Thursday, December 29, 2011

Press Play> Vol.16 Stephen Fearing - Blackie And The Rodeo Kings, Singer Songwriter

STEPHEN FEARING is one of North America's most talented singer songwriters as well as a virtuoso guitarist (with comparisons to Bruce Cockburn and Richard Thompson). If you want to read about his guitar playing, have a look at this article in Guitar Player magazine.

He's also an star as a member of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (BARK) along with Tom Wilson and Colin Linden. He has also been getting rave reviews for his recent duo project with Irish singer songwriter Andy White. They released their first record together in March of 2011 called Fearing & White.

If that's not enough, he's a heck of a nice guy.

I have been fortunate enough to see Stephen performing in folk clubs, festivals, showcase clubs and big venues for years. I even had the good fortune to book him to play Windsor Folk where I was artistic director in the 90s.

Here's a beautiful version of one of his songs, The Longest Road.

Stephen had a busy 2011 which started with his Fearing & White project and ended with a phenomenal new BARK record Kings and Queens. I am so pleased that he took some time during his well earned Christmas break to tell us about the records that influence his music.

Time for Stephen Fearing to PRESS PLAY>.


Well, apart from a lot of Christmas music... I despise modern crooners (you know who you are) eviscerating the old standards with de-rigeur-saccharine-strings... so my kind of Christmas music involves large choirs singing in massive stone cathedrals across the pond.

However, that is a seasonal aberration, so apart from that, I'm listening to a wide mix of stuff including:
And a healthy, regular dose of The Beatles, The Band and whatever else my computer spits up from the hard-drive... erm nothing too "au courant" I'm afraid and nothing whatsoever featuring young men with whispy beards, falsettos and toy pianos, or women under 30 wearing "Betty Draper" cocktail dresses...


John Martyn - Solid Air 

Willie P. Bennett - Hobo's Taunt 

Roberta Flack - First Take 

Charlie Rich - Behind Closed Doors 

The Band - To Kingdom Come 

The Who - Quadrophenia 

Oliver Nelson - The Blues And The Abstract Truth 

The Beatles - Rubber Soul

I'll stop here but this is just a fragment of a sliver of the records I deeply love.

Stephane Grappelli and the Diz Disley Trio


I've no idea to be honest... between my sister's record collection, my parents' and my step-brother's, there was so much music that was simply "there" already, and I don't know exactly where I started contributing.

It may have been a Stephane Grappelli recording as I went through a big phase of listening to him (with Django and the Hot Club) and my first live concert was seeing him at The Gaeity Theatre in Dublin with The Diz Disley Trio. I was 14?


Hey,That's No Way To Say Goodbye covered by Roberta Flack on First Take... this is an ESSENTIAL album. (Written and originally released by Leonard Cohen on the record The Songs of Leornard Cohen, 1967.)


When I was young living in Ireland during the first flowering of punk rock, we all thought we were cooler-than-thou and country music was something entirely weird, utterly fake and completely irrelevant... somewhere in there I came across Charlie Rich's country-politain masterpiece Behind Closed Doors. At the time it was very, very uncool. So I count it as a guilty pleasure that has become one of my desert island discs. The sound of this record was something I tried to emulate on Yellowjacket.


The Beatles - Love and about a hundred others....


Blackie and the Rodeo Kings - Kings and Queens


I dunno... I tend not to buy stuff that I might end up hating so much later.



Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The 2011 Records That Won't Leave

My New Years Resolution is to make sure not to read Best Of 2012 lists in December of 2012. Why? I find them infuriating. Music critics tend to fill them with indie records they receive for free, a lot of them obscure and hard to find. Most of us never got to hear them, thus subtly suggesting that, as critics they are infinitely cooler than you and me.

So much for looking ahead 12 months (let's hope the Mayans are wrong.)

No list from me as 2011 comes to an end, only a look at some records that came out this year that refuse to die. And by that I mean they will not leave my iPod. I have an 8 gig iTouch that I take to work every day. I routinely rotate the music deleting records to make room for new purchases.

