By James Sandham
April is just around the corner – which means spring must also be just around the corner! – so we couldn’t wait to take a look to see what the month had to offer in terms of live music. As it turns out: there’s quite a bit. Here are a few of the standout shows happening from coast to coast.
Vancouver – Lord Huron @ Biltmore Cabaret – April 1
Lord Huron – “Time to Run”
Start the month – and the week – off right, with a Monday show by Los Angeles folk group Lord Huron. Yes, it’s April Fools’ Day, but this band is no joke. Their songs are beautiful, soft and lonely, and they all seem to have these cool little retro-inspired videos that go with them, like the one above. Lord Huron’s debut album, Lonesome Dreams, came out last year on Iamsound Records.
Calgary – Yukon Blonde @ Republik – April 6
Yukon Blonde – “Stairway”
Or perhaps you’re into something a little more rollicking? Well why don’t we head on over to Calgary then, where Yukon Blonde are set to rock the Republik on Saturday night. Hailing from Kelowna, British Columbia, originally, and now based in Vancouver, they’ve got two LPs under their belt, including 2012’s Tiger Talk, from which the track above comes. Solid indie rock.
Winnipeg – Yes We Mystic @ The Park Theatre – April 2
Yes We Mystic – “August”
The video above comes from this year’s Big Fun Festival, which took place at various venues throughout downtown Winnipeg in January. The video features the city’s very own Yes We Mystic, a band that, according to its Facebook page, “celebrates the tragic through quiet acoustic melodies and soaring, triumphant crescendos. This is music to make you feel joy through your sorrow.”
They’re a promising, upcoming, independent band, currently working toward the release of their forthcoming EP, Floods and Fires, and you can help ’em along their way by checking them out on April 2. They’ll be playing with Rah Rah and Two Hours Traffic.
Toronto – Band of Skulls @ Air Canada Centre – April 9
Band of Skulls – “I Know What I Am”
Hailing from Southampton, England, Band of Skulls received attention a few years back for the track above, which comes from their 2009 debut, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey. It made it onto the “Friday Night Lights” soundtrack and was even featured in Guitar Heroes: Warriors of Rock. Since then they’ve toured internationally, opening for bands including Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Dead Weather, and on April 9 they’ll be opening for Muse at the Air Canada Centre. Should be rockin’.
Montreal – The King Khan & BBQ Show @ Il Motore – April 9
The King Khan & BBQ Show – “Shake Real Low”
Last, but not least, if you’re in Montreal, then maybe you’d like to check out what is, in my opinion, one of the city’s finest acts – The King Khan & BBQ Show. They do this lo-fi, garage-y fusion of doo-wop and punk, and it sounds amazing. But it should – because these guys have been playing together forever. (OK, well for 10 years – but a while nonetheless.) As their Facebook page says, these guys “always maintained that they would lay waste to this miserable world. And so they began in 2002… jamming out their black magick in [King Khan’s] Nazi-bunker rehearsal space. Songs flowed endlessly like blood from a cancerous abcess.” It’s classy stuff. Catch it while you can.
By David Ball
It’s breaking news to yours truly that I was born on the same day, March 26, as pop star Roch Voisine. Joyeux anniversaire à nous!
I’ll be sure to add his special day onto the list of revolutionary March 26 events that I, and no doubt all of you, celebrate annually: Emperor Maurice declares his son Theodosius as co-emperor of the Byzantine Empire in 590; Guru Amar Das ascends to be Third Sikh Guru in 1552; and, of course, the birth of Korean singer Son Ho Young from pop quartet g.o.d. (a.k.a. Groove Over Dose) in 1980. Time to party!
The Edmundston, New Brunswick singer-songwriter, actor and television host was born in 1963 on unarguably the most marvellous day of the calendar year. I can’t believe Voisine has entered his 50s, although he still looks five years younger than Lindsay Lohan, Prince William and all of the leathery thirtysomething sun worshippers I saw during my recent trip to Turks and Caicos.
Case in point…
After a baseball injury dashed his dreams of becoming a professional hockey player, the bilingual Voisine enrolled at the University of Ottawa and graduated in 1985 with a degree in physical therapy. The following year he made his first live performance, singing our national anthem on Canada Day in front of 50,000 people at Montreal’s La Ronde amusement park.
Voisine marked his official recording debut in 1989 with Hélène, a collection of lovely francophone folk-pop tunes, including the massive title track, which remains the biggest single of his career (it spent nine weeks at No. 1 on France’s pop chart and the English version placed in the Canadian Adult Contemporary Top 10). Hélène was a hit in French Canada, Switzerland, France, Belgium and Norway, and it sold three million units worldwide and won Best Album at France’s Victoires de la Musique award ceremony in 1993.
Staying true to his New Brunswick upbringing, Voisine’s 1990 followup, Double, était la première tentative en vedette des chansons en français et en anglais (that is, it was his first effort to feature songs in both French and English). Fittingly, the double album went double platinum (an all-English disc was issued separately and reached RPM’s Top 50).
