Sunday, January 31, 2010

Three nights with Frank Turner
British folk-punk singer/songwriter Frank Turner launched his current North American tour in my living room on Jan. 25, and then played three more shows in the next two nights at a trio of other Toronto venues. Aside from Turner and Epitaph Canada's Tonni Maruyama and Keith Maurik, I was the only person present for all four performances.

Turner had promised on night one that he'd try to mix up his sets so people who saw him multiple times during his Toronto stay wouldn't get the same songs every time. While there were some repeats, mostly of songs I had no problem hearing over again, the Bahrain-born entertainer lived up to his word.

You can check the set list, and find a download link to about 40 minutes of the performance, from my abode here

Here are capsulized reviews of the other three shows:

Horseshoe Tavern, Tues. Jan. 26 

Turner packed the house for a free show at the Horseshoe, during which he opened with the same three songs as the night before: "I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous," "Try This At Home" and "Substitute." He followed that with "Isabel" and a Love Ire & Song favourite about the after-effects of a major bender, "The Real Damage." A female member of the audience was recruited to come on stage for a closing harmonica solo on "Dan's Song," and she acquitted herself reasonably well for someone who'd never played before.

"Sunshine State" was introduced by an amusing story about an ex-girlfriend who Turner realized wasn't particularly faithful. "Long Live The Queen" got a lot of people singing and clapping along and Love Ire & Song's title track was particularly strong.

Turner then offered up a cover of what he called the greatest song ever, Half Man Half Biscuit's "Vatican Broadside," which featured the stirring refrain, "Who the fucking hell are Slipknot?" The traditional folk ballad "Barbara Allen" and the Weakerthans' "Watermark," which Turner had performed during a radio interview with Dave Bookman on 102.1 The Edge a night earlier, rounded out the covers portion of the evening.

Turner was sweating profusely by the time he got to Poetry Of The Deed single/video "The Road," which had many in the impressively enthusiastic audience singing along. Things slowed down with "Journey Of The Magi," which he had told me earlier in the day was one of the two favourite songs he's written. Things livened up more for the last two numbers, "Photosynthesis" and "The Ballad Of Me And My Friends."

Gibson Guitar Lounge, Wed. Jan. 27 (early)
This was an invitation-only performance recorded for and held at Gibson's showroom and performance/party space. I arrived early to find Turner in the showroom shredding away on a black electric Epiphone that he'd taken off the wall, something he said he loves but doesn't get the chance to do very often. He then joined us in the lounge where bottles of Steam Whistle beer and shots of Jagermeister were being given away.

Turner opened his set with "Nashville Tennessee." Then, noting his surroundings, he introduced "Romantic Fatigue" by saying, "Anybody that knows how to play guitar had absolutely no friends when they were a teenager." He claimed that "Romantic Fatigue" was the first song he'd written as a solo artist, and it was good to hear something I'd never heard him do before.

"Try This At Home" was next and was followed by another number I'd never heard him play before, "To Take You Home." He then introduced a new and still untitled song that he'd previously told me he was very happy with, which includes references to Bob Dylan and Patty Hearst sailing around on a pirate ship.

A request for "Substitute" was granted, and Turner said the next song was written for his "fuckin' cool" mom. It was "Faithful Son" and another cut I'd never heard live before. There was a request for a Take That cover that Turner had played on BBC Radio and, while he told a story about it, he didn't play the song. He instead covered a much, much better song: Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road." It was another first for me.

Turner finished his set with "The Ballad Of Me And My Friends" before rushing off to The Dakota Tavern, where I soon joined him at a table for a pre-show dinner.

The Dakota Tavern, Wed. Jan. 27 (late)
After filling the Horseshoe to capacity for the free show on Tuesday, I thought this smaller venue would be packed like a sardine can by people willing to pay seven bucks to see Turner, local rock hero Ian Blurton and psych-rock band Huron — who also acted as Blurton's accompanists. It was busy, but not as much as I had anticipated.

