Thursday, January 28, 2016


Too hard to find for years, finally reissued, this 1991 compilation has to be in the top ten all-time of box sets. It has everything. There are nine CD's, each one over 70 minutes, stuffed with 244 tracks. There's an incredible booklet, written by Grammy Award-winner Rob Bowman from Toronto (he won for Vol. 3 of this series). It's comprehensive, as it features every A-side of every single released by the company during these years, as well as several important B-sides. And, it's simply awesome musically.

You'll know the big names of course: Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the MG's. If you're a southern soul fan, you'll know some of the secondary acts, or some of their hits: Eddie "Knock On Wood" Floyd, Carla "Gee Whiz" Thomas. If you're a collector, this just knocks your socks off. The brilliant Mable John, once a Raelette with Ray Charles, is featured with her best-known cut, Your Good Thing (Is about to end), but it gets better and better over the collection, with one rich vocal after another. The second-line hits, barely remembered now and never played on radio, pack just as powerful a punch. Floyd's Big Bird is dramatic, killer. Carla Thomas made several appearances on the charts, but it's shocking she didn't have more top hits.

Then there's her dad, Rufus. Often thought of as the clown prince of the label, a disc jockey with a string of early hits based on the dance the Dog, shows his funky grooves each time out, with The Memphis Train maybe the best, without a gimmick in it. One-hit vocal groups the Mad Lads, The Astors and Jeanne & the Darlings prove to be rich in material. Then there are the one-time-only appearances, such as the Four Shells, cuts that can often prove to be great discoveries. Check out their Hot Dog on YouTube.

The story of the label has been well-documented, especially by Bowman in his exhaustive notes and companion book, Soulsville U.S.A. - The Story of Stax Records, a must-read. So it's no secret how this great music happened, an incredible only-in-Memphis blend of white and black, rhythm 'n' blues and country, tremendous musical talent, everyone in the right place at the right time. The players, producers and writers were key, the same as at Motown, only they were better-known than their Detroit competitors, because they were mostly recording artists too: Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Booker T., Al Jackson, Isaac Hayes and Dave Porter are responsible for most of the cuts, in some way, which explains the consistent high level of quality from start to finish.

The finish of this set, the first of three boxes, comes at the end of the label's golden era. First, Redding was killed in a plane crash as he was about to become a huge star to white audiences. Then, the label's fruitful partnership with Atlantic Records collapsed, and the owners discovered they'd been screwed by the New Yorkers, who had managed to get them to sign a contract giving Atlantic the rights to all the classic records, forever. There's much more to the story, which is why I also recommend Bowman's book, but in the meantime, there's lots to learn in the notes here, and of course, one of the great collections of the '60's or any other time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


The insanely catchy single from the new album by Halifax (er, Enfield) favourite Classified, No Pressure, features a classic guest spot from Snoop Dogg, who happened to be in town last summer shooting a Trailer Park Boys episode. Snoop admits he doesn't really know where he is, some place in Nova Scotia. It's a fun moment in a great song, and a good celeb cameo.

Thing is, musically Classified certainly doesn't need any help from outside, he's still doing just great in his hometown, delivering another set of rich, superior productions, smart lyrics and strong tunes for album 15. And when he wants collaborators, he always has a great list of friends from right in town. David Myles is back after the massive success of Inner Ninja from the last album, joining on the cut Work Away, about flying across the country for jobs. Myles also helped write a couple more, and shows up on horns, guitar and piano too. Another frequent collaborator, Ria Mae helps with some writing and lots of singing, plus there's Josh Van Tassel drumming on one, Classified's brother Mike Boyd doing lots, and tons of real strings, courtesy of Drew Jurecka. That's the thing with these cuts, you're getting musical value for your money on each track, as they are all brimming with sounds and ideas.

On the rap side, the honesty and maturity of Classified's rhymes can be startling and inspiring. Whether he's talking about being a father, a husband, a community member or a performer, he comes at it from a sold moral centre. Snoop Dogg should have learned a little more about where he was, and perhaps picked up a lesson about respect for women while he was at it, that's just one of the themes here.

