Category Archives: Making Music

Marina Marina/Karyn Ellis/Orit Shimoni

CircleOfFriendsFree Times Café, March 15th, 2014

There’s so much superb entertainment to be found in this city on any given night and this impressive lineup afforded me the opportunity to drink in three differing approaches to arriving at the same place. One night. Three women. The stuff of fantasies.

Marina MarinaIn what became a rotating sound circle, versus separate sets, the tiny Free Times stage teemed (if not overflowed) with talent. Beginning with Marina Marina (likely not the name her Mother Mother gave her) – whom I had wanted to see based solely on the exceptional song (video only, thus far) “Progress Still” under the banner of Red Creek Parallel, with Steve Disher. Possessing a somewhat other-worldly voice, the seemingly shy Marina Marina (MM) leaned heavily on the full guitar sounds of Devin Ereshan as she lit into “Fall In Love With Me,” adding her own accompaniment on 6-string acoustic. This hearty Albertan’s songwriting skirts with perfection and the haunting combination of her clear, breathy voice, her approach to melody and her non-traditional twists on a lyric – lyrics that, at time, become a part of the instrumentation, distinguish her as an exceptional artist in no time flat. Likewise, “Temporary,” offering a trance-inducing, rhythmic pattern as Ereshan’s guitar and MM’s higher octave lifted things skyward. Her third song proved to be a successful singalong with its country edge, offering up a fun, infectious chorus recalling something remarkably John Prine-like in the bargain…”Well, it could be worse, could be better…” (“Could Be Worse”). The earthy, organic “You Send The Sun” is a song you must own – only it’s not yet recorded. Another outstanding example of an artist who paints with her lyrics and her music, she served up more and more natural expression in her delivery as she warmed to the crowd, Ereshan adding myriad layers of tasteful atmospherics to each piece. This was especially true with “A Tornado,” both guitars twisting and turning, trance-like while her expressive, yet still fragile, vocals rose above it, accentuating each lyric. The final “Melodie of the Universe” further underlined her potential as an artist in great need of additional exposure – offering something truly special and intensely creative in her approach to her craft.

Karyn EllisI was familiar with Karyn Ellis’ recent release, More Than A Hero but it’s always so much better to watch an artist bring their recorded songs to life on-stage. Soft, delicate touches mixed with deft harmonies and bare bones instrumentation, her strong songs each stand on their own feet. Supplementing the rich melodic qualities of her work, friend and fellow powerhouse singer, Sue Newberry, joined Ellis as each song permitted, adding spark to each well-written original’s fuel. Beginning with one of Hero’s highlights, “Rust,” two complementary voices rose as one, entwining themselves around this elegant melody, accompanied by Ellis’ elementary 6-string acoustic guitar. With MM adding additional vocal support and Devin contributing guitar, “I’ll Do Anything” proved slightly reminiscent of Lisa Loeb, vocally, Ellis regularly injecting her warm approach to balladry with subtle pop touches. Singing solo, her “Cosmic Cowboy” revealed a comparatively harder edge to her vocal approach, slightly overriding the song’s original vulnerability. Leading a singalong with “Be My Girl,” forced her to slightly exaggerate her parts in an effort to spur on the audience, costing this delicate original some of its intimate charm. Yet, all was quickly redeemed with “River” – an earthy, hypnotic song from Hero which builds slowly, revealing the rich range of Ellis’ voice, its exuberant, catchy chorus transforming the song into something falling midway between southern gospel and an African tribal chant. The combination of Ellis and Newberry added power to strong material yet it’s the more intimate readings that provide Ellis with her impressive bite.

Orit ShimoniOrit Shimoni is a study in intensity and, seemingly, quite different in her outlook and comparative approach. She owns a much larger voice than her tiny frame suggests and she retains full control over it, wherever she directs it. Clearly a “student of the world,” “Little Birdie” Shimoni tours tirelessly – constantly on the road over the past decade, soaking up life lessons with each encounter – the proverbial shark who would suffocate without forward movement. You can hear it in her songwriting and her road miles have translated to having the skills to match. Playing impressive fingerstyle guitar, she commands a vocal wallop and her intense, singer-songwriter material covers a lot of ground: from traditional, time-honoured folk, to more forlorn fare adorned with flourishes of Yiddish and Eastern European elements, Americana, blues and torch jazz. Confused? Don’t be – she’s simply a musical explorer, her poetic approach to lyrical expression revealing a love of Leonard Cohen’s more sensual side, not lost on her Montreal roots. Shimoni’s first number, “Wine Into Water,” proved one of her best. Seemingly a self-made spokesperson for the sad and downtrodden, Shimoni also imbued it with a distinct country flavour. The jazzy “Honey & Milk” from her latest release, Bitter Is The New Sweet, sounds as if from another era, her eyebrows working double-time to underline the song’s celebration of real-life despair. Touted as one of her few ‘happy songs,’ the bittersweet “Haven’t Got A Clue” displayed her significant talents as a guitarist while exposing the wide range of her singing voice. The double clout of “Sadder Music” (cue Cohen) and the equally melancholic “I Left the City Burning” revealed an ability to take dark, brooding subject matter and render it uplifting in the process, the latter song propelled by the buoyant power of her strong acoustic guitar work. “Delicate Times,” a song acknowledging our powder keg times, was delivered with a calm, clear voice – balm for spent spirits. Somewhat surprisingly, Shimoni offsets her somewhat bleak subject matter with a clear gift for banter and storytelling, revealing a strong sense of humour as she adds context to each composition.

All in all, you simply couldn’t ask much more of these three exceptional women on a Saturday night out on the town. Sweet dreams are made of this.

All photography by Eric Thom

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Robyn Dell’Unto: Little Lines

Robyn Dell’UntoThese days, the term “pop music” is an awkward descriptor at best.  What it used to represent is not necessarily what it stands for any more, rendering it, more often than not, a complete misnomer.

