Blainletter #62, July 2013
Not a lot of gigs to promote in July (in fact, none) but June was real busy and I just got a call to play with my Buddy Larry Kurtz at a new venue in Orangeville (and I think I have a few new fans in Orangeville – you know who you are):
Aug 9 Brian Blain & Larry Kurtz Mill Creek Pub, 25 Mill St., Orangeville
And I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to do a 2-week Homeroutes house-concert tour with my old buddy Allan Fraser starting Sept. 19 in Winnipeg and winding around Manitoba and Saskatchewan. On the road again!
And here’s some Big News! Mixing has begun on New Folk Blues 2.0 and I like what I hear so far. Still a couple of overdubs to do but we’ll have this wrapped up (but not shrunk-wrapped) in time for the tour.
Meanwhile, I’ve been...
Out and About
And some of you may not need to read the next 2000 words about shows I’ve seen, shows I played, shows I wish I'd seen...unless you enjoy reading about all the behind-the-scenes stuff and occasional griping the music establishment (biting the hand that feeds me, as it were).
Actually, it feels like the live music scene is on an upswing Just last night I was at two (count ‘em, 2) CD launches. Colleen Allen was brilliant and the new Jazz Bistro is a great showcase room, with that big steinway piano. I gather they had a big high-priced PA system too, though that is now replaced by a much more rudimentary set-up, which works just fine. Colleen's Quintet got pretty intense, I have to say.
Later Mark Bird Stafford at Monarch’s Pub was a little more accessible but just as uplifting.
They have sound-sytem challenges there too and they will continue until they aim their speakers at the audience instead of at the dancefloor. Mark has never played better and this is a town full of great harp players (though you didn’t see any of them springing $42 to see James Cotton). Funny, the next night the Shoe was filled with organ players (Fonfara, Pomanti, Jesse Whiteley and others) to hear their B3 Guru, Dr. Lonnie Smith. He was phenomenal. And I will say here, that was my favourite show of the festival).
Anyway, back to harmonica players, Dr. Nick was at Mark’s thang and I had just seen him sitting in with Sugar Brown and Bharath at the Paddock...
Bharath a harmonica/guitar player from Montreal who was a bit of a mystery man. Every harp player in town was singing (blowing) his praises. And now that I’ve heard him, I see what they are talking about. He takes you right back to Chicago in the 50s – plays effortlessly, no showing off at all. Solid. And now I got to meet him and he still remains a little mysterious to me. The band had a couple of ringers from the west coast, Junior Watson and Fred Kaplan…both alumni of the legendary Hollywood Fats Band). And of course, Sugar Brown was front and center – kudos on pulling this off, and thanks for helping develop this new blues venue, The Paddock.
It’s been festival mania around here. Beaches Jazz just ended and I got a couple of hits of blues – Sunday it was Sugar Ray Norcia with some of the top players on the New England blues scene including “Monster” Mike Welch and bassist Mudcat Ward.
The day before I was pumped to hear one of my favourite guitarists, Anson Funderberg, who was coming with a New Orleans artist, Eric Lindell. Eric played fine but I was there to hear Anson digging in on his Telecaster and even though Lindell was trying to coax some longer solos out of Anson, he was his usual understated self and if he was saving the best for last it never happened because the rain came and I could see puddles forming on the stage and at the first clap of thunder they shut it down.
Sugar Ray was preceeded by Bill King sharing the stage with his son Jesse (aka Dubmatix, multi-JUNO winner). They played a ska & reggae flavoured set with ska-pioneer Everton ‘Pablo’ Paul. Errol Nazareth wrote a nice piece on this conglomeration – read it here http://www.torontosun.com/2013/07/25/reggae-show-a-family-affair.
