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

The Sweet Smell of Success

The Sweet Smell Of Success
October 22, 2009

Recording artists bottle their success

GRAMMY.com
Nick Krewen

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have not only experienced the sweet smell of success, they’ve bottled it.

Country music’s first couple has a couple of new scents on the market — Faith Hill Parfums is her first and Southern Blend is his second — and they are just two of the music celebrities that have been tapped by Coty Inc., the world’s largest fragrance manufacturer with annual net sales of approximately $4 billion.

The list of artists sporting one or more of their own perfume or cologne brands run from the obvious (Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani) to the enterprising (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z and Usher) to the unexpected (rapper Daddy Yankee, guitar shaman Carlos Santana and cosmetic rockers KISS).

The fragrance industry also seems to be impartial to genre, with American soprano Renée Fleming, pop/punk princess Avril Lavigne, hip-hop icon Queen Latifah and influential innovator Prince all offering aromatic toiletries for public consumption.

Why are stars so keen to extend their aural appeal to the nasal? Well, there’s the obvious answer: money. Fashion newspaper Women’s Wear Daily speculates that Beyoncé‘s upcoming Coty fragrance will be one of 2010’s most-anticipated spring debuts and could earn her $20 million over three years.

Karen Grant, vice president and global beauty industry analyst for the NPD Group, says helping to create a representative scent can be another expressive outlet.

“Sometimes celebrities say, ‘We’re not just about making another record,’ so being associated with a fragrance is a statement saying, ‘We’re an artist. We’re looking at this as an expression of our artistic talent.’

“It’s a great way to earn huge recognition across the country. And fans, who may not have the new album, can have a little piece of that celebrity as well.”

In many cases, it’s an affordable piece of celebrity. A 1.7-ounce bottle of McGraw’s Southern Blend — described as “a vibrant burst of grapefruit, star anise, and bergamot” that also incorporate touches of lavender, violet leaves, whiskey accord, vetiver, fresh amber, and tobacco to “create the ideal fragrance for the true Southern gentleman” — can be purchased in department stores or online for a suggested retail price of $30.

As Grant notes, this can be very appealing to fans. “If you’re a huge Britney follower, you’d want the scent as well as the albums,” she says.

It was Spears — along with Lopez and her fragrance Glow — who accelerated the trend of companies recruiting contemporary music stars to invent and introduce new fragrances when she entered the market in 2004 with the Elizabeth Arden brand Curious, which earned $100 million in sales within weeks of its release.

“Those two were such huge hits, really, that they helped to ignite this whole trend of associating the musician with these fragrances,” Grant explains. “So I think that’s when both the musicians as well as the manufacturers began to look and say, ‘This seems like it could be a winning lineup.'”

And it’s certainly been victorious for Spears. Women’s Wear Daily reports that more than 10 million bottles of Curious, Fantasy and In Control have been sold since 2005, and Spears has expanded her franchise this year with the additions of Circus Fantasy and Hidden Fantasy.

Since then, approximately 40 artists from Shania Twain to Hilary Duff have taken the plunge, with hit fragrances — like music — tracked weekly by Nielsen SoundScan.

So how do pop and rock stars come to release fragrances?

Steve Mormoris, senior vice president of global marketing at Coty Beauty (whose musical clients besides Hill and McGraw include Celine Dion, Lopez, Kylie Minogue, Stefani, and Twain), says his company approaches artists based on a number of criteria, including role model potential, someone who “holds high values” and how much they embody the essence of femininity or masculinity.

In all cases, he says Coty is looking for a long-term relationship and an artist “who wants to become involved with the fragrance” from development through execution.

With estimated launch costs of “not less than $2 million,” on the line, Mormoris says extensive market research is conducted before a brand is launched. “We don’t put out a fragrance until we’re absolutely certain it’s going to be a success,” he explains, adding that celebrities are usually paid on a royalty basis as opposed to a flat fee as an incentive, “ensuring that artists are involved for the life of the product.”

Mormoris says hits are determined by sales-generated value and market share percentage, rather than number of units sold, and that the average celebrity scent has a shelf life of five to 10 years.

“The exceptions are Stetson and Elizabeth Taylor‘s White Diamonds, which has been the no. 1 fragrance for the past 20 years,” notes Mormoris. “They’re exceptions to the rule.”

While celebrity popularity can drive fragrance sales, packaging also plays a crucial role.

“As new celebrity fragrances come out and they encompass novelty in design and fun, they still do well,” says Grant. “For example, Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers collection was among the best sellers in 2008.