In 1993, the prolific performer released his most successful English-language effort, I’ll Always Be There. The four-time platinum LP contains a number of memorable singles, including the hit title track, penned by Voisine and David Foster. The collaboration with the Grammy and JUNO Award–winning producer extraordinaire was nominated for a JUNO Award and reached No. 4 on RPM’s pop charts, and it’s the singer’s highest ranking anglophone single to date.
Sure, the clean-as-the-driven-snow musician could fill a room with all of the accolades he’s received over the years (e.g., being named an officer of the Order of Canada and winning two JUNO Awards, including 1994’s Male Vocalist of the Year), but nothing – and I mean nothing – can compare to the series of unintentionally hilarious Quebec milk commercials he starred in back in 1990 and 1991. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t fret, my friends. I vividly remember watching the spots in the early ’90s on Kingston, Ontario cable television (my hometown still carries several Quebec-based channels) and found three of them on something called “YouTube.” Here’s my personal favourite.
It’s a tragedy that Voisine didn’t do an English version of “Le Lait,” if only to hear him sing the translated end verse: “Milk, milk, milk, milk, milk, milk, milk.”
Ah, what the hell. Here are two more Le Lait ads for your viewing pleasure; I bet the first is a nod to Voisine’s hockey-loving past.
All ribbing aside (I’m sure he finds the commercials funny), Voisine continues to produce bestsellers in both French and English, including his recent acclaimed Americana trilogy, 2010’s Confidence and the 2013 compilation Duophonique, a selection of re-recorded duo interpretations of some of the singer’s best-loved songs.
I don’t think Aldo Caporuscio’s adopted professional surname, “Nova,” was inspired by the notorious Chevy jalopy or the long-running science program on PBS – or even the hot-as-blazes human mute from the original Planet of the Apes…
Aldo Nova’s debut single, “Fantasy,” entered the Billboard Hot 100 on March 28, 1982. The heavy-riffing arena rocker eventually reached the Billboard Top 25. The big-time exposure of the multi-platinum self-titled LP and its two singles (“Foolin’ Yourself” was a minor hit on the North American pop charts) briefly turned the Montreal native into a legitimate guitar hero.
In some sort of strange coincidence, Nova’s life in the spotlight pretty much paralleled Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “nova”: “A star that suddenly increases its light output tremendously and then fades away to its former obscurity in a few months or years.”
Sure enough, Nova’s descent into obscurity began about a year or two following the release of his second studio effort, Subject… Aldo Nova (1983). Fortunately, Nova found a second calling as a writer, producer and session musician working with established big name acts, most notably Bon Jovi (he played guitar and keyboards on the New Jersey band’s 1984 debut), solo Jon Bon Jovi, Celine Dion, Faith Hill, Garou and Clay Aiken (the “American Idol” grad’s career has also gone nova).
One of the pioneers of Canadian hip hop, Maestro Fresh-Wes (a.k.a. Maestro), was born Wesley Williams in Scarborough, Ont., on March 31, 1968.
Maestro Fresh-Wes emerged from Toronto’s underground club scene in the late 1980s to become one of the country’s first hip-hop stars. His fun-loving landmark hit, “Let Your Backbone Slide,” along with outspoken songs about social and political issues, helped push the Canadian mainstream into finally acknowledging hip hop as a legitimate music genre. Maestro also offered rap fans and oft-ignored and disillusioned urban and inner big city kids one of their own homegrown role models.
The “godfather of Canadian hip hop” began writing and rhyming while in his early teens, influenced by American groundbreakers Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow. In high school, he formed Vision Quest with Ebony MC. Two years after the duo’s 1987 breakup, Fresh-Wes released his first solo album, Symphony in Effect (RPM No. 4), and its lead track “Let Your Backbone Slide” went on to make history as the first Canadian Top 40 hip-hop single (it peaked at No. 10 on RPM). In fact, until 2008, “Let Your Backbone Slide” remained the only domestic-born hip-hop single to be certified gold (songs by Drake, K’naan and Classified have recently been added to the Canadian gold song podium).
The classy and socially aware second studio effort, The Black Tie Affair (1991), continued Maestro’s remarkable roll. The gold-certified and JUNO-nominated album was co-produced by Maestro himself and reached RPM’s Top 20 thanks to hits “Nothin’ at All” and “Conductin’ Thangs.”
In an attempt to make a name for himself south of the border, Maestro moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 1992, but poor sales greeted his next two American-marketed and JUNO-nominated albums: 1992’s Maestro Zone and 1994’s Naaah, Dis Kid Can’t Be from Canada?!!. After the American experiment didn’t pan out, he moved back home in 1997, shortened his name to “Maestro,” released the comeback LP Built to Last (1998) and was once again in the Canadian Top 20 with “Stick to Your Vision.”
