By Paul Wells - Wednesday, April 17, 2013 - 0 Comments
I wanted to get this New York Times profile of Caroline Adelaide Shaw, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for music, on the record because every year I check out the Pulitzer winner in that category with a little hope, and this year it was rewarded with something worth hearing. The Times profile gives the gist of the oddity of it all — Shaw is not just an unknown composer winning a composing prize, she does not even consider herself a composer. She wrote the winning piece, Partita, for the awesomely named choir Roomful of Teeth, in which she’s a performer. This Slate article gives more background.
I’m pleased to note that Shaw’s website contains a complete recording of Partita. You’ll find it’s odd, cheerfully eccentric, often lovely, and at about 25 seconds into the first movement, it opens the throttle in a way I found breathtaking. Mostly I just wanted you to get a chance to hear it. Continue…
By macleans.ca - Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
A new wave of young musicians is promoting the pipe organ—no hymns, no religious baggage
Pipe organ music is often associated with two unpleasant events: a vampire attack by Bela Lugosi—da, da, da, dahhhhhh—or an endless Sunday liturgy. Its reputation has been tarnished by pianists banging out hymns on unfamiliar instruments, like tourists driving badly in a foreign country. And the popularity of pipe organ music has also been hampered by, well, organists themselves.
“We’re the geeky outcasts playing an eccentric instrument,” notes John Terauds, an organist and classical music blogger for the website Musical Toronto. “When I tell people I’m an organist, I’m met with dead air.”
Sarah Svendsen is a 23-year-old, award-winning organist who recently formed a group called Organized Crime Duo with colleague Rachel Mahon. “We don’t have the best set of social skills,” she admits, laughing. Their goal is to change the outdated image of organists as blue-haired church marms; their strategy involves stilettos, sequins, some theatrics and lots of mascara. For their debut in October 2011 at Toronto’s Phantoms of the Organ concert at the Metropolitan United Church, they vamped it up, spoofing Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; this year, they played the Star Wars theme. “What better to attract a 12-year-old boy than a 23-year-old girl in a sexy dress?” asks Svendsen. “And Star Wars?”
By The Associated Press - Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 5:14 AM - 0 Comments
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The Black Keys told a federal judge the band has…
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The Black Keys told a federal judge the band has settled copyright infringement lawsuits against Pizza Hut and The Home Depot claiming misuse of their music in commercials.
The band alleged the song “Lonely Boy” was improperly used to sell power tools, and “Gold on the Ceiling” to sell pizza. The Grammy-winning band sued in June. Both companies denied copying the songs.
Attorneys for the band informed a federal judge in Los Angeles of the Pizza Hut settlement on Monday. The settlement agreement with The Home Depot was reached earlier this month.
No details of the settlements were included in court filings. Stephen Holmes, a spokesman for The Home Depot, and a publicist for the band didn’t have an immediate comment. A representative for Pizza Hut did not return a message seeking comment.
Attorneys expect to file formal dismissals by early January, according to court filings.
Both songs appeared on the rock group’s seventh album, “El Camino,” which was released last year and has sold more than a million copies.
The Black Keys are comprised of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. Musician-producer Brian Burton, who is known as Danger Mouse, also sued the companies.
“Lonely Boy” and “Gold on the Ceiling” both topped the Billboard alternative music chart after being released.
The Black Keys won two Grammy Awards in 2010 for music from their album “Brothers,” which won the Best Alternative Music Album award that year.
By Peter Nowak - Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
Last week, SiriusXM showed off a slew of new products at an event in Toronto. The company’s new iOS and Android apps were on display. Any day now, subscribers will be getting the new app, which will finally give SiriusXM a proper tablet presence (untill now, the smartphone version has had to do). The service is also introducing a bunch of new features such as pausing music, starting a song from the beginning if you’ve tuned into it in the middle, and going back into programming by up to five hours after it’s been broadcast live.
I finally got hooked on satellite radio last year. Frustrated by the increasing number of ads and dwindling amount of music—much of which is overplayed, CanCon-enforced drivel—on the rest of radio. I haven’t looked back since. Indeed, nowadays I cringe when I get into a car without satellite radio.
It was with dismay, then, that I read a story this summer on SiriusXM’s financial troubles. The Canadian operation, majority owned by John Bitove (the same entrepreneur who runs cellphone provider Mobilicity), has asked regulators to decrease the amount of money it must funnel to Canadian content development. With losses having mounted over the seven years since Sirius and XM launched—they merged last year—is the company is in trouble?
