Thursday, July 30, 2015

THE FINAL CUT



When we came back from the war, the banners and flags hung on everyones door

Compelling and occasionally frightening, this short song cycle is a Pink Floyd project in name only. Gilmour and Mason have limited involvement, while Richard Wright had been dismissed from the band. To emphasize the point, the back cover is emblazoned with "The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-War Dream - by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd"

Quiet, dark undercurrents lurk at every turn on this musically ambitious soundtrack for a rainy day. Mixing his contempt for the Falklands campaign and the politics of Margaret Thatcher, Waters also brings obsessions with loss and death into the program, carrying on with themes that had run through his writing for quite some time. Imaginative as it is morose, the disc is further boosted by ingenious sound design, interspersed with recordings of various effects courtesy of Nick Mason.

Michael Kamen handles most of the keyboards and arranged the orchestration, with "The Gunner's Dream" and "The Final Cut" sounding epic and lush. The adornments on the latter flirt with the exact arrangements found on "Comfortably Numb". One key element missing here is the vocal contribution of Gilmour, who takes only one lead. His guitar is noticably muted throughout, save for a few exceptions.

"Two Suns in the Sunset" is my personal favourite from this phenomenal set, although that shouldn't stop you from enjoying the rest.

Unfairly ranked as inferior when compared to other Floyd releases, it is nothing of the sort. Waters writing is mature and the concept is far more song oriented than past projects. There are no instrumental excursions into the outer limits to distract the listener from the overall point that is being made. Here is where the principal band members stood against one another, with Gilmour openly expressing his disapproval of the critical nature of the lyrics. Group infighting wasn't new, nor was it restricted to this period. Differences that were once worked out,however,became irreconcilable and Waters would never again enter the studio with the others.

Despite the dark clouds that hovered above it, this is their last great release and criminally underrated, at that.

Many memories associated with this record, having picked it up in the spring of 1983 after hearing "Not Now John" on the radio. My initial evaluation then was one of slight disappointment, though that changed over time. Becoming engrossed in the subject matter, I embraced the songs as they were presented as opposed to how I would have liked them to sound. Curiously, the aforementioned taster single now sticks out as a poor fit when measured against the other tracks. This is a disc that promotes a mood of contemplation, so it is best taken in its entirety. This is a tall order for those who have forgotten the grand design behind making an album, rather than two minute soundbites that can be skipped over or discarded quickly.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

WEIRD AL YANKOVIC JULY 19TH



For those who have had their sense of humour surgically removed minutes after being born, the concept of music parody is enough to make them squint, tilt their head and remain in a catatonic state for life. Does the thought of a man with long curly hair in a Hawaiian shirt playing the accordion in front of an adoring crowd make sense to you? How about if he gets naked, climbs into a tub of Jell-o and sings folk songs about Alpaca combing in Peru?

Weird Al Yankovic did one of those things as he owned the Claridge stage for a spellbinding hour and a half on the closing day of Ottawa Bluesfest.

Hey Ottawa! Do you want to hear some BLUES???

With that, the man of the hour and change opened with a medley of popular songs all pounded into the straightjacket of 4/4 time polka stomp. Backed by a very talented quartet, whose harmonies and instrumental chops were a huge part of the experience, Yankovic absolutely destroyed all of the pop culture icons (past and present) with razor sharp wit and costume changes. With trips offstage between songs to raid the wardrobe being an integral part of the act, short, comedic video segments were deployed to keep everyone occupied. Considering the humid conditions, Al was a trooper as he transitioned from furs and ice cream cone headgear for the Lady Gaga send up ("Perform This Way") to full yellow-suited, red-helmeted Devo ("Dare to Be Stupid"). Whatever the incarnation, his band followed suit. Everything worked like a Swiss watch and he held the crowd for the entire 90 minutes of mania.

The highlight? When everyone huddled in chairs at centre stage while performing "Eat It" and a handful of other classics ("Like a Surgeon" included) in the exact style of Eric Clapton's unplugged version of "Layla". Expertly rendered, funny as hell...this was one of the high watermarks of the festival in terms of delivering a full package of entertainment on every level. The energy that he expended was unbelievable. Finishing with "Yoda", they did an extended, inspired, harmonized bit of nonsense (A cappella) mid song before returning to the chorus and leaving thousands of happy people singing along.

