Category Archives: Current Events

“The Man with the Plan”: Thoughts on Glenn Frey

Glenn_Frey

Photo by Steve Alexander

Back in 2013 I wrote a review for Onstage Magazine about the Eagles’ performance at the Salmon Festival. Those who read it know it wasn’t favourable, and there were reasons for the direction in which I took the critique. I called it as I saw it. Some agreed, and some wrote hate mail. The Eagles of 2013 were quite a different entity from that of their original ’70s run (of which I was a dedicated fan), and I admittedly could not reconcile the two for a number of reasons – not all musical. I was particularly rough on Frey and his apparent lack of enthusiasm for performing. This, of course, stings me a bit this week as I process his passing.

Oddly enough, I occasionally perform in an Eagles tribute and sing lead on several Glenn Frey songs. As such, I’ve come to deeply respect his talent and the role he played in that band. One piece of information that I’d not really thought about until I started performing with the tribute was that Frey only sang one lead vocal on the Hotel California album. Up until this record it had essentially been a 50/50 split between him and Henley for lead vocals. The song in question is, of course, “New Kid in Town.” It happens to be my favourite Eagles song, and it’s also too high for my vocal range. So when we play it I get to lay back and listen to my bandmates hit all those high notes while I strum along. And every time we play it, I’m reminded that for all of the things we’ve read about egos in the Eagles, Glenn Frey’s ego must have been fairly in check to make the decision to lay back – no doubt in the spirit of some larger production plan – and let Henley take the lion’s share of the vocals while Frey strummed acoustic guitar, played some keys, and sang harmonies. It had to take confidence to be that man, especially after the string of hits that featured Frey’s lead vocals prior to Hotel California. He definitely saw the Eagles in a larger context at this point and seemingly felt deeply connected to the unit as a whole, whether he was in the limelight or simply strumming and grinning.

One other thing that surprised me about Frey’s role in the Eagles was his lead guitar playing. I assumed that Frey’s musical contributions were limited to vocals and acoustic guitar. I had no idea that Frey played the lead guitar solos on “Witchy Woman, “James Dean,” and “I Can’t Tell You Why.” He also played piano on “Desperado” and “The Last Resort.” It is refreshing to realize that Frey asserted his musicality to a far greater extent than many listeners realize, and he did so with very little fanfare. In the promo video for “I Can’t Tell You Why,” for example, lead guitarist Don Felder mimes Frey’s guitar solo over the original track while Frey plays keys.

An unabashed fan and imitator of Gram Parsons (who, ironically, hated the Eagles), Glenn Frey’s voice was stronger and more polished than that of his idol. He was also better-looking and had something that Parsons never possessed: a business sense. Teaming with Henley and, shortly thereafter, manager Irving Azoff, the band dreamed big and set its sights on British mega-producer Glyn Johns who had overseen some of the biggest records of the ’60s and early ’70s. The Eagles recorded their self-titled debut album in late ’71 over the pond, in the same studio that The Who had used just months earlier with Johns to record one of the biggest rock albums of all time, Who’s Next.  You would never say in a million years that the reverb on Roger Daltrey’s big scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is the exact same reverb you hear on Henley’s “Witchy Woman” vocal.

This tenuous alliance with Johns would eventually dissolve after their concept album Desperato failed to meet the gargantuan expectations placed upon it by their debut, which spawned the massive “Take it Easy” and “Witchy Woman.” Switching to producer Bill Szymczyk, their star continued to rise throughout the early and mid ’70s. During this time and up until Hotel California, Frey had sung lead on some of the band’s biggest hits: “Take it Easy,” Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Already Gone,” and “Tequila Sunrise.” By the time he was 27 years old, Glenn Frey’s vulnerable, yearning tenor was embedded in the minds of millions around the world.

Satisfied to take a back seat to the lead vocals on Hotel California, he once again showed his balanced vision on their last album before the big split, The Long Run. He only sang lead on “Heartache Tonight.” Interestingly, the songs he did sing on these two landmark albums were, arguably, the best ones on the records. The latter was a co-write with Henley along with Frey’s old friend from Detroit, Bob Seger, who had a 20-year-old Frey sing background vocals on “Ramblin’, Gamblin’ Man” in 1969 – three years before the world would get a larger dose of Frey’s vocals.

Both Henley and Felder called Frey “generous” in their statements this week upon his passing. I think this trait can easily be seen in Frey’s large, yet generous role he played in the Eagles. Even though his presence looms as large as Henley’s in the band, Frey actually comes out as the consummate team player under close scrutiny of the band’s history. He no doubt saw Henley’s voice as a better match for their purposeful switch from country-rock to straight-out rock in ’76. Granted, some of this was based on a business-oriented ambition. However, by this time, rock had become a corporate-driven entity anyway – and Frey and Henley were at the forefront of this new model of artist-as-businessman (for better or worse).

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By 1980 it was all over but the mud-slinging. Even Henley and Frey weren’t speaking for a while. But of course they inevitably came together again in ’94, and the new Eagles became the ubiquitous money monster of the music business. Up until 2015 they were still raking in millions until Frey took ill and the train came to a halt. After all, the Eagles cannot go on without Frey – no matter how wavering a role he played as lead singer throughout the band’s career. Henley may have stood out in front of Frey vocally, but Henley was stuck behind the drum kit on stage. Back in the heyday it was Frey who was really out front: the svelte California Dionysus with long hair flowing down over a sports jersey, shoulder cocked, playing a big-ass Martin 12-string, winking at the girls, driving them mad. Frey, as Henley said, was “the man with the plan.” And that plan certainly panned out for him and all those who rode with him on his mission for musical greatness. His death leaves a chasm that will not and cannot be filled. It can only sit as a looming reminder of all we are poised to lose as a massive group of people lucky to have been alive at this time of musical development and ingenuity.

