digs into the time-tested words and melodies, trusting both his ability and the magic in the songs. Well into his sixth decade of performing, he may not be able to huff and puff and blow your house down anymore, but his technique and musicality has only improved with the years.

This isn't new territory for Clayton-Thomas. He revisits a song that has over the years become his signature vocal, God Bless The Child, as first recorded on the second BS&T album in 1968. For someone known for so long for his tremendous vocal power, this set shows he's always had the gift of nuance as well.

Sunday, May 24, 2015


It's no surprise that Brandon Flowers evokes some 80's music in his second solo album, it's what his band The Killers has been doing all along. It's more a surprise how downright pop it is. Diggin' Up The Heart might as well be the the last ELO single. There are Queen moments all over, and I'm quite sure Chris De Burgh walked through at one point.

Wisely, Flowers never goes over-the-top on the production, keeping the synths and drum programming and bells and sugar-coating in check, or at least in proper balance. But it's weird to listen to an album where every song makes you wonder where you've heard that before, and each the time the answer is some dated 80's production, perhaps the era of Moody Blues or Yes. Funny thing is, Flowers writes good songs and lyrics, and has a fine voice. I wonder what a solo album without the tricks would be like?

Saturday, May 23, 2015


In anticipation of the Wilson biopic Love And Mercy arriving in theatres in June, here's a reissue of his first solo album, from back in 1988. Actually, it's a reissue of the reissue; this is the expanded 2000 version that has been out of print awhile. That's important because it includes an extra 14 tracks past the original 11.

This has always been "what if" album, thanks to Wilson's precarious mental health, his somewhat childish approach to lyrics, and the meddling of his then-psychiatrist, the notorious Dr. Landy. Restricting access to Wilson, who knows what damage Landy did, especially if pros such as Jeff Lynne and Andy Paley could have could have convinced him to re-write some words and replace glaring sounds like the synth bass. However, there are some absolute gems along the way as well.

Love and Mercy has become Wilson's theme song since his comeback, and there are many more beautiful harmony moments among the tracks, including the sublime Melt Away. At Warner Music's insistence, Wilson came up with an epic track in the manner of the legendary Smile material, and Rio Grande is actually pretty fascinating and complex, despite being made to order. Much of the material confirmed that Wilson did indeed retain a large percentage of his talent from his '60's heyday.

The bonus cuts are more for the collector/enthusiast, including demos, b-sides and interview segments about the album. The best are the working versions of the songs, a look at Wilson's building process, with the multi-layered instruments and complex arrangements, still and always a genius in the studio. If you ever wondered about the methods and madness behind the music, the movie has been very well reviewed, and should give you most of the story.

Friday, May 22, 2015


Lynne has certainly found her style, and has been perfecting out over the course of her last handful of albums.  She's passed through the Dusty In Memphis phase, keeping the vocal strength she exhibited then, and has made her songwriting even stronger.  Always steeped in southern humidity, and always saturated with sadness, her storytelling is vivid and filled with snapshot details.  And of course, she has one of the most soulful voices going, heart-crushing if you're not careful.

Back Door Front Porch is just that kind of tune, where she offers up glimpses of her surroundings and feelings.  Blacktop highways, dew drips off the mailbox, been making memories in the wrong place.  She knows where she needs to be, and let's us picture it too:  "Back door, front porch, window."  When she does get brighter, like on Sold The Devil, her voice in a good mood is a soaring wonder, a blast of clearing sun after a downpour. 

It's all elemental truths in her lyrics.  There's the strongest of love, rain and lightning, a tangible knowledge of God, big church steeples that pierce the sunset, waterfalls of laughter.  The songs are arranged with fine drama as well, building moments that let Lynne loose with her pipes.  Fans will be intrigued by the two co-writes with Ron Sexsmith here as well, an inspired pairing.  The best southern music has always had a little of everything, including country, soul, rock and folk.  Lynne brings all that, plus great stories and a tremendous voice, and this is one of her very best albums.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Cohen's sure been milking these extended tours he's been on for product.  In the last six months, he's released this live album plus an entire concert DVD, Live In Dublin, from the 2012-2013 world tour.  And before that, he put out the same amount, the Live in London DVD and Songs From The Road CD, from the 2008 - 2009 jaunt.  Not to mention the Live in Fredericton vinyl EP for a Record Store Day.  But who's complaining?  Not me.

