Thursday, April 15, 2010

Gordon Hamilton Place

It's been 43 years since I last attended a concert by Gordon Lightfoot. Way back in 1967, at one of many celebrations for Canada's Centennial my brother Al and I saw him (along with Rich Little and The Big Town Boys) at Confederation Park. He was playing with Red Shea and John Stockfish, supporting the just released Did She Mention My Name. I went home, bought a couple albums and learned a bunch of his songs. And then essentially moved on. There was so much else to listen to. So many other songs to play. In 1999 I received the four CD set, Songbook for Christmas, and started listening again. Last night I had the opportunity to be reacquainted with this Canadian legend as he played at Hamilton Place.
We had seats in the 2nd balcony. The stage was set with enough equipment all on top of an Indian carpet, and when the band arrived a buzz ran through the audience. These people were there to sit in front of the man who has become the country's true poet laureate, and they gave him a standing ovation as he walked on-stage. He hadn't even picked up a guitar yet.
Nowadays the band is bigger. Lead guitar is handled by Terry Clements (who's been with Lightfoot since 1970), bass is Rick Haynes (he joined in 1969), Barry Keane has been Gord's drummer since 1976, and newcomer Mike Heffernan joined up in 1981. This unit has remained constant since '87. Wow! No wonder they play together so effortlessly. The sound through the night was beautifully clean, perfectly polished, and a bit quiet. You had to lean forward on your seat to hear from time to time. Of course, maybe it was the Gord wannabe sitting behind us, who sang along with every song, even if he didn't know the words. Or maybe it was the old gent in the next seat, sucking on candies wrapped in what seemed like endless cellophane. At least the girl in front of us was silent as she texted on her cell phone every five minutes!
Apart from all the distractions, Lightfoot did not disappoint. He played two 45 minute sets, separated by a half hour break during which he changed jackets from pink to blue. I said, "The other one must be all sweaty." My companion said, "From what?" And I had to admit, Lightfoot made it seem easy. The band was tight, Gord's guitars were mixed just right. His picking every bit as agile as ever. It was somewhere in the vocal levels that you noticed a difference. He's no longer got that powerful baritone, it has been reduced to a virtual whisper. So leaning forward to hear became more important.
Don't get me wrong, he still hits most (if not all) of the notes, but his halting phrasing is more exaggerated as if singing in bursts of exhalation. If it all wasn't mixed so gorgeously you could be distracted by, say...the guy behind you clapping about three lines in to each song as he realizes which of Gord's Gold is up next.
Lightfoot took us through a career of well known songs, like "Did She Mention My Name," "Let It Ride," "Carefree Highway," "Ribbon of Darkness," "Sundown," and more. He punctuated the classics with less well-known material, after all he has 44 years of tunes to draw from. He told a couple stories trying to connect with the audience. He quipped that "...reports of [his] death have been greatly exaggerated," echoing Mark Twain, in reference to a Twitter rumour from a few weeks ago. He asked "Who the hell would write a song about a loon in love," as he introduced "Ring-Necked Loon" and he alluded to some post-Mariposa shenanigans with Jerry Jeff Walker and Doug Kershaw back in the 60s.
The second set was similar to the first, starting off with "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and ending with "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" which bracketed "Baby Step Back" and "Home From the Forest" among others. The band left the stage for a few minutes, and then returned for a quick encore of "Blackberry Wine". The girl in front of me texted on her Blackberry, I whined!
It was over. The legend took a couple of bows and waved goodbye. Maybe in another 40 years or so...

Monday, April 12, 2010

More Marigolds...

