Friday, December 6, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CòIG - CAROLS TOO

Alright, it's time to get serious about Christmas and the holidays. Parties are happening, gatherings planned, and if you don't want to get stuck listening to the Kenny and Dolly album over and over, you'd better have some new tunes ready to go.  There are always a few new festive releases each December, and here's some Maritime flavour for your fireside chats.

I submit to you that Celtic is perfect for Christmas. First of all it's got the trad covered, and everybody wants a traditional Christmas. One of Cape Breton's finest, Còig always does lively and fun music, able to give us the traditional as well as a new spin on old favourites. That's just what works great with the beloved Christmas canon of songs, whether carols or popular numbers; give us the songs we love, but make them fresh.

The trad players normally do "sets,", essentially medleys of three or four tunes with unique arrangements, and that's another element that works really well for Christmas instrumentals. The lively "The Spree We Had At Christmas" for instance moves into "Good King Winceslas" in its middle section. "Have A Bari Merry Christmas" turns "O Christmas Tree" into a bluesy guitar piece, then sends it into "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

Those Celtic-flavoured instrumentals are lovely for listening, and bonus, you can sing along since the words are familiar. When they do a few vocals, well, there's no problem there, as the group boasts the voice of fiddler Rachel Davis, who was just nominated as Traditional Singer of the Year at the upcoming Canadian Folk Music Awards. She handles the heartstring numbers, "Silent Night" and "The Christmas Song." Multi-instrumentalist Darren McMullen gets to sing the more modern and fun numbers. "Daddy's Beer," written by Nova Scotian pals Dave Gunning and Jaime Robinson, is a laugher about a Christmas morning hangover with the kids getting the noisiest toys possible, while Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas" is a thoughtful tune that deserves to become a classic.

Còig now have two holiday albums, and put on a very popular Christmas tour each year. Folks in Ontario can catch them the next three nights, at the Delta Old Town Hall tonight (Friday, Dec. 6), Manotick United Church Saturday the 7th, and Sunday, Dec. 8 they will be at St. Andrews United Church in Pakenham, all part of the Ontario Festival of Small Halls. Then they spend the rest of the time leading up to Christmas touring through New England, where the band is very popular.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JONI 75 - A BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION

Tribute concerts rarely pack the punch this one does, emotionally and in performance. Of course, with Joni the honoree, the very best turned up, and ready to give it all. There are several truly stunning moments, thanks in part to the material, as you can tell the performers truly relish digging in to it. Diana Krall brings all her jazz talent to "Amelia," able to play fascinating piano around the unique and haunting melody. Seal puts great feeling into "Both Sides Now," finding new power in the well-known song. Emmylou Harris tackles latter-day Joni, showing the gut-wrenching truth in "The Magdalen Laundries." But it's Brandi Carlile who steals the show, first playing the beauty to Kris Kristofferson's aged wisdom in "A Case Of You," then offering a fabulous "Down To You," a surprising and very worthy choice to include.

Of all things though, it's sentiment that wins the night, something a younger Mitchell might have mocked. James Taylor, always a great friend, takes on two of her best-loved numbers, "River" and "Woodstock," with warmth and joy. And Graham Nash chooses to pay her tribute with the beloved "Our House," the song he wrote for her 50 years before, an unbelievably personal moment with Joni there to hear it once again. All this, and Rufus Wainwright, Norah Jones, Los Lobos, Chaka Khan and more.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PRINCE - 1999 (Deluxe Edition)

The Prince reissue campaign is bearing some significant fruit for collectors, and surprisingly, it's being done with an eye to the consumer's pocketbook. As opposed to, for instance, the endless stream of very expensive David Bowie reissues, the Prince releases have been kept to a modest number, and marketed in a value-for-your-dollar way. This latest box set is the most expansive, but even it has a medium level price tag, and an emphasis on content over frills and pricey packaging.

If you have the bucks and interest, you can go for the 10-album, one DVD version of this at close to $300.00, but it's much more accessible at under $100 for five CD's and the DVD. The 50-page booklet may not be hardcover or coffee table sized, but it's packed with all the info and images you need. And best of all, the music is great from start to finish, and the bonus stuff is all very much worthy and welcome, and worth repeated play.

1999 was where it all changed for Prince, moving from funk freak and rising cult star to the mainstream. He was all attitude and act leading up to that album, but then he scored with actual hit songs, the title track and of course "Little Red Corvette." And it wasn't just those two. He was exploding with music, and would continue that way for years. This was a double album, there are a further two CDs of over an hour each of unreleased music, plus he had started producing and writing for other artists as well. What this box does wonderfully is show the full picture of that explosion.

Disc 1 holds the original, near 80-minute album, which in addition to the big hits held several more favourites such as "Delirious," "Let's Pretend We're Married" and "Automatic." Disc 2 has all the edits, 12-inch versions and a few tasty b-sides, including the concert favourite "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?" and the typically suggestive "Horny Toad." Discs 3 and 4 are the packed vault collections, while Disc 5 and the DVD are two different live concerts from 1982, valuable visions of Prince's talent blooming.

If you look to these sets for the previously unreleased material, woah baby, it's hard to think of another album with so much to offer. Prince didn't make demos really, these were basically finished studio cuts, some of which he'd use, some of which he'd earmark for his other pals and projects, and seemed to have no end of song ideas. Most of these could easily have ended up on 1999 with no drop in quality. As he said at the time, he had enough material for a 1999 sequel, but didn't want to repeat himself. Since his next album was Purple Rain, it's hard to argue that logic.  What a bonanza that gives us now, as we hear him trying out different styles and possible routes. "Teacher, Teacher" is more of a rock song than he was doing in those years. "Yah, You Know" is the embryonic version of "Let's Go Crazy," developed  later for Purple Rain."Purple Music" is his explanation of important music was to his life, a manifesto, and it's surprising he left it off 1999. Then there's all the usual highly suggestive material, from a musician who'd learned the importance of shock value already. "Vagina" was apparently the original name for Vanity of Vanity Six, so at some point this was going to be that group's theme song. Title apart, it's a killer.

The live concerts are more proof of what a monster the guy was as a player and performer. His concerts were events, choreographed and visually rich, each musician in part an actor, and Prince a true showman. He dances, he struts, he shows off, he jokes, he whirls and twirls. To top it all off, he simulates sex on a bed (albeit with no partner). Some of the 1999 tracks have become set pieces of the show, such as "International Lover," where we're flying Purple Airlines or some such silliness. It all works, and was all aimed at building the Purple mythology, which it did to a T. The DVD is from a mediocre source, but thank goodness it survived, you have to see Prince in action to get the whole picture.

This is one of those good old box sets where you can dig in and spend hours enjoying. Best of all, at no point will you say, "Well, it's not his best." It's all grand.

Friday, November 29, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMILY BURGESS and the EMBURYS - NEVER-ENDING FLING

Here's album #2 for Peterborough's Burgess, after exiting the late 24th Street Wailers. A whiz guitar player, she's now developed a great big stew of roots and rock sounds, underpinned with groove and heart. Here she's joined by her traveling pals in the Emburys, as well as the talented folks from her other band, The Weber Brothers.

There is great warmth and soul in all these tracks, and an wonderful smoothness to the music and production. I hate making comparisons, but trying to define the sound is failing me, so think of this: That warm, somewhat bluesy but extremely catchy Fleetwood Mac sound on Christine McVie's songs. They could be touching or downright poppy, along with great playing, and that's what you get here.

There are tons of great moments, like the uplifting bridge on "Excuses," one of those big melodic moments you can feel in your chest when they arrive. The ragged-but-right harmonies throughout are endearing, friendly voices from a club in which you'd love to belong. That's another part of the great vibe here, this clubhouse of musicians crafting little jewels, some songs from Burgess, a trio from the Webers. On one of those, the whimsical "The Lion and the Lamb," drummer Marcus Browne takes the spotlight on lead vocals, a nice touch that again points out the collective work going on. Burgess and the Emburys have a busy month touring around Ontario, so take a well-deserved shopping break and check 'em out.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: COCO LOVE ALCORN - REBIRTH

Let's leave no doubt here. Coco Love Alcorn's voice is a majestic instrument, and she's equally adept at soul, r'n'b, jazz, pop, soul jams, wherever she travels. With just that voice, she's able to dig deep into your soul with one song, for instance the stirring, gospel-flavoured opener here "Rebirth."