I sat down with SiriusXM Canada chief executive Mark Redmond and discussed the company’s financial woes, as well as its general competitive situation. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
By Scaachi Koul - Friday, September 14, 2012 at 2:13 PM - 0 Comments
Chris Brown has been targeted in London HMV stores by anti-domestic violence activists. His…
Chris Brown has been targeted in London HMV stores by anti-domestic violence activists. His album “Fortune” has been defaced by stickers that say, “Warning. Do not buy this album! This man beats women.”
The stunt is related to his 2009 assault conviction for beating his now ex-girlfriend Rihanna.
Brown most recently got a tattoo on his neck that appeared to be the face of a battered woman. He says it is actually of a Sugar Skull, related to Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival.
By Aaron Hutchins with Andrew Stobo Sniderman - Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 2:58 PM - 0 Comments
How the U.K. boy band is taking merchandising to a whole new, euphoric level
A thousand screaming girls are lined up around the corner along Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. They are here for One Direction, the multi-platinum-selling boy band from the U.K. The atmosphere on the street is frenzied. One young girl is practically hyper-ventilating: “OhmyGodOhmyGodOhmyGod.” Behind her, in tow, her mother rolls her eyes. But the group will not be showing up—and the girls know it. Instead, these fans have lined up for hours outside a pop-up store called “1D World” solely to get together to scream, sing, cry about their favourite band, and, of course, to buy its merchandise. There are shirts, posters, jewellery, even dolls bearing a likeness to the five group members.
One Direction performed two sold-out shows in Toronto in May, where plenty of merchandise was also on sale. But Stage 5, the Australian merchandising company for One Direction, decided to try something new and not confine itself to sales a few hours before and after each event.
The idea for an exclusive retail store for the band occurred while One Direction was touring Australia. Instead of selling merchandise exclusively at the concert—a tried-and-true tactic in the music industry—Stage 5 decided to open up a storefront in Sydney just to see what happened. “The next thing you know, I got 3,000 screaming teenagers outside the shop,” says Derek Glover, Stage 5’s managing director. When the band returned to the U.K. in the middle of their global tour, there was still some stock left in Australia. Glover wondered if the retail store would have the same success even without the band or any concerts on the horizon. So he opened up shop again in Melbourne to test the market. It was so successful, they tried it again in three other cities across the country. “Everywhere was nuts,” Glover says. “Girls were screaming and crying. You’ve seen nothing like it your life.”
By Paul Wells - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 10:07 PM - 0 Comments
A few times a season, if I am a very good boy, the National Arts Centre Orchestra invites me to speak to audiences before their concerts, or to interview musicians onstage after. Last Thursday and Friday were a little nervous-making because for the first time I interviewed the orchestra’s music director, Pinchas Zukerman, who doesn’t fake it if he’s not having a good time. My luck held, because the superb young Danish-born violinist Nicolaj Znaider was on hand, and Zukerman is very fond of Znaider, so we had a blast. I learned a lot.
But I also sat in the audience for both concerts. And days later I can’t stop thinking about the piece the two men played together. It was new to me. It has one of those tedious classical names: the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E Flat, K 364. All that means is that it’s a concert piece with more than one soloist. Zukerman played viola, which looks like a larger violin and plays one fifth lower. Znaider played the violin part.
With Mozart I often check to see how old he was when he wrote a piece. This one was written in 1779, when he was 23, already a renowned musician but with fully a decade left in his short life. As far as he knew, he had a full life ahead of him. But this is an unusually serious piece for a young guy: fully a half hour long, with a kind of moral weight to it that I (naïvely) don’t often associate with Mozart. The last movement is festive, but by then the soloists and orchestra have earned it, because there’s a weariness and determination to it that makes it sound like the work of an older man and a later era. The slow movement is heartbreaking, not just the solo parts, but the orchestral parts too.
By Emma Teitel - Friday, February 24, 2012 at 4:35 PM - 0 Comments
Did the Grammys really need to celebrate a man guilty of the same crime that ruined Whitney Houston’s life?
The sudden death of Whitney Houston on Feb. 11, and the tribute-filled Grammy ceremony that followed the next day, were overshadowed for many by the onstage performances and Grammy victories of R & B singer Chris Brown (no relation to Bobby). Was it really ideal for the Grammys to celebrate a man guilty of the same crime that plagued Houston for so many years, at the hands of her ex-husband, R & B singer Bobby Brown? Brown (Bobby) is said to have physically abused Houston until their marriage ended in 2007 (he was charged with domestic violence in 2003), and Chris Brown was convicted of felony assault and sentenced to five years’ probation for brutally beating his then-girlfriend, pop star Rihanna, in 2009 (the night before the Grammys, no less). Brown (Chris) performed live twice at the awards this year, and took home a trophy for best R & B album. Country music singer Miranda Lambert was the most forthright about her sentiments in a tweet she sent after the show. “Chris Brown twice? I don’t get it. He beat on a girl. Not cool that we act like that didn’t happen.”
