Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Saint John, NB artist Jason Ogden is Penny Blacks, at least in the leadership role.  The "group" can expand to seven pieces, or just be him solo, and this 5-track EP is a one-man band job, aside from a couple of guest spots.  Recorded in the spare room (I love that), it's higher than low-fi, but pretty much that volume.  Ogden takes us through a few styles in a quick 20 minutes, from country (Your Wedding Ring) to could-be pop or punk or whatever he'd want if it wasn't just him and an acoustic and some harmonies.  Some nasty lines in that one though, "..embalmer's fluid doesn't flow quite like blood".

My fave lyric, and title, belongs to lead cut Chop Yourself Into Little Pieces And Mail Yourself To New Brunswick, Canada For Immediate Reassembly.  He-he.  It's actually a sad little number seemingly set out in B.C. ("the worst coast"), with somebody who would rather be in the titular province, missing his love as the rain comes down, and an angel or devil sitting on his shoulder whispering "come home".  That's the entire lyric actually, almost shorter than the title.  Again, he-he.

WIth this second EP, and an on-going collection of home recordings, Ogden says he's going for catchy songs, less wordy and not so bedroom-isolated.  He does have a bunch of lyrics, but he's an interesting writer, and his acoustic work is confident and enjoyable.  Sigh.  Another punk, maturing into a songwriter.  He even pulls off a very nice, lengthy and ear-sweet opus, called Socorro.  Well played and sung, Penny Blacks.

Catch Ogden in action Wednesday, June 1 at the Vintage Bistro in Hampton, NB, and the full band is going to play at this year's Folly Fest, happening in Gagetown, NB June 29 - July 1.

Monday, May 30, 2011


The inevitable second album backlash greets this one, after the band's debut in 2008 wowed and won many major critics polls, and tons of fans, especially in England where the self-titled disc went platinum.  It almost a pattern for groups with such a distinct sound and killer first album, no matter what is released, it can't possibly match the record so many fell in love with (see Arcade Fire).  There are some differences with this album, but not the kind that lead to new directions, and are subtle enough it really does sound like a continuation of the first album without the surprise this time.

If you haven't got Foxy yet, here's the deal on the group:  It sounds like Crosby, Stills and Nash, but if they had formed in Brian Wilson's living room instead of Cass Elliot's (as legend and stony memory has it).  Wilson, would have of course produced, using all those Pet Sounds and Smile techniques, and given his fondness for choirboy vocals, he would have booted Stills to the back row, and let Nash handle all the leads, and double-track many of the harmonies along with Crosby.  Follow?  Robin Pecknold is that Nashian vocalist here, and the rest of the group contribute to the layered vocals, the most dominate sound in their music.  Every song features harmonies, bathed in echo, giving us the feeling they're not really on the same plain as us, ghosts or angels or just in the next room.  Rock it does not, and you're more likely to hear a flute solo than an electric guitar.

It's the sound that grabs you, and while the words sound pretty good, I think it's the way Pecknold sings them, rather than any great lyrical prowess.  If there's a big message, it doesn't really matter, it could be Beatles covers or Anglican hymns.  Mostly the words are cool, lines such as "I was old news to you then", nothing to worry about.  Occasionally there are some clunkers, including this dumb theme repeated in the longest track, the 8'07" The Shrine/An Argument:  "Green apples hang from the green apple tree/and they belong only to me."  Add its ocean references, and this is sub-Van Dyke Parks stuff.  The squawking horns are dolphins I guess.

For this album, it's even more of a Pecknold disc, his voice now completely prominent from start to finish, instead of a group vocal effort.  If anything, it sounds more like its obvious 60's roots.  It must be pointed out that while it is a great mix of those Beach Boys - CSN styles, nobody has eve sounded like this before, so it is unique.  It just that they boldly show their influences, and obvious ones at that.  So while it will be even easier for people to understand the group, and perhaps broaden their success, they are also going to get the negative reviews.  I find this album just as enjoyable as the first, and sometimes part two isn't a bad thing.  But it does represent a holding pattern, and leaves us wondering if it was a brief love affair, or whether they will rebound and blow our minds again for album 3 (see Arcade Fire).

Sunday, May 29, 2011


One might be forgiven for assuming Snailhouse, aka Mike Feuerstack is a Maritimer.  He is down our way quite a lot, and he's tied by choice to several of our favourite folk in the alt circuit.  The Montreal man shared a Juno with NB's Julie Doiron as a member of the Wooden Stars, and he's part of the Fredericton collective Forward Music, often seen in the company of such folks as Olympic Symphonium.  In fact, they are on tour together, and you can find future dates below.  In fact, half the Symph form the latest version of the greater Snailhouse band these days, although it will always be the place to find Feuerstack's personal writing, when he's not playing with Bell Orchestre or Angela Desveaux.

Whew!  The guy's a moving target then, now a half-dozen discs in the Snailhouse career.  He's the poet of the alt/low-fi/acoustic scene, whatever the heck that is.  Anyway, all those cool kids love the guy, mostly for his way with words, which are pretty darn admirable.  I'll give him some high-five action for the sounds this time out though, as he lifts his head from gazing at his shoes, sings out big and bright and lets the guitars chime a bit more too.  The title track is a thing of beauty, as poppy as he's going to get, a melody that will make you hug the person closest to you in the room, and Feuerstack admitting "I write the songs that make the grown men cry".  Oh blessed irony, he just quoted Manilow.  If you want those classic S-House lines though, don't fear, they are, as always, found a-plenty, my favourite being "Remember your enemies/They were your friends until they let you down".

Things never get fast here, it's all done no quicker than second gear, but it's not lethargic or sad either, it's a pleasant wash of sound and words, with some beautiful pedal steel that makes you smile, and Feuerstock's best-friend voice exactly the calming influence you want.  I'm feeling good about humanity right now, as the disc comes to an end.

Come see Snailhouse and Olympic Symphonium if you're in my neighbourhood, or later dates with our buddy Shotgun Jimmy:

June 02 - St.Andrews, NB: Sunbury Shores w/ The Olympic Symphonium
June 03 - Parkindale, NB: Parkindale Hall w/ The Olympic Symphonium
June 04 - Hampton, NB: Vintage Bistro w/ The Olympic Symphonium
June 09 - Moncton, NB: PlanB w/ Shotgun Jimmie
June 10 - Fredericton, NB: The Capital w/ Shotgun Jimmie
June 11 - Halifax, NS: The Seahorse w/ Shotgun Jimmie
June 12 - Sackville, NB: Thunder & Lightning w/ Shotgun Jimmie

Saturday, May 28, 2011


This British band has all but left the rock elite status, despite having gold records, famous members, and a legacy as one of the top touring groups in their late 60's-early 70's heyday. Perhaps it's because the unit never had a North American hit single, finding favour on the FM dial instead. So they don't get much classic rock airplay, aside from the occasional airing of the title cut of this collection, now newly remastered with the requisite bonus disc of early versions and a long live set of the time.

Yet Traffic was where Stevie Winwood chose to reside longer than his more famous bands, the Spencer Davis Group and Blind Faith. In fact, he got along so well with his colleagues they put the band back together only a year after an initial break to make this collection. The genesis of Barleycorn was a solo project of Winwood's. Two of the original six on the album were actually recorded with Winwood providing all the instruments, even the drums. Yes, the boy wonder was capable of this with multi-tracking, but in the end he much preferred playing with others, so ex-travelers in Traffic Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood were invited to add parts. Finally it became obvious it might as well be a full-fledged reunion, and Traffic Mark II proved even more successful than the original version, despite Dave Mason being absent for his solo career.

So, it was the above trio that set these songs out, largely written by Winwood and drummer Capaldi. Wood added flute and sax, and together they crafted a unique fusion of R'n'B, psych rock, prog, jazz, and folk. Okay, really, everything could and would go in, whatever felt right, and certainly no other band had that strong British folk influence, at least in the big rock scene. Actually the best-known song here, Barleycorn, stands alone in its complete folk flavour, an old 17th tale about attempts to wipe out corn liquor drinking.  As different as it is from the R'n'B of the rest of the disc, it also overshadows the other material.  It's a very enjoyable track, and as it's folk, still sounds great and undated.

Fans will want to upgrade for this deluxe edition. There are 3 fully-finished, different versions of album tracks from the initial Winwood-solo version of the album, very different and quite worthy as well.  That includes version one of Barleycorn, an even more traditional version, perhaps a bit busier, but a good effort.  The rest is a Fillmore East concert, with the band expanded to a four-piece, using ex-Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech, who would join as a full member after the tour.  Since it's Winwood, his famous voice makes everything that much better live, and it's nice to have a concert from the smaller line-up of the band.  By the next year, they'd expand to be a six-piece, and release the live Welcome To The Canteen album.