Monday, January 25, 2016


Beats me how a Saskatchewan boy knows how to write about the Atlantic Ocean, but Joel Henderson (aka Poor Nameless Boy) nails it on the song of that title, plus the cut Dream Boat, where he's sailing with a few too many dreams to take on another, perhaps a lover, we're not told. Anyway, sailing imagery is just one of his strengths, on his second, very strong collection.

Henderson's an acoustic storyteller, with that magic touch, the ability to paint a word picture that immediately stands out. In Saturn, we meet the woman with "Cherubim angels tattooed on her arms/Guarding the garden with flaming swords." In Fairy Tale, we find out he's "crossed too many bridges with trolls underneath." In short, the kind of lines that make you look up from Facebook and realize something's going in these songs.

There's some evocative violin gliding through several of the songs, and a couple of times, a full band comes along to lively up the pace through these 10 cuts. Mostly though, we're hear to listen to his fine voice, positive demeanor, and inspiring lyrics.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


Sheesh, I'm still getting caught up on my pre-Christmas releases that piled up in the blitz. I've been listening to the new Town Heroes set for weeks, but I'm just now getting around to putting thoughts down, so if you haven't grabbed it yet, hopefully this will catch your interest.

As always, our Heroes give us more sounds and energy than should be humanly possible from just a duo. But while they can make a mighty noise with crushing riffs and nuclear drums, the songs are cleverly, sneakily about a lot more than volume and fun. Of course, if that's what you're looking for, there's plenty of that in store too, don't get me wrong. Just consider the other stuff.

First off, the new album just drips with beautiful melodies, every song as tuneful as can be. Then there's Mike Ryan's aching vocals, sung almost completely in falsetto, with a particularly sad and thoughtful manner. That's because the topics are pretty heavy, from the personal to great big world-wide issues. The title cut spells it out, a call to look at the great big mess it all is: "Please, everyone, what have done?" Ryan doesn't point finger at everybody else though, admitting his own failures readily in the cut Baton Rouge: "The only way I've ever learned was through fucking up and getting burned."

With all this melancholy going on, you expect some down numbers, and there are a couple, including the album closer, Soldiers. Really though, the band has mastered the technique of putting a lot of substance into some very energetic, accessible and enjoyable music. It's a perfect night out for everybody then, The Town Heroes make you party, and make you think.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


The highly-regarded Montreal jazz singer surprises on her new album with the introduction of a new skill set, songwriting. Four of the dozen tracks are her own compositions, songs that not only stand up well with the covers here, but actually set the tone for the whole album.

The title cut is one of hers, a clever lyric in the Ella-Songbook style, easy and bouncy. Someone Else glides along over a gentle bossa nova. Can't Say No has a bit of a country touch, while opening cut Loverboy makes it clear the set will be filled with strongly-crafted collaborations between the singer, arranger and musicians.

Working closely with pianist Don Thompson, who arranged the numbers, Arioli always approaches the songs with just the right amount of vocal energy, never trying to to add too much. There's an easiness to the album, plenty of swing, and lots of subtlety in her phrasing. There's also lots of impeccable playing from the large cast of musicians, including five horns, with Thompson's piano and vibes leading the way, along with a few stand-out trumpet and sax solos. Produced by the acclaimed John Snyder (Dave Brubeck, Etta James, Derek Trucks, Bill Withers, etc.), as you can imagine from all this, Spring sounds fresh for all these reasons.

Monday, January 18, 2016


A long-time blues-rock presence in Kitchener, Ontario, McKinley has been storing it up for decades, this being his debut disc. No surprise that it's all original material, all sorts of styles and confident. Much of the variety comes from his roots, as he's from Roswell, New Mexico (ya, that Roswell), and he cut his playing teeth on everything from Texas blues to Mexican styles to flashy guitar rock.

There's a good reason for the flashy rock stuff; McKinley is a monster player, and each song has him playing some pretty awesome stuff. So you get everything from straight-forward solos to explosive pyrotechnics. He's not afraid to go nuts on occasion, and likes to drop a quirky line in even when the song is pretty regular. Plus, the out-there and wild solos at first made me think it was some young hotshot doing all this, the sounds were so different. But he's old enough to have a 35-year old son, who happens to be playing bass throughout.

