Chrissie Hynde turns back the clock: review

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

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Oct 31 2014

Chrissie Hynde
3 stars
At Massey Hall, Oct. 30

 

Dorian Gray, eat your heart out.

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

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

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

But it did take her a while to get there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Oh Susanna beats cancer to sing other people’s songs

Oh Susanna’s Suzie Ungerleider had to delay her Namedropper album — with contributions from Ron Sexsmith, Joel Plaskett, Melissa McClelland and others — for treatment, but she finally debuts it in concert on Saturday.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Oct 23 2014

When Oh Susanna performs Saturday night at the Great Hall, Suzie Ungerleider will be celebrating not only a sparkling new album called Namedropper, but successful treatment for breast cancer.

It was about 18 months ago, during the late stages of mixing the new Jim Bryson-produced album, a collection of 14 original songs written specifically for Ungerleider by numerous respected Canadian songwriters, that the Massachusetts-born, Vancouver-raised, west-end Toronto resident was diagnosed.

“I discovered a lump in my breast, had it checked out and it turned out to be cancer,” said Ungerleider, who will be celebrating her 44th birthday Saturday, during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.

“I went through surgery and chemo and genetic testing and radiation — I did it all. And the message the doctors gave me is, ‘We’re going to do all the stuff because, medically, you’re very young and we feel it will give you a long life afterwards.’”

Ungerleider concluded treatment “around Valentine’s Day” this year and her cancer is in remission, finally enabling her to focus on launching the Kickstarter-funded Namedropper after being forced to sit on its release for a year.

The project, her sixth album, is a respite from the gloomy and transformative Appalachian-flavoured folk and alt-country balladry on which she has built her considerable North American and European following.

The new originals, contributed by the likes of Ron Sexsmith, Royal Wood, the husband-and-wife Whitehorse team of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, Jim Cuddy and many others, certainly sound a little brighter and more pop-oriented than Ungerleider’s signature sound.

It was part of the game plan, although the Juno-nominated singer and songwriter admits she initially had a different vision.

“I had this idea for several years where I wanted to make a record of songs by people I know, but I was just going to choose songs of my friends that I loved,” says Ungerleider.

But it was producer Bryson who suggested commissioning the originals from the writers.

“I said, ‘that’s a great idea. Can you ask them?’” Ungerleider recalls, a hearty laugh resonating over the phone.

“It turned into a whole different ballgame when that happened. I got to put on different masks and it was really fun and liberating.”

The choice of Ottawa-based Bryson, an artist in his own right, as producer, reflected her desire to stretch artistically.

“I wanted someone who was going to make me do what’s a little less comfortable for me, push me and make it sound interesting and less folkie than I probably would otherwise,” Ungerleider admits.

“I love Jim’s creativity and I said to him, ‘I think you should do this because you’re kind of bizarre and way weirder than I am,’” she laughs. “He loves doing weird stuff sonically.”

In terms of approaching songwriters like Joel Plaskett, Nathan’s Keri Latimer and Amelia Curran, Ungerleider only imposed one imperative.

“The requirement was that I’d know the people personally, but not necessarily super well,” she explains. “Some of the people that Jim suggested I couldn’t do because I didn’t know them. But he started out with his list, and then I’d run into people and say, ’Oh, maybe you want to do this, too.’ Then suddenly, it was, ‘Oh, we’re asking too many people.’ So in the end, we had too much stuff. We couldn’t get it all done, but it was a good problem to have.”

Bryson and Ungerleider also wanted to avoid “slow, waltzy songs” and have the writers “think outside the box, because that was the whole idea of the project.”

For Sexsmith’s “Wait Until The Sun Comes Up,” he consulted his Stephen Foster songbook; Cuddy’s “Dying Light” “feels more autobiographical than his normal material,” Ungerleider says, and Melissa McClelland’s rocking “Mozart for the Cat” was inspired by Ungerleider’s son Sal, who was born three months premature.

“There were some stories that were personal, and some where we let the writers do what they wanted to do and get the inspiration however they wanted it.”

Saturday night’s show — which will include Bryson on guitars and keys, bassist Eli Abrams, Ungerleider’s husband Cam Giroux on drums and The Good Lovelies’ Caroline Brooks on harmonies, along with “some people showing up and doing stuff” — is a precursor to tours of Western Canada, the U.K. in January and the Netherlands next spring.

