Nickelback powers down the pyrotechnics: concert review

The band’s return to the ACC finds the usual frenetic energy somewhat lacking, owing to less anthem-y new songs and a very chatty Chad Kroeger, though the execution of the set was technically flawless.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Feb 23 2015

Nickelback
2.5 stars
At the Air Canada Centre, Feb. 22.

Nickelback has changed its performance tactic.

Once a combo that used all the bells and whistles available at its disposal with somewhat reckless abandon, the B.C.-based hard rock quartet showed unexpected restraint with the special effects at its Air Canada Centre performance Sunday night.

Explosions? Not a one.

Flashpots? Zilch.

Fire . . . okay, there was some pyro, but its inclusion seemed more of an afterthought to the three or four songs for which it was employed.

Switch them on.

Switch them off.

Woo-hoo!

No, the Chad Kroeger-fronted foursome (occasionally boosted by one member with the sporadic appearance of third guitarist Tim Hay), performing in front of a half circle-shaped projection screen and a light show that wasn’t anything to write home about, decided instead to focus on two traits: personality (Kroeger’s) and music.

And I never thought I’d say this about a Nickelback concert, but I missed the bombast.

Perhaps the thunderous detonations and unexpected bursts of flame added an illusion of intensity and energy to the proceedings in previous tours — this is my third go round with the rockers — but the razor edge that gives the band that additional power boost seemed a little dulled without them.

Some of the lack of dynamism might also be the result of a few developments: firstly, the band’s eighth album, No Fixed Address, finds songwriting genius Kroeger misplacing the Midas Touch that has sold over 50 million albums as he stretches into new territory: the political “Edge of a Revolution,” with its calls for change, and “She Keeps Me Up,” a funky, almost disco-ish number.

While he should be applauded for trying to expand his horizons — Nickelback detractors often accuse him of repeatedly writing “the same song” over again — these songs don’t offer the same staying power as the naughty “Something in Your Mouth” or the country-flavoured ballad “Photograph,” both which drew wild cheering and applause from the estimated 15,000 in attendance.

The other change is front man Kroeger’s comfort level with his audience. Talk about casual: Kroeger was a regular chatterbox.

“It’s so great to be playing a rock ’n’ roll show on Canadian soil,” he bellowed after the opener, “A Million Miles an Hour,” a song noted for the disciplined rhythms dispatched by the anchoring tandem of bassist Mike Kroeger and drummer Daniel Adair.

“It’s fr*#$% cold Canadian soil, but we can handle the weather.”

The disarmingly frank and funny Chad Kroeger dialogue didn’t disperse after the first few numbers; it carried on for the entire show.

“Since this is a Nickelback show, there will be vulgarity,” he joked at another point, projecting an earthy persona that the audience just lapped up.

The relaxed informality again translated into a subtle loss of energy, although the execution of the show’s 19 songs — Silver Side Up’s “Too Bad” and a somewhat listless “How You Remind Me,” All the Right Reasons’ “Rock Star” and Dark Horse’s driving “Burn It to the Ground,” a solid choice for encore if there ever was one and one of the evening standouts — was technically flawless.

So yeah, it was a regular campfire gathering, even with a handful of covers thrown in, including an Eagles sing-along for “Take It Easy” and the first verse and chorus of “Hotel California.”

For all the Nickelback hits that could have been included — “Feelin’ Way Too Damn Good,” “Never Again” and “Lullaby” among them — it made you wonder why precious concert time was given to meaningless covers like Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” or Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” the latter sung by Ryan Peake.

Oh, there was one constant from the old Nickelback days: beer.

The old tradition of flinging quarter cups of beer into the audience still gives Nickelback that blue-collar aura that it does so well.

Maybe that’s the secret . . . the drunker one gets, the faster they sound.

Either way, fans in general were thrilled to the point of delirium with how Nickelback reminded them that rock ’n’ roll in general is one big, escapist celebration — even without the explosions.

Nickelback powers down the pyrotechnics: concert review | Toronto Star

Lucinda Williams gets stellar assistance at Massey Hall: review

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

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Nov 21 2014

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

What on earth is going on with Lucinda Williams?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sinéad O’Connor gives audience what they want

Controversial Irish singer delivers a mostly solid set of old and new favourites to adoring Toronto fans.

 

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sat Oct 25 2014

Sinéad O’ Connor at Massey Hall
3 stars

Boy, have they missed her.

The moment the diminutive Sinéad O’Connor stepped on the Massey Hall stage on Friday night, she was greeted with a standing ovation so thunderous, she literally couldn’t start the show until the screams and applause died down a few minutes later.

