Monday, March 28, 2011

Jesse Winchester...

Jesse Winchester dropped onto the music scene with considerable buzz. Was this Bob Dylan recording under an assumed name? He's a friend of the Band! Who is this guy?

When his first, eponymous album appeared with a green-grey photo of his unsmiling, bearded face, Jesse Winchester in plain black lettering across the top, and the same photo on the back, AND repeated twice on the inside of the gatefold...there wasn't much to go on. No lyric sheets. No posters. No extensive liner notes by Ralph Gleason. Just a list of the musicians involved; David Rea on guitar, a rhythm section featuring Levon Helm and production by Robbie Roberston. But to listen to this album was to be transformed. This was some serious stuff. A potent riff, a rocking beat, and:

"Let's go out on the town tonight,
my pockets are heavy with loot.
We'll get drunk and nasty,
and loud and agressive to boot!"

The album was filled with simple tunes, evoking the songwriter's home in Tennessee, and his longing for his home in the South. He was, after all, a draft exile in Montreal, the most European of Canadian cities. A stranger in a strange land.

This was over thirty years ago, and Jesse Winchester has continued to write from his home in Quebec. He took himself a Canadian wife, and lived the good life north of the border; becoming a Canadian citizen, and after the Jimmy Carter amnesty, finally returning to tour the US in 1977.

Todd Rundgren produced part of his second album, 1972's Third Down and 110 To Go. The title alludes to Canadian football, which has one fewer downs, and a longer field than its American counterpart. If it's "3rd & 110 to go"'re in trouble babe! Rundgren's production set a standard for the next few albums. Where Robbie Robertson had provided a garage band sound, Rundgren went for an even further stripped-down approach. Winchester's three-chord tunes were presented almost in demo form. The simple melodies and homey lyrics take the forefront and the quality picking by local musicians, and the odd guest star just provide a foundation for Winchester's warm vocals. The album cover art tells a tale too. Far from the stern, almost scarey visage on the first album, Jesse looks happy on the cover of this one, life is settling down.

The next two albums continued this approach. Band members included the gifted Amos Garrett whose superlative melodic guitar stylings provide some memorable moments, and Russell Smith whose song "Third Rate Romance" (later a hit for his own band the Amazing Rhythm Aces) made its first appearance on Learn To Love It (1974). The cover art for this one shows an ecstatic dad holding up his first born!

In 1976 Let The Rough Side Drag was virtually a sequel to Learn to Love It. Winchester was writing minimalistic songs, little snapshots of life. He was enjoying his life and making quick to the point comments. It's a songwriting style that suits him, and his melodic gift is such that the tunes are memorable 25 years later.

With 1977's Nothing But A Breeze he upped the ante. Maybe after the amnesty the record company decided to spend a bit more money, but on this album the home-made quality started to slip away, and producers were brought in to give Jesse a commercial "sound". Brian Ahern, who gave a glossy sheen to the early albums of Ann Murray and Emmylou Harris, tried his magic here. In fact both of those singers appear in backing roles. But apart from a pleasant but slow turn on "Bowling Green", and "Rhumba Man" -- soon to be a hit for Nicolette Larsen -- there's not much to recommend this album.

1978 saw another attempt to mainstream Mr. Winchester, this time by taking him to Nashville. Norbert Putnam led a galaxy of Nashville session men to produce A Touch on the Rainy Side. David Briggs and Kenny Buttrey were among the musicians hired to polish a rather forgettable batch of tunes. The most memorable song on the album is Tony Orlando's hit "Candida", a scary thought indeed!

Winchester returned south of the border for 1981's Talk Memphis, a slice of funky, Tennessee R & B produced by Willie Mitchell. While not completely successful, the grooves are appealing and Winchester relaxed vocals are well presented. "Say What" was a minor hit, and is representative of the album as a whole. Winchester took a break at this point. He wrote songs tunes that were recorded by other artists and gained a reputation for doing so. In 1988 WEA released a collection of his best songs from the Bearsville albums and came up with a good cross section that highlights his strengths. Warm, mellifluous vocals, and quirky little songs surrounded by nice picking and a decent groove. What more could you ask?

