Sunday, June 24, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STILL ON THE RUN - THE JEFF BECK STORY (Blu-ray)

"There's everybody else and then there's Jeff Beck." That's a pretty great statement, especially coming from a well-known guitar player, Joe Perry. "I don't even know what he's doing half the time." That's a pretty stunning statement, considering it's Eric Clapton talking. There's a whole lot of other stars ready to praise Beck through this documentary, from Jimmy Page to Rod Stewart to Dave Gilmour, but more importantly over the course of the film we are able to understand what sets him apart. That's a tough thing in music, showing what makes someone great and different, especially when we're up at that level of expertise. Clapton, Page, Gilmour, the late George Martin and various band mates from over the years, famous or not, point out the characteristics and inquisitive nature that makes him tick. Martin points out that more than anyone else, the guitar is Beck's voice, and that's the way to listen to him. Our eyes and ears do the rest.

Just as remarkable is the steadfast way he kept going for the music rather than the fame. Hearing his story from The Yardbirds til today, it's obvious he only ever made decisions based on integrity instead of money and applause. He quit The Yardbirds two dates into a North American package tour that had the band doing three songs on a bill with lightweight pop stars. He broke up the famed Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood) two weeks before Woodstock. He'd start new groups to learn and advance, and generally follow his muse. He sat out great stretches of the '80's and beyond, not for lack of offers but because he didn't feel he fit in the button-pushing technology of the day. The last decade, the guitar player who could join any band or have the most famous people back him, instead chooses to play with relative unknowns but excellent musicians he's met, often women who excel equally as their male peers.

He seems remarkably humble and even-keeled, although since he's not interested in show biz gossip and star worship, the documentary doesn't dwell on any of that. All we really learn about him personally is that he loves working on cars just as much as playing music. Fair enough, In biographies you generally, and rightly, look for important clues from an artist's personal life that have affected their art, but Beck does seem to be that singular person who is exactly as he seems. The big emotional highlight of the story is a memory of being taken to the Hollywood Bowl during The Yardbird's first American tour, and thinking what an honour it would be to play it, and then having that happen finally like, 45 years later, long after it was due, and still being so proud and awestruck over it. It's probably a really good thing that he's not over-the-top famous like those other stars singing his praises, because it's kept him refreshingly humble.

Bonus features: Not much, a five-song excerpt from a 2007 show in Montreux, but of course, he's awesome.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHANNON SHAW - SHANNON IN NASHVILLE

Richly produced at Dan Auerbach's Music City studio, with all his bells and tricks and thickness, Shaw has the big and interesting voice to pull off such lushness. She falls somewhere between early '60's girl group and James Bond theme-singer, natural, compelling but not a show-off or vocal gymnast. She knows how to put a lot of emotion and mystery into the tunes. Auerbach adds all the drama, digging into a ton of production tricks and little treats from his grab-bag of '60's strategies.

It's really a master class in sounds and layers, Auerbach able to take all the early '60's techniques and apply modern effects and depth in the multi-channel pallet. For instance, everything doesn't have to be drenched in the same echo, he can do that to individual parts, in various amounts. Cymbals can come to the front, backing vocalists can be more ethereal, strings can explode on entrance. Spector, Bacharach, Brian Wilson, they'd all nod with appreciation, if not a little jealousy about how their old tricks can get repurposed with such ease. Meanwhile Shaw's characters are in a constant state of upset, heartbroken, confused, rejected, alone, haunted. Leslie Gore would understand.This one's especially made for vinyl fans.

Friday, June 22, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALONE WITH CHRISSIE HYNDE (DVD)

A fascinating and very different documentary on Hynde, which instead of the usual talking heads and archival footage, has the camera following her around from city to city, doing what she does. A lot of it involves being alone, something she is not only used to, but has come to realize she prefers. It was also the name of her last album with The Pretenders, so it fits beautifully. Hynde of course has always been an interesting character, and she still is, maybe even more so, with age and wisdom.

Hynde shows us the upside of being solo personally, from being able to spend months on her new interest, painting, to all the quiet time she finds to stroll gardens in London or stores in Paris, shopping for clothes. She goes back to her hometown, Akron, and talks about the her childhood, and the loneliness of middle America. There are laugh moments too, clowning around with her pal Sandra Bernhard on her radio show, and joking with the documentary crew, pretty much a running conversation through the whole 90 minutes. There were probably dozens of hours of footage that got edited, and I have the feeling it was all interesting. I don't think she can have a dull conversation. In the end, you're left with a much better understanding of her, definitely more normal than your usual celebrity. She's very down to earth, and pretty much likes what she likes, and does what she does, and would rather be left alone. Sounds pretty normal.

What about the music then? There are a few songs spread throughout from recent shows, but it doesn't give you the full experience. So wisely this DVD includes a real treat, a full show from the original Pretenders lineup, on the famous German TV show Rockpalast, from 1981. That's just after the release of Pretenders II, with the band at their peak, before the OD deaths of original guitar and bass players James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon. I wouldn't call that a bonus, I'd call it a double-feature.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAT LEPOIDEVIN - CAPTAIN MYLES & THE SPR

Fun! Pat LePoidevin's new one is a concept sci-fi trip to outer space and the future, as seen through the eyes of two explorer kids. Captain Myles and Lucy are two members of the Society of Planet Research (SPR), a group of future kids who build a space ship out of discarded parts from junkyards, and go on an adventure. It's a deceptive little adventure that seems childlike on the surface but is all about relationships, both childhood and adult, responsibility (adults kind of fail at that one), where we're headed down the road, and all this crazy technology we're getting so used to and dependent on.

That's just my reading of it, LePoidevin probably has a few other tricks up his sleeve embedded in the story and the game. That's right, the game, because there's a video game too, over at www.patlepoidevin.com. I'm no gamer, so I'll stick with the tunes, which are pretty easy-going and easy to follow, which is preferable in a concept album. It's good to have a story that's understandable. Musically, it's your basic indie with a twangy guitar doing much of the talking, along with LePoidevin's plaintive telling of the tale.

It's a tour too, as LePoidevin's taking the rocket ship on the road. He's waltzing through the Maritimes to start, with shows in the following:

Friday, June 22 - Governors' Pub, Sydney, N.S.
Sun., June 24 - Buddha Bear Cafe/Holy Whale Brewery, Alma N.B, 3 PM
Sun., June 24 - Baba's Lounge, Charlottetown, 8 PM
Friday, June 29 - Broad Cove Hall, South Shore, N.S.
Sat., June 30 - The Seahorse, Halifax
Thurs, July 5 - The Commune New Glasgow, N.S.
Friday, July 6 - The Capitol, Fredericton
Sat., July 7 - Red Herring, St. Andrews, N.B.

Monday, June 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BARRA MACNEILS - ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

It's been a long time between albums for the MacNeil clan. The last was a Christmas album in 2013, and before that, not counting collaborative releases or live shows, it was All At Once in 2005 when the group last recorded a proper set of new stuff. Not that they haven't been busy of course; touring throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe has seen them earn their nickname of Canada's music ambassadors, considered one of the top groups in the Celtic scene.  They must have been itching to do it; the new album has kicked off a string of live dates the last few months, partying it up in Toronto this week. Having caught one lately, I can report they're kicking up a storm.

What has always set the group apart has been the flexibility of the family, each member able to bring something different to the table. That means they can be as trad as can be for the purists, but can also throw in a couple of curve balls with some modern pop sounds. Here we get an instrumental jig to start things off, "Welcome To Boston," but by cut three, Living The Dream, it's a track with a funky beat, singing about modern conveniences and overspending, getting their house with "a satellite dish and a couple of cats." Of course it's delivered so fresh and fun, it fits in well with all the lively Celtic stuff. And by the next track, Ribhinn Donn, which Lucy sings entirely in Gaelic, a lovely number able to stir any heart. The men show off their vocal prowess too, on the a cappella The Underachiever, which sounds like some ancient sea shanty but features a modern lyric about the trials of someone who can't get ahead. Daisy could be a standout track on any singer-songwriter record, Lucy shining again, only the slightest trad touch coming from the driving bouzouki line. Clouds Under My Feet is even more surprising, with its Euro-beat and thick bass and drums, Lucy channeling her inner Annie Lennox. Pretty crafty, these MacNeils, yes they're Celtic, but they're Celtic-plus.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE LUCKY LOSERS - BLIND SPOT

Gritty and funky, The Lucky Losers come from the Bay Area of California, and are the duo of Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz. Most of their songs are built around their strong vocals, either duet or solo, and a devotion to the '60's/'70's Stax/Volt/Hi Records sound. They do that exceptionally well, including a vein of the psychedelic blues that came along at that point, and lots of modern, electric grooves.

