Saturday, October 29, 2011

Frank Turner makes history in Toronto

Frank Turner has come a long way in North America since I tried to interest people in his Campfire Punkrock EP five years ago, first saw him on a small rooftop at the South by Southwest Music Festival in 2009 and witnessed him playing to an almost empty Molson Amphiteatre later that year while opening for Offspring.

Turner launched his 2010 North American tour in my living room in front of 30 of my friends and is now selling out shows across the continent. More than 1,000 people turned out for his all-ages concert at Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theatre on Friday night, making it his biggest headlining gig ever outside of the United Kingdom.

Turner was obviously jubilant with the turnout and rabid singing along by many in the audience, and it was reflected in his ebullient performance with his backing band, The Sleeping Souls. He opened with "Eulogy" and went on to play a mix of older material and songs from his latest Epitaph LP, England Keep My Bones.

A Canadian flag with Turner's name emblazoned across it was thrown on stage towards the end of the 75-minute opening set. It was draped across the front of the drum kit before briefly gracing Turner's shoulders during a surprise closing number: a cover of Queen's "Somebody To Love." So that's what Freddy Mercury would have looked and sounded like if he was a raging heterosexual.

Turner's encore began with a solo acoustic cover of Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel," which he introduced as a Toronto song. When I gently chided Turner and told him that Cohen was from Montreal when we met for drinks at a local pub after the show, he said he realized he'd made a mistake as soon as the words left his lips -- but it was too late to turn back. The song should go over well if he pulls it out again tonight for his show at Montreal's Corona.

Turner remained alone on stage for "Ballad of Me and My Friends" before The Sleeping Souls returned for a rousing run through "Photosynthesis" wherein the singer urged everyone in the house -- including the bartenders and security guards -- to sing the anthemic chorus. They did, and Turner rewarded the diehards up front by diving off the stage into their outstretched arms.

Slowly but surely, Turner is becoming a star. That's certainly the case in Toronto, at least, which he's claiming as his second home after London.

The British artist's Canadian tour is almost over, but he'll return next spring as part of an exciting double bill that I'm already looking forward to but can't yet reveal.

Drunk fun with Kepi and Chixdiggit

Groovie Ghoulies' World Contact Day was one of my five favourite albums of 1996 and the Sacramento, Calif. pop-punk band was a very entertaining live act back in those days as well. The group has pretty much flown below my radar for most of this century, however, and broke up in 2007. But lead singer/bassist Kepi Ghoulie hasn't retired.

Kepi showed up at Toronto's Sneaky Dee's on Thursday night with Chixdiggit — fronting a set of his own with the headliners backing him and then taking a secondary role as bassist with Chixdiggit when guitarist K.J. Jansen shifted to centre stage for the second set.

Like with his previous band, Kepi plays short, sharp bursts of music grounded in '60s garage rock and pop and '70s Ramones-styled punk. His 12-song set included "Supermodel," "Hey Kepi Let's Go," "Girlfriend," Chixdiggit's "Quit Your Job," "Chupacabra" (his own song, not the Chixdiggit one), "Love On Demand," "The Beast With Five Hands," covers of Chuck Berry's "Don't Lie To Me" and "All Aboard," and lots of comedic banter in between.

The clock struck midnight and it was time for Chixdiggit's first Toronto performance in eight years. I believe I went for Mexican food and whiskey sours with the group, Fat Wreck's Melanie Kaye and a few other friends before that show, and it seems hard to believe that it was that long ago.

The Calgary band is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and playing all-request shows in response, but Jansen conceded that it couldn't play every song called out by audience members because it had forgotten how to play some of them. The passing of time seemed to mean less to many in the crowd, who were singing along to songs as if they heard them on the radio every day.

"Welcome To The Daiso" opened the proceedings, and the race through snotty three-chord pop-punk songs began. Personal favourite "I Feel Like Gerry Cheevers," "Gettin' Air," "Miso Ramen," "I Drove the Coquihalla," "Chupacabra," "Found Love," "I Remember You," "Spanish Fever," "Henry Rollins Is No Fun," "Where's Your Mom," "I Should Have Played Football in Highschool" and "I Wanna Hump You" were included in a 50-minute set.

But the boys weren't done yet. Kepi is apparently shooting a Chixdiggit documentary with his iPhone (he put it in his mouth and filmed during "Spanish Fever") and there was more potential footage to be had.

