Country-music stalwart Brett Kissel says he’s done looking for U.S. breakthrough

Canadian hitmaker says his new album is utterly true to himself — but he’s sure it will put him on ‘big stages, big festivals and arenas’ somewhere.

Nick Krewen, Music

 

There aren’t too many artists who can boast of an appearance by heavy metal guitarist Dave Mustaine and country music legend Charley Pride on the same album.

In fact, Flat Lake, Alta.’s country music sensation Brett Kissel is probably the only one: his new album We Were That Song features both guests on separate tracks.

Margaret Malandruccolo photographer

The 83-year-young Pride contribution to the album-ending reflective ballad “Burgers and Fries” probably isn’t so surprising, considering that Kissel grew up on a steady diet of Charley, Waylon Jennings and his all-time favourite Johnny Cash on the cattle ranch that has been in his family for over 100 years.

The rock-edged “Damn!,” however is a left-field choice that the married father of two reveals stemmed from an unlikely friendship with the Megadeth founder.

“I couldn’t believe that Dave offered to play guitar,” Kissel said recently at a downtown Starbucks. He returns to the city for two performances, including a matinee, at the Danforth Music Hall on Feb. 17.

“We were in Scotland together at a songwriting retreat with his daughter Electra (an aspiring country music singer). We’d become friends a year earlier, but it was here he asked, ‘So, when are you going to ask me to play guitar on one of your records?’”

Mustaine had only one condition.

“It’s got to be the most rockin’ track you’ve ever written,’” the 27-year-old Kissel says with a chuckle as he relates the story.

 While the distorted crunch of Mustaine’s guitar certainly energizes “Damn!” — a complimentary, upbeat song about a desired woman — it’s not out of place on the 13-track We Were That Song, an album where action-packed tempos outnumber the ballads.

Whether it’s the song name-dropping title track, the slightly Celtic Mumford-feel of the joyous “Anthem” or more rock-flavoured edge of “Guitars and Gasoline,” this album has a kick that Kissel said was premeditated.

“It’s definitely a very lively record,” says the nine-time Canadian Country Music Award winner, named Male Artist of the Year for the last three years running.

“When it came to song selection, it had to tell a story and it had to have a place in the set list. It’s meant to be cranked up loud and it’s meant to be played live.”

Kissel, who earned his first CCMA Rising Star nomination at the age of 16 following more than 70,000 in sales of his first three independent albums, makes no bones about the payoff he anticipates for We Were That Song, his fourth on a major label.

Brett Kissel ©MMFOTO

“This is the album that’s going to do it for us,” he says with a confident humility. “We want to take this not just one level up, but two, three, four levels up!

“We believe this music is ready for some big stages, big festivals and arenas. It’s a lot of everything.”

Now 27, Kissel has spent nearly half his life chasing the brass ring, and the homegrown success of such gold Canadian country music radio staples as “Started With a Song,” “3-2-1,” “Something You Just Don’t Forget” and “Airwaves” among others, as well as exciting shows and cheering crowds, has laid the initial groundwork.

South of the border, though, Kissel has been trying — like so many before him — to second guess what Music City wants out of its suitors. Despite having respected industry veteran Bob Doyle, Garth Brooks’ manager, as his co-manager, it’s been frustrating.

“I’ve been able to have great success here in Canada and it’s been awesome,” says Kissel, who is managed here by Invictus Entertainment Group’s Louis O’ Reilly.

“It definitely wasn’t easy, but I know the steps to take. Whereas in the United States, you think you’ll do these five things and it will lead to this result — I’ll do those five things, whatever’s asked of me — and meet a dead end.”

So rather than attempting to hit a mysterious moving target, Kissel has decided to bet on himself.

We Were That Song embraces the true Brett Kissel. He’s finally being himself without kowtowing to imagined U.S. expectations.

“My last albums (Started With a Song, Pick Me Up) were very special, but I was definitely trying hard,” Kissel admits. “There were elements of honesty there, but not full honesty.

“This album is completely honest, a result of Bob and a lot of other influential people in my life telling me, ‘You’re not going to be happy if you’re not doing what you gotta do. It might be the long way, but you’ve got to forge your own path, be who you are.’”

Kissel says fun-embracing, attitudinal songs like “Shootin’ It” and “Drink, Cuss, or Fish” are representative of the new “looseness” he’s incorporating into his songwriting.

“It’s walking the line of taking different risks on the record and caring more while caring less,” he explains. “I’m caring more about myself and what the fans want to hear, and caring less about being placed in a box.”

Also helping him find his way are the music business tête-à-têtes Kissel has enjoyed with both Brooks and Brad Paisley; he’s toured as an opener for both and Brooks, of course, is country music’s biggest-selling artist.

“Garth was just himself,” Kissel says. “Now that I know the story firsthand from Garth himself; it took a long time to get that traction: for someone to see him as a stock and invest in it, then watch him go to the very top. For the last couple of years, I chased and chased what I thought Nashville, American labels and the American industry wanted me to be. ‘Shootin’ It’ and this entire record is a perfect example of me saying, ‘I don’t care anymore. This is who I am and at least I’m going to be happy putting out this record.’”

Kissel is also taking a page out of the Garth Brooks concert playbook. With his return, Brooks has been performing multiple shows in one tour location, usually over a weekend, sometimes two or three full concerts a day.

In Canada, Kissel is ambitiously attempting the biggest domestic tour ever by a country artist — 100 dates — including 10 to 15 where, like his upcoming Danforth Music Hall shows, he’s staging two full concerts in a day.

Can he handle it?

“I’ve never done it before,” Kissel says. “But if Garth can do it, I’m sure as hell going to try.”

