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December 17, 2016

Concert Review: A Tribe Called Red - Kingston Ontario December 14 2016


A Tribe Called Red by Quinn Aebi copy.jpgOn December 14 2016 A Tribe Called Red, brought their Electric Pow Wow to Kingston Ontario and raised the roof at Stages Night Club. For those who don't know the three man DJ crew (Ian "DJ" Campeau, Tim "2oolman" Hill, and Bear Witness) mix traditional indigenous music from Canada and rest of the world with electronic beats, samples of pop songs and spoken word to create some of the most exciting and exhilarating dance music out there.

While their recent album We Are The Halluci-Nation was perhaps their most overtly political album yet, that hasn't done anything to diminish their abilities as entertainers. In fact judging by the sold out audience filling the space not only has their popularity increased it brings together one of the most diverse audiences I've ever seen at a concert.

All races and ages mixed together under one roof dancing and grooving to the sounds these three guys generated without any of the crap you usually find in an atmosphere fuelled by alcohol and loud music was something of a miracle to me. Normally you can't walk into any bar in this city without some sort of testosterone overload happening. So to see everybody simply focused on having a good time and the music was a tribute to the potency of their performance.

I say performance, because the three men of A Tribe Called Red don't just stand up behind a stack of equipment focusing on their equipment. They are involved with the audience - looking around, smiling and even jumping out from behind the equipment to dance on the speaker stacks. I've not seem many other DJ acts in a long time but these guys are not only able to do their mixes live but make it seem like they are just as, if not more, involved with their audience than most bands with instruments.

The music itself was a brilliant collage of sampled music, electronically generated sounds, and spoken voice all anchored by the sound of various First Nations drum groups. While as expected there were tracks from the recent disc; "Halluci-Nation" (featuring the voice of the late John Trudell) and "The Virus", there were also some unexpected delights as well. To all of a sudden hear bits of the old Paul Revere and the Raiders' song "Cherokee Nation" blasting out of the speakers was a hoot. It's obvious A Tribe Called Red have a sense of humour.

While I said the political content of their songs wasn't as prevalent in concert as it is on their album, in some ways their whole concert is a statement. They are telling a room packed with predominately non-native people, this is who First Nations people of Canada are today.

Their music is firmly based around the heartbeat of the traditional drum and deeply embedded in the culture of their people but is not wedded to the past. It is saying we are not the stereotypical stoic Indian brave of the movies or the cartoons of your mascots - we are a living, breathing people and we're not going anywhere.

A Tribe Called Red is coming to the end of their touring for 2016, only a few more dates in Canada. However, they'll be back on the road again in 2017 and if you have a chance check them out - they're amazing. If you're like me and we're hesitate about going to an electronic music party - don't - these guys are not your typical DJs and put on an amazing show.

As a final note I'd like to congratulate the venue, Stages Nightclub, and the promoter, Flying V Productions for putting on a show where everyone felt truly welcome. Everyone from the security staff to the bar people worked to create a safe environment. Very cool in these weird times.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Concert Review: A Tribe Called Red Kingston Ontario 12/14/16)

July 9, 2014

Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel - Back To Front: Live In London


Most of the time popular culture looks to the past it's for purposes of reliving past glories or for wallowing in nostalgia. Very few of us have the courage and the strength to look back at where we've come from with a critical eye. Even fewer have the ability, or the desire, to tamper with past successes. Usually when a performer reaches into his or her back catalogue for a show or a recording they end up recreating the original material as exactly as possible. It's safe, easy and is guaranteed to generate ticket and recording sales.

One of those who has always displayed a willingness and ability to deviate from this practice is Peter Gabriel. Starting with his first release in 1977, Peter Gabriel 1, his solo career now spans four decades. His contributions to popular culture haven't been limited to his own material either. Through his Real World label and his involvement with the founding of the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival in 1980 he was responsible for bringing music from cultures other than our own into the mainstream. However, it wasn't until the release of his album So in 1986 he achieved widespread commercial success.

In 1986/87 Gabriel and his band, Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes guitar, Manu Katche drums and David Sancious keyboards and guitar, toured the world to promote the release. Twenty-five years after that tour ended, 2012, Gabriel reunited the original band in order to revisit the original performances while creating a new experience for his audiences. In October of 2013 the tour pulled into London England's O2 concert hall where the performances were filmed. The result is a new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Back To Front Live In London.
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Available in multiple formats, including a deluxe two Blu-ray two CD set complete with a hard bound book of pictures and liner notes, the single disc Blu-ray recording I watched shows Gabriel not only knows how to please his audience, but is still not afraid to push the creative envelope to its limits. Not only does he not simply play older material the way it was originally performed, he continues to be one of one of the most innovative users of the stage and lighting techniques available to popular performers. Even better is he's one of the few who have always understood how to create the perfect balance between the music and the visual in order to create something which is more than just a concert for his audience to experience.

As the camera leads us onto the stage, showing us Gabriel's perspective on proceedings as he moves into position at his piano to open the show, we're give the first example of how this performance will differ from other events of its kind. He does not enter to a blacked out house and stage, all the lights in the arena are on. Instead of breaking into song he begins by telling the audience exactly what he plans on doing for them over the course of the night; an acoustic set as an introduction, an electric set and then play them So in its entirety.

Maintaining the immediacy created by this rather informal beginning, he and the band perform the entire acoustic set with the house lights up. One of the highlights for me from this opening set was an acoustic version of "Shock The Monkey". Always a powerful song, somehow striping it down to the bare bones sound of acoustic guitar, bass, drums and piano not only didn't diminish its impact, but made you more aware of the song's potency. The gaps left in the song from the lack of electric instruments were like poignant pauses in a conversation which say more than words ever can.

However, no matter how powerful the opening numbers might have been, you could feel the excitement level rise in the arena the moment the house lights went down and the band picked up electric instruments. While the house lights must have been gradually dimming over the course of the last song of the acoustic set, the moment when the band was all of a sudden bathed in white light and the audience was in darkness was still so dramatic the thrill that ran through the crowd could be felt right through the television screen. It was not only a beautiful piece of staging, it was a great piece of filming, as it captured for us at home the experience of being at the concert like few other concert films I've ever witnessed.
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I have to confess, and this is testimony to the skill of both Gabriel and the film's director Hamish Hamilton, that from this point on my critical faculties deserted me and I allowed myself to be carried away by the concert and the experience. While I've seen quite a number of concert films, and a few by Gabriel in the past, this is the first one I've seen where the connection between performer and audience is so strong that even sitting in my living room on a rainy afternoon I lost all track of time and space and became totally absorbed.

For those used to some of Gabriel's more elaborately staged performances, this one might initially seem more prosaic then previous ones as the band is simply lined up facing the audience. However, as the show progresses he begins to make use of the empty space down stage as he and the two female vocalists accompanying him, Jennie Abrahamson (she does amazing work on "Don't Give Up", "This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)" and "In Your Eyes") and Linnea Olsson (who also plays cello) move forward to execute some beautiful choreography during "This Is The Picture" and "Don't Give Up".

While maybe these moments can't equal the spectacle of him singing while hanging upside down as he's done in prior shows, for those who saw last year's release, Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987, capturing the original tour promoting So, you will recognize certain staging techniques and equipment. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say he uses the same equipment he did in 1987, but updates it by incorporating the new video technology at his disposal.

In the interview with Gabriel and lighting designer and Rob Sinclair included in the Blu-ray version of the concert, the two men discuss both how they incorporated the old set pieces and how they created the overall concept for the show. Unlike many of these interviews, this one not only gives you details about how they created what you see on stage, but the reasoning behind their ideas and the process they used in creating the event. Not only was it carefully executed, the planning behind it was meticulous and inspired. Oh, and while not exactly special features, I love the fact that during the film's credits, various backstage members of the crew introduce themselves and what they did to make the show possible. Gabriel is still one of the few who takes time at the end of the show to stand up in front of his audience to publicly thank the men and women who do this work. Including them so visibly in the credits is another sign of his appreciation for their work. How many other pop music stars do you know who would acknowledge the guy who drives the bus?

