Sara Evans, stronger than ever?

Sara Evans, stronger than ever?

Sara Evans, stronger than ever? | Toronto Star

Country singer glad to carry momentum into CMT festival.

Sara Evans, now an Alabama resident, comes north to Oro, Ont., near Barrie, for the first CMT Music Festival this weekend.


Sara Evans, now an Alabama resident, comes north to Oro, Ont., near Barrie, for the first CMT Music Festival this weekend.

By: Special to the Star Nick Krewen Published on Wed Aug 24 2011

You won’t find a more relevant country music album title at the moment than Sara Evans’ Stronger.

Ever since the sudden 2006 pullout of her contending role on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars due to what would become a messy and very public divorce from musician-turned-aspiring politician Craig Schelske, Evans, 40, has been battling to regain her career form.

The New Franklin, Missouri native’s recent chart-topper “A Little Bit Stronger” shows her to be back on track, although — with the exception of four new tracks on 2007’s Greatest Hits — Stronger is her first new effort since 2005’s Real Fine Place.

Was she worried about the six-year-gap between albums?

“It caused me to have a little bit of panic,” admits Evans, calling from her Birmingham, Ala. home in advance of her Saturday appearance at this weekend’s CMT Music Festival in Oro, Ontario, just 10 minutes north of Barrie. (Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton, Ronnie Dunn, Corb Lund and others are also appearing – check for daily lineups and schedules.)

“Then I just had to trust that the timing would be perfect, and it was.”

The public welcomed the doe-eyed singer back with her fifth No. 1 hit, “A Little Bit Stronger,” another in a string of uplifting songs that includes the self-penned “Born To Fly,” and “No Place That Far” and features her expressive and expansive alto.

It’s a gift that started off in a much different direction than the more contemporary style for which Evans, 40, is renown: When she first arrived in Nashville 16 years ago, she caught the ear of legendary songwriter Harlan Howard, responsible for such classic hits as Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces” and Buck Owens’ “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” — a connection that would lead to her critically acclaimed debut album of traditional country, Three Chords and the Truth.

“I got hired to sing a demo for a couple of songs that Harlan had written, one being ‘I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,’ ” Evans recalls.

“He wanted to resurrect that song and try to pitch it to a female artist, so they hired me — I was the new demo singer in town. He was in the studio and he was blown away by my voice and how country I was. He said, ‘you remind me of Loretta Lynn when she first moved to town.’ ”

On the spot, Howard called an A&R exec pal at RCA Nashville and arranged a meeting with the label for Evans.

“I sang for (RCA Nashville president) Joe Galante and he signed me right then and there to a seven-album deal,” Evans remembers. “Thank God for Harlan Howard!”

Her intention was pure: Evans procured traditionalist producer Pete Anderson to produce what eventually became Three Chords and the Truth to “kind of make me into a female Dwight Yoakam.”

“I was 24 at the time, thinking, I’m getting so much attention for being so country, but this is how I was raised and this is how I was taught to sing, so, I’m just going to go with this,” she recalls.

“It just didn’t go over that well with country radio, because I think they felt there was no spot for it at the time.”

She did an about-face with her sophomore album, securing Music Row overseers Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson to produce No Place That Far a little more generically, and saved her career in the process, as the title track became her first No. 1 hit.

Evans has since offered her fans taste of her roots, supplementing recent albums with acoustic and bluegrass remakes of her hits “Suds in the Bucket” and, on Stronger, “Born To Fly.”

“That’s just a part of who I am and how I was raised,” Evans explains. “My mother would put on really old Live At The Grand Ole Opry albums and listen to those just over and over and over again.”

Since divorcing Schelske in 2007, Evans has married radio host Jay Barker and relocated her three children with Schelske from Nashville to join Barker and his four children in Birmingham.

“It’s crazy,” says Evans of being a mother to seven children, unfazed by the notion since she grew up in a household with six siblings.

“I love being and mom and wife and I learned how to cook for a big family from an early age — they’re by far the best part of my life, so it’s great. It’s very busy and our house is loud, but it’s so fun.”

Would she ever return to compete on Dancing with the Stars?

“I definitely would,” she replies. “But I don’t know how we would do it now that we live in Birmingham.

“When I was on the show, the kids weren’t in school yet; well, Avery was in the first grade, but I held him out for the beginning of the school year so he could be there with me.

“Now, it would be really, really hard, because I would never leave them and go to L.A. to do it. But it would sure be fun.”


What: The inaugural CMT Music Festival

Where: Burl’s Creek Park, near Barrie

When: Aug. 26-28

Who: Lady Antebellum, Ronnie Dunn, Rascal Flatts, Corb Lund, George Canyon, Blake Shelton, Sara Evans, and more

Tickets: $29 to $389 at, or 1-855-480-8800


The Cars: Idling no more

The Cars idling no more

It was the last phone call keyboardist Greg Hawkes expected to get: an invite from singer and chief songwriter Ric Ocasek to restart The Cars. 

Greg Hawkes of The Cars performs at the Hollywood Palladium on May 12, 2011 in Los Angeles.


Greg Hawkes of The Cars performs at the Hollywood Palladium on May 12, 2011 in Los Angeles.

By: Nick Krewen Special to the Star, Published on Thu May 19 2011

It was the last phone call keyboardist Greg Hawkes expected to get: an invite from singer and chief songwriter Ric Ocasek to restart The Cars.

After all, it had been almost a quarter-century since the Boston-based rock ‘n’ roll New Wavers had put the brakes to their 20-million-selling seven-album career, stalling after a lukewarm reception to 1987’s Door To Door, a major letdown in the face of 1984’s mega-successful Heartbeat City.

Since The Cars had been scrapped in ’88, Ocasek had steadfastly refused to reunite, preferring to concentrate on solo albums and the very occasional live appearance. In 2000, co-founding bass player Benjamin Orr — the bandmate Ocasek had originally hooked up with in a folk trio called Milkwood before the duo forged ahead with their most famous band — succumbed to cancer.

And a 2006 attempt by Hawkes and guitarist Elliot Easton to team up with Todd Rundgren in the revamped New Cars quickly ran out of gas.

