The Russians have landed!

 

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

March 2003

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchiakovsky the news: The Russians have landed!

While recent breakthroughs of controversial Moscow pop duo t.A.T.u. and Grammy nominated country sextet Bering Strait may not be as prevalent as the British invasion that first introduced The Beatles, the message that North America is finally open for business is resonating throughout the former U.S.S.R..

And that gives new hope for Russian artists hoping to tap into a potentially lucrative new market, says Bering Strait’s Ilya Toshinsky.

“Maybe t.A.T.u and Bering Strait will be part of the movement that’s going to change the face of Russian show business,” says Toshinsky, the multi-faceted guitarist and banjo player who grew up with his fellow band members in the scientific community of Obininsk, 60 miles west of Moscow.

“There are a lot of talented artists and writers in Russia who don’t get the chance for exposure. I’d like to help them out eventually. There are a lot of artists there who need to be heard.”

Whether any of those artists — ranging from ‘NSYNC-like popsa hitmakers Na-Na and gender-bending singer Shura to Enrique Iglesias duet partner Alsou and Parliamentarian Josif Kobozo – will be able to navigate the waters of American consumerism is debatable, but the commercial headway made by t.A.T.u. offers plenty of incentive.

Fueled by high-pitched vocals, pounding electric beats and a racy schoolgirl video supporting the classically trained Lena Katina and Julia Volkova’s hit single “All The Things She Said,” t.A.T.u. has taken the world by storm. Its debut album, 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane, is a heartbeat away from gold in the U.S., and has already sold two-and-a-half million copies around the world – including an unprecedented one million in its native Russia.

The brainchild of Ivan Shapovalov, a former child psychiatrist and advertising executive with a gift for exploiting Lolita lesbianism, t.A.T.u. is only the tip of the iceberg in a country whose population numbers 146 million people.

“I think it could be the beginning of a discovery by the West of Russian talent,” admits Interscope’s Martin Kierzenbaum, the A&R executive responsible for tattooing t.A.T.u. to a North American record deal.

“The impressive aspect of t.A.T.u. is that a band is coming out of Russia and traveling across the world is actually appealing to people on a global scale, something that has never, ever happened in rock music.”

Kierzenbaum credits a post-communist era of liberal expression that has allowed the artistic community to “have one foot in the tradition of Russia and the other foot in MTV culture.”

“Julia and Lena are part of the first generation to have grown up after communism, reach out to the West and beckon us to pay attention. They’re able to communicate some of exoticism and the excitement of Russian talent to us in the West because they speak both languages culturally.

“There are a lot of super-talented people in Russia that we may have been closed off to until now.”

Not that there haven’t been previous attempts to crack the West. While such revered composers as Petr Ilich Tchiakovsky, Modest Mussorgsky and Igor Stravinsky had no problems establishing Russian classical music supremacy, pop acts have largely met Iron Curtain resistance from American audiences.  Despite eight albums and three movies, the stylistically outlandish Leningrad Cowboys largely remain cult favorites, while Boris Grebenshikov, the “Russian Bob Dylan” whose album Radio Silence was given a serious push by Sony in the late ‘80s, failed to gain any lasting foothold.

Even Kiev-born supermodel and actress Milla Jovovich has been ineffective in convincing the market to support her music, although her 1994 effort The Divine Comedy received critical acclaim.

 

The only exception has been Ukrainian émigré Dimitry BrillSuper DJ Dimitry – whose tenure in now-defunct New York disco troika Deee-Lite in 1990 landed him a gold Top 10 hit in “Groove Is In The Heart” and a platinum album in World Clique.

Although he applauds the success of artistic comrades t.A.T.u., Ilya Toshinsky says Bering Strait is taking a decidedly more organic approach to global domination.

With “Bearing Straight” receiving a Grammy nomination last month for Best Country Instrumental Performance and the recent release of a new self-titled CD on Universal South, Toshinsky finally feels some vindication for the decision to relocate from Obininsk to Nashville five years ago.

“If we stayed in Russia to play country music — which was considered exotic — we’d be bound to Moscow bars and restaurants for the rest of our lives,” notes Toshinsky, who co-founded Bering Strait as an instrumental bluegrass band in 1988 before going the country route.

Speaking on behalf of singer Natasha Borzilova, keyboardist Lydia Salnikova, steel guitarist Sasha Ostrovsky, drummer Alexander Arzamastsev and bass player Sergei “Spooky” Olkhovsky, Toshinsky admits Bering Strait’s street of dreams was almost the road to ruin.

