Sunday, December 27, 2020


This has been a banner year for boxed sets and super deluxe reissues. For so-called heritage artists, even the biggest names, it's become one of the only sure-fire ways to sell physical products. For record labels, the deluxe packaging means bigger price tags. And they sell themselves, based on long-standing artist support among fans and collectors. Artists such as  The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney now sell super deluxe versions of middling catalogue albums like Goats Head Soup and Flaming Pie for $150 - $250, a far cry from the $3.99 or so consumers first shelled out for them.

If you're paying out that kind of money, you want value and volume. Vinyl is nice, so are great big books and informative notes. I'm not a fan of photos and trinkets, and I could care less about posters and postcards. Give me extra cuts, out-takes, unreleased live shows, the more the merrier. Dig deep in the vaults, remaster, remix, and keep 'em coming.

Under that set of criteria, the box set reissue of the year award has to go to Sign 'O' The Times. The Prince estate obviously gets it. After an excellent job on the 1999 album, they have truly outdone themselves on this set. The super deluxe version features a whopping eight CD's, plus another two-hour DVD of a live concert. It's pretty much exhaustive. We get the original double LP, a CD full of 12-inch mixes, b-sides, extended cuts and edits, and then the real glory, a full three CD's of completely unreleased out-takes and alternates, almost four hours of unheard Prince music. Then there's a full two-hour concert from June of that year, in Utrecht. Other boxed sets might include a DVD of the same show, but instead the DVD here is another complete concert, a famous New Years Eve gig at Paisley Park, which included a cameo by Miles Davis.

Sign 'O' The Times may not be the very best Prince album, but it is the most varied, and it is still very good. The hits were the title cut, a dark tale that recalls Marvin Gaye protest and Curtis Mayfield movie edge, the Sheena Easton-vehicle "U Got The Look," and the joyous "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man." They don't sound much alike, because they came from a very big pot of different projects and shifting styles. Prince worked on at least three different albums at this point. There was Dream Factory, which was to feature Wendy and Lisa, but that project collapsed and the duo bolted. Then there was Camille, which was to feature funky cuts and Prince's phase-shifted vocals. Then came Crystal Ball which was originally meant to be a triple album, but Warner made/convinced Prince to scale it back to two LP's, at which point it gained its final title. Fans will know that a Crystal Ball album did come out in the '90's, made of a few of the tracks from these sessions, but that's not what we get here. 

There are highlights galore. The original version of "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man" dates back to 1979, and while it's rougher and less sophisticated, it plain rocks, and how he held it back from any of his albums for the next eight years tells you a lot about his productivity. There are studio jams which take off in special moments, "Power Fantastic" still including Prince walking the band through the changes, telling them "bridge" and "chorus". There are three versions of the song "A Place In Heaven," including the original with a Lisa Coleman vocal, which got dumped after The Revolution disbanded. 

Putting together a new group made Sign 'O' The Times come alive, and Prince was justifiably proud of this unnamed ensemble. Only Dr. Fink on keyboards remained from the original Revolution, although some of the extra players (horns, dancers, etc.) were upgraded to full membership, and opening act/protege Sheila E. became a central member. The DVD is particularly revealing, as Prince spends lots of time dancing in well-choreographed segments with all the singers.  But it was much more than a stage show, as the band takes off in great jams, including a massive, half-hour final encore where Prince boldly and proudly claims it's the funkiest band in the world, and who could argue. He had become James Brown, Hendrix and Smokey Robinson all rolled into one, the best band leader, musician and songwriter on the planet. 

You can easily go down the Prince rabbit hole with this collection, going back and forth in archive websites, piecing together all the various track versions, songs that would later show up on Lovesexy, The Black Album and the '90's Crystal Ball. That's a ton of fun, something else I truly appreciate with a great boxed set release. You can spend hours learning more about the artist, and that's when these mega-boxes truly deserve the big price tags.

Friday, December 18, 2020


Not actually a tribute to de Keyzer, but that would certainly be valid. Nor is it his tribute to one artist. Instead it's a homage to various styles of blues and soul, all of which the veteran Toronto axeman attacks with expertise. He stays in his comfort zone, more modern and electric stuff, no acoustic or country blues for instance, but that leaves lots to tackle. Oh, and these aren't covers, de Keyzer wrote every track here, in the spirit of the classics.

Whether it's the smooth groove of "Just For The Funk," or the raw Chicago of "If My Baby Left Me," de Keyzer sounds like 12 different guitar players on this set, each one a master. Some are more obvious tributes than others. "Supernatural" is pure Santana, although he manages to reference two eras in the one track. It has a bit of the "Smooth" sound in the verses, while the guitar solos go back to late '60's Latin jams of the early Santana band. Throw in Stax ("On The Money"), Yardbirds/Mayall British ("Let's Do It") and even some reggae-fied blues on "Keep The Fire Burning," and this disc keeps shifting and surprising. Another smokin' effort from the wily Canadian blues star.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020


Well that sucked. Yeah, 2020, I'm looking at you. All that's left to salvage from this year is Christmas, and let's hope it's a good one, to quote Lennon. 

PoLe, a new project made up of Hamilton artist NLX and producer Rick Coluccio, took refuge from this dumpster fire of a year by getting into a Christmas vibe. The duo took some old favourites and reimagined them, the results being this five-song alternative Christmas E.P. You'll know the titles, but not like this. It's chill-out, wintery music, soothing but delightfully fractured. 

Auld Lang Syne, Jingle Bells, 12 Days Of Christmas, and the like all start with NLX at her piano, but instead of the usual holly-jolly versions, we get moody takes, slowed down and soft. Then the trickery comes in, beats added, synths burbling, some FX to go with your NLX. But throughout, her calm and caring vocals make this a balm for our world-weariness. Take a deep breath, relax, put on repeat, and kiss 2020 goodbye.

Friday, December 11, 2020


So Young's long-delayed second volume of his archives series has finally arrived, albeit only for super deluxe, website orders right now. The retail edition comes in the spring, in a cheaper, less deluxe box. That should be enough, 10 cd's of classic and unreleased material, from 1972 - 1976, right? Right? 

Of course not. There are anniversaries to honour as well. This is the 50th birthday for the classic After The Gold Rush, one of the very best sets in his career. It featured a hybrid group of Crazy Horse players (Danny Whitten, Ralph Molina), CSNY types (Stills, bassist Greg Reeves) and wild cards (Jack Nitzsche, Nils Lofgren). It was a purple patch for great songwriting from Young, coming off the huge success of CSNY's Deja Vu, and about to blow the roof off with his Harvest album. This album had a grand mix of folkie acoustic ("Tell Me Why," "Birds") and sizzling electric ("Southern Man," "When You Dance I Can Really Love") plus of course, the immortal title cut, a sci-fi anthem. 

The carrot for buying this version of the album is the addition of two cuts. They are both of the same song, very different versions of the delightful trifle "Wonderin'." That was a song Young cut several times, trying to find a home and arrangement for it, and was an acoustic concert favourite. It finally did get put out on the rockabilly-styled Everybody's Rockin' in 1983, but like the rest of the album, it was done as a cheesy throwaway. Here we get the original folkie-styled version with Crazy Horse that could have fit on After The Gold Rush, which first appeared on his first Archives box, and an out-take that makes it more country, with Lofgren on the session. This newly-found second version has never been released, so it's a bonus for collectors and fans. 

Speaking of Young's archives, the real goldmine can be found on his website,, which is a fan site you have to subscribe to, 20 bucks a year. Young has now made it completely free for the rest of December, so you can stream all his music in Hi-Res, including the new Archives box, and also get exclusive concert films, videos, and all sorts of info and mayhem. It's truly worth it just for the reading and instant access to the tons and tons of material you won't get on Spotify.

Thursday, December 10, 2020


Last year's new Who album, simply called Who, was greeted with a very large yawn by the public, no surprise for heritage bands in the streaming era. And it's been a very long time (decades) since there's been a good Who album, so that didn't help. 
Well, it was actually pretty darn good. It features some of Pete Townshend's best songwriting in ages, and passionate, later-life vocals from the still-inspired Roger Daltry. It's a shame it stalled then, but now it's been reissued with a bonus live disc to try to drum up some new interest. 

