Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Yes, I'm going to Hillside

It’s Hillside time again. Time to celebrate 32 years of the Guelph festival's community spirit, groundbreaking programming and musical memories. But it’s no secret that Hillside—which blossomed from its local folkie roots to sold-out weekends with international headliners—has had a tough time in recent years, partially because of its own success: its family-friendly, multi-genre, foodie focus has been emulated by non-folk festivals in Toronto, Hamilton and beyond. 

Now there’s a major big-budget festival competing on the same weekend near Barrie—you know the one—with a lineup that has likely sucked away the twenty- and thirtysomethings of the Guelph/K-W area. One of the headlining acts of that festival this year, Arcade Fire, got its first big break in Ontario playing to a packed Hillside tent the summer before their breakthrough album came out.

There were many times in the last 10 years when I heard Guelphites complain that Hillside was too big, too crowded, and too hard to get tickets. They had a point. Last year, however, the dip in ticket sales actually improved my own Hillside experience—though I’m sure no one in the Hillside office wants to hear me say that (disclosure: I volunteer every year as an MC). There was actually room to move around the site; there were no lineups to get into tents; it was much easier to catch up with friends and still see the calibre of music I’ve always expected from Hillside, even if there were only two acts (Daniel Lanois, Michael Franti) who could be considered major headliners (and I missed both sets—parenting has changed my festival habits).

It’s admittedly hard for festival programmers with no headliners to say: trust us, it’s going to be great. This year the only big names are young American folk duo the Milk Carton Kids and Canadian songwriting legend Buffy Sainte-Marie, who’s on the comeback trail with an award-winning album and will be appearing with the Sadies as the Sunday closer. But while Milk Carton Kids are somewhat high-profile, they’re also niche, and as much as I worship Buffy, I’m not convinced she’s enough of a commercial draw. 

So cue the former Hillside faithful who are now complaining that they haven’t heard of anybody on this year’s bill, and so they’re either a) headed to That Other Festival or b) staying home. Even though the entire point of Hillside—indeed, the point on which it built its reputation—was that it was a place of discovery, a place where artists just starting to get a critical rep were put on stages in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people, a place where open-minded audiences who might only go to one major musical event a year fell in love with artists that would sell out larger venues (or festivals) in the space of a couple of years.

As a recent article in the Waterloo Record illustrated, Hillside is sounding a bit desperate this year. Other Canadian festivals have cancelled this year (Squamish, Wolfe Island), due to saturation as well as the weak Canadian dollar (because even major Canadian acts, many of whom are handled exclusively by U.S. booking agents, get paid in US$). Other than the behemoth festivals, everyone else is trying to get by with smaller names with smaller draws. Which is where the experience comes into play. If you have the choice to stand in any random field and watch a bunch of good-to-great music, then it’s all the other factors that will shape your decision: the expense, the food, the physical space, the access to shade, the beer lines, the bathroom lines, and whether the audience is comprised of boozed-up bros or families or something in between.

In this otherwise wonderful and passionate defence of Hillside and small festivals, Will McGuirk puts the question to Canadian artists performing at WayHome this year instead of Hillside: shouldn’t you remember the festival who gave you a big break? Have you no loyalty? By taking the (presumably) bigger cheque, are you undermining the infrastructure that made your success possible?

I don’t buy that argument. For starters, the Hillside/WayHome crossover includes acts with wildly different audience bases: of course Arcade Fire is not going to play Hillside again (turning it into a complete zoo and bankrupting the festival), and considering the wallop of international acts at WayHome, acts like BadBadNotGood, Bahamas, Stars, Shad and the Arkells are little more than a rounding error in that festival's budget. Also, if those five acts, for example, played Hillside again this year, then Hillside would start to look pretty stale and repetitious. Finally, with few exceptions (i.e. Arcade Fire in 2005), I’d suggest that most artists are happy to surrender their schedules to their bookers. It’s the bookers’ job to find the biggest cheques and the biggest opportunities for their artists. And God knows every musician has to take every paycheque they can these days.

Because of its size, Hillside will always be a farm-team festival: an incubator for the upstarts, a step down from the major leagues for old-timers. Hillside will never, ever, be able to book a major artist at the height of their popularity. That’s not the point. Hillside, for me and hopefully others, is an experience, one that should be full of surprises. There are many acts this year I’ve never heard of before that I’m looking forward to (bands from Mongolia and the Bahamas, Son Little, Versa), acts I love that I’ve never had the chance to see (Un Blonde, Tuns, Rose Cousins, Ben Caplan, Esmerine, Fond of Tigers), and acts I’d go see any day of the week (Holy Fuck, Lemon Bucket Orchestra, Jennifer Castle).