Jansen, with his trademark "Let's hear it for that" line, was as funny as Kepi in between songs. He's slightly bulkier than eight years ago, so perhaps that had something to do with him not utilizing another signature move: placing his mic extra low and singing from an awkward-looking position.

Despite becoming a father over the past few years (his wife is Kathy Camaro from The Riff Randells), Jansen still likes to drink while on the road and said he was feeling the effects of quite a few -- egged on by Kepi's chants of "Get drunk!"

Jansen's voice was a bit strained after some recent misbehaving in Halifax, and it showed when he returned to the stage alone for "Born in Toulouse." His bandmates helped him finish the song and stayed on for an encore that was almost as long as the main set and included "Ohio," "Quit Your Job," "Hot N Horny," "You're Pretty Good," "Thursday Night," "Toilet Seat's Coming Down," "My Restaurant," "J Crew" and "Geocities Kitty."

I was feeling lethargic from a cold and apparently missed the most exciting ending ever to a World Series game to attend the show, but the enjoyment derived from those three hours helped make me feel a bit better the next morning — and I probably exceeded my healthy quota of baseball-watching weeks ago anyway.

This was a nostalgic trip, but the good times still resonate.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jim Fidler previews new album with three EPs

I wrote about my appreciation for Jim Fidler's music, and the friendship between us that grew out of it, in this spot two years ago when I heard his From The Inside Out album. It became one of my favourite records of 2009 and was robbed of the best reggae album Juno Award nomination it deserved.

Jim has a new album titled Up That River coming out in December, but he's introducing it with a trilogy of EPs featuring material from the LP, dub mixes and acoustic versions. I've listened to the first two, and he's on to something good again.

All the material was recorded, mixed and mastered by Jim at his Roots Cellar studio in St. John's, Nfld. He produced, engineered, played most of the instruments and sang lead. 

The first EP opens with "Intro (Joesph)," a short number featuring Jamaican-born Newfoundlander Keith (Joseph) Rickman talking about Jim in an excerpt from a forthcoming documentary about this multi-talented man being made by his wife Lillian.

Jim played me "Be Free" and "Leslie Street" in his studio when I was in St. John's for the 2010 Juno Awards. I liked them both right away and I'm glad that more people will finally be able to hear them. "Be Free" is a melodic roots reggae number with female harmonies not unlike those of Bob Marley's I Threes. It also comes in a dub version. "Leslie Street" is lyrically moving and showcases the best of Jim's voice along with some well-played guitar lines.

The EP is rounded out by "Operation Africa," which has a lighter pop funk groove along with jazz and reggae influences.

I've heard Jim perform Marley's "No Woman No Cry" before, but he'd never recorded it until recently for the 2 EP. And he goes one better by including a dub mix along with his interpretation of the reggae classic. Rory Hoffman, the only musician other than Jim to contribute to these two records, adds some sweet saxophone and clarinet to both.

The 45-second "Here Come the Katz" leads into "Cats Will be Katz," a largely instrumental number with jazz elements and the recorded debut of Lillian's voice. I prefer "Me," a rhythmic track with a fun mix of blues, pop and harmonica by Hoffman.

The third EP should be arriving soon, and all of them can be purchased from Jim's website. Each EP purchase entitles the buyer to a three-dollar coupon towards the purchase of Up That River.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dirtbikers, Mystery and Devils

Toronto's Mitzi's Sister is just calling itself The Sister these days, and the place has changed substantially since my last visit. The restaurant/bar/music venue has been renovated, the bar has been moved to free up more space and Durham County Hop Head cask ale is available. All of the changes are for the better.

The Legendary Dirtbikers
One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the semi-regular appearance of The Legendary Dirtbikers at the Parkdale hangout. And that's a good thing, too.

If the band has a primary singer, I guess it would be bassist Mark Gabriel (Knockout Pill, Holy Microphone). But guitarists Fred Robinson (UIC, The Chickens, Possum, Holy Microphone) and Duncan Blair (The Mummers, The Dickens) also take lead on occasion and all three men contribute harmonies. Drummer Peter Timmins gets to stretch out from his regular gig with Cowboy Junkies and pound the skins harder and faster.

I'm not exactly sure how I'd categorize what these veterans do, or who I'd compare them to, other than to say they do it because they love it and not because they're trying to become the next big thing on either commercial radio or with Pitchfork-obsessed hipsters. It's definitely guitar-driven, pretty loud and touches on a few styles. None of the members are particularly strong singers, but their voices suit their material just fine.

