Category Archives: Performance

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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Rose Cousins makes a spark

Rose Cousins & Guests – The Rivoli, Toronto
Thursday, May 3rd

What is it about live music that gives us that added dimension of whatever-you-call-it, capable of more fully illuminating an artist and their work?

Had I reviewed Rose Cousins’ latest release, I might have disparaged it somewhat for what seemed like an absolute lack of light. It seemed to drag itself down by its own weight, stewed too long in its own juices. But then, exactly as its title promises, We Have Made A Spark.

Out of the murky depths rise songs all the more beautiful for their immersion from the din. On this occasion – in a room packed to the rafters – Rose Cousins delivered what her fans knew she’d deliver. And that almost insignificant spark was fanned to become a light so  bright it fully illuminated the room, penetrating all the souls within it.

It’s so fulfilling to watch a favourite artist come into full bloom. As Rose took the stage all by her lonesome, she seemed almost embarrassed to stand before a house so wall-to-wall full.

Beginning her set with Blue Rodeo’s “Five Days In May”, she was joined by Austin Nevins on guitar and atmospherics and Zachariah Hickman’s warm, acoustic bass for “The Darkness” – revealing the underpinnings of her most introspective release to date.

“The Shell” continued the somewhat dreamy sequence before Cousins made a beeline for the electric Yamaha – her ticket to balladry – as she kicked in with the deep, self-deprecating humour she is loved for.

“One Way” proved a highlight, aided by the rich tapestries issued from Nevins’ guitar. The comparatively upbeat “What I See” – outlining the perils of falling for another songwriter – quickly demonstrated Cousins’ ability to command a stage and her ease of adding so much of herself to each original.

Joined on stage by the beautiful voices of Oh Susanna/Suzie Ungerleider and Ruth Moody (Wailin’ Jennys), the song “All The Stars” transformed mere music into a transcendent collision of rich harmonies and strong, confident leads. Back to the piano – the instrument that brings out the absolute best in Cousin’s voice – “Go First” proved a powerful statement while Ana Egge’s “Shadow Fall” clearly upped the ante in her solo delivery.

The return of the band was marked by the addition of yet another sublime guest vocalist in Robyn Dell’Unto, while the four vocalists and the band took on “For The Best”, elevating the original, which is barely possible.

Clearly a lover of collaboration, Cousins lives the process and, surrounded by friends and confederates, the level of musicianship arced with the intensity of a welder’s torch.

Yet the brightest point in the evening came with the piano-based original, “All The Time It Takes To Wait”. The perfect foil for a perfect voice, Cousins unearthed its raw beauty, adding a sheen of pop elegance, resulting in a purely magical musical moment.

This was followed by the song that gave the album its title – a moment of clarity in the wee hours of morning, “This Light”.

Interjecting a quick, quirky bit of her exaggerated Maritime dialect about “the YouTubes”, breaking up the crowd, Cousins next broke into a gentle cover of a much-loved Springsteen song (“If I Should Fall Behind”), describing its considerable impact on her.

A thunderous applause brought Cousins back for a track from her first album, “Home” – performing it solo, her upper register revealing effortless power. The band returned with her guests for another quiet gem with its slow-breaking, lethal hook – “White Daisies”.

The grand finale came in the form of Adele’s “Rumour Has It”, which quickly evolved into a boisterous, full-fledged soul revue, with Cousins leading the pack like a Patti LaBelle understudy, kicking it up in the wet heat of a Bronx back alleyway. It was hard to determine who was having the most fun – except that the audience clapped the hardest.

Nobody could ask for more. This was something special for everyone involved.

Photography: E. Thom

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Loudon Wainwright III has a lot on his mind

Hugh’s Room, Toronto, Wednesday, May 2nd

It would appear that 65-year old Loudon Wainwright III has a lot on his mind. In fact, the title of his latest release, Older Than My Old Man Now, tips the hat that he’s slightly fixated on death and decay. This comes with aging.

