Thursday, December 1, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LEONA BURKEY - GROUNDRUSH


Cape Breton-raised & Halifax-based, Burkey grabs your attention right off the bat on the opening track "Let Love Fill the Room," her compelling voice matched with a big electric guitar chord. This isn't going to be some soft folk singer-songwriter record. 

Sure, she's a singer-songwriter, and the folk feel is here, but so are lots of rock and pop moments, and just as many jazzy-bluegrass touches, with fiddle and mandolin prominent on several songs. There are grand melodic changes, major to minor, emphasizing the sweet/sad nature of her songs, a bit of melancholy, with lots of hope. I'd happily put her in the same school as Shawn Colvin, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Nanci Griffith, who proved you could write hit folk songs in the early '90s.

A crack team of high-end players is feature on the album, starting with producer A.J.H. Gillis, along with bluegrass ace Ray Legere on fiddle and mandolin, Phil Sedore and Roger Stone handling guitars, Kev Corbett multitasking, Terra Spencer playing piano and singing, Mary Beth Carty adding accordion, Robbie Crowell on keys, pretty much a Nova Scotia all-star squad. There's a strong sense of purpose in the songs, with heartfelt words that mean a lot to Burkey, and the players respond in their expert roles. "Ancient Waters" starts out quiet and pretty, a tender song from a mother to a child, but the message becomes more important, as backing vocals and Corbett's pedal steel build the urgency. "It's okay to wear your heart upon your sleeve/it's okay to love anyone you please/if that love's not right, it's okay to leave/trust your compass to point you where you need to be."

There's room for some lighter moments as well, including a fun cover of the 70's Susan Jacks hit "I Thought Of You Again," featuring Legere's fiddle turning it into a bluegrass number with a Johnny Cash boom-chicka-boom rhythm. I can't wait to check out her Fredericton show on Saturday, Dec. 3 at The Tipsy Muse, there are singles and a video out right now for the title track, and the full Groundrush album arrives Dec. 26, with more shows in the new year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DON OAKIE - COMING HOME


Yacht rock?  Not quite, but Ontario's Don Oakie did put off his music career for 35 years to build, wait for it, yachts. But the muse that first hit him back in the '70s when he was traveling the world and playing coffee houses always stayed with him, and he's finally been able to devote the time to record and release his debut, at the modest age of 70.

Seems he kept up his chops, and his knowledge of the folk music trends as well. Oakie shows he can handle lots of different roots styles, featuring his finger-picking guitar work. There's a righteous bluegrass version of "Folsom Prison Blues," a gorgeous instrumental called "Angels and Devils," and lots of blues and ballads. Split between originals and covers, instrumentals and vocal numbers, old tunes and new, it's pretty much a showcase of everything he's soaked up and stored for decades.

He sure isn't rusty. His instrumental take on "Ain't No Sunshine" is full of masterful, jazzy licks, with a delicious, mellow tone throughout. And "Steel Guitar Rag" has lots of showy fun playing. Six of the ten cuts were recorded in P.E.I., with ace guests such as fiddler Gordie MacKeeman, and one of the last recordings of the Acadian trad group Vishtan before accordion player Pastelle LeBlanc passed away. That song, "Laura," was written 45 years ago as a tribute to Oakie's mother, and what a pleasure it is to realize all this great music didn't just disappear. 

Monday, November 21, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MELISSA MARCHESE - MAD LOVE


Marchese is well-known in the Hamilton music scene as one of the strongest singers, but now she gets to show off her songwriting as well, with this vibrant debut. The seven tracks show off her pipes and stylistic range, but also highlight her brave and self-aware lyrics. She can open her heart, but also punch back, and also doesn't pull punches on big-ticket items such as climate change.

"Sirens" is the name of that tune, deceptively catchy and soulful, bolstered by big horns, which makes the song more of a call to action than a warning. It could have easily been just moaning and complaining, but instead, with the positive, uplifting music, Marchese is saying the situation is bad, but we all need to be willing to work: "If anyone knows how to make it better, call me now."

"Cigarette Song," which may or may not be just about quitting smoking, gets down to the nitty-gritty about giving up that habit, and how any addiction makes you vulnerable. It's "Cold Turkey" versus "You've Really Got A Hold On Me." Marchese's "Gimme More" is funky and strutting, while "Sunshine" is a vocal tour-de-force, where you really get the full scope of both her power and nuance, the song having a Zeppelinesque Eastern flavour. You get the feeling there's a lot more waiting to come out from Marchese.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SHANGS - SONNY BONO TEAR DOWN THIS WALL


Hey, if you're a "cult-inspired spinoff of the legendary Simply Saucer," as this disc is proudly stickered, then I'm in right away. Actually, I was in for the group's last disc as well, 2019's Golden Hits of The Shangs, which marked the return of David Byers' psych-pop band to the recording scene after many years. 