“I think it was a surprise for everybody,” admits Hawkes, 58, who will not only be playing such memorable classics as “Just What I Needed,” “Let’s Go,” “Drive” and “You Might Think” next to his surviving bandmates within the intimate confines of The Sound Academy Friday night, but helping the band push Move Like This, its first album of original songs in 24 years.

“I remember getting my call — maybe it was January of last year, or maybe before Christmas, I can’t quite remember — but Ric called up and just said, ‘What do you think of the idea of doing a Cars album?’ ”

Hawkes ended up convening at the Millbrook, N.Y. home Ocasek shares with his wife, the former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, before Easton and Robinson joined the proceedings to hear the new material.

“He played me 25 songs,” recalls Hawkes, calling Tuesday prior to a gig in Minneapolis.

“We went through them and whittled it down to a dozen. And then we got together with David and Elliott.”

Hawkes admits the inaugural sessions were approached with a touch of apprehension.

“Back in 1988, it was pretty easy to see why we stopped. A lot of the band members weren’t getting along at the time. I know that Ric and Ben weren’t getting along — and I still don’t exactly know why.

“Maybe we had exhausted what we could do at the time. We just naturally needed a break from each other.

“Maybe not one quite this long,” he chuckles, “But there you go.”

The animosity that had plagued them in the past had dissipated with time — consider this: they broke up before current chart-topper Adele was born — and Easton says the initial five days they spent together were pleasant and productive.

“We all kind of agreed to start small, and work on three songs together, just see how it goes. But it went really smoothly and we had a lot of fun, so we kept going until we had a whole album.”

Indeed, the sound of Move Like This, with a handful of songs produced by Garrett “Jacknife” Lee (R.E.M., Snow Patrol) is like hearing an old, familiar pal who has been away on an extended vacation: Ocasek’s gift for sprightly, punchy, radio-friendly melodies; golden riffs; crispy, economical arrangements and infectiously sparkling choruses hasn’t waned over the years. The album’s first single, “Sad Song,” is sitting in the Top 40 of Billboard’s current Rock Songs chart, proving that The Cars’ Midas touch is still potent.

Hawkes said the idea to do a short 10-city tour was only decided “a few months ago,” and that there are no live plans past an August appearance at Lollapalooza.

But Hawkes, who plays bass keyboard parts to takes up the missing Orr’s duties, sounds hopeful that The Cars will extend the comeback.

“I’m hoping so. We don’t really have any plans as of yet, but so far things have been going so well that I don’t know why we wouldn’t continue.”


Neil Young: take a look at his life

Neil Young: take a look at his life

The museum set up in Neil Young’s onetime home town pays abundant tribute to his early days, and the rock icon himself has noticed. 

Neil Young checks out Youngtown.


Neil Young checks out Youngtown.

By: Nick Krewen Special to the Star, Published on Sat Mar 26 2011

Not too long ago, one of Trevor Hosier’s lifelong ambitions came true.

No, not the one where he creates and curates his own rock ‘n’ roll museum: That dream finally manifested itself four years ago, when he opened Youngtown, a turn-of-the-century, two-story, wooden-framed, aluminum-sided outpost filled with relics of a rock-and-pop infatuated youth, located on a strip of Highway 7 two-hours-and-change north of Toronto, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet called Omemee.

Hosier’s milestone moment was the visit of that town’s most celebrated son last October: museum namesake Neil Young dropped by with his brother Bob just to see what the music enthusiast had been up to.

“I’ve met Neil a number of times, and since we opened in the springtime of 2008, every time I saw him at Massey Hall or the Air Canada Centre, I’d say, ‘So when you getting out to the museum?’ ” Hosier recalls.

“And he’d say, ‘One of these days.’ ”

On October 7, 2010, true to his word, that day finally came: With Bob Young in tow, Neil entered the building and spent the next hour scanning the thousands of the rock ‘n’ roll relics Hosier has accumulated over three decades of autograph-hounding, auction-bidding and donations.

The 65-year-old Canadian icon, who will be honoured this Sunday at the Air Canada Centre with the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award during the Juno Awards, was duly impressed. That’s if we can judge by the personal memento left by Young, two-time Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame inductee, Canadian Music Hall of Famer, and winner of a Grammy just last month for Best Rock Song for “Angry World.”

Young left on the spot the handwritten, introductory verse to “Helpless,” a classic Young song that refers to his Omemee childhood with the words “There is a town in North Ontario, with dream, comfort, memory to spare.”

“When he was leaving, Neil paused at the door, turned to me and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll look through my stuff, see what I’ve got and send it off to you,’” recalls Hosier.

“He was sincere about it, and seemed to genuinely enjoy his visit.”

Although the promised box of memorabilia has yet to show up on Hosier’s doorstep, the 49-year-old family counsellor recently received another prized Young donation.

One recent Sunday, while leading a visitor through a memorabilia-packed maze of exhibits that encompass authentic artifacts from Roy Orbison to The Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Grateful Dead, Hosier points to the latest gift: an upright Mason & Risch piano that once belonged to the Young family.

“This was donated by the Young family about three weeks ago,” explains a grinning Hosier, his eyes beaming with pride. “They just sold their farm south of town. Neil and his sister (Astrid) bought this for their Dad back in ’93, when they opened the public school for him and named it the Scott Young Public School.

“Everybody in the family has played this gem.”

Why is Youngtown Rock and Roll Museum (open exclusively on weekends in late April through October) located in the Kawartha Lakes community of Omemee, population 1,100?

It’s the place that served as the anchor of Neil Young’s idyllic childhood, and Hosier said he wanted to pay personal tribute to the Young family, who lived approximately six buildings away from the museum.

Although Neil was born in Toronto in 1945, his father Scott moved the clan — which included his mother Edna (Rassy) and brother Bob to Omemee when Young was four, spending the next seven years in the village. Then, after the publication of Scott’s first novel, The Flood, in 1956, the family relocated to Brock Rd. in Pickering.

Neighbours and acquaintances — most of them now in their 60s and 70s — recall the Youngs, who lived in a three-story house at 33 King St. W., about a five-minute walk from the Pigeon River, where Neil used to fish.

