IF I LEFT THIS WORLD Greg Wickham (Thirty Days Records) *****
Never been to Kansas City before, but it would seem I’m missing out on some fine music. That’s where former Hadocol leader Greg Wickham and his new album come from. It’s his first new record in over 15 years, and was very much worth waiting for.
If someone had played this for me and said it was a long lost Blue Rodeo record, I would’ve bought that. For this album Greg is joined by former band mates like his brother Fred on guitar and harmony vocals and bassist Richard Burgess, plus a cadre of Kansas City all stars, and singer Kasey Rausch and guitarist Marco Pascolini. This isn’t strictly a country album, but it isn’t strictly something else either- and when Greg and Fred harmonize it’s hard to believe it isn’t Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor. “It was great to be back in the studio with Rich and Fred” says Wickham about the sessions. “There’s always been a natural combustion that happens when the three of us play together with a good drummer, and I was happy to see that the magic is still there.”
If I Left This World was produced by Wickham and his friend Kristie Stremel, achieving a sort of relaxed, casual excellence. “Kristie and I both were driven to make a great record first, and to worry about what to do with it later” Greg says, “which made recording with her one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had.” As to why he ended up in the studio after such a long layoff, Wickham says “Ultimately, it was my kids that led me back into the studio. I wanted to send each of them a more personal message they could carry with them after I’m gone… (so) I began gathering songs for a full length record and headed into the studio with the idea of creating a record that was intensely personal yet universal in scope. And at the time I thought ‘this may be the only record I ever make, so let’s make the record I want.’”
When you get to a certain age- your fifties, let’s say- you start ruminating on mortality and what your legacy might be. It’s also a natural progression of thought when you lose people close to you, no matter what your age. The songs on If I Left This World are deep and thoughtful meditations on what other people mean to you, what you mean to them, and what a comfort these connections can be, even in times of loss. This is a quietly joyous record that’s a good reminder to appreciate who and what you have in your life.
ESSENTIALS: Elsie’s Lullaby, Almost To Springfield, If I left This World
THE CARNIVAL IS BACK IN TOWN Brock Zeman (Busted Flat Records) *****
It’s a dark place, a sinister landscape with occasional glimmers of hope and redemption. Such is Brock Zeman’s thematic 13th album, a disc that invites you in a little deeper each time you listen. You know some of the people in these songs, these stories- hell, you might even be one of them. Written over the course of a year but a decade in the making to get it right, Carnival will surely make my top ten list at the end of the year.
I was flattened by Brock’s 2015 album Pulling Your Sword Out of The Devil’s Back and so was keen to hear what he was up to now. The Carnival Is Back In Town is a dark tale, a volume of sad stories that should be swallowed whole to really appreciate. You’ll pick up Tom Waits and Steve Earle as you listen, with maybe a touch of Dr. John. And, with an old time carnival as his canvas, Zeman sticks to the period-specific theme of the record by not using a single electric instrument.
The characters that inhabit these songs all seem to be damaged in some way, but then again aren’t we all? The saddest song on Carnival, to me, is Drinks (The Clown): “His name was Greely Brown, and he worked the carnival as a clown/ and he had this strong thirst for cheap red wine”, disappearing into the carnival life after cutting up his ‘mean daddy’ in a fight. They may just be stories, these 14 songs, but there’s an emotional truth running through all of them that really connects. Acoustic guitars, drums, bass, accordion, fiddle and sax are the instruments that take us there and really place us on that tattered midway.
The Carnival Is Back In Town is a master storyteller at work and near the top of his game. The songs combine to make a dark tale full of nostalgia, pain and perhaps even hope, and it’s one that I find absolutely irresistible. Too cool.
ESSENTIALS: The Carnival Is Back In Town, The Carnival Has Left Town, Drinks (The Clown)
KINGDOM OF SWING Adrianna Marie & Her Roomful of All-Stars (Vizz Tone) ***
This was a pleasant surprise here on a cold snowy night in early Spring. Adrianna and her band transport you to a posh club (The Coco Bongo Room perhaps?) with smoky blues, jump ‘n’ boogie and sultry jazz. A cool time is guaranteed for all!
Kingdom Of Swing is Ms. Marie’s second album, and producer Duke Robillard leads her dream team little big band through their paces to come up with a perfectly out of time party. It’s a gorgeous, well crafted swinging album of originals and re-imagined covers that feels like a time travel trick back to the posh clubs of the forties. And what a band Robillard has at his command on behalf of Adrianna Marie; LA Jones, Al Copely, Kedar Roy, Brian Fahey, Junior Watson, Bob Corritore, the Roomful Of Horns, and Duke himself playing guitar on one track and singing on another.