From the sheer pop energy fun of "Solesbury Hill" to the potency of "Biko" (which he still closes his show with all these years later by telling the audience "What happens next is, as always, up to you") Gabriel has created a catalogue of music few other modern popular music creators can match for its artistry and intelligence. Even more remarkable than the commercial success he was able to achieve with his album So is the fact that 25 years after its release the music is not only just as powerful now as it was then, and that Gabriel is still finding ways to present it which keep it fresh for both him and his audience. Back To Front Live In London might contain material close to forty years old, but it feels far more alive than most of what you hear being released today.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel Back To Front: Live In London)

November 25, 2013

Music Review: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer - An Evening With Neil Gaiman And Amanda Palmer


There have been many great artistic couples down through the ages. Now a days there seems to be more celebrity couplings than any real co-joining of artistic talents. So when I first began to hear rumours writer Neil Gaiman and musician Amanda "Fucking" Palmer (also known as AFP) were romantically involved I was intrigued. It felt a little odd to be interested in the love life of two people I've never met, but as they were both individuals whose work I admired and respected I have to admit to a somewhat puerile curiosity. While I tried to tell myself it was different from the way "others" obsessed over the latest celebrity gossip, if I am being perfectly honest with myself, the only difference was I wasn't reading about them in the tabloids, I was reading about their relationship via their twitter feeds and blogs.

When the couple married in 2011 they decided to take what amounts to a busman's holiday, and did a short tour of the North American West coast from Vancouver Canada down to Los Angeles in the States. The performances, billed as "Evenings With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman" were mixtures of song and story telling. After the tour the couple decided to crowd fund a three CD set of the tour culled from the shows. Initially only available to those who participated in the crowd funding venture, An Evening With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman is now available to the general public.

For those somehow unfamiliar with the two principles perhaps a little background is in order. Gaiman is the creator of some of the most inventive fiction written in the past two decades. From his beautifully frightening children's stories, Coralaine and The Graveyard Boy, his pure fantasy, Stardust and Nowhere, to the brilliant study of humanity's relationships with their deities, American Gods, he took genre fiction into the realm of literature. A combination of whimsical humour, a deep understanding of human psychology and a refusal to believe the sky's the limit when it comes to imagination means he has the capacity to both terrify you and leave you breathless with laughter within the pages of the same book.
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Palmer, after a career that included everything from busking as a living statue and being one half of the punk/cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, has established herself as one of today's premier independent musicians. Not only is her music a unique blend of styles, she brings a theatricality to her performances as original as her material. However, what has distinguished her from her contemporaries is her commitment to making and maintaining a connection with the people she creates her music for. From couch surfing from one fan's living room to the next as she made her way around the world playing venues as diverse as the Sydney Opera House to bathrooms for groups of thirty people, to today where she use's social media to take requests on stage during live internet broadcasts of her shows, she continues to build a rapport with her audience few other artists enjoy. More than anything else it was this personal connection with her fans that allowed her to raise over a million dollars when she crowd source funded her most recent album, Theatre Of Evil.

Needless to say the show put on by these two, and the variety of special guests who showed up at the different venues, was not your typical rock and roll concert. How often on a concert CD does the in between song chatter constitute some of the highlights of the recording? The interplay between Gaiman and Palmer is not only intelligent, it's insightful, hilarious and sometimes very personal. However, no matter how much fun they are talking to each other, they are that much more interesting performing their eclectic mix of material.

Palmer has a wealth of her own material to draw upon. You'll hear versions of "Map Of Tasmania", (both a celebration of a woman's body and a critique of censors who have no problem allowing images of human dismemberment but are horrified by depictions of the naked form) "Ukulele Anthem" , "Dear Old House" and the intriguingly titled "Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic". The latter being her take on Lady Gaga, pop music and artistic creation in general crammed within the 2 minutes and 53 seconds of the standardized pop song format. However, in typical Palmer fashion, it is the most untypical pop song you'll ever hear. Satiric, sincere and introspective, she not only makes a case for pop music to be considered art, she expresses her own insecurities around performing and critiques the media's reactions to women pop stars. No wonder you'll never hear her songs on the radio.

Ironically enough, while I'd never heard Gaiman read any of his work before listening to this recording, I had heard him sing something he'd written before. Palmer and he, as well as friends Ben Folds and Damian Kulash had produced the album Nighty Night as part of a project called "8 in 8". The object was to go into the recording studio and write, produce and record eight songs in eight hours during a live web cast. While they fell short of their eight song goal they were able to produce six tracks including one sung by Gaiman that's included in this collection, "The Problem With Saints". While Gaiman isn't the singer his wife is, his delivery of this piece is perfect.
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Musically it sounds like it stepped out of a Noel Coward play from the mid 1920s, dixie land jazz meets British music hall, while the lyrics are a biting attack on the single mindedness of fanatics everywhere. Gaiman's half spoken, half sung delivery works perfectly for this type of piece as he can allow the music to provide emphasize for the lyrics and concentrate on communicating the meaning of the words. Listening to this and comparing it with his readings of things like his poem "The Day The Saucers Came" or the story "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury", you'll notice he takes a similar approach in all three forms of presentation. His primary concern is to allow the words to communicate their meanings to the audience. Unlike many who I've heard read he understands it's just as much a performance as if he were singing, and is able to hold his audience as easily reading solo as when he's being backed by music.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this three CD set is the wonderful informality of the concerts. The title is very apt as it feels more like you've been invited over to Gaiman's and Palmer's house to spend some time with them than as if you're sitting in the audience. While the invisible fourth wall separating audience from performer is present during some of the actual performing, its definitely not a permanent fixture. Not only do they both talk directly to the audience in their introductions to songs, they put aside about ten minutes for a segment entitled "Ask Neil and Amanda" where they field questions posed to them via Twitter.

The questions range from the silly, "What would you do in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse?" or "Any advice for a shy person". Gaiman's answer to the latter was marrying Amanda Palmer, or somebody equally as outgoing, because that way everybody will be concentrating on the other person and you can on going be shy and nobody will notice. However, what's important about the sequence isn't really the content of their answers, it's the atmosphere created by their casualness in answering them. It not only makes the listener feel more like a participant in a conversation, it also helps you realize how little difference there is between who they are as performers and who they are as people.

Usually when you go see a concert the people on stage hide behind a persona of some kind. Whether it be simply they are the performer and you're the audience or they have a character they assume while on stage, it can't help but erect a barrier between you and them. In the case of Gaiman and Palmer, you soon realize they aren't wearing any masks. As a result, even on the CD, there is an intimacy to this performance like none you've probably ever experienced before in a popular culture setting.

An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer is unlike any other triple CD live concert experience you'll ever have. Not only because of the content, but because of the two remarkable people at the centre of events. There aren't many three CD sets of anything which leave you wanting more, but as the final track on the final CD of comes to an end, you'll find your self wishing it wasn't over. While this is definitely not your conventional concert CD, and perhaps that's why its so compelling, it is one of the best I've ever experienced.

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Music Review: An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer)

April 29, 2013

Music Review: Various Artists - Live From Festival au Desert Timbuktu


Near the end of February 2013 I wrote an article outlining the situation in Northern Mali and how the ongoing armed conflict had forced the cancellation of the annual Festival au Desert. This music and cultural festival has been held since 2001 in one of two places in Northern Mali to commemorate the peace treaty negotiated between the Tuareg tribesman of the region and the Malian government. The dates its held on in January of each year also coincide with the traditional gathering of the various tribal groups of Tuareg whose territory stretches North into Algeria and to Niger in the south. For such a scattered and nomadic people these annual gatherings were an opportunity to resolve any differences that might have come up during the year between tribal groups and to make plans for the coming year.

The modern version of the festival started off as a celebration of African culture, specifically the people of the Sahara Desert region but also surrounding countries as well. Since 2003 it has gradually expanded to include acts from other parts of the world with major pop stars like Robert Plant and Bono taking part. With the rest of the world not being able to come to the festival this year organizers have been working out various means of bringing the festival to the world. They are attempting to book various acts to tour both North America and Europe during the summer and fall of 2013 for special Festival in Exile concerts. Already shows are planed as part of Chicago Illinois's fall music festival season and across the sea in Norway during November.

In an attempt to give people an idea of the type of music they can expect at these concerts the festival is releasing the CD Live From Festival au Desert, Timbuktu April 30 2013 on the Clermont Music label. Recorded during the festival in 2012, the disc gives listeners an example of the incredible diversity of music and musical styles on offer at the festival. From artists who are well known throughout the world like Bassekou Koutaye master of the ngoni, members of the renowned Tuareg band Tinariwen playing with the Indo Canadian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, (Tinariwen also backed up this guy named Bono at 2012's festival, but he didn't make it onto the recording) to groups playing traditional chants from Mali.
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While the title of the disc includes the word Timbuktu, the festival wasn't actually held in the city, its just merely the point of entry for those wishing to attend. Instead it was held a couple of hours drive out in the dessert from the city. Pictures of the festival site show a stage set up in the bottom of a naturally occurring bowl in amongst the sand dunes and scrub brush of the Sahara. Camels and land rovers dote the surrounding area as do tents of various sizes and construction. Modern nylon tents are nestled in beside the traditional felt and goat skin constructions of the nomadic Tuareg.

