30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp are still at it

Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 30 ©Ebet Roberts

By Nick Krewen | www.samaritanmag.com

Posted on September 23, 2015

CHICAGO — To say that Farm Aid, the annual music festival fundraiser for family farms and farmers, “celebrated” its 30th anniversary this month at Northerly Island would be a bit of a misnomer.

Certainly, there were some festivities, as an impressive lineup of top musicians including Farm Aid founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews, rock band Imagine Dragons, R&B legend Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, provided nearly 12 hours of music, entertaining an estimated 27,000 in attendance at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion on Sept. 19. But the truth of the matter is that 30 years after Nelson organized the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois — raising more than $48 million towards the cause over the last three decades, excluding the most recent event — the plight of the U.S. farmer remains in crisis.

Neil Young at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists the current number of U.S. farms at 2.2 million; it also admits that less than 1 percent of the country’s 313 million citizens “claim farming as a profession;” that farm production expenses average $109,359 per year per farm and that “fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.” Foreclosures, deep debt, industrial agriculture muscling in and manipulating prices to the point where non- corporate agriculturalists are lowballed for less-than-market crop prices, and high-level stress that often leads to depression and suicide.

The situation is still dire, warned the non-profit charity’s co-founder Neil Young at the Farm Aid 30 press conference. “The American farm is disappearing. This is a reality,” Young stated. “We keep saying, ‘We’re fighting…we’re fighting,’ but it is disappearing.”

Young says a dearth of younger generation farmers isn’t helping the cause, especially when aging farmers hand over their livelihoods to their kin, only to watch it be sold to corporate interests. “We’ve only got a few young people involved. The farms are going to change hands. We know when the farms change hands; that’s when the corporations come in and grab another slice.”

Still, war wages on, fighting commercial behemoths like agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology giant, and genetic seed modifier Monsanto and Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s leading processors of poultry, pork and beef, two companies whose multi-billion-dollar deep pockets and alleged government collusion have transformed them into formidable foes, said Young, whose latest album The Monsanto Years particularly takes one company to task.

“We’re up against a gigantic force that keeps coming at us from everywhere,” Young stated. “It’s centered in our government, and it’s backed up by multinational corporations who have taken over the farmland of the United States, who produce 90 percent of the corn.”

Young says the latest crisis farmers are facing is “seed control.”

“Seeds are owned by these companies, so farmers can’t trade the seeds,” he explained. “Currently, there’s a bill in the Senate that, if it passes, will make it illegal to trade seeds farther than 3 to 5 miles.

“Because of our government and the money that they’re taking from the multinational corporations, we are being forced to give up the right for our farmers to trade seeds,” he added. “We need seed justice in this land.”

John Mellencamp at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

This public advocacy is one of the crucial differences Farm Aid has made in the lives of farmers: standing up for the little guy.

“The fact that Farm Aid even exists has given every farmer out there a stand against companies like Monsanto where they didn’t have one before,” country artist Jamey Johnson, who was performing at his eighth Farm Aid Festival, told Samaritanmag in an exclusive interview.

“If you don’t have a voice or a vote, there’s no way you can make anybody change. Farm Aid gives every farmer out there a platform to stand on while they make their case. Farm Aid helps farmers that get pushed out by ever growing corporate business and helps them make a new start on their own, helps them stand up against the Goliath.”

Besides offering hope, Farm Aid also supports farmers through third party administration with programs like The Family Farm Disaster Fund — which helps families survive weather-related disasters by providing emergency funds to buy food and cover living expenses, an emergency hotline and provides legal and financial counseling when foreclosure is threatened — and The Farmer Resource Network, a grid of 700 organizations recommended by Farm Aid that provides “resources, tools and opportunities to help (farmers) thrive.”

Every annual Farm Aid concert funds a year of activity, as artists and crews donate their time and talent, with all proceeds going to the cause save for a small amount of production expenses.

Here’s how it breaks down according to Farm Aid website: 41 percent of proceeds go toward promoting “fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns to develop and bolster family farm-centered agriculture;” 39 percent goes toward “helping farmers thrive; providing farmers with the services and resources they need to access new markets and transition to more sustainable and profitable farming practices;” 14 percent to natural disaster and emergency response and 6 percent towards “growing the Good Food movement,” a crusade that espouses finding and shopping for organic, naturally grown farm food rather than the genetically altered stuff.

Dave Matthews at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

“When we started Farm Aid, crisis was gripping farm country,” said Willie Nelson, who launched the idea following a remark he heard from Bob Dylan at Live Aid regarding a similar charity for farmers, at the press conference. “Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.”

Farm Aid has also influenced other musicians to lead by example and make a difference.

Jack Johnson, and his wife Kim, for example, have implemented a healthy snack program via their Oahu-based Kõkua Hawai’i Foundation called AINA in 16 local schools, a farm-to-school initiative that promotes childhood health by pushing healthy eating habits, contributes to a healthier local food system by supporting Hawaii’s farming community and their produce, and connects children to the land and water that sustains them.

