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

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

KISS and Def Leppard a blazing double bill: review

Both bands repeatedly thrilled the sold-out Amphitheatre crowd of 16,000.

 Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Aug 13 2014

KISS and Def Leppard
3.5 stars
At the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre, Aug. 12.

Does Gene Simmons’ fire-breathing swordplay, bloodied mouth shtick and ever-undulating serpentine tongue ever get old?

Not if you’re a member of the KISS Army. The larger-than-life, cartoon-costumed, makeup-sporting hard rockers have entrenched the routines so heavily into their modus operandi for the past 40 years that replacing them as this point and time would be akin to the surgical removal of a vital organ.

So Tuesday night’s double bill of KISS with Def Leppard at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre wasn’t so noticeable in terms of the new stuff as much as flaunting the familiar, something that both bands are very good at doing since they’re approaching their greying years, though sporting the energy and vitality of artists who are 20 years younger.

In a continuation of the happenstance “Headbangers Week” theme that began Sunday at the venue with the Mötley Crüe/Alice Cooper concert, nostalgia played a key role in the KISS/Def Leppard pairing, with both bands repeatedly thrilling the sold-out crowd of 16,000 that had gathered to witness their heroes.

With Def Leppard, it was less about flash and more about substance, performing an incredible string of wall-to-wall hits over the course of 70 minutes culled from their heyday era in the ’80s and early ’90s.

In what amounted to a firsthand demonstration of the Mutt Lange classic song parade — the famous South African producer who co-wrote and meticulously arranged the most popular albums of the Def Lep catalogue and propelled them past 100 million in sales — such rock anthems as “Let’s Get Rocked,” “Love Bites” and “Armageddon It” revealed Lange’s Midas Touch: Throw in a fairly powerful, steady, simple beat (ably handled by Rick Allen, the band’s one-armed drummer), add in a strong melody with an irresistible chorus, and pile on the scrumptious harmonies.

And Def Leppard delivered, as if the passage of time had been indefinitely suspended: Lead singer Joe Elliott, 55, has lost none of his range or prowess; the dual guitar attack of Vivian Campbell and Phil Collen is as potent as ever, and the stacked backing vocals that added in bassist Rick Savage remain undiminished, causing the Leppards to receive thunderous ovation after thunderous ovation.

“We’re two-thirds through our tour, and we’ve had some good crowds, but nobody has been as awesome as you,” Elliott told the crowd, and he seemed heartfelt with his comments.

Then again, with a song list that included “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” “Rock Of Ages,” “Animal” and a morphing acoustic/electric rendition or “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak,” how could Def Lep fans react otherwise?

Which brings us to KISS, who pretty much offered a retread of last year’s Monster tour that included the combo lighting rig and an impressive hydraulic stage setup known as “The Spider.”

But what may have been a retread to some wasn’t to others: when singer and guitarist Paul Stanley asked for a show of hands of those attending their very first KISS concert, almost half the crowd raised theirs.

In the meantime, dressed in oversized platform boots, black-and-silver leather get-ups and sporting the makeup that should have secured them all MAC sponsorships a long time ago, Stanley, Gene Simmons, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer offered a spectacle that almost seems rote in the annals of KISStory.

For the opening “Psycho Circus,” three of the four descended from the Amphitheatre’s rafters on the descending Spider, camouflaged by a colourful fog, while drummer Singer, whose drum kit was set on his own separate stage, rose 20 feet or so into the air.

An explosion of fireworks rocked the stage, and as “Psycho Circus” melted into “Deuce,” small fireballs were shot into the atmosphere. For the next 80 minutes, the visual Razzle Dazzle didn’t subside, as a gigantic back panel video screen covered every gesture and every one of Simmons’ comical facial contortions.

There was the expected fire-breathing segment from Simmons that concluded “Hotter Than Hell;” the “flying” Simmons — who bloodied his mouth and performed “God of Thunder” after being elevated to the hovering Spider — and a zip-lining Stanley, who hovered over to a B-stage in the middle of the venue to deliver “Love Gun” and the first few words of “Black Diamond.”