I’ll see you there. And maybe at Camp Wavelength in Toronto. And maybe at Arboretum in Ottawa. And maybe at Sandbanks in Prince Edward County.

Here’s a look at two Hillside 2016 artists not yet reviewed in this column, and a look at more sure-to-be-highlights.

Donovan Woods – Hard Settle, Ain't Troubled (Meant Well)

This songwriter from Sarnia recently landed a publishing deal in Nashville, where he’s written songs for Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum and Tim McGraw. He writes about that experience on the bittersweet “Leaving Nashville,” where he talks about “Friends of friends with country stars who are buying homes and here you are, two weeks from sleeping in your car.” It’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken Woods singing a country hit himself—his voice is more Sufjan Stevens than Brad Paisley—but there’s no denying his skill as a songwriter, of which there is plenty of evidence on this, his third album, recently long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize.

Stream: “Leaving Nashville,” “They Don’t Make Anything in That Town,” “On the Nights You Stay Home”

Xylouris White – Goats (Other Music)

Hillside this year is not lute-free. That’s because virtuoso Cretan lute player George Xylouris is bringing his duo with dexterous drummer Jim White (Dirty Three, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey) to town, still promoting this (largely) instrumental 2014 debut album. The lute gets a bad rap: we know it only from Greek restaurants or because we confuse it for an oud on Leonard Cohen records. But like any string instrument, it’s all about the player, not the tool. Xylouris is an entrancing player, drawing from styles on every side of the Mediterranean, filtering it through his doom-laden modal blues style. White is an ideal dancing partner, a master of nuance, not to mention one of the most fascinating drummers you’ll ever have the pleasure to watch.

Stream: “Pulling the Bricks,” “Suburb,” “Chicken Song”

15 more reasons to go to Hillside this year:

Ben Caplan: A big-throated baritone with a carnivalesque bark who will go over big with Tom Waits fans.

Jennifer Castle: 2015 Polaris-shortlisted artist writes haunting, unforgettable melodies that operate on their own clock.

Choir! Choir! Choir!: They’ve filled the AGO and Massey Hall to lead singalong tributes to David Bowie and Prince, but it’s not necessary for legends to die in order for this large ensemble to have fun.

Esmerine: Guelph drummer Jamie Thompson joins these members of Godspeed You Black Emperor’s extended family for gorgeous, cello-driven instrumentals.

Gregory Pepper and his Problems: This prolific Guelph pop provocateur has been making catchy records since 2007, but he’s still making new converts. You could be next.

Holy Fuck: The live electronic rock band from Toronto return from a six-year hiatus, during which keyboardist Graham Walsh became one of Canada’s most in-demand producers (Metz, Operators), with what is sure to be an explosive set.

Land of Talk: Speaking of a six-year hiatus, Guelph’s Liz Powell has been MIA since 2010. Let’s hope this appearance is a sign of new material.

Lemon Bucket Orchestra: Simply one of the best live bands you’ll ever see, this multi-culti Ukrainian musical circus has been spreading their gospel around the world.

McGarrigle Family Slideshow: Anna McGarrigle, sister Jane and various extended family members including a “secret guest” (likely Rufus or Martha Wainwright) pay tribute to the late Kate.

Noah 23: This veteran Guelph MC puts out at least three albums a year. Time to play catch-up.

Rose Cousins: This Maritime singer/songwriter is guaranteed to break your heart. Bring some hankies.

Andy Shauf: This Regina songwriter has plenty of famous fans in the U.S., was recently shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, and was handpicked to open a tour for k.d. lang and Neko Case.

Suuns: If shiny happy people bring you down, surf the dark waves underneath Montreal’s Suuns.

Tuns: If you a) grew up in the ’90s loving Sloan and their spawn or b) haven’t loved a rock band of any kind in years, then you need to see this new supergroup with members of Sloan, Super Friendz and the Inbreds. This is a can’t-miss.

Un Blonde: Mysterious, lo-fi, gospel-tinged, experimental folk music from this 19-year-old Calgarian who found himself on the Polaris Prize long list.

Check the full line-up and performance schedule here 

(The above is a modified version of my column last week for the Waterloo Record.)