Friday, May 27, 2011



Well, it was inevitable that the centerpiece film from last year's expensive boxed set examining the Darkness album and outtakes would be hived off and sold separately at some point.  It's a bit of an annoyance for fans, as they shell out for these exclusives, and then they ain't so exclusive anymore.  Plus, they stick bonus features on this separate version, so even if you have the big $150 box, you don't have everything.   Springsteen is the master of this tactic, and has been making his hard-core fans shell out twice and three times for cut variations on discs since the Born In The U.S.A. splurge of seven singles and their many b-sides.  Okay, gripe over.

So what you're getting here is the highly-praised feature film that debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year, a 90-minute documentary on the making of Springsteen's beloved 1978 album.  If you're not familiar with the back story, Springsteen had become a huge star in 1975 with Born To Run, but there was a problem backstage.  He'd fallen out with his manager and producer, Mike Appel, and planned on continuing his new partnership with Jon Landau, who had done most of Born To Run.  But Appel had him locked into a tough contract, giving him say over who produced him, and half of his music publishing.  Springsteen was barred from the studio while a major lawsuit unfolded for close to two years.  Finally it ended much in Springsteen's favour, and now he had two years of ideas and frustrations to get on tape, plus a career to get back on track.

Luckily, when they did get back in the studio, cameras were there on some days, enough to give us the great base of a behind-the-scenes film.  All the principals were interviewed, including Appel, recently reconciled with Springsteen, putting aside decades of bitterness.  What we find out is that the band went from one nightmare to another once they entered the studio.  It took months, as the group, obsessed by individual sounds, couldn't find the right ambience, reverb, echo, whatever.  In hindsight, the group admits it was a fiasco, and Springsteen takes the blame for spending day after day chasing elusive, impossible big sounds.

Gradually, the songs started to take shape, and more and more joined the pile, literally dozens of different numbers.  Now Springsteen had to decide what would go and what would stay.  He was looking for a theme, a leaner and darker album than Born To Run, with songs about small towns and broken hearts.  He would scrap finished songs, pull out a line, and stick it in another.  There's a marvelous scene where the filmmaker shows how an early song, Come On Let's Go Out Tonight gets scavenged for the released cut Factory.

There's lots of fun, laid-back moments caught on tape, the band mugging for the camera, but not really caring about what gets captured.  There are great moments with Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt, playing versions of wonderful, potential hits that got tossed away.  We see them as real friends, boys being boys, but also there are lots of moments of frustration, Springsteen appearing as a control freak.  And we understand why he is this way, as driven an artist as any writer or painter, having to lead this talented gang in a tough but loving way, heading toward a goal only he can here.

Other famous Springsteen moments are touched on, including how Bruce teamed up with Patti Smith (interviewed here) to write Because The Night.  We find out why Fire was rejected because it was an obvious hit he didn't want to be represented by, and given to The Pointer Sisters.  All great stuff.  The film starts to drag in the second half as Springsteen explains his philosophy, what he wanted to say about family, America, fear and sin.  It's impressive he works that hard on these final versions, but as Miami Steve would think, the throwaway pop songs were just as good.  The album finally came out, after years of frustration, and although it became loved over time, at first it was a bit of a disappointment, without an obvious hit.  But they hit the road, won over the crowds, and now we recognize Racing In The Streets, Prove It All Night,  The Promised Land and the rest as classics.

So, get this DVD, it's a great look at a pivotal moment in Springsteen's career, and an excellent film, a ton of resources went into it from Springsteen's camp.  You'll never get a critical look this way, it's ultimately controlled by Bruce Inc., but who gives a crap, it's just rock music.  For everybody who ever wanted to know what it was like to hang with Bruce and the band, you'll know a lot more after this.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Good advice, that title, and Montreal's Joannides has been working on it hard for a decade, even though he'll be a new name for most of us. He actually started out on a musical path by hitting the road to see the world, playing his way from Europe to the Far East to Florida, actually recording and then scrapping an album in process in the States. When the world traveler got back to Montreal, he had experience, and obviously a work ethic to keep him pushing. An earlier album called My Name Is Amos built the Montreal base, but now he's heading out to the wider world with this one.

What to call it, a re-debut? Anyway, Keep Writing Songs is an E.P., five cuts mostly to showcase his new single, Even Though.  That's where the focus is, on a song that will break him, and it is a winner.  Joannides has a strong, mellow, attractive voice, sweet enough to put him in the radio-friendly league.  He also has that acoustic-jam thing going, an obvious attraction for the Jack Johnson fan base, and he's certainly got that potential.  Even Though shows he can come up with a catchy sound, based on what he calls beach rhythm, an acoustic guitar groove with a reggae flavour you can imagine the gang enjoying down at the dunes, beer in one hand, something else smoking in the other.  It's good times, infectious, smells like a hit.

The rest of the mini-disc shows a few more sides, including some pretty good jazz chops on Hiding In A Shell.  Horns on that track and Even Though suggest there's lots of potential for stretching on a full album.  The single is out now, the EP comes out in June, and Amos hits the road now, playing Toronto at Free Times Cafe Thursday June 2nd, and booking dates for the summer exposure season.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I first heard Babette Hayward a year or so back, opening for another singer-songwriter I was friends with, and very excited to see. I didn't know a thing about this young Saint John, NB performer, other than I had seen her name a couple of times listed for venues, and since it's an uncommon first name, it stuck in my mind. But really, I wasn't expecting much, I saw she was just a kid, something like 19 at the time, and I was there to see the other performer.
Um, not many other people were. There were perhaps 10 or so the whole night, and even less when Babette, our opening act, took the stage. We'd shaken hands and said hi by this point, the other people there were the next band, and the bartender, and one of my musical colleagues, so the show started pretty informally, Babette saying, "Well, I guess I should play," leaving the table, walking five feet and stepping up to the mic.

Sometimes you just can't believe your ears. This was one of them. As soon as she started singing, I knew this was a confident young woman with talent. And I knew she could sing, I'd never heard a voice quite like hers. Sure she was young, lacking experience, shakey at times, but it was all stuff that would come would practice and more stage work. Ooo, time for a sports metaphor! It's like one of those raw baseball draft picks, the kid they say has all the tools, speed, strength, throwing, it's just a matter of teaching them the game. In Babette's case, those tools are singing, songwriting, melody, spark. In her short set, she played mostly originals, including a couple that made me shake my head. I can distinctly remember being bewildered about how someone so young could write so well, had accomplished something so difficult already. How a couple of her first songs were better than those many 40 and 50-year old pros had written or would ever write.

Go forward a few months, and my next Babette sighting was as part of a tour of the province in Fall 2010, called the New Brunswick Emerging Artists, with three other up-and-comers. By this time, she had her first recordings, a 6-track EP, some unpolished numbers, hand-packaged in a paper bag of all things, pretty cool. And she was, as predicted, sounding more confident, the songs more fleshed out, and she was now able to appear pretty relaxed on the stages of our bigger theatres in the province, enjoying herself, and belonging there. All was going good.

Then, last month at the East Coast Music Awards, Babette was shining again, getting her name out, showcasing, and had a special treat to hand over. Her first full-length, fully produced album, all her own songs, with a band and strong arrangements behind her. It's a winner for sure, called You Might Be Somebody. I'm really pleased with the results, the producers and Babette didn't drop the ball or overdo the material. It still has the basis of what she's about, an acoustic guitar player with a strong voice and even stronger lyrics. The melodies are allowed to come out, there's no tricks, but lots of good accompaniment. I'd describe it as subtle and sweet backing, not showy. You get to pay attention to that voice.

It's the voice that sounded a lot older and wiser to me a year back, and I'm still bothered and bewildered by her ability to write like this. Now I know she's a big music fan, especially of the greats, and works at a record store, so she hears lots, maybe that's part of it. Anyway, see for yourself live, that's the best introduction to her music. Babette's playing Friday night, May 27th at the Red Herring in St. Andrews, and Saturday night the 28th at the Capitol Complex in Fredericton.

The new collection, You Might Be Somebody, actually isn't being released for sale until July, but there are some early copies available at her website, babettehayward.com.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


He's one of those songwriters that songwriters love.  You know, like only other poets can really appreciate the best poet in town.  They hear past the lack of commercial hope.  They ignore the nasal-Lou Reed vocal quality, or even love it for it's reality.  They hear their favourite style of music in the songs, since they are so bare-boned.  They could be turned into the best punk or the smartest country songs (see Elvis Has Left The Building here, which, seriously, could fit both styles).  They could even be hits in the hands of the more polished artist, like Mary Chapin Carpenter did for Lucinda Williams' Passionate Kisses.  That's the level we're talking here, Kyp Harness is a Toronto version of a Lucinda Williams or a Nick Cave, certainly not the wider public's style, but the kind that commands the attention of his peers.

Ron Sexsmith is perhaps his greatest champion, which says a lot since Sexsmith himself is considered the songwriter's songwriter.  Harness is much more obscure, and you can hear where Sexsmith has borrowed a bit of his peer's phrasing, his vocal style, and his fearlessness.  Umm, say that again, BM?  What's so scary about writing songs?  Well, when you have the tools, and you know what will work, what's a good career move, and instead choose to let the art win, that's fearless.  Harness, like Sexsmith, will not allow the marketplace to dictate how the songs are written, and the end result.  And truth be told, he'd be better off putting his hopes in his Mortimer the Slug web comic (mortimertheslug.com) than continuing this nine-album, completely indie career.  Except that, of course, he's a stone genius.