Turner opened with "I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous," the other of the two songs he ranks as his favourites. It was followed by "Father's Day" (during which Turner's voice cracked) and a cover of The Postal Service's "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," which I didn't know the first time I heard Turner perform it last March in Austin, Texas at the Kerrang! party during the South By Southwest Music Festival.

Turner reprised the Dylan on the pirate ship song and, like on Tuesday night, asked for a volunteer to play harmonica on "Dan's Song." Another woman filled the role admirably. The new and still untitled drinking song that Turner had performed at my place was brought out again, as was "Try This At Home" and "Heartless Bastard Motherfucker" after a request. He played "Jet Lag" and admitted that he was feeling the combined effects of jet lag from his flight from England and fatigue from partying upon his arrival.

"My voice is a little fucked today, which is entirely my fault," Turner said before launching into "Long Live The Queen."

"Back In The Day" and "The Road" kept things rolling before Turner acknowledged, "I can't believe that so many people give a shit about what I do when I haven't spent much time here."

Turner promised to return again soon (though his concert calendar is packed through the first half of the year, so far) and concluded with "The Ballad Of Me And My Friends."

The boisterous crowd demanded an encore, which Turner said would deprive him of time with drugs and supermodels. But he gave in and led a rousing sing-along version of Abba's "Dancing Queen" that had almost everyone in the basement club joining in.

The final installment of my "Turner In Toronto" saga, a Q&A transcript of a conversation recorded at the Horseshoe Tavern on the afternoon of Jan. 26, will appear on this page after an article I wrote about Turner is posted on the Spinner web site.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Bomp! 2 Born In The Garage

Bomp! was a fanzine that was originally titled Who Put The Bomp after a 1961 doo-wop hit. The circulation was very small and just 21 issues were published from 1970 until its demise in 1979 (a 22nd was shelved for financial reasons in 1981), but its influence was remarkable.
Bomp! became a bible for fans of garage rock, punk, power pop, British invasion, girl groups, new wave, rockabilly, surf, rock 'n' roll and psychedelia, and the mag featured early work from such notable music writers as Richard Meltzer, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs.
The zine begat Bomp Records, which launched in 1974 and following a hiatus is still going today after releasing music from the likes of the Flamin' Groovies, The Modern Lovers, Iggy Pop, The Plimsouls, Josie Cotton, Dead Boys, Devo, The Romantics, Spacemen 3, The Germs, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Warlocks and Black Lips.
All of this was the brainchild of music fan and collector Greg Shaw, who died in 2004 at age 55. But his business partner and ex-wife Suzy has kept the Bomp label going and edited Bomp! 2 Born In The Garage with music writer Mike Stax, the editor and publisher of Ugly Things magazine.
The 311-page follow-up to Bomp! Saving The World One Record At A Time features retrospective essays from the two editors, cover illustrator William Stout, Jon Savage, Ken Barnes and Alec Palao. But it's the  page reproductions from the original magazine, which was originally produced on a mimeograph machine, that are the heart of the book.
Even after it became a glossy magazine, Bomp! still looked somewhat amateurish. But it served its niche readership well by covering big and small-name bands from the '50s and '60s and more current acts that shared their rock 'n' roll spirit.
Flip through the pages and you'll find a Kinks discography and a Troggs article from 1971, a Gene Vincent tribute from 1972, examinations of '60s British rock and American rock 'n' roll television shows from 1973, retrospectives on The Standells and The Seeds from 1974, a history of Michigan rock, a look at Beatles novelties, a discography of California surf instrumentals and a Roky Erickson interview from 1975, a look at Dave Edmunds, the Shangri-Las, Mexican punk rock and '60s Swedish sounds from 1976, and a treatise on the aesthetic of psychedelic music from 1978.
The type is pretty small, so you'll need good eyes or a pair of glasses to read much of the reproduced material. But if you're into any of the aforementioned music genres or artists, you should consider picking this up whether you remember Bomp! or if reading this overview is the first you've heard of it.
The internet has totally changed the way people disseminate information and find out about music, but Bomp! 2 Born In The Garage acts as an interesting time capsule of the way things used to be.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Toronto's CN Tower: No longer number one, but still pretty cool
Most holidays to Canada, or at least for those who don't have a fear of heights, are incomplete without a visit to Toronto's CN Tower.
This engineering marvel may no longer be the world's tallest free-standing structure, as it was for 31 years after it opened to the public in 1976, but the 2010 Book of Guinness World Records still lists it as the world's tallest tower.
The magnificent views of the city and across Lake Ontario from its different observation levels haven't changed. Visibility on a clear day can reach 160 kilometres. 