There are several songs that touch on The Who's legacy, Townshend writing directly about the band's earlier days and what it all means now. Some of that is navel-gazing, but it also speaks to the artist's dilemma, to keep creating or to relive past glories and hits. Also, the group has always been wise to the fact they speak for their audience, from the Mods when they started to the boomers who embraced them through adulthood. Pete's still trying to keep connected, and it's a more successful effort here. That's not to say it's full of top-level Who. A song about the Guantanamo Bay U.S. prison, "Ball And Chain," falls flat, a rare topical song in Townshend's catalog and basically preachy. Sometimes it sounds like Pete did a little bit too much production at home before overdubbing Roger and the guest players, and I'd rather they had crafted this with a band in the studio, but that's only occasionally. All-in-all, in my ranking of Who albums, I'd put this ahead of even some original group albums, certainly it's better than The Who By Numbers. 

The bonus disc is a good listen too. Yes, there have been tons of live Who discs, seemingly every time they go on a Tommy or Quadrophenia or Anniversary tour. This one is a bit different, a stripped-down acoustic show for charity. It's a half-hour, seven-song outing, with a couple of the news ones and some of the usual classics: "Substitute," "Squeeze Box," and "Won't Get Fooled Again" among them. Best of all is a rare outing for "Tattoo," and the light-hearted stage banter between Daltry and Townshend. They both seem at peace with the role their band plays these days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020


If you're missing the usual holiday concerts and feel like it's the year of No Christmas, take heart. The Good Lovelies have you covered. Since you can't go see them this year, they're coming to see you, with their Virtual Christmas Tour. For 15 years the Lovelies have been getting festive this time of year, and they were determined to not let the tradition fail. The group has teamed up with venues and charities across the country and internationally to present 10 virtual shows. The whole thing starts Thursday, focusing on different areas each night. London, Ontario gets the honour of the first night, Friday sees a show for Atlantic Canada, and so on.

Each show features a special, secret guest, announced just a couple of days before the event. So far, we know that Jenn Grant & Family will be hooked up for the London concert, and now word is out that the Atlantic show will feature local favourite Ria Mae. For that Atlantic Canadian show, my particular area, the show is being presented by the venerable Indian River Festival in P.E.I., and part of the proceeds will go to the Chief May Bernard Women's Memorial Shelter on the Island.

If you want to invite the group into your home for one of these shows, you can find all the details here:  . Also, check out the group's brand-new holiday song, the old country classic "Christmas Time's A-Comin'." The trio charm it up with their usual high and sweet harmonies, old-time feel and bluegrass liveliness. If the concert is this much fun, Christmas is saved!

Tuesday, December 8, 2020


Wildflowers is an album that has continually increased in stature since its release in 1994. Technically it was Petty's second solo album, after 1989's smash Full Moon Fever, but most of the Heartbreakers showed up, all over the tracks, especially co-producer Mike Campbell. What distinguished it as a solo project was the type of songs Petty wrote, all for him rather than with an ear to the band's style. And what really set it apart were the emotionally-charged lyrics, Petty looking inside, trying to figure it all out. It's the bare heart of an adult, who still identifies with that kid he was, and all the other kids out there, older and younger. "I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants/you be the girl at the high school dance."

Shortly after Wildflowers came out, word spread about the original plans for the album. Producer Rick Rubin and Petty had made enough tracks for a double album, but that was whittled down to a single in the end. So there were a bunch of tracks complete and left over, Most of them stayed that way. "Leave Virginia Alone" was given to Rod Stewart, several others were re-done for the She's The One movie soundtrack, and another popped up in a film in 2015, but fans have long clamoured for the full sessions. They get that and more here. Over four CD's, there's the original album, the completed tracks that weren't released (called All The Rest here), a disc of home recordings that feature even more songs that didn't get recorded, and then a full live CD of Wildflowers tracks live. 

I'm a pretty big fan of demos, alternate takes, out-takes and the like, but this is above and beyond that. As Benmont Tench shares in the notes, songs were pouring out of Petty at the time, and there's little to nothing to distinguish between the original album and all the others presented here. And as Mike Campbell also tells us, the songs seemed about other people, but they were all about Petty. Newly divorced and at a mid-life crossroads, Petty was trying to figure out love, life, himself. These questions came out in relatively simple vignettes, but ones that packed a great emotional punch. He offers each of his humble characters great empathy, of course being kind to himself in the process. They are confused, restless souls, so keen on getting it right, but so often the cause of their own failures.

Working with Rubin, and without the restrictions of the Heartbreakers name, Petty made the studio a playground. Nothing was out of bounds, from his beloved '60's garage sounds to his early Heartbreakers folk rock, to lush string accompaniment to nasty blues. Tench got to try out a bunch of different keyboards and synths, even a Mellotron. There's no one description, although many of the moody songs feature acoustic guitar cores. Yet "You Wreck Me" is one of the biggest rockers in his catalog. Several of the cuts became concert favourites right up until his last tour: "You Don't Know How It Feels," "It's Good To Be King," "Crawling Back To You," there's not a song to be dismissed over the 15 tracks on the original.

Now there's another 10 songs to add to that from the All The Rest disc, including the Byrds-like "Confusion Wheel," the original "Leave Virginia Alone," and "Harry Green," another of Petty's remarkable character studies about a troubled soul/hero. These ten tracks were actually chosen and planned as an album before he died, so we are definitely getting a definitive version, rather than some trolling through the vaults. Also, don't be fooled by the  title of Home Recordings for the third disc. Petty was perfectly capable of making an album by himself at home if he wanted, The intimacy of these recordings, matched by the open-hearted warmth makes this another rewarding listen. 

Then there's the live set, which as any fan knows, is gonna be great no matter what. What's so impressive is how well these tracks fit into the Heartbreakers' world, and how well they went over with fans. By the 2000's, much of his audience was there to hear the old hits, the sad but true world of the classic rock band. But these songs earned their way, and won over crowds every night. They own important spots in his hits collections and live albums now. There's a couple of rare gems added from Wallflowers era, including the humorous "Girl On LSD," but really, I can listen to any Petty live album any time, and this is as good as any of them. 

Wildflowers affects me like no other Petty album. Most of them excite me, and his music never fails to have me singing along, it's perhaps my very favourite car-driving music. This one though makes me think and feel, turn introspective and even melancholy. But it also tells me I'm not alone, and lets me know that Petty cared about every last person who listened to the records he made. What a legacy.

Monday, December 7, 2020


Yusuf continues to look back on his old Cat Stevens days, announcing a new "Cat-O-Log" collection, featuring expanded issues of his old albums. These two aren't his earliest, but rather his first singer-songwriter releases, both from 1970, the two that catapulted him to North American fame. His earlier music, which first made him a star in England, had been pop fare created for the star-making treadmill. That was stalled by a serious bout of TB, and an epiphany. When Stevens did return, it was with more introspective, acoustic music, a perfect fit for the James Taylor/Joni Mitchell/Carole King days. 

Mona Bone Jakon is the lesser-known of the two, but a fine stage-setter, with minor hits "Lady D'arbanville" and "Trouble," the self-mocking "Pop Star" and the exquisite "Lilywhite." Quickly on the heels of that successful transition came Tea For The Tillerman, with the big hit "Wild World," the hippy anthem "Father And Son" and a bunch of enduring favourites including "Hard Headed Woman" and "Where Do The Children Play?" Generations of children have heard these songs sung as lullabies by their parents.

For big fans, there are Super Deluxe versions of each of these albums, including new remixes, blu-ray audio, lots of TV performance videos, vinyl versions, demos, live concerts and more. Oh, and mega-price tags too, $240 bucks or so. Far more affordable are these two-disc versions, the original album on the first, featuring remastering, and then a cut-down assortment of the bonus material. Mona Bone Jakon gets five demos, including an unreleased number, which easily could have made the album. There's a couple of BBC live cuts, and two more from a British festival appearance that summer, in rough bootleg shape, but important examples of Stevens' new style presented for the old home fans.

