Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Friday 
I was invited by a member of my baseball team to play in a four-on-four, skins format volleyball tournament on Friday. We didn't win any money, but it was good exercise and a lot of fun. I got to do a lot of scrambling around, diving and setting, which I don't get to do as much for We Still Go Down, our six-person co-ed volleyball team that inexplicably won the Thursday night intermediate division in the Toronto Sport and Social Club league last week. Thanks to Mark for inviting me, and Bob and Richie for also being on Friday's team.

I drove home from Scarborough, got a quick bite to eat, made myself look reasonably presentable and went to The Velvet Underground for XM Satellite Radio Canada's The Verge's "Thank God It's Not Another Xmas Party." I was given a guitar pick with a Molson Canadian logo on it upon arrival, which was good for a free can. I'm not a fan of the beer, but I guess I can't argue with free, and there was no other alternative available.

I arrived too late to see Dinosaur Bones, but was there to see Toronto's Still Life Still take the stage at 10 p.m. The band's Girls Come Too debut full-length was released by Arts & Crafts this summer, and there were quite a few girls at the foot of the stage who had obviously come to see the dance-rock group that dedicated its set to iconoclastic club booker Dan Burke. The sound was kind of muddy and the vocals were mixed too low, but the sound improved as the 35-minute set went on. I thought the group was okay, but nothing exceptional.

Meligrove Band was what I wanted to see most, and the quartet hit the stage at 10:55. I really liked the group's 2000 debut, Stars & Guitars, and was reasonably impressed with 2002's Let It Grow and 2006's Planets Conspire, which was released by V2 Records before it went out of business. I used to see the group a fair amount early this decade, but it had been a few years since I last caught a show. The band seems to have a harder rocking sound than what I remember from the past, and the last song was almost metallic. A new album is finished and the Meligroves are talking to labels about releasing it next year.

The Verge's Jeff Leake is always good for funneling me free drinks at his events, and tonight was no different. Thanks again, Leake.

Arts & Crafts' David Tysowski told me that his band, The Order Of Good Cheer, is the opening act for Tuesday's "Bookie & Arkells' 2nd Annual Holiday Bash" at the Horseshoe Tavern. Hollerado (perhaps singer/guitarist Menno Versteeg will want me to cut his hair again) is also on the bill, and I've had fun every time I've seen it. Arkells will top things of by performing a Motown dance party set. It's free, but collections will be taken to support the OSPCA and The Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada. It should be a good night and, if I'm on pace to get all my assignments done before Christmas, I'll be there.

The Junction was the final band of Friday's concert. The quartet plays slightly alternative rock and, again, I thought the set was satisfactory but nothing special. I thought I heard the group doing The Cure's "Close To Me" as I walked upstairs from the washroom, but it was an original with a similar melody. But I know for sure that The Junction did a Pink Floyd cover. I think it was "Welcome To The Machine," but I was chatting at the bar and wasn't listening that closely, so I won't say that with 100-per-cent certainty.
The Junction ended at 12:40. I talked some more, had a nightcap, and walked home.

np The Paperbacks — Lit From Within

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The changing look of the Bowery 
I've usually hung out around the Lower East Side, East Village and Greenwich Village at night during my occasional New York City breaks, and always thought it would be cool and convenient to stay in the heart of the area, so I booked into the St. Marks Hotel in historic St. Mark's Place.
The rooms are small and spartan, but it's hard to beat the price and the location just north of the Bowery. Plus, you can say that you stayed in the same building where the late and notoriously nasty punk rocker, GG Allin, once lived.
But the Bowery and the surrounding neighbourhood has changed a bit since I was last here. There have been two nice additions, but one major and unfortunate subtraction.
The Cooper Union's new academic building just opened this past summer and the environmentally friendly structure is quite stunning. See for yourself:
The other edifice isn't quite as new, but is just as interesting. The seven-storey New Museum (located at 235 Bowery between Stanton and Rivington streets) was designed by Tokyo-based architects and houses a variety of contemporary art. As far as I'm concerned, the building itself is a piece of art:

I'd trade both of these beautiful buildings, however, for the return of a badly missed dive bar, but legendary live music venue: CBGB.
Patti Smith closed the club with a performance in October 2006, and the location at  315 Bowery near Bleecker Street has been converted into a John Varvatos retail store. The place where The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television and many other great bands first made names for themselves is now selling overpriced, trendy, urban chic menswear.
But at least the store has retained some of CBGB's grungy atmosphere and kept some of the old walls — covered in posters, stickers and graffiti — as they were. That still wasn't incentive enough to spend any money in the store. Let's call it a combination of silent protest and me being cheap.
Gentrification can have some advantages in certain cases. I just hope it doesn't totally overtake the Bowery. I prefer live music over leather belts. Here are two shots of what CBGB has become:

Take a walk with me on New York City's High Line

It's the hustle and bustle that attracts many people to the Big Apple, but one of the best New York City breaks to escape all of that — without leaving a couple of Manhattan's trendiest neighbourhoods — is the High Line.
The High Line was originally an elevated railway line built in the 1930s to take trains off streets and eliminate accidents, but had become an unused eyesore since the final locomotive (pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys) used it in 1980. The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation has now transformed it into a cutting-edge public park that offers excellent views of Manhattan and the Hudson River, even though it's only 30 feet off the ground.
While some of the railroad ties remain and add character, the safely lit High Line now also features concrete paths bordered with gardens and trees. There's also a water feature and fountains, commissioned artwork, a sun deck, restrooms and fixed and movable benches that allow you can sit and relax. If you want a snack, a limited number of regularly changing local vendors are permitted to sell their goodies.
One of the most intriguing parts of the High Line is 10th Avenue Square, which features stepped benches leading down to a viewing platform with a window that looks directly up the street.
Tours, lectures, performances and events are scheduled regularly for the security-patrolled structure.
The first section of the wheelchair-accessible High Line opened in June 2009 and runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 20th Street between 10th and 11th avenues in Chelsea. It can be accessed along the route on 14th, 16th and 18th streets, with the first two of those having elevators.
A second section running to West 30th Street is expected to open sometime in 2010 and will include a lawn area for picnics. When the final section is added, the High Line will continue up to and around the West Side Rail Yards at West 34th Street by the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. It will be 1.45 miles long at completion.
Old warehouses and factories in the surrounding former industrial area have been transformed into art galleries, design studios, stores, restaurants, museums, condominiums and apartments. The eco-friendly High Line should only inspire more positive development and make other local building owners take better care of the many rooftops people pass by while strolling its path.
About the only negative thing I can think of about the innovative High Line is that you can't walk dogs on it.
A similar rail viaduct has been converted into a park in Paris France called the Promenade Plantée. Similar projects are being developed in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, Chicago and Rotterdam. If Toronto's Gardiner Expressway is ever taken out of service, as some people would like to see, a High Line-like park would be a great use of part of it.
The High Line is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily during the winter and until 10 p.m. when the days get longer and warmer.
Take a walk north along the High Line with me with these photos I took in August:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Grant Hart's still hot, on wax and on stage

Grant Hart's Hot Wax, which came out a couple of months ago, surprised me by how good it was — considering it was his first album in 10 years. And now I can say the same thing about his performance in support of the disc.
But first, I should also pay respect to opening act Massey Harris, composed of veteran Toronto musicians Scott Bradshaw and Gord Cumming. Bradshaw's acoustic and Cumming's sublime slide guitar blend wonderfully, and Cumming's backing vocals similarly complement Bradshaw's leads.
The duo's set featured both Bradshaw originals, including the terrific "Way Beyond The Nicotine," and well-chosen covers that included Fred Eaglesmith's "Little Buffalo," Bob Dylan's "Something's Burning, Baby" and Willie P. Bennett's "Job Disorder."
A much bigger crowd witnessed Bradshaw (as part of Groovy Religion) open for Hart (as part of Husker Du) 22 years ago, but the 100-or-so people that came out to the gig showed warm appreciation for Massey Harris.

Hart, looking positively Parisian with a black beret and thin moustache, took the stage at 11:15 p.m. and played until almost 1 a.m. While he's best known as a drummer for his time in Husker Du, Hart has played guitar with Nova Mob and as a solo artist — and he handled his Gibson hollow body electric guitar (adorned with a Canadian flag decal) pretty well.
Hart's set covered his whole career, including the most recent chapter with Hot Wax's "You're The Reflection Of The Moon On The Water," "Barbara," "I Knew All About You Since Then," "Narcissus, Narcissus" and "My Regrets." There were other solo songs (including my favourite, the brilliant "2541"), and Nova Mob's "The Last Days Of Pompeii" drew some whoops from a few fans up front.
But it was the large number of Husker Du songs that probably elicited the biggest responses. "Never Talking To You" and "The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill" were good, but "Charity, Chastity, Prudence And Hope" really showcased Hart's gift for writing rocking yet melodic songs. The 27-song main set also featured Husker Du's "Back From Somewhere," "Turn On The News" and a great "Green Eyes."
Hart had taken requests near the end of his set, and did again after stepping off the stage for less than a minute and returning for an encore of four Husker Du songs.
"It's Not Funny Anymore" was followed by "Keep Hangin' On," but it was the third song that really hit home for me. "Diane," which depicts a brutal rape and murder, might lack the shock value it had when it first appeared on 1983's Metal Circus and doesn't have the visceral force of Husker Du's version, but it's still very powerful. Things ended on a more upbeat note with "Flexible Flyer," which left the audience wanting more.
Although Hart looks a bit pale and thin, and maybe even slightly sickly, his set was much longer than when former Husker Du bandmate (and nemesis) Bob Mould performed at Toronto's Mod Club a few months ago. And he seemed in good spirits and was friendly when I briefly talked to him, so hopefully all is well.
Sure, it would have been better to hear full band versions of most of these songs. And I was disappointed that my request for "Books About UFOs" fell by the wayside. But apart from those very minor quibbles, I'm sure that the members of the too-small audience would agree that they definitely got a good bang for their buck.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

