Photo by Chris Strong Photography
There are good concerts, great concerts, excellent concerts and then there are concerts like this. Mavis Staples is a 77 year old R&B, soul and gospel singer from the iconic band with her family members, The Staples Singers. She is a civil rights activist who sings powerful songs about marching in DC and the injustice towards marginalized people. Her voice is the perfect canvas for evoking emotion, she transports people with her tender lyrics and volcanic pipes. She has been singing professionally her whole life and her voice only seems to be improving, she is a rare and truly special artist.
Her performance at the Winnipeg Jazz Festival took place at the historic Burton Cummings Theatre on Wednesday night. The intoxicating Kandace Springs from Nashville provided a stunning and generous performance as an opening act. Springs resembles the likes of Nina Simone and Billy Holiday, while still incorporating a contemporary flare. She plays the piano and keyboard as well as she sings; beautifully and refined. Staples then took the stage, with all five of her bandmates, creating a remarkable presence that wasn’t lost on anybody in the room. She broke out in song immediately, delivering outstanding vocals that quickly hit you right in gut. Her band is a classic compilation of talented backup singers and individually brilliant artists. They create a picture perfect musical landscape well suited to the pristine performance. She then spoke to the crowd, revealing her stand up comedian side-she is as funny as she is charming on top of her mountain of talent. She engages with people, exemplifying her genuine belief towards unity and human compassion. She made jokes about her age, how a loving heckler was her “cousin” and how Madonna ripped her off. She also gracefully reeled into her eternal fight for freedom, the importance of being kind to one another and marching in D.C. Every part of the two hour performance was noteworthy and memorable. However, a particular highlight was during the song “Reach Out, Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” where she did just that to the front row.This was soon followed by a fan who walked right up to the stage with an old record and was abruptly withheld by security. Mavis politely invited him back to stage in which he revealed he had an authentic 78 of one of her first recordings with Pops Staples. She was truly moved by the gesture, signed the recording and took a picture with it. She even apologized to the security guard and held his hand briefly, he was melted. She glows with joy, has an infectious voice and sings about the various ways in which we can be better people with not even a dose of cheese or patronization. Although it may be cliched I was hoping she would sing The Staples Singer’s most notable hit “I’ll take you there” Not only did she sing it but ended this outstanding performance with it in which they entire crowd was invited to sing along for over 10 minutes. Her guitar player did wonders to the already perfect song, everybody there for at least that moment was connected-just as she planned. In our current world of division and hatred we could all be a little more like Mavis, she takes you there.
The Victoria, B.C Ska and Reggae Festival is a wonderfully rare music event that is well suited in the enigmatic marvel that is Victoria. The festival takes place smack dab in the core of the tiny yet wildly fun oasis that manages to keep a gyrating pulse on music and art. This year the legendary Booker T. Jones, Mad Caddies, Los Furios, Illvis Freshly,The Black Seeds and Tarrus Riley headlined the four day festival.
The Mad Caddies were a particularly noteworthy event in this buffet of ska and reggae. The Mad Caddies helped revolutionize the return of Ska movement in the 90’s along with Reel Big Fish, The Mighty Migthy Bosstones and Less Than Jake. Bands like the Specials and Madness pioneered it in North America in the 70’s but it’s roots are from Jamaica in the 50’s. When people ask what Ska is, the easy answer is that it is super fun and accessible reggae meets punk with horns. This could also have a variety of other answers, but that’s for another time and place.
