Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Concert Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, Ontario

This past weekend in Canada, and indeed the across the British Commonwealth, we celebrated our Queen Victoria's birthday.  It's widely known in Canada that this particular long weekend is typically the unofficial kickoff of summer.  What it usually means is bucket loads of rain for those who head out to cottage country from Toronto, and enough cold weather to keep you bitching for days when you fight the traffic to get back to the city.  I typically stay close to home on the long weekends.  I live in a small town outside of Toronto, so I don't really miss the cottage thing.  But mostly it's because I have no patience to sit in hours and hours of cottage rush hour traffic that runs for a hundred miles or more.  Adding to my desire to stay close to home this past weekend was the news that Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit  were playing the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, Ontario.  

I was excited for this show for two reasons.  Firstly, I have wanted to see and learn more of Jason's music since I began this journey of discovering Americana music.  His music was one of my first encounters when I was researching the Americana Music Association where he was previously nominated in the New and Emerging Artist category.  You can find a lot of his music and clips from his shows on You Tube, as well as his own web site.  Secondly, the show was at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto.  The Horseshoe has been around for 64 years and counting.  It has played host to some of the most legendary acts in music.  As a final dress rehearsal for their most recent world tour, the Rolling Stones played the Horseshoe to just a completely packed house.  The concert area holds no more than 400 people ... so you can imagine what it must have been like to be there on that particular night.  If you are in Toronto and want to check out a place where live music is still King every night, go to the Horseshoe.  Great music and eclectic group of people.  It's a really great, unique Toronto experience.

Anyhow, back to Jason and the 400 Unit.  As I mentioned, I have been waiting somewhat patiently to check this act out, and the opportunity finally presented itself on Sunday May 22, 2011.  Touring across North America to support his recently released album Here We Rest (Lightning Rod Records), I was thrilled to see a rather large crowd waiting for the boys to take the stage.  Not sold out, but a good, enthusiastic crowd.  In spite of the fact the show started 20 minutes late, these guys did not disappoint.  Opening up with such numbers as "Alabama Pines" and "Never Could Believe" from the newest album, the band had the crowd hooked from the start.   Working in a song from his previous self-titled album, "Soldiers Get Strange" and "Goddamn Lonely Love" (Live at the Twist and Shout, New West Records), Jason and the band showed they could work seamlessly from hard-driving, soulful and rocking alt-country, to a wonderful ballad from the new release with "Heart on a String."  

Perhaps the most soulful tune of the evening was a story that is all too often told in North America, and that's the return of the soldier from active duty overseas.  "Tour of Duty" tells the hard tale of a soldier trying to assimilate himself back in to everyday life on this side of the world, dreaming of doing the simple things that most of us take for granted.  Highlighting the real simple pleasures in life, like eating chicken wings, and describing how even something as comforting as that can be challenging for some returning soldiers is a real credit to Jason Isbell's songwriting talents.  It is a talent that was exhibited in spades on the stage of the Horseshoe on Sunday night.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are touring all across North America this summer.  Their next shows include stops in Bloomington, Illinois (Castle Theater) on May 25th; Chicago, Illinois (Lincoln Hall) on May 26th; Madison, Wisconsin (High Noon Saloon) on May 27th; and St. Paul, Minnesota on May 28th (Turf Club).   Opening for Jason and the band is a wonderful young lady by the name of Maria Taylor, who accorded very well for herself on this night as well.   If you are in those areas and are looking for a night of great entertainment, do check them out. It was a wonderful show.

For more tour dates and more information about Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, including ways to order albums, t-shirts and a whole host of other items, check out the bands' web site, a link to which is included in this entry.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Concert Review: Jimmy Bowskill Band, Market Hall, Peterborough, Ontario

For the past few days, I have been trying to come up with the best way to describe the concert I had the pleasure of attending this past Friday May 13, 2011 in Peterborough, Ontario at the newly restored Market Hall Theatre.  I recently started working in Peterborough, which is a smaller city of roughly 75,000 people northeast of Toronto.  It was quite the simplest of reasons that piqued my interest in this concert.  The posters were well designed and well placed, so that prompted me to check out the Jimmy Bowskill Band web site.  When I visited the site to do a little research on the band, my interest picked up considerably.