Yet, Loudon is now – and always has been – far from a-molderin’ in his grave. There’s too much going on in his personal life and far too much left to observe and complain about – seemingly reveling in mankind’s continual downward slide.

Few singer-songwriters subject themselves to so much scrutiny and, on occasion, self-mutilation. He does it in fun but his razor-sharp arsenal of tools blur the lines between irony and sarcasm with each satirical, often cynical, observation on life.

The fact that he has made every aspect of his own life and times so public through his work surely works some therapeutic wonder. If nothing else, he’s damned funny. Acid-tongued and acerbic – but very funny.

Touring his latest masterwork, , Wainwright clearly relishes the bonus time he’s got left. This 15-track exercise in stand-up comedy would suffice based on its lyrics alone – yet Loudon is a master entertainer and his understated guitar-playing and gift for a hook turns the singer-songwriter category on its ear. He delivers, live, more than anyone might expect and the storytelling that glues the set-list together is, alone, worth the price of admission.

As much as this release embraces all the touchstones of the over 60-set, so much of its content filters down from his too-personal diary, involving many of the members of his infamous family – many of whom were involved in its recording. From his late, ex-wife Kate comes a co-write on “Over The Hill” as daughter Martha contributes vocals while, despite the much-publicized rift between he and son Rufus, the two came together for “The Days That We Die” as if they were family.

And that’s the other side of this coin. Loudon may fear following in his father’s final footsteps but, as messed up as they all appear to be, Loudon holds his family close – as if this life depended on it. He’s never been shy about admitting his mistakes. Thankfully, it’s become his most endearing quality.

It doesn’t get more naked than Loudon, alone, on a stage. Amidst his arsenal of Eastwood winces, head shakes and tongue-curls, he strips each song to its skeletal beginnings, leaning on his guitar to dazzle between each witty stanza.

Beginning with the borderline funky “The Here & The Now”, Loudon’s stripped down version highlights its autobiographical nature – wherein his entire life is squeezed into its 3:44 length. Suffering from slight overselling, Wainwright took some time to secure the room yet, like any talented comedian, it’s simply a matter of reorganizing one’s best material.

A world premiere of “Haven’t Got The Blues Yet” segued into the fast-paced, hilarious “Double Lifetime”, originally recorded with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The title track, which featured some exceptional guitar-picking, was prefaced by Wainwright’s summation of his life’s work: the 70s and 80s were all about chronicling “shitty relationships” while his focus now is on “death and decay”.

His unreleased, morgue-friendly “A Guilty Conscience and a Broken Heart” proved a side-splitter joined by an equally funny song about city life, “Man & Dog”. Two tracks from his last release, 10 Songs for the New Depression altered the mood somewhat until a Liberace moment drove him to the piano for a few songs, most notably the lovely “In C”.

The evening also addressed the many requests tossed his way – “Five Years Old” became a singalong while “Be Careful, There’s A Baby In The House” and the gut-ripping “Hardy Boys At The Y” proved favourites. His take on “I Remember Sex” hit a nerve, albeit a funny one, while a slowed down, serious version of “April Fool’s Day Morn” hit its bittersweet, beautiful mark.

From laughing ‘til you cry and crying ‘til you need to laugh, Wainwright is a master of the mood swing. At the same time, he packs a lot of evening into one tiny stage. And whether he dips back into “Red Guitar” or “Motel Blues” or moves things forward with the haunting “Something’s Out To Get Me” or the fall-down hilarity of “My Meds”, Loudon has consistently delivered beyond “the new Dylan” tag that dogged his early career.

Here’s hoping he gets to be a pallbearer. The last laugh will be his.

Photography: E. Thom

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International Guitar Night beckons across Canada

Adrian Legg, Lulo Reinhardt, Marco Pereira and Brian Gore

We know you’re out there…..guitar freaks of all natures. It’s the instrument you dream of playing or already play. It’s also the showpiece instrument of many a band and one that, depending on the calibre of the player, gets the lion’s share of the attention. Not that you play music for attention – but if you did, you’d strive to be a great guitarist.