Most of the 2000s found Maestro expanding his resumé to include acting (he can currently be seen trading barbs with Gerry Dee on the CBC comedy “Mr. D.”), writing, motivational speaking and charitable contributions. He released the EP Black Tuxedo in 2012, his first collection of new material since the 2005 one-off remake of Lawrence Gowan’s ’80s hit “A Criminal Mind.”
Next week: Trooper and Bobby Curtola
“Fantasy” by Aldo Nova
By James Sandham
So I can’t tell what’s going to be happening by the time this gets posted – we could be buried under another snowstorm – but as I was writing this, spring seemed to be making its first furtive foray back into my life, emerging from the long, arduous exile it had imposed upon itself.
There were temperatures above freezing, I spotted the first green shoots of daffodils and we got more than two straight days of sun. I even went for a run, for crying out loud – outside! – for the first time this year, and, like an emaciated beast preparing to emerge from hibernation, I found my memory faintly stirring with recollections of why I love life again, a welcome change from the cold and bitterness that had come to permeate it lately.
Plus, there was that whole turning-the-clocks-forward thing, which made the daylight seem like it just went on forever… but I have another theory as to why I felt so good. The first signs of spring certainly played a role, but equally important, I think, was the music I was listening to.
From the moment I woke up and saw the sun, to my run down by the lake, to the time I got back home again, I was rockin’ classical. There’s no other way to do it when the weather feels like this. If you want to bask in the glory of something sublime, then you need a classical soundtrack. And so, carrying that optimism forth, believing that these signs of spring are here to stay and, hence, so too the need for an appropriate soundtrack, I present to you the following.
Ralph Vaughan Williams – “The Lark Ascending”
Start your day with this. Banish every negative thought. Allow life’s splendour to spread through your being like the dawning sentience of awakening. Or simply have some coffee as this song plays. Either way, it’s a great way to start your morning. This is one of those songs that’s so beautiful that it’s hard to believe a person – a mortal, like you or I – actually wrote it. Funnily enough, however, the story is that Ralph Vaughan Williams was adumbrating this work while watching troop ships cross the English Channel at the outbreak of the the First World War; a boy saw him and, thinking he was jotting down secret code, informed the police, who subsequently arrested the composer. Go figure.
Léo Delibes – “The Flower Duet” (from Lakmé)
OK, so obviously this is a song you want to be listening to as spring dawns. I mean, it’s even called “The Flower Duet” – spring is practically in its name. It comes from the opera Lakmé, which was written by French composer Léo Delibes between 1881 and 1882 about a tragic love between Lakmé, a Hindu priestess, and Gérald, a British army officer. This song comes from the first act, when all is well and things haven’t yet taken their tragic turn.
Johann Sebastian Bach – “Partita No. 6 in E minor”
Let’s watch Glenn Gould, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame’s 1983 inductee, have a near-spiritual encounter with this work by Johann Sebastian Bach, as filmed in Toronto in 1974. Then let’s reflect on how, when you listen to music like this, you literally cannot feel mad – it is physically impossible – and on all the good it would do if everyone listened to this music for a short period each day.
Antonín Dvořák – “Symphony No. 8 in G major”
Antonín Leopold Dvořák was a Czech composer who lived from 1841 to 1904. During that time, he composed beautiful music. I was lucky enough to see some of it performed by The Junction Trio the other week – the group performs on a monthly basis at St. Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto, a beautiful Byzantine-style space decorated by the Group of Seven. The trio is highly recommended if you’re in the Dundas and Dufferin area of Toronto at the end of this month, when they’ll be performing Haydn. More info is available here: thejunctiontrio.webs.com.
Giacomo Puccini – “Nessun Dorma” (from Turandot)
And let’s just finish things off with this: possibly one of the most powerful pieces of opera ever. Here we have the late, great Luciano Pavarotti singing the famous aria from Turandot’s final act. I don’t even know what to say about this. Just watch Pavarotti’s eyes as he sings: now that is emotion. My god.
By David Ball
And all these years I thought “a licky boom boom down” was a naughty Greek phrase…
On paper this sure doesn’t sound like the makings of a hit, let alone a hit that stayed at No. 1 on Billboard for seven consecutive weeks: a reggae/hip-hop hybrid with nearly indecipherable lyrics sung by a freshly released from prison, skinny Vanilla Ice–looking Irish-Canadian suburbanite.
Well, “Informer,” by North York, Ontario’s Snow was indeed a seven-time American pop chart champ; it began its second week at No. 1 on March 20, 1993.
In “Informer,” Darrin O’Brien (a.k.a. Snow) describes in a thick rambling Jamaican patois his alleged wrongful assault conviction and incarceration in Toronto East Detention Centre. The lead single from 12 Inches of Snow topped the charts in a total of 12 countries, but surprisingly not in Canada (RPM No. 9). However, “Informer” did win the 1994 JUNO Award for Best Reggae Recording (Snow’s patois credibility comes from growing up in a Jamaican neighbourhood in North York) and Snow’s full-length debut was certified triple platinum in Canada.