Country-music stalwart Brett Kissel says he’s done looking for U.S. breakthrough | Toronto Star

 

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

Liner notes: FM, Black Noise

FM – Black Noise

 

Oh, the endless possibilities that can be stoked by science fiction.

It’s a realm where imaginations are stimulated, emancipated, and allowed to run wild; where boundaries are stretched and eliminated, and where the inconceivable can become an accomplished reality. It’s a topic that is so entrenched and valued in our society that sci-fi has gifted us with some of our most beloved cultural milestones, be they literary, cinematic, sculpted, painted, televised, or – in the case of Black Noise – musical.

In 1977, the year that the ambitious, timeless and innovative masterpiece Black Noise was conceived and delivered by Toronto-based violinist and mandolin player Nash The Slash; synth player, keyboardist, bass player and singer Cameron Hawkins, and fusion-influenced drummer and percussionist Martin Deller, collectively known as FM – the Star Wars movie franchise had just been launched and Star Trek had eclipsed its TV popularity several times over and was enjoying an unprecedented global run in syndication. Synth-driven, monophonic electronic music, especially in the context of pop and rock music, was still regarded to be in its infancy, although keyboard instruments themselves were on the cusp of polyphony (the ability to play more than one note at a time).  Progressive rock, long presented in elastic, exploratory and sometimes rambling movements that emphasized sonic sculpture and lengthy solos, was turning a corner towards shorter, more economic compositions.

Black Noise championed both worlds with a startling new sound that was both innovative and accessible; a lyrical voyage to the stars that sometimes wordlessly examined its surroundings, and expressed hope for the survival of a species at others.

From the plucked, reverberating ostinato of Nash’s space age mandolin on the classic and radio-friendly “Phasors On Stun,” through the glockenspiel-driven “One O’ Clock Tomorrow,” the warp-speed “Journey” and the epic three-movement opus of the title track, the eight-song album has been a touchstone of inspiration and resonance to the public and fellow Canadian groundbreakers, ranging from Saga and Strange Advance to rock superstars Rush, making for an impressive legacy.

There’s also a deserved sense of pride among its makers.

“We’re here 37 years later, still talking about this music? It’s astounding,” says FM co-founder Cam Hawkins.

“I’m impressed by the longevity. The fact that it still around, still sounds fresh, still makes sense. It doesn’t sound like it’s old pop or anything like that.  In some ways, it had two essential ingredients: one was courage, and one was love. We loved the music that we listened to. We wanted to make that kind of music. We did it because that’s the music we felt inside us.”

Martin Deller, who contributed the stellar instrumentals “Hours,” “Slaughter In Robot Village” and co-wrote “Aldebaran,” says Black Noise was ambitious and encapsulated “a particular time full of heart and energy and commitment and youth.”

“It was done with a wonderful innocence, too,” Deller continues. “It wasn’t that we were jaded. This was the first big thing for all of us, and looking back, we’re proud of having done this record and what we were able to accomplish. Through the maturity of time, you can look back and say this was an important album. We’re happy that people are still really enjoying it.”

It was the beginning of something that would propel Nash, Hawkins and Deller into musical careers both individually and collectively that would touch people around the world.

While the tangible FM story begins in late ’76 with the introduction of Cameron Hawkins to Nash The Slash, the band’s history actually pre-dates its existence, thanks to a trailblazing CHUM-FM DJ named David Pritchard and an album called Nocturnal Earthworm Stew.

            Pritchard was an eclectic musician in his own right, using his bedroom as the studio laboratory to concoct his sonically adventurous soup. Aside from achieving the historic milestone of being the first Canadian album issued by Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, Nocturnal Earthworm Stew also features guest appearances by Nash The Slash, Deller and an uncredited Hawkins, although each of the participants made their contributions independently.

“It was a very classic example of an early independent,” says notes Deller. “David did it in his bedroom. I came in, played tracks, then he took them, flipped them upside down and had Nash play on them. Cam came in and played. None of us played in the session together.”

Cameron Hawkins’ first real awareness of Jeff Plewman, a.k.a. Nash The Slash, was witnessing him perform in the band Breathless, the opener for Scrubbaloe Caine at the Ontario Place Forum, a much-missed venue noted for its circular, rotating stage and unobstructed sightlines.

“There was this maniac out there on the violin, who, for a finale, blew a flame out of his mouth and set his violin on fire,” Hawkins recalls.

“Some of those flames fell off into the audience, several of whom jumped up and patted themselves out.”

Hawkins was neither impressed nor amused.

“I thought it was disgusting,” he recalls. “That’s not music – it’s theatre.  I’d never play in a band like that.”

But Nash was all about the performance art: aside from his Breathless commitment, Nash had taken up residency at the Roxy Theatre located on Danforth Avenue, where he also lived in an apartment behind the projection room. His legendary one-man shows found him dressed in a top hat and a tux, composing his own soundtracks to silent films.

Obviously, Hawkins’ curiosity was piqued. He invited Nash, whom he remembered was sporting “long, curly blond hair,” to sit in on a video shoot with Hawkins’ current band Clear. Later, the duo hightailed it back to Nash’s Roxy apartment – heavily decorated with Mike Hammer horror film posters – and over the course of the next six months, wrote some of the seminal songs that would appear on Black Noise: “Phasors On Stun,” “One O’Clock Tomorrow” and “Black Noise.”

The duo worked their magic on a Mini-Moog, an Elka Rhapsody string machine with a set of bass pedals, a sequencer and an analog synthesizer “that could repeat up to 16 notes endlessly,” Hawkins recalls. Nash provided his stringed menagerie consisting of the violin, the mandolin, an Echoplex and a drum machine that Hawkins remembers had settings like “Bossa Nova” and “samba.”