Think of the greats from across all musical genres. They become deities – during their lifetime, or otherwise. You don’t see a lot of Top 100 Oboe Players lists, do you? Chet Atkins. Duane Allman, Jeff Beck, James Burton, Clapton-Cooder-Cropper. Danny Gatton. Dick Dale. Roy Buchanan or Peter Green. Bert Jansch or John Fahey. John Jorgenson. Tommy Emmanuel. Andrés Segovia. Django Reinhart. Joe Pass. The list can go on forever, as you know. Country. Rock. Blues. Classical. Jazz. Fusion. Folk. Bluegrass. Doesn’t matter.

Seeing any good guitarist play live is a jaw-dropping, thoroughly intimidating and highly enthralling experience. And now yo have multiple chances to experience some of the best guitar work you’ve ever seen and heard on the two dates above. And you thought International Guitar Night was something else? Like a memorial service for starving artists, perhaps? Or a series of classes and seminars moving from town to town?

The concept is not a new one. Who can’t recall those heady days when some of us were treated to the chance to see Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola perform live at the then-named O’Keefe Centre? Mind-numbing. Ear-opening. Years prior, however, some of the larger jazz labels organized this sort of thing – “summits”, touring complementary musicians on an instrument-specific basis.

But these International Guitar Nights were born in 1995 and organized by Brian Gore of San Francisco. His goal was to blend acoustic players, joining him in a public forum to play their latest music as well as to – on a spontaneous basis – share styles and ideas with each other – to the marvel of each audience. This is the 11th year of this ”mobile guitar festival” and the likes of Peppino d’Agostino, Clive Carroll, Andrew York, D’Gary, Miguel De La Bastide, Pierre Bensusan, Guinga have  been a part of this event – as have many more world-classguitarists over the years.

Gore is the one constant – a renowned guitarist in his own right, artist in residence at the Boulder Chautauqua, sponsored by Acoustic Guitar magazine and a well-respected steel string fingerstyle player who adds a strong element of percussion to his playing.

Joining Gore is Lulo Reinhardt, a descendant of Django from Germany who mixes his family’s trademark Gypsy Jazz with new forays into Latin music. Expect everything from flamenco to Latin-tinged jazz. Adrian Legg is the only performer this reviewer has seen live – in an intimate show at the old Top o’ the Senator. It was a phenomenal experience as his fingers are ablaze, attempting to keep up with his wildly explorative musical mind.

Originally pigeonholed in an uncomfortable ‘New Age’ category back in ’90 with his first release, the London-born Legg has gone on to dazzle the most accomplished players with his trailblazing skills, earning the reputation of “Best Fingerstyle Guitarist” from Guitar Player magazine multiple times. You won’t catch him with an oboe (although he actually does play one) but, if you’re lucky, you’ll experience his hilarious banter along the way.

Renowned Brazilian guitarist Marco Pereira is the 4th guitar wizard of the evening. He spent many years in France, earning a  classical guitar Masters degree from the Université Musicale Internationale of Paris, together with a Master’s degree in Musicology from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He brings his Brazilian edge to the party as well as the jazz and Latin-American music he has learned along the way.

Theirs is a classical music of sorts with overtones of world music, as you’d expect from these four artists and their various home bases. Elements of blues, jazz, folk override their more formal musical educations and the results are best heard on their new disc  – International Guitar Night VI – a live extravaganza exploding as the chemistry of these four masters kick our their respective jams. And what you’ll hear here is exactly what you can expect live as this tour crosses the country before taking on the U.S. in January.

Do yourself a favour – take advantage of this rare opportunity to witness sheer acoustic guitar virtuosity as it was meant to be enjoyed. Chances are you’ll be forever moved by the scale of this truly International experience.