But “we” weren’t the only ones who acted like it didn’t happen. First, there was Chris Brown’s now-notorious tweet in response to Lambert et al.: “HATE ALL U WANT. BECUZ I GOT A GRAMMY Now! That’s the ultimate F–K OFF!” Brown’s handlers, maybe guessing that winning a trophy doesn’t exonerate you for hospitalizing your girlfriend, removed his tweet. (Brown did not apologize for posting it.) Then came the disturbing onslaught of tweets from (mostly female) Brown fans who said they would relish the opportunity to be beaten by Chris. Meanwhile, in his half of the clueless universe, Bad Bobby Brown was acting as though the wife-beater who had terrorized Whitney Houston was some other Bad Bobby Brown. Directly following her death, at a concert in Maryland, he announced: “I love [Whitney] like a love God! I am badass Bobby Brown!” and proceeded to make customary obscene hand gestures to female audience members. A week later, ignoring the strong wishes of some family members, he showed up at Houston’s funeral, along with a nine-person entourage, and further distinguished himself by complaining about the seating arrangements. He was subsequently asked to leave the funeral. Critiques of his mourning strategy were not positive.
By Anne Kingston - Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
The voice, the meteoric rise and the slow-motion death spiral
“There are no second acts in American life,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote—a line repeatedly discredited at the Grammy Awards on Sunday night as the stage was dominated by musical legends enjoying second, even third, acts: Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, the Beach Boys. Fitzgerald couldn’t possibly have predicted that America would come to crave, even expect, second-act celebrity redemption—and none more than a comeback after illness, addiction or scandal. Hence the thunderous applause for Alzheimer’s-afflicted Glen Campbell. And the disconcertingly enthusiastic cheers for Chris Brown’s return after pleading guilty to felony assault charges in the 2009 beating of former girlfriend Rihanna.
Yet Fitzgerald’s line did hold true, ominously so, for a legend whose death at age 48 overshadowed the proceedings. On the eve of “music’s biggest night,” Whitney Houston was found in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton hotel, felled by a toxic combination of prescription drugs and alcohol as her staff, including two bodyguards, sat outside unable to protect her.
It was a tragic end for a singular force in pop music in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dubbed “The Voice,” Houston possessed a rare ability to span octaves and genres. She paved the way for black women in mainstream music and inspired the next generation. And the ornate, melismatic singing style she made seem effortless would become the lofty standard for American Idol-style contests. “One of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard” Tony Bennett said on Sunday, a night in which Houston’s low-concept vocal prodigy seemed rare, even anachronistic, compared to the self-conscious shock-and-awe production values of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj. It had been 12 years since she had even been nominated for a Grammy.
By Ian Gormely - Wednesday, November 2, 2011 at 6:05 AM - 1 Comment
Canadian bands like Hollerado are making inroads with Chinese audiences hungry for western rock ‘n roll
When Ontario rockers Hollerado booked their gig in Yangshou, China, they knew things wouldn’t run as smoothly as they do at home. But nothing could have prepared them for when they saw their backline—the set of amps a club provides for bands—roll up to the venue in a trailer hitched to the back of a bicycle. “He had apparently been biking for four hours to get it into this town,” says Menno Versteeg, the group’s lead singer. So hungry are Chinese fans for rock music that the promoter had a set of old Soviet amps from a nearby town peddled in specifically for the group’s set. “It reminded me of when I heard rock music for the first time, the effect it had on me,” says Versteeg says of their dedication to making the show a reality. “You could you see it in their eyes.”
Hollerado are one of a growing number of Canadian bands heading to China in the hopes of tapping into the country’s newfound appetite for rock music, particularly from the West. And Canadian bands are finding themselves well positioned to take advantage. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 11:23 PM - 3 Comments
I just wanted to let people know what an extraordinary debut recording the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony has made under its fearless artistic director, Edwin Outwater. (It’s hardly the orchestra’s first recording, just the first under the new guy’s baton.) I wrote about Outwater two years ago. He’s a Californian who rather effortlessly mixes the standard orchestral repertoire with some really wild new compositions and multimedia projects. This season he’ll lead the orchestra in… something… he’s cooked up with the physicists at Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing. That’s the sort of thing he does. K-W already had a very good orchestra and, bizarrely, one of the two or three best concert halls in Canada. Outwater takes the whole package to another level.