Beaming at the unexpected reception, the controversial, head-shaved Irish singer and songwriter issued a few short curtsies and then gestured for the near-capacity crowd to settle down.

Then, with her five-piece band standing at attention, the 47-year-old O’Connor endeared herself even further by performing a solo, instrument-free version of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” dedicated to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, the Hamilton army reservist mercilessly gunned down on Capitol Hill earlier this week.

photo of Sinéad O’Connor performing at the Hague via Creative Commons and Leah Pritchard

Her performance of the I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got classic she first recorded in 1990 revealed the full range of O’Connor’s extraordinary vocal abilities: her wide-ranging voice oscillated between loud intensity and breathless whisper, often within the same phrase, with enough gripping, dramatic effect that your ears were unable to resist being drawn in to catch every syllable.

“I Am Stretched On Your Grave” was a preview of what was to encapsulate the 75-minute show’s best moments: an enviable dynamic range that seemed to work best the more O’Connor was isolated from her bandmates.

Not that there was anything wrong with her accompanying lineup that included guitarist Brooke Supple, bassist Clare Kenny, keyboardist Graham Henderson: au contraire, they were technically strong, united, in sync.

From this reviewer’s vantage point on the first row of the lower balcony, the frustration came from O’Connor’s sound staff: her vocals were so under-mixed that whenever the band played full-tilt, the singer became the weakest link … not so great when O’Connor’s fans are paying good money to hear that inimitable voice.

And especially when the songs O’Connor chose to perform following the sarcastic “Queen Of Denmark,” “4th and Vine,” “Take Me To Church” — her moving declaration of independence — and “8 Good Reasons,” — scattered between her last two albums — I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss and How About I Be Me (And You Be You) — are lyrically intriguing.

O’Connor seemed to be aware of the problem, continuously fidgeting with her monitor control and conferring with her side stage sound man to the point of distraction (and one she apologized to the crowd for) and ultimately subtracted from the overall potency of her showmanship.

So, the barefoot O’Connor, dressed in her cleric collar (she’s an ordained minister), a Catholic cross necklace, a hybrid black/leopard spotted shirt and leather pants, was most effective when she accompanied herself on acoustic for her extraordinarily hypnotic and pensive ballad “Black Boys On Mopeds;” the a cappella “In This Heart,” which she dedicated to her mother, started solo and eventually had the whole band add their voices to; and the first encore of “Streetcars,” softly sung with even softer keyboard accompaniment by Henderson.

But she rocked out as well, with the audience particularly responding to the unleashed aggression of the pair of Do Not Want main set finishers — “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance” — with more standing ovations.

If there was a disadvantage for O’Connor, it was that her audience seems to be aging with her: the majority of the crowd represented the late 30-through-50 age demographic.

It’s a shame that today’s youth are either unaware of her or ignoring her: still integral as an artist, songwriter, lyricist and performer, the outspoken O’Connor could teach them a thing or two.

Sinéad O’Connor gives audience what they want | Toronto Star

Chrissie Hynde turns back the clock: review

In concert at Massey Hall on Thursday, The Pretenders founder seemingly hasn’t aged a day since 1978.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Oct 31 2014

Chrissie Hynde
3 stars
At Massey Hall, Oct. 30

 

Dorian Gray, eat your heart out.

Anyone attending the opening night of Chrissie Hynde’s Stockholm tour at Massey Hall on Thursday night could be forgiven for doing a double take and wondering where exactly she’s hiding the painting: The Pretenders founder’s birth certificate may read 62 years, but it’s clear the Akron, Ohio, native hasn’t aged a day since she first kicked out the jams back in 1978.

“You’re so hot!” yelled an admirer from one of the upper balconies early into her 90-minute set, and you really couldn’t belabour his point: the incredibly svelte Hynde stood centre stage, decked out in full rock ’n’ roll regalia of blue necktie, black vest, jeans and a pair of leather boots that stretched to just above her knees, beaming as she surveyed the adoring crowd.

And if rock ’n’ roll has indeed proven to be the source of her fountain of youth, that ageless glow that illuminated Hynde’s skin also extended to her classic Pretenders songs and her husky voice, as both rung with authority and vitality. Joined by a four-piece band that included the current Pretenders lineup of guitarist James Walbourne and bassist Nick Wilkinson, Hynde turned back the hands of time with a performance that ensured she has lost none of her wallop.

But it did take her a while to get there.

