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August 11th, 2016

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Nature, Animals, Adventure; Personal history, Family, Friends

Appreciating the CBC’s Grant Lawrence for his Evocation of Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 Visit to Fingal’s Cave

CBC Radio’s Grant Lawrence is for the second consecutive August filling in for three straight weekends as guest host for the Vancouver weekend morning show, “North by Northwest,” which airs from 6am-9am in British Columbia, and a very civil 9am-noon in NYC. I’ve been listening to, and enjoying Grant on the radio since 2009, when he was hosting “Grant Lawrence Live,” a three-hour show most weekday afternoons on CBCRadio 3, the Internet-only outpost for homegrown indie rock n’ roll on Canada’s national broadcasting service. For the devoted audience of which I was a part, we listened to the station as often as workdays, employers, and connectivity would allow. And Grant wasn’t the only popular host—there were many others avidly listened to, and musicians who did guest-hosting. The blend of infectiously enjoyable programming combined the best Canadian indie rock n’ roll; crackling wit, from Grant especially; good heart from all; regular podcasts that supplemented the daily programming; and a lively communal blog on the Radio 3 website where listeners, hosts, and musicians occasionally, were all on line together, sharing thoughts and info on topics-of-the-day, plus current events, both news from the public sphere, and from people’s lives. It made for great radio, a close virtual community, and music, art, and friendship that enriched many lives over several years.

In 2015, the CBC, what’s known in Canada as a “crown corporation”—already under strain for several years due to severe budget cuts under the misrule of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, plus questionable management by CBC appointees who didn’t, and still don’t know broadcasting—ended live daily hosting on Radio 3, with emotional final shows by all the hosts still there, with Grant and another, Lana Gay, among the last remnant. The programming became taped promos, intros, outros, pre-produced musician featurettes, and a livestream of music, much of it by the same artists as before, but lacking the personal touch. The blog was still available to us then, and many of the core still hung out there in virtual space; I continued to visit the blog occasionally, but much less often listened to the live stream. Even though Justin Trudeau came in to office as Canada’s new PM in November 2015, with a promise to restore funding to the CBC, the same management is still in place, and the privation of the service has not noticeably improved yet. Finally, last month even the Radio 3 blog was folded up, too. And, mysteriously, the music content on Radio 3 has been geo-fenced, so it can only be heard within Canada’s borders, even though Radio 3 had long had fans and listeners from the US, Mexico, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and all over the world.

I’ve drafted a letter that as a lifelong friend of Canada I’ll be sending to the Honourable Mélanie Joly, 
Minister of Canadian Heritage, who has purview over the CBC. It reads in part,

I am personally and professionally invested in the work of sharing Canadian culture and spreading word of it all among appreciative cultural consumers in New York City, the US, and the wider world, among music lovers, readers, and among people who appreciate what a good country Canada is, with so many creative people.

I am writing to express my sincere hope that you and your colleagues will seriously consider restoring live hosting to CBC Radio 3; the daily live blog; and continue to provide the music service that has introduced myself and many other non-Canadians to the rich treasure house of talented Canadian musical performers.

I very much appreciate your attention to this letter from a non-Canadian. I remain a friend to Canada and to Canadian artists. Thank you for your consideration.

I hope she and her staff will read this and consider reversing course in many areas with regard to CBC Radio. Some of the Radio 3 people have moved on to jobs elsewhere, like Lana Gay who is on-air at Indie 88 in Toronto. For his part, Grant Lawrence has stayed at the CBC, working in social media and digital marketing for CBC Music, the larger entity in to which Radio 3 was folded, then swallowed up and made in to just another of their many live streams.

This is all stated as prologue to explain that I’m pleased when, from to time, Grant does a guest-hosting stint on one of CBC Radio One’s many programs, such as the one mentioned above, on “North by Northwest,” as he has the past two weekends, and coming up again this weekend (August 13-14). On his first weekend in the hosting chair, he aired a fascinating interview with American-Canadian blues legend, Jim Byrnes. He’s also done a segment with Chris Nelson, a First Nations man who acts as custodian of 5,000-year old petroglyphs on the BC coast. Then, last weekend, he broadcast a segment about composer Felix Mendelssohn’s fateful tour of Scotland in early August 1829, when he toured the scenic Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, located off the mainland of Scotland, 187 years ago this month. Among many majestic sights, the composer visited the isle of Staffa, which is composed of vertical basalt stacks, formed it is said from a volcanic blast that also created the Causeway of the Giants in County Antrim on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. On Staffa, seven miles distant from the larger island of Mull, Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave, a remarkable setting that inspired him to create new melodies after he experienced its uncannily acute acoustics, with the sea rushing in and out of the sheltered space. Last Sunday, Grant played the splendid orchestral overture “The Hebrides,” and a section from Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.

