Friday, December 20, 2019


Women lead the way in this collection of singers and pianists from the always-excellent Canadian jazz label. It's mostly made up of the old reliable numbers done in a mellow fireside mood, giving that most excellent late-night vibe, wrapping the last presents or enjoying an egg nog with just the right amount of holiday cheer in it.

Juno nominee Barbra Lica kicks things off with one of the only little-known cuts here, purrfect for you cats over dogs people. It turns out "Santa Claws" is what you heard creeping around the living room late at night, causing more havoc than ho-ho-ho. The Susie Arioli Swing Band do a bluesy, old-time job on "At The Christmas Ball," with some tasty licks and a great vocal. Then come the familiar tunes, but each has a new charm. Emma Frank's take on "I Wonder As I Wander" is delicate and dreamy, something to pause over. Ranee Lee digs into those fa-la-la's in "Deck The Halls," turning it into a genteel jazz performance.

Rounding out the disc are three piano leads by guys, one by the redoubtable label star Oliver Jones, and a couple from classical/jazz hybrid Matt Herskowitz, including a solo version of "O Holy Night" that starts out contemplative but takes off in the middle, with wonderful and thrilling runs around the melody. But with the nine vocal tracks from women, this set stands out as a showcase for the depth of female Canadian jazz talent around.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019


Wow, we're just a week away from the big day, and I'm rushing to get all the Christmas and holiday albums reviewed in time! Lots new this year, but there are lots every year. For every cringing Grinch who can't stand hearing a month's worth of Yule tunes, there are a dozen who love it.

Campbell + Green are a Halifax duo, livelong musicians who found a new career when they became a working folk partnership mid-life. They have just been honoured with a Canadian "Wise 50 Over 50 Award" which recognizes entrepreneurs who started a business after the age of 50. In that time, they've released three albums, an EP, toured the country several times and Europe three times.  This latest release features five original Christmas tunes and three covers, with a little romance ("Christmas In Paris"), good memories ("Ready-Made Christmas") and a Christmas miracle ("House By The Sea").

This one might need a warning label: "Caution - may induce tears among more sentimental listeners." Just wait 'til "Dear Santa" hits you, when a much older person rights a letter to St. Nick, asking him to bring them back the wonder of a child, just for a little while. And then at the end, a beautiful "Ave Maria" featuring Cailin Green's trained voice and haunting vibes played by Chase Banks. I'm not crying, you're crying.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Fans of Norah Jones may know this group as one of her side projects, a fun club act with two of her pals. Jones doesn't go near the piano in this band, instead playing guitar and sharing the vocals with Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper (Grace Potter, Jack White).

Don't expect a holly jolly Christmas from this EP. Instead, 'tis the season to be cynical. "Christmas All Over Again" is a country weeper about being alone on the day. "The Great Romancer" is a dark ballad about waiting on a heartbreaker, and "All I want for Christmas is an answer." Popper's "Christmas Butt" is the advice for all those brought down by malls and commerce and and ads starting in December, best to just "Shake your Christmas butt".

The lone bright light comes at the end, a live recording of the trio showing that they're all fine singers, with a cool arrangement of "Silent Night". If the season is all too saccharin for you, Pussnboots is your band, you Grinch you.

Friday, December 13, 2019


For a little more East Coast holiday fare (we do Christmas right here, what with the snow and stuff), here's the guy who's been bring his holiday show to the region for almost 30 years. Gracie has done two Christmas discs before, but this time it's a swinging take on the holidays, as he puts his jazz chops to work on the holiday favourites. And with him is his grown-up daughter Samantha, taking the duet role for one, and a does a stand-out lead on "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve."

Backed by a strong group of jazz players, the familiar cuts feature strong arrangements, with a great feel from the players. There's some especially nice piano touches from Ross Billard, "I'll Be Home For Christmas" gets a fine sax solo from Martin Davidson, and Gracie plays it smooth throughout. "White Christmas" has a Samba arrangement, and "Jingle Bell Rock" swings more than rocks, but there are some sharp guitar licks thrown in as well. "Blue Christmas" gets the Elvis vocal, but it's a slow burn jazz number instead of blues.

Catch Gracie's annual Christmas shows as well; he'll be at the Merigomish, N.S. Schoolhouse Community Centre on Saturday, Dec. 14. Part of the proceeds go to The Sandwich Club, a foodbank charity. There's a free family show at Sydney’s Wentworth Park Bandshell on Sunday, Dec. 22 as well.

Thursday, December 12, 2019


This is the second holiday album from the Lovelies, and features some of the most gorgeous Christmas harmonies you'll ever hear on an album jammed full of warmth and good cheer. Featuring a mix of fun favourites, lesser-heard gems and three truly fine originals, the trio strikes the perfect blend of smiles and sentiment, with a couple of good messages in there as well.