For this school year, AINA is in 16 schools across the state, where students will experience garden-based learning, compost and nutrition lessons.

“Basically, during the school hours you can come into the classroom with locally grown food,” Johnson explained. “We have parents come down in the morning, they cut it all up, it comes from the farmers, it gets put into the classrooms and kids get to taste it.

Jack Johnson at Farm Aid 2015
©Sabine Carey

“Any kids who don’t want to finish it we get them to put it in a little bin, and we take that off to worm composting. They’re learning about how it goes back into the soil, and what healthy soil is, and we’re happy to be part of it.”

Jack Johnson told Samaritanmag that because his foundation is self-financed, there is a lot more flexibility and direct action in what they’re able to do.

“We’re pretty lucky with our Foundation, it’s all self-funded,” he admitted. “We’ve gotten some grants, but we’ve done music festivals that kind of support it and a lot of the touring I do, I pour money into it from there. So it’s been different than a lot of non-profits that have to rely off the grants, year after year. In that sense, the finances haven’t been a huge challenge but I know it’s been a challenge for other non-profit groups.”

Jamey Johnson at Farm Aid 30, 2015

For the Imagine Dragons, Farm Aid is an inspiration to change their eating habits. Guitarist Wayne Sermon, whose grandfather and father were farmers, said the band is doing its part to promote better eating by setting an example and actively searching out farm-to-table restaurants whenever they’re on tour.

“When I first started this band and we actually got successful, was when I first realized that I can’t eat the way I used to eat,” Sermon told Samaritanmag exclusively. “I have to eat fresh meat and vegetables, making sure knowing where my meat comes from, the non-GMO stuff. It became apparent and actually made a difference in my life. We also definitely encourage people to go out to grocery stores that support local farms as well.”

Even Micah Nelson, son of Willie and brother of Lukas, who fronted his own Insects Vs. Robots and joined Lukas’ Promise of the Real to perform with Neil Young at Farm Aid, said he’s going to Kauai this winter to help his cousin start a food forest. “I’m going to go help him out and learn as much as I can and apply it to my own life, instead of just going out there and preaching about it,” he said.

The fact that a trio of second generation artists, Micah and Lukas Nelson, and Ian Mellencamp, all performed at an event that initially took place either before they were born or just after, suggests that the Farm Aid will take the fight for the farmer well into the future.

* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.

30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp Still at It | Samaritanmag.com – The Anti-Tabloid

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

Actor Musicians

Nick Krewen

Grammy.com

October 2003

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

There may be a sizeable increase in the number of actors pursuing their muse as recording artists these days, but trying to earn respect from the masses, the music industry and critics is still an uphill battle.

Some, such as Hilary Duff or Jennifer Lopez, are talented television and movie multi-taskers who seem to have no trouble climbing the Billboard charts and finding millions of fans to buy their albums.

But others, such as the Oscar-winning Russell Crowe and ex-Party Of Five ingenue Jennifer Love Hewitt, are still struggling to find an audience for their music.

While public choices concerning such matters as talent and material may be subject to individual tastes, at least one fledgling actor musician feels there’s a bigger obstacle to overcome.

“People just don’t take actors seriously,” says Crazy/Beautiful star Taryn Manning, who is simultaneously pursuing a career as singer of Dreamworks recording act Boomkat.

“It’s been one of my biggest hurdles. The whole deal is the perception that anybody can act, but not everybody can play instruments or write songs.”

Manning, whose Boomkatalog.One was released to critical acclaim earlier this year, says the notion that acting is an easier profession to conquer doesn’t help.

“If you have a pretty face and a nice body, you have a chance to make it as an actor unfortunately. You really do.”

Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton, who recently released his sophomore album The Edge Of The World on the Sanctuary label, also feels actors are at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing their musical legitimacy.

“We’re definitely under a microscope,” says Thornton, revered for his starring roles in such films as Monster’s Ball, The Man Who Wasn’t There and his self-written Sling Blade. “I don’t think you have as fair a shake.”

He says the perceived glamour of Hollywood lifestyle often creates suspicion both within public and music industry circles.

“I think that people think that the only reason actors have the opportunity to record music is because they’re rich guys who can get what they want, or that maybe they have an ‘in’,” Thornton explains. “And maybe that’s true to a degree. But there’s a downside – there are people within the music business who have a prejudice against actors doing it.  They watch you with one eye kind of squinted – ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing in my yard?’”

He also feels that much of the bias is media-driven.

“The media creates it and perpetuates it,” says Thornton, who has toured with Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. “A critic may be slamming your thing for many reasons. You may have slept with his girlfriend, or whatever he thinks you did. If you get a critic who’s got a bee in his ass about you and they want to talk about you in that way, that’s the only way a guy in Wichita, Kansas hears about that. There are people out there always looking for this angle that’s easy for them, a soundbyte.”

And then there’s the residue from the “Golden Throats syndrome,” the ‘60s and ‘70s era of big-name movie and TV idols that regularly savaged pop classics through ill-advised recordings. Remember Leonard Nimoy’s “I Walk The Line?”