Passionate Man is the catchiest song here, with a great melody, just a little more rock than blues. Actually that sums up the whole album, blues-rock, heavy on the rock, especially good for guitar fans. What really sells it though is that he sings 'em well too, so these never feel like vehicles for the guitar playing, he's giving us the whole package.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


The Avett Brothers always put on a show, and for New Years Eve 2014, there had to something extra for fans. So the group invited a special guest: Father Time himself. We see the old dude in a series of vignettes, wandering around outside the venue, checking out an amusement park, getting hammered in the hotel bar. Finally, he joins the group for the traditional countdown, a little on-stage partying, and then taking lead vocals on a ragged but celebratory The Boys Are Back In Town. And, we get to see it all on DVD.

Or listen on CD, which is kind of weird, as they keep the dialogue and Father Time scenes, a visual experience. In fact, I'd argue that The Avett Brothers are always more of a visual experience, a great group party best observed with a sold-out crowd than heard on your own. They do everything big, even the ballads, turning the quiet lines into mass sing-alongs, especially the once-thoughtful I and Love and You.

Each year, the band gets bigger, and now features seven members, all plucking and sawing away. So even though they are still ostensibly an acoustic band, with banjo and fiddle and cello, you're talking about a great big acoustic Wall of Sound, powered by a rapturous crowd ready to cheer every light cue and on-stage fist pump. I think most fans enjoy the theatrics, but I worry that the nuances of songs such as Kick Drum Heart are being buried in the excitement, the bigger, the louder. Or, maybe I should just give it up and party.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Having seen Neil Osborne do an acoustic gig at the Halifax Urban Folk Festival last September, I already new that the 54*40 catalog worked well in an acoustic setting. Plus, everybody was remarking on just how many great tunes the group has done over the years, when you put them all together. Here, the full group takes on the unplugged style, but with a brand-new and very successful twist.

Instead of doing the usual unplugged show, a greatest hits with acoustic guitars and limited percussion in front of an audience, 54*40 went back into the studio, and came up with completely new versions of ten group favourites. These feature very different and fun arrangements, such as the fiddle-fired, bluegrass take on Baby Ran, barely recognizable if not for the familiar lyrics. If the Mumfords came from Vancouver, it would go like this.

These aren't piss-takes though; while fun for the listener, the songs feature seriously good ideas and radical reinventions of the highest quality. Everything is on the table except the basic melodies and original lyrics. I Go Blind is one of several with added backing vocal parts. Since When is supercharged with a flute of all things. One Gun, always catchy with its repetitive chorus becomes a thing of beauty with its harmonies and piano break.

You could put together a very solid greatest hits collection of these songs in their original form, and probably be impressed how many truly fine songs 54*40 have made over the years. But get them this way, and you'll hear the first really great new album of 2016.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


Idlewild South was the Allman Brothers' band cabin in the woods in Georgia, a place where they would hang, jam and party while they were still trying to break through. They named their second album after it, because it meant so much to them, as the spiritual home where their extraordinary family bond was created. It included wives and girlfriends, roadies and pals, and they were all united in making this group succeed.

By 1970, the Allmans already had a strong reputation from those in the know, but their self-titled debut had fizzled. This was despite constant playing, and they had started to develop a word-of-mouth following from town to town. All that playing had another benefit, as the blues jams and soulful classics were rubbing off on the songwriters. Their second album would have those strengths, plus Atlantic Record's regal producer Tom Dowd was suitably impressed with the group, and made himself available.

Idlewild is home to two of the group's acknowledged classics, Greg Allman's Midnight Rider, and Dickey Betts' In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. The rest of the cuts, including the underrated Revival, are all solid blues-rock numbers, each one showcasing one or more of the strengths they had built up. Greg's vocals could lead a track into soulful territory, Duane's slide would make it soar, Betts could match on lead guitar, the double-drums found new rhythmic territory and Berry Oakley's bass was the ultimate anchor.

As well, there was an intensity to the blues here that hasn't been matched since. Willie Dixon's Hootchie Coochie Man had all the fire of a full-out rock performance, with sizzling solos and madcap drums, but with complete reverence to the source. And don't go looking for Southern rock, jam band music, whatever came later. This stuff was miles different and unique, it stands alone from the genres that they pretty much created, and moved into following the deaths of Oakley and Duane Allman.

