Sunday, March 31, 2013

Album Review: "What We've Been Up To", Alley Stoetzel

I had the great fortune of receiving this wonderful little EP from Boston-based singer-songwriter, Alley Stoetzel.  Alley released her debut EP back in September 2012 with help from some of the best bluegrass musicians in the Northeast.  If you're looking for some great music from an up-and-coming artist, this album will satisfy that need and then some.

The six-track EP consists of four cover tunes and two originals, and they blend together perfectly.  The song selection for those covers is square in Alley's wheelhouse.  Opening up with a mandolin-heavy version of "Cocaine Blues", a tune made famous by Johnny Cash on his historic "Johnny Cash at San Quentin" album.  It's a ballsy selection to kick off the album, and Alley and her crew rise to the occasion with a raucous version of this classic.

The next track is the beautiful "How Much I Need You", an original song that explores the uncertainty that can exist when starting a new relationship.  Alley's soulful vocal really shines through on this selection, really highlighting the vulnerability of the lead character.  A song such as this comes from someone who has lived through it, which allows for the listener to relate to the story.

The third track is another original, "It's Always You", which in some ways could be the sequel to its predecessory, "How Much I Need You."  The song is the perfect complement as it seemingly continues the story as the two characters have progressed in their relationship, verging on falling in love.  Given the quality of the songwriting from Ms. Stoetzel on these two tracks, it is to be hoped that she includes more originals on her next release, whether that's a full length album or another EP.  

The album then ventures back in to cover-territory, and the selection here is brilliant with its variance.  For a young lady who is only 27 to tackle two icons in the history of music with Hank Williams, Sr. and Lefty Frizzell, to then close off with Rhianna takes some serious guts and confidence.  Ms. Stoetzel pulls these off in spades.

While not much more can be said of the lyrics of the Hank Sr. classic "Lovesick Blues,"  the rockabilly treatment of this song that Ms. Stoetzel and her companions gives it a fresh outlook that I've not heard before.  It's a great little cover they should be proud of.

Next up is a cover of one of my favourite old songs, "Long Black Veil."  Written by the legendary  Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill, this song has been recorded hundreds, if not thousands of times.  When a song has been recorded that often, sometimes it's best to stick close to the original, which is what you'll get on this album.  The key here is the wonderful mandolin playing of Jimmy Ryan, combined with Alley's beautiful, understated vocal that tells the haunting story in riveting fashion.

The most unique cover of the album is the most unusual choice, but it fits in perfectly, with Rhianna's "Man Down."  Performed acousticly, with nothing more than mandolin, acoustic guitar and piano, this album allows Ms. Stoetzel to showcase her vocal range and styling.  The musicianship and powerful vocals highlight how dark this song really is.  It's a departure from Rhianna's version, but is still very, very effective in it's delivery.

This album is a brilliant debut from an artist that is clearly dedicated to her chosen profession and will only go in one direction.  I'm sure you can surmise which direction I believe she will be going.  We have not heard the last from Alley Stoetzel.  In the meantime, check out her website where you can stream the album, learn more about Alley, get in touch with her and find out where she's playing.  We can look forward to many big things from this young lady out of Boston.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Concert Review: Lucero/Shovels and Rope, The Phoenix, Toronto, Ontario -- March 26, 2013

A generous crowd filed in to the old concert theatre on Sherbourne Street in downtown Toronto, emerging from their winter hibernation to take in an early spring show featuring Americana stalwarts Lucero and rising stars Shovels and Rope.

On the road this spring in support of their 2012 album release Women and Work, Lucero arrived to a packed house that was ready for a party, even though it was a Tuesday night.  The veteran rockers wasted no time in getting the crowd active as they played the lead track on Women and Work, "On My Way Downtown."  Featuring an awesome yet simple guitar lick and blistering horns, "Downtown" is a tune that is guaranteed to get you moving, and the crowd obliged accordingly.  Simply put, it's one of the best feel-good songs I've heard in a long time and must be heard live.  

Showing they have a way with a ballad, the band moved from "Downtown" to "Nights Like These", a track from their Tennessee album.  It was "Nights Like These" that was the first crowd singalong of the evening, and was a stellar lead in to another great sounding ballad, "Darken My Door" from their 1372 Overton Park album.  Creating a set list that captured highlights from virtually all of the albums over their 14+ year recording career showed quite smartly how Lucero has experimented with their sound and developed in to one of the superstar bands in Americana/alt-country.  Using their lengthy catalogue as their platform, they covered many ranges of musical skill, moving from rockabilly, to psychedellic, to slow country ballad and back to straight up Memphis rock n' blues.  Speaking of Memphis, the addition of the horn section is a clear hommage to their home city, and the fans reap the benefits.  The horns add a whole new element to the band and are an excellent accompaniment to their already stellar musicianship and songwriting.

As the clock worked well past midnight, Lucero wound down their show with two selections from their That Much Further West album, first with a solo acoustic rendition of the title track, and a final number with the whole band with "Tears Don't Matter Much."  Two encore songs later, and an exhausted yet satisfied band and crowd made their way in to the night.

Opening for Lucero was an act that was the talk of the 2012 Americana Music Conference and Festival this year.  I can recall many of my fellow attendees saying that their biggest highlight of the festival this year was an amazingly talented duo called Shovels and Rope whom had blown the doors off the tiny Basement club in Nashville.  So it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to what I might see with Shovels and Rope opening for Lucero.  What I got was a look at two of the most talented artists and musicians on the road across North America, or anywhere for that matter.  On the road to support their 2012 Dualtone records release, O' Be Joyful, Shovels and Rope are capturing the attention of fans worldwide, and it's no longer happening quietly.  Identifying who is the lead in the duo that is Shovels and Rope is not possible, which is what makes them special.  They harmonize on virtually every song, and they both play every instrument (drums, harmonica, maraca, tambourine, guitars) they take on stage with them.  And they play them with such blistering intensity that they don't just take the crowd by the hand and lead them on a musical journey, they grab them by the collar and run with them on an adventure.  That adventure can be beautiful or it can be incredibly dark, thanks to their strong songwriting.

