Saturday, September 24, 2016

Corb Lund closes TURF in western style

Corb Lund is one of Canada’s best, and probably one of its most overlooked, songwriters. And I’m somewhat ashamed to say that it’s been several years since the last time I saw him perform despite deriving a lot of pleasure from his albums. Luckily, that drought came to an end on Sunday night at the Horseshoe Tavern as part of the Toronto Urban Roots Fest’s club series.

Lund cut his teeth in the ‘90s with Edmonton punk/alternative rock band The Smalls before returning to the music of his ranching roots and embarking on a career that embraces traditional, honky tonk and alternative country styles and has attracted fans of Americana and folk with his backing band The Hurtin’ Albertans.

Lund’s songs are clever and often humorous, but can sometimes be poignant and address social problems and personal travails, perhaps most notably in “Sadr City,” which tells the moving tale of an Iraq war veteran, and “Sunbeam,” which he wrote for his late niece. 

You can’t take Lund’s ranching heritage away, however, so western themes and tunes about horses, cows and other farm animals also have a place in Lund’s repertoire.

With three albums certified gold in Canada, Lund has obviously struck a chord with his countrymen. Even in downtown Toronto, many in the audience were singing along to rural and outdoorsy-oriented numbers like “Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer,” “The Truck Got Stuck,” “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier,” “Little Foothills Heaven,” “Buckin’ Horse Rider” (in which Lund incorporated some of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”), “Dig Gravedigger Dig,” the Hayes Carll collaboration “Bible On The Dash,” “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots,” “Getting’ Down On The Mountain,” “Cows Around,” “Roughest Neck Around,” “S Lazy H,” “Talkin’ Veterinarian Blues” and “Hurtin’ Albertan.”

And an old school country singer is hardly worth a lick without a few drinking songs, and Lund and his SNFU sticker-emblazoned guitar engaged the crowd with a singalong cover of the cowboy classic “Rye Whiskey” and the set-ending “Time To Switch To Whiskey.” 

The audience wanted more and, after a brief time off stage, Lund and his bandmates returned to treat it to “The Truth Comes Out” and the ever-popular “Five Dollar Bill.”

Other commitments unfortunately prevented me from attending earlier TURF performances at Fort York on Sunday, but year four of the consistently high quality fest ended on a very high note with Lund and friends.

Friday, September 23, 2016

GBV and Mekons win Saturday at TURF

Heavy rains through much of the Toronto Urban Roots Fest’s second day probably resulted in a smaller walk-up audience than it deserved, but those that didn’t mind some precipitation and mud at Fort York were well-rewarded.

Lush broke up after the suicide of drummer Chris Acland in 1996, and I only saw the group twice before that, so I was looking forward to seeing lead singer/guitarist Miki Berenyi, guitarist/vocalist Emma Anderson and bassist Phil King with new drummer Justin Welch after they reformed last year. The band’s dreamy shoegaze sounded as lush as ever and, while a couple of songs may have plodded a bit too much for my taste, the 4AD scenesters didn’t seem to have lost much after the long layoff.

The overcast skies and occasional rainfall helped solidify the mood for what was often an atmospheric set on the West Stage that included “Light From a Dead Star” and “Hypocrite” as well as the more up-tempo sing-along number “Ladykillers.”

The Sheepdogs have become quite successful, they’re very good musicians and, whenever I’ve heard them interviewed, they seemed like good guys. But some unknown element has always held me back from embracing the Saskatoon rock band. The group took a few steps toward bringing me on board with its East Stage performance, however, as the members showed how tight and talented they are with songs including “I’m Gonna Be Myself,” “Bad Lieutenant” and the catchy and simple “Southern Dreaming.” I’ve seen Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings perform together and they don’t sound as much like The Guess Who as The Sheepdogs do.

Will Sheff has a completely new band around him now in Okkervil River and I found its new record, Away, almost a complete snorefest. So it was with some trepidation when I arrived at the Rebellion Stage to see the singer/songwriter/guitarist and his new bandmates. Some of the older numbers may have lacked some of the oomph that was present in their original arrangements, but there’s still no arguing that the likes of “Plus Ones,” “Down Down The Deep River,” “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe,” “Unless It’s Kicks” and “For Real” are winners.

Even new songs “Mary on a Wave,” “Judey on a Street” and “Okkervil River R.I.P.” were brought to new life on stage. Mother Nature must have approved, as a rainbow appeared over Toronto during the set. I’ve seen better Okkervil River shows, but this one still exceeded my expectations.

Okkervil River
I’ve been a fan of Luke Doucet through his early days with Veal, his subsequent solo work and now with his wife Melissa McClelland in Whitehorse. The innovative folk-rock duo’s members often shared the same microphone to create fine harmonies and used effects to augment their material, which included “You Get Older” and a slow and moody interpretation of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine.”

I would have liked to have stayed longer at the Battle of York Stage, but there was more to see and hear.