Monday, June 27, 2016

June 2016 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Un Blonde, Fanfare Ciocarlia

Highly recommended, reviewed earlier: Tragically Hip, Allen Toussaint, Paul Simon

Well worth your while: Brandy Clark, Doomsquad

As always, these reviews ran in the Waterloo Record.

Streaming is great for sample purposes, but please find a way to support your favourite artists financially.

Un Blonde – Good Will Come to You (Egg Paper)

Perhaps the most obscure artist to vault onto this year’s Polaris Music Prize long list, Jean-Sebastien Audet spent his teenage years in Calgary with a variety of musical projects, which is probably why the latest album by this 19-year-old and recent Montreal transplant sounds so accomplished, even though it’s incredibly bare, featuring little more than acoustic guitar and layers of Audet’s gospel-tinged harmonies. (For anyone, like me, who’s been seeking out Prince demos online since that legend’s death, Un Blonde has further resonance.) One song is called “I Felt the Evening Come Through the Window,” and indeed, Audet retains the sound of falling rain outside his apartment, along with seagulls and other ambient noise. Audet isn’t just a singer-songwriter fond of sparse arrangements; on instrumental tracks like “Exercise A,” he also explores ambient textures (with what’s either a melodica, accordion or harmonium—hard to tell). Good Will Come to You features 21 songs in 46 minutes; tiny perfect sketches that speak volumes about the man’s talent. (June 9)

Stream: “Celebration,” “Brand New,” “Staying in Line”

case/lang/veirs – s/t (Anti)

The first time I ever heard Neko Case, I hadn’t been that electrified by a North American woman’s singing voice since k.d. lang. Twenty years later, the two women have formed a trio with Oregon singer/songwriter Laura Veirs. It sounds amazing—on paper. 

Both lang and Case are powerhouse vocalists who can leave listeners—at least this one—in a weepy mess. Veirs—well, frankly, it’s a bit of a mystery what she’s doing here. (I’m sure she’s a lovely person.) She doesn’t distract from the potential in this recording—she’s certainly a decent singer—but it’s not clear that she adds anything, either.

It starts out with a promise: opening track “Atomic Number” finds all three women trading off lines. That promise quickly evaporates: most tracks are solo turns, with the other two providing backing vocals, the likes of which could really have been performed by any studio professionals (admittedly, a rare occurrence in the age of solo artists multi-tracking their own backups). We’re denied the sublime pleasure of Case and lang exchanging lines, or even singing a lead in two-part harmony.

Much of the collaboration here took place in the songwriting process, which might be the problem: for the last 20 years, k.d. lang has been a masterful interpreter but a middling songwriter; Veirs is perfunctory, but not capable of writing material for a project like this; Case, the strongest songwriter of the three, has an idiosyncratic flair that may not lend itself to surrender. Veirs’s husband, producer/engineer Tucker Martine, dresses up the material in impeccably bland arrangements, with strings and woodwinds and vibraphones that merely clutter up the sonic space that should be left wide open for these voices to roam.

Naturally, there are sublime moments, starting with lang’s
“Honey and Smoke,” which ranks as one of her finest torch songs in the Roy Orbison mode. Case’s “Delirium”—written by all three, an apparently the song with the longest gestation—is the highlight here. Neither are enough, however, to compensate for the squandered potential here. Let’s hope the tour brings out the best in them. (June 23)

Case/lang/veirs play Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall on Aug. 16.

Stream: “Atomic Number,” “Delirium,” “Honey and Smoke”

Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town (Warner)

Still have tears in your beer since ABC cancelled Nashville? Well, cheer up, because there’s a new Brandy Clark album. The 40-year-old songwriter, who’d penned hits for or with Miranda Lambert, Reba McEntire and Kacey Musgraves, was thrust into the spotlight with 2013’s 12 Stories, the kind of album songwriters of every genre study carefully, full of both killer one-liners, developed narratives and astute character sketches.

Here, Clark steps up into the big time, with a major label and a producer, Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Carrie Underwood) who beefs up her (previously predominantly acoustic) sound for radio play. Thankfully, it’s not an unrecognizable makeover: the core of Clark’s charm and songcraft remain. She can be incredibly poignant, as on the examination of faded youth on “Homecoming Queen,” or laugh-out-loud funny, on “Broke”: “Ain’t enough apples for our apple pie / if we had a penny not sure we could spare it / we’re sitting on the porch drinking generic  / Coke / we’re broke.” And she’s got sass to spare, as on the first single, in which she taunts, “If you want the girl next door, go next door.” (June 9)