That's because he keeps coming up with new things to send our way.  He has the vast catalogue of course, but he's been so prolific in his later years, he keeps adding brand-new songs that may or may not end up on studio albums.  There are two of them here, as well as interesting covers and reworked older material.  And remarkably, of the ten songs, only one has been on any of the other recent live releases, and in a radically different way.  Here, the well-known Tower of Song is renamed Stages, because it's mostly a humorous stage introduction to the song about aging and attractiveness, and then a couple of verses of the song done in a completely different arrangement and tempo. 

How Cohen manages this is by giving us a ticket to the secret show, before the main one.  Half of the cuts were recorded at soundcheck, a time for the band to work out new material that may or may not make it into the main set.  That's where we hear the great Joan of Arc, one of the few classics missing from the recent shows until he worked up this version with his current backing singers featured prominently.  Cohen returns to his first love, country music, covering a song that won George Jones a Grammy from 1999, Choices.  He only played it in concert a couple of times, and here we hear him working up the tribute cut, with Jones obviously a hero of his. 

The two new cuts being worked on are equally left-field additions.  Never Gave Nobody Trouble is a full-on blues song, Cohen reveling in the classic form of the lyrics, admitting he "don't wanna break no windows, don't wanna burn no car."  It's actually a clever attack on the rich and greedy tycoons, who don't see what's coming when they piss off the proletariat.  Got A Little Secret is another from his recent favourite topic, advanced age and diminishing expectations and returns. 

Of the concert tracks, it's especially fine to hear I Can't Forget make the set list, from the I'm Your Man album.  It's also wonderful to hear his tribute to his Francophone audience, a cover of the 1966 hit La Manic, by the poet, novelist and singer Georges Dor.  This was performed for audiences familiar with the song, in Quebec and New Brunswick.  As with all his recent live albums, Cohen's exceptional and subtle backing group is perfect, and perfectly understated, providing an exceptional recording, each instrument and voice at a gentle and beautiful level.  This is so much more than just a tour album, it's a real present to the faithful.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Here's a band from L.A. that happily welcomes being labelled eclectic. A great big, seven-piece outfit, they throw lots into the mix, but it all comes out sweet. Largely roots-rock, The Skylarks feature great vocals, from lead singer Sam Mellon, second voice Amy Luftig Viste, and lots and lots of harmonies. Then there are plenty of accents, with a full-time pedal and lap steel player on duty in Julian Goldwhite, and a bona fide trumpeter, Dan Clucas, for that mariachi moment. Oh, and there are freak-outs too, just when you think everything's pop and smiley.

Maybe it's California; these folks aren't kids, they have kids, and have no doubt seen every scene from Sunset Strip pop to Palomino country to Paisley Underground to cowpunk to desert rock. All this comes together seamlessly, with hooks galore but an edge to every song too. The band can be light as a breeze, with touches of The Jayhawks, but mix in Wilco moments.

Earle Mankey ably produces, a perfect fit thanks to his resume, an early guitar player for Sparks, engineer on The Beach Boys Love You album, and producer of The Runaways, Concrete Blonde and The Long Ryders. So it's all this mix of classic influences, an appreciation for beauty and tears, craft and feeling, and moving forward. A gem.

Monday, May 18, 2015


All three original Specials albums have been reissued as deluxe, 2-disc sets. The gem is the first release, 1979's self-titled album, packed with hits, dance numbers and brilliant ska covers. Also, the group's political bent was perfectly mixed with its joyful sounds, a potent mix.

The following albums both have problems, but also have much to enjoy. For 1980's More Specials, leader Jerry Dammers started experimenting with new sounds, interesting but a radical departure. He developed an interest in Muzak and lounge sounds, and started incorporating that into Jamaican music. It was a lot more challenging than the ska-punk blend they had been doing just the year before. There were some moments of lightness, including Enjoy Yourself (It's later than you think) and the mixed tribute to James Bond and James Brown called Sock It To 'Em J.B. but memorable classics aren't found here.

Instead, you can get them on the bonus disc. In a rare occurrence for deluxe sets, the better part is disc two. That's where the singles released around that time are found: Rat Race, the Dylan cover Maggie's Farm, and the U.K. #1, Ghost Town. Along with some Peel Sessions and excellent b-sides, you'll want to spin this, prove that the band was still firing, it was Dammers that was complicating things.