The key to the recording was that the band was so well-rehearsed, they just simply took their live show into the studio. There are virtually no overdubs, as Dowd let them record as a band until they got the best one. The album did give them some of the desired results; it broke into the Top 40, and sold enough to keep them on the road, continuing to build the reputation. They finally figured out what to do shortly after, and recorded the legendary At Fillmore East album, which made them big stars, and is still considered their ultimate work, and one of the very best live albums ever.

This deluxe edition includes three outtakes from the album sessions, including a previously-unreleased version of Midnight Rider, not radically different but enough that it's intriguing, including an acoustic slide opening bit from Duane. The rest of the double-CD is made up of the previously-issued Live at Ludlow Garage 1970 show, which came out ages ago, and probably not in most collections. The bonus there is the inclusion of Elizabeth Reed from that show, not on the original release. The bad part is that it still includes Mountain Jam, in all its 45-minute glory. That was only acceptable for a brief period in 1970, and is about the only thing from this band that has not aged well.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


Three classic Blue Rodeo albums get reissued on vinyl, a format they had missed in the first place, coming out in the early '90's, with the CD era temporarily wiping out vinyl. This are albums three, four and five, a crucial time for the group, and all among their very best, plus solid fan favourites.

Casino from 1990 was a run at the big time, produced by Pete Anderson of Dwight Yoakam fame. Country rock had become a cool genre and there was a strong feeling the band could replicate its Canadian chart success in the U.S. You can hear the band (and producer) trying to find that middle ground on several cuts, a little too much polish in places, some confusion on where to take Greg Keelor's more left-field material. But Jim Cuddy delivered some of his very best, and the album includes such long-time fan favourites as 'Til I Am Myself Again, a #1 Canadian country single, Trust Yourself and After The Rain.

If Keelor struggled to find his place opposite Cuddy on Casino, he blossomed on the follow-up, 1992's Lost Together. The title cut was his shining moment, and helped define for all what each frontman would bring to the band, each equal and necessary to the blend of the band. Cuddy was warmth, a positive voice for fans. Keelor stumbled through life at times, wild to Cuddy's mellow, unsure about how to get through it all and representing that side of the audience: "And if we're lost, then we are lost together." Further fan loyalty was established as the group made strong statements about who they were and would always be, leading the album off with the pointed Fools Like You, and its message, "stop stealing the Indian land."

Everything came together on the next year's Five Days In July. Recorded at Keelor's farm house, the band was in tip-top form, having been on a lengthy road trip before, and was thrilled to record in the relaxed setting. The album connected with fans on a new level, becoming the band's best-seller and biggest fan-favourite. The opening three tracks are as strong a trio as the group has made: 5 Days in May, Hasn't Hit Me Yet and Bad Timing. Cuddy's emotional tale in 5 Days mixes his own story of meeting his wive with that of the group's sound tech, who wrote his wife's name in the sand of each beach they would visit. Keelor wrote his single greatest line in Hasn't Hit Me Yet, which fans sing with joy at each show: "I stand transfixed before this streetlight, watching the snow fall on this cold December night."

Pressed on heavyweight vinyl, Casino comes as a single album, while the other two are doubles. Blue Rodeo has always had a roots, acoustic, natural sound at its core, so the music is perfect for vinyl. More and more as we go into the digital future, music fans are looking for a more permanent way to keep their favourite bands close, with physical collections. Blue Rodeo feels better bigger.

Monday, January 4, 2016


Davis was one of those guys that showed up on the charts every couple of years in the '70's and '80's with a decent-sized hit, but remained somewhat anonymous. Sometimes he had country in his sound, sometimes pop, and he even had a rather big, incongruous synthesizer in a couple of tunes, obviously trying the new instrument out. Turns out the Mississippi native had lots of experience, leading bands through the '60's, becoming a songwriter and a studio guy, capable of his own productions. He was a bit of a gear head too, which accounts for the synth interest. He didn't like touring much, accounted for failure to break big. The old formula was/is get a single, then hit the road and it will grow and grow. Davis didn't do the last part, so songs such as Ride 'Em Cowboy, I Go Crazy, '65 Love Affair and Cool Night would do well, but never jump to the top.

