Sunday, April 23, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RON SEXSMITH - THE LAST RIDER



After years of using big-name producers (Mitchell Froom, Steve Earle, Bob Rock) and their studio crews, for his 14th album, Sexsmith does the most obvious thing, and goes with the familiar. For the first time, he's used his long-serving and loyal road band (the "Eh Team"), and co-produced along side drummer Don Kerr, who has plenty of credits in that field on his own. Works for me; it's saying that there's nothing wrong with what Sexsmith does with his music, no magic formula that needs to be added to break through to more ears. He writes tight, sophisticated pop songs, always with wonderful melodies, with the cleverness of the great '60's and '70's hitmakers. I don't know why there aren't more of us mad fans out there, but c'est la vie. These musicians already know how to make this type of music well, so just let them go ahead and make more.


Sure enough, The Last Rider is full of those delicious moments, Sexsmith never satisfied with an easy melody. Over 15 tracks (and a worthy bonus cut on the double vinyl set), he runs the gamut, from wistful ballads to the surprising energy of first single, "Radio". That one explains so much; "Back when my whole world was the radio." We know where he got his taste for hooks, and the whole band piles them on in more and more inventive ways. Meantime, he continues to give us new ways to look at the normal; "Upward Dog" personifies the yoga position ("Upward dog, always taking the high road"). What's new for this album is a little bit more synthesizer which does tend to sweeten things a bit. I might like a little more guts, as the album is top-heavy with love songs, but I'll trade that for the pop glory he puts in each song.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JERRY LEGER - NONSENSE AND HEARTACHE



Two albums in one from Leger, Nonsense the first and Heartache the other. They really are different approaches, the first being an electric wild blues set, the second a singer/songwriter album with an acoustic core, the two sides of Leger.


Produced by Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), the gang went for the rough-and-ready approach, recording everybody playing together as a live unit in the studio. The Nonsense album has a real Highway 61 Revisited feel, bookended with a couple of epic tracks, "Coat On The Rack" and "She's The Best Writer You've Never Heard Of." The groove is loose, the guitars raunchy, and Leger lets his voice get raw when needed. I actually don't think it's nonsense though, there are some powerful and unique images here, as heard in the above two titles, and others such as "Baby's Got A Rare Gun" and "The Big Smoke Blues."


Heartache features acoustic guitar and piano, lap steel, fiddle, upright bass and brushes on drums, plus more harmonies. These aren't all ballads, but more country-flavoured numbers with an Everly Brothers/Buddy Holly feel on some, Western mystery on others ("Another Dead Radio Star"). When he does get quiet, as on "It Don't Make The Wrong Go Away," he employs powerful language that intensifies the impact. The only problem with these albums is trying to decide which to play first.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHERYL CROW - BE MYSELF



I guess I can't fault Crow too much for making a country album last time out in 2013. She's lived in Nashville for several years, so when in Rome...and, she is from Missouri. Plus, I'm sure she was told by pretty much everybody that the only way to sell actual albums was to do standards, Christmas carols or go country. She quickly found out that it also involved selling your soul to the devil, or in this case, country radio programmers, and that experiment is over.


When you look at it, what do we know her for? Big pop-rock hits with catchy chorus, and a bit of ironic wit. She did have a fine streak of those hits from 1993 to 2005, starting with Tuesday Night Music Club and including later smashes such as "Soak Up The Sun" and "My Favorite Mistake." The thinking is a return to those days, and she's brought in a couple of the collaborators from those times, including sound-shaping engineer Tchad Blake, and co-producer and co-writer Jeff Trott. Those aren't the Tuesday Night Music Club people, but the ones from the next couple of albums, the folks that helped with "If It Makes You Happy," "Everyday Is A Winding Road," etc.


And I'm all for it. I think she's always done well with those smart rockers, she knows how to make them groove, and it's fun stuff. She'll throw in a ballad to break things up every few songs, but the core stuff here is songs made of wry observations that you can dance to. Now, she's added a little maturity to the mix too, stuck between still feeling young, but not quite connecting with that age group: "Hangin' with the hipsters/is a lot of hard work/How many selfies can you take/before you look like a jerk." Crow has a few things to point out about cellphones and self-absorption, and in general is getting a little cranky about young people and the Age of Kardashian. I like that too. We need more cranky parents.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALEJANDRA RIBERA - THIS ISLAND



Ribera's third album is a stunning combination of her enchanting vocals and captivating melodies, all packaged in timeless, fresh productions. Her songs defy easy description, skirting the fine lines of jazz, pop and Latin, each one an adventure as they unfold. Each song on This Island is subtle but intense, the dynamics being the key, whether from her soft, controlled singing, acoustic arrangements or the colouring of marvellous strings and horns.


It's a collection that's hard to pin down as well, as it seems to exist in the cracks and spaces rather than obvious forms and planes. It's mostly in English, although there are verses in French and Spanish. There's no time stamp anywhere, or an obvious place (other than a mention of Montreal and snow, where she is based). There are no blacks or whites, the songs are never bright or dark, It's not even dreamy really, there's no hazy feeling, all the vocals and instruments have clarity. It's just simply gorgeous, intriguing, unique.

Monday, April 17, 2017

MUSIC BOOK REVIEW OF THE DAY: EAMON McGRATH - BERLIN-WARSZAWA EXPRESS

When Eamon McGrath takes the stage this spring on his current tour, in the time-honoured tradition, he'll be promoting his latest release. Only it's not an album, or a single, nothing like that. It doesn't have songs even. This time, McGrath and his band are promoting his brand-new book.

No, he won't be doing readings before the rowdy crowds waiting for July Talk. He'll be blasting his normal loud rock with a taste of smarter punk. But the Edmonton native will point out that Berlin-Warszawa Express is being released in May, and that it will tell you about the other side of being a touring musician, life on the road. In this case, it's the road through Europe, largely by train, through Paris, Germany, across the old Iron Curtain and into Poland, plus lots of other stops on the continent.

It gets pretty down and dirty into the realities of touring. The endless travel, the grind of being stuck in small vehicles with bandmates, lugging gear up flights of stairs, sleeping in disgusting band quarters, and the downward spiral of night after night of overindulging. And it's all in the name of creating art.

"That was kind of the whole thematic thread that's been woven through the book," said McGrath, home in Toronto, getting ready for yet another long tour. "This depiction of what it's like to put yourself through hell for the sake of something you're passionate about."

Don't look for scandalous stories about Canadian musicians behaving badly in Europe though. Well, that does happen, but the names are made up and it's not a biography. Rather, it's a fictionalized account, but that allowed him to be much more truthful, because no-one, including himself had to be protected.

"There's a lot of things that are under-exaggerated, and a lot of things that are over-exaggerated, and there's a lot of things that are really true to how it happened, and there's a lot of things that are completely fictionalized," said McGrath. "I make no attempt to hide that, that's the truth of the book, that some of these stories really did happen to me, and some of them happened to someone else. Using fictionalized names is what gives you the license to do that. The minute that you remove that journalistic element from what you're writing, that's when it opens it up for you as a writer to be a little more flexible."

McGrath has toured in Europe several times, and is obviously captivated with it. The book takes place in the mid-2000's, a time when countries in the old Soviet block especially were feeling the full flush of capitalism. McGrath's narrator is taking it in, through train windows, in small bars, from music fans and bartenders, punks and anarchists, all through increasingly blurry eyes as the boozing gets worse. It's Europe on five Euros a drink, and a view tourists never see.

"It was this really optimistic time," McGrath said. "Berliners, people started to have money there, which was this really new thing. Poland wasn't this poor country anymore. Even as a very left wing person, being a Canadian, at that time it would be very difficult to criticize the European Union. Because no matter how left wing you are, from the outside, it seemed to be working."

He tries to tour Europe every year, and has seen dramatic changes since then, especially a rise in nationalism and intolerance, and a loss of some of those freedoms of 10 years ago. Usually this is the stuff that goes into the songs from an articulate, knowledgeable rocker, what informs the music. With Berlin-Warszawa Express, McGrath lets us see everything that happens before and after the show, on a particularly wild stretch of the road.

Here's where you can see Eamon McGrath and July Talk:

April 18 - Fredericton, NB @ Farmer’s Market
April 19 - Charlottetown, NB @ PEI Brewing Company
April 20 - Moncton, NB @ Tide & Boar
April 21 - Halifax, NS @ Marquee Club
April 22 - Halifax, NS @ Marquee Club

Friday, April 14, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID MYLES - SO FAR



Our pal Dave has sneaked this one into the market without fanfare, largely because it's not new per se. Instead, it's a collection of some of his fan-favourite tracks from his career, rerecorded with his live band in a relaxed studio session, to do them much the same way you'd hear them in concert. Also, this was first made a couple of years ago to have a sort of best-of for U.S. audiences as he toured there, to give them something to pick up at the shows that included all the songs they'd heard that night.


