30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp are still at it

Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 30 ©Ebet Roberts

By Nick Krewen | www.samaritanmag.com

Posted on September 23, 2015

CHICAGO — To say that Farm Aid, the annual music festival fundraiser for family farms and farmers, “celebrated” its 30th anniversary this month at Northerly Island would be a bit of a misnomer.

Certainly, there were some festivities, as an impressive lineup of top musicians including Farm Aid founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews, rock band Imagine Dragons, R&B legend Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, provided nearly 12 hours of music, entertaining an estimated 27,000 in attendance at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion on Sept. 19. But the truth of the matter is that 30 years after Nelson organized the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois — raising more than $48 million towards the cause over the last three decades, excluding the most recent event — the plight of the U.S. farmer remains in crisis.

Neil Young at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists the current number of U.S. farms at 2.2 million; it also admits that less than 1 percent of the country’s 313 million citizens “claim farming as a profession;” that farm production expenses average $109,359 per year per farm and that “fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.” Foreclosures, deep debt, industrial agriculture muscling in and manipulating prices to the point where non- corporate agriculturalists are lowballed for less-than-market crop prices, and high-level stress that often leads to depression and suicide.

The situation is still dire, warned the non-profit charity’s co-founder Neil Young at the Farm Aid 30 press conference. “The American farm is disappearing. This is a reality,” Young stated. “We keep saying, ‘We’re fighting…we’re fighting,’ but it is disappearing.”

Young says a dearth of younger generation farmers isn’t helping the cause, especially when aging farmers hand over their livelihoods to their kin, only to watch it be sold to corporate interests. “We’ve only got a few young people involved. The farms are going to change hands. We know when the farms change hands; that’s when the corporations come in and grab another slice.”

Still, war wages on, fighting commercial behemoths like agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology giant, and genetic seed modifier Monsanto and Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s leading processors of poultry, pork and beef, two companies whose multi-billion-dollar deep pockets and alleged government collusion have transformed them into formidable foes, said Young, whose latest album The Monsanto Years particularly takes one company to task.

“We’re up against a gigantic force that keeps coming at us from everywhere,” Young stated. “It’s centered in our government, and it’s backed up by multinational corporations who have taken over the farmland of the United States, who produce 90 percent of the corn.”

Young says the latest crisis farmers are facing is “seed control.”

“Seeds are owned by these companies, so farmers can’t trade the seeds,” he explained. “Currently, there’s a bill in the Senate that, if it passes, will make it illegal to trade seeds farther than 3 to 5 miles.

“Because of our government and the money that they’re taking from the multinational corporations, we are being forced to give up the right for our farmers to trade seeds,” he added. “We need seed justice in this land.”

John Mellencamp at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

This public advocacy is one of the crucial differences Farm Aid has made in the lives of farmers: standing up for the little guy.

“The fact that Farm Aid even exists has given every farmer out there a stand against companies like Monsanto where they didn’t have one before,” country artist Jamey Johnson, who was performing at his eighth Farm Aid Festival, told Samaritanmag in an exclusive interview.

“If you don’t have a voice or a vote, there’s no way you can make anybody change. Farm Aid gives every farmer out there a platform to stand on while they make their case. Farm Aid helps farmers that get pushed out by ever growing corporate business and helps them make a new start on their own, helps them stand up against the Goliath.”

Besides offering hope, Farm Aid also supports farmers through third party administration with programs like The Family Farm Disaster Fund — which helps families survive weather-related disasters by providing emergency funds to buy food and cover living expenses, an emergency hotline and provides legal and financial counseling when foreclosure is threatened — and The Farmer Resource Network, a grid of 700 organizations recommended by Farm Aid that provides “resources, tools and opportunities to help (farmers) thrive.”

Every annual Farm Aid concert funds a year of activity, as artists and crews donate their time and talent, with all proceeds going to the cause save for a small amount of production expenses.

Here’s how it breaks down according to Farm Aid website: 41 percent of proceeds go toward promoting “fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns to develop and bolster family farm-centered agriculture;” 39 percent goes toward “helping farmers thrive; providing farmers with the services and resources they need to access new markets and transition to more sustainable and profitable farming practices;” 14 percent to natural disaster and emergency response and 6 percent towards “growing the Good Food movement,” a crusade that espouses finding and shopping for organic, naturally grown farm food rather than the genetically altered stuff.

