Category Archives: Performance

Michael Jerome Browne and Lindsay May

Michael Jerome Browne and Lindsay May

Free Times Café, March 7, 2014

These two artists happened to meet each other at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas where they were both New Folk Finalists in 2012, so when Lindsay had an option to share a bill, Michael answered the call. I had only sampled Lindsay’s talents via her website, proving she was loaded with potential, while any chance to see Michael redefine the blues in his old-school way, count me in. Their music may be dissimilar yet this often makes for a good night out.

Michael Jerome BrownOpening the show with his usual gaggle of antique and home-hewn instruments, MJB simply ran through a thumbnail of his greatest influences, adding his personal spin to all he has learned. Blending the immortal traditions of yesteryear with seamless and equally timeless originals, any occasion spent listening to Mr. Browne is equal parts educational and wholly entertaining.

Michael Jerome Browne SlideFrom Charlie Lincoln’s “Country Breakdown” to Peetie Wheatstraw’s “Six Weeks Old Blues”, he updates us on everything from nicknames to the particular barnyard manners of each lauded practitioner, gaining precious context for the times while revealing Browne’s personal inspirations from each of them. As Browne rips into his own “Guitar Mama” from Drive On, we learn that his love of Memphis Minnie helped galvanize his penchant for slide guitar, amongst other things. His use of slide on Muddy Waters’ own “My Life Is Ruined” breaks away into an evening highlight – the traditional “Reuben” revealing its African roots compliments of his gourd guitar. Dipping back into a song penned by Richard M. Jones, resuscitated by Roscoe Holcomb’s high lonesome sound, “Trouble In Mind” transfers old-tyme into good times in record time. Switching over to fiddle, Browne resurrects his Acadian counterpart with Canray Fontenot’s waltzing “Les plats sont tous mis sur la table”, segueing into his own “La contredanse à Tit-Browne”. A quick set change to 12-string guitar, Browne’s passion for Blind Willie McTell is obvious in his treatment of “Broke Down Engine Blues”, making his 12-string sing.

Michael Jerome Brown FiddleSongster Dick Justice’s “Black Bog Blues” lends a strong stringband feel while MJB’s treatment of Bill Jackson’s “Long Steel Rail” underlines the never-ending value of traditional music. Browne’s own “Remember When” – a new composition – taps into his strengths in defining country soul, accompanying himself with more powerful 12-string before closing by emulating another guitar idol in Blind Blake and his “Too Tight Blues”, exorcising Blake’s own haunting instrumental style.

Linda May mandoTough act to follow yet, palate cleansed by sale-priced Creemore, the Shuswap’s Lindsay May represents an entirely different sort of act – folk-based but somewhat experimental, having earned her that elusive “alt-country/Americana” tag. Not entirely accurate, Lindsay’s live performance differs greatly from her recorded works. She clearly aims for more of a pop vein, with thoughtful lyrics grafted to memorable melodies. Some songs stand head and shoulders above others – each clearly redefined and reworked as the solo performer reinvents them, accompanying herself on numbers traditionally given life by multiple musicians. Adept on guitar and mandolin alike, she covers a lot of ground, stylistically, with the strength and flexibility to make it happen. Like Browne, she’s a wanderer in the troubadour tradition yet, unlike Browne, she’s still seeking a solo style to call her own and it’s clearly evolving. Equipped with an engaging stage presence and a sincere gift for gab, she’s also blessed with a larger-than-life voice and the enthusiasm to drive it home, commanding complete attention. Yet the magic is found in the softer numbers like the bluesy “I Want A Love” with its rhythmic chug and the quieter-still “Girl With Grit” – a theme song if ever there was one. Some songs – which she’s been successful with – seemed somewhat oversold, her voice tending to overpower the experience at times. “Shimmer” – a lovely song from her ’12 release of the same name – became almost theatrical, her vocal over-the-top at times. The effervescent “Bittersweet” – from her debut – suffered a somewhat bombastic showbiz attack despite it becoming a singalong number. “Nashville” – one of her strongest songs – barely survived its disproportionate intensity where the laidback “Tell Me Everything” came off as slightly self-indulgent, very unlike its recorded counterpart, wrapped in harmonies and stinging lap steel guitar. It’s all a matter of control. May’s voice is beautiful – with multi-faceted qualities that can carry you in many directions at once. Yet her best qualities are heard when she’s able to dispense her voice in softer measure, more effective when she incorporates more space around it. Take “Lie To You”, for example. It shone in her care, peeled back and toned down – an exceptional song in her canon. And marvel at what she does with her original music on both Shimmer and Girl with Grit. Fronting a well-rehearsed band, she’d blow you away and she’s got more power and energy than a stage this small could ever withstand.

Lindsay May 2A hell-bent-for-success songwriter, she’ll make it, based on her accomplishments. And when these two Kerrville veterans joined for the encore, May seemed to relax as Browne assumed the key guitar role. As a result, “Star In The Sky” proved another highlight. The net takeaway is that Lindsay May has the goods but may not be entirely comfortable in her own skin quite yet – all by herself and alone on a stage. She writes great songs, has the ability to realize them with quality arrangements. The only missing ingredients are time and mileage.

As expected, a great night out – and a tasty glimpse of two inspiring performers, each approaching their game from slightly different angles.

Photography by Eric Thom

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David Bradstreet at Winterfolk

DavidFive560Black Swan (February 15th, 2014)

Each of us carries specific music markers – music that triggers certain memories or helps to recall events in our lives – personal revelations that stand out in our personal pantheons of music-listening mirth. For me, it’s Jeff Beck’s guitar part in “Over Under Sideways Down” or the authoritative muscle behind Lightfoot’s acoustic guitar as it blasts its way through his “Canadian Railway Trilogy”; the distinctive ring of Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker guitar on “Eight Miles High” or Stan Rogers’ hair-raising, a capella treatment of “Northwest Passage” – countless personal touchstones that cut through the din. Each has the restorative power of rekindling thoughts of where you were and what you were doing when each was committed to memory.

