Psychedelic Bands Blowing Minds & Rockin’ Out at Brooklyn’s Bell House

Rishi DhirI had fun Wednesday night at a live rock show with three self-described psychedelic bands, one of whose music, Montreal’s Elephant Stone, I already knew well and whom I had written about last year. The other two groups–Allah-las from Los Angeles, and The Black Angels from Austin–also on the bill, were new to me. I was probably the only fan in the house who was more familiar with Elephant Stone than the others. Still, I was glad to see many in the crowd had arrived early enough to hear the opening act. Beforehand, I chatted with a couple who didn’t know anything about Elephant Stone, and said to them that they sound like “the Byrds with an Indian influence.” For his part, frontman Rishi Dhir has playfully dubbed their sound ‘Hindi rock.’ The quartet’s mind-blowing sound collage is driven by bright and jangly twelve-string guitar, sitar, and thumping bass, the latter two instruments played by Dhir (pictured at the left). They’ve recently released a new self-titled album (shown at right), released by Hidden Pony Records, a label that also features the great band, Rah Rah, another favorite act of mine. Elephant Stone lp

I’m pasting in a video below of Elephant Stone playing the Osheaga festival live in 2011. Some of their personnel have changed since then, but this video is still a good indication of what they’re like to hear live. The sitar kicks in at around 4:30 of the seven-minute clip.

I enjoyed hearing Allah-Las and The Black Angels for the first time, but the real highlight of the night for me was listening to Elephant Stone once again. Dhir bantered from the stage about how pleased he was that local radio station WFMU is playing songs from their new album, so I’m hopeful that over the past week–when Elephant Stone played a total of three live dates at NYC venues–they will have gained a much larger audience for their dynamic sound.

CMJ Music Marathon–a Treat for Devoteés of Live Music

For the second year in a row I attended a bunch of live rock shows during the annual CMJ Music Marathon, Oct. 16-20, going to hear live music at a handful of different Lower East Side venues.

Wednesday night, for the showcase mounted by Canadian Blast at Arlene’s Grocery, I heard Two Hours Traffic from Prince Edward Island, a place that produces great musicians, belying its status as Canada’s smallest province. This 4-piece played an infectious chord-driven guitar rock with bright pop vocals by frontman Liam Corcoran, who looked like he could be the brother of actor Toby Maguire. Next up was Elephant Stone, an exciting psychedelic quartet from Montreal with Rishi Dhir’s thumping bass and sitar at the center of their often mind-blowing sound collage. They’re about to release a new self-titled album, their third, on Hidden Pony Records. Foam Lake of Saskatoon played next, leading off with “True Hearts,” which has a rousing chorus I recognized from hearing it on CBC Radio 3, the hub of indie rock in Canada. Later, in front of Arlene’s, on Stanton Street, I met a musician I recognized from earlier as Two Hours Traffic’s bassist. Nathan Gill’s his name. Late though it was, he was planning to be up in a few hours for a morning for a flight to Nova Scotia, where he’d be playing the Halifax Pop Explosion with another band of which he’s a member.

Thanks to Cara Wodnicki of BMF Media Group, who accommodated me and the guest I’d invited to join me this night, Torontonian Peter Evans, CEO of Speakerfile, the company I consult for that connects conference organizers with authors and other experts who do public speaking. Like me, Peter really enjoyed Two Hours Traffic’s efficient, tuneful set.

Before closing out my Canadian Blast evening, I also ran into members of Rah Rah, a band I have blogged about before, and of which I’m a big fan. They weren’t performing on this bill, but would be playing four times over the next few days, including Thursday evening at Bowery Electric, a gig I would be attending, not far from where legendary punk venue CBGB’s operated until 2006. Rah Rah’s new album, “The Poet’s Dead” has just been released and it’s terrific, with a great lead song, “Art and a Wife.” I recommend you listen to it at their website. It’s one of their best set of lyrics yet, striking themes about what a maturing artist wants from life and music. Rah Rah played a pleasantly raucous and spontaneous live show in the basement room at Bowery Electric, with players swapping instruments with one another, and grabbing drum sticks to make percussion sounds on any available hard surface, from amp cases to brick walls. The anarchic vibe encompassed Rah Rah’s Jeffrey Romanyk, who alternated between acoustic guitar on some songs, and drums on others–he weathered a broken string on one song and a toppling drum kit on another. But no mishap could snap the spell of the band’s great performance, with its fun, uninhibited vibe. The finale included inflated mylar letters spelling out R-A-H, bouncing over the heads of the audience, and an exploding confetti cannon. Low-tech fun. Afterward, I spent time visiting with Romanyk, as well as his bandmate Leif Thorsen, and Leif’s wife, photographic scholar, Alison Dean. Out in front of the club, lead singer Marshall Burns showed me their big touring van, with its Saskatchewan license plates, and huge lock on the back door protecting their instruments and equipment from thieves, a potential bane for all touring bands.