The Tea For The Tillerman bonus album is a little more generous, 14 cuts versus the 10 on the other reissue. We get the rather odd but historically fascinating "Honey Man," a duet with Elton John which only got released as a promo back in the day, plus the completely unreleased finished track "Can This Be Love?" The "Wild World" demo has unfinished lyrics, but still packs a mighty punch. And the live versions here are well-chosen, especially the powerful versions of "Into White" and "Father And Son." Any Cat Stevens fans will delight in these sets.

Friday, December 4, 2020


Until very recently, the idea of Mitchell allowing such an archival release was laughable. Like many artists, she dismissed a lot of her earliest attempts at writing and performing as worthy of public consumption. Other early sources, such as demo tapes and live concerts wouldn't live up to the technical scrutiny given later releases. And Mitchell has very high standards when it comes to her releases. One can't imagine the old Joni allowing a live track where she flubs the lyrics and has to restart a line to be placed on the market.

But flubs, stumbles, slight tuning issues and various youthful transgressions are all on display on this, the first of hopefully several archive releases. Over five hour-plus CD's, we get a full document of the start of her career, leading up to her first album in 1968. There are various sources, including an early radio station tape from Saskatoon in 1963, live coffee house performances from Yorkville Village in Toronto, tapes made at her parents' house, others sent to family and friends, a rejected demo tape for Elektra Records, and shows from her first blush of fame, when her songs were starting to be recorded by others. It's a remarkable set that shows the explosion of her development, from a standard folk singer of the day ("House Of The Rising Sun") to one of the very best new songwriters of the '60's ("Both Sides Now").

Mitchell's career began with the same tug of war she felt throughout her life, trying to decide if she was a painter or a singer. While an art student in Calgary, she was lured to the folk clubs, where she developed her repertoire of standards, from "John Henry" to "Dark As A Dungeon," which she played on a four-string baritone ukulele. Back home in Saskatchewan a friendly DJ recorded a nine-song tape of these standards, proving what a poised and confident performer she already was, even if she hadn't written a song by then. That first real composition, "Day After Day," came during a bus trip to Ontario, as a pregnant Mitchell got out of town to save her family's '60's embarrassment, and go see her hero, Buffy Ste. Marie, at the Mariposa festival. That song, and four others of her early compositions made it onto a demo tape, all wordy and moody and studied, and while they show a serious pursuit, didn't get her a contract or make it past that first trial. 

Meanwhile, her performances show an increased professionalism, and ease with the intimate audiences of the clubs. She banters her way through lengthy tunings, tells jokes and fun stories, and owns the stage. As we start to hear her own compositions, the odd tunings appear, immediately setting her apart from the hoards of singing guitarists. While she's still doing "Nancy Whiskey" in Toronto in 1964, the next time we hear her live, it's on CTV's Let Sing Out folk show in 1965, where she's introducing the original "Favorite Colour." A message song about race, it's a little precious, but still effective, and definitely good enough to get her noticed. Still, she'd do much better, and quite soon.

A tape sent to her mother for her birthday presents new compositions, including "Urge For Going," her first major tune, recorded by friend Tom Rush, and a country hit for George Hamilton IV. Now living in Detroit with her new husband, Chuck Mitchell, she was becoming a known presence in the folk scene there, as well as landing TV and radio gigs in other cities. By 1966, her set lists were now almost completely made up of originals, almost uniformly of high quality. "The Circle Game" and "Night In The City" arrived, and by March of 1967, she was excited to play her brand-new "Both Sides Now" on the Folklore radio show out of Philadelphia.

Things really progress through 1967, as more songs debut that will attract more cover versions, and end up on her first four albums. As well, there are still more originals that she left behind, some inexplicably. "Gift Of The Magi" and "Dr. Junk" deserved better fates, and by this period there's few that she wrote and performed that weren't superior. Most of a complete, three-set show at The Canterbury House, Ann Arbor, from October of '67 has been saved, and by now her debut album was starting to take shape live, with "I Had A King," "Marcie" and "Michael From The Mountains" all in the show.

There are a couple of special moments to highlight, perhaps familiar to those who frequent rare tracks on Youtube or the bootleg world. From the Canterbury show, Mitchell performs "Little Green," a song that wouldn't appear until 1971's Blue album. Although it was known until decades later, the song was about the daughter she had to give up for adoption in Toronto, a single mother alone and without any money. The hints were there, in the lyrics and the final reference to "Kelly Green," the name she had given the baby. And on the Folklore radio show in May 1967, she played a song by Neil Young that had affected her, "Sugar Mountain," a rare occasion where she covered a contemporary. Young's song had inspired her to write "Circle Game," one of the great bits of kismet in Canadian music history.

This is a strong set from start to finish, a gold mine if you like Mitchell's folk years. The book that comes with the set features a new interview with Cameron Crowe, and while he gets to some interesting points with Mitchell, it's a little short on context. I would have preferred some I-Was-There commentary from surviving friends and fans, plus a little more info on the history of each song. But it's nicely priced, and I was pretty shocked when I first heard it was coming out, so it's a win all around. Hopefully there's more to come, now that the taps have been turned on.

Monday, November 30, 2020


Nobody that I know has a stronger sense of community than people from Newfoundland. Maybe it's that Island thing, because I certainly feel it in P.E.I. and Cape Breton as well. But Newfoundlanders in particular never lose that visceral need to feel connected to their home. 

Maybe that's why Alan Doyle and company felt compelled to take strength from their friends and fellow musicians from Newfoundland in this new six track E.P. A road warrior by any definition of the term, Doyle has spent the best part of the past quarter century either on tour or getting ready for the next one, so Covid put him off-kilter. He couldn't even hang with his musical friends at home thanks to the virus. He needed to rekindle that sense of community, to strengthen the bonds rather than let them slip away.

The result is this all-star set, featuring a track each from all five: Doyle, Fortunate Ones, The Ennis Sisters, Rachel Cousins and The Once. Plus, there's a final tune that features all of them, "It's OK," a reworking Doyle song from his last release, Rough Side Out. That was the only time the artists saw each during the process, working in a socially-distant recording session. Instead they formed a community around the common goal of this release, proving that there's always a way to connect.

These are some of the best singers from NL, whether it's solo, duo or trio, and all of the songs here reflect that, rich ballads with emotional vocals shining through each cut. Home comes into play often, mostly through missing it, or the spirit of it. It seems these travelling musicians all share that, whether it's the dreamy folk of The Once on "Lost Are Found," or Doyle's lonely hotel number from Nashvillle, "A Tennessee Whisky and a Newfoundland Song," which evokes Ron Hynes and "Sonny's Dream." It's going to be a long winter, and if any record can help you get through it, it's this one.

Thursday, November 26, 2020



The Toronto singer-songwriter adds some new dimensions to her sound, as her acoustic music gives way to more and more pop production and adornments. There are lots of strings and bigger arrangements, and a more upbeat feel to several cuts on her latest, six-song EP. As usual, she explores themes of love and relationships, with as many questions as answers, but stays positive throughout.

That topic, and the new layers of production are best heard on the recent single "Tightrope," where she's walking the thin line between fun for now and the real deal. Meanwhile, clipped percussion and rich strings move the tune to dizzying effect. A chill but sweet synth line leads toward the big question, "Are we falling in love, do you want to be loved?" She continues to seek hard truths in the most gentle song here, the title cut, where she asks "If you don't care, why are you still here? If I'm not the one for you, why hold me like you do?" These examinations make the songs a lot more powerful than your basic lovey-dovey tales.

Catch Melanie Peterson's album launch, a Facebook Live Event, on Monday, Nov. 30 at 8 PM ET.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020



One of the most interesting '80's bands made barely a ripple in North America, while plenty of its British contemporaries ruled the airwaves. Maybe Paul Weller's post-Jam band was too smart for its own good. While the colourful likes of Culture Club and Bananarama had no trouble crossing oceans, The Style Council was about style and content, with much more substance than most of those other post-punk groups.