The tower is 553 metres tall at the tip of its communications antenna, and the top sky pod observation level is at 447 metres. If you don't want to go quite that high, you can look 342 metres straight down to the ground through a glass floor.
Elevators with floor to ceiling windows (and one with a glass floor) take you up and down the outside of the tower, so you can get a great perspective on your way to the top and get some last looks as you leave.
If you want to take your time and enjoy a meal during your visit, the revolving 360 Restaurant offers fine dining, and you're sure to find a vintage you like from its world's highest wine cellar. Horizons on the 346-metre Look Out level and the Far Coast Cafe at the tower's base offer other food options.
Visitors can watch a film on the construction of the tower in the Maple Leaf Cinema, or seek thrills in the Himalamazon motion theatre ride. It might be a good idea to take that in before you eat.
A large gift shop featuring a wide array of CN Tower and Canadian collectibles should satiate souvenir seekers.
It's still not official, and it's still a few years away even if it gets the bureaucratic go-ahead, but a large aquarium has been proposed for land around the base of the tower. Combined with the adjacent Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and Toronto Argonauts football squad, the addition will make it easy to spend pretty much a full day and night in the vicinity.
The CN Tower is open every day but Christmas from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. There are a variety of pricing packages, depending on what attractions you want to take in.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker and a near-brawl at Lee's Palace
I've seen Cracker at least a half-dozen times over the years, most recently last June at this same Toronto venue, but I'd only seen Camper Van Beethoven once before at a similar double bill to this one in Austin, Texas the night I turned 40 four years ago.
I have five CVB albums and was quite a fan of its eclectic and quirky music back in the mid- to late '80s, so I was looking forward to the current incarnation of the reunited group more so than Cracker. Both bands are fronted by singer/guitarist David Lowery and, with only a short break for a change-over, he was on stage for close to three hours on Saturday night. So was drummer Frank Funaro, who was also doing double-duty in both groups. The CVB lineup was completed by bassist/vocalist Victor Krummenacher, violinist/guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Jonathan Segel and lead guitarist Greg Lisher.
Segel's violin gave the handful of instrumentals played throughout the set a gypsy/klezmer flavour. I enjoyed them, but would have preferred a few more songs with lyrics in their place.

Early highlights included "Sweethearts," "Eye Of Fatima" and a cover of Black Flag's "Wasted" performed at about half the speed of the original. "Shut Us Down" and "Good Guys & Bad Guys" followed, with the latter ending in dub reggae fashion. "The History Of Utah" was exemplary, and then Lowery launched a diatribe against the police in Montreal, where the band had its gear stolen a few years back. Lowery was recently with Cracker in Iraq and he claimed the cops there were better trained and more helpful than those in Canada's largest French-speaking city.
The music continued with "Might Makes Right" and "Hippy Chix" before CVB pulled out its most popular song, "Take The Skinheads Bowling." It's still great 25 years after being released on the Telephone Free Landslide Victory album.
The home stretch included "The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon," "Opi Rides Again — Club Med Sucks" (which included some hardcore punk elements) and "Seven Languages," before things ended with the band's popular cover of the early Staus Quo hit, "Pictures Of Matchstick Men."
The performance was fine, but I found the set list a bit lacking. I would  have been ecstatic to hear "Heart,"  "Joe Stalin's Cadillac," "We Saw Jerry's Daughter," "Where The Hell Is Bill?" and a few others. But it's rare for CVB to make it to these parts, so just seeing them should be good enough without my quibbling.