The Mad Caddies are from Solvang, California-they ooze the essence of California in the 90’s including the charming low maintenance style and the rolling with my homies scene from Clueless. It is simplistic yet bizarre, political but not alienating and now nostalgic in a way that reminds us of who we really are (if you grew up then). They are a seven piece musical carnival of freedom and anarchy. Their current trombone player is Chris Butcher from Winnipeg whom I happen to kind of know from my childhood. The juxtaposition of seeing a Winnipeger (who currently resides in New Orleans and has played with Jane Bunnet and Hilario Duran) in the most Californian band ever (maybe besides the Red Hot Chilli Peppers) made this show even more enjoyable. Every individual in the band was extremely passionate towards their musical delivery which is refined yet sloppy in all of the right variables. They have six full length albums under their belt and have sold over 400,000 copies of them. They have a loyal following, many of whom attended this lovely outdoor evening concert and were completely entranced by this stellar performance. There was also a mosh pit, crowd surfing and most notably skanking (the dance you do to ska, it’s really easy) and crowd surfing. It’s hard to compare other kinds of concerts in terms of a good time to an outdoor ska show in front of the ocean while crowd surfing sandwiched between beer gardens. Ska may not be the most sophisticated genre but it’s probably the most fun. However, the Mad Caddies do encompass depth in their music in both their impressive music ability and lyrical content. They tell sad stories and share liberal political anecdotes in music you can move your entire body to. You can even push people around you as it’s consensual and mutual in the well mannered mosh pit. They are everything good and pure about this dissolving genre that Victoria manages to keep alive.
LYNX & the Servants of Song are a multifaceted wall of talent based out of Portland, Oregon, led by the immensely talented Caitlin ‘LYNX’ DeMuth. They have just released their debut album Northlands. Northlands is a collection of exquisitely arranged stories, well earned lessons and refined anecdotes. The lyrics are charmingly insightful, tastefully sentimental and truly moving. LYNX’s wanderlust and relentlessly generous spirit is palpable throughout the entire record. This is one of those rare emotionally transparent albums like Lucinda’s William’s Car Wheels and A Gravel Road and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. There is an influence of Fleetwood Mac, Alabama Shakes and First Aid Kit in their music that is notable but not overpowering. The instrumentation gracefully wavers between Americana and the Blues, it’s both soft yet tough.Her voice is an experience, an avalanche of emotion and a wall of talent. There is heartache, depth, wisdom and playfulness in every note she delivers. There are no shortcuts in her rendering, she fully commits to singing her homemade songs straight from the basement of her heart.
She has been writing, producing and performing professionally for over a decade. The Servants of Song features Cheya Mackay on guitar, Nickles D’onofrio on bass, Julian Fritz on drums and Asher Fulero on keys.
LYNX always thrives in collaborative endeavours and in addition to the band she is also producing and co-writing two records for two up and coming artists. Her intentional analogue approach to Northlands showcases her instrumental talent as a guitarist and composer that pairs perfectly with her singing and songwriting ability. This is one of those albums that breaks you apart, feeds your soul then gracefully sews you back together. You can check out their single Coming on Strong from Northlands HERE
We have all likely heard somebody say the token term that they like all music, except for country and metal (and sometimes rap, rap is like the y vowel in this equation). The people that say this are generally not huge music people and that’s completely acceptable. I realize not everybody feels the need to sub categorized genres with slightly different nuances and discuss it with their like minded peers almost always. That stated, the statement is a giant brushstroke towards two extremely multifaceted genres.
Let’s begin with Country, shall we? Country music is a unique and ageless genre. The term was popularized in the 1920’s, however ancient Appalachian folk music had country elements that shaped music as we know it. As time went on country music evolved and often collaborated with other misunderstood genres such as bluegrass, roots and americana. Country features all kinds of exciting stringed instruments such as the banjo, dobro and slide guitar. It also involves heart-wrenching songwriting, elevating harmonies and unparalleled instrumental bridges. Some of the world’s most treasured musicians play country such as: Jonny Cash, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson. When people say they don’t like country I don’t believe this is who they are referring to. Who they very well could be referring to is the pop infused top 40 bubble gum country void of those heart breaking lyrics and moving harmonies such as Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain, and Blake Shelton. These musicians play pop music with a country garnish and it seems to excite a great deal of people. They are country musicians in the way that U2 is a rock band or Kenny G is a jazz musician.
Now let’s move on to Metal, shall we? Metal is easily the most musically impressive genre there is. Few people understand it but those who do treat it like a religion and there is something to that. It’s instrumentally complex, packed with emotion and doesn’t follow the rules. It’s origins are diverse, international and experimental. Metal has a multitude of subgenres such as-death metal,math metal, black metal, Christian metal, Avant-garde, heavy metal and hair metal. Some of the most exciting bands from the 70’s features metal elements such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden. Other extraordinary metal bands include: Slayer, Pantera, Mastodon, Motorhead, Opeth, Tool and Lamb of God. Each of who play beautifully complex music not catered to the untrained ear. I believe that those who don’t enjoy metal hear incessant screaming and lyrics that refer mostly to goat sacrifice and satan. This is clearly an untrue and unnecessary generalization but it speaks volumes towards the problematic nature of oversimplification.