Weller was only 24 when he killed the golden goose that was The Jam, but he was already sick of that pub-punk sound and its trio limits. He envisioned a new way to mix his pop and politics, and instead of being young and snotty, the new band was cool and clever, shot through with left wing thinking. Youth culture was taking on Thatcherism in England, and Weller was going to make it hip and fun. In the best British tradition, clothes would be important, the same as they were for punk and mods before them. Rather than haranguing the audience with musical lectures, the band always looked like they were enjoying life, the way it should be. While it was a pop sound in the end, the records went from '50's and '60's cool jazz to northern soul to rap with ease, stretching into deep grooves and the burgeoning house music scene. Horns would be featured, then strings, some wistful, bucolic ballads and Cafe Society chill all on one album.

So yeah, there was a lot going on, certainly more than your usual synth-and-haircut MTV hit. Plus, it was hard to market the band in North America, since most of the hit singles weren't released on the albums, in that old British style. Not that Weller gave a toss, of course. He let the band run its course, before returning as the Godfather of Britpop, a mantle he still wears for better or for worse, a most English pop star.

Our loss, when reexamining the band on this crammed, two-disc set. The singles blast out with hooks and rich sounds: "Long Hot Summer," "My Ever Changing Moods," "Wall Come Tumbling Down!" and "Shout To The Top!" were the ones that made some impact on my '80's ears, but there are plenty of others that make the set go from peak to peak. The albums were equally well-crafted affairs, making this compilation a rich listen and great discovery for all of us who passed them by back in the day.

Monday, November 23, 2020


Is a fiddle tune still a fiddle tune if it's played on guitar? That's just the latest intriguing musical question and adventure from Maxim Cormier, Cape Breton's genre-defying guitar virtuoso. In the past he's rewritten the rules on how to play classical guitar, flat-picking his way through Bach, and made his own melting pot, mixing Acadian, Celtic, classical, jazz, bluegrass and whatever else tickled his fancy. This time, playing live during the Celtic Colours International Festival, with his father on second guitar, he makes all the fiddlers stand back while he takes the lead.

The six song E.P. features four different sets of Cape Breton fiddle favourites, flawless transpositions of the tunes from four strings to six. For much of it Cormier keeps up a relentless pace; you know how fast those Celtic fiddlers fly, and it may sound even more impressive on guitar. On the other two selections, Cormier reaches into his bag of tricks for a bell-like bluegrass set, "Blackberry Blossom/Big Mon," and the atmospheric Parisienne gypsy jazz of "Nuages." It may not be the music the French soldiers heard in Fortress Louisbourg in the 18th century, but there sure is a lot of history and culture packed into this charming concert disc.


Friday, November 20, 2020



"One foot in the door, the other foot in the gutter," sang Paul Westerberg on "I Don't Know," fully aware of his situation. In 1987, his band teetered on the edge. One little push and The Replacements might implode, as Westerberg had assumed they would in the lead-up to recording their fifth album. Or they just might score a big hit, given the interest their label Sire was showing in them, even throwing decent money at them. That lyric also spoke to the group's image, a bunch of screw-up indie punks now ensconced on a major label, taking the cash but hoping not to sell out. And as always, Westerberg and his mates were personally teetering, all booze and neuroses.

The major dilemma was the firing of lead guitar player Bob Stinson, who was acting out more than the rest of them, uninterested in growing past punk as Westerberg's writing matured. But instead of ripping them apart, the rest grew tighter, drummer Chris Mars and Stinson's brother Tommy more determined to continue. Management and Sire decided to up the ante and find a name producer, plus get them out of Minnesota They settled on Jim Dickinson who worked out of the famed Ardent Studios in Memphis, one-time cohort of The Rolling Stones, producer of Big Star, and a noted character himself.

Surprisingly, it all came together, with only some minor hiccups along the way. Without Bob Stinson in the camp, the 'Mats allowed Dickinson to add some big league tricks to their sound, with some Memphis horns and even strings getting added. While there were moments of mayhem, including "I.O.U." and "Red Red Wine," Westerberg was writing even better pop songs with great melodies, "Can't Hardly Wait" and the grand "Alex Chilton" among his very best. He even tried lounge jazz on "Nightclub Jitters" and gentle balladeering with "Skyway."

This deluxe box features three CD's, one LP and a coverful, full telling of the whole story in a lengthy booklet. Disc one features a new remaster of the album, plus the associated b-sides, most of them quite hard to find. Disc two has the original demo sessions for the album, which saw Bob Stinson show up for the first day but not for the rest, which led to his ouster. Disc three includes very different rough mixes of the sessions, before Dickinson did more cleaning and tidying, plus a bunch of outtakes, some for fun, others serious tryouts. Most of discs two and three feature never-before released stuff, great finds for fans. And in a very smart move, the album included isn't the original vinyl release, which you can get elsewhere, but rather the rough mix versions, so fans won't have vinyl duplication.

In the end, neither of the dramatic results happened. The band stayed afloat, but there was no major breakthrough either. The album did okay, wowing critics and the cult, but found few new fans. The hoped-for buzz stalled when the single "The Ledge" got rejected by MTV due to its subject, suicide. Instead, The Replacements did what they always did, and teetered forward, at least for another year. Pleased To Meet Me remains one of their best, given a thorough and loving repackaging here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020



Everything comes together beautifully on Spencer's new album: words, melodies, sounds, arrangements, instruments, it just keeps going from one shining moment to the next, and usually two or three together. Gleaned from winter writing sessions over the past three years, the songs have that reflective quality we all know from the shorter days and deeper moods. Winter and nature shows up often, and they almost all offer observed stories, personal and those of friends, that touch our own deepest feelings.

Spencer's own production, captured by engineer Lil Thomas (Mike Hastings on "In The City"), is warm and cozy, usually centered around her vocals, piano and light drums and brushes from Jordi Comstock. It's uncluttered and clear, allowing each sound to stand out. Wonderful choices were made for the solo instruments, such as Luke Fraser's mandolin in "Lunenburg Moon," the heart-touching French horn from Sarah Kasprzak, and David Campbell's pedal steel on Coyote. When background and harmony vocals are used, they lift the songs to new heights.

The emotional heart of the album can be found in cuts four and five, "In The City" and "Training To Fly." Spencer's descriptions in the former recall the vivid writing of Rufus Wainwright in his songs such as "Art Teacher," as she tells about moving from home to the city (in this case, Halifax), going from warm memories to sad events, highlights to youthful mistakes: "My mom cried, and Lady Di died the day I left for college/Where I stayed up too late writing papers and faking my knowledge." "Training To Fly" makes the easy and welcome comparison of young Canada Geese learning their flight to mothers seeing their children leave the nest: "Sometimes I can't tell if I'm still in my shell/or I've started stretching my wings.

She's not all bunnies and hearts and flowers either; "Coyote" falls in the 'nature can be cruel' category, as a cross-country skier meets a grisly fate in the woods. But even that is an affirmation of nature's way, how we fit in and how it rules our hearts.

Sunday, November 15, 2020



Let's go back to that crucial year in Dire Straits' career, 1985. The band's new album, Brothers In Arms, was coming out, and dates were announced for a North American tour. To give you an idea of their popularity outside of the U.K., the tour featured a string of Canadian dates, where the group was much bigger than the U.S. That included my once and future hometown of Fredericton, where they were booked to play the 3,500-seat hockey rink.

Well, that all changed with a little guest vocal by Sting, singing "I want my MTV," and the huge success of the album, the band's fifth studio set. Dire Straits finally broke through world-wide, Brothers In Arms became the first huge hit of the CD era, for a time the biggest-selling album in U.K. history, and all of a sudden that date in Fredericton was unceremoniously cancelled due to scheduling difficulties. In other words, they booked some much bigger and better dates in the States.

So what happened? Basically, leader Mark Knopfler went back to tighter, singable numbers. After filling up album sides with lengthy, moody pieces, including the epic "Telegraph Road," 14 minutes worth of 1982's Love Over Gold,  Knopfler offered up actual hit-length favorites, including "So Far Away" and "Walk Of Life." But Knopfler proved a reluctant rock star, and allowed only one further studio set, 1991's On Every Street. Since then, it's been a low-key career of roots and country-styled solo albums by Knopfler, steering far away from hooks and hits.