How do you end a groovin' little rocker where you proclaim "I'm diggin' your vibe"?  Why, with the ultimate, biggest statement, "all the way to infinity."  Want a metaphor for life?  There's "sometimes you're the passenger and sometimes you're the driver."  Want great lines?  Every one of the ten songs here is full of them, but my favourite right now is "Pick me up baby/I wanna touch the sky."  It seems so simple, but somebody has to find these words.  Harness finds an uncommon and unfair amount of them.

Monday, May 23, 2011



This is a live concert of the type of show Levon Helm has been putting on at his studio/performance space in Woodstock, New York since the turn of the century.  Helm hosts, sings and plays with his band, a small crowd travels upstate and pays a pretty penny, and lots of famous guests have dropped by, from Emmylou to Phil Lesh to Norah Jones.  It was to pay for disasters and downturns in Helm's career, including a fire that destroyed the first place, and then serious throat cancer.  Helm miraculously got much of his voice back post-radiation, and by 2007 restarted his recording career too, with the Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer.

This disc comes from a 2008 show, but is just getting out now, no doubt because of all the added success and new projects that came his way.  He was able to take the Ramble on the road, and when he hit Nashville, they did it up right with his party at the famous venue.  Now that his comeback is complete and successful, you have to remember that it was not a done deal when this concert was made, and audiences were still wondering if Levon could give us the same thrill as he once did as a singer and drummer in The Band.

The opening blast answered, and gave everybody a taste of his famous vocals, Helm sounding older, rawer and frail, but still good, still himself.  Ophelia, a Band favourite, is played with great vigour, in fact maybe even a better than most nights his old group tried it, since the horn section is full swing.  They even rearrange the charts to emphasize the Dixieland flavour, and it is a great reminder of how powerful even the second-tier Band songs are.

Back To Memphis follows, and Band fans will know this version for sure, as the Chuck Berry cut was a common cover for the group.  That's an important distinction for Helm of course.  Much of his musical past, and certainly the most famous part, carries the name Robertson in the credits, such as Ophelia.  His long-standing feud with The Band's guitarist revolves around the claim that Robertson took all the credits, and therefore gets all the money, when it was a more collaborative effort.  So Levon is stuck at this point, trying to attract a crowd that wants to hear him sing songs that make his former colleague only richer.  Memphis is a compromise, a Band song in a way, that is not as painful to perform.

Helm was determined to get back to the status he once had, and knew he couldn't just do a Band tribute show.  His show was thought out, with a long middle section that celebrated the music of his area, his style, the heritage R'n'B, country and roots music of the South.  He could handle the playing, and put together an ace band, but vocals were still a problem, and there was no way he'd survive a full show, once or night after night on tour.  Joining the group full-time was vocalist Little Sammy Davis, described from stage as a real original blues man, but like most of you, I'm scratching my head to remember him.  Other band members took turns, with Helm supplying drums, mandolin and sometimes duets.  So it's really the music carrying things much of the night, rather than The Band legacy.  As expected, more of the group numbers came out at the end of the show, including Rag Mama Rag, The Shape I'm In, and Chest Fever.

For this Ryman show, special guests were lined up for the inevitable DVD/live album, including Sheryl Crow, supplying a game, raw harmony on Evangeline ("from the Maritimes"), and digging out the Carter Family touchstone number, No Depression In Heaven.  Nashville all-star players Buddy Miller and Sam Bush join and jam, and even pre-scandal Billy Bob Thornton guests.  John Hiatt is the kicker, getting the plum co-vocal on The Weight.

It was a grand success for Helm.  His perserverance and recovery from cancer was part of it, and so was the fact he was tapping into a new respect for roots music, not just The Band's career.  But much credit has to go to his daughter Amy, who put her own climbing career with Ollabelle on hold to help her Dad get back on track.  Also, Larry Campbell, an extremely talented musician, gave up his long-standing gig with Bob Dylan to pitch in as producer and band leader for helm, really running the music part of the show, when he could have been walking a much more lucrative path.  These things alone are a testament to the respect Helm holds.

I think such a revue show is usually better seen than heard, but I can tell you I was singing along at a very loud volume in the privacy of my car.  Since 2008, another Grammy has come Helm's way, for the 2009 album Electric Dirt, there's been tons of touring, more Midnight Rambles and a documentary called Ain't In It For My Health.  Of all the comeback stories, it's one of the most surprising, and feels right.

Saturday, May 21, 2011



Manx, that minx, such a subtle bluesman, a student of world sounds, an expert player and emotive singer.  Breit, always right, the stringed thing's best buddy, one of the great guitar monsters.  I think I've said it before, but let me repeat my somewhat trite statement that he's Canada's Ry Cooder.  Three times now these pals have teamed up for albums, with wonderful results.  Anyone with a passion for blues, guitar music, or roots-alt-whatever needs these guys in their ears.

Both sing, play, write, a true partnership.  All sounds here come from them, with even percussion supplied made from Manx kicking along while adding guitar.  If you're familiar with his work, there's less of the Eastern influences this time, with baritone guitar being his main axe.  Breit has supplied more of the songs, so it's more of player's disc, with all the different sounds Breit can coax out of his guitars, steel, sitar, mandolin and uke.  Manx does trot out the multi-stringed mohan veena for one number, adds some banjo, and matches Breit on the slide and steel work.  This is all great ear candy, hearing the instruments played so well, sounding so great, with so much diversity.

In the end though, all that playing would be for nothing if they couldn't write and sing, and the warmth of their voices is one of the highlights.  Each takes turns on lead, and there are three delightful duets, both of these guys owning matching mellow voices.  Have there ever been better partners?  Breit is the real surprise here in the writing department.  I don't normally think of him as a scribe, mostly because he's such a go-to guy on guitar, but he obviously needs that outlet too.  Dance With Delilah is my favourite, a song that warms you like a blanket.  Manx shines best on a classic cover, the Bobby Hebb classic Sunny, which tells you a lot about this disc.  That's the vibe, classic.

Friday, May 20, 2011



Sloan makes music for those of us who love rock, love pop, and love to be surprised. In many ways, they come close to being the perfect band. I think I'll list some. Some, if not all of them, are music nerds, just like me (we? us?). They are a true partnership, with all four of them fine songwriters and craftsmen. If they wanted, each could do their own solo albums. But they never have. They have kept the band together under occasional duress. They have always been hip, and indie, even when they were on a major label. They had pretty big hits, but not big enough to take away their fan-friendly accessability. They have never made an embarrassing album, and I can't think of one that isn't good-bordering on classic. They never disappoint. They seemingly do not age, although we know they have been doing this for 20 years.

We know about the 20 thing, because they are currently shamlessly celebrating the anniversary with this new album and a tour. The double cross, get it? Two crosses, two XX's, Roman Numerals for 20. The group is facebooking and websiting like crazy, showing famous fan tribute videos, blogging and tweeting, getting everybody all worked up. And since they are beloved, nobody is accusing them of hype. We know they won't be getting rich anyway, they only want to keep making music and a decent living, and keep the party and friendship going.

So, you are therefore obliged to do your part, by attending the big summer tour where possible, or checking out the new disc. Back to that comment I made about Sloan making music for those of us who love to be surprised. It seems the guys just can't leave a song alone these days, without throwing a curve ball at you. The Double Cross is full of them, right from the first track, Follow The Leader. Just as you're following along and expecting this thing to wind its way to the end in the usual verse-chorus-bridge-fade patterns, it goes into a completely different motive, really a different song, but linked to the first.  Then, continuing the Abbey Road-ish medley trick the band has been doing at various points over the past few albums, the songs makes a smooth transition into the next number, and there's another seamless transition into the next. This gives the disc a faster pace, a cohesive flow, the sense that this isn't just a collection of tracks from four guys, that it's thought out and perfected.  Yet, it all seems like they just lucked out, it just worked out that way.  Sorta like their whole career, huh?

The other great game you can play with a Sloan album is spot-the-reference.  It used to be Beatles this, Stones that, the usual stuff.  But the group's combined knowledge runs so deep, you can spend the whole disc shouting them out with your friends:  "That's old-school Elvis and the Attractions!"  "This is the Squeeze song."  "Huh-huh, Patrick sounds like Freddie Mercury."