Robyn Dell’Unto is a Toronto-based singer-songwriter and her particular gift is pure pop – glorious, uplifting, perfect pop with more sun-drenched musical hooks and fetching, highly-addictive choruses than it should be legally allowable to consume in a given day. Yet, before you take this description in an incorrect way, let me explain…

By its nature, pop music is devised around being “pleasant to listen to” rather than something known for sporting much artistic depth. Such is not the case here – Dell’Unto mines topics near and dear to the world around her, imbuing each three-minute-wonder with warmth, charm, insight and thoughtful perspective. Life. Love. Love lost. Love found. Real world experiences. Just stuff. As such, what it is she does is not created in some misguided, singles-bound desperation any more than it is intentionally targeted for any mass market appeal. It’s highly personal in terms of how it’s created and how it’s received. And each track on her latest album, Little Lines, is an intensely dedicated labour of love – from the ground up. Dell’Unto takes her time and does it all, including producing and wearing her best business hat – aside from writing or co-writing each song, singing and playing many of the parts. Injecting a good deal of old-fashioned care into what she does is key to each project – rather than simply lusting for absolute control, for control’s sake.

Dell’Unto’s particular talent is a style of songwriting in which lyrics and song structure convene on a song-by-song basis. The music fits the lyrics and vice-versa. Her vocals are sweet, like simmered syrup, yet her thoughts are delivered with a power and a maturity which distinguishes her from so many of her counterparts. She’s driven, unapologetic – and phenomenally good. Simplicity rules, with hooks based around rudimentary instrumentation – sometimes a guitar hook – as the Lindsey Buckingham-esque guitar sound used to drive “It’s Not Me” or the cello effect found in “Last To Love You”; a vocal quirk – such as the uplifting chorus of the subsonic “Shake On Yer Shoes” with its impactful use of violin; or the use of backup voices which inadvertently serve as a form of percussion – the “yeahs” used in “Pretty Girls” or the handclaps that kick the opening “Sidecar” into overdrive before it’s even left the parking lot.

At the same time, deconstructing each song reveals how much of a puzzle was involved to create the song in the first place. Consider the track, “Pretty Girls” – selected for a video performance. It’s a carefully designed example of pop craft –the best sort possible – with a chorus that, once you’ve heard it a few times, you simply can’t get out of your head. Nor do you want it to leave, as you find it propelling you through your day like a breath of fresh spring air seeping in through the window. The stunning “Last to Love You” uses strings and slithery guitar bits dashing around a repetitive acoustic guitar hook and fat drum beat to launch what has to be one of the most beautiful of break-up songs. The hypnotic “I’ve Got So Much To Tell You” is little more than unbridled enthusiasm amidst the pent-up frustrations of being on the road, away from the ones you love. “Good Day” was born as part of a commercial, reworked into a full song and designed to put a kick in your morning coffee as you dance out the door and on down the street like a tongue-in-cheek B-roll from Singin’ in the Rain. The promise of love and romantic possibilities abound in the lush “Waste It On You” – a multi-layered dreamscape of a duet with co-writer Todd Clark. A similarly-themed “Coffee” transforms positive longing into real possibility, as the accompanying moan of backing singers seems to remind the singer of its fantasy state  – an outwardly simple tune that, upon closer inspection, is as elaborate as an XTC single.

Robyn Dell’Unto has the uncanny ability to not sound like anybody else. And that’s quite an accomplishment. With a voice that would make Cirque de Soleil dizzy, it’s the centerpiece of everything she writes. Thankfully. Put your best foot forward. Life on a budget, you do get the feeling these tracks don’t come together in the luxury of a studio with session players and an endless deli tray. Guessing only, this is likely the result of an intensely elaborate ProTools-fest with Dell’Unto playing many of the instruments herself, with the help of Adam King, Todd Clark, Tino Zolfo, Jon Chandler, John Critchley and a host of others – making you wonder where she might go with a big-time budget and the additional contributions of seasoned players. As such, it’s a stunning, complete production that stands tall on its own two feet – right down to the artful design of its cover and accompanying photography. She does it right and is good to her crowd-funding supporters.

Just watch as these songs are cherry-picked and transformed into giant hits for those with a modicum of the talent, as is too often the case. But there is always the hope to be noticed and appreciated – and excellence of this order deserves both. Many of the songs from her debut, I’m Here Every Night, have found their way onto various film and tv soundtracks. They’ve also served as a stepping-off point for these ten new songs, which are stronger and more sophisticated than those from her debut. No matter what happens, Robyn Dell’Unto is a name that will soon come up in more and more conversations – because this much talent can’t stay under a basket for very long.

Robyn Dell’Unto Drake posterThose living in the Toronto area can get in on the secret this Friday night, February 28, at the Drake Underground at 9:45 p.m. (Donovan Woods opens at 9).

 

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Claire Lynch Band Oct. 3 & 4

CLaire Lynch If you’ve never heard Claire Lynch sing, your life’s not quite complete. For never was there a sweeter sound – never more fair from any songbird’s trill – than her voice. What she can do to a musical story has helped transform the art of bluegrass music. A true original, she’s a joy to behold and as deep, down soulful as can be.

It wasn’t always so – she’s worked hard for her recognition and deserves all she can get. Surprisingly, her extremely southern-sounding voice was born in Kingston, New York where, at age 12, she relocated with her family to Hazel Green, Alabama. Upon meeting her husband, Larry, she moved away from her love of singing pop music with her sisters to falling in love with bluegrass. Singing in Larry’s band, Hickory Wind ­– eventually The Front Porch String Band, she released her debut, Breakin’ It, in ’81. The rest is history – that and 9 more discs, a family and a touring regimen that would make a Bedouin blush. A faultless writer, her name preceded her own live talents as others covered her music. She’s since more than earned her own marquis – treading the boards endlessly, injecting her original material with a sweet soulfulness, proving that nobody does them better than she.

