Tuesday, November 30, 2010

REVIEW OF THE DAY: Best of Soul Train DVD


The American Bandstand of soul music, this long-running TV series probably meant more to the African American community than any other show. There was an obvious message: This is our music, it is great and the world's best, and this is to celebrate our culture. In guest James Brown's words, "say it loud, I'm black and proud." Over three discs, we get some truly wonderful music, from artists at the peak of their powers, including Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Isley Brothers, Aretha, and the Jackson 5. Although the program stretched into this century, this set concentrates on the 70's, when for my money, the music was best.

While there many great moments here, there are several problems with the collection. First and foremost, most of the acts appearing on the show perfomed lip-synch. While this was pretty typical, it also means the moments are forced and less special. Marvin Gaye struggles and jokes with it, The Commodores are painful, and most disappointingly, The Jackson 5 just aren't special at all. But there are several magic moments as well. Bill Withers is tremendous, and Lean On Me and Use Me never sounded better. James Brown's J.B's wreck the joint, so accomplished live. Stevie Wonder does a medley of hits just at the piano, with the famous Soul Train dancers singing along to Sir Duke and Ma Cherie Amour. And hearing Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin duet on Ooo Baby Baby, with Aretha playing piano is a milestone moment in soul.

You do have to wade through the mud to get to the gems. Don Cornelius did wonderful work creating and producing the show, but we don't need so much of him hosting, all the standard intros and animation openings included. If those had been cut out, it would have made for a faster-paced, more watchable product on DVD. His interviews on the show are excellent, but the modern-day chat added as a bonus on each day is one of the most tedious Q and A's in the history of boxed sets. And the dance numbers, while a major part of the show, are cool only as historical artifacts now. Skipping chapters never felt so right. It's a pity more live performances weren't found to replace the many dull spots that would have jumped this set up to a must own.

Sunday, November 28, 2010



Back in 2006, Jackson Browne took a trip to Spain, a country he loves. This time, he was able to convince his old playing partner, multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, to come along. This was a major coup, as Lindley is not only a great player, he is Browne's most sympathetic foil, the second star of Browne's 70's heyday, as heard on the Running On Empty album and others. Keeping things simple for the trip, it was Browne and Lindley acoustic, joined by various Spanish music stars, friends of Jackson. Oh, and wisely, recording gear.

The results are this beautiful, Spanish-flavoured double-disc, Browne happily moving into the milieu, already well-versed in the sounds and even the language. It's pretty fun hearing him chat in Spanish to the crowds, relaxed and ready to integrate. The guests are featured as back-up players, percussion and such, or as much as lead vocalists, transforming Browne songs such as Take It Easy into new creatures, almost unrecognizable.

While all this is interesting, the real highlight for fans will be the stripped-down and closely-recorded highlights of Browne's catalogue, sounding fresh and powerful. Early gems such as Late For The Sky, Your Bright Baby Blues and For Everyman sound alive again. One can even gain a new appreciation for later, less popular work now that it's stripped of its rock band production, on the songs I'm Alive and Looking East. By the time Running On Empty and the Love Is Strange/Stay medley arrive, old fans will be back in the joy once felt when those records were hits.

The two key moves here are the return of Lindley, one of the very best sidemen, and the return of Browne to what he really is: not a rock star, but a singer/songwriter.

Saturday, November 27, 2010



A bit of an wordy title, but it certainly describes what you're getting here.  This 2-DVD set includes the four episodes of the famous 60's variety show that The Beatles guested on.  It's the original broadcasts of the hour-long programs, from start to finish, including the vintage commercials.  Now, that alone is an interesting sociological set of artifacts, with everything from Pillsbury dough to laundry soap being hawked (addressed to the ladies, of course).  As TV shows go, Sullivan's hasn't aged well at all.  The old-fashioned variety show format is cool enough, with its parade of acts, including jugglers, acrobats, singing actresses (Mitzi Gaynor?), magicians, and comedians.  The trouble is, they largely suck, especially the stand-ups.  The bizarre Soupy Sales does a a dance parody he calls The Mouse, which apparently was big news for 20 minutes back in '65.  Borscht Belt regular Myron Cohen is literally incomprehensible.  And impressionist (and future Riddler) Frank Gorshin does the same old crap, from Sinatra to The Duke, a lesser Rich LIttle.  Only the music holds up, including numbers by Cab Calloway, Cilla Black and of course, our main attraction.