Backed by a team of West Coast all-star players, the duo leave lots of room for those musicians to shine as well, and the album features a ton of stand-out parts, including some blistering solos from guitarist Laura Chavez on Supernatural Blues and fun violin by Annie Staninec (Rod Stewart) on Make A Right Turn. Berkowitz provides a soulful harmonica thoughout as well, a necessary ingredient for the grit. Berkowitz and Lemons have a cool blend, with his smoother, higher range and her gutsy toughness, although she can get sweet too, providing the second part in Bulldogs & Angels. Most importantly though, it's all new material, the two each writing a wide selection of material, with lots of social comment, not just the boy-girl stories that duets albums often get stuck on. It may be based on a retro sound but it still feels fresh and forward-moving.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMMYLOU HARRIS - THE BALLAD OF SALLY ROSE (Expanded Edition)

Given Harris's iconic status, it's surprising to realize she had her share of flops too, and fell out of favour in the country world for a long stretch. Now she's Americana, the ultimate roots artist, but back in 1985 she was still considered a Nashville star. That is, until this concept album. She called it a country opera, and it marked her first release after her personal and professional split with producer Brian Ahern. Instead it was made with new partner Paul Kennerley, the songwriter who bequeathed her the hit Born To Run (not the Springsteen one). For the first time since her obscure 1969 folk debut, Harris would write all the songs, quite a departure for an artist who had made her name with striking cover versions, known as the singer's singer.

Harris had a story she wanted to get out, a personal one. Sally Rose was based on herself, and this was a re-imagination of her time with the legendary Gram Parsons. Harris had sung harmonies at his side for a year, and had made it her career goal to continue his music after he died. The story told of Sally Rose wasn't true-to-life, and a lot more than just the names were changed. It had been mythologized, but the point was clear, Sally loved The Singer, as Emmylou had loved Gram.

Country radio had loved Emmylou, but didn't for the singles from this album. They were perhaps a little too involved in the plot, not obvious and easy to digest, and even too smart. That translated into diminished album sales and a lack of tour buzz too. Wouldn't you know it, Harris had made the most substantial album of her career, and also just torpedoed it. She went back to covers soon after, and spent a decade bouncing around stylistically before teaming up with Daniel Lanois for Wrecking Ball, attracting a new audience that became known as Americana, and once again feeling confident in her writing skills.

What everybody realized now is that not only could she write, she was fantastic, and this album was a gem. The story of Sally Rose's climb to fame while The Singer declines is actually more like A Star Is Born rather than the Gram-Emmylou tale, but no matter, the individual songs are tight and the tale fun to follow: "You better move fast 'cause tickets are tight/if you wanna see Sally Rose pick it tonight."

This reissue comes with new liner notes explaining the story and what happened, including Harris's own: "The album was a bust in commercial terms." Now it comes with a second disc of the original acoustic demos of most of the album tracks, and in many cases I like that stripped-down takes just as much if not more. The hope from all involved is now it will find a larger audience, and her new roots fans would be wise to go back and discover it.

Friday, June 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ERIC CLAPTON - LIFE IN 12 BARS (Blu-ray or DVD), LIFE IN 12 BARS (Soundtrack)

While you think you may know everything about Clapton, you'll still find lots to learn in this documentary, made with his blessing and participation, but not his interference. Director Lili Zanuck was given access to all the footage and photos he'd been storing up, and carte blanche for a story line. Clapton doesn't really have much to hide, as he told all, quite painfully, in his autobiography several years back, so the all the booze, drugs, infidelity, obsession and heartache was already on the table. What Zanuck was able to to do was invite more people to give their observations. They don't pull punches, especially exes. A real find was one of his oldest friends, an early bandmate from his first groups, The Roosters, one Ben Palmer, who stayed around as Cream's road manager, and then a friend. He's able to bring us lots of insight into what drove Clapton. Also Clapton's aunt, who witnessed some of the terrible hurt his mother caused in his life, was able to show how that trauma affected him through his adult life. In the end though, it's Clapton himself who has the best perspective, able to sift through all the lies and failings in his life, the wasted years as an addict and alcoholic, and his inability to form a genuine relationship, until conquering all those demons after the death of his son, Conor. The film really ends with the release of the cathartic Tears In Heaven, except for some well-earned accolades and his significant charity work, but that's okay, we get the point that he got his act together and the drama largely ended.

One thing the film fails to do is showcase just what an exceptional guitar player he is, focusing on the life story as it does. That's solved too, with the double-CD soundtrack. There are of course tons of Clapton collections available, from box sets to live-only compilations to blues-only to a dozen or more best-ofs, but this certainly is one of the better overviews. Playing through this mostly-familiar material, the inventiveness and sheer excellence hit home, especially going quickly from style to style, as he did in the late '60's. Going from the Bluesbreaker's All Your Love to Cream's crazy pop of I Feel Free to the power of Sunshine Of Your Love to his historic solo on The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the breadth of it all is spectacular. The film wisely used his guest playing on Aretha Franklin's Good To Me As I Am To You, two giants in their heyday.  There are a few cuts with that "previously unreleased" asterisk beside them, although nothing too important. There's a live version of Cream doing Spoonful, but at over 17 minutes, it feels like you had to be there to enjoy it. A song recorded for the aborted second Derek and the Dominos album, High, gets its first official release here, although it's been well-bootlegged over the years, and isn't much to write home about. Better is a live Little Wing from that same band, and the original, 6'50" version of I Shot The Sheriff is a nice extra treat. The other treat is that there's nothing after 1974 except Tears In Heaven, but that's just me being catty.

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DANA SIPOS - TRICK OF THE LIGHT

Dana Sipos likes being outdoors, in the woods or biking and canoeing around, so it's fitting she's playing tonight (June 15) on Ministers Island in St. Andrews, N.B. It's an outdoor show at the amazing Bath House on the historic Van Horne property, only accessible during low tide. No doubt it will be a wonderful evening experience, starting at 7 p.m.

That's just the start of the East Coast tour though, as Sipos promotes her new Trick Of The Light album. Always keen on pushing the boundaries of folk, it's unclear where and when her songs are set, both musically and lyrically. Both Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Mountains show up, but are they places or states of mind, those iconic folk spots? The language and references are equally blurry. The hurricanes approaching in Lily In The Window could be today's bad weather or last century's, as the singer thinks they are payback for wicked ways: "Too much moonshine, not enough God-fearing," she sings. But in another weather number, Windsong, drivers notice the glow of the nearby power plant. There's more great observation later in that song, as they drive by "under the watchful eyes of the bovine, chewing hard and staring us down."

The music is based around Sipos' haunting, 19th century voice, a tremendously evocative instrument in itself. She lingers over words, "walking in the rain" becoming a slow stroll over several notes. Producer Sandro Perri, equally adventurous, puts a combination of old instruments and new sounds around her, including violin, which matches her voice -- or vice-versa. Her own gentle picking is matched with piano or keyboards and light percussion, and the occasional eerie bits of electronics surprisingly make it feel more ancient that modern. To put a final ribbon on it, everyone's favourite eccentric, Mary Margaret O'Hara, joins to add vocal calisthenics on When The Body Breaks.

In addition to Ministers Island, Sipos plays Saturday, June 16 at the Arts and Culture Centre in Sussex, N.B., Monday June 18 in Antigonish, N.S. at the Townhouse Brewpub, plus a few house concerts in N.S. Then she's at the Full Circle Festival in Windsor, N.S. from June 22- 24, and the Oakdene Centre in Bear River, N.S. on Monday, June 25.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THOMAS STAJCER - WILL I LEARN TO LOVE AGAIN?

Poor Thomas Stajcer. Joel Plaskett's had him locked up inside of the bunker that is his New Scotland Yard studio, where Stajcer's the in-house engineer. Wouldn't you know thought, that anyone with such good ears would be a musician as well. While he's been slaving away on Plaskett's various projects (and his own, he's also produced albums for others), he's not just been working on his studio tan. Stajcer's debut has arrived, and it's a full country opus. Looks like we got us another country outlaw here, with some rough-and-ready real stuff, like those Waylon and Willie hits of back in the day.