More information at internationalguitarnight.com

CANADIAN TOUR:
November 3 Port Theatre, Nanaimo BC
November 4 Massey Theatre, New Westminster BC
November 5 Maurice Young Millenium Place, Whistler BC
November 6 University Centre, University of Victoria, Victoria BC
November 10 Theatre Hector-Charland, L’Assomption QC
November 11 Diffusions Coulisse, Beloeil QC
November 12 Theatre Lionel Groulx, Ste. Therese QC
November 13 Centre Culturel de L’Universite de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke QC
November 16 Centre des Arts Juliette-Lassonde, Saint-Hyacinth QC
November 18 Shenkman Theatre, Ottawa ON
November 19 Theatre Outremont, Montreal QC
November 20 Markham Performing Arts Center, Markham ON
November 22 Oakville Centre, Oakville ON
November 23 Brock Univeristy, St. Catharines ON
November 25 Burt Church Theatre, Airdrie AB
November 26/27 Empress Theatre, Ft. Mcleod AB
November 29 Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff AB

 

 

 

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Leon Russell rolls on

My first exposure to Leon Russell was hearing his 1970 self-titled debut, when he was but 28.

Everything was just right – from the quality of his songwriting (beginning, as it did, with “A Song For You”) to his slurred Tulsa drawl and up-front, rollicking piano-playing. Country, blues and rock – it was all here, trumpeted by a one-of-a-kind character who not only looked like a rock star, but seemed to enjoy the whole package.

Add to this his cumulative value as musical icon – the busiest studio musician ever, producing and playing on such an incredible list of Who’s Who musicians that the list of who he didn’t work with would be shorter than the list of those he did. Years passed – his Asylum Choir work with Marc Benno, his Shelter People days, Carney – with its a propos, semi-autobiographical cover art, Hank Wilson. His Mad Dogs & Englishmen work with Joe Cocker, his days in the Wrecking Crew, his prominent role in George Harrison‘s Concert for Bangladesh, a regular at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July picnics – all kept his profile high and his reputation mighty.

Yet, this man of incredible influence, phenomenal talent and impeccable taste gradually faded into the past, although he kept recording, touring continually. It seemed wrong but such is life. Sir Elton John took it upon himself to bring back this hard-working musical dynamo with plans to record an album with him, at a time when Leon’s body was breaking down – the sessions were interrupted for Leon’s apparent need for brain surgery to repair a fluid issue, together with complications from a heart condition and pneumonia. But like Hank Wilson, Leon’s back – with a complete recovery, fresh dates in larger clubs thanks to an updated profile and – for me – a chance to see a favourite icon run through some of my favourite songs as only he can do.

Opening the night at the Sound Academy was Paul James and his band. Not having seen him play in years, it was a thrill to see the man ‘who still looks more like Bob Dylan than Dylan ever did’ play a powerful set to a loving hometown crowd.

Coming on with fire in his eyes, James ran through a spirited collection of songs including a riveting version of “Milk Cow Blues” (guitar and harp), a tribute to his late friend Bo Diddley (which got a resounding crowd response) and a bang-up version of the Everly’s “Cathy’s Clown” as his wife Sue joined him.

Keeping them coming, James added an impressive version of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, Mink DeVille’s “Broken-hearted Lovers” and another crowd favourite – a spirited round of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine” – underlining James’ tireless ability to inject his sizeable spark into a crowd….and an older one at that.

It was Leon’s turn to dazzle – and dazzle he did, looking like God Almighty, his snow white hair flowing into his identically-coloured, full beard, topped off with a white cowboy hat and patented aviator shades. If you hadn’t seen him approach his stack of keyboards with the help of a cane, you’d never know he’d been to hell and back. And from the opening strains of “Delta Lady”, bolstered by a stable of young’uns, his voice sounded exactly as it should.He even talked with the audience – an unexpected treat, regardless of how canned the dialogue may have been.

This was no post-op Senior making a dash for a final payday while he could still go through the motions – Leon was truly back and in good form. And the classics kept on coming as his long-time bassist, Jackie Wessel, appeared to steer the band through its paces. Almost too polished at times,

Leon Russell is bigger-than-life. His songwriting, alone, should keep him in the public eye, let alone his accomplishments and relationships throughout the music industry over the years.