Anyway. The CD is called From Here On Out, it’s on Montreal’s Analekta label, it encapsulates what Outwater is doing in Kitchener-Waterloo, and it stands as a rebuke to the conservatism of just about every other mainstream Canadian orchestra. Of the three composers represented, only one, Nico Muhly, is normally associated with concert halls, although when he isn’t writing operas for the English National Opera he sometimes plays keyboards for Bjork. The other two composers are Richard Reed Parry, who’s a member of Arcade Fire; and Jonny Greenwood, who’s the guitarist for Radiohead. Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, October 14, 2011 at 7:40 AM - 4 Comments
Music was free online, until Jobs showed that people still wanted to pay
It seems strange to think of Steve Jobs as the man who saved traditional media. After all, everywhere you look, his products are wreaking havoc on old media formats: people are watching TV shows on their iPads instead of staying home to watch them live; people are reading e-books instead of lugging around paper; bookstores and record stores replace much of their shelf space with iPhone and iPod sections. But never mind the shakeups that are occurring in businesses like music: if it hadn’t been for Jobs and iTunes, there might not be a music business to shake up. Jobs’s fellow corporate tycoon, Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, put it very simply in a 2007 speech at Boston University: iTunes “resurrected the music industry.”
Think back to 2000, before the iPod and iTunes existed. Napster had cut deeply into music sales, and while the service itself was shut down, there was no shutting down the concept of music piracy. The ’80s and ’90s compact disc boom, when people ran out to buy physical albums in little plastic jewel cases, was over, and music companies couldn’t accept that: Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in technology issues, told Maclean’s that “they sought to sue the MP3 player out of existence. Any sort of innovation that left someone other than the industry with control was something to be feared and stopped.” But no lawsuit could change the fact that people wanted music that they didn’t have to stuff into suitcases and carry from place to place, and they wanted it for free.
Computer Weekly proclaimed in 2000 that “the battle against piracy may be lost completely,” and that “mass copyright infringement over the Internet” would be the future. The music companies countered by trying to create their own music services, which bombed because, as Geist puts it, “They were label-specific, they only played on a limited number of MP3s. It was just so consumer-unfriendly.” Jobs realized that no one was going to sign up and pay for only the music that Sony or Universal was willing to give them. “People don’t want to buy music as a subscription,” he told Rolling Stone in 2003. “They want to own their music.”
By Mike Doherty - Thursday, October 6, 2011 at 9:25 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Simon Reynolds
A London-born, California-based journalist, Reynolds offers many reasons for the obsessive resurrection of the recent past, among them an aging population’s nostalgia, the flattening out of past and present by YouTube, and the impulse to recapture the fervour of revolutionary musical movements. He plots a history of such revivals, from late-’40s “trad” jazz through “nu-rave” in the mid-2000s, and argues that over time, they lose their original cultural heft.
Reynolds is geekily erudite and sweepingly referential, focusing on music but in a broad cultural context, where Baudrillard rubs shoulders with the Beach Boys, Kim Wilde with Oscar Wilde. His accounts of arcane styles and subcultures such as “hypnagogic pop” and Japanese Shibuya-kei are best appreciated with YouTube, a portal that may, as Reynolds contends, paralyze us through distraction, but also helps make sense of Retromania. His writing is punchy and poetic, as in his depiction of the “ghost dance” of Deadheads, “an endangered, out-of-time people willing a lost world back into existence.”
By Peter Nowak - Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 12:18 PM - 4 Comments
If digital music is your thing, you’ll have one more option come Monday. Microsoft is today announcing that its Zune Music service is finally coming to Canada, starting Oct. 3.
The service will offer 14 million download-to-own tracks at variable pricing, with no copy protection on them. More intriguing is the Zune Music Pass, which is basically an all-you-can-eat option for $9.99 per month (the U.S. store is also dropping its pricing today to that level from $14.99). If you buy a 10-month pass, you get the last two months free.
The pass is pretty cool because it extends across devices, so it can be enabled on a PC, Xbox 360 or Windows Phone.
Microsoft is usually pretty good at getting new products into Canada quickly, but it has been a bit of a laggard with Zune-related things. Continue…
By Peter Nowak - Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 2:00 PM - 10 Comments
About a week ago, I was out for a stroll and got to wondering if there was anything technology has not improved over the past century, or even the past few decades. It didn’t take long to think of the obvious answer: music.
Sure, technology has produced better instruments and considerably better production tools. It has probably also eased the act of learning how to make music. But has it had any effect on the one thing that is really needed to produce good music: talent? Of course not. In many ways, those improved production tools have done the opposite – they’ve made it much easier for untalented people to make music.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, many ordinary people have the desire to express themselves through music, but historically they’ve lacked the natural tools to do so. However, computers, digital instruments and even iPad apps now make it possible for anyone to write and record songs. There are millions of people out there doing just that, then sharing their creations on YouTube and elsewhere. For the most part, it’s horrible stuff but at least people are finding an outlet.