Claire Lynch

The release of Lynch’s tenth disc, Dear Sister, has forever moved the bluegrass goalposts, given her ability to project intensity and gentleness, vulnerability and strength and all points in-between. The road’s not been easy – career detours and family-rearing stopovers resulted in hard-earned changes in her personal tune. But she’s proven herself 100% committed to what she’s doing, surrounding herself with a phenomenal band who manage to exceed her inflexible expectations. It’s the combination of Claire’s high, lonesome sound and this band of virtuosic musicians who prove the secret ingredient behind their powerful sound. Award-winning bassist-clawhammer banjo player-dancer-percussionist Mark Schatz joins mandolinist-guitarist Matt Wingate and fiddler and player-of-all-stringed things, Bryan McDowell. Acoustic guitars and bass mesh with fiddle, mandolin, banjo and their supportive harmonies – never fighting for position and always working under Lynch’s one-of-a-kind vocal aeronautics. There’s never an unnecessary break in the action, unless intentional.

Touring behind Dear Sister provides the band the opportunity to present fresh, timeless material as it’s meant to be heard – with all the energetic drive of a finger-blistering live show, keeping the bluegrass tradition alive. The title track provides a good start – a tear-inducing masterpiece – co-written with southerner Louisa Branscomb. It’s an intimate farewell letter shared between two sisters, their lives ravaged by the destruction of the Civil War, delivered with all the tenderness Lynch is known for – ending smartly with the coda from “There’s No Place Like Home” and reinforced throughout by Wingate’s mandolin and McDowell’s crying fiddle. Or consider the frailty and heartbreak revealed in “How Many Moons”, contrasting with the pop-friendly “Need Someone” with its hook-laden chorus and blend of innocence and longing. The upbeat, banjo-driven “I’ll Be Alright Tomorrow” clears the air with its slap-happy acoustic bass, mandolin and guitar while the heartfelt paean to all love songs, “That Kind Of Love”, speaks highly of Lynch’s character, the song wrapped in delicate harmonies, propelled by its sturdy, spirited acoustic underpinnings.

Claire LynchAn opportunity to witness such wide-ranging talent, depth and emotional firepower on-stage doesn’t come along very often – especially in a room so acutely attuned to making the most of acoustic performance. The Claire Lynch Band makes for a special occasion not to be missed – so don’t.

2013-10-03  Toronto  ON   Hugh’s Room

2013-10-04   Innisfil  ON   Music Up Close

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Scott McCord and The Bonafide Truth

We music fans can be a fickle bunch. All it took to be swept away by the talented Mr. McCord and his seven-piece band was an opportunity to see them perform live. Not only is McCord a human whirlwind of soulful energy but his band is rehearsed within an inch of their lives – and what they do simply has to be skin tight to be done well – which they’re adept at doing.

However, when Scott & Crew released their sophomore album – simply entitled Scott McCord and the Bonafide Truth – I didn’t even flinch. I had forgotten how good a band they are and how incredibly powerful a presence their front man possesses. Wisely, I got myself down to the Lula Lounge for their proper CD release to remind myself why I liked these guys so much. I wasn’t alone.

The best players, as proven time and time again, are those who truly love to play. Once the band kicked in with the opening notes of their theme, “Deploy the Bird”, sparks flew from the stage and there was no ‘warming up period’, given the high-energy serving: funk, R&B, fiery blasts of rock and a horn-driven groove compressed between a rhythm section (Ben Rollo/drums, Charles James/bass) capableof redefining the concept.

McCord seemed somewhat restrained with his entry for “Gotta Be Something” – and then, without warning, went airborne with one of his patented, quirky, always- unexpected Art Carney moves. This keeps you watching him and he never disappoints, unleashing 150% worth of energy and phenomenal lung power – all the more surprising for his seemingly slight build.

“This Heart is on Fire” upped the energy level asthe band’s other two secret weapons, B3 player David Atkinson and guitarist Simon Craig, alternated on both sides of a blistering horn section (Steve Dyte/trumpet, Christian Overton/trombone, Todd Porter/baritone sax).

Despite Craig’s impressive turn on guitar, the somewhat staid cover of the Beatles’ “Baby, You’re A Rich Man” seemed to pause the momentum. This only set up one of the new album’s loveliest ballads, “Where Did You Go?”, which – at its similarly slow pace – provided the band  the room to stretch out and reveal how truly tight their chops are, every nuance on display. A show highlight, in fact. Guest
Jerome Godboo joined the slow-starting assault on “Turn Around”, his animal-showman instincts synching nicely with McCord’s, sending up blistering harp alongside Craig’s slippery slide.

The slo-mo take on “Much Better” demonstrated that, fast or slow, these horn players are good, transforming the song into a full crowd workout, completely involving them with the band as they willingly sung their hearts out, totally with them. With a propulsive series of solos on B3, Atkinson helped spin “Bad For You” into another signature piece, as McCord’s gut-twisting vocals and soulful delivery poured accelerant all over the stage.

The hard-hitting “Certainty” is pure Scott McCord and band – a powerfulblast that features all their musical strengths and focuses them into a pulverizing force of nature, the dance floor pulsating with people unable to control their desperate need to give something back. The set closed with the very different “Ocean” – a shimmering showcase of slide guitar revealing a thoughtful direction towards opening new doors of opportunity.  It was time for everyone to take a shower prior to the band returning for their second set.