“We do see that younger consumers do tend to resonate with packaging more as well. Since these celebrity fragrances do tend to be more popular with the younger consumer, it’s usually a pretty winning formula.”

Still, there are signs that the celebrity fragrance market may be waning. NPD Group recently reported a 10 percent drop in prestige fragrance retail sales for the first half of 2009.

If sales are flagging, Mormoris hasn’t noticed.

“I keep hearing about it,” laughs Mormoris, who names the Dion and Minogue fragrance lines as two of Coty’s best performers. “But I haven’t seen it.”

(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto Star, TV Guide, Billboard, Country Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board’s music industry documentary Dream Machine.)

Postmodern Jukebox turns back the clock on pop hits

Postmodern Jukebox turns back the clock on pop hits

Scott Bradlee and his rotating cast of singers and musicians redo current songs — from Radiohead to Katy Perry — for a bygone era.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Nov 16 2015

Shaken, not stirred.

No, we’re not talking about James Bond martinis, but the entertaining and imaginatively radical rearrangements of prevailing pop, rock and rap classics by New Jersey-raised pianist Scott Bradlee and musical combo Postmodern Jukebox, appearing at Massey Hall on Monday.

Musically speaking, Bradlee applies the same principle to his renditions of famous tunes that 007 does to his celebrated drink: throws all the ingredients into a metaphorical tumbler, tosses them into a bygone era, and then serves them up with a rotating cast of 60 singers and musicians, ranging from American Idol finalists Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams to Puddles, a six-foot-eight baritone cabaret singer in full clown costume.

Imagine Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” rearranged as a breathless, banjo-infested ragtime-era hoedown, or Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” reworked as a ’50s doo-wop number. Sometimes Bradlee switches up time signatures or inserts a few bars of another tune in the middle of a song, as he did with Wham!’s “Careless Whisper,” speeding up its tempo and briefly detouring into Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and “Message In a Bottle” by the Police.

You can hear and see them — along with 159 other revamped tunes — on Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox YouTube channel, which boasts 1.6 million subscribers and is updated Thursdays.

Bradlee, 34, says he can retrofit practically any song or style. Witness the first five songs PMJ performed at the Great Hall in Toronto in June 2014, their first live show ever: Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop,” Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child,” Kesha’s “Die Young” and the “Gummi Bears Theme Song.”

“Basically, the process involves picking out a song for its lyrics,” Bradlee explains. “I pick apart the lyrics and the structure of the song to see if there’s anything that would suggest it being recorded in an earlier era.
“For instance, ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ everybody knows it from the movie Titanic; it’s a Céline Dion song. But if you look at the lyrics, it’s essentially a ’50s song: it has that flowery language of “my heart will go on” and that’s something you can definitely hear sung by somebody like Jackie Wilson.
“So you’re hearing something familiar in a completely different context and it still works.”

Bradlee admits that some songs have him stymied.

“We never did a cover of ‘Uptown Funk’ because it already has the classic feel of ’70s funk. Mark Ronson is such a brilliant producer and Bruno Mars is a great vocalist; how do you write something new with that? It’s already classic.”

For Massey Hall, the show will feature “four or five vocalists,” a horn section and a tap dancer.

“If you were to go back in time to the Golden Age of Hollywood and you’re going to a New Year’s Eve party, it’s the kind of party that Frank Sinatra would go to,” Bradlee says.

 

Postmodern Jukebox turns back the clock on pop hits | Toronto Star

Postscript: Ironically, Scott Bradlee was the one person missing from the Postmodern Jukebox appearance at Massey Hall that featured Haley Reinhart, Casey Abrams and others. Franchise experimentation, perhaps?

The Weeknd proves he’s Toronto’s next superstar: concert review

R&B crooner Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, treated crowd at Mod Club to a sort of preview of new album Beauty Behind the Madness.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Aug 26 2015

The Weeknd
At the Mod Club, Aug. 25

He’s earned it all right.

The climatic moment in the Weeknd’s recent video for his chart-topping hit “Can’t Feel My Face” occurs when the singer is set on fire by an audience member while performing. He finishes the song “Human Torch” style, his skin unblemished as the flames engulf him.

The metaphor expressed in the video applied to the hottest ticket in town on Tuesday night, when alt R&B crooner Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. the Weeknd, treated a capacity crowd at the Mod Club to a preview of sorts of his new album out Friday, Beauty Behind the Madness.

With a crowd of 620 onlookers that included artists Francesco Yates and Kardinal Offishall, new Bell Media entertainment production president Randy Lennox and his Universal Music Canada replacement Jeffrey Remedios, several hundred Virgin Radio contest winners and those lucky enough to grab $9.99 tickets, Tesfaye and his three-piece band zigzagged from past to present during an exuberant hour-long set that signaled the arrival of Canada’s — nay, Toronto’s — next international superstar.