“Nash could turn it into a “thunder machine,’” marveled Hawkins.

“The string machine kind of sounded like a wheezy organ, but if you triggered and filtered it and plugged it into the Mini-Moog, and played the notes on Mini-Moog of what I did on the bass, you anticipated what polyphonic could do.

“So for a very brief period of time, we took a bit of an ingenious approach and it was what made us stand out. We also let the capabilities of the technology write the music. So we’d have songs that were at least five minutes long – sometimes, twice as long – and whatever Nash was playing on the Echoplex would loop around so we’d actually get two Nashes playing live on stage.

“We weren’t really following any rules, except for one: what sounds was the technology telling us to make?”

When it came to performance, Nash — still four years away from adopting the mummified bandage look that would become his trademark – schooled Hawkins about showmanship.

“I learned a lot from Nash about the performance side,” Hawkins acknowledges. “It’s not just what people hear, it’s what they see: It’s about the show. For the first six months that Nash and I wrote those songs, it was just hard work making music. But when we did shows, there was a rear screen that projected movies and slides…it was important to entertain people as well as play them good music.”

FM, named after radio frequency modulation at a time when it was most experimental, continued on as a duo, appearing on TV Ontario’s NightMusic with host Reiner Schwarz and booking a three-night run at the A Space Gallery on Richmond St., where a multitude of Canadian record company A&R reps, those emboldened with the power to sign new acts, witnessed their show, heaped praised upon them and promptly told them that they wouldn’t be contracted to any deal unless they incorporated a drummer.

“Nash and I thought that was a fair assessment,” Hawkins recalls.

Enter Martin Deller, an accomplished stickman with a jazz pedigree who had a weekly gig with a blues band called Cueball and occasionally sat in with Hawkins and Nash. He passed the FM litmus test by proving he could complement the metronomic and rudimentary drum machine rhythms, as well as injecting his own persona into the mix.

“I remember when we were doing ‘Dialing for Dharma’ and that song features a sequencer. And I remember them thinking, ‘oh, how is he going to react to this?’ I walked out of the booth and both Cam and Nash had an ear-to-ear grin, going, ‘well, he fucking nailed that one.’”

After Deller joined in early ’77, the next six months were spent playing clubs around Toronto and quickly establishing themselves as a must-see act. It should be noted that the 1970s was a sensational decade for working musicians: the club scene was healthy, and bands would enjoy six-day residencies in most taverns that would enable them to practice in front of an audience, hone their chops to impeccable standards.

Returning to the A-Space run for a moment, there was one other audience member who would prove to be an important catalyst in getting FM into the studio.

Keith Whiting had recently arrived from England and his producer position at Decca Records, bringing with him future Juno Award-winning engineer Mike Jones in tow. Whiting was about to preside over national broadcaster CBC Radio’s recording division.

CBC Records, however, was unlike any other record company, in that its federally-mandated purpose was not to compete with other labels, but chiefly providing programming for CBC stations across Canada.

How it worked: usually a jazz or classical act would be booked at a CBC recording studio, cut three or four songs that would be compiled onto an anthology, and then that anthology would be issued on a minimum pressing run (averaging 500-1000 copies) and distributed for airplay, with a few copies left over for potential mail order sales.

Whiting, who had served as an assistant engineer on No Answer, the debut Electric Light Orchestra album, and a producer for Dusty Springfield and many others, was hooked from the moment he witnessed the FM experience.

“I was knocked out with it right from the start,” Whiting recalls.  “As soon as I got an opportunity to do something with them, we did. They were good musicians and they had that material for a while.”

Whiting remembers an FM audition tape floating around the CBC, which helped expedite the sessions. He also went a few steps further than his predecessor Hedley Jones, who was also very aware of FM: not only did Whiting feel that the trio deserved an entire album of their own, but he also successfully argued with his superiors that FM deserved more than what the antiquated CBC recording studio equipment could provide.

“FM brought Marty Deller on; we got a small budget from CBC, booked Sounds Interchange (on Adelaide Street) for a week and did the album,” Whiting remembers.

Actually, it was a tad more than a week, but even at 10 to 12 days – eight for recording, two for mixing – there was no room for error. As Whiting recalls, however, FM was up to the task.

“The sessions were quite frantic,” Whiting recalls with a laugh, noting that the “record” button was pressed at around 2 p.m. each day and that the sessions would conclude sometime around 6 a.m.

“We put in really long hours, and it got pretty crazy. To let off steam in the middle of the night, we’d have ‘bog roll’ fights: we’d go around the studios throwing toilet paper rolls at each other at 3 a.m. You couldn’t do too much damage,” he chuckles.

The vestiges of time have impacted the associated memories of those involved to recall exactly which song was the first to be worked on, but Keith Whiting does remember the sessions pretty much sailing along without too many glitches, mainly due to FM’s solid prep work.

“The band had played around the Toronto scene as a three-piece for about six months and the songs were for the most part, worked out,” Hawkins remembers. “Marty and I would rehearse, just the two of us without Nash, to make sure that we got the bed tracks right.

“Plus, we were in our mid-20s, so the sessions were spirited:  we knew that we were getting the opportunity that we were looking for. We had a lot of fun recording the record.”

However, there ended up being one major hitch that ended up shocking both Hawkins and Deller. Cameron Hawkins picks up the story…

“I was playing pinball at the studio to let steam off, and someone came in and said,   ‘Cam, it’s time for the synth solo in “Slaughter In Robot Village”’, which is one of Marty’s songs.