After the lights dimmed, Hynde stepped out on stage and started out with “Don’t Lose Faith,” a snorer of a ballad from her new solo album Stockholm, before veering into a lukewarm blues number called “Biker.” Maybe they’re actually better tunes, but the sound technician was still twiddling knobs and adjusting levels as the guitars blared and drowned much of Hynde’s initial vocals, so you’ll have to pick up the new album to find out.

The first four songs, all new ones, were blasé enough to make one wonder if this was going to be a long night.

But that all changed once the first Pretenders song emerged — an edgy “Talk of the Town” that revealed a nicely gelling chemistry between all five musicians — as Hynde and her band shifted out of neutral gear and the momentum began to swell.

The real turning point came with a gritty rendition of “My City Was Gone,” as the gifted Walbourne’s sinewy handiwork on guitar in terms of handling both solos and complementing Hynde’s strum jacked up the song to a new level of intensity.

This happened again with “Night in My Veins,” another thrilling number that spirited Hynde and her gang into peak form, with a good portion of the crowd on their feet and dancing in their seats as old favourites like “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and “Back on the Chain Gang” continued to maintain the flow of high energy.

It should be noted that there were only two tragic occurrences.

The first is that there were way too many empty seats for a woman who is one of rock’s most astute songwriters, an artisan whose topics, even when it comes to love or urban decay, have always offered a provocative and profound perspective. The Massey crowd still delivered a healthy showing of around 1,800-1,900 music lovers, but the place should have been packed.

The other tragedy? That although Hynde and company pulled practically every Pretenders number one might want to hear — including “Precious” and the Kinks’ “I Go to Sleep,” the one she omitted was the biggest of them all: “Brass in Pocket.”

So everyone was left hanging, receiving the cake without the icing, leading one to hope that if she comes this way again, Chrissie Hynde will right the wrong and make sure she plays all the hits next time . . . Hyndesight being 20/20 and all.

 

Postscript:  During the show, Hynde told the crowd how much she loved Toronto and pleaded with them to stop building so many condos, noting the skyline had changed abruptly since her last visit.

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

 

Ed Sheeran delivers an A+ show at the ACC

Ed Sheeran performs as if every show is his last, injecting his songs with an elevating jolt above what is heard in his recordings.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Sep 19 2014

Ed Sheeran
Air Canada Centre
Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014

The singer and songwriter of “The A-Team” brought his A-Game to the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night.

British ginger-haired dynamo Ed Sheeran is unlike any other contemporary pop performer who has amassed a giant mainstream following: He entertains solo, largely relying on his acoustic guitar, a few looping pedals, a couple of microphones, and an occasional lapse into rap to deliver his melodically riveting love songs.

In an era when slick choreography and expensive bells-and-whistles production is now pretty much commonplace, Sheeran doesn’t depend on flying through the air while strapped to a harness or unleashing fireworks to deliver his thrills.

Aside from a few panels hanging over the stage to bring some visual aids to a few of his songs, as well as projections of him doing his thing, Sheeran’s concerts are refreshingly free of artifice.

He simply strolls up to the microphone, straps on his guitar, and unleashes his passion, ordering his audience – in this case, a 13,000-strong alchemy of 90 per cent teenage-to-post-secondary-aged female to 10 per cent male – to sing along if they know the words, “make them up if you don’t,” and sing like there’s no tomorrow.

Which is no surprise, considering that this lone wolf performs as if every show is his last, injecting his songs with an elevating jolt above what is heard in his recordings.

In fact, he could almost trademark his performance style as “Sheeran intensity,” a trait that was marked from the kick-off of “I’m A Mess” from his sophomore album X (interpreted as “Multiply,” just as his first North American release + stands for “Plus”).

What began as a wistful number about longing suddenly leapt in potency as Sheeran ferociously strummed his guitar, used it as a beatbox and looped the rhythms to build the song to a thunderous climax.

This was a repeated practice throughout the nearly two-hour, 18-song show, as Sheeran, master manipulator that he is, worked the pedals and guitars to his advantage to accompany himself and feed the power of he moment.

Yes, there’s a little trickery involved: For songs like “Thinking Out Loud” or even his more popular “Give Me Love,” there were sounds coming out of the speaker that could have only been pre-recorded, whether they were harmonies or maybe the occasional acoustic guitar, although he tried to create them live and incorporate them into his arrangements wherever possible.

But it’s one thing to deceive the audience through a lip sync and another to actually use effects as more of an embellishment to an arrangement when you don’t have the personnel to add to the sound. To his credit, Sheeran resorted to this device so sparingly that it seemed more necessity than contrivance.