Where it gets a little sad is when untalented people use technology to get rich and famous in the music business, or to stay that way. Continue…
By Elio Iannacci - Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 1:45 PM - 0 Comments
Slean closes the crisis chapter of her life with an ambitious new double album that soars
Sarah Slean lives for her flourishes. After laying down the vocals for a track called The Cosmic Ballet—an elaborate cut from her upcoming double album Land & Sea—she kicks off her heels and runs over to listen to the playback with a kid-at-Christmas grin. It’s evident that the state-of-the-art studio in Toronto’s east end where she’s working has become Slean’s playground. While it is populated by a 23-piece orchestra and a room filled with middle-aged recording experts, everyone remains silent until Slean’s ear makes a call. Around the three-minute mark—just when the song hits its string-heavy climax—she turns to the pack of engineers futzing about with buttons and knobs and jubilantly says: “Gentlemen, more bells and whistles, please!”
Think this sounds like a scene straight out of a Judy Garland picture? Slean would be delighted by the thought. In fact, much of the 34-year-old Pickering, Ont., native’s inspiration is fuelled by old Hollywood musicals. “If you listen closely to the chords off the soundtracks to those Garland and Hepburn-type movies, you realize the genius at work there,” she says, two months later in a café on the other side of town. “On the surface,” she explains, the songs in films like The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz “are grand and whimsical, but underneath them, there is this real intensity. I’m attracted to that sense of mastery.”
Set for a Sept. 27 release, Land & Sea is chock full of the singer’s taste for opulence. “I have dreamed of most of them,” she says of the catalogue of songs from her past six albums, including radio favourites such as Sweet Ones (from her 2002 disc Night Bugs); Mary (from 2004’s Day One) and Get Home (from 2008’s The Baroness). “And I dreamed up most of this new album as well. I just hope the songs come out as vivid as I remember them.”
By Martin Patriquin - Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 9:55 AM - 3 Comments
Oasis may have split up in 2009, but the testy Gallagher brothers feud on
1994 was a hell of a year. Figure skater Nancy Kerrigan had her leg bashed by an accomplice of redneck rival Tonya Harding; someone finally made a live-action version of The Flintstones; and Oasis dropped Definitely Maybe, bequeathing us with both an epic album and the mother of all brotherly feuds that has outlasted even the band itself.
From when the band stumbled onto the world stage in a cloud of booze and (one assumes) increasingly better drugs to its inglorious split in 2009, Oasis was dominated by the long-running battle between Noel Gallagher and his loutish younger brother Liam. Sure, they were a decent band who, thanks to songwriter Noel, played often genius rock ’n’ roll. But it’s the sideshow that everyone remembered—and continues to remember, two years after Oasis broke up, thanks to yet another piss-up between the two.
Noel recently had the gall to suggest that Liam dropped out of a 2009 gig because he was hungover. Back in the day, the boys might have settled it like proper Mancunian brothers: bare knuckles over empty pint glasses. But when you are rock ’n’ roll royalty, you go to court to settle matters of pride. Liam launched a lawsuit against his brother, saying Noel had “questioned [his] professionalism.”
By Mike Doherty - Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 9:05 AM - 1 Comment
Hugh Laurie’s knowledge of the blues rivals his alter-ego doctor’s medical expertise
In the packed, neo-Gothic Union Chapel in north London, Hugh Laurie sits onstage at a piano, introducing the solemn blues song Six Cold Feet in the Ground. His guitarist, Toronto’s Kevin Breit, starts laughing so hard at Laurie’s wisecracks that he screws up his prelude to the tune—twice.
Some months later, over the phone from the L.A. set of House, Laurie expresses pride at this achievement. “He’s a very talented guitarist, so to make him make a mistake is not easy. Normally you’d need a baseball bat and some sort of flame-throwing device.”
Comedy isn’t much of a stretch for Laurie—before becoming America’s highest-paid TV drama actor, Laurie was probably best known for playing haplessly optimistic characters in Rowan Atkinson’s TV series Blackadder. His musical accomplishment, however, is truly surprising: Laurie’s new blues album, Let Them Talk, on which he plays piano and guitar and sings in a resonant, slightly gruff baritone, is no joke.
By Philippe Gohier - Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 9:30 AM - 15 Comments
Good luck finding a top-grossing act these days with a young lead singer
When U2 wrapped up its 360° tour last month, they closed the book on the highest-grossing tour of all time, raking in over $736 million. Rock bands, it seems, can still make a dollar or two on the stadium circuit.
Of the 10 highest-grossing tours last year, seven were by traditional rock outfits, with Bon Jovi, AC/DC and U2 leading the way. Among the interlopers, appropriately enough, was “Walking with Dinosaurs—The Arena Spectacular,” which seemingly differentiates itself from the rock performers on the list by featuring animatronic dinosaurs rather than figurative ones. Because while the touring circuit, at least as far as the big earners are concerned, is still dominated by rock acts, they are increasingly aging rock acts.