“And I said, ‘I don’t have a solo in “Slaughter In Robot Village” – Nash does.’ And he said, “You do now, because Nash has left the band.’”

According to Hawkins, Nash’s departure was triggered by a combination of factors: the frustration of repeatedly tuning a mandolin paired with a testy engineer who kept fooling around with the Varispeed control on the analog tape recorder.

“Tuning a mandolin is really hard, because you don’t just have four strings, you have eight strings in pairs, all tuned in unison,” Hawkins explains. “And mandolins are notorious for losing their tuning, so it was very frustrating for Nash. Mike (Jones) had apparently had it with what he perceived to be this prima donna musician thing, flipped the Varispeed up to its proper pitch, let the tape roll, and Nash came in, way out of tune. Nash got frustrated, put the mandolin down, and walked out.”

When Nash left, both Deller and Hawkins thought he was just blowing off steam.

“We’re thinking, ‘oh, he left the building. He’ll come back,” said Deller.

“He didn’t play with us again for six years,” adds Hawkins.

This cone of silence was apparently a Nash quality trait that would be repeated in later years.

“Nash was about moving on,” says Hawkins. “There were times when Nash needed the lift of having collaborators, and when he didn’t, would say, ‘I don’t need it now – I can go back to being Nash The Slash.’”

Deller suggested that the addition of a drummer to what had been a two-man set-up also troubled Nash.

“Nash had a vision when he was doing his solo stuff, and when he meets Cam, he says, ‘Ok, here’s a cool guy,’ and Nash can really easily still incorporate all of his vision. And then I come along, and it just changes it up again: I got the sense that, suddenly, three was a crowd for him, and along with all of that other frustration and pressure, he thought, ‘I‘ll just go and do it my way.’

“He was a very complex guy. He couldn’t maintain that sense of commitment to that larger thing. It seemed to be very characteristic through his career.”

Nash’s lack of involvement with FM post-Black Noise was a conundrum that would later be solved by the addition of future k.d. lang producer and collaborator Ben Mink, but for now, everyone was enjoying the fact that the album sessions were complete and that everything sounded stellar.

“Keith got us in and out in 12 days within budget, made sure we were ready, navigated the politics within the CBC and made it fun to record,” Hawkins remembers. “In fact, we did the next record (Surveillance) with almost the same set up.

“I think that spoke to his success as a producer. He never got in the way. There’s a deft touch to that.”

After completing a stereo mix and a quadrophonic mix (the latter mix is still M.I.A. 37 years later, as are the album master tapes), Whiting and the CBC pressed up 500 copies of the album sporting a different cover than the publicly familiar Paul Till artwork.

Whiting, FM manager Malcolm Glassford and the band then shopped the disc to every Canadian and U.S. record company and heard…nothing.

Finally, Passport Records, a New Jersey based indie label specializing in imported British art and progressive rock, picked up the album for the U.S., and eventually distributed it in Canada through GRT.

But here’s the irony: the Canadian arrival of Black Noise in 1978 meant that it wasn’t the first FM album to be released domestically. In the time it took to secure a record deal, Hawkins, Deller and Mink had been afforded the opportunity to record and release Direct To Disc, an album that bypassed the usual analogue tape recording method and was cut directly to vinyl.

However, Direct To Disc, with its two 15-minute compositions, fell short of having the immediate impact of Black Noise, which received instant radio airplay due to the classic single “Phasors On Stun,” and eventually drove album sales to Canadian gold (50,000 copies sold) and probably platinum (100,000 copies) levels.  (FM would be continually plagued by their numerous future record companies declaring insolvency, thus making the maintenance of accurate accounting suspect at the best of times).

This current reissue of Black Noise, lovingly re-mastered by Peter Moore (Cowboy Junkies) and distributed by Conveyor Canada on compact disc and digitally, is additionally significant for its bonus material: two live recordings and longer versions of “Phasors On Stun” and “Black Noise,” recorded at the defunct Larry’s Hideaway on Toronto’s Carlton Street a mere two weeks before the CBC sessions, are included here to offer a glimpse of the true depth of FM’s experimental nature.  (The 180 gram vinyl version will be true to the original album release and not include the extra tracks).

“We had this jam sense,” recalls Martin Deller. “There was this wonderful element of improvisation. In classical music, you have something called the coda, which is a section added to the end of a piece where the soloist who is featured gets to riff on the themes of the composer’s music.  FM would do this in the middle, so ‘Black Noise’ features this internal coda, if you will, where we go into the spacy section. That was a very appealing piece for all of us, and it was really apparent at this time.”

Because vinyl was limited to approximately 25 minutes a side back in the 1970s, Whiting was forced to condense some of FM’s arrangements.

“’Phasors’ used to have a five-minute spacy introduction with percussion and Nash making whispering sounds into a microphone,” Deller recalls.

“On ‘Black Noise,’ Nash is manipulating the drum machine, and we were still in the process of working out the arrangement.”

Adds Hawkins, “These two extra versions really offers people an insight into the real roots of the band: 10-to-15-minute explorations in real time with real inspiration. And these releases are dedicated to Nash, who passed away in May 2014, and whose spirit is definitely captured in these recordings.”

Still energetic, animated and passionate; still wonderfully cosmic and freshly imaginative for those who enjoy open frontiers and great music, the magical Black Noise remains a thoughtful gateway of – and to – the imagination, and the notion that the future has yet to be written.

I thought it was pretty cool music,” says Martin Deller. “It was experimental music people would like because it had a melody. It was refreshing, it was rock and it had a jazzy element as well, which I think you can really hear on Black Noise, between the classical and the synth.”

For Cameron Hawkins, Black Noise symbolizes a call to action.

