What does $50,000 buy? The ultimate Gene Simmons fan experience

Or, if you don’t have that kind of cash, the KISS rocker will hand deliver his box set for just $2,000.

Nick Krewen

Music

Thu., Sept. 21, 2017

Gene Simmons is at it again.

The co-founder and bassist of legendary rock band KISS, who has gained almost equivalent public stature as an audacious and shrewd marketing tycoon, has set aside most of 2018 to deliver his latest project: The Vault Experience, a 17-kilogram, 10-CD collection of 150 previously unreleased demos and recordings that he boasts is the “largest and most expensive boxed set of all time.”

©Mark Weiss

And by “deliver,” Simmons means exactly that: For $2,000 (U.S.), the rock-and-reality-TV superstar will personally hand it to you at a location of your choice.

Actually, he’ll wheel it to you: The boxed set, which comes with an envious number of bells and whistles, resembles a small safe and is cumbersome enough that it rolls around on castors.

“Anyone that buys one — first come, first served because there are only a few thousand around the world — I will fly to you,” declared Simmons, who was in Toronto earlier this week to promote the venture.

“Whether you’re in Moncton or New Zealand, I will hand-deliver this to you in a convenient area — because if you live in the North Pole, I’m not going to the North Pole — I want to be upfront.

“But if you’re in Moncton, I’ll go there.”

For those willing to shell out the coin for Gene Simmons: The Vault Experience, the dates for Toronto delivery have already been designated: May 5-6 and Sept. 19, 2018, with the tongue-wagging rock star promising to buy his own “plane tickets, hotel rooms, security, insurance, legal stuff — at my expense.”

Why is he doing it? Simmons, whose cartoonish, on-stage “Demon” persona has helped sell 75 million KISS albums worldwide and filled arenas countless times over, says it’s his way of personally thanking his followers for 50 years of an unimaginably wonderful musical career.

“Well, the fans made my life possible,” reasons Simmons, born Chaim Witz, 68 years ago in Haifa, Israel, and who is married to St. John’s, N.L. actor Shannon Tweed. “I mean, I have a great life. My family is taken care of. I can spend money on anything I want, although I don’t need a lot of stuff. I don’t care about stuff, mostly.

“But how do you say thank you after becoming America’s No. 1 award-winning group of all-time? That also includes Canada — yeah, we have more gold records than A Foot in Coldwater.”

His reference to a classic Toronto rock band notwithstanding, the six-foot, two-inch Simmons, reclining on a couch in an RV next to The Launch studios in Scarborough, says he’s willing to do what other superstars won’t.

“I never had Elvis (Presley) knock on my door and say, ‘Hey man, here’s my new record and thanks for being a fan,’ ” Simmons notes. “But why not? If you can afford it and you’ve got the time and you want to do it . . .”

“I’m not going to make everyone happy. If one million fans buy these, I’m not going to go and spend 10 years visiting one million fans. But a few thousand? Sure. So, I’m taking a year off, starting January, and I’m going around the world. I don’t know what kind of tour you want to call it — but I’ll be going and visiting the fans.

“There will be people crying — especially if I step on their feet — and I’m going to well up as well . . . because once upon a time, I was a kid with a dream and I saw this dream come true on a scale that I never envisioned. By many estimates in the marketing world, those four KISS faces (Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss) are the most recognized faces on planet Earth.

“I don’t see (Bruce) Springsteen or (Bob) Dylan or anybody on that level who are going to go and meet and greet every single fan that buys their boxed set.”

Manufactured in partnership with Rhino Entertainment, the California-based specialty label that has previously released elaborately designed boxed sets for Ray Charles (a turntable suitcase) and Z.Z. Top (a barbecue shack), Gene Simmons: The Vault Experience includes a 50,000-word coffee table book, an action figure (which is kind of ironic, because it’s a likeness of Simmons standing with his arms crossed), a gold medallion and secret compartments, where fans will discover a unique piece of hand-picked memorabilia — “it could be a pair of leather gloves or a scarf” — from the Van Nuys, Calif.-based KISS warehouse.

A Vault “pre-pack,” including a signed golden ticket, an exclusive T-shirt, a laminate and a USB of the track “Are You Ready,” will arrive separately by email once an order is placed at GeneSimmonsVault.com or by calling 1-833-GSVault, the only way it can be ordered.

Musically, the set chronicles some of Simmons’ pre-KISS output dating back to 1966 — and there are some intriguing curiosities.