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Meeting a True Starr: Ringo and His All-Starrs at Casino Rama

IMG_5252_LR-2“Here, pass me the camera,” says Ringo in his charismatic Liverpool accent to guitarist Steve Lukather who’s trying to figure out my large, clumsy Canon DSLR camera. “Here’s how you work it. You hold down the button, see?” Ringo takes the camera and shoots a close-up of Lukather’s face and shows him the screen. “That’s how it works.” He passes my camera back me. I say to him, “Do you own a Canon, Ringo? How did you know to hold down the button in Live View?” But he’s already distracted by somebody else’s question, so I just happily let it go. Ringo’s official photographer Rob Shanahan leans in and says to me, “Cool. You have an original Ringo Starr photo in your camera. Of course no one will believe you.” We both laugh.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shanahan.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shanahan.

My friend Barry Canning and I are backstage pre-show at Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band’s June 6th inaugural show of their 2014 summer tour at Casino Rama in Orillia, Ontario. Yes, we are hanging out with Ringo Starr. Yes, he just used my camera. Being friends with Steve Lukather, I feel lucky enough as it is to be hanging out with him before the show. Luke is a huge star in his own right and a looming presence in rock guitar history. (I wrote about my friendship with Luke in this article from 2012.)  To our surprise, however, he has arranged for his friend Ringo to come say hi. And sure enough here is Ringo Starr, right in front of us, bumping elbows, making small talk. We get a few photos. We joke a bit. And then he’s whisked away to prepare for the show that’s about to start in about 30 minutes.

The photo that Ringo took of Steve Lukather.

“All I’ve got is a photograph”: The photo that Ringo took of Steve Lukather.

A few minutes before Ringo walked in our green room, we had heard a big roar of applause in the neighbouring room as the meet-and-greet winners greeted Ringo’s entrance. However, when he came in to greet us, we were so desperately attempting to be cool that we just wore huge grins, saying “Hey Ringo” and trying to be as calm as possible. “I’m a musician too,” I told myself. “I can’t behave like a school boy here.” But on the inside I was admittedly freaking out. This, after all, is an ex-Beatle. One of the fab four. Four. That’s all there were. And they changed the world. The world. And one was right here, talking to us. Somehow a Beatle’s destiny had led him to a pair of Newfoundlanders in a green room at Casino Rama. And more incredulous, of course, is how our destiny had led us to be standing in front of Ringo Starr, whose backbeat we marched to throughout our formative years as musicians pouring over every Beatles recording we could find.

Ringo wowing the crowd.

Ringo wowing the crowd.

As the road manager came in and gave everyone a 30-minute call, Barry and I bid farewell to Lukather (thanking him over and over for introducing us to Ringo) and made our way to our seats. A little after 9pm the band walked on to great applause as everyone strapped on instruments and made adjustments to equipment. All-Starr Todd Rundgren, in an enthusiastic circus master’s voice, introduced Ringo as the ex-Beatle sauntered casually out onto the stage to a roar from the audience.

Ringo with the All-Starrs.

The All-Starrs.

The band broke into Carl Perkins’ classic “Matchbox,” one of Ringo’s well-known Beatles lead vocal features. Next up was my personal Ringo favourite, “It Don’t Come Easy,” followed by one from his latest album Ringo 2012 called “Wings.” Ringo then passed vocal duties over to Rundgren, who delivered a version of his hit “I Saw the Light” in his classic Philly Soul voice that was every bit as potent and powerful as the original studio recording. Rundgren then introduced ex-Santana vocalist/organist Greg Rollie, whose expressive voice was joined by the other musicians in a unison vocal for the classic “Evil Ways.” At this point of the show, guitarist Steve Lukather got to stretch out a bit and show the crowd his mastery of the fretboard as he went from fast flourishes to slow, melodic passages all in the blink of an eye. Lukather’s approach has it all: the passion of Hendrix, the bending perfection of Clapton, the whammy bar zaniness of Jeff Beck, and the bluesy groove of Jimmy Page. Lukather’s style is perfect for the Santana material, and only he could rightfully own that spot in the absence of Carlos himself.

Steve Lukather.

Steve Lukather.

Luke stayed in the spotlight for the Toto hit “Roseanna,” sharing the lead vocals with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ham who reached successfully to hit the impossibly high parts in the second half of the verses originally sung by Toto’s Bobby Kimball. Richard Page from Mr. Mister then delivered his massive ‘80s hit “Kyrie” to an enthusiastic audience response, hitting the high notes just as smoothly as his did in the studio 30 years ago. The show rolled on and gained momentum as the group of musicians delivered hit after hit, with Ringo playing along with ace studio and live drummer Greg Bissonnette while asserting himself vocally on his best-known Beatles and solo material. Ringo was kind enough to let Richard Page deliver a brand new song called “You Are Mine,” a touching ballad with a poetic lyric and creative arrangement that was expertly handled by all the pros onstage. It was a great balance that kept the energy up throughout the show. Rounding it all out with “A Little Help From My Friends,” the band left audience pleased and fulfilled.

Rundgren joins Rollie at his mic while Ham plays harp.

Rundgren joins Rollie at his mic while Ham plays harp.

It’s admittedly hard to write an objective review of a Ringo Starr concert when you are friends with the guitarist and you’ve just been introduced to Ringo himself. However, this concert and its musicians need not be objectified or critiqued anyway. Their collective musical history and sustained talent throughout the years render them beyond reproach, as the concert proved in spades. If you’re lucky enough to catch the tour as it rolls on throughout June, you’ll understand what I mean. Just don’t plan to get a whole lot of sleep for a few nights afterwards if you happen to meet Ringo Starr.