So that's a given, the voice. What's even more stunning here is the lineup of personal and positive songs, a collection of inspiring messages, to herself mainly, but certainly for all of us. On the infectious "Ain't No Friend," she's speaking to that negative inner voice we all know so well: "Hey Mr. Self-doubt, you got a lot to say/but every word is getting in my way." The quiet piano number "I Forgive Myself," is as powerful a message as you'd get at any 12-step meeting, and I'm not being insincere. If your ears are open, there are some serious healing songs here.

Then go back to the voice, the songs, the great mix of fun and funk and anything goes, with all sorts of production ideas and insanely catchy tunes. It's just quirky enough, showcasing her distinct personality, musically and lyrically. Comparing herself to a sweet treat, "My Noughatty Centre" sees her describe her inner self as a warrior and a dancer who wants to make the world better, all over slow beats and layers of vocals.

Catch this dynamo back in her old Nova Scotia stomping grounds the next couple of nights, playing the Al Whittle Theatre in Wolfville Tuesday, Nov. 26, and The Carleton on Wednesday, the 27th in Halifax.

Friday, November 22, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SKYDIGGERS - LET'S GET FRIENDSHIP RIGHT

Faced with the loss of friends and a bunch of sadness to deal with, Skydiggers Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson started working on an album about the stages of grief. But then they flipped that on its head, instead coming up with this life-affirming collection. Friendship is the theme, how to nurture and cherish it, and it is offered up as one of the few truly important treasures with which we can be blessed.

And with that, the pair came up with this set of moving and warm songs, all of which uplift and bless the listener. Maize, with his slightly gruff and always charming voice, sounds absolutely sincere as he pays tribute to tremendous relationships. It's not maudlin or overtly personal, they don't name names, but you know how important these people are. "Five Cold Canadians" is what the band drinks, a brothers-and-sisters in arms song, the message being it was the best of times. "Always and Forever" is one of those songs that started as grief, but has become a monumental outpouring: "I will love you, always and forever."  The group takes a moment to groove as well, on the funky "Questions Of Love," that sees the subject "back on your feet, problems all behind you... you can face the world once more." The shortish (under 30 minutes) but emotionally packed collection ends with a cover of a Sinatra standard "It Was A Very Good Year," Maize proving himself a capable crooner and moody trumpet player as well.

The album is intimate throughout, made of echo and close-up instruments, spare but full. There are just four musicians here, Finlayson and Maize along with drummer Peter von Althen and band multi-instrumentalist Aaron Comeau. There are layers of sounds, but all there for a purpose, to help with the mood, rather than following a fad. If an album ever could be described as a close friend, this is it.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MUSIC FROM SEASON 2 OF BIG LITTLE LIES

This soundtrack from the HBO series is actually an excellent mix tape of chill-out soul, both vintage and current. Big soul names from the past, including The Spinners, Brenton Wood and Anne Peebles mix with current faves Leon Bridges and the late, lamented Charles Bradley and a few little-known but fine new talents. Some left-field choices round this out to make it an excellent hour of cuts.

For the most part, these are obscure choices, the only hit being "I'll Be Around" by The Spinners. Well, the only original hit that is. There are a couple of very cool covers. Jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson contributes her brilliant version of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," which reminds us that he can be an excellent lyricist when he's trying. Willie Nelson and his sister Paula deliver an excellent, laid-back duet on the old CCR number "Have You Ever Seen The Rain," and the stripped-down version of F. Mac's "Dreams" by POP ETC is another cool one. Newer names Elle King and Phoebe Killdeer fill out the track list, and this is certainly one of those rare soundtracks that works great from start to finish.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - CONVERSATION PIECE

If you've been watching those expensive, lavish vinyl box sets of Bowie demos from 1969 come out over the past few months, there's good news. Instead of having to shell out for the four different deluxe packages of 45's and LP's, you can get all those cuts on this five-CD box set. I guess that's a bit of bad news too, if you already shelled out the big bucks on the vinyl versions, only to find out months later there would be a more affordable way to get them.

If you're a Bowie fan, you'll find it hard not to want this. These are the demos and early versions of the songs that made up Bowie's first proper rock album from 1969, known at different times as David Bowie, Man Of Words/Man of Music, or Space Oddity.  For the box, there's also the original album proper, plus a brand-new remix of the album from original producer Tony Visconti. It also features a whole batch of songs that didn't make the album, and different productions and mixes of several others. It's as much as they could find of all the work Bowie did leading up to this important record.

As he began to shop his latest songs and sound around, must have felt he had a winner in his back pocket. There are a bunch of different takes of "Space Oddity" here as worked away on it, each time getting a couple of better ideas. Eventually he stumbled on the idea of using the Stylophone to get that weird noise as the rocket takes off, and it's obvious he has his hit. It wasn't overnight, Bowie had been recording since 1964, with little success, and he was still trying out a bunch of styles. He was working in partnership with guitarist John Hutchinson, who appears on several of the demos here, singing as well.

Even at their most basic, and in some cases, simplistic, hearing the demos now offers quite a surprise. Mostly it seems shocking that Bowie wasn't being swarmed by labels. These were really strong songs for someone in their early 20's, certainly different from the bulk of music around London then. They were folkie for sure, art school-fueled, and a good part weird. Songs such as "Angel Angel Grubby Face" are good examples of Bowie trying to be different. That's a good one, but "When I'm Five" was too much of a conceptual thing, song from the viewpoint of a four-your-old wanting to be just a bit older. The "Ching-a-Ling" song is much more successful as a playful number, and it's a shame that one fell by the wayside leading up to the final album.

The Space Oddity album (as everyone now calls it) wasn't very successful, and always seemed a little unwieldy and muddled. There are songs that you have to live with for awhile, including "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" and "Memory Of A Free Festival" that grow on you. Better yet is the new Visconti mix for 2019. I'm not a huge purist, and I think in this case his doctoring of the tapes is very much an improvement.  It's an exciting new mix for "Space Oddity," with drums loud up front and everything swirling a bit more. "Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed" has more frantic harmonica playing, almost manic, and more guitar too. It really rocks, and that's never been a common observation about this album. Bowie's vocal in "Letter To Hermione" is now much more present, and therefore more emotional and effective.

Then there is the elegant packaging and excellent art book that goes with the box, lots of photos, sleeves and tape boxes, etc. Yes, I know there's been so much Bowie coming out since he died, but it was planned by him before. It's pretty amazing there is this much material (5 CD's) to build around the release of one 50-year-old album. If they have more of these planned for each album's 50th, it's going to be amazing.

Monday, November 18, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MY BLACK RAM

Peter Hicks is the singer-songwriter fronting Fredericton's admired Sleepy Driver, but here he takes a holiday for a new project. Joined by a trio of indie-rock inspired friends, the new group takes Hicks' always-solid songs on a punchier path. With the songs short and sweet, My Black Ram puts the emphasis on fast impact, with guitar, synth, organ and piano providing the hit-and-run on cuts such as "Golden Era" and "Another Lover."

Hicks likes to write mystery-noir stories for Sleepy Driver, and some of that appears in My Black Ram, notably "Uh Huh" and "Lost That Feeling" in the middle of the nine-song set. Here, instead of letting the words control the mood, the band gets to add colours, from sweet to sinister, the latter song getting an especially dramatic groove. And just to prove its (almost) all about the instruments, a couple of keyboard-led instrumentals are featured as well.

The band is launching the album with a hometown show coming up this Saturday, Nov. 23. It's at the Capital Complex, 10 p.m., with Graeme Kennedy opening.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SIMPLE MINDS - 40: THE BEST OF 1979 - 2019

Hmm, three full CD's of Simple Minds? They have been around long enough for sure, this is a 40th anniversary collection, but let's face it, the heyday was firmly in the '80's. I was, however, pleasantly surprised how well the set held up over three hours.

I think what makes the group's output sound more fresh these days is the lasting popularity of EMD, and the renewed interest in vintage synths. Simple Minds were, if not pioneers in both, at least one of the most popular groups of those genres' first eras. Coming in at the end of the New Wave era, they helped popularize synth rock, and tracks such as "Promised You A Miracle" and "Waterfront" are certainly among the very top of that early '80's sound. There's lots to dive in to from that period here, including "Glittering Prize," "Love Song," and that exceptional instrumental, "Theme For Great Cities."