However Rhino Entertainment A&R manager and staff producer Gary Peterson, co-creator of the four-volume Golden Throats series for Rhino Records, says a return to such an ear-cringing movement would be unlikely.

“When an artist from the movies or television or another type of entertainment field wants to do a recording now, there’s a safety net of recording technology at hand to fix up the mistakes because the production values are higher,” says Peterson.

“Of course with these artists now, and the high profiles that they maintain, they’re much more guarded about what comes out.”

“The fact of the matter is that you’ve got to look at people for what they’re doing and not who they are,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who received critical acclaim for his Marty Stuart-produced first album Private Radio.  He says he considers music and acting equal priorities.

“I consider it all the same thing,” he says. “ It’s all about telling stories and moving people in some way or another. But there are different feelings you get from it. What movies do that music doesn’t do for you is put you into a different world for a long time, whereas a song might tell a story and put you in another world, but you’re not able to develop it that far.

“What music does for you is more immediate. You can write a song and go cut it that night. If you’re writing a movie, it’s going to take you awhile, and then you have to go get it financed or set up in a studio.  Then they’ve got to cast it, so it’s a long process.”

Boomkat’s Manning says she shouldn’t be pigeonholed.

“I like to dabble in and hone all my talents, which range from singing, acting, and dancing to making clothes, doing hair and makeup.”

Manning, who has begun working on Boomkat’s second album, says she’ll honor her musical commitment through action.

“You’ll have to start believing in me when I’m five records in, because I never plan to stop making music. People should open their minds and not be so judgmental.”

Postscript:  This was published by Grammy.com in either October or November 2003. The site has since been upgraded and some of the archival files are no longer available.

I also remember Billy Bob Thornton telling me during this interview that he wrote the script for his Academy Award winning Sling Blade while Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich served as the soundtrack.

Iris DeMent wants songs to be worth the wait

The last time Grammy-nominated, Americana music siren Iris DeMent released an album of original songs, Lisa Marie Presley had divorced Michael Jackson; Diana, Princess of Wales was still among the living and social media was restricted to email.

Not that it matters to the DeMent faithful who will pack Hugh’s Room to the rafters this weekend for a pair of shows to hear the latest reality-twanged gems from the Arkansas-born, Southern California-raised U.S. songstress, 16 years in the making.

They’re just happy to have some new music, lovingly brewed from the 51-year-old’s creative carafe of unwavering honesty, infused with the emotion of love, life and loss, stirred from the grinds of folk and country and serenaded with DeMent’s wholesome, fragrant Southern drawl, a voice that evokes Carter Family influence, is equally at home in coffeehouses and honky tonks, and is steeped in hope, melancholy, defiance, and magnolias.

“Out of all the songs I wrote over the last 15 years, I wrote 11 that I felt some folks would be the better for hearing,” DeMent says down the line from the Iowa home she shares with her husband, fellow songwriter Greg Brown, explaining the gap between 1996’s The Way I Should and her brand new Sing the Delta. (A 2004 album, Lifelines, was primarily gospel covers.)

“You know, I’m not interested in making records just for the sake of making records. I have other things I enjoy doing that entertain me, stimulate me. I’d rather go make an amazing pie and please five people than put out a record that doesn’t speak to anybody’s heart.”

The youngest of 14 children in a Pentecostal household, she decided when she was only 7 or 8 that songwriting would be her vocation. “When I was a kid, I remember being outside and making up a song about a rose bush and a light bulb went off in my head. I have this vivid memory of this amazing sense coming over me, that I was looking at this thing in front of me, having a feeling about it, and realizing I was expressing something about it that no one else ever had.

“I remember feeling really excited about that. I think I always wanted to write songs (but) for and I always struggled trying to write songs. For some reason, they didn’t come easy for me and I didn’t actually complete a song that I felt good about until I was 25.

“It was slow coming to me, but when I wrote ‘Our Town,’ I knew, OK, this is really what I’m going to do. The door’s been opened for me. I got my call that day, and it hasn’t gone away.”

The piano-driven numbers on Sing the Delta are consistent. Whether it’s the bereavement rendered in “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” or “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth,” a loving but complicated ode to her late mother, consistently tug at the heart strings, stemming from a world so confidential that DeMent doesn’t even play them for her husband.

“I don’t play them for anybody first,” she reveals. “I just go out and play them. I have never done that. If I can’t believe in the song and feel it in my body and in my heart, then it doesn’t matter if somebody else says it’s great or it sucks. What difference does it make?

“There’s just that little voice in me, that, once I have faith in something, I have faith in something – and it doesn’t generally waver much. I’ve always been very private — that’s kind of my secret world, writing, and I’ve never been inclined to share that with anybody, to tell the truth, until the songs are done and I’m out there singing them for somebody.”

Although she’s happy to tour whenever she gets the chance, she restricts her performances to weekends, having a daughter in school. “I have a daughter in school and I waited a long time to have my child, and I’m really not interested in missing out on too much of it.” But that means DeMent can’t afford to hire a band.