There are three records that stubbornly refuse to leave and will remain in high rotation for the foreseeable future.

Ron Sexsmith Long Player, Late Bloomer

Other songwriters love him and after you hear this record, you will too (If you don't already). I don't know what else to tell you about this record other than; when I'm having a bad day I put on the earbuds and push play. My blood pressure drops and a smile comes across my face.

There's a great story behind this record. Sexsmith almost left the music business, but then decided to try one more trip to the studio. The story is told in an excellent documentary film that airs on HBO Canada - Love Shines. This record was up for a Polaris Prize this year. It deserved to win.

Elbow Build a Rocket Boys

Speaking of music prizes, I guess they are good for something. I found out about this great British band when they won this year's Mercury Prize. I clicked on their website, saw the cover of their award winning record and realized I had seen it before but passed by a number of times. The music is gentle pop rock yet it has an edge and compares to Peter Gabriel's more tender creations.

The song that gave this record its title (Lippy Kid) has both musical and lyrical hooks that won't leave you and I mean that in a very good way. Another appeal to me, I guess, is that the lead singer sorta looks like me (not exactly rock star good looks) so I can live vicariously.

Here's a review of the record by the Guardian, and here's an interview with the band at the CBC Radio "Q" website. (Scroll down to look for Elbow but also, check our a lot of good music interviews here.)

Elbow hit it big in Britain in 2008 with their previous record "Seldom Seen Kid" which I plan to hunt down early in 2012.

The Decemberists The King is Dead 

I was introduced to this band at the 2009 Calgary Folk Festival. They were the final act after a long day and followed a blistering show by rap funk band Arrested Development. I figured I'd give The Decemberists ten minutes before dragging my ass home. I ended up staying through their performance.  They played an entire album The Hazards of Love, an epic rock roots opera ala Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick. I have read that a lot of critics didn't like that record but I loved the music, particularly as it was preformed live.

I bought their 2011 record The King is Dead expecting it to be similar. I figured it would take a few listens to appreciate. It was nothing like I expected. Instead, this record is filled with three and four minute county folk/roots-rock songs with sophisticated and literate lyrics befitting their nerd-rock reputation. I love this record and I probably listen to it all the way through at least two or three times a week. Here's a review from Pitchfork.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Love Under the Covers

I love covers.
I do.
I'm a sucker for them. 
I just cracked open the posthumous Amy Winehouse record Lioness: Hidden Treasures. It opens with her cover of "Our Day Will Come" (Originally a hit for Ruby and the Romatics, 1963) and my heart melted.

I also love it when an artist takes a familiar song and twists it and turns it and deconstructs it and reconstructs it into something equal to, or better than,the familiar original. In in some cases, MUCH better. I have a favourite example. Richard Thompsom's cover of a Britney Spears hit.

I also love this interpretation of an Elton John classic Rocket Man. It's from a mediocre collection of EJ covers called Two Rooms from 1991. I'm not even a real Kate Bush fan but the reggae arrangement is kinda cool and at about 3:23 Davy Spillane sneaks in with a rockin' Irish bagpipe solo. Love it.

Robbie Fulks is a country folk/roots performer who stretches the boundaries of his genre of music. He defines the "alt" in alternative country. So it was a real pleasure but not a huge surprise that he decided to put out a record of Michael Jackson covers. I stumbled on the video below of his explanation of why he did it. I've also added a song from his record Happy and the original Jackson Five version Mama's Pearl from 1971.

Those are some examples of covers I like. There are hundreds more. Please tell me about some of your favourite covers -  leave a comment. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Press Play> Vol.15 John Showman - New Country Rehab

Every year at the Calgary Folk Music Festival I encounter at least one performer (or two, or three or a lot more) that I have never heard of that knock me on my ass. 