Then it all got weird for the band when they had a shocking North American hit with "Don't You (Forget About Me)." In that awkward position of having to choose between their core British audience and the newfound huge pop following, the group took the latter path, serving up similar-sounding hits "Sanctify Yourself," "Alive and Kicking," and "All The Things She Said." That lasted for a bit, but in a couple of years they were off the U.S. charts again, and back to being simply massive as home.

Wisely this doesn't go chronologically, but instead new, less familiar numbers such as "Honest Town," "Home" and "Cry" are spread throughout, to give them an honest shot at standing up. And they do really, the band has kept up the quality and Jim Kerr's always been a strong singer. There's certainly more to the band than its connection to The Breakfast Club, and this is a good way to dive in if you haven't paid much attention before.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SCIENTISTS OF SOUND - THE BEGINNING (OF THE BEGINNING OF THE END)

This Halifax band hearkens back to the days when synth players wore white lab coats on stage and they were only half-joking. All sorts of old-school synthesizer drives tracks such as the single "Dark Side Of The Room" while... wait a minute! That's an awfully sharp guitar sneaking in there, and the further we get into the album, the nastier it gets. Truth be told, this mixes as much '70's prog (with a touch of harder rock) into the mix as it does '80's early electronica. And it's all quite dance-worthy.

"Cookie Cutter" is so heavy it's scary, while still making you move to the chanted gang chorus, "Cookie cutter, cookie cutter, can't you see?/They're making cookies, making cookies out of you and me." That's not the only singalong slogan offered up. "People United" with its riot sound effects, is based around the cheer, "People united will never be defeated." For all the fun, there's some revolutionary thinking going on. If it's the '80's, then it's 1984, big brother.

Another element that steers the band away from the glut of electronica bands past and present is lead singer Craig Mercer's worthy pipes. He can turn these numbers into stadium anthems when needed, doing his best Bono. Throw in a couple of actual violin solos, and these Scientists are full of surprises and magic formulas.

The group is on tour to launch the new album. You can catch them starting on release day at the following:

Friday, Nov. 15 - The Capitol, Fredericton
Saturday, Nov. 16 - Pub Down Under, Saint John
Saturday, Nov. 23 - Marquee Ballroom, Halifax

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE KINKS - ARTHUR OR THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

Another 50th anniversary classic from The Kinks, surely the most underrated band of rock's golden era. This comes from the band's best period for albums, when leader Ray Davies was writing so eloquently about the changing way of life in England, and looking back with equal parts sympathy and sarcasm at the waning glory of the Empire. As with their previous album, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, the album tells the story of a fictional character and his family, coming to grips with the effects on a working class family. There were hints of biography in the story of Arthur, which happened to be the name of Ray and Dave's brother-in-law, who really did move to Australia in the mid-60's, but mostly it's a fine story. All through the album's creation, it was supposed to form the basis for a British TV play, but the producers screwed it up and it got cancelled. No matter, the album was a gem, although not a commercial success.

Davies' writing is concise, and the stories easy to follow and enjoy. That's a devilishly hard thing to pull off in a concept album, and while he would struggle with clarity in later '70's releases such as Preservation Acts 1, 2 and 3, here tje songs resonate. "Some Mother's Son" is as poignant as any war tale, a soldier killed viewed as just another picture for a frame back home. "Mr. Churchill Says" sums up the WW II attitude of what was expected of each good citizen,while "Shangri-La" looks at what all the working class families got post-war, and how it didn't really match up to all that sacrifice. When the mood lightens, as on the Sunday afternoon leisure pursuit "Drivin'," the songs are fun, great singalongs. "Victoria" is about England's ultimate days of glory, coming out of the Victorian era, and has a tremendous, celebratory feel, one of the greatest Kinks songs.

Like Village Green last year, this set comes in a grand, super deluxe box, or this more price-friendly two-disc version. Even stripped down, this is jammed with extras and associated era tracks. The previously-unreleased tracks have been saved for the big box, but this version does have lots of rare stuff, so unless you've bought a bunch of reissues and compilations in the past, you probably won't have most of it. There are singles from this time that don't appear on the album, notably the quirky chart failure "Plastic Man"/"King Kong" and the Dave Davies solo numbers "Lincoln County" and "Hold My Hand." Most fun here is the collection of all the Dave D. tracks, 12 in total, which were being recorded for a proposed Dave solo album. It was eventually scrapped, so having them all in one place gives us a very good look at what might have been. Dave's not quite the writer his brother is, but there's a charm and fun there as well. The set comes in a swell hard-cover CD format, with a strong essay and memorabilia photos.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK - HITSVILLE: THE MAKING OF MOTOWN

The explosion of streaming services and specialty programming has been a boon to fans of music films. Documentaries are especially popular, and the pipeline is full of projects looking at stars, eras and styles. This film is featured on Showtime, and examines the oft-told story of Motown during its glory years. Don't expect dirt, as it was commissioned by Motown's current ownership as part of the label's 60th anniversary celebration, but we already know it's a great story.

Of course the soundtrack is a big part of it, and the compilers took the easy route, piling on hit after hit. That's still only a portion of Motown's dozens and dozens of classics during that time. You could make a two-hour collection of just Stevie Wonder alone, and not run out of Top 40 hits. It's more a question of what has to be there: "Dancing In The Street," "My Girl," "My Guy," "Heat Wave," "Shotgun," "Where Did Our Love Go," and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," both Marvin Gaye's and Gladys Knight's versions. The only odd choice here is a Jackson 5 b-side, "Who's Lovin' You," but it's been covered so many times, and been reissued in England as a single, so it has gained at least cult status.

The documentary only covers up to when the company moved to Los Angeles, so the latest material here is from Marvin Gaye's groundbreaking What's Going On, which ushered in the albums era for the label. This collection is one of the best Motown samplers around, with its only fault its parade of over-familiar hits. As if that's a bad thing.

Monday, November 11, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WIDE MOUTH MASON - I WANNA GO WITH YOU

The Saskatchewan favourites have moved around musically over their career, but the blues has always been there in varying amounts. The group's eighth album sees them focus much more on the blues, which means lots of Shaun Verreault's blistering slide and lap steel. But don't expect basic 12-bar cliches from this always-imaginative duo. There are just too many places for them to go, and great ideas to try, for them to stick to the tried-and-true.

Always able to put a pop melody inside explosive performances, Verreault and drummer Safwan Javed scorch and pound around the edges of the extremely catchy "Every Red Light," sweet enough to be a Top 40 hit. "Anywhere" has the hooks of a Joel Plaskett anthem, and lots and lots of piled-on chorus vocals. But those tracks are followed up with the down-and-dirty "Erase Any Trace" with distortion threatening to take over.

Rather than being stuck in the typical blues language, the band has no trouble finding current themes and subjects to explore. "Outsourced" looks at jobs being sent overseas and company towns closing down. On "Only Child," Verreault sums up how we're all feeling in one line: "The times, they are a-strangin'." Meanwhile, for fun, gather your friends and see how long it takes them to recognize the harmonica blues cover of Bowie's "Modern Love." No matter where they are heading, Wide Mouth Mason always make great sounding albums.

Friday, November 8, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JAMES BROWN - LIVE AT HOME WITH HIS BAD SELF

James Brown had big plans for his homecoming show in Augusta, Georgia in 1969. The whole show was being recorded for release at a time when Brown was at peak, with a big traveling review and the hottest band in the world. There was no bigger star in black America, and Brown's influence was such that he was helping bridge the divide between cultures in the States. 

Things didn't work out as planned, largely due to Brown's notorious heavy-handed treatment of his band. Shortly after this show, the band got together and demanded Brown increase their pay, or they'd walk. He called their bluff, and sacked them, immediately forming a new group, the JB's, with Bootsy Collins and other hot youngsters. The proposed life album was now out of date, as he was moving on to new grooves with the new band.

Of course, being a tough businessman, he wasn't about to take a complete loss on the show he'd taped, so an abridged version of the show did eventually come out under the title of Sex Machine, about half the show, along with some re-recordings and faked applause. Now, the entire original performance, with no embellishments, has been unearthed and issued the way it happened that night.

