Category Archives: Reviews

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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CFMA nominee spotlight: Ashley Condon

Ashley CondonIf I had a voice like Ashley Condon’s, I’d never, ever, leave the shower again. Little wonder she’s nominated for New/Emerging Artist of the Year at this weekend’s Canadian Folk Music Awards in Calgary. Gathering traction behind her second release, The Great Compromise, she leaves little question she’s well beyond the ‘sophomore jinx’ despite the critical acclaim heaped on 2010’s Come In From The Cold. In fact, this David Francey-produced, 13-track collection proves every bit as powerful as her debut if not somewhat more accomplished in its studied simplicity. It’s all about the purity of Ashley’s voice, and should be, with each track receiving only slight, subtle accompaniment from the accomplished members of Francey’s touring band – Chris Coole (banjo, acoustic guitar, lap steel), Mark Westberg (guitars) and John Showman (fiddle) – with outstanding support from Maritime wunderkind, Darren McMullen (mandolin/mandola, bouzouki, fretless bass), or doing it all by her lonesome on acoustic guitar. Again, purity in its truest form.

Condon stands out beyond the pack for the simple reason that she’s all about the song, where she’s from, her life experience and, with luck, where she’s going. All the colour is found in her beautifully exquisite voice and the way with which she expresses it – she doesn’t need to add much in the way of shading to anything else. In fact, the title track (watch video below) is one of the album’s highlights – just singer, song and acoustic guitar. Nothing cuts through the din like that voice, alone – and it would appear that her producer knows it. All by itself, it’s a warm, East coast invitation to share stories, both happy and sad, the present buoyed by the promise of the future, tempered by the lessons of the past. Condon’s endured more than her share of pain, yet her indomitable spirit, her proud sense of place and those deep-dish dimples all come out in her approach to the music, driven by those inimitable, crystalline vocals. At the same time, there is magic that happens with the combination of Condon’s voice when merged with McMullen’s mandolin/mandola (their virtual duet in “Your Love Is Beautiful”), Coole’s tremelo’d electric guitar (“Gentle Man”) or both banjo and mandolin (“Deep Down In The River”).

Ashley Condon: This Great CompromiseIt’s interesting to note, from the liner notes, that Condon includes the ‘where’ and ‘when’ each composition was written – because it’s important to her. It’s this degree of caring detail that has resulted in another 13 solid originals (3 songs are co-writes) added to the Condon canon – canon being the operative word, as there’s an almost ecclesiastical edge to Condon’s music – deeply intimate, somewhat confessional and decidedly haunting. Some songs prove stronger than others. “Toronto” features a fetching and addictive, sweeping hook despite the potential awkwardness of rhyming its name while the upbeat, down-home swing of “Going to the Country” presents another side of Condon’s rich potential as it provides an opportunity for this band to brew up a proper storm. Call it the “happy, feel-good, sing-along song of the year.” Alternating the mood, when Condon doesn’t have you crying, as she does in her tribute to the hardships she and her mother endured in “Betty’s Song,” she whips up her skirt and leads another brisk sing-along, campfire chorus with “We’ve Got Love,” and the ultimate PEI-homecoming song – the revivalist “I’m Going Home, Amen”.

This is old school folk for an old soul charged with a bright, positive outlook and a big-to-burstin’ heart. Even more proof – as if the rest of the country needed it – that they raise much more than potatoes in PEI.

Good luck, girl. Either way you’re winning.

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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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Michael Jerome Browne’s The Road is Dark: A masterstroke for the blues

The Road is DarkTry as you might, you’ll never pigeonhole Canadian blues/roots musician Michael Jerome Browne because, with each new release, he grows increasingly unpredictable. From the artful design of the outside package of his 5th release, The Road is Dark, to the musical content, it’s an imaginative and thoroughly rewarding experience.

An understated songwriter, he and lyrical partner B.A. Markus, have showcased 8 sturdy originals against covers of JB Lenoir, Frankie Lee Sims, Rev. Gary Davis and such disparate sources as Jimmy Skinner. Yet, in Browne’s talented hands, each is painted entirely by his own brush, originals fitting seamlessly against the rest. A supremely talented musician, Browne can make anything his own and, in the process, rejuvenate his choice of traditional tune with smart arrangements and his ability to reinvent them through his choice of instrument. Old-time becomes new-time – and vice versa – as Browne targets multiple genres, confident in his uncanny ability to strip it all down to its bare-bones roots. Take the opening track – “Doin’ My Time,” originally a Flatt & Scruggs tune – all boiled down into the blues, armed with only the rasp of his vocals and a deft use of slide on his electric, arch-top guitar.

The title track is notable – its rolling pace, its just-right vocals and his choice of an acoustic 12-string for full orchestrated effect. Likewise, the original “Graveyard Blues” achieves prominence through Browne’s effective vocal delivery and the sunny pluck of his fretless gourd banjo. Is any stringed instrument safe – the sprightly “At It Again” served up on a child’s toy guitar? Both “One More Empty Bottle” and “Sinner’s Plea” – two strong originals – are served up as deep, dark blues with convincing bite, “…Bottle” being a drunken love song while “…Plea” is spliced with raw sadness that’ll rip your heart out as a man begs for his mother not to die.

Michael Jerome BrownSo completely comfortable – and familiar – with the genre, Browne deserves a greater profile on the international blues stage than he currently enjoys. The fact that he has such powerful purchase, such an authentic grasp of the music and on his ability to render it musically on his pick of instrument, should propel him to another level – in Canada and well beyond. Songs like “Sing Low,” joined on guitar by Mighty Popo, champion causes like the plight of Afghan women enlisted into a modern day slavery, while “G20 Rag” was inspired by recent acts of police brutality and persecution which rained down on peaceful protest. Browne’s catalogue may sound traditional but there’s nothing traditional in his treatment of his lyrics or the way his music is played. The vocal on Lenoir’s “The Whale Has Swallowed Me” must take a back seat to his own playful guitar lines and John McColgan’s perky washboard percussion, energizing this piece.

