Sunday, February 19, 2017

Winterfold XV Roots and Blues Fest Underway

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One of the great mid-winter music festivals is underway in Toronto this weekend with the 15th edition of the Winterfolk Blues and Roots Festival.  This 3 day festival showcases the finest in local and national touring musicians, with some artists just beginning their musical journey and others who have been on the landscape for many years.

Taking place at 5 different venues around the intersection of Danforth and Broadview Aves., this festival is the perfect tonic to come out of the cold winter blues.  Checking in at Terri-O's Sports Bar (185 Danforth Ave.) mid-afternoon, the Brampton Folk Club was holding court with a showcase that featured traditional Celtic music performed by members Moira and Elena, Brown Ale and Sylvia Genders.  This set was Celtic in the traditional sense, there were no shades of Great Big Sea in this hour.  Following this set, The Best of Dr. B's Acoustic Medicine Show kicked off their two hour showcase with local favourites Roger Zuraw, Kirk Felix, Sean Peever and Linda Saslove.  Felix's "California Sunset" and Saslove's "Long Goodbye" were particularly well received by the packed house.

Over at the Dora Keogh Irish Pub (141 Danforth Ave.), Tragedy Ann was on stage performing a wonderful set that included a stellar cover of Jason Isbell's "Cover Me Up." Tragedy Ann will be taking the stage again today in the 2:00 hour once again at Dora Keogh's during a showcase titled "The Bridge."  A big and bright future is in store for Tragedy Ann, this young and talented duo is just getting started. Another young artist from Toronto who impressed the audience is Isaak Bonk.  With his wry sense of humor making its way to his songwriting, he's a cross between Corb Lund and Murray McClaughlin.  I look forward to hearing more work from Isaak, as a bright future lies ahead for this young man as well. 

One of the feature showcases of the weekend took place at the Black Swan (154 Danforth Ave.) on Saturday night with the Saturday Night Harmony Hoedown.  Running from 7 to 11pm, this four hour showcase shone the spotlight on 4 of the country's finest folk and roots band.  From Hamilton, Ontario, The Redhill Valley's kicked the evening off with an outstanding set performing songs off their latest album.  Recent Toronto residents The Command Sisters showcased their spot-on sibling harmony's while sharing stories of their recent travels which inspired some of their latest writings.  Johnson Crook offered up a country-rock set that was very well received, and the harmony's of Stratford, Ontario's female trio Trent Severn closed the Harmony showcase.  Not to be outdone, Canadian blues virtuoso Jack Dekeyser closed off the nightly proceedings with a rocking blues set to send everyone out of the Black Swan ready to come back for more today.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Toronto = Music City?

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City of Toronto Mayor John Tory last year stated his desire to have Toronto recognized as Canada's Music City.  It's a great goal to have, as Toronto has provided its share of big Canadian stars on the world stage, with Drake being the most recent example.  Toronto was the developmental ground for one of the most influential bands in music history, The Band, as they played the Toronto club circuit in the summer months prior to returning to Arkansas, the home state of Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm in the winter months.  But today, there could be a disturbing trend developing that is throwing a big wrench in Mayor Tory's plans for Toronto as a musical hotbed.

A mere 5 weeks in the new year, Toronto has already experienced a rather astounding amount of live music venue closures.  Reports from the Toronto Star and Toronto Sun, among others, indicate that two venues (The Silver Dollar Room and Hugh's Room) hope to re-open, but the fact so many venues (4) have closed in such a short period of time is concerning. Revitalization and redevelopment are just two of the reasons for the closures, in addition to the more standard financial causes.  But if Toronto is losing music venues to redevelopment and revitalization, how can they claim to be a Music City?

Closing down live music venues does not revitalize a city, nor does it do anything for redevelopment. Both aspects should mean that you're improving a situation. Closing music venues does more harm than good. It takes away the development stream for aspiring artists to learn and hone their craft, it limits their ability to learn how to play in front of live audiences.  In a recent broadcast of Great Performances on PBS, country star Brad Paisley stated the advice he provides to aspiring artists is that they become local stars first, prior to becoming national/international stars.  Becoming a local star is important in their overall development as a complete performing/recording artist and musician, and assists the artist in handling an ever growing level of fame.  If live music venues are being taken away, it would be akin to removing the minor league system of baseball ... the development stream ends, which in turn hurts the overall product. 