“You’ll have to do just do with me. I’ll stomp my feet extra loud or something as the drummer.”

 

Iris DeMent wants songs to be worth the wait | Toronto Star

Lucinda Williams gets stellar assistance at Massey Hall: review

The alt-country darling had to read her lyrics from a binder, but her top-notch backing band more than filled in any gaps in her memory.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Nov 21 2014

Lucinda Williams
3.5 stars
At Massey Hall, Nov. 20.

What on earth is going on with Lucinda Williams?

That’s the first question the good denizens of a half-filled Massey Hall were probably asking themselves on Thursday moments before the Lake Charles, La., native took to the stage, as they spotted the separate music stand with an open binder placed next to her microphone.

At first, there might have been cause for worry: the 61-year-old, three-time Grammy-winning alt-country darling ventured on stage unaccompanied with an acoustic guitar strapped around her shoulder and proceeded to strum through “Blessed,” the title track of her 2011 album, reading the lyrics to the entire song, as her three backing band members joined her one by one.

As her nearly two-hour concert continued, first with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’s “Can’t Let Go,” and then one of her earlier numbers, “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” Williams continued to leaf through the binder for the lyrics to the song she was about to sing. It was a prop that might have been better tolerated if it had been solely relegated to assisting her with material from her recent 20-song effort Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone instead of her entire 11-album catalog.

But life is a series of balances, and luckily for Williams, she had a secret weapon that pretty much nullified the distraction of the binder reliance: her band.

They were damned spectacular. In fact, if Williams continues touring with the same unit — Wallflowers guitarist Stuart Mathis and her long-time rhythm section David Sutton on bass and Butch Norton on drums — she should bill them as The Damned Spectacular, because they were nothing short of mesmerizing, elevating the Massey show to a level beyond reprieve.

Sutton and Norton are a tightly disciplined, in-the-pocket tandem that fill in so many holes with just the right notes that it makes Williams look like a certified genius for hiring them.

This was particularly noticeable on “Unsuffer Me,” where Norton slowed the song and maintained it at a restrained yet powerful enough pace — with Sutton adding intermittent notes that gave the arrangement room to breathe — to allow Mathis to cut through the air with laser-like riffs on his electric guitar.

And Mathis was no slouch either when it came to applying his own sonic paintbrush in terms of enlivening Williams’ tunes: he added great grit to “Essence,” strong pathos to “Changed the Locks” and shone with pretty much every note he played.

As for Williams, her charming Southern drawl sounded less ragged and vulnerable than on record. Her full-throated warbling on her emotionally honest, heart-wrenching songs “Changed the Locks” and “Compassion” — the song adapted from one of her father Miller Williams’ poems — was full of powerful gravitas, the icing on the cake of what ended up being a buoyant, jubilant evening of the passionate roots music jambalaya for which Williams is renowned. But the reason she was so good was unquestionably due to her blisteringly amazing band.

Also kudos to the soundman: the mix was perfect, and nicely captured the dynamic range of the music throughout the evening.

Just a final note to the headliner: Hey Lucinda, it wouldn’t kill you to spring for a TelePrompter.

Lucinda Williams gets stellar assistance at Massey Hall: review | Toronto Star

Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes resurface at last

Toronto duo largely responsible for lifting the veil off “the most sought after and mysterious recordings from the post-nuclear, pre-digital era.”

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Nov 05 2014

 

Sitting at Johnny Rockets, a ’50s-style burger joint in Yonge-Dundas Square, my dining companion pulls out a cardboard envelope and hands it over.

“Open it up and have a look. Have a little whiff,” he insists.

Inside is a box containing a reel of recording tape, inscribed in marker with the following song titles in order: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “Any Day Now — I Shall Be Released,” “If Your Memory Serves You Well,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (Take 2 is written beside it in pencil), “I Shall Be Released” and two separate takes of “Too Much of Nothing.”

It takes a moment to sink in and realize what I’m actually holding: an original Basement Tape, one of the more than 20 reels recorded by Bob Dylan and the majority of Toronto legends The Band when Dylan was convalescing in Woodstock, N.Y., following a 1966 motorcycle accident.

How do I know it’s an original?

Because my dining companion is Toronto’s Jan Haust, Canadian music archivist, current curator of the Dylan-driven collection, and primarily responsible for the release earlier this week of The Basement Tapes Complete, a lavish six-CD set issued by Sony’s Legacy that finally lifts the veil off what Haust calls “the most sought after and mysterious recordings from the post-nuclear, pre-digital era.”

He’s not kidding. Music fans have been waiting nearly half a century to hear these recordings: 138 takes of 115 songs, all of them recorded informally throughout 1967 by The Band’s Garth Hudson, mostly in the cramped Woodstock-area basement of the abode known as Big Pink.