Brown knew showbiz, and knew how to hold back and keep the audience in the palm of his hand, teasing them. The first part of his show was not the fireworks they were there for. The band would do instrumentals, the backup singers would get a turn, and his own performances were almost subdued. And he talked. We here him give these rambling, barely coherent speeches about the city, what amazing things he was doing for the people, and for a good minute or so, I have absolutely no idea what he's talking about. Then, with the very best band in the world on stage with him, he introduces his new song that he hopes will be a movie theme, called "World," and proceeds to sing it to ... a backing track! He explains to the audience he brought the tape to sing to because it was too big a production, with an orchestra and all, and he couldn't afford to bring all those people. Then he has the band play a couple of instrumentals, including of all things, the then-hot hit from Blood, Sweat & Tears, "Spinning Wheel." If it was me, I might have been asking for my money back.

But it was all a set-up. A break is announced, and the fans knew what would be coming next: Star Time. The second half of the show was as explosive as anything you've heard from Brown, matching the energy of such famous shows as the Apollo Theatre in 1962 or the TAMI Show from 1964. Oldies like "Try Me" and "Please Please Please" are mixed in with his new, funky material such as "Licking Stick-Licking Stick" and "Mother Popcorn." And that band? Well, he was traveling with three drummers at the time, each one a monster, and he'd have them switch up depending on what style he wanted for each song. His six-piece horn section included both Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. They were as tight as tight can be, drilled to precision. No wonder they quit. At one point, Brown chides the group in the middle of a song, telling them not to play so "jazzy".

I think it's fantastic that this performance has been saved and restored. It's the real story, not the hatchet job that came out originally. And for all the oddness of the first half of the show, once Star Time starts, it's jaw-dropping.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DENNIS ELLSWORTH - COMMON SENSELESS


Ellsworth went for a more expansive, somewhat more rocking sound last time out on his Joel-Plaskett produced Things Changed from 2018. Here though, he's living up the name of his old band, Haunted Hearts. Not so much musically, but in subject matter, with a deeply-felt collection of moody observations and deeper thinking. As for the tunes, they are more on the dreamy pop side, ranging from moody to majestic. No matter how heavy the lyric, Ellsworth still comes through with a gorgeous melody and a chorus that makes you sail away.

Ellsworth kept close to home to make this set, recording most of it as a two-man unit with engineer and musician Adam Gallant in P.E.I. producing himself for a change. He's a new dad, after all. The set feels personal, observations on dealing with the crap in the world, and the crap inside. It isn't overly blue, and has lots of good advice. "Everything's fine, even when it isn't," he sings on "Don't Worry About It," also pointing out we are inside out and upside down at the best of times. In the title cut, "everyone is laughing to keep from crying," letting us know we're all in the same boat, and we should show more compassion. With those dreamy oceans of sound, it's my kind of mindfulness.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SUSSEX - THE OCEAN WIDE



Looking back, I concluded my review of the first Sussex album, Parade Day, from 2016, with the words "This is new, I want more." Yay then, there's more, and it's even more enjoyable. Sussex is a group made of two old musical friends from New Brunswick, who played in the same high school band, and rediscovered each other a couple of decades later, both living in Montreal. Rob Lutes is a nationally-loved roots singer-songwriter, and Michael Emenau a respected jazz vibraphonist. Magically they found a common ground musically, a mysterious and stirring combination of their talents, along with fascinating musical colours and some of Lutes' fine road stories.

For the second album, the pair have stretched even further, throwing out the boundaries. The songs go anywhere, from jazz to bluegrass to blues. With each song, surprising sounds make them sound unlike any of those genres though. It's not just the gorgeous tones from Emenau; this time it's basically a quarter album, with guests Ivanhoe Jolicouer (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Bruno Lamarche (clarinet, sax) adding major parts. Opener "Everything I Wanted" would make a great folk-blues tune on its own, sung by Lutes with his nearly-gruff, but very melodic bluesman voice. But it becomes a wonder of tones and notes with Emaneu's good vibes and some perfectly placed brass. And as always, you get Lutes' fine wordplay. New Brunswickers, or any who've traveled the remote cross-northern road will recognize this feeling: "The Renous highway will get you here to there/If you're looking for the middle of nowhere." In "Kite Strings" the punch line is everything: "I'm leaving you, and you're coming too."

Sussex has some upcoming dates in and around Montreal, and in the meanwhile, Lutes continues his usual road warrior activities, including stops back in the home province.  He's playing at the following:

Wednesday, Nov. 6 - Salty Towers, St. Andrews, NB
Thursday, Nov. 7 - The Tipsy Muse, Fredericton
Friday, Nov. 8 - Shadow Lawn Inn, Rothesay, NB
Saturday, Nov. 9 - Temple on Queen, Bridgetown, NS
Sunday, Nov. 10 - Petite Riviere Vineyards, Crousetown, NS

Monday, November 4, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE DOORS - THE SOFT PARADE 50th Anniversary Edition

 
The Soft Parade is the most debated, and least-loved album in The Doors catalogue proper. This 50th anniversary collection might help its reputation a little, or at least make it more enjoyable for some, thanks to some smart bonus material. The deluxe set features three CDs and the original album on vinyl, a good booklet featuring original engineer Bruce Botnick's recollections and an attractive hardcover package. The best move isn't what they added to the package, but rather what they took away.

First, some context. The problem with The Soft Parade was of course Jim Morrison. By the time the group set out to record, he was in his self-destructive phase, often drunk, and boldly confrontational. The infamous Miami incident happened during this period. He was bothered by the fame and job being the lead voice in a superstar rock band, and his work was suffering. The result was that he didn't have enough new songs for these sessions, so up stepped Robby Krieger, called on to provide four songs plus co-writing another of the final nine.

The other person to step up was producer Paul Rothchild, who followed his instincts, and tried to get the band some more hit singles. So Krieger's songs got a big production treatment, with strings, horns, woodwinds and even bluegrass instruments (on "Runnin' Blue"). It worked in one way, with "Touch Me" a big hit, but critics and many fans howled, as the raw blues were tempered, and Morrison was heard singing with the same session players who might add flourishes to, say, the next Sinatra album.

It wasn't all that bad really, and to my 2019 ears, I hear a bit of Nick Cave in those treatments. But it was a divisive album, and always will be it seems. In a very smart move, what's been removed for this release, at least on disc two, are those horns and strings and things. Calling them "Doors Only" mixes, all the Krieger tracks have been scrubbed back to the basics, and they are quite revelatory. They are not the big, crazy Morrison epics like "The End" but they are quite solid rock songs from the late '60's, and if Morrison had brought more A-list material to the sessions, these would have been a strong counterpoint.

The next great move by the compilers was doing yet another mix, this time invited Kreiger to add brand-new guitar parts to those same songs to beef them up, the idea being that he lost that opportunity with the horns, etc., added in the original sessions. Usually these kind of tricks don't work, but Krieger really came through with some great sounds and solos, and now we get yet another view of what might have been. Really, I've never heard of such a bold move, and it truly does work well. Purists can squawk, but hey, the original album is included on CD and album, so there.

The rest of the bonus stuff is interesting for what it is, but ultimately not great. There's a three-song session when Morrison was missing, Ray Manzarek taking over the vocal duties under his bluesman alias Screamin' Ray Daniels. Manzarek is no singer. It's raw and basically a jam, two blues covers plus one original. That's the only interesting thing here, as its an early attempt at "Roadhouse Blues," but Jim would do it much, much better.

Disc three is a bit of a bust, as it's almost completely taken up by the hour-plus studio workout called "Rock Is Dead." For that, Morrison was in charge, rambling away in his classic diatribe form on many of his favourite themes, while the band plays blues riffs and basically has jamming fun behind him. Thing is, it really didn't come up to his great theatrical pieces, not by a long shot, and I can't imagine wanting to listen to this more than once.

For fans of rock and roll forensics, this is a great way to dig into a beloved band, and see what went into the making of an album, from the raw tracks to the story in the accompanying booklet. Not a bad way to spend a day.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ROLLING STONES - LET IT BLEED 50th anniversary

I'm going to argue that Let It Bleed is the very best Stones album. The other contenders are Exile On Main Street, Sticky Fingers and Beggars Banquet, all worthy, but for track-by-track excellence, I'll go with Let It Bleed. Plus the big highlight tracks, "Gimme Shelter," "Midnight Rambler" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" all place within the all-time top ten for the band. Then add up the classic moments: Merry Clayton's vocal on "Gimme Shelter," Mick's scream of "I"m a monkey" in "Monkey Man," the choir on "You Can't Always Get What You Want." There's Keith's vocal on "You Got The Silver," his debut of that raspy blues-pirate persona, plus the arrival of the immensely talented Mick Taylor. There's country, blues, and country blues. Everything that makes up the pinnacle Stones period arrives for this album.