So that leaves us a legacy of just six studio albums, all packaged in this convenient box, CD or LP. 1980's Making Movies has long been my favourite. While there were some lengthier numbers, they weren't stretched out, slow-boiling numbers. Instead they featured intriguing stories and a true cinematic feel. Knopfler had a unique lyric style, letting us watch characters such as the Roller Girl in "Skateaway," living inside her headphones as she speeds through the city.

Brothers In Arms is so familiar, it's almost difficult to listen to these days, kind of like Paul Simon's Graceland. Maybe it's because we only had a few CD's early on, and they got played to death, but it feels like there's nothing left to learn from Brothers. The album I loved reliving was the debut, Dire Straits, from 1978. Sure, "Sultans" was the anchor, but there's not a bum track on it, and it's perhaps the most varied of their records. You have the chicken-pickin' country of  "Setting Me Up," the moody voyeurism of "Wild West End," and plenty of Dylan influences throughout. And very few players have ever introduced their own guitar sound so thoroughly. It's still a marvellous thing.

The rest? Communique was that classic difficult second album, underwhelming compared to what preceded it and what would come next. Love Over Gold remains a snore, even with the witty "Industrial Disease" kicking off side two. On Every Street has some fun, including "Calling Elvis," "Heavy Fuel" and "The Bug," but it suffered from the early CD mistake of including too many songs, about 15 minutes worth. There's some tremendous music across these six albums, but you're also left wondering if Knopfler was holding back. Oh, and that bloody '80's drum sound, I'd love somebody to remix that some day.

Thursday, November 12, 2020



Do you know the whole Northern Soul thing? Basically, soul music fans in some big U.K. dance halls started having these dance nights in the 1970's, where they would play all their beloved Tamla Motown records and other similar artists. Then the disc jockeys started to compete with each other, trying to find obscure, great songs that would then become weekly favourites. Then the thing went crazy, with nutsy collectors going to unheard lengths to scour the archives of record labels, looking for unreleased or barely-issued tunes they could turn into hits decades after being recorded, the more unheralded the better. Northern Soul became a genre unto its own, and has resulted in dozens of such collections over the years.

It's still almost completely a British thing, although on occasion some of these collections get released on this side of the world. Here's a real killer, discovered in the archives of Cameo-Parkway of Philadelphia from 1964 to 1967. To say these are lesser-knowns is being polite. Only Chubby Checker, by then desperate for a hit, has any name recognition to even the bigger music fans. There are a few that might spark a memory, such as The Orlons, Bunny Sigler and Eddie Holman. Still, I'm a huge 60's soul fan, and do this crap for a living, and I've never had the occasion to hear from Nikki Blu, Vickie Baines or The Four Exceptions before.

It turns out Nikki Blu was an alter ego of Marlena Davis of The Orlons, and while her single "(Whoa, Whoa) I Love Him So" didn't bother the charts, it is a fine, uptempo pop-soul track. The Orlons contribution here, "Envy In My Eyes," may have been relegated to a b-side, but it was a whole lot better than the group's earlier dance craze hits like "The Wah-Watusi," and showed they had moved into sophisticated girl group soul. Poor Ms. Baines never managed to reach fame with her scant three 45's in the mid-60's, but "Country Girl" here is a scorcher. Honestly, I think many of these tracks languished because Motown so dominated the airwaves and charts.

Not everything is great here, of course. Ben Zine (not, I'm betting, his real name) just had a lone single, with "Village Of Tears" having a groovy beat that excited the British dance fans, but his voice was decidedly unsoulful. But it's the rare clunker in this 20-track set, all songs that became dancefloor favourites for weeks on end an ocean away from Philadelphia. Oh, and Chubby Checker? His 1965 move into more sophisticated pop than his string of novelty dance numbers like "The Twist" and "Limbo Rock" utterly failed. But darned if "You Just Don't Know (What You Do To Me)" is a gem. Those Northern Soul fans were on to something.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020


I tell ya, it's next to impossible for musicians to play live, let alone mount a tour, so hats off to the intrepid Mav Karlo, who has travelled all the way from Ontario, plus spent two weeks in required isolation, just so he can play a few dates in Atlantic Canada. That's devotion. And the tour is called, naturally, the I drove here and slept in my car and only peed on the side of the road and quarantined for two weeks, oh and the shows are all socially distanced” tour.

Wait now, Mav who? Well, you do know him, it's Menno Versteeg, the frontman of the late, lamented Hollerado, always popular on the East Coast. The band called it quits last December in a blizzard of confetti, and Versteeg has reemerged with a new name but the same open and winning personality. The eight-song set, Strangers Like Us, sees him in fine form, albeit stripped back and bit more on the singer-songwriter side than his band days. That's because it's a more introspective set, tackling a rough personal patch and how to figure out what caused the pain.

Far from a pity party, instead Versteeg, er, Mav, jumps in with his bright melodies, good humour and pop instincts intact. Heavy topics don't have to be heavy songs, as he shows in lead cut "Elevator," about highs and lows. "There are days when I feel like I'm a superman," he tells us first, then "There are days when I feel I'm a bacterium."Another great help to the mood is the other main instrument, the voice of Katy Goodman (Vivian Girls), almost a co-vocalist on the album.

Versteeg is honouring the East, as these are the first shows he is doing under the Mav Karlo name. Come out and see him, he sure went to a lot of work to come see you.

November 11 - Trailside - Charlottetown
November 12 - Derby Bar - Halifax
November 13 - Bannermans - St. John’s
November 14 - Bannermans - St. John’s
November 15 - Bannermans - St. John’s
November 18 - River House - Newport Corner, NS
November 19 - The Capitol - Fredericton
November 20 - The Timber Lounge - Moncton
November 21 - The Old Sydney Society - Sydney


Monday, November 9, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: KEITH R. BROWN - TRULY UNFAMOUS: Tales From The Glory Days Of Canadian Rock

The fascinating early days of the modern Canadian music industry, after the arrival of CanCon in the early '70's, is a rich source of hilarious stories and great memories for boomers, those of us who developed their love of music in this era. Where Britain had its Beatles and Stones in the '60's, Canada had April Wine and The Stampeders and a couple of dozen other homegrown talents. These were the bands that treated so many of us to our first real rock concerts, usually at the local hockey rink with plywood covering the ice and a couple of thousand teenagers crammed into the arena. Those bands, including Crowbar and Lighthouse, Mashmakhan, the early Rush, and perennial opening acts James Leroy with Denim and The Ian Thomas Band were the heroes of the road, as famous in Northern B.C. as they were in Atlantic Canada. They were on the radio, and brought a lot of magic into our lives, at least as much as we could stand on a Tuesday night with school the next day. We're going to scream, they're going to let off a smoke bomb, and my dad is parked outside, waiting for the show to end to drive us home.

Keith Brown was right in the middle of the scene during all those days, starting as the kid cleaning the floor at the rock star bar of choice in Montreal, and ending up running Aquarius Records, home to April Wine, Corey Hart and Sass Jordan. The story of how he got there is classic, in the right place at the right time, and an eyewitness and insider to the stories of the stars and the behind-the-scenes characters who ruled the scene. As a tour manager he ran the show and babysat the musicians, ruling the roost on the road and backstage at the venues. That included the big ones, like The Forum in Montreal, and the duds like the arena in Yarmouth, with the floor still covered in hay and horse dung from the agricultural fair. He met the big stars, with big problems; The Who's Keith Moon in full Loon behaviour, The Rolling Stones' truck suffering a bomb attack, and getting hired to be a "Jim-Carrier," to carry a drunk Jim Morrison to and from the stage. But the best stories come from the beloved Canuck rockers, as Brown and the bands roll across the country, pioneers in the touring business in the country.

Brown worked for the Donald K Donald group, the gang that invented the coast-to-coast tour circuit. It's a rare treat to get a seat on those tour busses, hearing the craziness and dumb luck  that went on all day and night, wondering how Brown and any of them survived. He also lets us understand just how unglamorous it all was, from bad meals and worse sleep, car crashes and bike gangs, and Mounties trying to set up April Wine on a dope bust in Tisdale, SK.Then there are the cheap laughs, back break-ups and bad burns from faulty pyro.

Brown is a surprisingly strong writer, and if you were one of those kids in the hockey rink at your first rock show, this will be a page-turner for you. He's also done a great service, getting these stories down before they are lost to history.