L to R: Barry Canning, Ringo, and me.

L to R: Barry Canning, Ringo, and me.

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Lou Reed, 1942-2013: A Casual Fan’s Lament

lou-reed

I won’t pretend to know Lou Reed’s catalogue inside out. Like many, I know him for his highlights: the well-known Velvet stuff that got covered by other, more famous artists, the New York album that cancelled out all that was bad about 1989, and of course “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” But when all is said and done, I don’t believe you have to know Reed’s music inside out to know his genius or to feel the weight of his absence from this world.

Reed’s death today sparked a train of thought in my mind, as I read the hoards of comments on the Internet. Most of the commentary was reverent and respectful, while a few remarks were along the lines of “but what has he done lately?” or “his career was down the tubes long ago.” Those who can minimize Reed’s contributions must be incapable of critical or even imaginative thought when it comes to his place in rock history (and mass culture in general).

When I think of rock and roll, I see it as a big mansion – a complicated but majestic structure that started out as a sturdy little shack and slowly rose to palatial proportions. For anything to endure and withstand the elements, it has to be built on a solid foundation. Once the foundation is set and the pillars are in place, everything that resides inside this house is safe from the elements. The foundation and structure is what makes everything else able to exist and thrive within this palace. It becomes a self-supporting unit.

We know who makes up the metaphorical foundation: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, and more. Then as the ‘60s emerge we see more pillars constructed: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, Buffalo Springfield, The Who, etc. Already a strong structure, this mansion would see even more support as the ‘70s wore on, in the form of Neil Young, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin, and many more. Wedged in there among the third generation of pillars is Lou Reed, whose musical output actually started in the ’60s but would see its full influential fruition in the ’70s and into the ’80s. This is why the world is reeling today over his death. Because you can feel the foundation creak and bend in his absence.

A big part of being a rock and roll musician is putting every ounce of yourself out there in hopes of a desperate connection through the rough, tangly medium. And this is what Lou did. That was his place in rock. Leave it to Lou to get the mass public unknowingly singing along on AM radio to a song about a transvestite. All they heard in the lyric was “wild side” anyway, and that’s all that mattered. Someone was taking them to the wild side. Out of their mundane lives. It was real, it was naughty, and it was catchy. Rock and roll.

With Lou you always got the sense that it was really him. Your bullshit radar never went off when reading interviews with him or seeing footage of him in concert. I’ve read interviews where he’s come across as “difficult,” but the questions asked of him were always enough of an excuse for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Don’t send in the rookie to talk to Lou.

I  always loved looking at photos of the “older” Lou Reed. He came across as a man without a telephone or television, as if he’d been completely disconnected from any outside influence since 1977 as regards fashion or general disposition. Maybe he was smart enough to know that this was his best chance of retaining an original image, but somehow I doubt he ever took himself that seriously. And I think in the end that’s what everyone is truly mourning about Lou Reed: his honesty. We don’t have enough of that in rock and roll anymore; hell, we don’t even HAVE rock and roll anymore. Maybe that’s ultimately what we are mourning. But either way, the world recoils at the loss of Lou Reed because his place – helping to hold up and support the hallowed genre of true rock and roll – is now vacant; looking around us, do we see a worthy successor? No. We just see a lot of other aging, cracked pillars whose final encores are also very near. The second decade of the new millennium will see this grand structure collapse as it loses its reinforcement.

For some reason it feels like Lou is the shaky domino in this line of influential and groundbreaking musicians, about to set in motion a freefall of heroes into the hereafter. In this way, we mourn Lou as well as what is imminent regarding his peers. The mansion is now tragically full of pretenders, contest winners, and business tycoons. All we can do in such moments is celebrate the authenticity and heart that went into Lou’s life and music, and at the same time strive for that in our own lives. In the end, that’s probably all he wanted to achieve by sharing his words and music with us anyway.

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Barney Bentall: Revisiting a Canadian Rock Legend

Photo by Rebecca Bollwitt

Photo by Rebecca Bollwitt

Being an adolescent rock musician in Canada during the ‘80s meant that many of your heroes were homegrown. MuchMusic featured a slew of new Canadian acts that would later become legendary. Yes, you emulated the Beatles and learned Who covers for your basement band. But you also had Blue Rodeo, The Hip, and 54-40 songs in your repertoire. Singers like Bryan Adams, Gord Downie, Kim Mitchell and Jim Cuddy were just as big on your radar as any American or British singers. And when they came to town it was an important event. You went, you studied their moves, and you went back to the woodshed to keep practicing.

One of the influential artists in this canon of ‘80s and ‘90s Canadian Rock is undeniably Barney Bentall. Along with his band The Legendary Hearts, Bentall had a string of roots rock hits that rivaled or surpassed many of his peers. One after the other, these superbly-crafted gems graced the airways in grand succession: “Something to Live For,” “Come Back to Me,” “Crime Against Love,” “She’s My Inspiration,” “Do Ya,” and more. Bentall was our northern version of Tom Petty. The tunes weren’t exactly complicated poetry, but they spoke to you; the music wasn’t Rush, but it still had solid arrangements and interesting changes. It was quality Canadian music, and Bentall enjoyed the fruits of his labour – playing to packed houses all across this vast country and enjoying true bonafide rock royalty status.

As the ‘90s creeped toward the new Millennium, we started to hear less and less of Bentall. Unbeknownest to many, his disappearance from music was voluntary rather than the cause of waning success: he started a cattle ranch. Being a husband and father, this was no doubt a refreshing change from the fast pace of recording and touring that can sometimes wreak havoc on one’s personal life. Not knowing this at the time, I just assumed he’d gotten sick of the business in one way or the other and just got into something else. Turns out I wasn’t too far off, really. Meanwhile, I continued to enjoy his hits as they received regular rotation on classic rock radio and in the setlists of local cover bands.