But it also gets the Sonic Unyon recording artist back in the swing of things, to the point where she’s experiencing a new zest for writing.

“I am kind of a lazy person,” she laughs. “I wanted to get the joy back in writing.
“Sometimes I beat myself up about writing, and I feel that going through this illness made me realize that I needed to change my thoughts, have it be more of a joy and not be so overwrought about it.

“Sometimes writing for me can be difficult because I take a serious tone with it. But this was a lovely way to have some new voices in my head.”

Oh Susanna beats cancer to sing other people’s songs | 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

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

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

Nick Krewen

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

There’s strength in numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Oct 01 2014

Robert Plant
At Massey Hall, Sept. 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ed Sheeran delivers an A+ show at the ACC

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

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Sep 19 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rascal Flatts concert worth braving the weather: Review

Country music band — along with opening act Sheryl Crow — delighted the wet crowd at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre on Saturday night.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sun Sep 21 2014

Rascal Flatts is something of an anomaly in the country music world.

A country pop band with Christian overtones, the core of singer Gary LeVox, his bass playing cousin Jay DeMarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney have never really possessed “it”: that intangible level of charisma that undeniably screams “star” whenever you look at them.

LeVox has an OK voice, a high tenor (that jumps up an octave into the realm of annoyance whenever he shouts), with both DeMarcus and Rooney taking occasional leads, and their harmonies are efficient, though not spectacular.

Yet these average Joes have enjoyed above average success since the Nashville-formed band first hit the country charts with “Prayin’ For Daylight” 14 years ago, selling more than 20 million albums, producing a relentless string of No. 1 hits and gathering a crazily-devoted fan base comprised of folks like the one who tweeted on a giant screen prior to the band’s 90-minute set at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre on Saturday night, that he had driven 1,800 km from Labrador City to watch his musical heroes in action.

The audience consensus — and there were 9,000 or so predominantly plaid-clad denizens in the venue, with another 2,000-3,000 enduring the pouring rain to witness the occasion and warm-up act Sheryl Crow — would probably be that it was indeed worth the drive, despite the fact that the band occasionally fell short in their delivery.

But the song has always been the most important aspect of the country music medium, and Rascal Flatts certainly knows how to pick them: the ballad “What Hurts The Most,” “Fast Cars and Freedom” and “Bless The Broken Road” — all country chart-toppers — found the audience jovially singing along and filling in the gaps whenever LeVox pointed the microphone in their direction.

Except for a lacklustre “Why Wait,” a slightly shaky “Here Comes Goodbye” and LeVox’s extremely pitchy opening line of the newer “DJ Tonight,” the trio strengthened in momentum as the show progressed.

Something that separates them from the rest of the pack is their quirky charm: DeMarcus is the comedian, so he took some time to do a short shtick about the end of summer coinciding with the disappearance of women wearing Daisy Dukes shorts that the audience lapped up.

They also pulled a novel twist on the band introduction, recruiting their six backing musicians to join them in an a capella version of “Love You Out Loud” and an alternate take of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”

For the acoustic portion, LeVox announced he was taking a pee break and returned to the stage with Sheryl Crow, who performed her song “The Picture” and then stuck around to help the band with “My Wish.”

Speaking of the seemingly ageless Crow — looking marvellous at 52 as she did at 32, around the time Tuesday Night Music Club introduced her to the rock mainstream and multiple Grammies — she delivered a solid hour-long set in which she seemed a little livelier than in previous performances.

Also accompanied by a six-piece band, Crow delivered enjoyable renditions of “All I Wanna Do,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Soak Up The Sun” and “Everyday Is A Winding Road” with the rock edge she’s known for, as well as a political and pensive “duet” about war with the late Johnny Cash of “Redemption Day.”

Although largely sticking with guitar, she also played a bit of keyboard, bass and harmonica, loosening up to venture out to the extended stage in the pit to slap hands with the crowd. For a woman who has been accused in the past as being a staid entertainer, it was nice to see her loose and relaxed.

The same could be said for Rascal Flatts, who ended the show strongly with their hit rendition of Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is A Highway,” and then encored with a cover of Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” before finishing with “Me and My Gang” and a thundering flashpot explosion.