“My late husband, Willard, had a convenience store in town where he sold fishing tackle, comic books, ice cream and hunting rifles, too,” recalls Joan Rehill, owner of the nearby Butternut Folk Art store.

“Neil would go in there with a string on the end of a stick, and get my husband to put a fishhook on it so he could go down to the river and fish.

“My husband used to call him Zeke. He thought that was a good nickname for him, because he said he never thought that Neil would turn out to be the guy he is today.”

Although Scott Young’s friends declined to be interviewed, Hosier says many still talk about the future minstrel with affection, including one of Scott’s best friends, Jay Hayes.

“Jay was saying yesterday, ‘You’d see Neil walking around town with ripped britches — he looked like a little urchin boy.’

“He said, ‘I remember when someone came to town, but he felt so sorry for this little kid that he took him in one of the shops and bought him an ice cream.’”

Enter the museum, and you get a sense of what Neil Young’s simple life in Omemee was like: there are pics of him as a boy, along with a coterie of his neighbours and boyhood chums: folks with names like “Goof” and “Stretch.”

It was here also where Neil first discovered his love of trains (which manifests itself regularly in his lyrics to this day) and where his health was severely tested when he contracted polio. That ordeal hasn’t seemed to diminish his affection for the town.

His father certainly couldn’t keep away, despite the move to Pickering — where Neil’s love for music was kindled as he discovered CHUM Radio — and then to Toronto.

In 1967, just minutes from Omemee in nearby Cavan Township, Scott bought a 100-acre farm and built a house on the land. He sold it in the late 1980s to relocate to Dublin, Ireland, but repurchased the farm in 1992 and lived there until his death in 2005.

According to Hosier, Scott Young’s widow Margaret Hogan sold the farm in 2010, but a Young presence remains: Neil’s brother Bob recently moved back to the area.

Neil Young continues to quietly visit the area, and Hosier has a theory as to why Omemee is still near and dear to the recent Grammy Award winner’s heart, since it represents a happier time before Scotty and Rassy’s marriage disintegrated a few years later.

“Neil and Bob and all of them are fond of this place, not only because their dad was here for so long, but the whole family was still together when they originally moved here.

“It was sort of their day in the sun, so they look at this place as home.”

The Neil Young exhibit contains artifacts other than childhood mementos. There are walls of photos, posters, autographed electric guitars, gold and platinum albums, a life-size stand-up of Young and many other items covering a prolific career that has lasted nearly half a century, including a red-triangle promotional vinyl pressing of 1981’s Re-ac-tor; a limited-edition Lionel Train set to commemorate the release of 2003’s Greendale and the acoustic guitar used to compose a number of songs — including “Natural Beauty” — from Young’s 1992 multi-platinum album Harvest Moon.

“That (guitar) sat on his bus for months,” says Hosier, who says he first drew up plans for the museum 20 years ago.

“I had an idea that I wanted to do something in this town, because there wasn’t anything to pay tribute to Neil or the family at that time,” he explains.

“It wasn’t to be until about 2006 I started thinking about it again. My collection was definitely outgrowing our house and my office.

“Unfortunately my parents passed away in 2006 and left me a little bit (of an inheritance), and my wife, Brenda, and I thought, ‘What can we do to have some fun?’

“So we bought this old building and restored it — it was in pretty rough shape — and came up with the name Youngtown.”

Why Neil?

“In my mind, there’s no greater artist in Canada than Neil Young,” says Hosier. “We have a lot of great artists and we have some wonderful bands — the Guess Who is one of my all-time favourite bands — but as a solo artist performer-musician-songwriter extraordinaire, Neil’s the guy.

“One of the reasons he and his music have stood the test of time is because of the quality of his writing and because there’s a depth to it. Neil is true to himself, he’s true to his ideals. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll rebel who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and isn’t afraid to stand up for things.

“He really does care about people, whether it’s Omemee here and how he treats people, or doing things with his Bridge School or Farm Aid, and multiple other smaller ventures, he ultimately cares about people, and that comes across in his music, too.”

Hosier, who runs Youngtown as a non-profit labour of love, is hopeful that Young will return some day and spend more time at the Museum.

He said Young indicated he might return sooner than later.

“I asked him to play a song on the guitar that we have upstairs for us — I said, ‘How about doing a song for us there, Neil?’” Hosier recalls.

“He picked it up, smiled, put it down and said, ‘Oh, next time!’ ”

Neil Young is receiving the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award at the 40th Juno Awards ceremony at the Air Canada Centre, where is he also nominated for Artist of the Year and Adult Alternative Album of the Year for Le Noise.

Youngtown, located at 45 King St. E., in Omemee, opens its fourth season on April 23, at 11 a.m. Admission is $7 and tickets are available by calling 705-799-2903. Web:

Clairvoyant peek inside Robbie Robertson

Clairvoyant peek inside Robbie Robertson

Clairvoyant peek inside Robbie Robertson | Toronto Star

It took a while — a long while — before Robbie Robertson was ready to address the topics in songs on How to Become Clairvoyant.

Robbie Robertson, left, in The Last Waltz, with Rick Danko, centre, and Levon Helm.


Robbie Robertson, left, in The Last Waltz, with Rick Danko, centre, and Levon Helm.

By: Nick Krewen Special to the Star, Published on Mon Mar 28 2011

Thirteen years between albums may seem like ages, but it’s not as though Robbie Robertson has been idle.

Prior to this Tuesday’s release of How To Become Clairvoyant — his first album since 1998’s Contact From The Underworld of Redboy — the Toronto native has been spending the years scoring such films as Any Given Sunday and last year’s Shutter Island; overseeing numerous Capitol Records reissues of The Band catalogue, including 2005’s exhaustive The Band — A Musical History and the 25th anniversary of The Last Waltz; planning a traveling tent show with Toronto über-promoter Michael Cohl for “the greatest celebration of Native North American music that the world has ever imagined” and even functioning as a Dreamworks Records A&R executive — signing, among others, Nelly Furtado to her first record contract.

Speaking down the line from Los Angeles, however, Robertson, 67, gives the impression that even if he hadn’t been juggling so many activities, his fifth solo effort wouldn’t have necessarily seen the light of day any sooner.

