Author Archives: ericthom

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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Chris Altmann: A Man For All Summers

Transplanted Aussie native, Chris Altmann clearly enjoys the best of all worlds. Moving from Adelaide to Peterborough, the seasoned musician wasted no time finding out who was who, musician-wise, and, by early 2010, had recorded his first solo record, Que Paso. Now living in Hamilton (when he’s not in Nashville), he’s about to release another self-produced record and has taken the time to create his own label, Ridin’ High Records.

Somehow, he finds the time to return to Australia each year to play in still-familiar settings, staying in touch with friends and fans on both continents simultaneously. For those of us who sometimes have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, people like Chris Altmann are hard to fathom. Boundless energy, a firm commitment to his craft and he’s only 30-something. He even married a local girl – Alysha Main, from Norwood, who manages and promotes his career, the label and their ridiculously busy lifestyle when she’s not touring Australia with him. She also finds time to promote the Peterborough-based, forward-looking music label, Seventh Fire Records, who have released a 7″ record of a pair of Altmann’s tracks.

On this occasion, Chris and his talented cast of friends and players were teasing the forthcoming release, Nothing But Nice Things. Hey. Isn’t that Washboard Hank on dobro? It is!  Rounding out the small Dakota stage is Rob Foreman (bass), Brandon Humphrey (acoustic guitar), Matt Greco (drums) and the delightful Peterpatch export, Grainne Ryan on backup vocals.

Now, you’re likely wondering what sort of music a globetrotting Aussie who has found the light in southern Ontario might play? You must first understand that Altmann is one of those people whose veins flow with equal parts blood and music. He plays everything instrument-wise, and what he hasn’t yet learned, he will. His first release was a fresh take on an old school – akin to the school that Leon Russell attended. Circa Mad Dogs and Englishmen, his music has a laidback, party feel that lays a warm, loose groove atop a rootsy collection of complementary instruments and like-minded players.

Originally in a Melbourne-based rock band called The Vandas, Altmann shifts to the lower gears and uses strong vocal chops and his signature piano sound to give birth to a soulful, good time. Mix in some pedal steel (Altmann) amidst lead piano parts, dobro (Hank), acoustic guitar (Brandon Humphrey), bass (Rob Foreman), drums (Matt Greco) and sweet vocal support from Grainne Ryan throughout and you begin to get the idea. Think of a drunken BBQ bash over at Doug Sahm’s summer house – with Leon manning the bar and T-Bone Burnett bringing dessert. Loose, laidback songs – built to last and fun to listen to – the title track to his new album, a case in point, with its pedal steel, piano and sturdy chorus.

The highly animated “Carrodus’ Mountain View Hotel” reads like a twisted love letter to a favourite watering hole – because
it is. Contrast this rowdy chant to the surprisingly delicate “I Told A Lie” to gain some perspective on the range of Altmann’s songwriting abilities – clothed as a rock’n’roll number driven by his piano style, underlining the value of his well-rehearsed band. The rootsy bent of “Living It Up” makes for a perfect, feel-good song while being, at the same time, a strong code to live life by.

The strong country bent to Altmann’s voice is revealed with the fiddle-free “Whole Wide World” while Grainne Ryan’s show-stopping, low-end support vocal on “Lukewarm Heart” proved a highlight of the night. “Love Like This” – clearly the front-runner track from Que Paso – provided Altmann with another chance to ply his prowess on pedal steel while the honky-tonkin’ “Who Knows Where” – also from the last record – drove home its solid hook while registering its hearty, rowdy chorus. “Zig Zag Rag” continues to pick things up with solid, rock’n’roll energy, pumped up by three singers and Altmann’s rollicking piano, ultimately bringing the evening to a close. Served up as a preview of the forthcoming Nothing But Nice Things proves to be a dramatic understatement – both this release and the one before it are loaded with great things. Altmann is clearly singer-songwriter enough for both countries to share.

Photos by Eric Thom

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Record Review: Jim Henman – Same Old Feeling

I’m not much for end-of-the-year statements. The process seems to imply that good music has an expiry date. The best music, however, remains timeless and as I think back to another year of aural adventure, one album repeatedly comes to mind as an outstanding release – for a number of reasons. I knew it was special when I first laid ears on it. I warmed instantly to its back porch feel and its unapologetic sense of overt friendliness. It’s purely Canadian and seems to incorporate all those things that work together to define that hard-to-define sound we like to think of as our own.

It’s nothing too crisp or squeaky clean, but something is clearly rising up from so deep down within that it forces itself onto your personal playlist. It’s something that stands out for how different it seems to be from everything else. I’m also drawn to this quiet little release because, like all the best underdogs, you’ll not likely have heard of it unless you tripped over it. I hope this review helps you to trip over it – because it’s well worth the fall.

