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

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

Bryan Ferry’s band elevates live show to something truly magical

Music the youthful elixir that keeps Bryan Ferry rocking, with help from a stellar eight-piece backing band.

Nick Krewen

Music, Special to the Star, Published on Fri Sep 26 2014

There’s strength in numbers.

You’ll get no argument from anyone that, on the very eve of his 69th birthday, Bryan Ferry was the star attraction of Thursday night’s sold-out Massey Hall show.

But the truth of the matter is that Ferry’s stellar eight-piece band played such an integral role in elevating the occasion from a great performance into something so truly magical that they almost earned equal billing in their own right.

Not only did they keep up with and sometimes surpass the Roxy Music frontman in terms of energy over the 85 minutes of material that leaned heavily on Ferry’s art rock group past — with the occasional nod to his soon-to-be-15-album solo career — but their joyful enthusiasm alone threw enough gasoline on the fire that the singer looked like a genius for hiring them.

It all added up to an infectious, celebratory evening of great music that pleased nostalgic Roxy enthusiasts to no end, as indicated from the opening blast of “Re-make/Re-model” from the band’s self-titled debut; Ferry would delve deep and often into the catalogue.

True, guitarist Jake Quistgaard is no Phil Manzanera and saxophonist/keyboardist Jorja Chalmers is no Andy Mackay, but they certainly provided enough fresh vigour with their own interpretations that — dare I say it — the mainstays weren’t missed.

Dressed in a floral tuxedo jacket and grey slacks, the lanky and dashing Ferry relished his time feeding off the vibe as well, swaying and rocking to the groove of the music as he slid into “Kiss And Tell” and “Slave to Love” while his two backing vocalists — Bobbie Gordon and Jodie Scantlebury — put on a show of their own with their well-timed, yet seemingly free-flowing choreography.

Fuelled by the propellant of firecracker drummer Cherisse Osei’s hammering beats, and the anchored support of veteran Ferry bassist Guy Pratt, the singer, who alternated between entertaining at the microphone and taking up residence at an electric piano for songs like “More Than This,” was buoyed by the interplay. His tremolo tenor, smoother these days, sounded as strong as ever, although truthfully, the overall sound mix could have been crisper.

But there were a number of times — whether it was a slower take on the Robert Palmer hit “Johnny and Mary” that’s due to appear on his upcoming November album Avonmore, or a slightly accelerated version of Avalon’s “Take A Chance With Me” — that Ferry seemed as lost in the music as his fervent, older audience, and ageless as he rocked the house with a spirited “Love Is the Drug” or a rugged “Virginia Plain.”

He may have been romantically linked to any number of beautiful models throughout his life, but clearly music is the mistress about whom Bryan Ferry remains most passionate.

If there was any complaint, it’s that the show could have gone on a little longer.

After an all-too-brief encore of covers that paired Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together” with a somewhat sombre rendition of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” brought the house to its feet again, Ferry and his merry band left the audience wanting more.

But one gets the feeling he’ll be back as long as his health holds and, for this concert, Ferry gave the impression that music is his youthful elixir.

Bryan Ferry’s band elevates live show to something truly magical | Toronto Star

Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant hypnotizes, mesmerizes fans at Massey Hall

The musically adventurous Plant shows he is not afraid to revisit the past as long as he has something new to add to the conversation.

 

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Oct 01 2014

Robert Plant
At Massey Hall, Sept. 30

If mother is the necessity of invention, Robert Plant is its charming uncle you never really tire of visiting.

The former Led Zeppelin frontman has never been one to rest on his laurels for nostalgia’s sake — as those who have been waiting patiently and infinitely for a reunion of his most notable band’s survivors will frustratingly attest.

He has been musically adventurous since going solo back in 1982, as documented by his side trips ranging from the Honeydrippers to Raising Sand, his Grammy-winning album of Americana duets with bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss.

But as he’s proven with No Quarter, his 1994 reunion with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page and their subsequent tour with an Egyptian music ensemble, Plant is not afraid to revisit the past as long as he has something new to add to the conversation.

That general rule remained in effect for Tuesday night’s appearance at a sold-out Massey Hall, although Led Zeppelin diehards were aptly rewarded with a set list divvied up between reworked classics, a generous sampling of Plant’s fine new album Lullaby and . . . the Ceaseless Roar and a few blues gems plucked from the catalogues of Howlin’ Wolf and Bukka White.

After Plant, still unnaturally gifted with a full head of golden grey-sprinkled curly locks at age 66, slowly sauntered up to the microphone for an understated delivery of “No Quarter,” his six-piece backup the Sensational Space Shifters — who were “sensational” in every musical sense of the word — broke out the exotic instruments for “Poor Howard.”

Gambian musician Juldeh Camara bowed the ritti, a single-string violin that sounded more Celtic than African; guitarist Justin Adams strummed the tehardent, an African guitar, and Liam Tyson began plucking the “dreaded” banjo, as Plant described it, for a bluesy shuffle that sported an exotic polyrhythmic twist, while the singer stood there, tambourine in hand and a smile on his face, as the grooves continued to percolate.

Then it was back to the acoustic-driven “Thank You,” which brought the fans, a mix of young and old, to their feet, fuelled by the stellar guitar work of lead beard Tyson and enhanced by Plant’s reworked phrasing.

One thing is for certain: Plant is aging gracefully as a singer. Whether by design or due to dwindling capability, he rarely stretches into the higher register: the bridge of “Going To California” was delivered a full octave below the original arrangement and for “Whole Lotta Love,” cleverly wrapped into a medley that included “Who Do You Love,” he picked his spots, sometimes using staccato bursts of singing rather than sustaining the note to its natural conclusion.

It’s the mark of a proud man who knows his limitations but executes them tastefully without sinking into self-parody, and a strong indicator of why there will probably never be a Led Zeppelin reunion, due to Plant’s own lofty standards.

Those standards were met time and again throughout the 95-minute set, occasionally delving into full-fledged rock, as he did with parts of “What Is and What Should Never Be,” and a standout version of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” or emphasizing the funkiness of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” with a Bo Diddley blues beat, or having his band pull out the bendirs — large, tambourine-shaped African drums — for a rhythmically charged “Rainbow” off the new album, a song Plant ensured “was racing up the charts past Gary Puckett & The Union Gap” and past “Burton Cummings and other ballads of the past five years.”

If there was a disappointing aspect to Plant’s performance, it was the weird set-up of dual lighting rigs at the front of the stage that seriously blocked the vantage points of those nestled in the front corners of the Massey Hall floor seats: it’s obstructive enough and seemed to add so little to the proceedings that the singer should reconsider its positioning when he plays similar venues moving forward.

Aurally, however, the show was stunning: offering energy, vitality, bursts of power and a pretty amazing band (rounding out the Sensational Space Shifters were keyboardist John Baggott, bassist Billy Fuller and drummer Dave Smith) that brought the crowd repeatedly to their feet.

By the time he wrapped with a buoyant “Little Maggie,” Plant’s performance had veered between the hypnotic and the mesmeric, satisfying the sentimentally nostalgic without pandering to the past.

Robert Plant likes to keep us guessing and the hope is that he will continue do so well into the future.

Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant hypnotizes, mesmerizes fans at Massey Hall | Toronto Star

 

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