Monday, August 1, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MIKE BRAVENER & BLUEBIRD - HAVE YOU EVER HEARD THE STORY?


Happy New Brunswick Day! And what better day to feature the new collection of trad N.B. folk songs from Mike Bravener. His first, 2020's Depend Upon The Pay, was nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award, and once again he's dug deep in the province's history for more. The songs reach back to the early 1800's, and this time out Bravener has concentrated on story songs, those that tell true or tall tales. 

Given the rural and resource-based economy of the province at those times, most of the tales involve fishing, lumbering, river travel, courting songs, and knee-slappers. Bravener goes all-in on his searches for material, combing archives from here to Indiana, searching out rare field recordings and transcripts, searching graveyards for the resting places of the heroes mentioned, and learning songs from old-timers that might have been lost to history without this recording. 

The players and singers keep the music close to traditional, but occasionally they stretch out a bit. "Grace Darling of the Saint Croix, one of the few 20th-century tunes, gets the most modern treatment, starting simply enough but turning into a Gospel-flavoured singalong, Fredericton's vocal group Les Chanterelles shining. Wisely Bravener sticks to the English-language folk songs of the era, rather than trying to dig into the province's well-documented Acadian traditional material. These songs have been largely neglected for decades except by folks in the Miramichi folk music community, and Bravener's enthusiasm is an important cultural statement.

Monday, July 18, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MICHAEL DARCY & THE ATLANTIC TRAMPS - DOWN TO THE ROOTS


An Irish import to Toronto, Darcy's first album, Simple Drop Of Rain from 2019, was more of a singer-songwriter set. For this, the electric instruments and drums were dropped, in favour of his all-acoustic, trad backing band The Atlantic Tramps, and a full-on roots set. It's a fascinating blend, definitely Irish but with some North American flavour sneaking in via the banjo and fiddle. Darcy does a couple of well-known traditional tunes ("Wild Rover No More"), and modern favourites (Richard Thompson's "Beeswing"), but mostly these are his own tunes, highlighting his excellent wordsmanship. 

"The Ballad Of Uncle Frank" is an evocative family tale, a classic leaving Ireland story from the 1860s, certain to resonate with any fans of seafaring folk. "Sweet St. John's" is a tribute to the first place an immigrant lands on his voyage to North America, a most glowing report: "Oh sweet St. John's, when the time comes to leave you/just like your Atlantic waters, I'll be left so blue." Ron Hynes would approve.

In the '60s and '70s Irish bands were a dime a dozen in these parts, and left a rich legacy. It's great to hear someone updating that connection, and adding well-worthy songs to the canon. Darcy and the Tramps are launching the album on Thursday, July 21 at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto. 

Friday, June 24, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BURNING HELL - GARBAGE ISLAND


It's probably the wackiest apocalyptical collection ever written. P.E.I.'s fun-loving, DIY team tackles global collapse in 12 deceptively fun tracks. They are delightfully quirky, strangely dark, and populated by mostly seabirds and a few stragglers that survive, providing the optimism. 

It's the sort of storyline that comes into your head when you're isolated on an island during a pandemic. Mathias Korn got to thinking about the trash that washes up on the beach, the Pacific Trash Vortex (that massive floating island of plastic and other waste out in the ocean), and what life would be like if that was humankind's only home after we screw it all up. Birds apparently rule, and there's not much to do except poke around the old garbage of our past lives and watch the birds. 

Being The Burning Hell, this is all delivered to us in catchy, bouncy pop. Their guitar-and-harmony fun is accentuated with chirpy keyboards, homemade clinks and plunks, and actual field recordings of birds and garbage, whatever sounds garbage makes. It's filled with strange tales, and great lines you want to rewind and hear again. On "The Last Normal Day," we find folks sitting at home, casually viewing the apocalypse on their screens: "Watching things get destroyed/a brand-new schadenfreude." If the world does go down, pray it's this much fun.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LIVING ROOTS FESTIVAL FEATURES T. BUCKLEY, KRISTEN MARTELL, OLD MAN LUEDECKE AND MORE


Fredericton's Living Roots Music Festival starts June 2, and runs until Sunday the 5th at various venues around the city. I was chatting with a friend this week about finally getting back out to crowded music shows of late, and he mentioned he hasn't always enjoyed being out among people in the past, but it sure feels great now. I agree, I have much more patience for crowds and strangers these days. Eek, am I becoming an extrovert. 