"Another Country Song" was dedicated to me after the fact by Robinson, and I also enjoyed "Last Call," "Watching The Neighbours Watching TV" and "Still Remain."

Gabriel left the small stage after what he thought was the final song. But members of the headlining act, the young British mod punk trio The Targets, called him back with the threat that they wouldn't take the stage until they heard the Dirtbikers single "First Dog In Space." He obliged and I'm glad he did. I love that song.

I saw The Targets on a previous Toronto visit in March and, while I liked them, I elected to move on to The Silver Dollar to see Puerto Rican garage rock band Davila 666. 

White Mystery
Chicago's White Mystery was up first, however. The sister/brother duo of guitarist/singer Alex and drummer Francis Scott Key White look like hippies, but certainly don't play like flower children. The lyrics were often hard to decipher, parts of the set were a bit too raw for my tastes and some songs were definitely better than others, but I ended up being mostly won over by the visceral power.

Davila 666 came on just before 1 a.m., and the San Juan sextet was impressive from the get-go. There were none of the props, costumes or dancers I'd heard that performances can include, but the music was enough for me. The group came across like a better behaved Black Lips and, while I'm not familiar with its two albums, I'm happy to report that the buzz about the band that came out of the South by Southwest Music Festival in March was warranted.

The Spanish cover of "Hanging On The Telephone" was a very pleasant surprise that I appreciated almost as much as the woman in front of me wearing a dress dedicated to Blondie -- who compensated for the guy behind me who kept asking if I had any mescaline.

Davila 666

I swear I could feel the floor move under me at one point, which I don't know says more about the enthusiasm of Davila 666 and its fans or the structural soundness of the club, but no damage was done during the 40-minute set and two-song encore. Being from Puerto Rico may give Davila 666 a bit of a novelty factor, but this performance proved that it doesn't have to rely on it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Shonen Knife: Osaka Ramones

Shonen Knife has appeared in Toronto each fall for the past two years, and that tradition continued Thursday night when the Japanese trio rolled into the Horseshoe Tavern. But there was an added treat this time as well, an appearance by alter-ego group Osaka Ramones.

I wrote in my column two years ago that Shonen Knife was my favourite all-woman band of all time (I'd provide a link to the top 30 list, but all of my blogs were removed from the site once my contract ended), and this latest performance did nothing to shake my belief.

December will mark Shonen Knife's 30th anniversary. Looking at lead singer/guitarist Naoko Yamano, you'd think she'd started the band out of the womb. But the youthful looking musician turned 50 last year. The rhythm section has seen a few changes over the years, and is now composed of effervescent drummer/singer Emi Morimoto and head-banging bassist/vocalist Ritsuko Taneda. This show was the first of a 26-city North American tour and attracted a healthy crowd of others like me who've fallen under the group's spell of fun.

No-one should have been disappointed with the song selection in the opening 45-minute set, as it included "Konnichiwa," "Twist Barbie," "Rock Society," "Capybara," "I Am A Cat," "Devil House," "Redd Kross," "Anime Phenomenon," "Banana Chips" and a few others. The trio's wide smiles and appreciative addresses to the audience showed that the ladies were enjoying playing their blend of girl group pop and three-chord punk as much as we were appreciating hearing it.

"Capybara" had a ska-based chorus that had some folks skanking, "Devil House" prompted some fans to crowd-surf and the "Hey ho, let's go" chorus of "Redd Kross" foreshadowed what was to come in the second set after the women changed from their customized matching outfits and returned to the stage looking like Joey, Dee Dee and Marky in jeans and black leather jackets.

Osaka Ramones were in the house and a 20-minute set featured a number of classic covers from Shonen Knife's new Ramones tribute album on Good Charamel Records. Label founder and Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac, largely unrecognizable under his toque and behind glasses, was snapping photos from the side of the stage as the second part of the performance started to unfold.

There were a few minor twists thrown in, but, by and large, renditions of "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Beat on the Brat," "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," "The KKK Took My Baby Away," "Rock and Roll High School" and "Pinhead" were pretty faithful to the originals.

There was no encore, but Shonen Knife happily stood at the merchandise table posing for photos and signing records and T-shirts. A couple of friends who  hadn't seen the group before came away impressed, and I was a satisfied Shonen Knife customer for the sixth time.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Crocodiles and Dum Dum Girls make sense together

Colleen Green
It must be tough for the spouses of touring musicians, who are often away for weeks or months at a time trying to earn a living.