To their credit, the Toronto City Council seems to recognize there is a problem.  The Toronto Star reports that The Silver Dollar Room will not be closed permanently. Having been designated a heritage space, it will re-open in the newly developed space that will take the place of the building currently occupying the corner of College St. and Spadina Ave. In the meantime, The Silver Dollar is still slated to close on May 1.  Hugh's Room is still hopeful for a reprieve with some additional financing, but this outcome is still not clear. A committee has been formed to set a new path forward that will be financially viable and will continue to provide a venue for national and international touring musicians, as well as showcasing some of the finest local talent Toronto has to offer.  

These closures notwithstanding, Toronto does still have a decent amount of live music clubs.  Having said that, the time is now for the community, music and otherwise, to come together and work toward solutions that will keep the local live music establishment healthy and financially viable and provide that development system for aspiring musicians to take that next step in their careers. With many people doing the heavy lifting, Toronto can still fulfill its aspiration as Canada's Music City.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Americana Poised for Massive Breakthrough Following 2017 GRAMMY Awards

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As we've comfortably moved in to the new year it's worth noting that we're a week away from the GRAMMY awards (Feb. 12), the night where artists and musical genres of all sizes, shapes and stripes will be honored. This year will be particularly interesting for Americana as an industry, as one of the genre's brightest stars is nominated for the biggest award of the evening, Best Album.  It says here, that in a category where such music industry heavyweights as Beyonce, Adele, Drake and Justin Bieber are nominated, it will be Sturgill Simpson that wins the Best Album award for his outstanding project "A Sailors Guide to Earth."

This will not be an insignificant achievement, to say the least.  You could float a battleship on the amount of records that Simpson's competition has sold, numbers which reach in to the tens of millions. Sturgill's effort, however, has sold just shy of 150,000 copies.  Given today's market climate where few people are buying physical albums, this is a pretty solid number, given Sturgill's place in the music business. His competition fill arenas and stadiums, while Sturgill has only moved into playing 3,000 to 5,000 seat theaters in the past year or so.  It speaks to the quality of his work to have been nominated in the Best Album category for "Sailor's Guide", the follow up to his breakthrough "Metamodern Sounds In Country Music."  

While many people may have asked "Who the f**k is Sturgill Simpson?" (as quoted from Sturgill's new t-shirt), he has been a late-night media darling for the few of years. Appearances on virtually every late-night show from Letterman to Jon Stewart contributed to Sturgill's exposure in ways that the suits of Music Row in Nashville did not. Indeed, the executives of Music Row bore the brunt of an epic rant from Simpson last year following the death of Merle Haggard and the Academy of Country Music's subsequent naming of an award after Mr. Haggard.  The hypocrisy, Sturgill rightly noted, was in the fact that Music Row and country radio had all but ignored legends like Mr. Haggard for many years, only to now capitalize on Haggard's name in his passing.  Simpson is quite right when he says Music Row will have blackballed him because of the rant. But this is where the GRAMMY's often get it right. Projects that may not necessarily catch on commercially can still be up for awards.  They view the quality of the project as a whole, as opposed to the quantity of product that is sold. A nomination on its own can lead to an increase in record sales for any given artist. 

I expect the same thing will happen for Sturgill Simpson this time next week. Given that he will also perform on the show, Sturgill could be on the verge of his own Chris Stapleton moment ... where one performance in front of millions of people can catapult record sales to the number one position on all applicable charts. Chris Stapleton with Justin Timberlake at the 49th Country Music Association Awards brought his major label debut "Traveller" from obscurity to nearly double-platinum status with nearly 2,000,000 records sold. This could be the case for Sturgill Simpson. With a Best Album win, Sturgill Simpson will see his "A Sailors Guide to Earth", an album he wrote as a gift to his son, reach untold and unknown heights from a sales perspective. And more physical album sales is good for the music business as a whole.  Regardless of who actually wins, all the albums are worthy of praise and are projects that have been produced by some of the best and finest artists in the music world.  Good luck to all, and enjoy the show!

Friday, December 2, 2016

2016 Canadian Folk Awards Weekend

The biggest weekend in Canadian folk music kicks off tonight at Hugh's Room in Toronto, Ontario. The Canadian Folk Music Awards has landed in Canada's largest city with a stellar lineup honouring legends, current stars and newcomers alike in a celebration of the country's diverse artistry and roots music.

