Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Bob Carpenter & Silent Passage

 


Guitarist Bob Carpenter was a Canadian singer and songwriter who performed in the folk genre during the early 1970’s, a period generally considered the golden age of Canadian music. Although not well known (even during his performing years), he was well respected by his peers, with artists such as Emmylou Harris and Billy Joe Shaver recording his songs. He is generally associated with the West Coast, although he was born and grew up in the North Bay area of Ontario. I was unable to uncover much about Bob’s early years, although apparently he started out like many other “folkies” in the Yorkville era of the mid ’60’s. He somewhat mysteriously appeared at the farewell party for the artists who were part of the Festival Express, a legendary series of 1970 Canadian concerts featuring Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Ian and Sylvia’s Great Speckled Bird among others. The party was held at the York Hotel in Calgary, and his performance was impressive enough to merit special recognition by the reporter from Rolling Stone who was covering the Festival Express tour. 

Bob continued to hone his craft, mainly in Canada it would seem, in the following years. He was getting noticed however, and a contract with Warner Brothers in 1974 led to recording sessions in Los Angeles with noted Canadian producer Brian Ahern. The result was the cult classic “Silent Passage”. The making of the record, it would seem, was fairly straight forward. Brian had assembled a first rate band to support Bob; session musicians extraordinaire Lee Sklar on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums, Bill Payne and Lowell George from Little Feat of piano and slide guitar respectively, pedal steel ace Buddy Cage and Emmylou Harris and Anne Murray (yes, our Anne Murray) on background vocals. On listening to the music, it seems one could not have found a more sympathetic musical partner than Brian Ahern. The production is not lush, but the instrumentation provides support and context to Bob’s sparse guitar and vocals. His voice has to be heard; the gentle intensity and sincerity is stunning. Comparisons do not come easily, perhaps one can detect a hint of Harry Chapin here and some Bob Dylan there, but really, Bob was his own man, and these are his songs. Although all of the tracks are outstanding, the title song simply knocks it out of the park. Bob was not at all a technical singer, but the songs were written to provide a vehicle for the story he wanted to tell, and his ability through his voice to tell that story was his strength. I learned of this record through Lee Sklar’s youtube channel, where he talks about the recording sessions he has been involved in. Interestingly, Lee recalls that on projects like this nothing was written out. He and some of the other musicians simply came into the studio and listened to the artist perform his songs, and then tried to come up with a part that fit. Having the quality of this type of musicianship is integral in ensuring the artist’s vision of their music is maintained, and having a sympathetic producer doesn’t hurt either. 

Creating a masterpiece is one thing, getting it to the public so they can listen is unfortunately another. For whatever reason, the label decided against releasing the record. After listening to the finished product it seems stunning that the whole thing was shelved. I haven’t been able to find any specific reason, maybe there wasn’t one. Record companies are notoriously fickle and arbitrary. Sadly that might have been the end of it, but Bob had supporters and in 1984 Holger Petersen’s Canadian label Stony Plain Records acquired the rights to the album and it finally saw the light of day (or so the story goes, details to follow). The album has continued  to be in demand, with glowing reviews from publications such as Rolling Stone, including in 2014 when the magazine selected Silent Passage as one of the top 10 reissues of the year.  

For those that want to hear the record, it is available digitally. For vinyl purists, it gets a little murkier. When one ventures on-line to conduct a search, vinyl copies of the record on the Reprise label appear. So how is it that a record that was apparently never released in 1975 be found for sale in 2021? While I don’t have a definitive answer, it would appear that some number were pressed before the decision was made not to officially release the record. After that, a third party could have bought them (who knows why) and surreptitiously put them our for sale. I’m not sure how they could otherwise have got out there. Vinyl copies (at a much more reasonable, although still steep price) from Stony Plain can also be found for sale on-line. Interestingly, Stony Plain also used the same cover art (front and back) as the original version. There is also the 2014 compact disc reissue from No Quarter, and of course, iTunes. 

Bob Carpenter was a very spiritual person, and it seems in the years after the recording of Silent Passage, he decided to move on from the music business to pursue a more religious life. He died quite tragically and far too early to cancer when he was only 50. I am very recent convert, and so I admit I may lack objectivity, but the recording really is extraordinary and his music deserves recognition. As I like to say, highly recommended.  

Saturday, 1 May 2021

                                                                    Blue Peter





"Don't Walk Past"



With the recent tragic and untimely passing of Blue Peter lead singer and frontman Paul Humphrey, the timing is right for a review of their iconic single, “Don’t Walk Past”. Both the song and its accompanying video were ubiquitous during the summer of 1983 here in Southern Ontario. The song itself was a classic in the New Wave genre featuring soaring vocals and synthesizer; one of those tunes that once heard is instantly recalled by the listener. 