There's only 12 tracks this time, which go by very quickly, and the album does feel a little slight, compared to other longer collections Sloan has released.  Hey, they got four writers, where's all the songs after two years?  But I've heard enough discs crammed with filler, 70 minutes that should have been 30, so I'm not going to complain too much on that point, it's just that I'm always keen for more from Sloan.  It rocks hard, it has some pretty moments (Green Gardens, Cold Montreal and Beverly Terrace are Canadian Kinks numbers), and sounds great in the car.  It sounds like there's another 20 years left in the tank.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


It's a music collector's dream-come-true. In 2009, a guy named Jeff Gold was going through the tapes of the late critic/Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph Gleason, and found one marked "Dylan Brandeis". Well, whaddya know, it was a show that have never been bootlegged, never been whispered about, but there it was, and better yet, it had been professionally recorded. Winning! The Sony/Dylan camp knew it was a significant find, so out it came lickety-split.

51MqFI8RE4L._SL500_AA300_.jpgIt's an interesting set, not at all remarkable, but very revealing. It's Dylan just before he explodes, recorded May 10th , 1963. Brandeis was holding a little folk "festival" in Waltham, Mass., and got a few big names, Dylan not really one of them. He had one album out at the time, the failed Bob Dylan debut. Things were about to change, as his The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is about to come out, and Peter, Paul and Mary are about to score a major million-seller with Blowin' In the Wind. But the college kids in the gymnasium didn't know about the buzz back in Greenwich Village, and Bob Dylan was still doing his folk club act, which featured some humour, and that Woody Guthrie accent. He only had about 40 minutes that night, in two short sets, so he was playing it safe perhaps, going with the tried and true of the past year.

Too bad the opening number, Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance is cut off at the start; we probably lost a minute there, but it is the slightest song here, a quick uptempo number to get the crowd's attention. Next comes that infamous skewering of the anti-Communist movement in the States, Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues. It does get the laughs Dylan wants from it, and it's only two days before he was going to perform it on the Ed Sullivan Show. CBS censors said no, Dylan said see you later, and left the studio. Here, it's the right audience, Liberal arts students, not middle America, and they eat it up.

Then, Dylan does give them a blast of what he's about to unleash on the world. Two major songs from his pen, Ballad of Hollis Brown and Masters Of War. These aren't funny. In the first, a man kills his family instead of letting them starve to death. The second takes on the arms race. Heavy songs for heavy times, and you can tell the Brandeis audience has caught on that this newcomer is different. For his second set, he's back to the talking blues, with Talkin' World War III Blues and the always-reliable Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues.

We know what happened with him, so we can't really put ourselves in the audience's shoes, trying to decide what this guy is about. One minute he's doing a folk shuck-and-jive, the next he's knocking down the Military-Industrial Complex like no-one else before. Would they have predicted he'd be the voice of his generation? Good question. Almost 50 years later, it still packs a punch, and I would have like to have seen that 40 minutes and seven songs. I'm glad Gleason didn't throw things out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011



Sackville, NB's pop poet/spiritual adviser/zen philosopher returns with a tight, rockin' and fun set of quick ditties.  This time he's all cleaned up and shaved and stuff, recording for the first time in an actual studio.  Fear not, low-fi advocates, not much has changed except you can hear him better.  And this is a good thing.  Oh, and the other guys here sound great too, Jay Baird on bass and yes, lovely flutes (I mean it!) and Ryan Peters pounding away.  Diego Medina's actual analog synths fit right in too, not some cheesy retro-80's tribute, but instead as cool solos.

Jimmie walks a fine line between easily accessible and alternative.  Some of these bounce along like the silly love songs they are, like Suzy, a Junior High crush story, which has the charm of a Fountains Of Wayne song.  But Swamp Magic has a crunchy guitar that would make the loudest punk proud.  Actually, it would also make Neil Young proud, as the song is a tribute to the master's duality, the grunge guitar hero and the intimate acoustic whisperer.  Jimmie simply puts both sides into the song, going from a piano ballad to insanely loud and then back again.  Bar's Closed could be a number written by pal Julie Doiron, with its sorta-sloppy and slow start, and mournful guitar and walking-home story.

Jimmie's also one of my favourite lyricists, always ready with some homespun wisdom offered with a what-the-fuck shrug of the shoulders, since it's all going to go pear-shaped anyway.  On Transistor Sister, he's pleased with his simple existence, happy that he has all he needs, and offers up a salute:  "toast the sweet life/cut the ribbon with a sharp knife/break the soil with a golden shovel".  He also makes the mundane hilarious, such as this piece of tour life:  "I've got blisters on my fingers/Like Ringo Starr/But they're not from playing drums/They're from doing laundry/Washing out my socks in the hotel sink/Hanging them to dry while we're doing other things."

You should also check out Jimmie's new split 7-inch single, with his good pal Joel Plaskett, part of JP's New Scotland Records series of 45's.  Jimmie gets one side with That's Not Joel, and Plaskett has the flip, Jimmy's Still Jimmy.  And, catch him on tour with Snailhouse in June, at the following:

June 09 - Moncton, NB: Plan B
June 10 - Fredericton, NB: The Capital
June 11 - Halifax, NS: The Seahorse
June 12 - Sackville, NB: Thunder & Lightning

Tuesday, May 17, 2011



Any good record collector knows the best deals can often be found second-hand, either from the used store dealers or at the flea markets. Friends shoot me tales of great scores at Value Village or the Sally Ann. I picked up Anne Murray's debut album in beautiful shape at V.V. myself. Forty-plus years later, it's now an important piece of East Coast music history.

This past weekend I made a mini-pilgrammige to Moncton for the semi-annual record fair in that city. I hadn't been in many years, and with the surge in vinyl of late, I thought it was time to stick my nose in again. I'm always in the mood to add to my Beach Boys vinyl collection (it's huge - no snickering), I'm always up for a 60's or 70's picture sleeve 45 in good shape, and of course, I'll take a good bargain anytime. Unfortunately, good bargains aren't too plentiful in the vinyl world these days. The format is hotter than ever, and it's not collectors driving it up. It's those new fans, the kids with the turntables, the ones who are buying LP's from new acts, and who are paying premium for classics. If it's from the 70's, and a major artist, it's going for twenty bucks. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, The Allman Brothers, the ones that young people still like, all command such prices. And this is for albums that were being tossed out in the late 80's, when CD's took over. What's funny is that there are actually millions of copies of the original vinyl for The Wall out there, but as one dealer said on the weekend, "try to find it."

Actually, even poor-condition albums are selling for way too much. The covers will be split and ripped, there will be writing on the jacket ("To Murray, Love Mom"), and visible scuffs and scratches on the vinyl. It's outrageous to us old-school vinyl buyers, and I was shocked at some of the tables at the fair. My eyes bugged out when I first flipped by a copy of the Capitol Canada 6000 series album Ferry 'Cross The Mersey by Gerry & the Pacemakers, with a $4 tag on it, only to pick it up and find water spots and grunge, and it even felt damp. "I got a whiff of that over here," said my son behind me. At least the real dealers weren't trying that, but their prices were still high, and the rareties almost non-existant. I brought a hundred bucks, and spent less than $20.

It seems the place to find deals now is the under-appreciated, out-of-favour CD market. Like they replaced vinyl in the 80's, digital downloads are pushing discs out of the market. Not many dealers had them. One good store I like, Backstreet of Saint John and Moncton, was there, with some nice stock. Lucky for me, I found a used copy of a British import disc by The Youngbloods. You remember them, with the big hit Get Together, a hippy anthem? Pretty much a one-hit wonder band, but for me, they've always been a favourite. That's because when I was a kid, there was a great store on the UNB campus called Little Records, which had a wonderful delete bin, full of cut-out records with big drill holes or corners cut off. They typically sold for 99 cents, and that's where you'd find the entire Youngbloods catalogue. My older brother had taken advantage of that, and arrived home with them. As the younger sibling not allowed to play his precious stereo, I had to wait until he left the house but eventually I learned about them all, and love them to this day.

The Youngbloods had a unique sound that for me, put them ahead of the rest of the San Francisco - hippy bands. They had a first-class vocalist/pop songwriter in Jesse Colin Young, had actually come from New York, where they'd picked up the same jug band influences as The Lovin' Spoonful, and had a great keyboard player named Banana who massaged a mean electric piano. This helped in the jam stuff they worked into the act in San Fran, long instrumentals with groovy titles such as On Sir Francis Drake. Few groups covered the ground they did, from blues to Chuck Berry rockers to early singer-songwriter stuff. With songs such as Sunlight and Ride The Wind, Young was a couple of years ahead of the mellow pop that would take over the charts in the early 70's. After the band split in 1973, he went solo and could often be found supporting the likes of CSNY on the road.

This disc I got at the record sale is a great deal for a fan, since it combines the first three group albums on two discs, giving us the must-have Get Together on the first, self-titled album, their excellent cover of Tim Hardin's Reason To Believe (that predated Rod Stewart's hit version) on Earth Music, and then the band's classic, Elephant Mountain. Produced by Charlie Daniels (yes, Fire On the Mountain Charlie), and from 1969, the band was firing off those classic, jazzy instrumentals in between some of Young's harmonious best, including Quicksand and Sunlight. Unlike the rest of the San Francisco bands, they were hooked on melody over rock, and used strings and horns to sweeten the sound, with great results. I am quite serious when I say it's one of the most important albums in my listening life, and I'm thrilled to finally have it on CD, after wearing down my old original vinyl. So, 3 albums on 2 CD's, a British import that's hard-to-find, for $12.99.