D. Trevlon takes his chances with new record

D. Trevlon's To: The Dusty Moon And You was one of my favourite albums of 2005. He followed the folk-country record with 2007's seven-song Dance Under The Stars EP. Like its predecessor, it was an acoustic record with gently stirring songs that managed to embed themselves in both your head and heart.
The Kirkland Lake, Ont. native, who now resides on Canada's west coast, saved $1,600 and recently went into Vancouver's The Hive studios with guitarist Johnny Wildcat (Mongoose) and drummer Stephen Lyons (Fond Of Tigers). They came out with eight new songs on a still unreleased record Trevlon plans on titling I'll Take My Chances.
"I wanted to call it I'll Take My Chances because I had no idea what was going to happen," says the singer, songwriter, whistler and musician. "I was getting bored of playing the solo folk thing and needed a change."
Producer/engineer Jesse Gander recorded the music live off the floor and also played keyboards on two tracks. Trevlon and Wildcat played bass.
Record opener "Man Of Investigation" is more up-tempo than Trevlon's past solo material, as are several other tracks. "Headin' Home" is a catchy pop-rock number, while "Operator" is an excellent power-pop song.
There's some impressive guitar work on the slower, blues-based "See It In Your Eyes" and the quicker-paced "Original Girl" and "Sunset."
Piano and backing vocals make "On A Mountain" stand out, and the record ends in a relatively slow and gentle way with "Frozen Blue Star."
Trevlon took his chances and now has a band and an album that you should keep an eye out for sometime next year.
You can find out more about Trevlon and hear some of his older tunes on his MySpace and SonicBids pages.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

I made the Jingle Bell Rocks! blog:
Los Straitjackets, El Vez, The El Vettes and Santez
There was lots of fun to be had at Toronto's Lee's Palace on Tuesday night when the Flying Bordellos, Los Straitjackets and El Vez with his lovely El Vettes hit the stage for a holiday season-themed show we'll call Mex-Mas.
Santez was on hand to document the night by taking notes and photos. He also raised money for The Kidney Foundation Of Canada by allowing fans to have their pictures taken with him in exchange for a five-dollar contribution to the charity. He matched all the donations and is sending a $90 cheque off this week.
If you weren't at the show, but want to feel like you were, check out this review and these photos from the evening:


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Robyn Hitchcock — I Often Dream Of Trains In New York

This performance of Hitchcock's third solo album, 1984's primarily acoustic I Often Dream Of Trains, was recorded at New York City's Symphony Space 53 weeks ago.
Hitchcock was joined at the acoustic concert by Terry Edwards (vocals, keyboards, trumpet, soprano sax, guitar), Tim Keegan (vocals, guitar), Gaida Hinnawi (vocals) and Amir El Saffar (trumpet).
I Often Dream Of Trains isn't among my favourite albums from Hitchcock's catalogue (including his Soft Boys and Egyptians records) and contains few songs that I've seen him play live, apart from the excellent "Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl," which starts the CD as a "cassette fragment."
Most of the songs are pretty gentle and mellow, but pleasant pop material can be found in "Sounds Great When You're Dead," "This Could Be The Day," "Ye Sleeping Knights Of Jesus" (which was covered by The Replacements on 1985's The Shit Hits The Fans live album), the title track, "I Used To Say I Love You," "My Favourite Buildings," "That's Fantastic Mother Church," "America," "Up To Our Nex" and "Goodnight I Say."
The one song that really stands out for its uniqueness is the a cappella "Uncorrected Personality Traits," which comes across as Monty Python meets a barbershop quartet.
This package also includes a DVD of the concert that features an introduction, soundcheck, credits and a short film called Beyond Basingstoke. Like with most of the DVDs I own, I haven't had a chance to sit down and watch it yet.
I Often Dream Of Trains In New York probably isn't essential for most Hitchcock fans, but more dedicated followers (I'm staring right at you, Craig Laskey) should have a stronger appreciation.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gary Bettman Remains Entrenched Through Adversity

What's Gary Bettman's secret?

The National Hockey League's inaugural commissioner will mark his 17th anniversary in the post in February and, although he's helped oversee a dramatic increase in league revenues and a tentative return to more wide-open hockey after the clutching and grabbing era robbed fans of seeing the game's top players fully showcasing their skills earlier this decade, his bullheadedness about expanding into non-traditional hockey markets and inability to land a meaningful U.S. national television contract have left the NHL in a somewhat precarious position.