According to the “always reliable” Wikipedia, 12 Inches of Snow is “one of the largest-selling reggae records of all time.” Even if you question everything published on the flawed online information site, it’s hard to argue with the song’s obvious international success and notoriety. And being deemed worthy of being satirized by Jim Carrey on the hilarious and occasionally biting ’90s FOX sketch comedy, “In Living Color,” is high praise indeed. Carrey as Snow in the music video “Imposter” is still pretty darn funny 20 years after the fact.
“Turn Me Loose” by ’80s hard rockers Loverboy peaked at No. 7 on the RPM singles chart on March 21, 1980. The first single from the leather-panted Calgary quintet’s eponymous debut was composed by lead singer Mike Reno and guitarist Paul Dean (formerly of Streetheart and recent inductee into my prestigious 15 Best Canadian Fender Guitarists list – see below) and also cracked the Top 10 in the United States (No. 6).
The success of the multi-platinum Bruce Fairburn–produced debut and its other hit (“The Kid is Hot Tonite”) won Loverboy their first three JUNO Awards in 1982 for Single of the Year (“Turn Me Loose”), Album of the Year and Group of the Year. The band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
Leo Fender, one of the leading figures in the development of the electric guitar, died at age 81 in Fullerton, California, on March 21, 1991. Although This Week in Music History is mainly Canadian-centric, the iconic American inventor has earned a place of honour here because it is unimaginable and, quite frankly, pretty frightening to imagine a music world without his guitars, bass guitars and amplifiers.
Fender’s first instrument, the solid-body Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster), hit stores in 1950, beating the Gibson Les Paul by two years (until then, the only electric guitars were hollow-bodied). The Telecaster, or Tele, is admired for producing a combo of ringing aggressive twangs and smooth warm tones, but when manipulated with a little overdrive it can pack a punishing crunch. So it’s not surprising that the guitar is ideal for country, blues, rock and even punk music. A few notable Tele players include Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, Keith Richards, Roy Buchanan, Danny Gatton, Jonny Greenwood, Andy Summers, Frank Black, James Burton, Mike Stern, Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer. The Telecaster remained virtually unchanged until the late 1970s, although a few offshoots were introduced over the years, such as the Esquire, Thinline and Deluxe.
Fender’s next solid-body model, the Stratocaster, was introduced in 1953, and it became Gibson Les Paul’s main rival, more so than its older Telecaster sibling. The Strat’s exceptional playability and near limitless versatility have made it coveted by aspiring and established pop and rock musicians since its inception, and it arguably remains the most recognizable mass-produced electric guitar in the world.
Here is a small random smattering of famous Strat gunslingers: Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, John Frusciante, Mark Knopfler, Dick Dale, Curtis Mayfield, Eddie Hazel, Hank Marvin, Bonnie Raitt and, of course, the greatest of them all: Jimi Hendrix.
Leo Fender created other solid-body guitars, such as the Mustang, Jazzmaster and Jaguar, but his first two iconic six-stringers are still the most desired.
Sorry, but I don’t have the time to get into examining Fender’s other endeavours: his topnotch amplifiers (the Champ, Twin Reverb and Bassman), his gold-standard solid-body bass guitars (the Precision, Jazz Bass etc.) or Music Man and G&L Musical Instruments (the important companies he founded after he sold his Fender company to CBS in 1965; I own a G&L ASAT Classic – a variation of his original Tele). However, the Fender brand has had a long history in Canada, so just for kicks I’d like to present two decidedly non-scientific and hopefully not too biased “best of” lists. The only rules: those singled out are generally known for using Fenders and, most importantly, I must respect them. Note: Many greats from Canada are associated with other types of guitars, so they do not qualify (for example, Bruce Cockburn and Don Ross).
Here goes nothing…
The 15 Best Canadian Fender Guitarists (in no particular order):
Alex Lifeson (the Rush guitarist used modified Strats from 1980 to 1986)
Kevin Breit (a brilliant solo artist and session man)
Dallas Good (the Tele-playing brother in The Sadies)
Keith Scott (longtime sideman for Bryan Adams)
Paul Saulnier (displacing fellow Kingston native Bobby Baker from The Tragically Hip)
The 5 Best Canadian Fender Bass Guitarists (many of our greats play upright bass and The Tragically Hip’s Gord Sinclair plays a G&L, so he almost qualifies):
Geddy Lee (Rush)
Mike Levine (Triumph)
Steve Lang (April Wine)
Jim Kale (The Guess Who)
Chris Murphy (Sloan)
Somewhat shocking footnote: Leo Fender didn’t know how to play the instruments he invented… but he’s still an infinitely more accomplished lead guitarist than Madonna, Poison’s C.C. DeVille, a drunk Eddie Van Halen and melody-allergic speed of light shredder Yngwie Malmsteen.