I suppose it was my parents’ record collection and my participation in stage band at SHSS that led me to an appreciation of swing, but once it’s in your blood it’s there to stay. I love the groove and the vibe of this record, the way the music feels so light on its feet, the give and take as Adrianna steps back to let the guitar, then the horns, then the piano a turn in the spotlight for a few bars. Kingdom Of Swing also has that organic feel of people making music together, not just plugging sound files into a computer, something you can’t really fake- and why would you want to?
There’s no doubt about it that this is old fashioned music and so the population at large isn’t likely to give it the time of day. That’s too bad, because they’re really missing out.
ESSENTIALS: Kingdom Of Swing, Mood Indigo, Jump With You Baby
TIM BASTMEYER’S ALL STAR BLUES BAND self titled (Crossfire) **** ½
Making an album should be like a good party, some that the rest of us can feel when we throw it on. Tim Bastmeyer’s All Star Blues Band is like gathering around the fire pit out back on a warm summer’s evening- the music is fluid and bluesy, and you can hear the smiles.
When it comes to the Ontario blues scene, this record qualifies as an ‘all star blues band’- we have Juno winners Julian Fauth on piano and James Thomson on upright bass, Juno nominees Paul Reddick on harmonica and Sean Pinchin on slide, with Cam DeLatt on the kit holding down the beat. Produced and engineered by Bastmeyer this doesn’t sound like a million dollar record, but I’d be bummed if it did. It has a casual ‘let’s play some tunes and have some fun’ vibe, a let’s-break-out-our-axes-and-see-what-happens kind of thing that suits the songs to a T, and the excellent musicianship sure doesn’t hurt.
This is Bastmeyer’s fourth solo record and the songs cover a range of territory. Northern Boogie Blues is about a night on the town, fairly straightforward except it’s played in 7/8 timing, which gives it a kind of John Lee Hooker feel. It’s A Shame is a blues ballad about depression (not necessarily redundant!) with spine tickling solos from Fauth and Reddick, and Funky Ten is a jazzy instrumental where the guys have all kinds of fun. Perhaps the most unusual (which is not to say weird) song is Rough Night At The Office which is about having a bad gig. It’s kind of a spoken word piece and the lyrics are on the abstract side, very- Tom Waits-ish.
Tim Bastmeyer’s All Star Blues Band isn’t a crazy blues rave up party album, but it’s good company and a good hang- I’ll take that ANY day.
ESSENTIALS: Northern Boogie Blues, It’s A Shame, Rough Night At The Office
MEETING MY SHADOW Vanessa Collier (Ruf) ****+
This is the follow-up to Collier’s well-received 2014 debut, Heart Soul & Saxophone. If I were this Berkley trained singer/ songwriter/ saxophonist, I start wearing shades because the future is looking VERY bright.
“Meeting My Shadow is a meeting of the past, present and future” Vanessa notes. “(It’s) a tribute to the spirit of blues tradition, a reflection on our present culture and a hopeful wish for growth, understanding and inclusion as we move forward together.” Noble intention aside, it’s also a disc with plenty of groove and soul. Sure there are blues elements but in this case, that label is restrictive as you’ll hear funk and country elements too, as well as gospel- kissing cousin to the blues.
Of Meeting My Shadow, Collier explains that “this album is really a collection of experiences, which are as varied as the musical influences I draw from. I like to write about subjects that connect with audiences and that are universal to life.” She’s right- as you listen to these songs you’ll see yourself, or portions of your life, even on the swampy version of U2 & BB King’s When Love Comes To Town. And that’s what music is all about, isn’t it? For me, whether an album fails or succeeds has nothing to do with how many copies it moves, it’s whether or not we connect to the songs- and that’s not hard to do here.
I would call Vanessa’s voice her primary instrument, but of her soul drenched sax playing she notes that “The saxophone is very much an extension of my voice in each song. I can wail, I can growl, I can cry, I can drive a song forward with a strong, edgy unleashed attack. I can be subtle and beautiful- I can be strong and powerful.” Meeting My Shadow is powerful in many different ways and just great sounding too, co-produced by Collier in Memphis late last year. Yeah- this is the good stuff.
ESSENTIALS: When Love Comes To Town, You’re Gonna Make Me Cry, Devil’s On The Downslide, Poisoned The Well