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

Elle King delivers music and comedy chops: concert review

In a magnetic performance, the soulful singer proved she is indeed the daughter of comedian Rob Schneider.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Jun 04 2015

Elle King
At the Drake Underground, June 3.

The great aspect of seeing an act in concert is that albums sometimes only reveal so much.

If you picked up Elle King’s Love Stuff, for instance — even if it’s only because you were impressed by her radio airplay earworm “Ex’s and Oh’s” for its bouncy yesteryear rhythm, King’s soulful rasp and the song’s catchy refrain — you’d be getting less than half the picture.

As she proved at her Toronto debut at the Drake Underground on Wednesday night, King is so, so much more than what you hear on record: she’s a ribald spitfire whose performances are brimming with so much personality that you wish she could bottle it and dispense amongst the crowd.

Part of the attraction is that King has a flair for comedy, a natural part of her DNA due to the fact that her father is ex-Saturday Night Live comedian Rob Schneider. Some of the physical mannerisms she displayed in common with her dad — a head bob here, a smirk there — proved that she is indeed her father’s daughter.

But that’s where the comparisons end: King has a much filthier mouth and more of an unrepentant, devil-may-care attitude than her father, and both are as charming as they are charismatic.

Taking to the Underground stage with her incredibly disciplined four-piece band, King introduced her opening song as being about “an idiot” who dumped her, and immediately endeared herself to the packed house of about 400 as she tore into “I Told You I Was Mean.”

She described her next song as a result of “an idiot who told me he was in love with me the first night we met” and performed the hilarious “Good To Be A Man,” from her 2012 eponymous EP, singing her heart out with an electricity that hasn’t been captured by her in the studio.

Then she switched her guitar for banjo, and started to get into some of the more incisive numbers that speak of the pains and woes of romance and the vulnerabilities therein, softer songs like “Song of Sorrow” and “Make You Smile.”

But when the pace picked up, she went for the throat with each song she sang, her voice filling the hall with a might force that again has yet to be captured by a studio. “Where the Devil Don’t Go” and “Under the Influence” were burning, passionate numbers that shook the Drake’s foundation, and the first of two cover songs, “Oh Darling,” found her wandering into the audience, hamming it up and adding a torchy aspect to the song that transformed it into her very own.

The second cover was song was saved for the encore: a raunchy Khia number about oral sex called “My Back My Neck” that had the women in the audience howling with glee.

Make no mistake: Elle King is not a choirgirl, nor does she pretend to be, and that’s what makes her so mesmerizing — she could care less what people think of her.

Elle King returns to Toronto for Edgefest on a shared bill supporting Milky Chance, but trust me, you’ll want to get there early enough to catch her set.

She’s going to be the life of the party.

 

Elle King delivers music and comedy chops: concert review | Toronto Star

Tobias Jesso Jr. captivates crowd in solo show: review

The young performer has plenty of room to grow, but the charisma he exudes is certainly half the battle in advancing his career.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Mar 23 2015

Tobias Jesso Jr.
3 stars
At the Drake Hotel Underground, Sunday, March 22.

Tobias Jesso Jr. knows how to charm his audience.

About a half-hour prior to Sunday’s show at the Drake Underground, the 29-year-old Vancouver-born piano balladeer wasn’t holed up in a change room somewhere, fighting butterflies or playing whatever mental games performers use to psych themselves up to take to the stage.

No, the former bass player of The Sessions was out mingling with the sold-out audience who had paid to see him: shaking hands, offering hugs, signing copies of his acclaimed debut album Goon and talking about his music.

His 55-minute set, consisting largely of material from that album, was pretty similar in nature, save for the shaking hands and offering hugs bit, as he proved to be an adept conversationalist with a decent sense of humour, and one who wasn’t afraid to publically fess up his flaws, considering — his trio of appearances at SXSW this past week included — that this is his first tour and these are some of his first ever solo shows.

“I just got back from SXSW where I screwed up a song five times,” he told the partisan crowd of hipsters near the start of his 10 p.m. performance. “You guys will be getting better than that tonight, at least.”