“Three of the tracks are Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons-written songs, including the Bob/Gene writing session in which he was kind enough to get into an unmarked van and come up to my house,” Simmons explains. “The Van Halen brothers — after I discovered their band and signed them to my company — were kind enough to play on three tracks. We have a power trio: Eddie and Alex and Gene Simmons. They played on ‘Christine Sixteen,’ the original version. Joe Perry from Aerosmith in 1978 plays on ‘Mongoloid Man.’ Also, it includes all the KISS guys — Ace, Paul and Peter.

“This set includes the very first song that I recorded — one of the songs that I wrote when I was about 14, called ‘My Uncle is A Raft, But He Always Keeps Me Floating.’ Oh yeah, that’s deep, Gene — but melodically, it’s not a bad song.”

Simmons is adamant that he wanted something tactile for this set and, with the exception of the single-song USB, has no intention of releasing it digitally.

“There’s no downloading, no social media — nothing,” he declares. “There’s no ‘cloud’ nonsense — get the f— out of here with that cloud s—. I wanted something real, a lifetime thing, not a ghost or a mirage.”

True to Simmons’ entrepreneurial nature, those who have a little extra cash on hand can enhance their Vault encounter. For $25,000 — and only until November — fans will get the Producer Experience, which will include a Skype call with Simmons and an invitation to the studio, where they can make notes, suggestions and get their name etched on the inside of the safe’s door as executive producers.

And if you happen to have $50,000 lying around, Simmons will deliver the set and spend the day with you and up to 25 friends.

“If you’re nuts and you want Gene Simmons for a day to come to your town — invite 20 to 25 of your friends — do karaoke, pet the dog or, if you have a rock band and you want me to join the band, boom, $50K,” he says.

“Few people are going to do that and that’s cool. But again, it’s about changing the relationship: doing something that’s lifetime stuff, away from retail, which is a failing model, as you know.”

This isn’t the first time Simmons has gotten up close with his fans. In the mid-1990s, KISS staged a day-long convention tour and visited 23 cities, including Toronto. The day, held at the Sheraton Centre, included exhibits and memorabilia, several KISS cover bands and, in the early evening, an acoustic concert and Q&A session with the original quartet.

“It wasn’t personal enough,” Simmons recalls. “You came to the convention and it was like a mini-concert. You were onstage, you answered questions. Yes, we were the first ones to do that and I will take full responsibility for that.

“In those days, it was $100 per ticket but we paid for travel and everything else. But again, fans couldn’t come up and talk, touch or spend individual time, if you see what I mean. You’re still part of 1,000 people. This (The Vault Experience) is to try and change the relationship and get closer to our bosses.

“There’s this thing about celebrity — it’s far away and don’t touch me and don’t take my photo. I’m not that guy,” he adds. “I wanna do something that’s a tug of a heart. That’s why I’m doing it.”

Simmons has an estimated fortune of $300 million, has been “comfortable for decades” and has merchandised everything from urinal cakes with pictures of his face on them to KISS condoms, caskets and customized Axe guitars. But the one-time manager of Liza Minnelli remains busy, with ventures ranging from the Rock & Brews chain of 19 restaurants he shares with KISS co-founder Paul Stanley to books, films and his own line of cola.

Does money remain his main motivation?

“Well, look, (Warren) Buffett gets up every day and goes to work,” he says. “You can’t use the ‘Look Warren, you’ve got enough money, why do you get up every day?’ excuse.”

“What the f— is he supposed to do? Wait to die? Once you reach a billion or whatever that number is, what do you do? Play golf all day? I’d hang myself.

“You can amass large fortunes, and that’s great and chicks are great and fame is great. All of it is great. But unless you’ve got some passion that makes you get up in the morning, you’re just going to lay there and wait to die. So don’t minimize money or fame or sexy stuff.

“But the most important thing is that I can’t wait to get up out of this self-induced coma, sleep — which is a f—ing worthless piece of time. Let me use my brain 24 hours a day. I’d rather a shorter life and be fully awake the whole time than a long life and be comatose for a third of it. Wouldn’t you? So that’s my spiel and I’m sticking to it.”

What does $50,000 buy? The ultimate Gene Simmons fan experience | Toronto Star

Customized Instruments

CUSTOM DESIGNED

 Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

January 2005

Wish you could play the electric guitar like Angus Young or pound the drums like Mike Bordin?

While they may not be able to guarantee you a spot in the AC/DC or Ozzy Osbourne camps, major music instrument manufacturers like Gibson and Yamaha are striving to bring you one step closer to realizing your dreams with their exclusive lines of signature, custom-made instruments.

“It is our finest stuff,” proclaims Henry Juszkiewicz, chairman and CEO of the Nashville-based Gibson Guitar Corp., whose product line also includes the familiar Epiphone, Kramer, Baldwin and Slingerland brands of musical instruments.