Hailing from Markham Ontario, the band started during the later part of the 1970’s when high school chums and band co-founders Paul Humphrey (lead vocals) and Chris Wardman (guitarist and songwriter) began practising and writing songs in Wardman’s basement. According to the biography section from the band’s excellent website (bluepeterband.com), during this period as the band began take shape and play out, “Humphrey remembers that the era was one in which many new bands faced certain challenges that made the going difficult. "In those early days, there were no places for a band who did original material to play. In a lot of bars, you had to play cover tunes, so we came up with our own treatments of the Stones, Iggy Pop, Led Zep, and the like, but we really wanted to have a way of exposing our songs. Besides," Paul continues, "we really couldn't play a lot of those covers 'cause we found it just didn't work that well with our energy." Times did change, however, and the live venue scene in Toronto started to open up, providing more opportunities for young, up-and-coming bands to get a shot at playing gigs. "It was an exciting time," recalls Humphrey. "Clubs like The Edge and Larry's Hideaway opened up and a lot of good bands with original music got a chance. There's a certain musical historical element to those days, and we were part of it." 

The first several years of the band (1979 -1983) were spent in sorting out personnel and honing the group’s identity. Their trajectory was not meteoric, but it was a steady progression of recording and performing. Blue Peter were a popular draw on the local club scene, with their visibility being boosted when they were selected to open for British New Wave acts that were touring here in Ontario. During this time period, the unique sound they were developing was being recognized locally with support from independent FM radio station CFNY and the weekly music and cultural television newsmagazine “The NewMusic”. Having your songs played on the radio is crucial in generating record sales, and prior to the release of “Don’t Walk Past”, the band had recorded and released a few singles, a couple of EP’s and a full fledged album, “Radio Silence”. In 1983, the band recruited English music producer Steve Nye, whose credits included work with Japan and Bryan Ferry, to work on their new material. Out of those sessions they released what is generally considered their signature song, “Don’t Walk Past”.  

The version of the band that recorded “Don’t Walk Past” consisted of mainstay’s Humphrey and Wardman, as well as Rick Joudrey (bass), Jason Sniderman (keyboards), and Owen Tennyson (drums). The single was released on the Canadian label Ready Records in both seven inch (catalogue number SR 331) and a twelve inch (catalogue number SRB 033) versions. It was also part of their album Falling. The accompanying video of the song has been recognized as one of the top Canadian music videos of its time, winning the “Best Video of 1983” award from the Canadian Film and Television Association. In addition to Paul Humphrey's passionate vocals, the song had a strong groove, with keyboards providing most of the melodic structure, a simple but punchy bass line and minimal but effective guitar. It is easy to see why the song and its accompanying video have had such an impact on the Canadian music scene. For better or worse, in the age of music videos, appearances became crucial in breaking a band and getting their videos played. Besides Paul Humphrey’s talents as a vocalist, he was very telegenic. As well as being aired in Canada, the video was picked up by MTV and broadcast in the United States. It should be noted that with his untimely passing, several Canadian artists who were part of that scene, (or were up and coming), have acknowledged the influence of the band and Paul in particular. Gord Deppe of Spoons fame stated that “Paul was one of the kindest and most talented people I ever met”.

Although “Don’t Walk Past” was crucial in increasing its popularity, the band would call it quits in 1985. They will always be closely identified with the song though, and its success cemented Blue Peter’s importance as part of the Canadian New Wave music scene.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

FM - Phasors On Stun

 


“FM” was the name of a band formed in Toronto in 1976. The first version was duo featuring Cameron Hawkins (keyboards, bass guitar and vocals) and Jeff Plewman (violin, mandolin, vocals), better known by his stage name “Nash the Slash”. Although Nash the Slash would later become better known for his stage persona which featured him having his face completely covered in wrapped bandages, sunglasses, top hat and tuxedo, at this point he was just wearing the sunglasses, tux and top hat. From the start the band performed their own original compositions. On of their first public appearances would be on the Ontario public broadcaster TVOntario (better known through its acronym “TVO”) as featured artists in the network’s Nightmusic concert series. This specific performance is currently available for viewing on-line for those who may be interested. The band had a unique sound, featuring layered keyboard textures and creative synthesizer melodies from Cameron Hawkins alongside Nash’s ethereal violin and mandolin playing. Both band members also sang. An early version of one the band’s best known songs, “Phasors On Stun”, was performed at this time.