Stream: “Girl Next Door,” “Broke,” “Homecoming Queen”

Doomsquad – Total Time (Hand Drawn Dracula)

Granted, there are moments here that sound like the soundtrack to a ritual sacrifice at a rave somewhere north of Sudbury. But when it comes to spookier-than-thou psychedelic trance music, it doesn’t get much better than these three Toronto siblings, who recruited Mary Margaret O’Hara to sing backups for them, and whom Wolf Parade picked to open their sold-out reunion shows in New York City. There are elements of dub reggae, hippie jams, plenty of goth angst, and you can practically smell the incense coming out your speakers. It’s certainly divisive, but to these ears, it’s just perfect for summer nights in subversive times. (June 2)

Stream: “Who Owns Noon in Sandusky,” “Pyramids on Mars,” “Farmer’s Almanac”

Fanfare Ciocarlia – Onwards to Mars! (Asphalt Tango)

Did you know one of the best bands in the world is playing the Italian Canadian Centre in Guelph this week? And Maxwell’s in Waterloo shortly after that? (And the major jazz festivals in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City as well.)

Fanfare Ciocarlia are a Balkan brass band from a remote Romanian village, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In 2014 they recorded an album with Guelph guitarist Adrian Raso, owner of the Little Shop of Guitars on Quebec Street. They’ve already toured in Europe; now they’re finally bringing it to major jazz festivals in Canada—and a local wedding hall in Guelph.

Here they’re on their own, doing what they do best: incredibly fast and brash brass lines, frenetic rhythm driven by sousaphones and two percussionists, and occasional vocal forays sung in their Roma language. It’s physically impossible not to dance to this music, the dizzying horn and clarinet lines adding to the euphoria.

The band’s style has evolved over the years, and not just through their work with Raso. Here, the oddball pop entry is a cover of the 1950s slow-grinding classic “I Put a Spell on You,” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Here it’s sung by Iulian Canaf, a comically histrionic soulman who attained notoriety as a contestant on the Romanian version of TV’s The Voice. It has to be heard to be believed—though, truth be told, the original is just as much of an oddball, (literally) snortin’ good time. (June 23)

Fanfare Ciocarlia and Adrian Raso are playing Toronto with the Lemon Bucket Orchestra on June 29 at the Opera House, the Guelph Italian Canadian Club on July 2, and at Maxwell's in Waterloo on July 5.

Stream: “Crayfish Hora,” “Out to Lounge,” “Mista Lobaloba”

The Kills – Ash and Ice (Domino/Outside)

The Kills are a bluesy guitar duo who’ve survived and thrived almost 15 years after forming, with much credit going to attention magnet Alison Mosshart—who also fronts perhaps the finest of all Jack White projects, the Dead Weather. Mosshart and guitarist Jamie Hince claim they wanted to flip the script on this, their fifth album, and even cited hip-hop master Pusha T as a big influence. Which is an interesting ploy to convince people that Ash and Ice is some radical reinvention, when in fact it’s just another Kills record, no better or worse, with slightly more interesting drum programming. It may not be fair to compare, but Mosshart is much better utilized in the Dead Weather, where her howls and snarls and sexual energy is completely captivating; in the Kills, one always gets the sense she’s underplaying her power. That does allow her to sink her teeth into some of the slower material, exploring the torch singer into which she’ll inevitably evolve some day. (June 9)

Stream: “Doing It to Death,” “Hard Habit to Break,” “Days of Why and How”

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity (ATO)

A nonagon, for the geometrically challenged among us (I looked it up), is a nine-sided figure. This is the eighth album by this seven-piece Australian band in the last four years. All those numbers add up to: infinity?

That’s the intention behind these nine rollicking psychedelic rock songs, which not only flow seamlessly into each other like a 42-minute suite, but the last track also flows back into the first if you (are weird enough to) leave your player on “repeat.” That journey often travels at a breakneck speed, with influences from Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” through Deep Purple and Can and Iron Maiden and Stereolab—basically, any band that’s ever strapped themselves to a runaway train. Nonagon Infinity is more than just a thrill ride, however, with a keen sense of dynamics, spacey keyboards and guitar textures balancing the hard-driving riffs and rhythms. (June 9)

Stream: “Evil Death Roll,” “Road Train,” “Robot Stop”

Pantha du Prince – The Triad (Rough Trade)

I played this record in a cabin in the woods one morning, surrounded by a symphony of birds—who fit in seamlessly with the stuttering bells and chimes that have become the trademark sound for this German producer. His rhythms have much more swing in them than you’d expect from minimal techno, and he’s more prone to using major chords than most of his peers. This time out there are more vocalists employed, though not to particularly great effect; his keyboard leads are still the main melodic driver.