The record may have been a bit of a bust, but there are other good signs out there for music collectors and fans. With prices high for vinyl, lots of people are trying to cash in on the market, so you can find some rarer items you've been searching for over the years. Trolling around the websites and EBay and such, I've seen lots of items I thought I'd never get from my beloved Beach Boys, and for them I'm willing to pay pretty strong prices. And the day after the Moncton show, I decided to check out Fredericton's flea market, where I'd heard there was some good vinyl each Sunday. Yup, there's one dealer with excellent quality items, and fair prices. I saw several I'd love to own, and one Beach Boys album I've been looking for since about 1982, and one of those $20 bills left my pocket quickly. All-in-all, it was a very good weekend after all.

Monday, May 16, 2011



Oh, what a treat.  As the vinyl goes spinning around at super-speed, the familiar strains of Second Hand News, the opening cut of this mega-million seller fill the room with warmth.  And it's real warmth, the close-up recreation of actual instruments and human voices as burned onto vinyl, not the inferior digital 1's and 0's that has passed for sound reproduction the past 25 years.  Why this sounds better, and why all the world's great engineers have yet to make digital work as well is beyond me, but just listen to the ringing strings on Never Going Back Again, and you know your CD just doesn't cut it, and certainly anyone that has only heard it on MP3 is in for a shock.

Actually you're all in for at least a treat with this vinyl version, as it's an audiophile's dream.  The pressing has been done on 180 gram vinyl and (wait for it)...  it's a two-LP set, as it's at 45 RPM!  For you non-audiophiles, this is great because with only 10 minutes per side, the grooves are wider and the sound is much better.  Your old vinyl might sound good, better than the CD in many ways, but this kicks butt.  Close your eyes during Songbird, and you are right in the Zellerback Auditorium at Berkeley College with Christine McVie, listening to her emotional, single-take performance, the echo of the hall all around you.  Or you can marvel at the piano you never noticed in Don't Stop.  It's the same with all these 180 gram pressings, I'm always amazed at the presence of instruments I've forgotten that come leaping back to life.

I don't actually have to review the music, do I?  Or give you the back story of the British blues band that sprang back to life thanks to a near-magical infusion of California pop courtesy of Buckingham-Nicks?  You know about the two couples splitting up during its creation, the hurt spilling out in the songs:  "Now here you go again/You say you want your freedom/Well who am I to keep you down".  It's all on Wikipedia, look it up, it makes Lady Ga-Ga seem like a Girl Guide.

While we mocked and clucked at the excesses of the day, with these coked-out superstar bands spending a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the studio, and days and weeks getting drum sounds, let me tell ya, it sure sounds great now.  Yes, it's great that we can now does this on pro tools in the basement, but the whole point was to make it sound as fantastic as possible.  After years of listening to the best music being made low-fi, why not treat yourself?  That's why these 70's discs are so perfect for the 180 gram craze right now, and why I'm lapping them up.

Sunday, May 15, 2011



I've seen The Trews a few times now, and the Nova Scotians have something pretty rare:  real honest-to-goodness rock star presence up there on stage.  Nobody works a venue harder these days, especially the jam-packed, college-aged ones they usually play.  I've asked my teenagers who they would like to see in concert, and it isn't U2, it's these guys.  They come out guns blazing, and win over the crowd within a couple of songs, letting everybody know that it's an event they are at, not just a gig.  Singer Colin MacDonald works hard every moment, and the band plays every song like it's the final encore.

Much of that is possible because the band has also figured out how to craft anthems for the albums.  The ballads are big ones, the rockers rock harder.  Think this is easy?  There isn't many hit rock bands out there these days.  Most of the time, the big rock music you hear is from the past, classic hits we either grew up with, or kids have been fed on Gold radio formats and Guitar Hero.  You wanna be a hit band in Canada, you're fighting for space with Led Zep and Pink Floyd, at least to get at my kid's ears. 

So listen hard to a song like The World, I Know from Hope & Ruin, and those perfectly place Wo-oh-oh's.  That's you how make a rock record people are going to sing along with at the shows.  That's the kind of number that leaps out of the dashboard when you're driving.  The album's full of ready-made party rockers, cut from the same cloth as their already-loved hits Poor Old Broken-Hearted Me, Not Ready To Go, etc.  There's probably two or three of them that will join the greatest hits playlist they keep building.  But there's also a new subtlety with some of the writing, and particularly with the first single, the title cut.  It starts small, builds, and has that feeling of momentum, of something exciting and big being unveiled.  It is a song that makes you feel better just by its arrangement.  The band and producer Gord Sinclair (from Tragically Hip) are tapping into the emotions good rock music can stir.  You can also find it in the decision to end the disc on an acoustic cut, You Gotta Let Me In, a number full of fireside-singalong warmth.

The band is heading out on a set of big venue dates alongside Kid Rock, playing Saddledomes and Centres with names such as Labatt, Air Canada and Rogers.  I'm betting they do just as well getting the crowds worked up in those caverns as they do at Nicky Zee's bar down the street.

The Trews with Kid Rock

Tuesday, May 17 - Rogers Arena - Vancouver
Wednesday, May 18 - Prospera Place - Kelowna
Friday, May 20 - Scotiabank Saddledome - Calgary
Saturday, May 21 - Rexall Place - Edmonton
Monday, May 23 - Brandt Centre - Regina
Tuesday, May 24 - MTS Centre - Winnipeg
Friday, May 27 - Air Canada Centre - Toronto
Saturday, May 28 - John Labatt Centre - London
Tuesday, May 31 - Scotiabank Place - Ottawa

Friday, May 13, 2011



Every five years, Edmonton's Stony Plain Records puts together a collection of some of the highlights of its musical adventures, as a nifty double-disc set.  I have them all, and treasure them, as I do the whole existence of the label.  It is a anachronism, an impossibility.  It's a record company built on a singular vision, of releasing excellent roots music, by musicians who deserve to be heard, and do it all from a small city way off the beaten path.  But in doing so, Stony Plain has had many great musicians and music fans beat a path to its doors over the years.

Of course, it is due to the determination of Holger Petersen, long-time collector, host of CBC's Saturday Night Blues, and just about the best guy in the music business.  How he's survived without cutting anyone's throat, including his own, is his great secret, but that pure love of music has brought his label giants from the past, oddball eccentrics, lost souls, curmudgeons and those who recognize a kindred spirit, and a great place to call home.  Canadians, of course, have benefited through the many years, and here we find cuts from the late great Jeff Healey, Celtic party band Spirit of the West, the guitar wizardry of Harry Manx and Kevin Breit, the trio of Alberta cowboys, Corb Lund, Tim Hus, and the legendary Ian Tyson.  From B.C.'s Valdy to Long John Baldry, the folk, roots and blues scene has flourished in this country, with Petersen one of the main reasons.

Petersen's also like a crafty baseball General Manager; he's always on the lookout for a talented free agent, who needs a short-term deal before signing another rich contract.  Stony Plain has managed to snap up high quality albums from the likes of Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle while the major labels were sleeping.  And sometimes it seems as if the classy Canadians know more about great blues than the U.S. companies, with Grammy-winning Maria Muldaur on board, the Roomful Of Blues axeman Duke Robillard practically an Alberta boy now, and such giants of the past as Jay McShann, Rosco Gordon and Billy Boy Arnold making their final recordings for the label, and making damn good ones.  They are all here on this set.

This is the music that is featured in summer festivals all over North America, and in the best clubs throughout the winter.  It is made by people who can make your jaw drop at times, or coax a tear from your eye.  There's not a one of them that panders, and I'd bet every single artist here plans to play for the rest of their lives, whether they make a fortune or hit hard times.  There's something to admire in every song on the collection. And if that hasn't sold you yet, it's got Blue Rodeo singing Four Strong Winds.  What else do you want in life?

Thursday, May 12, 2011



Who is Stu? It's Ian Stewart, a founding member of The Rolling Stones, their long-time road manager and pianist, who died in 1985. He played on many studio tracks and concert tours, and famously Keith Richards has long said the Stones were Ian Stewart's band, that he was working for him. He wasn't a hanger-on either; a versatile boogie woogie-style player, Stewart can be heard on George Thorogood's Bad To The Bone album, fronted his own Rocket 88 band, and was the inspiration for Led Zeppelin's Boogie With Stu.

Who is Ben Waters? The younger man was inspired by Stewart through family friends and connections to the music scene, and eventually replaced him in Rocket 88. When he started this tribute album, it was simply a solo project, but then his friend Charlie Watts offered to play. That opened the floodgates, as more and more friends and stars volunteered their services. Ronnie ("Stu was my best mate") came on, and soon word got out to the rest of the Stones camp, who all wanted to add a bit. Eventually it was announced that for the first time since 1992, Bill Wyman would rejoin his bandmates on a track on the disc in honour of Stewart.