“Virtually every model that comes out of that business is hand-built because they’re constructed in very tiny quantities. They are the vanguard of our production line.”

And they appeal to the diehard fan, whether you’re an aspiring musician or an avid collector. With the right amount of cash, you can wail along to “You Shook Me All Night Long” on your Gibson Angus Young Signature SG electric guitar ($1900) or use your Yamaha Mike Bordin SD-6455 MB snare drum  ($1079) to ride the rhythm of “Crazy Train.”

According to Joe Testa, artist relations of Yamaha Drums, the sound of a signature instrument is just as important as its appearance.

“When you’re talking about a signature snare drum, it’s supposed to capture the sound of that particular artist,” explains Testa, whose division imprints include customized products by renown drummers Manu Katché, Dave Weckl and Steve Gadd. “If you’re a fan of that artist, one would think that would help sell that drum. That’s the thinking behind it.”

Jimmy Chamberlin, the Smashing Pumpkins alumnus who recently launched a Yamaha signature snare drum of his own – the SD-2455JC ($699) – says reputation carries influence.

“One of my favorite drums to this day is an old Gene Krupa Radio King,” states Chamberlin.

“As soon as you hit it, you know it’s his drum.  That’s what you do as a young drummer — you emulate your heroes. And anytime you can get your hands on some of their gear, it just gets you that much closer to the mark.”

Gibson’s Juszkiewicz estimates that custom and signature lines represent only a tiny fraction of his company’s annual sales of $300 million – “less than 5%” – but the product associations with such icons as Jimmy Page, Paul McCartney, Emmylou Harris and Earl Scruggs offer instant credibility.

“To have an artist like Paul McCartney or Jimmy Page associated with Gibson just reminds people of the quality,” says Juszkiewicz, “We acquire the professionalism and the musicianship of people like Les Paul — who at the age of 90 is still out playing every week — and B.B. King and Joe Pass, guys who are exquisite instrumentalists.

“Equally, the brand stands for excellence, and artists acquire some of that prestige through our relationship.”

But are they paid for that relationship?

“We don’t pay anybody to play Yamaha drums,” admits Joe Testa. “Never have. Once you do that, you dilute the whole meaning of an endorsement. It’s embarrassing to say, ‘We had to pay this guy to play our drums.’ Al Foster and Steve Gadd have been with Yamaha for 30 years because they really believe in the product.”

That’s not to say some financial consideration isn’t a factor. When Paul McCartney agreed to partner with Gibson to issue his Epiphone Signature Texan, the former Beatle only warmed to the idea as a charity fundraiser.

“When we presented it to Paul in the right way, which incorporated benefiting Adopt-A-Minefield, it really made sense to him,” says Pat Foley of Gibson Custom, Art And Historic, who liaised with the living legend on behalf of Epiphone.

“A signature guitar to him is an honor, but it’s not something he needs to add to his legend.”

When Serial No. 001 rolled off the production line 18 months and three prototypes later, Sir Paul auctioned the guitar and raised $50,000 for Adopt-A-Minefield.

An additional consumer incentive is the hands-on involvement of artists throughout the process. Jimmy Page personally selected and tested the first run of 25 Les Paul Honey Burst guitars – but not before spending years helping Gibson perfect the instrument.

“We did a Jimmy Page reissue that had a very unusual electrical set up involving a lot of switching,” Henry Juszkiewicz recalls. “Getting it right took the better part of four years to satisfy him.

“But we’re highly committed to ensuring that the instrument you buy is exactly the instrument the artist is playing. It takes a lot of work to do that.”

Juszkiewicz says a Gibson custom-made signature guitar is also a good value for investor: just recently, Christie’s auctioned a Gibson SG electric played by George Harrison for $567,500.

“On average our Gibson guitars have appreciated 12-17% annually,” says Juszkiewicz.

As far as signature artists are concerned, Jimmy Chamberlin says the advantages of his Yamaha association range from access to a community of musicians to a natural outgrowth of his current career.

“As time goes on and I’m touring less, I’d like to wrap my head around more developmental drums and get more into the Yamaha R&D department,” says Chamberlin, who premieres his signature snare on the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex’s upcoming album Life Begins Again.

“But the snare drum is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll do more snare drums. Then ideally, I’d like to see a Jimmy Chamberlin kit down the road.”

Foo Fighters keep fans and moms on their feet: review

Dave Grohl makes the most of a leg injury, even playing guitar with his cast.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Jul 09 2015

Foo Fighters
3.5 stars
July 8 at the Molson Amphitheatre.