Most of the band had it at that point, with Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding leaving to form Fun Boy Three. Dammers started making a new group, reverting to a previous name, The Special AKA. Remaining members left, new voices and players came in, and three years passed before the release of In The Studio. The results were more tempered musically, but full of sharp politics, just like the old days. Especially strong was Nelson Mandela, which became a rallying cry for the anti-apartheid movement, Dammers an unlikely rally leader.

Disc two is less valuable here, although it does include the bleak single The Boiler, recorded with vocalist Rhoda Dakar, about date rape. But half the 12 cuts are merely instrumental versions. Still, I'm betting most people don't know the In The Studio album, so it's worth it to pick it up.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


Sainte-Marie has recorded sporadically over the past two decades, each time reminding us of her songwriting power. But the albums have never fit in, either with current or classic sounds. She's never tried to go back to earlier, acoustic work; and always been keen on incorporating new sounds into her sound, synth and samples into powwow rock. Despite the importance of the music (and her lyrics never fail to make it important), the right blend has not been there.

Until this one. With three producers involved on the different cuts, it comes together as a seamless effort. There are songs that rock, some with a roots side, chants here and there, and very satisfying grooves. In a word, it's uplifting. And she's included some of the sharpest lyrics she's written, naming names and occupations, bankers and GMO producers especially.

Another of the strengths comes in her song choices. She has remade several older songs, going back to her first album (It's My Way), and some from the '70's. The beautiful Orion was an instrumental originally written by her late husband, the illustrious producer-arranger Jack Nitzsche (Neil Young, Phil Spector), and she's now added lovely, star-themed words. Another smart move is finding inspiration in other songs she admires, and making new versions. There's a re-writing of the song Power In The Blood by Alabama 3, fans of hers and vice-versa, now with a pesticide and GMO warning. She also takes the old UB40 anti-apartheid song Sing Your Own Song, and creates powwow reggae.

Inspirational, varied, commanding, valuable. It's a powerful album, and totally enchanting too, and there are very few of those.

Friday, May 15, 2015


Looks like Marcus Mumford et fils got the memo. There are now way too many banjo bands around. Too bad they were the biggest of them, going straight to #1 with their last album and this one as well. It was the group's signature sound, great big folk with a mighty five-string roar. Not any more. Goodness, what is Winston Marshall to do?

The answer is he's moved to electric guitar. Mumford has plugged in too, plus the kick drum is gone, and he playing a full drum kit. You won't see Ted Dwane with his acoustic bass, he strapping one on now, and Ben Lovett's got a synth. So, do we really need another basic rock band? And what will the reaction be from the legions of I Will Wait fans?

It's certainly still recognizably M & S, thanks to Mumford's distinctive vocals. It fits into modern rock well too. Lead single Believe (written by the rest of the group, instead of Mumford, the usual tunesmith) is an eerie ballad until it gets bathed in loud, edgy guitar. The Wolf is a guitar rocker, with a de rigueur epic sweep. This time its loud at the start, with soft bits in the middle. Abrupt endings seem to be a thing now as well. Then there's Snake Eyes, which is soft and then everybody plays really loud and ... you get the picture.

So, I figure the group was right to shake things up, the new folk boom has clearly got out of hand, as booms do eventually. What's bugging me is that Marcus Mumford actually impressed the hell out of me on that Lost on the River project, where some roots artists (Costello, Jim James, etc.) made new songs out of some unused Dylan lyrics from the time of the Basement Tapes. It wasn't derivative music, it was simply really good, timeless. That would have been a way to go: More roots rock oriented, dump the banjo, but don't sound like all the current guitar bands.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


You go into a Jeff Beck live album expecting to hear killer guitar, and this certainly gives you that.  What you might not expect is a great, all-around show featuring powerhouse vocals, classics and new, innovative tracks.  That's why so many long-time Beck fans have enjoyed the last few years of his career, as he continues to provide thrills.

Beck has put together a team of extreme talent from the jazz and rock worlds, mirroring his own interests.  Of note is bass star Rhonda Smith, born in Halifax, raised in Montreal, a veteran of Prince's band and many others, and a colleague of Sheila E.'s.  As Beck fans say, she's the thunder to his lightning.  Also on board for this tour, recorded in the U.S. last year, was Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall, regarded as one of the best R'n'B singers of the day.  He's sung with Beck often, and on recordings, but never on a full tour, so this set is an important document of that collaboration.