Setlist:
Now That's What I Call Polka!-(medley)-Wrecking Ball/Pumped Up Kicks/Best Song Ever/Gangnam Style/Call Me Maybe/Scream & Shout/
Somebody That I Used to Know/Timber/Thrift Shop/Get Lucky
Perform This Way
Dare to Be Stupid
Fat
Foil
Smells Like Nirvana
Party in the CIA / It's All About the Pentiums / Handy / Bedrock Anthem / Another One Rides the Bus / Ode to a Superhero / Gump / Inactive / eBay / Canadian Idiot
Eat It / I Lost on Jeopardy / I Love Rocky Road / Like a Surgeon
White & Nerdy
Word Crimes
Amish Paradise
Encore:
Yoda

Monday, July 20, 2015

TRAGICALLY HIP JULY 17TH



Now in the midst of their "Fully and Completely Tour", the Hip hit the Bell Stage powerfully with their engine room, rhythm section Johnny Fay and Gord Sinclair, kicking off "Grace, Too". This would serve to be the first shot across the bow, signalling an exceptional night of live music for those that braved the weather. Slightly altering the opening line, the other Gord (Downie) leaned into his mic and bellowed:

He said I'm tragically HIP!!!!/
Come on just let's go...


With his first utterance, there crowd erupted, remaining statically charged as the silver penned devil did his level best to bring exaggerated pantomime into the proceedings, mugging wildly, striking poses and delivering his literate musings with a wink. Sheets of precipitation thoroughly soaked everyone, yet spirits remained high. Despite looking like a thrift-shop version of John Steed, I was glad to have dragged along my brolly.

Rain fell in real time/rain fell through the night

Laying out the appetizers, while getting sounds balanced onstage, the other highlights in the first mini-set were "Ahead by a Century" and the well timed "New Orleans is Sinking", both of which became mass sing-alongs. Downie was particularly animated in the vocal department, elongating certain phrases with strangled screams that went off script from the arrangements occasionally. There was a method to his madness, as all eyes were riveted on the frontman, leaving the band to create the soundscape. Duly warmed up, there was a very quick break while the musicians transitioned to the main course for the evening, playing their third album (Fully Completely) in its entirety.

Looking for a place to happen...

When the "Gord is Lord" tag first cropped up amongst fans of the Hip as a descriptor for the lead singer, 99.9 percent of that was attributed to his very special way with words. The lyrical content of Fully Completely is rich in imagination, historical reference and abstract thought at its finest. Wrongly convicted men mingle with mythical serial killers who roam free. Woven into this tapestry are tales that incorporate fact, fiction and shadowy areas in between.

Their performance was incandescent, instantly conjuring memories of that period for me (late 1992)...friends, parties, adventures all came crashing through the time barrier, forming perfect holograms. Every selection on this perfect disc was delivered with passion and swept the crowd into a rapturous mood. Delicate guitar figures ("Pigeon Camera") mixed with terrific, straight ahead rock ("Looking for a Place to Happen") and the intensity continued to build with every song. Bobby Baker took a few inspired, extended solos while smiling at Downie's antics. Celebrating the over 60 year old Bill Barilko OT goal as if it was happening at that moment brought him back to life momentarily in the midst of a waterlogged concert site. "Wheat Kings" was enhanced by a mass chorus of voices that lifted this plaintiff, acoustic ballad to anthemic heights. Not a beat missed, nor a note wasted, "Eldorado" wound up on an incredible sonic high.

Thanking the rain and the die-hards who stayed throughout the deluge, Gord reminded everyone that they weren't finished yet. The encore was almost anticlimactic, considering the sheer emotional impact of getting our collective heads ripped open by such a stellar show. I have seen these guys multiple times, though this was by far the best experience.