It’s probably been at least 20 years since it was cool to like Barenaked Ladies in Toronto, and I haven’t seen the band since Steven Page’s 2009 departure, but I still have a soft spot for the group’s earlier material — and I guess the gold award for its independently released self-titled debut cassette release that hangs on my wall is proof of that.

I arrived midway through BNL’s West Stage performance, just in time to catch a jazzed up rendition of “Hello City,” which briefly transitioned smartly into The Housemartins’ “Happy Hour.” I continued to be impressed with a keyboard-heavy “Narrow Streets,” a faithful version of the group’s old cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “Sound Of Your Voice.” Adam Hindle from Born Ruffians joined the cast for “Brian Wilson,” and “Pinch Me” slowly faded from my ears as I walked toward the food trucks for a burrito.

I’m not sure if I saw Ween at The Rivoli in the early ‘90s or whether I’m somehow imagining it, so Dean and Gene Ween’s East Stage performance was either the first or second time that I was in close proximity to them. After a plodding instrumental introduction, Ween opened with “Did You See Me?” and followed it with “Roses Are Free,” “Take Me Away” and “Up On The Hill.” Aside from the countrified and up-tempo “Piss Up A Rope” and “Waving My Dick In The Wind,” most of it was too jammy for me. It was no surprise that there were quite a few Grateful Dead T-shirts in the crowd.

People were pressed up against the barrier in front of the stage yelling out song titles and holding up signs for Ween. I didn’t realize that the group still had such a large and fervent fan base, but this set made me realize that I’m not destined to be part of it. I left for the Rebellion Stage.

I haven’t seen Guided by Voices since before the Dayton, Ohio band first broke up in 2004, and I definitely missed frontman Robert Pollard and company. The kids’ swimming pool full of beer was missing from the stage, but  bottles of Bud Lite and tequila were always nearby for the singer and his latest bandmates: drummer Kevin March; bassist Mark Shue; returning guitarist Doug Gillard; and surprise new guitarist Bobby Bare Jr.

Guided by Voices
The guitars were slashing, the drums were pounding and Pollard was typically prolific. The club was open. I lost track of how many short and punchy songs were played, almost all of them introduced by Pollard, but the group fit a lot of music from the GBV, Boston Spaceships, ESP Ohio, Ricked Wicky and Pollard solo catalogues into 80 minutes. Hardcore fans sang along with many of them, including “Come On Baby Grace,” “Royal Cyclopean,” “Arrows and Balloons,” “I Am A Tree,” “Dragons Awake!,” “Back to the Lake,” “Poor Substitute,” “Tabby & Lucy” and “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft.”

If that wasn’t enough, the band granted my silent wishes by playing three of my favourite GBV songs toward the end of the set: “Teenage FBI,” “I Am A Scientist” and set closer “Glad Girls.” Venue curfew was imminent but the crowd’s resolution to hear more was unyielding so the band returned for a brief encore of “Don’t Stop Now” and “Shocker in Gloomtown.” I have it on good authority that Pollard had to be talked out of doing a cover of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

Guided by Voices
Just when I didn’t think things could get much better, I believe they did.

In addition to the Fort York festival, TURF includes shows at the Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace. Some friends and I walked up to the Shoe and we arrived just in time to catch the end of Skinny Lister, which I had seen and enjoyed the day before.

After what seemed like a longer wait than it probably was (anticipation and beer can play tricks with the mind), the eight members of The Mekons trundled on stage. Things couldn’t have got off to a better start, as the band kicked into “Memphis Egypt.” It could have gone downhill after that lofty beginning, but it’s to The Mekons' credit that it didn’t. The group has an extensive and diverse catalogue, a fine new Bloodshot Records album called Existentialism, and a cast of characters that ensures the between song banter will always be entertaining.

You want country? Reggae? Folk? Punk? Roots rock? With The Mekons you can have it all, with violin, accordion and saz augmenting traditional rock and roll instrumentation. On this night the menu included “Beaten and Broken,” “Tina,” Sally Timms’ divine vocal take on “Millionaire,” “Diamonds,” “Abernant 1984/5,” “Fantastic Voyage,” and “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian.”

Longtime Jon Langford collaborators Dallas and Travis Good walked on stage for “Orpheus” and randomly came and went for most of the rest of the set, which featured “The Bomb,” “Last Dance” and “Hard To Be Human.”

The Mekons left the stage for a quick breather, some drinks and to exchange pleasantries with Bare Jr., who had made his way from Fort York after his GBV set, before returning for an encore. It began with the slower and more folk-oriented “Afar & Forlorn” and picked up steam with “Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem (which Timms turned into her personal dance party),” “Big Zombie” and the plaintively beautiful “Wild and Blue,” which included Gord Cumming briefly sneaking on stage to play some guitar.

A big finale was expected and it was delivered with “Where Were You?,” the 1978 single that remains the most timeless song from The Mekons’ early punk days.

That called for more drinks and conversation, and most of the band members were happy to oblige and indulge until the whee hours.