While you won't find the micro-brewery beer tents or the booths selling licensed memorabilia which dot the landscape at most modern music festivals you can watch camel races and appreciate the splendour of the multi-coloured clothes worn by men and women alike. You might also be tempted to adopt the turban/veil assembly worn by so many of the Tuareg men in order to keep the worst of the sun's heat off your head and gusting sand out of you mouth and nose. Away from the stage you may also take in performances in the various tribal encampments and listen to the ululating voices of women's groups or endless guitar jams.

However, everybody comes to see the performers who are gracing the stage and this disc contains a sampling of 18 tracks culled from all the music played over the course of the weekend. It starts with a simple welcoming speech in French - a hangover from colonial days maybe, but still the common tongue among the different people attending and performing. Even in the welcoming speech you might notice the sound is a bit rough. The recording was taken directly from the sound board and was limited to only two tracks. As a result there are times when the sound either distorts or is fuzzy as the equipment was simply not up to the task of containing the energy and enthusiasm of the performers.
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While some might find the iffy quality of the sound hard to take or even be put off by it, consider the conditions under which the recording was made. The concert takes place in the desert where electricity is limited which in turns limits the amount of equipment you're able to use. The priority would have been ensuring the crowd on hand was able to hear the music and the fact anyone even thought to hook up recording equipment to the two out puts available is amazing. Anyway, the sound may be rough. but it captures the feeling of being one of those lucky people crammed down near the front of the stage or sitting further back on a desert evening listening to the music.

You may never have heard of Baba Djire, Efes, or Orchestre du Takamba, the songs they perform or even understand what the songs are about. What you will understand while listening to this disc is what an amazing experience it is to be out in the middle of the Sahara Desert with the stars overhead and the sand around you listening to music. In this video trailer put out by the festival promoting the disc and the festival itself you'll find background information that not only summarizes the history of the event but the situation in Mali earlier in the year which forced organizers to cancel this year's event. Most of all it will provide you with the images from the festival which will supply the fuel your imagination needs to picture yourself standing in front of the stage with people from all over the world listening to some incredible music.

Like the festival itself Live From Festival au Desert, Timbuktu is filled with the raw passion of music being performed by artists who are not only musicians by profession but by vocation as well. They don't play out of any desire for celebrity or recognition, but because the music is their way of expressing who they are and what they believe in. You don't have to understand the lyrics to appreciate the sound of pure unadulterated passion. While the sound quality may not be up to the standards you're used to, the music is far superior to most of what you'll hear at more so called professional events. This is as close as you can get to being at Festival au Desert without actually travelling to the Sahara desert.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Photo of Festival Chris Nolen

February 22, 2013

Festival au Desert 2013 Cancelled Due To Uprising In Northern Mali


Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I've been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Desert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival's cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can't come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what's happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is the Festival's North American associate. For those who might not be familiar with the Festival perhaps a little background information is in order. The first Festival au Desert was held in 2001. However its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year. The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek whose traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. These were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meeting place had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world. The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate "La Flamee de la Paix" (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in the living conditions among the Tuareg.

Ironically, and sadly, this year's festival has been cancelled because once again violence has returned to the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012's festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full scale and well organized uprising. However, unlike previous Tuareg revolts it soon became apparent this one was radically different. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture, this time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.
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For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered together at his web site Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan had been manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today. Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and the nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali - known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Shira law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida's funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes and people) and money laundering. All activities which would appear to be in contravention of Shira law, but as we've seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali's ambitions weren't just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Shira law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg's interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion as they were the only group with funding. He was able to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty stricken areas of the world there's nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali's followers beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move South towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Shira law saw the banning of all music and to forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to his vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida backed forces have fled the battlefield, it doesn't mean they aren't around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere they have merely faded into the background awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but who knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating them is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution come to concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.
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In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his "kinder gentler" version of Shira law, he says some music will be tolerated as long as its not obscene, it's doubtful his vision will become a reality. He's currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview if you don't want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That's not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and how the conflict has revived old tribal conflicts between the various people's living in the region, the fate of this year's Festival au Desert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan organizers had hoped they might be able to move the location of the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way they could have guaranteed anyone's safety under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida's penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on proceedings, wouldn't be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the US and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Shira law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it's true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he also added we shouldn't underestimate the impact the imposition of Shira law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially - he posed the question imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned - this an area where history and cultural identity is kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe's history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture's traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.
Festival Stage Alice Mutasa www.placesandseasons.com.jpg
However, as Nolan said, and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it's what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status-quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali - and the other countries in Tuareg territory - forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have done everything from guaranteeing them land, rights and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or the terms of the old ones are being implemented, If these types of guarantees are in place it might be enough to convince people it's safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people can be given evidence their lives will improve then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won't be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won't have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Desert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. "It's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time...It reminded me of why I sang in the first place." said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, its also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will be fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels - rebels against Islam - in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Shira law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, they are still the region's flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won't be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Desert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates its been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Desert at its home near Timbuktu and music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Article first published as Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali on Blogcritics.)

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa www.placesandseasons.com)

December 11, 2012

Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition


I've never been a big fan of what most people call country music. The cheap sentimentality, the show business slickness and the simple mindedness of the ideas expressed by the majority of the mainstream performers has always left me cold. Too many seem more concerned with image rather than content. For a music whose roots lie in the folk songs of the British Isles and the dirt farms of Tennessee and Oklahoma that strikes the wrong chord with me. This is probably unfair and pejorative on my part, but like so much of today's popular culture the genre seems to have come to the conclusion that playing it safe by appealing to what they think is the lowest common denominator is the surest way of being a success.

So one of the nicest surprises I've had this year was the DVD We Walk The Line - A Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash and the voices it introduced me to. Not having heard her before I was quite unprepared for the power Shelby Lynne packs. When she walked on stage and sang Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", she blew me away and made me want to hear more of her. It was only shortly there after the press release announcing the release of Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition, on her own Eversorecords label arrived in my inbox.
Cover Shelby Lynne Revelation Road Deluxe Edition.jpg
While the disc was originally released in 2011, Lynne has put together a special package consisting of two DVDs and two CDs for fans of her work. Like many other independents she raised the cash for this project though crowd source funding, in this case Pledge Music. Those who contributed to the project received the set in advance and depending on the level of their funding bonus gifts as well. However, the rest of us can purchase the set in its entirety at all the usual on line outlets. Considering it contains the original CD with five bonus tracks added, a live recording of her performing singing in the intimate back room of McCabe's guitar shop in California, Live At McCabe's, a short DVD documentary on the making of Revelation Road and a DVD of her performance at Union Chapel in London England, it sounds like a great package. it also includes a twelve page booklet with notes about each performance, lyrics to the songs from the original CD and the story behind each of the bonus tracks.

Once I started listening to the set I knew my first impression of her hadn't been wrong. I felt stupid for not having checked her out earlier - that's the problem with prejudices, it means you miss out on all sorts of great stuff - but this set provides a great opportunity to hear the many sides of Lynne. Although she really doesn't sound very much like her, I was almost immediately reminded of the great Iris Demont. I think it's because they both are so tied into where they came from. They don't just sing about their backgrounds, but sing with their feet planted firmly in the roots of the people and land that shaped them. As with Demont, part of that background for Lynne is her Christianity.

Under most circumstances the mixture of Christianity and country music is enough to make me run for the hills. However, Lynne is still an exception to the rule here as well. Maybe its simply because of the overall depth of her sincerity, but her expressions of faith remind you there can be something beautiful about the act of believing. She doesn't feel like she's claiming moral superiority, trying to convert you or threatening you with eternal damnation if you don't join her club. It's a part of her life that comes out in conversation now and then just as any other subject comes up. Since her songs are her conversations with the world it stands to reason the topic will be raised.

The title song of the disc, "Revelation Road", is an example of this. Typically one would expect a song with a title like this to be about being saved with a capital "S". However, the song is more about how we're all searching for something and how our own certainty keeps us from finding our way and hearing what's important. "Bible thumpers rest your fists/Haters rest your ire/You're both too young to know you're mute/Unconscious to the choir". In fact a number of the songs on the album reflect this theme of searching for a path. From relationships to dealing with the past, Lynne's song's are an honest examination of just how difficult it is to place your feet right.
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"I Want To Go Back" is a brilliant examination of how easy it is to fall into the role of being a victim and wallow in the pain of your past."Oh why does it feel so right to hurt so long/Is it just what I'm used to/Does my heart need these scars to keep me alive?" I don't think I've heard anyone sum up the irony of how easy it is to be comfortable with the emotional pain caused by abuse in the past because its what you're used to. When you've been conditioned by life and events to act or believe a certain way, the idea of change, even for the better, is terrifying.

