Boz Scaggs – MEMPHIS

boz429 Records

4-Stars (out of 4)

For those searching for the sound of soft velvet served over crushed ice.

In a sea of blue-eyed soul singers, Boz Scaggs remains unsatisfied. A critic’s darling, his best records have always been those that sell the least. Unjustly pigeonholes for his high-riding SILK DEGREES, which rose above and beyond the disco era of its time, securing Scaggs a decent living, he’s always remained true to the music. If Boz could sing your tax bill, you’d gladly pay it in advance. His smooth silken tone – aside from his skills as an instrumentalist – and still the night like no other I know – whiskey-smooth. In a career which has covered a lot of ground, he always (wisely) comes back to the r&b that broils in his blood like few Caucasians in musical history. In the case of the 12-track MEMPHIS, he zeroes in on the soul and blues of the south, surrounding himself with top-notch musicians and recording in Memphis’ legendary Royal Studio (home to Al Green and other Hi artist recordings). Produced by drummer Steve Jordan, keyboards are covered off by Charles Hodges, Lester Snell, Memphic vet Spooner Oldham and Jim Fox, while Willie Weeks plays bass. Ray Parker Jr. and Boz cover off guitars with drive-bys from Eddie Willis, Rick Vito and Keb’ Mo’ while the Royal Horns and Royal Strings add their patented refinement. Tackling such covers as Willy DeVille’s Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl, Moon Martin’s Cadillac Walk and Al Green’s So Good To Be Here, Scaggs proves what most already know-his impeccable taste in material and his gift for re-arrangement and re-interpretation. Is there more natural turf for Scaggs to inhabit that Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night In Georgia? His treatment of Steely Dan’s Pearl Of The Quarter is one of the disc’s true highlights – both for the sheer bravery in subjecting it to a Memphis template as well as for the success of its reinvention. Scaggs injects some blues with Dry Spell as Keb’ Mo’s scorching slide Dobro, reinforced by Charlie Musselwhite’s harp, underlines how well-matched Scagg’s vocals are to the genre. Jimmy Reed’s You Got Me Cryin’ slows things down, allowing Scaggs time to stretch out on guitar, intertwined with Vito. His own Sunny Gone closes this chapter, reminding us of how uncommonly gifted a singer ‘Bosley’ remains, no embellishment required. Grace and style incarnate. Eric Thom

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Hannah Aldridge – Razor Wire

Hannah Aldridge is a free spirit, if not a dangerous one. Exhibiting the dark poetic underbelly of someone twice her age, this 26 year-old, Nashville-based  singersongwriter grew up in the shadow of her Muscle Shoals-famed pappy, Walt Aldridge (hit-maker, engineer, recordproducer).

Following up 2011’s WANDERER EP, she’s bitten into the essence of what she does best, backed by a powerful band with the muscle to unleash a singer with something different to say. But it’s the way she says it that makes its mark. Wasting no time, You Ain’t Worth The Fight kicks off the album with attitude, distinguished by sinewy slide guitar, crisp drums and rich swirls of B3 as Aldridge rears her head and spits out disdain for an ex-lover like a wounded viper. She continues with Old Ghost – a sturdy, upbeat original that sets an eerie backdrop of mystery across a country backbeat and solid, all-band workout with legs of its own. A slow, swampy Strand of Pearls combines multiple time changes, the use of a bowed saw and cutting lead guitar to create a country-edged tune Vincent Price could be proud of. Yet, it’s  the title track that takes no prisoners – also reprised in an acoustic format with a charm of its own.

Razor Wire reveals a softer, more tender Aldridge as Andrew Higley’s piano, Andrew Sovine’s acoustic guitar and Dylan LeBlanc’s background vocals spawn a  love song baring sharp teeth. While the piano-based Parchman momentarily recalls Amoreena, Sovine’s searing guitar solo keeps things from becoming overly melodramatic. Aldridge’s bad girl persona explodes all over Howlin’ Bones as her band crests the wave before her – a key album highlight. The rocking Try (from former Drive-By Trucker, Jason Isbell) amps up the guitar and drums – an environment she appears to shine in, feeding energy from Sadler Vaden’s searing lead guitar and Derry DeBorja’s rich bed of B3.