I have another distinctly Canadian example which shines brightly. I was accompanied through my formative university years by a pair of David Bradstreet albums – part of a permanent playlist while working in the record shops of yesteryear – his self-titled debut and Dreaming in Colour. As familiar as spring and fall, they became an ongoing soundtrack which has forever locked in those early life experiences which will remain fond recollections in perpetuity. And then, as a favoured artist, I lost him. His albums vanished from my ongoing repertoire as I ventured into other musical genres, back and forth. I never really forgot David Bradstreet – I just “changed the channel” over the years. Records gave way to CDs and radio formats turned their back on music in favour of big business while the entire culture of the record store – and that of a faithful, buying public – morphed into something else.

DavidEight*5606Minding my business one day, I heard it – “one way or the other, Maggie, we’ll pull through…” and it all came flooding back. Canadian bedrock. Mining his own singer-songwriting territory, Bradstreet was no more straight-ahead folk artist than Fleetwood Mac was rock. Armed with the perfect voice, blessed with an elastic range and always accompanying himself with an elaborate, distinctly neo-classical guitar sound, Bradstreet’s debut was less a solo venture than it was a collaboration of like-minded artists that, quite remarkably – some 37 years later – hasn’t met the same fate as most of the era’s music. In fact, it has aged rather well, aloft on the backs of strong songs, deft arrangements, Bradstreet’s inimitable voice and dazzling guitar work. Less a solitary statement than a full band concept, songs like the too-short yet unforgettable “Intro,” setting up the aforementioned “One Way Or Another” proved a skillful collision of talents, ripe with piano, mandolin, guitar, organ, strings and full harmonies (featuring no less than Jerry Marotta on drums and soon-to-be-more-famous, Bob Mann, on lead guitar). At its core, however, is Bradstreet’s vocal and guitar. From the still-stunning “Long Long Road” to the infectious “Beresford Street”, Bradstreet proved a force to be reckoned with – earning a Juno for Best New Male Vocalist in ‘77. Many believe Valdy’s “Renaissance” is his masterwork. In fact, it was only on loan from Bradstreet’s body of already impressive material. Cue the intricate guitar intro to “Waiting This Long” and you’d think Segovia, himself, was on loan for the sessions.

It explains why Bradstreet’s work has proven so ageless. Quality. Focus. Talent. At the core of it is a man, his voice and his guitar – which explains why his work has so much validity to this day. His is a voice which is, to me, Canuck bedrock and his mercurial guitar-playing has become even more central to his music. So, when he sings, he always sounds familiar. Familiar special. And when he picks up his Mississippi-birthed Composite Acoustics OX guitar, the magic happens as it always did – except better. A zillion live shows later, today’s David Bradstreet is a master of his skills – the voice, deeper and more richly seasoned in all the right places­ – and as range-friendly as ever; his fingerstyle guitar-playing abilities simply jaw-dropping in their complexity and overall tone – both parts together creating an hypnotic aural weave of intricate, satisfying parts.

DavidEleven560At this year’s Winterfolk, I was fortunate to be front and centre to bear witness to “what the old man had left.” Imagine my surprise. As if by fate, he opened with “One Way Or Another” from his debut, followed by the truly haunting “Apparition.” Penned with Robert Priest, Bradstreet’s “Imagine Me Home” is on par with the best work he’s ever done, with a drop-dead hook, plenty of range to challenge his sturdy vocals and guitar work that – in a word – dances. A blend of simple to complex, it’s a Nashville-bound piece, found on his ‘06 Lifelines album, that will likely prove impossible to perform for anyone other than its originator. An obscure Moe Ewert song, “Blues Is Like Shoes” followed, proving a great vehicle for Bradstreet’s resonant voice, on the heels of an intimate song dedicated to his folks – “The Travelling Ones” – and one of the evening’s highlights. It’s his boyhood saga, telling of his parents emigrating from Britain, bringing their young son to Canada in ’56 (found on his release with bassist Carl Keesee, 08/20/10).

One of the secret ingredients in a live Bradstreet show is the unexpected storytelling that closes each song or sets up the next. A hilarious tale of a sidebar trip to Antartica and a chance meeting with a lonely penguin proved suitable introduction to “Storm Comes” (from Renaissance, ’98). Beginning with what seemed an Indian chant, the song builds in strength matched to its thunderous guitar chords, working with the rhythms of Bradstreet’s robust vocal – another head-turning performance. The title track from “Lifelines” followed – an uptempo, blues-hued track chronicling the difficulties of leaving home and coming of age in current times – an epic song building on sizeable thoughts. Closing a criminally short set (the first slot of a bill with Lynn Miles, Ron Hynes and Jack de Keyser), Bradstreet reached out to a John Martyn track – “May You Never,” inducing the full house into an animated singalong, making the most of the song’s positive message and its crowd-friendly chorus. This set would prove very hard to beat, serving as a personal reminder to never let a favourite artist get lost again. Ever.

DavidNine560Whatever he plans on doing next – whether it’s producing a new prodigy like the young Mira Meikle, an older prodigy like Robert Priest or scoring yet another Juno-award-winning instrumental album in the name of therapeutic care, I’ll be there.

Photography by Eric Thom

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Review: Del Barber with Ridley Bent

Del Barber 1A year ago – on a similar, wickedly cold night in downtown Toronto, I was happily touring the top floors of the Delta Chelsea during last year’s Folk Alliance, when I happened to luck into a “Manitoba Room” featuring a collection of artists – some I knew (Cara Luft), some I didn’t (Del Barber). Taking turns showcasing their songs, Del Barber played something called “Waitress” – which blew me away. So, as his solo show came through Hugh’s Room almost a year later (February 6, 2014), I had to be there.