Setlist:

Grace, Too
At Transformation
In View
Ahead by a Century
New Orleans Is Sinking


Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)
Looking for a Place to Happen
At the Hundredth Meridian
Pigeon Camera
Lionized
Locked in the Trunk of a Car
We'll Go Too
Fully Completely
Fifty-Mission Cap
Wheat Kings
The Wherewithal
Eldorado

Encore:
Poets
My Music at Work
Long Time Running
Blow at High Dough

Monday, July 13, 2015

CEELO GREEN-OTTAWA BLUESFEST JULY 12TH



Claridge Stage

Played onto the Claridge stage by a super tight band, the flamboyant, golden-voiced Green appeared in red-trimmed leopard-print mumu, which screamed both comfort and sartorial splendour all at once. Stopping on a dime, his backing crew launched into the icy, synthetic crunch of, "Are We Not Men, We are Devo" as he asked the crowd to shout "We want CeeLo!!!" in the sweet spot.

And they did

Audience duly pumped, the brilliance continued with a 180 degree hard left turn into "I Wanna Be Your Dog". The Stooges? What a way to grab the audience by their collective lapels, lift them up and pin them to the wall. Hot Chocolate's late 70s smash, "Everyone's a Winner" was teed up and cranked out of the Le Breton park next. Welcome to McCeeLo! He knew enough to steer back toward his own "Bright Lights, Bigger City", which really came off far more powerfully live than it does on record.

Though he did perform the obligatory Gnarls Barkley hit that first brought his smooth tenor to the attention of the fickle public gallery in 2006 ("Crazy"), it is the kaleidoscope of covers that were spun out effortlessly which really caught the ear.

"Let's Dance", "Jungle Boogie", "Need You Tonight" all happened, with a funky, wet dream detour into Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" that seamlessly tiptoed into Ellington's own "Caravan". Medleys, fragments abound, "I Feel Good","Hey Joe" (Hendrix version) bounced wildly off of "Rock the Casbah" and "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)". Minds blown by this dazzling array of "other artistry", all that was necessary was the signature riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and his own "Fuck You" to sweep up the broken pieces.

By this time, I had already made the pilgrimage across the field to catch the Arkells. CeeLo is a giant among live performers, owing in no small part to a peerless set of pipes.

ARKELLS-OTTAWA BLUESFEST JULY 12TH



Canadian Stage

Straight ahead rock solid set from the pride of Hamilton (after Marty Short, of course). Fresh from playing at the Calgary Stampede, the quintet took the red eye into the nation's capital and showed no signs of sleep deprivation, lighting up the Canadian stage as the sun faded into the west.

Frontman Max Kerman worked hard to engage the crowd from the moment that they tore into the opener, "Come to Light". Over the course of three albums the band has delivered thoughtful, energetic and catchy rock songs that have been honed to perfection on stage. These guys are on tour in perpetuity and it shows as they ramped up the intensity over their 1.5 hour showcase. All of their singles (except "Ticats are Hummin'") were featured, with "John Lennon" and "Pullin' Punches" ending up as particular highlights. The unsung hero of this aggregate is drummer Tim Oxford, who could have stood in for an atomic clock as he expertly steered the group through razor sharp arrangements. His precision assaults on the kit kept people a least a foot off the ground throughout.

What complimented their hooks, harmonies and great ensemble playing?

Pristine sound out front.

"11:11" provided the soundtrack to a marriage proposal earlier in the day, with the happy couple invited to watch the gig from the side of the stage.

Kerman asked the audience not to clap but snap along at one point. They complied and it was surreal.

Jerry Lee Lewis moment for keyboardist Anthony Crane as he pounded the 88s like a man possessed during a solo.

Moving over to the Bell Centre stage just as they kicked into a two song encore, it was a pleasure to witness such an exciting, five star performance from a band whose star is definitely on the rise. If you have a chance, get out and catch them.

Setlist:

Come to Light
Michigan Left
Ballad of Hugo Chavez
Never Thought That This Would Happen
11:11
Dirty Blonde
Oh, the Boss Is Coming!
Kiss Cam
Systematic
Pullin' Punches
Book Club
Where U Goin
On Paper
John Lennon
Whistleblower
Encore:
Cynical Bastards
Leather Jacket

Saturday, July 11, 2015

KANYE WEST - OTTAWA BLUESFEST JULY 10TH



Bell Centre Stage

This was a perfect night for an outdoor event, warm and clear with just a few clouds emanating from herbal jazz cigarettes. Main objective: stake out a spot further back from the front of the stage with a view, while avoiding getting crushed or hit with water bottles. Tension started to creep through the assembled crowd as the "Yeezus of Cool" delayed his appointed 9:30pm appearance by twenty minutes. One guy in front of me yelled "We love you, Kanyeeeeee!!" repeatedly until he was hoarse, as his girlfriend cringed with every ear-shattering scream. He settled down after she hit him.