Well, not everything is what it's cracked up to be, and in these days of advanced technology, there was no physical reunion between the estranged stones. Each one recorded their parts at different times, and even on different continents. The song is Bob Dylan's Watching The River Flow, and truthfully the contributions from Wood, Richards and Wyman are minimal. But Mick Jagger turns in a stellar vocal and harp solo, and it truly is one of the great covers in the Stones canon now, thanks to fine piano from Waters as well.

The rest of the disc won't eclipse the headlines of the Stones' involvement. Unless you're a junkie for raw boogie-blues piano, as Stewart was and Watters is, you're not going to be jumping out of your seat to replay cuts. As most tributes go, it's the guest stars that make things interesting, if not exactly grand. Jools Holland, England's other great boogie pianist, takes a turn singing as well, on the old number Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor, reminding us all why he was the 3rd-best singer in Squeeze. Waters was really in no position to refuse Richards and Wood a turn at the mic either, and their singing cut Worried Life Blues makes Holland's vocal a sweet treat. Oddly enough, it's PJ Harvey who provides the stand-out vocal, as luckily her parents were dear friends of Stewart and she knew him well. Her vocals and sax on Lonely Avenue explain where the blues in her music comes from.

Tribute and charity albums are always a dicey proposition, once the stars collide with it. I think the tracks Waters recorded on his own would probably have been better with lesser lights involved, apart from Jagger and Harvey's vocals, and Watts' typically stellar drumming throughout. But with the stars, you'd never have heard about this album, or Ben Waters, or maybe even Ian Stewart ever again. If you feel like supporting the Heart Foundation, and having this cool version of Watching The River Flow, go for it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011



I don't spend enough time in Moncton. Come to think about it, I don't spend enough time in Saint John, Miramichi, Edmundston, the Peninsula...you name it. Bound to my Fredericton home, I miss out on a lot of new music coming out, because I can't be everywhere all the time. The one good thing about that is when I do go for a visit, there's always somebody to check out, and often it's someone new, or new-to-me at least.

I was in Moncton for the Frye Festival a couple of weeks ago, and who would have thought it would be the event where I got excited about music? Well, I did get excited about the literature as well, but they do such a good job adding music to the event, that it sort of took over a lot of my attention, being a music guy first and foremost. One of the featured performers at the Frye Fest was a guy named Joe Grass, who I had never heard of before, but lots of folks there rolled their eyes at me. It turns out much of the Moncton music scene has known about Joe for years, but why my friends didn't tell ME...I don't know.

Joe is indeed from Moncton, but he's lived in Montreal most of the last decade. On his own, he is a guitar player and songwriter, mellow, experimental, very interesting. He's actually made his name in Montreal as a sideman, playing with some of the very best in the city, in the English and French scenes. He's a regular with Patrick Watson, one of the top alternative artists in the country, and with francophones he has become one of the go-to guitarists, for stars such as Daniel Belanger, and even Quebecois legend Ginette Reno, so young and not-so-young all want him on the road with them, he's that kind of talent.

Now I saw Joe in a number of different combos, backing up other artists such as Marie-Jo Therio, contributing fun atmostpheric accompanyment to the poets, joining top jazzers Les Paiens, and playing his own stuff. While he impressed at it all, it was his own show that was captivating. It was one of the those times when you just sit and watch, taking it all in. I didn't know any of his material, but it immediately grabbed me. Grass has a unique voice, and a killer way of playing guitar, sometimes plucking the slack-tuned strings to give it a more bassy-percussive sound, or coaxing surprising sounds. He has a little Jeff Buckley in him, that kind of individual artist style, and some of Daniel Lanois, a vague mystery.

Well, I had to find out more, and discovered there's a couple of CD's of his available. An earlier one just called Joe Grass was pretty much just an attempt to get songs down on tape, and came out in 2004, in his early 20's. Now we get a much more developed style, on the new Deadlocks. Although guitar dominates the 8 tracks, there's a lot of percussion here, a lot of rhythm, not so much drums as tapping, hammering on strings, a couple of players are credited with shakes and thumps. There's is an orchestrated, intricate sound he's after. I don't know if it's complete yet. There's lots of interesting moments on the disc for sure, great use of co-vocalists, accordians, lots of atmosphere from cymbals and cool production. There's old blues and country, and an antique feeling to it all. But I've seen the guy live, and he's a better singer than what is on the disc, and such a presence on stage, this calm recording doesn't reflect that. Yet. But with this guy's level of talent, it has to happen, one would hope.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Or Randy Unplugged. Or Newman Stripped. Or Newman's Own. Or Solo Piano Works. The concept here, as on its predecessor, is to revisit the grand catalogue of Newman, and let him perform at his most intimate and powerful, which is alone at the piano. Now Newman is a master at using strings and such in a modern setting, and orchestrations are the family business of course, for filmscores and more. But Newman is also a beautiful piano player, using a lot of the New Orleans style he grew to love by summering there in his youth. And with no other instruments to distract from his voice, the King Of American Irony hits on full-on with his lyrical power.

Many of the best-known songs are on Vol. 1, including Political Science, I Think It's Going To Rain Today and You Can Leave Your Hat On, so for this one we get to peer a little deeper into Newman's psyche. Of course, he's a dark bugger, capable of lyrics so squirmy he's the last person you'd think a proper choice for all those Disney movies. Stalkers, racists, and the horrible rich populate his songs. He can skewer entire cities, including Birmingham, by having his narrator list all the great things he has in the city, which are all the mundane or miserable parts of every city in the U.S., but still claim to be living in the best place in the land. And on Baltimore, written in 1977 when major metropolises were failing economically and socially, Newman calls out the people who don't see the collapse, with "they hide their eyes 'cause the city's dyin' and they don't know why." But the most awful American is the rich man of My Life Is Good, failing to believe his son's teacher who has pointed out his offspring is a bully. Since his life of cocaine, rock stars and riches is so good, his son must be perfect too.

Instead of this piano-only format being boring, it's dramatic and hypnotic. The songs are brief, as Newman has always been one for keeping his stories tight and painting a small picture rather than giving us the whole idea. With songs ranging over 40 years, we realize he's been unflinching in his style and ability to lift the curtain on America, to let everything see the bad with the good. Necessary stuff that, as we've always counted on songwriters to do that, right back to the court jesters. This is one of those albums that i couldn't bear to end. Luckily I could then put on Vol. 1 again. And then back to Vol. 2...

Monday, May 9, 2011



Pretty much a one-hit wonder in this neck of the world with Come On Eileen, Dexys had been a big deal bunch in Britain an album before that, in 1980. Formed by a couple of Kevins, Rowland and Archer, they were a more artistic and no less romantic version of the fictional Commitments story from the hit movie a few years later. They were the real deal, young soul rebels, in search of a new big sound based on Stax, horns and something new, instead of looking for a retro sound. Rowland in particular saw punk and New Wave as a spark but a dead end, and had a Van Morrison-type commitment to the keening sound he felt deep inside.

After a rowdy group of eight came together, Dexys developed a sound no-one had heard before. The horns were huge, the rhythms even bigger, and the guitar solos non-existant. It was vocals and heart and pulse first. For a glorious couple of years, starting here, the band created a hole in the middle of the charts, between New Wave on one side and Ska on the other, bringing the sound and the fury together for all. The album did well, but it was the momentous single Geno, a chart topper, that said it all. It was about Geno Washington, a transplanted American who had long worked the soul mines of England, and about the concept of the huge fan (Rowland) surpassing his idol (which indeed happened with the song). Plus, those horns!

This deluxe edition is chockfull of great bonuses on its second disc, including all the odd singles and b-sides, a full batch of early demos and cover versions such as Hold On I'm Coming, and two grand BBC sessions. The BBC cuts in particular show the first version of the band at its best, able to do even better versions than the studio efforts. The group was a solid live bunch. But Rowland turned out to be a troubled artist, refusing to do interviews, and then refusing normal communication with the band. The original eight imploded, with only three going on to make the 1982 Too-Rye-Ay disc, with Come On Eileen, and only Rowland left at the end, with only three albums released, but a whopping 23 members passing through the group. Meanwhile, the Dexys soul sound was hugely influential on everyone from Paul Weller of The Jam to Elvis Costello, who stole the horns for Every Day I Write The Book.

Sunday, May 8, 2011



Every so often I find a treasure or two in a used record store, and I'm always keen to share the story.  This time, two different stores, two different cities, two different days, but two from the same series of vinyl albums.

Back in 1960, Capitol Records of Canada started issuing a unique series of LP's, with the serial numbers starting at T-6000, the T denoting mono, with ST used for stereo later.  These albums were special, as for the most part they were put together for the Canadian market, and in the years since many of them have become highly desirable collectors' items.  Much of the interest comes from the fact that The Beatles were part of the series, but there are plenty of other classic artists on the label, including several other British Invasion groups, and some Canadian-born stars as well.  The series was overseen by Capitol's Paul White, eventually a VP of the company, whose job it was to monitor releases from EMI in England, the parent company of Capitol U.S., and see what would make a good release in Canada.  In this job, White recommended releasing singles by The Beatles in Canada in 1963, a full year before the U.S. division followed suit.  He would also go to bat for several other British imports.