Opening the show was someone who seemed an odd duck: Ridley Bent. Odd if only because of his choice of hat – which, unlike the cowboy look of his Buckles & Boots release, lent him a 50’s sitcom look, reminiscent of an odd uncle rather than anything as familiar as any singer-songwriter hailing from the Left Coast.

Ridley Bent 560His first song, from the aforementioned record, did little to distinguish him with his soft voice and rudimentary accompaniment on acoustic guitar. And then he did the unthinkable – he rapped his way through the lyrics of “Smokin’ Again,” blending country to hip-hop, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Even more unthinkable – it worked! Revealing a sly sense of humour through witty lyrics and sideways smiles, Bent’s next assault was, in the form of a co-write with Dustin Bentall, called “Nine Inch Nails” – becoming one of the only songwriters I know to drop Husker Dü into a lyric. The rappy “Devil at the Crossroads” further demonstrated the Bent twist – a subtle shifting of rhythms against continuous, rolling lyrics that don’t quit. “Cry” – another co-write with Bentall – is a breakup song that picked up the energy with its “Cry Cry Cry” refrain while “Crooked and Loaded” saw him bite into his acoustic guitar with true grit. “Faded Red Hoodie” proved a funky little folk song while “Revenge” – the third song of a trilogy – proved a set highlight, as did the distinctive, hilarious “Suicidewinder” with its litany of pop culture landmarks throughout its chorus. Something different – and somebody to keep an eye on – regardless of whatever direction his somewhat eclectic music decides to take him.

Note the upgraded treatment of the noteworthy “Arlington” in video form.

Del Barber 2As for Del Barber, there appear to be two of him. His appearance on CBC’s Q the following morning, supported by a talented band, and the musicians he records with, presented a very polished act with songs fully orchestrated and arranged into rich, full compositions. However, it’s the solo singer-songwriter who presents the strongest showing – matching ironclad songs to an energetic personality in complete control of his music. Key to the success of his shows is the degree of storytelling Barber invests into each song selection and, before long, you’re entirely sold on his personal take on life, if not the man himself. Often referred to in bios and reviews as a “winsome” figure, Barber presents a more worldly, slightly darker personality than the sweetness or innocence that term might imply. He’s been living down on the farm far longer than that – projecting, instead, a wily, youthful energy that erupts onstage with each song. At times, Barber combines strong elements of John Prine – even sounding like him on colourful, descriptive numbers like “Right Side of the Road“ and “Hen House Manifesto.“ At the same time, he’s a passionate performer with a natural gift on guitar – alternating aggressive, fingerstyle acoustic guitar with his full, country-tinged vocals. It’s a powerful combination and Barber has full command of his stage, forcing the listener to realize that this Winnipeg native is surely going somewhere with his craft.

Del Barber 3His fourth and latest record, Prairieography, was clearly his key focus with brilliant new songs like the upbeat (with a hint o’ Prine-like humour) “Country Girl” and the gentle love song, “Peter and Jenny Lee,” rendered as a story and delivered with extreme, face-contorting commitment. The studio version may drip with the added sentiment lent by pedal steel and percussion, but Barber’s ability to render it powerfully – all by his lonesome – is a key strength. Likewise, songs like the highly personal “Big Smoke” – shaking his guitar for full tremolo effect – and the high-energy, dead-end trance of “Living With a Long Way to Go” further establish his talents. Of course, his signature “The Waitress” proved a highlight, Marge’s bittersweet toast to a sad life well-wasted. The fast flurry of lyrics comprising the country-folk of “Hen House Manifesto” with its chicken-picked guitar gave way to an encore, featuring another key song from the new record, “All That It Takes,” delivered with natural swagger. Just for good measure – for anyone not already convinced of his guitar-playing prowess – Barber tackled the ultimate master and influence with a vibrant, aggressive cover of no less than Richard Thompson and his legendary “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” doing a spectacular job of keeping his fingers from flying off the ends of his wrists ­– playing the classic with absolute passion and without a hint of intimidation by the lofty original. And it’s this balls-to-the-walls attitude which distinguishes the prairie-bred upstart from the typical singer-songwriter. Wearing his Winnipeg roots proudly on his sleeve, he boldly embraces the warmth of analog recording to the point of adding reverb to his most recent record by running the mix through the acoustics of an actual grain silo. Add in elaborate instrumentation and tasteful harmony vocals might show his followers what is possible, but it’s the bare-naked songs themselves – and Barber’s ability to bring them to life in the time-honoured tradition of serving them up in front of an audience of real people – that will distinguish him in the long run.

Photography: Eric Thom

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Review: Dave Gunning with Mira Meikle

Dave_Gunning_topIt’s always been an elusive challenge – to try to put words together in an attempt to define “the Canadian sound.” For me – and it is personal – this challenge was best met in the sound and feelings I derived from Stan Rogers. Not because he died young and not because he achieved more status than some. But because of his words and his ability to stir something in my heart that made me feel…Canadian. And like most, I pigeonholed Stan as an east coaster because of those words – surely the mind responsible for an epic song like “Northwest Passage” had to have come from a man of the sea – rather than the Hammer-born boy he was. But, in the end, it didn’t matter. The feelings were the same no matter where he hailed from – the pride spilled out either way.

And so it is with Dave Gunning. Shy, self-deprecating and hilarious in his low-key way, he is instantly larger-than-life in his ability to tell a story, to arouse a flood of emotion through his colorful descriptions of everyday life and in his ability to infuse a sense of history through material which demonstrates a love for common people. His delivery is equally powerful – although he’d be mortified by any comparison to Stan or fellow east-coaster John Allan Cameron – both of whom are major influences of Gunning’s since having seen them together in his very first concert.

