Wednesday, July 24, 2019


Here's the Dead's troubled third album, spiffed up for its 50th birthday. At that point, the group were far from the American institution they became (well, weird America anyway) and were still trying to live up to their reputation as San Francisco's finest. Everybody else - Janis, The Airplane, even Country Joe - had found a national audience, while the Dead was on the verge of breaking up, Weir and Pigpen not agreeing on direction.

With those two taking a back seat, this became the Dead's most experimental collection by far, with everything from weirdness to baroque balladry to old-time folk blues. Ideas were flying, Robert Hunter's lyrics were inspiring, and Jerry Garcia had embraced the studio, using sound effects and overdubs galore, racking up a huge bill, reported near $180,000. The group spent tons of time trying to get it right, but this was complex music with strange arrangements, and all over the place stylistically. No wonder it didn't catch on.

It does open with a Dead classic, "St. Stephen," about as straight-forward as they would get on the album, which is to say not that much, but there was a relatively easy melody to follow. Then the thick of the album begins with "Dupree's Diamond Blues," one of the old-timey tunes, complete with circus organ to brighten the mood. While mining the same seam as The Band, the Dead were making the sounds more complicated than organic, with little filigrees embroidered on top. There is harpischord on "Mountains Of The Moon," madrigal voices elsewhere, and even the blues rock of "China Cat Sunflower" gets jazzy flourishes. Meanwhile there's a jam band somewhere in there, and for all the intricate moments, there's remarkably still some occasional sloppy vibe.

Then things get really weird. The eight-minute "What's Become Of The Baby" is the group's "Revolution #9," with its drugged out, Twilight Zone approach. Somebody thought this exercise in tape manipulation and effects was a good idea, and I'm pretty sure they were stoned when they thought it. Thankfully they had saved one of the best numbers of their early period for the end, "Cosmic Charlie." The sister to "Truckin'," it would point the way to the group's glory period, with Workingman's Dead and American Beauty about to arrive.

For the anniversary edition, there are two big bonuses. The album was actually released twice, as Garcia had been dissatisfied with the initial mix, so he went back and redid it in 1971. While clearer, it doesn't really improve anything, and we get both mixes here. The other addition is a live show from '69 at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, which features a couple of cuts from the album, including a rare outing for "Doin' That Rag." While from the same period as Live/Dead its largely different, often ragged and occasionally sparks fly. Pretty much your usual Dead show, then.

Monday, July 22, 2019


Goodbye parties are odd affairs, as we try to celebrate what is essentially a loss; a friend, colleague or relative is moving on, and while we cheer their achievement, we're left to soldier on without them. It's the same thing we try to do with a personal loss, whether it's a broken relationship, a death in the family or of a close friend, when we lose someone close, we try to find something after the sundering that makes it better.

Edmonton singer-songwriter Heine has been through those kinds of losses, and her third album is informed by them. But here she mostly looks at the personal growth that we hope can come from those changes. "Figure It Out" is about brave folks who don't get spooked by failed relationships, and are looking for someone willing to gamely try again; "I found a road, if you've got a car we could drive it." In "Aspartame" she realizes her old love offered "words like sugar, the whole thing fake," but things are better, "you and he are not the same, the honey on your lips has the sweetest taste."

So it goes with Heine's voice as well. Warm and stirring, she is able to project vulnerability as well as strength through her vocals. It is easily the lead instrument, the folk arrangements a comfort to her lyrics, with the acoustic guitar, piano, mandolin, bass and drums never overwhelming the messages. While there are hints of hurt everywhere, ultimately this leaves you feeling the strength.

Friday, July 19, 2019


It's great fun to research your family tree. Here's a guy who not only discovered his roots he wrote and sang about them, too. McFarlane is a mainstay of the folk scene in Brampton, ON, but his family roots are in New Brunswick where he grew up. And, so did 200 years of his old relations. Here McFarlane traces those immigrants back six generations, living in Bayside, N.B. Since the history is a little fuzzy and undocumented, McFarlane lets his imagination cover the first half of the album, creating a fictional history for the original batch of his folks. The latter songs cover the stuff he knows, remembers, and even documents his own musical beginnings.