Stajcer's album is a song cycle about the Sad Cowboy, one with a broken heart, who's faced with the titular question. "Now there's a million pieces of me, is there someone out there who can make me complete?" he wonders, and there's no clear answer, only hope for the desperate. He takes us through all the stages of hurt, from anger to hope of reconciliation to despair, each one in a different shade of country. There are weepers and barroom ballads, twangy rockers and one old-fashioned shit-kicker, How Long Could I Wait?, which hints that our cowboy may be coming through all right in the end.

The album doesn't land until July 6, but now's the time to catch Stajcer, as it looks like he's taking a few weekends off from the studio for some live gigs. He's at the Union St. Cafe in Berwick, N.S. on Friday, June 15, then at The Well in Miramichi, N.B. on Saturday, June 16. On Thursday, June 21 he's at the Trailside Music Cafe in Mt. Stewart, P.E.I., then the next night at the Sportsman's in Charlottetown. June 26 sees him in Antigonish, N.S. at the Townhouse, July 5 is the Carleton in Halifax, and July 6 catch Stajcer at the Trellis Cafe in Hubbards, N.S.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ENNIS SISTERS - KEEPING TIME

The unmistakable family harmonies will always be the highlight of the Ennis Sisters' albums, but this is one to watch for the songwriting especially. Maureen is the writer, and responsible for 10 of 11 cuts here, with a theme of time passing, and using it wisely. Much of that was inspired by the recent passing of their father to dementia, and is partially in honour of him, and partially about transitions we all go through.

Produced by NL countryman Alan Doyle (two co-writes as well), the album has all the trad music bells and whistles (quite literally) but feels far more contemporary thanks to the subject matter, Maureen's way with melodies, and the vocal arrangements, which show the group's pop sensibilities as well. While many of the songs are poignant, none are sad, but more reflective. Of particular grace is the title cut, written for Karen's wedding day, and her dance with her father, with lots of mentions of past waltzes and places and times shared. The album wraps up with the lone cover, the CSN hit Wasted On The Way, with a new arrangement for their voices rather than those other harmony guys. With its message about time wasted on the way, it wraps up the theme well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVE ALVIN AND JIMMIE DALE GILMORE - DOWNEY TO LUBBOCK

Here are two troubadours who took different paths but ended up at the same destination. Alvin came out of California and the punkish roots of The Blasters, while Gilmore was an instigator in the country folk of Texas. But its clear it's all the same thing in this set. In a first-time collaboration, Gilmore and Alvin tackle a set mostly of classic Americana, churning their way through just about every influence they've had, like they couldn't wait to make music together and can't decide what to do next, there are so many options.

Alvin and Gilmore co-wrote the title cut, a fun biographical nod to their hometowns and the roads they've taken. Alvin brought one more original, Billy the Kid and Geronimo, two icons with something to say about these days. The rest run from blues (Lightnin' Hopkins' Buddy Brown's Blues), folk (Guthrie's Deportees) to early rock (Lawdy Miss Clawdy), delivered with either Gilmore's distinctive twang or Alvin's lived-in gruffness. The common trait in everything, from the material to the partnership, is authenticity. Even when Gilmore pulls out the chestnut Get Together, he manages to remind us it actually had a great message and lyric before being a hippy cliche. Meanwhile, Alvin brings passion and fire, obviously relishing the opportunity to play with a fellow traveler. Live shows and a promise of more to come make this feel like a beginning rather than a victory lap.

Monday, June 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BESIDE BOWIE - THE MICK RONSON STORY SOUNDTRACK

This is the companion soundtrack to a new documentary about the under-praised and often-overlooked hero of the Spiders From Mars, Mick Ronson. He's best known as Bowie's foil on those early albums, first appearing on The Man Who Sold The World, and then Hunky Dory, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and Pin-Ups. His role was far more than simply the guitar player Bowie leaned on, literally and figuratively. The soft-spoken, simple gent from Hull was blessed with tremendous talent and classical training, and conceiving of many of the arrangements and ideas on those Bowie classics, as well as many iconic solos.

That's just the start though, as this soundtrack points out. His music-making included an early take of Elton John's Madman Across The Water (unreleased at the time, but later included on a reissue) that he absolutely owns. There are his own solo albums, which all had moments, and his long partnership with Mott The Hoople's Ian Hunter, including the gigantic Once Bitten, Twice Shy. Even this collection doesn't tell the whole story though, as Ronson's productions included Lou Reed's best solo album, Transformer, John Mellancamp's American Fool, and Morrissey's Your Arsenal. In each case those artists have praised Ronson for being absolutely full of great ideas that greatly helped the albums. Mellancamp goes to great length explained how Ronson turned a junk-heap song, Jack and Diane, into a huge hit with his arrangement ideas.

With all that to consider, the soundtrack is a bit underwhelming, the Ronson solo tracks not that well chosen, and a couple of tribute tunes from pals Joe Elliot of Def Leppard and Mike Garson of Bowie's groups nice but not necessary. Of more interest is the inclusion of two cuts from the Freddie Mercury tribute concert held in 1992 in Wembley Stadium, Ronson once again at his old bosses' side for All The Young Dudes and Heroes. Ronson himself died a year later from liver cancer. Can't wait to see this doc.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE HILL - ONE MAN BLUES ROCK BAND

Considering his explosive, dynamic performances, it's surprise that Hill hasn't released a live album before in his two-decade career. One of the most heralded Canadian blues players, including a Juno in 2015 for Best Blues Album, his one-man-band live shows have the energy and sound that any quartet would kill for. Here it's all on display, from his electric mastery to haunting acoustic numbers, there's never a moment when you ask, 'Gee, what would he sound like with a band?' It's simply not necessary.

These are almost all originals, just a couple of covers, including the set-closer Voodoo Child. Using no boards, loops and such, Hill covers bass, percussion, and rhythm needs, and adds harmonica to use acoustic tunes, all when called for. Most of the time, he simply roars. Hill likes to blast away, and these are tunes that showcase his ability to crank it up a notch with his playing. You can hear the crowd getting more carried away as he builds up those numbers as well, knowing they are in the presence of one of the best. His vocals are passionate as well, so even a mid-tempo ballad like Emily has strength and guts, without any guitar solos to lead the cheers. There's good variety throughout, with Nothing New something dark, dirty and dangerous, evoking Howlin' Wolf. Band? He don't need no stinking band.

Friday, June 8, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BEACH BOYS WITH THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA

I'm usually not that keen on these projects where they mess with the originals, adding elements to the familiar hits. It kinda seems like sacrilege, no? Or another precocious idea to milk more money out the cash cow for record companies. This one intrigues me however, as The Beach Boys music yields lots of opportunities to had some interesting orchestral parts, already being quite advanced in structure, arrangement and performance, and no doubt Brian Wilson would have loved to have a symphony kicking around when he was doing some of these productions. He was also on board with allowing the project to happen, so why not just approach it with open ears?

The set kicks off with an opening symphony piece called California Suite, just to introduce the orchestra. That moves right into the famous opening of California Girls, and the orchestra backs off, as there are certain bits that are so iconic, and in this case perfect, you don't want to mess with them. That's followed by Wouldn't It Be Nice, and I was a bit surprised at how little the orchestra was used on these cuts, given their dynamic productions. It's almost as if the arrangers didn't feel there was much of a place for the symphony. Surprisingly, it's an old rock 'n' roll number, Fun Fun Fun, that is the first to truly benefit from the added orchestra, as we get a bit of a surprise hearing the new parts on such a familiar cut. Sloop John B is another that gets an interesting opening, and it becomes apparent that this is the best place for the orchestra to get involved, adding new starts, endings and links to the pieces, already so well produced. There are a few stand-outs certainly. Bruce Johnston's underrated Disney Girls from 1971's Surf's Up album gets a full orchestra through the whole song, and it really does lift the song to a new level. As for Kokomo, well, it's always going to be a love-it-or-hate-it number, and no amount of flutes and tympanis can change that.