At the 2011 Fest it was New Country Rehab. It started with the guitar player, Champagne James Robertson. I was attending a side stage featuring guitar players, made up mostly of veteran reggae and African performers. He was the lone young white guy at the end of the stage with a green Tele. I thought two things: "Who the hell is he?" and "They're going to eat him alive." Of course he played up a storm. I checked the program, saw he was with a band called New Country Rehab and decided to run to see his them first chance I got. 

John Showman 
Champagne James was joined by lead singer and fiddler John Showman, drummer Roman Tome and bassist Ben Whitley (son of Ken Whitley). The band tore the house down (in this case - tent) with their folk rock 'n' roll roots music.  

After digging around to find out a bit more about the band, I have learned that the leader, John Showman it truly a master of many musical forms, an award winning fiddler, a studio musician and teacher and the leading force behind a few other bands that have been making great roots music in Canada for years including the Creaking Tree String Quartet, Celtic group Skraeling, and bluegrassers the Foggy Hogtown Boys. I am pleased that John Showman agreed to take a few minutes to PRESS PLAY>.

What have you been listening to lately? What is on your iPod, CD player, turntable these days?

I’ve been driving through rural Saskatchewan for the past week and I have been listening to Mumford and Sons, Bonnie Prince Billie, Wilco, early Velvet Underground, Deep Dark Woods and Bill Monroe. It has been a good mix of music to accompany the somewhat starkly beautiful winter landscapes. 

On the most recent New Country Rehab roadtrip we had the new Radiohead, Timbre Timber, Avett Brothers, Feist and St. Vincent records rocking away along with countless others but those were the highlights. At home I’m strictly spinning vinyl these days, mostly Merle Haggard, Tommy Jarrell and Justin Townes Earle.

What is the record (okay maybe two or three or four or more ) that influenced your music the most?

I think that Jonathan Richman’s first project, The Modern Lovers, might be the single album that I’ve listened to most. His drawling, lazy delivery on vocals that he imbues with incisive emotion really stood out to me.

The lyrics were a compelling blend of somewhat riddling imagery and stream-of-conciousness. He could stay on topic with a song and really burn you with sarcasm one minute while melting your heart with sincerity the next. The music was very much bare-bones garage rock, but the album made me realize how much music can convey with a simple palette.

What was the first record you bought?

ABBA’s Greatest Hits. I was eight. Before that it was mostly classical music that I listened to and ABBA blew my mind. Super Trooper was my favorite track.

What’s your favourite cover tune? (Song and covered by whom?)

Faith No More (from their recording The Real Thing, 1989) singing War Pigs. They stay true to the original but manage to make it their own by playing it with total abandon. Technically, the main difference is in how they shift the tempos between sections of the song. The slow, a capella parts are filled with menace and played much more slowly than the original, and when the guitars come in with the heavy riffs the tempo ratchets up to a tight, head-banging, grunge-filled roar. Mike Patton just kills the song on vocals. (Original by Black Sabbath, Paranoid, 1970) 

What is the record that you count as a guilty pleasure?

Queens Of The Stone Age Era Vulgaris. I guess I like Big Muff guitar sound. My gal does not like that stuff much, so it stays in the car.

Currently, what’s your favourite record to listen to on the road?

I don’t have one – I listen to new stuff constantly. At home, though, it has been Mama Tried by Merle Haggard. It just helps keep things real with my wife and baby and it’s a great vibe with which to fill a little house. (Originally from the Soundtrack of Killers Three, 1968)

Which of your records where you appear as a musician - solo or in a band - is/are your favourite(s)?

New Country Rehab’s album. I’m proud of the material and the performance and the way it came together. We recorded the whole thing in three days and the vibe was great throughout.

Chris Stringer, the engineer, was really good at helping us prioritize what we needed from the album sonically and we didn’t waste any time at al, yet the process never felt rushed.

The New Country Rehab website is here 
Their record label Dollartone Records is here
New Country Rehab on Facebook is here 
Follow New Country Rehab on Twitter @newcountryrehab
Follow John Showman on Twitter @johnshowman
Follow Dollartone Records on Twitter @dollartone