Friday night we went down to the Pearl Company again, to see the Marigolds. Now the Marigolds, you may recall, is a trio of solo singers joined together to create some heavenly harmonies. Suzie Vinnick, Gwen Swick and Caitlin Hanford (in reverse alphabetical order) each have solo CDs for sale at the show, but a Marigolds' show is a night for groupwork.
Gwen Swick plays bass and sings in a rich voice that seems able to shift into any range. Her enunciation is precise and crisp, and her lyrics are filled with images that are at once obvious and surprising. It's like, "How clever! Why didn't I think of that?" "Anyone Can Dream" is the perfect example as she sings of the raft that dreamt of being Noah's ark! Brilliant! She lives in Elora, ON with Randall Coryell, who is an associate Marigold, being the drummer of the group.
Coryell is a king of percussion, and uses everything at hand, from the regular kit, to a long bolt holding washers and nuts to get the right sound. L:egend has it he even used his daughter's head to percussive effect!
Caitlin Hanford hails from Washington State, and brings the country inflection to the group. She plays a big ol' Gibson guitar, and writes songs about trains, and walking along the highway. Listen to "Ramble Down the Line" or "When I'm Walking With You" to get an idea. She's the tallest Marigold. Sometimes she tells little stories, like how she saw a cardinal outside the window and "just knew that Jacvkie Washington's spirit" had inhabited that bird. "Yes, indeedy!"
That leaves Suzie Vinnick, who plays lead guitar (she's got some chops!), and sings anything from blues to jazz to old standards. She can rock too, as you'll see if you listen to her solo CD. She also seems to be the business head of the group, doing the ads for the merch table, and carrying the little bag of change. Her songs show a tremendous range of styles and subject matter. Flying is one concern of Suzie's as "Trip To the Moon" and "Sometimes I Think I Can Fly" exhibit. And when she sings, you'll be sure she can fly!
Now that's the group, individually, but when they perform together, they become a separate entity...the Marigolds. And there's nothing like Marigolds' music to brighten a day, or night. In the warm and comfortable setting of the Pearl Company the feeling is like a living room concert, with a group of friends. Oh, wait a minute, I had invited about 16 people, so in fact it was a group of friends. There were another 20 or so folks in the audience, and I have to say, it's a bit disappointing. The Pearl brings in these remarkable musicians and they play to a half empty room, and yet every performer I've seen here has given their all to the group who turned out.
The Marigolds sang tunes from both their CDs, to the obvious delight of all who attended. They came back for an encore of Jackie DeShannon's "Put a Little Love In Your Heart" and then said "goodnight"...and what a good night it was.
Thanks Barbara and Gary for keeping the Pearl Company rolling. Thanks Gwen, Caitlin and Suzie (and Randall) for a great Friday night!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Jon Anderson...

at the Studio Theatre, Hamilton Place (April 3, 2010).

That's Jon Anderson, the lead singer from YES! That's right. In a theatre that holds, maybe 400. And, there was no-one else on stage either. Not Rick Wakeman, or Patrick Moraz, not Bill Bruford, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, or any of the other dozen or so members of YES from the past 40 years. Just Jon Anderson, and a couple of acoustic instruments. Oh, and of course, his extraordinary voice!

After being close to death from acute respiratory failure only two years ago, Jon has come back to play these solo shows. He has released a double live CD, called Live From LaLa Land which is very similar to the show we saw the other night except you might even say that the show at the Studio Theatre was stripped down even further. No midi-guitar this time, just a nylon string guitar, and a 'strummer', and a trusty ukulele. And a piano, for the weirdest part of the night, but more about that later.

Starting with "Long Distance Runaround" and "Yours is No Disgrace" Anderson gave us a virtual history of YES, focused on the vocals and without the symphonic backing we're so used to. The melodies were all there, and Anderson's alto-tenor voice pure and clear, but a song that might take up the whole side of a record was reduced to only a couple of minutes as Anderson sang the chorus and verses, with no long solo spots.

It's a fascinating exercise, to reduce these classic tracks to their ultimate facets. Melody and lyric. That's it. All accompanied by Anderson's rather clumsy guitar strumming. No fine finger-picking for him, he picks a beat and stays with it. And I have to say, it works somehow. It's like Jon Anderson 'folk-singer' and I imagine it takes a lot of gumption to do it. He admits he came to guitar playing late, but my ears told me he meant only a year or two ago, he confesses that he began at age 22. Well, that's over 40 years ago. I'm pretty sure I've improved more than this over the same length of time! I hope so.

But I don't want to dwell on the guitar playing because it was the singing that was impressed me, that and his spirit. The man is filled with good vibes. He is contagious with them. And his fans were rabid to soak them up. We sat in the balcony, but those on the floor close to the edge of the stage, were sending back all the love he put forth. And his wife of 13 years sat right there too, in front of the stage, dead centre. He sang to her, on this their anniversary. It was lovely.

The piano songs? Odd, abstract bits of noodling with noodled lyrics too. My least favourite part of the night, but still he's a charming performer, and well worth a ticket.