All this reminded me of a visit Kyle Gallup and I made to Scotland in 1992, when we also toured the Hebrides and visited Fingal’s Cave on a boat ride that landed us at the edge of the island, permitting us to take a brief walk inside the cave, using guiding ropes and metal stanchions sunk in the rock to keep visitors from sliding in to the water. The stanchions looked as if they were fixed in place almost 187 years ago! I’m glad I can share my photos here from our remarkable day, just as Mendelssohn shared his through his music. The first three photos (including the one at the top of this post) show us approaching Fingal’s Cave, the middle two show us after we landed for our brief visit, and the last was taken from inside the cave itself. Thanks to Grant Lawrence for the reason to remember the glorious music of Felix Mendelssohn and our visit to Fingal’s Cave almost 25 years ago! I’ll be listening to him on “North by Northwest” again this weekend, and you can too, right here via the Internet.

From inside Fingal's Cave

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January 17th, 2016

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio

A High Point for the Concept Album—Procul Harum’s “A Salty Dog”

Rock music of the late ’60s and early ’70s may’ve been the Golden Age of the concept album—The Kinks’ “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire),” The Who’s “Tommy,” and David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Amid so much amazing music, one of my favorites from the period was Procul Harum’s “A Salty Dog,” with a theme drawn from the Age of Sail when English ships plied the seas, filled with songs like “The Milk of Human Kindness,” The Wreck of the Hesperus,” and the eponymous “A Salty Dog,” songs about mariners and ships. I just listened to it again last night, and it still sounds great. I found someone had put it up on youtube, so if it’s new to you or an old fave, I hope you enjoy listening to it here!


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December 31st, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Personal history, Family, Friends

New Year’s Tribute to Mr Stress, Jan 1 1943-May 18 2015, RIP to a Great Bluesman

As a New Year’s gift to all my fabulous friends, readers and Internet acquaintances, I’m glad to share memories, an essay, and a few links about Cleveland’s Bill Miller—aka Mr Stress—a great blues harmonica player, singer, and leader of bands who died this past year, on May 18. I followed him avidly from 1972, when I turned 18, old enough to go to bars, to 1985 when I moved to NY. I think of him today, not only because his passing came this year, but because he was the first baby born in Cleveland in 1943, a bare minute after midnight. He was feted on the front page of the next day’s newspaper as the city’s first firstborn—a fitting birth for a bluesman when you consider Muddy Waters singing about the fabled blues character ‘born on the 7th son of a 7th mother on the 7th day.’ Clearly, Mr. Stress had an auspicious pedigree for a bluesman. He would’ve been 73 when the clock & calendar turn tonight. In 2012, I contributed an essay about Stress for the book Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, linked to here. Happily, I reconnected with him after I published the essay. Also, here’s Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Chuck Yarborough‘s appreciation of him, published two days after his passing; and tributes by Cleveland musician Alex Bevan; and audio of Stress in performance (one and two). 

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December 24th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Media, Blogging, Internet; Music, Bands & Radio

The Ravishing Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Good for the Holidays and all Through the Year

My wife and I don’t listen to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) only during Christmas season, though this is a particularly good time to do so, since a great deal of his output is connected to the annual fest. In fact, on Dec 25th 2013, I shared about the British composer in this appreciative post. Over a prodigiously productive career that included nine symphonies, RVW discovered and wrote a banquet of ravishing choral music, folksong cycles, smaller chamber and symphonic works, and more, lots of it in the idiom of British folk melodies, much of which he gathered and notated in the field from nonprofessional musicians and singers, while also traveling with early recording equipment, which he used to gather direct sound.

