Wednesday, September 02, 2015

TURNSTILES



Prior to becoming a platinum selling artist, Billy Joel spent a few years getting his act together, releasing albums that were greeted with the proverbial sound of one hand clapping. "Turnstiles" was his fourth and best collection of songs to date. It met with the same fate as his previous efforts, though this is unfair because of its relative excellence. Despite the fact that it was overshadowed by his breakout LP (The Stranger) in 1977, this is a disc that is more than worthy of investigation. I first heard it through a friend, who taped it for me on one of these.



This quaint little artifact was once branded as the weapon that would single-handedly bring down the music business.

We all know how that one turned out...

Back in 1976, all of the elements were coming into place for Joel. The core lineup of his backing band for the next decade was now present and he wrote a stylistically diverse set of songs for which he oversaw production. Most recognizable from this set are "Say Goodbye to Hollywood", which he had recently done for real in moving back to New York from LA, and "New York State of Mind" that celebrates said return. Personally, my favourites on this record are "Miami 2017" where the storyboard paints a lurid picture of future apocalypse and "Prelude/Angry Young Man", featuring dazzling playing from all involved with a sampling of his bitter wit.

Anyone who tells you that Joel is merely a lightweight singer of ballads is extremely misguided.



You would think that with such a stellar set of material, commercial success would have been a certainty. Such was not the case, though there really isn't any measure of what will grab the attention of the masses. In addition to providing a mini-master class on the 88s, his sure touch with melody is married to extremely sharp, ambitious arrangements here. While the next few outings would make him a star, "Turnstiles" is one of those esoteric pieces that covers ground he wouldn't visit again until he tackled the edgy songs that comprised the ultimate Beatles wet dream on "The Nylon Curtain".

Now, if you do want ballads, here's one of the finest that he ever did.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

MOTHERLODE



Motherlode had a top 20 hit with this song in the summer of 1969. Most listeners would immediately peg the group as Philly soul (I'm a sucker for a lot of the stuff that Gamble and Huff did) or perhaps even a Motown act.

Surprise. They were Canadian.

Lodged in my brain from early childhood AM radio brainwashing, "When I Die" is one of my favorites for the harmony parts alone. Written by band members William Smith and Steve Kennedy, it stands as a classic, smooth soul/pop confection. Carol Kaye plays bass on the track. Her session work is extensive ("Pet Sounds" being one of many highlights). Terry Brown (who produced Rush and countless others) was behind the board along with Doug Riley.

Beautiful song, albeit slightly sad.

Monday, August 10, 2015

WATCH FOR THE DEVILS



Ottawa musicians Michael Hope and Armin Kamal have just released a terrific, five song EP that offers operatic vocals sitting on top of catchy hooks and fretboard gymnastics. Watch for the Devils can purchased right here

Check out their Facebook page to keep up with the band.

Truly solid set with a classic rock vibe.

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