Dave Matthews at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

“When we started Farm Aid, crisis was gripping farm country,” said Willie Nelson, who launched the idea following a remark he heard from Bob Dylan at Live Aid regarding a similar charity for farmers, at the press conference. “Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.”

Farm Aid has also influenced other musicians to lead by example and make a difference.

Jack Johnson, and his wife Kim, for example, have implemented a healthy snack program via their Oahu-based Kõkua Hawai’i Foundation called AINA in 16 local schools, a farm-to-school initiative that promotes childhood health by pushing healthy eating habits, contributes to a healthier local food system by supporting Hawaii’s farming community and their produce, and connects children to the land and water that sustains them.

For this school year, AINA is in 16 schools across the state, where students will experience garden-based learning, compost and nutrition lessons.

“Basically, during the school hours you can come into the classroom with locally grown food,” Johnson explained. “We have parents come down in the morning, they cut it all up, it comes from the farmers, it gets put into the classrooms and kids get to taste it.

Jack Johnson at Farm Aid 2015
©Sabine Carey

“Any kids who don’t want to finish it we get them to put it in a little bin, and we take that off to worm composting. They’re learning about how it goes back into the soil, and what healthy soil is, and we’re happy to be part of it.”

Jack Johnson told Samaritanmag that because his foundation is self-financed, there is a lot more flexibility and direct action in what they’re able to do.

“We’re pretty lucky with our Foundation, it’s all self-funded,” he admitted. “We’ve gotten some grants, but we’ve done music festivals that kind of support it and a lot of the touring I do, I pour money into it from there. So it’s been different than a lot of non-profits that have to rely off the grants, year after year. In that sense, the finances haven’t been a huge challenge but I know it’s been a challenge for other non-profit groups.”

Jamey Johnson at Farm Aid 30, 2015

For the Imagine Dragons, Farm Aid is an inspiration to change their eating habits. Guitarist Wayne Sermon, whose grandfather and father were farmers, said the band is doing its part to promote better eating by setting an example and actively searching out farm-to-table restaurants whenever they’re on tour.

“When I first started this band and we actually got successful, was when I first realized that I can’t eat the way I used to eat,” Sermon told Samaritanmag exclusively. “I have to eat fresh meat and vegetables, making sure knowing where my meat comes from, the non-GMO stuff. It became apparent and actually made a difference in my life. We also definitely encourage people to go out to grocery stores that support local farms as well.”

Even Micah Nelson, son of Willie and brother of Lukas, who fronted his own Insects Vs. Robots and joined Lukas’ Promise of the Real to perform with Neil Young at Farm Aid, said he’s going to Kauai this winter to help his cousin start a food forest. “I’m going to go help him out and learn as much as I can and apply it to my own life, instead of just going out there and preaching about it,” he said.

The fact that a trio of second generation artists, Micah and Lukas Nelson, and Ian Mellencamp, all performed at an event that initially took place either before they were born or just after, suggests that the Farm Aid will take the fight for the farmer well into the future.

* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.

30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp Still at It | Samaritanmag.com – The Anti-Tabloid

Emm Gryner – musical multi-tasker

 

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

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Oct 12 2015

 

Emm Gryner has become quite the proficient juggler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all of the songs are personal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emm Gryner, musical multi-tasker | Toronto Star

Dan Mangan forges new frontiers with Blacksmith

The Juno-winning musician and songwriter rides a layered new album into Saturday’s Massey Hall show.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Feb 25 2015

Dan Mangan is going deep.

The 31-year-old eloquent, observant singer and songwriter has returned with a newly named band Blacksmith to introduce what’s arguably his finest album to date in Club Meds.

The Smithers, B.C., native views the CD, his first since 2011’s Juno-winning Oh Fortune, as a new chapter in his life, following some life changes that included becoming a parent for the first time.

“It’s great,” says Mangan, down the line from Montreal, of son Jude. “For myself, it forced me to slow down a little bit. I have a tendency to be hyperactive — not really in my demeanour, but just in my incessant need to be working on things. If I’m idle for five seconds, I start to go crazy.
“So I think it forced me to stop and slow down and go ‘wait, wait, wait: Maybe all you need to do right now is hold this little human and enjoy that.’ So that’s been really good for me. I feel a little bit calmer since I’ve had a kid, which is crazy, because my life is a million times more hectic.”