Friday offered a rare afternoon opportunity to hear live music, like a day baseball game. A showcase from noon-6 at Pianos on Ludlow Street was put on by music marketing and radio promotion outfit Planetary Group, featuring shows by Hot Panda and The Orwells, as well as Australian bands Sun Cisco and Twerps, and again, Elephant Stone and Rah Rah. Just as Rah Rah was sliding into place on Pianos’ raised stage, a friendly fellow sat on the stool next to me. This was Wilson Lemieux, who works as music director at KWTS radio station in Canyon, Texas. They have “Art and a Wife” in heavy rotation, he told me, but he’d never heard them live, until today. I assured him he was in for a treat. It was great hearing Rah Rah again, as they played a largely different set of songs than the night before. During this relaxed afternoon I met Planetary Group’s Greg Khaikin and Oscar Zubia, and their boss, Chris, all very welcoming and articulate about the bands they were promoting. During a break between sets I had a chance for pleasant chats with Hidden Pony’s Mike Renaud, his wife Natasha, and Elephant Stone’s Rishi Dhir, and bandmates Gabriel, Steven, and Miles, nice guys all. It’s always fun talking with Canadians in NYC, who are so appreciative of Gotham’s charms. Out on the sidewalk dodging the cigarette smoke, I also met the members of Kiven, a 4-piece outfit from Los Angeles whose music I’m now eager to hear via their bandcamp page.
Click here to read entire post and see all photos.

Jeremy Fisher, True Troubador

Jeremy Fisher isn’t a big person, but the singer-songwriter sure makes a big sound. It’d be hard to imagine more music coming from any other solo player. Along with his voice, his primary instrument is a weathered Gibson LG-2 guitar from which he punches out a great, full sound. His bright singing voice offers a lot of welcome contrast with that percussive Gibson, since I suspect it falls somewhere between the tenor and alto range. The lyrics he sings are deeply felt declarations that carry a personal, even existential quality.

I highly recommend all of Jeremy’s music, and particularly, his latest album, “Mint Juleps,”  a recording with five originals written by Jeremy and  covers of seven songs by such artists as Gordon Lightfoot, John Hiatt, and Greg Brown. Fisher makes each song his own in such a way that until I studied the album sleeve, I wasn’t sure which songs were his and which were the covers. “Spin, Spin, Spin” is a rare Gordon Lightfoot song, in that it hasn’t been sung by lots of other artists already. In a recent phone interview, Jeremy told me that was one of the reasons he chose it for the record. He said he wanted songs to which he knew he could add something new. That is certainly the case with Greg Brown’s ode to the bounty of summer, “Canned Goods,” about the pickles, tomatoes, and fruits his dear grandma put up for canning when he was a boy.

One of the highlights of attending the North by Northeast (NXNE) festival in Toronto in June was finally hearing Jeremy perform live. I had heard him on CBC Radio 3 many times, enjoying such songs as “Shine a Little Light” and “Jolene” (not Dolly Parton’s song of the same name) but I was unprepared for how bright, funny, and charismatic he is as a live performer. That week I heard him play at the Dakota Tavern showcase** hosted by his label Hidden Pony, and at the picnic hosted by CBC Radio 3 host and author Grant Lawrence, where I took this outdoor photo.

The title of the new album is not meant to remind listeners of the Kentucky Derby, or anything about America’s Old South. This Canadian composer wanted to evoke lazy summer days, or as he told me, “the kind of record I’d like to listen to while making brunch on a Sunday morning, or having a drink on a Friday afternoon.” He said he’s been playing other people’s songs ever since he started joining bands as a kid, playing songs by Canadian super-groups Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip. and later Beatles and Motown covers. They were the “starting point” for him as a songwriter. For the new album he played solo versions of the songs he’d decided to record and emailed the sound files to the musicians he’d asked to accompany him. This group included such standout Canadian musicians as Joey Wright, whose 2011 album “Hatch” I enjoy a lot. Adding a nice tough here, Wright plays guitar, mandolin, and tenor guitar. Based on his rough work-up, Jeremy told his musical recruits, “this is the feel I want, but I want fresh ideas every take. . . . I wanted the personalities of the players to shine through.”