It's actually a great pick-up for us regular fans too, as it gives the stripped-down feel to many tracks that received a bigger studio production. Now we get them as easy-going, largely acoustic tracks, highlighted by Myles with his core trio members Kyle Cunjak (acoustic bass) and Alan Jeffries (lead acoustic guitar), which is the way we see him most often. There is a bit more embellishment, notably subtle drums from pal/producer Joshua Van Tassel, and occasional keys and pedal steel. While we miss the more experimental side Myles incorporates on his regular albums, the flights into hip-hop or travels to Latin areas, horn lines and such, it's just as enjoyable to have him record in this form. He truly would make an excellent bluegrass James Taylor for today.


Due to the obvious restrictions, it's not a true best-of, as the acoustic style doesn't lend itself to the Classified collaborations such as "Inner Ninja" or "So Blind." But "Turn Time Off" and "When It Comes My Turn" sure feel good, and Jeffries gets to excel at his guitar lines as he does on stage. "Change My Mind" gets a great '50s arrangement, complete with some fun doo-wop backing from the gang. And "Need A Break" proves you don't need amps to rock. It's a must-add to your Myles collection.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE HARPOONIST & THE AXE MURDERER - APOCALIPSTICK



Everybody's favourite blues duo (well, mine) gets bigger on this set, a full electric album with lots of high energy moments. They've beefed up the sound with drums and keyboards throughout, plus there's a flock of singers on board to give each song more body, plus a gospel vibe, especially on the rave "Pretty Please."


The songs are filled with big grooves, particularly "Promises, Promises," with big vocals on the chorus, and ample distortion. On the richest cuts, there's a bit of the Black Keys-style of thick production, especially on the closer "Fragile," with layers of sound coming in and out, including the gospel voices, dynamic drums and cool effects on Shawn Hall's vocals. Meanwhile there's a theme of barely-controlled panic thanks to everything going on these days, countered by an almost desperate need to have good-time music save us. If anybody can do that, I'll bet it's these two blues superheroes.

Monday, April 10, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS - WHITEOUT CONDITIONS

The NP's are feeling more like a full-time band than ever these days. It's been less than three years since their last album, the hailed Brill Bruisers, and they are set for a tour that takes them through North America and over to Europe until August. However, it's also the first album they've done without Destroyer's Dan Bejar in the ranks, so it really is the A.C. Newman and friends show now.


No Matter, Newman's more than capable and firing on all cylinders these days. His celebratory pop is positively exploding here, with both good vibes and all those wonderful melodies. Synths burble away in a combination of '80s new wave and modern artistic triumph. And of course, there's the ultimate drawing card, the best co-vocalist in the game, Neko Case. She seems to be even more present on this set, taking the lead more often than not, and always there to join in on the chorus or go call-and-response on a verse. She takes part with great enthusiasm in Newman's pop dreams, ready to chime in with any needed ooh-ooh, driving the songs with her own mystery. When all is said and done, The New Pornographers always have these great strengths: Fantastic songs and Neko Case.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RICHARD LAVIOLETTE - TAKING THE LONG WAY HOME



A welcome return to recording from Laviolette, who hasn't been heard from since 2010. Old country music is still his game, acoustic and true, with pedal steel and fiddle for sweetening. It's an album about family and roots, mortality and connections, with the simple but profound truths the best old country music employs.


In fact, one of the strongest cuts here is called "Old Country Music," about a father's love for it, and the physical pleasure of the needle on the dusty grooves. The title cut has an outlaw twang, and the same warmth that Neil Young found back in the Harvest days. Jessy Bell Smith from the Skydiggers does classic harmonies here and throughout the album, and "The Rock and the Moss" they match Gram and Emmylou for sadness. In a completely unironic shot at people who don't know better, Laviolette declares "My Grandma's More Punk (Than Most Punks I Know)." The album is filled with honest words and music, from an artist who a genuine affection, and skill for this sound.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK - GOLD



This film, loosely based on the Bre-X mining stock scandal, got mixed reviews despite an appreciated performance but Matthew McConaughey. But the music supervisor should get rave notices. Whoever put it together has both good taste and good ideas, and stayed away from all the usual soundtrack pitfalls and over-used songs.


The big new track for the movie was a collaboration between Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse, and it's really the only disappointment. Not that the song "Gold" is poor, it's just not much of anything, with Iggy in deep voice croon on an unmemorable melody. After that though, it's a fine mix tape for the '80s/'90s alternative fan. Both Joy Division and New Order are here, with "Atmosphere" and "Temptation." Pixies' cut "Hey" is inspired, a regal strut from Black Francis. Scottish cult favourites Orange Juice are always welcome, with "Rip It Up."


There was some deeper crate digging on a couple of other tracks, which are nice surprises. Instead of the Eric Burdon & War version of "Spill the Wine", a cover by The Isley Brothers makes it more fresh. And I was won over by Kishi Bashi (Jupiter One/Of Montreal) doing Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place" with just strings. When Television wrap up the disc with "1880 Or So," you can tell that a lot of thought went into programming a strong 45 minutes of music.

Friday, April 7, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NEIL DIAMOND - 50th ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION

The question here is not whether the music is good, but where it comes from and what is included.  I think we all know where we stand on Diamond, and and even on certain periods of his career.  I, for instance, love the '60s stuff ("Solitary Man," "Kentucky Woman," "Sweet Caroline"), tread carefully through the '70s ("Cracklin' Rosie," "Song Sung Blue," "Longfellow Serenade"), and am very, very careful from "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" on.  On this three-disc set celebrating 50 years, that's pretty much how it's laid out, one CD on each of those periods, 50 songs in total. 

In the past, Diamond collections have been hampered by rights issues.  Since he recorded for several companies, from Bang to UNI to MCA to Columbia to Capitol, you'd get the frustrating situation where a set such as The Essential Neil Diamond from 2001 would have several live cuts, in that case featuring concert records of the UNI tracks including "Play Me" and "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show."  Others, like the confusingly titled Neil Diamond Collection, would be just the 1968-1972 UNI era.  Well, finally, this set seems to have covered all the bases, and very well.  Almost every hit song is here, and the ones that aren't are from later, dodgy years, only enough to create a minor squabble among completists.  There are a handful of important album cuts thrown in, including "Crunchy Granola Suite" and his versions of "I'm A Believer" and "Red Red Wine", much bigger hits for others.  There are even minor hits that have rarely shown up on collections or reissues, such as the 1968 fizzle "Sunday Sun", quite a good song that tanked at #68 on release.

Disc three does get shaky, but not as dire as it could be, as the set races through the late '70s to today.  I always felt that the cheese and bluster was hard to take in those years, with "America" from The Jazz Singer and Vegas material like "Heartlight". Like so many others, Diamond enlisted Rick Rubin in the new century to give him the Johnny Cash makeover, without as much success, but the three tracks from those albums do bring him back down to Earth at least.  Still, it's disc one that will get my repeat play.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ERIC BIBB - MIGRATION BLUES



Bibb tackles the very topical issue of forced migration on this set, whether it be due to war, poverty or enslavement. His goal is to challenge us to be more tolerant and welcoming, as history always shows us welcoming immigrants is humane and right. Opening cut Refugee Moan is a prayer, and it could be from migrant worker in the depression heading west, or a Syrian refugee arriving in Canada, scarred and scared for the future. We hear about the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when the children and grandchildren of former slaves left the Jim Crow-infested South for work in the northern cities. and soon after, "Prayin' For Shore" is about the drownings of thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe in recent years.


Bibb's acoustic blues are powerful, dark, and with just the right amount of tension. Like the Delta bluesmen, he's singing, but there's a bit of speaking in there as well, which reinforces the story-telling feel. The accompaniment is subtle, mostly Bibb with his two frequent touring collaborators, Canadian Michael Jerome Browne on guitar, mandolin and banjo, and the atmospheric harmonica of France's J.J. Milteau. For a final stamp on the theme, Bibb covers Dylan's "Masters of War," and Guthrie's "The Land Is Your Land," making the strong connection between blues and social justice.

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: HURRAY FOR THE RIFF RAFF - THE NAVIGATOR



Bronx-raised of Puerto Rican descent, Alynda Segarra made this one personal, a concept album about a street kid lost in America, trying to find her culture in all this mashed-up mess. It's presented as a two-act play, looking back and looking forward, and it has layers upon layers of interest, from the story she's trying to tell to the Puerto Rican musical elements she's incorporated to the literary/cultural references added. As rich as that makes the concept, it's simply a fantastic collection of songs.