Jim Henman is a name not everyone will know – or remember. Originally a founding member of April Wine back in 1969, in an era that would soon spawn memorable hits like  “Fast Train” and “You Could’ve Been A Lady”. Henman bailed in the early 70’s. Not sure why – likely for the typical reasons and just as surely none of our business. Co-founding the band that Q107 in Toronto would soon make the cornerstone of its Can-con content, April Wine was a family affair, including cousins Ritchie and David Henman together with childhood friend Myles Goodwyn – all originally hailing from Bluenose country before shuffling over to Montreal and beyond. Henman stands behind his decision of some forty years ago, feeling all the better for having made it. He’s content with his life and it’s this contentment that comes across in spades across each of Same Old Feeling’s nine selections.

Lasting no more than about a cup-and-a-half of coffee, seven of these tracks are sturdy originals (including co-writes with friend and co-producer Mike Trask) along with two inventive covers. Yet it takes no longer than his reworking of the Larry Williams ‘58 hit, “Slow Down”, to take you somewhere that can only be called ‘home’. Sounding nothing like the original or the Beatles’ remake, Henson is joined by local heroes Carter Chaplin (guitar), Charlie Phillips (bass), AJ Jardine (drums), John Appleby (mandolin) and John Noseworthy (backup vocals), transforming this previously raucous old rock’n’roller into a well-mellowed, hammock-swinging special. Its bullfrog-like chorus, swampy guitar lines, mandolin and Dixieland clarinet(Mark Cuming) lend it a lazy, N’awlins feel. From here, Henman & Co. continue to set a laidback mood that fits the Canadian psyche like a favourite team sweater or an old pair of slippers. Nothing pretty, but pretty cosy and all the better for its wear and tear. I get the same feeling from another Canadian-based institution – The Band. A grouping together of friends in a loose jam session, extremely soulful in a non-pressured, down-home kinda way. More roots than rock. But, unlike The Band, Henman’s collective has created something much more upbeat than it is mournful.

“You Can Have My Heart” is a Henman/Trask creation that originated as an instrumental track until the title helped the song to write itself. Songs don’t come by any more happy or upbeat than this as acoustic guitar and mandolin maintain a comfortable, toe-tapping pace. The title track, “Same Old Feeling”, is the record’s showcase piece, celebrating the great sense of home that lifts off the page. The idea was born in ’72 for inclusion in a Henman/Goodwyn production that never came about. It didn’t re-materialize as a song until Henman and Trask colluded on it to bring it to its present, glorious state. This is a happy-go-lucky song you want to own, rather than simply whistle along to – the pièce de résistance of the album. Henman’s own “Could Be Heaven” reveals him as a closet rock’n’roller (well…who isn’t?) as the lively paean to a groupie and a neighbourhood nutbar adds provides  timely contrast to the laid-back nature of the record. This is good radio fare for a top-down, summer drive in your Dad’s convertible. Likewise, Henman’s “That’s The Way It Goes” takes harp, acoustic bass, mandolin and acoustic guitar to flesh out this meaty life lesson in the form of a hangover special. Mellow with attitude, Henman’s voice (and whistle) is in peak form as Phil Potvin’s harmonica and John Appleby’s mandolin earn able assists.

“That’s All I Got” is highly autobiographical, nicely summing up Henman’s decision to forsake the limelight for a better life at home. If ‘inner peace’ was in a certain key, this is it. It’s a fun track, recalling John Hartford (Henman’s laid-back vocals and approach are similar) and yesterday’s pop radio. The added muscle of Garrett Mason’s guitar doesn’t hurt. A big fan of Gus Cannon, Henman’s musical contribution has – likewise – been the melding of blues to folk, so this cover is hardly out of place. Chuck Bucket’s brushed drums, Rheo Rochon’s warm, stand-up bass and the dual acoustic guitars of Henman and Charlie Phillips help transform “Walk Right In” into the official kitchen party song for the Maritimes that it could be. It certainly sits nicely here, given Henman’s studied, simpatico vocal.

Another case in point reinforcing Henman’s blues pedigree is further realized with “I Don’t Have No Blues”. In perfect voice and reinforced by Potvin’s harp and Rochon’s acoustic bass, this track shines brightly as an upbeat parlour piece. Another album highlight, Henman reveals his understated skills with some beautifully accomplished acoustic guitar work on a piece that could easily become a completely new direction. The record closes with one final blues treatment – served up, initially, as a cloudy, vintage-sounding recording. Complete with scratches, “Shame Shame Boogie” breaks into present-day, with the upgraded sound we’ve learned to favour. An interesting, if not symbolic, way to close an album that takes something grounded in the past and renders it – proudly – present-day.

It’s taken Henman too long to get this album together and release it. Here’s hoping people will recognize its genius and add their voices together to coax more music like this from him. The process may well have been therapeutic for Henman, but the quality of this release will soon prove to be essential listening for the rest of us – and that’s a dependency worth having.