In the early decades of the twentieth century there were other song collectors doing similar work in Britain (Cecil Sharp and others) and in North America (Alan Lomax, John Cohen). And, twentieth century composers in other lands were also fascinated with borrowing from indigenous musics, like Sibelius did in Finland, Smetana in Hungary, Copland in America, etc. I’ve always been most fond of RVW among this ilk because—though my ethnic roots are all in Eastern Europe—I’m a never-closeted Anglophile, a fan of Gaelic cultures and lover of the highlands and the North, regardless of country and continent. Vaughan Williams also composed modernist, often challenging music, like his Sixth Symphony which includes a passage for saxophone, so to me he never became saccharine or merely stuck in the past. I have many precious LPs of RVW’s, several vinyl sides of which I bought secondhand on my first visit to Britain in 1980 (one of which is pictured here), but this year our turntable is on the fritz, so I’ve gone searching for his music on youtube, and thankfully, I’ve found a very productive rabbit hole over there, just using the search term ‘Ralph Vaughan Williams songs voice‘. One piece in particular that we adore is “Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus,'” from a New Testament source, which I’ve found in an orchestral version and a version sung by Maddy Prior, longtime member of the British folk revival group of the 1970s, still going strong, Steeleye Span. In the sung version, I appreciate the combination of lyrics oriented toward the sacred, and those about meat and drink and other earthly pleasures. At this link, you may listen to the orchestral version and prepare to have your ears caressed for 13 minutes, and follow the suspense of the biblical tale in the sung version.


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November 1st, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Urban Life & New York City

Discovering The Pines at Mercury Lounge, Opening for Israel Nash

I delighted in that most welcome of live music-going experiences on Oct 22. Going to hear roots rocker Israel Nash for the first time—an artist whose recordings I’d heard and enjoyed for several months—I encountered an opening act whose sound instantly captivated me, which I immediately adored. They are called The Pines. I urge you to listen to them, and go hear them live if they’re playing in your area on their current tour, which will take them to Winnipeg, Canada, as well as to North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Iowa, the latter two being their home states. I was fortunate to arrive an hour early for Nash’s set, and so walked in to the Mercury Lounge just as The Pines were beginning their first song. Playing keys, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar, the trio had a gentle and disarming stage presence that was somehow emphasized by the fact they were all seated. My ears quickened to a lush and ravishing interplay of voices and instruments. I was evidently not the only stunned listener, nor the only person new to their sound, as, unusual at this venue, no one in the darkened music room spoke while they performed. It was easily the most hushed and attentive crowd I’ve ever been a part of at this usually noisy club. Their songs sounded as if they were either traditional ballads reworked by them, or originals that sounded like they emerged from the soil of the upper Midwest. One song, “Are You Ready for the Fair?”, reminded me of Greg Brown, a folksinger I’ve enjoyed for years.  Later, I got a copy of their CD “Pasture” and saw that that song is indeed written by Brown. And on The Pines’ website, I see that Benson Ramsey, who often takes lead vocals, while playing lead and slide guitar, and Alex Ramsey, who plays piano and organ, are sons of Bo Ramsey, Brown’s longtime producer and sideman. Greg Brown, it should be noted, is married to the great country singer Iris Dement.

Click here to see a video of their song “Cry, Cry, Crow” from their album “Dark So Gold.”

After The Pines finished their set, and before Israel Nash and his band took the stage, I introduced myself to Benson Ramsey, and his bandmate Dave Huckfelt. I told them how much I’d enjoyed discovering their music, and that I would be eager to write about them, and let others know of their music. Here are pictures from the show, including some of Israel Nash, who also played a great set, and who I appreciated for having invited The Pines to open for him. I was glad I had the chance to hear both of these bands, and that I had a meet up at Mercury Lounge with a new friend, Garrett Johnson, a Canadian music lover who like me is a member of the CBCRadio 3 music community. I’m glad he was in town and could join me to hear Israel Nash.

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June 2nd, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio

Jean Ritchie, Great American Folksinger, RIP

Below is a video with a bit more than a minute of the great folksinger Jean Ritchie talking about her songs and how she learned them. Such an impressive woman. She died recently at age 92, as reported in today’s NY Times obit. She was born in Kentucky in 1922, heard songs all her life there, then moved to New York City in the 1950s, where she became a mainstay of the budding folk song movement. She played fretted dulcimer and knew hundreds of songs from the Appalachians and the British Isles. I heard her perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the late 1970s/early ’80s. Ritchie’s 1955 book—”Singing Family of the Cumberlands”—featured songs she grew up singing at home in Kentucky, with illustrations, surprisingly enough, by Maurice Sendak! The book is still in print, from University of Kentucky Press. 

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May 8th, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Canada; Music, Bands & Radio

Excited I’ll be Attending the CBC Music Festival in Toronto, May 23

This should be lots of fun—an all-day outdoor music festival in Toronto sponsored by CBC Music, with some great acts. Tickets are available via this link

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May 3rd, 2015

By Philip Turner in: Music, Bands & Radio; Personal History, Family, Friends, Education, Travels; Urban Life & New York City

Only a Rare Radio Talent Could’ve Done What Vin Scelsa Did for 47 Years

Please click headline for post & picture.

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