Plus, Davis didn't quite know what he'd like to be. 1974's Ride 'Em Cowboy had a great little story about an old rodeo rider, and certainly fit in with what The Eagles were doing then in country rock. But then by '77's I Go Crazy, he was soft rock, and could have joined The Captain & Tennille. The re-birth in 1981 Cool Night and '65 Love Affair put him back in a better pop sound, and he might have made some more nice contemporary soul like Hall & Oates were doing. But what he did do is back off the recording scene and instead concentrate on writing. During the mid-'80's he actually had two big hits, as a guest vocalist on #1 country songs for Marie Osmond and Tanya Tucker, and was responsible for writing one of the top songs of the decade, 1985's smash Bop for Dan Seals, another #1, and also a cross-over hit on Adult Contemporary and pop stations.

There's no denying Davis had a way with a song, and a lot of production savvy as well. Maybe he was trying too hard for hits though, as several tracks here veer into the saccharine. Ride 'Em Cowboy is probably the best of the bunch, but the comprehensive set goes back to early stuff with his band The Reivers in 1970, his solo debut cover of The Jarmels' A Little Bit Of Soap and the underappreciated Love or Let Me Be Lonely, from '82.


2015 was a year full of excellent soul albums, as the genre continues its comeback, including Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Leon Bridges, Canadian Samantha Martin and Delta Sugar, Sharon Jones and the Dap-King's excellent Christmas album, Anderson East works out of Nashville, and in the past has had some Americana and rock records, but this is his first full-on move into soul. No surprise given his locale and past that there's a good southern soul influence throughout.

Led by the standout track Satisfy Me, a heart-tugging vocal style, and an easy-going horns/organ groove, East fits nicely well into the legacy of Muscle Shoals, that '60's sound more and more people are rediscovering thanks to the recent documentary of the same name. There's even some cool YouTube footage of East and a big group grooving at Fame Studios. This is very much the product of a real band, real instruments, real recording techniques, if you care about those things (which you should).

East is a strong writer, and seems very comfortable coming up with tracks in the genre, nine of ten of them here. For further retro cred, the cover here is a Rick Hall (Fame Studios)/George Jackson cut, also done by Bobbie Gentry, Find 'Em Fool 'Em and Forget 'Em. For a slightly more modern touch, closing track Lying In Her Arms has the ring of an emotional Ryan Adams ballad. For additional warmth this winter, grab the vinyl, which also comes with a CD copy.

Friday, January 1, 2016


The holidays are the perfect time to sit back with a movie, and I know a lot of music fans who reserve some time for the first-rate artist documentaries and biopics that have been made of late. I'm hearing lots of good things about Amy, the Winehouse documentary, and Love and Mercy, about Brian Wilson. I set aside time to watch this doc, producer by superfan Mick Jagger, about the phenomenal career of James Brown.

A Peabody Award-winner, this is an example of everything done right in two hours. It explains things, even the most complicated musical concepts, which Brown and his great bands invented; funk, and the rhythm emphasis called 'The One'. It shows his social power among the black community in the '60's and '70's. We realize how he earned his famous nicknames, Soul Brother #1 and The Hardest-Working Man In Show Business. This wasn't hype, this was the result of a drive that unstoppable. Cutting his processed hair was a completely political move that had implications across the country, black pride. His songs could ignite as well; Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud sent the message coast to coast.

Praise is spread around to the other important people in the bands, the massive talents such as Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, Clyde Stubblefield, Bootsy and Catfish Collins and more. The people who knew him best, his loyal lieutenants such as Bobby Byrd, MC Danny Ray (the cape handler), and Rev. Al Sharpton tell us what was on his mind. Modern musicians Chuck D and ?uestlove help explain his importance, how he's always been all over hip-hop.

Brown's many downsides are here as well, including his abuse of women, his ridiculous treatment of his bands, his bad moves in politics, supporting Nixon being the most obvious. But anyone who doesn't understand his legacy, both musical and social, who sees him as a cliche only from his final decade or some Saturday Night Live skit, can watch this and know two hours later why he was The One.