Dave Grohl isn’t going to let little things like a severely broken leg and ankle stop him from rocking the night away.

Lesser musicians would have thrown in the towel and taken the requisite time to heal, but not the Foo Fighters’ founding front man: there he was on stage at the Molson Amphitheatre on Wednesday night for the first of two shows, sitting — with his right leg elevated in a full cast on a contraption that was inspired one part by Game Of Thrones and one part by Dr. Who and The Daleks — flailing away on guitar and singing at the top of his lungs as the first chords of “Everlong” filled the air.

“I haven’t given up yet!” he screamed to the crowd in between verses of the song, the first of 23 that would keep the 16,000 in attendance standing on their feet for the next three hours: “You’re getting a show, motherf—-s!”

And did he deliver on his promise, compensating for his immobility since the June 12 accident in Sweden with an adrenaline-fueled concert that featured extended workouts of Foo Fighters hits like “Learn To Fly” and “The Best Of You,” his five-piece support — guitarists Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mandel, drummer Taylor Hawkins and Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee — as taut and disciplined as one would imagine.

They also rocked some classic covers — David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure,” Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl,” Rod Stewart and The Faces’ “Stay With Me,” and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” (Geddy Lee’s mom was sitting side stage next to Dave’s mom, the singer happily pointed out.)

Although he was forced to spend most of the concert in the chair — there was a brief acoustic set of “My Hero” and “Times Like These” where Grohl hobbled up to the front of the stage on crutches, which he broke and threw into the crowd — one of the most frequent visions of the singer was the top of his head bouncing to the rhythm, his long hair obscuring his instrument, as he was strumming along to his band’s aggressive, melodic rock, his “good” leg swinging violently as the group picked up the pace, with “Monkey Wrench” and “All My Life” performed with particular gusto.

He also told some great stories, and brought along film and photos of the accident and subsequent hospital stay. In fact, let it be said that not only does Dave Grohl have a great sense of humour, but also a spirited entrepreneurial reflex. The North American leg of this Sonic Highways tour has been unofficially re-christened the “Break A Leg” tour; the backstage laminates feature a wheelchair illustration and at least two $30 t-shirts are emblazoned with an accident reference, with one sporting the X-ray of Grohl’s injured limb.

During “This is a Call,” Grohl turned his cast into an instrument, rubbing his guitar against it during an extended solo. He even adjusted the first verse of “These Days” accordingly, hilariously singing, “One of these days you’re going to jump off the stage and break your ankle.”

Despite the physical setback, Grohl and the rest of the Foos gave the audience a healthy reminder of what real rock ’n’ roll is: a relentless combination of fury and zeal performed with unbridled passion.

The only negative: a handful of songs — especially the few that drummer Hawkins sang — were so severely under-mixed to the point where they were rendered unintelligible, as the band’s music drowned out the vocals.

Otherwise, Dave Grohl and his Foo Fighters did a superb job of raising the bar of professionalism for their peers: personal injury no longer has a leg to stand on as a viable excuse for canceling tours.

Foo Fighters keep fans and moms on their feet: review | Toronto Star

Tobias Jesso Jr. captivates crowd in solo show: review

The young performer has plenty of room to grow, but the charisma he exudes is certainly half the battle in advancing his career.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Mar 23 2015

Tobias Jesso Jr.
3 stars
At the Drake Hotel Underground, Sunday, March 22.

Tobias Jesso Jr. knows how to charm his audience.

About a half-hour prior to Sunday’s show at the Drake Underground, the 29-year-old Vancouver-born piano balladeer wasn’t holed up in a change room somewhere, fighting butterflies or playing whatever mental games performers use to psych themselves up to take to the stage.

No, the former bass player of The Sessions was out mingling with the sold-out audience who had paid to see him: shaking hands, offering hugs, signing copies of his acclaimed debut album Goon and talking about his music.

His 55-minute set, consisting largely of material from that album, was pretty similar in nature, save for the shaking hands and offering hugs bit, as he proved to be an adept conversationalist with a decent sense of humour, and one who wasn’t afraid to publically fess up his flaws, considering — his trio of appearances at SXSW this past week included — that this is his first tour and these are some of his first ever solo shows.

“I just got back from SXSW where I screwed up a song five times,” he told the partisan crowd of hipsters near the start of his 10 p.m. performance. “You guys will be getting better than that tonight, at least.”

Later he identified “True Love” as the culprit just prior to its performance, and yes, he performed it flawlessly.

But his predilection for spontaneity was first evident in his opening number, the John Lennon-esque “Can We Still Be Friends.”

Midway through the song, Jesso played a chord progression familiar to fans of the TV show Cheers.