Yeah, you could argue that the Weeknd, who will kick off his world tour with a Nov. 3 Air Canada Centre date (tickets are on sale Friday), has already reached that pinnacle — especially since he owns two of the five top-selling songs on Billboard this week — but one got the feeling with this concert that Tesfaye is only beginning to come into his own.

Starting with “Losers,” an aggressive new up-tempo Beauty track, the man with the gravity-defying hair and equally buoyant falsetto bounced around the stage like he had something to prove, and spun through a quick succession of three more soon-to-be-R&B classics — “Tell Your Friends,” “Acquainted” and “In the Morning” — before he returned, as he put it, “to 2011” for House of Balloons’ “High for This.”

At that point, the show became more of a communal event, with the crowd serenading Tesfaye with the lyrics from “Often” and “Glass Table Girls” as he echoed their words.

The crowd lost it when he briefly detoured with Drake’s “Crew Love” (which he initially contributed vocals to) and sang along intensely to his hit ballad

“Earned It” from the film Fifty Shades of Grey, Tesfaye’s impressive falsetto effortlessly gliding into stratospheric octaves.

The funky “Can’t Feel My Face” got the whole joint jumping to the point you could feel the floor move under your feet, and Tesfaye cajoled the audience to “go motherf—ing crazy” for “The Hills,” before returning for an acoustic-driven, slightly accelerated version of “Wicked Games” to close out the set.

In a club that hosted the Weeknd’s very first gig and one he keeps coming back to, it was an evening his fans won’t soon forget.

The Weeknd proves he’s Toronto’s next superstar: concert review | 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

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.

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career
He’s helped launch the careers of Loreena McKennitt and k.d. lang. At 80, he’s finally agreed to slow down his famously tireless pace.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Jun 27 2014

Now that he’s turned 80, Richard Flohil swears he’s going to slow the pace a bit.

What that actually means is anybody’s guess, because those who know the publicist and promoter extraordinaire — a master raconteur who corners the market on British charm and has helped the likes of Loreena McKennitt, k.d. lang and many others achieve global stardom — are flabbergasted by his tireless work ethic that includes a five-night-a-week commitment to hearing live music.

In a personal note distributed via email to colleagues last week, Flohil said he was “beginning to pull back a little,” but would stay involved “especially with special projects that inspire and/or amuse me.”

At this point, those projects include finishing a crowdfunded book he’s tentatively titled Louis Armstrong’s Laxative and 100 Other Mostly True Stories About a Life In Music and actively promoting up to 15 shows a year (Hugh’s Room is a favourite venue) with fellow promoter Tom Dertinger. Flohil also travels across Canada to attend folk festivals and mentors his own publicity clients in ways that exceed his job description.

So if he is contemplating some relaxation, there’s a strong possibility the public at large won’t notice it: music is clearly Flohil’s elixir of youth.

“I wish I knew who I’d stolen this from,” he says, his eyes twinkling as he quaffs a pint of ale at a Roncesvalles watering hole one recent sunny afternoon.

“But the age you go into music is the age you stay forever.

“I’m 34,” he grins.

His unbridled enthusiasm for the art form is no less diminished from the days of his early fascination with American jazz and blues. If anything, it’s grown exponentially, fueled in part by an eye-opening visit to the Mariposa folk festival in 1965, where he met Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Ste. Marie, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and The Staple Singers, acts he said “widened my head and almost made me evangelical.”

That passion has played an integral role in the formative years of many Canadian and U.S. acts, some who have gone on to become global superstars: McKennitt, lang, the Downchild Blues Band, Serena Ryder, Ani DiFranco, Laura Smith . . . the list is impressive.

“I think he has a particular talent for nurturing young artists, particularly when they’re starting out,” says Juno Award winner Loreena McKennitt, who has sold more than 14 million copies of her unique brand of world music.

“I think he’s got a good ear, and he’s very enthusiastic, which may sound kind of trite but being enthusiastic is a large part of developing enough confidence to move forward. And he’s very familiar with setting up the right circumstance for someone starting out. I think that takes a very particular nurturing hand and mind.”

And those nurtured artists have loved him back.