Later he identified “True Love” as the culprit just prior to its performance, and yes, he performed it flawlessly.

But his predilection for spontaneity was first evident in his opening number, the John Lennon-esque “Can We Still Be Friends.”

Midway through the song, Jesso played a chord progression familiar to fans of the TV show Cheers.

“This is the ‘Cheers’ theme cameo; I swear I didn’t know that when I wrote it,” he joked, then continued with the singing.

Another sample of his deadpan humour: “My ex-girlfriend and her new husband are in the audience tonight. Excuse me while I write a song.”

While he may have a flair for stand-up comedy, Jesso’s music has been the magnet that has attracted the attention of such luminaries as Adele, Girls’ Chet “JR” White and The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney for collaboration or praise.

Jesso’s songs are as straightforward and as simple as they come: very basic melodies that have no subtext or hidden meaning beyond what the singer and songwriter is expressing. Whether they’re exceptional songs is a matter of opinion, but what’s undeniable is the additional soulfulness Jesso brings as a performer.

Using his electric grand piano as his palette (he also switched to guitar for a couple of numbers, including “The Wait”), Jesso sang with added intensity and urgency when it was called for, and the crowd response of rapt attention was so impressive you could have heard a pin drop.

The Adele favourite “How Could You Babe,” “Just a Dream” and “Without You” all jumped out with stronger force than the song before it, relying on Jesso’s confidence and focus as the propellant, thus building the show’s momentum to its eventual apex with “Hollywood,” a rare tune in the Tobias Jesso Jr. catalogue that had little to do with romance.

It’s obvious that Jesso has plenty of room to grow as a writer, performer and showman, but the charisma he exudes is certainly half the battle in advancing his career.

Whether the informal atmosphere of his current show continues as he eventually graduates to bigger venues and hires a band remains to be seen, but there will probably be a day in the not-too-distant future where patrons who attended the concert will reminisce nostalgically, sigh, and perhaps boast a little, in declaring, “We saw Tobias Jesso Jr. back before he was…”

Tobias Jesso Jr. captivates crowd in solo show: review | Toronto Star

Ariana Grande takes flight at the ACC: concert review

The young “Problem” singer proves she’s got longevity, with a surprisingly under-utilized voice and a large, smartly G-rated production.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Mon Mar 09 2015

 

Ariana Grande
3 stars
At the Air Canada Centre, March 8

Merchandisers did brisk business on plastic glow-in-the-dark cat ears Sunday night at the Air Canada Centre.

The significance?

At least a couple thousand girls — the audience was probably 90 percent female, ranging from 5 to 45 — wore the headbands as both a sign of allegiance and a nod of respect to headliner Ariana Grande and her prior career as a TV actress, portraying the character Cat Valentine on the Nickelodeon shows Victorious and Sam and Cat.

That was before, of course, Grande decided to go the route of so many Disney-era teen actors, and stake a domain in pop music.

And although she’s only been at it a relatively short time — Yours Truly in 2013 followed by My Everything in 2014 are her only full-length releases to date, along with a bevy of guest slots on other collaborations — the 21-year-old exhibits enough drawing power to fill the Air Canada Centre with approximately 14,000 screaming fans, indicating she’ll probably be around for a good, long run.

As the charismatic, pony-tailed Grande — also sporting the cat ears accoutrement for a generous portion of her 90-minute set — proved repeatedly throughout the evening, she certainly has the performance thing down pat, exuding both the calm and confidence, poise and professionalism that are expected of today’s millennial pop stars.

