Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Blue Rodeo welcomes musical friends on special night

Faced with a choice of watching CNN reporters valiantly clutching railings while talking about gusting winds and torrential rains or braving the less hazardous elements of a wet and blustery Toronto night to go to the Glenn Gould Studio to see a private silver anniversary concert by Blue Rodeo and friends, it was an easy choice. Piers Morgan and his colleagues could wait until I got home at midnight to turn on the television.

Blue Rodeo is marking the 25th anniversary of the release of its Outskirts debut album with the release earlier this month of its expansive Blue Rodeo: 1987-1993 box set, which includes remastered versions of the band's first five studio albums, unreleased music, studio outtakes and a new version of Outskirts remixed by singer/guitarist Greg Keelor. A tour of Spain follows in November, and a cross-Canada jaunt will take up the first six weeks of 2013.

But Monday was an extra special night, as members of Blue Rodeo's extended musical family joined them on stage during an intimate two-hour show.

Molly Johnson hosted part of the evening and she talked about the early days of Blue Rodeo when they were regulars at her stomping grounds, The Cameron House. She then introduced Cuff The Duke, which played "Five Days in May" with Blue Rodeo member Bob Egan on steel guitar.

Jim Cuddy

The other members of the guests of honour then took the stage and essentially acted as the house band for much of the rest of the night as their friends trotted out to cover their songs. Oh Susanna got things rolling with "Bad Timing" and Jim Cuddy's son Devon followed with "Rain Down On Me." The band members then pulled the old switcheroo, with Keelor sitting behind the drum kit, Glenn Milchem moving from drums to guitar and Cuddy making himself at home behind the piano to back Justin Rutledge's version of "Falling Down Blue."

You might not expect Ron Sexsmith to be the guy to get a show rocking, but he did just that with "Love and Understanding." Things mellowed out again when Whitehorse's Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland reprised Blue Rodeo and Sarah McLachlan's "Dark Angel."

Great Big Sea presented the first big highlight when it joined Blue Rodeo for "Rose Coloured Glasses." The Sadies were given the stage to themselves for "Palace of Gold," a staple of their own sets over the years that never ceases to please me.

The uber-pleasant Andy Maize and his Skydiggers bandmate Josh Finlayson shone with the Blue Rodeo boys on "Hasn't Hit Me Yet" and Great Big Sea returned to get the relatively reserved audience to clap along to "What Am I Doing Here."

Blue Rodeo performed "Try" on its own and the crowd loved it. Devon Cuddy came back to play piano with his dad and his musical pals on an excellent "Til I Am Myself Again."

Dallas Good and Greg Keelor

Several of my friends cited the next song, an extended "Diamond Mine," as their favourite of the night. I'd have a hard time disagreeing. The Sadies added their signature twangy reverb and Travis Good (who was looking a bit like soon-to-be tourmate Neil Young) brought some serious feedback while Michael Boguski let loose on the organ during an extended jam.

All of the musicians crowded on the stage to take part in a major sing-along during the chorus of "Lost Together," which ended the show on a high note and added to the fuel for conversation at a casually engaging champagne reception in the venue lobby put on by the hard-working folks at Blue Rodeo's management company, Starfish Entertainment.

It was a memorable evening for the few hundred people in attendance, but CBC will share the wealth while broadcasting the concert over the next week or so on radio and online.
Try to catch it if you can.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

JD McPherson is the real deal

JD McPherson first came on my radar when a couple of friends started talking him up in February, and I planned on seeing him at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas in March.

I missed McPherson's handful of gigs at SXSW, unfortunately, but I finally got to see the former middle school art teacher turned rock 'n' roll revivalist on Oct. 9 at Toronto's pleasantly packed Horseshoe Tavern. He was suffering from a bad cold but, along with upright bassist/producer Jimmy Sutton and the other members of a very talented band, still put on a solidly entertaining show.

I finally listened to McPherson's Signs & Signifiers debut album (which was issued by Rounder Records in April after originally being released independently two years earlier) a few times this week, and it's a shoo-in for my year-end best-of list. McPherson and friends can cut it in the studio as well as on stage.

The record opens with the first song I heard from McPherson online earlier this year, "North Side Gal." It has all the makings of a rockabilly classic and the YouTube attention attained by its self-directed video (shot in Sutton's all-analogue Hi-Style studio in Chicago) was the first step in McPherson landing his deal with Rounder.

"Country Boy," one of the 12-song album's two covers, delves further into blues territory. "Fire Bug," appropriately enough, is smokin' hot and will force the shyest wallflowers to move to the groove at least a little bit. McPherson slows down on the title track, which is rich with his tremolo guitar.

"Scratching Circles" is a great jump blues tune with piano and saxophone. "A Gentle Awakening" is a slow and sinister song featuring violin and cello, but the fun factor returns on "Dimes for Nickels."

"B.G.M.O.S.R.N.R." is short for "big gold mine of sweet rock 'n' roll," which is an apt description of Signs & Signifiers. That point is driven home down the stretch with another jump blues number called "I Can't Complain" and a saxophone-infused cover of Joey Simone's "Your Love (All That I'm Missing)," which proved that it being one of the highlights of the Horseshoe show was no fluke.

"Scandalous," a honky-tonk rocker that would do Little Richard proud, ends the album on almost as high a note as it began.

The songs on Signs & Signifiers average less than three minutes each, which makes the album short enough that you'll want to hear it again as soon as it's over.

McPherson has the songs and the backing musicians that help bring them to life. Now I just want to see the Oklahoma native perform them at full strength so I can fully appreciate just how good he can be.