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

 

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

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