Yet he was quietly disappearing under the radar in his later years. Continually performing despite flagging health and advancing years, he had transformed himself into a shadow of his former self. When Elton John let slip on the Elvis Costello Show that he might be recording with Russell on a project helmed by T-Bone Burnett, his heart was in the right place.

The release, The Union, brought Russell’s importance as a founder of the Tulsa sound and a world-class songwriter and performer, back into the limelight. Brain surgery to repair a serious fluid leak delayed the sessions until Russell emerged victorious at the other end. He could just as easily have died, as complications from heart failure and pneumonia offered a bleak prognosis. Yet here he was – dishing out his well-worn treasures, the survivor of a storied career.

The immediate magic upon hearing the energetic opener, “Delta Lady”, hit a nerve recalling his gruff, gravel-throated, drawl-caked charm as he drifted from revival-esque gospel to blues, rock’n’roll and back again.

Introducing elements of country via guitarist Beau Charron’s doubling up on steel guitar, Russell also applied funky rhythms (thanks to the crisp, seamless support of drummer Brandon Holder) to a version of “Wild Horses”, adding tinges of jazz to Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind”, which featured a stand-out guitar solo from main guitarist Chris Simmons.

Reminding us of his next stop joining the Dylan tour, he treated his adoring crowd to “Watching The River Flow”, a song he claims he wrote for Bob on his birthday. Paying tribute to his relationship with Ivory Joe Hunter, he covered “Inner City Mama”, revealing the blues strengths in both Charron and Simmons. A somewhat chunky update to “Hummingbird” was eclipsed by a lively version of “Tightrope”, allowing Russell license to showcase his ever-romping piano work.

A few songs were delivered in Autopilot fashion as Russell dipped back into medleys of his favourite music – “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone/Paint It Black/Kansas City and, for his non-encore (saving him some needless legwork), “Great Balls Of Fire/Good Golly Miss Molly/Roll Over Beethoven”.

Far more show than expected, and a tasteful reminder of Leon Russell’s rightful place in the legacy of modern music, the audience couldn’t have asked for more – except maybe more of his beloved originals. The fact that he’s back – and seems well – was the best news of all.

 

Photography by  Eric Thom

 

 

 

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The Little Stevies are off to conquer Canada

Imagine hopping on a large plane and flying all the way from Australia to Canada for your next gig?

In your mind, you’d think you had something different to offer – something that might make it worth your while to come out and see – only to find that in the room, there are only a handful of people.

Such was the case for the Return of The Little Stevies (you read about them here on their first visit) but, as luck would have it, good music drew people downstairs into the cavernous Drake to find out what they were missing, ending in a very decent-sized crowd.

On to the wilds of Sudbury for their three-day Northern Lights festival, the tiny 3-piece (with Chris Altman, an Aussie-Canadian drummer, sitting in) will be spending their winter enjoying our summer as the take in much of the country spreading their joyful, alt-pop sound in the hopes of earning more fans.

This they quickly do, as it takes no more than a song to fall in love with charming sisters Bethany and Sibylla Stephen (hence, Little Stevies – Lord knows what happens to the name when they make it big) and their gorgeous vocals. The third ‘Stevie’ is Robin Geradts-Gill whose bass holds down the fort and he trades lead vocals on a few songs while supplying a hearty third of the LS’s harmony blend.

Together, theirs is a typically quirky brand of alt-pop with elements of folk in their choice of instruments and in their rootsy approach. Live, in Canada, their sound is relatively stripped down, minus the little flourishes of piano, B3, and intricate touches of their LA-produced third album, Attention Shoppers.

Yet the compositions come off beautifully in their somewhat stripped down form and classics like the vocally powerful “Sunshower” from their last album and the downright perky “The Day We Went Away” from the most recent, had the audience fully focused in no time.

Their between-song banter, although severely jet-lagged, is proving to also be a strong part of their show as the three lead players speak freely and rather intimately about whatever happens to be on their mind. One feels like you’re getting to know them on a level of friendship, odd as that sounds.

