Monday, March 26, 2012

Ian Thomas at The Spectator Auditorium

They call it the Freewheelin' Folk Series and over the past few years they've featured such fine artists as Jesse Winchester, Ian Tamblyn, Harrison Kennedy, Suzie Vinnick, Tom Wilson and many others. They offer a subscription to four concerts a year, or you can buy individual seats. If you subscribe you get reserved seating at the featured concert, but the venue is intimate enough that you don't really need the reservation. I wish that the sightlines were better at the Spectator though, because the woman in front of me must have had neck problems, her head was wiggling back and forth all night. If I leaned to the left the woman in front of HER had big hair, to the right neck lady leaned against her husband. So...intimate in sound, awkward in sight. I had no trouble watching the bass player or keyboardist who accompanied Ian Thomas, but Ian himself was seated, and hidden behind hairdos and rubbernecks.
It didn't really matter, since I know what Ian looks like. He does too, as he made a considerable joke about it, recalling someone who he ran into at an airport in Calgary who asked, "Hey! Aren't you Ian Thomas? What the hell happened to you!?!?"
Well...he aged. Look in the mirror, you did too. He's only a year older than I'm not casting any stones!
Ian complained about having a cold and warned that his voice might not be what we hoped...but I don't think anyone was disappointed. He managed to come fairly close to the notes for the most part, and the instrumental portion was excellent. He may claim that he spent more time figuring out song structure than working on 6-string virtuosity, but he's not a bad woodshedder, alternating between a Taylor acoustic and a gorgeous orange Gretsch.
He sang old songs and new from an upcoming solo CD due any time. He's been announcing the release of this solo work for a while, and played me a couple of demos when I visited him in his new studio last fall. Of course everyone loves the oldies, "Painted Ladies," "Right Before My Eyes," "Pilot," and more. He sang a couple of songs from the late, lamented Boomers (his band with Bill Dillon, et al) and not much from Lunch at Allen's. But it was Ian Thomas night, and the near capacity crowd was happy to have him there.
At least he wasn't wearing this lovely purple suit from the early days. This outfit, and many of Ian's relics are on display at McMaster University's Archive, in the basement of Mills Library. Posters, awards, his old touring case, and songbooks are on display. It's like Disneyland for the Ian Thomas fan. OK, not quite, but it is a fascinating look through the career of this local hero.
The career retrospective of Saturday night was an auditory addition to the tactile collection at McMaster. Too bad we don't have a recorded memory, but you could have picked up Ian's most recent collection of hits, called Radio Songs and he would have gladly personalized it for you. That's just the kind of guy he is. Look for him at Detour enjoying a cappuccino some afternoon!

2 more new songs from Ry Cooder

Get Your Hand Off My Constitution
Bottle Up and Go

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Blackie & the Rodeo Kings (and Queens)

It was a warm Wednesday night in Toronto. Unseasonably warm. We'd been waiting for this day for what seemed like forever. Rich had to drive back from Sudbury, and arrived just 20 minutes before the show. In front of Massey Hall a crowd had gathered. A Man Called Wrycraft called me over to the corner, we chatted with Paul Reddick, then Rich joined us. Wrycraft accosted a guy who was selling B&W photos of The Rodeo Kings.
"Did you take those pictures?" he asked.
"Nice pictures...they look like Bob Lanois pictures to me. Did you really take these pictures?"
"Umm...I gotta go..." and he disappeared around the corner.
Well...everybody's got to make a buck I guess. The ten dollar T-shirts wouldn't appear on the street 'til after the show let out. Inside the T-shirts were $30, and posters $20, CDs and World Vision children to adopt.
Inside the temperature was a bit cooler, our floor seats had great sightlines, and Michael and his photographer friend Kevin Kelly were coincidentally in the row ahead of us. The show was not quite sold out, but the BARK arranged tour buses brought fans from Brantford, Hamilton, Peterborough, Orillia, and they all let out a cheer when announced. Everybody seemed to know everybody, the sense of community was palpable.
At 8 o'clock Colin Linden walked onstage to announce the opening act. Harlan Pepper, four young guys who play music that old guys like us can appreciate. They did a 35 minute set that included tunes from their freshman album, and a few surprises. The closing instrumental left us all with grins on our faces.
Tear down and reset took til 9:00 when Blackie & the Rodeo Kings took the stage. They rocked into "Water or Gasoline" with a vengeance. We all sang along. The hits just kept on comin'. Then it was time to introduce the guests. Mary Margaret O'Hara was first up, although I still can't quite understand what she added to "Stoned". Rich turned to me and said, "She's quirky."
Mary Margaret was better when she returned later in the show, but she did have 'some fancy footwork for this low down boozed up crowd'. Murray McLauchlan made a surprise appearance to trade verses with BARK on "Down By the Henry Moore" and we all sang the chorus. Next "honorary queen" was Ron Sexsmith who took Rosanne Cash's part in the song he and Colin co-wrote for the Kings & Queens album "Got You Covered". He said he screwed it up on TV the other night...he definitely made amends this time.

