Monday, February 27, 2012

Steam Whistle Unsigned Music Series

Friday marked the 21st installment of the Steam Whistle Unsigned Music Series, but it was my first time making it out to one of the three-act shows at Toronto's Steam Whistle Brewery Roundhouse.
Luke Lalonde

Tickets were just five dollars and all of the proceeds were donated to the Artists’ Health Centre Foundation, an organization with a mandate to raise the standard of health care, educational resources and quality of life for artists.

But it wasn't just the cheap cover and good cause that coaxed 500 folks out of the house on a chilly night. The bill featured Born Ruffians singer/guitarist Luke Lalonde introducing himself with a different band as a solo artist, up-and-coming soulful rock sextet The Paint Movement and indie pop act Boys Who Say No, which was launching its Contingencies debut album.

I'm a Born Ruffians fan and still prefer that band over Lalonde's solo work, and I'm not that big on the other two acts either. But they all provided a solid night of entertainment for the people who are supporters, while I was content to stand back, observe, have a couple of beers and enjoy OMD's "Enola Gay" over the sound system during the first between-band break.
The Paint Movement

A pay-what-you-can donation jar was left beside boxes of small square slices from Pizza Pizza adjacent to the free coat check near the entrance, which was another nice touch and a second way of adding to the Artists’ Health Centre Foundation contributions.

I've been to a few music industry parties at Steam Whistle in the past, but it's been a couple of years since my last visit. The place has been spruced up and the roundhouse provides great sight lines to the stage. The brick and  glass walls make for a very loud room -- which can be a positive or negative quality, depending on your perspective.

It's obvious that a lot of thought and work goes into the Steam Whistle Unsigned Music Series, and I'll try not to wait 21 more shows before returning.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Chuck Prophet - Temple Beautiful

I admit to losing touch with Chuck Prophet after the demise of Green on Red and through the string of albums he made through the '90s and into the new millennium. But I became reacquainted through 2009's Let Freedom Ring!, which became one of my favourite albums of that year.

I don't think the follow-up, Temple Beautiful, quite matches that more politically charged record. But it comes damn close and shows that Prophet is in the midst of a career renaissance at age 48.

Temple Beautiful has been described as Prophet's "ode to San Francisco," the city he's called home for most of the past 30 years. He launched the album with a bus tour around the city that highlighted some of the haunts alluded to in his songs, and the report I read made it sound like a magical night.

Steph Finch, Prophet's longtime life and musical partner, adds harmonies and keyboards to a number of tracks. The rest of the musicians augment the songs terrifically, including the saxophonist who comes in on the excellent "Little Girl Little Boy." But it's Prophet's guitar, voice and songs that take Temple Beautiful to the next level above "pretty good rock-and-roll record."

"Castro Halloween" and "Willie Mays is Up at Bat" (on which I'd love to see Prophet collaborate on stage with The Baseball Project) are the most obvious nods to San Francisco, at least to those of us unfortunate enough not to have been there yet.

I'm sure that the Cyril referred to in "Who Shot John" is San Fran native Cyril Jordan, the founder and guitarist for garage rock greats The Flamin' Groovies. The end of "I Felt Like Jesus" is reminiscent of what you'd hear from Prophet's friend and transplanted San Franciscan (and one of my musical idols), Jonathan Richman. Prophet borrows from one of Richman's more obvious influences by adding somewhat of a doo-wop element to the vintage pop-and-roll sound on "White Night, Big City."

The two slower songs on the record, the strings-infused "Museum of Broken Hearts" and the closing "Emperor Norton in the Last Year of His Life (1880)," fall a bit short of the other 10 numbers. But that's probably just  because I like Prophet most when he's rocking.

I've never seen Prophet perform, but will catch at least one set at next month's South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. He would have been high on my list of must-see acts anyway, but the songs on Temple Beautiful cemented it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Little Barrie and Charles Bradley rock and wail

I doubt if most people who joined forces to sell out Lee's Palace on Saturday night knew much about opening act Little Barrie. I was in the same boat until recently.
Little Barrie

But the British trio definitely made new fans with its 35-minute set that largely showcased its fine King of the Waves album, which will be released in North America on Feb. 28 by Tummy Touch Records. Both the record and the performance opened with "Surf Hell," a surf-garage tune with an edge that's a great momentum-starter.