The Queen of Soul scored another Canadian hit when her cover of “The Weight” peaked at No. 12 on the RPM singles chart on March 24, 1969. Aretha Franklin and her Atlantic Records production team – consisting of the venerable Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin – took The Band original rooted in classic Americana and turned it into an R&B masterpiece heightened by tasteful slide guitar session work from moonlighting Allman Brothers leader Duane Allman. The young hotshot collaborated with Franklin on her entire 1969 recording session, resulting in the Billboard and RPM Top 20 album, This Girl’s In Love With You.
Other hits from the album include “Call Me” and “Share Your Love with Me,” as well as fan favourites “Let It Be” (which was issued before The Beatles’ version) and “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s well worth a listen, especially for those of you not overly familiar with Franklin’s Atlantic Records material.
Next week: Doug & the Slugs and Roch Voisine
“Facelove” by PS I Love You (featuring Paul Saulnier using a Fender Telecaster and Music Man amp)
By James Sandham
Well, it’s that time, the week of mid-March, and it seems that no matter how many years have passed since I last sat in a classroom, there’s still a certain association of it in my mind with March Break, which always proved to be a fairly epic week.
Every school has its own particular March Break traditions, but I think they all basically centre around the same thing: gettin’ buck (“wild,” that is, in the vernacular of the youth), actin’ out and generally having a wicked-ass time. Preferably without parental supervision.
To accomplish these three tenets under the aforementioned stipulation, the seniors at my school used to bundle off to chilly Quebec City for the week. I’m not sure why, but that was our school’s traditional March Break party ground. Other (perhaps more perspicacious) schools chose warmer locales – Daytona Beach springs to mind as one of the popular alternatives.
Either way, wherever you ended up, the result was usually the same: a week of fun (generally followed by a week of crushing hangover). Equally consistent across schools and destinations was the soundtrack to this debacle, by which I mean hardcore club hits – the topic of today’s post.
So, whether you’re off in the wild blue yonder whooping it up or back at home, grown up, with young’uns of your own to look after for the week, here are a few tracks that might help give you the energy you need.
Baaur – “Harlem Shake”
For some reason I have a feeling this song will be in high rotation on March Break playlists this year. That, or people will have become totally burned out by it already – it could really go either way. However, if you have somehow yet to witness the Internet’s strangest and most omnipresent music meme, behold what I consider to be its finest example, below.
Brock University – “Harlem Shake”
Oh yeah, now I remember why we’d choose to spend March Break in icy Quebec: the lowered drinking age. This tune is a couple of years old, but something tells me it may still prove popular among the March Break set. It basically takes every teenaged misconception about the fun of alcohol abuse and turns it into a club anthem. You may never let your son or daughter go away on March Break ever again after seeing this. Fair warning.
Darude – “Sandstorm”
How ’bout this one, though? Anyone remember Finnish trance producer Ville Virtanen, a.k.a. Darude? I have an empathic feeling that this song will NOT be played at all, ever, over this year’s March Break, because it now sounds like the score to an Atari racing game – but man, there was a time when I thought this track was pretty much the best thing ever.
Remember those days? That kind of immediately post-millennial-euphoria period where everyone thought the future was now and therefore had to wear spacey, wraparound polycarbonate sunglasses and sleek, shiny synthetic fabrics? I think The Matrix had just come out around then… yeah, that was a weird time.
Basement Jaxx – “Where’s Your Head At”
OK, let me try to redeem myself, musically – my tastes (though common) weren’t always that bad. What about these guys, British DJ duo Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe? They had some good tunes. And though they may be a bit dated (to wit, the music video above looks like it was filmed off of MTV – remember when MTV still played music videos?), I think their sound has stood the test of time. Their music vid certainly has. Look at the faces on those monkeys. Still as funny today as they were then. Right? No? CGI’s come a long way since then, too?
Benny Benassi ft. Gary Go – “Cinema”
OK, well, this post has gone in a bit of a different direction than I thought it would. Now I just feel old. But not as old as this guy – good ol’ Benny Benassi, now partying headlong into his 45th year. I guess for some March Break just never ends. For others, however, it did – mercifully and long ago.
By David Ball
Key personnel changes, specifically in rock bands, have a pretty sketchy track record. For various reasons, shuffling the deck often leads to creative decline and the inevitable erosion of a given fan base. Some of the main offenders include Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd, The Clash, Bad Company, Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers, non-respectively.
So, it’s somewhat remarkable that the departure of The Guess Who’s founding guitarist-songwriter Randy Bachman didn’t inflict any immediate damage to the Winnipeg group’s chemistry. In fact, the 1970 album Share the Land, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees’ first post-Bachman effort with replacement guitarists Kurt Winter and Greg Leskiw, was a critical success as well as a Top 15 hit on Billboard’s album chart and a Canadian RPM Top 10. The LP spawned two American Top 20 singles (“Hand Me Down World” and “Share the Land”), the low-ranked Billboard hit “Hang On to Your Life” (No. 43) and the instant Canadian rock radio favourite “Bus Rider.” Incidentally, “Hand Me Down World” and “Bus Rider” were unrecorded tracks by Winter’s former band, Brother.