Bettman's tenure has seen the league lock out its players twice, reducing the 1994-95 season from 84 to 48 games and completely wiping out the entire 2004-05 schedule after owners and the NHL Players Association failed to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements. The NHL became the first major North American sports league to cancel a whole season due to a labour dispute, causing a black eye that's faded somewhat in time as they all eventually do, but turning off many fans in markets like Atlanta, Phoenix and Florida who still hadn't fully embraced the world's fastest team sport like those in original six and early expansion American cities and, especially, in Canada.

Bettman certainly can't be blamed for the mess that the NHLPA now finds itself in, and the introduction of a salary cap along with revenue sharing adds some economic certainty for owners that wasn't there before the current CBA. But with the current deal expiring after the 2010-11 season, one can't feel fully comfortable with the stubborn and often combative 57-year-old lawyer acting on behalf of the league's 30 governors again. That is, if there are still 30 teams left by the time those negotiations begin in earnest.

But as the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case showed earlier this year, Bettman seems to have strong support from almost all of the NHL's owners. But now that the league has taken over the Coyotes, are those folks going to remain happy while footing the bill for a money-losing franchise that seems to have no chance of turning things around as long it remains playing in front of less than 6,000 people in a white elephant arena in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale? Even if I had a few hundred million dollars in my bank account, I know I wouldn't be.

Bettman seems to be wearing rose-coloured glasses while saying that the NHL is in good shape while teams in Tampa, Atlanta, Nashville, Florida and even farther north in Columbus walk precariously along a tightrope and try not to fall off into an abyss like the Coyotes.

It's not just Research In Motion head Jim Balsillie and the hockey fans in Hamilton, Ont. who had high hopes for the maverick executive shuffling the Coyotes north to the home of the Canadian Football League's Tiger Cats who are ticked off at Bettman for fighting the move. Opinion polls show he's unpopular across Canada, he was booed while presenting the Stanley Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins in June, and there are at least two web sites — the terribly written and the moderately more literate but no-less-venomous — dedicated to criticizing the former senior vice-president and general consul of the National Basketball Association.

Bettman must know where some bodies are buried, or have several photos of influential owners in compromising positions, to be able to smugly keep his lucrative job amidst such controversy and rancour. Come on Gary, just between you and me, what's your secret?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reigning Sound Rules

I'd never seen Reigning Sound before and singer/guitarist Greg Cartwright (Oblivians, Compulsive Gamblers) said it had been "several" years since his band had been in Toronto, and it was obvious that I wasn't the only person eager to see the Memphis-formed, Asheville, N.C.-based band. I'd estimate there were about 300 people at the Horseshoe Tavern last night, which is a pretty impressive figure for a Sunday night and a band that more or less has a cult following.
I can't imagine that anyone left disappointed. It was like soulful garage rock heaven. All the sound coming from just one guitar was amazing, and the riffs coming from the organ of Dave Amels excited me even more. Bassist David Wayne Gay and drummer Lance Wille rounded out the totally solid veteran lineup.
Like-minded musicians from The Sadies, Deadly Snakes, Catl and The Lawn were in attendance and soaking up the good vibes. I ran into C'Mon's Ian Blurton and Katie Campbell during my walk home, and Blurton said he would have been at the show but was working in the studio. 
Almost every song was a highlight and the 90-minute show included "The Bells," "Call Me," "Break It," "I'll Cry," "Time Bomb High School," "If I Can't Come Back," "Stop And Think It Over," "Reptile Style," "Stormy Weather," "I'm Holding Out" and "Dangerous Game."
I like a lot of roll with my rock, and Reigning Sound played one of the best pure rock-and-roll shows I've seen this year.
Here are two photos:


Friday, November 20, 2009

Andre Williams and The Sadies
My Thursday night volleyball games kept me away from Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern until 11 p.m., so I unfortunately missed local blues/roots/rock-and-roll combo Catl (who I quite like and last saw at the Halloween party at Mitzi's Sister a few weeks ago) and Montreal rockabilly artist Bloodshot Bill (who I've never witnessed in person, but have liked what I've heard on radio and seen on television), who I'll try to catch opening for King Khan & BBQ at Lee's Palace on Dec. 4.
But my arrival coincided with the start of a short nine-song set by The Sadies, which included "Why Be So Curious (Part 3)," "Leave Me Alone," "Stay A Little Longer," "Tiger Tiger" and a couple of instrumentals. The quartet was sharp, as always, and got the good-sized crowd pumped up for its next role as Andre Williams' backing band.
"Mr. Rhythm" (who was apparently given that name by the late, great Redd Foxx) took the stage along with two local go-go dancers (who I won't name, just in case their employers happen to see this and didn't know they were moonlighting). Andre was decked out in a red zoot suit with matching hat, had earrings on both sides of his head, and looked every part the pimp.
I've seen Andre at least half-a-dozen times, but it's been a few years since he's been in Toronto. He didn't look as good as he has in the past when I saw him at the Continental Club in Austin during the South By Southwest Music Festival in March, so I was a bit wary going in to this performance. He turned 73 earlier this month and has lived a hard life that's included lots of booze and drugs and periods of homelessness, but he seemed to be rejuvenated somewhat for this show. Performing in front of The Sadies can do that to people.
Andre opened with  "Hallelujah" and then moved into "She's A Bag Of Potato Chips," which he recorded with The Sadies on the 1999 country-influenced  Red Dirt album. He showed a few dance moves during "Agile, Mobile & Hostile" and then sang about one of his many fantasies with "I Wanna Be Your Favorite Pair Of Pajamas." The Sadies provided lots of raunch and crunch in support, and Dallas Good even took an impressive turn at the organ during "Pajamas."
Things slowed down for another Red Dirt track, "I Can Tell," after which Andre said, "I'd like to take a short break and turn you over to some bad motherfuckers."
Andre stood behind Dallas and caught his second wind as The Sadies ripped through an uplifting version of "Higher Power."
The dancers returned once Andre reclaimed centre stage to scan the crowd for "some good pussy," which was an obvious introduction for "Pussy Stank."
Andre then reached back about 50 years into his catalogue for two early hits. First came a bluesy doo-wop version of "Bacon Fat," followed by the still lascivious "Jail Bait."
Andre made a dedication to all the "hillbillies in the house," and explained, "I used to pick cotton and screw myself because there was no girls" when he was growing up as a "blackbilly" in Alabama.
The set ended with what's probably Andre's best-known song, the ever-awesome "Shake A Tail Feather," which had the go-go girls shaking theirs.
Andre returned to the stage wearing a Christmas sweater for a short two-song encore that concluded with a reprise of "Hallelujah." 
The set was relatively short and I really missed "Let Me Put It In," which used to be a highlight of past shows and seemed to get a lot of ladies excited, but any time spent with Andre is a good time.
Andre isn't  quite what he used to be as a performer, but I'm glad that he may be able to prolong his career a bit and make some more money now that he's cleaned up — even though from a totally selfish perspective, I miss some of the old post-show, backstage debauchery that used to take place (that I would just observe, of course, since I would never dream of partaking in any illicit activities).
Here are some of my shots from the show:

Joel Plaskett Photos
My good friend Tara celebrated her 40th birthday last Saturday, and part of the celebration included a private show at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern featuring The Royal Crowns and the Joel Plaskett Emergency. It was a great night and I was going to write a review, but since it felt like more of a party than a concert, I kept the notepad tucked away and just focused on having a good time. I took some photos, however, and thought I'd post three of them. Here you go:


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Carbon/Silicon — The Silicon Bubble
Carbon/Silicon's The Last Post was one of my favourite albums of last year, and The Silicon Bubble has just vaulted to the top of my best of '09 contenders' list. 
Singer/guitarist Mick Jones (The Clash, Big Audio Dynamite), guitarist Tony James (Generation X, Sigue Sigue Sputnik), bassist Leo "Eezykill" Williams (B.A.D.) and drummer Dominic Greensmith (Reef) are back to continue their "M.P.Free" revolution by making the 12-track album available as a free download from their web site.
Jones' voice is unmistakable and, as a loose generalization, much of the material on The Silicon Bubble is comparable to his best work from B.A.D. But "What's Up Doc" is brash with lots of thrash and is the most punk thing Jones has done since The Clash's first album, while "Make It Alright" is a frantic psych-rocker. Things slow down, but work just as well, on the sparse and simple "Unbelievable Pain."
"Fresh Start" effectively blends harmonica in with the twin guitars. 
Jones mentions Facebook and flash mobs in "Shadow" and follows it with another reference to modern pop culture in "Don't Taser Me Bro."
Songs average about five-and-a-half minutes in length, but none of them seem to drag on, which is one of my key qualifiers for a great album. While it may not have those one or two songs that really jump out like The Last Post did, it's an overall more consistent effort. 
Carbon/Silicon put on a great show when I saw it at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas last year, and I was disappointed when James told me that Williams' passport problems wiped out the group's two Canadian concerts, but I'm still holding out hope that it will make it here eventually.
I don't expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for Carbon/Silicon but, since it won't cost you anything to give The Carbon Bubble a shot, why not go for it?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Heavy Trash — Midnight Soul Serenade