“Feel It” and “Accidentally” are two other highlight compositions that sound better and better with repeated listenings. Anyway, the band is here and they’re off to conquer Canada and I hope they will.

The Little Stevies offer, as a band, all the ingredients – great music, hooks, vocals to die for and harmonies for days, plus – best of all – a fresh look at music and at the world through the eyes of talented performers who are really no different than you or me. Endearingly so.

 

Yank out those social calendars and see where you might get a chance to see and hear for yourself…..

July 14             Merlin’s Sun Theatre             Victoria, BC

July 15            Joe’s Garage                         Courtenay, BC

July 16            Songbird Collective Festival             Tofino, BC

July 18            The Art We Are (with Dana Marie) Kamloops, BC

July 19            The Railway Club                             Vancouver, BC

July 21            Tree’s Coffee House                         Vancouver, BC

July 22            Minstrel Cafe and Bar             Kelowna, BC

July 23            Streaming Cafe                         Kelowna, BC

July 25             23 Main St Cafe              Moose Jaw, SK

July 28            Gas Station Theatre (supporting Low Flying Planes)   Winnipeg, MB

July 29- 31     Fire & Water Festival             Lac du Bonet, MB

August 3         Townhouse                Sudbury, ON

August 5         Renee’s Cafe             South River, ON

August 6         The Blacksheep Inn             Wakefield, ON

August 7         House Concert             Orillia, ON

August 9         The Drake Hotel (supporting Samantha Martin) Toronto, ON

August 12        Moonshine      Oakville, ON

August 13        Burritoville   Montreal, QC

August 14        Castro’s Lounge             Toronto, ON

August 18        Bohemian Cafe             Bracebridge, ON

August 19-21  Summerfolk Festival  Owen Sound, ON

August 24        Hugh’s Room (supporting Lorne Elliot)   Toronto, ON

August 25        The Spill              Peterborough, ON

August 27-28  Ottawa Festival             Ottawa, ON

Photography: E. Thom

 

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Genticorum: voyages and voyageurs

It was quite possibly the perfect evening for three of Canada’s most heart-stirring instrumentalists and singers. The Music Garden at Toronto’s Harbourfront presented Genticorum, staged in a beautiful summer setting replete with the aroma of fresh blossoms, set against a backdrop of a stately, sun-kissed weeping willow.

This is authentic Canadian music at it finest, born in the historic songcraft of Canada’s earliest French explorers and adapted over time, rejuvenated by these modern traditionalists and altered according to their mood. Using three-part harmonies together with fiddle, wooden flute, acoustic guitar, electric bass and foot percussion, the audience is not long falling under their considerable spell.

Promoting their fourth release, Nagez Rameurs, musicians Alexandre-Moulin de Grosbois-Garand (wooden flute, fretless bass, fiddle, vocals), Pascal Gemme (fiddle, feet, vocals) and Yann Falquet (guitar, Jew’s harp, vocals) were clearly taken with the lush outdoor setting which added a certain something to the joie de vivre of their music, without any loss of sound quality in the open air (give or take the odd Porter jet).

With a theme of ‘voyages and voyageurs’, the new material is a seamless addition to their catalogue. And while one might think their French lyric a roadblock to enjoying their music, the opposite would be closer to the truth. A few well-coached singalongs proved less than successful with the predominantly Anglo crowd, but points for trying. 

Genticorum’s ability to weave French lyricism into their expert instrumentation proves a joy to behold – in any language. Highlights included the breathtaking title song – a translation of Irish poet Thomas Moore’s  “A Canadian Boat Song” – sung a cappella. Daniel Boucher’s “Reel Circulaire” positively soars under the driving fiddle work of Pascal. And, apologizing for such uplifting fare, “Galope Doux Bedon” – a positive tune about ‘the cat of the soft tummy’ – was delivered by the trio in the same buoyant fashion as most of their material, despite the fact that the real-life theme of this album revolves around the down-side of the voyageur lifestyle.