Rascal Flatts may still be somewhat of a head-scratching country music enigma, but there’s little doubt that their fan base will walk to the ends of the Earth to experience them.

Rascal Flatts concert worth braving the weather: Review | Toronto Star

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

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sat Aug 09 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here today, gone Ramada.

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

Katy Perry is pure spectacle at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre

California pop goddess Katy Perry literally used every shade and hue on the colour spectrum – and maybe even invented a hue or two – during a visually stunning two-hour spectacle that was actually better eye candy than ear candy.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sat Jul 19 2014

Now, that was colourful.

California pop goddess Katy Perry literally used every shade and hue on the colour spectrum – and maybe even invented a hue or two – during a visually stunning two-hour spectacle that was actually better eye candy than ear candy.

Not that the music she serenaded the 6-to-60-aged crowd at the Air Canada Centre for the first of three shows on Friday night (Saturday and Monday follow) was lacking in any way: with the exception of “Waking Up In Vegas,” Perry managed to squeeze in every chart-topper she’s thus far generated as well as a generous portion of her latest No. 1 album Prism.

But channeling her inner Broadway gene as she did, Perry unleashed a multi-costumed, multi-wigged, video-dominant, inflatable-filled extravaganza that will rank as an unforgettable experience for the estimated 14,000 in attendance, including her legions of dedicated fans, the KatyCats.

Perry’s Prismatic World Tour opened with a sequence worthy of The Lion King: spear-chucking Day-Glo clad Ninja warrior dancers with spiky Mohawk-type headgear flew through the air and stalked the triangular stage that extended three-quarters into the audience (several hundred enjoyed a special vantage inside the “pit” that was surrounded by platform) as Perry, wearing her hair in a ponytail with glowing rainbow bead extensions, launched in “Roar.”

That was just the introductory number: Teenage Dream’s “Part Of Me” and “Wide Awake” followed as Perry and her elaborately-garbed troupe shimmied down the treadmill-laden catwalk, giving everyone in the audience a pretty good vantage point.

By the time the “This Moment/Love Me” medley had been performed 20 minutes in, Perry had out Gaga-d Gaga and out Pinked-Pink, as her dancers performed aerial gymnastics high above the crowd and even the singer herself being hoisted into the air from a triangular “cage” and singing from a respectable altitude.

However, she was just getting started: again, taking a page from Lion King costume puppetry, Perry emerged from below the stage dressed as Cleopatra and riding a golden stallion for “Dark Horse.”

It wasn’t all serious show: as Perry yelled out “this is the song that put me on the map,” she launched into “I Kissed A Girl” and a bevy of pneumatic female “mummies” with exaggerated parts of their anatomies offered some hilarious twerking moves.

“Hot N Cold” and “International Smile” found “Kitty Purry” and her accompanying felines (perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber should check the Cats closet for missing wardrobes) taking to the catwalk and stroking their tails.

As one might guess, except for an acoustic-driven set midway through the show, subtlety would be playing a minor role in the proceedings. Perry’s seven-piece band pumped the volume up to take advantage of the music’s throbbing dance beats as the superstar continued to engage in her theatrics, songs about love, self-image and vulnerability continually wielded with the impact of a sonic hammer.

The kitchen-sink approach with props and effects reached over-saturation a few times, and bordered on ridiculous when Perry brought her sunflower “garden” to the front of the triangle just prior to “The One That Got Away/Thinking Of You,” watered it and a pepperoni pizza box appeared. For some reason, a speech on how she was allergic to gluten followed as she invited a young fan on stage to relieve her of the pizza.

At another point, she implored fans to lift a finger and promise “to never break up with me,” that was a little creepy, to be honest, as it smacked a little of desperation from the ultra-confident Perry.

There were many moments, however, that were spot-on in terms of excitement and delivery, with butterflies, inflatable cars, balloons and Perry “flying” around the arena, and by the time “Firework” came around to end the 20-song evening, her followers were pumped up enough to drown her out with their leather-lunged enthusiasm.

Whether it was the constant costume changes (some humourous, some provocative), the green, rainbow-hued or black wigs, or the sense of playfulness that permeated the show, the audience lapped up the big-budget display as Perry proved herself to be a visually astute and entertaining performer.

Colour them impressed.

Katy Perry is pure spectacle at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre | Toronto Star