The band was unbelievably tight, Johnny Dymont on bass, drummer Gary Craig with John Whynot on piano and Ken Pearson laying Hammond B-3. Wow!
The Queens came out one at a time, Amy Helm (who was here with her dad, Levon, a couple months earlier), Holly Cole, Serena Ryder and Mary Margaret each adding their voice to the decidedly male sound that is BARK. These ladies rock with the best of them. Rosanne Cash was in England, Emmylou Harris was taking a break at home, and no mention of Patti Scialfa or Lucinda Williams but four queens was sufficient for a fine evening of music.
The whole cast (minus Murray and Ron but including Harlan Pepper) appeared on-stage for the finale and shared the love. Then a surprise 2nd encore saw Colin and Stephen come back with most of the band calling for Tom, Johnny and John for a rousing rendition of The Band's "Endless Highway". It's maybe the most obscure song in The Band's repertoire but it really ended the night on a high note. The party continued downstairs but Rich and I had a long drive we bade Massey Hall farewell. Oh, what a night!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hugh's Room, Mar.9

A Friday night drive to Toronto can be a hassle, but going to Hugh's room isn't so bad. You don't have to go all the way in to the city. Lakeshore to Parkside, up to Bloor, along Bloor to Dundas, and free parking at the grocery store. FREE PARKING in TORONTO! WHEW! It's like winning a lottery.
People at home said, "Why not support Hamilton shows? Larry Carlton is playing at Mohawk and Jean-Paul deRoover is at the Pearl." Well...I like Randy Newman I guess.
I do like Randy Newman. While I don't always agree with the stance he takes in his songs, they are so witty and funny, and sharp that they're irresistable to someone who enjoys lyrics. And the music is always so classic. Wonderful chord progressions, even on the transitions, and the mixture of rock band rhythms with Newman's orchestral arrangements separates him from the rest of the pack. He's not just another singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar (not that there's anything wrong with that).
This time we had a table on the middle level, good view of the stage, but not too close to the stairs. The food was better, and although we were the first to order and last to eat (even after ordering my steak rare) we had a decent dining experience. But this time it was all about the music.
A Man Called Wrycraft organizes four or five of these shows a year, inviting a hand picked collection of Canadian musicians to pay tribute to a songwriter (or band) that he admires. We missed the Carole King show, but caught the Beatles and Tom Waits Tributes. Randy Newman has nearly fifty years of songs to choose from, but people mainly looked to the tremendous series of records he released in the 70s for their choices. Of course the same is true for Randy himself. His latest release Live in London is heavily weighted with older songs.
The show began on time at 8:30 as Michael Wrycraft took the stage to introduce the evening and the first performer. Lori Cullen's latest CD features songs 'about rain' by some of the world's greatest songwriters, Randy Newman among them. She led off with "Every Time It Rains" (from Newman's 1999 Bad Love album) accompanied by Dave Matheson on piano. Lori has a beautiful voice, but seemed a bit tentative. Perhaps she simply didn't like being up first. Her performance of "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" was classic and compares with any previous version. Beautiful.
Bassist George Koller followed with a stunning stand-up bass solo to introduce the gorgeous but disturbing "Marie". Koller's plain voice was perfect for this song of a redneck's love for his wife. The unspoken potential for abuse behind the romance was palpable. Koller also did a lovely rendition of "Dayton, Ohio, 1903".
Michael Johnston took the stage to talk about Newman's third album, 1971's Live. This was originally recorded as a promo for radio to introduce Newman to broadcasters, but Warners released it in a cover that looked for all the world like a bootleg. It was, for many of us, our first taste of Randy Newman. Johnston read a note from iTunes which described the record in not very complimentary terms. He then proceeded to lay what they described as the "unremarkable 'Tickle Me'". It was...remarkable. Michael also did "Short People" because, he said, he realized that at home...he was surrounded by them!
Then it was up to Tim Posgate and his new bluegrass (or newgrass) band the Sorry Cousins who displayed string band proficiency on a couple of numbers including "My Old Kentucky Home". After the smoke cleared from this picking session it was time for a break.
The break allowed folks to buy CDs from all the performers, or Wrycraft's poster for the event and have it signed by one and all.
Treasa Levasseur took the stage and dedicated her first song to Danka behind the bar. "You've Got a Friend in Me" she sang, accompanying herself on the piano, her bluesy voice almost too big for the room. She also covered Newman's poke at the ccreator of the universe..."God's Song" or "That's Why I Love Mankind". Randy better duck if he sees Yahweh coming!
Michael Jerome Browne made the drive from Montreal to do this show, and was a standout singing "Mama Told Me Not To Come" and "Louisiana 1927". His 12 string guitar playing was superb, capturing all of Newman's piano transitions and runs. I watched Wrycraft's face during this set...he was transported. Of course he is always transported. The thing about A Man Called W's tributes is that he just outright loves the music and he always chooses the right artists.
Dave Matheson did a splendid version of "Yellow Man" with all the pseudo-chinese notes that Newman threw in to make it "authentic" and followed that with a beautiful rendition of one of Randy's creepiest songs. "In Germany Before The War" tells the story of a shopkeeper who kills a young girl...influenced by the film M. My wife asked "doesn't Randy Newman write any up-beat songs?" Not many come to think of it!
Jory Nash closed out the night with one of my favourites, dedicated to all "you pyromaniac farmers out there." That's right..."Let's Burn Down the Cornfield." And with that the whole cast was called on stage to perform "Sail Away". This song Newman wrote for a kind of rock opera that was to have featured all the great singer-songwriters of the day. As Randy tells it, "Neil was there, James was there, Elton...everybody." The project came to naught, but this slaver's invitation to "climb aboard little wog sail away with me..." has had a long life and is one of his most evocative songs. The melody and chorus are so singable, that you don't even think about what you're singing about. That is one of the hallmarks of Newman's songwriting, that the singer becomes the person in the song. The redneck who beats his wife, and keeps the n****r down, the child killer, the racist, the rock star, the cowboy. Nobody writes songs like Randy Newman. But on Friday night at Hugh's Room...everybody sang 'em...just right!