Jean-Paul De Roover & City of Glass

at The Pearl Company, Hamilton, ON, March 10, 2010

Do you remember as a child, playing with Lego? Building some imaginary thing with dozens, no hundreds of small plastic pieces and being amazed as it took shape before your eyes? My father spent his retirement years constructing beautiful models of houses out of popsicle sticks. He worked with an exacto knife and white glue, even cutting sheets of sandpaper into representations of shingles which he then glued to the roof. Hinges on the doors? Made from pins! An artist I know creates his sculptures by tirelessly welding thousands of rods together to create huge representational constructions. This desire to create a whole from many disparate pieces is what keeps Jean-Paul De Roover working on his music. Even when playing to empty rooms, he displays an excitement about the creative process that is contagious, even thrilling. The first time I saw him play was last fall on a Thursday night, the Pearl Company accommodates nearly 200 but there were only five of us there. Last night the numbers were more like twenty, and we were scattered around the room, on the most comfortable chairs. Did the small turnout bother J-P? Not so you'd notice. He bounced, and danced with his guitar, a Fender acoustic that he borrowed from his sister. He's an energetic performer, I don't think I noticed that the first time, but watching him last night left me exhausted.

Upon arrival at the Pearl Company, Hamilton's gem of a new performance space, J-P greeted me like an old friend. (I had written about the autumn show on my blog.) He looked at the small group of friends I'd brought, and said, "Well, you did your part! You've quadrupled the audience!" We laughed and shared stories about what we'd been doing since last we met. He is just starting a new, longer tour. And playing with opening acts. Tonight it's Vancouver's City of Glass.

City of Glass is a quartet made up of Michael Champion (guitar/vocals), David Phu (guitar/backing vocals), Georgia Korba (bass) and Alex Cumming (drums). They list New Order, Coldplay, Weezer and Deathcab for Cutie as their influences, but they play mainly original material. They joked about doing an AC/DC tune but when it came down to it the one cover version was a Radiohead cut. That's the kind of ambient rock they play, chilly almost spiky guitars, against solid rhythm from Alex and Georgia. Georgia plays a Fender Precision and it's bigger than she is, but she has mastered the beast. Their set was plagued by a few audio problems, the wrong mix in the monitors and a rented amp that gave up the ghost, but they weather the storm well, and their fifty minute set was well received. Then they repaired to the merch counter to flog their T-shirts, buttons and CDs. And they come back to watch De Roover. They opened for him the previous night in Toronto. They know what's coming.

Jean-Paul doesn't take too long to set up. His gear is all placed on a construction of red plastic tubes, not unlike a building toy from his youth. His whole thing is constructivism. Even the package his CD/DVD comes in is an art piece, it has no text, and unfolds to create a house. But on the red construction is a series of little boxes, looping gear, a drum pad, samplers, cables, buttons, pedals into which the guitar is plugged and a pair of microphones. He wears a set of headphones, and begins to build. Whether he starts with voice, "Ahahahahahahaaah!" maybe "Bada, baadaa, baaaaadip!" or a guitar part, he then adds harmony, rhythm, texture. Beats appear out of the ether. He sings the melody, and his melodies are strong, and then layers a harmony, and a third voice over top. He controls all of this by bending and twisting, stopping this track, starting that one, playing some rhythm guitar, he looks like he might fall, but catches himself, eats a bite of a butter tart, and all the while the audience is enrapt. They are singing along with songs they did not know three minutes ago. They spontaneously applaud. You can hear them whispering, "Wow! How does he do that?"

It's like this for over an hour. He plays his original songs. Most of them have one word titles like "Walk," "Lapse," "The Knife," "Fix." My favourite might be the new one, it's untitled so far. The chorus is "I love you," but J-P thinks that's too obvious a title, a bit too generic. I think of it as "Blue." It's a fine song. He wraps up with an audience participation tune, where he puts down his guitar and walks around the entire place shaking everyone's hand and thanking us for coming. It's a nice touch.

Jean-Paul is building his audience the same way he builds his music. He bonds an ever growing number of people together with the glue of his personality, his creativity and his imagination. Oh, and it doesn't hurt that he's just plain musical, too!

Thanks to Barbara and Gary at the Pearl Company for bringing outstanding new music like Jean-Paul De Roover and City of Glass to this city.