“I think that these things should go just according to inspiration,” says Robertson, a presenter at last Sunday’s Juno Awards ceremony at the Air Canada Centre who will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Saturday, April 2.

“And I’ve had my focus at different places in the last few years. When I had some good ideas and I felt really strong about wanting to make a record, I just followed that path. I felt a calling, as opposed to, ‘oh, it’s time to make a record.’ ”

However, the 12-song Clairvoyant isn’t just any album: it’s easily the most candid of a 51-year career that began in 1960 with Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, morphed into The Band in 1967 and in 1987, turned solo with the Daniel Lanois-produced Robbie Robertson.

Clocking in at just under an hour, the new collection addresses Robertson’s colourful history: “When The Night Was Young” talks about his wide-eyed musical beginnings; “This Is Where I Get Off” explains his controversial decision to abandon the road on a high note with The Band and 1976’s The Last Waltz; “He Don’t Live Here No More” and “Fear of Falling,” the latter a duet with fellow guitar legend Eric Clapton, documents surviving the days of excessive partying and sacrifices made during the ’70s, all linked together by Robertson’s distinctively wispy tenor.

“It’s the most personal record I’ve made,” Robertson declares, although he’s as baffled as to the motivation behind this sudden soul baring.

“I don’t know — it’s a bit of a mystery of how things come about when they do,” he says. “I don’t have a scientific explanation for it. Sometimes when you’re writing a song, you don’t know where you’re going. I was always more comfortable writing mythical songs that disguised personal feelings, and this record wasn’t like that — it was personal, almost a relief.

“Now it feels very comfortable, like good medicine.”

Although Clairvoyant is a Robertson record, it initially evolved from some planned writing sessions with Clapton, who co-wrote many of the songs and plays on seven of them.

“Eric was part of planting the seeds for this record,” he admits.

“Some years ago, we started talking about doing something together. We didn’t know precisely what we were talking about — we’re old friends, but we wanted to make some good music together.

“Anyway, we toyed around with some ideas some years back, and a couple of years ago, I ran across those sessions and I called him and told him, ‘We did more than what I thought we did, and there were some good ideas there.’ So he said, ‘Let’s go in the studio and see what happens.’ ”

With co-producer Marius de Vries and the rhythm section of bass player Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas in tow, Robertson and Clapton retreated to London in 2008 and recorded the basic tracks.

Later, buoyed by “Fear Of Falling,” Robertson tweaked and embellished the sessions in his L.A. studio, with a diverse gaggle of guest musicians that include Steve Winwood, Nine Inch Nails visionary Trent Reznor, Rage Against The Machine/The Nightwatchman’s Tom Morello and percolating pedal steel wizard Robert Randolph pitching in.

Although he’s rehearsed and played some TV spots with The Dawes (singer Taylor Goldsmith is another Clairvoyant guest contributor), Robertson has no intention of touring behind the new album, or touring ever again.


“The road for me, because I started so young, I felt like I had learned just about everything I could learn from that,” Robertson explains. “I wanted to be able to challenge myself in other ways, and being on the road, it made me feel like I was in the same play for the rest of my life. And the redundancy of that was not exciting.

“As much admiration and respect I have for people that go out and tour forever, they have an attachment to that that I don’t have anymore. I haven’t toured since The Last Waltz, and in that movie, I talked about giving up touring.

“And I’m one of the only people that have stuck to their word on this thing.” he chuckles.

Robertson won’t be performing at his own April 2 induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame, either, although he’s thrilled to be recognized for a body of work that includes such Band classics as “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight”; and solo work like “Showdown At Big Sky” and “Somewhere Down The Crazy River.”

Stacking it up against some of his other accolades — a partial list includes The Band’s 1989 entry into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and The Rock ‘N Roll Hall Of Fame five years later; a 1997 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters and a 2008 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, also for The Band — Robertson said he’s thankful.

“When it all comes down to it, you try to do different things that are all exciting. I really have such fun making records, and this was one of the records I feel most fulfilled by, for all kinds of technical reasons — my singing, my playing, my songwriting, all of it.

“But when you line up all of those things, there’s nowhere to go without the song. And I first and foremost, I put that at the top of the list for me of challenges, so that’s why this award in particular really pushes a button.”

Robertson, also interviewed for the acclaimed documentary series Yonge Street — Toronto Rock & Roll Stories that aired on Bravo earlier this week, is also thrilled to be returning here for the ceremony. (“Every time I go back to Toronto, I get a really warm feeling inside,” he states.)

Robertson’s future plans reveal a full plate: in late May, he’ll return to Ottawa to finally receive the Order Of Canada he was awarded in 2007. Then he’ll start working on his memoirs for Random House, something he credits How To Become Clairvoyant for stirring up his interest.

“This record had something to do with opening that door for me,” says Robertson, who will spend a year or two recounting his life.

“I’m really looking forward to just rolling up my sleeves, sitting down and telling the story — and I’ve got a bunch of ’em.

“There have been people in the past who have come to me to write biographies on me, and in that process I really came to the conclusion that I needed to tell them myself.”

He’s especially consumed with the Cohl collaboration in the staging of the salute to First Nations music, though he gave no timeline as to the project’s completion.

“I have a great idea for a show story, and we’re in the process of trying to put that together,” Robertson revealed. “No one’s ever seen it before, what we’re talking about. It’s something that’s never been done before.”

Soon, you’ll even be able to mail Robertson to a friend, as Canada Post is launching his visage on a 57-cent stamp as part of a Canadian recording artist tribute that includes Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Quebec powerhouse vocalist Ginette Reno in July.

“That’s something that I didn’t see coming,” says Robertson.

“I think, some countries, you have to be dead to have your picture on a stamp. So I feel pretty honoured — like I beat the system or something.”



Royal Wood: A Juno coming-out party


Royal Wood: A Juno coming-out party

Royal Wood: A Juno coming-out party | Toronto Star

Beguiling Toronto tenor faces stiff competition for Songwriter of the Year 

Royal Wood credits a year-long residency at the Cameron House for developing his sense of audience.