A Deloitte study published in January found that, of the 20 top-grossing live acts between 2000 and 2009, the lead singer for eight of them will be in his or her sixties this year. Moreover, the older acts are still soaking up the vast majority of the touring cash available: 94 per cent of the money earned by the biggest live acts in those years went to those whose lead singers are now 40 and older; not a single one had a singer still in his or her 20s.
By Paul Wells - Thursday, August 18, 2011 at 3:41 PM - 1 Comment
This is mostly just to tell you folks that our Brian D. Johnson has a fantastic profile of Tony Bennett, based on extended and unusually close access to the great singer during his recent visit to the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Jessica Darmanin shot nifty photos that day too. I attended that Montreal concert, as it happens. Bennett was in excellent form, better than when I last heard him in New Orleans in 2009.
I am just irrationally fond of Tony Bennett, as I have demonstrated at least once in the magazine and a few times on the blog. Much of it has to do with how seriously he takes this music. That comes up more than once in Brian’s profile. Mostly it’s just his voice, which reached a new expressive peak in the late 1980s and has barely declined, in the sixth decade of his career, from that summit. Anyway, enjoy the read.
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, August 18, 2011 at 10:15 AM - 4 Comments
Tony Bennett, 85, sings with Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga on his new CD, and has taken up sculpting. Try to keep up.
“Bap! . . . Bap!” Tony Bennett’s unamplified voice, loud as a snare drum, bounces off the back wall of Place des Arts as he tests the acoustics at an afternoon sound check. Standing next to him at centre stage, looking out at the 3,000 seats that will be packed for his evening performance at Montreal’s jazz festival, I ask if some audiences are warmer than others. “The audience is never cold,” he says. “If they’re cold, that means you’re cold. You gotta walk out there energized. Sinatra taught me that years ago.” Energy? It’s not the word that comes to mind when you think of an old master crooning The Shadow of Your Smile or I’ve Got You Under My Skin. But when I gently broach that notion, Bennett gives me a puzzled look. Obviously I’ve never seen him perform.
That night, from the standing ovation that greets him as he bounds onto the stage to the one that bids him farewell, Bennett’s energy is miraculous. This, after all, is a man who would soon celebrate his 85th birthday on Aug. 3. His scuffed velvet voice seems enriched, not diminished, by age. Still muscular and elastic, it ranges from intimate jazz detours to flights of operatic grandeur—reminiscent of Sinatra, but infinitely warmer. Bennett works the microphone like a musical instrument, pulling it close for a confidential aside, but holding it just above his waist much of the time. At one point, he has the soundman turn off the mikes, then sings Fly Me to the Moon a cappella and unplugged, beaming his voice to the upper balcony. Near the end of the song, he opens the throttle. He hits a note, holds it, and his voice fills the hall like a floodlight, with a power that seems to come out of nowhere.
Oh, and he also dances. Occasionally, he’ll finesse a phrase with a pirouette, a switchblade flash of Vegas that draws a roar from the crowd. When his 37-year-old daughter Antonia comes onstage for a duet, Bennett joins her in a nimble soft-shoe. Throughout the show, he almost never stops smiling. And why not? His music, plucked from the Great American Songbook, summons up a golden age, when jazz and pop were happily married. Spanning Gershwin, Cole Porter and classic strains of Hollywood and Broadway, it exists in an emotional utopia—a wonderful world with skies of blue, where love comes just in time, little cable cars climb halfway to the stars on the sunny side of the street and the best is yet to come. It’s how America was meant to be.
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 9:05 AM - 0 Comments
A space cowboy seems to have found his comfort zone as a sagebrush elder
From the folksy drawl of the first “Helloooooo,” with a rising lilt on the last syllable, the voice on the phone from Santa Barbara, Calif., is unmistakable. That’s the thing about Jeff Bridges. He always sounds like Jeff Bridges, whether he’s playing the stoner Dude in The Big Lebowski, crooning a broken-heart ballad in Crazy Heart, slurring abuse as a drunken cowboy in True Grit—or doing an earnest voice-over for a Hyundai TV commercial. Some people turn into somebody else as soon as they open their mouth to sing. But one of the joys of listening to Jeff Bridges, the 61-year-old actor’s debut album with a major label, is that he sounds just like the guy onscreen. He’s not acting—playing a singer—he is one.
Unlike a lot of actors who spin off a music career as a hobby, Bridges has been a lifelong musician, ever since he picked up his dad’s Goya guitar at age 12. (Dad being the iconic Lloyd Bridges, star of the TV series Sea Hunt, who ushered Jeff and brother Beau into the family business.) So it’s fitting he finally won the Oscar for Crazy Heart (2009), a film that entwined his twin passions of music and acting. Asked if he feels music is the road not taken, he says, “No, it’s always been with me. Ever since I can remember, it’s been a great buddy.” And it’s a lot like acting, he adds. “They’re both about making yourself vulnerable and creating with other folks. They’ve got more in common than uncommon.”