Jan Haust with Garth Hudson

Every note of such future Dylan-penned classics as “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “The Mighty Quinn;” covers of well known and obscure songs like Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” and Johnny Cash’s “Belshazzar” has been lovingly restored and digitally remastered in Toronto by Haust and renowned Cowboy Junkies engineer and producer Peter J. Moore.

Prior to this week’s releases (there’s also a two-disc Sony edition of highlights called The Basement Tapes Raw), fans had received a limited taste of the Big Pink sessions, including the official 24-song The Basement Tapes and a few tracks that have surfaced since, mostly notably “I’m Not There” from the 2007 Todd Haynes film of the same name.

The Basement Tapes sessions were significant for a number of reasons.

First, the relaxed atmosphere of everyone crammed into an intimate space allowed Dylan (who performs at the Sony Centre on Nov. 17 and 18) to explore another songwriting direction, which was a little more laidback and humorous.

“What was going on for the most part, pretty basic,” recalls Hudson, who set up the basement with microphones, a recorder and a mixer, in a separate phone interview.

“He (Bob) would write the song upstairs, couch and coffee table, then take it down and we would play it, and usually, not even run through it once. We’d do the introduction and then a bit of the song and then I would put the machine on record.”

Some argue it may have been the birth of alt-country, but a bigger significance is that it completed a musical coming of age.

“It’s where it all ended up coming together,” notes Haust. “And that’s the fascinating component here. The basement is the incubator of what became The Band.”

The Band

For Haust, the release of The Basement Tapes Complete marks the end of a 12-year journey for him and Moore, the engineer. The duo first heard the tapes, through an arrangement via Haust’s friendship with Hudson, when Robbie Robertson was assembling 2005’s The Band box set A Musical History.

“Some of the tapes were in rough shape, through no fault of Garth Hudson’s and through no fault of anyone’s,” Haust recalls.

Several reels were mouldy and Moore had to delicately unwind and re-spool some 1,800 feet of “very, very thin” reel-to-reel tape by hand on a few others to “flatten them out.”

There was also a bigger challenge: all the songs were recorded on a rare quarter-track machine with such poor quality tape that Moore didn’t have the equipment for proper playback, let alone restoration.

“These tapes were never meant to be heard by the public,” said Moore in a separate interview. “These were sketches — the jotting down of ideas. So the tape’s speed was 7½ inches per second, where most of your quality pro recordings are at 30 or 15 inches per second. I told Jan, there’s no such thing as a professional quarter-track machine.”

So Moore had to get a playback tape head custom made for his own equipment and found a New Jersey manufacturer who had the expertise to make it. The request was so rare that the manufacturer, Jim French, had only built one prior to Moore’s request.

The buyer? Neil Young, known for being quite persnickety when it comes to technical recording tools.

“Once I heard that, I knew I was following the right logic,” Moore says.

When Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen and Sony Music finally commissioned Haust and Moore to assemble The Basement Tapes Complete, the duo huddled in Moore’s studio from March through September, deciding to follow Garth Hudson’s original lead and sonically restore what was going on in the basement.

“We kept the integrity of what Garth envisioned,” says Moore. “I didn’t add reverb or anything to these tapes. I’m phase correcting — not changing the picture, just realigning the lens.

“But when you realign the lens, all of a sudden you have that much more depth of field. I phase corrected a lot of the tapes and suddenly the bass appears. You’re actually hearing the bass for the first time — Rick (Danko) and his lovely melodic glissandos and everything he’s doing on that bass.

“Whereas on the bootlegs, there’s no top end, no bottom end, just more of a whiny mid-range. I’m bringing it into focus.”

The sound is immaculate, even impressing the man who commandeered the original tape recorder, Garth Hudson.

“I remember the sounds very well, the background sounds and the instruments,” Hudson says. “What we have now is clarity. It was a lot of work on Jan’s part and Peter Moore with his incredible talent. The voice is more alive. It’s clearer. And Peter has also assembled and revived tape that has been crinkled, stretched. So it’s been a big process.”

Now that The Basement Tapes Complete has finally seen the light of day, Haust and Moore have one more ambitious project in mind: an eight-CD, DVD and book box set chronicling Levon and The Hawks, dating back to their individual pre-Ronnie Hawkins musical pursuits in the late ’50s.

In the meantime, Haust will savour the arrival of The Basement Tapes Complete.

“I’m pleased as punch that we were able to put it together,” says Haust.
“This is the first time ever that a Bob Dylan project was produced in Toronto. That’s very significant. It’s four Canadian rock ’n’ rollers and an American folksinger. Now we’ve set the record straight. . . .

“We have cleaned up these recordings. We have repaired the damaged tape. We have treated these 47-year-old recordings like the archaeological gems that they are.

“This isn’t the Mona Lisa. These are the sketches.”

Sony executive Steve Berkowitz, Jan Haust and Peter J. Moore receiving a Grammy for their compilation and restoration work on Bob Dylan: The Basement Tapes Complete

 

Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes resurface at last | Toronto Star

Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant hypnotizes, mesmerizes fans at Massey Hall

The musically adventurous Plant shows he is not afraid to revisit the past as long as he has something new to add to the conversation.