In those days, LP's from England were very different from what would emerge in North America.  British pop discs would usually be 14 tracks long, and usually not include the latest A- and B-sides of 45's, nor the  four cuts from E.P.'s.  The versions coming out on this side of the pond would generally be 12 cuts, and would have all the new hits on them.  This meant for North America, there would be several extra tracks available, and new LP's and alternate versions could be created.  It happened with The Rolling Stones, and certainly The Beatles.  In the U.S., there were titles such as Something New.  Here in Canada, White got a chance to make three albums not seen in other countries:  Beatlemania, Twist and Shout, and Long Tall Sally.  For Canadians, these were the first and most familiar Beatles albums for several years, until U.S. execs ordered the Canadians to copy their titles and covers.

That was just the tip of the iceberg for White.  As the British Invasion continued, he got to play with the new releases of hitmakers such as The Dave Clark Five, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Hollies, The Animals, The Yardbirds and hundreds of others.  There were bagpipe albums, plenty of novelty comedy performers, stars from older days such as Vera Lynn, Latin music, anything that came out in England was ripe for repacking in Canada.  Pretty soon, Canadian artists such as Robbie Lane & the Disciples, Barry Allen and eventually Anne Murray would end up on the 6000 series.

My two finds came from May and June of 1964, and both were in fine shape, with no visible scratches, and played very well.  The covers especially were a joy, with only a small wear and a tiny pencil mark on one.  I found The Dave Clark Five's Bits And Pieces in Back Alley Music in Charlottetown, PEI, quite fittingly on Record Store Day, while in town for the ECMA's.  I was thrilled to grab it for $20.  The album is made up of several of the group's first singles, including the two recent smash hits, Glad All Over and Bits And Pieces.  Liner notes say that both of these tracks went to #1 in Canada, and the same is predicted for their latest, a cover of The Contours' Do You Love Me (it did reach the Top Ten at least).  Various b-sides and fillers top up the track number to 11.

Two weeks later, I stopped by Spin-It, my long-time trusty dealer in Moncton, NB, where another 6000 series album had recently turned up.  This is one of the unique compilations White was able to put together.  Smashin'-Smashers From England was assembled for the huge interest in all the British Invasion bands.  The Beatles aren't here, probably because by this time, access to their material would be restricted, but there were lots more new stars available to White.  The DC5 are here again, with three tracks including repeats on Glad All Over and Do You Love Me.  The Hollies have three early cuts, including the group's first international hit, Just One Look.  Canada always had better luck with British superstar Cliff Richard than the Americans did, and Sir Cliff was granted two cuts, as were his backing band, stars on their own, The Shadows.  Rounding out the album was the underachieving Adam Faith.  $30 seemed a fair price for this one.

The world's expert on the 6000 series says I did well.  Piers Hemmingsen lived in Liverpool when the Beatles exploded, and then moved to Canada.  He's written two books on the Fab Four's Canadian output, and maintains the excellent Capitol 6000 website, where I found most of the information for this article  (http://www.capitol6000.com).  He's constantly updating it with high-priced finds, and new information, and has laid out the whole story of Paul White and the Capitol releases over the years.  There are many more albums to discover and collector's conundrums to be solved.  There's a very cool feature there now which included some audio from CHUM-FM in 1970, a series that looked back at the career of The Beatles, just as the band had split.  You listen to that, I'm going back to the stacks to find those T-6000 releases.

Friday, May 6, 2011



I got to catch up with Suzie at last month's East Coast Music Awards in Charlottetown, and as always she was in fine form, entertaining her many Atlantic friends.  "Whoa there, Bob-o," I hear them saying from Ontar-I-O, "Suzie V's one of ours.  What's she doing playing the EC-MA's?"  Fear not, Upper Canadian chums, Suz isn't pulling a Stephen Fearing and pitching tent down here now.  It's just that for the first time, the ECMA's decided to showcase some other province's talent, folks that want to play more in the Maritimes, and give the local buyers and festivals a little look.

Suzie was one of them, as she has already made some inroads into this area.  She's a great favourite at the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, has appeared a few times and commands a solid following thanks to those shows.  Wisely, she now wants to conquer the entire blues-loving East.  She's a multiple-Maple Blues champ already, and really, who doesn't want to spend more time here on the ocean?  It's a musician's paradise, they all say.

I'm not here to sell you on moving (although I can't figure out why you wouldn't, given the ridiculously cheap real estate, relaxing lifestyle and plentiful lobster), I'm here to talk up Suzie, and her above latest.  It's one of the great love stories;  Romeo and Juliet, Bogie and Bacall, Suzie and Mabel.  Um, Mabel is actually Suzie's guitar, a lovely little Canadian-made acoustic that she chooses to rip out her blues numbers on.  Now, in the past, Vinnick's discs have been rootsy singer-songwriter ones, or a duet with buddy Rick Fines.  This one is her first true blues disc, and it's her at her best, mostly solo and acoustic.

Stripped down, she's pretty much got to give it up and make it good, and you get that for sure.  She has all the necessary talents, including fine technique, excellent knowledge and choice of material, strong talent as a writer, and, above it all, her fun and commanding voice.  What I love about Suzie is her total confidence in all of it, as she hits the stage (or the record button), ready to grab you and keep you glued.

Sometimes albums of all one style can get tedious, but Vinnick breaks up the rhythm with some smart song choices.  There's not one overplayed cover here, and the songs range from a Dylan religious blues, Quit Your Lowdown Ways, to fellow Canadian Rita Chiarelli's retro Get Some, to the old Three Dog Night hit, Never Been To Spain.  Add some of Suzie's sweetness, her clutch playing, and some guest solos by Fines, Tony Diteodoro, and Chris Whiteley, and I'd say, yes, this is a good enough album to be played for East Coast blues fans.  And we're darn picky.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Kate and Anna McGarrigle always existed in a musical time of their own, creating modern folk-like songs, but equally connected to sounds of the 19th century, French Canadian traditional, and above all, family-created music purely for the joy of it. Their houses, through their lives, were places where music was as important as meal times, and children were raised to join in and learn. It was the serendipity of the seventies that brought the sisters to fame as a duo, and now their first two, much-heralded albums have been reissued, remastered and spruced up with an extra disc of original demos of the two from the early 70's, a triple-CD collection called Tell My Sister.

It is, of course, a bittersweet release, coming on the heals of the death of Kate from cancer in January of 2010. It also arrives just before a pair of tribute concerts at New York's Town Hall on May 12th and 13th, with proceeds going to Kate's charity for sarcoma, the rare cancer that took her life. The all-star shows will feature Anna McGarrigle, Kate's kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Norah Jones, Teddy Thompson, Emmylou Harris, Antony Hegarty and others. A nervous Anna took some time to speak from her home near Montreal about the shows, and the new albums.

As with some other times in the past year, she's missing her sister and long-time stage partner these day, because of the tribute concerts. "I'm starting to lose sleep," she admits. "That's the way I am, I get anxious. Kate wouldn't get anxious. She was a rock. I miss her reassuring temperament, I was always leaning on her before big shows. But there's other people involved, Rufus and Martha, they're working their bottoms off, I won't have as much to do." What she will be doing is lots and lots of playing and singing. "I'll do a french song, for sure," she confirms. "And I'm singing songs with a lots of people, including Emmylou. We're going to do Heart Like A Wheel. I'll be singing with my son and daughter (Sylvan and Lily Lankin) too."

Heart Like A Wheel was the standout track of the McGarrigle's self-titled first album from 1975. Anna wrote it, but it was Kate and her early partner and friend, Roma Baran, who were singing the song in New York in the early 70's, and started getting some attention. Kate's demos from 1971 and 1974 started providing hits for others, with Maria Muldaur recording The Work Song, and Linda Ronstadt even naming her 1974 smash album Heart Like A Wheel. Anna wasn't even singing or writing with her sister at the time, but Anna was summoned to L.A. by Kate in 1974, because her sister didn't want to be alone. That's when the music people first heard the sound of the sisters singing together. "That's what sold the record company on us," she confirms. "It was quite by accident that we made that demo tape, and when Warner Brothers heard it, they wanted to sign us."

It's easy to hear why on the demos included on Tell My Sister. They feature simple piano and one or two voices, but are as magical as the versions that appeared later on Kate & Anna McGarrigle and it's follow-up, 1977's Dancer With Bruised Knees. Anna actually feels they better reflect the songs and spirit of the duo. "One thing that really struck me was how much extraneous stuff there was on the records as compared to the demos. You didn't go in to the studio on your own then. Back then you had real bodies in the studio. It was the time, the 70's, when excess was expected. I was a real greenhorn, I had never played with any musicians before. So I didn't even know who these people were. Steven Gadd, Tony Levin, I didn't know they were Paul Simon's people at the time, which is a good thing, I would have been so nervous." The new remasters of the albums reveal even more instrumentation from the sessions, she says: "There was a lot of stuff. What happens with the remastering now is you can hear everything, and I think, 'Oh my we don't want to hear everything'. People didn't do really simple records then."