Again, the original member of Simply Saucer is joined by old cronies from the Hamilton band, and previous Shangs members The O'Neill brothers, to craft more of the cultish craziness they love. And they love two things in particular: 1960's girl groups (their name comes from The Shangri-Las) and tales of old, weird Hollywood, especially nasty deaths of stars and starlets. 

These stories serve as the inspiration for the songs, sometimes as lyrics, other times as titles for instrumentals and musical themes. The centerpiece is the psycho-psyche number "High Noon" which tells the tale of the murder of the father of the famous 50's & 60's singing group The Lennon Sisters by a deranged fan, with an eerie throwback to the group's most famous song, "Tonight, You Belong To Me." What I love best about Byer's keen interest in these stories is that for each one, he tells the background stories in the liner notes, from the death of Japanese pop star Kyu Sakamoto, he of the 1963 #1 hit "Sukiyaki", in the world's worst airplane crash (520 dead), to Hollywood acid casualty Craig Smith (aka Maitreya Kali), who wrote songs for Glen Campbell and The Monkees before going, you know, nuts. Then there's that ultimate girl group, the women of the Manson family. 

There's interesting musical archaeology as well, with songs taking musical cues from the stories. Joanie "Johnny Get Angry" Sommers went into Bossa Nova sounds after her one-hit wonder pop career, which led to Byers' gentle Tropicalia number (Lying Here) In Brazil. And he found an obscure 1960's song written by Chip ("Wild Thing", "Angel of the Morning") Taylor, called "Just As I Need You," revitalized here complete with stellar guest guitar work by Hamilton jazz wizard Kyle Pacey. 

The Golden Hits album had more of a poppy, fun sound in the mix, whereas this set goes completely left field, with almost all the songs existing in that rarefied air between psychedelia, ambient, and free jazz. That's challenging as a casual listen, but the point is for the listener to take a deep dive into this unique, sometimes unsettling, but mostly fascinating form of storytelling.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHERRY RYAN - SHOUT FOR MORE

Newfoundland's Sherry Ryan has built a fine reputation over the past decade as a strong songwriter, direct and impactful. Her stories are plain-spoken and jammed with detail and observations, about home and normal people, and the richness in simple lives. Her unmistakable voice isn't pretty and perfect, instead, it's friendly and real, just like her characters. 

On this, her fifth album, Ryan delves further into the roots rock that drove her last one, 2018's Wreckhouse. She's just as comfortable with the twangy country of "Any Other Way," soaked in pedal steel, as she is with the rockabilly blues of "100 Miles," a song Jerry Lee Lewis would surely appreciate. There's a poppy number, "Open Up The Door," with horns and sweet hooks, and some folksy gentleness in "Sparrow." Lots of styles, and each one features another smart lyric. Best of them all (at least today's favourite) is "Old House at Black Brook," where she does what we all do, tell friends about a great old house on the highway they know, and give directions: "On your way to Clarenville, there on your left side, there's an old house tucked in a hill where beauty likes to hide." 

Sherry Ryan has managed to get off the Rock for a few days and tour the album around at some Eastern Canadian dates. She's wrapping up that tour with a show in Fredericton on Thursday, Oct. 27, at the Tipsy Muse Cafe. Then it's back home for what's described as "an intimate album release party" at Kula Co-op in St. John's on Nov. 5. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RAWLINS CROSS - SUNRISE


Rawlins Cross has always been a great band to represent the whole East Coast music scene. Somehow, they find the perfect sound or the best line, to sum up the whole thing. On the group's 11th LP, it's found in the song "Tides," where the group turns an old cliche on its head to make it Atlantic-themed:  "Gently rocking on the tides that bind us." 

The band has been doing this for 33 years now, mixing genres, provinces, traditions, and new sounds, coming up with what I always think of as Reel 'n' Roll, after their early East Coast anthem of the same name. With one foot in the rich musical heritage and the other in celebratory, anthemic rock, the music proves you can embrace tradition and innovation at the same time. It's a place where pipes jam with electric guitar on "Leave the Light On," and accordion and whistle handle the melody along with a pounding rhythm section on the new single "Love Is Alright." Add in the full-throated Joey Kitson, sounding as ever like a pirate trained at Julliard, and you have this special blend that could only come from this place.