King of the Waves is Little Barrie's third album and, like 2005's We Are Little Barrie debut, it was co-produced by Orange Juice founder and Scottish solo artist Edwyn Collins ("A Girl Like You"). Collins also added backing vocals to "Money in Paper" on the record, which offers a no-nonsense, swaggering dose of rock-and-roll with dashes of psychedelia, blues and soul thrown in.

Little Barrie is much better known in Japan than in Canada, but frontman Barrie Cadogan has made a name for himself by playing guitar with Primal Scream and Paul Weller and is a talent to be reckoned with. Drummer Virgil Howe has his own share of non-Little Barrie notoriety, as he's the son of Yes guitarist Steve Howe.

Little Barrie will open shows in the midwestern and northeastern United States for soul belter Charles Bradley throughout most of this month. If you like what you see, pick up King of the Waves as well since there's no drop-off in entertainment value from the stage to the studio.
Charles Bradley

Bradley languished in obscurity for years, working as a cook in various U.S. cities and performing James Brown songs while playing occasional gigs under the name Black Velvet. But he was discovered by Daptone Records' Gabriel Roth in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Daptone's Dunham Records imprint released his No Time For Dreaming debut album a year ago.

The record gained critical acclaim and Bradley, now nearing his mid-sixties, has created a growing fan base with his sweat-soaked performances that reinforce his nickname of "The Screaming Eagle of Soul."

It's obvious that Brown, "The Godfather of Soul," had a huge impact on Bradley. He tries to emulate some of the late entertainer's moves, though falls far short in mastering them.

Bradley also likes flashy clothes, as he first appeared to a rousing ovation while wearing black pants, a black shirt and red-sequined jacket. The jacket came off early, and a costume change later in the set showed off a white jacket and black vest with no shirt. The jacket again was quickly removed to reveal a sweaty, shimmering belly.

Bradley certainly can belt out his material, and his delivery elicited frequent screams from the audience, which featured a higher ratio of women than most Lee's shows. In addition to the album repertoire, the soul and funk treatment was given to Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," which had many in the crowd singing along.

But I was at least as impressed with Bradley's seven-piece band -- guitarist, bassist, drummer, keyboardist, trumpeter, saxophone player and a young woman hiding away in the back clapping with a tambourine -- as I was with him. The group was tight, talented and melded well with the vocalist throughout the 55-minute set, which also included a couple of instrumentals to get things started.

Bradley was wearing a flashy gold jacket and no shirt when he came out for his encore number, and then he left while the band continued to extend things for a couple more minutes. Bradley emerged on his own at the microphone (as many of the 600 people in attendance were filing out) to offer a sincere, heartfelt thank-you to everyone.

Bradley hasn't had the easiest of lives, but he's making the most of his opportunities now. And hopefully the good times will continue to roll for him, since he deserves that.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Waco Brothers & Paul Burch - Great Chicago Fire

If I didn't have enough reasons to look forward to the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas next month, I have another one after listening to the Waco Brothers and Paul Burch's Great Chicago Fire.

The album will be released by Bloodshot Records on April 24, but the raucous Chicago country punks and the talented but under-appreciated Nashville singer/songwriter will be performing together at SXSW.

As much as I love the Wacos' unpredictable Austin shows and can sing along with most of their songs, it will be good to hear new material since this is their first studio album since 2005's Freedom and Weep. I've never seen Burch perform, but was an advocate of 2003's Fool for Love, enjoyed his interpretations on last year's Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly, and have liked what I've heard from him from various compilations and collaborations.

Waco Brothers' Deano Schlabowske and Joe Camarillo at Guero's in Austin.