McFarlane takes the scant information he has about the first family settlers, that two Irish immigrants married in New Brunswick in 1821, and builds his own mythology from there. Letters are sent to a sweetheart back home, convincing her to move to this tiny, ocean-side village. We get a view of what life was like back then, with "The Charlotte County Fall Fair" and "The Maxwell Crossing Bridge," about one of the province's famous covered bridges, or "kissing bridges." You always kiss in the covered bridge, where gossips can't see you.

The source of McFarlane's family knowledge is a duotang filled with the history, given to him by his grandfather, which he writes directly about in "Bringing It All Back Home." As well as telling about the family farm in that song, he tells the listener that he's bringing all those stories back with him, returning his grandfather's gift. To do that, McFarlane is returning to N.B. for a summer tour, playing these songs at a series of shows.  You can hear about his dad's accordion, and how that inspired his music career, about "The 'A' That Got Away" in the family surname, and more, at the following:

Saturday, July 27, hosting Open Mic, Town Square Pavilion, Hampton

Thursday, Aug. 1: Campobello Fogfest

Sunday, Aug. 4: Area 506 Festival, Saint John

Monday, Aug. 5: New Brunswick Day Breakfast, Miramichi Folksong Festival

Oh, and all you McFarlane/MacFarlane who are from, or who have lived in New Brunswick, say hi, and get a free CD!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


The veteran songwriter (Trews, Big Sugar) likes to have fun on his own records, of which this is the fourth. Clearly a fan of the well-crafted tune, here Ballantyne dives deep, coming up with a polished batch that all work individually, and also as part of a bigger picture, the whole nine track release. Playing every part himself aside from some added voices, he gives us what so few do these days, a start-to-finish album, in that old rock idea of all-killer, no-filler.

Inspired by the classics, Ballantyne added familiar touchstones, including some Floyd space on "Beneath Your Skin," some Harrison slide on "I Get Lost," and Moody mellotron on "Vicious In Your Vanity." And while he may be pleasing himself with these studio concoctions, the songs all feature an attention to detail that fans of great pop production love. The arrangements take the tunes way past the verse-chorus-verse model, with lots of prog soaring and drama, and perfect instrument choices appearing out of nowhere to take the track to a new level.

While his songwriting chops have earned him his reputation, Ballantyne's solo work has taken a serious leap with Sky.

Monday, July 15, 2019


Let's face it, it's Roger Daltry that keeps The Who alive. Somehow he manages to persuade Pete Townshend to take part in occasional tours and even rarer recording sessions, and take care of the legacy of his compositions. One gets the feeling Townshend would be happy to putter on undisturbed by the public or press if it wasn't for Daltry's willingness to keep singing.

Since Pete only comes out every couple of years, Daltry always has another show or two on the go, and this orchestral version of Tommy lets him do his own thing on The Who's classic rock opera. Well, not alone of course. There a gigantic orchestra on stage, a full rock band, and a substitute Pete too, little brother Simon Townshend. Simon has been touring with The Who for the past couple of decades, so he knows the score, and he even sounds a bit like Pete, certainly enough to sing the bits that his brother sang in the original Tommy. It gives the show little bit more Who connection as well, and Simon is certainly a welcome presence.

Daltry still sounds great, and while he's lost a little range, this is still his part. The songs are so familiar, I can't imagine anyone else doing a decent job. As for the musicians, the 76-minute piece does lend itself to orchestral treatment, and as soon as the Overture begins, the excitement is there. Pete Townshend had a fine grasp of orchestral sounds and arrangement, and this gives us an idea what Tommy might have been like if the band could have taken, say, 50 pieces on the road with them back in '69. There are a few arrangement touches added throughout, nothing that adds (or detracts) from the well-known show, but the occasional difference just to remind us this is a new production. Where it does fall down by comparison is on the rock band side. The original Who was able to perform all this music with just three pieces and voice, and do it with amazing power. That, of course, was because each of the four was a virtuoso, and together they brought a magic and magnetism to Tommy that cannot be replicated. There were always flubs and malfunctions, bad jokes and entire bad nights when The Who did it, and there was probably never a night were it all went perfect. This orchestral show on the other hand, is pretty much flawless, the music is still fun, but it misses the rest of the gang of course. As long as Daltry's still about though, Tommy deserves to live on.