Whether they were too busy or not, critics didn't complain about the songs then, and don't now. The first album was Melody Maker's album of the year, the New York Times glowed. The first two discs did everything but sell. Part of the attraction for the critics was the top quality names associated with the discs, including producer Joe Boyd and the hot-shot session players. Even Little Feat's Lowell George is credited. "Well, that was funny," says Anna. "It ended up that he only plays one note on the song Kiss And Say Goodbye. There were four guitar players on it, and we didn't need all that, but the note we left of his was really important, it slides up" she laughs.

The demo tapes had taken on a near-mythic status over the years, largely because the sisters had ignored them for so long. Rhino Records had long been pushing them to listen to the tapes. "The thing is they were slated to come out," says Anna. "Rhino had wanted to put something out for years. They would send the package, and say, 'what do you think, can we put this out?' Somehow it didn't seem so important at the time, we would lose the package or something. But when Kate died, it took on a new importance." The first set of demos and live tracks showed up late last year as ODDiTTies, cuts from the 70's to 90's, and that turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Apart from the early versions of favourites such as (Talk To Me Of) Mendocino, Walking Song and Kiss and Say Goodbye, there are numbers that somehow were left unissued, yet rate among the best of their career.

Anna McGarrigle says some of Kate's old numbers got left behind, in the effort to even up the writing credits between the sisters. "Oliver, Remember Me?, that should have gone on a record. That was from her 1971 demo. She always had more songs. I was under the gun at that point to get more songs. So some of hers got overlooked at the time." Another gem from Kate's pen comes from her late 60's time living in New York State with her friend Roma, and later with her new husband Loudon Wainwright III, called Saratoga Summer Song. That lost song had made quite a splash on YouTube with a live version by family friend Teddy Thompson, and finally comes to light on this set. "It's this very carefree thing," says Anna, the song happily espousing those hippy folk times of "dope and lust", when they were "nice young adults".

A year and some after Kate's death, it seems to be the time to tackle emotions and celebrate her life. In addition to the New York concerts, and the Tell My Sister collection, family friend Emmylou Harris has just released her own tribute on her new Hard Bargain CD. The song Darlin Kate puts us right in the room as she passes on, and it's impossible not to be deeply touched by the affection Harris pours on the page. It's been hard for Anna to hear it, and she couldn't listen to it at first. "When I finally put it on, I just broke down in tears. And I didn't listen to it again for awhile. Then the other night, I was listening to (CBC Radio's) As It Happens, while I was making dinner and they played a piece with Emmylou doing it, and I just broke down in tears again, right over the salad bowl. I sent Emmy an email that said there's a new ingredient in my salad tonight."

Fittingly, the beautiful elegy will be heard at the tribute shows in New York, with Emmylou there to perform it. Tell My Sister is available now from Nonesuch Records/Warner Music Canada.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang - Sing It Loud

k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang - Sing It Loud

Cute band name. It's been awhile since lang credited the band up front. You'd have to go back to the Reclines days. Yes, that's significant, as you'll hear. Ever since Ingenue, lang's been travelling through the worlds of orchestrated pop, sometimes more pop, sometimes more orch, and every now and again, the Tony Bennett-jazz thing pops up. With this new band, we get a more modern rock record, including lots of deep drums. The lush sound she has preferred this decade is gone, replaced by, surprise, banjo on a number of tunes, mixed in with the rock.

Clever woman that she is, lang fools us on the lead track I Confess, which starts out softly, almost mimmicking the old sound, but then brings in the bigger production values, including heavy guitar chords and a Roy Orbison vocal vibe. That's one thing that doesn't change, no matter what style she's working in, that amazing voice just soars at times. From then on, you realize this is going to be much different experience, a real stretch.

Sugar Buzz is probably the most daring cut, and certainly the loudest. It has the feeling of Hendrix's Little Wing, with a couple of overlapped mellow solos that lead into a sexy vocal part. The biggest surprise is the album's lone cover, a remake of Talking Head's Heaven, which retains a little of the original's spookiness, and benefits from lang's perfect phrasing. As you can no doubt tell, this is a completely different kind of album from k.d. lang, and the changes feel fun, loose and right.

Monday, May 2, 2011



The big news in Canada will be Harris covering Ron Sexsmith's cut, and making it the title track on this disc.  She does do a fine job on it too, and it's one of my favourite Sexsmith songs.  There are more important headlines though, the most important being that eleven of the thirteen tracks here are Harris originals.  Her transition from traditional country cover artist to modern moody songwriter is now complete.

Let's recap to study the transisition:  In 1995, plastic country had taken over, and former hitmaker Harris had no place to play on the radio.  So she completely reinvented her sound by teaming with producer Daniel Lanois, adding his layered and modern techniques.  By her next studio album, 2000's Red Dirt Girl, she kept the sound, and started writing again, something she had rarely done in the past.  She has become the best collaborator in the business, with such luminaries as Mark Knopfler, Bright Eyes and Elvis Costello.  It's pretty hard to call her a country artist now, and this new disc sure doesn't sound like it.

There are two major tributes here.  Lead track The Road is another one dedicated to her mentor, Gram Parsons.  Harris has written and sung about him throughout her career, and has helped build his mythology.  This one is probably the most plain-spoken one, for the most part the best she's done.  That shows how her writing has progressed, to the point where she can write eloquently, and also simplify her lyrical statements, which is one of the hardest and most effective songwriting tricks.  Even cliches such as "three chords and the truth" can be powerful in the song, because it seems such a natural line to throw in the song.  (The phrase was originally coined by writer Harlan Howard to describe country music, and has been used by everyone from Sara Evans to U2 in song.)

The other, and possibly even more effective tribute, is Darlin' Kate.  Written for the late Kate McGarrigle, it is a touching requiem for a dear friend, a song that feels like it had to be written.  In its opening verse, Harris places us right beside McGarrigle's death bed, as she says her goodbye to her friend.  Again, the words are simple but dramatically effective:  "With your perfect words/and oh that voice/We fell in love/we had no choice".

There are several other top-quality compositions on the disc, with quite a few different topics.  Interestingly, she takes on the true 50's story of Emmett Till, victim of a racially-motivated murder, and already eulogized famously by Bob Dylan.  It was never one of Dylan's best, and Harris handily beats him with this new one.  There's a strong post-Katrina song too, simply called New Orleans, with the boast "It takes more than a hurricane/to empty out the Pontchartrain".  Harris has no great theme on the album, and it's no biographical collection as she's done in the past.  Instead, she's simply become a fine songwriter.  Cool, we already knew she could sing a bit.

Sunday, May 1, 2011



Every once and awhile somebody tries to bring back rockabilly, usually by playing it straight, just like the late 50's cats, and dressing the same too.  Think The Stray Cats.  The trouble with rockabilly is that it can be a bit limited.  Even Elvis dropped it for pop, until The Beatles supercharged things, rock 'n' roll was in danger of actually being a passing fad.  As much as I enjoy diving into some vintage sounds, usually my fix is over after a side of Gene Vincent.

This Ms. May is different though.  She was first introduced to us North Americans last year as a guest singer with Jeff Beck on the Grammys, and later on the cool Beck tribute DVD to Les Paul, Rock 'n' Roll Party.  She cut quite the striking image, with a shock of blonde in her black hair, and curvy vintage dresses.  She also has the chops, as Beck knows, a tough-as-nails singer, who could have given the greasers a heart attack.  That's just the start of things though.

May comes from Ireland, where her first album shot to number one, and the whole British rocker mentality still exists.  She discovered rockabilly by hearing her brother's Elvis and Eddie Cochran discs, and by the mid-2000's was doing her own stuff.  But instead of keeping it all retro, May and her band have added lots of energy and excitement to the sound.  The guitars aren't just that classic sound, they are also louder, a bit punkier, more modern.  While the rhythm section has a sound of snare drum and stand-up bass, it's mixed up big and bold.  It's all fleshed out with horns, too.  There's more of everything, and best of all, May never seems like an actress in a retro show.

What helps make this so new is that May and Co. haven't just done a bunch of covers, or trotted out 50's lyric cliches.  The new tunes here, almost completely written by her, have a film noir theme, with titles including Psycho, Mayhem, and Sneaky Freak.  You'll find other words like weird, creepy and grubby, and the last two are in a love song!  At the same time, it's well-produced and never sloppy, so you certainly couldn't call it psychobilly, or even punk.  It's simply fun and well-executed, and accomplishes for rockabilly what young k.d. lang did for old country in her first, Patsy Cline-inspired days.