After a warm greeting to the gathered faithful on February 1st at Acoustic Harvest/Robinson Hall on an icy-cold, blizzard-blessed evening, Gunning began with “Big Shoes” from We’re All Leaving, his hard whisper of a vocal blending nicely with his acutely expert abilities on acoustic guitar. Happy to credit his co-writers on every occasion, the song “Hard Workin’ Hands,” co-written with Ron Hynes, registered the power of a good song – with harmonies happening automatically in your head, despite the fact the song is being delivered by a lone singer. More hilarious stories ensued, with “Made On A Monday” serving to define Gunning’s own procreation in explanation for  “things not working out exceptionally well.” Feeling the need to insert  “a hanging song” into the program, “Before the Morning Sun” – co-written with James Keelaghan – proved anything but mournful, further demonstrating Gunning’s understated guitar skills in the bargain. From a story involving co-writing a song with George Canyon, Gunning reworked it into what became – on this occasion – a tribute to the late Pete Seeger, leading the audience in a spirited sing-along (the first of many) with “These Hands,” one of the first songs from Gunning’s latest CD, No More Pennies. Next up, from the same release, “A Game Goin’ On,” the song co-written with David Francey which had just scored big by winning the CBC/NHL’s Song Quest competition, Gunning’s driving guitar and high-energy delivery going far to explain its perfect fit to the game we love.

Dave_Guning_middleA short break – rendered more enjoyable as Gunning spent some time talking to fans – was followed up with Gunning’s hilarious observations from having attended Stompin’ Tom’s funeral and memorial. Clearly another musical hero, Gunning paid tribute by playing Tom’s wife, Lena’s, favourite Stompin’ Tom composition, “Song Bird Hill,” as he had done in Peterborough. Gunning noted the destruction of the environment by a paper plant in his own Pictou area, his conservation efforts inspired by Connors’ lead. Again, it’s stories of people, places and local events that provide the grist for Gunning’s mill. No more so than the evening’s greatest song, Gunning’s own prize-winning “Prince of Pictou” – which plays with historical elements and local hearsay to create an unforgettable character and one of the saddest stories ever told. The backgrounders into the beginnings of each of Gunning’s songs, as he provides them, have the power to illuminate each lyric in his song, rendering each one all the more gratifying. Like the simple story about a crooked clothesline post which lead to “Fade on the Line” – a song relating a dilapidated house to a lost love, mirroring the spectre of a deteriorated relationship. Or a song originally co-written about the migration of east coast workers to Alberta with Matt Andersen for Andersen’s latest release (“Alberta Gold”), evolving it into a similar theme for his own “Living In Alberta.” A song to celebrate the extreme cold of the Maritime winters, “When the Cold Weather Comes,” nicely set up a beautiful story surrounding poverty in the east coast with “Coal From the Train.” Here, railway workers – including his grandfather – would routinely shovel excess coal off the train cars for those hoping to gather it up to help offset the intense cold in their ramshackle homes. Emotions are tugged at, chests are pounded and out of the highs and lows of Gunning’s depiction of real life, you’re treated to a night of entertainment not easily forgotten. When you take songs of this calibre and record them, as he has, with the added hues of carefully selected instruments, the solo experience – from whence they came – proves all the more out-of-the-ordinary. Acoustic Harvest, indeed.

Mira MeikleOpening the show was a too-young-to-be-so-talented artist named Mira Meikle who, quite shyly, approached her electric piano and sat down in what seemed – understandably – a form of suspended animation. In an instant, three songs emerged from her tiny frame – her voice and accompaniment immediately announcing a special gift to be reckoned with. Three songs later (available for listening on her website) “Strongman,” Chameleon” and especially the rock-solid “You Always Lose,”  the seemingly far-reaching references she’s been receiving – to such giants as Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Laura Nyro – aren’t so far away after all. More like Josienne Clarke, June Tabor or even Diane Birch, perhaps but at the tender age of 13, she’s got room to move. Currently under the care and tutelage of David Bradstreet, her name won’t be a secret for long.

Photos: Eric Thom

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The Terry Gillespie Band: Review

TerryLyndell**5465_560Dominion on Queen, Toronto
Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

Blesséd be the mould-breakers, someone surely said…because they have the power to change the way we think. Many of us have been trained, for the most part, to believe that successful bands are built around a front man or woman – as if this central focal point might make a group more interesting. This is especially true in the blues – as if the music, itself, is not sufficiently sturdy enough to entice a listener without having to rely on a stellar voice or standout instrumentalist. With respect to this band, that conclusion couldn’t be further from reality. Because, as the snow flew outside the warm, congenial interior of this Toronto pub, four musicians worked some magic, dispelling the notion that a real band is less than the true sum of its parts.

Terry GillespieI was aware of the fact that Terry Gillespie is a seasoned guitarist and can sing (a too-rare combination, as a rule) but I didn’t realize he plays his role as more camp director than your typical showman. He prays at the Church of the Groove and nothing else appears to be as important – period. Likewise, his band attends the same church:

Peter Measroch

Peter Measroch, a dizzying flurry of fingers over a dual keyboard, jumping from acoustic piano to swelling B3 in a heartbeat;

LyndellMontgomeryBass560

Lyndell Montgomery fiddle

Lyndell Montgomery, a multi-instrumentalist and singer as comfortable flicking her fingers up and down an electric bass as she is plucking and bowing the strings of a fiddle;

Wayne Stoute

and Wayne Stoute, a drummer’s drummer who goes well beyond keeping time – using his elaborate, jazz-informed attack to call out orders to corral the antics of his band-mates into some sort of organized order.