Unless you lived through it, it's impossible to relive the excitement the Beatles appearances generated.  The first show, from February 9, 1964, smashed viewership records in the U.S., and changed music and pop culture for everyone in North America.  Elvis's climb had been slower;  The Beatles went from a rumour to the most talked-about act overnight.  Anyone interested who missed the first broadcast could tune in two more weeks in a row, as the group returned with their hits She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand, All My Loving and Please Please Me.  Now, most of us have seen these clips and the shots of the screaming crowds many times, but it's cool to have them all in one place, and just plain bizarre to watch the wooden Sullivan trying over and over to convince the worried parents out there what "fine young people The Beatles are, which is surely the key to their success."  Yes Ed, politeness is the number one asset for a rock band.

The fourth show is a later one, with the band returning on September 12, 1965.  Instead of the slightly nervous, highly-rehearsed group that appeared 17 months before, now The Beatles are confidant, relaxed, and total pros.  They had grown quickly, and the material showed it, as the set list includes I Feel Fine, Ticket To Ride and Help.  Paul does a solo turn on Yesterday, a huge hit single in North America only, and Ringo gets to sign his party piece, Buck Owens' Act Naturally.  It's also the single best episode of the four here, with comedian Marti Allen actually funny, and Cilla Black a fine addition.

If you don't have any memories of the 60's and the importance The Beatles held, it might be hard to understand what all the fuss was about.  Today, there's absolutely nothing shocking, and hardly even exciting about the group's performers.  However, this is exactly how it happened, and in the combined worlds of TV and music, it's hard to come up with anything more important.

Thursday, November 25, 2010



Betwee 1975 and 1978, Bruce Springsteen couldn't release the all-important follow-up to his breakthrough album Born To Run. Mired in a lawsuit with his former manager, the litigation forced the delay of what became Darkness On The Edge Of Town. During that time, Springsteen played as much as he could, but also started piling up songs, writing at a furious rate. Dozens were recorded, many were reworked, and most discarded for the final album. He probably would have released another in between if he could have, and now we get an idea of what that might have sounded like.

The Promise is made up of 21 tracks from that 1976-77 period (22 actually, there's a hidden one) spread over two discs. The title cut is a famous one in Bruce lore, often bootlegged. It's the direct follow-up to BTR's Thunder Road, even naming it in the lyrics. Mournful, it was okay, but a little bit gimmicky in its Part Two subject matter. And there you have it, the reason these songs were never used, or drastically altered along the way. Unlike the almost-flawless Darnness album, most of these songs are pretty good, but not quite there.

There's some well-known ones in here, including Fire, a big hit for the Pointer Sisters later. Springsteen plays it too straight on this retro-rockabilly number, and it's still missing a crucial note change in the chorus melody, that the Pointers nailed, and which actually made it a better record. Because The Night went on to become a better song in co-writer Patti Smith's hands too, although Bruce comes close here. Racing In The Streets needed a lyric overhaul and a strip-down to make it much better on Darkness than this early, full-band take. And Candy's Boy was far too soft and slow until it got speeded up and darkened as Candy's Room.

Most of the tracks have never seen the official light of day. Separately, each one has lots going for it. When you hear them collected, you get the sense that Springsteen wanted to continue to emulate great rock and roll from the past, as on the Spector-Orbison blend on Born to Run. You hear echoes (and lots of added echo) of Springsteen's beloved Top 40 radio of the mid-60's, with big horns and girl group backing vocals, and lots of up-tempo numbers to dance to. However, they sound like studio tricks at times, as the E Street Band has been turned into a jukebox bent on reclaiming a sound rather than moving forward on its own.