Friday, July 12, 2019


McCartney has been very active in reissues and deluxe versions of late, and this live set is part of a group of four reissues of live albums from over his career. The other three (Wings Across America, Choba B CCCP, Paul Is Live) are straight reissues (albeit now on coloured vinyl), but this one is vastly different from the limited-edition original, which was just a four-track EP released in 2007. Now it includes the entire show, some 78 minutes and 21 numbers.

The concert was special, a surprise show at the Hollywood store Amoeba Music. About 1,000 folks were able to crowd in to see Paul and band, and as he does for special events, McCartney came through with a fun and quite personal performance, clearly enjoying the different atmosphere. Since show was a promotional move, the set list was heavy with five cuts from his then-new Memory Almost Full album, sadly not one of his better efforts. It had a bit of a looking-back theme, and his "That Was Me," feels like he's bragging about being world-famous in his 20's. Lead single "Dance Tonight" certainly wouldn't get me off my chair, and "Nod Your Head" is a pointless exercise in audience participation, luckily a brief one.

Of course, he makes it all better with some deep cuts from The Beatles and Wings, including a couple of nice surprises. "I'll Follow The Sun" is a great choice with great Beatle harmonies, "Matchbox" was one of that band's favourite covers and a great rock'n'roll track, and "I Saw Her Standing There" always welcome, here a fun closing number. I personally have had enough of "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be" but they do go over great in small setting. There are plenty of McCartney live albums and DVD's to choose from, but this is a fine addition.

Thursday, July 11, 2019


The release of this deluxe, two-CD version of McCartney's latest, originally put out last fall, gives me the opportunity to revisit it, and see if it holds up. I originally felt it was a very strong album, apart from the choices of singles, and that it gets better as it goes on. That still holds, but I find that those singles, "Come On To Me" and "Fuh You," bug me even more. And while I find lots on the latter half of the album to enjoy, the first half proves disappointed more often than enjoyable. These are the songs where you can feel him trying too hard to write and produce a hit. The lyrics are forced and foolish at times. "Come On To Me" is intended as a look at the romance dance, but it seems emotionless, a description of a one-night stand. The less said about the bad joke that is "Fuh You" the better. And more attempts at writing catchy numbers, "Who Cares," "Confidante" and "People Want Peace," are technically proficient but soulless.

Then everything chances in part two, as suddenly it sounds like he's simply making music to enjoy, always his greatest strength. Piles and piles of hooks, great chord changes, excellent melodies and cool productions remind us once again that he's at his best letting it flow, not trying to be Paul McCartney, but simply being Paul McCartney. To put it in Beatle terms, the first half of this set is the guy who wrote "Let It Be," while the back half is the guy who wrote much of the medley on the Abbey Road album.

The extra stuff on this expanded edition is a 33-minute, 10-track second disc. This includes bonus tracks recorded for the album, some appearing here for the first time, and some live cuts at the various special shows he did to hype the album. It's no surprise that the leftover cuts from the album sessions are really quite good, as they are more of the relaxed, experimental stuff he mistakenly thinks don't make the grade. "Get Started" and "Nothing For Free" beat any of the first eight cuts on the original album. The intriguingly named "Frank Sinatra's Party" is sadly lightweight but not bad for a bonus. As for the live material, guess what? It's the tracks he felt were the strong ones, those contrived singles again, plus "Who Cares" and "Confidante," interesting only because they were recorded at special venues, the Abbey Road Studios, The (rebuilt) Cavern Club, and Grand Central Station.

Gimme a scalpel and these 90 minutes of music, and I could have given you a top-notch Paul McCartney album of about 40 minutes that might not have any hit singles, but would be an artistic achievement at least.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


It is rock 'n' roll's most storied event, the culmination of the '60's and the defining moment of youth culture of the 20th century. Under the establishment's noses, hippies took over for a weekend, creating their own city and their own mythology. For a brief, shining moment, it looked like peace and love might be a realistic way of life.

