The Terry Gillespie Band: Review

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

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

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

Peter Measroch

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

LyndellMontgomeryBass560

Lyndell Montgomery fiddle

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

Wayne Stoute

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

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

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

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

Photos by: Eric Thom

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Lindi Ortega

Lindi OrtegaGreat Hall, Toronto: Thursday, October 24th

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Eric Thom

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Anne Janelle/Discoveries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by Eric Thom

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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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Claire Lynch Band Oct. 3 & 4

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

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

Claire Lynch

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

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

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

2013-10-03  Toronto  ON   Hugh’s Room

2013-10-04   Innisfil  ON   Music Up Close

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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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Scott McCord and The Bonafide Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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