“To me, what it represents is the truth of a theorem: if you want to do something, do it. To me, Black Noise is something that is bigger than all of us who participated in the record. There’s always a benefit to creating.”

 

.

Nick Krewen

The Sweet Smell of Success

The Sweet Smell Of Success
October 22, 2009

Recording artists bottle their success

GRAMMY.com
Nick Krewen

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have not only experienced the sweet smell of success, they’ve bottled it.

Country music’s first couple has a couple of new scents on the market — Faith Hill Parfums is her first and Southern Blend is his second — and they are just two of the music celebrities that have been tapped by Coty Inc., the world’s largest fragrance manufacturer with annual net sales of approximately $4 billion.

The list of artists sporting one or more of their own perfume or cologne brands run from the obvious (Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani) to the enterprising (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z and Usher) to the unexpected (rapper Daddy Yankee, guitar shaman Carlos Santana and cosmetic rockers KISS).

The fragrance industry also seems to be impartial to genre, with American soprano Renée Fleming, pop/punk princess Avril Lavigne, hip-hop icon Queen Latifah and influential innovator Prince all offering aromatic toiletries for public consumption.

Why are stars so keen to extend their aural appeal to the nasal? Well, there’s the obvious answer: money. Fashion newspaper Women’s Wear Daily speculates that Beyoncé‘s upcoming Coty fragrance will be one of 2010’s most-anticipated spring debuts and could earn her $20 million over three years.

Karen Grant, vice president and global beauty industry analyst for the NPD Group, says helping to create a representative scent can be another expressive outlet.

“Sometimes celebrities say, ‘We’re not just about making another record,’ so being associated with a fragrance is a statement saying, ‘We’re an artist. We’re looking at this as an expression of our artistic talent.’

“It’s a great way to earn huge recognition across the country. And fans, who may not have the new album, can have a little piece of that celebrity as well.”

In many cases, it’s an affordable piece of celebrity. A 1.7-ounce bottle of McGraw’s Southern Blend — described as “a vibrant burst of grapefruit, star anise, and bergamot” that also incorporate touches of lavender, violet leaves, whiskey accord, vetiver, fresh amber, and tobacco to “create the ideal fragrance for the true Southern gentleman” — can be purchased in department stores or online for a suggested retail price of $30.

As Grant notes, this can be very appealing to fans. “If you’re a huge Britney follower, you’d want the scent as well as the albums,” she says.

It was Spears — along with Lopez and her fragrance Glow — who accelerated the trend of companies recruiting contemporary music stars to invent and introduce new fragrances when she entered the market in 2004 with the Elizabeth Arden brand Curious, which earned $100 million in sales within weeks of its release.

“Those two were such huge hits, really, that they helped to ignite this whole trend of associating the musician with these fragrances,” Grant explains. “So I think that’s when both the musicians as well as the manufacturers began to look and say, ‘This seems like it could be a winning lineup.'”

And it’s certainly been victorious for Spears. Women’s Wear Daily reports that more than 10 million bottles of Curious, Fantasy and In Control have been sold since 2005, and Spears has expanded her franchise this year with the additions of Circus Fantasy and Hidden Fantasy.

Since then, approximately 40 artists from Shania Twain to Hilary Duff have taken the plunge, with hit fragrances — like music — tracked weekly by Nielsen SoundScan.

So how do pop and rock stars come to release fragrances?

Steve Mormoris, senior vice president of global marketing at Coty Beauty (whose musical clients besides Hill and McGraw include Celine Dion, Lopez, Kylie Minogue, Stefani, and Twain), says his company approaches artists based on a number of criteria, including role model potential, someone who “holds high values” and how much they embody the essence of femininity or masculinity.

In all cases, he says Coty is looking for a long-term relationship and an artist “who wants to become involved with the fragrance” from development through execution.

With estimated launch costs of “not less than $2 million,” on the line, Mormoris says extensive market research is conducted before a brand is launched. “We don’t put out a fragrance until we’re absolutely certain it’s going to be a success,” he explains, adding that celebrities are usually paid on a royalty basis as opposed to a flat fee as an incentive, “ensuring that artists are involved for the life of the product.”

Mormoris says hits are determined by sales-generated value and market share percentage, rather than number of units sold, and that the average celebrity scent has a shelf life of five to 10 years.

“The exceptions are Stetson and Elizabeth Taylor‘s White Diamonds, which has been the no. 1 fragrance for the past 20 years,” notes Mormoris. “They’re exceptions to the rule.”

While celebrity popularity can drive fragrance sales, packaging also plays a crucial role.

“As new celebrity fragrances come out and they encompass novelty in design and fun, they still do well,” says Grant. “For example, Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers collection was among the best sellers in 2008.

“We do see that younger consumers do tend to resonate with packaging more as well. Since these celebrity fragrances do tend to be more popular with the younger consumer, it’s usually a pretty winning formula.”

Still, there are signs that the celebrity fragrance market may be waning. NPD Group recently reported a 10 percent drop in prestige fragrance retail sales for the first half of 2009.

If sales are flagging, Mormoris hasn’t noticed.

“I keep hearing about it,” laughs Mormoris, who names the Dion and Minogue fragrance lines as two of Coty’s best performers. “But I haven’t seen it.”

(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto Star, TV Guide, Billboard, Country Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board’s music industry documentary Dream Machine.)

Singers For Hire

Singers For Hire
ACTS FORGE AHEAD WITH NEW VOCALISTS AND ENJOY NEW SUCCESSES

October 08, 2009 — 12:00 am PDT

Nick Krewen / GRAMMY.com

At the apex of Styx’s popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the Chicago rockers’ Top 10 hits came from a single songwriting source.