The first thing that jumps out as you read Jimmy's bio, is the fact that he's only 19 years old.  Couple that with the fact that he's been on stage performing with Randy Bachman, Dickey Betts, Paul Rodgers and Jeff Healey, and this makes it an opportunity that is not to be missed.  I mean, look at the guitarists he's performed with.  These are some of the greatest guitarists of our time.  Just who is this kid?

Well, I can tell you unequivocally, this kid is a phenom ... a virtuoso ... whatever adjective you can think of that describes a young person who has a God given talent and is a natural at what they do.  This young man is all of those.  The show performed before a shockingly small crowd in Peterborough was unlike anything I've ever seen.  The sheer talent that this young man has is unbelievable.   He can sing, he can write his own material, and he can absolutely rip a guitar in three.  Those of you who may be reading this and had the opportunity to attend the show in Peterborough last Friday but decided against it, shame on you!  Just kidding ... my point is, now is the time to be checking this young wunderkind out, because he will not be playing venues like Market Hall for long. 

Hailing from Peterborough, the three-member Jimmy Bowskill Band played two hours of the scorching hot blues, rock and alt-country that left the crowd in attendance out of breath, yet wanting some more.  And more they got, as Bowskill and Company closed out the evening with a well represented version of an early B. B. King hit.  Bowskill confessed, King was one of his earliest and most critical influences.  I believe it's a matter of time before Bowskill adds King to the list of guitar greats he has shared the stage with.

In short folks, I want to say that this kid is out-of-this-world good.  He has recently completed a tour of Ontario, but has toured Europe and North America previously. This band is an act to keep your eye on.  The Jimmy Bowskill Band is an act that will be around for a long, long time.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Album Review: Matt Andersen, Live at the Phoenix

It’s amazing how quickly time flies.  Needless to say, it’s good to be back.  I’m looking forward to a great few months of writing, there are quite a few things in the hopper right now that I’m anxious to post.  Thanks for hanging in there with me!

The first post in a few weeks is the review of an album by an artist that a friend of mine recently watched open a show for Buddy Guy at Massey Hall in Toronto.  Matt Andersen, who hails from the great province of New Brunswick in Canada, is a strong, up-and-coming performer.  Already a highly-decorated, award winning artist at the Maple Blues Awards (Entertainer of the Year and Acoustic Act of the Year), Matt Anderson tours almost continuously, playing his unique style of folk and blues in small theatres and clubs across North America and Europe.  Quite often, these performances involve only the man and his acoustic guitar.  And friends, can he play that guitar.

My friend passed me the album “Matt Andersen – Live at The Phoenix (Busted Flat Records) and asked that I review it for this site.  As I’ve always wanted this site to be interactive with readers submitting suggestions for albums or artists to check out and listen to, I was happy to do so. 

The first thing that struck me when listening to the album was clearly the musicianship.  This gentleman, who by the way comes in at a tiny 6’ 4”, and 400 pounds, can flat out play the guitar.  You will find many different styles of guitar playing on this album.  The lead track, “Better Man Blues” quickly establishes that Matt Andersen is a blues player of the highest order.  The next track, “One Size Never Fits,” seemed to be slightly rushed in finishing.  It’s a good song, but not my favourite on the album.   However, he quickly recovers with a great, scorching song called “I Play the Fool for You.”

Matt steps in to country territory later in the album with “When My Angel Gets the Blues,” which is one of my favourite tracks.  Other key tracks to pay attention to are “So Gone Now”, “Devils Bride” and “If I Can’t Have You.”  To this ear, what makes Matt Andersen stand out from most guitarist/instrumentalists is the different picking styles he possesses.  He moves quite smoothly and flawlessly from a B. B. King style of blues, to easy going country, to Chet Atkins style picking like it’s as natural as breathing for him.  “Matt Andersen – Life at the Phoenixis an excellent album to showcase this young mans’ talents. 

Matt Andersen is gearing up for an extensive tour schedule this summer.  He will be playing at many festivals across North America and the United Kingdom.  Based on this live album, it would be worth your time and money to go and check him out. 

Check out Matt Andersen’s web site for show and ticket information.

You can also check out Matt Andersen’s record label, Busted Flat Records, to purchase Matt’s albums, and to check out other artists on the Busted Flat label.