With that mercifully timed act of necessary violence, a bank of floodlights lowered toward the stage and the man himself emerged with the intro of "Stronger" throbbing from the mains.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS

When the bass kicked in, it packed the power of a one-inch punch to the sternum delivered by Bruce Lee in his prime.

There was no band, back up dancers nor were there any costume changes in evidence.

Songs in the set were frequently cut short by West himself and he would simply move on to the next one.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" was not attempted.

Thousands of attendees will be deleting heavily distorted, low resolution clips from their phones today.

THE VERDICT

Overpowering his flow in the first few songs was a very low-end dominated mix out front, which swamped "Power" and "Black Skinhead". He actually stopped mid-song, the lights came down and there was an uneasy break in the action as this was sorted out. The master of ceremonies then returned to the mic and proceeded to obliterate the gathered throng (roughly 25,000, reportedly) with a barrage of wordplay, sonic chaos and unrelenting energy.

Coming in, I did not have a complete digestion of his discography and what material I had heard didn't really blow me away as a listener. Through the course of the show, it became very clear why he has amassed such a fervent fan base.

From a psychological viewpoint, I have never witnessed anyone control a huge crowd so masterfully before. People were vibrating and knew every word of every song, with Kanye happy to let them do the heavy lifting and sing/shout his lyrics. Usually, the artist will have to do some work to get things going in a live setting. No exhortations were needed from stage to elicit audience participation and it was absolutely mesmerizing. The concept of the big outdoor rock spectacle has been well documented, yet this gig had little variation in lighting effects, no group of musicians to observe or take solos and very little banter.

Just one guy with a mic

There was an odd element to the proceedings in that it felt as if you were part of a human iTunes performance experiment, especially when he would turn to his tech and say, "Skip this and play the next one" and the track was cued up on a dime, cutting the previous song dead instantly. No one reacted negatively. West addressed his fans sparingly, though when moved to speak he was nothing if not predictably ostentatious:

“I want you to tell your kids about this one day, I want you to remember this. There’s a lot of great people who make music that I enjoy and all, but there’s only one fucking Kanye West!!"

He also managed to get in a few choice words directed at,"celebrity sell-outs who don't rap from their heart and soul and compromise their art for corporations, the money, and public opinion.”

Who does this guy think he is? Neil Young?

Sweeping aside the braggadocio, he did smile a few times, softening momentarily to thank the faithful:

“I really appreciate y’all, I love performing these songs, travelling the world, fulfilling these dreams!”

People genuinely love this guy. As for the often mentioned haters? They didn't appear.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the show. While he is not a singer, his skills as a rapper/performer are estimable. The presentation was incredibly well paced, never dragged and held moments of true spontaneity, despite the absence of a live band. Ending on a quiet note with "Only One", by the time he wound it down, there was still a definite buzz in the atmosphere, though no encores ensued. He simply disappeared without any further word as the lights came up. As a result of attending this stellar happening, I now "get it" and have far more respect for what he does when caught in the act.

Set list:

Stronger
Power
Black Skinhead
All Day
Cold as Ice
(Foreigner song)
Clique
(Kanye West, Jay-Z & Big Sean cover)
I Don't Like
(Chief Keef cover)
Mercy
Blessings
(Big Sean cover)
New Slaves
Blood on the Leaves
Heartless
Runaway
Flashing Lights
FourFiveSeconds
(Rihanna cover)
No Church In The Wild
(Jay-Z & Kanye West cover)
Through the Wire
Jesus Walks
All Falls Down
Can't Tell Me Nothing
Gold Digger
Touch the Sky
Niggas in Paris
(Jay-Z & Kanye West cover)
Only One

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

CHRIS SQUIRE



A truly gifted musician, singer and composer passed away this week. He was dedicated to his craft and was in the vanguard of a completely new genre of music called progressive rock. Co-founder of Yes, Christopher Squire was an innovative bassist who was virtually without peer, though the exploration of the upper fretboard of his Rickenbacker overshadowed his abilities as a harmony singer. He effortlessly tracked Jon Anderson line for line on some of the most complex, melodic compositions ever committed to tape. Even now, the ground that he and his bandmates covered seems futuristic.