Mangan, who headlines at Massey Hall Saturday night with his band Blacksmith (John Walsh, Gord Grdina and Kenton Loewen), special guest Hayden and Calgary’s Astral Swans, says the break after touring Oh Fortune allowed him to sit back and reassess his situation.

“We were pretty beat at the end of the 2012 Oh Fortune cycle. The band would be in the airport terminal, and we’d look around at each other and we were all bagged with circles under our eyes,” he laughs. “Even before I had the band, I’d been touring alone a good seven years, sometimes 200 shows a year.
“So I thought, okay, let’s take a breath, you know — and coming back after a little bit of time, it’s amazing what it did for the band. The mojo was intensified and everybody came at the new material with a lot of excitement and new energy and ready to grab it by the balls and go for it.”

Club Meds displays a continued maturity in the fully realized Mangan sound: intoxicating melodies and pointedly astute lyrics wrapped in soothingly warm and sometimes lush alt-rock arrangements.

Mangan says he’s become a better communicator.

“I’ve grown up a little bit, I’ve learned to articulate myself in different ways,” he admits. “And I’ve felt, in some ways, I’ve always been a little bit political. I’ve always had opinions coming through in the songs, but I think I was a little bit timid to really dig into it, partly because I don’t think I knew how to articulate these things through song when I was younger.”

Club Meds also has an irresistible momentum about it, with a strong, natural flow almost dreamily tying together songs like “Vessel” and “Mouthpiece.”
“It’s a fairly romantic and nostalgic notion at this point, but I still have a tender place for the album as a whole piece . . . I like how the album bobs and weaves and goes in all these different directions and takes you on a bit of a journey,” Mangan says.

One of the themes on Club Meds is hinted at in the title.

“I feel like it’s about sedation,” Mangan confirms. “It’s also the willful blindness, the complacence of delusion that we all wander in and out of. As much as it’s about sedation, it’s also about being awake.
“For myself, I can think about those moments of being truly awake and connected with other people and connect with other streams of thought in the universe. You know those moments where you feel really lucid and sort of tapped in and alive, like your blood is flowing. That’s a truly beautiful place to be.”

Dan Mangan forges new frontiers with Blacksmith | Toronto Star

Julian Taylor revels in versatility

Toronto musician plays R&B at the Horseshoe one night, partakes in folk festival the next.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Feb 12 2015

Julian Taylor is used to shaking it up.

For example, those headed to the Horseshoe on Saturday night will experience the full electrifying and soulful R&B glory of the eight-piece Julian Taylor Band as they perform songs from their acclaimed album Tech Noir.

On Friday and Sunday, you’ll find Taylor doing the solo singer-songwriter thing at the Irish pub Dora Keogh, partaking in the annual Danforth-centric folk fest Winterfolk XIII (David Essig, Jack de Keyzer, Lynn Miles and Hotcha! are among the headliners) and showing off his acoustic guitar chops.

Source his former band Staggered Crossing on YouTube to hear his rock edge.

Taylor is quite the chameleon.

“I can do many things,” he says. “Tech Noir is a rock soul record with which I think I’ve found my niche, but I like writing campfire songs and playing acoustic guitar just as much of that.
“It’s great to be versatile. Over the past couple of weeks I was part of the Gordon Lightfoot tribute at Hugh’s Room and I was also part of the global (Bob) Marley (70th birthday) tribute last weekend. So I get to do a lot of things.”

Taylor said the public’s modern and varied music tastes have allowed him to branch out accordingly.

“The general public has been exposed to so much stuff culturally — music, art, literature — that nowadays they’re way more open.”

The 36-year-old even points to his 3-year-old daughter Ella as “a barometer” of taste, saying she breaks out into spontaneous dance whenever she hears something she likes and will barely react if she hears something she doesn’t.

“When I was recording Tech Noir, I had a lot of friends listen to it, but it was mostly my daughter who told me if it was good or not,” he says. “If we could dance in the living room, then it was working.”

His latest song off Tech Noir, “Be Good to Your Woman,” has evolved into a campaign Taylor said is designed to “spark the conversation about trying to stop violence against women.”

He’s inviting everyone to submit a video to begoodtoyourwoman.com to share positive stories about their relationships and the respect with which people should be accorded.

He’s also pledged $2 from the sale of every copy of Tech Noir to the Canadian Women’s Foundation in honour of the cause.

In the meantime, Taylor, whose songs have been placed in such TV shows as Haven and Elementary, says he will be previewing new material for the Horseshoe Tavern crowd, and is grateful for the support radio outlets like the CBC have given his music.