  

In early 1977 Martin Deller (drums) joined the group making it a trio. His addition provided a propulsive drive that cemented the band’s sound. It was this lineup that was invited to appear the CBC television variety show “Who’s New”, resulting in the CBC offering to pay the band for an album length recording session. It was out of this process that the band’s first album was created. Included in this process was the release of a promotional single, “Phasors On Stun”. The album, “Black Noise”, was released by the CBC, although it was only available in limited quantities, and in 1978 was re-released on the GRT/Passport label domestically (and was readily available for purchase). Black Noise became a good seller, with the single Phasors On Stun a staple on FM radio. The album has stood the test of time quite well, being ranked as number 48 by Rolling Stone magazine as one of their top 50 in the category of progressive rock. I would not describe the album as being overtly “spacey”, although it does have a futuristic feeling with an overtone of science-fiction, and for a prog rock album, is quite accessible.  


As a 7 inch single, Phasors On Stun was released in two different versions. The promotional version featured a stereo version on one side, and a mono version of the other. The version that came from the GRT/Passport release of Black Noise was a later take, and featured another song from the album as the B side. The first version was about 30 seconds shorter than the later release. The later version would be the one most closely identified with the group. The song starts with a series of keyboard and mandolin figures, joined by the drums before the first verse is sung. The actual words Phasors On Stun never appear in the song, although a sound effect meant to simulate the discharge of a phasor (the science fiction version of a handgun from the 1960’s Star Trek television show) can be heard in the background during the final verse. The song has a push/pull feel from the bass line and the vocal phrasing, and like any good single, instantly imprints itself on the listener. As I have indicated earlier, it was a popular song on rock FM radio throughout Southern Ontario, and was the song that would be most closely associated with the group. Shortly after the album’s release, Nash the Slash decided to leave the group, and was replaced by Ben Mink. This trio was the one that I recall seeing in the Toronto club scene in the early 1980’s. 


FM would continue to perform, albeit with a number of personal changes. Cam Hawkins has been the consistent member throughout the various versions of the band. Nash The Slash would also perform as a solo act. To “dial in” a classic song from one of Canada’s 1970’s most accessible progressive rock groups, tune in your radio to FM, and enjoy Phasors On Stun.  





Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Wheatfield Empire - A Listener’s Guide to The Guess Who






Robert Lawson’s new book, “Wheatfield Empire The Listener’s Guide to The Guess Who” is a welcome addition to the literary history of one Canada’s foremost bands, a history that is surprisingly thin. The Guess Who, a Canadian group that should need no introduction, have been around in various incarnations since the early 1960’s. Starting out in Winnipeg, they became international successfully, and are best known for their 1970 hit “American Woman”, a number one single in both Canada and the United States. The band is also known as the launching pad for two of Canada’s best known rock stars, Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman. 


Robert’s book is valuable compendium for fans of the group providing exceptional detail not only of their recording history, but also of the different musicians who over the years were part of the Guess Who. The author is described on the book’s cover as “a life long fan of The Guess Who” who “has spent years tracking the band’s recording history and consulted closely with many Guess Who experts to compile this comprehensive guide”. This is certainly borne out in the thoroughness of the detail contained within. 


The information is provided in a chronological order, including the earliest iterations of The Guess Who, and the various reunions that have taken place after the demise of the band in 1975, and also includes details about Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings’ solo careers. Robert also includes details about specific live performances made by the band such as appearances on television shows, and “bootlegs” from concerts performed by the group.  


Each of the dozen albums released during the band’s golden period (1969 - 1975) has its own chapter, including details about the recording studio, the producer and engineer, and release date. The description of the album includes a background, an overview, details concerning the release and reception and the subsequent reissues and remasters of the recording. Complimenting the above are reproductions of promotional materials pertaining to the release of the record and other relevant documents of historical relevance, as well as commentary from band members (including Burton Cummings), individuals closely associated to the recording and those with insight into what was going on at the time. As to be expected, the book also contains a complete discography. 

 

I found the book to very entertaining and an easy read, containing all of the kind of detail a fan of the group would be interested in. The commentary provides interesting context about the what was going on with the band at the time the records were being made, with many humorous asides. It goes without saying this book is a must for fans of The Guess Who, especially when one considers the scandalous paucity of written material about this seminal band. Definitely recommended.    