It is impossible to measure the influence that he had on other musicians. No less a light than Geddy Lee has often stated that without Squire, his own playing would not have flowered in the way it did. Trail blazing and brilliant, "Fish" will be sorely missed by family, friends and a legion of music fans.

For those that want to celebrate his talent, listen to his solo debut "Fish Out of Water" from 1975. It showcases his vocal, instrumental and compositional prowess. Turn it up loud...

Thursday, June 11, 2015

THE BYRDS: THE NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS



Meticulously crafted and sporting an inside-joke cover photo, this under appreciated disc represented the last vestiges of the original Byrds sound. Fighting, firing, and quitting marred the sessions, though no hint of that toxicity crept into the final product. The group was reduced to just two original members upon its release in early 1968.



David Crosby, fired from the band during the recording process, turned into a horse. Years later, he still called bullshit on the story that this wasn't planned. If you care to read more about this, take a moment and check this out

I'll wait right here.

Sgt Pepper cast a long shadow over the music industry in 1967. In its wake, record companies began to throw money at bands to create their own "psychedelic masterpieces". As it goes with most trends, much of the resulting product was unlistenable and dated quickly.

The Byrds neatly avoided such traps.

Gary Usher did take production cues from the Pepper playbook, but to positive ends. Legendary producer/engineer Roy Halee recalls the sessions:

I worked with a guy out in L.A. who loved to imitate everything The Beatles were doing — Gary Usher. He loved to copy them. 'Here, listen to this record, Roy,' and it would be some phasing thing; no big deal.

Usher helped to weave together very diverse styles of music, staying away from tedious explorations of the outer limits (with the exception of the closing track) At barely 29 minutes, it's tightly edited without bands of silence between cuts (another nod to Pepper).



Pyramids on the moon, tribal hippie gatherings, 1920's cowboy film directors, and smiling dolphins all make appearances on this patchwork quilt. "Artificial Energy" explores the wonders of speed, with compressed horns that resemble the brass parts from "The Prisoner" theme. Gated snare sounds appear as if flown directly from Abbey Road studios.

Sitting comfortably next to McGuinn's chiming 12 string and those trademark harmonies is the Moog synthesizer. A new toy at this point, it was deployed with great taste. What sounded futuristic then is a bit amusing now. Used sparingly, it did provide an esoteric feel, without overpowering everything else (as in "Natural Harmony").

A single, insistent cymbal introduces "Draft Morning", which is a model of lyrical economy:

"Sun warm on my face, I hear you
Down below movin' slow and it's morning.
Take my time this morning, no hurry
To learn to kill and take the will
From unknown faces
Today was the day for action
Leave my bed to kill instead
Why should it happen?"

Shifting from languid to intense, it is a startling aural commentary on the Vietnam war. The listener is left to draw their own conclusions.



Wild stylistic shifts are the rule here, some occurring within the boundries of a single song. The full stop to feature heavily phased strings in the otherwise country-fried "Old John Robertson" is an extreme example . Jazzy themes ("Gathering of Tribes"), woozy country waltz time ("Get To You") chamber pop ("Goin' Back" ) and synth drenched chant ("Space Odyssey") shouldn't work well together, but here they do. "Gathering of Tribes" flirts a bit too closely with Dave Brubeck, though the vocal harmonies are a highlight, as they are throughout the LP.

Gene Clark even returned to the band. It was only for three weeks, but he managed to make a TV appearance with the others before he was gone again. Their cover of "Goin' Back" should have been a massive hit, though it managed to escape the attention of record buyers and radio programmers. They should have listened more charitably as it is arranged and performed beautifully.



Personally, I would have included "Triad" here instead of "Dolphin's Smile".

Future Byrd Clarence White shows up to add stellar breaks on his modified Telecaster, pointing to the style of their next album, which would be a full plunge into country with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Easily one of the best of their offerings in the sixties.