Winchester was picked up by Sugar Hill Records, and 1989 saw the release of Humour Me. He shows his Northern allegiance by choosing the Canadian spelling of the title. This is a listenable but not particularly ground-breaking album. There's no questioning the musicianship though. Winchester is surrounded by Sugar Hill staples Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Edgar Meyer.

It would be ten years before Jesse Winchester released another album. 1999 saw the release (again on Sugar Hill) of Gentleman of Leisure. This was a return to form, and a quite enjoyable record. I especially liked the sly reference to Steve Cropper, who then takes a rather nifty guitar solo! The title track is one of Jesse's novelty tunes, which he writes to break up the seriousness of his songs of life and love that populate his writing.

Winchester demos all his songs solo, playing all the instruments, and in 2001 he released Rough Ideas, the demos for Gentleman of Leisure. It is a novel idea, and worth a listen if you're interested in the creative process of songwriting and recording.

Over the years Winchester has released a succession of live albums which present him fronting his hot band of Montreal musos, playing his greatest songs. Live at the Bijou Cafe was a 1977 promo album later issued in Japan (and bootlegged in North america), and is a rocking little number, intimate and fun. 2001 saw the release of Live at the Trojan Horse, 1976 which is similar in feel and material, but available in North America. Live From Mountain Stage is a solo performance on Blue Plate Records close to what a perfomance from Jesse is like today. As a songwriter he is probably best represented in a marvelous double CD, Anthology on a British label called Castle. The 23 best songs from his whole ouevre are presented in chronological order on the first CD; and whoever chose the songs obviously feels as strongly about Winchester as I do. The second CD is the incredible first album in it entirety. It's as good today as it was when I firsty heard it! With liner notes by Colin Escott it's the perfect collection, if you can find it.

I have admired and listened to Jesse Winchester for 30 years. His songs of distance, and longing for his homeland moved me to tears; his songs of home and hearth warmed my soul. In looking at this collection of material I realize that he has been a spottier performer than I thought. The first album was a powerful introduction to a new songwriter, and the next three albums saw him develop a unique and cozy style. While the record labels' experiments with commercialization seem dated today, there are still a few gems from this era. And Winchester remains a powerful voice and a magnetic performer, perhaps best enjoyed in compilations.

On Saturday night Jesse Winchester played in concert at the Spectator Auditorium in Hamilton. The show was sold out, and a week ago the organizers added 20 seats which disappeared quickly. We arrived 35 minutes early and had to sit close to the back of the room. Winchester ambled out carrying his gut-string guitar, at exactly 8:00. He sat on a stool and launched into a gentle version of "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" which set the tone for the whole night. He sang songs from his whole career, including a selection or two from last year's Love Filling Station, in a light tenor, fingering funky chords on the guitar, and showing a flair for drama with his expressive hands. His stories of the South, of life in Montreal, of approaching 'geezerness' and a newfound appreciation for the Mercury Grand Marquis set the songs in context. The crowd in that hot auditorium, loved him. And a great time was had by all.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

so what have I been listening to?