Bentall, as we knew him at the peak of his success in the early '90s.

Bentall, as we knew him at the peak of his commercial success in the early ’90s.

About a week ago I got a call from my good friend and fellow musician Cory Tetford, who is originally from Newfoundland but now lives in Nova Scotia. He said he was coming to St. John’s for a few days and needed to borrow a guitar and an amp for a few shows he was doing….with Barney Bentall. I perked up right away. Wow, I thought. That’s pretty friggin’ awesome. (Digression: I was once in a band that opened for Bentall at the Delta Ballroom in 1994, although it’s all a blur and it turns out he remembers way more about the gig than I do.) Cory had gotten to know Barney through playing with Alan Doyle, who had Barney’s son Dustin doing the opening slot on his tour in support of Doyle’s first solo album, Boy on Bridge. Somewhere along the way Barney and Cory became acquainted, which led to Barney asking Cory to accompany him on some shows here in St. John’s for a private event as well as a club gig at the Ship Pub.

Cory dropped by the house last Thursday and we retired to my music room to make a bit of noise and suss out what he’d need for the shows. He took my Gibson J200 and my old Fender Tremolux amp, which he thought would be perfect for Barney’s stuff. I said to him, “You know, Cory, if this were 1993 and you’d gotten this call you would have had to wear a Depends diaper for three days afterward.” He laughed and agreed. “I know,” he said. “I still feel blown away by being asked to do it.” And of course he very well should be. As we age, sometimes we lose that giddy feeling that comes with musical opportunities. But here we were, both very much adolescent school boys again as we discussed the excitement of Cory playing with one of the legends of Canadian music. I congratulated him on the gig and sent him on his way with the gear, telling him I’d see him at the show Sunday night at the Ship.

I had my own gig on the weekend, playing cover tunes at Martini Bar on George Street with my buds in the Quidi Vidi Dirt Band. The place is usually packed, which makes for fun gigs with lots of energy and good vibes. Toward the end of the third set on Saturday night I found myself knee-deep in a lead solo during ZZ Top’s “Gimmie All Your Lovin’” when Cory popped up next to me side-stage, making all kinds of faces and shagging around – in typical Cory fashion. After the song was over, I went over to say hi and he whispered in my ear, “Hey man, is there any chance of getting up for a jam?” I was just about to pass him my guitar and let him sit in the with boys when he continued: “Look behind me. It’s Barney. He’d love to play a song with you guys. I looked behind Cory and there indeed was Barney Bentall, smiling ear to ear and giving a good-natured nod. Yikes. I said to Cory, “Yes…by all means, let’s do it.” I went straight to the microphone and proudly announced: “Ladies and gentleman. We have a special treat for you tonight. Canadian rock legend Barney Bentall is going to join us!”

The crowd erupted in surprise as Barney and Cory walked on stage. I handed Barney my guitar and he thanked me, going straight to center stage and adjusting the mic stand while greeting the audience. An old pro. I just stood there off stage, quietly admiring him. How many hundreds of times had he fronted the Legendary Hearts like this, all over North America and elsewhere? It made me feel like a rookie in relation to all he’d done. Cell phones were held high to take pictures and shoot video as Barney and Cory settled into their unfamiliar instruments. After a minute or so of informal deliberation about keys and such, the band launched into “Something to Live For.” The place went nuts.

Bentall with Quidi Vidi Dirt Band, Cory, and Andrew LeDrew at Martini

Bentall with Quidi Vidi Dirt Band, Cory, and Andrew LeDrew at Martini (Photo by Sharon Mackey)

At this point I have to mention Bentall’s appearance. A tall man, he is as lean as he was in his 30s and looks in tiptop physical shape. He’s understandably lost a bit of hair since the early ’90s, but he still has his trademark sideburns. He’s now 57, and I guarantee you he bears no resemblance to most men his age. Not that it would have mattered had he shown up a completely different individual physically, but to see him after all these years still looking vibrant and vital just added to the excitement for us and the crowd. Finishing the song and basking in the thunderous applause, Bentall leaned over to Cory and they quickly figured out another classic to play: “Come Back to Me.” We all got on stage for this one, proudly chanting the chorus next to him as the audience joined in. He looked around at all of us and beamed, saying into the mic, “Man, these guys are good.” What an experience. Here we all were, jamming with a major Canadian hitmaker and musical influence; better yet, he had shown up to the club with one of our good buddies.

After the second song was done, Barney and Cory exited the stage to handshakes and hugs all around. The band did our last two numbers for the night, and the DJ took over as we packed up our gear. We each got a chance to have a moment with Barney, who is as nice in person as his persona projects in his music. He has no pretense whatsoever, just an aura of goodness and enthusiasm. After a short time we all bid our farewells and went home, saying we’d see him and Cory tomorrow night at the Ship.

Bentall at the Ship. (Photo by Chris LeDrew)

Bentall at the Ship.

The next night when we got to the Ship, our guitarist Chad Murphy’s father Allan had secured us the front row of tables. It was 4/5 of the Quidi Vidi Dirt Band, along with my wife Michelle, Allan, and Chad’s sister Alanna. Around 9pm Cory walked on stage, followed closely by Barney who looked pretty much exactly like he did the night before: blue jeans, brown Blundstone boots, black t-shirt, and black vest. His brown leather jacket hung nearby on a guitar stand. It was a simple, stately look totally in line with the Barney Bentall we knew in the Legendary Hearts era. He had two acoustics – a newer custom model in standard tuning and an old Martin orchestral in DADGAD (folk tuning). Cory had his trademark Orange Gretsch, a pedalboard of tricks, and my Tremolux. Together they launched into a pair of newer Bentall songs.