Yet it’s when things get toned down a notch – as in her own Black and White, inspired by her young son, where Aldridge sizzles. This sturdy, autobiographical original comes with her most powerful vocal – it’s her Wild Horses and, cementing it together with her band, they lift it well off the page. Likewise, the steamy, sexual Lie Like You Love Me bristles with country badness and an aura of addiction. The light, solo acoustic guitar touch of Lonesome reads like a post-sex cigarette – a genuinely ‘pretty’ ballad that makes the most of Aldridge’s gentler side. With as many good ideas as she’s had looks, Aldridge proves a force to be reckoned with – as a songwriter and as a singer – on this bulletproof debut. Drawing from a rich gene pool, which will carry her over the long haul, Aldridge’s only next move is up.

* Published in the July/August 2014 Edition of Maverick Magazine

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Amy Black – This Is Home

Reuben Records

Alt-country hurting takes on epic proportions

There’s an underlying element of pain and weariness audible in Amy Black’s voice on her second release, This Is Home. Hers is a  voice which might take some time to warm up to – with its slightly nasal tone and fearlessly forlorn qualities – but any investment will pay back huge dividends. Black tackles everyday matters of the heart, the importance of home and the oftcrushing responsibilities of life we all face – expressing impressive levels of emotion through the warmth and strength of her voice. This may not go down as the Party Album of the Year, but it will register deeply in your psyche, underlining the value of life on earth and the price we pay for the privilege.

Black is Boston-based but her southern roots come to the fore on this sophomore effort (she was born in Missouri and lived in  Alabama as a child) as elements of folk and country blend with rock and gospel to forge a sound and a feel inextricably bound to her
lyrics and delivery. In fact, her simpatico session band (Will Kimbrough, Oliver Wood, Todd Lombardo – guitars; Josh Grange – pedal/lap steel, organ; Ian Fitchuk – drums, piano, B3; Lex Price – bass) seem as extensions of the singer herself, joined at her hip and integral to each original composition. You begin to wonder if one can exist without the other.

Despite the feel-good music accompanying Nobody Knows You, the album gets off to a mournful start given Black’s foreboding tone – this atop gushing B3, animated guitar and playful bass. Continued through the use of pedal steel and weeping guitar lines, Black sounds anything but happy at the prospect of being home in I’m Home while that old, haunting hurt continues as the band drones on through the bluesy Old Hurt. Out of the blue, a ray of sunshine cracks through the din with the extreme love of place exhibited in Alabama – a heartfelt love song if ever there was one, Kimbrough’s backing vocals adding to the impact.

Her frustrations at not being able to help her ailing mother benefit from the child-like perspective in the powerful, countrified Make Me An Angel while the crumbling relationship of These Walls Are Falling Down may well be beyond hope, despite the buoyant sounds of lush piano, tight guitar and heart-swelling B3. The funky wash of B3 and banjo can’t fix the  self-sacrifice depicted in Layin’ It Down yet Black and Co. lay down a fat, friendly groove that comes close. Her heart ripped apart by the loss of her beloved father’s mental health, Hello digs deep into the gut-wrenching sadness of Alzheimer’s. Stronger proves a rare rocker with Black its able front-woman, chronicling the pain of separation – again, from the perspective of a child’s, its chorus of Why’d you have to do it? cutting to the bone. Contrast this with the lively Cat’s In the Kitchen, erupting like a kitchen party, full of fun and optimism. Another highlight – “We Had A Life” – chronicles the interminable heartbreak of a split, Black’s hardship worn on her sleeve like a way of life. Two telling covers grace this collection – John Prine’s Speed at the Sound of Loneliness and touring buddy Rodney Crowell’s Still Learning How To Fly. Black’s thoughtful reading of Loneliness doesn’t add much to the original yet its lyric is somehow more convincing from the perspective of a woman. Her spirited take on Crowell’s Fly proves another highlight, augmented by pedal steel, B3 and a bank of electric and acoustic guitars. All covers should fit so perfectly. A hidden track, Gospel Ship, recalls her southern church beginnings, this banjo and guitar-led singalong serving as an energetic, bluegrass coda to the  spiritual cleansing which has preceded it.

All-in-all, Amy Black wears pain so  convincingly as to believe her life has been one trial after another. As a result, her strongest suit is the more inflammable material, her vocals perfectly suited to  delivering on the melancholic – those dark and dreary, world-weary rites of passage which seem inescapable. At the same time, Black is far from defeated – more grist for the mill – exhibiting an undeniable strength and complete conviction, suggesting she’ll always come out on top. A stunning effort.

* Featured in Maverick Magazine, July/August 2014 Edition.