The resulting chemistry makes for a night of music-listening to change all the rules of a downtown Saturday night: from old favourites, reinvented by artists who love to play, to new songs enjoying the eclectic and inventive contributions from each of them. Terry Gillespie and his band have something special to offer – music you might not have heard before and certainly, if you have, it’s served up with ingenious twists and turns. The set-list, itself, was a revelation packed with truly offbeat and wide-ranging covers mixed with equally solid originals. It’s not often a band does both well ­– but these guys can. At the same time, there’s another ingredient that solidifies the experience. Mistakes. Their dedication to serving the groove is not without some off notes – entirely forgivable from a band who clearly plays from the heart. Not unlike early Faces or any number of early Brit-pop acts, the net result is all the more engaging and part of their charm. Gillespie commands a superior range of vocals for a singer, let alone a guitar player. There are moments when he’s slightly off – but he’s not long in getting back on. The same holds true of his guitar work. He’s not one to lean back and peel into a scorching riff to save the day or steal the focus from his bandmates. He is, rather, a solid team player with tasteful slide where it counts or a flurry of finger-work to complement the song rather than stroke his own ego. As such, he’s an equal partner and an encyclopedia of music history, taking the listener along on a guided tour that covered blues, rock, soul, funk, reggae and folk.

Terry Gillespie Harp Beginning with a rousing treatment of JB Lenoir’s “Round and Round”, Gillespie was quick to impress with his resonant vocals and a band who clearly hold the Stax legend high. Their take on John Lee Hooker’s “Want Ad Blues” underlined the distinctive blues flavouring of Gillespie’s most recent release, Bluesoul – yet it was followed by a track from Brother of the Blues, “Rue Guy Boogie”. Half tongue-in-cheek, Gillespie added harp to this upbeat, horns-free version. Yet none of this properly prepared the audience for a stand-out cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Check Out Your Mind” – a funky throwback to a lost era of neo-psychedelia that made the most of all four players – notably Measroch’s keyboard swells, Montgomery’s jazz-informed basslines, Stoute’s authoratitive drumming and Gillespie’s clear, confident vocals – each sitting comfortably in the fat groove they had built. Difficult as this might be to follow, a slowed-down version of Chuck Berry’s “No Money Down” featuring some inspired interplay between guitar and keyboards, demonstrated the band’s ability to take total control over a song to make it their own. Another stand-out track was preceded by a story about listening to Dave Van Ronk (the folksinger who inspired Inside Llewelyn Davis)– Gillespie enjoys great rapport with his audience, often explaining the background to each song – following it with a slightly Caribbean twist on Van Ronk’s version of “Tell Old Bill”, Stoute improvising on percussion with two oversized beer-can shakers for full ‘island’ effect while bassist Montgomery switched over to fiddle, plucking it to achieve a mandolin sound. Transitions to his own material proved seamless.  “Brother of the Blues” from Gillespie’s ‘06 release of the same name gave way to the stunning “Magnolia Tree” off the latest – each sounding like they were all cut from the same set-list cloth. The former began with a mellow, B3-bass-guitar stew that changed attitude and picked up speed while the delicate “Magnolia Tree” is largely a gentle duet between guitar and piano as Gillespie’s elastic vocal style recalled a blend of Eric Clapton to Colin Hay. Another original proved a big highlight – “What Would Bo Diddley Do” is as much tribute as it is a fire-starter for the rock’n’roll cause. Cue the dancers. The new “The Devil Likes To Win” locked into a solid blues groove while Tom Waits’ “Theme From The Wire” added Montgomery on fiddle, stabbing it ferociously with her bow, followed by a reggae treatment of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (Montgomery returning on scorching fiddle). A jazzy treatment of Little Milton’s “Welcome to the Club” and Junior Wells’ “Little By Little” – pumped up by the band leader’s signature, one-handed harp – provided a crystal-clear illustration of Gillespie’s informed, creative range.

TerryLyndell560Following a short break, the band was back with more songs – notably his own “Big Boy”, his half-spoken “It Wasn’t Me” and a highly Dylanesque “Legendary Life”, capped off by – once again – a keeper cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” that was so utterly captivating, it should become their permanent theme. A piano-led instrumental of “Soweto” by South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim served to underline Measroch’s far from subtle, sizeable role within the band. Closing with the Allman’s take on Willie Cobb’s “You Don’t Love Me” invited an encore, transforming their own “Those Days Are Gone” into a full bar sing-along. It was obvious to all in attendance that Terry Gillespie and his talented band are the furthest thing possible from your “typical blues band” – a fact which should surely shower them with much promise for 2014 and beyond.

Photos by: Eric Thom

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Lindi Ortega

Lindi OrtegaGreat Hall, Toronto: Thursday, October 24th

As a young boy, I grew up loving cowboys – Sugarfoot, Paladin, the Lone Ranger and the Cartwright clan. Had I known better, I’d have paid much more attention to cowgirls. Lindi Ortega is a cowgirl and a homegrown success story – if only because she’s stuck to her guns and done things her way. Recently transposed to Nashville for the good of her career, this was an enthusiastic return to play to her hometown crowd. As difficult as it must be to perform in front of friends and peers, it has to be even more awkward to do so in front of one’s family members, suitably ensconced in the Great Hall’s upper balcony. Add in song lyrics from new Tin Star originals such as “Lived and Died Alone” ­ – in which the protagonist speaks fondly of digging up and making love to the dead –and you’ve clearly got yourself a no-holds-barred party. The self-proclaimed Gypsy Child has matured greatly over the past few years and, ably assisted by little more than her guitarist, James Robertson, and her drummer, Tristan Henderson, this well-rehearsed trio ripped up the oversized stage in no uncertain terms. Both musicians are exceptional – Henderson does more with one tom-tom than most can do with a complete set while Robertson pulls in the lion’s share of the sound shaping, his ferocious guitar-skills conjuring everything from a Spanish flamenco to a wall of squalling feedback and lightning-fast fingerwork, whether approximating Carl Perkins or Rick Richards; Duane Eddy or Sonny Burgess. Ortega, no slouch herself, works hard on acoustic and electric guitar, providing some of the evening’s best moments accompanying herself on electric piano.