“What Tech Noir means to me is ‘black future,’ he says. “I wanted to take the feeling of black music in the past and create something new and fresh, yet old, and I think we basically accomplished that.
“Folks that have heard it seem to like it, so I’m not complaining.”

Julian Taylor revels in versatility | Toronto Star

Jamie T: Out of sight, not out of work

British singer-songwriter Jamie T seemingly disappeared, but he never stopped writing music. Touring a new album, he plays the Mod Club on Saturday.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Dec 05 2014

In the seven years since acclaimed British singer and songwriter Jamie T released his Mercury Prize-nominated Panic Prevention, he hasn’t exactly been the most publicly prolific of musicians.

Indeed, aside from this fall’s release of Carry on the Grudge, the Wimbledon-bred artist, who appears at the Mod Club fronting a five-piece band Saturday night, has only one other album to his credit: 2009’s Kings and Queens.

Privately, it’s another story: while Jamie Alexander Treays may have been out of the public spotlight for the last five years, he wrote 180 songs, of which only a dozen made the cut for the album that will be considered a sea change in style for those who have followed him.

“It was pretty non-stop recording, to be honest,” Treays said late Tuesday afternoon prior to a San Francisco gig. “I’ve always recorded as I’ve written. I’ll write half a song and then finish it off in the studio. But it did take a long time for many reasons. I’m glad it’s done now.”

When he first burst out onto the scene with 2007’s Panic Prevention, Treays’ music was a concoction of Blur-inspired, rap-scented hyperactivity that mirrored fellow Brit Lily Allen’s smarts and energy, and he was quickly hailed by the U.K. music press as a trailblazer.

Kings and Queens was a tad more electrifying and streamlined, and more praise followed. However, at the end of the touring cycle to promote that album, Treays knew it was time take a breather.

“I’m 28 years old now, and I think part of it was just age,” he says of the break. “There were times in life where I wanted to put a stop on things and work out what I wanted to do. I had gotten into this music stuff when I was 18, and really hadn’t had a moment to stop. So it was important for me to take it at a slower pace, really.

“I also wanted to explore music, and you need time to go down those roads to realize some are dead ends. Also, my parents had been sick and I took time to care for them. So when I put it all into context, it’s really not that much of a long time. It might seem to others like a blank spot, but it wasn’t.”

The slower pace is the most significant adjustment of the Jamie T sound, reflected on several Carry on the Grudge tunes, including the striking ballad “Love is Only a Heartbeat Away,” the melancholy “They Told Me It Rained,” the winsome “Mary Lee” and the opener “Limits Lie.” They all serve as strong contrasts to the more active fare of “Zombie,” the rambunctious “Rabbit Hole,” “Peter” and “Trouble.”

For Treays, it was an opportunity to exercise more rhythmic restraint, and edit his prose.

“When I was recording Carry on the Grudge, I was listening to a lot of stuff that was pretty downbeat — Weezer, Marcy’s Playground, Bran Van 3000 — ’90s stuff. There were fewer tempos involved in everything I was listening to and I became obsessed with trying to find power in my own songwriting, without using tempo. It was becoming a bit of a crutch for me, to get out anger or some kind of emotion within the song.

“Plus, my stuff beforehand was so jam-packed with words and tempos, I was kind of getting pissed off with it, really. Before I knew it I was trying to write different styles of songs, because I noticed if I wanted to say less, I’d have to write in order to make them more ambiguous. It was a good learning curve and I was coming out with different material that was touching on more of a personal note, but was easier because I could hide it behind ambiguity.”

Produced in part by James Dring, the Blur and Gorillaz associate who has worked with Treays on all his albums, the title of Carry on the Grudge reflects Jamie T’s state of mind at the time of recording.

“I was talking to a friend about how hard it is to make up your own mind and have opinions on things when you’re force-fed opinions as you’re growing up,” he explains.

“You’re given these statements as though they’re fact, and it seems a lot of your post-teen years are spent trying to work out what’s fact and what’s bulls–t before you can become your own person. So the idea of the ‘grudge’ is, do you carry on living with all that bulls–t that you’ve been taught, or do you turn around and question things again to become your own person? That’s where me and a lot of my friends were at when I was writing this album, so it seemed like a good thing to call it.”