In My Room has some nice new moments, to bolster the harp that was already on the track (courtesy of Mike Love's sister Maureen, trivia buffs), and Darlin' is even beefier with the orchestra cooking along on the rocker. They save the best for last, and it's a real surprise, Good Vibrations, where the whole orchestra plays along. And it works very well, not wrecking the classic but instead giving it a new feel, more sweeping and grand. It may not improve on the original, but it's not offensive, it's just different, and really, why not? If anything, I'd say the people involved might have been a little too tentative and conservative with the arrangements, fearful of complaints.  A few more cuts could have used the full-on treatment.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL MCCARTNEY - WINGS GREATEST, THRILLINGTON

The latest McCartney reissues are being pushed on coloured vinyl, but I'm just as thrilled to get these two on CD, two much welcome additions to my collection. Wings Greatest is the classic 1978 hits package owned by many on vinyl release, but since surpassed by collections such as All The Best and 2016's Pure box. There's a solidness to this single-disc set though, every cut a hit, and no debatable choices, even if you're not a big fan of, say, Silly Love Songs. In fact, there were so many hits McCartney could choose from for the set, he left off Listen To What The Man Says, which was too bad, and other Top 40 hits such as Helen Wheels and Venus and Mars/Rock Show. Since it was before such annoying numbers as Goodnite Tonight, Say Say Say and Ebony and Ivory, it's simply a stronger listen, with Band On The Run, My Love, Jet, etc. It just feels like an essential benchmark release for McCartney too, as it was the first appearance on one of his albums for such singles as Another Day, Live And Let Die, Junior's Farm, Mull Of Kintyre and Hi, Hi, Hi. I always admired the fact he continued releasing singles in between albums well into the '70's, the old British way of doing things.

The other album is on wide release for the very first time, apart from its inclusion on the pricey super-deluxe version of the Ram box reissue. Thrillington was a legendary lark for McCartney, released back in 1977 on the sly, without him being credited. The cover story was that Percy "Thrills" Thrillington was an eccentric British musical genius, who had taken McCartney's 1971 album Ram, and created a full orchestral version of it. It was a scam, the whole thing done by McCartney. It was released semi-secretly, and it took months for the secret to be widely known. By that point, the album had disappeared, and it's been a rare collector's item since, original copies going for a hundred bucks or more. Now, there's a tongue-in-cheek element to the music too. Richard Hewson, who had done the strings for Let It Be cuts such as Long and Winding Road, arranged and conducted, Paul produced, and the thing at times had a cheese factor, like those '60's instrumental pop hits albums, the James Last Orchestra, those kinds of things. One cut even has the sound of a dog bark as a kind of vocal throughout. At other times, it's really interesting, with similar instrument usage as Brian Wilson did on Pet Sounds. There are quite a few people (I'm one of them) that are passionate about Ram, and consider it McCartney's finest, so to hear these reinterpretations is very interesting. I've always known about, but had never heard it, and I must say it's much better than I thought it would be.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MATT STEELE & THE CORVETTE SUNSET - HALF GIRL HALF GHOST

Matt Steele is from Kentucky and ended up in Halifax, but that's another story. The story behind this second album from his band, following 2016's Songs For Catherine Anne, is equally interesting, and pretty intense too. It follows a partially-autobiographical situation that goes through a manipulative relationship, lost love, overcompensation, mental health trials and addiction. Somehow it all comes out in some of the most upbeat and exciting guitar rock in the true Halifax pop explosion tradition.

With lots of stabbing guitars, revved-up choruses and sweet lead lines, the band tears through eight bold numbers easily described as power pop. The buzzsaw attack of It Won't Happen Again is a brave face in a bad place, "I don't scare easy, I don't fall apart." Rescue Ship is a nautically-themed rebound number: "I've been deep down in my own Marianas Trench, plumbing the depths just to see how bad it can get." There's lots of fine lines, sarcasm, false bravado and hope too, all packaged like a perfect Friday-midnight rock show at the best club in town. If this album had a motto, it would be "Life's crazy, hand me that guitar."

If you're looking for a perfect Thursday night rock show at the best club in town, check out the album launch dates this week for Half Girl Half Ghost. Steele and Corvette Sunset will be at the Seahorse in Halifax Thursday, June 7, Peppers Pub in Saint John Friday night, Back Alley Music in Charlottetown Saturday afternoon for an in-store, and then Saturday night it's Hunter's Ale House in that fine city. Nick Faye and the Deputies support each show, while Hello Delaware join in for Saint John and Charlottetown.

Friday, June 1, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE YOUNG NOVELISTS - IN CITY & COUNTRY

Ooh, I like a good premise, and that's what The Young Novelists have given us on their third album, In City & Country. As opposed to the dreaded concept album, which tries and usually fails to deliver a cohesive story line, an album with a good premise is one that gives you several songs (although not necessarily all of them) based around one idea. Here, literate folkies Graydon James and Laura Spink look at small towns vs. big cities, getting out into the country from their Toronto homes. This isn't some loaded idea of city kids getting in touch with nature though; writer James is a professed farm boy who loves small towns (and covered bridges, he stuck one on the group's last album cover). But the couple love the city too, and here are looking at the magic in each, while keeping mind that city people generally feel there's nothing to do in a smaller place, while rural fans complain about the soulless nature of metros and suburbia.

It's fun to follow that thread, hearing lines like "Even the cities are calling out," from the title cut. In Two Of A Kind, you can hear them describe the town of Goderich, ON, as they relate the story of a love triangle dilemma. What's even more cool about the premise is that they actually went to several places to do research on events, the geography, and to soak up the local attitude. Of course, you don't need to follow any of this, you can just enjoy the performances. I love the harmonies from the duo on each song, not just saved for choruses but often heard through much or most of a track. It's folk-rock, closer to calm for the most part, but they do get in your face at times, Come Round Again a sharp guitar-drums rocker, still with those twin lead vocals though. Lots of the songs have clear '60's pop harmony influences, and I'd compare some of them to the wistful, baroque quality of middle-period Byrds cuts such as Goin' Back and Wasn't Born To Follow.

The Young Novelists are bringing their thing to the East Coast over the next few days.  You can catch them in Fredericton at Corked Wine Bar on Thursday, June 7, at the Parkindale Hall in Elgin, NB on Friday, June 8, in Rice Point, PEI at a house show Saturday June 9, and then at The Carleton in Halifax for Sunday, June 10.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELVIS PRESLEY - THE GREAT PERFORMANCES / THE 3 COMPLETE ED SULLIVAN SHOWS (DVD's)

These two double-DVD sets offer unique views of Presley at important points in his career. The Great Performances is perhaps a misleading name; it is in fact three documentaries covering his career. Two are narrated by his life-long friend George Klein, who met Presley in Grade 8, and was an early supporter as a DJ, staying in touch right up until the King's passing. The third is narrated by Bono, and that one covers the very early Elvis, from his breakthrough as Sun Records until appearing on Ed Sullivan, a tumultuous 12 months. It's more of a standard documentary, while the other two hour-long pieces are basically a bunch of TV and movie performances, interspersed with some home movies, rare footage and even some interview clips. I don't mean to diminish these though, it's fabulous stuff, including lots of important appearances. There's the first-ever TV guest spot, on the Dorsey Brothers program, and then the most controversial, the Milton Berle show which caused all the complaints about his sexy hip-shaking. That led to CBS only filming him above the waste when he appeared on Ed Sullvan the first time.

There's so much Elvis footage, the filmmakers actually ended up doing medleys of the image, combining shots from the '50's onstage with Scotty, Bill and D.J. Fontana, later stuff when the crowds got really busy, right up to Vegas Elvis. Footage, footage, footage. There's Elvis and Priscella's wedding, his parents at the airport as he flies off to join the army, some really interesting news crew stuff of Elvis in court, arrested for punching a guy who was hassling him at a gas station. That's the nice thing about officially-sanctioned films like these, they get all this great stuff that other directors would not have access to. The flip side is that you don't see him in a bad light, but I guess we all know what that was like anyway, he's been the butt of jokes for decades now, and these films are great reminders of his real excellence.

