Wednesday, October 30, 2019


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.