The 2016 Awards show is set for Saturday night, December 3, at the Isabel Bader Theatre on the campus of the University of Toronto. The Awards are a celebration of the great and creative work of many talented singer-songwriter musicians from across Canada.  The Awards also celebrate and acknowledge the many diverse forms of folk music created in the differing regions of Canada.  Categories range from traditional folk to contemporary, and honour artists of English, French and Aboriginal descent. The Awards ceremony will be presented in English and French, Canada's two official languages.

Performing at the Awards show is the legendary Bruce Cockburn, an artist who has received many honours throughout is long career, including Order of Canada, Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement and induction in to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The incredibly talented Colin Linden steps away from his band mates with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to grace the Awards stage, along with the wonderful Ennis Sisters, Red Moon Road and Klo Pelgag to round out the evenings entertainment. Tickets can be purchased here

Nominee showcases take place tonight and tomorrow morning at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas St. West) with Jocelyn Petit, Old Man Leudecke, The Small Glories, Hillsburn and others tonight.  A special Nominee Brunch Showcase will start at 11:00 tomorrow morning and will feature Rosie and the Riveter's, The Andrew Collins Trio, Keltie Monaghan, William Prince and Ten Strings and a Goat Skin.  Tickets for the showcases can be purchased here and will include admission to both showcases and the Awards show.  Showcase only tickets can be purchased through the Hugh's Room website.

An exciting weekend awaits fans and nominees alike as we gather to honour and celebrate the best that Canadian folk music has to offer the world. If you're in Toronto, be sure to take in the festivities of this weekend and support these fine, independent artists.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Merle Haggard: Country Music's Greatest Singer-Songwriter

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The music world is in mourning once again as it suffers another monumental loss with the passing of Merle Haggard on April 6, his 79th birthday.  There have been many biographical articles written about Mr. Haggard over the years, and many more have been written in the past 24 hours since his passing.  This piece will try to somehow put in to context what it means to lose such a giant figure in the North American music scene.

Mr. Haggard's country music chart success ran un-interrupted for roughly 25 years.  His total of 38 number one songs on Billboard's country music chart, along with many more singles that made the top ten, place Mr. Haggard among the giants in any musical genre. Mainstream country artists of today can only dream of reaching these types of numbers with today's fickle market. It's not impossible, but it is rare.  Mr. Haggard's feat was no different. His music endured many different style changes to country music, but his style was always relevant. It was his songwriting that made this so. 

"The warden led a prisoner, down the hallway to his doom
and I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest"

The lyric above is the opening line from an early Haggard hit "Sing Me Back Home."  A story song that was born of life experience.  It's no secret that Mr. Haggard spent time in and out of the prison system, including time served at the infamous San Quentin prison.  This time featured prominently in many of his early hits, including songs he didn't write like "The Fugitive."  

"I'll probably never see you eye to eye again
this letter's meant to be my last farewell"

This mournful opening line is from "Looking For a Place To Fall Apart" is again a true story. Mr. Haggard did indeed write a letter to his soon-to-be ex-wife who called an end to their marriage.  But rather than send the finished letter, he placed in the trash and burned it. Then, he wrote this masterpiece.

If you're a young person reading this article, I cannot stress enough that you go and explore the Merle Haggard lexicon. This is especially so if you are an aspiring songwriter, as Mr. Haggard's songs are perfect examples of how to craft a song. Write about what you know, tell the story of your life and your observations, but most importantly write from the heart.

Mr. Haggard's music is not something you would dance too.  Rather, Mr. Haggard's music is a style that calls for one to sit down and listen to the lyrics.  There is social commentary, heart, soul, feeling and real life in the words.  Consider this: in the recently released documentary on Keith Richards, Mr. Richards sat at a piano and sang "Sing Me Back Home" while stating Merle Haggard was a huge influence on the Rolling Stones, specifically the songwriting.  Indeed, other artists who have cited Merle Haggard's songwriting as a major influence on their work is a lengthy list:  Toby Keith, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Miranda Lambert, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, the Dixie Chicks, John Mellancamp, Jewel, Ronnie Van Zant/Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jamey Johnson are among the many that have cited Mr. Haggard as having touched their lives through his music. Successful artists and songwriters, all. I mean to say, you have the Beatles and Rolling Stones saying they turned to Merle Haggard music for inspiration ... if that doesn't signal a lasting influence and legacy, I don't know what does.