The Mekons

The Hives stole the show on TURF’s first day

The Toronto Urban Roots Fest (TURF) has established itself as one of the highlights of an already impressive local live music scene over its first three years, and this relatively new yet proud tradition continued at Fort York from Sept. 16 to 18.

TURF 2016 began for me with the last part of Margo Price’s energetic honky tonk set at the West Stage. Her Midwest Farmer’s Daughter debut solo album created a buzz when it was released in March by Jack White’s Third Man Records, and Price’s sassy performance with her five-piece band brought the LP’s songs into vivid life. The 33-year-old is based in Nashville and reflects more Grand Ole Opry legacy than most country artists making the rounds these days. That’s good for fans of rootsy Americana, but it’s not likely to get her a lot of exposure on mainstream country radio.

Price’s Nashville and White connection was evident in her cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X,” while other highlights included “This Town Gets Around” and a closing rendition of the single “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle).”

For pure showmanship, The Hives had it over everyone else who played TURF on Friday. The Swedish garage punk band was preceded on the East Stage by two roadies dressed in respective black and white ninja outfits, and the group followed a Dave Hodge introduction by making the scene decked out in eye-catching black and white suits. After seeing The Specials on Tuesday, I guess I was catching my second 2 Tone act of the week. If I ever get invited to another wedding, I’d like to wear a Hives suit to it.

The Hives
Things got off to a bang with “Come On!” and a slew of high-octane, hook-filled songs followed. These included perhaps the group’s biggest North American hit, “Hate to Say I Told You So,” as well as “Abra Cadaver,” a crowd participatory “Go Right Ahead,” “Bigger Hole To Fill,” “Main Offender,” “Won’t Be Long” and set-closer “Tick Tick Boom.”

The Hives
Lead singer Howling’ Pelle Almvqvist went into the photo pit and crowd a few times to engage the fans and addressed them frequently between songs, including declaring “I’m your favourite rock and roll asshole” before launching into “Main Offender.”

The Hives
The Hives drew a healthy-sized audience to its 4 p.m. set but, judging by its performance and the enthusiastic response to it, these rockers deserved a later time slot so more people could have felt the joy.

The Hives
London, England sextet Skinny Lister plays Celtic-infused folk music with punk rock spirit, and I was happy to share in the spirits when singer Lorna Thomas passed a jug of whiskey around to those of us at the front of the Rebellion Stage. I thoroughly enjoyed the band’s set at the Horseshoe Tavern earlier this year and the subsequently released The Devil, The Heart and the Fight seems destined to be among my 20 favourite albums of the year. The set was heavy on songs from the new record but also included such older numbers as “John Kanaka,” personal favourite “Trouble on Oxford Street” and “This is War.”

Skinny Lister
Skinny Lister
I arrived at the West Stage just in time to catch the end of Jake Bugg and his three-piece band’s set. The young British musician impressed me with his guitar playing and the influence of Donovan and Bob Dylan are ensconced in his songs and delivery. The new “Gimme The Love” was solid and the set-closing “Lightning Bolt” from his self-titled 2012 album had me beaming.

Jake Bugg
I used Explosions In The Sky’s 6:40 p.m. set on the East Stage as an opportunity to check out TURF’s large selection of food trucks and made good choices with a jerk chicken sandwich and Sichuan French fries. The Texas post-rock band’s instrumental drone served as background music while I ate, drank and chatted with friends at the Bricks & Sticks Lounge.

I’ve seen Boston Celtic punk sextet Dropkick Murphys a handful of times in the past and, while I don’t think this performance was quite at the level of those occasions, the group still delivered a rollicking good time. The fans right in front of the West Stage with me certainly got into it, fist-pumping, singing along and generally getting their butts kicked to such anthemically catchy numbers as “The Boys Are Back,” “Which Side Are You On?,” “Famous For Nothing,” “Sunshine Highway,” “Bastards On Parade,” an extra fast version of “The Irish Rover,” “Rose Tattoo” and “Going Out In Style.”

Dropkick Murphys
The Murphys paid homage to another Boston band by covering The Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” Despite being adopted as a signature song by the Toronto Blue Jays’ American League East rival the Boston Red Sox, baseball hatred took a back seat to band idolatry as the crowd exploded and eagerly sang along to “I’m Shipping Up To Boston.”

Dropkick Murphys
I listened to Drive-By Truckers’ new American Band album the day before TURF began and, while I don’t think it reaches the high water mark of the group's early 2000s output with Jason Isbell, it solidly ranks ahead of 2014’s English Oceans. There was a mix of old and new coming from the Rebellion Stage, with “3 Dimes Down” and “A Ghost To Most” among those representing the former, and “Baggage,” “Ramon Casiano” and “Ever South” introducing people to some of the latest politically charged repertoire.

Drive-By Truckers
Drive-By Truckers’ brand of well-played Americana and southern rock combined with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s insightful lyrics have created a dedicated and long-term group of followers despite a band lineup that has undergone several changes over the years. While I’ve enjoyed other Truckers’ performances more than this one, this was a step up from the group’s afternoon set at TURF 2014

Drive-By Truckers