Inlaid with silky pedal steel, and backing vocals by Rosanne Cash, the pearl-handled production of Bridges’s new album is so polished a casual listener might assume he just dipped into his millions to hire a crack session crew. But the actor has been friends for over 30 years with T Bone Burnett—the ace producer/musician/songwriter whose Grammy-winning hits range from Robert Plant’s duets with Alison Krauss on Raising Sand to soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart. They met on the set of Heaven’s Gate (1980), along with songwriter Stephen Bruton, who was in the movie’s band with Burnett—and who wrote songs for Crazy Heart and the new album. Heaven’s Gate may be etched in American cinema as a landmark flop, but in their off-hours musical cast members like Kris Kristofferson and Ronnie Hawkins were forging another kind of frontier legend. “We used to jam every night,” says Bridges. “They were wild times.” When asked for details, he demurs. “There’s a whole pile of stories. I just don’t know how many I want to tell you.”
By Stephen Marche - Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 17 Comments
We still have “Back to Black,” one of the greatest albums of all time
Nobody was surprised that Amy Winehouse died last week at age 27 in her north London home. Only a month before, she had been caught on YouTube at a concert in Belgrade, so slurring-drunk and forgetting-the-lyrics-high that she was booed off the stage. The performance was alarming enough that the organizers cancelled the European tour she had just started. They had been optimistic even to try. In 2007, at the cusp of her rise to prominence, Winehouse’s in-laws had begged her fans to stop buying her records because the proceeds were being poured directly into self-destruction. Her father publicly worried that his daughter was smoking so much crack she was developing emphysema in her mid-twenties.
If her death was not surprising, it was nonetheless shocking. Creatively, she was like a bullfighter sidestepping phoniness at the last possible moment, dodging the prefabricated sound or image while allowing the familiar and comforting to suffuse her being, letting the clichéd ride as close to her as possible and then suddenly pulling away. The horn section, the backup singers, the beehive, the Cleopatra makeup, the pin-up girl tattoos—we had seen them all before, but her way of wearing them was so personal they became brand new. But in the end, despite her freshness, she lived out the old, old story, another entrant into the 27 club, the exclusive arrangement for rock ’n’ roll stars who die at the standard age: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain. Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse, blah, blah, blah.
She has left us with Back to Black, one of the greatest albums of all time. Or rather, I shouldn’t say “greatest” because that’s to say it exists on a spectrum or in a hierarchy, when really Back to Black does that nearly impossible thing in art: it is what it is and it is not something else. Music critics who described the album’s sound as “retro” after its release were wrong. (Many have had the good sense to recant.) Soul cannot be appropriated and remain soul; that’s Starbucks soul. Back to Black is just soul.
Unfortunately, the death of Amy Winehouse has transformed the meaning of Back to Black. It’s hard to remember this, now, but the opening track, Rehab, when released in 2006, was a joke song, something like Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl. A witty play on tabloid culture and on the drama of addiction captured in shows like Celebrity Rehab and Intervention, it teased itself about the rock ’n’ roll cliché of wild living: “They tried to make me go to rehab / but I said no, no, no.” The first thing Amy Winehouse gave her audience was a laugh. The joke is all too real now.
The self-consciousness of the lyrics in Back to Black make Winehouse’s death all the more pathetic. Her humour, her knowingness, seemed like such obvious escape hatches from the operas she lured herself into. Billie Holiday stared down into the abyss of her addiction and depression as she plummeted through it. Even Nina Simone, incredibly wise about her own suffering and its meaning, could not look away from her passion long enough to see its folly. Amy Winehouse was forever looking over her shoulder, winking at the paparazzi and at herself in the mirror. With sparkling clarity, she understood the silliness of her antics. In Tears Dry on Their Own, she gives herself a good talking to: “We could have never had it all / We had to hit a wall / So this is inevitable withdrawal.” Then she gives herself exactly the right advice: “I cannot play myself again / I should just be my own best friend.” She seemed too intelligent, too familiar with the by-now-established pitfalls of hedonism, to walk into such obvious traps. She seemed too darkly clever to die so stupidly.