If I had to pick a sampling of performance highlights for Shovels and Rope, they would be "Keeper", the title track and "Birmingham" which the duo recently performed on Late Night With David Letterman (watch the performance here)   Having said that, their entire set was a five star performance.   Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are the duo that are Shovels and Rope.  And there is every reason to believe they will be the next breakout act in Americana.  They are an excellent selection for an opening act on this tour.  

Tour stops for Lucero and Shovels and Rope for this weekend include March 29 in Winnipeg, Manitoba at the Park Theatre; March 30 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at Louis' Pub; March 31 in Calgary, Alberta at the Republik; and April 1 at the Starlight Room in Edmonton, Alberta.  The tour then shifts to British Columbia and the west coast of the United States in the coming days and weeks.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Two Icons

Before I start in to this blog piece tonight, I promise to all of you who read regularly that my next piece will not be about the recently departed and/or deceased.  I say this because my last piece was about the passing of Mindy McCready.  This piece is about the passing of two icons, one real and one fictional, but both among the most influential figures at least of my time.

It is virtually impossible to be born and raised in Canada and not be aware of singer-songwriter Stompin' Tom Connors.  Born on February 9, 1936 in a hardscrabble section of Saint John, New Brunswick, Thomas Charles Connors would ultimately rise from a uniquely rough childhood (as a child, the man lived briefly with his mom ... in prison) to a national icon.  Stompin' Tom wrote and performed about all things Canadian, he had no interest in striking it rich in international markets.  In the 1970's, Stompin' Tom returned six Juno Awards that he won to the Recording Academy because he felt that the Awards organization, which is the equivalent to the US Grammy Awards, was becoming too Americanized.  He recorded and performed almost exclusively in Canada for Canadians with no interest in success in the United States. 

The bulk of his writing was about the hard working nature that is the fabric of rural Canada, with such songs that have become a staple of the Canadian musical landscape as "Bud the Spud", "Sudbury Saturday Night" and "Tilsonburg."  But perhaps Stompin' Tom will best be remembered for his ode to the sport that Canada is most known for (even though it is not our national sport) with "The Hockey Song."  "The Hockey Song" has been played on every sound system in every major and minor hockey arena in Canada, and I'm sure a large number in the United States where hockey matters.  It is the one song that all Canadians can agree on that must be played at our many rinks during the hockey season, especially in those tight rivalry games when Toronto plays Montreal.  But I digress ...

Stompin' Tom Connors had the unique ability to do what very few have accomplished in my home country.  He brought us together.  He encouraged us to feel unabashedly proud that we're from Canada and we're Canadian.  He made us feel that no matter how big or how small or how dirty and menial a job may seem, that job matters and contributes to what makes our nation the greatest nation in the world (said with much love and respect to whomever is reading this, regardless of where you're from or where you live -- we all love our home country, no matter which country that may be, you know what I mean?).  Fans from across the country will descend on Peterborough, Ontario tomorrow (March 13, 2013) at, where else, but Peterborough's hockey shrine, the Memorial Centre, to honour the life, work and memory of this great Canadian.  There will never be another like Stompin' Tom Connors.

Another "person" we will never see the likes of again was and is from the fictional world.  Growing up in the late 1970's and early 1980's, Friday night was about two television shows: "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Dallas."  I will readily admit that I am hooked on the re-tooled version of Dallas, which airs on Monday nights at 9pm on the TNT network in the US and on Bravo in Canada.  Last night's show honoured the passing of one of televisions biggest and most important icons, Larry Hagman a.k.a "J.R. Ewing."  Mr. Hagman, as I'm sure most know, passed away in November 2012, so it was inevitable that J. R was going to be written out of the show.  Still, I watched the show with a certain sadness, which may sound strange because we are, after all, talking about a character on a TV show. 

But this felt different.  Whether or not you were growing up at the time when Dallas was on the air in its first incarnation, or if you were a regular follower of the show, you would understand what I mean when I say that J. R. Ewing was no ordinary character.  As I've said to my stepdaughters when they have watched the show, the only way I could really describe what it was like when Dallas (and other shows like it, such as Dynasty) was on, is that you had to be there.  People would decorate their homes to look like Southfork Ranch.  People would have their hair styled like the ladies on Dallas.  In almost every sense of the word, the characters on Dallas would be referred to in conversation as if they were in your own family.  That's the kind of attachment people would have with this show.  And who could forget the iconic moment when hundreds of millions of people tuned in to watch a network TV show on a Friday night to find the answer to the almighty burning question, "Who Shot J.R.?"  Name a show on TV that can command that kind of viewership.  I submit there is none out there, because (a) it's cheaper to put out reality shows, and (b) television networks won't invest in the time that it sometimes takes to develop shows and characters to the point where people care about them.

In addition to making me feel a little older, the funeral for J.R. Ewing represents another turning of the page as far as television entertainment goes.  Larry Hagman/J.R. Ewing are legends and icons of recorded television and performing arts.  His passing represents the turning of a page where arguably the best generation (or arguably the most important) of television is now fading in the past.  Watching Dallas last night was, in some ways, like watching the funeral for an old friend.  Indeed, there will never be another character like J.R. Ewing. 

To Stompin Tom Connors, Larry Hagman and his alter-ego J.R. Ewing, thank you for all the years of sharing your incredible gifts and for being a part of some truly wonderful memories for a guy who was lucky enough to witness your incredible talents for many, many years.  It was indeed, my honour.