If indeed an album made of some of this material had come out in 76-77, it might have actually been a step back for Springsteen. While it would have been fine and fun, it might also have been judged

lightweight and too happy by critics and fans, who could have been looking for more Born To Run epics. That's exactly what Springsteen did finally deliver with Darkness, a dark and brooding rocker on fire, which fit the times.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Harlan Pepper - Young And Old

Psychedelic roots music?  Alt-Americana?  What the heck are these kids doing?  And yes, kids for sure, they look like babies, and the Hamilton quartet's ages can't add up to 80.  Yet here they are sounding like old souls, or at least exactly what Greg Keelor wants the music world to sound like.

Their debut disc is perfectly titled, as the band mixes classic roots sounds with a completely new take on where you can go with your imagination.  Some songs are happy hillbilly singalongs, featuring banjo, harmonica and brushed drums, while others are space jam with soaring effects-laden guitars and some synthy keyboards.  Their live show is already providing audience favourites from the album, with the kids up front chanting along to Reefer (I wonder why...) and groovin' to the good-natured humour of Great Lakes, the band's tribute to all five of 'em.  Mentored by Blackie/Junkhouse/Lee Harvey Osmond mainman Tom Wilson (his kid Thompson plays bass in the band), the group has learned if you give them both acoustic and electric, everybody has something to love.  They are all sterling players already (again, this is a group of barely-legal age members) and seem to be learning fast and furious.  Fits in perfectly with the Great Lake Swimmers/Olympic Symphonium fans out there.  Young and Old just won the group two trophies at the Hamilton Music Awards, for New Artist/Group of the Year, and Folk/Roots Recording of the Year.

Monday, November 22, 2010


With Luke Doucet, and his Album of the Year award.
Hats off to the organizers of The Hamilton Music Awards, and the music community of that strong city.  Once again, it was a fine celebration of the city's scene, in a place that begs to be discovered and honoured by the rest of the country.  This is the third time in the past four years I've been invited to attend the event, and each year I come away with a huge respect for the work being done there, so often overshadowed by the attention payed to Toronto.  And Toronto, to its shame, continues to largely ignore both the legacy, and the strong talent base there.

Yet, oddly, the musicians who either come from the area or have chosen to move there, are a good part of the backbone of today's music scene.  There's Luke Doucet, for instance, the winner of the Album of the Year.  And of course, the heart and soul of Hamilton, Tom Wilson, who has given so much through his career, from The Florida Razors to Junkhouse to Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to his latest project, Lee Harvey Osmond.  His son Thompson is part of the excellent new group Harlan Pepper.  I finally got to see this band live, what an incredible show, with these kids playing and signing roots music like they were 50-year old vets, but with an excited young audience jumping up front.  Wilson Senior played after, with Lee Harvey Osmond celebrating its second anniversary live gig.  I was lucky enough to see that very first show as well, and the energy they are putting out on stage is so positive and joyful.  And different!  Only Wilson and company could pull off this combo of raw rock and atmospheric wandering, that they call acid jazz. Joining them for the special night was old Junkhouse pal Colin Cripps, who is currently subbing for Greg Keelor at Blue Rodeo gigs, as Greg continues to care for his hearing problems.  Doucet, his partner Melissa McClelland, Harlan Pepper, Lee Harvey Osmond, Cripps, and many others who list the Hamilton area as home, are highly recognized in the country, but rarely mentioned as Hammer musicians.