Not that Back to Black doesn’t revel in the glamour of its own melodrama. Her breakup and then reunion with Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse’s muse, is always the “five-storey fire” described in Love is a Losing Game. But what is so attractive about Back to Black, so refreshing, is the intimacy of the portrait of self-obsession and collapse, the unglamorous details of the narcotic dream and nightmare. Her most memorable and idiomatic songs are like Mary Pratt paintings accompanied by doo-wop backup singers, as in You Know I’m No Good: “I’m in the tub, you on the seat / Lick your lips as I soak my feet.” A portrait of the domesticity of self-abuse, the album glows with authenticity, with little in-jokes and pop culture references and other bits and pieces of conversation.
The album is also riddled with a wonderful confusion about what’s important and what’s not. Winehouse uses her voice, a deliriously thrilling instrument that raspingly conjures the most organic passion at will, in counterintuitive ways. She can be amazingly blasé and de-emphasize lines like, “I cheated myself / like I knew I would,” while unfurling the whole of her soulfulness in Me and Mr. Jones for the line: “Who’s playing Saturday?” Her heart shrinks and expands in the most unlikely places. Before her death, this variability was merely a superb piece of vocal technique; now it’s something darker, evidence of the spiritual confusion and the lived chaos of the confirmed addict.
Most terribly, the meaning of the title track has changed since Winehouse’s death, changed painfully and completely. The video for the song shows Winehouse attending a funeral, which turns out to be for “the heart of Amy Winehouse.” Before she actually died, this tired iconography was a piece of kitchen-sink romanticism, a cheap but lovely rip-off of Keats being “half in love with easeful death.” In the middle of the song, chimes ring out—a strange and powerful moment, unlike anything in popular music, dull resonances over which Winehouse croons the word “black.” In hindsight, the chimes were her death knell. Right in the middle of Back to Black she rings the bells in her own memory. Back to Black was a funeral elegy to herself that 11 million people have so far purchased. How else to interpret these lines: “I love you much / It’s not enough / you love blow and I love puff / And life is like a pipe / And I’m a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside.”
Amy Winehouse was an extreme example of the singer who attains in song what she can’t manage in reality: in her case, self-awareness. In her music, she knew exactly who she was and where she was going. Not in her life. In a 2007 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, at the end of her North American tour for Back to Black, she said she didn’t care whether she had a future career. “I don’t want to be ungrateful,” she said. “I know I’m talented, but I wasn’t put here to sing. I was put here to be a wife and a mom and look after my family.” What self-conception could be more in error? What statement could be further from the truth?
With talent, as with everything else, those who have too much throw away what they have. The very luxuriousness of Winehouse’s abilities made them so easy to waste. But we still have Back to Black, which is perfect. The dream of pop music has always been that you could capture the urgency of life lived, the proverbial lightning in a bottle. That’s exactly what Back to Black is, an album of such intensely vivid expression that it feels live while also being so perfectly articulated that you wouldn’t change a single line of phrasing.
It’s only 33 minutes long. Other than a pretty decent but forgettable first album and a couple of covers, that’s all we have of Amy Winehouse. Sometimes 33 minutes can be worth more than 27 years.
By Peter Nowak - Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 11:35 AM - 28 Comments
Last month, I broke down and bought a car stereo to replace the factory model that came with my 2003 Toyota Corolla. Given that the car is eight years old, the stereo didn’t yet have the necessary inputs to properly connect an iPod. I’d therefore been relying on one of those crappy FM transmitters that plug into the iPod, which not only results in crackly sound, but requires that you continually adjust the reception because of shifting FM stations in different towns and cities.
I shelled out for the new stereo, a simple $99 model from Pioneer, because I can’t take Canadian radio anymore. For one thing, there are all the ads. Since the CRTC allows radio stations to air as many as they want, the amount has been climbing and climbing. That’s good news for radio revenues, which are also climbing and climbing, but bad news for your sanity while driving. Continue…
By Mike Doherty - Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 10:55 AM - 0 Comments
Vancouver-born Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is turning heads in the jazz world
Most jazz musicians, asked about the defining concerts in their careers, will name a prestigious venue or heralded festival. For Darcy James Argue’s Grammy- and Juno-nominated big band Secret Society, old-school adulation is all very well, but the sweat, grunge and intimacy more common to indie rock has given them a vision of the future of jazz.
The Vancouver-born Argue recalls a revelatory gig in the basement of a house of twentysomethings living communally in D.C. His 18-piece band was “playing acoustically, without a PA, for kids who had never heard of us. The musicians came up to me afterwards and said, ‘We’re losing our shirts, but it’s so great to have a direct connection to an audience that had no idea what to expect.’ That’s what you live for—to have your music be memorable in someone’s life.”
Certainly Argue isn’t in it for the money. Over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, the 36-year-old conductor and composer says, “There are few things that would be more financially irresponsible than running a big band—like maybe a serious gambling addiction.” The Secret Society is about turning heads rather than emptying wallets, and their forward-thinking music has earned them a raft of awards—and now the chance to tour Canada for the first time this summer.