Lowery and his longtime Cracker co-conspirator, guitarist/vocalist Johnny Hickman, then took the stage with Funaro and bassist Sal Maida. They opened the set with "Friends" from last year's Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey, a very good album that didn't get as much recognition as it deserved when it came out last year.

The set progressed with "I See The Light" and "Waiting For You Girl" before things took a turn for the strange when Lowery challenged a heckler to come on stage and talk to him because he "wanted to show Americans that there are some assholes in Canada." The lout eventually made it to a microphone and told everyone that he thought Cracker sucked and was boring.
Hickman, who was in great form on guitar and with his voice all night, took offence. He took off his guitar, got in a shoving match with the non-fan and put up his fists in anticipation of a dust-up. Security stepped in and Lowery and the heckler continued to trade insults until the man was forcibly removed from the stage and the building.
Lowery thought the goof had a bit of a German accent, which led to him telling a long story involving "traditional German folk songs about whores," which became a very roundabout introduction to "Euro-Trash Girl." There seemed to be an extra edge to the performance after the tension that had previously overtaken the club, and it worked in Cracker's favour.
Lisher was invited back on stage for "One Fine Day," which featured him and Hickman ripping off explosive dual solos. "Give Me One More Chance" turned into a guitar fest when Lisher stuck around for it.

Two more new songs, "Yalla Yalla (Let's Go)" and "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me," led to some masterful music storytelling by Lowery in "Duty Free." The opening chords of "Low" drew a big burst of excited recognition from the crowd, and the song ended the 75-minute set.
Hickman rose to the occasion to open the encore by singing the rollicking country-rock number, "Lonesome Johnny Blues." The slower and more sombre "Big Dipper" concluded the encore, but most of the audience stuck around and persuaded Cracker to return with Lisher and Krummenacher in tow for a rendition of CVB's "The Long Plastic Hallway."
It was a spirited performance but, like with CVB, I've been to Cracker shows with more enjoyable set lists. "Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)," "This Is Cracker Soul," "Get Off This," "Happy Birthday To Me," "Mr. Wrong" and "Movie Star" were all notable by their absences.
So it wasn't the best Cracker show I've seen, but the band is in good form and well worth checking out if you haven't caught it for a few years. Or if you think the band is dull, let it know. That should cause some excitement.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Explore Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame

For fans of the most exciting sport on ice, one of the highlights of their holidays to Canada is visiting Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame.

The current hall is located in a historic former bank building at the corner of Yonge and Front streets downtown. It opened in 1993 after $27 million in renovations, and has made several additions and improvements since then. It now features 57,000 square feet of one-of-a-kind exhibits, state-of-the-art theatres, hands-on interactive games and hockey's most precious artifacts.

An interesting display of goalie masks greets visitors in the entrance foyer. You then move into the NHL Zone, which features a variety of artifacts and is guarded by nine-foot-tall statues of hockey greats Cyclone Taylor and Ken Dryden. A trip to a full-size replica of the dressing room of Dryden's team, the Montreal Canadiens, from the Montreal Forum is next.

A section on NHL dynasties focuses on nine of the greatest teams in history, from the Ottawa Senators of the '20s to the Edmonton Oilers of the '80s. If you want to sit down for a while, the 128-seat Hartland Molson Theatre has most recently been showing a film called The Stanley Cup Odyssey. Panasonic Hometown Hockey, a tribute to grassroots hockey, is next on the route.

One of the most fun parts of the hall is the interactive NHLPA Be A Player Zone, where you can shoot pucks and try to score on a computer-simulated goaltender or go between the pipes to try and stop shots by simulated snipers.