Of course, dealing with these themes don't make Lynne's songs exactly cheerful. However, as she says to her audience on the Live At McCabe's disc something along the lines of, "Sorry about bringing you down, but you have to expect that from country music". Needless to say her tongue is planted firmly in her cheek, but at the same time she's giving fair warning that's she's not messing round singing about inconsequential stuff. While the nature of her material makes it obvious she wears her heart on her sleeve, both the CD and the DVD of her live performances really bring that home.

Maybe it's just the sight of her standing up on stage alone under the harsh glare of the stage lights on Live In London, the concert recorded at Union Chapel, that accentuates how little she hides from her audience. With the songs stripped back to their bare essentials of voice and single guitar her words and the way in which she expresses them become our only focus. Being petite, blonde and sort of waif like it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying she looks vulnerable, but that's not the case. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to stand up alone and sing the type of songs she does. Watching her perform live not only confirms the honesty of the emotions being expressed in her songs, it also reveals the inner core of iron necessary to write this type of material.

Rounding out the package is the short, about 11 minute, documentary on the making of Revelation Road. There are no interviews, no voice overs or any of the other things you'd normally associate with a "making of" type of thing, instead we're treated to something a lot more interesting. The camera simply follows Lynne around. From her office where she's working on song lyrics down to the studio where we see her laying down everything from lead vocals to the bass and harmony tracks. Be warned, the air turns a little blue when she struggles with the bass line, but that's all part of her reality and makes her that much more human. What's really nice is you have the feeling that the camera was just left running during the whole session and she forgot it was even there. Either that or she's so absorbed in what she's doing nothing is going to distract her.

If like me you're not very familiar with Lynne's work, than Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition will ensure you learn a great deal about both her and her music. If you're already a fan, and even if you own the original release, the two live recordings, the bonus tracks and the mini-documentary will still make it worth your while to buy a copy of this box set. The honesty and integrity of Lynne's material make her a rarity in the world of today's popular music no matter what genre people want to put her in. In her voice and her music you hear echoes of generations of mountain singers mixed in with lyrics about trying to get by in today's world. As far as I'm concerned that's what country should sound like, and Lynne has it down cold.

(Article first published as Music Review: Shelby Lynne - Revelation Road: Deluxe Edition on Blogcritics)

November 29, 2012

Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005


It was 1982. Six of us were crammed into a Honda Civic driving through the night time streets of Toronto Ontario with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting. We had the windows open in spite of the fact it was the middle of a January deep freeze, letting the music spill out into the darkness and cold. It was a classic rock and roll moment if there ever was one. Where music, time and place come together so all that exists in that moment is the song, its power and the way its relentless beat reverberates through body and soul.

That wasn't my first introduction to Smith, but it was the first time I'd fully experienced the power and intensity of her and her music. At that moment the song epitomized what rock and roll should be. It was a proclamation of independence and declaration of self delivered as an upraised middle finger to society. Yet perhaps its real appeal was how it perpetuated the romantic myth of the artist living on the edge. An outlaw who could see what others were blind to and had the nerve to speak those truths in public.

Over the years of listening to Smith's music I came to realize this was her reality. She wrote and sang about things others either couldn't see or weren't able to put into words. Maybe her fascination with photography, freezing moments in time with her Polaroid Land camera, inspired her to work towards the same effect with verse that she accomplished with film. However, unlike a photograph which is forever frozen, her songs take on new life each time she performs them. This feeling was reinforced watching the recently released DVD, Live At Montreux 2005, from Eagle Rock Entertainment, as she performed songs from the breadth of her career.
Cover Patti Smith Live At Montreux 2005.jpg
While any performer worth his or her salt won't play a song the exact same way over and over again for thirty years, only someone as gifted as Smith will allow her material to evolve to meet the challenges of changing times and circumstances. Always pushing the envelope lyrically, on this night she and her band allowed the spirit of the jazz greats who had previously graced the festival's stage to imbue their music. As her long time stalwart and guitar player Lenny Kaye, commenting on the night's performance in his liner notes for the DVD, puts it: "Patti once again defines our credo: there are no definitions but those we choose to create for ourselves." This artist and her band will never be limited by labels or concern themselves with conforming to other's expectations of what they should sound like.

While the evening starts off gently enough with the reggae beat of "Redondo Beach", and its happy, welcoming sounds, Smith and company take the audience into far more unsettled waters with the second song, "Beneath The Southern Cross". Like the North Star is used to identify due north the Southern Cross was used by navigators in the South Pacific to fix due South. With its references to travel and exploration its placement in the set list couldn't have been accidental. Smith is preparing everyone to join her on a voyage of musical exploration and discovery.

From her earliest days as a performer reciting her poetry accompanied only by Kaye's guitar improvisation has played a big part in Smith's live performances. While she's best known for her singing and song writing abilities, she's also no mean slouch when it comes to her instrumental work. For although she's not technically skillful by any stretch of the imagination she has the unique ability to utilize both the electric guitar and her clarinet to create sounds which accent and elaborate on the mood of a piece. On the rendition of "25h Floor" included on this disc her electric guitar is a chaotic barrage of sound and noise creating a roar of defiance, anger and confusion.

The very rawness of her playing is what makes it so powerful. While the song's words might tell us what she's thinking, it's this lead which gives us a glimpse of the depth of her emotional commitment to her material. It's like we're being given a glimpse into her innermost reaches and seeing what's boiling beneath the surface. While her clarinet playing is more polished than her work with the electric guitar it too take us into a place of emotional rawness most pop musicians wouldn't dare venture into. "Seven Ways Of Going" is given an even deeper layer of mystery than normal with the inclusion of her clarinet solos. Its like an instinctual reaction to the music with Smith using the instrument to express those things mere language is incapable of articulating.
Patti Smith Montreux 2005.jpg
One thing that becomes abundantly clear over the course of the concert is the level of anger and defiance Smith was feeling at the time. Even such apparently innocuous numbers like her cover of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" are delivered with a sneer and a level of distaste for the type of person the song describes you almost pity those she's pissed at. When "Because The Night", the only song she's ever written that could pass for a pop standard, becomes an expression of defiance, as if she's daring anyone to deny lovers the right to their nights, you know she's not happy with the direction the world is moving in. For she knows there are far too many people in the world who would deny people the chance to be lovers no matter what the time of day.

On this night Smith and her band, Kaye, Tony Shanahan (bass & keyboards) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) are joined by their fellow veteran of the New York City music scene Tom Verlaine on lead guitar. Seated off to one side it's almost as if he's in his own little world, but his guitar work is the perfect complement to the band's perfect storm of music. Like the eye of a hurricane he is calmness personified as he lays down his almost delicate leads. Yet each note he plays, whether with his slide or his fingers, stands out. He doesn't attempt to overpower, instead his guitar seems to appear when its needed in a particular song as if by magic to fill out the sound and add another layer of texture.

While there are no special features included in this DVD, as is usual for Eagle Rock concert DVDs, its technically superb. Aside from the normal surround sound options (DTS, and Dolby 5.1) the quality of the camera work and post production editing is some of the best you'll ever see when it comes to live concerts. From the beautifully focused close ups of Verlaine's fret board during his solos to the way in which they capture Smith's facial expressions while singing you're brought right up on stage. Cross fades from one shot to another have become overused to the point of cliche in concert recordings. So it was a pleasure to see them used sparingly and to great effect here. In fact the director even resisted the urge far too many succumb too of incessantly cutting back and forth between band members. Instead cameras linger lovingly on individuals allowing us to fully absorb and appreciate their performances. Watching and listening to Smith either while she's singing or hunched over her guitar squeezing sound and fury out of it we are gifted with an intimacy you'd never experience attending a concert.

For close to 40 years now Smith has been one of the most unique voices in popular music. Yet for all that her studio recordings are works of artistry, as this DVD proves, her concerts take her music to an even higher level. While catching lighting in a bottle might not be possible, Live At Montreux 2005 captures Smith's mercurial nature and indefatigable spirit and brings them to life in our living rooms.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005 on Blogcritics.)

October 27, 2012

Music Review: The Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks Vol. 28


I should probably be clear from the outset of this write up that I am not now and never have been a "Dead Head". While I'm familiar with the band's music I've never seen them live, let alone obsessively followed them on tour. The first time I encountered "Dead Heads" I was under the mistaken impression that they were in a band when they talked about going on tour. The idea that anybody would go from city to city following a band was something I'd never encountered before. I don't remember whether I was more taken aback with the fact the people in question hadn't been born when the Grateful Dead were first popular or that somebody would organize their life around a band's touring schedule. I guess I must have seemed equally strange to them because although I liked the band I had the nerve to suggest they weren't the be all and end all when it came to music.