Track down a copy and head out to the porch for a listen (winter coat and all).

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Review: Stan Rogers – Northwest Passage, remastered

I don’t know about you but, for me, this music is religion. I can’t actually recall how I first fell in love with Stan Rogers and his music but I most assuredly did. And I remember the first – and only – time I saw him perform live with an identical clarity of recall, sadly. Foolishly, I didn’t even have the foresight to have taken pictures…

I certainly do remember the first Stan Rogers album I heard – and it was this one – now lovingly re-packaged and carefully re-released by Borealis Records in conjunction with Fogarty’s Cove Music and Stan’s wife, Ariel.

The funny thing is, I didn’t hear the whole record first. I heard the absolutely delicious “Northwest Passage” used as the backdrop to a Canadian documentary on (go figure) the Northwest Passage. And Stan’s a capella treatment of the song – and the soulful sentiment streaming from it – hit me like a ton of bricks. From there, I tracked his music down – no mean feat in small-town Ontario before the days of the internet – and this was pre-CBC radio in my personal development. I had completely believed Rogers to be a dyed-in-the-wool Maritimer. He certainly looked the part with his rough, burly bulk, that ebullient smile and his Old Dutch-styled beard. Even his guitar tuning lent his music that familiar Celtic lilt so traditional to the music streaming out of our Atlantic provinces. To realize that he was actually a Hamilton native came as a bit of a shock.

To find the song —and the record—would provide me with a treasure trove of feeling: pride coupled with the joy that comes with finding something truly buoyant and uplifting. This record rekindles thoughts of ‘home’ and is capable of always making me feel good whenever I’d hear it.

From the anthemic opening song to the comparably simple, fiddle-driven “The Field Behind The Plow”, Stan’s ability to depict real people, real life and a real sense of our collective history is a talent like no other. From the more aggressive pace of “Night Guard”—underlining Stan’s gift for storytelling—to the comparably laid-back, sensitive delivery of “You Can’t Stay Here”, with its moral backbone, if not fear of human nature, Stan is a study in character—his and those of his subjects. Then there’s “The Idiot” ; it’s everyman’s tale in so many ways. There seems little care to sequence or force any consistent feeling or attempts to package up a certain mood. It’s just good, honest music coming at you, exactly as you like to hear it served up: without a fuss.

Stan makes light of hardship. often finding interest in many things the rest of us take for granted. He then surrounds it with simpatico arrangements that lift a simple song into something far more powerful and important on many levels. And that soft, soothing baritone voice coming from such a relative giant at six foot four is something you never forget.

As Canadians, we often wrack our brains, falling somewhat within the shadow of the ‘everything’s bigger in the U.S.’ disease in our attempts to define who we are and what makes us different. Stan Rogers and his music embody the answer to our search for an appropriate icon. His spirit and skill with words resonate with a sense of place. Our place. And can there be a more representative tome than “Northwest Passage”? Years ago, Peter Gzowski polled his Morningside audience in a search to find an alternative anthem to “O Canada”—and you can guess what he got back.

One of my favourite musical moments came from seeing a favourite artist at the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival a few years back. The rough-hewn blues man, Bill Homans (aka Watermelon Slim), may project the persona of a hard-living, truck-driving man yet the Handy-nominated, Masters degree-holding Vietnam Vet is also a good judge of a well-written song. He came to the edge of the packed stage and told the story of some music he’d heard which had made a significant impact on his life and he proceeded to sing an a capella version of “Northwest Passage”. As I scanned the crowd to gauge the reaction of this broad spectrum of hardy Atlantic seaboarders having their sacred song served up to them by an American in his army greens, I was amazed to see how many of them were in tears. Visibly so. Blubbering like babies—and me along with them. There’s something more than the power of music at play here.

And then I recall the sickening feeling I got the day I watched the news, observing that fateful Air Canada DC-9, Flight 797 , the plane parked on that Cincinnati runway, its fuselage still belching with the smoke that took Stan and 22 others with it. Snuffed out, cruelly, like an ill-placed candle by an errant gust of wind —and on a mission to spread and share the word, no less. The damn plane was already on the ground, which only added salt to the wound. I equate the date to the way my brain responds to November 22—when JFK was shot—unthinkable events causing an indelible stain.

His was a gift that’s so rarely opened. And when it is, it becomes all the more personal, if not satisfying to the very bone. This is a torch well worth the passing.

Borealis is to be applauded for helping to keep Stan’s good name and music in the public eye, as did Stan’s mother before them. The fourth of five Stan Rogers albums to be re-mastered and re-released, it’s a selfless act by Canada’s most prolific, if not most thoughtful, folk label to mark the timeless importance of this distinctively Canadian talent. The improvement to the overall quality – and impact ­– of the sound is well worth duplicating your collection, offering you a production like nothing you’ve heard before. And Stan sounds all the better for it, helping the legend live on.


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