New songs like “The Truth Is Out” brought the house – and dance floor – back in short order followed by a high-energy flashback to Van McCoy with “So Soon”. Another new number entitled “Give It Up” proved another of the evening’s crowning achievements – a hard-rocking arrangement with stand-out results and a special nod to Simon Craig’s searing contributions on guitar. Mac Rebennack’s night-tripping “Cold Cold Cold” proved another crowd-pleaser – more feathers in McCord’s cap for his ability to select whimsical gems reflecting his slightly bent sense of humour – always lurking beneath even the most heart-wrenching of soulful croons.

Guest guitarist and original Bonafide band member, ChrisMiller (of Bourbon Tabernacle Choir fame), joined the band for some searing leads as Jerome Godboo returned to the stage, adding even more fuel to the collective fire. Miller stayed in place for the duration, following with the title track from the band’s previous “Blues For Sunshine” – a track which hit a definite nerve for all present. A a lost classic by the too-soon-gone James “Baby Huey” Ramey brought the evening to a most-fulfilling climax as the rejuvenated band revealed plenty of soul-taut muscle over the long haul. A great night was had by all – as if to remind everyone that, because this crack Toronto fighting unit may not be accessible every weekend, when they do play, you’d best not risk missing them.

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Chris Altmann: A Man For All Summers

Transplanted Aussie native, Chris Altmann clearly enjoys the best of all worlds. Moving from Adelaide to Peterborough, the seasoned musician wasted no time finding out who was who, musician-wise, and, by early 2010, had recorded his first solo record, Que Paso. Now living in Hamilton (when he’s not in Nashville), he’s about to release another self-produced record and has taken the time to create his own label, Ridin’ High Records.

Somehow, he finds the time to return to Australia each year to play in still-familiar settings, staying in touch with friends and fans on both continents simultaneously. For those of us who sometimes have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, people like Chris Altmann are hard to fathom. Boundless energy, a firm commitment to his craft and he’s only 30-something. He even married a local girl – Alysha Main, from Norwood, who manages and promotes his career, the label and their ridiculously busy lifestyle when she’s not touring Australia with him. She also finds time to promote the Peterborough-based, forward-looking music label, Seventh Fire Records, who have released a 7″ record of a pair of Altmann’s tracks.

On this occasion, Chris and his talented cast of friends and players were teasing the forthcoming release, Nothing But Nice Things. Hey. Isn’t that Washboard Hank on dobro? It is!  Rounding out the small Dakota stage is Rob Foreman (bass), Brandon Humphrey (acoustic guitar), Matt Greco (drums) and the delightful Peterpatch export, Grainne Ryan on backup vocals.

Now, you’re likely wondering what sort of music a globetrotting Aussie who has found the light in southern Ontario might play? You must first understand that Altmann is one of those people whose veins flow with equal parts blood and music. He plays everything instrument-wise, and what he hasn’t yet learned, he will. His first release was a fresh take on an old school – akin to the school that Leon Russell attended. Circa Mad Dogs and Englishmen, his music has a laidback, party feel that lays a warm, loose groove atop a rootsy collection of complementary instruments and like-minded players.

Originally in a Melbourne-based rock band called The Vandas, Altmann shifts to the lower gears and uses strong vocal chops and his signature piano sound to give birth to a soulful, good time. Mix in some pedal steel (Altmann) amidst lead piano parts, dobro (Hank), acoustic guitar (Brandon Humphrey), bass (Rob Foreman), drums (Matt Greco) and sweet vocal support from Grainne Ryan throughout and you begin to get the idea. Think of a drunken BBQ bash over at Doug Sahm’s summer house – with Leon manning the bar and T-Bone Burnett bringing dessert. Loose, laidback songs – built to last and fun to listen to – the title track to his new album, a case in point, with its pedal steel, piano and sturdy chorus.

The highly animated “Carrodus’ Mountain View Hotel” reads like a twisted love letter to a favourite watering hole – because
it is. Contrast this rowdy chant to the surprisingly delicate “I Told A Lie” to gain some perspective on the range of Altmann’s songwriting abilities – clothed as a rock’n’roll number driven by his piano style, underlining the value of his well-rehearsed band. The rootsy bent of “Living It Up” makes for a perfect, feel-good song while being, at the same time, a strong code to live life by.

The strong country bent to Altmann’s voice is revealed with the fiddle-free “Whole Wide World” while Grainne Ryan’s show-stopping, low-end support vocal on “Lukewarm Heart” proved a highlight of the night. “Love Like This” – clearly the front-runner track from Que Paso – provided Altmann with another chance to ply his prowess on pedal steel while the honky-tonkin’ “Who Knows Where” – also from the last record – drove home its solid hook while registering its hearty, rowdy chorus. “Zig Zag Rag” continues to pick things up with solid, rock’n’roll energy, pumped up by three singers and Altmann’s rollicking piano, ultimately bringing the evening to a close. Served up as a preview of the forthcoming Nothing But Nice Things proves to be a dramatic understatement – both this release and the one before it are loaded with great things. Altmann is clearly singer-songwriter enough for both countries to share.

Photos by Eric Thom

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Record Review: Jim Henman – Same Old Feeling

I’m not much for end-of-the-year statements. The process seems to imply that good music has an expiry date. The best music, however, remains timeless and as I think back to another year of aural adventure, one album repeatedly comes to mind as an outstanding release – for a number of reasons. I knew it was special when I first laid ears on it. I warmed instantly to its back porch feel and its unapologetic sense of overt friendliness. It’s purely Canadian and seems to incorporate all those things that work together to define that hard-to-define sound we like to think of as our own.

It’s nothing too crisp or squeaky clean, but something is clearly rising up from so deep down within that it forces itself onto your personal playlist. It’s something that stands out for how different it seems to be from everything else. I’m also drawn to this quiet little release because, like all the best underdogs, you’ll not likely have heard of it unless you tripped over it. I hope this review helps you to trip over it – because it’s well worth the fall.