What I eventually came to understand was there was a night and day difference between the versions of the band's songs as they appear on their studio albums and what they did in concert. Songs that were maybe four or five minutes long in their recorded form could turn into 20 minute jams in concert. While there has been a healthy trade in bootlegged tapes of the band's concerts over the years the Dead had their own archivist who compiled their live concert tapes. Dick Latvala put together a series of 36 volumes collectively known as Dick's Picks. Previously only available directly from the band they are now being reissued for retail sale by the Real Gone label with the most recent release being Dick's Picks Vol. 28 taken from two concerts in 1973: Pershing Municipal Auditorium in Lincoln Nebraska on 2/26/73 and the Salt Palace, Salt Lake City Utah 2/28/73.
Cover Grateful Deak Dick's Picks Vol. 28.jpg
While Dead stalwarts Jerry Garcia (lead guitar), Phil Lesh (bass & vocals), Bob Weir (guitar & vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) still formed the nucleus of the band 1973's version also featured new comers Keith Godchaux (piano) and Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals) who were added after the death of Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan. For all pop radio tries to instil the idea that the 1970s were an era of "Classic Rock" the early part of the decade was really quite fallow as the big acts became bloated and rock and roll was being turned into a successful commercial product. It wouldn't be for a few more years that the rise of punk would shake things up again. So survivors of the 1960s like the Dead, who still played by their own rules, were one of the few bands who stood out from the pack. The addition of the husband and wife Godchaux team doesn't seem to have changed the band much at this point, as the set list for both nights' gigs is replete with old favourites.

However the big appeal of these concert recordings for Dead aficionados and novices alike will be the chance to hear some of the freeform improvisations their concerts were famous for. While bands like Phish have since assumed the mantle of "jam band to see" the Dead were the first rock and roll band to follow the lead of jazz bands and turn concerts into exercises in improvisation. Songs like "Dark Star", of which there is a 25 plus minute version taken from the Nebraska show, achieved their real fame because of their concert renditions. Each of the four discs in this set contains at least one example of a song extended far beyond its original recorded length.

However unlike the majority of rock and roll bands' extended live versions of songs, the Dead's aren't just merely excuses for solos by various members of the band. Instead the whole band is involved with elaborating on the the tune's theme. Sure there are still solos, but they aren't the long winded pointless exercises in ego stroking you're used to hearing from a rock band. There's a real unity of purpose within this group which allows individual solos to be seamless extension of the song instead of standing out too much like a sore thumb.
Grateful Dead Circa 1973.jpg
While Garcia, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Godchaux are obviously talented players and as innovative as anybody in popular music, there's only so much variety you can produce with guitar, bass, drums and keyboards in the early 1970s. While they may have been trying to emulate jazz bands with their extended improvisations they can't match them in terms of range of expression. That's not a comment on their individual abilities as musicians. It's just that instruments like saxophones, clarinets, flutes and various horns can produce a far more diversified range of expression than your basic rock and roll combo. Instead of hanging onto every note waiting to hear what would come next as I would listening to John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Weather Report, I found my attention wandering during their extended jams.

Perhaps it's also simply the limitations of the genre as it doesn't lend itself to improvisation in the same way as jazz. For instead of building layers upon layers of music based on an original theme, here the music just feels like its going around in circles. After a while there are so only many ways in which you can circle back over the same material again and again without it beginning to become tedious. Others might find enjoyment in the repetition, but personally I kept finding myself waiting for some sort of evolution to take place. While the solos would provide the occasional break in the pattern, after a while they weren't enough to hold my interest.

The Grateful Dead were not your typical rock and roll band. Their rather unique blend of laid back rock and roll, blue grass, country and psychedelic was responsible for creating music quite unlike what anything anybody else ever performed. After years of playing together there's no denying they were also one of the few bands who could be guaranteed to be as seamless live as they were in the recording studio. However, while I know there are thousands who will disagree with me, neither the style of music nor the instruments they played were ideally suited to the improvised jams that dominated their live shows.

That being said, for those who are fans of their music, and for those who are interested in checking out what all the fuss was about, Dick's Picks Vol. 28 is as good an opportunity as any. Not only does it contain versions of some of the band's classic tunes; "Sugar Magnolia", "Truckin'", "Dark Star", and some interesting covers; "Big River" by Johnny Cash and "Promised Land" by Chuck Berry, you'll have the opportunity to hear examples of the jams that made them famous. Like all of the releases in the Dick's Picksseries the sound quality is not an issue. The original recording was made through the band's soundboard and has been digitally re-mastered to ensure as high as quality as possible considering the time period they were made in. It might not be the same as seeing the band in person, but you can still experience the music and make up your own mind if The Grateful Dead were/are deserving of the status of cultural icons bestowed upon them by their fans.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks Vol. 28 on Blogcritics.)

September 21, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live At The US Festival 1982 & 1983


It always amazes me that when I hear these so-called "retro" events featuring music from the 1980s how I never recognize any of the music. So it's been something of a relief this past summer to find Shout Factory offering a retrospective of the career of the band who easily provided the best and most intelligent dance music for the first three years of the 1980s, The Beat, or as they were known in North America, The English Beat. First, there were two greatest hits collections: a five-disc box set The Complete Beat and a single disc Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat. Now, last but not least, comes the CD/DVD combination package The English Beat Live! at the US Festival. Both the CD and the DVD feature the band's performances from the 1982 and 1983 festivals.

While the CD is comprised of the highlights of each year's show, the DVD, able to hold more material, has both concerts in their entirety. The US festival was a seven-day extravaganza of popular music with each day featuring a different category of music. Which was probably a wise decision on the part of the promoters as those who would want to watch bands like The Clash, The English Beat and others scheduled to play on "New Wave" day probably wouldn't mix well with the crowd coming to see Van Halen and their ilk.
Cover English Beat Live At US Festival.jpg
This was the early days of music video television and before home televisions could deliver the high quality of sound and visuals to make watching an event like this worth while. Now, 30 years after the 1982 concert, its available complete with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and compatible with your wide screen television. So not only does the sound quality do the band justice, the visuals are crisp and clean which is a nice change from some DVDs made of tapes from that era. In fact, the sound is crystal clear and far better than many recent concert recordings I've heard. For example, how often do you actually hear the secondary percussion instrument being played by a vocalist during a concert? On this release, you can hear every tap and beat vocalist Ranking Roger plays to accompany his singing and mad dancing.

The US Festival took place in a large open area in Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California. In both years the stage was enormous and the band seemed dwarfed by their surroundings. In both concerts, but especially in 1982, they looked and acted like they were expending a lot of energy, but somehow or other you don't feel it. Maybe it was because they were so isolated from the audience; the bands were on this huge stage and separated from the audience by a fenced off area for press photographers. Or maybe it was because it was open air and the energy they produced just sort of dissipated into the wide open spaces around them.

Of course, no tape will ever be able to convey the experience of dancing yourself silly alongside a thousand other bodies at a show. What it should do, and what this DVD does, is capture moments which give you glimpses into the experience. One such moment is when the entire band is in motion and dancing around the stage like mad men while playing their instruments, with only lead vocalist and guitarist Dave Wakeling preventing them going into orbit by staying anchored at his post in order to sing. Or watching vocalist Rankin' Roger break into his biggest smile while desperately trying to bridge the gap with the audience by climbing on top of the monitors at the edge of the stage and dancing his heart out.
English Beat 1982 by Michael Grecco.png
As far as the set list for both concerts go, each year's contained an even mix of the band's material from all three of their studio albums. While songs like "Two Swords", "Save It For Later", "Twist and Crawl" and "Get A Job/Stand Down Margaret" show up both years, there are enough differences between the two to make watching each concert worthwhile. The 1982 concert features "Hands Off, She's Mine" and one of their lessor known tunes, "Sugar & Stress". The 1983 concert has a couple of my favourite English Beat tunes, "Ranking Full Stop" and their great cover of the old Miracles hit "Tears Of A Clown".

Even more fun for old fans will be the sight of their original saxophone player, Saxa, joining them on stage halfway through the 1983 concert. While his playing wasn't as sophisticated as the man who replaced him, there was an emotional depth to his playing which made him a lot of fun to listen to. In fact, once he joined the band on stage they reminded me more of the group I had seen live then at any other time on the DVD. Of course that could just be because of associating Saxa with seeing them perform, but they did seem to have a lot more fun once he started playing.