After signing with Arista Nashville, Bering Strait decided to follow label president Tim DuBois to his next venture after a downsizing prompted the executive’s departure. It took DuBois five years to land at Universal South, and through the transitional phase Bering Strait signed four contracts.

“For awhile, I didn’t believe the record was ever going to come out,” said Toshinsky, who became infatuated with the banjo at the age of 10 after hearing an Earl Scruggs recording of “Cumberland Gap.”

“ Some of our families started losing faith. And now with the Grammy nomination, and a huge push in Russian media, now they can see what it can be. I think they believe again.”

He’s also happy that band members have a chance to earn a living again.

“The worst time for us was a few months before the MCA deal,” Toshinsky explains. “The money was extremely tight, and with the visa situation  we could only work in the music business. We couldn’t work at K-Mart or Burger King and make any extra money. It got really tough. It was discouraging.”

But with recent appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and a favorable slot on 60 Minutes, Toshinsky is much more optimistic.

“We’re still not making too much money because people in Russia think that with the Grammy nomination, we’re now millionaires,” he says. “Hopefully it will lead to wonderful things.”

Even though t.A.T.u. and Bering Strait are exploring new commercial frontiers, not everyone from the homeland is convinced U.S. success is a good thing.

“The Russian music scene is generally horrendous, just second-rate derivative American pop,” says Mark Ames, editor of eXile, a Moscow-based alternative weekly.

“The only lesson learned is that if you use under-aged lesbian sluts to Trojan Horse your shitty pop music, then you might make it in America.”

 

 

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.”

 

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Nick Krewen

Taylor Swift delivers flawless performance in Toronto

 

During 1989 tour stop at Rogers Centre Swift gives shout out to the Jays, sings with guest Keith Urban.

 

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sat Oct 03 2015

When it comes to giving stellar performances, Taylor Swift is in a league of her own.

The 25-year-old singer and songwriter delivered another flawless gem of a concert at Rogers Centre Friday for the first of two sold-out nights, a little more than two years after she gave a flawless gem of a concert at the same venue.

Since 2013, only her musical direction has changed: back then, with the Red tour, Swift was still considered a country music emissary.

For her current 1989 tour, as the opening strains of “Welcome To New York” filled the stadium, Swift declared her new symbolic transformation into pop ingenue by stylishly emerging from the stage in a sparkling jacket, black bustier, short red skirt, a pair of shades and with a dozen male dancers.

For the next two hours, the leggy, willowy blond, who struts down the long catwalk leading to a small stage midway through the stadium like a high-paid model, focused mainly on glittery production numbers from her electronic-driven, multi-million-selling pop album 1989.

These were not mere retreads of the records: “I Knew You Were Trouble” started off slow and sensual, eventually building into a steamy, synth-laden number that bore little resemblance to the uptempo 1989 rendition. On “Blank Space,” she created a vocal loop with the words “Blue Jays” and sang the bridge over it.

There were a few nods to the past — a simply guitar-only accompaniment of “You Belong To Me;” a synth-driven rendition of “Love Story” — both from 2008’s Fearless, and a pair from 2012’s Red, including the catchy “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together.”

Otherwise, it was all 1989 and the bells and whistles you’d expect at a Taylor Swift show: the giant whirling catwalk, surreal Freudian film clips, colourful dance routines, fireworks — and this show’s special guest, Keith Urban, performing his hits “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” and “Somebody Like You,” with the hostess chiming in occasionally on vocal.

But what separates Swift from every other performer is her ability to connect with her audience outside the music. She doesn’t talk at her fans, she talks with them, and the lengthy observations about emotions she’s experienced seem to stem from sincerity, bringing people into the Pennsylvania native’s world on a level far more personal than most entertainers manage.

It’s a trait that spills into her music and it may just be Taylor Swift’s greatest talent: the world’s most relatable pop superstar.

If opening act Shawn Mendes was even the slightest bit daunted about playing in front of 45,000 people with his acoustic guitar as his only crutch, the Pickering resident didn’t show it.

Going the Ed Sheeran route seems to agree with him, as the Vine-discovered star quickly cajoled the predominantly female crowd to sing along with him on “Life Of The Party,” “Something Big” and his current radio hit, “Stitches.”

Handling himself with great poise, confidence and humility, Mendes has a long, healthy career in front of him.

 

Taylor Swift delivers flawless performance in Toronto | 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

 

Violinist Lindsey Stirling credits YouTube with meteoric rise

In four short years, the classical crossover sensation reached the top with the help of viral videos.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Jun 13 2014

In four short years, classical crossover sensation Lindsey Stirling has gone from anonymity to star stature without the help of the usual star-making machinery.