 

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Oct 01 2014

Robert Plant
At Massey Hall, Sept. 30

If mother is the necessity of invention, Robert Plant is its charming uncle you never really tire of visiting.

The former Led Zeppelin frontman has never been one to rest on his laurels for nostalgia’s sake — as those who have been waiting patiently and infinitely for a reunion of his most notable band’s survivors will frustratingly attest.

He has been musically adventurous since going solo back in 1982, as documented by his side trips ranging from the Honeydrippers to Raising Sand, his Grammy-winning album of Americana duets with bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss.

But as he’s proven with No Quarter, his 1994 reunion with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page and their subsequent tour with an Egyptian music ensemble, Plant is not afraid to revisit the past as long as he has something new to add to the conversation.

That general rule remained in effect for Tuesday night’s appearance at a sold-out Massey Hall, although Led Zeppelin diehards were aptly rewarded with a set list divvied up between reworked classics, a generous sampling of Plant’s fine new album Lullaby and . . . the Ceaseless Roar and a few blues gems plucked from the catalogues of Howlin’ Wolf and Bukka White.

After Plant, still unnaturally gifted with a full head of golden grey-sprinkled curly locks at age 66, slowly sauntered up to the microphone for an understated delivery of “No Quarter,” his six-piece backup the Sensational Space Shifters — who were “sensational” in every musical sense of the word — broke out the exotic instruments for “Poor Howard.”

Gambian musician Juldeh Camara bowed the ritti, a single-string violin that sounded more Celtic than African; guitarist Justin Adams strummed the tehardent, an African guitar, and Liam Tyson began plucking the “dreaded” banjo, as Plant described it, for a bluesy shuffle that sported an exotic polyrhythmic twist, while the singer stood there, tambourine in hand and a smile on his face, as the grooves continued to percolate.

Then it was back to the acoustic-driven “Thank You,” which brought the fans, a mix of young and old, to their feet, fuelled by the stellar guitar work of lead beard Tyson and enhanced by Plant’s reworked phrasing.

One thing is for certain: Plant is aging gracefully as a singer. Whether by design or due to dwindling capability, he rarely stretches into the higher register: the bridge of “Going To California” was delivered a full octave below the original arrangement and for “Whole Lotta Love,” cleverly wrapped into a medley that included “Who Do You Love,” he picked his spots, sometimes using staccato bursts of singing rather than sustaining the note to its natural conclusion.

It’s the mark of a proud man who knows his limitations but executes them tastefully without sinking into self-parody, and a strong indicator of why there will probably never be a Led Zeppelin reunion, due to Plant’s own lofty standards.

Those standards were met time and again throughout the 95-minute set, occasionally delving into full-fledged rock, as he did with parts of “What Is and What Should Never Be,” and a standout version of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” or emphasizing the funkiness of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” with a Bo Diddley blues beat, or having his band pull out the bendirs — large, tambourine-shaped African drums — for a rhythmically charged “Rainbow” off the new album, a song Plant ensured “was racing up the charts past Gary Puckett & The Union Gap” and past “Burton Cummings and other ballads of the past five years.”

If there was a disappointing aspect to Plant’s performance, it was the weird set-up of dual lighting rigs at the front of the stage that seriously blocked the vantage points of those nestled in the front corners of the Massey Hall floor seats: it’s obstructive enough and seemed to add so little to the proceedings that the singer should reconsider its positioning when he plays similar venues moving forward.

Aurally, however, the show was stunning: offering energy, vitality, bursts of power and a pretty amazing band (rounding out the Sensational Space Shifters were keyboardist John Baggott, bassist Billy Fuller and drummer Dave Smith) that brought the crowd repeatedly to their feet.

By the time he wrapped with a buoyant “Little Maggie,” Plant’s performance had veered between the hypnotic and the mesmeric, satisfying the sentimentally nostalgic without pandering to the past.

Robert Plant likes to keep us guessing and the hope is that he will continue do so well into the future.

Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant hypnotizes, mesmerizes fans at Massey Hall | Toronto Star

 

Rascal Flatts concert worth braving the weather: Review

Country music band — along with opening act Sheryl Crow — delighted the wet crowd at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre on Saturday night.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sun Sep 21 2014

Rascal Flatts is something of an anomaly in the country music world.

A country pop band with Christian overtones, the core of singer Gary LeVox, his bass playing cousin Jay DeMarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney have never really possessed “it”: that intangible level of charisma that undeniably screams “star” whenever you look at them.

LeVox has an OK voice, a high tenor (that jumps up an octave into the realm of annoyance whenever he shouts), with both DeMarcus and Rooney taking occasional leads, and their harmonies are efficient, though not spectacular.

Yet these average Joes have enjoyed above average success since the Nashville-formed band first hit the country charts with “Prayin’ For Daylight” 14 years ago, selling more than 20 million albums, producing a relentless string of No. 1 hits and gathering a crazily-devoted fan base comprised of folks like the one who tweeted on a giant screen prior to the band’s 90-minute set at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre on Saturday night, that he had driven 1,800 km from Labrador City to watch his musical heroes in action.