Once again, there is no new bonus material for this reissue, either on the single-disc set or the Super Deluxe version, as with the anniversary editions of Their Satanic Majesties Request and Beggars Banquet. It's due to the legal mess of the Allen Klein deal, which still gives the late businessman's ABKCO company rights to everything the group made during their tenure at Decca Records. No compromise has been found to open up the vaults to the many outtakes and alternates from this era (see the bootlegs). So for the big box, we get stereo and mono versions of the original album on both vinyl and CD, a replica single of "Honky Tonk Women", and a great big hardcover book with a new essay from David Fricke and tons of photos from Ethan Russell. Basically it's an art book. The single disc/LP has a shorter essay and the new remaster of the album, which does sound great, lots of space around solo parts such as the fiddle on "Country Honk."

Basically, it comes down to this: If your vinyl copy of Let It Bleed is old and scratched up, or your CD is an early, inferior pressing, it's time for a new one. If you can't live without every Super Deluxe boxed set, well, I'd like to have your wallet.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE MILLER BAND - SELECTIONS FROM THE VAULT

 
Steve Miller has become an easy target for haters of classic rock of late, probably because of his controversial remarks at his Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction, where he behaved poorly. Now you see his name come up in complaints about over-played and over-fed, boring old '70's rock stars. However Miller does have a rather remarkable catalog dating back to the San Francisco '60's, and knows a whole lot about making great-sounding records and studio technology. Let's not forget (he doesn't let us) that Les Paul was his godfather.

It's no surprise then that Miller has a big vault of out-takes, demos, live cuts and alternate versions from his whole career, and this collection opens the doors wide. There's a 3-CD plus DVD box set for you big fans, and this single disc set whittles it down to some 13 highlights. What I like about this stuff is that it's full of surprises. Alternate versions on many such collections are often so similar to the original, you're scratching your head to hear what's different. But listening to the alternates of "Rock 'N Me," "Fly Like An Eagle" and "Jet Airliner," you hear completely different ideas, overdubs, guitar lines, all while Miller fools around, trying to find the best version of a good idea.

The live tracks are fun as well, not just the usual concert offerings. Instead he picks more surprises, including a jazz/blues version of "Take The Money And Run" with a horn section and new tempo, and from 1990, a guitar duet with Les Paul when Miller joined him at one of his weekly club dates. He might not be the most beloved guy right now, but if you're one of the 20 million or so people who bought a copy of Fly Like An Eagle or Book Of Dreams, you should find some enjoyment in this.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MARVIN GAYE - WHAT'S GOING ON LIVE

Marvin Gaye had become the biggest soul star of all in 1971, thanks to the monumental success of his What's Going On album, his remarkable statement on race, politics, war, religion, the environment, pretty much everything that was going on. But the erratic genius had stage freight (and possible paranoia) and hadn't toured the album and anywhere in four years. It took a monumental effort to get him to agree, back in his hometown of Washington, which declared Marvin Gaye day, and pulled out all the stops to honour him. After getting a parade and the key to the city, Gaye did a concert at the Kennedy Center, playing the entire recent album.

It did not go perfectly, which is probably why these tapes have sat on the shelf for decades. Obviously nervous and struggling, Gaye made several mistakes through the performance, not the least of which was starting the What's Going On album on the wrong song, side 2! He stopped the orchestra and band mid-way through a first attempt at "Inner City Blues," as he didn't like the tempo, and felt the players didn't have the right groove. When the show was supposed to be over, he apologized to the audience, said he wanted to try to do it right, and replayed "Inner City Blues" and "What's Going On."

You can't blame the band. Gaye was allowed to bring the best Motown players to the concert, including The Funk Brothers, complete with the great James Jamerson on bass, Uriel Jones on drums and Robert White on guitar. The Andantes vocal group also made a rare appearance outside the studio. David Van DePitte had done the orchestral arrangements. This was all down to Gaye. He had already had a wild, emotional day, and had his family with him, which was a whole ball of crazy right there (his father shot and killed him, you might remember). The idea had been to get into the spiritual vibe of the studio album, but it proved too complicated a show for Gaye to pull off perfectly, with not enough rehearsal and recent stage experience for the singer.

Having said all that, it's still a remarkable show, many warts and all. It starts with a lengthy medley of Gaye's '60's hits, a nod to his old self. Instead of a romp through the classics, he decided to do them as he would if they too were new, and from What's Going On. "That's The Way Love Is" was performed in a contemplative way, the audience barely recognizing it."I Heard It Through The Grapevine" got only a couple of lines, just a mere acknowledgement. "Your Precious Love" becomes a tribute to his late duet partner Tammi Terrell, for his first performance since her passing. It was as if Gaye was putting the '60's to rest as well, and telling the crowd he was a different performer now.

You can hear him struggling to bring more musical sophistication to his performance, and even though he couldn't match the album version of What's Going On that night, he gets close. It's worth hearing the moments when it works, and a little bit maddening that the magic wasn't quite there, for this one-time-only opportunity.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHRISTINA MARTIN w/ DALE MURRAY - WONDERFUL LIE

Sometimes small and unassuming makes as much of a mark as a big production. Christina Martin and Dale Murray have spent several years and many Airmiles touring the country and Europe as a duo. While her albums (which Murray produces) usually feature full group arrangements, this set is a more stripped-down effort, the pair creating most of the sounds in their home studio in Nova Scotia. While there are a few Martin-written songs, the rest are well-chosen covers that showcase the live duo style they've developed.

The record starts with the biggest surprise, a very spare version of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All," which highlights Martin's emotional vocal. The cover also shows it's a better lyric than you might realize, and quite a stirring song when well-handled. On other covers, Martin proves she has great taste, covering a lesser-known Leonard Cohen piece ("Tonight Will Be Fine"), some Dylan ("To Make You Feel My Love"), and the respected Richard Thompson and Paul Westerberg. "Love Hurts" already widely covered, but the pair really do a grand job, Dale Murray coming to the fore for once with the harmony vocal, plus one of his best guitar solos on the album. Murray's playing and production is definitely the biggest strength here, as these songs go from being mere two-person recordings to full, developed works with his atmosphere and subtle effects added.

Sprinkled through are Martin's cuts, including one brand-new one ("Finsbury Park") and three older ones reworked in this duo style. "Finsbury Park" is also the lone one to feature drums and bass, which is fitting as it's a strong new work that deserves to stand out. Hearing the guitar-and-vocals versions of her older songs again shows the strength of the couple's live shows, how they can make an audience hang on their words and playing. And oh, the best cover has to be the title cut, written by Westerberg, turning that post-Replacements raw gemstone into a jewel.

Friday, October 25, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MYLES GOODWYN - FRIEND OF THE BLUES 2

Myles Goodwyn turned a few heads last year with his Juno-nominated Friends Of The Blues album, especially those who pigeon-holed him in his April Wine/rock hero role. But Goodwyn had been talking about making a blues record for years, ajd the results were surprising and satisfying. To show this was no passing whim, this second set comes hot on the heals of the first, continuing the hot streak.

Where the first blues album hyped the friends part, with tons of guests from the blues world, this one feels more like a Goodwyn release than a Goodwyn-and-guests. His songwriting comes through loud and clear, and makes him stand out from the usual blues crowd. With his hit-making prowess and way with a melody, Goodwin adds just a bit of Top 40 smarts to the blues form. They are enjoyably catchy, and often delivered with a wink in the vocals. He has lots of fun updating the old Cadillacs hit as "Speedo (Revisited)," the legend brought back to life. And if you remember the saga of Goodwyn's decades-lost guitar, returned to him last Christmas, we get his tribute to the six-string, "I Love My Guitar."

There are plenty of guests this time around too, but instead of being the story, they are cast to benefit the songs. Kenny "Blues Boss" Wayne pumps his piano on "Hip Hip," Canadian axemen such as Jack De Keyzer, David Gogo and Jack Semple do their stuff, and East Coasters including Matt Andersen, John Campbelljohn and Bill Stevenson get important roles. I also love the fact that Goodwyn has moved back to the Maritimes recently, since leaving Halifax for Montreal and April Wine fame back in the early '70's, and is now working with the local talent.