The other collection features the three original Ed Sullivan shows from September 1956 to January of 1957 featuring Elvis as the guest star. Not just the performances, these are the whole shows, from start to finish, including the many commercials for the sponsor, Lincoln/Mercury ("The Big M", as they were calling it). I've seen the Elvis songs lots of times, but never the full shows, so it's kinda cool, watching these dated but fascinating programs. TV shows were still trying to figure out what worked best on the medium, and the Sullivan show simply put everything on. There were the circus acts, Broadway musical snippets, comedians, jugglers, a kid's choir from Ireland, impressionists, clowns, and a dog act. Sadly, there's no Topo Gigio (look him up) but there is Senor Wences, the puppeteer/ventriloquist. Lots of them are somewhat bizarre, the dying gasps of vaudeville, and lots are dull, like the lame Broadway performance. Interestingly, one of the shows feature the debut of one Carol Burnett, who does a pretty decent comedy routine. The famous boxer Sugar Ray Leonard appears, strangely, a week after he lost his championship to an unknown. He'd probably been booked because they figured he'd win, but instead he had to endure the smug advice of Sullivan, a former sports writer who obviously thought he knew something about the fights. And something I'd forgotten or didn't ever know, was that Sullivan himself wasn't hosting the first show where Presley appeared, he was in the hospital, and actor Charles Laughton subbed for him.  And yes, we see Elvis, shot from the waste up, delivering Don't Be Cruel, Love Me Tender and Hound Dog, by now transformed into a confident, exciting performer who smirks and teases his screaming audience, clearly knowing he owned the world. He'd already had lots of TV exposure, on Steve Allen's show, six times on the Dorsey's, and Berle's as well, so Sullivan didn't make Elvis a star, but that was his biggest appearance to that point. Sullivan learned his lesson with rock and roll stars from that, and made darn sure he got The Beatles a few years later.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE DAWSON - LUCKY HAND

Here's my take on instrumental albums. Generally, I find they don't have much variety. I'm not talking jazz here, or classical, I mean those occasional releases by guitar pickers, made for fans of guitar playing, who know their way around finger-picking and alternative tuning and the like. I still enjoy some of the old rock 'n' roll instrumental groups from the early '60's, Booker T. and the MG's, surf music, Duane Eddy, they all had novelty, and usually you were only sticking around for a song or two. But stick an acoustic guitar album on, and I'm bound to lose interest and fade out.

Unless it's Steve Dawson. Superlatives abound for his playing, and I'm sure there's plenty to rave about here for you fans of guitar. Dawson is also a tremendous songwriter, performer, producer, singer, all those things as well, who records some of the best-sounding roots albums going for people such as C.R. Avery, Jim Byrnes and Christa Couture, as well as his own gems. When he decides to go instrumental, it's time to listen close, because he's going to do something different and surprising, with a theme he wants to explore. In the past he's gone deep into blues, Hawaiian, pedal steel, even rock. This time, it's a set of original fingerstyle and slide guitar pieces, and I guess the best way to describe them is as value-added. In much of the album, the main addition is a string quartet. No mere sweetening, these strings are put to work in full arrangements, prepared by Dawson's old recording partner Jesse Zubot (Zubot and Dawson) doing those honours, along with adding his own violin. And when it isn't the quartet, there are horns and woodwinds, again arranged by Zubot. Meanwhile Dawson is providing all sorts of different textures on various guitars, the effect being a set impossible to date other than post-19th century, with influences and subtleties from all over.

Even pared down to a couple of instruments, the arrangements and movements within the songs are captivating, something to follow intently rather than allow to blend in the background. The strings are dynamic, sympathetic yet proudly following a strong path of their own, with some fascinating note combinations. Of special interest and my personal delight is the appearance of famed Nashville harmonica ace Charlie McCoy, who does just as much exploring on the tune on which he joins Dawson. Anyway, hope I didn't insult too many guitar instrumentalists, but the point is, Dawson makes his album different, fascinating, and very listenable.

Monday, May 28, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MEAGHAN BLANCHARD - THE GREAT ESCAPE

P.E.I.'s Meaghan Blanchard has been known, rightly so, for her gorgeous homespun vocals and her country-flavoured songwriting. Her latest album, The Great Escape, is a game-changer. She's moved a bit away from the country stylings, although not altogether, with a sophisticated and moody production from Jim Bryson (Oh Susanna, The Skydiggers, Kathleen Edwards), which highlights a remarkable selection of songs. Before I ramble away with various reviewer platitudes which you may or may not gloss over, let me stop -- ask for your attention -- and say, simply, these are some seriously great songs here, with exceptional lyrics. Blanchard has a big heart, and wants her words to mean something. And connect they do.

Like some of the very best roots songwriters, Blanchard presents a series of stories on the album that look at the lives and struggles of regular people. In When You're Gone, she tells us about the older woman who believes no-one's going to write about her when she's gone. Blanchard sets the scene, letting us settle in at the table with her, observing "She's got two stoves in the kitchen, one to keep the house from freezing, one for the bread." In Angelina Bridgette, we meet a farmer's daughter from the last century, who decides to make it on her own, save her pennies and move to the Boston states, a classic story of independence for a woman from the Maritimes. The title cut is about her own independence, after a couple of years of personal change, moving in the other direction, further into rural P.E.I., appreciating nature and her own choices.

There are a couple of more playful numbers, but overall it's an album with a tone of empathy, and every so often Blanchard hits a note or two that seem to go straight to her heart, incredibly poignant. At the album's centre is the most powerful number, called The City, a modern folk gem, slow and delivered in her most haunting, spectacular tone, "a city where children never cry," about the horrors facing children caught in war zones. That's the one you'll remember a long time after hearing it.

Blanchard is starting to tour the album, which is going to be released coming up in June. Importantly, she's appearing in Fredericton Wednesday, May 30 at Dolan's. It's the inaugural show in a new series called Up Close and Personal, which sees an early start, 7:30, so you live music fans in the city might want to make extra effort, to show your support for more options in live music. And, because Blanchard's just made this awesome album, and you get to be among the first to hear the songs.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GLENN FREY - ABOVE THE CLOUDS/THE VERY BEST OF

While The Eagles are one of the groups that exemplify the '70's, Glenn Frey solo is one that screams '80's, and that isn't necessarily a compliment. Not that he wasn't smart, or at least very lucky. Frey embraced the whole MTV-visuals era, getting his music exposed by major connections with film and TV soundtracks. Beverly Hills Cop? The Heat Is On. Miami Vice? You Belong To The City. Heck, they even wrote a whole episode of Miami Vice based on his Smuggler's Blues, and gave him a role. Frey's music is as iconic to the era as Eddie Murphy's grin and Don Johnson's pastels.

Ear worms they were, but wow that '80's production is as thick as maple syrup and twice as sweet. Syndrums and reverb abound, then cue the cheesy sax solo. All the western motif of The Eagles had been traded in for fast cars and skyscrapers. The ballads were better, with The One You Love hearkening back to Frey's famous vocal turns on numbers such as Lyin' Eyes and New Kid In Town. Later in the decade Frey stretched a little more, adding a pop-soul sound, Soul Searchin' not shabby but still very heavily-produced. There seemed to be some redemption happening in the early '90's when Frey went back to the movies, giving perhaps his best solo cut, Part Of Me, Part Of You, to Thelma & Louise, but it wasn't much of a hit surprisingly. And when the rift with Don Henley was patched, he went back to The Eagles and stayed there. With his death, The Eagles play on, his place now held by Vince Gill on stage, his iffy solo career compiled here. There's also a 3-CD, 1-DVD box out, which includes a live solo concert, and most interestingly, the release of Frey's pre-Eagles tracks with the group Longbranch Pennywhistle.

Friday, May 25, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VAN MORRISON AND JOEY DEFRANCESCO - YOU'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY

It's pretty interesting that certain musicians, especially Morrison, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, have not only continued but actually increased their production of albums in the last few years, as they all advance in age. Not wanting to go quietly, rest much, or get off the road, they have all abandoned the notion of spending long periods in the studio, and instead record quickly, allowing them so many releases. For Morrison, this is his third full album in less than nine months, nothing complicated, but certainly the work of a master performer.

For this release, Morrison partners with the jazz organist/trumpter Joey Defrancesco. Well, I say jazz but like Morrison, he's also a blues/R'n'B/swing/whatever player, and that's where Van the Man has been grooving for the most part the last couple of decades. Defrancesco has become the dominant jazz organist during that time, so it's a partnership that's a natural. And Morrison has always played well with an organist, especially his lengthy stint with Georgie Fame on disc and stage.

Much like jazz recordings of the '50's, the session was set up, the players assembled, the songs picked, no muss, no fuss.  There are some classic covers, including Miss Otis Regrets and Everyday I Have The Blues, and the rest are Morrison originals. Not new ones, but rather tunes from his very lengthy catalog. They go back all the way to Astral Weeks' The Way Young Lovers Do, right up to numbers from this century, including the acerbic Goldfish Bowl, Morrison's declaration that he isn't doing this for fame, and hates all those industry people staring at him and stealing from him. Wisely he stays away from the best-known stuff, no Moondance, Domino, etc., and instead goes for very deep cuts such as Celtic Swing from 1983's Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart.