The audience consensus — and there were 9,000 or so predominantly plaid-clad denizens in the venue, with another 2,000-3,000 enduring the pouring rain to witness the occasion and warm-up act Sheryl Crow — would probably be that it was indeed worth the drive, despite the fact that the band occasionally fell short in their delivery.

But the song has always been the most important aspect of the country music medium, and Rascal Flatts certainly knows how to pick them: the ballad “What Hurts The Most,” “Fast Cars and Freedom” and “Bless The Broken Road” — all country chart-toppers — found the audience jovially singing along and filling in the gaps whenever LeVox pointed the microphone in their direction.

Except for a lacklustre “Why Wait,” a slightly shaky “Here Comes Goodbye” and LeVox’s extremely pitchy opening line of the newer “DJ Tonight,” the trio strengthened in momentum as the show progressed.

Something that separates them from the rest of the pack is their quirky charm: DeMarcus is the comedian, so he took some time to do a short shtick about the end of summer coinciding with the disappearance of women wearing Daisy Dukes shorts that the audience lapped up.

They also pulled a novel twist on the band introduction, recruiting their six backing musicians to join them in an a capella version of “Love You Out Loud” and an alternate take of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”

For the acoustic portion, LeVox announced he was taking a pee break and returned to the stage with Sheryl Crow, who performed her song “The Picture” and then stuck around to help the band with “My Wish.”

Speaking of the seemingly ageless Crow — looking marvellous at 52 as she did at 32, around the time Tuesday Night Music Club introduced her to the rock mainstream and multiple Grammies — she delivered a solid hour-long set in which she seemed a little livelier than in previous performances.

Also accompanied by a six-piece band, Crow delivered enjoyable renditions of “All I Wanna Do,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Soak Up The Sun” and “Everyday Is A Winding Road” with the rock edge she’s known for, as well as a political and pensive “duet” about war with the late Johnny Cash of “Redemption Day.”

Although largely sticking with guitar, she also played a bit of keyboard, bass and harmonica, loosening up to venture out to the extended stage in the pit to slap hands with the crowd. For a woman who has been accused in the past as being a staid entertainer, it was nice to see her loose and relaxed.

The same could be said for Rascal Flatts, who ended the show strongly with their hit rendition of Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is A Highway,” and then encored with a cover of Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” before finishing with “Me and My Gang” and a thundering flashpot explosion.

Rascal Flatts may still be somewhat of a head-scratching country music enigma, but there’s little doubt that their fan base will walk to the ends of the Earth to experience them.

Rascal Flatts concert worth braving the weather: Review | Toronto Star

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career
He’s helped launch the careers of Loreena McKennitt and k.d. lang. At 80, he’s finally agreed to slow down his famously tireless pace.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Jun 27 2014

Now that he’s turned 80, Richard Flohil swears he’s going to slow the pace a bit.

What that actually means is anybody’s guess, because those who know the publicist and promoter extraordinaire — a master raconteur who corners the market on British charm and has helped the likes of Loreena McKennitt, k.d. lang and many others achieve global stardom — are flabbergasted by his tireless work ethic that includes a five-night-a-week commitment to hearing live music.

In a personal note distributed via email to colleagues last week, Flohil said he was “beginning to pull back a little,” but would stay involved “especially with special projects that inspire and/or amuse me.”

At this point, those projects include finishing a crowdfunded book he’s tentatively titled Louis Armstrong’s Laxative and 100 Other Mostly True Stories About a Life In Music and actively promoting up to 15 shows a year (Hugh’s Room is a favourite venue) with fellow promoter Tom Dertinger. Flohil also travels across Canada to attend folk festivals and mentors his own publicity clients in ways that exceed his job description.

So if he is contemplating some relaxation, there’s a strong possibility the public at large won’t notice it: music is clearly Flohil’s elixir of youth.

“I wish I knew who I’d stolen this from,” he says, his eyes twinkling as he quaffs a pint of ale at a Roncesvalles watering hole one recent sunny afternoon.

“But the age you go into music is the age you stay forever.

“I’m 34,” he grins.

His unbridled enthusiasm for the art form is no less diminished from the days of his early fascination with American jazz and blues. If anything, it’s grown exponentially, fueled in part by an eye-opening visit to the Mariposa folk festival in 1965, where he met Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Ste. Marie, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and The Staple Singers, acts he said “widened my head and almost made me evangelical.”

That passion has played an integral role in the formative years of many Canadian and U.S. acts, some who have gone on to become global superstars: McKennitt, lang, the Downchild Blues Band, Serena Ryder, Ani DiFranco, Laura Smith . . . the list is impressive.

“I think he has a particular talent for nurturing young artists, particularly when they’re starting out,” says Juno Award winner Loreena McKennitt, who has sold more than 14 million copies of her unique brand of world music.