Segarra has a tremendous alto voice (reminds me of Feist, am I alone in this?), and her vocals hold you throughout, full of drama as the songs unfold. She's still working in the folk idiom, but it's enhanced by the melting pot of influences Segarra has collected, as production techniques and a wide assortment of instruments are used across the album. There are piano ballads with power ("Pa'lante") and uptempo guitar pop tunes ("Life To Save"), before closing on a Puerto Rican percussive groove. Segarra is making a bold statement about culture and identity for sure, and it the fact it comes rapped in such dynamic music makes it that much more important.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ORWELLS - TERRIBLE HUMAN BEINGS

Ah, young, loud and snotty, the basic recipe for modern-day punk.  Not much has changed since the '70s really, although this is a tad more polished than your granddad's punk.  More like latter-day Green Day punk, if you get my drift.  The must-hear band of 2014 by some accounts has now got to put up or shut up.  They've cleaned up the production a bit, but kept the attitude and power chords, and thrown in some gratuitous shocks ("No one can fill your vision/They're on vacation masturbating").

There's some fun going on certainly.  The tribute song called "Black Francis," goes about it in a roundabout way, including a conversation in the second verse:  "Have you heard that band?  Yeah I think they're shit."  It's off-kilter, like Bowie's "Andy Warhol."  There's great sha-lala's in "Hippie Soldier," a good contrast to the distorted bits to come.   Even some very, very dark lyrics are treated with goofball irony:  "So take me to the desert and chop off my heavy, heavy head.  Put it in an Easter basket and place it down upon my mama's bed."  I guess jaded never gets old.

Monday, April 3, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MURRAY McLAUCHLAN - LOVE CAN'T TELL TIME

With a career that goes back to the heyday of Yorkville Village in Toronto, and enough Juno Awards to make Drake and Bieber gasp, Murray McLauchlan has earned the right to do, well, whatever the hell he wants to in music. At 68, he still tours constantly, both solo and as part of the long-running collective Lunch At Allen's, never failing to fill the soft-seat theatres across the country. As for new music, he hadn't released an album since 2011's Human Writes, until now.

"I thought, okay, I've hit my dinger, I don't know if I've got another album in me," said McLauchlan of his 19th album, Love Can't Tell Time. "So along came this project, and I went, well I guess that wasn't the case. I'm totally overjoyed with it, I really really love it."

The album was more of an accident, and never a plan. He had several new songs he'd done for another project that hadn't worked out, but he had picked up a new guitar technique. He thought the songs sounded great with that playing style, so he decided to record them to try it out. Sitting with his friend, acoustic bass player Victor Bateman, McLauchlan laid down the songs in the simplest of ways.

"We just did what I really like to do, which is a kind of retro recording," he said. "Although I think it may be also the recording of the future. The idea was, let's make a recording here that just sounds like what people used to do in the 1940s or early 1950s, just set up with a great big old U-47 tube mic, I'm going to sit in front of it with my 1938 guitar, and I'm going to just sing the songs, I won't even put a microphone on the guitar because I believe the performance will kind of mix itself as we move in and out dynamically. And it did. Victor was certainly on mic, but everything leaked into everything else. So you can't really adjust anything while you're mixing, if you change the equalization on the voice you're going to do it on the guitar, so you can't. The result is, you get something very honest and very natural right off the floor."

It's not all about being retro though, it's also about sounding, to McLauchlan's ears, and plenty of others, better. "I'm a big fan of this idea of recording," he said. "You put people in a room that can play, and you record it. Somewhere along the line, I think the technology took over the music. I guess I'm sort of a bit of a bloody-minded person, as I tend to kind of go the opposite way from what is the current flavour of the month, and right now the current flavour of the month is electronically manufactured soundscapes with tones of auto-tuning on them."

The only parts that were added later were the glorious string arrangements on each track, done by Drew Jurecka. Each is elegant, and quite different from the next, working with the vocal rather than providing a lush background. Again, a modern use of a classic technique.

Old but new is theme throughout Love Can't Tell Time. Seven of the cuts are new McLauchlan pieces he either wrote or co-wrote, while three of the numbers are favourites of his from the 1940s and '50s. "They were songs that when I'm up at the cottage playing music for the loons, that I play for my own enjoyment, it's the kind of music that I play when I'm just relaxing by myself," he said. They are "Come Fly With Me," "Hey There," a Rosemary Clooney number from the movie Pyjama Game, and the Jerome Kern tune "Pick Yourself Up".

McLauchlan, a fan of the classics, has found himself moving toward that style of songwriting as well.

"The songs are deceptively simple when you look at them casually, but they are layered like an onion, and you don't really get the songs unless you've been around the block a little bit," he said of the '40s - '50s hits. "So that's what I was shooting for, in a co-write with my brother, who is the original Don Draper, there's a song called 'My Martini.' I actually went back to the well, to how Sammy Cahn wrote lyrics, because he was the master of ethnic inversion. The best example is, 'My kind of town, Chicago is.' It's like how an old Jewish guy would talk. So I did the same thing with 'My Martini,' when my brother wrote the lyric originally, it was 'Don't mess with my martini, I like it on the rocks.' So I went to the Sammy Cahn well, and went 'My martini, not a thing you should mess with.'"

Other songs are light-hearted as well, but not without a message. For the most part, they pass on a little wisdom from experience, such as "I'm Not Going To Waste A Minute Of My Life". McLauchlan has been out road-testing the material. "I just had an eight-concert run myself, and the whole second half of the show on stage is actually this record, these songs," he said. "You think off the top of your head it's a lot to ask people to accept a lot of new material they haven't necessarily heard before, but the really interesting thing is, they go nuts."

There are lots of opportunities for most of the country to go nuts for the Love Can't Tell Time album. He says he has 29 concerts on his books before the end of November, 19 with Lunch At Allen's in both the west and east, and a 10-concert tour in central Canada in November.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BOB DYLAN - TRIPLICATE



It always takes me a bit to get used to Dylan's, um, croon on these classic songwriter collections. It doesn't help that he hits a couple of clunkers on the very first song, "I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plans," but eventually I warm up to it, and start appreciating the phrasing and the charm. When you listen closely to, say, "P.S. I Love You" (NOT The Beatles' song), he is bang-on the melody. He does better on the ballads than on livelier numbers; he's all over the place on "The Best Is Yet To Come," which has a tricky tempo, but he survives.


Even if he's not the greatest singer, he does a lot of other things very, very well on these collections. Dylan is, as he has always been, an excellent curator. His taste is impeccable, and if at this time in his life he has chosen to perform the work of the great American songwriters, it's that guy who wanted us to know about Woody Guthrie back in 1962. That touring band of his has developed a whole new sound for this material, different than anybody else has ever played it. The key is Donnie Herron's pedal steel, lush and eerie, that replaces the strings that are usually found on these songs. The guitars, brushed percussion and acoustic bass settle in, and create a dreamy, jazzy world.


Dylan had said he'd recorded a bunch of this material when he released the first such album, Shadows in the Night, back in 2015. Since he's never stood still for long, it wouldn't surprise me if, with this triple album, he'll be done with this career phase. It sure doesn't feel like a last act.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROSE COUSINS - NATURAL CONCLUSION



A very different record for Cousins, resulting from a period of introspection and collaboration. After the release of 2012's Juno-winning We Have Made A Spark, and the 2014 EP Stray Birds, she allowed herself the time to get off the music business treadmill and instead connect artistically in a variety of projects. Ultimately, that led to some co-writing in several locations, and then forming an interesting team to make this album.


A-list producer Joe Henry (Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, Aimee Mann) was already a friend, and brought some of his ace team to Toronto, while Cousins brought in some of her associates, assembling an ace group including pianist Aaron Davis, drummer Jay Bellarose and bass player David Piltch. If you're familiar with these names, you'll know that means a rich, textured feel, no gimmickry, with a late night, jazzy feel.


The songs explore personal values and qualities, with a lot of honest feelings on display. The characters have big hearts and strength, but self-doubt and worry as well, trying to navigate the complexities of relationships and personal trials. As intense as the bare lyrics can be, there's also a warmth and empathy that's calming from both Cousins' vocals and the soothing musicianship. While there are some echoes of early '70s singer-songwriter music in its openness, ultimately it's more timeless and genre-neutral, simply Rose Cousins music at an emotional peak.