Royal Wood credits a year-long residency at the Cameron House for developing his sense of audience.

By: Nick Krewen Special to the Star, Published on Tue Mar 22 2011

Unlike the title of his latest album, The Waiting, Royal Wood is finally on the cusp of arrival.

The next handful of days finds the Lakefield, Ont. native appearing at a couple of events that will boost his mainstream profile. He shares the stage at the Juno Songwriters Circle tonight at Massey Hall with tunesmith icons Randy Bachman, Dan Hill, Sylvia Tyson and veteran song crafters that include Lynn Miles, Luke Doucet and host Johnny Reid. He also helps counterbalance the estrogen at a Great Hall Junofest gig Friday with Dala and Emm Gryner.

It all culminates with his potential Juno Songwriter of the Year victory at this Sunday’s 40th Anniversary awards ceremony at the Air Canada Centre, where he’s also scheduled to present a statuette.

The competition in the Songwriter category is stiff, to be sure. Wood’s mellifluous romanticism, realized in such piano-driven love themes as “Waiting,” “On Top Of Your Love” and “Tonight I Will Be Your Guide,” is up against the big compositional guns of Montreal’s explosive Arcade Fire; Vancouver’s confessional Sarah McLachlan; hometown show host Drake’s silver-tongued rhymes and Vancouverite Hannah Georgas’ rock quirk.

But the tall, slender, perfectly-coiffed singer with the supple, beguiling tenor isn’t fazed.

“I will not walk away disappointed in any way if I don’t win,” said Wood, 32, just prior to a sound check at Mississauga’s Living Arts Centre last week, one show of an intimate 32-date, small-market cross-Canada tour that lasts through early June.

“It’s huge for me just to be in the company of the Arcade Fires and the Sarah McLachlans. It means a lot.”

It’s also the most tangible payoff since Wood officially launched his recording career with 2002’s independently issued EP The Milkweed, although his star has been steadily rising as admirers continue to laud the 32-year-old Toronto resident’s gift for stirring melodies and heartfelt lyrics. iTunes declared him Songwriter of the Year in 2010.

A pianist since the age of 4, Wood credits two touchstones for getting him to this plateau of artistic maturity: a year-long residency at Cameron House that ended in mid-2007, and what he considers to be his breakthrough album, that year’s A Good Enough Day.

Wood was raised by his parents on an “idyllic” farm with three older brothers and a younger sister in what he calls a “tight-knit, Walton Family” environment.

“I always wanted to be my own artist,” he says. “Playing music was my outlet, my bliss, and I always considered my gift first and foremost as a songwriter. The performer has come along as the confidence has.

“Even as recently as 2006, when I look back to my abilities as a performer, I was pretty naïve on stage: head down, play the song, thank you and onto the next song.

“And I thank the Cameron House actually for giving me some stage jobs, because doing that residency once a week in Toronto finally forced me to really play a lot of shows for people who didn’t know who you were, and you had to win them.”

A Good Enough Day, propelled by the songs “Juliet” and “A Mirror Without,” landed him an agent, a manager and a release through Emm Gryner’s Dead Daisy boutique label, as well as placement of his songs in such primetime U.S. TV shows as Grey’s Anatomy.

The new album, The Waiting, partially produced by Pierre Marchand, is more direct.

“I didn’t dress anything up in poetry or metaphor this time,” says Wood, who will be back in the studio in the fall. “It’s just finally being in my 30s and being confident in who I am and what I stand for and just opening up on a level.

“Before, I’d dressed it up and hidden behind things. This time, it was a diary — everything that was going on in my life for the year-and-a-half of writing that record just spewed itself out.

“I think that’s why people identify with it. It’s a very honest performance on that record, and I’m proud of it.”

“Money for Nothing” ruling makes waves on radio

“Money for Nothing” ruling makes waves on radio

Reaction to the Dire Straits ruling mostly hostile as radio veterans wonder where the line is.

By: Nick Krewen Special to the Star, Published on Sat Jan 15 2011

Last week’s ruling by the private radio regulator Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) to ban a Dire Straits song is “chilling” and effectively puts rock radio stations on notice, claims a longtime music industry expert.

Former Billboard Canadian bureau chief and current CelebrityAccess senior editor Larry LeBlanc says the fallout from banning Canadian private radio stations from airing the unedited version of the 1985 hit “Money For Nothing” — specifically for its repeated mention of the word “faggot” in a verse of the song — could resonate with music programmers for some time to come.

“It’s an interesting precedent,” says LeBlanc, who has conducted radio-content research for the federal government and private broadcasters during his 45-year career. “And if you’re an active radio station — particularly an active rock radio station — I would say it makes you very nervous about all the music that you’ve played over the years.”

The CBSC edict, prompted by a sole complaint from a Newfoundland listener (identified as a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community) is troubling, says LeBlanc, especially in light of the word’s context in Mark Knopfler’s song.

“This sets an alarming precedent, because this song is clearly not about name-calling,” he notes. “It was almost making fun of a redneck character” who speaks the offending word. “To me, the fine line should be, ‘Is there hatred intended here?’ And it’s clearly, ‘No.’ ”

David Marsden, free form radio guru and founder and creator of Canada’s first alternative station CFNY, called the ruling “the goofiest thing I’ve ever heard . . . There are other songs with much more offensive lyrics.”

Marsden, who will be inducted into the Canadian Music & Broadcast Industry Hall Of Fame in March, could only recall one controversy, from the 1980s when he played “The Boiler” by The Specials and Rhoda Dakar.

“This song, we only played it once. It’s about a woman who told the story of her rape . . . I felt it was a way for men to be able to grasp what abuse felt like from a woman’s perspective.

“A lot of women in particular protested. I never played it again, and I wouldn’t,” said Marsden, whose radio program The Marsden Theatre In Fabulous Free Form airs on Oshawa’s 94.9 The Rock on Saturday and Sunday nights.

In Toronto, listener reaction from the community that the Dire Straits song allegedly slurs has been “minimal,” says Bob Willette, program director for 103.9 Proud FM, the commercial radio station that caters exclusively to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

“We haven’t talked about it a ton on the air yet,” said Willette on Friday. “I’ve actually had requests from people to play it in its entirety from people who identify themselves as part of the community.