Not only did cofounder Dennis DeYoung pen such Styx hits as “Lady,” “Babe,” “Come Sail Away,” and “Mr. Roboto,” but his signature vocals played a considerable role in the band obtaining significant radio exposure and amassing catalog album sales of more than 17 million units.

Today, however, those attending a Styx concert won’t be serenaded by DeYoung, who left the band after an acrimonious split in 1999, but by Lawrence Gowan, a Canadian vocalist/songwriter.

Just don’t call Gowan a replacement singer.

“I would definitely balk at the term,” says Gowan. “I’m into my 11th year, and we’ve played over 1,500 shows at this point. I joined this band not under the auspices of replacing anybody, but because they needed a new member. I’ve played more shows with the band than the former lineup.”

In light of Gowan’s addition, Styx has undergone a transformation and although some DeYoung songs are still performed, notably absent from the set list is “Babe.” “Dennis made a very strong point of saying that’s a song he wrote for his wife, so I feel that’s his song and he should sing it,” Gowan explains.

“It’s so much more a true, classic rock band now,” says Gowan of the new lineup, which includes cofounders Chuck Panozzo and James “J.Y.” Young, veteran member Tommy Shaw and relative newcomers Ricky Phillips and Todd Sucherman.

If longtime fans are complaining about DeYoung’s absence, they certainly aren’t showing it at the box office: Styx is in the midst of a 2009 North American tour, playing everything from casinos and theaters to outdoor sheds and festivals. And in 2004, Styx, along with tourmates Journey and REO Speedwagon, grossed more than $17.2 million over 43 concert dates.

Speaking of Journey, the multi-platinum band now features Filipino lead vocalist Arnel Pineda, their third singer since Steve Perry departed in 1996. With Pineda fronting hits such as “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Open Arms” and “Any Way You Want It,” Journey emerged as one of Billboard’s Top 20 moneymakers in 2008 raking in $44.8 million, just short of Taylor Swift but ahead of Billy Joel, Mary J. Blige and Kanye West. A new studio album, Revelation, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in June 2008.

Interestingly, Pineda says that one of the reasons he was hired was to ghost Perry’s sound.

“We have to make sure the hard-core fans will be satisfied listening to the songs,” said Pineda during an interview with the Marin Independent Journal. “They’re so used to Steve Perry’s voice, so we have to be really close to how Steve Perry has done it. That’s the hardest part.”

A number of bands have flourished in the wake of vocalist departures. After the tragic death of Bon Scott in 1980, Australian rockers AC/DC bounced back with Englishman Brian Johnson and scored the biggest-selling album of its career with Back In Black. British progressive rockers Genesis survived the post-Peter Gabriel doldrums with such platinum sellers as Duke, Abacab, Genesis, and Invisible Touch, thanks to the seamless integration of Phil Collins as lead singer.

And Van Halen lost no momentum when Sammy Hagar replaced the ostentatious David Lee Roth for 1986’s 5150, and continued to sell millions of albums and fill stadiums throughout the world into the 1990s.

Whether the departure of a singer is amicable or acrimonious, vocalists are usually the biggest risk factor in determining whether a group can survive the adjustment.

“It really depends on the individual act,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar magazine. “Some of them are surprisingly successful, especially when you consider that the lead singer may well have been the focal point of the band.”

More recently, ’90s rock act Alice In Chains forged ahead with new co-vocalist/guitarist William DuVall. The group has released its first new album following the death of original lead vocalist Layne Staley in 2002, Black Gives Way To Blue, which debuted this week at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. The re-emergence of Alice In Chains began with a series of concerts in 2006, all with the blessing of Staley’s family. DuVall, a friend and collaborator of founding guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell’s for almost 10 years, was invited to participate and eventually found his place in the band.

“They lost a brother, but they gained a brother…. And I gained a new family,” DuVall told the Associated Press. “I think when people see it and they see the truth in it, it presents a profound metaphor for how all of us can rise above tragedy if we choose to.”

Whether it’s nostalgia or the music that drives the fans’ continued support in the face of these major personnel changes, Bongiovanni says there’s one common element these acts deliver in order to thrive and survive.

“The ability to put on a good live show,” he says. “That’s really key — and provide a satisfying experience for their fans.”

Gowan certainly feels that the live experience is largely responsible for Styx’s continued success. “I think every single audience member has a different agenda, but if they have one thing in common, it would be that they want the concert to take them to a different place then they were when they walked into the door,” says Gowan. “That’s probably my best contribution to the band so far. We are such a live entity, and people are looking for a great concert experience, and we are able to provide them with that. I know we can deliver every night.”

Singers For Hire | GRAMMY.com

Bryan Adams slips back into the groove

Bryan Adams slips back into the groove

Canadian rock star Bryan Adams says fans who like his music are going to love his new album, Get Up, “especially if you liked the stuff from the past.”

 

Nick Krewen, 

Music, Published on Fri Oct 16 2015

 

Short, sweet and succinct.

Get Up, the newly released 13th studio effort in the 100-million-record-selling Bryan Adams canon, contains 13 rock ’n’ roll songs that run a total of just over 36 minutes.

But four of those songs are acoustic retreads of the electric originals, so if you just count the nine primary numbers, the whole thing clocks in at 25 minutes.
That’s pretty short.

“There’s no frills,” Adams, 55, the rock star and celebrity photographer recently acknowledged in a Shangri-La Hotel suite during a recent visit.
“I think that’s what’s kind of nice about this: it’s very direct, very concise and it’s a very quick record.”

Adams also said, in this age of short attention spans, it’s an album that his record company felt it could handle.