My gosh, the list is so long:  celebrated blues performers Harrison Kennedy and Steve Strongman, Teenage Head, The Forgotten Rebels, Daniel Lanois, Crowbar and King Biscuit Boy, and this year's recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Skip Prokop, founder of The Paupers and Lighthouse.  I've hung with them all at the Hamilton Music Awards, and that just scratches the surface.  They are all, to a fault, wonderful people, talented musicians, and so proud of their Hamilton roots.

There's so much going on.  This year I had the pleasure of hosting the Rising Star evening, with 12 local acts, ranging from Grade 6 to University age.  Dawn and Marra, two young women writing and performing their own material, were chosen the best of the night, their excellent folk-rock songs and voices showing a promising future.  They'll get a good boost in that way, thanks to a prize package including studio time at the world-famous Grant Avenue Studios, founded by Lanois.

I always get a surprise or two at the awards, and the big one this time was sitting backstage at the awards, and finding out the guy beside me was Gaz from the British group Happy Mondays, who now lives in Burlington!  He has a new project on the way, which he describes as Beach Boys meet hip-hop, with some live shows that he promises will be more events than concerts.  Alert the British media, one of the their favourites is now in The Hammer.  Delightful fellow, by the way.

Oh, and the bars.  As a professional music reviewer, it is my sworn duty to go to clubs and taverns across this land and check out the local scene.  This is a tough job that require me to stay out late and drink local beer, and watch super live music.  I just want to say how fun I find the clubs in Hamilton, especially This Ain't Hollywood, The Corktown, The Casbah, and the West Town.  I am also happy these clubs aren't in my hometown, because I would be in serious trouble.  These are excellent music venues.

It was also great to see lots of old and newer friends, and meet new ones.  Out-of-town friends included Ralph Alfonso of Bongo Beat Records, Barb Sedun of EMI Publishing, Sarah French of Sarah French Publicity, returning Hamiltonians, musicians Dave Rave and Natasha Alexandra from NYC, music publicist Lisa Millar from Ottawa, and then there are all the great people of Hamilton I have met and can proudly call good friends now.  There are so many, consider yourself listed here.  Of course hats off to the people behind the Hamilton Music Awards, who once again invited me and cared for me so well:  Jean-Paul Gauthier, Connie Stefanson, Lynda Henriksen, Stacy and/or Tracy, and Aimee were my family for five days.

Photos are coming, and my brain is slowly clearing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Springsteen, U2, Paul Simon, etc. - The 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Concerts

A year ago, a huge, 2-night tribute was held at Madison Square Garden for The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame's 25th birthday.  As opening speaker Tom Hanks makes clear, rock and roll was invented in the U.S., so this certainly is the American/Rolling Stone Magazine official version of what constitutes its finest moments..  Officially blessed and sanctioned favourites U2, Springsteen and Metallica hold court, with guests such as Mick Jagger, Fergie and Billy Joel along to cameo in the middle of their sets.

We can all argue the merits of who is and isn't in the Hall Of Fame, but the important thing here is whether the concerts make for a good DVD.  Rolling Stone trumpeted this as one of the great live shows of all time, but star power alone doesn't insure this.  Usually multi-artist formats almost always include messes and missed cues, egos and tantrums.  Technical problems (edited out) marred Stevie Wonder's set for instance, and apparently Aretha Franklin was wacky to work with.  And even editing can't make everything seem perfect.  U2's set, featuring Jagger, Fergie, and Will. I. Am falls flat.  The band can't replicate the sinister edge of Gimme Shelter, featuring Fergie and Jagger posing.  U2 just aren't set up to be somebody's backing band.  But Springsteen's crew can sure do it, as they prove with fine guest appearances by Sam Moore and John Fogerty, and on a stunning modern take on The Ghost Of Tom Joad with Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello.