Crocodiles frontman Brandon Welchez and Dum Dum Girls lead singer Kristen Gundred have found a solution. The husband and wife have taken their respective bands on the road together, and they rolled into Toronto's Lee's Palace on Sunday night along with opening act Colleen Green.

I'd never heard of Green, but her fetching looks, green velvet mini dress and dark sunglasses caught my attention when I walked into the club. She was alone on stage playing electric guitar, and it took a few seconds for me to realize that she was covering Blue Oyster Cult's "Burnin' For You." I liked the arrangement and enjoyed the last song she performed, which used a programmed rhythm track, as well.

San Diego's Crocodiles packed the Silver Dollar when I caught the quintet during the North By Northeast Music Festival in June, but it seemed just as comfortable on the larger stage and in front of more people at Lee's. Welchez is a dynamic leader, whether he's playing a guitar or jumping around with his mic while singing. The group was showcasing some new songs and the lyrics were difficult to discern, but the sharp-edged guitar shooting through the wall of sound combined with the energy emanating from the stage to make words a minor concern.

Crocodiles come across as Echo & The Bunnymen on amphetamines, with a large dollop of Jesus and Mary Chain and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. And when Gundred came out to duet for a song, a Raveonettes vibe was added to the proceedings towards the end of the 40-minute set.

The four black-clad women of the Dum Dum Girls came on at 11:15 p.m. and their rumbling instrumentation with '60s pop underpinnings carried on the momentum. "Bedroom Eyes" and "Wasted Away" were my favourite songs, though "Bhang, Bhang, I'm a Burnout," "Rest of Our Lives," "Hold Your Hand," "Teardrops on My Pillow," "It Only Takes One Night" and "Only In Dreams" ensured that I didn't lose interest.
Dum Dum Girls

Gundred writes solid songs and has a fine voice, and her bandmates' harmonies complement it well. The women have a sexy image and play well enough to overcome any accusations that they have little beyond that, even if there's nothing particularly groundbreaking in their music. But when your influences include The Ronettes, Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Jesus and Mary Chain, Patti Smith and Mazzy Star, there doesn't have to be.

I don't think I've ever heard The Smiths' "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" covered before, but Dum Dum Girls changed that and did a good job with it to end its 55-minute set.

Crocodiles keyboardist Robin Eisenberg joined the lineup for the lone encore number, the appropriately titled "Coming Down." The slow, brooding song wouldn't have been my choice as a closer, but Mariano Rivera can't pitch every night. Still, Dum Dum Girls and Crocodiles were both winners on Sunday.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A night with Bob Gruen and The Aggrolites

photo by Jeff Ross

Legendary rock music photographer Bob Gruen launched his new book, Rock Seen, with an exhibition of some of his best known shots at Toronto's Liss Gallery on Saturday evening.

I interviewed Gruen a few weeks before his 2008 show at the same gallery and spoke to him briefly again in between admiring his work, chatting with friends, munching on pizza and enjoying cocktails named after the New York Dolls and Iggy & The Stooges.

If you're a fan of John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Blondie, Elton John, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and other music icons, you'll want to get to Liss' Yorkville Avenue gallery to see Gruen's work.

After post-exhibit drinks with a couple of friends, I headed west to Lee's Palace. I walked in to hear New Hampshire reggae band Roots of Creation covering Elvis Costello's "Watching The Detectives." It was a good start, and the band's original roots reggae material was certainly palatable — if not exceptional.

The Aggrolites came on stage for their headlining set of "dirty reggae," which mixes reggae, ska, soul and rock steady. There were a couple of different members in the all black-clad quintet since the last time I saw it, and the performance lacked some of the vitality of earlier shows I'd seen the Los Angeles band play, but the group definitely has musical chops and knows how to entertain a crowd.

Singer Jesse Wagner had an injured finger and wasn't able to play guitar, which didn't help things. But there were still a number of highlights, including a cover of The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," "Complicated Girl" from the group's recent series of 45s, "Banana" (which it previously performed on children's television show Yo Gabba Gabba!), "Someday," "Free Time," "Mr. Misery" and "Dirty Reggae." The 65-minute set was followed by an encore that ended things on a positive note with "Countryman Fiddle" and a cover of The Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down."