The best guest spot comes from Montreal singer Angel Forrest, who helps take the energy up a couple of notches, joining Goodwyn for "Being Good (Won't Do Us Any Good Tonight)." Don't get me wrong, I get just as excited as the next Boomer when "Oowatanite" comes on the classic rock station, but it's much more satisfying seeing a veteran coming up with new quality stuff decades later.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JETHRO TULL - STORMWATCH FORCE 10 EDITION

Is it possible to take a crap album and make a great boxed set? Sure thing. Two recent examples are Dylan's Self Portrait, overhauled spectacularly on the Bootleg Series' Another Self Portrait, and Wings Wildlife, helped out so much by auxiliary tracks from around the same time from McCartney. I'll argue the three other CD's of music found on this Tull set greatly enhance and surpass the album proper.

By the time Stormwatch was released in 1979, Tull were stuck in a rut. A huge touring success and a constant album-selling unit, the group kept giving the people what they wanted, another concept album, hoping for the excitement of, say, Thick As A Brick to continue. A recent foray into the British countryside and glorious past had resulted in the pretty fair, somewhat folkie projects Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses. After a series of sessions spread out over most of a year, Stormwatch was cobbled together from multiple tracks with an overall theme of storms, water, the environment and ecology. Only a wag would suggest then that the album was all wet. "North Sea Oil" was a reference to the new oil boom Anderson was witnessing off the Scottish coast, "Dun Ringill" was about the Isle of Skye, complete with a TV weatherman introduction, and "Flying Dutchman" was named for the famous ghost ship. Eight vocals and two instrumentals, there's really nothing on the record that is remembered by Tull fans as among their best. It was a strange mixed bag as well, with some of the hardest rock the group had recorded, with the rest folk-tinged. Trouble was, both styles were mostly lifeless and lacking.

No surprise really, it was the end of an era for the group, which would break up after the album and tour. Only Anderson and Martin Barre remained of the classic lineup to carry on the name. But there was better fare in the leftovers from the sessions for the album, and now all of it is collected on Disc Two of this box (called The Force 10 Edition for this 40th anniversary release). Best of the bunch is the single "A Stitch In Time," released months before the album and left off foolishly. It's a far more melodic number, with rare female backing vocals, and sounds more like a classic Tull track. "Kelpie" is another good one, more folkie in style like the previous albums. Even early versions of songs that did end up on Stormwatch, "Dark Ages" and "Dun Ringill" have a lighter touch.

Two more CD's cover a live show from the era, and point out the difference in the new tracks and the old faves. Tull started off bravely, the first half-hour of the show taken up by eight brand-new songs from the album, which predictably fall flat even now. Then comes good old "Aqualung" and we're off to the races, a grand mix of hit and classics, and as always Tull showing what a powerful live act they had been throughout the entire '70's.

As with all these 40th anniversary editions, this box sets the standard for album reissues, with detailed historical notes, track comments from Anderson, pithy memories and no-holds-barred criticism. For the audiophiles, there's the usual new mix from the redoubtable Steven Wilson, and all the studio tracks appear multiple DVD-audio choices. I've probably reached the end of my Tull interest with this set, the '80's were not kind to the group and vice-versa, but if they do continue with these boxes, who knows? Maybe they can turn more sow's-ears albums around, as the reissue team did with this.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ATLANTIC STRING MACHINE - THE BAYFIELD SESSIONS

One of the best collaborations of late on the East Coast has been the touring partnership of P.E.I.'s Rachel Beck and the Atlantic String Machine. With several more tour dates coming up right away, there's also new music to discover from the Machine, and some coming very soon from Beck.

Rachel Beck has quickly become one of the favourite voices from the Maritimes. Her solo debut EP earned her raves plus a coveted #1 spot on the CBC Radio 2 for her single "Hearts On Fire." She followed that up with a surprising cover, a moody and nifty version of Whitney's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." Beck has been back in the studio with producer Daniel Ledwell and has an album ready that should be out in a couple of months or so. She says to "prepare for pop."

The Atlantic String Machine's new set is already here. Called The Bayfield Sessions, it features the group doing what they do so well, collaborating. The string quintet invited some of the East Coast's finest singer-songwriters to join them, each one bringing one of their tunes to sing. Instead of the normal instrumentation, each one is accompanied by the string group only, with new arrangements. Catherine MacLellan brought a brand-new one, "Out Of Time," the lead single off her just-released album Coyote. Already a strong emotional lyric, the string arrangement really heightens the power of her words and delivery.

The group's track with another P.E.I. writer, Nathan Wiley, is a different kettle of fish. Wiley's best-known song, the title cut from his debut Bottom Dollar Baby, is served up as a darker cut, the shimmering strings adding lots of drama. Newfoundland's Matthew Byrne is well-known for collecting incredible traditional numbers from his home, and here he brings the sea tragedy "Three Score and Ten." That's the number of men and boys lost from Grimsby town, and hundreds more fishermen drowned in the same storm. Already a heartbreaker, the string arrangement only adds to the poignancy, and Byrne once again shows his mastery delivering the classics.

In addition to East Coast choices from Alicia Toner and Ian Sherwood, the album features three covers from the rock world (without their famous authors). An instrumental version of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" is just as interesting as it sounds, but less scary than the original. Certainly Alabama Shakes never imagined their "Sound and Colour" to get this interpretation, as the Machine takes the quiet opening of the track and uses it as template for a complete piece, finding an inner sweetness. The version of Bowie's "Space Oddity" works less well, as the group decided to use vocals for that one, and it probably would have been served better with a very different string arrangement rather than sticking to the original.

The Atlantic String Machine does wonders with Rachel Beck's songs, and her voice is a great match for their string prowess. You can catch their collaborative tour at the following venues:

  • Oct. 24 - Capitol Theatre, Moncton
  • Oct. 25 - Imperial Theatre, Saint John
  • Oct. 26 - Fredericton Playhouse
  • Oct. 27 - King's Playhouse, Georgetown, PEI
  • Nov. 06 - Lawrence O'Brien Arts Centre, Happy Valley-Goose Bay
  • Nov. 08 - Chester Playhouse, Chester NS
  • Feb. 14 - 16, Neptune Theatre, Halifax

Monday, October 21, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID PICCO - OUT OF THE PAST

Yes, St. John's rocks too, and that's plain to hear right off the bat on Picco's fifth album. "Down The Road And Gone" leads the album with a punch and swagger, roots-rock with edgy guitar and old-school organ, like your favourite bar band on a Friday night. His core group (Sean Murray on guitar, keyboardist Ryan Kennedy, drummer Chris Donnelly and bassist Paddy Byrne) is a big part of the songs, giving the cuts unity and band spirit. I'm particularly enamoured with all the piano across the album, something you don't hear much of these electronic days.

When he moves into more thoughtful lyrics, like on "See You Around," Picco and the band shift into a more relaxed, alt-country sound, acoustics to the front, pedal steel moving around the vocal. "Nowhere To Turn" is the emotional centrepiece of the disc, and while it's tinged with sadness (and more pedal steel) about tougher times, is in the end a celebration of a love and marriage.

Things get rockin' again as the album moves on, with "Comin' Around Again" a heartland number in the Blue Rodeo/Mellancamp school, "High As A Kite" is tougher guitar stuff with cool harmonies and a great mood, and "Born Too Late" is more fun, more piano. This is a tight, well-sequenced album at 10 songs, no filler, with a good mix of styles and moods, the way a record should be.

Monday, October 14, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JERRY LEGER - TIME OUT FOR TOMORROW

Toronto singer-songwriter Jerry Leger is amassing an impressive body work while still at a young age, a full nine albums now, and just in his early 30's. And that doesn't count his side, for-fun projects, the Del-Fi's and the Bop-Fi's. A roots guy who leans more to the rock 'n' roll side than the folk world, he has the twang of Blue Rodeo and the smarts of Ron Sexsmith, the latter a long-time supporter. Of late he's been produced by Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), and they've developed a great rapport. This tight, 10-track collection features a sharp roots sound, lots of sizzling slide and electric guitar and Jerry's warm, quirky voice up front, somehow managing to sound both young and inspired and old and wordly-wise at the same time.

"Read Between The Lines" is an epic love battle song, with doo-wop roots and Leger in full voice, pleading as he wails "I love you, I need you." "Canvas Of Gold," riding high on lead slide lines from the Clapton/Harrison school, sees Leger throw his hat in with the "poets and the hobos." "I Would' features the singer wishing he was all the things his love interest wants; a rock that you'd keep instead of skip, a book so good you can't put it down. Every song rings true, every one has something you have to admire.