The hard-driving rocker “Hang On to Your Life” was written by Winter and lead singer Burton Cummings, and managed a much better showing at No. 5 on the March 13, 1971, RPM singles chart. Because of its anti-hard-drug message, the tune was reportedly used in commercials to discourage substance abuse back in the day.
On March 15, 1977, less than one year after staging the farewell concert to end all farewell concerts, a.k.a. The Last Waltz, The Band released Islands, the final studio album of “new” material featuring all five founding Band members.
As swan songs go, you can hardly say the Canadian Music Hall of Famers went out with a bang. The playing on the album is top-notch, but the songs, unfortunately, are not, which isn’t surprising since Islands was only made in order to finish off the group’s 10-album contract with Columbia Records and is comprised of mostly unreleased castoffs from their career (similar to The Who’s Odds & Sods). The one standout track is the Richard Manuel–sung cover of “Georgia on My Mind,” which was recorded in 1976 in support of Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. A year after Islands hit record stores, Warner Brothers finally released the soundtrack to The Last Waltz.
In popular music’s long and rich history there exists only a small percentage of cover songs that are actually better than their original versions. Here are some random samples for you to chew on: The Who’s violent left-field take on Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” (in my not so humble opinion, the best rock cover ever); Jeff Buckley’s haunting interpretation of the Leonard Cohen hymn “Hallelujah”; Gary Jules’ moody Donnie Darko deconstruction of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World”; Patti Smith turning “Gloria” into a religious punk anthem; the Trent Reznor–endorsed “Hurt” by Johnny Cash; and John Coltrane’s jazz masterpiece “My Favorite Things.” Sure, some of these examples are arguable, but what I’m getting at is that the list is pretty darn exclusive. William Shatner need not apply.
The fact is that many recording artists play it safe, choosing to remain faithful to an original instead of trying to do something fresh and exciting. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. Putting your own stamp on a borrowed tune can be daunting. The straightforward approach is usually sufficient enough to appease fans – plus, safe and faithful often equals good for business, so why mess with a good thing? Still, who doesn’t love it when greatness is conceived by going for the jugular?
And then there’s the rock bottom of the cover song spectrum, a seemingly never-ending cesspool of ill-begotten vileness that if exposed to the wrong audience, could induce murderous thoughts or, in the very least, involuntary ear-gouging (for example, Britney Spears’ take on Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” egomaniac Jewel defiling the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd with “Sweet Home Alabama” and, of course, Insane Clown Posse worsening the already revolting Sly Fox hit “Let’s Go All The Way”). Thankfully, Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees The Diamonds and their biggest single, “Little Darlin’,” belong among the first class.
In the 1950s and ’60s, squeaky clean white male vocal acts such as The Diamonds, The Crew-Cuts and Pat Boone made healthy livings re-recording black R&B tunes for a mainstream/white audience (black artists were shunned on American pop radio throughout the 1950s).
“Little Darlin’” was originally recorded by black vocal quintet The Gladiolas in January 1957 and hit No. 11 on the R&B chart in April 1957. The Diamonds released their version in February 1957 and took it all the way to No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 on March 16, 1957. Infused with fearless over-the-top Bobby Darin–esque gusto and bold vocal harmonies, the Toronto group “wound up making a good doo wop song pretty great, with their take-no-prisoners delivery” (All Music Guide). I’m not about to get into a socio-historical discussion regarding racial inequality and whether or not there’s any sort of merit to white acts hitting pay-dirt by reworking black R&B songs, but The Diamonds’ raucous single is similar to but superior than its low-key counterpart. You be the judge (for the record I love both songs)…
“Little Darlin’” by The Gladiolas
“Little Darlin’” by The Diamonds
With a string of 16 Billboard hit records during the late 1950s and early ’60s, The Diamonds (featuring leader Dave Somerville) were one of Canada’s most popular international exports. Although gold-selling “Little Darlin’” proved to be their career pinnacle (it was the third biggest recording in 1957), the quartet tallied a total of nine Top 20 singles, including “The Stroll” and their final hit in the United States, “One Summer Night” (1961).
The Diamonds were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1984, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame of America in 2006.
And in another installment of the semi-regular “This Week in Celine Dion History”…
If you stopped 10 people ages 30 and older on the street and asked them if Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson’s “Beauty and the Beast” was a No. 1 hit, I bet most, if not all of them would say “yes” or “oui.” Well, call me surprised, because the title theme from the animated Disney blockbuster and winner of an Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy peaked at No. 2 on RPM’s singles chart on March 16, 1992. Even more surprising was its final ranking on the Billboard Hot 100, mustering only a measly No. 9.
Interestingly, the lovely duet, composed by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, was a hit in nine countries, but never reached the top spot on any international pop chart. Nonetheless, it became Dion’s second-ever Billboard Top 10 and its popularity helped cement her name in English-speaking households around the world.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone! Drink responsibly, or not!