If you're looking for amazing, insightful reworkings of these numbers, this isn't that kind of exploration. Instead, he's simply jazzing them up a bit, playing them with this combo, letting Defrancesco groove, and having fun deconstructing the melodies for his new vocals. Yeah, jazz. There's no great statement other than making some good music, something different for you to play. Just doing what he does.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHERRY RYAN - WRECKHOUSE

Newfoundland's Sherry Ryan kicks off a tour tonight to launch her latest album, called Wreckhouse. The singer-songwriter is a deceptively strong lyricist, her songs uncluttered and spare, and she doesn't throw around complexities and verbage. But the imagery is powerful and the metaphors large. In Cool And Clear, she compares a relationship that has ended to the difference between day and night, weather-wise: "Humid and hazy, loving and lazy days are gone," the break-up like the night, cool and clear. The answer to a Long Awaited Question (we're left to guess what that question might be, but it's a relationship one she's trying to avoid) is left untold, "drifting like a bottle at sea."

The track Stop The Trains, where the album title comes from, is worth a full write-up itself, one of those stories so good it can only be true, and it is. Written with her father Jim, who was familiar with the tale, it tells about the so-called wreckhouse winds in an area of Newfoundland, so strong they could blow the train off the tracks. Only one Lauchie MacDougall, known as the "human weathervane", knew when those mean gusts were coming, and this song, set in the '50's, tells what happens when a smart-arse from away decides Lauchie shouldn't be in charge of stopping the trains. With it's book-chicka-boom country rhythm, it joins the ranks of the classic train numbers.

Ryan's music is that hard-to-classify sound that we reviewers tend to call roots, and it actually fits well here. She has country leanings, singer-songwriter melodies and a band that can rock, with some rich organ and pop harmonies. Vocally she's homespun and real, singing like she's telling you a story over a drink. Catch her over the next few days in Ontario and Quebec at:

May 25, 6:30pm - Burdock - Toronto
May 26, 9pm- The Arlington - Bancroft
May 29, 9pm- Brasserie Beaubien - Montreal
May 31, 8pm- Artword Artbar - Hamilton
June 1, 7pm - House on Queen - Stratford
June 2, 9 pm - Windsor Beer Exchange - Windsor 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BARRY WHITE - LOVE'S THEME THE BEST OF THE 20th CENTURY RECORDS SINGLES

I'm on the fence when it comes to Barry White, and always have been. I admire his achievements more than his music, and I can take only small doses. I think that's because it's so syrupy, it's like dessert, best to only have a small portion. So listening through this very lengthy, 21-track compilation is definitely a sugar rush.

But yeah, no shortage of accomplishments in his career, especially in the '70's where this collection is focused. If he didn't outright invent disco, he certainly raised one of its pillars with his smooth, dance-friendly hits in 1973 such as Never, Never Gonna Give You Up. Then came his huge smash instrumental at the end of that year, Love's Theme, produced for his outfit Love Unlimited Orchestra. These were tunes with a relentless beat, but still relaxed, with soaring strings over top. And when White added his atypical vocals, that bass-y, seductive croon, the last element came into place. These songs were one big ad for s-e-x, at least coached in the acceptable language of the day. There was only one theme, told in different words with each new single: You're The First, The Last, My Everything, Can't Get Enough Of Your Love. Babe, and my favourite title, It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me.

From '73 to '78 White landed 11 Top 40 hits, and made period comebacks over the years, as he became a camp icon, even appearing as himself on The Simpsons several times. While we might have snickered at him, he sold over one hundred million records, almost all of them as the songwriter, artist and producer, making him filthy rich. Having found a formula White rarely strayed from it, although for those interested in what he sounded like in a different groove, there's his cover of Billy Joel's Just The Way You Are included. It's fun hearing what he sounded like having to be more of a singer on that track, not doing his sexy spoken-word bits or crooning lover's words in the mic. He does a good job, and he might have lengthen his star days if he had stretched more along the way into that kind of material. I don't think he's one of the great soul singers, writers or producers, but he hit at just the right time, and it's fun to slot a cut or two of his into your soul mixtape.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GREG KEELOR - LAST WINTER

Keelor's bandmate Jim Cuddy has carved out a significant solo career during downtime from Blue Rodeo, with a separate band and long national tours. His albums are actually more commercial in tone than the Blue Rodeo ones, echoing the alt-country tunes he brings to the band, with hooks and that famous voice. Keelor takes a different approach. He uses solo work to experiment, to try out things he really couldn't with Blue Rodeo, and to record some very personal songs. This four-track set at first seems like a small effort, but it isn't at all. At 34 minutes, each cut here is a near-epic, with a lot of thought and emotion throughout.

Keelor has explained that the songs came out of a trying time for a couple of reasons. He was witnessing the passing of several people close to him, including his birth mother, and Gord Downie. Songs directly inspired by those two bookend the collection. The album itself is calm and meditative because that's what he could play at the time. He made it coming off the road from a grueling Blue Rodeo tour, and he was physically beaten up.

Keelor loves mid-to-late '60's pop, especially moody, orchestrated works from the likes of Lee Hazlewood, and each cut here is in that mold. They feature strings played and arranged by Jimmy Bowskill (The Sheepdogs) and the long songs go through several sections, especially City Is A Symphony. That songs builds like a day for city dwellers, calm in the start, more intense and complex as it progresses, with bright and dark periods. On paper, even as I write that, it sounds a little trite, but it's actually quite lovely, and the strings are used to great effect. There's a radical cover of Peter, Paul and Mary's Early In The Morning (heard recently in Mad Men), taken at a much slower tempo, almost a crawl, turning the folk-gospel number into a hymn.

Keelor calls this music "uplifting melancholy," and that's a perfect description. Although they are tinged with sadness for the passing of people, he finds joy in important memories, whether it's a somewhat mystical night with his mother and aunt recalled in Three Coffins, or the experience of watching his friend Downie perform with the Tragically Hip on their final tour. He speaks for most of us I think, with "It was a celebration, the years, the love, the songs/I had to remind myself I'm supposed to be sad." With his absorbing and eloquent vocals, Keelor has created a powerful set of songs, far away from the rock stage.

Monday, May 21, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW/CONCERT PROMO: CHRISTINA MARTIN - IMPOSSIBLE TO HOLD

Nova Scotia's Christina Martin kicks off a spring tour this week with a string of Maritime dates for her brand-new album, Impossible To Hold. Now, I reviewed this release back in March, but it's Victoria Day and I'm taking a bit of a holiday this long weekend, so why not used the time to promote the concerts, and replay the review? Seems like a fair compromise.  Plus, she's excellent live, so come out and see a show if you can, East Coasters.  Here are the dates:

Thursday, May 24 Corked Wine Bar - Fredericton
Friday, May 25  House Concert - Miramichi NB
Saturday, May 26 John Giles Music Room - Woodstock NB
Friday, June 1 Salty Roses & The Periwinkle Cafe - Ingonish NS
Saturday, June 2 Townhouse Brewpub - Antigonish NS
Sunday, June 3 House Concert - French Road NS
Friday, June 8 Glasgow Square Theatre - New Glasgow NS
Saturday, June 9 Petite Riviere Vineyards - Petite Riviere NS
Sunday, June 10 Capitol Theatre - Oxford, NS


There's a wider musical palette on this latest, from one of the most consistently strong Maritime singer-songwriters. Along with producer/guitar player/husband Dale Murray, Dave Rawlings to her Gillian Welch, Martin is ranging into styles you'd never call roots. Always Reminding is bubbly '80's electronic pop, while Foreign features a Euro/Bowie techno chill. Keep Me Calm is catchy with '60's Top 10 touches and the single Lungs Are Burning is everything Stevie Nicks should still be doing with Fleetwood Mac.