Which is the beauty of Genticorum. Their joyous attack on any subject is transformed by their overall energy and style of playing. It’s feel-good music that transcends any lyric and the chance to see these merry wizards deliver the goods live is about as good as music gets.

To be fortunate enough to enjoy it the night before Canada Day, is a shot to the heart – the ultimate Canadiana that totally hits the mark.

 

 

Photography – E.Thom

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Randy Newman embraces the spectrum of emotion

Convocation Hall, Toronto ON – Saturday, March 26th

Just the other day, as I was driving my 15-year old son to school, his response to what I was playing (The Randy Newman Songbook, Volume 2) on the CD player was, “Hey – isn’t that the Toy Story guy?”

Randy Newman would’ve loved it. With a 30-year career (and that’s just ‘til ’95) and a prolific output of some 19 albums, he was a critics’ darling long before there was Pixar or animation software.

Yet he’ll likely be remembered more for his Grammy-winning scores for countless Disney/Pixar films—perhaps the most human element of what is otherwise a highly automated production process —than as the legendary singer, songwriter and composer behind an infectious catalogue of phenomenal songs.

Who knew?

Most of the people in Convocation Hall, for one thing, give or take the kids who’d been brought along in the hopes they’d be enlightened. Randy Newman carries this weight with him, his shoulders slightly stooped with age and his hair tousled white.

His songs have stolen the hearts and souls of a previous generation, while his soundtracks have had the same effect on the generation that followed. His very name should be every bit as revered as any Dylan, Young, Cohen or Springsteen. And, with many of us, it is.

Yet, just fresh from winning his umpteenth Grammy win, there were, visibly, seats available in this hallowed hall. After a particularly strong audience response to “It’s Lonely at the Top”, he said—obviously touched— “It’s been a real pleasure playing for you this evening…I just wish you’d brought some of your f*&*ing friends”.

Everyone roared but such an injustice is simply part and parcel of what being a Randy Newman fan is all about. He’s an in-joke. And as biting a satirist, as twisted a human historian and as bent an individual as he has proven to be through his rich collection of jaw-dropping, heart-wrenching, side-splitting material, he does it first for himself, and for anyone else who’ll take the time to listen.

We were all along for the ride that night, and it’s these moments of sincere appreciation, I’m sure, that protect his sanity from the Hollywood grind. As Newman tore through a total of some 38 songs, representing samples from each of his (now) 34 albums, you knew each represented part of a personal tapestry of Newman’s life as much as they’ve become part of ours.

His performance embraced the spectrum of human emotion, wrenching tears and laughs alike, together with some audience-involving singalongs which proved every bit as absurd as some of his lyrics.

Accompanying himself only on piano, his deep New Orleans roots are more than audible, rollicking across the keyboard while he rolls and taps his feet as if he was a kid. Stripped of their powerful arrangements, his peculiar style works wonderfully – just his curmudgeonly croak of a voice and a masterful collision of notes rolling out of his piano.

Leading off with Born Again’s “It’s Money That I Love”, Newman followed with a tremendous sampling of songs —ending the first set with the Disney-friendly “You’ve Got A Friend of Me” (so the kids could go home) and a rousing rendition of the sheer genius that is Sail Away’s “Political Science” —as prophetic a comment on U.S. foreign policy in ’72 as it remains today.

Lovingly pummeled with Newman classics new and old, they kept coming: “Baltimore”,  “Rollin’”, “Wedding in Cherokee County”, Life Is Good”, “I Love L.A.” Many of the best songs come from his latest, Harps and Angels, proving that he’s far from cruising on past successes. He’s never let up.

From the hilarious title track to the poignant, personal “Losing You” and the tear-inducing “Feels Like Home” (which ended the second set with a wallop) these songs, both public and private, represent the essence of the man.

Some are fall-down funny, like his anthem to aging rock stars, “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” and “It’s Lonely at the Top”; others are beautiful, heartfelt compositions, like “Marie” and “Living Without You”; some are hits for others, like “Mama Told Me Not To Come” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On”; while others are historically-based, like “Louisiana 1927” or “The Great Nations of Europe” or man-made disasters like “Burn On”—always with a wry twist and usually loaded with more than one meaning.