I wish I had to take a pen and paper with me to make note of specific lyrics and titles, but being in fan mode I’d sort of forgotten that I’d be writing about the show. I can best describe the songs as emotional and haunting, which is a bit of a departure from Bentall’s hit output of yore that featured a mostly upbeat rock style. This is not a complaint, of course. It is crucial that an artist develop and transform his/her style; otherwise, there’s nothing there but rote memory and rehash. So it was fitting that Bentall start the show with songs that represent who he is now as opposed to who he used to be.

Cory Tetford, sporting one of his famous "guitar faces."

Cory Tetford w/ Bentall at the Ship, sporting one of his famous “guitar faces.”

Having said all that, Bentall is also not blind to the reality that people also came for the hits. So several songs into the set, he gave the crowd “Come Back to Me” as an early treat. It incited a big singalong that planted a huge grin across Bentall’s face as he let the crowd take over. Also, to our utmost delight, Bentall acknowledged us on the mic by saying, “It was great playing with the Quidi Vidi Dirt Band last night. Too bad we didn’t have that same setup here right now!” I looked across the table and it was all wide smiles from the guys.

Throughout the rest of the first set, which lasted about an hour, the pair played some more of Bentall’s newer stuff and a classic or two. Bentall repeatedly acknowledged the greatness of his onstage companion, saying that Cory is an inspiration to play with and an incredible talent. Cory’s reverb-drenched, swelling Gretsch vibrato tone wove its way around Bentall’s material like a silk scarf around a marble statue. Cory hadn’t had any time to rehearse much of the spontaneously-arranged show, so he relied on pure instinct and improvisation to accompany the songs. The result was astounding, and several of his solos and passages were acknowledged by roars of applause.

Boulos and Barney outside the Delta, retrieving Bentall's CDs and "cruising for chicks."

Boulos and Barney outside the Delta, retrieving Bentall’s CDs and “cruising for chicks.”

On break, Bentall realized he’d forgotten his CDs at the hotel. Our bass player, Andrew Boulos, was Johnny-on-the-spot with a car and drove him to the hotel to retrieve the CDs. Boulos posted a photo on Facebook of him and Barney in the car, with the caption “Barney Bentall and me cruising for chicks.” Classic.

During the second set, Bentall played some Bluegrass material from his new band The High Bar Gang, who are currently working on a new album. Of course, he treated the audience to a great acoustic arrangement of his first and biggest hit, “Something to Live For,” the song that started it all way back in 1987 when MuchMusic introduced Bentall to the country.

After the show we all went backstage to thank him and Cory for an unforgettable night of music. Once again, I was struck by Bentall’s forthright generosity and kindness. He gave me his latest CD Flesh and Bone (2012) and told me to get in touch if I wanted to chat about the new album.

Cory and Barney at the Ship.

Cory and Barney at the Ship.

Hopefully Bentall likes Newfoundland enough to return more often. He’s penned two tunes about the province already – one about Signal Hill and one about L’anse Aux Meadows. And he played a Ron Hynes cover during his show. As if we didn’t already have enough reasons to love the guy.

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September 30, 2013 · 11:24 pm

The Waterboys’ Mike Scott Challenges Ireland’s “Arthur’s Day” in Song

(Photo by Paul McManus)

(Photo by Paul McManus)

Since 2009 Ireland has been celebrating the Guinness tradition with a company-created event called “Arthur’s Day.” Most participants, in typical sheeple fashion, go about the celebration with a blind eye to the reality of corporate aims to drive the Guinness brand deeper down the throats of those in Ireland and around the world. Mike Scott of The Waterboys is known to be anything but a glad sufferer of fools, and in song he has unearthed many a human folly; he makes us think. As a gift to all critical thinkers, Scott recently took advantage of the internet’s immediacy to post a satirical protest song (arranged fittingly in the traditional vein and performed with feigned drunkenness, a la Shane MacGowan) about the ridiculousness of this event and how it serves to perpetuate a false stereotype to the world that the Irish are nothing but rowdy, loutish consumers of the dark stout. (Click here to check out “A Song for Arthur’s Day.”)

It is indeed this type of critical thought that is missing from the lyrical content of today’s well-known songwriters, with most being content to play the game and not offend anyone lest a career opportunity be missed somewhere along the way. This is the appeal of Mike Scott: ever vigilant and ready to call out a scam or hypocrisy.  He reminds us in one of his most recent songs, called “Still a Freak,” that he’s not about to let go of his youthful idealism (“things disappear, but I’m still here”) and conform to what he sees as an increasingly cookie-cutter society bought and sold by the dark side of capitalism. And in “A Song for Arthur’s Day” he does exactly the same thing. Sure, the main message in the song is that he finds the event to be a total corporate scam; however, his underlying message is thus: “Not enough people are speaking out anymore, in song or otherwise, about important issues that need to be criticized and analyzed. I don’t give a fuck; I’m saying something. And here it is.”

The Irish press has come on board in support of Scott as well. Eamonn McCann in the Belfast Telegraph sings Scott’s praises about the new composition in his article “How We Bought Into the Scam That is Arthur’s Day”, stating the following:

“…[P]erhaps [Scott’s] greatest-ever service to music and to society is represented in the release this week of Arthur’s Day:

‘We’ll reinforce the stereotype on Arthur’s Day/That the Paddy is a guttersnipe on Arthur’s Day/A bestial dog just up from the bog no manners in his head/We’ll drink and stink and curse and worse and soil our sodden beds/On Arthur’s Day.’