One need only to glance at the lineup that’s rocking the Horseshoe Tavern stage this Friday night to fete “Flo” into his ninth decade to realize how warmly and affectionately he’s regarded: Tom Wilson, Alejandra Ribera, Roxanne Potvin, Scarlett Jane, Ariana Gillis, Paul Reddick, Shakura S’Aida and others are volunteering their time to pay tribute to their champion, who in turn is transforming his birthday bash into a fundraiser for the Unison Benevolent Fund, which provides counseling, emergency relief and benefit programs for the Canadian music community.

“I like being part of the music community — they’re all really good people,” repeats the founder of publicity and promotion firm Richard Flohil and Associates, a few times over the course of the next 90 minutes.

Flohil says he loves hearing and working with musicians so much that he would jump on stage if he could. But he figures the public would fare better with him remaining behind the scenes.

“The reason I’m on the business side is because I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument and I dance like a pregnant elephant. Not a pretty sight and not to be done in public.”

The Richard Flohil story begins back in Selby, Yorkshire where he was born to Dutch and English parents. He attended private school and eventually apprenticed as a reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Press, moving on to work at three other papers.

When he hit 20, he tried his hand at publicity: his first client, future James Bond theme composer John Barry.

But he wanted out of Britain.

“I wanted to rediscover American jazz and blues musicians, because in the ’50s they weren’t allowed to come to Britain very often,” Flohil admits.

“Occasionally Louis Armstrong came and Lonnie Johnson came, and I met Big Bill Broonzy, but by and large the British Musicians Union wasn’t going to let American musicians come to Britain unless British musicians were allowed to come to America.”

In 1957, he arrived in Toronto with $300 in his pocket, and was instantly smitten by the thriving music scene.

“The first afternoon I walked down Yonge Street and I saw a sign saying, ‘All this week: Earl Hines and his All-Stars,’” Flohil recalls. “I walked in the bar and I said, ‘Earl Hines is playing here? The same Earl Hines who played with Louis Armstrong in the ’20s? How much is it to get in?’

“The bartender said, ‘It’s free, but you must buy two drinks.’ And I thought, ‘this must be the Promised Land.’

“The next night I found a New Orleans jazz club, and the night after that I wandered down to King Street East, and the Town Tavern. It was April ’57, and on stage underneath this silent black and white television airing a hockey playoff game is this rotund black pianist from Montreal called Oscar Peterson, who I never heard of. Blew my lights out.

“Then I went to Maple Leaf Gardens, the Irving Feld Parade of Stars, for $2.50, featuring the 16-year-old boy wonder from Ottawa, Canada:  Paul Anka, and Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Fats Domino, LaVerne Baker and Clyde McPhatter.”

After a series of jobs editing trade magazines, Flohil eventually branched out into publicity and also landed a gig as the editor of CAPAC’s (a forerunner of SOCAN) membership music magazine, keeping that gig for 20 years.

When he decided to move into concert promotion, Flohil capitalized on the Chicago blues sojourns he had made while living in England.

“If I have a claim to fame, I’m the guy who was involved in bringing Buddy Guy here for the first time, lesser known artists like Robert Nighthawk and Sleepy John Estes, and later on B.B. King and Bobby Bland. So that got me into small level promotions.

“I was also involved with bigger shows — Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, the Chieftains — with mixed results, but that seed has become the preserve of giant companies who have endless resources. And I couldn’t compete with that. “

In 1980, he co-founded respected music industry trade magazine The Record, handling reviews but still entrenched in publicity, and in 2002 became editor of Applaud, a magazine aimed at promoting Canadian music outside Canada, that lasted five years.

As much as he loves music and the people that make it, Flohil does have criteria when it comes to taking on clients (“good songs, a distinctive voice, ambition”), as well hearing music that emotionally touches him.

“To me, music has to hit two parts of the following four parts of your body: head, heart, groin, feet,” says Flohil, whose numerous accolades include the Estelle Klein Lifetime Achievement Award and SOCAN’s Special Achievement Award.

“Any two of those — if it’s just one, it won’t work for me.”
As for secrets to his success, Richard Flohil says his personal catalyst is anticipation.

“I think the key, apart from listening to lots and lots of music (he boasts a music collection of 12,000 discs) is to have something to look forward to,” says Flohil, who is tentatively planning a trip to India in 2015.

“I still want to do intriguing special projects. For example, Stony Plain Records, who I’ve worked with forever, has a 40th anniversary coming next year. I want to be involved in that, and if there’s a CD, I want to help choose the music and write the liner notes.”

While Flohil laments that he’s never “made very much money at” his career, his days have been filled with entertaining memories.

“I’ve had this amazing life with all these people, these stories and adventures and misadventures. So I just keep going.”

Music promoter Richard Flohil reflects on a six-decade career | Toronto Star