Show-openers, Matt Goud (aka Northcote) and Blake Enemark, charged up the crowd – the Victoria-based, singer-songwriter having emerged from hardcore band Means. With many members of the audience familiar with his hyper-energetic brand of punk-charged, singer-songwriter fare, there was sweat to spare in record time ­– but not enough time to bask in their spirited, mood-making intro.

Lindi Ortega took to the stage with little fanfare – aside from the tumultuous cheers from the crowd, transforming the packed room into a Queen for a Day homecoming celebration, much to her heartfelt delight. Beginning with the semi-autobiographical title track from her latest record, Tin Star (watch official video below), Ortega was clearly singing to the converted and, as she encountered the faces of friends or fans mouthing the lyrics, her radiant smile cast a sincere glow from the stage. Clearly, she’s no “nobody”, despite how her move to Nashville may have made her feel. Upping the honky-tonk, “Hard As This” drew further crowd response as Robertson cranked the tremolo to Henderson’s fat ’n’ frisky beat. Introducing her friend, Satan, Ortega launched into one of her signature tunes, “Little Lie”, providing another highlight against a backdrop of Robertson’s powerful effects and incendiary guitar pyrotechnics. The comparatively laidback “Waitin’ On My Luck To Change” worked well with acoustic guitars, minus its piano and steel guitar arrangement. Charging out of the gate like a runaway Johnny Cash hit, “Voodoo Mama” proved another launching pad for Robertson’s wall-o’-sound guitar while, a moving dedication of “Gypsy Child” in honour of her parents, aptly chronicled the red-booted wanderer’s journey and likely coached a loving tear from the Family Ortega.

The aforementioned “Lived and Died Alone” was a highlight – both because it seems to summarize where Ortega has stationed herself musically – a slightly irreverent crossroads between rockabilly and outlaw country, blending in a saucy, dark Mexican piquante as befits her surname, served up with some well-intentioned punkish attitude – and because she’s not shy about parlaying a strong, sassy, sexual persona into everything she does, which works famously. Both Johnny Dowd and Rosie Flores would be proud to hear this song. Moving to the rear of the stage while her band-mates took a break, she broke into a rousing version of the Eagles’ “Desperado”, accompanying surprisingly herself well on electric piano.) As the band returned for an unidentified song about Houdini called “Cold Dark Ashes” followed by the wildly frothy “I Want You” with its guitar wallop and spaceship-like feedback, Ortega’s vocals proved a bit intense for the sound system, distorting slightly. Back on board with the slow grind of “Demons Don’t Get Me Down” followed by the euphoric-sounding “High”, which called for hyper-tremelo’d guitars and cymbal washes to set the mood before the teeth-kicking furor of the amped-up “All These Cats” – a high-torque, lyric-lashing, rockabilly powerhouse. Taking a brief intermission, the band returned with – speaking of Johnny Cash – a rip-snorting version of “Ring of Fire” seguing into an equally-animated take on Sonny & Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) – Robertson adding loops, effects and multiple, stinging solos. A quick retreat back to the piano, Ortega delivered an impassioned version of “Songs About” from Tin Star, as Robertson’s guitar effects approximated an orchestra to Henderson’s steady pulse – Ortega’s voice cutting even deeper on the more mellow numbers. Likewise, the slower “Cigarettes and Truckstops” underlined the realization that Ortega – aside from her obvious skills as a performer – writes and co-writes some exceptional original songs and is rarely credited for the sturdy little songwriter she is.

An encore was a given, the band returning to the hard-chugging, bittersweet ache of  “Day You Die”. A great night out and a reassuring snapshot of a young artist who deserves wider acclaim – with all the skills to get what she wants. Or else.

Photo: Eric Thom

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Anne Janelle/Discoveries

Anne Janelle and James HillNine years ago Jane Harbury started something very special at Hugh’s Room in the form of Discoveries. A labour of love, Jane – publicity maven to the stars – was intent on accomplishing two goals at once: to provide fresh, new musical talent with an opportunity to expose their skills before an adventurous breed of audience lusting for ground-breaking talent – and an affordable night of always-interesting, if not exceptional, musical entertainment. Hugh’s Room is the ideal venue for the requisite intimacy, quality of sound and music-loving clientele it provides, together with its unprecedented reputation for presenting exceptional live music – a perk in the résumé of any up-and-comer. Even Gordon Lightfoot was in the audience, which speaks highly of this consistently excellent event which takes place three times each year.

On October 22nd, I arrived to see and hear a young performer from outside Halifax who bills herself as a “cellist and songstress”. Both true, however, the effervescent Janelle is like no cellist I’ve ever seen and is also gifted with a luscious pop voice that drips like warm, sweet syrup from her lips. Her newest release, So Long At The Fair, is also like nothing else I’ve ever heard – and quite an accomplishment. Visions of balloons, dancing barefoot on the beach, iced tea with Doris Day, bits of faerie music and polka-dot clothing adorn these 12, fanciful tunes which encompass folk, pop, jazz and blues influences, embracing both old-school and new. She plays her cello like Paul McCartney picks his Hoffner – plucking it more like a bass to husband James Hill’s ukulele accompaniment and, on this occasion, adding piano and remarkable vocal support from an equally talented Shelley O’Brien.