One thing you can't fail to notice is no matter how much fun they are having, and no matter how crazy they get, this band was incredibly tight. It's hard to believe this was a live concert they were so in sync with each other. Not a cue was missed and there didn't appear to be a note dropped or any of the other glitches you would normally see in a live concert. Technically there were also very few problems, including no equipment failures. Of course, this could be because all the technology was supplied by Apple computers and they were using top of the line everything. Still, technology is only as good as the people operating it, and the people crewing this event must have been at the top of their game for everything to have gone so smoothly.

The English Beat only produced three albums, but from 1978 until their breakup in 1983, their infectious mix of reggae, ska, Motown, pop and punk kept people dancing. England during this time was a powder keg of racial tension and unrest. It was said the only sure fire way to ensure a gathering wouldn't descend into violence of some sort or another was to have the English Beat play – as everybody would be too busy dancing and having fun to think about anything else. They just didn't play mindless dance tunes either, they sang about social justice and racial equality with a heavy emphasis on tolerance and joy. The English Beat Live! at the US Festival is a lovely reminder of their politics of joy and what it was like to see them in concert. I can only wish more bands would learn from their example.

(Article first published as Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live! at the US Festival 1982 & 1983 on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Band photo by Michael Grecco

August 6, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: Various Performers - Johnny Cash We Walk The Line


I often have trouble with tribute concerts, concerts where a collection of performers gather to perform the music of one specific musician. It's been my experience people far too often get caught up in the event and the iconography of the person being honoured and forget about the reason they're honouring him or her - the music they created. The larger and more significant a figure it is being celebrated the larger the likelihood is of this happening. So it was with some trepidation that I started to watch the DVD of Johnny Cash: We Walk The Line - A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash, being released August 7 2012 by Legacy Recordings, as there's probably no bigger icon in American music than Johnny Cash.

Since Cash's death there have been a number of tribute albums released and any number of people have taken to covering his music. While there have been some amazing versions of his songs, everything from punk All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, one of the best, to hip hop, Johnny Cash Remixed, they've not been able to capture the entire essence of the man and his music and why it appealed to such a cross section of society. To be honest the only reason I even bothered to check out this latest effort was because I read that Don Was was musical director and had helped put together the lineup. I've been impressed with events similar to this one that Was has been involved with, so I thought it would be worth taking a chance on.
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The concert, which took place back in April 2012 in Austin Texas, was the kick off to this year's celebrations in honour of what would have been Cash's 80th birthday. Over the past couple of years Legacy Recordings, in conjunction with the Cash family, have been releasing collections of Cash recordings that have been laying around in vaults for years. As their contribution to the birthday proceedings, not only are they releasing this DVD/CD set, but the same day will also see the release of four CDs of Cash's music, each celebrating a different aspect of his musical character. The Greatest: The Number Ones, The Greatest: The Gospel Songs, The Greatest: Country Songs and The Greatest: Duets. Looking at the track listing for each of these CDs will give you a clue as to how it was always impossible to pigeon hole Cash - even when you divided his music up by genre or style.

The country songs were culled from a list of a hundred Cash had considered essential for his daughter to be aware of and include everything from "Long Black Veil" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to his version of "The Gambler" (which he released before Kenny Rogers). However, as far as I'm concerned it's the duets collection which is the most telling. Naturally it includes "Jackson" and "If I Were A Carpenter" which he and June Carter Cash were famous for singing together. Yet unlike what you'd expect from this type of compilation they're not all love songs performed with a female vocalist. In fact nine of the fourteen tracks feature him singing with another man - everyone from Bob Dylan, "Girl From The North Country", to George Jones, "I Got Stripes".

Which is why anything less than even an attempt to reflect the idiosyncratic nature of Cash's musical tastes and his appreciation for all types of music would have made this celebration of his music a failure. My worst fear was it would turn out to be a gathering of Nashville types twanging their way through his music and sucking the life out of it by covering them with rhinestones and cheap sentimentality. Seeing that both Willie Nelson and Kris Kristoffersson were among the performers was a relief and the fact the African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, were also in the line up was also a good sign. However, there were a number of names on the list I didn't recognize which still troubled me. However, I should have trusted my initial reaction to Was' involvement, because nearly each person involved went the extra distance to try and capture the essence of Cash's spirit.

Film actor Matthew McConaughey hosted the evening and wasn't too obvious about reading from the teleprompter - in fact as the night went on he loosened up more and more and was obviously starting to enjoy himself. (One of the special features is him doing a credible job of performing "The Man Comes Around"). Was and executive producer Keith Wortman compiled their ideal Cash set list and each of the invited performers were asked to select the Cash song they'd like to perform. In the special features Wortman says he and Was were pleasantly surprised when they compared their list with the list of requests submitted by the performers and the two were almost identical. Something that people are bound to wonder about, is how many of the songs are ones Cash didn't write. Yet it's only by variety of styles he recorded that one can really appreciate him as both an artist and a human being. How many people out there do you know that can perform both "Hurt" and "Why Me Lord" with equal sincerity and credibility.
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Which is why you need as diverse a group of performers who were gathered together in Huston that night to bring Cash's music to life properly. Highlights, at least for me, included "Get Rhythm", performed by pop singer Andy Grammer. He injected some much needed fun right from the start by doing hip-hop style vocals percussion and by so obviously enjoying himself. Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the "house" band (Don Was bass, Greg Leisz steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Arnoff drums and Ian McLagan keyboards) rocked the house with his version of "Hey Porter", Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Ol' 97s, tore the stage up with his version of, what else, "Wreck Of The Old '97", Ronnie Dunn brought out the trumpet section from a Mariachi Band for his version of "Ring Of Fire" and Lucinda Williams broke everyone's hearts with her rendition of "Hurt".

Nearly everyone of the twenty tracks on the disc are worth mentioning but there are a few more which stood out in particular. Putting the Carolina Chocolate Drops on stage was a beautiful move by the show's organizers, as it not only reminded people of the African American roots of so much of Cash's music, it also showcased one of the best string bands in America today. If their version of "Jackson", and leading the ensemble in a gospel style version of "I Walk The Line" to close the night, doesn't have people scrambling to buy their records there's no justice in the world. Yet for all the youthful exuberance on display it was still the two old guys, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, who stole the show. Maybe it's because they represented a tangible connection to Cash through so many years of associating the three of them together that made the heart swell listening to them perform, but it was also just great to see them on stage again.

Kristofferson first joined Jamey Johnson for a rendition of his "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and then he sang "Big River". Kristofferson's voice hasn't weathered the years that well, but for all its current limitations there's still something wonderful about listening to him growl his way through anything. On the other hand Nelson's voice seems to be becoming more and more velvety as he ages. First performing "If I Were A Carpenter" with Sheryl Crow, then "The Highwayman" with Shooter Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnson, and finally, as a special feature on the DVD but included on the CD, "I Still Miss Someone", he sounds even more effortless then ever. It's like he just opens his mouth and liquid gold rolls out as a balm to ease your wounded soul.

The special features include interviews with nearly everyone of those performing or involved with the concert. What struck was how many times somebody said a variation of "you'll find Johnny's music in the record collections of everyone from punks to middle of the road country fans". That one man had something that could appeal to such a huge cross section of the population says something about both his abilities as a musician and who he was as a human being. There's probably no one person in popular music today who can connect to that many people. Even finding the right mix of performers whose combined talents come close to matching what Cash was able to accomplish with his music is a nigh on impossible job. But on this night in Huston they came as close as I think anyone will ever come. No matter what your reason for liking Johnny Cash there's something in this collection for you. If anybody was looking to find a way to establish common ground between all the disparate elements in American society today the music of Johnny Cash would be a great foundation to build upon.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash [DVD+CD] on Blogcritics.)

July 13, 2012

Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley


When a pop musician has been dead forty years it's hard to get people to take you seriously when you talk about how great they were. There have been a million players since his or her time and people whose parents might not even have been alive when the person was in their prime are going to, and with good reason, ask why they should even care. Let's face it, every generation always hears it from their elders how much better everything was in their time and learns how to tune them out, so why should this generation be an exception. It's especially difficult when so called "Classic Rock" stations choke the airwaves with uninspired shit that gives the impression that the music of four decades ago was as unimaginative as what they hear on the radio today.

So I can't blame anyone if their eyes started to glaze over simply reading the title of the item under review here. Not another article extolling the virtues of some long dead rock star. What makes him so special that we should give a shit about a DVD shot forty years ago of this guy performing? The sound quality probably sucks and the pictures can't be much better, so why should I shell out how ever much its going to cost? All of which are perfectly fair questions and the only answer I can offer is because seeing is believing. In spite of any deficiencies in audio and visual I'm willing to bet that you've never seen anyone like Jimi Hendrix and after watching the newly remastered and restored version of Jimi Plays Berkeley released by Legacy Recordings you'll agree.

