Thursday, May 31, 2018


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.

Monday, May 7, 2018


Serena Ryder's second full-length release, from 2006, was her breakthrough, going gold, along with a hit single Weak In The Knees, and leading to her first of six Juno Awards, for Best New Artist. But it was actually a compromise of sorts, as it was originally supposed to be an all-Canadian covers tribute. Instead, three of Ryder's originals were added, due to their obvious quality, and the desire to get them out to the public while the iron was hot. To that end it was a big success, but the theme of the record was lost to an extent, as were two cuts dropped to make room for the new ones.

Now the disc has been returned to its original concept, with the Ryder-written cuts removed, and the missing covers restored, as well as a remix of Good Morning Starshine, the hit song from the '60's musical Hair, co-written by Canadian Galt MacDermot. It was one of the highlights, one of several surprising choices as Ryder dug deep into Canadian music history. There were no obvious numbers such as Hallelujah and Heart Of Gold, no Joni Mitchell or Gordon Lightfoot. Instead, the cuts were reminders, songwriters and songs often forgotten in the Canadian canon, or in several cases, so obscure they sent listeners to Wikipedia to learn just who the heck these Canadians were. In the reminder section, there was the song that supplied the album title, The Band and Bob Dylan's This Wheel's On Fire, Dylan sharing credit with Ontario's Rick Danko. Paul Anka is of course a famous name, but it's been a long time since most people knew he wrote Buddy Holly's It Doesn't Matter Anymore.

Among the obscurities is Boo Hoo, one of the writers being Guy Lombardo's brother Carmen. One of the two added cuts here is Far Away Places, a hit for everybody from Bing Crosby to Willie Nelson, co-written by Montreal-born bandleader Alex Kramer. Too bad Ryder hadn't got a chance to release it back in 2006, as it was subsequently used by Mad Men as the name of an episode of the popular show.

Does the difference in the tracks make this a better album? Not really, it's not a major change, really just switching around the songs at the end. But it's been 12 years since the set was released, so it's a good way to get the disc out there again, reminding us of Ryder's unique vocal talents, and the depth of Canadian songwriting.


I needed something to keep me awake while driving back from the East Coast Music Awards in Halifax, an extra long trip due to the detour around the flooded Trans-Canada in New Brunswick. I figured Donna would be lively enough, although I probably looked odd singing along to Love To Love You Baby, bobbing my head to the relentless beat. It was quite a run for Summer from 1975 to 1983, with a great run of hits, which saw her move from being the queen of disco to a revered singer, enough of a diva to team up with the biggest singer of the day, Barbra Streisand, for 1980's #1 hit, No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).

Not all the chart numbers are here, as Summer jumped labels a couple of times, and early '80's tracks on Geffen, including the Top 10 hits The Wanderer and Love Is In Control weren't available. That's no great loss really, as the much better cut from a couple of years later, She Works Hard For The Money, does make it, and it leaves room for some deeper album cuts like Pandora's Box, and the European hit I Remember Yesterday, which was a retro-'40's theme crossed with a disco beat, from the concept album of the same name by producer Georgio Moroder. At first Summer was merely his vocal muse on these '70's singles and albums, with such smashes as I Feel Love, and several disco concept sets. But after the huge success of Last Dance in 1978 from the Thank God It's Friday soundtrack, Moroder realized Summer had attracted a bigger audience the simply the disco crowd, and the team switched to more pop-friendly, big vocal numbers, including the remake of MacArthur Park, Hot Stuff and Bad Girls, all #1 hits.

The more Moroder's Euro-disco was dialed back, the more Summer stood out as a singer. Like the Bee Gees, the other huge disco stars, even though they dominated that era, we always remember them as multi-genre artists. But also like the Bee Gees, Summer was penalized for being a disco star, as her career dropped off later in the '80's. Too bad, it seemed like she was really just coming into her own.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018


I hadn't heard from Bedford, Nova Scotia's Linda Brooks in awhile, as her last album was a Christmas one, back in 2013. I was wondering where she had been, and as it turned out, she'd been in her garden. While you might think that she was avoiding music being there, as it turns out, all that digging, planting and nurturing was not only inspiring her creativity, it also has led directly to her latest album. And that album is not just music, it's a unique creation that merges her passion for gardening, her writing, and her songs as well. It's a multi-layered project, containing essays, photography and music all inspired by gardening, called Orchestra In My Garden: Lessons Learned From Digging Deep.