Leger is bringing his brand-new tunes to the East Coast in advance of the album release in November. His tour starts Thursday Oct. 17 at the Tipsy Muse in Fredericton, and features dates in all three Maritime provinces.

THURS Oct 17: Tipsy Muse, Fredericton NB
FRI Oct 18: The Cottage,  Kingston NB
SAT/SUN Oct 19-20: Trailside Inn, Mount Stewart PEI
MON Oct 21: St. Paul's Church, Antigonish NS
TUES Oct 22: Deep Hollow Print Shop, North Alton NS
WED Oct 23: Galerie MurMur, Moncton NB
THURS Oct 24: New Scotland Brewing Co., Dartmounth, NS

Saturday, October 12, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE RAMONES - IT'S ALIVE 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

Twenty-eight cuts in 53 minutes, it can only be The Ramones. What's crazy is that this live album, recorded on New Year's Eve of 1977, arguably the peak of The Ramones' career, wasn't even released in North America until 1995, and then only on CD. Back in the day, we all sought out highly-prized (and priced) import copies of the double album. It's possible that if it had come out back then, it would have truly broken the band, as live albums were huge then (Frampton, Cheap Trick, etc.).

Since many of the group's best and best-loved songs come from their first three albums, The Ramones were touring what was a non-stop hit parade. Songs would last two minutes, then Dee Dee would belt out another ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR with no pause in between, and another would crash out. "Rockaway Beach," "Teenage Lobotomy," and "Blitzkrieg Bop" started things off, and in what seemed a blink of an eye, they slammed their way through to closers "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" and "We're A Happy Family," leaving everyone breathless. Some of their great covers are here as well; "Surfin' Bird," "California Sun," "Do You Wanna Dance" and "Let's Dance" show where punk came from, that '60's garage band ideal that said anyone could form a band. Even these oddball outcasts were stars, at least to all the other oddball outcasts.

This show comes from London's Rainbow Theatre, at that point the group's biggest-ever audience. England loved them more than back home, mostly because punk was almost mainstream in that country by then. Three previous shows at three previous nights were also recorded as back-ups, and for this 40th anniversary deluxe edition, they have all been newly mixed and issued for the first time. Now, that's not as exciting as, say, three other shows from different years. Leading up to the big night, the band played virtually identical shows each night. They replaced one song ("I Can't Give You Anything") with another ("Havana Affair") and added "Judy Is A Punk" for the final night only. Other than that, the only differences are the occasional three or four words from Joey, and a threat that they would leave if the punks didn't stop spitting on them.

Each show is great though, if almost identical. The deluxe package is a classy hard-cover package, with the four CD's and YAY! Vinyl! The double-album at last, for those who've never found an import. Now, allow me to quote my favourite Ramones lyric, from "Teenage Lobotomy":  "Now I guess I'll have to tell 'em/That I got no cerebellum."

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WILCO - ODE TO JOY

It should come as no surprise that if Jeff Tweedy is going to title an album Ode To Joy, it's not going to sound much like it. His road to get there has been way too rocky, and he has too fine a sense of irony. Even on the most positive-sounding song, "Love Is Everywhere," he has to add the parenthetical warning, "Beware." If you're looking for joy, there's a lot of bleak and ton of confusion you have to get past.

Considering Wilco is one of the most explosive groups around, Tweedy sure likes to keep that under control, and this one may be the least adorned of the last half-dozen or so. Uptempo offering "Everyone Hides" bounces along on an acoustic guitar groove, only the drums allowed to pound a little. And when guitar whiz Nels Cline is unleashed, his contribution is abruptly ended, leaving the impression there's another half of the song left out, containing his freak-out.

So it's left for us to explore the album through its subtleties, and to that end, it delivers. The inventiveness is in how the instruments sound, and how they mix with Tweedy's vocals and melodies. Listening to all the contributions in the cut "Citizens" is a great pleasure, a painstaking production. Then comes "We Were Lucky," and this time Cline is allowed to fill the spaces and go off the rails, while the rest deliver a White Album-worthy moodiness. Joy, it turns out, isn't delivered on a plate here, you have to put in some close listening first. You will be rewarded soon though.

Monday, October 7, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KRIS + DEE - BROWSE LINE

Gorgeous melodies and heart-tugging harmonies may be what your ears hear first, but this strong fourth album from the Kingston couple holds some powerful truths too. Kris Abbott (The Pursuit Of Happiness) and Dee McNeil make pleasing pop-folk sounds but those calming melodies hold sharp observances. These are socially-charged lyrics, taking stabs at repression big and small.

There's the lout who cares more about his politics than his family ("Politics Are Thicker Than Blood") to the woman forced to settle for a reduced lot in life rather than flying free ("Settled Down"). These are songs that champion the best in people, calling out what holds us down. Plus, it's smart and satisfying Canadiana pop all the way through.

I keep running into new favourite lines on each listen, another song jumping up to become a new champion. "Don't Get The Universe" looks at the everyday ridiculousness that frustrates us all: "There's a woman, she's got bills to pay, works a double every day/while her boss complains they have raised minimum wage."  They can get some old-school folkie venom going as well, as found on the closer "Simple Little Sheep": "The meek shall rule the earth is just a lie/so we don't take what we deserve in this life." Can I vote for Kris and Dee in this election?

Saturday, October 5, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAWN TYLER WATSON - MAD LOVE

If you want more proof that Canadians do blues very, very well, look no further than Montreal's sensational singer Dawn Tyler Watson. Her latest, Mad Love, has just won her Female Artist of the Year from the Blues Blast Music Awards, beating out such vets as Maria Muldaur in that U.S. mag's annual plaudits.

It's easy to hear why on Mad Love. The album explodes right away, with the sizzling "Alligator," which features extended harp action from Steve Marriner (MonkeyJunk) on a fast-paced driving track. Think "Radar Love" as an electric blues cut. Always soulful on her albums, Watson gets deep and rich on the Gospel-influenced "Feels Good To Watch You Go," as piano and organ weave around her singing, the tune building to a mighty finish. It's a good time to mention the bulk of the playing comes from the Ben Racine Band, with whom she usually tours. Together they won the group category at the 2017 Memphis International Blues Challenge.

The Racine band is just as multi-faceted as Watson, able to follow her into New Orleans for "You're The Only One For Me," with Racine adding duet vocals. The horn section of the group stars throughout, punctuating "Masochistic Heart." That's one of several originals on the disc, another strong side for Watson. Her lyrics are fresh, cliche-free and smart, not stuck in yesterday's blues forms. Mad Love is a disc that shows the way forward for the blues.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROXY & THE UNDERGROUND SOUL SOUND - STAND UP

The explosive Halifax soul group are a highlight live act, and here the show translates wonderfully to the studio. Lead singer Roxy Mercier is upbeat, dramatic and fun as always, with the savvy of Amy Winehouse and the spirit of '60's girl groups. The horn-fired funk tracks show allegiance to the DapTone Records revival sound, and there's plenty of red-hot playing from the rhythm section to let you know there is some serious talent in the band.

The new songs on this latest album show the group doesn't have to rely on the usual Stax covers to survive either. Whether they are soul celebration numbers such as lead single "He's Alright," or social justice messages like "Helpless," there's plenty to engage with, and to groove to. Even without Roxy's sparkling presence, the USS provide lots of spark on a pair of instrumentals, including the sizzling "Fuse Box."

All this, and they are one of the best live acts on the East Coast as well, with several upcoming dates to celebrate the new album. Catch them at the Capitol Complex in Fredericton on release day, Friday, Oct. 4, at Moncton's Mud City Meltdown festival on Saturday the 5th, and at The Seahorse in Halifax Thursday, Oct. 17.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TEENAGE HEAD - TORNADO

The heroes of Hamilton continue as a primal force in Canadian rock 'n' roll, nearing their fifth decade. There's even more excitement these days, with the group's music getting tasty reissues, led by 2017's Fun Comes Fast career best-of. Now the runt of the litter, 1983's mini-LP Tornado gets new life, and a serious upgrading.

The disc is now more than triple the original size, bulked up to 21 tracks instead of the original six. This accomplished by doing a full remix of the cuts, and giving us both the old and new versions. Plus the group was able to locate nine band demos for the set, those same six plus another three in contention. The remixes were a smart idea. Some of the '80's sheen is gone, while vocals, guitar and overall thump is increased, making them tougher. This was supposed to be the record to break them in the U.S., so some nods to commercial sounds were made in the production. While the remix can't change all of that, it does improve them.