Jimi Plays Berkeley isn't a concert film in the typical sense of the word, it's more like a documentary film about a concert Hendrix gave and what was happening in America at the time. The University of Berkeley California was one of the centres for student unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. The Free Speech Movement, protesting the censorship of student newspapers by the governors of the university, began mounting demonstrations in 1964. These expanded to include demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam and other causes. By the time Hendrix's concert took place in 1970 running battles between student demonstrators and police were common occurrences in Berkeley.
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All of which explains why the directors of this movie elected to include footage of various demonstrations. Whether or not these protests actually occurred during the weekend Hendrix's concerts were taking place is another question. However it does give you a historical context within which to place his music and an idea of events in society that inspired him. Barely three weeks before the concert's May 30 date the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students at Kent State University during a protest against the war on May 4 1970. So songs like "Machine Gun" and "I Don't Live Today", while not specifically inspired by that event, would have had special resonance for the audience.

The movie opens with Hendrix and some of his entourage driving to the venue for his afternoon rehearsal in a limousine. Quiet and unassuming, he seems to be in a world of his own quietly staring out of the car window as the others chat and drink beer. He may have dressed the part, but Hendrix never came across like your typical rock star, and you glimpse that here. From the limo we move into the concert hall, The Berkeley Community Theatre, where we see some footage of Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass player Bobby Cox rehearsing for the evenings performance. At one point Hendrix instructs Cox on what kind of bass line he needs for a particular transition into a solo by singing him the arrangement. It's a lovely little moment that gives you some insight into how careful he was with his arrangements and the attention he paid to every last detail.

During the rehearsals is also our first indication that the sound quality of this recording is going to be far superior than we would have suspected judging by the quality of the video. For while there's little that can be done to improve an old film's quality, modern digital technology has allowed Hendrix's original recording engineer, Eddie Kramer, to re-master the soundtrack of the film in 5.1 Surround Sound. While that won't eliminate any of the flaws in the original, it does mean the sound is far cleaner then it would have been when the film was first released. Having heard other recordings from the same time period made under similar conditions I could immediately notice the difference. It was most noticeable in the way each instrument was discernible in the mix. In a lot of older recordings I've heard of Hendrix what you normally have is a wall of sound which his guitar would occasionally break through and you'd be lucky if you ever heard his vocals.
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Hendrix was notoriously self-conscious of his voice and even on studio albums his vocals were often muted. However, Kramer has done an excellent job of not only managing to isolate him while he's singing but to make sure we hear everything he says to his audience. This is important because it allows us to hear his opening introduction asking them to forget about yesterday or tomorrow as this is "our own little world tonight".

The material he performed during the concert was his usual mix of traditional blues, "Hear My Train A Comin'", his own material, "Purple Haze", "I Don't Live Today", "Machine Gun", and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and his two favourite covers "Johnny B Goode" and "The Star Spangled Banner". Listening to him play is only half the story. It's watching him that you truly begin to understand how special he was. Listening you forget he's playing a right hand guitar strung for a left handed person upside down and backwards or that his beloved Stratocaster was not designed to be played that way. Watch his hands on the fret board - they seem to have a life of their own as they fly up and down it, pick out notes on the bridge, make adjustments to the guitar's controls and ply the whammy bar.

Unlike today's guitarists who have rack upon rack of effects peddles they can modulate their sound with at the touch of a foot, there's barely a peddle to be seen on the stage in front of Hendrix. Aside from a Wha Wha peddle and a couple of others which he doesn't even seem to make use of, he's creating every sound that comes out of his guitar simply by playing with the sound. Throwing his whole body into almost every note like he's trying to see how far he can bend or milk the sound for that extra little bit of impact he looks to be entering into another world. When he comes back to the microphone to sing it's like he's returning from a voyage and reporting back to his listeners on what he's seen. Watching him come alive with the guitar in his hands one realizes how much the music meant to him. The more you see and hear him play the more you realize it wasn't about fame for him. The money he made allowed him to play and create. Just before he died he had opened Electric Lady Land studios where he recorded his last studio albums. It was meant to be his laboratory where he could make wonderful things come to life. Instead it became his legacy where others now go and record.

Jimi Plays Berkeley also contains a couple of special features. One of them is the second concert of the weekend re-mastered in 5.1 audio. This concert has been released before with questionable audio so it's good to have a clean version of it. Its also being released as a stand alone CD and special edition two hundred gram vinyl. The second special feature is an interview with Abe Jacob, Hendrix's touring sound engineer. Listening to him you understand just how primitive equipment was in those days compared to our standards. For the time they were considered way out there because of Hendrix's need for multiple amplifiers and stacks. But it drives home the point of how little he depended on effects for what he did.

Jimi Hendrix would have been seventy years old on his next birthday (November 27 2012) if he had lived and there's no way of knowing what kind of music he might have gone on to create. The good thing is that after years of inferior recordings being released cheapening his musical legacy, we are finally having the opportunity to hear his music in the best shape possible. Jimi Plays Berkeley may not be perfect, but rock and roll isn't about perfection, its about heart and passion. This DVD gives us an opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix's heart and passion and some of the events going on at the time that would have fuelled his creativity. Watch it and understand why there will never be anyone else quite like him again.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley on Blogcritics.)

May 23, 2012

Television Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live


String quartets come in many shapes and sizes but you can normally predict what they're going to perform. Beethoven, Mozart perhaps even some Bach or other composer from the recognized classical canon. While there have been exceptions to this rule in the past, the most obvious being the Kronos Quartet doing their rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze", even they have worked from carefully scored and arranged material. The idea of a string quartet coming together to create their own works is almost unheard of; for those creations to be the result of improvisation unthinkable. The idea is so improbable that it would require those involved to be uniquely talented and blessed with the immense good fortune of having hundreds of seemingly disparate ideas come together in the face of almost impossible odds.

Those of you who have listened to the CD The Goat Rodeo Sessions featuring Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Stuart Duncan on violin/banjo/mandolin, Edgar Meyer on bass and piano and Chris Thile on mandolin, guitar and violin will have already experienced the stars lining up in just the right manner to allow the improbable to occur. However it's one thing to do this in the safety of the recording studio where mistakes can be corrected though over dubs and the opportunity to do second and third takes, but it's another altogether performing the same music live. So pushing the envelope a little further they are taking their show live and thanks to the great folk at Public Broadcasting System (PBS) you'll be able to see them on Friday May 25 at 9:00pm (check local listings) in an hour long special The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live.

I don't think it will be spoiling anything for anyone by telling you watching them perform the music they created in the studio live makes you even more aware of their incredible accomplishment. Listening to the CD was awesome enough, but it's only seeing them perform most of these same pieces on stage that the enormity of their achievement is brought home. For now you see first hand not only the complexity of each person's part, but how incredibly difficult it must have been both creating and bringing them together to a make single entity. With Thile serving as de facto band leader/concert master/host the four opened the show with the piece I think epitomizes their efforts "Attaboy".
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This piece reflects the musical background of each performer and simultaneously shows the listeners both the difficulties they faced creating the music on the disc and the means they used to overcome those difficulties. Listening to it on CD one could hear how their diverse approaches to music blended to form something which was literally greater than the sum of its parts. However, watching them perform you are able to witness how they managed to accomplish this. The first thing you notice is the high level of communication going on silently in front of you. From the moment Thile counts them in to start the piece and sets the tempo on his mandolin there's never a moment when they aren't either listening or looking at each other for cues and, perhaps, encouragement. A nod here, eye contact there, and the tempo changes or somebody starts a solo or a solo ends and the rest join in. It's as fascinating an example of watching co-operative music in the making as you'll ever see.

As on the recording the four musicians are joined on stage occasionally by vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. She and Thile serve up beautiful vocal harmonies with lyrics specifically created for the recording sessions. On stage, as on CD, their voices add another layer of texture to the sound being created by the four instruments. In some ways they are like a calm in the middle of a storm as they seem to allow everyone from the audience to the performers a pause in which to breath between the thunder and lighting of the instrumental pieces. For there is an intensity to what the quartet are creating and performing on stage that listening uninterrupted might have been too overwhelming. Those couple of moments of calming influence allow us to appreciate the instrumental sections all the more.