Newman’s sense of humour is regularly misunderstood as those with less sense misconstrue his liberal doses of irony as being offensive fare. The joke’s on them. “Short People”—a case in point—still gets a huge round of applause, 34 years later. At the same time, you could hear a pin drop for one of Newman’s most beautiful songs, “I Miss You”, revealing a personal side that almost felt too private. Truly one of the evening’s finest offerings.

Closing with “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today” from his first album (’68), Newman left the audience exhausted—having prevailed over such a wide-ranging sea of emotions throughout this stripped-down, pure presentation. Exhausted in the blissful sense of being satisfied, knowing we had witnessed the true talents of one of the world’s greatest singer-songwriters, of a kind they simply don’t make anymore.

Humankind doesn’t deserve him – “that Toy Story guy”.

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Rodney Crowell in gritty detail

The chance to see Nashville wunderkind Rodney Crowell in a setting as intimate as Hugh’s Room was, for me, a dream come true. Grammy-winning songwriting legend cult favourite Rodney Crowell. Accessible, in an intimate setting, no less.

And as soon as I saw the block-length, touring RV obliterating the entire front of Hugh’s Room’s exterior, there was little question we were talking the same Rodney Crowell.

Crowell is a survivor. A highly accredited singer-songwriter, he’s probably done better from others covering his songs than he has by recording them himself. At the same time, he’s released 13 albums, many of them to critical acclaim. His many contributions to country music, if not progressive country music and the spin he’s added to it, are well documented and, as always, this two-night performance at Hugh’s would reveal another side of the Nashville giant. He was here to play. Kicking off with The Houston Kid’s “Highway 17” left no question about it.

Yet he was also here to sell some hardcover copies of his new book – Chinaberry Sidewalks (Knopf). This night was divided between animated readings from his childhood memoirs and a generous set of songs to remind anyone who’d forgotten just how talented and prolific a singer-songwriter he really is.

Selecting many tracks from ‘08’s brilliant Sex & Gasoline, including “Moving Work of Art” and “Closer To Heaven”, Crowell injected many delightfully long-winded intros to most of his compositions.

His readings had the effect of digging deeper into the man’s life as he peeled away years of Nashville cool to break down – in gritty detail – why his life was often, indeed, harder than anyone else’s. They didn’t interrupt the musical portion of the show but seemed to embellish the overall performance in an intimate way – a pause for effect.

I learned many things I didn’t know about him – an added bonus. For example, I had no idea Crowell idolized fellow Texan Lightnin’ Hopkins, revealed in his spry cover of “Come On Baby”, complete with surprisingly accomplished fretwork. We were treated to new songs (“Sister oh Sister”) and old songs (a rockin’ “I Ain’t Living’ Long Like This”, from his first album and “‘Til I Gain Control Again”) plus some well-chosen tracks in between (“Still Learning How To Fly” and, from ‘05’s The Outsider, “Glascow Girl”).

An added treat was inviting his daughter Chelsea to the stage to join him on one of his songs, allowing her to showcase one of her songs on her own (“Where the Hell is Robert E. Lee?”). It was difficult to not hear and see traces of her mother (Rosanne Cash), although she’s clearly got some miles to cover to catch up to her prolific parents.

Although the combination of song and spoken word filled the evening, with so many songs to draw from, an encore was in order. He dipped into hilarity with the song he penned with Vince Gill for the one-off Notorious Cherry Bombs: “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night that Chew Your Ass Off All Day Long” followed by an all-involving version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”, inspired by Crowell’s visit to Yeats’ grave outside Sligo, Ireland.

All this plus a hilarious aside in which an audience member suffered a crippling kidney stone attack, his partner too bewitched by Crowell’s performance to rush him to the hospital. Crowell played the woman a request, begging she be on her way.

It was that kind of a night.

 

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