So I thought this would be a combination that fits squarely into my wheelhouse, especially after finding out that it was brokered over margaritas at Guero's in Austin. I've enjoyed a few of those tequila-laced cocktails with musicians over the years there, too.

My high expectations for Great Chicago Fire were met easily, right from the opening up-tempo title track and its shared lead vocals, female harmonies, up-front guitars and T-Rex influence ("20th Century Boy" has long been a staple of Wacos performances, so perhaps that isn't as surprising as one might initially think).

Deano Schlabowske sings lead on the Tejano meets Jason and The Scorchers-ish "Give In" and "On The Sly," while offering a nifty guitar solo in "Up On The Mountain."
Waco Brothers' Jon Langford, Deano Schlabowske and Tracey Dear.

Jon Langford's insurgent country number "Cannonball" is sweetened by the backing vocals of Tawney Newsome and Bethany Thomas, and "Someone That You Know" canters along jauntily.

Burch's "Wrong Side of Love" is poppy, but with a honky-tonk element courtesy of Pat Brennan's piano. Brennan adds accordion to "Monterey," which would do the Texas Tornados proud. The more lush "Flight to Spain" is surprisingly restrained, but the guitar-fuelled "Transfusion Blues" returns to more familiar Wacos territory.

Bryan Ferry's cover of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" remains my favourite, but the bluesy singalong version that ends this album certainly isn't a disappointment.

Great Chicago Fire is my favourite album of 2012 so far, and I can't envision it not being among my top picks 47 weeks from now.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Punk revival highlights Juno concert

Exclaim! Media celebrated its 20th anniversary and the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences raised money for its MusiCounts charity when they joined together for a night of music at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern on Feb. 4 as part of the Juno Concert Series.

The first part of the evening was dedicated to Canadian pop songs, with young combo The Elwins acting as house band. I walked in to hear Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning crooning Remy Shand's "Take A Message." I wasn't a fan, but it may have been people's only chance to hear the song live, since Shand seems to have disappeared following the platinum sales and Juno-winning success of his one and only album, The Way I Feel, in 2002.

The Elwins did an original, fun, bouncy and slightly ska-influenced pop tune called "Stuck in the Middle" that I quite enjoyed. I wasn't familiar with the band before, but would be interested in seeing a set of its original material.

Tokyo Police Club's David Monks performed a song I didn't know and then Canning returned with quirky pop artist Allie Hughes for The Poppy Family's "Where Evil Grows." It had a nice fuzz tone, but the vocals lacked the edge that Terry and Susan Jacks brought to the original in 1971.

Former Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, King Cobb Steelie and Phono-Comb member Don Pyle next offered a slide show of photos from his 2011 book, Trouble in the Camera Club: A Photographic Narrative of Toronto's Punk History 1976-1980. He described some of the shots he took as a teenager of Blondie, The Ramones, David Bowie, The Clash and such local favourites as Teenage Head, The Diodes, The Mods and The Ugly that brought back memories to a certain segment of the audience that packed the venue.

The Sadies were the backing band (and it seemed strange to see Sean Dean not playing an upright bass) for the following set of Toronto punk tunes, with Pyle sticking around to sing a couple of them. Mickey Skin took folks back 34 years to when her band The Curse, North America's first all-woman punk band, issued the single "Shoeshine Boy" about murdered 12-year-old Emmanuel Jaques. She followed that up with "Somethin' Ya Can't Tell Your Mother."

Other highlights included a rendition of The Viletones' "Possibilities" and Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham (who's abandoned his straight edge ways and was drinking beer) taking off his Toronto Maple Leafs jersey to bark through Teenage Head's "Picture My Face."

Hip-hop karaoke was next up, which thinned the crowd considerably (and eventually prompted my exit). But I was entertained by Mandy's energetic rip through Maestro Fresh Wes' "Let Your Backbone Slide," and it was good to see pioneering female MC Michie Mee again.

The evening didn't live up to my expectations and wasn't as good as last year's decade-themed shows in the Juno Concert Series, but spending time with friends at the gig compensated for the lack of on-stage thrills.