Two disc highlights include Browne’s heartfelt treatment of Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and Browne’s own “If Memphis Don’t Kill Me”, wherein he enlists a full band (Steve Marriner, harmonica; Jody Benjamin, guitar; Michael Ball, stand-up bass) to create a jovial, jug band groove despite its subject-matter. Michael Ball’s fiddle, Browne’s viola and Jody Benjamin’s guitar work together on the traditional “Right Now Blues”, lifting it into authentic Appalachia country. The disc ends on a hushed, gospel note with “Morning Prayer”.

All in all, The Road is Dark is a bona fide masterpiece which shines brightly despite the din of its potentially sombre content – and a disc well deserving of both our attention and full-on appreciation. Seriously – a masterstroke for the blues.

 

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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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Boz Scaggs Toronto Jazz Festival, Toronto ON Canada June 28, 2013

Reflective of his career, Boz Scaggs began the evening playing the blues before serving up a rich, r&b-infused menu of the music he’s loved for a lifetime –ending the show with a rousing return to the same blues which gave birth to his old-school authenticity. How satisfying it must be to transform an audience – many of them here to relive the hits of Scaggs’ peak – and to stir them well beyond what they came for by playing the deeply soulful music that’s served as backdrop to his every release.
Opening the show was Toronto’s own Paul James – a much-loved, local institution who not only survived music’s glory days of playing with everyone from Willy Deville and Bo Diddley to Bob Dylan and John Hammond, but is still leading the parade. The iconic Canadian is a natural-born showman who delighted in ripping up his hometown crowd with his Diddley-esque “Gotta Gimme Some of It”, the bluesy slide of “Red Hot Mama” and a stunning “Lost in the Blues”. Surprisingly subdued after such a rousing opener, Scaggs began his set with his own “Runnin’ Blue”, showcasing the sophisticated calibre of his seasoned, 6-piece band who is, as was also obvious, having a great time playing. Helmed by musical director and phenomenally funky bassist, Richard Pattison, William Royce Scaggs also proved that, given his 69 years of age, his blue-eyed soulful voice remains as powerful now as it was when he released his first album some 48 years ago. Clearly buoyed by the success of his latest album, Memphis – itself a time trip back into the music responsible for firing his muse – Scaggs followed with Jack “Applejack” Walroth’s “Dry Spell”, adding slide guitar and featuring the multi-instrumental talents of Eric Crystal on harp and keyboard. Willy DeVille’s “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl” (did Boz realize that opener James played in Mink DeVille with Willy?) paid additional tribute to the largely unheralded, one-of-a-kind, Mr. DeVille, as backup singer, Ms. Monet, proved the ultimate foil to Scaggs’ burled, scotch-smooth croon. The blissful “Sierra” – the perfect vehicle for Scagg’s refined vocals, was a dramatic show standout, featuring Drew Zingg on Spanish guitar. Pulling out a stool, Boz sat to set the mood to relate the appropriateness of recording “Rainy Night In Georgia” for Memphis before revealing a poignant, refined version of the elegant tune. “Corrina, Corrina” provided an opportunity for Monet and Scaggs to softly spar, turning in a gentle giant of a cover as Boz added an inspired solo on acoustic guitar. Honey-keyed B3 player, Charles Hodges, broke into a lovely intro to “Gone Baby Gone” picking up the pace while “Georgia” was tastefully reinvented, Boz hitting all the high notes like he was twenty, as Monet and Henderson traded harmonies. Henderson’s bass and crack new drummer, Lemar Carter, drove the uptempo “Miss Sun” as Monet picked up the sassy attitude, kicking Scaggs into a higher gear, wah-wah solo and all – the high-powered track bearing no resemblance to its disco-era birthing . Next thing we knew, the spicy Miss Monet, overpowered centre stage for a rousing variation loosely based on Sly’s “Thank you (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, merged with Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You” and back – almost bringing down the tent – and the audience to their feet. The energy level peaking, Boz kicked into “Lowdown” – packed with life, followed by an equally energetic “Lido Shuffle” – which had the audience singing and dancing in the aisles. Even Boz seemed to revel in the realization of the absolute timelessness of these original songs, driven into fresh territory – one in the present tense – by this masterful, uptown band.
A thunderous call for an encore was repaid with Silk Degrees’ “What Can I Say?” and clearly climaxed with a dramatic re-reading of the blues-based “Loan Me A Dime” – tastefully dedicated by Scaggs to the memory of the late, great Bobby “Blue” Bland. No short-cuts taken, the extended blues workout took its rightful time, eliciting multiple, jaw-dropping guitar solos from Scaggs and Zingg – back and forth, as Hodges pushed his B3 even farther – taking the music higher still.
This was a night of celebration and both Boz and band seemed buoyed by the reaction of the crowd to their every move. Scaggs falls into a different category of musicianship and his recent push towards Memphis and to crediting his many inspirations only adds to his overall integrity and reputation as a studied, respectful musician of uncommon talents. This show was one for the books.

– Eric G. Thom

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Suzy Wilde is lighter than air

The El Mocambo,Toronto, Thursday, September 20th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Photography: E. Thom

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Joshua Cockerill’s ‘Animal Parts’

The Dakota Tavern, Toronto
Thursday, August 23rd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also: Thoughtful, articulate Joshua Cockerill

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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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