That's all very welcome, as it makes the 10-track album widely varied and adventurous. The key though lies in her dramatic delivery of sharp observational lyrics, whether it's a relationship moment or someone's personal crisis. It feels like we're on the knife-edge in each song, when things could go wrong, but love manages to save the day or at least pull us back for now. This album is why the repeat button was invented.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SAMANTHA MARTIN & DELTA SUGAR - RUN TO ME

Martin's first album with Delta Sugar, 2015's Send The Nightingale, was a showcase for the group's vocal prowess and gospel influences, with not much instrumentation. It sure did the job, bringing their sound to national attention, and establishing Martin as one of the great new voices in the country. Now, the band is expanded to a full outfit for a complete soul sound. It's largely the Stax sound, plus a bit of modern production sounds similar but not copying the Daptone Records updates.

It's still the singing that really blows you away though. Good Trouble (co-written by Martin and blues favourite Suzie Vinnick) starts off with the chorus, Martin and co-vocalists Sherie Marshall and Mwansa Mwansa blending like a triumphant horn section, before Martin takes off on the verses. The arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, are fabulous throughout, with the horn section, electric piano and chugging guitars weaving around the singers, while the whole thing pulses with great energy. It's a party album for sure, until cut nine of ten, when the singers get back to the slow gospel sound on Only So Much, the church harmonies undercut by some rather secular nasty blues playing. It all wraps up with a big groove in All Night Long, all hands on deck for the funkiest number on the album, Martin singing at her grittiest. I think the Toronto-based group just redefined the term "Northern Soul".

Friday, May 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WILLIE NELSON - LAST MAN STANDING

While Bob Dylan's been mumbling the Sinatra songbook the last few years, and we're all supposed to be amazed, Willie, a full nine years older at 85, has reared back the last couple of albums and started writing at a pace he hasn't in a couple of decades. On this new one, he's co-written every one of the 11 cuts, with his producer Buddy Cannon, who seems responsible for the renewed writing streak. I've certainly enjoyed Nelson's albums for years, and I don't think he's put out a weak one since before the '90's. Even his tribute discs to old country pals and heroes have been lots of fun. But boy, is it inspiring to hear all this solid new material.


Sure, Nelson addresses his age, but it's in a light-hearted, what-the-hell way, not pondering about what it all means. If you listen to Willie, it don't mean shit. "Heaven is closed and hell's overcrowded, I think I'll just stay where I am," he tells us, not sounding too worried about where he ends up and when. On the title cut, he namechecks several departed pals, "Waylon and Ray and Merle," while changing his mind about sticking around longer than them: "I don't want to be the last man standing/But wait a minute maybe I do." Most hilariously, apparently on a dare, he wrote a number called Bad Breath: "Bad breath is better than no breath at all."

It's not completely played for laughs though, and Nelson as ever proves he's a master at tearing your heart out. Addressing anyone who has lost a great love in their life, he sings "It's not something you get over, but it's something you get through." As always, plain-spoken lines are the most powerful. So will the writing streak continue? Well, Willie's got another surprise up his sleeve. His next album is going to be a set of Sinatra covers. Take that, Dylan.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LAKE STREET DIVE - FREE YOURSELF UP

More brilliant vocalese from the jazzy-pop troupe and their amazing lead singer Rachael Price. Her rich, brassy pipes lead the way through each song as a true soloist, soaring above the music, adding lots of extra notes to the melody lines, and delivering some fun lines with absolute power. "Tell him I'm a good kisser," she blasts at the start of a chorus, reminding us how a great singer takes over a line.

On the track Shame, Shame, Shame, it's a joy to hear her mirror Bridget Kearney's bass lines, funky grooves from each of them. Kearney really steps up on this disc, writing or co-writing seven of the ten cuts, from the relationship finger-pointing in Dude, to the national nervousness in Baby, Don't Leave Me Alone With My Thoughts ("An old man has got his little hands on the button/Feels like nothing anyone can do/people out there are cracking up/And I'm just trying to keep it together"). Michael Calabrese (drums) and Mike Olson (guitar) add the rest of the cuts, with lots more funk, spice and great choruses and backing vocals. I bet Prince would have loved to produce this band.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ONCE - TIME ENOUGH

When The Once started out, they were a trad-pop group with great harmonies and lots of personality, a group that made songs sound great. Over the past decade, they have developed as writers to the point that now, they also make great new songs. This is abundantly clear on their new album, Time Enough, which is filled with emotionally powerful lyrics, at times so intense and open you feel the gut-punch like it's your heart that's breaking.

Not only are the lyrics powerful, it's the way they're delivered. Those harmonies and beautiful backing vocals are there of course, but lots has to made about Geraldine Hollett's vocal delivery, clean and clear and relaxed, lovely and powerful. That makes lines such as "I believe you're lying, it's not all in my head, you don't love me," even more striking. In the meantime, this Daniel Ledwell-produced album has plenty of uplifting pop moments, including the Fleetwood Mac-styled lead single "I Can't Live Without You," turning a song about self-image issues for women into one of positive change. As much as we loved hearing the group do traditional numbers like The Briar and the Rose, or their folkie take on Queen's You're My Best Friend, you're now still getting that great sound, plus important new songs as well.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VARIOUS - JOHNNY CASH: FOREVER WORDS

It's been 15 years since Johnny Cash passed away (let that sink in), and his son John Carter Cash has diligently curated his legacy, not flooding the market with anything that will sell, but keeping projects to those most worthy. One of these was collecting all the scraps of paper and bits of unpublished writings he found scattered around his father's homes. That resulted in a collection of lyrical poetry called Forever Words, and now some of those verses have been passed on to an all-star team of songwriters to turn into finished works. That includes old friends, admirers, one-time collaborators and even some with no connection other than appreciation. As they explain in the notes, they had to be people to whom the lyrics spoke immediately, that was the connection they wanted.

These can be tricky endeavors, but when they work, it's a blessing. The best, I suppose, is the Mermaid Avenue collection featuring Woody Guthrie lyrics and music by Wilco and Billy Bragg. Some of that Bob Dylan set Lost On The River was pretty exciting as well, and this album matches those successes. There are several songs here of the highest quality, and certainly nothing that tarnishes Cash's work. I'm assuming great care was taken to choose the best-available verses, and we get some gems. The biggest surprise is how different the tracks sound, depending on the artist involved. Each was allowed to stay within their comfort and sound, just acting like they'd received a new lyric from a trusted writer. That gives the set a grand variety, and even a few curveballs.

Among the best is T Bone Burnett's Jellico Coal Man, a slightly bawdy tale in the traveling salesman school. There are a couple of numbers dedicated to Cash's wife June, and Carlene Carter does her mother proud with June's Sundown. Her half-sister Rosanne Cash chose well too, a terrific lyric called The Walking Wounded, where Cash showed his great empathy and caring for those hurt, in this case by the collapse of the job market for those involved in traditional industries. There's a number in the old seafaring folksong style called The Captain's Daughter, which Alison Kraus and Union Station do that shows just how well Cash could handle the traditional feel as well.

But if you expect an old sound across the record, that's quickly dispelled, in a number of ways. Brad Paisley shows just how powerful a writer Cash could be by turning Gold All Over The Ground into a contemporary country number that could easily be a hit on radio today. Chris Cornell, in one of his last recordings, turned the words of You Never Knew My Mind into a dark ballad with no hint of country. R'n'B artist Robert Glasper, along with Ro James and Anu Sun, could place Goin', Goin', Gone on the Top 40, except it sounds better than all the Drake dreck you find there. Using a recording of Cash describing the days when he was addicted to pills and the horrible effect that had spells out clearly what the lyric was about.

The most pleasant surprise is how great a job John Mellencamp does on the tune Them Double Blues, a fun lyric about a particularly stunning pair of blue eyes, while the biggest disappointment is from Elvis Costello, who tries way to hard to turn Cash's basic lyric I'll Still Love You into one of his orchestrated vocal extravaganzas from the songbook era. Cash would no doubt appreciate the effort, but it's one arena that old cotton-picker truly sounds out of place. Plus, it's kind of mawkish.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELVIS PRESLEY - THE SEARCHER ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK

We know he was the King, but in the decades since his demise, Elvis Presley's legacy has been reduced to mostly cliches, jokes and tabloid headlines. Simply put, there are fewer and fewer people out there with actual memories of what he was like and how he changed music and popular culture. This new film by Thom Zimny, best-known for his work as Bruce Springsteen's film and video guy, goes back to tell the story of his influence, trying to get across the depth of his talent. The two-part, three-hour film has been showing on HBO Canada, and also comes with a solid soundtrack.