Finally got to see La Bottine Souriante after a gap of maybe 10 years. I remember seeing them at Harbourfront in the 90s and being knocked out by the horn section – I loved the way they integrated the horns into traditional Quebecois jigs & reels. This time I was not as knocked out but there were some great moments where they took it to that place but there was an awful lot of step-dancing. Here's an Instagram Clip:
No slight to the dancer, but I'd like more horns and less dancing! While at Mel Lastman Square, I got to meet one of my CBC Radio regulars – The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti. She’s on her summer break and was talking about an upcoming trip to Ireland or Scotland…whatever, she was expressing some concern about driving on those narrow winding roads - I said that was surprising to hear from a journalist who is no stranger to war zones and other far more hostile environments…
Closer to home (in fact just a few blocks from my house), Afrofest was jumping and I never saw Woodbine Park so full as they were when Alpha Blondie hit the stage. I had to walk through the Festival of South Asia which was taking place at the foot of my street. Earlier that day I got detoured up on St. Clair Avenue because it was closed for some Italian (?) Festival. Up in Orillia it was Mariposa Folk Festival and there were probably several small jazz festivals within driving distance. At Fort York there’s was a new Festival call “Urban Roots” with some pretty big name like Xavier Rudd and Neko Case. This fest was just started by our old friend Jeff Cohen (who runs the Horseshoe and much more but who I especially remember for his rants on CIUT radio).
Jeff, and several other folks I know, were part of a “focus group” of live music stakeholders who have been trying to make Toronto into a music tourism destination like Austin or New Orleans. I was thrilled to hear that a comprehensive online event calendar was part of their mission but I have since heard that maybe not. I hope it’s not because I scared off the lady in charge with all my stories of false starts, failed objectives and wasted resources I have encountered since the early 90s when I was working with the visionary Barb McCullough and a little City of Toronto funding, to start a “Toronto Festival Alliance.” That never got off the ground because we were hard pressed to get all of those festival organizers in the same room with their rivals and sworn enemies. Then there was Gene Wilburn’s “Presenters’ List” for the Ontario Arts Council - Under-promoted thus under-utilized. Toronto Arts Council, Canada Council, all the damn councils spent a fortune trying to do it but all these schemes were labour-intensive and depended on participation from the stakeholders (artists and venues) and that is not something you can take for granted. Now Magazine and Wholenote have the most comprensive listings but that’s because they have gnomes in dungeons parsing all those emails. And I can’t imagine the people at Now offering to share their listings with any perceived competition. Still, I predict the day is coming, and it won’t be long, that if an artist or a venue put an event online in one place, it will be scraped off the web and shared with the rest of the world in the blink of an eye (or rather, the click of a mouse). Anyway if you want to know more, it’s called the 4479toronto project. Their first challenge is to get people to recognize their “brand” and it seems that Canadians are much quicker than Americans to recognize that 4479 represents longitude & latitude. I hear they have got the City to agree to having a “music office” at City Hall and that will certainly be a good thing for the big players like Massey Hall and Live Nation, and maybe there will be some trickle down benefits for the scuffling musicians on the club scene.
At the Toronto Jazz Festival, Boz Scaggs started with some a blues shuffle and ended with “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” desiccated to Bobby “Blue” Bland who had just passed away. He had a great band and a powerhouse vocalist who captivated the crowd although it was Boz’ voice that they came to hear and it was smooth as silk. His crew, however, didn’t make any friends in our town, being extra niggly and, according to Richard Flohil, treating the opener Paul James quite shabbily. At the other end of the spectrum were the Willie Nelson crew, who bent over backwards to accommodate Alex Pangman and her band, to the extent that they packed up the drums and helped load them out.
The Beaches Jazz Festival starts today At the media launch AD Bill King finally said what everybody’s known for a while - that all these festivals, regardless of their name, have become “music” festivals and working for a jazz festival that kicked off with Willie Nelson and closed with Steve Martin, I guess I have to agree.
It will come as no surprise to local blues fans that the first show to sell out at the Toronto Jazz Festival was Dr. John & Mavis Staples. Danny Marks was the MC at and started out by extolling the virtues of Mavis’ longstanding guitar player, Rick Holmstrom, who is the guitarists’ guitarist. And the consummate pro, even though the airline lost his luggage (which included his pedals - he only carries two - an overdrive and a reverb - he doesn’t like the reverb on the reissued Fender amps). He even had to buy a suit at the Bay an hour before showtime but he looked as sharp as ever.
Mavis was having a few physical difficulties but she sang great and had the audience entranced. Dr John was in great shape and positively chatty backstage, not the Dr. John we have encountered at previous Toronto Jazz appearances – and there have been many. Local musicologist Rob Bowman is Mavis Staple’s biggest fan and best friend in this town and he got a shout-out from the stage. He even delayed his trip to Europe where he is promoting his film on the life of Curtis Mayfield.