There is no major label, prominent manager, radio station or concert promoter that can claim responsibility for the elfin dubstep violinist’s meteoric rise to fame. Even her 2010 appearance on America’s Got Talent, which averaged 7 million viewers a night and saw her reach the quarter-finals before getting turfed by judges Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne, had a negligible impact on her career.

So what is the primarily catalyst that has allowed the Santa Ana, Calif.-born Stirling, who appears at the Kool Haus on Saturday night, to independently release two best-selling albums (her latest, Shatter Me, entered The Billboard 200 retail chart at #2, debuting the same week on the Canadian album charts at #5), tour the world, collaborate with stars like John Legend and Christina Perri and snag Lady Gaga’s former manager?

YouTube.

Since the May 18, 2011, launch of the California native’s Lindseystomp YouTube channel and her first original song, “Spontaneous Me,” Stirling has amassed more than 600 million views and almost 5 million subscribers with a 64-video mixture of originals, cover songs (her rendition of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” has been seen more than 72 million times) and downright tomfoolery.

It’s certainly an unexpected windfall for the 27-year-old Stirling, who admits her career was in tatters, especially after America’s Got Talent, before YouTube kick-started it into overdrive.

America’s Got Talent has this huge audience around the world, and when I was on the show, I thought it would change my life,” Stirling recounted Tuesday over the phone from a Louisville, Ky., tour stop.

“But after that, the world had completely forgotten that I had existed and I went back to square zero. I kept hustling for six months and doing things like getting really low-key gigs at college campuses, playing at noon in cafeterias.”

Fate intervened when filmmaker Devin Graham, known professionally as Devin Super Tramp, a YouTube viral video maker, reached out.

“He said, ‘Hey, I would love to make a music video for you — I think you’re really talented and I want to put it on my YouTube channel,’ ” Stirling remembers. “I didn’t quite understand what the incentive was for him and I didn’t really know what YouTube was and what it could do for people.

“But we did the video (“Spontaneous Me”) and I was amazed. As soon as he put it up on his channel, my music, which was just sitting around on iTunes, suddenly started to sell. People were requesting more of my songs and they were loving and sharing them.

“I was amazed that putting out that one video on a YouTube channel by some random guy would do more for me and sell more tracks than America’s Got Talent. It all just blew my mind.”

It helped that Graham and Stirling, who both studied filmmaking at Utah’s Brigham Young University, made world-class videos on shoestring budgets.

“For the first year, I didn’t have any money,” says Stirling. “So luckily, I went to BYU and made a lot of talented friends. I helped them on their projects; they helped me on mine.

“Also, I had the skills: I knew how to produce; I knew how to edit. All I needed was a cinematographer and pretty locations. If you notice, the first year of my videos are almost all shot outside, because I lived in Utah, which is beautiful. I’d go to these hiking trails that were 15 minutes from my house. And I’d go with Devin, who was my boyfriend for the first year, and he’d film all my videos for free. Then I’d direct, edit and produce them. So pretty much for the first year of my channel, my videos were all free.”

Stirling’s fan base grew like wildfire, charmed by her self-choreographed vignettes that showcased music incorporating elements of hip-hop, Skrillex-influenced EDM, dubstep and electronica, as well as her charismatic and photogenic personality, as her songs “Transcendence,” “Electric Daisy Violin,” “Shadows” and “Crystallize” began racking up impressive numbers.

Corporations began to take notice and offered to underwrite certain videos.

“Once we started to make a name for ourselves, people started to reach out and offer to fly me and Devin places,” Stirling explains. “They saw us as a team. A travel company paid all our expenses and paid us on top of it to make a video and go to Kenya. The same thing happened in New Zealand. That was the amazing thing — once we were creating such high-quality content, we were able to fund our travels.”

The couple has since split personally and professionally, but the Stirling juggernaut keeps rolling, with videos that alternate among her own originals, covers of pop hits and video game scores. The videos are often tagged at the end with personal endorsements for products provided by her sponsors.

Stirling, who first picked up the violin at age 5, says she has no issue with pushing brands.

“I don’t have a problem with it and my fans don’t have a problem with it, because they all know I’m an independent artist,” Stirling explains. “This is just my way or being able to do what I do, and my fans are very supportive of that. They know that’s the way a lot of YouTubers survive. As long as it doesn’t taint my art, or it isn’t some shameless promotion in the middle of a video, and as long as I can create my art the way I want and I’m not ashamed of the brands I’m promoting, I’m good.”