I would even argue that country and metal are quite similar; they both cater to the outlaws of society and relish in the art of not conforming. The are both timeless, distinctive and powerful genres. They both involve music festivals that accommodate to a very specific kind of person. When people say they don’t like country or metal, they are demonstrating the tedious consequence of generalization. Art is about the details, the interpretation and the freedom to rebel.
Leif Vollebekk is a remarkable Montreal based singer-songwriter and multi- instrumentalist. He is in the midst of an extensive tour in celebration of his third album Twin Solitude. Vollebekk has been touring with the brilliant Gregory Alan Isakov and has previously toured with Canadian gems Daniel Lanois and Patrick Watson.
Vollebekk’s concert at the Biltmore was notably packed especially in comparison to the last concert of his I attended in 2015 at the intimate and tiny Media Club. It is clear Twin Solitude has put him on the music map he deserves to be on. It’s a beautiful album, as are Inland (2010) and North Americana (2013). His music is highly emotive and rarely visceral. His compassionate lyrical delivery is mesmerizing, it’s as if his lyrics hurt to sing yet he must release the words. He appears almost possessed by his own complexity. It’s clear Vollebekk can’t not make music, his entire body is ubiquitously immersed in the art of doing so. Although his music is emotional it never feels sorry for itself. He writes whimsical songs about falling in and out of love and the vast beauty of Canadian cities. He sings about friends, wine, perfume, book stores, evolving, devolving and the road to Venus. His unusual and striking voice that generously belt his expressive lyrics are reminiscent of Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake.
This performance was cripplingly captivating, everyone was frozen by the wrath of his lullabies. He sang a diverse set of well selected songs from his bank of material. His knack for covers is impressive which is apparent in his rendition of The Killer’s Ready my Mind. He finalized this concert with Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You which not only shattered me into a fervent mosaic but also proves the profound talent of this young man. His music is a wonderfully unusual landmark in Canadian folk that grips to your ribs.
Kendrick Lamar is easily one of the most important rappers of our generation. His music is a unique dichotomy of highly emotive reflections of our broken society and bona fide club bangers. His lyrical composition and verbal agility is unparalleled. You can just as easily weep to the intense yet wildly real subject matter in his material as you could dance to the fervent musical landscape that surrounds. His 2015 release To Pimp a Butterfly not only revolutionized hip hop but music itself. It featured a wall of heavy musicians such as Kamasi Washington alongside ground breaking lyrics. The album became an anthem for the Black Lives Matters movement and is timelessly important. His fourth album Damn is the first follow to the iconic record so it naturally held some great anticipation and pressure. Damn is nothing short of brilliant, his music doesn’t plateau it perpetuates. He has found his distinct voice and he is unapologetically himself. Damn is fun, sensual but serious which is an unusual balance that Lamar has perfected.There is something so rare and enjoyable about music that moves your heart and your hips simultaneously.
Fame hasn’t removed any of the authenticity that pumps ferociously through his music. Damn even features samples of criticism that he has received towards some of his lyrics on To Pimp a Butterfly said by Fox News Commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle. Lamar seems to welcome controversy and criticism, perhaps he even uses it as inspiration. He directly criticizes Geraldo Rivera, a hip hop critic who stated “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to African Americans than racism in recent years”. Lamar also slams President Trump and doesn’t bother with making it subtle. Some of the lyrics featured on Damn are easily Lamar’s best yet.The song Humble features the lyrics “I am so sick of the photoshop, show me something natural like afro on Richard Pryor, show me something natural like ass with some stretch marks”.The track XXX. which interestingly features Bono, Lamar states some willdy astute lyrics such as “It’s nasty when you set us up, then roll the dice to bet us up, overnight the rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us” which is followed up with “ain’t no black power when your baby killed by a coward” as a reflection of his friend losing his son. The album points out the many flaws of humanity while reeling themes of forgiveness and redemption. He intersperses some biblical verses throughout the record, most notably on the track Fear. Damn concludes with a story about Lamar’s Father and the his producer Top Dawg about an incriminating encounter they had at KFC in the 80’s. There are many facets to this behemoth emotional avalanche of a record but it’s unusual accessibly let’s you choose what you want to take from it.