Cousins is on the road right now, and you can find her on the following spots soon:

  • April 3 - St. John's, LSPU Hall
  • April 5 - Halifax, St. Matthews United Church
  • April 6 - Fredericton, Wilmot United Church
  • April 7 - Moncton, Tide & Boar
  • April 8 - Charlottetown, Confederation Centre of the Arts

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHRISTINE CAMPBELL - ROLLER COASTER



I have to admit I was more than a little surprised to hear that P.E.I.-born, Halifax-based rocker Christine Campbell had chosen hip hop's Classified as the producer for some of her second album. Classified has shown he's a very adaptable producer of course, from his work with David Myles and Ria Mae, but Campbell's not someone who has worked with the more contemporary sounds. She's rock and blues, Zeppelin and '70's. I just couldn't figure out how that would sound.


Well, it sounds just great. Instead of forcing something on her sound, the pair have taken her songs, and done a great production job that makes her stand out from all the guitar slingers. What Classified has brought is musical drama; pauses, big punches of sound, slightly off-kilter mixes, surprising moments, such as a double-tracked vocals. The three songs they worked on, including the first single, "Last Man Standing", are just packed with musical imagination. Still, there's no question these are '70's-influenced hard rock tunes.


Campbell's road-warrior partner, Blake Johnston, produced four of the other cuts, and Brian Moncarz did two more.  While more straight-forward, the tracks are dynamic and exciting.  All her strengths are all on display; lots of heavy-duty guitar solos, soaring vocals, with some quite scintillating high notes, and that surprising classical piano training sneaking in a couple of times. Old school guitar fans have nothing to worry about, there are plenty of raunchy licks, particularly on "Can't Stop The Clock", as nasty as an AC/DC cut. But she's very handy with a more melodic track too, such as "Nobody Cares", which sits somewhere between an Eagles and a Fleetwood Mac cut. It has the most glorious vocal on the set, and a twin-guitar solo to boot. That's my favourite cut, one of those ones where you wish we still had rock radio somewhere that would play it.


Campbell's going to be doing a few shows in New Brunswick for the next week, before venturing out to Ontario to wake them up. Catch her at:


  • Thursday, March 30 - Corked Wine Bar, Fredericton
  • Saturday, April 1 - Parkindale Hall, Parkindale, N.B.
  • Friday, April 7 - Lou's Pub, Bathurst, N.B.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DOUG COX & SAM HURRIE - OLD FRIENDS



Here's a relaxed and warm set of acoustic blues that feels as old as the hills, and as fresh as this evening's snow (I'm in New Brunswick). Doug Cox and Sam Hurrie have been doing this for 20 years, and know how to classics sound timeless. With just two guitars, usually an acoustic for chords and Cox adding dobro throughout, the pair take us outside ourselves, into that space where we just disappear for a while and listen and feel. I think they call it the blues.


Most of the songs here are classics or traditional, and often they have the spiritual connection, where all the blues came from. "John the Revalator" from Son House is the best-known, a good way to start and set the tone. But the less familiar ones hold more power I think. The take of Charlie Patton's "By and By" is haunting and emotional. Mississippi John Hurt's "Payday" has his trademark good-natured lope, but they slow it down and give it more of a hypnotic drone. The Hank Williams tune "Angel of Death" is far more tuneful in there hands, naturally, but more chilling as well.


There are some modern songs; Willie P. Bennett's "Rains On Me", Guy Clark's title cut, and Cox's own "Dexter's Back", but they all retain that antique quality, and warmth. And as a special treat just for this little ol' New Brunswicker, they do a wonderfully intricate two acoustic guitar version of the fiddle tune St. Anne's Reel, best known from my homeboy, Don Messer. Respect all the way around.

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: FLEETWOOD MAC - TANGO IN THE NIGHT

The latest in the Fleetwood Mac remasters series, Tango In The Night is the last album from the glory-years lineup, as Lindsey Buckingham quit right after album was finished, blowing off a booked tour. That's when the guitar combo of Rick Zito and Billy Burnette came in, and the wilderness years began. Even this album was in doubt at first, as the band had been on hiatus since 1982's Mirage, an underachieving effort at least in Buckingham's eyes. The band had all gone off to make solo projects and have personal crises, most notably Nicks' entertaining the Betty Ford Clinic, with the rest of them in various states of disrepair. At least Nicks was now a huge solo star as well, but she was still open to the band's future.

It was Buckingham who pulled the strings though, and after starting another solo album, agreed to through in his lot with the bunch of them once more. It's easy to hear why, as the other writers (C. McVie, Nicks) had some major hits waiting. McVie's "Little Lies" was one of her catchiest, while "Everywhere" was a dreamy and bouncy cut. Nicks came in with "Seven Wonders", from her pal Sandy Stewart, who contributed songs to Nicks' solo albums. Buckingham himself had one of his quirky little gems to lead things off as well, "Big Love".

Buckingham was able to craft all these into memorable hits, continuing the glossy charm of Fleetwood Mac numbers, and brought the band back to their huge sales figures, especially back in England where they had been originally formed in the '60's. But there were more noticeable holes in the non-single tracks. There are some 80's moments in the production, especially in the McVie/Buckingham cut Isn't It Midnight, way too shiny. You and I, Part II has some cool vocals bouncing around but that drum machine and synth hook got tired fast. This set had plenty of pop, but needed some guts too. Props to the delicious remastering job though, you can really here the work Buckingham did on the vocals especially. It sounds like candy.

Monday, March 27, 2017

MUSIC (BOOK) REVIEW OF THE DAY: HOLGER PETERSEN - TALKING MUSIC 2


For over 30 years, Holger Petersen has been waving the blues flag in Canada on his weekly CBC Radio show, Saturday Night Blues.  For even longer, he's been releasing some of the best blues, folk, jazz and all-around roots music as well, via his highly regarded Stony Plain Records.  He's a mountain of knowledge, a tireless supporter and a huge fan, and what that has given him is incredible access to some incredible artists.

These aren't the ones who play ball with the press, dutifully do the rounds, shake all the hands, answer all the inane questions.  These are the gifted few that more often don't care a bit about press coverage, image or social media reach.  They just care about the music.  And they all realize that's what Petersen is about as well.  Time after time, he gets those trouble-makers to open up and let us find out a little bit of the real story, the guarded history that usually only gets told in the back seats of the bus.

This is the second volume of Petersen's collected interviews, and even though they were mostly done for broadcast on his radio shows, they are just as engaging in print.  Even the people you thought you knew, like the giant of them all, B.B. King, is seen in a fresh light from Petersen's visit.  He describes him behind the computer screen, which had replaced the old 78's, LP's and cassettes he used to always have with him to hear his own favourites.  King insisted Petersen stay after the interview, just to hang out so he could play him some music by an old bluesman he liked.  You can feel the friendship between the two.

In every interview, he gets amazing lines or insight from his subject.  Describing his lyric-writing technique, Allen Toussaint tells him, "I collect wishbones and feathers everywhere, and try and make a chicken when I get home."  The reclusive, legendary Bobby Charles, he of "See You Later, Alligator," adds this gem about writing: "That’s the only thing that’s hell about it. It’s amazing what you’ve got to go through to put one little song down, you know. For songs that last two or three minutes, you’ve got to go through a life of crap, right?"

Where most interviews would get pat answers at best, Petersen would have them adding little gems and asides to story, free-flowing conversations.  Charles again, back in 1997, letting him in on this kid guitar player he'd been working with:  "A great little guitar player, man, Derek Trucks. He’s a killer. A seventeen-year-old boy. He’s great. Get ready because you’re going to hear a lot about him."  Chip Taylor was happy to admit to being more interested in playing the horses than in his job at the Brill Building writing "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning," rushed out so he could get his bets down.

The extensive list features one character after another, including Van Dyke Parks, Billy Boy Arnold,  and Sam "The Sham", still talking in rhyming patter that outdoes any freestyle rapper.  There's James Burton, Solomon Burke, Wanda Jackson and Townes Van Zandt, David Clayton-Thomas and Ronnie Hawkins filling in the early days of the Canadian scene.   Every chapter, every interview makes me feel like I know each musician well, and that I've learned far more than I knew about them going in.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

MUSIC NEWS OF THE DAY: CHARLIE A'COURT ESTABLISHES MUSIC SCHOLARSHIP


(photo credit: Riley Smith)


Kudos to Nova Scotia's soulful bluesman Charlie A'Court. A longtime favourite in these parts, A'Court is helping make sure the music tradition continues on the East Coast by establishing a new scholarship.


It's called the Charlie A'Court Scholarship for Excellence in Music, and will be awarded to a high school grad who is going into music education in university or collage from his province. The bursary is worth $500, and can be for a student going into a local music program, or outside the province as well.