Way back in January, I bought the CD+DVD edition of Jimi Hendrix's West Coast Seattle Boy and I downloaded the early tracks to add to it. I don't listen to Jimi a lot, but when I'm in the mood there's nothing like some Hendrix to make you realize "Hey, I'd better practice!"
I picked up Gregg Allman's Low Country Blues mainly due to the hype, and the fact that T Bone produced it, and I have to say that I've enjoyed it, although it has more recently slipped off the playlist in favour of a couple newer items.
Found an old Rick Holmstrom album too, called Lookout which is mainly instrumental. I love the guy's playing with Mavis Staples, but this album is pretty generic. Worth the $8 I paid though!
Wanda Jackson's newest came in the mail from Nonesuch, accompanied by a signed poster, which is cool. The album is pretty hot, produced as it is by Jack White. Great for crankin' it up on long car rides!
I ran across a vinyl copy of Legendary Grape the, well, legendary album made by a reformed Moby Grape. It reminds me just how good this band was, and what a shame that I missed seeing them live that evening at the CNE...
Campus Disc showed up at the University, and I bought a few used items including a Best of Gerry & the Pacemakers, Peter & Gordon, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, as well as a copy of Lou Reed's live Berlin. Wow, that's a depressing album, but the 60s stuff is uplifting fun. Oh, and a vinyl copy of Elvis Costello's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane for the bonus tracks.
A couple old Randy Bachman albums were next, Axe was a download, and Survivor came from Randy's mail order. Nice things to have, he's a fine guitarist and he knows how to write a riff!
The Majestic Silver Strings was hard to find. It's packaged to resemble a set of guitar strings, and with Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz and Marc Ribot joining Buddy Miller on a collection of old country tunes...that's a good image to have. The accompanying video is interesting too. These guys make magic.
Lucinda Williams released Blessed the same week I saw her live when she opened for Levon Helm at Massey Hall. Songs from the new album were featured at the
show, as Lucinda read lyrics from a music stand. I haven't warmed up to Blessed yet...give it time. Oh, the show was great, and Levon (singing raggedly due to a cold on top of the already shredded vocal cords) put on a show that was unforgetable!
Ron Sexsmith's long awaited Long Player, Late Bloomer was for me, the highlight of the year so far. I bought the special edition with a DVD of live performances and a signed litho. But even without all the extras, this is a beautiful album. Bob Rock's production is crisp and presents another set of fine songs from the pen of a master. Ron should be proud of this addition to his oeuvre, and get over the lack of confidence that seems to plague him.
Gary U.S. Bonds has a recent CD that you can buy from his web site, signed. It's a good little rocking number. Give it a try.
Levon Helm has asked Capitol Records to reissue the first three albums by The Band which are available in a boxed set, called Three of a Kind. No bonus tracks, all the remastering is gone, what's left...the first three albums just the way we heard them back in the day. Awesome!
Still looking for the newly re-issued Nick Lowe Labour of Lust CD, and awaiting delivery of Steve Martin's second bluegrass album. Maybe tonight, if the postman can get through the snow that surprisingly dropped on us overnight.
Upcoming? Robbie Robertson, Paul Simon, Steve Earle, and don't forget Record Store Day coming up April 16th. Support your local retailer!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Autographs. Some people give 'em, some people collect 'em. And some people refuse to give 'em. I think it was American actor Keenan Wynn who refused to sign anything, but he would take time to pose for pictures with folks. So here are a few autographs I've collected over the years.

Ron Sexsmith, obtained this one after a concert in St.Catharines. He said, "I don't like using those gold pens," and pulled out a black sharpie. I said, "Please, can you use the gold?" Which he did, of course then it didn't dry for about ten minutes. Still, I think the gold looks good against the tones in the picture.

Bettye LaVette. Purchased this one from her web site. She managed to use one of those liquid silver pens without smearing.

This one came from Newbury Comics. They often have some excellent collectibles, most are available in Canada although sometimes the signed copies are only available to US customers. Glad to have been able to get this one.

Klaus Voormann, the artist who did the Beatles' Revolver and Anthology covers, was also a bass player, and one of the Fab Four's oldest friends from the Hamburg days. I bought one of his signed prints from his web site, and then when this career celebrating CD was released I ordered it as well. He signed in letters big enough for King George to read!

A week after seeing Levon perform at Massey Hall I bought this 3-disc set from his web-site. A bit pricey maybe, the discs have all the bonus tracks and remastered frills removed and sound just like the original albums I fell in love with so many years ago. Nice to have Levon's scrawl on the box.

I now have signatures from the three surviving Band-mates. Remind me to tell you the Garth Hudson story sometime!

Monday, March 21, 2011

a couple great shows...

Bob Dylan and his band at Hamilton Place. Loud, rockin' fun...Bob played only the keyboard all night.

Lindsey Buckingham and his band also at Hamilton Place. One of the greatest shows I've ever seen, anywhere. To a small but appreciative crowd. Wonderful!

Surf music, and hot rods...

1962 saw the release of the first Beach Boys album, but within a couple of years the wagon was gettin' pretty loaded up. Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher put out singles as Bruce and Terry, but they also called themselves The Rip Chords for this one. "Three Window Coupe" b/w "Hot Rod USA".