Photo by Eugenie Johnson
Why? is an introspective and distinctive band from Berkley, California. Their music is a rare execution of indie-rock, emotionally driven hip-hop and poly-rhythmic folk. They have released five brilliant albums, including their latest Moh Lhean (Anticton), which came out earlier this month. Their concert at Venue smack dab in the core of downtown Vancouver on Saturday night celebrated this new release and well selected previous work. The intimate show was notably juxtaposed by being at Venue, which typically caters to a top 40-club crowd. The audience was a polite group of sincere fans that were prepared for an emotional avalanche of a performance. The band’s configuration at this rather regal venue was an art piece in and of itself. Each member’s unique set up of electronic and acoustic instruments was draped with vintage light bulbs in a charmingly DIY manor. This impressive stage arrangement created an atmosphere astutely suited to their sound- comforting, powerful and rare. Lead singer Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf is an extraordinary songwriter, poet and singer and he commands a crowd effortlessly. Every person there was completely transfixed by the music as they sang along to their contentious lyrics and wiped tears from their cheeks. Why? concerts are not social dance parties. They are beautifully introspective experiences shared publicly. Their performance was an excellent balance of old and new songs gently shattering hearts, and then gracefully sewing them back together. They dynamic between band members, including brothers Yoni and Josiah is notably compassionate. Yoni’s witty banter on stage was a helpful break from the severely touching music echoing almost every member of the audience. Their lyrics explain abstract and uncomfortable feelings that one seldom can achieve describing, yet somehow, Why? manages to create catchy songs true to their emotional weight. To end the evening, Why?’s encore consisted of the band cuddling around a single microphone, armed with only their voices and a few acoustic instruments. They did quaint renditions of some of their more well know material to which the audience was held completely silent and frozen. What refreshingly frank music for a Granville St. Saturday night.
Enjoying music ironically is certainly a unique cultural product of the 21st century. The phenomena of liking “bad music” in a funny way with a group of people who have also subscribed to this particular notion is so hot right now. This is evident in the countless clubs that host 90’s nights, 80’s nights, karaoke, pop music nights, guilty pleasure music nights etc…. What occurs at said events is covers or recordings of music that wasn’t particularly cutting edge at the time it was released and is now remarkably well received.
Currently, the most popular form of ironic music nights is music from the 90’s. Not the arguably timeless music like The Pixies, Sonic Youth or Nirvana but more like Smash Mouth, Third Eyed Blind and Sugar Ray -all of whom were featured on Big Shiny Tunes. The “irony” here is that most people who visit these events are fonder of the former list of examples than the latter. Other events that celebrate musical irony may feature more bubblegum throwbacks such as The Spice Girls or 80’s hair metal such as Bon Jovi. There seems to be a general yet silent understanding that this music is inherently “uncool” but enjoyable in the proper context. Ironic music is also a significant foundation to the art of karaoke. Songs by Journey or Trooper have presumably been performed thousands of times more than songs by Bob Dylan or The Beatles (which is probably for the better)
Enjoying music ironically brings up some unique questions and difficulties…
The first is that this is not at all the definition of irony. A true example of musical irony would be that you spent your whole life disliking country music but then discovered Johnny Cash is your favourite songwriter of all time. The second is that you may not be enjoying this music in a funny and satirical matter whatsoever. If that is the case, participating in one of these ironic music events gets very emotionally and psychologically confusing for yourself and those around you. What if you sincerely do enjoy the entire discography of the Now compilations? There is nothing inherently wrong with that although it seems to only be accepted if it’s a joke that everyone is in on. We openly love campy movies like The Room or Reefer Madness, the same rules should apply to The Venga Boys.It is quite possible we are trying to hide behind the veil of satire in order to appreciate music that isn’t necessarily innovative or hip.This paradigm displays a blatant source of pretentiousness and removes a great deal of fun.I was recently at one of these events and everybody was having a genuinely enjoyable time listening to songs from their respected youth. Everyone knew the words, sang them together and sincerely connected. However, they were hard pressed to admit they actually liked the music. That stated, I would argue this phenomenon isn’t musical irony, it’s nostalgia.