The producer has mused that he’ll bury the name after this album, having achieved everything he wants to with this aesthetic. The Triad isn’t as strong as its predecessor, Black Noise—he’s starting to sound like a one-trick pony—so perhaps that decision is wise. In the meantime, the birds in my neighbourhood are more than happy to sing along. (June 2)

Stream: “The Winter Hymn” feat. Queens, “Frau im mond, Sterne laufen,” “Dream Yourself Awake”

Samaris – Black Lights (One Little Indian)

Of Monsters and Men have shifted our perceptions of Icelandic music away from esoteric electronica, avant-garde pop stars and whatever it is Sigur Ros happens to be, and toward catchy yet bland radio rock. Which is why it’s refreshing to encounter Samaris, a Reykjavik trio that draws from ’90s trip hop, dubby electronica and the (relatively) more recent sounds coming from London’s Hyperdub label, including Hamilton’s Jessy Lanza. Breathy female vocals and strong, skittering beats—even at slower tempos—are adorned with equally dreamy and disquieting synths, making for languid, late-night vibes. (June 30)

Stream: “Wanted 2 Say,” “Black Lights,” “3y3”

Sate – Red Black and Blue (independent)

Canada has no shortage of rock bands. What this country is lacking, however, is fantastic rock singers: people who can grab a song by the throat, who can be heard above electric guitars even without a microphone. More howlers, fewer growlers, please.

Enter Sate, a.k.a. Saidah Baba Talibah—daughter of Salome Bey, one of this country’s greatest R&B/jazz voices in the ’70s and ’80s—reinventing herself as a rocker here, after starting her career in a bluesier vein. The blues is still present here, but on opening track “Warrior” she goes for the jugular in ways the Toronto scene probably hasn’t seen since Danko Jones. “You’re gonna know my name / from the Mississippi to the Rhine,” she boasts—and by the end of the track you’re more than inclined to agree. As strong as that song is, in the context of the album it seems like a gimmick to get you to pay attention. Once she’s got you hooked, Sate starts to get serious: right away she delves into the blues of “What Did I Do,” and “Mama Talk to Me” is a poignant, emotional rocker about Bey’s struggles with dementia. For all her fiery delivery, the upbeat tracks here suffer in comparison with the slower numbers, especially the gorgeous, gospel-tinged closer, “Peace.” Red Black and Blue is an uneven record by an artist searching for her sound, but there’s no denying that Sate is a force to be reckoned with. Her talent is too enormous to be denied. (June 30)

Stream: “Warrior,” “Mama Talk to Me,” “Peace”

Andy Shauf – The Party (Arts and Crafts)

One of the most anticipated Canadian albums of the year is by this mild-mannered Regina singer/songwriter, who steps into the big time by signing with Arts and Crafts in Canada and Anti in the U.S., the label that is also home to the new album by k.d. lang, Neko Case and Laura Veirs, with whom Shauf will be touring this summer. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is a huge fan, as is novelist Nick Hornby. The hype seems strange for songs of such subtle pleasures; Shauf is on the same wavelength as Beck’s acoustic moods, or Elliott Smith, an early influence. And he’s chosen as his coming-out party a concept album of sorts, connected songs set at a house party, a series of character sketches that highlight Shauf’s eye for nuance. The playing and production are impeccable—all Shauf solo, except for the strings—though Shauf’s sedated vocals drag some of the material down; The Party in question is more than a bit of a bummer. No matter. This record puts plenty of wind in his sails; the after-party promises to be a lot more exciting. (June 2)

Stream: “The Magician,” “To You,” “Martha Sways”

Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death (Universal)

It’s heartening that an act like Tegan and Sara get bigger and bigger with each album—rare in the chart-pop sphere they no longer aspire to, but to which these 36-year-old sisters rightfully belong. Working again with producer Greg Kurstin (Adele), who helmed 2013’s Heartbeat, Tegan and Sara aim for stadiums and come up with a gold rush of hooks and radio-ready melodies—granted, few with the undeniable punch of Hearbeat’s “Closer” or “I Was a Fool,” which would be hard to top. “Boyfriend,” however, is unusually lyrically rich bubblegum, a lesbian love song that will forever erase the memory of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” (June 9)

Stream: “Boyfriend,” “Dying to Know,” “100x”