It’s almost as though there’s a list of seven commandments that they all subscribe to:

1. Thou shalt employ a large team of impressive dancers to exercise some meaningless, forgettable choreography.
2. Thou shalt have a large band supplemented with a DJ and a (in this case, a three-piece) string section.
3. Thou shalt include canned harmonies.
4. Thou shalt pull out all the bells and whistles one would expect in a top-flight production: fireworks, confetti, dry ice, lasers, video, more fireworks, more confetti, and at least one explosion.
5. Thou shalt employ the use of hydraulics to hover above the crowd at least once, nay twice, during any concert tour.
6. Thou shalt have a video cameo of any high-profile guest (usually rap) collaborator to insert where appropriate. Grande’s boyfriend Big Sean appeared on screen during “Best Mistake” and “Right There,” unlike Saturday’s show in Detroit, where he appeared in person.
7. Thou shalt have a minimum of five or six costume changes because, well, you’re hot.

Ariana Grande fulfilled this particular manifesto, using the fourth commandment to the best of her abilities: all that stuff happened in the opening high-octane number “Bang Bang.” The hydraulics came as the singer hovered above the stage on a cloud and, almost immediately afterwards, a giant chandelier.

But this Grandestanding is not what separated Ariana from the rest of the TV-weaned pack. In fact, there was a trio of characteristics that, in this scribe’s opinion, bodes well for her future.

The first is that amazing, almost underutilized voice of hers: she sounds like Mariah Carey with restraint (and believe me, that’s a compliment). There were times when her band overpowered her — and some of that could have been due to the cold she said she was suffering from — but when she took a solo spotlight, as on “Honeymoon Avenue,” there was a lot of soul and believability. You can’t say that about many of today’s TV ingénue converts.

The second is that Grande gave her audience a G-rated show — when was the last time you witnessed a tap-dancing DJ? — and was mindful that her audience contained a lot of young impressionable girls who obviously idolize her. She was sexy and romantic in songs like “Hands on Me,” but not overtly so, and of course, blatantly aware of her cuteness enough to play it up through video intros.

But the biggest promise she showed also happened to be probably the most boring part of the show. During one of the many costume breaks, Imogen Heap — one of Grande’s influences — appeared on screen to talk about this dull new invention she concocted: computerized gloves that allow her to manipulate her voice live in performance.

To her credit, Grande tried them, sounding like a Vocoder experiment that Neil Young pulled off during his Trans era as she harmonized with herself.

It was a pointless exercise that probably baffled her fans more than it entertained them, but the fact that Grande is open enough to experiment reveals an imagination that will elevate her game with subsequent releases, indicating she’s not going to be satisfied with simply being famous for fame’s sake.

As she saved the best for last — an energetic take on “Problem” and the blood-rushing burst of “One Last Time” — Grande left her fans happily buzzing about a well-consummated production, and with the anticipation that the so-called “Honeymoon Tour” was just a taste of what’s to come.

One quibble: if you happened to be in the first row, your sight lines were obstructed by monitors that prevented you from seeing everything that was happening on stage, despite the presence of video screens.

Not cool, but thank god for the catwalk.

Ariana Grande takes flight at the ACC: concert review | Toronto Star

Dan Mangan forges new frontiers with Blacksmith

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

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Feb 25 2015

Dan Mangan is going deep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mangan says he’s become a better communicator.

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

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

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

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

Dan Mangan forges new frontiers with Blacksmith | Toronto Star

Julian Taylor revels in versatility

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

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Thu Feb 12 2015

Julian Taylor is used to shaking it up.

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

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

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

Taylor is quite the chameleon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julian Taylor revels in versatility | Toronto Star

Jamie T: Out of sight, not out of work

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

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Dec 05 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucinda Williams gets stellar assistance at Massey Hall: review

The alt-country darling had to read her lyrics from a binder, but her top-notch backing band more than filled in any gaps in her memory.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Nov 21 2014

Lucinda Williams
3.5 stars
At Massey Hall, Nov. 20.

What on earth is going on with Lucinda Williams?

That’s the first question the good denizens of a half-filled Massey Hall were probably asking themselves on Thursday moments before the Lake Charles, La., native took to the stage, as they spotted the separate music stand with an open binder placed next to her microphone.

At first, there might have been cause for worry: the 61-year-old, three-time Grammy-winning alt-country darling ventured on stage unaccompanied with an acoustic guitar strapped around her shoulder and proceeded to strum through “Blessed,” the title track of her 2011 album, reading the lyrics to the entire song, as her three backing band members joined her one by one.