Sunday, November 8, 2020



With her big personality, ubiquitous media presence and tremendous wit, we often forget what brought to her prominence in the first place, her songwriting. But it doesn't take long to zip through this best-of to remind us of the quantity and the quality of her writing chops. From her first hit, "I Would Die For You," through her break-out album Living Under June, with cuts like "Could I Be Your Girl" and "Good Mother," up to 2017's "Everybody's Pulling On Me," Arden's backed up all other charms with that bedrock talent.

Her other major weapon is dynamic voice, which lets her own the covers she chooses. That includes "Insensitive," still her best-known hit, and her very strong remake of Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me," already a brilliant song that she manages to equal. This compilation does a good job of spreading the love a bit further than her biggest, early hits, leaving room for excellent later tracks such as "Cherry Popsicle" and "Sleepless." That does mean it's not a thorough compilation though, omitting huge fan favourites including "Unloved" and "You Don't Know Me," the Eddy Arnold cover.

Instead, this is a cross-promotion set to tie in with her popular TV show, Jann, now in season two. That means we get songs that are being featured in those shows, including the original cut "Mother Mine," with actress Zoie Palmer. There's a live version of "Insensitive," taken from a CTV-aired concert (quite good too, stripped back with piano and excellent backing vocals), and another new release, a cool cover of the Cure's "Lovesong," from Scott Helman's Hotel Sessions show. There's probably some new, young fans out there from the TV show who are just starting to learn about Jann, and this gives them a good primer, plus it has a few novelties for the hardcores.

Thursday, November 5, 2020



I know it's pretty much impossible to keep up with the constant flow of David Bowie albums and reissues, such is the volume of material being released. Lots of it is old, repackaged and tarted up, while others are new, out-takes, demos and the like, plus lots and lots of live material. A whopping six live albums from the '90's tour are being released over this fall and next spring, for instance. And don't get me started on coloured vinyl issues.

This one is even more confusing on first look, thanks to its title, and what's inside. It's old, because it's actually the album we've known all along as The Man Who Sold The World, from 1970. It's new though, because of this title, and the track versions. Original producer, bass player and lifelong Bowie pal Tony Visconti has gone back to the original masters and remixed the album, something he (and apparently Bowie) had long wanted to do. Visconti has no-one to blame but himself of course, since he both recorded and mixed the original, but it's more a question of technology at the time, and having the opportunity to do a remix. Its fiftieth anniversary has provided the hook.

The name change, by the way, is a return to Bowie's original name for the album, which was changed sometime after the recordings were made. The cover's different too, reverting to the original U.S. one. The album itself has never been one of the best-loved Bowie discs, coming as it did early on, before the Ziggy blow-up. But there are a couple of familiar tracks, including the title cut (thanks, Nirvana) and "Width Of A Circle," a live favourite. It's really a solid set, and kind of a one-off, coming between the folky Space Oddity album of '69 and Hunky Dory, stripped back and kooky. Here, Bowie was introducing his new team, the band called The Hype, basically The Spiders From Mars, but with Visconti on bass. It's a rock set, Mick Ronson in particular on fire, some of his best work with Bowie, matching up with the iconic work on Ziggy Stardust.

What's great about the remix is a more prominent and cleaner sound on each instrument, lifted out of the middle and given some space. MIck Woodmansey's drums in particular power through, and both Visconti and Ronson own their moments. This was a shit-hot band, and I think the fact they weren't noticed at the time was the fault of the material. Bowie was learning how to write these rockers, some of them felt rather dark, and they were hard to figure out. "The Man Who Sold The World" is a gem, for sure, but the album needed more of that, and not the unmemorable "Saviour Machine." Tell you what though, it's a better listen now, a good rock album for sure, and the remix will help its long-term reputation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020



I'm sure any Lennon fan worth their salt has at least one of the many greatest hits sets from over the years, whether it's Shaved Fish (1975), The John Lennon Collection (1982), Lennon Legend (1997), Working Class Hero (2005), Power To The People (2010), or one of the various box sets or soundtrack collections. So in order to celebrate John's 80th, something new would be required. What this set offers is pretty much the usual setlist, but now with newly remixed sound. The 36 tracks have been sourced from the original master tapes, and remixed according to the family's wishes. Yoko and Sean wanted first and foremost to have a cleaner sound, and increase John's vocals in the mix. They haven't messed around with the instruments, like the recent Beatles remixes for Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper, but instead gave them a basic cleaning-up.

This is most noticeable on the early productions, singles such as "Instant Karma" and "Power To The People," produced in a lump of sound by Phil Spector. Others, such as "Cold Turkey" and "Give Peace A Chance" were simply not made with clarity as a priority. So these simply sound better, warmer in the vocals, and less sloppy. Same goes for the tracks from Rock 'n' Roll, "Stand By Me" and "Angel Baby," another album crunched together by the erratic Spector, as his talents continued to erode. The live "Come Together" from 1972 sounds way better too, Lennon now way up from in your ears.

Time to use your surround sound too, as the 5.1 mix is put to great effect. There's a little more mix fun here with the extra channels, and a very enjoyable experience listening to these very familiar tracks. Well, not all of them are very familiar. There's a couple of deep album cuts from the Mind Games lp, "Out Of The Blue" and "I Know (I Know)," plus "Angela" from Some Time In New York City, a good song from a so-so album. It's there as a replacement for the usual inclusion on these packages, the minor hit "Woman Is The (N-word) Of The World," which isn't very popular at all these days.

The other big part of this set is the very gorgeous hard-cover book. I know, it's all packaging, and they charge a ton for it, but this book is simple and smart and attractive. Instead of wasting time on self-serving essays, it's mostly made up of great photos and great individual articles on each song. And the info comes largely from Lennon himself, excerpts from various interviews, essentially the stories of the songs from the horse's mouth. You have to decide whether you need another Lennon set, but if you're wondering if there's anything new, the answer is yes.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020


Usually when veterans re-record their old hits, it's nothing radical. They may do acoustic versions, or add strings, maybe invite superstars for duets. Basically they don't change much, and the results are simply a way for their labels to milk a little more out of the same old songs.

Cat, or Yusuf, bravely reworks much of his 50-year old classic. That's mostly in the arrangements, instruments and melodies. He does make one notable lyric switch, changing "Looking for a hard-headed woman" to "found myself a hard-headed woman," which is more appropriate now for him. That song, and "Where Do The Children Play" kick things off, and are two of the least restructured tunes. But then you're hit with the beloved "Wild World." It's completely restructured, with a reggae beat and klezmer touches, accordion and clarinet.

And so it continues, more and more surprises and radical reinventions. There's even a brief hip-hop shout-out, nothing tacky, more like Yusuf being inclusive.  He does leave the venerated "Father And Son" largely unchanged, letting his older voice now handle the poignancy. But the rest of the album goes from quirky to unrecognizable, the acoustic flavour of the original replaced by bigger production and more instruments.  It's different and I still like it.

Monday, November 2, 2020



Halifax Juno Award-winning duo Neon Dreams turn the tables on '90's youthful angst with a cohesive seven-song set on how to find the positive. Singing to and for the wallflowers, loners and smart worriers, singer Frank Kadillac takes us through a semi-autobiographical trip, from being down and invisible ("Lifestyles Of The Broke And Nameless") to the closing, title track, dedicated to the friends who can help you make it through.

Along the way, the songs are filled with big alt-pop retro moments, triumphant synths and joyous choruses. Even better, these relatable and clever lyrics. "All The People is about trying to fit in, against your better instincts: "You use those words 'cause they're the words that everybody's using now/Those songs you hate, you sing along 'cause everybody's singing now." There's the crushing everyday blues, in "Lifestyles Of The Broke And Nameless," dedicated to Kadillac's younger self: "This for the young and hopeless, same pill, same diagnosis."  And even setting the scene becomes a moment of reflection: "Don't even know what I've been looking for/But I ain't gonna find it at a house party."