“This is the ‘Cheers’ theme cameo; I swear I didn’t know that when I wrote it,” he joked, then continued with the singing.

Another sample of his deadpan humour: “My ex-girlfriend and her new husband are in the audience tonight. Excuse me while I write a song.”

While he may have a flair for stand-up comedy, Jesso’s music has been the magnet that has attracted the attention of such luminaries as Adele, Girls’ Chet “JR” White and The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney for collaboration or praise.

Jesso’s songs are as straightforward and as simple as they come: very basic melodies that have no subtext or hidden meaning beyond what the singer and songwriter is expressing. Whether they’re exceptional songs is a matter of opinion, but what’s undeniable is the additional soulfulness Jesso brings as a performer.

Using his electric grand piano as his palette (he also switched to guitar for a couple of numbers, including “The Wait”), Jesso sang with added intensity and urgency when it was called for, and the crowd response of rapt attention was so impressive you could have heard a pin drop.

The Adele favourite “How Could You Babe,” “Just a Dream” and “Without You” all jumped out with stronger force than the song before it, relying on Jesso’s confidence and focus as the propellant, thus building the show’s momentum to its eventual apex with “Hollywood,” a rare tune in the Tobias Jesso Jr. catalogue that had little to do with romance.

It’s obvious that Jesso has plenty of room to grow as a writer, performer and showman, but the charisma he exudes is certainly half the battle in advancing his career.

Whether the informal atmosphere of his current show continues as he eventually graduates to bigger venues and hires a band remains to be seen, but there will probably be a day in the not-too-distant future where patrons who attended the concert will reminisce nostalgically, sigh, and perhaps boast a little, in declaring, “We saw Tobias Jesso Jr. back before he was…”

Tobias Jesso Jr. captivates crowd in solo show: review | Toronto Star

Homegrown acts Moist, Tea Party return after long absences

New touring circuits, more cash and ego spark musical reunion craze.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Nov 20 2014

With the imminent return to Toronto of acts like Moist and The Tea Party after lengthy hiatuses, reunion fever is running high.

While it isn’t necessarily a new trend, many domestic and international acts are mending fences in 2014 and flaunting new leases on life.

Whether it’s the recent return of Christine McVie to the Fleetwood Mac fold, Queen resurfacing with Adam Lambert or the Spandau Ballet reunion that hits Toronto in February, there are common denominators explaining a band’s decision to get back together, including new touring circuits and better cash for bookings, says veteran music industry observer Larry LeBlanc.

“Nowadays the casino business is a huge business and it loves the heritage acts,” says LeBlanc, a senior CelebrityAccess writer. “In some cases, those groups end up making more money today than they made back then. At the same time, the money being paid today is astronomical from what it was.”

But LeBlanc says the motivating factor to reunite may be a simpler one: ego.

“It all goes back to nobody wants to go work in a hardware store,” he laughs. “I’m serious. Once you’ve been in the spotlight, and the spotlight may get smaller and smaller, but to be removed from it is very unnerving.”

Homegrown acts Moist and The Tea Party are returning after absences of 13 and seven years, respectively, and with new albums.

MOIST

For Moist, which performs at the Danforth Music Hall Saturday night on the heels of its new Glory Under Dangerous Skies, the reconsolidation came following a get-together for drinks in 2013.

“I started do to solo projects and I got drawn away by all sorts of different things,” singer David Usher, who has released seven solo albums, said Tuesday. “Everyone else did too, which in my mind is a very natural thing. You want to try new things as an artist at a certain point.

“But we’ve remained friends. Kevin (Young, Moist’s original keyboardist) plays in my band, and then every year we’re having a drink and it always comes up that we should play a show. Last summer was the first time when everyone said, ‘Yeah, let’s play a show.’ Then that turned into six shows over Christmas.”

Those six shows featured original members Usher, Young, guitarist Mark Makoway and bassist Jeff Pearce, along with newer members Francis Fillion on drums and second guitarist Jonathan Gallivan. Pearce has since dropped out and been replaced by bassist Louis Lalancette.

According to Usher, whose band burst onto the Canadian scene with the driving hit “Push” and the bestselling album Silver, the concerts and favourable fan reaction sparked the desire to reconvene for recording and touring, which demanded more of a commitment than Pearce was willing to give.

“It was kind of an unspoken thing that we just naturally wanted to get back into the studio and write together again,” says Usher. “After the Christmas show, we did four days of writing in Montreal and the songs were coming so quickly that we really felt that we were coming into a record cycle. When we started talking about going back on the road, that was more than Jeff was really up for. He’s got a young family. He still remembers that this band tends to take over your life.”