The band reconvenes every couple of years or so for an album and tour, and this is the first time back since the start of the pandemic, and luckily there are lots of tour dates through the fall. Catch the group at:

Oct. 21    - Glasgow Square          - New Glasgow, N.S.
Oct. 22    - Highland Arts Theatre - Sydney, N.S.
Oct. 23    - Capitol Theatre            - Moncton, N.B.
Oct. 24    - The Playhouse             - Fredericton
Oct. 26    - Confederation Centre  - Charlottetown
Oct. 28    - Rebecca Cohn              - Halifax
Oct. 29    - Th' YARC Playhouse   - Yarmouth, N.S.
Oct. 30    - Astor Theatre               - Liverpool, N.S.
Nov. 5      - Holy Heart Theatre     - St. John's

Monday, October 17, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVE GUNNING - THE SAME STORM


It's impossible not to like Dave Gunning. He's the friendliest, most pleasant, humble, and appreciative musician on the East Coast, and one of the funniest too. I saw him entertaining the crowd at the Lunenburg Harbour Folk Festival this past summer with a ten-minute shaggy dog story (it was actually about a dog) before he even played a note. Seriously, I'd pay to hear him talk.

Luckily, he can also sing, play, produce, and write great songs, often about the Maritimes but universal in their humanity. Like Gunning, these are small-town and straightforward folks, and the tales celebrate generations on the land and water. Both hard times and good ones come and go, and everything is approached with quiet dignity. "My Father's Tools" is a quintessential Gunning lyric, a grown son working with that inheritance, knowing someday he'll pass it on to his child. Of course, it's not just the tools, it's the example of how they were used, "straight as a rule."  Another one also co-written by longtime colleague Jim Dorie is "Viola's Song," the story of the courageous Black businesswoman arrested at a New Glasgow movie theatre for sitting in the whites-only section in 1946. Gunning knows it's a story that must be kept alive: "We've come so far since then, but the worst keeps happening/and we're right back again like nothing's changing." Gunning's songs make you want to be a better person and appreciate all that we have here in the Maritimes. 

He's on the road again, with these new songs, old greats, and I'm sure some more ridiculous jokes. Catch him soon at:

Wednesday, Oct. 19 - Charlotte Street Arts Centre - Fredericton
Thursday, Oct. 20     - Water Street Dinner Theatre - Saint John
Friday, Oct. 21          - The Dunn Theatre                 - St. Andrews, NB
Sunday, Oct. 23        - Second Wind Music Centre   - Florenceville-Bristol, NB
Monday, Oct. 24        - Trailside Music Hall               - Charlottetown

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID MYLES - IT'S ONLY A LITTLE LONELINESS


Myles brought home a Juno Award last time out for his instrumental album That Tall Distance but returns this time with a (mostly) vocal set. As the title suggests, he's in a mellow mood, a new willingness to let it all there, he has said. That means the fears and anxieties many of us dwell on, loneliness and insecurities, depression, and even questions about spirituality and an afterlife. It's seemingly deeply personal at times, but universal all the same: "If I lost you, what would happen? /That is a question that I've been asking a lot these days," he sings in "If I Lost You."

That song features a duet with Breagh Isabel, vocals one of the great strengths of the collection. Myles, no vocal slouch himself, has a great ability to write harmony and backing singer parts. Also joining him is Rose Cousins, the two in tight harmony throughout a cover of the Kitty Wells 1955 country classic "Making Believe." He no doubt dug that up on one of his crate-digging vinyl shopping trips in the used bins. And the brilliant Halifax R'n'B/gospel singers Reeny and Mahalia Smith bolster three cuts, each quite different and equally inspiring. "Mystery" is a funky, late-night sultry groove, and somehow pedal steel fits perfectly in there as well. Take that same team, turn up the tempo, add horns and organ, and now they're on fire for "You Can't Hurt Me," a soul gem. 

Most arresting is the third number with the Smiths, "Walk With Me," where Myles goes to church, quite literally. It finds its main character searching for forgiveness, for relief from earthly troubles: "The world's like a desert, and I'm dying of thirst/I've been looking for a deeper well and I know I'm not the first/To call upon you Jesus but I find it so strange/I never thought I'd be the one calling you name." It feels a lot more sincere than any Contemporary Christian music I've heard in that genre. From faith to funk, Myles takes us on a deeply-thinking man's journey, introspective but still some of his most catchy tracks yet.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TERRA SPENCER & BEN CAPLAN - OLD NEWS


First, it's a fascinating collaboration. These are all Spencer's songs who, in her short career, has already proven to be a writer of substance and rich emotion. Caplan, with his dramatic, Waitsian deep voice, is well-cast as lead singer on a couple of the songs requiring an older male, and as a duet partner elsewhere. He's also the album's producer, a first for him in that role.