As her nearly two-hour concert continued, first with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’s “Can’t Let Go,” and then one of her earlier numbers, “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” Williams continued to leaf through the binder for the lyrics to the song she was about to sing. It was a prop that might have been better tolerated if it had been solely relegated to assisting her with material from her recent 20-song effort Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone instead of her entire 11-album catalog.

But life is a series of balances, and luckily for Williams, she had a secret weapon that pretty much nullified the distraction of the binder reliance: her band.

They were damned spectacular. In fact, if Williams continues touring with the same unit — Wallflowers guitarist Stuart Mathis and her long-time rhythm section David Sutton on bass and Butch Norton on drums — she should bill them as The Damned Spectacular, because they were nothing short of mesmerizing, elevating the Massey show to a level beyond reprieve.

Sutton and Norton are a tightly disciplined, in-the-pocket tandem that fill in so many holes with just the right notes that it makes Williams look like a certified genius for hiring them.

This was particularly noticeable on “Unsuffer Me,” where Norton slowed the song and maintained it at a restrained yet powerful enough pace — with Sutton adding intermittent notes that gave the arrangement room to breathe — to allow Mathis to cut through the air with laser-like riffs on his electric guitar.

And Mathis was no slouch either when it came to applying his own sonic paintbrush in terms of enlivening Williams’ tunes: he added great grit to “Essence,” strong pathos to “Changed the Locks” and shone with pretty much every note he played.

As for Williams, her charming Southern drawl sounded less ragged and vulnerable than on record. Her full-throated warbling on her emotionally honest, heart-wrenching songs “Changed the Locks” and “Compassion” — the song adapted from one of her father Miller Williams’ poems — was full of powerful gravitas, the icing on the cake of what ended up being a buoyant, jubilant evening of the passionate roots music jambalaya for which Williams is renowned. But the reason she was so good was unquestionably due to her blisteringly amazing band.

Also kudos to the soundman: the mix was perfect, and nicely captured the dynamic range of the music throughout the evening.

Just a final note to the headliner: Hey Lucinda, it wouldn’t kill you to spring for a TelePrompter.

Lucinda Williams gets stellar assistance at Massey Hall: review | Toronto Star

Siblings Jill and Matthew Barber play Massey Hall Nov. 15

Jill will showcase material from Fool’s Gold, while Matthew has new album Big Romance

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Nov 14 2014

 

Jill Barber has been waiting for this.

When the 34-year-old singer and songwriter takes to the Massey Hall stage on Saturday night as headliner, it will be the crowning achievement thus far of a career that has taken the Port Credit native through numerous styles, seven albums and three continents.

“It’s huge,” said Barber of her appearance at the 120-year-old venue.

“On Saturday night, there will be three big events in my life that are standouts: getting married, having my baby and performing my own show at Massey Hall. It is beyond my wildest dreams, which is an incredible feeling. I really think, when I was a teenager growing up in Port Credit, of being a musician, that playing the Rivoli felt like that would be the pinnacle, so to be invited to play onstage of Massey Hall is a great honour and I really feel it. I feel it a lot.”

Making the occasion even more special will be her warm-up act, her older brother Matthew Barber, a potent singer and songwriter in his own right who has eight albums to his credit, and the one who inspired her to follow her musical dreams.

“It’s totally a dream come true,” says Jill, who will perform material from her latest collection, Fool’s Gold. “My parents, who will be in the audience, what a big night it is for them. It’s a family celebration, obviously with my family, my parents, my brother and I, also with my musical family: my band, the label and all of the people that I work with on a daily basis. It’s a celebration for everybody. It’s not the size of the room, it’s the prestige and the fact that we all got here together is something that we’re all celebrating.”

Matthew, who’s pushing his own new album, Big Romance, has previously experienced the awe factor of the Massey stage.