TEA PARTY

Windsor’s Tea Party, performing at the Kool Haus on Nov. 27, reunited in 2012 with original members Jeff Martin, Jeff Burrows and Stuart Chatman, and has already issued a live album of its Australian tour

.
They spent the better part of 2014 in Australia — nowadays singer, guitarist and songwriter Martin calls Perth home — and Toronto’s Revolution Studios recording The Ocean at the End, their first studio album since 2004’s Seven Circles.

Speaking on the phone en route to a Halifax gig, Martin said the band members entered their hiatus acrimoniously, but missing friendships and the urge to create paved the way for their reunion.

Their motivation to reconnect was “the fact that we couldn’t stand to be away from each other anymore or the music that we’ve made or the music that we could make once again,” says Martin.

“I think that the three of us as individuals did a lot of maturing and soul-searching during our seven-year hiatus. At the end, we really couldn’t have been further apart. It just didn’t feel like the band anymore. It was too many cooks in the kitchen and I wanted that Tea Party back that was of the era of Edges of Twilight/Transmission where we were just firing on all cylinders, when I was the captain of the ship and that was it.

“It took awhile for us to come back to something like that, but we certainly have it now. It’s great.”

Martin says that unlike many bands, economics weren’t a factor in the Tea Party reunion.

“It’s the work ethic, the love of making the type of music we can make,” Martin explains. “The Tea Party is a pretty successful band; we don’t need the money. We’re not doing this for anything else except for art. We did the record on our own terms, made the record we wanted to make and now the three of us are just having a blast.”

Homegrown acts Moist, Tea Party return after long absences | Toronto Star

Oh Susanna beats cancer to sing other people’s songs

Oh Susanna’s Suzie Ungerleider had to delay her Namedropper album — with contributions from Ron Sexsmith, Joel Plaskett, Melissa McClelland and others — for treatment, but she finally debuts it in concert on Saturday.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Oct 23 2014

When Oh Susanna performs Saturday night at the Great Hall, Suzie Ungerleider will be celebrating not only a sparkling new album called Namedropper, but successful treatment for breast cancer.

It was about 18 months ago, during the late stages of mixing the new Jim Bryson-produced album, a collection of 14 original songs written specifically for Ungerleider by numerous respected Canadian songwriters, that the Massachusetts-born, Vancouver-raised, west-end Toronto resident was diagnosed.

“I discovered a lump in my breast, had it checked out and it turned out to be cancer,” said Ungerleider, who will be celebrating her 44th birthday Saturday, during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.

“I went through surgery and chemo and genetic testing and radiation — I did it all. And the message the doctors gave me is, ‘We’re going to do all the stuff because, medically, you’re very young and we feel it will give you a long life afterwards.’”

Ungerleider concluded treatment “around Valentine’s Day” this year and her cancer is in remission, finally enabling her to focus on launching the Kickstarter-funded Namedropper after being forced to sit on its release for a year.

The project, her sixth album, is a respite from the gloomy and transformative Appalachian-flavoured folk and alt-country balladry on which she has built her considerable North American and European following.

The new originals, contributed by the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Royal Wood, the husband-and-wife Whitehorse team of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, Jim Cuddy and many others, certainly sound a little brighter and more pop-oriented than Ungerleider’s signature sound.

It was part of the game plan, although the Juno-nominated singer and songwriter admits she initially had a different vision.

“I had this idea for several years where I wanted to make a record of songs by people I know, but I was just going to choose songs of my friends that I loved,” says Ungerleider.

But it was producer Bryson who suggested commissioning the originals from the writers.

“I said, ‘that’s a great idea. Can you ask them?’” Ungerleider recalls, a hearty laugh resonating over the phone.

“It turned into a whole different ballgame when that happened. I got to put on different masks and it was really fun and liberating.”

The choice of Ottawa-based Bryson, an artist in his own right, as producer, reflected her desire to stretch artistically.

“I wanted someone who was going to make me do what’s a little less comfortable for me, push me and make it sound interesting and less folkie than I probably would otherwise,” Ungerleider admits.

“I love Jim’s creativity and I said to him, ‘I think you should do this because you’re kind of bizarre and way weirder than I am,’” she laughs. “He loves doing weird stuff sonically.”

In terms of approaching songwriters like Joel Plaskett, Nathan’s Keri Latimer and Amelia Curran, Ungerleider only imposed one imperative.

“The requirement was that I’d know the people personally, but not necessarily super well,” she explains. “Some of the people that Jim suggested I couldn’t do because I didn’t know them. But he started out with his list, and then I’d run into people and say, ’Oh, maybe you want to do this, too.’ Then suddenly, it was, ‘Oh, we’re asking too many people.’ So in the end, we had too much stuff. We couldn’t get it all done, but it was a good problem to have.”