Jamie T: Out of sight, not out of work | Toronto Star

Homegrown acts Moist, Tea Party return after long absences

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

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Nov 20 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOIST

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEA PARTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Southworth finds inspiration on both sides of Niagara

Southworth’s latest theme album is a double disc, with an “American” and “Canadian” side. He plays Toronto’s Music Gallery on Sunday.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sat Oct 11 2014

For his latest album Niagara, technically constructed as a double album with a nine-song “Canadian” disc and an 11-song “American” disc, John Southworth has specific instructions as to how it should be heard.

“It’s not meant to be listened to all at once,” explained the Sussex, England-born Southworth one afternoon last weekend over a pint at the Rhino, near his current Parkdale home.

“It’s two records, so I’d be happy if someone ignored one side for a period of time before hearing it. In that sense, it’s almost a book disguised as an album.”

It’s also not surprising that the 42-year-old eclectic songwriter, troubadour, filmmaker and children’s book author prefers people to allot the proper amount of time for his music to sink in. Songs like “Niagara Falls is Not Niagara Falls” and “The Horse that Swam Across the Sea” on the Canadian side, and “Poor Boy from Buffalo” and “Womb of Time” on the American side are generally gentle reveries with slight jazzy overtones, songs that require a deeper listen before the bigger picture is revealed.

Generally, it’s a largely mellow project that dwells on the concept of home, and an attempt to explore its definition.

“I consider Toronto part of Niagara, since it’s just across the lake,” Southworth says. “I thought it would be the great, necessary and moral thing to make a record about where I’ve spent most of my life.”

 

Southworth will perform plenty of Niagara songs and also dive into his 13-album catalogue when he appears with his longtime band The South Seas at the Music Gallery on Sunday (7 p.m., $15, no opening act.)

“I feel, more as I get older, a desire to connect in terms of what is home. What feels like home? And I struggle with that, no matter how long I’ve lived here, and I want to know why.
“These are the songs about it, although not every song covers the topic. But I think I knew I was always going to make a record called Niagara.”

Southworth allows that one prominent Niagara location — those famous falls — has been referenced consistently in his music over the years.

“Niagara Falls, as a place, has appeared in a lyric on almost half of my records,” says Southworth. “Not out of any preconceived plan, but it’s lived in my consciousness for awhile.

“And I see Niagara Falls as a symbol and a metaphor for many things in our world now, especially North America. I envision it 1,000 years ago before anything and I reflect on this natural creation and the way it’s been ignored. It’s a symbol for me on where we’re heading on a spiritual level, or where we’re at as a culture and a civilization.

“And these two little towns (Niagara Falls, Ont. and N.Y.) that have sprung up on either side, divided by a natural wonder, dividing two countries, there’s so much to explore and write about it.”

The topic of separation within such a close proximity fascinates him, one that he translated into the story of two lovers in “Poor Boy from Buffalo.”

“The woman lives in St. Catharines and the man lives in Buffalo, and they have to continue their relationship with this border between them, and usually do so by night,” explains Southworth, who co-wrote two songs with Buck 65 on the Toronto rhymer’s just-released Neverlove.

“I like the idea that there are people living lives very close to each other, but are divided by a natural border. For all of us, we are living very close to our American counterparts, but we have no idea what they’re like, and they have no idea what we’re like.”

It’s also a return of sorts to an earlier Southworth tendency of naming his albums after locations: one that began with his debut, 1998’s Mars, Pennsylvania, and continued on with 1999’s Sedona, Arizona, 2000’s Banff Springs, Transylvania, 2001’s Rose Milk Appalachia EP and 2005’s Yosemite before he felt the practice “was becoming a little too precious.”

Although Southworth views Niagara as “tying my first record and this record together as a whole,” his means of recording and arranging has definitely changed over the years.

“When I started out and I made that first record, I was 23. At that time, I would write and control all the arrangements. But as I’ve grown, I do the opposite now. There’s very little on here that’s pre-arranged. For the last 10 years, I’ve worked with Toronto musicians who have an improv jazz background.

“Now we play music where anything can happen. When we record studio takes, what you’re hearing is very immediate — they’re learning the songs. If things aren’t happening in three takes, I abandon them.

“In essence, I’ve become more of a jazz musician, although I still have pop sensibilities as a songwriter.”

Southworth’s first children’s book, Daydreams for Night, is out this month through Simply Read.

John Southworth finds inspiration on both sides of Niagara | 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

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.”