Hearing the chart toppers from our youth is incredibly comforting. Even if we listened to obscure music during our adolescents, hearing popular (albeit kind of shitty) music from a peculiar, hormonal and somehow simpler time is quite refreshing. We manage to know all the words and so do our peers. We manage to remember the equally questionable clothing that went alongside dancing to this banger in your room while singing into the TV remote. Embracing your enjoyment instead of judging it is quite empowering, just go with it.
There is nobody quite like the courageous yet gentle Skye Wallace. She makes soft music loud with her audacious spirit and ferocious grapple on the guitar.Wallace is a well-trained singer, but lets her voice run free. The inspiration of Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith are garnished, not marinated over her authentic pipes.
She grew up in various corners of small town Ontario, lived in Vancouver for ten years and now resides in the ever-musically inspiring Toronto. Something Wicked is Wallace’s second full-length album, it completely differs from her previous record titled Living Parts released in 2014. Something Wicked is a refreshing cleanse of sonic liberation, rock and roll lullabies and lyrical tapestry. It embodies the astute subtly of folk music and the intrepid attitude of punk rock.
Wallace was going through some significant and rather difficult changes after a long tour prior to this recording. She capitalized on the crooked creativity that is typically repressed during a time like this by making a remarkable album. She joined forces with musician/ producer extraordinaire Jim Bryson, (Punchbuggy, The Weakerthans) Oliver Fairfield (Timbre Timbre) and Philippe Charbonneau (Andy Shauf) in studio for no more than a few days. The album is lo-fi yet refined, emotionally generous yet mysterious and confident but not arrogant. The lyrics and instrumentation are relentlessly emotional and frank. Wallace’s instrumental approach is similar to that of St Vincent (Annie Clark); she elegantly wails on her beast of a guitar. This in turn creates an internal visceral storm that is both beautiful and challenging. Something Wicked achieves the rare combination of difficult and exciting, it emanates with the philosophy behind Immanuel Kant’s “the terrifying sublime”. This is not an album that takes shortcuts to preserve your precious heart; it’s magnificently honest. Something Wicked is a rare contemporary Canadian marvel that sticks to every inch of you.
Photo by Chris P. Bakon
The extraordinarily idiosyncratic Kieran West certainly has a way with words. He is sincerely kind, refreshingly sardonic and unapologetically himself. West, not unlike many Winnipeg based musicians, is a multi-instrumentalist in various bands while maintaining an impressive band alongside a solo project. West is what I like to call a “music man”, a specimen who lives and breaths music seemingly exclusively. However, West doesn’t exclusively play music he is also a deeply passionate Educational Assistant for student’s that require extra support. He admits the limbo between the two lifestyles is difficult, especially as he is so fervent towards them. He completely immerses himself to both of these stimulating callings though, quite well at that.
Kieran West and his Buffalo Band feature a generous multitude of local talent (including Micah Erenberg, whom West plays for in Erenberg’s band). They released an EP in 2014 titled Riverwood Avenue, which is a series of notably well written complex alternative country blues songs with a punk rock attitude. The material is highly self-reflective, familial, wise, funny and dark. Some songs are palpably despondent but the music never feels sorry itself-a quality that is becoming increasingly rare. West deliver’s these homemade lyrics in a comically deadpan yet gently intuitive manor. This unique style seems to reflect the man himself who loves writing songs. He explains the process of doing so cathartic and ever changing, some songs take years and some take minutes. He often writes about his family that features generations of musicians. His mother plays piano and also works in a school, teaching potentially the best class of all-band. West is recording an EP with the Buffalo band along with a solo one followed by a tour in the near future. He speaks affectionately about the diverse material that comes from various corners of his resounding imagination. West’s music is ethnography of devastating Manitoban talent, contemporary country and fantastically relatable lyrical exploration. His music invites you inside and asks you to stay a while; it’s impossible to refuse this kind offer.