That was the way it was portrayed at least. The reality was a lot of mud, bad acid, traffic jams and unbelievable luck. That it didn't collapse in riot or natural disaster is quite remarkable. Now 50 years later, most of our knowledge of what happened comes from the famous film of the event, and the many stars that remained iconic heroes in rock, often thanks to their appearance at the festival.

The film and the original soundtrack album were examples of great editing, making the event and the musicians look a lot more exciting than they probably were. For the 50th anniversary, greatly expanded collections have been put together that give us a lot more music, a lot more stage chatter and announcements, and a lot better idea of what it must have been like on Yazgur's Farm those three days. There are smaller sets that handle the best-known music, on five LPs or three CDs, nothing much new there. On the other end, there's a mammoth 38 CD set, with virtually every song played, 432 tracks in all, more than half of them previously unreleased.  If you're into it that much, I'd advised stripping naked and rolling in mud while listening for the full experience. I'll stick to the more feasible 10-CD box set.

It's not everything, but it is everyone, each band who played the festival represented by three or four cuts usually. Well, Ravi Shankar only gets one, but of course, it's really really long. This means that unknowns such as Sweetwater who played near the beginning get as good a look as Hendrix or The Who, for better or worse. Sometimes that is a real eyeopener. Troubled folkie Tim Hardin, sounds quite brilliant on "How Can We Hang On To A Dream," and captivating on "If I Were A Carpenter." He was notorious for bad shows, but this was a great one. Joe Cocker, who became a huge star thanks to his captivating performance of "With A Little Help From My Friends," has another four songs here, including an epic and well-chosen "Let's Go Get Stoned." The Band, one of the groups originally not featured in the soundtrack and film, do their usual tremendous set, and it turns out "The Weight" was a highlight at Woodstock, at least of the live audience.

Not all the original no-shows are as welcome additions. Every Deadhead knows they sucked at Woodstock, and wasted tons of time with rain delays and noodling. "Mama Tried" sounds okay but "Dark Star" is an embarrassment, and its no surprise Woodstock did nothing for the group. The most out-of-place act was Scotland's Incredible String Band, who made no friends by refusing to play their first slot due to the rain, worried for their trad instruments. When they finally got up a day later, there was no excitement to their set, which had nothing to do with blues-rock or hippy folk. Only die-hard fans will be pleased with their belated appearance here.

Famously, the best moments were in the middle of the night or early in the morning, with set times thrown way off due to delays. The overnight Saturday/Sunday shows by Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone and The Who is the best run, and it is served well here, from "Ball and Chain" to the "Dance To The Music" medley to "Pinball Wizard" at full force. It's interesting to note that Jefferson Airplane followed, and didn't sound great. While they were include in the film and soundtrack, they were clearly a band being passed by, and while the other three are still considered untouchable heroes, the Airplane has fallen in status.

Much of the fun of the Woodstock experience as most of us knew it, from the film and album, was the stage announcements and sound bites. The "No Rain" chant, the Fish Cheer, Max Yazgur's "I'm a farmer" speech, these are all here, but now in context, and with much more. What you find out is that the crowd was abuzz with rumours, especially about the brown and blue acid, and whether it was poison or not. There are a lot of stage announcements from Chip Monck about what to do for help for bad trips. Hilariously, between almost every act, he also implored people to get down from the PA towers. Imagine that today, they'd be getting roughed up by security staff. There are stage moments as well, including the notorious Abby Hoffman incident, when he commandeers the stage mic during The Who's set, and Townshend bashes him in the head with his guitar. Perhaps explaining her band's weak performance, Grace Slick extends sympathy to those who suffered bad trips, while saying they had the good acid, and the whole band was flying.

I've gone through the various versions of Woodstock over the years, as it has been slowly expanded and released. You can now buy full sets by some of the groups, including Sly and Santana. This, which gives you a chronological look at the event, but not an overlong one, is I think the best way to get the whole picture, warts and all. In the end, it's more a cultural experience than a brilliant music one, but there are still plenty of highlights.