Jon Spencer and Matt Verta-Ray's third full-length Heavy Trash release goes a bit beyond what they've done in the past, but there's still more than enough familiarity to assure that existing fans should be kept happy.
Verta-Ray's electric guitar solos are just one of the interesting ingredients of the haphazardly wonderful "Gee, I Really Love You," and the backing vocals by Those Darlins on "Good Man" represent just a fraction of the album's guest contributions. 
"Pimento" is a primarily instrumental track with lots of organ, "(Sometimes You Got To Be) Gentle" is a big-sounding garage rocker, "Bedevilment" is pure trashabilly, "That's What Your Love Gets" turns back the clocks 50 years and the album ends with a blues-influenced love song, "In My Heart."
Spencer is by no means a classic crooner, but his approach works well as he talk-sings through the multi-dimensional "Isolation." It's not as effective when he talks most of the way through "Sweet Little Bird" and the slow and somewhat sinister "The Pill."
"Bumble Bee," a 1960 single from LaVern Baker, is the only non-original among the disc's 11 tracks, but it's presented in the reliable Heavy Trash style.
Midnight Soul Serenade offers dark, greasy rock-and-roll for those into that sort of thing. I am. I'll rate this album an 8/10.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dave Rawlings Machine - A Friend Of A Friend

Rawlings is probably best known for playing and recording with Gillian Welch, but he also contributed to Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker and Bright Eyes' Four Winds and Cassadaga.
This is his first record under his own name, but the primarily acoustic LP includes a lot of friends alluded to in the title. The singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is joined by Welch (who also co-wrote five of the nine songs with Rawlings) on all the tracks along with Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench on three of them, and Old Crow Medicine Show members adding fiddle and guitjo on many. Rawlings produced the album in Nashville.
Opener "Ruby," which features strings and Tench on organ, reminds me of The Band in its more laid-back moments. The more up-tempo "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)" was co-written with Adams and is replete with banjo, fiddle and organ. The quiet but powerful "I Hear Them All" deals with suffering, tyranny and religion.
"Sweet Tooth" is gentle and playful musically, but seems to have a darker lyrical undercurrent. "How's About You" and  "It's Too Easy" are both classic-sounding and timeless country numbers.
"Monkey And The Engineer," written by one-man band Jesse Fuller (who died at the age of 79 in 1976) and probably best known by the Grateful Dead cover of it, is included here. It offers a lot of harmonica and fun. The album ends with the only track featuring drums, "Bells Of Harlem." Organ and strings also combine to make this a beautiful ballad.
The only place I feel the album falters just slightly is on the combination cover of Conor Oberst's "Method Acting" and Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer." It's certainly not bad, and Rawlings' voice has similar intonations as Young's in that section, it just didn't grab me as much as the rest of the record.
A Friend Of A Friend comes out on Nov.  17 via Acony Records, and there's a good chance it will be my favourite country album of the year (since I'm not classifying Mike Herrera's Tumbledown or Neko Case's Middle Cyclone as pure country records).
The Action - Complete Punk Recordings 1977-1978

I was talking to D.O.A. frontman and Sudden Death Records founder Joey "Shithead" Keithley a couple of weeks ago, and he told me about an album his label released recently that he'd send me because he wanted me to hear it.
It was from a 30-year-old Ottawa punk band I'd never heard of called The Action, and the 17-song CD features all of the recordings from its relatively brief career.
The Action was one of  Canada's first punk bands and opened for both The Ramones and The Stranglers. The group released a decent four-song EP recorded live with no overdubs that was highlighted by "T.V.'s On The Blink" and which also included a cover of The Velvet Underground's "Waiting For The Man."
A five-song EP was subsequently recorded but never released. It showcased the band's on-stage energy with a live version of "Success Without College," featured a song about a former road manager who got crabs called "Seafood Mama," and offered a slower and more expansive number called "Zona Rosa." My favourite from the EP is "Pressed Pig."
The last eight songs in this collection were recorded for a live radio broadcast at Ottawa's infamous Rotter's Club, where The Action was the unofficial house band and waitresses apparently served drinks in the washrooms. These numbers show that The Action hadn't totally turned its back on the rock that the young members grew up on, though they were still pretty damn punk for that era. The performance includes a staple of the band's sets, a cover of The Rolling Stones' bluesy "Midnight Rambler."
This compilation didn't knock me out like some of Other People's Music's vintage Toronto punk releases from the likes of The Viletones, The Mods, The Ugly and The 'B' Girls, or even The Scenics' recently released Sunshine World collection of '70s recordings (which I wrote the bio for), but punk historians or people who remember The Action might want to check this out.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Grant Hart — Hot Wax 