It's pretty hard to summarize Presley's career in 45 minutes, but the single-disc version of The Searcher soundtrack certainly hits non-stop highlights. It hits the three main themes of the film, focusing on the original '50's recordings, the live comeback special of 1968, and a few of the rehearsals that have come out that show Presley as a dynamo in the studio when he was interested in the material. We get the first Sun Records hit, That's All Right, and the massive international hits Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog. From the '68 comeback special comes the Trouble/Guitar Man medley, when Presley came out from the lousy movies and proved he still could rock. The soundtrack digs into some of the lesser-known rare cuts out in the collector's world from the highly regarded Follow That Dream series on RCA, including a rehearsal of Separate Ways from 1972, including the ad-lib at the end when he sings "We should be out by now" at the end. There's also a recording of Nat Cole's Mona Lisa, done when he was in the army in Germany. Again, this is all been available before, but some of it isn't common, so there will be a bit of newness for most listeners.

Hard-core fans can pick up the deluxe edition, which is expanded to three CD's. That one includes a little gospel, some more rehearsal versions, several more hits, and the famous TV duet with Frank Sinatra, a 1960 mash-up of Love Me Tender and Witchcraft. The third CD of that box features a lineup of tracks by others that inspired Presley, including Bill Monroe's original Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Arthur Crudup's original That's All Right, and also Tom Petty (a commentator in the film) and the Heartbreakers doing Wooden Heart, recorded shortly before his death. That alone might be worth getting the expanded edition.

Friday, May 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LOREENA MCKENNITT - LOST SOULS

One of the most successful independent artists of all time, Manitoba's McKennitt has sold superstar quantities of albums, some 14 million world-wide, while controlling her own career. A big part of that has been her global touring, which is where she's concentrated efforts for the past decade. Now she's released her first studio album since 2010's Irish-themed The Wind That Shakes The Barley, and her first with new original material since 2006's An Ancient Muse.

The songs on Lost Souls have that unique blend of Celtic, Middle Eastern and progressive world music at which McKennitt excels. The instrumental Manx Ayre manages to take us from some ancient Irish hillside to the bustle of a modern marketplace, with the combination of harp, violin, bells and whistles, her small orchestra weaving these influences back and forth. She's joined once again by longtime associates Hugh Marsh on violin, Caroline Lavelle on cello, Brian Hughes on guitar and bouzouki and lots of fascinating sounds on instruments including the hurdy-gurdy, the Syrian kanoun, and the lyra from Crete. Then the fun is seeing where the players will go with all this ammunition, the sounds and influences and cultures opening up so many roads. The instrumentals here, particularly Sun, Moon and Stars, are lively and imaginative, the best kind of musical melting pot.

Elsewhere McKennitt offers a range of all her styles, including the grand Celtic ballad Breaking of the Sword, first issued last Remembrance Day, a stirring piece about the sacrifice of the soldier, sung by a grieving mother. The title cut is as modern as can be in its theme, the idea that we are losing our moral centre in the rush for progress. She's not alone in this feeling, given the amount of attention she's received by quitting Facebook recently. I have the feeling her fans will seek her out elsewhere.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JEREMY DUTCHER - WOLASTOQIYIK LINTUWAKONAWA

An operatic tenor from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, Dutcher has created a transfixing project, one of cultural significance and artistic accomplishment of the highest order. Working at the Canadian Music Of History, he transcribed a treasure trove of wax cylinder recordings of songs in the Wolastoq language from 1907. He then recorded them anew, building on initial melodies with new instrumentation, blending the traditional with classical and modern pop orchestration. The most powerful parts though are the voices, Dutcher's the most prominent, a rich and haunting instrument throughout, but he's also joined by others, equally powerful.

Dutcher has used some of the original recordings, enough so we can compare, and hear how captivating those original songs were, almost lost thanks to the systemic pressure to eliminate such culture. He's also used a couple of short, important conversations with elders who point out how important it is to bring music back to their people, how art leads the way in reviving communities. These sections are woven into the performances, a narrative that hammers home the huge value, all the while as we marvel at the beauty Dutcher has essentially released.

Artists such as Dutcher have grown up not knowing the artistic scope of their ancestors, and his diligence and passion have lead to us all being able to discover what's been nearly lost. As he says with the release of the collection, "Many of the songs I'd never heard before, because our musical tradition on the East Coast was suppressed by the Canadian Government's Indian Act." Maybe the country has the ears to hear now.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE LYNNeS - HEARTBREAK SONG FOR THE RADIO

I'm really stoked to catch the East Coast tour starting this week from the hot new Canadian roots duo, The LYNNeS, out of Ottawa. The duo, featuring Lynn Miles and Lynne Hanson, put out their debut disc earlier this year, which I reviewed back in February, so it's a good chance to revisit that write-up, plus plug the shows. The tour starts Thursday, May 10 at the Second Wind Music Centre in Florenceville-Bristol, N.B.,  and continues Saturday at Grimross in Fredericton. Then it's off to Nova Scotia, starting with a Bedford show Sunday, a matinee at Patchworks House Concerts. On Tuesday, May 15, the duo play the Carleton in Halifax, as part of the award-winning venue's 10th anniversary celebration. On Thursday, the 17th they are at the Osprey Arts Centre in Shelburne, and on Friday the 18th its Wolfville at the Al Whittle Theatre. The Eastern dates wrap in P.E.I. at Harmony House in Hunter River, on Saturday, May 19.  Now, here's the review replay:

Usually when two established artists team up, one or the other dominates each song, with their particular style. It's a rare combination that results in something that sounds new, and that's what The LYNNeS have managed. Of course, Lynn Miles and Lynne Hanson have a lot in common. They are two of the very best in their area (Ottawa) and their genre (folk), they (sorta) share a first name, and they have worked together over the past few years, writing songs, plus Miles produced a couple of albums for Hanson.

Here, with close harmonies and closer songwriting ideas, you can't really compare this to their solo work. So smoothly do they blend, it's hard to figure which voice is which on the catchy choruses that fill the album. Only when there's a solo start to a song, say with Hanson on "Don't Look Down" or Miles with her trademark sad edge on "Dark Waltz", do we think of them as individuals for a moment. The rest of the time, they're the Siamese twins of folk.

Each song is a co-write, so there's no claim on the lyrics as yet, but there's lots of great ones to fight over. Among the best are the little truths in catchy lines, such as "It's not far to fall if you don't look down", "I wouldn't have gone and paid my dues if I knew it cost so much", and "I took your love and wrote a heartbreak song for the radio." Another smart move was bringing in the fantastic Kevin Breit for guitar work (Norah Jones, Rosanne Cash, etc.), who as usual breitens every song he's on. Word is they are sharp, funny and just as winning live as they are on this album, so hopefully when they get back from Europe in March there will be opportunities to catch them in your neck of the woods.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MICHAEL KAESHAMMER - SOMETHING NEW

Kaeshammer's a monster piano player and fantastic vocalist, this we know, and a fine writer too. He still has more surprises for us though, and this album presents him in a whole new light. It's a big production, and big sound, featuring lots more instruments, guest players and a new range of material, thanks to a recording trip to New Orleans. That location makes perfect sense for Kaeshammer, a man fully at home in blues and jazz, has all the boogie needed for the Crescent City, and the grooves too. He puts it all to use in this great set, full of fun and invention.

The album features a combo of New Orleans legends and Canadian all-stars, including The Meters' famed bassist George Porter Jr., guest singer Cyril Neville, drummer Johnny Vidacovich from Professor Longhair's band, alongside Canuck stand-up bass champ David Piltch, cellist Kevin Fox, and gunslingers Amos Garrett and Colin James. Add to that list Curtis Salgado and Rolling Stones/Allman Bros. keyboardist Chuck Leavall, and you get the picture, this is prime stuff. It would all be for nothing though, if the songs weren't there, and Kaeshammer bravely brought mostly his own material. Boy, does it meet and surpass expectations. He sounds like he was born and bred in New Orleans, with rollicking tunes such as Dixie Has The Blues, a rhythmic knock-out, the extremely soulful ballad Heaven and Earth, with that Neville lead vocal, and the smokey jazz of Forbidden Love, film noir from the darker quarters of the city.

Kaeshammer's discs are usually chances to hear his fantastic piano skills, and there are certainly lots of examples here, including the lone cover, a radical instrumental interpretation of Sweet Georgia Brown, where he riffs to our heart's content. But there's so much more to this album, including all the excellent new songs, the awesome players and total great vibe, it's definitely a career milestone.