Given the group's focus on classic female trio harmonies from the '40's to '60's, most Christmas songs fit them great. Familiar pop hits "Little Saint Nick" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" showcase their vocal blend. Older-sounding numbers, such as Leon Redbone's "That Old Christmas Moon" are great finds, a solid song that deserves to be heard more. And even the biggest chestnut of all, "Jingle Bells," sounds great in a Western swing arrangement, along with a jazzy Andrews Sisters vocal approach.

But it's the new songs that impress the most. "The Garland" has an easy country flow, and a family counting up their blessings around the Christmas tree. a wonderful image created in the chorus. "These Christmas Nights" has a more modern sound, soaring strings and a heart-stirring melody and vocal performance. I mean, the group name says it all, and Christmas is a perfect place for them.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019


Well, it's about time. Christmas has been getting all the good albums for years, while Hanukkah has been stuck with just Adam Sandler and a bunch of bad jokes. While there aren't a great bunch of classic Hanukkah songs to cover, some pretty good artists found a few to cover, and wrote a few more. Several are the usual jokes about dreidels, latkes and and menorahs, while others offer more serious lyrics, with some sublime songs.

Best, there are a few different music styles here. The Watkins Family Hour (featuring Sara and her brother Sean) present a bluegrass Hanukkah, doing a Woody Guthrie number called "Hannukah Dance" - who knew? Adam Green does alt-rock on "Dreidels Of Fire" and Yo La Tengo offers up a lush lounge cut, "Eight Candles". I'm not sure what Leonard Cohen's "If It Be Your Will" has to do with Hanukkah other than his Jewish heritage, but Haim do a lovely version.

Loudon Wainwright III does what he does, a comic song of some irony, where he points out that Irving Berlin, author of "White Christmas" was a Russian Jew. And the biggest surprise comes at the start and the finish of the record, each track performed by none other than Jack Black, each a traditional song, with Black using a singing voice somewhere between his Tenacious D character and a cantor. Yes, he was raised in the faith, went to Hebrew school and everything. Happy Hannukah everybody!

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


Pity the poor Southern Californian, bathing in sunshine and warm temperatures even at Christmas time. There's no snow for Santa's sleigh, and palm trees are notoriously hard to decorate. But somehow, East L.A.'s Los Lobos make it sound just as festive and traditional as anywhere, despite the fact that Frosty would melt in a moment.

Christmas is all about tradition, and for The Wolves, that means canciones, rancheras, and the music of Mexico and beyond into South America and other Latin countries. About the only thing you'll know by heart is "Feliz Navidad," made a festive favourite by Jose Feliciano. Most of the rest are traditional numbers in a variety of folk styles, played expertly by the group, with their usual soul and passion. Most fun is the novelty number "Donde Esta Santa Claus?", partially sung in English with lots of groove. The title cut is a great example of Los Lobos' signature blend, traditional sounds mixed with modern electric guitar and sax, giving it a r'n'b groove. Then there are straight-ahead trad numbers, "Las Mananitas" played on Mexican instruments such as the bajo sexto and the jarana.

More fun comes from a Freddy Fender cut, "It's Christmas Time In Texas," a more modern track that helps with the celebrating. And the group contributes their own very fine new track, a ballad called "Christmas and You," with that great late '50's feel, soulfully crooned by David Hidalgo. You can rest assured there's nothing in your Christmas album collection like this.

Monday, December 9, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BAND - THE BAND (50th Anniversary Edition)

This isn't the first reissue of The Band's classic 1969 album, but it is the most extensive so far. A super deluxe edition includes a bunch of bells and whistles and a 5.1 mix, but the two CD version has all the necessary stuff, for the budget conscious.

The big news is that disc two features the complete group performance at Woodstock, about a month before the album came out. There are some pretty excellent live albums out there by the Band, and this set matches up just fine. They didn't play any of the upcoming album, concentrating on Music From Big Pink tracks and some of their excellent covers, including their brilliant Motown numbers, "Baby Don't You Do It" and "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever." They still had some of the flavour of their Levon and the Hawks days, the r'n'b band that had barnstormed Toronto and beyond.

Bonus tracks fill up both discs, out-takes, alternates and instrumental versions of tracks from the album. Some of these were included on the reissue from 2000, but there are a further six previously unissued ones new for this set. That includes two very different versions of "Rag Mama Rag," one early one with different instrumentation, and another with a much different vocal mix. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is featured in an alternate mix that with the acoustic guitar more prominent.

The alternate takes and early mixes give us an even better taste of what it was like when the group recorded as one, sitting around each other in Sammy Davis Jr.'s pool house. Unlike Music From Big Pink, this one was recorded in Hollywood in the rented home, to get the clubhouse atmosphere the group so desired. And the album itself features a new remix, although nothing drastic for sure, mostly touching up the ambience with what the latest technology can offer.

As for the songs on the original album itself, if you do not have it already, are we even friends? This is The Band - The Band! You know, with "Up On Cripple Creek," "Across The Great Divide," "King Harvest," and of course, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." No, it does not include "The Weight," that's on the other one, Big Pink. If you're buying The Band just for "The Weight," we have a lot to talk about.

Friday, December 6, 2019


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


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.