Jim Henman is a name not everyone will know – or remember. Originally a founding member of April Wine back in 1969, in an era that would soon spawn memorable hits like  “Fast Train” and “You Could’ve Been A Lady”. Henman bailed in the early 70’s. Not sure why – likely for the typical reasons and just as surely none of our business. Co-founding the band that Q107 in Toronto would soon make the cornerstone of its Can-con content, April Wine was a family affair, including cousins Ritchie and David Henman together with childhood friend Myles Goodwyn – all originally hailing from Bluenose country before shuffling over to Montreal and beyond. Henman stands behind his decision of some forty years ago, feeling all the better for having made it. He’s content with his life and it’s this contentment that comes across in spades across each of Same Old Feeling’s nine selections.

Lasting no more than about a cup-and-a-half of coffee, seven of these tracks are sturdy originals (including co-writes with friend and co-producer Mike Trask) along with two inventive covers. Yet it takes no longer than his reworking of the Larry Williams ‘58 hit, “Slow Down”, to take you somewhere that can only be called ‘home’. Sounding nothing like the original or the Beatles’ remake, Henson is joined by local heroes Carter Chaplin (guitar), Charlie Phillips (bass), AJ Jardine (drums), John Appleby (mandolin) and John Noseworthy (backup vocals), transforming this previously raucous old rock’n’roller into a well-mellowed, hammock-swinging special. Its bullfrog-like chorus, swampy guitar lines, mandolin and Dixieland clarinet(Mark Cuming) lend it a lazy, N’awlins feel. From here, Henman & Co. continue to set a laidback mood that fits the Canadian psyche like a favourite team sweater or an old pair of slippers. Nothing pretty, but pretty cosy and all the better for its wear and tear. I get the same feeling from another Canadian-based institution – The Band. A grouping together of friends in a loose jam session, extremely soulful in a non-pressured, down-home kinda way. More roots than rock. But, unlike The Band, Henman’s collective has created something much more upbeat than it is mournful.

“You Can Have My Heart” is a Henman/Trask creation that originated as an instrumental track until the title helped the song to write itself. Songs don’t come by any more happy or upbeat than this as acoustic guitar and mandolin maintain a comfortable, toe-tapping pace. The title track, “Same Old Feeling”, is the record’s showcase piece, celebrating the great sense of home that lifts off the page. The idea was born in ’72 for inclusion in a Henman/Goodwyn production that never came about. It didn’t re-materialize as a song until Henman and Trask colluded on it to bring it to its present, glorious state. This is a happy-go-lucky song you want to own, rather than simply whistle along to – the pièce de résistance of the album. Henman’s own “Could Be Heaven” reveals him as a closet rock’n’roller (well…who isn’t?) as the lively paean to a groupie and a neighbourhood nutbar adds provides  timely contrast to the laid-back nature of the record. This is good radio fare for a top-down, summer drive in your Dad’s convertible. Likewise, Henman’s “That’s The Way It Goes” takes harp, acoustic bass, mandolin and acoustic guitar to flesh out this meaty life lesson in the form of a hangover special. Mellow with attitude, Henman’s voice (and whistle) is in peak form as Phil Potvin’s harmonica and John Appleby’s mandolin earn able assists.

“That’s All I Got” is highly autobiographical, nicely summing up Henman’s decision to forsake the limelight for a better life at home. If ‘inner peace’ was in a certain key, this is it. It’s a fun track, recalling John Hartford (Henman’s laid-back vocals and approach are similar) and yesterday’s pop radio. The added muscle of Garrett Mason’s guitar doesn’t hurt. A big fan of Gus Cannon, Henman’s musical contribution has – likewise – been the melding of blues to folk, so this cover is hardly out of place. Chuck Bucket’s brushed drums, Rheo Rochon’s warm, stand-up bass and the dual acoustic guitars of Henman and Charlie Phillips help transform “Walk Right In” into the official kitchen party song for the Maritimes that it could be. It certainly sits nicely here, given Henman’s studied, simpatico vocal.

Another case in point reinforcing Henman’s blues pedigree is further realized with “I Don’t Have No Blues”. In perfect voice and reinforced by Potvin’s harp and Rochon’s acoustic bass, this track shines brightly as an upbeat parlour piece. Another album highlight, Henman reveals his understated skills with some beautifully accomplished acoustic guitar work on a piece that could easily become a completely new direction. The record closes with one final blues treatment – served up, initially, as a cloudy, vintage-sounding recording. Complete with scratches, “Shame Shame Boogie” breaks into present-day, with the upgraded sound we’ve learned to favour. An interesting, if not symbolic, way to close an album that takes something grounded in the past and renders it – proudly – present-day.

It’s taken Henman too long to get this album together and release it. Here’s hoping people will recognize its genius and add their voices together to coax more music like this from him. The process may well have been therapeutic for Henman, but the quality of this release will soon prove to be essential listening for the rest of us – and that’s a dependency worth having.

Track down a copy and head out to the porch for a listen (winter coat and all).

More information: jimhenman.com

 

 

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Review: Stan Rogers – Northwest Passage, remastered

I don’t know about you but, for me, this music is religion. I can’t actually recall how I first fell in love with Stan Rogers and his music but I most assuredly did. And I remember the first – and only – time I saw him perform live with an identical clarity of recall, sadly. Foolishly, I didn’t even have the foresight to have taken pictures…

I certainly do remember the first Stan Rogers album I heard – and it was this one – now lovingly re-packaged and carefully re-released by Borealis Records in conjunction with Fogarty’s Cove Music and Stan’s wife, Ariel.

