Thursday, March 23, 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.