Crosby, Stills and Nash sound much better than normal, with fine versions of Woodstock, Almost Cut My Hair, and in great harmony on Jackson Browne's The Pretender.  When they join Paul Simon for Here Comes The Sun, it's goose-bump beautiful.  Jeff Beck, subbing for an ailing Eric Clapton, was suburb, a real revelation.  So there are plenty of highlights, a few stomach-turners (anything with Sting), and a couple of truly amazing moments, which make this a must-own set.  Three discs, including several bonus songs not included on the original TV broadcast.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


 Bob and Skip Prokop photos courtesy Kyle Weir

 Bob and Skip Prokop
photo courtesy Michelle Neumann

This is the third time I've been to the Hamilton Music Awards, and the event continues to impress me.  Hamilton has a rich music scene, one of the country's most important and varied.  Hamilton's musicians are supportive of each other, and pay no attention to genres or hipness.  They know what is good for one is good for all, and are proud of their home city.  Historically, this is the place where Ronnie Hawkins, Levon Helm and Harold Jenkins came to spread the rock and roll fever in the late '50's, Jenkins soon to become Conway Twitty.  The area has been home to Crowbar, King Biscuit Boy, Teenage Head, Lorraine Segato of Parachute Club, Daniel Lanois and many more.

Each year the Awards celebrates local people who have left their mark on the local or national music scene, and this time the honour goes to Skip Prokop, founder and leader of the group Lighthouse.  Skip was born here and grew up in the Steel City, learning the basics of his trade by becoming a champion drummer.  By his late teens Skip had hit Toronto, and formed the group The Paupers out of the Yorkville Village seen of the 60's, and the band became the first Canadian pop act signed to a major U.S. record deal, managed by Albert Grossman of Dylan fame.  After they sputtered out, Prokop formed Lighthouse, based on his concept of a rock band with full horns and strings.  The group became one of the top live acts in the world, and scored two massive hit singles, One Fine Morning and Sunny Days, both of which were voted into The Top 100 Canadian Singles book.

Wednesday night at the opening reception for the Hamilton Music Awards, I got to interview Skip on stage for the audience.  He is one of the most entertaining storytellers in Canadian music, with great tales about performing at the Monteray Music Festival, turning down a gig at Woodstock, drumming for Janis Joplin and Mama Cass, and being a major player in the introduction of the CanCon regulations.  It was a thrill to touch just some of these topics.

With that, the book launches for The Top 100 Canadian Singles are over, for now anyway.  I've gone from coast to coast, loving every minute of it.  Thanks to all who came out.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010



I'm sure as soon as these three started singing and playing acoustics together, they went "Ooo, we sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash!" Now everybody's saying, "Ooo, they sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash." Ya, maybe the so-stoned-we-can't-sing 80's version, sure. These ears find the blend of Dhani Harrison, Joseph Arthur and Ben Harper's voices positively grating at times. None of them are exceptional singers, often the parts they sing are thin, and the harmonies have no spark. Apart from some occaisional strings, a bit of drums and lots of handclaps, its all voices and guitar strumming, like any bunch of hippy kids in any town. I'm sure this will go over well with the younger side of the Dave Matthews crowd, but it's the kind of project that gets completed only because of the hip names involved. There is hope for the future on one track however, the only different song on the disc, the ballad Fistful Of Mercy, which wins because of its haunting melody, and the delicate strings. Finally the voices sound right, massed on the chorus, intent on making a good song instead of a concept. Oh ya, the Dhani kid sounds like his father.