The funny thing is, I didn’t hear the whole record first. I heard the absolutely delicious “Northwest Passage” used as the backdrop to a Canadian documentary on (go figure) the Northwest Passage. And Stan’s a capella treatment of the song – and the soulful sentiment streaming from it – hit me like a ton of bricks. From there, I tracked his music down – no mean feat in small-town Ontario before the days of the internet – and this was pre-CBC radio in my personal development. I had completely believed Rogers to be a dyed-in-the-wool Maritimer. He certainly looked the part with his rough, burly bulk, that ebullient smile and his Old Dutch-styled beard. Even his guitar tuning lent his music that familiar Celtic lilt so traditional to the music streaming out of our Atlantic provinces. To realize that he was actually a Hamilton native came as a bit of a shock.

To find the song —and the record—would provide me with a treasure trove of feeling: pride coupled with the joy that comes with finding something truly buoyant and uplifting. This record rekindles thoughts of ‘home’ and is capable of always making me feel good whenever I’d hear it.

From the anthemic opening song to the comparably simple, fiddle-driven “The Field Behind The Plow”, Stan’s ability to depict real people, real life and a real sense of our collective history is a talent like no other. From the more aggressive pace of “Night Guard”—underlining Stan’s gift for storytelling—to the comparably laid-back, sensitive delivery of “You Can’t Stay Here”, with its moral backbone, if not fear of human nature, Stan is a study in character—his and those of his subjects. Then there’s “The Idiot” ; it’s everyman’s tale in so many ways. There seems little care to sequence or force any consistent feeling or attempts to package up a certain mood. It’s just good, honest music coming at you, exactly as you like to hear it served up: without a fuss.

Stan makes light of hardship. often finding interest in many things the rest of us take for granted. He then surrounds it with simpatico arrangements that lift a simple song into something far more powerful and important on many levels. And that soft, soothing baritone voice coming from such a relative giant at six foot four is something you never forget.

As Canadians, we often wrack our brains, falling somewhat within the shadow of the ‘everything’s bigger in the U.S.’ disease in our attempts to define who we are and what makes us different. Stan Rogers and his music embody the answer to our search for an appropriate icon. His spirit and skill with words resonate with a sense of place. Our place. And can there be a more representative tome than “Northwest Passage”? Years ago, Peter Gzowski polled his Morningside audience in a search to find an alternative anthem to “O Canada”—and you can guess what he got back.

One of my favourite musical moments came from seeing a favourite artist at the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival a few years back. The rough-hewn blues man, Bill Homans (aka Watermelon Slim), may project the persona of a hard-living, truck-driving man yet the Handy-nominated, Masters degree-holding Vietnam Vet is also a good judge of a well-written song. He came to the edge of the packed stage and told the story of some music he’d heard which had made a significant impact on his life and he proceeded to sing an a capella version of “Northwest Passage”. As I scanned the crowd to gauge the reaction of this broad spectrum of hardy Atlantic seaboarders having their sacred song served up to them by an American in his army greens, I was amazed to see how many of them were in tears. Visibly so. Blubbering like babies—and me along with them. There’s something more than the power of music at play here.

And then I recall the sickening feeling I got the day I watched the news, observing that fateful Air Canada DC-9, Flight 797 , the plane parked on that Cincinnati runway, its fuselage still belching with the smoke that took Stan and 22 others with it. Snuffed out, cruelly, like an ill-placed candle by an errant gust of wind —and on a mission to spread and share the word, no less. The damn plane was already on the ground, which only added salt to the wound. I equate the date to the way my brain responds to November 22—when JFK was shot—unthinkable events causing an indelible stain.

His was a gift that’s so rarely opened. And when it is, it becomes all the more personal, if not satisfying to the very bone. This is a torch well worth the passing.

Borealis is to be applauded for helping to keep Stan’s good name and music in the public eye, as did Stan’s mother before them. The fourth of five Stan Rogers albums to be re-mastered and re-released, it’s a selfless act by Canada’s most prolific, if not most thoughtful, folk label to mark the timeless importance of this distinctively Canadian talent. The improvement to the overall quality – and impact ­– of the sound is well worth duplicating your collection, offering you a production like nothing you’ve heard before. And Stan sounds all the better for it, helping the legend live on.

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Suzy Wilde is lighter than air

The El Mocambo,Toronto, Thursday, September 20th

Listening to the relatively sparse, somewhat wistful tracks on her new, bare bones EP, her first self-titled debut EP since leaving Flashlight Radio (a loose, country-hued affair with Ben Whiteley), you can’t help but wonder where Suzy Wilde is coming from and where she might be going.

Taken on her own merits (I didn’t know until later that her family’s musical pedigree is sizable, being the daughter of Doug Wilde and Nancy White and sister to Spiral Beach’s Maddy), there’s much to like. Yet, with these lighter-than-air vocals and ‘barely there’ musical production, the release sometimes feels like something you might’ve expected to hear back in the ‘80s. Electro-pop, almost – with about as much meat as you’d find at a vegan Thanksgiving.

So what would she do live and could this faint, lighter-than-air singer succeed on-stage? In a nutshell, watching this young singer reveal her abilities from the stage was akin to observing a flower bloom. Tall, confident, fun-loving, thoughtful – Suzy Wilde kicked off the set with plenty of welcoming words and, initially a tad nervous-seeming, surrounded herself with solid band-mates in Mike Olsen (cello/synth), Ghislain Aucoin (keyboards), Charles James (bass), Heather Crawford (guitar plus) and the inhumanly elastic Galen Pelley (drums).

Launching with the very same Euro-poppish “Flame”, Wilde displayed plenty of vocal power, yet the song was clearly something out of a Depeche Mode flashback. Followed by the harder-driving “Good For You”, each song revealed a fresh layer of Wilde’s confident take on both her music and her abilities. Kicking off her, Wilde continued to warm up and celebrate the room full of family, friends and a growing legion of true-blue fans familiar with her history.