Has there ever been a scam like Arthur’s Day, as contemptuous of the people it targets, as disrespectful of the culture and especially of the music it misuses to make its play, as depressing in the extent to which the people made fools of simper with pleasure and cry out for more?”

McCann points out that alcohol-related deaths in the North of Ireland are three times that of all other drugs combined. Therefore, he sees a major problem in the event’s tendency to use “an instantly recognisable, stereotypical image of Ireland to create a phony occasion of celebration for branded export around the world.”

There is a charity related to Arthur’s Day, called the Arthur Guinness Fund; however, the ambiguous nature of its description on the Guinness website as a charity for “social entrepreneurs” makes it an unlikely reason for critics to relent. So raise a glass (just kidding) to both Scott and McCann for doing their duty as scribblers and shedding light on the major sociological problems inherent in this annual event. Maybe it will help curb the event before it gets woven into the vernacular of Ireland and elsewhere.

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Concert Review: Ron Sexsmith at the LSPU Hall, St. John’s

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When the Ron Sexsmith shows were announced a few months ago for the intimate 198-seat LSPU Hall in St. John’s, Newfoundland, my first thought was that he’d easily be able to fill the larger 1100-seat Holy Heart Theatre. But this move is classic Sexsmith: underestimating himself, unsure of his reach, full of self-doubt. Any doubts, however, about demand in St. John’s were quickly dispelled, as the first two shows sold out almost immediately with a third added and sold out shortly thereafter.

Being a huge Sexsmith fan, I’d gone online the first day and bought tickets. This is a compulsory show for me. Being a songwriter myself, there are very few who can keep me transfixed for long when performing solo acoustic. It’s kind of like an electrician watching another electrician wire a house. It can get boring fast when you know the tricks of the trade. But Sexsmith’s genius for lyric and melody separate him from mere songwriting mortals; simply put, he’s one of the best. You don’t get invited to Paul McCartney’s house for being a mediocre songwriter. Sexsmith’s talent has afforded him a seat at the table of greatness, but the reality is he still needs to make a living. So he tours. And the capacity-audience at the LSPU Hall was more than happy to reap the benefits of this need, as he performed selections from his outstanding catalogue with impeccable style and grace.

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Opening the show was Scottish singer/songwriter Rachel Sermanni, who came out a little after 8pm and started her first song with the house lights still up and people still being seated. It took the venue a song or two to settle down and concentrate on Sermanni, whose voice and creative finger picking style are unique. She tends toward improvisation both in her singing and playing, which makes for an entertaining delivery. Her vocal range goes from low growls to soaring highs (sometimes in a split second), and behind her somewhat shy demeanor you could detect a tentative sense of confidence that only a talent in its initial stages of growth can convey. However, the 21-year-old (who’s also opened for Elvis Costello) was not running a tuner with her guitar. Therefore, she spent most of her half-hour set tweaking the keys on her Martin D18, even going to the piano at one point to search for a reference note. She asked the audience if there were any music stores in town where she could buy a tuner. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “How can you get an opening slot for Ron Sexsmith and not have a tuner with you?” But I’m sure I was more keenly aware of this than others, and the people milling about the merch table shaking her hand and buying her CD on the break didn’t seem to detect any fault with her set. Her performances will no doubt sharpen as she develops a sense of authority on stage. In the meantime, I bet she’s out shopping for a tuner today.

After a short intermission, Sexsmith came out to a roar of applause. Resplendent in a frilly blue tuxedo shirt and matching suit jacket, he was all business as he plugged in and checked his tuning. The consummate seasoned pro, he directly launched into three songs in quick succession before taking a moment to apologize for a sore throat on his last gig here at the Majestic Theatre that prevented him from being true to some of his trademark melodies. (No one at that show seemed to mind the throat problems, however, because Sexsmith’s talent allowed him to simply pick new melodies out of the air that his voice could accommodate.)

Sexsmith’s 90-minute show featured a wide variety of songs spanning his career from the mid-90s to today. Highlights were the snappy “Get in Line” from Long Player, Late Bloomer (which Sexsmith announced as being a hit in England on one of the BBC charts), “Snake Road” from Forever Endeavour (which has a chorus melody borrowed straight from the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman”), and a trio of lovely tunes played expertly on the Hall’s old upright piano: “Gold in Them Hills,” “This is How I know,” and “Secret Heart.” Ever the modest soul, Sexsmith apologized for his perceived piano shortcomings, and he also omitted the details about Coldplay’s Chris Martin having done a guest vocal on the first tune and Rod Stewart having covered the last. This modest and self-deprecating performance style has inadvertently become Sexsmith’s trademark. Fans love it – responding with laughter at his ridiculously humble statements, giggling at his endearingly awkward gestures, and supporting with applause his announcements regarding career success.

One fascinating aspect of Sexsmith’s musical style is his fingerpicking. Seemingly the result of having to accompany himself solo for thousands of shows since he began performing in the late ‘80s, he has created a form of picking that strums while plucking snippets of the song melody. He doesn’t use picks, opting for a louder guitar volume that can properly amplify his fingerpicking subtleties. When you watch his picking hand, however, it is like an optical illusion. Melodies are coming out of the guitar but you can’t see his right hand creating them. These little things are what I love about Sexsmith. He is a creative genius but also an incredibly profound musician who is keenly aware of every minute detail musically. He takes the craft very seriously, knowing that pure emotion is not enough. This separates him from some of his peers who rely too much on either the art or the craft. Sexsmith understands the importance of a lyric cutting to the quick while also realizing that a unifying chorus is paramount over all other things in a pop song. In this way, he is the perfect amalgam of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. It’s easy to tell that his influences are prime, deeply instilled from a lifetime of studying the greats while slowly developing his own unique greatness.