Saturday, 6 February 2021




Coyote 


Reaching that elusive brass ring of commercial success can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the music business for many talented artists. In the golden age of Canadian rock music (generally considered the 1970’s and 80’s), this meant selling records. Although experts could make an educated guess about which bands would “make it”, it was difficult to explain why one single could break a band and propel them to stardom, while at the same time, other groups could record and release great music, and yet toil in obscurity. While it may seem to casual observers of the music scene that having a recording deal with a label meant that a group had finally “made it”, the truth is that it was merely the first step. Radio had to be convinced to put the song into rotation (so that the listeners could hear it), artists and repertoire (A&R) representatives from the label had to promote the record and ensure that it was in stores (so the public could buy it), and crucially, the record label itself had to decide to release the record in the first place (before any of the aforementioned actions could take place). You would think that if a band had a record deal, (and they actually went into a studio and laid down enough tracks for an album), then the label would release same and offer it to the public for purchase. However, the truth is that in many cases, for reasons known only to the label, the recordings never see the light of day. While the band may have had a devoted following based on their live performances, commercial success relied on selling records. Coyote, a mid 1970’s Canadian group, had this unfortunate experience.


Coyote was comprised of a number of veterans of the Eastern Ontario music scene. I contacted Gary Comeau, one the original members and through some text messages, he graciously provided me with the band’s story. In the summer of 1974, Gary was in Kingston with his girlfriend. He had just finished playing with Cliff Edwards (of the Bells fane). While in Kingston, Gary renewed acquaintances with two old friends, Richard Patterson and Colleen Peterson. Colleen told Gary that a friend of hers was starting a band, and that maybe Gary should talk to him. She arranged for Gary to meet with this friend whose name was Paul Lockyer. The meeting went well, and the boys started work on putting together a new group. The first bassist was Brian Edwards (lead singer with Mashmakan), but he left and Gary recommended his old friend Charle Bergeron. Gary and Charles had worked together previously in a group named James Leroy and Denim. This was for the next two years the lineup for what would be known as Coyote. The band was comprised of Al Manning (guitar & vocals), Paul Lockyer (keyboards & vocals), Gary Comeau (guitar & steel guitar), Glen LeCompte (drums) and Charles Bergeron (bass). In 1974 the band got off the ground and started working around Southern Ontario. The quickly became popular on the club circuit and soon developed a following. Gary advised “four of the guys were singers so we had good vocals. Al and I did a lot of two guitar harmony tracks when I wasn't playing pedal steel; it was a very musical band. Capitol reps saw us in Toronto, since we played there a lot”. These people liked what the heard, and recommended that head office in Los Angeles should take notice. After hearing the band, and some “demos” they had recorded, in late 1975 Capitol signed the group to a recording contract. Coyote recorded its songs for the proposed album in Toronto at Thunder Sound and at Le Studio In Quebec. The producer was Spencer Proffer, and the engineer was Larry Green (both from Los Angeles). Gary recalls that “we had a lot of fun in the studios, it was really pretty easy”. Mixing the tracks as well as some of the overdubs also took place in Los Angeles. 


Out of these recordings, in 1976 Capitol released the single “Never Want To Leave You” backed with “Just Want Your Love” into the Canadian market. (As an aside, John Capek is listed on the label as producer. When I asked Gary about this he replied that the single came from their first session at Thunder Sound, and for that session, John acted as producer). The song did receive airplay, although I’m unsure of what position (if any) it received on the local charts. Plenty of copies seem to have been released, as used versions (including promotional ones) are readily available for sale on-line. Although enough songs had been recorded for an album, Capitol decided not to release one. Gary explained “at the time the boss of Capitol L.A. was Rupert Perry, I found out years later from old friend Paul White who was with Capitol Canada that Rupert put us on the back shelf and really didn't care about us, while Capitol Canada thought we would be big in the record world, but thanks to Perry we never got promoted. Capitol Canada was very upset to say the least. We released one single and that was it. One of the reasons Perry put us on the back burner was because we played country, rock and progressive pop. Back then they liked to slot bands in categories and they couldn't classify us.” The band continued to perform all over Ontario to support the singles, and this version stayed together until 1977 (another without Gary would resurface a couple of years later). The quintet were known as a great live act with four lead singers and good instrumentation but without support from their label (in the guise of an album release), the band found themselves treading water, and decided to go their separate ways. Gary has access to the recordings made by the group from those sessions back in the day, and he has been generous enough to make them available on-line.  

     


Tuesday, 26 January 2021

UZEB



“Fast Emotion”


The genre of music that during the 1970’s became known as “fusion” is usually defined as an amalgam of jazz and rock. That definition is perhaps an over simplification that probably has more to do with our insistence on labeling everything as opposed to just letting the music speak for itself. It does need to be acknowledged however that the younger generation of musicians who had been raised on rock and roll wanted to bring those musical sensibilities to the more complex world of jazz. Most importantly, the replacement of acoustic instruments (the normal component of a jazz group) with electric instruments provided opportunities for a new sonic pallette, one that would allow the musicians to create and explore different sounds and techniques. 