If you're more verbose than coordinated, go ahead and try your hand at being a play-by-play announcer in the TSN/RDS Broadcast Zone, which looks at the evolution of hockey broadcasting. You can then play hockey video games in the 2K Sports NHL2K Zone. If you'd rather tax your brain than your fingers, test your hockey trivia knowledge in the Pepsi Game Time area.

Hockey cards, tickets, coins, games, dolls, apparel, pennants and food items from around the world are displayed in the Upper Deck Collector's Corner.

You might want to rest again by this time, so relax in the 120-seat Esso Theatre and watch archival film and video footage from the Hockey Hall of Fame archives.

Olympic and international hockey receive worthy recognition in the World of Hockey area and the interactive Global Game Encounter zone.

The highlight of the visit is the Verizon Great Hall, which features portraits and biographical information about every member who's been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The National Hockey League's major trophies, including the Stanley Cup, can also be found in this area, which includes a refurbished bank vault. It's this area that truly makes this place a shrine to the game.

You can pick up souvenirs from your visit at a store on the way out.

General admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $10 for youths. Kids under three are admitted for free.

A family can visit the Hockey Hall of Fame for less than the cost of a single ticket to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs play down the street at the Air Canada Centre, and you're going to see more entertaining hockey than that sad-sack team has provided this season.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Sojourners — The Sojourners
The Sojourners are three Vancouver-based men who grew up separately singing in churches in Texas, Illinois and Louisiana, and have been doing it professionally on their own for almost 50 years each.
This self-titled album is the second since Will Sanders, Ron Small and Marcus Mosely first got together a few years back to add vocals to a Jim Byrne album. I'm not familiar with their 2007 Hold On debut, but I'm awfully impressed with this record.
The trio worked with west coast roots music guru Steve Dawson, who produced the album and played guitar and other stringed instruments on it. Mike Kalanj's Hammond B3 organ also plays a key role throughout the 11-track disc, including an excellent solo on "Strange Man."
The Sojourners rearrange traditional gospel songs — including "Brother Moses Smote The Water," "Great Day," "Another Soldier Gone" and "By And By" — and also interpret such somewhat more familiar secular songs as Los Lobos' "The Neighbourhood" and Motherlode's "When I Die."
Individual members sing lead on certain songs, but I most enjoy when they combine for wonderful three-part harmonies on "Brother Moses," "It's Hard To Stumble (When You're On Your Knees)" and "By And By," which features some guest mandolin from Jesse Zubot.
You don't have to be a God-fearing person to enjoy The Sojourners approach, which is largely upbeat and blends gospel, soul, blues, doo-wop, pop and a hint of country.
The Polaris Music Prize has never had a gospel album make its short list, but The Sojourners would be right near the top of my ballot if voting ended today — and I'm pretty sure it will still be close five months from now when it counts.
I give The Sojourners a 9/10.
Black Hen Music will release The Sojourners on Jan. 19. You can hear four songs here
Deadstring Brothers — Sao Paulo

This Detroit band's 2006 Bloodshot Records debut, Starving Winter Report, impressed me and made me draw comparisons to The Band, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan for the way it effectively fused blues, rock and country elements. Its 2007 follow-up, Silver Mountain, had too much of a Black Crowes vibe in places and was a comparative disappointment. 
Sao Paulo is a bit better, but I still much prefer Starving Winter Report. Exile On Main Street-era Stones influences are all over this 10-song, 38-minute album. That works best on "Smile," "Can't Make It Through The Night" and the boogie-woogie piano-inclusive "Houston."
Female backing vocals work well wherever they're used.
Organ and slide guitar make "The River Song" stand out, and the rootsy ballad "Yesterday's Style" — augmented with piano and accordion — are the other highlights.
The title track and "The Same Old Rule" are more blues-based, while "Adalee" and closer "Always A Friend Of Mine" are slower and don't add much.
I'll give this album 6/10. 
Bloodshot will release Sao Paulo in North America on Feb. 23.