The band's been dropping singles and videos, and the full release comes out November 13. They've also managed to book a full East Coast tour for the month (with proper Covid-19 protocols in place). It kicks off in the Maritimes, before heading to Newfoundland for seven shows. Here are the first few dates:

Nov. 12 - Halifax Convention Centre
Nov. 13 - Halifax Convention Centre
Nov. 14 - Saint John Imperial Theatre
Nov. 15 - Moncton Capitol Theatre
Nov. 16 - Fredericton Playhouse

Friday, October 23, 2020



Peter Katz's music has expanded greatly since his acoustic guitar, singer-songwriter debut back in 2007. Now bathed in the best new rhythms and rich pop production courtesy of Derek Hoffman (The Trews, Caveboy), the big sound matches his mood. It's an album about embracing change, and life, no matter what gets thrown at you.

The back story is a big one, involving Katz falling off a cliff, breaking bones and being warned he might never walk again. There's also a break-up and a house gone. But rather than a pity party, the songs are about what can come next. The ones that address that topic include bits of his story, such as "Everything Is Different," where "I loved that house, every corner of it." But it's about what comes next, and how to look forward to it: "Everything is different than it was/There's no way to recover what was lost/Everything is changing cause it does/Let the colours bleed out in the wash."

With plenty of glittery synth sounds and charming melodies, Katz is certainly offering up the best of current pop sounds. What sets him further apart is his always-wonderful, emotive voice and his excellent, clear way with lyrics. He knows what he wants to get across, he says it concisely, it all makes sense and it all hits home. That's a grand skill in any kind of writing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020


Thanks to the Atlantic Bubble, East Coast musicians are getting a few more opportunities to play around the region of late, as touring returns in a reduced way. For some, that means finally getting to perform around new releases.The pandemic struck at a particularly poor time for P.E.I.'s Rachel Beck, who was just finishing up her latest, Stronger Than You Know, when the touring world shut down for her. 

Now, Beck is back on the road, part of a show called Saltwater Songs, featuring three P.E.I. singer-songwriters. They play Friday night in Saint John at The Imperial and Saturday night in Fredericton at the Playhouse, in suiitably-social distancing settings (reduced capacity, seating bubbles). Joining Beck are a couple of Juno winners, Catherine MacLellan and Tim Chaisson (The East Pointers), sharing their music and backing each other up. So it's a hot new band, with MacLellan on guitar, Beck on keys and Chaisson on guitar.

Here's a look back at Beck's latest release, which I initially reviewed in June.

P.E.I.'s Beck returns with a second set of shimmering pop, produced with East Coast atmosphere by Daniel Ledwell. This one leans a little more into the pop side than her self-titled debut, her mellow and moody vocals wrapped around electro keyboards and beats on cuts such as "Dancin'." But it's not about partying; "We take and take and take and take," she warns, "We're dancin' on our grave."  The message, gracefully delivered throughout the six-track E.P., is that together we can make a difference, and given what's happened in the past few months since the songs were written and recorded, it seems timely and prophetic.

There's an empowering tone to the songs, especially lead track "Warrior," inspired by the strength Beck sees in her young daughter. It's both a celebration and a hope for the future: "Lift up your voice, cut through the noise." The title cut connects those hopes to nature, our best source of strength when we embrace it: "Just breathe in and let it go, you're stronger than you."

The set closed with Beck back at the piano for the quiet, intimate "Tonight," intense and romantic in its calm beauty. The real strings, from Islanders Kinley Dowling and Natalie Williams Calhoun perfectly soar into that nighttime, and show the Beck-Ledwell team work old-school magic as well. The E.P. is ethereal, uplifting, and even a tiny bit mystical.

Monday, October 19, 2020



Life and its lemons haven't stopped Fines. As the gigs dried up in the pandemic, the veteran roots troubadour did the other thing he does very well, and crafted us a bunch of new songs. Picking up on the back-to-basics vibe many of us have employed during these strange times, Fines headed to his Kawartha, Ontario cabin to make some back-to-basics music. This meant some mostly guitar-and-voice roots/blues songs, using a set-up he's employed before, recording using solar power, lots of fresh air and a few crickets for ambiance. That's about half the material; the rest needed some rhythm, backing vocals and a few more touches, so those were done back in Toronto.

Either way, the songs have Fines' relaxed warmth, highlighted by his storyteller vocals and guitar ease. His playing, especially his ringing resonator licks and bright picking, seems to flow effortlessly as he spins his solo tales. Meanwhile, "You Only Want Me When You Need Me," written with Matt Andersen, sizzles along with full band fun, lots of Fines' guitar solos and soulful vocals from Samantha Martin and Delta Sugar. "Yellow Moon, Indigo Sky" is a country-Cajun romp with Jimmy Bowskill's fiddle and Fines' long-time recording and touring pal Suzie Vinnick supplying the duet vocals. I like the mix of solo and accompanied tracks, and as always with Fines, the overall top quality of singing, writing and playing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020



Neil Young was one of the first stars to jump on the internet to stream mini-concerts after the collapse of touring due to the pandemic. No stranger to acoustic performances, Young recorded several shows around his ranch, strolling around outside or nestled by a fire. There were plenty of classics, a few surprises, and some inspired covers during the so-called Fireside Sessions. Seven of them have been issued on this mini-album, and it's clear where Neil's head was at, as it includes some of his best-known protest songs, the theme of the set.

With the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing Trump Wars occupying the headlines, Young was certainly going to voice his opinions. He's a veteran of course, his pointed statements about race relations in the south, "Southern Man" and "Alabama" are both featured. His outcry against the crackdown on student protests at Kent St. University, "Ohio," is also highly appropriate, as it is important to draw the parallels between those times and today. Violence against peaceful protests was wrong then, history has proved it, and it's still wrong.

Neil's never been known for his subtlety, but this time he's letting the lessons of the past do most of the talking. The inclusion of Dylan's epic "The Times They Are A-Changin'" is a great message to the grey set, reminding them to pay attention to young voices. The only fresh statement Young makes is a rewrite of his anti-Bush number "Looking For A Leader," now called "Looking For A Leader 2020." It's actually subdued in its message, a surprise for Young, but it's actually a good idea. Of late he's been bashing us over the head with his political views, a case of preaching to the converted. This rewrite features more thoughtful lyrics: "America is beautiful, but she has an ugly side/We're looking for a leader in this country far and wide."

The set closes with a nod to Young's recent release of his 1970's scrapped album Homegrown, with him noodling away on "Little Wing." It's a bit of a waste, since it's interrupted at one point, not a complete performance. But the rest of the selections have a warm, campfire vibe to them, on a set that hits home with the U.S. election so near.

Sunday, October 11, 2020



Kylie Fox is one of the artists up for this year's Music New Brunswick Awards, being handed out as part of the annual Festival 506. This year it's online, being held from Oct. 22 to Oct. 25. Apart from the conference, fans can listen to the nominees and vote for their favourites at Fox is up for the SOCAN Song Of The Year award for "Cradle Me" and for the Fan's Choice Award as well.

"Cradle Me" comes from her brand-new album, called Green. It's her first full-length release, after the 2017 EP Balcony. That set introduced her refreshing, wide-open songwriting, disarmingly plain-spoken about her life and the folks and friends around her. She was still an emerging artist at that point, but now has a fully-developed sound, and a fully-produced album thanks to ECMA Award-winner Dale Murray. Smartly, Fox's vocals dominate, as she is a confident and strong singer, with a quirky warble that sets her apart. Murray adds lots of subtle percussion, strings and pauses to her folk-acoustic music, leaving lots of room for her voice to soar.

What makes Fox such a stand-out writer is her ability to write about normal events and feelings in a completely fresh way. "Avocado" is about a friend's pregnancy, when the baby-to-be reaches a stage where they are roughly the size of the titular fruit."Cool Feet" is a love song composed for two friends, what the guy misses about his g-friend when she's not there. "This Beer" is about the Moosehead always offered to anyone from Saint John when they are somewhere else in Canada. And she's especially frank about her own life, where not much is sacred, as heard in "Horny and Bored."

You can catch Kylie Fox in concert (if Covid restrictions stay the same) in Fredericton at the Charlotte Street Arts Centre, on Oct. 30. Opening will be Jerry-Faye, with limited, social-distanced seating available.