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Marina Marina/Karyn Ellis/Orit Shimoni

CircleOfFriendsFree Times Café, March 15th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

All photography by Eric Thom

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Michael Jerome Browne and Lindsay May

Michael Jerome Browne and Lindsay May

Free Times Café, March 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography by Eric Thom

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David Bradstreet at Winterfolk

DavidFive560Black Swan (February 15th, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography by Eric Thom

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Review: Del Barber with Ridley Bent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography: Eric Thom

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Robyn Dell’Unto: Little Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Review: Dave Gunning with Mira Meikle

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

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

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

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

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

Photos: Eric Thom

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The Claytones: Reserva

Claytones: ReservaI don’t know much about The Claytones, but I do know what I like. I was first drawn to the band with the realization that one of their two lead singers, Kelly Prescott, is the daughter of one of Canada’s greatest voices – the criminally unsung Tracey Prescott-Brown. Despite the monumental place that Family Brown holds in Canadian country music history, Tracey and Kelly have proven themselves to be solid branches of “Papa” Joe’s family tree, deserving of much more acclaim and presence than they’ve received to-date. With luck, because there’s certainly no lack of talent on parade here, Kelly and her accomplished trio will replenish these revered roots.

Yet, if truth be told, The Claytones are more than Kelly Prescott, which could so easily be enough. She has teamed with like-minded compadres in fellow lead vocalist, Anders Drerup and double-bassist/vocalist/husband Adam Puddington – between them, deft instrumentalists on a wide-range of complementary instruments: guitar, organ, pedal/lap steel, piano, trumpet, concertina and accordion. Various friends and family have played key roles in Reserva, their second, release – brother Kaylen not only helped produce the disc but had a hand in its graphic design while Pat McLaughlin sits in on mandolin, supplying another layer of backup vocals and some jump-up-and-take-notice mandolin work that becomes a major component of the personality behind this release. Yet it’s the vocal blend of Prescott and Drerup which provides much of the excitement behind this too-short (at 33 minutes) release. Anders Drerup offers the perfect foil to Prescott’s slightly country-sounding voice, his own background and experience nicely complementing the band’s more rootsy sounds while his lead vocals and powers of harmony render him an equal partner. Once the Gram Parsons lead in a popular theatrical production of Grievous Angel: the Legend of Gram Parsons (to Kelly’s Emmylou), Drerup’s been-there/done-that résumé and prior musical relationship with Prescott explains the considerable chemistry that’s audible between them.

The ClaytonesShowcasing new material, this live-off-the-floor recording goes a long way towards underlining the maturity of these musicians and the fact that they absorb their limelight equally. Kelly’s lovely vocal on “Mississippi Moon”, with its warm, slight rasp, is propelled by the acoustic guitars and mandolin accompaniment and the warm hint of bass drum percussion. “Young Man Goes West” swaps lead vocals with Drerup while, likewise, the harmonic strengths of Prescott and Puddington cannot be understated. At the same time, if there were no vocals at all, this is a picker’s treat, given the lively acoustic drive of all three players. The softer, gentler “Draw The Drapes” is Drerup’s vehicle – Prescott’s harmonics sounding too perfect to be live (but they are) while the accompaniment of horns lends a Spanish feel to Puddington’s original. The first song to come jumping off this release is, however, Prescott’s vocal treatment of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” – all it needs is a campfire and a bottle of wine. Likewise, the perky “I Told My Pillow” lands somewhere between country and bluegrass, with its family-friendly chorus and quick-pulsed acoustic energy. Drerup’s “My Emmylou” is self-explanatory, his strong vocal and acoustic guitar in the foreground while Lynn Miles’ “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” has found a happy home in Prescott’s care – a fine example of what The Claytones do best: breathe fresh life into songs, new and old, with exemplary lead vocals, lush harmonies and smart, tasteful accompaniment. The rich value of Puddington’s bass work proves another vital component of the band’s sound – grounding it and adding a warmth to each composition. Puddington’s own  “Look My Way” begins with the feel of a Celtic reel, leading into a feel-good, upbeat Drerup/Prescott duet, Paddington’s bass and McLaughlin’s mandolin contributing a pleasing lilt. The band’s own “Bottle Of Wine” suffers from minor production flaws yet, given that it was recorded live, on a pontoon boat in the middle of a lake, it belongs here. Drerup leads off the traditional Irish tune “Lily of the West” – covered convincingly by so many country-leaning artists – while the group’s harmonies join with concertina and mandolin to render the old classic very much their own.

The good news about this band is their age. So much talent and so much potential, they only need a larger audience and some valuable exposure to explode across the world stage. Will they get it? Will we realize it before we play catch-up, once again, to foreign acclaim? The climate is right for this small band out of Clayton, Ontario. Everything’s in their favour – and ours.

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