“I’ll read you what somebody just requested from our website: ‘As a faggot myself, I would like to hear this music totally unedited. Thank you.’ That’s the only reaction we’ve gotten so far from listeners.”

The CBSC has been regulating private broadcasters since 1990; it has made a few controversial rulings in the past, notably regarding infamous shock-jock Howard Stern.

Reaction to the Dire Straits ruling within the radio community has been almost uniformly hostile. Three Canadian rock stations — two in Alberta, one in Halifax and Cold Lake, Alta. — protested by playing the unexpurgated song continuously for an hour.

Even Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher weighed in on his website, calling the decision “unbelievable” and saying he had talked with Knopfler. “Mark tells me that due to the ban, he has now substituted the word faggot for ‘fudger’ . . . for Canada,” Fletcher wrote.

With files from the Canadian Press

Are house concerts the next big thing?

Are house concerts the next big thing?

Are house concerts the next big thing? | Toronto Star

One Toronto family plays host to concerts — and they’re not alone. 

The musicians get up close and personal with the audience last June in Joanne Sleightholm's livingroom.


The musicians get up close and personal with the audience last June in Joanne Sleightholm’s livingroom.

By: Nick Krewen Special to the Star, Published on Sat Jan 01 2011

Next weekend, Joanne and Blair Sleightholm are bringing the Bluebird Café concept to their spacious Yonge and Eglinton-area home.

Inspired by the tiny Nashville restaurant that launched the songwriting careers of thousands, the Sleightholms are staging their second series of in-the-round performance house concerts for two, possibly three shows on January 8 in their living room, which holds 45 people.

Reasonably priced at $10 — all proceeds go to the musicians and sound-system rental — the two 90-minute acoustically-driven shows beginning at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. will feature local country music warbler Lindi Ortega; Indiana folk singer-songwriter Stephanie Lambring and two of the Sleightholms’ own budding artists, Madeleine and Gavin Slate; the former is a Nashville songwriter and the latter has just finished recording his debut album with producer Colin Cripps.

So why are the Sleightholms opening their abode to the public? Joanne Sleightholm says it’s a natural extension of their music loving lifestyle.

“Our house has always been filled with music, and people came to our house to jam all the time,” says Joanne, whose fulltime occupation is teacher consultant. Her husband Blair is a teacher.

“After dinners, we’d always have people over with guitars and we always sang around the living room. It didn’t matter — whenever people came over, we did that.

“So I got this idea: let’s just have kids come and sing at the house. I sent out e-mails to friends. The kids sent out e-mails, and within 24 hours, two shows were sold out. And we did that in June (2010).”

The allure for people to invite musicians into their homes for intimate shows seems to be growing, and not just locally. In Winnipeg, renowned promoter Mitch Podolak says the demand for house concerts is skyrocketing, and he’s generating the business to prove it.

Since 2006, Podolak — founder of the Winnipeg and Vancouver Folk Festivals — has been operating Home Routes, an organization that books performers exclusively into house-concert circuits across Canada.

“As of February 3, 2011, we will have 14 circuits of six performers,” says Podolak. “We’re coast-to-coast-to-coast and we’re growing at an extraordinary rate.”

Each circuit consists of six musicians performing a series of 12 concerts from late September through April. The Ontario circuit encompasses Mississauga, Georgetown, Guelph, Caledon, Meaford, Midland, Haliburton, Kanata, Wakefield, Quebec, North Gower and Pickering.

Prior to Christmas, New Jersey singer-songwriter Spook Handy, the father-daughter team of David and Ariana Gillis and Manitoba’s Lindsay Jane entertained each community; beginning February 4 through April 17, Nova Scotia’s Kev Corbett, Manitoba’s Jess Reimer and New Jersey’s Mike Agranoff are coming.

Even established names like Valdy, Barney Bentall and Tom Wilson are touring homes, as clubs dwindle: Podolak says there’s plenty of work for performers, especially in communities that are a little off the beaten track.

“We’re trying to fill two needs at once: the needs for artists for places to work and provide access to live music for rural Canada, primarily. We’re in the cities, too, but we’re way, way more in the small towns.”

Podolak says the admission to attend a house concert is $15, with the musicians keeping 85% of the gross and Home Routes retaining 15%. Musicians are billeted and fed by homeowner presenters, and Podolak says performers can net as much as “$2,000 per week.”

Figures provided on the Home Routes website ( also illustrate how quickly this business is growing: In the 2007-2008 season of four circuits across Canada, artist revenue was pegged at $133,000. For 2009-2010, an additional 10 circuits were implemented for a projected artist revenue of $512,000.

Podolak says there’s also an increased demand by potential presenters champing at the bit to get involved, even though they see no profit and bear the expenses.

“We have 40 on the waiting list,” he states. “We also expect by next fall to be somewhere around 18 or 19 circuits in Canada.”

Podolak also says next fall his first U.S. circuit will launch (in North Dakota), and that the goal of his six-member office is to reach “90 circuits in North America in order to make a really decent living.”

From a performer’s perspective, Toronto singer-songwriter Gregory Hoskins says house concerts provide hassle-free intimacy.

“I like the no-nonsense experience,” says Hoskins, who usually books a handful of house concerts a year through his website,

“A lot of them you can do without sound systems. It’s just a real nice thing to be able to play your songs and not worry about the other stuff — loading in and sound checking.

“There’s also an opportunity to have a different kind of communal experience when you’re sitting 30 feet away from the farthest person.

“For an audience, it’s kind of a mind-blowing night.”

Although he’s played everywhere from mansions to livingrooms, and been fed, paid and sold some records there, Hoskins says some gigs can be challenging.

“There can be really bad experiences — the wrong people, the wrong house, the wrong night, the wrong town,” he notes.

“I did one, where a woman’s boyfriend was a biker, and that was okay. I played to five people, and two of them were over 80 and couldn’t speak English. But she wanted me to come down and make an entrance on a spiral staircase, so I bailed.”

Joanne Sleightholm hopes that her future house events (ask for details at will become a bi-monthly series beginning in March, regardless of whether her kids are involved.