One of the EP’s highlights, “When I Grow Up”, shone brightly – her waif-like voice setting the stage while her alter-ego cranked the power for the song’s infectious chorus, clearly hitting a nerve with the audience. Given the range in the first three songs alone, it didn’t take a genius to note the strength in Wilde’s song writing. These are original works people were responding to – not cop-out covers or a temptation to spotlight hot-dog musicians to pick up any slack.

This was clearly a well-rehearsed team backing a solid singer with quality material, getting fresh life and honest animation in a live setting.The  fun, funky, chicken-pickin’ on “Won’t Come Back” revealed true farmyard frivolity while “New Constellations” looked back to an eclectic gem from her previous incarnation with Flashlight Radio, augmented with Edge-like guitar from Crawford, minus some of the more ethereal qualities of the original.

Wilde’s “Ballad of Rilee Low” – a song based on a dream – was a master track with its comparatively elfin vocal, acoustic guitar and ‘harmonic humming’ from the band – a bit of a preview for her upcoming full-length release. A great tune with a strong Celtic flavour, this showed even greater promise from the artist and her band.

Likewise, “Go Home Bay” demonstrated true commercial potential with its combination of Wilde’s acoustic guitar paired with Crawford’s heavier sounds and more killer organ from Aucoin (who seemed to provide much of the more technical musical leadership in the band).

“The Fawn” proved a soft spot – a bit sleepy and slightly nasal-sounding but this was quickly redeemed by the sturdy “Edge of the Sky” – another highlight from the new EP with strong harmonies from Aucoin, tastefully offsetting any loss of high end from Wilde. It’s “Ooh woo woo woo wooh’s” floating throughout the room like a dream worth remembering. The generous set closed with “Youngest Bride” – a well-crafted song with solid contributions, again, by both Aucoin and Crawford, anchoring the band. Special note must be made of drummer Pelley – truly the Animal (of Muppets fame) providing a blend of intricate, rhythmic madness tempered by experience and the seasoned restraint that comes with it. Fun to watch, as well.

An ecstatic crowd coaxed Wilde back for an encore song (“The Cynic”), which she performed all by her lonesome – somewhat fitting on this night of having broken into a full and luxurious bloom. . The takeaway is an odd blend of pop to country but Wilde demonstrated she can clearly do it all, with the musical personality to pick and choose her next move. One to watch and one to look forward to seeing again.

 

 

Photography: E. Thom

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Joshua Cockerill’s ‘Animal Parts’

The Dakota Tavern, Toronto
Thursday, August 23rd

If you can get past the fact that fact that the this perky, 24-year old Calgary native and his band could double for Richie Cunningham & His Happy Daze, you’ll gain admission to the work of a fascinating talent who is ripening into a fully mature artist with a most promising future.

Joshua Cockerill has made Toronto his home, where he’s been constantly gigging, transforming his solo self into, now, a full-fledged band effort – Joshua Cockerill’s Animal Parts. With the release of Animal Parts’ self-titled debut, Cockerill’s creative touches achieve full bloom as his band surrounds and supports him with musicianship sounding surprisingly seasoned well beyond their years. He’s moved slightly away from the country-edged rock- pop of The Trick With Your Heart I’m Learning To Do. And on the occasion of his CD release, his more sensitive, singer-songwriter self was on full parade.

Cockerill is clearly driven and less content to milk trends towards over-accelerating his career prematurely. He’s in it for the long run and new songs like “Poets“ and “The Trick With Your Heart (Part 3)“ bear witness to his commitment to truly matter as an artist with something to say.

Things got off to a slow start, playing to a too-talkative crowd and keeping things decidedly low-energy, blending songs from both Cockerill’s debut and the new band release.

Beyond confident, content to focus intently on his art, Cockerill & Co. seemed to be playing to themselves to some extent – until you realize that these arrangements do require full concentration to deliver them as accurately as they did. Leading with a new song, “Running”, its slow-paced delivery seemed at odds with the room but the more the noisy scene-sters talked, the more Cockerill appeared to realign his focus on his band, leading them through the new material like a proud father.

Consisting of a skin-tight rhythm section in Devon Henderson (bass) and Rich Knox (drums), together with new keyboardist Aaron Comeau and Matt Bailey on guitar, they play together like they’ve been doing it for decades. One of the debut’s more interesting ballads is “A Dream Where I Break Horses”. It’s a stand-out studio track with powerful lyrics but, live, it featured some epic guitar work from both Cockerill and Murphy, lending it a ‘bigger’ sound and visions of the latter-day dB’s came into view.

“Fox Hollow” from Cockerill’s first record unleashed a strong C&W shuffle while “God Help Us All” took on a strong, somewhat surprising reggae twist, revealing the strength of the rhythm team of Henderson-Knox (and the harmonic shortcomings of Comeau). The band hit its stride with “Dance With You”, a mid-tempo country rocker that focused the crowd on why they’d come.

Likewise, the new release’s “The Trick With Your Heart (Part 3)” rattled a few rafters and added twinkle to the red lights glaring from the eye sockets of the cattle skulls behind them.

The second set was an altogether different affair – the first three songs kicking the energy of the room into overdrive. “All You Need To Break Your Heart” followed “Hey Bartender”, both off Cockerill’s debut, segued into the sultry “Poets” with its pure pop feel, buttressed by ringing guitars and a rocking rhythm section.

A so-far-unrecorded “Our Country” proved another highlight of the evening as Murphy and Cockerill’s guitars chimed in unison, Cockerill relaxing his artiste mode to jam facing Knox’s crisp drumming.

Another killer track off Animal Parts, “I Won’t Ever Let You Down”, has a chorus that injects itself under your skin like a fall burr, as the band’s vocal abilities rose to the occasion across another memorable pop song.

The fat, honky-tonk beat that was “What Our Love Is” brought out the dancers while an odd acoustic number chronicling a show-down with a squirrel – “Are You Man?” – only served to add fervor to the request for a spirited encore. The band delivered the goods with a spot-on cover of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” as the audience lent their voice to Cockerill’s uncanny Lennon impersonation.