For its first year, A'Court has something sentimental planned. It's been 20 years since he graduated from Cobequid Educational Centre's music program in Truro. So A’Court plans to award the scholarship to a CEC student this June, before expanding it province-wide after that. He said it was a way to say thank you to the school and its band program, which gave him his start.


It seems he learned more than music.

Friday, March 24, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL MCCARTNEY - FLOWERS IN THE DIRT (Deluxe and Special Editions)



Conventional wisdom is that Paul McCartney hit a wall in the mid-80s, with the lame movie Give My Regards To Broad Street, some dire soundtrack songs ("Spies Like Us") and the over-produced Press To Play album. But he was rejuvenated by an inspired choice of co-writer, the younger, edgier Elvis Costello, as close to an equal as could be imagined. That resulted in the successful 1989 album Flowers In The Dirt, a true return to form. It's a nice, tight story, but that's not what really happened.


The hole in that story is obvious from a listen to Flowers In The Dirt. It's not that good. There are some truly annoying songs, and some dated production techniques, cheesy sounds of the '80s. His dance-pop fascination continues with "Ou Est Le Soleil?", and the much-vaunted Costello partnership yielded only four cuts of the 13. Those were the best certainly, but they are flawed, again by production, and there was a very awkward-sounding duet from the pair on "You Want Her Too".


The beauty of these special (2 CD) and deluxe (3 CD/DVD) sets is that we finally get to discover what went wrong, and more importantly, what could have been. What could have been is one amazing album, and it's here, only it's on disc two, called The Original Demos. Nine cuts, just Costello and McCartney, guitar and piano and harmonies, and seriously, this is the great Beatle-quality album everybody has always hoped would one day come from McCartney. Too bad he screwed it up back in '89, because heck, the whole world might have been different. There may never have been a Trump presidency. I'm serious, it's that good.


It's not Paul and John Pt. 2. It's two very very good songwriters picking up on each other's talents, and pushing each other to come up with something great. They were writing a song a day at McCartney's studio, then recording a demo. What's most impressive is the vocal blend, harmonies throughout, McCartney up high, Costello low. There are the four songs on Flowers, and ones Costello kept for himself, "So Like Candy" and "Playboy To A Man." Why neither ever used "Tommy's Coming Home" or "Twenty Fine Fingers" is just bizarre. Even "You Want Her Too," so forced in the final version, sounds great stripped back with the two singers digging in. For once, and truly, just this once in decades, McCartney sounds unguarded, and truly engaged. It's like somebody took that stick out of his butt too.


What happened next can be gleaned from comments made in a variety of spots, in the lengthy book that comes with the super-box, in the DVD footage in the same, and from new interviews that are showing up with the pair. Costello was apparently going to co-produce at one point, but they started to have different views about treatments. When McCartney wanted to explore a Human League-style approach for the decidedly gospel-influenced That Day Is Done, Costello fumed. Finally, McCartney decided he didn't want to make an Elvis Costello album, he had other things he wanted to try. The songs were split up, which was the original plan, and that day was done. Costello wisely held his tongue all these years, and the pair have remained friends.


Here's where I ask the now-obvious question: McCartney would rather go off and work with Trevor Horn than continue with these tremendous Costello songs? He's a confusing and frustrating musician too often.


That extends to this deluxe box as well. Fans are screaming mad because a bunch of material has only been offered in download form, an entire extra CD full of b-sides, alternate mixes and more Costello demos. You're paying top dollar, and you still have no physical copy. What do you bet this stuff comes out for the next four or five Record Store Days in a row, as everyone continues to pay and pay for what should have been including on a disc in the first place. The box is absolutely gorgeous, I'll give him that, but the bulk of that is in photography. Great of photography fans of course, a whole book of a Linda exhibit, another with stills from a video shoot, a reproduction of his lyric notebook, shots of the band, but really, there's a lot better art books out there. Kudos for the third disc, the next step in the demos, the more polished studio versions, and also, the DVD is very generous with all the associated videos from the album, a great feature on Costello and McCartney working in the studio together, and the documentary Put It There, which features his touring band in the studio playing live versions of the new songs and lots of old Beatle tunes as well, preparing to hit the road. That's a good thing.


Both McCartney and Costello have declared that the best work they ever did together was those original demos. I'll go further, it's some of the best work either of them have done in their careers. And you know that can't be bad.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS - ICON



Hey, it was Moe Berg's b-day earlier this week, and just in time there's a new collection celebrating his '80s and '90s outfit. And let's not forget Kris Abbott, Dave Gilby, Johnny Sinclair, Leslie Stanwick and Brad Barker, all members in the heyday. Since "I'm An Adult Now" was such an iconic number from those MuchMusic-heady days, we neglect to pour due love on all the other solid hits the group pumped out. But his set will remind you, as they fly by, 12 numbers of pop perfection.


Berg the songwriter should be more celebrated, methinks. He could take a delightful tune such as "She's So Young," with it's radio-friendly chorus, and toughen it up just enough so the last of the New Wave crowd could love it too. He could have sold "Killed By Love" to Kiss or Def Leppard. And surely, when I make my Hockey's Greatest Hits compilation, I'll put "Gretzky Rocks" right between Stompin' Tom's "The Hockey Song" and Johnny Bower's "Honky The Christmas Goose". Listen, is that the sound of millennials rushing to Wikipedia to look up Johnny Bower? While you're there, look up 1993's "Cigarette Dangles" by TPOH as well. Moe and the rest, you're always a breath of power-pop freshness on my current listening device.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ZACHARY LUCKY - EVERYWHERE A MAN CAN BE



Let's think back, way back to mid-December of 2016. It was an unusually snowy pre-Christmas then, but I remember being warmed to the heart by a new album I had just reviewed. It was by Canadian troubadour Zachary Lucky, a man with many travels and tales behind him, criss-crossing our fair land.


Well, it turns out that just a few months later, he's headed my way on the album tour, so I thought I'd plug the shows, and re-run the review, since it's good for him and easy for me, not as much writing and thinking tonight. I'm like that, lazy, but well-intentioned.


Get lucky, see Lucky:


Friday, March 24: Grimross Brewing, Fredericton
Saturday, Mar. 25: Nook and Cranny, Truro, N.S.
Tuesday. Mar. 28: The Townhouse, Antigonish, N.S.
Wed., March 29: Thunder & Lightning, Sackville, N.B
Thurs, March 30: Shakey's Pub, Florenceville, N.B


And here's the repeat review:


With his rugged voice and rural leanings, Lucky is channeling old-fashioned values and a country-folk classic style. From the kitchen, my son yelled, "Is that Lightfoot?" and that's a big influence for sure, in sound and spirit. Lucky is looking for values out there in the big world, hitting the road and trying to find the right way, to help and love, to appreciate the country and everybody living in it. After his many trips across the country, the Saskatchewan-raised singer-songwriter is coming to grips with his own traveling Jones, and turning into fodder for his tunes.


There's no question travel dominates the record, with a couple of songs filled with descriptions of the beauty of each province, "Prince Edward (Island)'s copper sand" and the like. But it's no mere "This land is your land" travelogue; Lucky's songs are all soaked in sadness, with pedal steel, fiddle and banjo setting the mood. If he rolls into Jasper after an all-night drive, despite the local beauty, he plays the legion for two or three. Freedom's just another word for loneliness at times, and that's here in spades as well. In other words, what could be gung-ho songs of "Isn't it great outside with all the trees and mountains?" are instead tales of looking everywhere to find yourself.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LEE PALMER - BRIDGE



Four albums in, Toronto songwriter Palmer kicks off his latest with a couple of classy tributes, from different corners of the roots world. "That's No Way To Go" includes a heartfelt lyric about Glen Campbell's time with Alzheimer's, which includes a lush middle section in homage to his great late 60's recordings. Next up is "Tulsa Sound" which is just what it's advertised as, named after the late master, J.J. Cale.


Across its ten cuts, you hear Palmer move from strength to strength, from the easy-going blues "Our Love Bears Repeating" to the rural homage to his hometown, lovely Hartland, N.B., home of the world's longest covered bridge. Throwing a very welcome monkey wrench in the works is guitar whiz Kevin Breit, who always provides a left-field solo to spice things up. Palmer is sounding great throughout, which is excellent news, since he had to recover from quadruple-bypass surgery before recording this.

Monday, March 20, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: OLD 97's - GRAVEYARD WHISTLING



Always rough n' ready, the 97s deliver yet another strong collection, this one with an extra jolt of power twang. "All Who Wander" could have been a good haunted ballad, but it's even better with an intense chorus and nasty guitar. "Jesus Loves You" is a wonderful piece of sacrilege, with a boyfriend who's trying to compete with the saviour for affections: "He's the got whole world in his hands/I've got Lone Star in cans." In a possible first, alt-country meets Irish punk on "Irish Whiskey Pretty Girls."