“We love it so much, we’d even do it for other kids,” she insists. “Being teachers, we love helping kids be better.”



The persistence of Indie Lindi Ortega

The persistence of Indie Lindi Ortega

Her old label decided she’s no Lady Gaga, as one listen to Ortega’s lonely, affecting tunes should have told them. 

Singer/songwriter<br /><br /><br />
Lindi Ortega<br /><br /><br />


Singer/songwriter Lindi Ortega

By: Nick Krewen Special to the Star, Published on Mon Nov 29 2010

When The Killers’ Brandon Flowers visits The Sound Academy Saturday to support his new album Flamingo, he’ll have a local hired hand singing backup that everyone should keep an eye on.

Though raven-haired and ruby-lipped Lindi Ortega will be providing pop harmonies at the Flowers gig, it’s her own unique singing and songwriting take on alt-country that will significantly raise her global profile in 2011, when she releases her new album Little Red Boots in North America, Europe and Australia next summer.

Displaying a textured singing vibrato that’s hybrid Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris — and the integrity implied by each comparison — Ortega mines the high lonesome road of faltered romance in songs like “Dying of Another Broken Heart,” “Little Lie” and “Fall Down Or Fly,” albeit, in some cases, with a twisted smile.

“I like to tap into the feelings of loneliness, because I consider myself a loner,” says Ortega, the Pickering-raised only child of an Irish mother and Mexican father.

“I spend a lot of time on my own and I like to write songs that reach out to people that are like me in that respect.

“I think that loneliness is such a universal feeling. People feel like that all the time and I write for those people. I understand feelings of alienation, and whether you want to be alone or not. I find my songs run the gamut from tongue-in-cheek kind of humour about heartbreak, then loneliness — it’s all there for everybody.”

A bit of a late bloomer in the fact that she didn’t pick up a guitar until she was 16, Ortega’s decade of slogging it out in Toronto clubs and cafés through endless solo gigs — and two albums, 2001’s The Taste of Forbidden Fruit and 2007’s Fall From Grace — finally paid off when she was signed to Cherrytree/Interscope Records, home of Feist and Lady Gaga, in 2008.

Things began on a promising note: Ortega released a four-song EP called The Drifterand toured North America, securing opening slots for acts as diverse as Kinks co-founder Ray Davies; Twickenham indie folk band Noah and the Whale; East Sussex alternative rockers Keane, and Academy Award-winning actor-singer Kevin Costner and his Modern West.

A full album was recorded, but artist and label parted company before it was released. Ortega was relieved to once again be Indie Lindi, as she’s been called.

“It was just one of those things, where the label that I was on kind of exploded because of the whole Lady Gaga thing, and they started going in a more dance-pop kind of direction,” she shrugs. “What I was doing wasn’t really fitting in what they were pushing and what they were working at the time, so it got pushed to the back burner.”

Since her Interscope departure she’s signed on with her manager Chris Taylor’s label Last Gang Records, and recorded eight new songs with producer Ron Lopata for Little Red Boots, named for the eye-catching footwear she sports during her performances.

“I wanted the new record to be a little more ‘rootsy’ and the Interscope version was more pop-oriented,” Ortega notes.

“I’m much happier with what I’ve come up with now. I feel like it’s more me, and more indicative of the kind of music that I want to create, so it totally worked out for the best, and there’s really no hard feelings.”

Touring the world with Brandon Flowers has given Ortega a new showbiz perspective, allowing her to experience some of her biggest audiences and share some treasured small screen time on such late night TV staples as The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live!

It’s also her first time on a tour bus. “It’s really cool to see how the big-scale operation works, but at the same time, I think there’s a lot to be said for the low-scale operations of beat-up old vans and staying in seedy motels across the country,” says Ortega.

“There’s a lot of character in that. It’s really beautiful and lovely to stay in these gorgeous hotels that we’ve been staying in, but both sides of the coin have their charm.”



KT Tunstall ducking out of the singles game

KT Tunstall ducking out of the singles game

Singer in town to play the Phoenix, with a new album that’s dancier and more electronic than before.

K.T. Tunstall performs in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 14


K.T. Tunstall performs in Napa, Calif., on Nov. 14

By: Nick Krewen Special to the Star, Published on Mon Nov 22 2010

When you write a song as invigoratingly infectious as the 2006 strum-driven romantic self-empowerment anthem “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” the desire to try to creatively repeat that magic can be overwhelming.

However, Scottish singer and songwriter KT Tunstall has felt no such compulsion.

“You know that’s what everybody wants,” says Tunstall, 35, who plays the Phoenix Concert Theatre Tuesday in support of her new album, Tiger Suit.

“But it will never happen again, so I don’t even worry about it. The nice thing about having a big hit single is that it’s this skeleton key that opens up the weirdest cupboards and doors, and you end up going on such a funny journey.”

Speaking by phone from Indianapolis, Tunstall reveals that one of those doors was an invitation — with a ragtag bunch of 19 other musicians that included Ryuichi Sakamoto, Feist, Robyn Hitchcock, Martha Wainwright, Laurie Anderson and others — to partake in the Disko Bay Cape Farewell Project, and visit a Greenland glacier to personally witness the impact of global warming on the Arctic.

For Tunstall, it was the trip of a lifetime that ended up serving as a catalyst for creating and recording Tiger Suit.

“I found it to be a much more profound experience than I first thought,” she explains. “It was the first time I had taken time out after six or seven years of straight touring, and the first time I had taken time off where I knew I was embarking on a record. So the whole thing was reflecting my productivity and ability, and it really made me question myself and what I was doing.

“It ended up making me push myself harder, I think.”

After recharging her batteries with the Disko Bay expedition and four months of travelling with her drummer husband Luke Bullen, Tunstall hooked up with producer Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian) and sequestered herself in Berlin’s famous Hansa Studio — where classics by David Bowie, Iggy Pop and U2 were recorded — to incorporate elements of electronica into a sound she dubs “nature techno.”