The band strengths allow so much to come out in the set.  Hall's show-stopper is Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, and that's enough of a highlight here.  But having a vocalist of his caliber really adds to other Beck favourites, especially Superstition, the song Stevie Wonder was supposed to give to the guitarist as a single, before he changed his mind and released it himself.  Beck and Hall enjoy covering Hendrix, and here we get the soulful Little Wing.

Sometimes the guitar is still the best singer though.  If you haven't heard Beck do Danny Boy, or A Day In The Life, I hate to spoil the surprise, but you would have seen them on the sleeve notes I suppose.  Take a listen, and smile.  It's not just for guitar fans, by the way.  It's for music fans.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


The old friends first teamed up in 2013 for Old Yellow Moon, which won them a Grammy award. Both immediately said it was just the first album, more would happen soon, and this one is just as welcome.

Harris and Crowell go back to the '70's, when producer Brian Ahern was asked to help make her first album. He'd been given a demo tape of Crowell's songs for Anne Murray to hear, but recognized them as better stuff for his new artist. Harris recorded two on her album, and Crowell became her duet partner in the Hot Band. They always promised each other they'd get back together to record more some day, and finally realized they'd better get to it.

The Old Yellow Moon album was done pretty fast, and featured covers, some old Crowell numbers and easy stuff for them to get done. This time, they wanted to make sure it wasn't OYM part two, so both came armed with new compositions. And it's a better album for it, better than its predecessor too. For the first time, the pair even wrote some together. Yup, nobody's phoning it in, this is a partnership that they take seriously. They're on the road for the rest of the year as well, so this looks to be their main job for some time.

Several of the new songs feature the all-too-human touches both often use in their songs. The title cut is a biography of sorts, folks that live on the road and have to satisfy that itch. La danse de la joie is set in New Orleans, a favourite town for both, and features an older couple still very lively. For a couple of 60-something singers still doing great work, the point isn't lost.

Elsewhere, a couple of re-makes do make the set list, but these are special. No Memories Hangin' Round was written by Crowell and originally a hit for his ex-wife Rosanne Cash, singing with Bobby Bare. The new duet version here is simply better. Another knock-out is a cover of Lucinda Williams' I Just Want To See You So Bad, always a great tune. What seemed like a nice present two years ago is now a commitment.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


The third album for Tom Wilson's other, other, other band. Better known for his part in Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, his old group Junkhouse, and his solo career, Wilson put together this group of friends and sometimes family because of his limitless energy and wealth of ideas.

The concept at the start was that this would be acid folk, a term Wilson coined. I've seen 'em live, and heard the other discs, and never quite got it, but this time Wilson has solidified the sound and I'm understanding. Not that I didn't love the previous two, btw.

So what we get is a slightly twisted, somewhat dark acoustic music, where anything is possible. Vibraphone gives it an other-worldly feel, as does pedal steel, made to sound ghostly. There are horns, but not big ones; if horns can be sad, these are they. Flute grooves along through the cut Black Spruce. Players and pals include producer Michael Timmins, he of Cowboy Junkies, along with Alan Anton on keys. From Harlan Pepper comes Dan Edmond and Wilson's son, Thompson. Skydigger Josh Finlayson repeats his role as band bassist, as does drummer Ray Farrugia.

The overall feel is intimate for sure, Wilson's whispered vocals are up close and in your ear, low and hypnotic. Joining him on several tracks is Andrea Ramolo of Scarlett Jane, the sweet counterpoint to his savory moodiness. The track they wrote together, Hey, Hey, Hey looks at two lovers screwed by life, summing up much of the album: "The world is fucked up, and so are you and I." Ah, but you're my kind of fucked up, you crazy kids.

Monday, May 11, 2015


Pre-1983, Simple Minds were an edgy, post-punk synth band, with an art-rock reputation at home in the U.K. (they were Scottish.) There had been some breakthroughs in Canada and elsewhere, with Love Song and then Promised You A Miracle gaining them status in the New Wave world. Those excursions into the pop charts were having an effect though, and this was the album that saw them go for it.

It didn't provide them the big hit single in North America; that would have to wait until 1985 and Don't You (Forget About Me). But certainly the sound got solidified, and it moved them into the #1 position in England. The group joined U2 in the epic sound sweepstakes, with huge drums, pulsing keyboards and effects-layered guitar. The best cut is the swaggering Waterfront, singer Jim Kerr's big spotlight moment. Up On The Catwalk and Speed Your Love To Me have the same chiming power.