One of the better groups to perform this type of music were UZEB, who hailed from Quebec. The band started in 1976 as a duo comprising of Alain Caron on bass and Michel Cusson on guitar. The band evolved fairly quickly into a quartet with the addition of a drummer and keyboardist. They became quite popular in their home province performing a style of music that generally is more of an acquired taste. I suspect that had to do primarily with the band’s superlative musicianship, and to a lesser degree with the parochialism of Quebecois culture. The band has always been exclusively Francophone, although the members have worked with some very prominent musicians such as Michael Brecker. 


In 1982 the band released “Fast Emotion”, their initial studio album, on the Quebec label Paroles & Musique. The album had nine tracks overall, with no song over six minutes, and was an excellent representation of the instrumental prowess and musical sophistication the group possessed. At this time, the members were the two originals Alain Caron and Michael Cusson being joined by Paul Brochu (drums) and Michel Cyr (keyboards). Typical of a fusion album, the music was all instrumental. An interesting aspect of this band was their headlong dive into cutting edge technology, and their enthusiasm for incorporating it into their sound. The album featured lots of guitar based synth as well as the keyboard based synth. Fast Emotion isn’t just a “chops-fest” with hyperdrive tempos and endless soloing by everybody all the time though. This is a record with songs (which may account for the bands popularity, both at home and abroad). Yes, there are lots of opportunities for the boys to strut their stuff (which the do with great virtuosity I might add), but always in the context of what works best for the song and in conjunction with the musical contributions from the other members of the group. Two of the my favourite tracks on this recording are “Slinky” and “Brass Licks”. The aptly named Slinky has Alain Caron on his fretless bass laying down a seriously infectious groove to start the song. Guitar, then drums and keyboard join in as things get underway. Brass Licks is an uptempo number that features Alain on fretted bass displaying his slap technique. The song has a simple but catchy melody, probably played by the guitarist through his synth. This song would easily put people out on the dance floor and is a good example of how accessible this band was to its audience in Quebec and Europe. I had the good fortune of acquiring Fast Emotion after its release, and of catching the band during their appearance at a small club in Toronto back in 1983 or 84. I can still remember watching Alain soloing, especially on Brass Licks.  


UZEB would work as a quartet throughout most of the 1980’s before paring down to drums, guitar and bass trio. The band decided to take an extended hiatus in 1992. All of the musicians were in heavy demand as session players and as individual artists, which may have contributed to the decision. They reunited in 2017 for a tour, although it doesn’t appear the group has permanent plans to reform. To their credit, the band has received a number of awards; in 1984 and 1989 receiving the FĂ©lix (an award for Quebecois recording artists), as well as Jazz Album of the Year for 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1987, and most significantly the 1991 Oscar Peterson Lifetime Achievement, which was presented to the group that year during their performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival. During their heyday in the 1980’s they were regular performers at Jazz festivals not only here but also in Europe. They also enjoyed very strong record sales in excess of 200,000 copies of their various releases, really quite remarkable for an instrumental jazz fusion group.  




Saturday, 2 January 2021

In Memoriam Tony Rice

 Good morning music afficienados and a Happy New Year to y'alls. Let's hope 2021 is better (let's face it, it couldn't be much worse!). I recently learned of the passing of Tony Rice. I suspect he had not been well for some time; he had vocal issues over the last few years and also some hand problems (with obvious devastating consequences for a musician). I came to be a fan somewhat late in Tony's career, my introduction to his music came after I was "drafted" into a bluegrass band along with my double bass a few years ago (a word of thanks to Sarah, Sean and Dale). To say I developed an appreciation would be an understatement. He was a musician's musician; one of those rare talents that could comfortably perform in different genres at any tempo or time signature. Although primarily noted as being a bluegrass player, his recordings contain some excellent examples of the many influences he had. His instrumental work features Tony playing over standards such as My Favourite Things, Green Dolphin Street and Four On Six. His discography is extensive, and he was a highly sought after sideman, basically being able to chose whatever project he wanted to. However, if I was forced to pick my most cherished examples of Tony's artistry, it would be his interpretations of Gordon Lightfoot's songs. He held Gordon in high esteem, and over his career performed and recorded a number of Gordon's songs. Here is an example. My condolences to Mr. Rice's family on his untimely passing, and RIP Tony. We have lost someone special.


https://www.youtube.com/?gl=CA