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!