I'd never seen former Husker Du drummer, co-lyricist and singer Grant Hart perform solo, but planned to catch him at a night-time show during the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas this past March. But a friend whose opinion I trust and value had caught a daytime performance and wasn't impressed. And since there are a myriad of options at SXSW, I passed on Hart.
But I've just been listening to Hot Wax, Hart's first  album in 10 years, and I now definitely want to see him when he comes to Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern on Dec. 14. 
The nine-song, 34-minute disc was partially recorded by producer/engineer and former Arcade Fire drummer Howard Bilerman at his Hotel 2 Tango studio in Montreal as well as at Albatross studio by Mike Wisti in Hart's hometown of Minneapolis. Members of Montreal's  Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Silver Mt. Zion as well as Wisti's band, Rank Strangers, contributed musically.
Opener "You're The Reflection Of The Moon On The Water" is a garage rock tune with repetitive lyrics that's taken up a notch with organ and hand claps. "Barbara," about an invisible woman that only Hart can see, is slower and gentler, but isn't a ballad. Trumpet and strings add depth to the song.
"Charles Hollis Jones," named after the renowned furniture designer who's referenced in the lyrics along with clients Tennessee Williams and Sylvester Stallone, is a psychedelic pop song with organ. A psych influence is also evident in "Narcissus, Narcissus," which rocks harder while still featuring what sounds like vibes, and "Sailor Jack."
"California Zephyr" features acoustic guitar and a chorus with a strong pop hook. Canadian singer/songwriter Basia Bulat contributes backing vocals to "My Regrets," which has a big, sprawling sound that's appropriate to close the album.
I wasn't expecting this much from Hot Wax, which was a pleasant surprise. Bob Mould continues to make impressive music, and I'm glad that his former Husker Du bandmate has returned to do the same. I'll give this an 8/10.

np Robbie Fulks —  "Cigarette State" (live)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

For Greenpeace Supporters And Old Folkies

Environmentalists and fans of Phil Ochs (pictured, appropriately, to the left), James Taylor and Joni Mitchell may be interested in a new Greenpeace benefit album titled Amchitka that will be available exclusively through the organization on Nov. 10.
The two-CD set  was recorded at an Oct. 16, 1970 concert at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum that raised funds to protest U.S. nuclear bomb tests near the Aleutian island of Amchitka, Alaska and launched Greenpeace. 
Ochs was one of the foremost protest singers (he described himself as a "singing journalist") of the '60s and I've been a longtime admirer. He performs eight songs on disc one — including one of his best known numbers, "I Åin't Marching Anymore," and "Joe Hill" — and his lyrics still resonate with meaning almost 40 years after his performance.
I've never been much of a Taylor fan, aside from "You've Got A Friend," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" and "Handy Man" (which all came later in his career, and he didn't write any of them anyway), but his set includes early hits "Fire And Rain" and "Carolina In My Mind."
I may be chastised for being a bad Canadian or perhaps an insensitive boor for having little appreciation for Mitchell, but so be it. Her 10-song set, which takes up the entire second CD, includes "Woodstock," "A Case Of You" and "The Circle Game." She also tacks Larry Williams' "Bony Moroni" on to "Big Yellow Taxi" and Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" on to "Carey." Mitchell is joined by Taylor towards the end of her performance.
The between-song audience addresses by the three artists are also entertaining in places.
Proceeds from Amchitka go to a worthy cause, so pay a visit to the Greenpeace website once the album becomes available if you'd like a copy.

np The Apples In Stereo — #1 Hits Explosion 
(There's some pure pop goodness on here.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Roky Erickson Comes To Toronto

I had the privilege of attending the Toronto Raptors' season-opening game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday evening. Even better, the Raptors upset the Cavaliers and scored 100 points, which means I can exchange my ticket for a free slice at Pizza Pizza after my volleyball game tonight.
I was with the owner of Lee's Palace, who invited me to the club after the game. We arrived too late to catch The Sadies' opening set, but that's no big deal since I'll see the band playing with Andre Williams at the Horseshoe Tavern on Nov. 19.
But the main attraction was the legendary Roky Erickson, who was making his first Toronto appearance (and I think his only previous Canadian show was the night before in Hamilton). 
The leader of the pioneering and influential Austin, Texas '60s psych-rock band The 13th Floor Elevators suffered from schizophrenia and drug and electroshock-induced mental illness for decades, but performed for the first time in 10 years when he played three songs in his hometown in March 2005 during the South By Southwest Music Festival. That's where I saw him for the first time last year, and where I took the above photo at Stubb's.
Erickson played with some older musicians at that show and, while he's worshipped by local music fans, I thought the performance lacked passion. Last night, with three younger guys supporting him, there was more life and energy.
I missed the first four songs but arrived just in time to hear my favourite Erickson song, "Starry Eyes." His voice didn't sound great, but the mid-'70s tune is so catchy that you may have no soul if you don't like it.
Speaking of souls, and those who try to claim them, Erickson followed "Starry Eyes" with "Don't Shake Me Lucifer." Though I'm sure Erickson wasn't thinking about Halloween, much of the set list was appropriate for this time of year, as it included "Stand For The Fire Demon," "I Walked With A Zombie" and a sludgy "Night Of The Vampire."
Erickson didn't say a word between songs the whole time I was there, and he turned his back to the crowd to play his guitar whenever he wasn't singing. But the younger guitarist played lead, and was very good. 
The 13th Floor Elevators' signature song, "You're Gonna Miss Me," brought whoops from the crowd of 400 (which included The Sadies, who idolize Erickson, as well as local singers/musicians Ian Blurton, John Borra, Gord Cumming and Kate Boothman) who paid $35 to get in. Despite a rousing ovation that lasted for several minutes, there was no encore, so "Two-Headed Dog" ended the night.
It's unlikely that the 62-year-old Erickson will return to these parts again in the near future, but there seemed to be a consensus among those I spoke to or overheard that this show supplied sufficient gratification.
For fans or those who might be interested in finding out more about Erickson's fascinating life, you should definitely seek out the 2005 documentary, You're Gonna Miss Me. It's worth 94 minutes of your time.
Gogol Bordello — Live From Axis Mundi