Monday, October 5, 2020



Goats Head Soup is usually considered a disappointment in the Stones discography, not so much for what it holds, but rather for what it followed. Coming hot on the heels of 1972's Exile On Main Street, it clearly doesn't match up to that double album, considered by many the best of their LP's. Also, most Stones fans consider the band's best albums are found in the run from 1968 to 1972, beginning with Beggars Banquet and ending with Exile. I can't argue that; Goats Head Soup is certainly no Sticky Fingers or Let It Bleed.

So, one must look at it on its own merits, and there's lots to enjoy. First, the dark ballad and hit single "Angie," as close to singer-songwriter as the Stones got, is underrated among their hits. It's a throwback to '60's numbers such as "Play With Fire" and "Lady Jane," but without the ornate touches, instead more influenced by U.S. country. "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" is another underappreciated gem, catchy and devious, a song you'll get stuck in your head for days. It may not be the strongest lyric, but the band took it up three levels in the production.

Lyrics were the biggest problem, with no great and memorable images, no crossfire hurricanes or tumbling dice for fans to shout. The next level of tracks on the disc, better-known numbers "Dancing With Mr. D." and "Star Star" were weak ideas that relied on old standby shock, the devil and sex. Of course, "Star Star" did have plenty of shock value for the time, and it is plenty catchy too, but that mild controversy seems eye-rolling typical misogyny now, like an out-take from a Trump tape.

Those are the big cuts on the album (the anchor songs, I like to call them), but the secondary numbers in between get little acknowledgement as well. I think that's because the album doesn't get played too much, in favour of bigger ones or compilations. There are good numbers there though, including "100 Years Ago" and "Silver Train." I've always loved hearing Jagger sing "lazy bones" in the former tune. Stones filler tracks are miles above most people's hits, and while side 2 loses some momentum before the "Star Star" finale, there's nothing to damn the album over.

Apparently the sessions in Jamaica, L.A. and England yielded some 30 tracks in various levels of completion, and were mined for other albums right up to 1981's Tattoo You, where outtake "Waiting On A Friend" finally found a home. The Stones have opened up their famously tight vaults a little for this deluxe box, including three previously unreleased outtakes. I can see why they never were further developed, or put out on the band's next album (It's Only Rock 'n' Roll) like "Short And Curlies." Again though, they are decent tunes, the most notable being "Scarlet," featuring Jimmy Page on guitar, subbing for Mick Taylor who missed the session. Instead of presenting more of the outtakes, disc two on the box is filled with instrumental versions and alternate mixes of the regular album cuts. Some of these are quite illuminating, especially the piano demo version of "100 Year Ago." and hearing "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo' as an instrumental really hammers home are tight these productions are, how solid the groove is.

Disc three is the real bonus here, a fantastic live show from the tour celebrating the album release. Known as The Brussels Affair," the disc first came out in 2011, but only as a crazy-expensive box available from the Stones website. It's considered one of their best, a 75-minute set compiled from two shows in Belgium in October of '73. It features the four anchor songs from Goats Head Soup (see above), bookended by songs only from '68 on. Exile gets a still-heavy presence, with "Happy," "Tumbling Dice," "All Down The Line" and "Rip This Joint" included. The rest are all mid-period classics, "Brown Sugar," "Gimme Shelter," etc., featuring perhaps the best Stones live band, with Mick Taylor and Billy Preston major contributors.

There's a good hardbound book included, with long essays and tons of great photos, a Blu-ray with hi-res audio, four period tour posters, and a recipe for goat's head soup, for the daring. Most previous Stones boxes have been short on content and long on photos and packaging, but this set does deliver with both. Also available as a much-cheaper two-disc set with the demos/outtake disc.

Thursday, September 24, 2020



Nova Scotia country-rocker Paul Randy Mingo has been itching to get back to playing, and a couple of weeks back came up with a unique stage, mindful of social distancing. Mingo set up outdoors, on the Port Greville beach, just down from his home along the north shore of Minas Basin. All went grand, says the veteran performer, as a few dozen folks were able to come out, not get too close, and still enjoy a show.

Mingo's been busy on the recording side during the Covid downtime as well, and has just issued his latest, a six-track E.P. It features what he calls an upgrade to his sound, which means a whole lot more instruments on some of the tracks. Opener "Another Round" has a great big, rocking band backing him, with loud guitars, piano fills and huge drums, Waylon on steroids. "You Know What I Mean" is another track with country cahones, an affirmation of Saturday night, drinks with friends and the back roads around Seal Brook.

In just six tracks Mingo shows lots of songwriting range, with "I Loved You Most Of All" a piano ballad with some grand synth-string orchestral touches. "The Way" could have been from your favourite '70's rock band, and the title cut is a honky-tonk reminder to not get so worked up about everything on the internet. Mingo's small-town Nova Scotia is sounding plenty big.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020



If you missed out on the tremendous 2018 box set of complete Gentry recordings, here's a deluxe version of her 1968 concept disc, a southern suite of country-blues.  This was the followup to her momentous debut, Ode To Billie Joe, and proved she was a formidable talent with lots of ideas. The album was an expansion of her sound, with more electric instruments, more strings, horns, and a series of linked songs. While surrounding herself with high-quality players, such as L.A. session stars James Burton, Hal Blaine, Ray Brown and Earl Palmer, and using arrangements from Jimmie Haskell once again, it was obvious that Gentry was in charge. She had a much greater role than most country performers in the song choices, writing and production, men or women.

Sadly the album didn't catch on as strongly as her debut, partially because of the lack of a hit single, and probably because the idea of a country concept release was a little too ambitious for that audience. It didn't stall her though; within months she was teamed up with Glen Campbell, and forging ahead with a very successful TV career, especially in the U.K. But The Delta Sweete was largely forgotten, until the box set brought it back to many ears.

The album featured songs written by Gentry that looked back on her Mississippi upbringing, moody and warm. While there was a celebration of those days and people, at the same time the lyrics were tinged with sadness. The effect of her haunting voice, nylon-string acoustic guitar (yes, she played on all her records) and Haskell's unique arrangements brought that same sense of melancholy to the album that featured so strongly in the hit "Ode To Billie Joe." More positive were the cover versions, Gentry choosing numbers which reflected the connection between country and the blues in the south: "Big Boss Man," "Parchman Farm" and "Tobacco Road."

This set features stereo and mono mixes of the album, the stereo a brand-new mix from the original masters, a welcome upgrade over the less dynamic 1968 mix. There are also a couple of tracks that weren't on the box set, including a demo of a song that didn't make the final album, "The Way I Do." There are also a series of demos that were on the box, best of all her version of Nina Simone's hit "Feelin' Good." The vinyl version includes the new stereo mix on the first album, with all ten bonus tracks on the second.

Thursday, September 10, 2020



Hamilton-area blues and soul vets make up this group, nominated for a Maple Blues Award for their debut in 2017. This follow-up was delayed by the death of producer Nick Blagona before he finished the album, but his superior audio touch is all over the half-hour, seven-track disc. It's a worthy project to cap the famed engineer's career, which saw him as the in-house wiz at Le Studio for luminaries such as Cat Stevens, The Bee Gees and Deep Purple, and producer for The Tea Party, Kim Mitchell and April Wine, among hundreds of projects.

Downstream is a grittier set than the band's self-titled debut, as the band takes full advantage of its wide range of experience, and having two strong singers on board. Both Wayne Krawchuk and Sue Leonard take their own leads, and team up for some strong duets, including the cooking closer "Until The Rain Stops," a heavy and funky blues. The other duet, a cover of Van Morrison's "You Gotta Make It Through The World," hints at gospel, and lets the pair sing with gusto.

"Knack For That" and "Scratching Post" both feature inventive arrangements, touches that take each song past the usual blues workouts. Surprising bits and pieces pop up at just the right times, such as Mark Volkov's brief flute line and Lily Sazz's keys in the latter tune. As for songwriting, "Meant For Something More" would have made a great '70's soul single, when soul singles were great.

Best of all (I didn't think of this until this very second, and I've been listening to this album for a couple of weeks), I can't think of another band, at least in the roots/adult world, with three men and three women, counting in Amy Di Nino on drums and Ian Taylor on bass. Parity.