Thursday, July 4, 2019


They may be celebrating 50 years, but we all know not much happened after the '80's. And while all five of their albums after that get a token cut on this 18-track best-of, they are at the end so those buyers scratching their heads can ignore them. It's no surprise that the meat of the collection comes from the band's glory days in the '80's, when they were discovered by the MTV generation, with the beards and spinning guitars and "Legs" and all that.

Too bad more room wasn't devoted to the group's better days in the '70's, when they were kings of Texas boogie, John Lee Hooker fronting a rock band. The great "La Grange" and "Tush" are included, but that's it from the superior Tres Hombres-Fandango!-Tejas period. Thankfully there was room for two cuts from 1979's Deguello album, the wonderfully amusing "Cheap Sunglasses" and "I"m Bad, I'm Nationwide." They were truly a funny group in those days, in a skewed way, not the cheap laughs of "Sharp Dressed Man" and the winking sexism of "Legs."

There are decent cuts from that era, notably "Velcro Fly" and the atypical ballad "Rough Boy." But multi-million success saw the band lose the plot, and if you haven't paid attention the last 25 years, you haven't missed much. Instead of going for the hour-long single album collection, I'd spend the extra ten bucks and get the three-album version, which has a full hour of the first decade's material.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019


You know what Prince's problem was? Too darn talented. When did he sleep? Between writing, jamming, touring and recording, most of his life must have seemed a blur. There was just so much Prince music over the years that consumers got lost in the steady flow.

Famously Prince gave away lots of his best music in the '80's, and here we get his original versions of songs that were hits for others during that decade. Some were demos, and some were full productions used by the lucky pals who got to place their voices on his mini-masterpieces. He made minor celebrities out of proteges such as Appolonia, The Time and Vanity 6, and when he had an established talent such as Sheila E., he really dug in. Her version of "The Glamorous Life" plus three other numbers here showed Prince had the power to turn someone into a star when he put his chops behind them. That was no cast-off cut either; and this version shows it would have made a fine Purple Rain-era cut, his sparse take having all the needed magic.

The same goes for "Manic Monday" as well, a made-to-order hit for The Bangles that truly ranks with his greatest, here sounding like a breezier sister to "Raspberry Beret". The biggest surprise is one that most fans ignored at first, "You're My Love," released by none other than Kenny Rogers back in 1986. Prince's original was certainly a slight pop track, but it sure sounds like another hit had it gone to some hipper newcomer than Kenny. Of course, the biggest Prince cover ever was Nothing Compares 2 U, although it was first recorded by The Family, not Sinead, and Prince's version almost beats hers.

The good news is that this is the tip of the iceberg of vault material, all pre-1991.  Expect lots more in the years to come.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019


Oh Neil, the great contrarian. Here's where his difficult reputation was cemented, on tour following his breakthrough album Harvest, and the massive hit "Heart Of Gold." You can just imagine the shock all those new fans must have felt in 1973, when they left the concert hall after this show. It starts out nicely enough, Young doing acoustic versions of older material such as "After The Gold Rush" and the Harvest faves ("Old Man", "Out On The Weekend"). But then the ragtag ensemble known as the Stray Gators starts in on the hazy, haggard new songs Young had been writing, leading up to his Tonight's The Night period.

This tour has already been documented on the rather insane Times Fades Away live album, released back in the day to great confusion and disappointment from the casual fans. It then took on a mythic status, loved by the "Rusties," his most fervent followers, and its disappearance from his catalog during the CD era, finally earning reissue 30 years later. There's some repetition in cuts, but not many. This hour-long set includes much of the acoustic opener of this night in Tuscaloosa, and the latter half has different new electric numbers, including Tonight's The Night's "New Mama" and "Lookout Joe." Those "Heart Of Gold" fans must have been scratching their heads over lines such as "Remember Millie from down in Philly/She took my brain and forgot my name."

Young offers a reprieve midway through the new songs, as some familiar notes from the Harvest album ring out. Lo and behold, it's the caustic "Alabama," played for the home state crowd in Tuscaloosa. Chastising them with lines such as "See the old folks tied in white robes," and "You got the rest of the Union to help you along, what's going wrong?", Young puts his money where his mouth is. The message was clear then, and has remained so since, the Muse comes first at a Neil Young show, even before the audience.