The downside was the lack of experimental work. Producer Steve Lillywhite was the right choice to help craft this stadium-friendly work, but with each tune heading that way, there wasn't enough variety. The rest of the material doesn't hold up to the major tracks. Street Hassle ends up sounding like Kerr doing Jim Morrison, trying hard to save a dull track.

This deluxe set has a second disc of all the single sides, edits and extended tracks from single releases. But that means three more versions of Waterfront, with few differences, and some noodling that puts the B in b-sides. Simple Minds was learning how to be a hit band, but lost their edge in the process.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


A third album for the Ottawa-area singer-songwriter, and a golden-voiced one at that. Ferguson has the sweet pipes to sing a pure, traditional number (Donal Og), but she embraces all sorts of current sounds as well. Lead track Untangle clips along beats and horns, while Two Minds could have been produced by Jay-Z, right down to the rap.

Actually, it's fellow Ottawa player Brock Zeman behind the board, doing much the same for Ferguson as he did on his own recent album, putting the alternative into roots music. While the songs weave and jab with nifty arrangements, Ferguson feels free to take the words well beyond the folk spectrum as well. Bad As You, with its dirty blues harp, is about a woman with no qualms about standing up for herself in a fight with her lover, egged on by too much booze.

When things do calm down, as on the songs Niamh and Ships, she still has the ability to wow us with words and voice. Ferguson likes to change things up, and is great on each one.

Friday, May 8, 2015


If you are unfamiliar with this series of Tull reissues, they are the gold standard for back catalogue upgrades.  Pretty much everything you can do to beef up an album happens with them, and in the best possible quality.  Superior audio?  Check.  A modern remix for optimal digital listening?  Yup.  Bonus tracks?  Plenty.  A live, period concert?  An entire one, yes.  Video?  Some of that.  Revealing historical information about the album in question?  That and much more.

Housed in a hard-cover, diary-sized book, Minstrel in the Gallery, from 1975, was the last of Tull's concept albums.  Following the huge success of Aqualung and Thick as a Brick, Ian Anderson had made a series of themed discs, this preceded by A Passion Play and War Child.  This one featured a heavy string presence, calmer music, a lot of acoustic guitar and possibly a story line, although it wasn't a page-turner by any stretch.  It also didn't have the big rock theatrics of the earlier hit albums, and comes across as more of an Anderson solo album with its many acoustic moments.  It wasn't, it was more the material that dictated the lack of raunchy guitar licks or breathy flute solos.  And you will find several lovely contemplative numbers here, including the title cut, and One White Duck.  But a lack of a hit single didn't help, and Tull's biggest days, where they commanded sports arenas across North America and through Europe were nearing the end.

However, you can still hear the band in powerhouse mode on disc two, which is a full live show from the Palais des Sports in Paris in July of 1975.  The album wasn't out yet, so instead the crowd was treated to a crunching rock show for the hits, plus more subtle numbers featuring a string quartet.  Actually those strings could rock too, beefing up Aqualung material with cello parts and soaring violins. And what a show they could throw, from a blistering Cross-Eyed Mary to a classic Anderson flute showcase, a little comedy bit from the band, and the gentler new number, the soon-to-be released title track from Minstrel in the Gallery.

Audio fiends get both the main album and the live show on DVD-audio, in 5.1 audio and LPCM stereo.  There's a previously unreleased quad mix, done back in the day, and even a bit of the Palais show captured on film.  The liner notes have a typically grouchy Anderson downplaying the album's charms, the rest of the band disagreeing about whether they were having too much fun in Monte Carlo to full participate in the recording, and lots of great stories,facts and figures.  

Unlike many box sets that explode a single album into four and five discs, mostly with slight variations from session takes, these Tull collections never feel like too much.  In truth, they aren't even the best albums of the times, but it's so much fun reading about them and discovering new elements that they now seem much, much better.

Thursday, May 7, 2015


The annual Hamilton Music Awards are coming up May 24.  I've attended, and written about this event in the past, and it's an impressive display of powerful music scene in the Hammer.  Often overshadowed by its larger, duller neighbour, Hamilton is home to many of the best current acts in the country, including Whitehorse, Lee Harvey Osmond, The Arkells, Daniel Lanois, Steve Strongman, Jeremy Fisher and on and on.  