Aside from the excitement of being able to see these four men in action, there are two other great reasons for watching them on television this week. First is seeing them react to playing in front of an audience. There's always an exchange of energy between performer and audience in a live situation that changes the dynamic of the music is some manner or other. When the audience began to clap the tempo - and when was the last time you saw that happen during a concert by a string quartet? - you could see the band react in delighted surprise. I don't think they had expected or anticipated audience participation and it appeared to push them to even greater levels of exertion, if possible. Each piece from then on seemed to soar a little higher and strive to reach a little further.
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The second, and just as important reason for watching, is to see the expressions on their faces while they are performing. Normally watching a string quartet in action is an exercise is studied formality. Everyone seems to be playing as if there lives depended on them looking intensely serious. Brows are furrowed and faces locked in intense stares of concentration. Well I don't think I saw one furrowed brow, let alone a serious face, on stage during the entire hour of this quartet's performance. From Thile's almost impish grin as he bends over his mandolin (Is it just me or does he reming anyone else of a young Jude Law?), the sly smiles on Duncan and Meyer's faces to Ma's spontaneous grins of delight as he listens and plays, there's not a straight face among them. These guys are so absolutely delighted to be where they are at that specific moment in time you can't help but feel privileged to be part of this performance even as an audience member.

Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile created something special when they recorded the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Now they are bringing that something special to life on PBS stations around America on Friday May 25 2012 at 9:00 pm. If you aren't able to see it that night, or your local PBS station ends up not carrying it, don't despair, its being released on DVD as of May 29 2012. Whichever way you end up watching, believe me, this is an experience no music lover will want to miss.

(Article first published as TV Review: The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live on Blogcritics)

April 10, 2011

Concert Review: Jackson Browne Live In Kingston Ontario April 8 2011

I'm beginning to understand why some performers stop touring. Aside from the wear and tear it takes on them personally and how it takes them away from family and loved ones, there's having to put up with the array of idiots who show up for concerts. Why is it that people think that attending a concert gives them permission to act with complete disregard for either the performer or those in the audience around them? Perhaps more pertinent is the question why a facility would not only be unequipped to enforce their own policies, but create an environment which fosters this sort of behaviour. We are asked to pay upwards to $100.00 per ticket to attend an event only to be forced to put up with drunken assholes carrying on conversations at the top of their lungs, people talking on their cell phones during the concert (and talking loudly enough to make sure they can hear themselves over the music) and having our eyes continually assaulted by the illegal use of camera flash equipment.

Sure concerts are going to be boisterous events; a large group of excited people brought together to listen to something as stimulating as popular music isn't going to be restrained. However, considering that, is it really a good idea to sell alcohol, and allow people to take cans and bottles back to their seats, during these events? Isn't that just adding gasoline to a fire? When I used to attend concerts back in the dark ages of the late 20th century everybody entering the arena was at least patted down to see if they were carrying anything and bags were opened to make sure no one had camera, recording equipment, or bottles. The latter would be confiscated while in the case of the former the person carrying them would be given the option of either leaving them with security personal and collecting them after the concert or turning around and going home.

Last night, Friday April 8 2011, someone who I've been wanting to see since the late 1970s performed in Kingston Ontario. To be honest I never thought Jackson Browne would show up here, but on Wednesday, April 6 2011, I found out he was going to be playing at the local arena, the K-Rock Centre. After a brief flurry of e-mails I was able to not only arrange for tickets to the event but permission to photograph with Jackson Browne's management/public relations team in California, Jensen Communications. I had originally asked about the chances of interviewing Browne, and they were most apologetic saying that no on site interviews were being conducted, but would I be interested in tickets and a photo pass. Even though I had already purchased tickets on my own, I gave them to a friend for a birthday present, I was thrilled. Not only could we attend the concert, my wife, who has among many careers been a professional photographer, would be able to take photos. Sure there were stipulations, no flash, only during the first three songs and only from the designated area, but since we figured no one else was even going to be allowed to take photos, this was great.
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While I'm enormously pissed off at the facility for not only their inadequate security and lack of staffing in the arena - there was no one in the section I ending up sitting in to show people where their seats were, even after the concert started, which resulted in people trying to find their seats on their own in the dark - I have to say the individual working with the media not only did a fine job, she went above and beyond what was required. She not only did her best to accommodated the needs of each photographer, she made sure my wife who suffers from vertigo was escorted directly to her seat.

Of course by then I was wondering why they had even bothered with requiring us to sign a permission release for taking photos as the whole damned arena exploded with flash eruptions the second Browne took the stage. Not only that, but the press photographers were all forced to cram themselves into a nook beside the stage and shoot sideways across while standing on wires and cables. They were also the only ones who apparently had to surrender their cameras before they were allowed into see the show, as while all around me people were taking pictures my wife's cameras were sitting at a security station.

What about the concert itself? Well it was Jackson Browne on his own, either sitting at a piano or with a guitar, running through his entire repertoire. It should have been an amazing experience, as the man is one of the most heart-felt and gifted singer writers around, and at times it was. When the audience allowed him to sit and play he immersed himself in the music and transported us along with him. Initially he attempted to keep things loose and friendly, allowing the audience to suggest songs and happily agreeing with the requests. Unfortunately, due to the audience, this process gradually became a distraction. As a result, every time he tried to talk to the audience he was shouted down by requests for the same four songs over and over again.

Thankfully Browne's a wonderful enough performer he was able to rise above the circumstances and deliver moments of pure magic. There aren't many people who can sit alone on stage and command one's attention to the extent he was able to on this night when given the chance. "Fountains Of Sorrow" has always been one of my favourite songs of his, and his performance of it was everything I could have wished for. That's not to say there was anything lacking with any of the material as Browne didn't skimp or hold back ever. There were songs I was disappointed not to hear, but some of his material just wouldn't translated from the full band sound to solo that well. Although I would have preferred to hear "Looking East" and "I'm Alive" over crowd favourites "Rosie" and "The Load Out/Stay" any day of the week.
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That being said, he did a remarkable job of taking familiar pieces and transposing them for solo performance. The versions of "Running On Empty", "Taking It Easy", and "The Pretender" he delivered on this night were not only adapted for solo performer, they seemed far more introspective than the studio versions. Slowed down, and without a rock and roll accompaniment propelling them, the first two songs were far more coloured by the patina of memory then ever before, and much more emotionally powerful for it. To be honest I'd never been the biggest fan of either song, as I thought that Browne had been a bit young at the time to write something as retrospective as "Running", and there was always something just a little distasteful about "Taking It Easy", its homage to 1970s California Me Decade hedonism, always rubbed me the wrong way. However, as they were performed on this night, more then thirty years after each were written, there was a certain wistfulness for days gone by - a loss of innocence mourned and life was simpler then - (not better ) that lent them a compelling air neither have had before and far easier to accept and believe as a result.

Quite a number of songs he played over the course of the evening could have easily be called memory songs. Not nostalgia for a better time, but a looking back on the hopes and dreams of a generation. A song I hadn't heard before, and the title escapes me, recounted an encounter he had with a young woman during a concert forty years ago. He introduced it with a rather sheepish laugh about the days of "free love" (which resulted in the disappointing but hardly unexpected reaction from the idiots in the crowd). What could have been an awkward or sentimental song in the hands of another was under Browne's delicate touch a sweetly gentle reminder of what was actually meant by the "free" in free love. It was something individuals could control, not another commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. It was free not in the sense of everybody should take what they want from whomever they wanted, but in it is the one thing that is ours to give as we choose, which makes it all the more precious.

Jackson Browne has shown he has the ability to transcend the usual simplicity associated with the popular music format through the depth of his integrity and his heart centred music. Compassion, humour, intelligence and an acute awareness of the world around him combined have over the years allowed him to write songs that speak truths about subjects as diverse as love, war and the human condition in general without ever falling into the trap of sentimentality, offering simplistic solutions to complex issues or knee-jerk reactions. Seeing him in performance one can't help but be struck by his generosity of spirit and the genuineness of his sincerity..

However that doesn't mean time has not had its effect on him, but like an oak age has merely made him sturdier and increased his substance rather than wearing him down and eroding his message. Proof of this can be found on his most recent release, Love Is Strange, a two disc recording of concerts he gave in Spain with his long time confederate, musician and polyester fashion statement, David Lindley and various friends of theirs. It's only a pity those of us who attended the concert in Kingston Ontario on Friday April 8 2011 were not given the opportunity to appreciate Jackson Browne's abilities to their fullest. It's a shame when such a talented artist's performance is overshadowed by a facility's inability to properly stage an event. Only Browne's extraordinary abilities allowed those in the audience there for his music a chance to enjoy the experience at all as Kingston's K-Rock Centre failed dismally in its responsibilities as host.

(Photo Credits : Jackson Browne in concert Eriana Marcus. Portrait of Jackson Browne Danny Clinch)

(Article first published as Concert Review: Jackson Browne - Kingston, Ontario, April 8, 2011 on Blogcritics.)