IMG_8010-2Sound-wise the vocals, guitar, and piano were expertly mixed, with the sound tech providing the proper levels of reverb and delay to match particular songs. However, the lighting did not reach the full potential of the venue’s varied and fairly intricate setup. For much of the show, Sexsmith’s face was shrouded in orange light and darker hues. With only one performer on which to concentrate, the lighting tech had the opportunity to create beautiful settings that accentuated the performance. A simple white follow spot as he came on and off the stage would have been a great visual addition to the show, as would more front lighting and a possibly even some foot lights. This, however, did not take away from the show one bit; Sexsmith could have sang in the dark and the audience would have been thrilled.

With two more nights left at the Hall, I’m confident that 400 more lucky people in St. John’s will have their weekend enriched by one of country’s most talented exports. And if you missed the boat on tickets this time, do yourself a favour and make sure you’re first in line next time Ron Sexsmith decides to make the trip across the Gulf.

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Scott Weiland: The Lingering Hangover of Stardom

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The only grunge album I bought in the early ‘90s was Nirvana’s Nevermind. Kurt Cobain transcended the genre in that he was simply a great writer of melody and chord structure. Although the other popular grunge bands of the era had their merits, Nirvana had a timeless quality that can only be achieved by having great material. I didn’t particularly like the style of Eddie Vedder’s vocals, and Alice in Chains was just dark and depressing to me. Soundgarden was too bombastic. I pretty much wrote off the genre at the time, sticking to classic rock as my musical muse.

One band of this era that initially presented themselves as clones of the others was Stone Temple Pilots. Formed in San Diego in the late ‘80s and signed in 1992 to Atlantic Records due to their great fit with the multi-platinum bands of its genre, STP were an overnight sensation in the grand scheme of the music business. But as I said, some saw them as an imitation band that drew from the most popular elements of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Their first album, Core (1992), is as grunge as it gets: chugging guitars, heavy drums, overdriven bass, and aggressive growling vocals. One cannot deny the influence of Eddie Vedder in the song “Plush” or Kurt Cobain in “Sex Type Thing.” Even though they were all talented musicians, I didn’t see or hear anything truly unique or new about their sound. I was spending way more time listening to other new releases such as the Black Crowes’ Southern Harmony and Musical Companion or Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.

One day in 1994 I was relaxing at my house listening to local radio station OZ-FM when a heavy, snarling tune came on. The song faded in, which was unique. The drums had an aggressive groove, and the electric guitars repeatedly strummed out a dissonant, distorted chord in the intro. When the song kicked in, it took on a great guitar/bass groove. It consisted of two single notes that syncopated along with the drums. The vocals gave away the band in question. Stone Temple Pilots’ frontman Scott Weiland had enough of his own inflections in the vocals of the first STP album to make him somewhat recognizable to my ear. But this song was a departure from their copycat style on Core. First of all, it was damn catchy. Second of all, it sounded like no other band I’d ever heard.

The song was “Vaseline,” and it is from their second album Purple. I was aware of their other hit from this album, “Interstate Love Song,” but to me that song sounded more like their first album. It retained that Eddie Vedder vocal style too much for my liking. I did like the video for “Interstate,” though. In fact, I realized after watching the videos for these two songs that I really enjoyed watching Scott Weiland perform. His hair had grown wavy and more stylish than the skinhead look of his previous few years, and he was starting to dress with more flare and less grunge. More graceful than Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, Weiland has an aggressive yet effeminate physical delivery that is a mixture between Bowie and Axl Rose. Even if you didn’t love the songs, you couldn’t help but be drawn to the way Weiland moved when performing. He masculinized femininity, if that makes any sense. The other members of the band were more tongue-in-cheek in visual approach, playing great foils to their singer while providing the soundtrack to his “interpretive dance” style. The whole STP visual experience, and Scott Weiland in particular, no doubt helped propel them into multi-platinum status as the decade came to a close several years later.

Unfortunately Weiland had a penchant for hard drugs, and as the 2000’s approached he inadvertently derailed STP due to busts, rehab, and other drug-related fallout. Not an original story in rock and roll, yet one that was way more visible than most due to the advent of high-speed internet as the new Millennium peaked over the horizon.

Fast forward a decade and we see a trail of destruction behind Weiland. In fact, it’s a miracle he’s still alive among the drugs, car accidents, seizures and domestic violence. He spent some time as lead singer of supergroup Velvet Revolver, but this stint was also marred by his erratic personal behavior. Recently the other members of STP have dumped him from the band (as if he’s somehow replaceable), and he’s currently finishing up a solo tour that’s been punctuated by late starts, boozing, unreliable performances, and quarrels with the audience. What exactly is wrong with Scott Weiland, and why is one of the best frontmen in rock history on a path of self-annihilation?

Last week while browsing Youtube I viewed Weiland’s 2011 interview with Howard Stern and his tactless co-host Robin. While I definitely understand that if someone goes on Stern they need to realize they’re going to get roasted, I couldn’t help but feel for Weiland when Stern and Robin bore down on him with insults, questions about his kids, enquiries about his personal finances, etc. It was hard to watch. In this video, and in several others of Weiland that I’ve watched since, I see a guy who has a “hunted” look in his eye. The media are downright predatory with Weiland, and tragically he answers time and time again their prying, tasteless questions with candour befitting a drunkard with no internal filter. It’s like he’s hoping that somehow a straight message might make its way through the media filter. Slim chance of that.