The heaven's gained one of the most prominent artists in modern history with the passing of Merle Haggard. We are blessed to have such an incredible catalog of music that remains. On a personal note, it's the loss of another one of my country music heroes.  I will be forever grateful for the music Mr. Haggard created, as it formulated my appreciation for the craft of songwriting and performance.  This last video is one which paired two of my heroes together.  They were reunited yesterday morning.  Mr. Merle Haggard and Mr. George Jones.  Sing for the angels, gentlemen.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Album Review: Larry Keel, Experienced

Friday February 26. 2016 will see acoustic and bluegrass virtuoso Larry Keel independently release his 15th studio album Experienced.  The album is comprised of 7 songs, four written by Keel and three by his songwriting partner Will Lee, and showcases the musical talent possessed by Keel that has brought forth praise from such bluegrass luminaries as Sam Bush and Del McCoury. Bush and McCoury, along with Keller Williams, Jason Carter (Del McCoury Band), Mike Guggino (Steep Canyon Rangers) and Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass) all make guest appearances on this stellar album. Experienced may be considered a bluegrass album, but to me it represents an exploration of American roots music with folk and blues making appearances on the record.

The opening instrumental track "Ripchord" sets the album off at a frenetic pace, with the talents Keel and his compatriots on full display.  Front and center on this cut is Sam Bush with a blistering mandolin solo. Indeed, "Ripchord" is a song that should be played at full volume, with the full risk that the walls may shake right off their foundation. "Lil' Miss" puts the blues in bluegrass, as this song could easily be played in the smokiest blues joints of Chicago or New Orleans. Anders Beck's work on the dobro, along with Larry's growling vocals set this song apart from the traditional bluegrass sound.

The album's third track, "Memories", brings the listener right back to the traditional bluegrass/folk territory.  A wonderful song about making each day a memorable one, allowing yourself to have a life well lived and worth looking back upon with few regrets. The melody and lyrics are reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot's earlier works.  "Fill 'Em Up Again" takes us back in to pure bluegrass territory, with brilliant harmonies from Del McCoury, Will Lee and Jenny Keel joining Larry on the chorus.  The album explores much darker territory on "Miles and Miles" and "The Warrior", but wraps up with much brighter subject matter in the traditional country sounding "Another Summer Day."

Larry will be touring throughout the spring and summer promoting Experienced as the touring entity Larry Keel Experience.  The tour will kick off Feb. 26th in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and then moving on to Washington D.C. at Gypsy Sally's on the 27th.  Do yourself a great favor, pick up a copy of Experienced and check out a show.  It will be an Experience, to be sure.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Soar With the Eagles

This is not what I had in mind for my first blog piece of 2016. We're one month in to the New Year, and we've been reminded in rather rude fashion that we're all getting a little older. The passing of so many great artists in music, film and stage in the span of a few weeks is quite shocking.  For me, like so many others, the passing of David Bowie and Glenn Frey struck home.  Not to take anything away from the passing of Natalie Cole or Lemmy (for all you Motorhead fans out there), but the passing of Bowie and Frey struck deep as they're music was among my first introductions to something outside of the old school country music I grew up listening to.

It was especially the case with Glenn Frey.  It wasn't until high school that my musical tastes expanded. I was still very much a country fan, and it could be argued that the Eagles were more or less a country band. That argument is much stronger when you consider their earlier material ... think pre-Hotel California.  As I entered grade 12, I had something that not every kid had, but every kid wanted.  I had the car. 

Which meant, there was a lot of driving (perhaps when I should have been in school), and a lot of music that was being blasted from that stereo. Not all of it was country.  It was my first exposure to the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and of course, the Eagles.  Like so many other music fans, the Hotel California album was (and still is) something special to hear.  Glenn Frey and his singing/songwriting partner Don Henley were at their creative peak. Don Felder had created one of the most recognizable guitar intros in the history of song, and the band had just added Joe Walsh as their second lead guitarist.  Randy Meisner was still with the band delivering that high vocal that only he can do.  The Eagles became my favorite band in those days and remain so to this day. 

The passing of Glenn Frey was a turning of the page, the end of a glorious chapter in music. There will never be another band like the Eagles with their quality of songwriting and five part harmonies.  The influence they've had on rock, country and North American music in general cannot ever be measured. They have been inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I can only hope the Country Music Hall of Fame follows suit. Really, the best way to honor a great artist and great band is to present their music.  Below is one of the finest songs to feature Glenn Frey on lead vocal and is the best example of their five part harmonies.  It's a country tinged song that was written by Tom Waits and was a B-side off the On The Border album.  Here is "Ol' 55."