1964 also found Jan & Dean on the charts with "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena" and "Ride the Wild Surf".

"Ride the Wild Surf" was backed with one of my favourite all-time titles. "The Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association".

1965 found the Beach Boys recording "Help Me Rhonda" while Freddy Cannon had a hit with "Action".

"...Oh, baby come on!"

The ultimate Beach Boy tune is at the top of this article, but "Sloop John B" came out the same year as "Good Vibrations"...1966. I'll never forget seeing the Beach Boys live one stormy night in August, they started playing "Good Vibrations" and the clouds parted, the moon shone through and the night turned wamr and wonderful.

Johnny Rivers jumped on the bandwagon in 1975 with his version of "Help Me Rhonda" with help from Brian Wilson.

The Beach Boys tried all sorts of things to maintain their popularity, from this 'disco' version of "Here Comes the Night"(1979)...

to joining with Little Richard on this Bruce & Terry written track "Happy Endings"(1987)...

to the hit by committee "Kokomo" written by Mike Love (he probably provided the atlas for place names) Terry Melcher, John Phillips and Scott MacKenzie (1988).

While Brian Wilson went on his own bizarre path, creating marvelous music all along the way. 1987's "Love and Mercy" and...

from 1988 "Too Much Sugar" b/w "He Couldn't Get His Poor Old Body To Move" (written with Lindsey Buckingham!)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Beatles 12"ers...PAUL

This series of 12" singles from Paul McCartney actually begins with a rare album. Thrillington is an orchestral take on the songs from Ram and is a 1977 release. It seems Paul McCartney just took on the persona of Percy "Thrills" Thrillington and hired Richard Hewson who created this LP. The artwork on the back shows a reflection of "Thrills" in the studio window, and he looks remarkable like Sir Paul! It's not bad, like many of Paul's ego-fueled projects, but not great.

Glad to have it in my collection though!

"Goodnight Tonight" and "Daytime Night time Suffering" the 1979 edition of Wings.

"This One" also contains "The First Stone" plus I Wanna Cry" and Fats Domino's "I'm In Love Again." 1980

"Take It Away" is backed with "Dress Me Up As A Robber" and "I'll Give You a Ring", from 1982

1982's "Ebony and Ivory" duet with Stevie Wonder is backed with "Ballroom Dancing" and "The Pound Is Sinking."

"We All Stand Together" is the song from Paul's animated cartoon of Rupert the Bear. The b-side is the same song, hummed. Hmmm. Not really a 12" as it has an unusual shape...kinda like the film. 1984

"No More Lonely Nights" from Paul's big film Give My Regards to Broad Street features an extended "Silly Love Songs" and the ballad version of "No More Lonely Nights" 1984

1986's Press To Play is the source for "Press" (and "It's Not True") backed with "Hang Glide" and "Press".

"Once Upon a Long Ago" and "Back On My Feet" b/w "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and "Kansas City" 1987

"Put It There", "Mama's Little Girl", and "Same Time Next Year" also featured a frameable litho of the cover drawing. Haven't framed it yet. 1990

"All My Trials" came from a live album, but the single included "C Moon" and "Mull of Kintyre" and "Put It There" on the flipside. 1990

Beatles 45s...PAUL ('80s)

Coming Up / Coming Up [live in Glasgow] + Lunch Box/Odd Sox (McCartney, 1980)

Waterfalls / Check My Machine (McCartney, 1980)

Ebony and Ivory (McCartney) additional vocals by Stevie Wonder / Rainclouds (McCartney-Laine, 1982)

The Girl Is Mine (M.Jackson) duet Michael Jackson + Paul McCartney / Can't Get Outa the Rain (Jackson-Jones) 1982

Say Say Say (McCartney-Jackson) duet Paul McCartney + Michael Jackson / Ode to a Koala Bear (McCartney) 1983

Spies Like Us (McCartney) from the film Spies Like Us / My Carnival (McCartney) 1985

Only Love Remains (McCartney) / Tough On a Tightrope (McCartney-Stewart) 1986