The first song, “Waiting” – from Anne’s Beauty Remains disc, proved the perfect vehicle to introduce her voice while the next four songs were comparatively stripped-down arrangements from the new release. The sleepy “Forgive Me” came alive with its hand-clapped percussion and James’ harmonic contributions while “Come Home, Jennie” – one of the highlights from the new disc – enjoyed lush harmonies from the unprecedented combination of O’Brien and Janelle as James Hill delivered great sounds from a uke/dulcimer hybrid played like a lap slide. The jazzy, traditional “Oh Dear” was a natural yet the stunning, 3-part harmonies employed to tackle the dazzling – and challenging – a capella “Black Is The Colour” proved one of the evening’s stellar high points.

Braden Campbell of The Campbell BrotherToronto’s Cameron Brothers Band is a busy, Ontario-based group who have built their following with regular club appearances in the time-honoured tradition. With one release under their belts, they have forged a roots-based sound not unlike a rough version of The Band. Their two secret weapons are keyboard/multi-instrumentalist Aaron Comeau, whose incredible talents seem innate, while singer Emma Harvey adds a distinctive country counterpart to brothers Scott and Braden Cameron, their collective harmony vocals defining the core of their sound. “Modern Day Lovers” provided Harvey with the chance to strut her strong vocal flavour while “Here and Now” gave Comeau the opportunity to build a strong, rootsy groove driven by his exceptional skills on piano. Again, “Who Am I To Say?” was owned by Harvey while a powerful duet between Harvey and Scott Campbell in “East Nashville Blues” proved bittersweet as the Harvey-Campbell component is ultimately moving to Nashville to try their luck in Music City

Meredith Moon at Hugh's Room Toronto’s Meredith Moon is a true diamond in the rough. Endearingly shy, her voice rang true from the first notes of her own “Let Me In (My Man Of Blue)” and although she carries an aura of patchouli oil and somewhat dated hippie-dom, she’s possesses a lovely, full voice and the commitment to make a difference for her many causes. Strumming guitar or dulcimer, her vocals are clearly the star of the show. Despite a slightly out-of-tune guitar, her “Rocky Mountain Blues” revealed a sturdy soprano and enhanced fingerstyle guitar while the beautifully intimate “Womanhood” – despite losing some of the lyrics – proved a highlight of her set. Inviting a friend in fellow singer/guitarist Danielle Rebelle, Moon clearly relaxed as the duo reworked Doc Watson’s “I’ll Fly Away” with stand-out harmonies and rhythmic power. Apologizing for her lack of finesse on the piano, the audience wasn’t quite prepared for Moon’s phenomenal, drop-dead cover of Joni Mitchell’s “The River” – unleashing a vocal strength, spellbinding in its emotive punch, enhancing the already-untouchable original. Her closer, “So I May Never Soar” gave one last glimpse into her potential, rough edges aside and entirely forgotten.

Nicholas Cunha at Hugh's RoomFrom the more formal side of the conservatory comes 17-year old Nicholas Cunha. Knee-deep in music studies at U of T, his young age has nothing to do with his maturity level, turning in a polished show with the deft assistance of Rob Cooper on piano. Already a seasoned crooner of the crushed velveteen jacket set, his brand of easy-listening fare is liberally sprinkled with a strong flare for the broadway musical, delivering on what he refers to as “classical-pop”. A rich, gorgeous voice, he clearly has a gift for performance (with a slight tendency to overreach) and, as he toured through larger-than-life songs by Canadian songwriters – including Vince DeGiorgio’s “I Won’t Be The One” and a one-off track, “The Island”, by Paul Brady – you couldn’t help but appreciate that this guy is definitely going somewhere. Let’s just hope it’s not on a cruise ship as a body-double for Bert Convy. To hear him is to realize he’s something special.

As its name implies, Discoveries more than delivered on its promise. Every audience member received more than they bargained for and were treated to an extraordinary night of great musical performance in a warm, welcoming setting.

Photos by Eric Thom

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Mary Gauthier: Hugh’s Room Oct. 9

Mary GauthierMuch of the press surrounding Mary Gauthier’s progressive, consistent career has revolved around her younger years, when she was a borderline survivor of some of life’s toughest hurdles – as if this is responsible for the success she now reaps. Bottom line and her past aside, she’s a brilliant songwriter with a highly personable demeanour – one who pours absolute passion into each and every song she performs live, as if she was singing it for the first time. She may not have the world’s greatest voice – you can find the odd rough edge in her preferred part-spoken, part-sung delivery. And she’ll likely not grace the cover of Guitarist magazine as one of the world’s greatest guitarists too soon. But that’s not what it’s about. She bashes hell out of her well-worn acoustic, using her chording and her percussive strumming power as an added weapon, as she accentuates each well-chosen, painterly word with a magical power pulsing with warmth and sincerity. When you put it all together and you’d be hard-pressed not to fall in love with her – singer-songwriters don’t get any more genuine than this performer’s performer.

This explains why Tim McGraw, Candi Staton and Blake Shelton scramble to cover her originals while she is regularly praised by no less than John Prine, Dylan and Tom Waits. What she does has been categorized as “Americana Gothic” and “Country Noir,” but mostly she’s just achingly honest  – accessing elements of folk, country, bluegrass, blues and gospel – whatever works best to tell her tale or make her case. Solo, she cuts to the quick of each song, many of which have seen the light of day in various configurations – but they all began life with little more than what her fans were here to see tonight.

Mary Gauthier 2“Between the Daylight and the Dark” started things off – easily an appropriate description of the focus of her work. Following with “For Rose,” Gauthier proved in fine form, chasing it with her wonderful “I Drink” – in exceptional voice – before admitting to the crowd that she “wanted to blow through all the addiction songs up front.” Her hard-strummed take on Fred Eaglesmith’s “Cigarette Machine” (one of three FredHead covers on her latest CD, Live at Blue Rock). A new song, the very sad “Another Train,” brought along an admission that trains act as metaphors for relationships – the comings and goings of the human heart – and that, if we sit and wait long enough, another will come along. The lovely co-write with Gretchen Peters, “It’s How You Learn To Live Alone” was followed by an even more powerful performance of a new song, “When A Woman Goes Cold.” This was delivered with such zest and passion, Gauthier seemed almost spent at the song’s conclusion. But no, she soldiered on with the delicate “Karla Faye” – the sensitized story of a Texas inmate given the death penalty for murder and a soft, gentle rendering of “Our Lady Of The Shooting Stars” – a song she half-claims she stole from Ferron.