“When I was getting to the point where I had enough songs, I called my record company and said, ‘Look, I think I’ve got an album here,’” he expounds. “One of my questions was, ‘How many songs do I need?’ And they came back and said, ‘Don’t give us a lot of music, because we can’t do anything with that. We wouldn’t be able to do a lot with a lot of songs. But if you give us a really succinct record, we’ll be able to do something.’

“And I said, ‘That’s quite good . . . because that’s what I’ve got!’” he laughs.

Helping Adams realize that artistic vision was Jeff Lynne, who is reviving his own Electric Light Orchestra with a Nov. 13 album called Alone in the Universe.

Lynne, who has produced hit albums for George Harrison, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, the Traveling Wilburys (of which he was a member) and others, helped Adams craft a catchy, fun, hook-filled album that is full of radio-friendly rock. Most of the songs hover around the two-and-a-half-minute mark.

“He has great understanding about rock music,” said Adams, a Kingston, Ont. native, smartly but casually dressed in a custom-tailored crimson dress shirt and blue jeans.

“When you make a great record, it’s kind of a three-tier process. The first is the writing of the song, the second is the demo and the third is making a record. And you hope with each level of that process that it gets better.

“Whenever I made a demo with (Bob) Clearmountain (producer of Adams’ breakthrough albums Cuts Like a Knife, Reckless and Into the Fire), the level was, ‘That’s where we are now and if it isn’t better than the demo, we’ve got to go back to the demo and figure out what it was.’
“So we’d chase that a bit. And we always made it better, which was good.
“In the case with Jeff, it was exactly that: I would send a demo; Jeff would send it back as a record. I mean, he totally got it on every single level. On my vocal. The placement of my mixes, everything.”

In fact, Adams goes on to say that Get Up is an album he wished he made 25 years ago.

“When I think about the trilogy of You Want It, You Got It, Cuts Like a Knife and Reckless, those records have a real unity to them. These songs could have been on the same record. I feel I could have slotted this album in right after Reckless.”

Contributing to that particular sonic unity is the re-emergence on Get Up of Vancouver-based Jim Vallance as Adams’ chief songwriting partner.

The duo was responsible for such time-honoured Adams classics as “Summer of ’69,” “Run To You,” “Heaven” and “Cuts Like a Knife” before taking a break following 1987’s Into the Fire.

“We’ve been working quite hard over the last five or six years on songs,” Adams notes. “It’s taken us a couple of years to get back up to speed and it feels really natural.”

Adams wasn’t even considering making an album until the duo submitted a track to Lynne.

“When Jeff came along and asked me if I wanted to cut a track, we got it back and I said to Jim, ‘Do you think we’ve got something here?’ He replied, ‘I think we really do.’ We sent another song and, suddenly, everything started to come together. There was a focus: this is where we’re going.”

The 19-time Juno Award winner and Canadian Hall of Fame member says he wanted to hire Lynne as a producer as far back as the 1999 song “The Best of Me.” Currently there no plans to work with him again, but Adams says he’d like to.

For the moment, Adams is enjoying the tail end of a busy two-year period that saw him release his cover songs album Tracks of My Years, the 30th anniversary edition of Reckless — the very first album by a Canadian artist to sell one million records in this country — and an anniversary world tour, as well as a book of portrait photography called Wounded: The Legacy of War (with journalist Caroline Froggatt) that benefited war veterans.

Now he’s planning to follow it up with a world tour to promote Get Up, and figures it should hit North America and Toronto sometime next spring or summer.

“It’s a very cohesive record and I know it’s going to be a lot of fun to play,” he says. “It’s definitely a band album. Fans who like my music are going to love this album a lot . . . especially if you liked the stuff from the past.

“If you like those old songs, you’re going to love this record. It feels modern to me. When you listen to a song like ‘That’s Rock N’ Roll,’ it sounds fresh to me.”

 

Bryan Adams slips back into the groove | Toronto Star

Emm Gryner – musical multi-tasker

 

Between her new solo album, her bands Trent Severn and Trapper, and her family, singer stays busy but focused.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Oct 12 2015

 

Emm Gryner has become quite the proficient juggler.

A couple of weeks ago, the Juno-nominated, Sarnia-born singer and songwriter released her 16th studio album, 21st Century Ballads.

On Oct. 9, Trillium — the sophomore effort from Trent Severn, Gryner’s hoser folk collaboration with fellow songwriters Dayna Manning and Laura C. Bates — hit the streets.

Gryner’s hosting a songwriting workshop at Sheridan College in Oakville during the Oct. 17 weekend and concurrently hops over to the annual Folk Music Ontario Conference in Toronto.

Throw in the occasional appearance with astronaut Chris Hadfield (Gryner guested on his space station-recorded cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”); the writing and recording of an album with Trapper, the hard-rock quartet Gryner formed with guitarist Sean Kelly, her brother Frank, bass player Jordan Kern and drummer Tim Timleck; the running of her boutique label Dead Daisy Records and last, but certainly not least, family life (she’s the married mother of two). It makes you wonder: where does Gryner find the time?
“I just started a spreadsheet calendar,” she replied over the phone from Calgary, the day after a Trent Severn show.

“It’s been about the only way I can keep track of stuff. I have a really hard time organizing my time.”

Finding and maintaining a life/art balance has been foremost on Gryner’s mind lately, a theme that permeates “The Race,” the opening track of 21st Century Ballads, and refers to the late 1999-2000 period she spent on the road playing keyboards with Bowie.

But the tune is actually about Lawrence Gowan, the Toronto-based artist whose solo career spawned hits like “A Criminal Mind” and “Moonlight Desires” before he replaced Dennis DeYoung in Styx as lead singer and keyboardist.