The Irish is gone for "Drinking Song," but not the punk, which is ablaze throughout: "I'll kick your ass if you don't sing along." What seems to be going on is that Rhett Miller has moved his thoughtful, calmer songwriter material over to his fine solo career,and left the Old 97's to be his hell-raising alter-ego. Best of both worlds, then.

Friday, March 17, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SKATALITES - FOUNDATION SKA



The great sound of Jamaican ska was developed by studio musicians and producers, notably Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and the ace players he recorded for his sound system records used at dances in the late 50s and early 60s. Over the course of a couple of years, the beat of jazz and rhythm and blues was changed to emphasize the upbeat, everybody chopping away at that, along with a bit of swing left over from jazz, and lots of sizzling horns taking solos.


The players had all learned their chops in the jazz bands of the Island's scene in the 40s and 50s, so they were all strong players. With this new sound in place, the best of them decided to team up in 1964 to create the greatest of all bands, the legendary Skatalites. It was full of stars, including leader Tommy McCook on tenor sax, Don Drummond on trombone, Roland Alphonso on tenor, "Ska" Sterling on alto, Lloyd Knibb on drums and Jackie Mittoo on keyboards. Players shuffled in and out, vocalists such as Jackie Opel were added for the stage shows, and in the studio they would either record their own singles or back upcoming artists. Included here is the early hit Simmer Down by The Wailers, in those days a singing group featuring Bob Marley.


The stars were those soloing horn players though, and the sides they cut featured that incessant rhythm and almost constant horn lines. Songs came and went quickly in those sound system days, and they needed a novelty to get the dancer's attention. The name was a big deal, and songs were titled after everything from TV shows ("Dr. Kildare") to people in the news ("Fidel Castro", "Christine Keeler") to historical figures ("Cleopatra", "King Solomon"). There were covers too, ska takes on The Beatles even, with "I Should Have Known Better" and "This Boy".


For all their fame, it's still surprising that The Skatalites only lasted a year, broken up by infighting among all the stars, and the loss of Drummond. Mentality unstable, he flew into a rage after missing his medication, and stabbed his girlfriend to death. But the sound of ska, especially that copied by British musicians in the late 70s like The Specials and English Beat, will always be epitomized by The Skatalites. This double-CD collection originally appeared in 1997, and has now been upgraded and enhanced with an extra six cuts, and is a must for any ska/reggae fan.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MATTHEW GOOD - I MISS NEW WAVE: BEAUTIFUL MIDNIGHT REVISITED



If you are a Matthew Good fan, there's a good chance you decided that because of his Beautiful Midnight album of 1999. It's the biggest seller of his career (either from the Matthew Good Band or later solo albums), a double-Juno winner, and home to hits Hello Time Bomb, Load Me Up and Strange Days. Like other veteran acts, Good's out pleasing the fans by playing the entire album on his current tour, the last dates of which are coming up on the East Coast next week.


Good's actually doing everybody one better. He's re-recorded five of the original 14 tracks on Beautiful Midnight for an EP called I Miss New Wave: Beautiful Midnight Revisited. This wasn't an exercise in promotion; there's no Hello Time Bomb 2017 here. Instead he chose songs he believed he could improve upon, and could handle a more nuanced approach. This is most obvious on Load Me Up, which has gone from a slashing, angry track to a moody, contemplative one, without a change in the words. Born To Kill keeps the same tempo but is more intimate and brighter, I'd certainly agree it's a better version. Whether you prefer the new or old versions is beside the point. What's good here is that he's doing something different instead of selling nostalgia.


The remaining dates on the tour are:

March 17 - Oshawa, ON The Music Hall
March 18 - Montreal, Corona Theatre
March 21 - Fredericton, Boyce Farmer's Market
March 22 - Charlottetown, PEI Brewing Company
March 24 - Moncton, Tide & Boar
March 25 - Halifax, The Marquee

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ERIC CLAPTON - LIVE IN SAN DIEGO WITH J.J. CALE



Eric Clapton continues to pay tribute to his late friend and mentor J.J. Cale with the release of this 2007 concert where Cale was the special guest. It gets pretty embarrassing up there with all the guitar talent, as Derek Trucks was in the band then, doing all the slide work, and Doyle Bramhall II was also there too as co-lead vocalist, and getting his share of solos too. Even opening act Robert Cray stage-crashed for Crossroads.


This was more than just another normal tour for Clapton. All the firepower, including two keyboards, backing singers and the fabulous Steve Jordan on drums, were there for a world tour that was heavy on songs from the Layla album by Derek & the Dominoes. Each night, with Trucks handling the Duane Allman parts, several of the album cuts were performed, including Tell The Truth, Anyday, Key To The Highway, and the title cut, all included here.


There was a sit-down set in the middle, where all the guitar players would take stools and do some laid-back stuff. On this night, the only time on the tour, a fourth stool was added, and without any flourish, Cale strolled out. He looked more like your under-achieving uncle than a star among stars, but they were all looking to him, to get that unmistakable groove, what always drew Clapton to Cale's songs.


For this Blu-ray we get all five of his numbers that night, all of which he wrote: Anyway The Wind Blows, After Midnight, Who Am I Telling You?, Don't Cry Sister, and of course, Cocaine. The band was tentative on the first number, but for After Midnight, a more familiar song, it all came together. Trading vocals and singing together, it became obvious how much connection Clapton and Cale had.


So there it was that night, and now we all have it, always: Clapton singing those songs that made him rich, Cale, with the guy who made him rich singing his songs, and neither of them particularly cared about that right then. What mattered was how much they loved singing and playing them together.


P.S. There are some very good guitar solos on this disc, by the gentlemen listed above.

Monday, March 13, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MIKE BIGGAR - GO ALL IN



With the East Coast Music Awards happening in his home city of Saint John next month for the first time in 15 years, I'm betting the ever-exuberant Mike Biggar can barely contain himself right now. He may have miscalculated with his latest album though. Instead of launching it just before, he might have rushed to get it out a few months ago, because it surely would have landed him a nomination or two.


Biggar has been focusing on his roots-country songwriting, hitting us with all the rhymes, puns and homespun wisdom he can muster. When he isn't turning cliches inside out on his own, he's teaming up with fellow East Coasters Chris Cummings, Chris Kirby and Charlie A'Court to make them even stronger. Kirby's soulful touch comes head-to-head with some harder-edged country rock on Playdate. Cummings likes a laugh just as much as bigger, and among the four tracks he co-wrote is While The Getting's Good, which finds a guy seeing his belongings thrown on the front lawn, with the Facebook status on the relationship changed to "It's complicated." A'Court joins big-time on Love & Insanity, taking care of some sizzling lead guitar.


While Biggar can do those songs with a smile just fine, it's the mid-tempo ballad where it all shines for him. That's when his high-toned voice takes control, such as on Leaving These Days. Along with pedal steel, mandolin and strong backing vocals from fellow Saint Johner Lisa McLaggan (Tomato Tomato), Biggar reminds us that he's capable of some pretty powerful singing too.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BOB DYLAN - THE REAL ROYAL ALBERT HALL 1966 CONCERT



When I first heard Dylan's camp was releasing every last decent recording they had from his mammoth 1966 world tour in a huge boxed set, I thought it was a bit of overkill. Granted, it was something historic, the famous first electric tour, with the first half acoustic, and the second half performed with The Hawks (soon to be The Band), the one where the audience routinely booed the blast of noise, wanting a return to his folk sound. But the sets were almost exactly the same the entire tour, so over 36 discs, you'd keep getting the same songs over and over. Plus, the most famous show on the tour, the one where someone in the crowd yelled, "Judas" at him, was already released back in 1998, so good Dylan fans have that one already.


For years, that oft-bootlegged show was called the Royal Albert Hall set, but it turned out that was wrong, it was from Manchester in the U.K. So as a stand-alone release from the 36-disc box is this two-CD set, referred to as the Real Royal Albert Hall show now. Slightly confusing, but we know what it means. It's the exact same set list, but listening through, it's a drastically different night. The audience is not as upset as Manchester, perhaps a bit hipper (The Beatles were there), although there was some rhythmic clapping in between a couple of songs, the British way of complaining. But Dylan didn't lose his temper, and there seemed to be a bit of appreciation between audience and star. That doesn't mean the music was less incendiary, at least not to any great amount. Robbie Robertson's lines still sting, and Garth Hudson's organ, fill-in drummer Mickey Jones (Levon Helm had quit the group, hating the booing) was pounding heavy, and Garth Hudson's organ was filling the hall with searing tones.