“I think he’s got a good ear, and he’s very enthusiastic, which may sound kind of trite but being enthusiastic is a large part of developing enough confidence to move forward. And he’s very familiar with setting up the right circumstance for someone starting out. I think that takes a very particular nurturing hand and mind.”

And those nurtured artists have loved him back.

One need only to glance at the lineup that’s rocking the Horseshoe Tavern stage this Friday night to fete “Flo” into his ninth decade to realize how warmly and affectionately he’s regarded: Tom Wilson, Alejandra Ribera, Roxanne Potvin, Scarlett Jane, Ariana Gillis, Paul Reddick, Shakura S’Aida and others are volunteering their time to pay tribute to their champion, who in turn is transforming his birthday bash into a fundraiser for the Unison Benevolent Fund, which provides counseling, emergency relief and benefit programs for the Canadian music community.

“I like being part of the music community — they’re all really good people,” repeats the founder of publicity and promotion firm Richard Flohil and Associates, a few times over the course of the next 90 minutes.

Flohil says he loves hearing and working with musicians so much that he would jump on stage if he could. But he figures the public would fare better with him remaining behind the scenes.

“The reason I’m on the business side is because I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument and I dance like a pregnant elephant. Not a pretty sight and not to be done in public.”

The Richard Flohil story begins back in Selby, Yorkshire where he was born to Dutch and English parents. He attended private school and eventually apprenticed as a reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Press, moving on to work at three other papers.

When he hit 20, he tried his hand at publicity: his first client, future James Bond theme composer John Barry.

But he wanted out of Britain.

“I wanted to rediscover American jazz and blues musicians, because in the ’50s they weren’t allowed to come to Britain very often,” Flohil admits.

“Occasionally Louis Armstrong came and Lonnie Johnson came, and I met Big Bill Broonzy, but by and large the British Musicians Union wasn’t going to let American musicians come to Britain unless British musicians were allowed to come to America.”

In 1957, he arrived in Toronto with $300 in his pocket, and was instantly smitten by the thriving music scene.

“The first afternoon I walked down Yonge Street and I saw a sign saying, ‘All this week: Earl Hines and his All-Stars,’” Flohil recalls. “I walked in the bar and I said, ‘Earl Hines is playing here? The same Earl Hines who played with Louis Armstrong in the ’20s? How much is it to get in?’

“The bartender said, ‘It’s free, but you must buy two drinks.’ And I thought, ‘this must be the Promised Land.’

“The next night I found a New Orleans jazz club, and the night after that I wandered down to King Street East, and the Town Tavern. It was April ’57, and on stage underneath this silent black and white television airing a hockey playoff game is this rotund black pianist from Montreal called Oscar Peterson, who I never heard of. Blew my lights out.

“Then I went to Maple Leaf Gardens, the Irving Feld Parade of Stars, for $2.50, featuring the 16-year-old boy wonder from Ottawa, Canada:  Paul Anka, and Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino, LaVerne Baker and Clyde McPhatter.”

After a series of jobs editing trade magazines, Flohil eventually branched out into publicity and also landed a gig as the editor of CAPAC’s (a forerunner of SOCAN) membership music magazine, keeping that gig for 20 years.

When he decided to move into concert promotion, Flohil capitalized on the Chicago blues sojourns he had made while living in England.

“If I have a claim to fame, I’m the guy who was involved in bringing Buddy Guy here for the first time, lesser known artists like Robert Nighthawk and Sleepy John Estes, and later on B.B. King and Bobby Bland. So that got me into small level promotions.

“I was also involved with bigger shows — Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, the Chieftains — with mixed results, but that seed has become the preserve of giant companies who have endless resources. And I couldn’t compete with that. “

In 1980, he co-founded respected music industry trade magazine The Record, handling reviews but still entrenched in publicity, and in 2002 became editor of Applaud, a magazine aimed at promoting Canadian music outside Canada, that lasted five years.

As much as he loves music and the people that make it, Flohil does have criteria when it comes to taking on clients (“good songs, a distinctive voice, ambition”), as well hearing music that emotionally touches him.

“To me, music has to hit two parts of the following four parts of your body: head, heart, groin, feet,” says Flohil, whose numerous accolades include the Estelle Klein Lifetime Achievement Award and SOCAN’s Special Achievement Award.

“Any two of those — if it’s just one, it won’t work for me.”
As for secrets to his success, Richard Flohil says his personal catalyst is anticipation.

“I think the key, apart from listening to lots and lots of music (he boasts a music collection of 12,000 discs) is to have something to look forward to,” says Flohil, who is tentatively planning a trip to India in 2015.

“I still want to do intriguing special projects. For example, Stony Plain Records, who I’ve worked with forever, has a 40th anniversary coming next year. I want to be involved in that, and if there’s a CD, I want to help choose the music and write the liner notes.”

While Flohil laments that he’s never “made very much money at” his career, his days have been filled with entertaining memories.

“I’ve had this amazing life with all these people, these stories and adventures and misadventures. So I just keep going.”

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career | Toronto Star