“It was the first song I wrote for the album because I joined his (Gowan’s) band for a week last year,” recalls Gryner, a multi-instrumentalist. “It was the most life-changing event for me.

“But what really inspired me is that I’m at a place in my life where I’m just amazed at anyone who’s a successful musician and who has kept their family together. Gowan is a total family man. It was really interesting to see the choices he’s made in his career to keep music and family. That’s what that song is really about.”

At 40, Gryner has been doing quite a bit of reflection herself and the voice-and-piano driven 21st Century Ballads is partially the result.

“Trying to find a balance as a woman in this stage of my life has been a challenge for me,” she admits. “So there are a lot of songs that I wrote to heal myself.

“I really wanted to write lyrics that are not watered down and you water things down when you start censoring yourself. I just tried to make sure that I put on the record what was happening in my life at the time the songs were written. I feel really good about it.”

Not all of the songs are personal.

“‘The Wild Weight of Earth’ was inspired by some of the stories of female teenagers committing suicide, which I think is so heartbreaking,” she explains.

“‘Duped’ is learning about someone you know being accused of criminal activity. The last one, ‘Visiting Hours’ is sort of a tribute to a fan of mine who passed away from cancer.

“They sound like a lot of depressing themes, but I think there’s a beautiful outcome from some of the sadness that we endure. I’m aware that this stuff goes on and I’m trying to focus on the light in the world.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the plaid-adorned Trent Severn, which — with harmony-honed, fiddle-laced folk tunes “Stealin’ Syrup,” “Haliburton High” and “King of the Background,” a tribute to late Band keyboardist Richard Manuel — sound more Canadian than back bacon, a toque and hockey put together.

“We want to highlight our shared experiences,” Gryner says on behalf of the band, booked for a Dec. 3 date at Hugh’s Room for a Trillium CD release party.
“It’s about the things that we all share: we all shovel our driveway . . . we all go to Tim Hortons once in awhile. Without going into novelty territory, which would be easy to do, we just try to think of the things that we love about Canada.”

Again, getting organized — especially after having kids — forced Gryner to sort out her priorities and to start compartmentalizing her sound to a degree.
“Having more projects keeps me focused on each one of them,” Gryner explains.

“With my solo stuff there was always a touch of country in them and a little bit of rock. I considered my previous albums to be stylistically schizophrenic.

“Once I got to put all the roots, country and folk style into Trent Severn, I was really able to focus on the classical element of my pop solo career. And then the Trapper thing, which is more of a fun thing, came along, but I’ve always loved rock music.

“It may seem that I’m really busy, and I guess that I am, but I take fewer gigs now and they seem to be more meaningful. I’m not getting on a plane to go play some little place that’s far, far away . . . I’m keeping it close to home.”

Emm Gryner, musical multi-tasker | Toronto Star

The Weeknd proves he’s Toronto’s next superstar: concert review

R&B crooner Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, treated crowd at Mod Club to a sort of preview of new album Beauty Behind the Madness.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Aug 26 2015

The Weeknd
At the Mod Club, Aug. 25

He’s earned it all right.

The climatic moment in the Weeknd’s recent video for his chart-topping hit “Can’t Feel My Face” occurs when the singer is set on fire by an audience member while performing. He finishes the song “Human Torch” style, his skin unblemished as the flames engulf him.

The metaphor expressed in the video applied to the hottest ticket in town on Tuesday night, when alt R&B crooner Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, treated a capacity crowd at the Mod Club to a preview of sorts of his new album out Friday, Beauty Behind the Madness.

With a crowd of 620 onlookers that included artists Francesco Yates and Kardinal Offishall, new Bell Media entertainment production president Randy Lennox and his Universal Music Canada replacement Jeffrey Remedios, several hundred Virgin Radio contest winners and those lucky enough to grab $9.99 tickets, Tesfaye and his three-piece band zigzagged from past to present during an exuberant hour-long set that signaled the arrival of Canada’s — nay, Toronto’s — next international superstar.

Yeah, you could argue that the Weeknd, who will kick off his world tour with a Nov. 3 Air Canada Centre date (tickets are on sale Friday), has already reached that pinnacle — especially since he owns two of the five top-selling songs on Billboard this week — but one got the feeling with this concert that Tesfaye is only beginning to come into his own.

Starting with “Losers,” an aggressive new up-tempo Beauty track, the man with the gravity-defying hair and equally buoyant falsetto bounced around the stage like he had something to prove, and spun through a quick succession of three more soon-to-be-R&B classics — “Tell Your Friends,” “Acquainted” and “In the Morning” — before he returned, as he put it, “to 2011” for House of Balloons’ “High for This.”

At that point, the show became more of a communal event, with the crowd serenading Tesfaye with the lyrics from “Often” and “Glass Table Girls” as he echoed their words.

The crowd lost it when he briefly detoured with Drake’s “Crew Love” (which he initially contributed vocals to) and sang along intensely to his hit ballad

“Earned It” from the film Fifty Shades of Grey, Tesfaye’s impressive falsetto effortlessly gliding into stratospheric octaves.

The funky “Can’t Feel My Face” got the whole joint jumping to the point you could feel the floor move under your feet, and Tesfaye cajoled the audience to “go motherf—ing crazy” for “The Hills,” before returning for an acoustic-driven, slightly accelerated version of “Wicked Games” to close out the set.

In a club that hosted the Weeknd’s very first gig and one he keeps coming back to, it was an evening his fans won’t soon forget.

The Weeknd proves he’s Toronto’s next superstar: concert 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