Next week: Loverboy and Leo Fender
“Hang On to Your Life” by The Guess Who
By James Sandham
Well, well, February is behind us, finally, so spring must be just around the corner. Not soon enough in my opinion, but that’s life in Canada. Fortunately, in addition to the warm weather that we can hope will break any week now (too optimistic?) we’ve also got some great live music to look forward to this month. Here are a few of our top picks.
Vancouver – Matt Mays @ Commodore Ballroom – March 28
Matt Mays was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and grew up in Nova Scotia. While on the East Coast he played with bands such as The Guthries and Matt Mays & El Torpedo. He is currently on tour in Canada, promoting his latest release, Coyote, which came out in September of last year, before he heads down to the United States, where he’ll be touring in support of The Gaslight Anthem. If emotional, guitar-driven rock and roll is your bag, catch him while he’s here.
Matt Mays – “Loveless”
Calgary – Blue Hawaii @ The Hi-Fi – March 30
Montreal-based indie duo Blue Hawaii (one of whom is also a member of Braids) will be playing in Calgary this month in support of Doldrums on the Arbutus Records Reality Lite Tour (also featuring Sean Nicholas Savage). Expect to hear tracks from their just-released album, Untogether, from which the track below comes. The duo began recording the album in Vancouver on New Year’s Day 2012 and worked on it intermittently until that summer. As a result, its sound has been described as somewhat cold and introspective – much the way winter itself can often be. Check ’em out as the season starts to thaw.
Blue Hawaii – “Try to Be”
Winnipeg – Indian Handcrafts @ MTS Centre – March 28
If you’re in the mood for something a little rambunctious, then hopefully you’re in Winnipeg at the end of the month, when Indian Handcrafts will be playing at the MTS Centre in support of Billy Talent. The hard-rocking duo has a sound and style similar to Death from Above 1979 and seems totally prepared to shred all eardrums in their path. They also play shows earlier in the month in Regina, Edmonton, Lethbridge and Calgary.
Indian Handcrafts – “Red Action (Demo Version)”
Toronto – Young Rival @ Horseshoe Tavern – March 22
Hamilton’s Young Rival will be playing Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern this month and it promises to be a good show. They’ve been around for a few years – performing under the name The Ride Theory back in the 2000s – but with the release of last year’s LP, Stay Young, they’ve demonstrated the new and exciting direction in which they’re growing, with catchy, pop-driven, somewhat retro-inspired rock songs like the one below.
Young Rival – “Two Reasons”
Montreal – Psychic Ills @ Casa del Popolo – March 14
And speaking of somewhat retro-inspired rock, how about something from the psychedelic era? Or something that sounds like it, at least. Behold: New York City’s Psychic Ills, currently touring in promotion of their latest LP, One Track Mind. If the video below is any indication, it should prove to be a blissfully euphoric time.
Psychic Ills – “One More Time”
By David Ball
“Crying Out Loud For Love” by heralded Montreal new wave pop band The Box wound up at No. 40 on RPM’s weekly pop tally on March 7, 1988. It was the third consecutive charting single from the band’s commercial breakthrough, Closer Together.
Like the platinum-seller’s previous two hits, “Closer Together” (No. 13) and “Ordinary People” (No. 16), “Crying Out Loud For Love” also featured sassy backing vocal support by a very young and very blond Sass Jordan, whose fame would soon eclipse that of her band, following the release of her 1988 solo debut, Tell Somebody.
From 1984 to 1990, The Box scored an impressive seven Canadian Top 40 hits, including one partly sung in their native French, 1985’s “L’Affaire Dumoutier (Say to Me).” Although the songs created by the francophone group were recorded mostly in English, there was no mistaking frontman Jean-Marc Pisapia’s Québécois accent. His inflection gave The Box part of its distinctive sound and certainly never got in the way of the group’s popularity in English Canada. Plus, you could always understand Pisapia, unlike the alleged English-speaking singers Stevie Nicks, Shane MacGowan and The Bee Gees, even on a good night.
Before I continue, it would be rather cavalier to not mention last year’s This Week in Music History story, which highlighted Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Richard Manuel and his March 4, 1986, death. While you’re there, you can also check out other stories involving the musical version of Tommy, David Foster and an infamous drug bust involving Keith Richards.
Hamilton, Ontario, is far more than a blue-collar steel town, home of the Canadian Football League’s Tiger-Cats and McMaster University, and the brunt of many unfair jokes slung by smug candy-armed Torontonians. The extremely proud town has a well-earned reputation as an arts and culture hotbed and continues to produce many of the country’s brightest and most influential music talents.