Anyway, the Living Roots fest is growing stronger, and features a diverse lineup of international, national and local roots performers. with solo and band shows. There are even some punk and rock shows if that's your scene. There are curated stages with three or four acts on the bill, plus a few single-act coffee house shows as well, a strong mix. Plus the ticketing options are smart, you can go to one or a couple of shows, buy in advance or at the door, or do the whole pass structure. All the options are out there, from daytime shows to late night. And they've kept prices affordable, even free in some cases, with most gigs $10 to $15.

Highlights include the hot Newfoundland trad group Rum Ragged kicking things off Thursday night at Grimross Brewing. That banjo bigshot Old Man Luedecke from Nova Scotia is headlining Friday night at the same venue. Meanwhile, a cool indie-rock singer-songwriter from Australia, Anna Smyrk is playing at the Tipsy Muse early Friday evening. Saturday is jam-packed with outdoor patio shows daytime and indoor ones later, including Canadian Folk Music Award-winner Alicia Toner, who I featured in my last column. As well, alt-country faves The Divorcees lead the pack at The Broken Record Saturday night. Sunday I'm hoping the weather holds well for an afternoon at the Cap patio, with another show by Smyrk, along with PEI's Nikki Gallant, and local stars Kylie Fox and The Montgomery St. Band.

Here are a couple of others to check out:  Alberta's T. Buckley is touring his latest album, Frame By Frame, an album about community and connections, friends and family. Buckley's a current favourite writer of mine, able to craft a profile in a line: "He had a mouth just like a sailor, and a poet all the same." He's got the right voice to make those characters touch your heart as well. He's around for solo shows Thursday at the Tipsy Muse and Friday at the Cinnamon Cafe.

And Kristen Martell from Nova Scotia is in town to launch a new single from her album Every Season, which is coming out in the fall. "Should I Run" is a lovely bit of atmospheric folk, both catchy and moody, and blissfully hypnotic. Check her out at The Thirsty Muse Saturday at 7 pm. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALICIA TONER - JOAN


The East Coast Music Awards just wrapped up, and with many of the showcases happening just a couple of blocks from my house, it was easy to take in lots of sets. It quickly became obvious how much we've missed live music, and particularly this event during the pandemic. Sure, musicians have continued to release new songs and done online performances, even the occasional live show. But this was a full-on, Covid-be-damned, forget social distancing, old-school concert, band after band. And despite everyone's best efforts to make due the past two years, there's no comparison. Watching music on your computer just doesn't match up to being in the same room as the players, with a crowd of people.

It also became obvious to me how behind I am in the East Coast music world. In the three years since the last ECMA's, there's been a new wave of performers step up to the top ranks. Seeing them live drove that home, so it's time I got caught up on a backlog of reviews and spotlights.

I'll start with Alicia Toner, who has quickly risen from up-and-coming to star status. That's already been acknowledged nationally, as she won the 2022 Solo Artist of the Year trophy at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, for her latest album, Joan. The P.E.I. singer-songwriter has already had a varied career, starting out in classical music, as a violin player in the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, and then spending a decade in theatre in Ontario. When she first recorded five years ago, you could still hear a little of that larger-than-life theatre voice, but with the songs on Joan, she's found her more subtle voice for the touching ballads ("When I Was A Kid"), and a drama-free one for the rockers. She is now one effective singer.

"Call My Name" is a giant song, showing off every bit of her vocal prowess. It starts with moody, mysterious and slow verses, Toner singing sweet and pure. Then it explodes, and as the music thunders, she lifts and soars above it all, with opera-singer power. With a fast return to its quieter level and quick ending, it leaves you a little stunned at all the emotion she packed into that four minutes.

While she was singled out at the folk awards, I'd use that term loosely when describing her, as the Joan album is far more electric and intricate, and more pop than what I think of as folk. Produced by Stuart Cameron and Peter Fusco, acoustic moments are adorned with atmospherics, ringing and powerful accents and the occasional dirty guitar lines. But the production never becomes cluttered, as Toner's voice is allowed to be the main instrument throughout, as it deserves.

Seeing her live confirmed the energy and tension she brings to her songwriting, and why she's become an East Coast A-lister. The good news is a new album is on the way with the same team, and hopefully lots more concerts for everyone to check out.