“I’ve played there as a drummer with Doug Paisley when we opened for Jim Cuddy once and I know that when you’re up there the time flies rather quickly. You’ve got to take a minute to stop and savour the moment, so I’ll do that.”

Produced by the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, Big Romance offers more of Matthew’s predilection for strong, pop-hooked melodies that are both personal and potent; something he felt was strengthened by Louris’s presence.

“I was aiming for a classic sounding album,” says Matthew. “I’m a huge fan of Gary’s songwriting and the Jayhawks, and I wanted to bring him in to help us craft an album that’s interesting from beginning to end but has classic sensibilities and also some hooks. There’s really no more of a conceptual angle than that.”

Aside from “On the 505,” which is a song concerning the Sammy Yatim streetcar shooting last summer, and “Magic Greg,” an ode to one of Matthew’s late friends, Barber says the remaining eight songs on Big Romance are deal with “existential issues that I’m always interested in, or issues of science and nature and making sense of the world, or just issues of the heart and the emotions that go along with love and relationship. That’s my usual terrain for songwriting.”

But not his only terrain: Barber will also provide the music for the new John Patrick Shanley play A Woman Is a Secret, premiering at Toronto’s Theatre Centre on March 20.

It’s not the first time Barber’s dabbled in theatre; he finds scoring for plays refreshes him when it comes to penning material for his records.

“It’s a nice diversion. I think it’s kind of a breath of fresh air to keep the songwriting wheels turning, but having these set parameters to contend with where you’re writing for a particular show or writing for particular characters is a nice, different way to work. So when I come back to writing my own material for my next record, it’s fresh.”

He also revealed he’ll be cutting a duets album next year with Jill, whom he calls “amazing.”

“I’m very proud of and inspired by her,” says Matthew. “She’s really crafted her own sound and her own esthetic package, for sure. She experimented with some sounds and has found a style that really works for her.”

Central to that sound is Jill’s plush, torchy voice, described by the authoritative All Music Guide website as a “mid-century blend of little-girl timbre and orotund vowels,” and suited to the jazz-influenced songs that she’s written for Fool’s Gold, some of which sound like a throwback to yesteryear.

It’s been a journey of stylistic twists and turns for Vancouver-based Jill, who began her career with more of a folk esthetic on her first two EPs and 2006’s For All Time before switching directions and being embraced by the jazz community for 2008’s Chances.

Barber said her writing style evolved accordingly once she left her guitar out of the process.

“The way I write songs most of the time these days is a cappella,” says the bilingual Jill, who also released a collection of French-language covers last year called Chansons.

“So it’s really just my voice. I’ll take a little demo recording of me singing a cappella to one of my band mates and they will help me create the music underneath it, so my vocal melody is always the first thing that is written, along with the lyric.

“Back in the day I wrote with my guitar at the same time. But because I’m not the world’s greatest guitar player, I started to find as I started to explore jazzier vocal stylings it became harder for me to accompany myself. So when I put down my guitar, I could sing any melody and was free to let my voice lead the way.”

Jill says she’s always felt a deeper connection to older music.

“Back in university, I would go to the local record shop and thumb through the old dusty records. I would essentially pick out the records that I thought had cool record covers, and I’d take them home and I’d listen to them. There was something about this old jazz, these old standards, and the way these men and women delivered these songs that, to me, instantly felt like a soundtrack: this beautiful, whimsical, romantic experience.

“So I think that when I’m writing, it doesn’t matter what style I’m writing in, I’m trying to write music that is timeless, that might be old but hasn’t aged.”

Massey Hall concertgoers will receive a generous taste of these contemporary “vintage” originals, as Jill says she’s employed a three-piece string section, a three-piece horn section, backing singers and hired a special lightning designer for the show.

“We’re gonna go to town!” she declares. “My two Fool’s Gold producers — Drew Jurecka and Les Cooper — have been working tirelessly on arrangements just to put this show over the top. We’re pulling out all the stops that we know how to pull out and it’s going to be really special.”

Siblings Jill and Matthew Barber play Massey Hall Nov. 15 | Toronto Star