The acoustic set is what grabbed me the most though. What I thought would be pretty much a mirror of what I'd heard before in fact was a revelation. Dylan's reading of his songs changed substantially, mostly in the way he handled his guitar and the ubiquitous harmonica lines. When he wasn't singing, he was blowing, and coming up with new harp phrasings. You could hear him challenging himself vocally as well, approaching the melodies like a jazz singer. That same desire to mess with the formula would become his stock in trade decades later, and his vocal phrasing would only get better, allowing him to tackle these Sinatra and songbook standards over his most recent albums.


Not everybody is going to want to hunt for subtleties and wade through another 34 CD's to find these little moments, but I've come around to think that I for one would find it a thrill. Sigh, time to check to the bank balance. That big box is $120.

Friday, March 10, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CASSIE & MAGGIE - THE WILLOW COLLECTION

Fiddle tunes are put into "sets", usually three melodies combined to make under a musical theme, creating a new song out of older ones. Here's a Celtic album that takes that a step further, creating a whole collection around a theme, one big work made up of everything from traditional tunes to modern country hits. Sisters Cassie and Maggie MacDonald are from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and have put together this album based around songs featuring that old favourite, the willow tree. Willow trees have shown up in all sorts of folk stories through the ages, mostly because they do that thing that features so prominently in everything from love poems to murder ballads; they weep.


Cassie is the fiddler here, Maggie is the guitar player and lead singer, and the other main player is the co-producer and song-spinner of acclaim, Dave Gunning. With his multi-instrument abilities, that's a lot of talent at work. And it turns out the willow does a lot more than weep. The MacDonalds, good scholars that they are, did a lot of digging into the traditions and symbolism of willows in song, especially the bending and surviving skills. And since the willow has been used by lots of different bloodlines, you can find it several folk traditions, so it's a highly interesting mix of music here. It's a Celtic album with vocals, and lots of flavours from other genres, such as bluegrass touches and Appalachian accents. The traditional Let No Man Steal Your Thyme has a contemporary beat behind, and is spiced up with guest Andrew Sneddon's dobro.


It's also quite cool to hear their mash-up The Willow Hits, which combines Johnny Cash's Big River ("I taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry"), Bury Me Beneath the Willow Tree, and even Walkin' After Midnight (remember Patsy Cline singing "I see the weepin' willow cryin' on its pillow"?). Maggie has the right Carter Family twang when needed, and this is a really entertaining and imaginative release. You can see album launch shows this weekend, Saturday night in Moncton at the Empress Theatre at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Mar. 12 in LaHave, N.S. at the West Dublin Hall.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - NO PLAN



Here we have the last Bowie project done before his death, and released one year after. This is an E.P. of the new songs from the musical Lazarus, which was first performed in December of 2015, and was still running a month later when he died. Bowie was fully involved in the production, which was an update of The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie had starred in the film version back in 1976, and this new adaptation featured his music throughout, songs dating back to the early 70's, and these four new numbers.


Given the many Bowie best-of's on the market, including the recent Legacy collection released last fall, I understand why they chose to just include the new songs and make this an E.P., rather than put in all the old favourites such as Heroes, All The Young Dudes and Life On Mars, but it would have been pretty cool to have the set that mirrored the play. .No matter, it's more important to have these four tracks out. You can also buy the soundtrack from the play, which features all the material as performed by the stars in the show, rather than Bowie, as another option


Three of the songs included here are unavailable anywhere else, while Lazarus was included on last year's Blackstar release. The others are similar to that moody album, with its subdued pace but thick, dark music. Killing A Little Time has quite a violent backing, but it's mixed way behind, with Bowie's vocal the prominent sound, in its weariness. Don't read anything into that of course, the darkness comes from the plot, and the kind of music Bowie was drawn to in his late comeback. You can expect to see a continuing stream of reissues, vinyl releases, big boxes and deluxe editions, but as far as new Bowie music, this would seem to be it. Unless of course, there's some treasure-trove of demos or out-takes they haven't told us about. If not, still, not a bad career, huh?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BEHIND THAT BIG RED CURTAIN - A TRIBUTE TO AL TUCK



Here's one that's all the rage on P.E.I., and needs to get picked up in many more spots. The Island's Al Tuck is always referred to as a songwriter's songwriter, so it's no surprise that so many lined up to tip their and hat and take a stab at his intriguing and wildly original material. It's also no surprise that it sounds just as good interpreted as country, folk, rock, electronic and pre-50's pop music.


Apart from a few folks in this 16-track epic, the bulk come from the Island music community that has embraced and supported Tuck over the years. Classic country singer Nudie picks a good one, Stop Hittin' On Louise, tapping into Tuck's empathy for the injured people in society, and understanding of barroom culture. That goes for Brother From Another Mother from Nathan Wiley too, although that one's a rock and roll celebration of the customer/bartender relationship.


There are good friends of Tuck's as well, including Halifax's Tyler Messick. He does a bang-up job on Only Just Rehearsing, showcasing the deceptive nature of the tune. It starts as a lazy number, and a first verse that seems almost ad-libbed, admitting this song is just fooling around. But soon, the music rehearsal becomes a relationship metaphor, a brilliant turn in its obviousness and cleverness. It's the art of writing laid bare in all its glory.


Dennis Ellsworth brings his marvelous, haunted-heart vocals to February's Snow, a song as chilling in its break-up as it is beautiful in its melody. KINLEY (Kinley Dowling of Hey Rosetta!) deconstructs Evil Eye, and makes it magical. In a lengthy set full of wildly different takes on the music and strong performances throughout, it all points back to long-standing excellence of Tuck's writing, and why he continues to impress new waves of songwriters who cross his path.

Monday, March 6, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHICANO BATMAN - FREEDOM IS FREE



Sometimes you hear some so new and fresh, you don't know quite what it is, but you know it's great. Chicano Batman is red-hot, with a big splash ad for Johnny Walker on the Grammy telecast (which is a lot more important than being ON the Grammy's). Writers are clamouring to try to describe them, largely unsuccessfully, most of them mentioning soul influences and famous bands of the past.


Of course, new to me doesn't mean new, and the four-piece has been going for nine years out of L.A., and this is album #3. You can tell why the explosion is happening now though, as the sound they've concocted is a crazy mix, with just as much Latin as soul, and funk coming from both those sources. Then everything is put through the quirky mix machine (every band should have one), so the bass pops a little more than anybody else's, or the guitar solo sounds like it got flown in from a Talking Heads session. Here comes a jazz flute! It's over top of a slightly sizzling organ, circa '65, but the drums are hip-hop tight. And these big jams, with a wah-wah pedal solos. It's not that there's something going on here; it's more like there's everything going on. As soon as I figure it out, I'll let you know, but you might as well get hip to it now and avoid the line-ups.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WHITNEY ROSE - SOUTH TEXAS SUITE



Whitney Rose has come a long way, quite literally. Her career began in P.E.I., then she worked out of Toronto for a couple of years, and now finds herself in Austin, Texas. This mini-album (six cuts, 22 minutes) sees her introduce her new Texan band and sound, which is a little more western swing than her previous country sounds. There's fiddle on every song, steel guitar on most them, a tune about bluebonnets, plus one about Luckenbach. Another is about her boots. Stompin' Whitney Rose. Anne of Austin.


Authenticity isn't an issue here, as this is more of a tribute to the Texan sound, a love letter even. Three Minute Love Affair is about the instant romance of the dance floor, with some accordion for Tex-Mex flavour. Bluebonnets For My Baby is all about the tradition of the music and the imagery, a love song for a simpler time. Analog, a breezy 50's shuffle graced by the tinkle of the great Earl Poole Ball's piano, is an argument for old over new. My Boots, more of a Waylon-like track, is for those who wouldn't be caught dead in heels, no matter what the occasion. She wrote four of the six tracks here, and even though she was born well after any of this was first in vogue, Rose obviously has both an affinity for the style and an ability to pick up the subtleties. While this is a transitional album, it will be interesting to see if she's found her place for awhile.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELVIN BISHOP'S BIG FUN TRIO



Nobody has as much fun as Bishop, and not many have been doing it as long either, dating back to the Paul Butterfield Band in the late 60's. He sure doesn't sound 74 on this set, and he sure isn't slowing down. His last album, Can't Even Do Wrong Right, won Living Blues' Album of the Year, and he was a 2015 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the Butterfield group.


This disc came out of a studio jam with pals Willy Jordan (percussion) and Bob Welsh (guitar and piano). Stripped to trio basics, Jordan sitting on his cajon, they fed off each other for energy and a joyous vibe, already a Bishop specialty. He had a bunch of new songs ready, plus they did a retooled take on his number Ace In The Hole, and picked some fun covers to keep the party going. Typical is Let's Go, which the three wrote by jamming together, with a bridge where they simply, infectiously sing 'woah, WOAH.' and it's a ball.