The book is loaded with the gorgeous photography of Mark Maryanovich, who is also normally found in the music world, making award-winning album covers and portraits for the likes of Chris Cornell, Elliot Smith and Henry Rollins. Here, he unveils the beauty of Brooks' garden, including dozens of stunning, colourful close-ups. Brooks has written a series of stories that detail her love of gardening, the many years of hard work that she has put into her home garden, and the incredible benefits and wisdom she's gained from the that pursuit. Then, there is a double-album worth of downloads, songs inspired by, and meant to accompany the reading and viewing.

The whole project came about, pardon the pun, organically. Always inspired by working in the garden, she found herself drawn to her computer keyboard after fruitful sessions, exploring her thoughts. She'd also be drawn to her piano keyboard, those same feelings inspiring melodies and more words. Ultimately she realized it was all part of the same project, and as she explains, "In both my songs and my essays, the garden was revealing itself as a metaphor for life."

Interestingly, because of the wide scope of the book/album, you don't have to even be a gardening fan to enjoy it (I speak from experience, or lack thereof). The photography alone is exquisite, calming and captivating in its depictions of the grand scope of nature that can be found in one plot. Brooks' writing is thoughtful and inspiring. She's been able to use all that creative work in the garden to reflect on her own life, how nature gives us the lessons we need in life. Patience, nurturing, trust, success and failure, and final rewards, it's all there, and she relates it to her own life in meaningful ways. She passes on those discoveries not as trite advise, but rather as life lessons granted, and graciously noted. And when she does have advice, it's gardening tips. She's obviously not just passionate, but successful at it too. Yet she offers her tips humbly, and doesn't talk down to newcomers. It's good, sensible stuff: Find the right hat, be patient, start small, work on one space at a time.

As fits the mood of the book, the music is calm, piano-based with just a few additions, such as James Gatti's bass and Kevin Fox's cello. And no, it's not "My peonies are gorgeous in the sunlight..," but instead putting the observations she's gained into song. Here those reflections are no longer metaphors but grown, patiently and with love and care, into something special, where art meets nature.


As promised, here's the second Neil Young release in less than a month, but unlike the Paradox soundtrack, this isn't new music. Instead, it's another in his fantastic Performance Series of archival issues. which capture classic concerts from all over his career. This time, it's from a wild series of gigs in 1973, with Young and a group christened The Santa Monica Flyers took over L.A.'s Roxy Club to debut a new album. It turned out to be a bit premature. The album was Tonight's The Night, but despite the group's enthusiasm at the time, it didn't come out for another two years. Classic Neil move.

The back story is that Danny Whitten, Crazy Horse guitar player, and band roadie Bruce Berry had both died from heroin overdoses, so Young and crew were feeling pretty fractured. He brought in Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot from the Horse, and added Ben Keith on pedal steel and young Nils Lofgren of Grin on piano and guitar to fill up the ranks. Then they spent a month making Tonight's The Night, one of the loosest, rawest sets ever put down, basically a series of late-night, substance-fueled, emotionally scarred songs that ran opposite the whole Heart Of Gold style of the year before. After recording the songs, the group felt like celebrating by doing some live shows, so they went into the new Roxy club for two shows a night. All they did was the new album, about an hour long, see ya later.

No question that they had the songs down. The set sounds exactly like the album versions, which were basically just live recordings anyway. This is one great band, understanding how to make unpolished beauty. Lofgren was a secret weapon, his unstudied piano the perfect tinge of sadness to match the denial of Young's guitar mania. If anything, these versions are a little more practiced than the takes chosen for Tonight's The Night eventual album release. Young meanwhile sounds unhinged while talking to the audience. He's decided to tell the audience they're in Miami Beach for some reason, and there's a palm tree on stage with its own spotlight. He mentions it three different times, but doesn't really offer an explanation. So, pretty much normal for the rest of his career.

Not all the Tonight's The Night tracks are here. Young added Borrowed Tune, Lookout Joe, and the live Downtown featuring the late Whitten to the mix later. Instead, they encore with another new song, Walk On, which would show up the next year on On The Beach, too jaunty for this album. Ultimately Tonight's The Night got its overdue release in 1975, and is rightly hailed as one of Young's masterpieces. As shocking as it no doubt was to the lucky few in the club those three nights, they got to see something historic.