One of the evening’s greatest highlights was her powerful portrayal of Steam Train Maury Graham – the patriarch of the hobos (“he looked a lot like Santa – but the day after Christmas”). There’s no better story song than this one, dedicated to a true original who accomplished what the rest of us can only dream of – the last of his kind and worthy of her praise. Speaking of riding the rails and trains, Gauthier also included a touching version of Fred Eaglesmith’s “The Rocket” before launching into a lively version of the song Jimmy Buffett covered that afforded her a new car – “Christmas in Paradise,” a song she definitely lives. This led to a Robert Johnson story and a new song – “Oh Soul,” which questions the infamous deal made at the crossroads – and whether the died-too-soon Johnson ever lamented the decision he’d made. Yet this didn’t prepare us for her upgraded version of  “Wheel Inside A Wheel” – which was played hard, wrapped up in a funky delivery, distanced itself from the original recording in a lively way, driving her parade of souls across the sky with spirited conviction. The expected encore drew her back for one last, deep-cutting tune, “Mercy Now” – a prayer for compassion – the perfect close to a most intimate evening. This night left no question that, as much as you might love her song-writing or her subject matter, it’s the act of seeing and hearing Mary Gauthier deliver these heartfelt songs live which pushes you – entirely – into making her your own.

Photography by: Eric Thom

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Peter Case: The ultimate party guest

  Peter Case at Hugh's RoomHugh’s Room, Toronto, Sept. 23, 2013

At this stage in his 38+ year career, Peter Case remains the ultimate party guest. Shuffling onto the stage in his tweed jacket, music folder in hand, he presents a somewhat disheveled look, not unlike a shorter-haired version of Warren Haynes after a bender, his long, elfin beard resembling something you’d see on a lawn ornament. However, a few phrases into “Put Down The Gun”, delivered with passion as he talked and sang his way through it, Case revealed the rich character that has propelled him through everything he’s done. For many, Case remains a power pop icon. In his essence, as a singer-songwriter, he continues to raise his voice and shake his fist, championing the downtrodden and making a difference with his music. It would seem that he’s happily soaking in the same piss’n’vinegar he started with – and he’s pickling quite nicely, thank you. A brilliant, largely unheralded songwriter – as proven across his tenure as both band leader and solo performer – Case’s other secret ingredient remains his smart, sneering, somewhat nasal, slightly Lennon-esque voice. From “Estella Hotel” with its “garden of earthly delights” to Full Service, No Waiting’s “Crooked Mile”, Case began to open up to his audience, endearingly so, against a backdrop of fingerstyle guitar revealing his deep-rooted love of the blues. Adding a pair of dark, professorial glasses to his wardrobe, he began to blend a little history, telling humourous stories and song-related anecdotes to the delight of the crowd.

Pulling out his 12-string guitar for the comparatively raucous “House Rent Party”, the full sound of his guitar and full-throated vocal proved positively robust, shaking off any dust you might’ve expected from your typical troubadour. Because, although he may now ply his trade on a club-by-club, solo basis, Case has always been a balls-to-the-walls proponent of his power-pop beginnings – from the days of his membership in Moustache Sandwich, Pig Nation, or the more familiar Nerves and the criminally-overlooked Plimsouls. Since then, Case has crafted 11 delicious recordings which have attracted a who’s who of bigger name talent to their making – people who have, as friends or fans, simply wanted to rub shoulders with him. The acid test is, of course, the songs themselves – which are bona fide works of art on a one-to-one basis, but which fully blossom in the context of the musicians he builds around them. Yet, when Case rips into a slow blues beauty like “Old Car Blues”, he stills any room with the superb quality of both his exceptional voice and his accomplished, equally-emotive guitar-playing.

Peter CaseAlways having wanted to be “an itinerant blues singer”, Case acknowledged that he’s really had no drive at all, career-wise, before breaking into “Broke Down Engine” – beginning to have some fun with it. This was followed by two fantastic new compositions – thus far title-less and unrecorded and two of the evening’s high points. Setting up the song, “Walk In The Woods”, Case entertained the crowd with hilarious tales surrounding the sorts of horror stories he has lived in his post-show ‘accommodations’ (to use the word lightly). As he played, you could see him getting lost, trance-like, in the guitar parts, clearly enjoying himself.

Moving over to piano, Case dipped into an older Dylan track, “Black Crow Blues”, and a Jimmy Reed single, “Caress Me, Baby” – both played in a wonderfully bluesy style. With his trusty 6-string in tow, Case performed another of the evening’s highlights in “Underneath The Stars”, followed by another, “Ain’t Gonna Worry No More”. Telling of a song he penned after a Toronto Ultrasound show, later recorded with Richard Thompson, he lit into the spunky “The World Turns Every 24 Hours”, revealing yet another facet of his vocal strengths. By request, he performed what has to be one of his most perfect compositions, “Blue Distance” from Flying Saucer Blues, followed by “Cold Trail Blues”, from the same album, also recorded by Chris Smither. Another Dylan cover, “Long Time Gone”, accompanying himself on 12-string with its full orchestral effect, he closed the show with Robert Johnson’s “Steady Rollin’ Man”, digging into the simple blues classic to mine a hard-played, thick and muddy groove.

He hadn’t quite left the stage before he was called back for more, ending with “The Words In Red” – as if he needed to do anything more to completely win over his rapt audience.

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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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