Bryson and Ungerleider also wanted to avoid “slow, waltzy songs” and have the writers “think outside the box, because that was the whole idea of the project.”

For Sexsmith’s “Wait Until The Sun Comes Up,” he consulted his Stephen Foster songbook; Cuddy’s “Dying Light” “feels more autobiographical than his normal material,” Ungerleider says, and Melissa McClelland’s rocking “Mozart for the Cat” was inspired by Ungerleider’s son Sal, who was born three months premature.

“There were some stories that were personal, and some where we let the writers do what they wanted to do and get the inspiration however they wanted it.”

Saturday night’s show — which will include Bryson on guitars and keys, bassist Eli Abrams, Ungerleider’s husband Cam Giroux on drums and The Good Lovelies’ Caroline Brooks on harmonies, along with “some people showing up and doing stuff” — is a precursor to tours of Western Canada, the U.K. in January and the Netherlands next spring.

But it also gets the Sonic Unyon recording artist back in the swing of things, to the point where she’s experiencing a new zest for writing.

“I am kind of a lazy person,” she laughs. “I wanted to get the joy back in writing.
“Sometimes I beat myself up about writing, and I feel that going through this illness made me realize that I needed to change my thoughts, have it be more of a joy and not be so overwrought about it.

“Sometimes writing for me can be difficult because I take a serious tone with it. But this was a lovely way to have some new voices in my head.”

Oh Susanna beats cancer to sing other people’s songs | Toronto Star

Bryan Ferry’s band elevates live show to something truly magical

Music the youthful elixir that keeps Bryan Ferry rocking, with help from a stellar eight-piece backing band.

Nick Krewen

Music, Special to the Star, Published on Fri Sep 26 2014

There’s strength in numbers.

You’ll get no argument from anyone that, on the very eve of his 69th birthday, Bryan Ferry was the star attraction of Thursday night’s sold-out Massey Hall show.

But the truth of the matter is that Ferry’s stellar eight-piece band played such an integral role in elevating the occasion from a great performance into something so truly magical that they almost earned equal billing in their own right.

Not only did they keep up with and sometimes surpass the Roxy Music frontman in terms of energy over the 85 minutes of material that leaned heavily on Ferry’s art rock group past — with the occasional nod to his soon-to-be-15-album solo career — but their joyful enthusiasm alone threw enough gasoline on the fire that the singer looked like a genius for hiring them.

It all added up to an infectious, celebratory evening of great music that pleased nostalgic Roxy enthusiasts to no end, as indicated from the opening blast of “Re-make/Re-model” from the band’s self-titled debut; Ferry would delve deep and often into the catalogue.

True, guitarist Jake Quistgaard is no Phil Manzanera and saxophonist/keyboardist Jorja Chalmers is no Andy Mackay, but they certainly provided enough fresh vigour with their own interpretations that — dare I say it — the mainstays weren’t missed.

Dressed in a floral tuxedo jacket and grey slacks, the lanky and dashing Ferry relished his time feeding off the vibe as well, swaying and rocking to the groove of the music as he slid into “Kiss And Tell” and “Slave to Love” while his two backing vocalists — Bobbie Gordon and Jodie Scantlebury — put on a show of their own with their well-timed, yet seemingly free-flowing choreography.

Fuelled by the propellant of firecracker drummer Cherisse Osei’s hammering beats, and the anchored support of veteran Ferry bassist Guy Pratt, the singer, who alternated between entertaining at the microphone and taking up residence at an electric piano for songs like “More Than This,” was buoyed by the interplay. His tremolo tenor, smoother these days, sounded as strong as ever, although truthfully, the overall sound mix could have been crisper.

But there were a number of times — whether it was a slower take on the Robert Palmer hit “Johnny and Mary” that’s due to appear on his upcoming November album Avonmore, or a slightly accelerated version of Avalon’s “Take A Chance With Me” — that Ferry seemed as lost in the music as his fervent, older audience, and ageless as he rocked the house with a spirited “Love Is the Drug” or a rugged “Virginia Plain.”

He may have been romantically linked to any number of beautiful models throughout his life, but clearly music is the mistress about whom Bryan Ferry remains most passionate.

If there was any complaint, it’s that the show could have gone on a little longer.

After an all-too-brief encore of covers that paired Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together” with a somewhat sombre rendition of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” brought the house to its feet again, Ferry and his merry band left the audience wanting more.