The setlist was a good mix of ancient and somewhat recent material spanning 40 years: robust performances of “Shout It Out Loud,” “Lick It Up” (which, for some reason, contained a snippet of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” echoed by Def Leppard in their earlier set) and “Calling Dr. Love” set the stage for the two encore/finales: “Detroit Rock City” and “Rock And Roll All Nite,” and the requisite explosions and fireworks that accompanied them.

And both Def Leppard and KISS vow that the party for both of them will continue far into the indefinite future.

KISS and Def Leppard a blazing double bill: review | Toronto Star

A Nick Cave concert so riveting, it gets five stars out of four

Nick Cave repeatedly ventured as far into the crowd as his microphone cord would let him, staring deeply into the faces he was serenading.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Aug 01 2014

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, July 31, 2014

How transcendent were Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds on Thursday night?

Let’s put it this way: there are singers who are passive, who prefer to stand behind a microphone and let their voice do all the heavy lifting, and there are singers that work the stage with a touch of athleticism and a strong helping of charm and charisma.

And then there’s Cave, the restless renegade Australian with his roguish baritone who fearlessly thrusts himself out into his admirers, venturing eight to 10 human rows deep, grabbing hands and beckoning his audience to join him on this animated two-hour journey as if he’s trying to absorb them into his very skin.

This wasn’t a gimmick or a one-time ploy: as Cave and his six Seeds twisted the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts inside out with a riveting performance that veered wildly between soft sentiment and eardrum-decimating fury, the dark-haired singer repeatedly ventured as far as his microphone cord would let him, staring deeply into the faces he was serenading and ending songs like “Tupelo” and “Stagger Lee” perched on top of a seat hundreds of feet from the stage.

Although his songs reference religion as often as romance, his public pulpit finds him playing the role of master storyteller. And Cave knows his own music so well that he adds dramatic impact through his body language.

When the concert kicked off with the slow beating drone of “We Real Cool,” Cave would stalk the stage and suddenly leap and dance between phrases, waving his arms to accentuate his mood and to partially conduct the band.

Occasionally he would plop himself down at the piano and play a few bars before jumping up and returning to the job of entertaining the audience, his attention-deficit disorder with the instrument lasting until the midway set, when he finally played a trio of songs that kicked off with No More Shall We Part’s tender ballad “Love Letter” and concluded with the same album’s “God Is in the House,” where Cave altered a line to humorously localize the flavour and include a reference to “a crackhead mayor.”

Cave wasn’t the only engaging performer worth his weight in performance gold: the Rasputin-like fiddler and flautist Warren Ellis had a few tricks of his own, like tucking a bow into his shirt collar while plucking his instrument then withdrawing it from behind his neck to revert to bowing. Ellis also sent the occasional bow sailing into the Sony Centre rafters, replacing it with a new one whenever the arrangement called for it.

Cave also won brownie points by refreshing his arrangements so they weren’t carbon copies of the record: “From Her To Eternity” took a more aggressive stance, and “Jubilee Street” exploded into a fire of calamity and cacophony about halfway through the number, thanks to the adept accompaniment of Bad Seeds Ellis, drummer, keyboardist and xylophone player Barry Adamson, drummer Jim Sclavunos, keyboardist Conway Savage, guitarist George Vjestica and bass player Martyn Casey.

As newer tunes like Push The Sky Away’s “Higgs Boson Blues” and vintage numbers such as “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” reminded the crowd of Cave’s extraordinary knack for incorporating rich imagery and master storytelling within a song, they simply couldn’t get enough of him, remaining on their feet the entire show, applauding and cheering him on and eventually being rewarded with a pair of well-deserved encores.

Nick Cave is one of those exhilarating, show-stopping performers that should be mandatory study for anyone considering a career in music performance and added to everyone else’s “must-see” list.

That’s why this show warranted the extra star added to its rating: Cave and his Bad Seed brethren earned it.

A Nick Cave concert so riveting, it gets five stars out of four | Toronto Star