Second, it's tremendous. Spencer has outdone her previous gem, 2020's multiple award-winner Chasing Rabbits, her songwriting even more outstanding. One beauty follows another, no two are alike musically or thematically. She has a wonderful perspective on people, a huge tenderness, and seemingly limitless empathy. Yes, it's sentimental as all get out, filled with old people, old dogs, old teachers, and lovers parting as friends, but the songs will melt the hardest hearts. 

Caplan sings "VHS," a widower revisiting his box of tapes, finding the wedding day video. On "Harry," goes wonderfully over the top as a crooner paying tribute to "A good boy, Harry, a real good boy," as he bids him farewell when he enters the nursing home. It's the same character as we met in "VHS," a lovely touch. Spencer takes the mic back for "At Your Service," sung from the perspective of a funeral director, about meeting another widower, and later burying him. It's matter-of-fact in its delivery, just the meeting and the funeral, but it tears at your heart in the best possible way.

Later on, Caplan returns for a couple of duets with classic themes, performed in classic styles. "Maybe" sees two parting lovers debating meeting again, and the perils of such: "A wound is all that deeper when inflicted by a friend." Sung with only Spencer's piano for accompaniment, it could be a missing Rodgers & Hart show tune. "Good Friends" also has that Great American Songbook quality but is a cheerful buddy number, complete with a Dixieland horn middle. This one has a chance to be in the next great Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie.

I suppose both Spencer and Caplan are throwbacks, two songsmiths who strive to get as close to your heartstrings as possible while relishing the craft of it, the performance, the arrangement, and the invention. Funny how it all sounds so fresh and important. I think we'll always need good friends like this.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KRISTEN MARTELL - EVERY SEASON


Nova Scotia's Martell has expanded her folk-pop sound since her ECMA-nominated 2020 debut Coming Home, thanks to a fruitful partnership with fellow songwriter Gabrielle Papillon. The pair co-wrote five of the nine cuts here, with Papillon producing, engineering, playing, and singing. She doesn't dominate though, it's still Martell's quest, her soothing, rich, acoustic songs now thickened with vocal layers, subtle strings, and satisfying keyboards and programming. Three other cuts with the redoubtable Daniel Ledwell at the helm accomplish the same and match the rest of the production seamlessly.

Martell's songs are gently empowering, embracing fears and insecurities, questioning directions, and letting us all know it's natural. "Should I Run" is a lovely bit of atmospheric folk, both catchy and moody, blissfully hypnotic? "Here No More" is one of two cuts making excellent use of Old Man Luedecke's banjo, a bright counterpoint to the melancholy. "Every Season" has a Europop breeziness, the verses straight out of a film set in '60s Paris.

Martell has a batch of album launch shows coming up around Nova Scotia. You can find her:
 
Saturday, Oct. 15        West Brooklyn Speakeasy       West Brooklyn
Thursday, Oct. 20       The Carleton                             Halifax
Friday, Oct. 21            Kings Theatre                           Annapolis Royal
Saturday, Oct. 22        Union Street                              Berwick
Friday, Oct. 28            Petite Riviere Winery                Petite Riviere

Monday, August 15, 2022

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MELANIE PETERSON - WE GOT THIS - SIDE TWO


In these confusing times for music, the album seems to be dying in favour of releasing multiple singles over a period of months. Toronto's Peterson has come up with an alternative approach, releasing her latest in a series of two E.P. 's, basically half an album at a time. We Got This - Side Two continues her move toward bigger songs and production, with lots of edge to contrast her sweet voice. 

It adds a fun layer to her smart folk-pop. On "Passenger Seat" pretty verses with chiming guitars give way to power chords and drums as it turns into a story of "a couple of wild ones in love." Sharp guitar and swirling organ adds the needed gravitas to "One Tequila," a drinking-to-stop-thinking tune: "He was my favourite song/And I don't want to think about moving on."

Goodbye songs remain Peterson's specialty, and she always gets right to the heart of heartache. In "Ruined Lovin'" she perfectly describes that feeling when you watch your true love walk away: "You ruined lovin' anyone else for me." Hard stuff, not soft at all.

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.