Plus, the talent connected to the city's rich past is astounding.  It's where Conway Twitty brought rockabilly to the country, and wrote the smash #1 hit It's Only Make Believe on a hotel fire escape.  It's where Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm first unloaded their gear after Twitty summoned them from Arkansas that same year.  A young Kelly Jay saw them taking their gear out of the car that day, long before he joined Hawkins on stage, and then formed Crowbar.  It's where Teenage Head started, the most popular of Canada's first wave of punk bands.  It's where the Lanois brothers Dan and Bob grew up, and started a recording studio in their mother's basement.  I could go on, but there's way to long a list.

This year sees nominations for national stars (Fisher, Arkells, Elliot Brood) and equally-talented folk that make up the local, thriving scene.  Up for two trophies is retro-country/rockabilly singer Ginger St. James, nominated for Female Artist of the Year, and Alt/Country Recording of the Year.  It's for the album Diesel & Peas, recorded with her group The Grinders.

St. James has a no-nonsense, rough and tough attitude, and writes and sings that way too.  She's a '50's bad girl, hanging with the bikers, not the deacons.  The songs take place in taverns, on the edge of a small towns.  She's a dangerous lover when crossed ("Furious"), and all temptation:  "How would you like the sound of a zipper coming down?"

While Ginger is sizzling on vocals, the Grinders are going for broke behind. SnowHeel Slim is a guitar man from the old school, twanging like Scotty Moore. Greg Brisco, keys king also from Hamilton's Dinner Belles, lays into some inspired barrelhouse solos of his own.  There's no mystery here, you have the singer, the soloists, the rhythm section, and above all, the classic attitude. That's something that you can't fake, and seems to be in abundance in Hamilton.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


Here's another member of the fertile Ottawa singer-songwriter community. Folk's long had a hold on the area, and it's expanded with roots music. Allen offers all that, plus a rockin' edge too. The lead track on this new one, Heart of a Lion, comes with gutsy guitar, and a stirring chorus, he's Rocky with a six-string.

The single Rush of Blood is more moody but no less inspiring, again with an electric band building up the intensity. Easy sees him more into more acoustic territory, but it's got a sharpness to it as well (plus a nasty lead guitar line). Plus, there's an emotional core to it reminiscent of Ryan Adams, back in the Heartbreaker days.

No Need To Hurry is another ballad with strength, certainly a calling card for Allen. Each of the six tracks on this mini-album is a keeper, and a promise of a strong future.

Monday, May 4, 2015


Well, you have to give it to Vancouver Island musician and festival director Doug Cox.  He had an idea, a brilliant one, and he pulled it off.  For the July 2013 Vancouver Island MusicFest, Cox invited four of the best-ever guitar slingers around.  And in each case, their chosen axe is the iconic Telecaster guitar. 

Although they are all masters, one stands out and has long held the nickname Master of the Telecaster.  The great James Burton has been wowing them since the '50's, no one can match his pedigree, and few can come close to his talent.  He started with Ricky Nelson, led Elvis Presley's band, Gram Parsons' too, played with Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Roy Orbison, on and on.

The rest are from the next generation but all are dream-team players.  Albert Lee is the British-born player in love with country.  He replaced Burton in Emmy Lou Harris's Hot Band, led the Everly Brothers band, toured for five years with Clapton, won a Grammy and most other guitar awards. 

Canada has its own Tele royalty, and a pair of our own joined the quartet.  Amos Garrett will forever be known for the killer solo on Maria Muldaur's Midnight At The Oasis, was a founding member of Ian and Sylvia's late '60's group Great Speckled Bird and a Juno-winning roots and blues player as a front man.  David Wilcox may be best known for his hit singles and albums such as Breakfast At The Circus and Layin' Pipe, but his guitar heroics go back even further, one of the great blues players and personalities in the country.

These things can be a mess, of course.  They are usually under-rehearsed, half-hearted, more spectacle than finesse.  What works so well here is that none of these folks is a show-off by nature.  They may be entertainers, and enjoy what they are doing, but the real thrill for them is playing with other like-minded folks.  It would have been nice to get a DVD with the players' comments on the event recorded, but you can't have everything.

What is greatly appreciated is a list of who is doing which solo, so you can follow along, tell your Burton from your Lee.  By the third or fourth song, you probably won't need it, they each have such individual styles.  And if you don't recognize Burton's work on Suzie Q, as he replays his original role on the Dale Hawkins hit, then you need to spend some more time YouTube'ing these dudes.  Hearing Lee gleefully sing Country Boy, the number he wrote for his old British band Head, Hands & Feet, and later made a hit by Ricky Scaggs is a joy.  Garrett's version of the instrumental classic Sleep Walk by Santo & Johnny is perfect, his string-bending style unsurpassed.  Wilcox is all bluesy fun on You're The One.  Heroes indeed.