Not that the audience seemed to mind. They happily enjoyed their role as the call-and-response choir, filling the cavernous ACC with their soprano voices and serenading Sheeran almost as often as he was serenading them.

Whether it was the intimacy of “One,” heightened by Sheeran’s soft falsetto, and the quiet romanticism of “Kiss Me” (the only time during the show when you could have heard a pin drop at the ACC) or storming through the boisterously aggressive “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” – and here, much of Sheeran’s machine-gun rap delivery was lost in the ether – there was always the sense that this was a man in full control of the moment.

It may have led to a lack of spontaneity, but this seemed to be a plus, or +, for the Ed Sheeran army.

For a performer who employs math symbols for his album titles, he leaves no house divided.

Ed Sheeran delivers an A+ solo show at the ACC | 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

John Legend’s effortless concert also effort-free: review

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sat Aug 09 2014

John Legend
2.5 stars
At the Molson Amphitheatre, Aug. 8

John Legend is a man is without a care in the world, it seems.

And why shouldn’t he be? Life is good for the Ohio born-and-bred singer and songwriter.

Just under a year ago, he tied the knot with his Sports Illustrated model wife Chrissy Teigen. In a recording career that’s going on its 10th year, he’s released five albums, sold eight million and won nine Grammy Awards.

And the piano-playing minstrel is blessed with an incredibly effortless, soulful tenor that has the slightest tremolo tacked on the end of it, one that promises romance and happiness and moonbeams and rainbows every time he opens his mouth.

So when John Legend entertained at the Molson Amphitheatre on Friday night, he came across as extremely contented, a confident performer who knows he has made it, realized his dream and has made peace with it.

As unflappable as he was in front of perhaps the most mellow audience in the Amphitheatre’s 20-year history — seriously, one wondered if there was a collective pulse among the estimated 9,000 in attendance (and in case you perceive that as being a flop, it was triple the amount who saw him at the Sony Centre last November) considering how quiet, attentive and devoid of aural excitement they were for the first 40 minutes or so — Legend’s poise turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing is that he’s a decent songwriter, a formidable pianist and a golden-voiced crooner who barely breaks a sweat.

The curse is that he’s a decent songwriter, a formidable pianist and a golden-voice crooner who barely breaks a sweat.

Legend’s certainly someone who places music over flashiness and production value: the stage setup was extremely economical: a handful of giant searchlights behind him, a small riser to host his string quartet, his upright bass player and his drummer, and the two giant video screens that the venue naturally provides on either side of the stage.

That was it, and truthfully, he didn’t need more.

But he could have used some sweat. After kicking off his 90-minute show by plunking himself behind his Yamaha baby grand and polishing off a slower “Made to Love” to string accompaniment, and then a bass-and-drums rendering of “Tonight (Best You Ever Had),” Legend then noodled around on the piano as he began to tell his life story.

He led his listeners through the anonymous years, mentioning how he either played piano on tracks most don’t realize (Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything,” for example), sang on others, and thought he would have a record deal when he was still a college student.

Legend talked about working as a management consultant and “delivering Powerpoint presentations” and “filling out Excel sheets” while he pursued his musical dreams, allowing that “every major label rejected me twice, including the one I’m signed to now.”

“People make mistakes,” he half-joked, mentioning how he met Kanye West, who then took Legend under his wing. Then the songs resumed, a more-or-less chronological parade of hits from his four solo albums (unfortunately, Wake Up, the album Legend recorded with The Roots, was completely ignored.) About three minutes into his narrative, you began to wonder when the server was going to show up and start taking drink orders, and during his rather milquetoast renditions of The Beatles’ “Something” and later, Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” you prayed for someone to shout “Free Bird” just to break up the monotony.

Things livened up a bit when Legend tackled Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which women in the date-night-heavy crowd sang from the beginning, since they knew the words, and Legend built a steady enough momentum with hits like “Save Room,” “So High” and “Ordinary People” to earn a standing ovation, before returning with the solitary piano-only encore of his biggest hit, “All Of Me.”

Yet the dramatics remained stagnant because everything seemed so contrived, so calculated. It was clear that Legend loved being up on stage and soaking up the adulation, but you never felt that he was challenging himself in the slightest, or investing any enthusiasm in the actual moment.

If there was any impression that John Legend delivered, it was one of pianist-in-training for the late-night cocktail lounge circuit as soon as he gets tired of the road.

Here today, gone Ramada.

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