Some of The Hammer’s prominent offspring include Daniel Lanois, folk legend Stan Rogers, Canadian punk pioneers Teenage Head and Forgotten Rebels, underground rockers Simply Saucer, indie pop duo Junior Boys, Lighthouse leader Skip Prokop, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Ian Thomas, Canadian Music Hall of Famer Neil Peart, Parachute Club’s Lorraine Segato, Robert Stanley Weir (the English lyricist of the world’s most beautiful and important song: “O Canada”) and the subject of this next story: King Biscuit Boy, one of Canada’s greatest bluesmen.
Born in Hamilton on March 9, 1944, Richard Newell (a.k.a. King Biscuit Boy) got hooked on the blues the first time he heard “Juke” by Little Walter in the late 1950s. He reportedly nicked his first harmonica (key of B) from a novelty store and from 1961 to 1967 gigged with a series of blues and rock bands around the Hamilton region. He toured with Ronnie Hawkins from 1968 to 1970, and it was The Hawk himself who gave Newell his famous nickname, “King Biscuit Boy” (lifted from a popular Arkansas blues radio program called “King Biscuit Time”).
Official Music, his solo debut (backed by Crowbar), was released in 1970 and was an audacious tour de force that showed off Biscuit’s explosive harmonica style, slide guitar and powerful blues holler. The 11-song effort, which features singles “Corrina, Corrina” and “Biscuit’s Boogie,” also made history as the first Canuck-based blues album to chart on Billboard and essentially turned a spotlight on our country’s and Hamilton’s burgeoning blues scene.
The late mouth-harp master was at his most consistent during the early to mid-1970s, performing on and off with Crowbar (comprised of ex-members of The Hawks) and releasing two acclaimed solo LPs, 1971’s Gooduns and 1974’s King Biscuit Boy (referred to by fans as “The Brown Derby Album”). Recorded in New Orleans and produced by famed songwriter/producer Alan Toussaint, with a backing band that included Dr. John and The Meters, it’s no revelation that “The Brown Derby Album” is widely considered Biscuit’s finest. It was probably around this time that Keith Richards famously announced: “That cat is good, man. He can really play that harp!” It’s unfortunate that the remainder of Biscuit’s career was erratic, with extended bouts of inactivity partly attributed to his well-publicized battle with the bottle.
Still, King Biscuit Boy remained a highly regarded sideman and shared the stage with Muddy Waters, Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin, and recorded with many big talents, such as The Electric Flag, Duane Allman and April Wine. He managed to release a few good solo albums before his untimely death in 1993, including the JUNO Award–nominated twofer Mouth of Steel (1982) and Urban Blues Re: Newell (released posthumously in 1995). Biscuit received the Great Canadian Blues Award in 1995, presented annually by the terrific CBC Radio program “Saturday Night Blues.”
The March 10, 1996 JUNO Awards staged at Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum was memorable for a number of reasons: it was hosted by the incomparable Anne Murray; two of the hottest artists on the planet at the time, Shania Twain and Alanis Morissette, were in attendance; the Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees that year were David Clayton-Thomas, Denny Doherty, John Kay, Domenic Troiano and Zal Yanovsky; Quebec-based classical label Analekta boycotted the event and several record stores, including Sam the Record Man, Sunrise Records and HMV, threatened to do the same (the latter trio were unhappy with new JUNO advertiser Columbia House); and, shockingly, Raffi, the favourite singer of every kid under the age of nine, did not win the award for Best Children’s Album.
The big winner on JUNO night was Morissette, who took home five trophies in the following categories: Female Vocalist of the Year (beating out Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Rita MacNeil and Susan Aglukark); Songwriter of the Year; Album of the Year for Jagged Little Pill; Best Rock Album (beating out Mirror Ball, Neil Young’s collaboration with Pearl Jam); and Single of the Year for “You Oughta Know.”
Unsurprisingly, Shania Twain didn’t go home empty-handed, although she didn’t match Morissette’s medal haul. The Timmins, Ontario, native collected two awards: Country Female Vocalist of the Year and Levi’s Entertainer of the Year (chosen by fans in a national poll). That reminds me, Twain also won my unofficial award in the prestigious category “Looking Hottest in Blue Jeans” (apologies to Tom Cochrane).
Other big winners that year were: Blue Rodeo for Group of the Year (topping Odds, The Headstones, The Rankin Family and The Tea Party); Colin James for Male Vocalist of the Year; fiddle phenom Ashley MacIsaac for Best New Solo Artist; Charlie Major for Country Male Vocalist of the Year; and Prairie Oyster for Country Group or Duo of the Year. Surprising nobody was the fact that Liona Boyd (a.k.a. “The First Lady of the Guitar”) won the award for Instrumental Artist of the Year. I’m not sure if there’s a Best New Group curse, but 1996 champ The Philosopher Kings haven’t landed a Top 20 hit since the late ’90s – but at least the Thornhill, Ont., soul/R&B outfit’s career fared far better than the category’s other four nominees, two of which I vaguely remember (you decide who they are): Hemingway Corner, Rainbow Butt Monkeys, Rhymes With Orange and Sandbox.
Next week: The Diamonds and Celine Dion
“Crying Out Loud For Love” by The Box