A couple of nights later, Bettye Lavette was quite mellow herself with a lot of soulful ballads as is her wont but James Hunter had the feet tapping plenty in the first half so it all balanced out. He’s got a great new organist called Kyle Koehler who does the classic chunka-chunka that was part of James’ signature, but he could also rip it up a la Lonnie Smith, who happened to be playing at the Horseshoe the night before. Dr. Lonnie was really ripping it up with his amazing trio, and every organist in town who wasn’t working that night was watching and loving it. The Shoe also hosted the legendary James Cotton who can still blow that harp, but leaves the singing to Darrell Nulisch who has his own special charisma judging from the 3 young girls who followed him all the way out to Queen Street. Apparently Cotton has been in town for a few days and was spotted checking out the scene. He’s moving slow, but he’s still got the groove, and he can still hit those high notes:
Speaking of moving slow, Dr John was looking a little frail at his last Toronto Jazz appearance but seemed quite full of energy this time. I heard he was parting till 3am. He was positively chatty backstage and so happy to see his old friend Mavis and catch up. His new bandleader/trombonist Sarah Morrow did a great job and I’m told she’s originally from this area.
This year Brian and the Blainettes played Toronto Jazz again and I even got a last minute gig doing an opening set for Groove Corporation’s show at the Monarch’s Pub in the Delta Chelsea Hotel (soon to be renamed the Eaton Chelsea). It seems their guitarist was going to be delayed so they called me in and I was happy for the opportunity to play with Lily Sazz (Groovecorp is her band) because we have done many duo gigs in the past. We were having a great time until some patron complained that they had been waiting since 7pm for the funk band and obviously our country blues was not to their satisfaction. Anyway, we got the bum’s rush and were told to stop now, and worse yet, the band was obliged to start without their guitar player. That is positively Medieval. The good news is I got out of there in time to get down to Nathan Phillips Square and hear a couple of tunes by Smokey Robinson and it was pretty damn special.
Getting to know Joni
Luminato festival got a lot of bang from Joni Mitchell’s appearance. Joni Mitchell has left such a huge mark on modern music (and don’t be surprised if her painting becomes equally celebrated once she’s gone – that’s usually how it works with visual artists). I have always had a great attraction to her and just spent the last couple of hours watching here Luminato interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8VQgRnghb8) and last week I was glued to the radio for Jian Ghomeshi’s interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEJuiZN3jI8). What a revelation!
Back in the 70s I was invited to be part of a fundraising concert for the Indians of James Bay. It was at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University in Montreal. I opened the concert and Joni closed it (and it was a long concert – a bit of a precursor to the Live-Aid concert phenomenon. I remember getting there late and getting through my set and being a good “warm-up” act. No one had ever heard of me but I remember it was a short set and the crowd wanted an encore and I think it was Claude Dubois, a huge star in Quebec, who came out on stage to hug me and explain there were many more artists to play. As I was making my way to the stage door with my amplifier and other gear somebody said “don’t you want to come up to the green room and meet Joni?” I just had shrug my shoulders and said something like “what am I going to do with all this shit?” and just made my way out of there. For all I know, she might have been watching from the wings thinking “there’s somebody I’d like to meet…” (in your dreams, Brian).
I just Googled that event trying to recollect some of the details and had a little rush to find myself mentioned on Joni Mitchell’s website (“Brian Blain, Peter Yarrow and Loudon Wainwright III also performed”). Then I clicked on a review by the famed Montreal music critic Juan Rodriguez who wrote, “Unfortunately her lyrics are quite often merely prosaic. She sings of personal encounters, describing them in excruciating detail. With her long blonde hair and her long blue swaying skirt, she's quite a presence but the songs themselves don't amount to much.” Nasty!
For those Blainreaders who are wondering how the hell an unknown artist (which I still am, I guess) ended up on that stage in such illustrious company, it’s a good illustration of how the music business works. My producer was their conduit to Loudon Wainright and I guess he told them something like “I’ll get you Loudon if you put Brian on the bill.”
Many years later, I was standing just a few feet from Joni at a Neville Brothers concert at Harbourfront in Toronto and I was building up the courage to say hi and maybe relate my past close encounter but I got such a dirty look from her overly-protective boyfriend, I just went the other way. I don’t think he remembered me but we had jammed one time with Daisy DeBolt. His name was Don…somebody. Let’s just call him “Don the Protector.”
But after watching these interviews I feel like I’ve met Joni, now in her 70th year, and attractive as ever. Maybe I’ll run into her again…