I've quite liked Gogol Bordello's two SideOneDummy albums, 2006's Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike and 2007's Super Taranta!, but have either been out of town or had conflicting engagements whenever the New York City "gypsy punk" band has come to Toronto. I've regretted this, since I've received first-hand reports from people who've gone and said the band is incredible live.
And while I still haven't personally witnessed Eugene Hutz and his traveling musical circus, I now have a better idea of the experience after watching Live From Axis Mundi's DVD, which captures two 2007 performances at New York City's Irving Plaza. The music is frenetic and there's action everywhere, as the stage is filled with musicians, singers and dancers.
Hutz rides the shoulders of a security guard during my favourite Gogol Bordello song, "Start Wearing Purple," and he climbs up into a balcony during the first encore number, "Punk Rock Parranda." During the very extended final song, "Baro Foro," one of the female members of the group stands on a large drum being held aloft by audience members.
I sincerely hope I have no conflicts the next time that Gogol Bordello comes to town, because these shows look like a ton of fun.
The DVD extras include additional live performances and music videos for "Start Wearing Purple," "Not A Crime," "Wonderlust King" and, best of all, "American Wedding." There's also a short documentary titled "Creative People Must Be Stopped!" that features in-studio footage and interviews.
The package also includes an 11-track CD of previously unreleased material featuring six songs recorded on BBC Radio 1's In The Company Of program in March 2008, "Stivali E Colbacco" from the Super Taranta! recording sessions, "Troubled Friends" from the Gypsy Punk sessions, demo and instrumental recordings of "Immigrant Punk," and the "60 Revolutions" demo.
While nothing can match actually attending a concert, Live From Axis Mundi gives you a very good picture of what it's like — at least when my DVD wasn't stopping and starting, very annoyingly so during the bonus features. Hopefully I just received a dud disc and this isn't a widespread manufacturing mistake.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Newfoundland Reggae
I received a self-titled album from a group I'd never heard of called Pressure Drop 17 years ago, and was somewhat surprised to find out that it was a reggae LP recorded in St. John's, Nfld. with a lineup of five people you wouldn't normally expect to be in a band together. I was even more surprised to find out that it was really good.
I hooked up with the band members when they came to Toronto and became friends with them, especially drummer/singer/producer Jim Fidler. I even went to St. John's and the tiny French island of St. Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland when Jim married his lovely wife Lillian in 1996 and spent a lot of time with the two of them when they briefly moved to Toronto while Jim was appearing in The Needfire at the Princess Of Wales Theatre in 1998 and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 2000. There are lots of fun stories I could tell about spending time with these folks, but I'll save them for later.
Pressure Drop released another album called From The Inside Out in 1994 before calling it a day, and Jim embarked on a solo music and production career centred around his Roots Cellar studio. He released four fine albums that touched on Newfoundland's Celtic music roots and also explored music from around the world. Jim plays pretty much every instrument on his albums, which is all the more impressive considering that he's blind.
Jim and I have lost touch over the last couple of years, but I thought about him again today after listening to Keep Out, the new album from another St. John's reggae band, Idlers. I was given the group's Corner debut album (which was engineered by Lee Tizzard, who I know from his days working with Pressure Drop) by another friend from St. John's last year and was really impressed. So were others, as Idlers won a Galaxie Rising Star of the CBC Award, several honours in Newfoundland and was nominated for an East Coast Music Award.

Keep Out is one of the best roots reggae albums I've heard this year, and I'll hopefully get a chance to see Idlers when the band embarks on an eastern Canadian tour next month that includes a Nov. 13 stop at Toronto's Rancho Relaxo. Idlers call themselves a "reggae circus" and I have no idea how an 11-piece band is going to fit on to that club's tiny stage.
Listening to Keep Out piqued my curiosity about what Jim has been up to lately, so I went to his website and found out that he's returned to reggae again and has just released a new album titled Revolution Time. You can hear samples of each song on the record on the site, and I'm happy to say that it also sounds great and exhibits more polished and professional production than the Pressure Drop records did.

So while you may not think of Newfoundland as a reggae hotbed,  Keep Out and Revolution Time show that there's certainly something happening on The Rock and both Idlers and Jim Fidler deserve to be heard across the rest of Canada and beyond.
You can find out more about  Idlers here.
You can find out more about Jim Fidler here.