But one gets the feeling he’ll be back as long as his health holds and, for this concert, Ferry gave the impression that music is his youthful elixir.

Bryan Ferry’s band elevates live show to something truly magical | 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

Mötley Crüe shout at the devil one last time

The band’s All Bad Things Must End tour gave Toronto fans quite the send-off last night. Opener Alice Cooper gave a masterful performance, too.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Aug 11 2014

Mötley Crüe/Alice Cooper
Molson Canadian Amphitheatre
Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014
3 stars

If the All Bad Things Must End tour is truly the final hurrah for Hollywood heavy-metal mavens Mötley Crüe, then that was quite the send-off they gave their fans Sunday night at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre.

For two hours on the nose, the 33-year-old quartet of singer Vince Neil, 53; guitarist Mick Mars, 63; bass player Nikki Sixx, 55 and drummer Tommy Lee, 51, personified the notion that excess makes the heart grow fonder.

There could never be enough eardrum-rupturing flashpot explosions; no shortage of shooting plumes of flame; no cap on showers of fireworks raining down on the stage, for the band to feel that they were doing anything short of a disservice to the 16,000 plus that filled the venue.

With their amps turned up to “11” (and from my second-section vantage point, the instruments always turned up loud enough to wash out most of Neil’s high-pitched singing), these Dukes of Debauchery spared no expense on the pyrotechnic-heavy visuals, to the point of demanding that their two leggy and busty female harmony singer-dancers frequently change their costumes.

And the crowd, perhaps eager in this era of musically political correctness to cut loose and be transported back in time to relive their heavy-metal fantasies – or maybe just realizing that this could be a historic occasion in terms of the final Crüe appearance in Toronto – returned the love tenfold.

With some of the men wearing throwback wigs and some of the women squeezing into low-cut dresses they first wore decades ago, they partied like it was the ’80s glam-metal scene again: singing at the top of their lungs with Neil to “Wild Side,” dancing in their seats and on top of each other during “Shout At The Devil,” hoisting their beer cups and high-fiving each other at the sheer celebration of witnessing their anti-heroes in action.

“How many of you out there are crazy mother*$%!ers?” Neil asked rhetorically at about the midway point of the 20-song set, as if he didn’t know the response he would get.

Neil and Sixx – the former realizing that he looked long-in-the-tooth enough to forego the glam makeup of his youth, the latter failing to heed that same lesson – spent their time stalking the stage and working the crowd, leaving Mars to worry about chugging out the chunky riffs and leads of anthems like “Dr. Feelgood” and “Kickstart My Heart” and Lee to pound out the rhythms from the giant riser.

And yes, in keeping with tradition, Lee’s solo consisted of being attached to “The Cobra,” a long, steel-necked track that enabled the drum kit to slide up high above the stage, rotate 360 degrees, and allow him to demonstrate his gravity-defying stick-handling prowess. . . although, to his credit, he played along with pre-recorded music rather than the usual 180-beat-per-second exhibition that drummers are prone to do.

Another highlight was Nikki Sixx’s spot, as he unapologetically and colourfully told the story of Mötley Crüe’s birth, expressing his gratitude for “just being alive,” although his version of events ignored some of the later acrimony that the band endured and ultimately survived.

There was no bad blood to be spilled on this night, and as the band took its final bow on a small b-stage in the middle of the crowd, serenading them with “Home Sweet Home,” one wondered if this is the grand finale or just a short break on the road to Reunionville.

It’s with no small sense of irony that their warm-up act, the eternally ageless and legendary Alice Cooper, is unofficially celebrating his 50th year in music, and shows no signs of slowing down.

In fact, ol’ Black Eyes seems to be getting better with age, performing a tight, 13-song set that focused on his string of early ’70s rock anthems – “Hello Hooray,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “I’m Eighteen” among them – and an emphasis on his usual theatrics.

Featuring a tight five-piece band with three guitarists, including Nita Strauss, Cooper emerged wearing a red-pinstripe suit and spats. Before the next 50 minutes were over, he’d be wearing a lab coat, a straitjacket, a boa constrictor (and man, that snake was huge!), be assaulted by a zombie nurse, be transformed into a gigantic Frankenstein monster, and lose his head via guillotine.

It was a masterful performance, and somewhat of a homecoming for the Detroit-born star, whose Toronto connection, producer Bob Ezrin, was silently recognized during the finale of “School’s Out” that segued into Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” both Ezrin productions

.
So, while Mötley Crüe grinds to a full stop in early 2015, Alice Cooper turns into Dorian Gray. Something tells me this may not be the last time we see this motley bunch.

Mötley Crüe shout at the devil one last time | Toronto Star