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)