With the cattle skulls as backdrop and the bandana tucked into the back pocket of his jeans the only remaining clues to his Calgarian roots, Cockerill is an artist fast outgrowing his roots and is clearly capable of taking his music anywhere he wants to – and did.

You just can’t help get the feeling he’s going somewhere special and, with the release of this next chapter in the saga, he and his young band are a good part of the way there already.

See also: Thoughtful, articulate Joshua Cockerill

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Robyn Dell‘Unto • Meredith Shaw • Andrew Austin

The Painted Lady, Toronto  Wednesday, August 22nd

Coming off the release of I’m Here Every Night, it’s clear that the opportunities to see Robyn Dell’Unto perform are not exactly regular. She plays rather sporadically to her pocket of dedicated fans – yet she is clearly destined for greatness.

Currently woodshedding her second release, Oh My Spinning Wheel, which is in mid-recording for an early ‘13 release, Dell’Unto takes advantage of these opportunities to test-drive her new music alongside the ‘old’. To call her a Little Pop Genius would be too limiting. Anyone who enjoys smart, well-written pop music – but delivered with rich production values and seasoned technique that belies her youthful age, would do well to check her out.

The 13 songs on I’m Here Every Night are ripe with fresh flavour, hook-handy and proving to be – so far – extra long-lasting in their appeal. It might be interesting to note that her music has been picked up by major TV and movie productions, making its way onto soundtracks of Degrassi, Being Erica and Disney’s Harriet The Spy.

This clearly isn’t the brand of pop that sticks with you like a bad cold and then gets flushed away. The high caliber of its composition commits it to memory over the long haul – and herein lies her key appeal.

The trick is, however, can these bouncy, well-produced and fully-orchestrated productions work on a solitary stage without a safety net? This was my question, dashed immediately with a simple soundcheck. Clearly this self-proclaimed H&M girl has something special to offer and, with the help of her sister, Jen, and an acoustic guitar, she can pull it off without all the special effects – a tribute to the quality of her sturdy originals and her uncanny talents at delivering them, minus any embellishment.

The first song, “Shake Your Shoes” – a new one – was important, as it established the essence of the young singer-songwriter’s solo style – removed from the relative isolation of a recording studio. Yet, with elfin voice and surprisingly aggressive strumming, she proved a musical force.

The two siblings soared in harmony with “It’s Not Me” (an ode to PMS) and “Hey, Caroline”, complete with convincing do-do-dos and a Pete Townshend finish. The oft-played “Astronaut” was all the better for its stripped down state, eclipsed only by new entry, “I Want To Dance”. Meredith Shaw replaced Jennifer for a Sarah McLachlan cover, “Water Is Wide” that quickly revealed plenty of vocal power from both singers. The hilarious “Teenage Dirtbag” closed the show as an encore, yet the surprising Wheatus cover took on new life as sister rejoined sister for a laugh-filled rendition – another revealing exposé.

Next up was an entirely different kind of singer, Meredith Shaw, sporting a crack 4-piece band. This girl fills a stage with her commanding presence and powerful voice, making it easy to understand the basis for Gordie Johnson’s interest, with whom she has co-written songs for her records and for his, touring with Big Sugar on occasion.

 

Needless to say, her musical palette is highly-charged and rock-based but the doors seem to be open in any category for a big voice with effortless control. She’s seductive, she’s hurtin’, she can holler and she can apparently hold her own with the boys. Then again, spending quite a few weeks on a tour bus with the all-male cast of Big Sugar and Wide Mouth Mason, she’d likely have to (although she’d likely be the last to blush).

“Come Back Baby” announced her claim to a power pop sound with a sturdy rock edge, aided by two strong backup singers in (main) guitarist Patrick Ballantyne and (rhythm) guitarist Kori Kameda. However, Shaw’s rock side softened into a country-esque hue with “Even If You Don’t Know Why” and “Not That Easy To Know”, written in Austin, Texas. Guest (Wide Mouth Mason) drummer, Safwan Javed and bassist Jen Benton, segued into a tight, reggae-fired “Acted Badly” followed by two of Shaw’s strongest songs in “Happy” and “Girls Who Believe”. She had barely broken a sweat and her time was up.

I’d never heard of Andrew Austin – a towering figure with a well-worn acoustic guitar and a lived-in jacket. Toronto-based and Sarnia-born, this gentle giant sheepishly started his set with a series of highly rhythmic originals, delivered with a strong voice reminiscent of Martin Sexton or John Martyn with a bit of Dave Matthews’ spirit to his presentation – each sharing the same upbeat, feel-good, jam-pop spirit that proves infectious.

Somewhat of a ‘chick magnet’, he played to his rapt audience of well-wishers, introducing a body of songs that bore his own distinctive stamp. His career began in earnest in 2006 and he has since released a solo record and an EP, the popularity of which allowed him to build a band and mount a Canada-wide tour. A sophomore release is on the way. Like Dell’Unto, Austin’s music has found some success being picked up by television and advertising interests and the promise of being included in an upcoming major film release, all of which helps pay for those bitchin’ togs.

Highlights included self-penned songs like “The Winding Wheel”, the telling “Here Comes The River” and the highly propulsive “Love Like This Again”.

One of the more surprising moments came in the form of a heartfelt cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” while he closed out with 4 songs each more powerful than the last: “Message”, “It Ain’t This Town”, “Phantom Limb” and “Missile”.

He still looks like a big kid in his Dad’s jacket, but you’ll be hearing from this talented character who abuses his guitar like a demonized rocker and sports an exceptionally smooth voice, comfortable with both ends of the spectrum. He’s too big a talent to miss.

Photography: Eric Thom

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