These are good songs, and they fit in with the group's punkish party/early rock'n'roll style, particularly the fun, danceable "Tornado" and "Blood Boogie," even with the gloss. That's even more apparent from the demos, which were fully-crafted and show that the group knew what they were after. Better still, the three cuts that didn't make the album are prime as well, and make this collection stronger than the original. Perhaps they left their version of The Beach Boys' "Drive-In" off to avoid comparisons to The Ramones in their cover choices, but they do a bang-up job. That shows their true early r'n'r roots better than anything.

Extra kudos for the packaging, which features great liner notes, explaining the situation the band were in at the time. This was originally released as by Teenage Heads, the name changed as part of a new U.S. deal, to appease DJ's in small American towns. It was also those U.S. brains that demanded this be a mini-LP as well, thinking that would help break the band in the States. The irony was that a regime change in the U.S. saw the group dropped before they even got released there. The memorabilia is great as well, and vinyl may be the best way to go, in a delightful two-tone green.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MONKEY HOUSE - FRIDAY

Another gem from the talented Toronto jazz-soul outfit, lead by keyboardist/singer/composer Don Breithaupt, the group's fifth. His love of Steely Dan is no secret (mine either) and he continues to move that group's precision-with-swing sound along nicely, with catchy words and melodies, every tune impressive. Smooth but with lots of guts and glory, it hits the exact right mix of clever and skillful.

This set's a little more soulful than the previous Monkey House releases, so in Dan terms, more Gaucho than Aja. Breithaupt shows his writing chops on "I'll Drive, You Chill," a story-song about a woman who owns a pet-friendly pharmacy but steps out on her husband for a wild ride. "When The Mudmen Come" features a survivalist with a panic room who hears and knows what we don't, ready for the inevitable worst-case scenario: "You stand there just smiling, you should be stockpiling." For every line that makes you smile, there's a solo or part that tickles your musical brain as well.

Dan fans will appreciated guest soloists Drew Zingg on guitar, from the '90's era Steely band, and trumpeter Michael Leonhart, another longtime collaborator of Becker and Fagan. Also, there's a sly nod in the lyrics, "So there's money in your pocket, but you can't buy a thrill." The best guest award goes to Manhattan Transfer, who do their trademark thing in "The Jazz Life." But the Monkey House band is topnotch on its own, handling this hybrid sound that's such a joy when done right.

Monday, September 9, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CORB LUND - COVER YOUR TRACKS

The Hurtin' Albertan tries on other people's cowboy boots for a change. Lund's picked eight cuts that mean something to him, his favourites from over the years, or songs he's done in concert. Some are big surprises, and most of them from the pop side of things rather than country, cowboy or outlaw.

The most fun comes on a cover of the old hit "Cover Of The Rolling Stone," helped out by his pal Hayes Carll. This one's a natural for Lund's easy-going side, and in fact he does a better job than the original Dr. Hook version, which always felt a bit corny. Lund and Carll are just having fun. Same goes for his take on "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me," it's fun but a little too close to Billy Joel's version, I'd like to hear it with some oomph.

Lund goes the other way on the most surprising cut, AC/DC's "Ride On," which he turns into a country-ish number. If that's not enough of a shock, it also features guest vocals from none other than Ian Tyson, Lund's mentor. It works great, with a twangy loud guitar a nod to the original. Covers always work best when they successfully re-imagined. No such luck with "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," which I'll argue really sounds better from a woman, or at least Nancy Sinatra. Still, strong marks for this mini-LP, a welcome side-step while we wait for Lund's next move.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JACKSON BROWNE - RUNNING ON EMPTY

Browne's single best album doesn't get the sales love these days that his peers such as The Eagles, with Hotel California, enjoy, and the hefty boost to his bank account. Maybe this reissue on vinyl will bring back some love.

It's certainly deserved. This was a concept album like no other, a group of songs about being on the road, performed on the road, not just on stage but in the bus and hotel rooms too. Since those were the settings for the songs, there is an extra poignancy as Browne sings about the feelings he, the band and the crew share, as well as the problems, humour and heartache.

The title cut may be Browne's very best song, as his band helped him move from his sad balladry to hockey rink rock. These were expert L.A. players (David Lindley, Danny Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, etc.) on the loose in middle America, a writer at the height of his creative powers, lots of time to jam, too much time to play, and more money than brains. The cocaine and groupie stories might have humour up front, but Browne lets the listener know this definitely isn't going to turn out well; all they can hope for is survival and a few lessons learned.

Every cut here is a gem, including Kortchmar's ode to truckers, "Shaky Town," the hilarious story of the cuckolded roadie, "Rosie," and Rev. Gary Davis's ode to marching powder, "Cocaine," complete with new couplets from enthusiasts Browne and Glenn Frey. And there's no better tribute to the crew than "The Load-Out," played as the walk-out music at a million concerts since. Browne oversaw the remastering of this new edition, which remarkably has always had brilliant sound for a live album, thanks of course to the terrific band.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SPECIALS - ENCORE

The almost-always in flux Specials surprisingly continue, now dwindled down to three original members: Terry Hall on vocals, Lynval Golding on guitar and vocals, and bass player Horace Panter. They've done lots of touring in these reunion years, but little recording. It's the first studio album since 2001 to bear the name. It turns out they had some pretty good ideas saved up.

Wisely the band sticks to what got them recognized way back in the ska revival of the late '70's, political lyrics with fun music. Race is still just as volatile a topic, and most of the tracks revolve around that, from this still multi-racial group. "B.L.M." is Golding's story, telling of the racism his father faced in England when he emigrated, and that the same happened to him over the decades both in the U.K. and U.S. The message, finally is Black Lives Matter. Hall weighs in with some smart covers, such as The Equals' "Black Skin Blue-Eyed Boys," and takes on the craziness of guns on :Blam Blam Fever," first done by The Valentines in 1967, now updated with some contemporary statistics from the States.  I also love that Hall and Golding brought back their old Fun Boy Three cut "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)," in these Brexit/Boris times.

To sweeten the pot, there's a bonus disc included, a life concert of the current band, featuring several of the old faves, such as "Monkey Man," "A Message To You, Rudy," and "Too Much, Too Young." They still pack a live punch, and the band certainly has more to offer, even down to three.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SHANGS - GOLDEN HITS OF THE SHANGS

What the heck is it with Hamilton and the enduring legacy of that ultimate cult-cool band Simply Saucer? That hybrid alt-rock/psych/punk combo was formed in the '70's and rediscovered decades later, leading to an ongoing reformation and status as a global influence. Now, an original co-founding member is seeing the same thing happen to his 90's project, The Shangs, who are back and beautiful with this, the group's first in over 20 years.

David Byers brought the pop side to the original Saucer, and when The Shangs got going in the '90's, he and cohorts Ed and Pat O'Neill showed a deep love of '60's sultry studio work, especially from girl groups and lounge sounds. Two CD's came out then, and now this sees Byers continuing those influences, with a batch of new songs, some found recordings past and a revisit to a couple of others. The O'Neill brothers are featured on the tracks, as well as the new generation Saucer folks, including original co-founder Edgar Breau,  still leading the Saucer. But this is not like that group's energetic output. The Shangs remain pop, fun at times, psych and mellow at others. From the moody opener "Adore" to the trippy cover of Norma Tanega's obscure 1966 single "A Street That Rhymes At 6 AM," this is a fascinating journey filled with delightful sounds and deep mysteries.

Byers is just as fascinated with dark Hollywood as he is with girl groups, and several of the songs are about sad tales of bit players. "Whatever Happened To Carol Wayne" is about the Tonight Show regular (the Matinee Lady) who drowned in mysterious circumstances, and "Claudine" is a tribute to the actress/singer Claudine Longet, who famously shot and killed her boyfriend, Olympic skier Spider Sabich.

At times, such as the cover of the Goffin/King number "Just A Little Boy," The Shangs recall the later studio meanderings of Brian Wilson, with a low-fi charm. Elsewhere, that same demo-like quality recalls the fuzzy warbles of XTC's Andy Partridge, unpolished gems better left alone than overworked. This is absolutely a headphones album, even one to drift off to sleep with, or at least another consciousness. Thanks for keeping it going, Mr. Byers.