“It was great to be able to embrace electronica, because I’ve always loved it, always been a fan of it, but just always thought it would potentially hinder the emotional aspects of what I did,” Tunstall states. “I found a way of using it which ended up fermenting emotion and in turn, really helped me fall in love with experimentation in the studio, which I really had not previously experienced.

“That was fantastic for me.”

Songs such as “Glamour Puss” and “Fade Like A Shadow” offer comparable buoyant energy and acoustic octane to some of the most memorable material on Tunstall’s breakthrough, Eye to the Telescope, but Tiger Suit’s robust rhythms seem to be a little more influenced by club life this time around.

Tunstall credits the liveliness to the sonic simpatico she shared with producer Abbiss.

“The great thing is that we both shared this passion not only for dance music, but any genre of music,” says the Edinburgh native.

“Plus Jim is so good at finding the personality and individuality of a song and magnifying it.”

For her part, Tunstall was concerned about whether she could live up to her own standards with the 11 songs that eventually made the Tiger Suit cut.

“My biggest challenge was attempting to impress and excite myself enough to get me back out doing it again,” she admits.

“It’s such a commitment to bring an album out — the energy spent; probably the two years where you won’t see friends or family — it’s sort of like being an astronaut: You get into your little pod and you disappear for a couple of years.

“You’re committed 24/7, living on a bus with 11 other people, talking about yourself for quite a few hours a day and putting on the best show that you can.

“I needed material that would take me out to do that again. And I think I was slightly nervous that I wasn’t going to manage, so that was the biggest challenge. And I guess the biggest reward was managing it.”

Despite her confidence that she’s risen to the task, Tunstall isn’t exactly sure what her role is in today’s pop world.

“I feel a bit in limbo at the moment,” she concedes. “I’m really not sure where I fit in at the moment, because music — the turnover is so exponentially lightning quick — that I hear people talking about ‘Suddenly I See’ as an old song, although it’s five years old and doesn’t feel like an old song.

“There’s such a preoccupation with the ‘new’ in music right now. Everybody wants the new thing and you think, ‘Where do you stand as a career artist, where you want longevity and you want to keep experimenting and trying stuff.’”

She’s not beating herself up over it.

“The new album feels very fresh and I’ve been very pleased with the reaction to it, but it’s not something I need to worry about too much: just get on with doing what I want to do and focus on putting on good shows. I think it will work itself out, hopefully.”

Tunstall says she’s looking forward to returning to Toronto, which she calls a “welcoming place” and one that sticks out in her memory from her first visit five years ago.

“My favourite memory is when I first came to Toronto, I performed a showcase at the Drake Hotel and my label rep spray-painted my name all over the pavement in front of the hotel,” she recalls.

“He thought he had used soluble paint and he hadn’t. So my label ended up getting billed for graffiti removal, which I thought was really cool.”



Bieber Fever at Air Canada Centre

Bieber Fever at Air Canada Centre

Teen singing sensation entertains but doesn’t genuinely connect with fans.

By: Nick Krewen Special to the Star, Published on Tue Nov 23 2010

He’s unstoppable!

The teen pop phenom freight train known as Justin Bieber barrelled over a sold-out Air Canada Centre audience for the second time in three months Tuesday night, with a dazzling 90-minute tease-and-please spectacle designed to activate that dormant female gene that only comes alive during concerts that display unrequited puppy love: the scream.

And lord, did the estrogen-dominant crowd of approximately 15,000 ever raise the rafters when their pint-size hero appeared, although the affection exchanged between performer and parishioners was always rather innocent in its exchange.

But you gotta hand it to the Bieb: With the manipulative precision of a trained seal, his spot-on choreography — consisting of a lot of side-stepping in his high-tops and the requisite hand above the waist (perhaps a bit of an homage to his hero Michael Jackson) — never ceased to impress.

Although some may have questioned the wisdom of the Artist of the Year American Music Award being bestowed upon him just 48 hours earlier, the London, Ont.-born, Stratford-raised singer showed that he merited the consideration just based on his dance chops alone.

He kicked into Usher mode almost immediately: dressed head-to-toe in white, sunglasses obscuring his puppy dog eyes, Bieber breezed through the first handful of numbers fluidly with his four backing dancers as if he had been born to soft shoe.

His voice, thin as it is despite his R&B inflections, also cut through the showbiz razzle dazzle — and apart from a couple of questionable Memorex moments during “Somebody To Love” and “One Less Lonely Girl,” he seemed to be singing live without any technical assistance (unlike opening act Sean Kingston, who didn’t bother to hide the fact that most of his singing was staged).

Bieber used his time onstage to demonstrate a number of talents: he spent some time during a medley of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” to pound away at the drums, and later tickled the ivories for the profoundly dramatic “That Should Be Me” for the evening’s most schmaltzy moment.

He even spent some time off the stage showing off his acoustic guitar chops, hovering on a heart-shaped chair high above the audience as he serenaded the crowd with “Favorite Girl,” melting thousands of pre-pubescent hearts in the process.

While the execution was generally excellent, the show wasn’t faultless in that it offered many moments that were obvious, contrived and convenient. When it came to delivering his between-song banter, the singer turned into Robo-Bieber, spewing his script with all the passion of a walnut.

His first line of “Welcome to My World” was followed by the standard “All the girls here look beautiful tonight” and the typical “You are the best fans in the world” spiel that was repeated often to generate the requisite screaming faction.

And, curiously enough, Bieber seemed completely satisfied with performing rather than reacting; there wasn’t a modicum of spontaneous emotion displayed during the entire production, even when family and friends surprised him with a cake to celebrate his four AMA Awards. We never did get to see the human Justin, just the performing automaton — perhaps another lesson he gleaned from the late, great MJ.

At times, a more important message overshadowed the music: product placement. Tour underwriter XBox kicked off the show with what was generally a two-minute commercial for one of its products, and even elements of the stage set incorporated a game design that was a little too overt for comfort. Even the shameless plug of showing the actual trailer for Never Say Never, the new 3-D Bieber movie out in theatres in February, was a bit much for people who had shelled out a face value of $75 a ticket to see their favourite performer in action.

That Bieber put on an entertaining show that thrilled his fans is not being questioned. Connecting with them, however, is still very much a work in progress.