Even though many will say that Weiland has made his own bed due to selfish, destructive behavior, there seems to be something more at play here. He is an intelligent man, writes thoughtful if slightly opaque lyrics, and (when he’s on) performs with purposeful precision and poise. He has also co-written a biography and has launched a line of clothing out of England. And he manages to do all this while drunk and high 24/7? I don’t think so.

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The bigger picture here is that the media magnifies his faults in order to preserve the image of him that everyone wants to retain: the tragic trainwreck rock star. All that anyone outside his immediate sphere knows about him is via the media. So both Weiland and his fans are at the mercy of that lens, which can distort reality in significant ways. On Stern they made a big deal about him being 20 minutes late for the interview, catching his late arrival on video (it was scheduled for 8am). On TMZ footage they stalk him at the airport and ask mundane questions while filming him going through security. Youtube is filled with amateur footage of his latest shows, all of which emphasize his eccentricities. He is under the media microscope in a big way, and this is a decade after STP has had a major hit. So we can only surmise from this continued scrutiny that people are still interested in Scott Weiland the person, long after Scott Weiland the STP frontman has largely faded into obscurity. This supports the long-held notion that people are interested in many more elements of rock and roll than the music itself.

Since Elvis, the public has been conditioned to experience rock through visual media, namely television. The only difference between then and now, however, is that the visual has become a 24/7 process via the internet and other digital means. Consequently, the media and the public have responded to this demand by sharing videos on youtube on a daily basis, with up-to-the-minute footage. Hence, we can scrutinize every minute detail of a rock star’s life.

Regarding Scott Weiland, there is a lot to scrutinize. The aforementioned drug-fuelled behavior is fodder for the media-hungry general public who love to watch someone else hit rock bottom. Do you think that if a camera was following Lou Reed, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, or Bob Dylan during the ‘70s we would have seen any different? Rock stars of yore did not have to worry about this kind of scrutiny. They were able to have a trainwreck lifestyle and no one besides their inner circle and a few lucky (or unlucky) fans ever knew about it. Sure there were lots of print articles, but that involves reading. (And we know how much the general public actually likes to read.) Visual media is preferred because it takes no action on the part of the viewer. It is a completely passive pursuit. Therefore, we now have a culture where people sit back, passively view footage of celebrities, and form judgments and opinions. But they do not recognize or take into account the distorted lens through which they look. It takes critical thinking to properly digest and analyze this myriad of footage. Unfortunately, it’s no fun to give these celebrities credence; they’re all rich, spoiled, unappreciative assholes. Aren’t they?

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Well, herein lies the problem. In reality we don’t know anything about these people. Scott Weiland is a walking contradiction if you look closely at the ubiquitous youtube videos. He is supposedly a recovering drug addict who still drinks like a fish; however, we see a man who’s svelte, well-dressed, has pearly white teeth, and is able to perform night after night on a glamour-starved solo club tour. We see a man who’s able to do interviews and sell a book. Yes, many people can be functioning alcoholics. But anyone who knows the stamina it takes to tour and promote material knows that you can’t be consistently hung over and still function. So why do most people assume he’s a walking nightmare day and night who cannot get his act together?

Because we only see the dramatic parts of his life. They’re the only parts that interest us. The rest is boring. People can only judge a person on what they know. The trouble is that we don’t know Scott Weiland. Therefore, we have no idea what he’s like. Even if a person has briefly met him after a concert or in an airport, that’s still not Scott Weiland the person. The trouble for Weiland is that based on his “media” personality a lot of people still want to meet him and witness firsthand the “trainwreck.” Therefore, he lives with a constant expectation hanging over his head from others. Take a second to apply that expectation to your daily life and you’ll quickly realize the pressure he must be under. Most of us go to work, come home, head to the mall, or whatever. And basically no one approaches us or even looks twice. Those among us with a measure of success might get recognized and bothered for an autograph or picture from time to time, but it’s hardly ever aggressive or expectation-laden to the extreme that Weiland has to endure. And he knows the glory days are over. People used to hound him because of his music; now they hound him because of his notoriety. This must make him exasperated, which shows in how he treats those who approach him. See the vicious cycle?

Once we widen our focus and step back a bit, we start to get a more rational viewpoint on Weiland and many other celebrities who go through the same public shaming upon the demise of their careers. We start to see the things we initially admired, the reason why they captured the attention of millions in the first place. Then we can begin to appreciate their plight in this smartphone video micro lens of a world we live in today.

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Bob Dylan once remarked about being a famous musician:

“By being a celebrity, you lose your anonymity. It short-circuits your creative powers when people come up and interrupt your train of thought. They consider you completely approachable. And you can’t be rude to people, so basically you shut yourself down. I know I do. I shut myself down when people come up and want to shake my hand or want to talk. That’s just dead time.”

I can imagine that after all the scrutiny Scott Weiland has had to endure by the press, paparazzi, and fans with smartphones, he has probably long been shut down. And really, you cannot blame him. His arrests, rehab stints, and drug binges have nothing to do with us. All we are doing is measuring his personal failures against our own, hoping that we come out on top. This is what we do with all celebrities. But unless they are our friends or relatives, we have no right to judge. All we have a right to judge is their artistic output. Too bad the appeal of their artistry is often on the decline as their public scrutiny amps up. This is the troublesome dichotomy that we must recognize and rise above. If we have no use for their current creativity, then why drag the artist down the dirt road of demise in front of the whole world to watch? Yes, these artists often ask for or provoke this notoriety. But do we have to participate like a bunch at a Roman Gladiator fight, with the Internet the forum and our computer chairs the bleachers? Artists should be allowed to gracefully fade into obscurity and pursue their art with a measure of humility, without the lingering hangover of stardom dogging their every move. Weiland may to blame for his own lingering pursuit of fame, but in way we shoulder that blame as well.

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