Monday, November 15, 2010



Oh God I want to love this album. First off, it's Elton, and say want you want, with every disc he puts out, I'm desperately hoping he can recapture the Tumbleweed Connection/Madman Across The Water sound. He's been trying to do that for his last several studio albums, but with limited results. Then, it's Leon. I love Leon Russell, and have since the Carney album of 1972. By now if you have any interest in this project, you've no doubt heard the story of Elton searching out his old hero in obscurity, and rescuing him for this new disc with producer T-Bone Burnett. Good on ya, Elton, you're right, Russell is somebody we should hear from again.
So, I want to love this album, but I can only like it. It all sounds great, with Russell and John in fine voice, and sounding excellent together. It is a true collaborative effort, with the duo trading lead and harmony vocals, and the co-writes coming from combinations of the Russell/John/Taupin partnership. You can hear Bernie and Elton striving to find that classic Tumbleweed sound, and coming oh so close. The best efforts are on ballads such as The Best Part Of The Day, Russell and John trading verses and singing the chorus together, and Elton has always had a deft hand at crafting emotional piano numbers. Russell brings some of his gospel boogie to the mix, which helps get a bit of tempo to the thing, but it's long and heavy on slower songs. So, there's nothing to complain about, except an overall lack of a couple of killer tracks. I do take pleasure in hearing Leon sing again, it has been missing in my listening life, and a co-write with Taupin, I Should Have Sent Roses, is up there with some of his best songs, such as A Song For You and This Masquerade. Recommended, but I wonder what could have happened if they had waited and worked until they had two more solid rockers? So close.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Here's the deal:  I figure I have this blog, and I don't always have news related to the Top 100 Canadian Singles and Albums empire, I might as well do something with it.  And what I do more than anything else is listen to new discs and watch new music DVD's.  And since this is about music, why not give you some of my music reviews?  I've been doing this for 30 years, so I figure I might as well keep going.

So, instead of doing a bunch of them, I have decided to send out one a day.  These will be new, or relatively new releases.  Let's call it:



Finally available on DVD and Blu-Ray, this is quite possibly the best of the many, many live Rolling Stones sets you can get.  It's a bit murky and dusty, shot on a dark stage with no audience footage, and the cameras almost entirely focused on Mick and Keith, but that's the show, isn't it?  This 1972 set is from the Exile On Main Street tour of the U.S., with the band at it's peak, Mick Taylor handling the leads.  Mick's preening was much less over-the-top, in fact it was pretty much perfect, before it got oversized for the stadium crowds and video screens.  He's still fascinating here, instead of eye-rolling and camp.  And Keith sounds great, his words still understandable instead of slurred, his harmonies helpful.  Taylor really makes the difference though, his solos ripping through the songs.  His slide playing on All Down The Line alone beats anything Ron Wood would do in 35 years.

What strikes me most is set list.  Here's a band with a pile of Top 40 hits to its credit, yet the Stones have jettisoned those days, with no Satisfaction, Get Off Of My Cloud, or Paint It, Black in sight.  Instead they've successfully grown up with their audience, and now the adult years start with Jumpin' Jack Flash, and include Brown Sugar, Bitch, Tumbling Dice, Street Fighting Man and Gimme Shelter.  It's no surprise the songs from this era have formed the core of their show ever since, it's the golden age of the Stones.

Highlights include the two Micks trading solos on Midnight Rambler, Jagger blowing a brilliant harp solo, and letting out a hoot of joy when he finishes, a huge smile on his face.  And the cleaned-up sound lets us focus in on Richards' rhythm playing, Charlie's cymbal work, and the overall dynamics the Stones still brought to the blues.  It's certainly a must-own concert, as opposed to the ten or so other live DVD's you can get of them.  It's available as a single disc, with a few minor bonuses, or as much pricier Deluxe Edition, a big square box priced at over a hundred bucks, which includes the recent DVD Stones In Exile, plus a third, exclusive disc of interviews and footage from TV and the Australian tour, plus various nick-knacks and swag. 

Monday, November 1, 2010


 Chris Murphy of Sloan and Cynthia Kitts, Sloan fan, in Halifax
 Bob being interviewed by CBC Vancouver's Jenna Chow

 Outside CBC Vancouver
 Gallery Connexion's Maggie Estey, our host for the Fredericton book launch
 An Acoustic Sloan in Halifax
 Grant Lawrence, MC of the Vancouver launch at Zulu Records
 I really like Bob's book...
 No, your new book is much better Grant...
Fredericton High School class of '78 reunion in Vancouver.