The only other guests are three harp players who each get a cut, and of course Bishop had no trouble attracting the very best: Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson and Rick Estrin. Musselwhite and Bishop team up on the autobiographical 100 Years of Blues, Elvin shaking his head at the hijinks the pair got up to along the way, and Musselwhite even speak-singing a verse. Cue the bad jokes: "We've been around since the Dead Sea was sick." Since Elvin is more of a novelty singer, it's great to have Jordan on board, who does a great job adding the charm to strong covers of It's All Over Now and Let The Four Winds Blow. Believe the title, this is big fun.

Friday, March 3, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK - T2 TRAINSPOTTING



The new T2 Trainspotting movie is going to have a lot to live up to, with the original 1996 film such a fan favourite. The soundtrack will have just as much to live up to, if not more. It cemented the iconic reputation of Iggy Pop, introducing him to a whole new generation with Lust For Life and Nightclubbing featured. It raised Lou Reed up a notch as well, with Perfect Day. Blur, Pulp, Elastica, New Order and Underworld all helped make the disc a start-to-finish must-listen, and is now considered on the top ten or so soundtracks. There was even a second volume released the following year, one of those "songs that helped inspire" deals. Cue Bowie and more Iggy,


So 20 years later we revisit the same characters, older but possibly no wiser. Since nostalgia is a theme of the movie as the friends reunite, we get echoes of the original film, with Lust For Life returning, but this time in a Prodigy remix, and Underworld's Born Slippy becoming Slow Slippy. Blondie had sort of appeared in the first movie, as their cut Atomic had been covered by Sleeper; this time, it's Harry and Co. classic Dreaming. But now what? You can only have so many nods to the first, and they needed a lot more music than that. I'll give them full props for using three tracks from Edinburgh heroes Young Fathers, the hip-hop/pop group that won the Mercury Prize in 2014. They have the right kind of edge for the film, anti-authority and almost underground.


Other choices though feel too much like trying to recapture the initial magic. The Wolf Alice track seems like an attempt to get the hot new British bands involved, and same goes for Fat White Family. High Contrast supplies the necessary electro track. And then there are the classics, and unfortunately, that's the real letdown. Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax? Gosh, I don't know how it's used in the film, but even so, who wants to hear it? Queen's Radio Ga Ga is way too popular to be interesting or needed on such a collection. Only The Clash early hit (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais has the opportunity to inspire like the Iggy and Reed cuts of the original. I'm underwhelmed.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: FRED EAGLESMITH - STANDARD



Lots of people think they're making roots music, but you actually have to have some experience to do it, at least a little more than, say, watching The Last Waltz several times in your condo. Fred Eaglesmith is truth, absolutely 100 per cent genuine. Every song is steeped in experience, every word. There are no basic doors, they are screen doors. When a lover leaves, it's not just the guy who's broken-hearted, even the old tom turkey is forlorn, calling over and over for that familiar face. And nobody's prouder than grandpa when they get his old car that's been in the barn for 29 years up and running again.


Of course, all this would sound hokey coming from most people, but Eaglesmith lives it, and probably even knows people who think the internal combustion engine is evil and prefer steam power. All these are examples from the songs on the album of course. For all the old-fashioned people and settings in his music, Eaglesmith's real power is his completely left-field delivery of the songs. Very rarely are they presented as straight-forward productions. Eaglesmith instead has this mysterioso recording technique he favours, His weary vocals are out front, but guitar sounds are twisted, harmonica floats in front the back, and occasionally some strangely-played sounds played on trumpets, violin and such creep in the background. There's an unsettling quality to it even, not unlike the hill country Mississippi fife-and-drum blues, reflecting the realities of life, the dark corners that are always close by. All that, and he wrote a break-up song featuring a turkey.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BONNETT HOUSE - SONGS FROM BONNETT HOUSE



It's a story that has been told over and over; a few musicians get together to play, and almost immediately know there's magic in that combination. Those precious few first times they play together will be the best feeling they'll ever have as musicians, and they will spend the rest of their time together hoping to recapture those moments and that feeling. It happened when Nash sang for the first time with Crosby and Stills. It happened when Buckingham-Nicks teamed up with Fleetwood Mac. Heck, it probably happened when Hall met Oates.


It happened in Saint John too, in 2014. Musician pals Sandy MacKay, Clinton Charlton and Bill Preeper decided to hang out and play songs, once a week, sometimes twice. It clicked, and very quickly songs were being written. They knew those house sessions were working, and wanted to grab that very feeling, record it, preserve it, make it a group.


The place they met was called Bonnett House, and that's now the name of the trio, as well as the fruit of their labour, a debut eight song release called Songs From Bonnett House. It's an acoustic set, but not demos, these are richly produced cuts. The idea was to get the feeling of intimacy, as opposed to rawness, a good plan as the songs deserve lots of of atmosphere. There are dreamy passages, homespun melodies, comfortable harmonies and rich textures from the instruments.


There are feel-good songs, such as Fool Me Twice, relaxed and pleasing. But there's another side to the writing, heard in two cuts, a poetic lyrical approach, with a twist. Broken Birds tells a story about someone breaking both feet, going through the pain and recovery, but as odd as it might seem on paper, it's a beautiful delivery and lyric, one that defies easy description. Then there's the mystical east-meets-west tale Help You If I Can about meeting a spiritual guide on the road to enlightenment. Again, it's a very successful lyric that easily captures your full attention.


The group has a launch show coming up this week in Saint John. It's Saturday, March 4 at Sanctuary Theatre, for a measly ten bucks, at 7:30 p.m.

Monday, February 27, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: IAN JANES - YES MAN



Ian Janes is one of the best songwriters from the East Coast like, ever, and we never hear enough from him. This is only his fourth album in 19 years, back when it all started with the still-killer Occasional Crush, and his first since 2010, so it's a joy just to have something new. Even better, he hasn't lost a step, and this is a major soulful bunch of new tunes.


Whether it's a funky number like the opening cut, Used, or a tearjerker like Any Fool, Janes sings with pure passion. The songs have an easy feel, but on close look are skillfully crafted, sitting somewhere between soul, pop and Americana. The colouring is bang-on, whether it's the organ that is featured on several tracks, or pedal steel, used so effectively on New Words. Broken Record has an irresistible groove, super vocal, and then out of nowhere, an awesome solo with a guitar sound I've never heard before, and that's courtesy of Janes as well.


The whole mix, production and quality is sharp, bright and exciting, and a great testament to what can be done in these parts these days. Some of it was done in Nashville, some in Pennsylvania, some in St. John's, and the rest in Nova Scotia, using both famous studio folks in the States and many local talents, and you can't tell which is what from who and where until you dig into the credits. The point being, a lot has changed around here in 20 years, and Janes is one of the reasons the quality has always been there, and getting better all the time.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SOUNDTRACK - GIMME DANGER: THE STORY OF THE STOOGES



Here's great news for all of you who follow the theory that The Stooges were/are the greatest rock and roll band of all time, as filmmaker Jim Jarmusch proclaims. His documentary, which hit film festivals last year, is now out on DVD, and the soundtrack has arrived as well. I haven't seen the film yet, but it got excellent reviews, so there's that to look forward to. I'd have to say they've done a bang-up job on this music set as well.


It starts out with the band in it's prime, Iggy leading them through the title song here, a great one from Raw Power, and then some classics, the string of No Fun, I Wanna Be Your Dog and 1969. Some more album cuts follow, and then the rarer stuff kicks in. A couple of outtakes from Raw Power, I Got A Right and I'm Sick Of You could only previously be found on the four disc deluxe edition.


Fellow Detroit travelers MC5 are heard next, part of the Stooges' story for sure, with Ramblin' Rose from their debut live album Kick Out The Jams. Then come a couple of ragged recordings from Iggy's previous 60's bands, The Iguanas and the Prime Movers, the latter an audience recording of Bo Diddley's I'm A Man, which gives a good taste of the blues rawness that Iggy had in his background. The set closes with a couple more hard-to-get numbers, taken from expensive deluxe reissues of the first two Stooges albums, including a full-on freak-out called Asthma Attack.


That pretty much tells you the story, that this been put together with fans in mind, especially if you like the band but haven't gone all crazy buying box set reissues. Plus, it hasn't been messed up with bits of dialogue or later, post-'73 stuff, whether you like that or not. It sticks to the script, the original Stooges, and there's plenty to base a documentary, and a soundtrack on from that time.