Saturday, May 2, 2015


"Woah-wo-ah-woah-oh-oh."  We have a winner in the Uplifting Gang Vocals sweepstakes.  The debut album from this Sudbury folk-rock trio finds the group so keen to please, we get prompted to sing along in a wordless woah-oh-oh in almost every song.  Holy Mumfords, Batman.

There's an effort to make all the music sound inspiring, and you can just imagine the crowds being encouraged to folk out in concert.  It's certainly a popular production style these days, and even if it does work well in single cuts (Molly's Shoes, Lion), it becomes repetitive.  

Even with some pretty bleak lyrics, we get the over-exuberance: Burning California wishes ill to the entire state in an apocalyptic smack-down.  Bring it on, the band needs some more cynicism.  They gotta watch the cringe-worthy lines though: "I'm making money when I need some change." This is a group that really, really wants to be loved.

Friday, May 1, 2015


Copyright extension continues to be a hot topic in music circles, with Canada recently announcing it would introduce legislation to allow a further extension of sound recording rights soon.  That will allow record companies to continue to own the sole reproduction rights to classic albums, instead of seeing them in the public domain where anyone could have pressed and sold them.  Some argues this serves to protect big multinational corporations who jack up prices to consumers.  Others say it keeps crappy reproductions of, say, Rolling Stones and Beatles albums off the shelves, and bad audio dubs off the internet.  It's fraught with legal loopholes and complications.

Much of the problem comes from the fact there are no set standards from country to country.  So you get music going back and forth borders, and it's a nightmare to police.  In Europe for instance, you're starting to see fifty year old material joining the public domain, and some hit '60's acts are getting pressed on vinyl again, for that hipster audience.  The albums are imported into Canada, and sit in the bins beside non-imported versions of albums.  It's buyer beware on that stuff.

Another loophole has been discovered in broadcast material.  Some European countries have laws that allow radio and TV broadcasts to move into public domain much more quickly than North America.  So more and more well-recorded live concerts are now available through the import system, and we're talking the big names.  I have walked out of Future Shop with Bruce Springsteen concerts, Neil Young, you name it, from quite decent source tapes, usually FM broadcasts.  I'm sure the artists hate it, although supposedly the royalties are being paid by these labels.  But they don't have any control over what is now for sale.  Let's say you were an artist all messed up on drugs in 1975 (not an uncommon thing), but were on some small FM station and did a lousy set.  There's nothing stopping that from coming out legally in Italy, and then being imported into Canada by a secondary distributor, then sold in bulk to Wal-Mart.

I'm sure the highly-picky Steely Dan would not give a green light to the release of this show.  Not that it's bad, in any way.  I love it.  It's one of my favourite bands, who rarely toured back in the 1970's.  There's never been a legitimate release of live material from this time sanctioned by the band, and for fans its a godsend.  This is a set broadcast from The Record Plant in L.A. in 1974, featuring their big, sizzling touring band.  In addition to mainstays Becker and Fagen, you had the twin guitar heroics of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Denny Dias, double-drums from Jeff Porcaro and Jim Hodder, keys and backing vocals from future Doobie Michael McDonald and the relatively obscure singer/percussionist Royce Jones, who sings lead on the cut Any Major Dude Will Tell You.

Unlike most bands, the Dan stretched out live, embellishing and re-working songs from their first four albums.  Your Gold Teeth II is unrecognizable, a huge instrumental workout for all the players.  McDonald sings Pretzel Logic, making it a soul belter.  New leads and flourishes are found in almost every song, and even the hits are messed with a bit.  All three of the group's Top Ten numbers are here:  Reelin' In The Years, Do It Again and Rikki Don't Lose That Number.  Plus, numbers that are still fan favourites to this day make the set, including Bodhisattva and King Of The World.  Best of all, for collectors, there's a tune that has never been made available, called This All Too Mobile Home.  It's pretty typical of the material of the group's material of the time, maybe not a stand-out but it certainly could have been worked up into an appreciated album track.

The next year, Becker and Fagen broke up the band, and Steely Dan didn't tour again until they reformed in the 90's, and are still at it.  I've always wondered what these shows would be like, and to my delight, it's as good as I'd hoped.  Now, I'm off to deal with the moral implications.  This is kind of a guilty pleasure, I guess.