She may have a point: YouTube income has gifted her with artistic freedom and allowed her to bypass major labels.

“It’s kind of funny that when I was starting out and trying to make it, I went to all the labels and I was turned away,” Stirling recalls. “Nobody was interested. Now that I’m doing it and I’ve been able to prove that it works, they’re all knocking down my door.

“But I don’t need them anymore, I really don’t, because I’ve figured out how to do it by cutting out the middleman, and I love it. I love the fact that I have 100 per cent creative control. I love that I can self-fund everything. I don’t have anybody I’m indebted to. No one colours what I do. It’s awesome. I love it and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I stumbled upon YouTube because I didn’t know what else to do, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Violinist Lindsey Stirling credits YouTube with meteoric rise | Toronto Star

The Residents take on death

If you think the TV series Lost is cryptic and enigmatic, get a load of The Residents.

 

 

Nick Krewen
Special To The Star,
 Published on Sat Feb 13 2010

If you think the TV series Lost is cryptic and enigmatic, get a load of The Residents.

For 38 years, the avant-garde California-based performance art collective – they’re most familiar to the masses as eyeballs dressed in top hats and tuxedos – has stunned and mystified audiences with a collection of more than 100 albums, EPs, singles, CD-ROMs, short films, DVDs and videos.

With an ever-morphing musical style that can veer from fiery rock ‘n’ roll to third-rate cabaret to synthesized dirge to dissonant jazz – often within the framework of a single song – The Residents, who make a rare Toronto appearance Saturday at The Opera House, have managed to evade categorization and compromise as effectively as they’ve shielded their identities and avoided the mainstream.

Even an exclusive phone interview with spokesman Hardy Fox – a representative of The Cryptic Corporation, the group’s management firm, and a person who may or may not be with the band – only sheds so much light.

“The group’s point of view is that they’re a group, they like to present themselves as a group and they’re very openly, in their presentation of themselves as a group, very active,” Fox said before a recent New York performance on The Residents’ current Talking Light tour.

“There’s not really anything mysterious about what they do or how they do it. They’re mysterious, perhaps, about the fact that they’re not so interested in strutting around as individuals and proclaiming a `look at me’ attitude. That is unusual, for sure, but I don’t know if it’s mysterious.”

Fox does acknowledge that the public is frustrated. “You’ve got a weird situation here, because people really want to turn The Residents into a band but often that doesn’t really work. The Residents is a much larger group of people that changes based upon the needs of the project. It’s not a band, it’s a concept, and that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around.”

Some of the songs, with names like “Harry the Head,” “Lizard Lady” and “What Have My Chickens Done Now?” aren’t any easier to digest, but one can certainly appreciate the ingenious satire in the murky depths of the collective’s musically sophisticated arrangements – so long as you’re willing to invest the time.

According to Fox, time is the one commodity that may be eluding The Residents as they move forward: death is one of the themes of the Talking Light multimedia road show. “There’s definitely mortality attached to it,” Fox explains.

“Mortality is attached to everything, really, and that’s one of the points that they make: that life is a cycle, and death is one of the parts of that cycle. It’s a thing to confront and accept, not to challenge or fight, because the big mystery of life is actually death.

“It’s a reflection on aging and death, which is sort of what is going on with The Residents, because they are getting older. And they’re sort of approaching death as a universal experience. So it’s a dark show, but sort of a lighthearted dark show, if that make any sense.”

Other things you may want to know: the Talking Lights tour – every performance of which is being sold digitally at www.residents.com – references material as far back as 1977 and now includes a cast of three instead of the four who usually make the rounds. “Yes, Carlos has retired,” Fox offers without any elaboration.

Despite their stature as counterculture “eye-cons,” The Residents have dropped the eyeball costumes.

“Actually, they were dropped 10 years ago,” Fox says.

“The whole eyeball thing was created for one album in 1979 (Eskimo). It just proved to be a popular image and we, on the commercial side of trying to market the group, sort of ran with it. From a marketing standpoint, we really needed an image.

“About 10 years ago, they thought it was time to at least back it off to an iconic image and not a mask image.”

Although images are an important part of The Residents’ oeuvre – check them out on YouTube if you’re curious – Fox has a different theory to explain the concept’s longevity.

“I think it has lasted because The Residents are not shy about evolving over time and reinventing themselves, about letting the requirements of a project be what’s important and not their past or any expectations of people.

“They don’t really have the expectations of performing a particular song that they’re known for, because they’re not really known for any.”