The new album was engineered my Mark Ouimet, who also plays percussion and sings on several numbers. Among many favorite songs on the album, I’m especially enjoying “If It’s Alright With You,’ written by Gene MacClellan, which sports a great harmonica riff played by Jeremy himself. Listening to Jeremy Fisher’s latest recording of his favorite songs during this sweltering summer of 2012 one is left with an unmistakable impression of hearing a latter day Buddy Holly, a forgotten sibling to the Everly Brothers, or maybe Paul Simon. Even with all those classic rock and pop associations, which are not a stretch, Jeremy’s an original talent with a great feel for song–I recommend you listen to him for yourself.

**That Dakota showcase where I heard Jeremy Fisher also featured Erin Passmore, the Danks, Elephant Stone, and Rah Rah, each also clients of Hidden Pony. All five acts–including Jeremy who followed Erin–played great that night. Click here to view 15 of the photos I took during the showcase.

Coming up–Day 4 in Toronto at NXNE

Evening update: The unofficial Radio 3 picnic this afternoon was a blast. Grant Lawrence arranged for a fabulous group of musicians to play in the leafy setting of Trinity-Bellwoods Park. We were treated to three-song sets by Portage & Main; Emperor of the North; Jeremy Fisher; Ian Foster; and The Matinee. Close to 100 people showed up for the bucolic blend of music, food, and conversation. Afterward, I walked with R3 friend Matt to hear Kathleen Edwards play an outdoor set as part of the Luminato Festival. She and her terrific band played a great set as fans swayed under the hot sun. Edwards gave a shout-out to all the great culture in Toronto this weekend, and said she’s going later tonight to listen to Richard Ford talk about his new novel, Canada, which I have loved reading.

In a few minutes I’ll be off to the night’s activities–the CBC Radio 3 showcase at the Horseshoe Tavern, with Yukon Blonde playing. Later, I’ll head over to Lee’s Palace on Bloor Street for Matt Mays and his band El Torpedo.

Following on yesterday’s tour of CBC HQs and the fabulous showcase featuring Hidden Pony musicians at the Dakota Tavern, with Erin Passmore, Jeremy Fisher, the Danks, Elephant Stone, and Rah Rah, Saturday promises to be another great day of music and friends.

At noon we have a CBC Radio 3 picnic in Toronto’s leafy Trinity-Bellwoods Park, coordinated by R3 host and author Grant Lawrence, with what I’m sure will be great guest musicians. Also this afternoon is a free outdoor concert with Dan Mangan and Kathleen Edwards, as part of the city’s Luminato festival. Tonight will be the NXNE CBC Radio 3 showcase at the Horseshoe Tavern including Yukon Blonde, Also tonight is a personal fave, Matt Mays with his band El Torpedo at Lee’s Palace. It’s going to be a great day!

Friday in Toronto–Speakerfile and Day 3 of NXNE

I began today by taking the Toronto subway crosstown from my hotel over to Yonge and College Streets where my new client Speakerfile has their office in a handsome old brick building that used to be an Odd Fellows Hall (who were those odd guys, anyway?). I met several people I’d been working on the phone since I began working with Speakerfile last month; it was good to put faces to names.

CEO Peter Evans had asked me to speak to his colleagues a bit about how Speakerfile can answer a need in the wider author/publisher space, so I explained that in an age of diminished shelf space in brick & mortar bookstores, and less print space for traditional book reviews, the discovery of new books by the reading and consuming public is among the greatest challenges that authors and publishers face in marketing their work. I’d bet that a comprehensive Web search for the use of the word “discoverability” would probably shown it’s multiplied many times over the past year or two–it is one of the watchwords of our business.

After our informal meeting, I made a few calls to Speakerfile prospects I’ve identified, including one Toronto literary agency, and headed off to my afternoon and NXNE activities.

An hour from now, members of the informal CBC Radio 3 blogger and enthusiast community will meet at the CBC building, and be given a tour of the CBC broadcast facility by radio producer Pedro Mendes. After the tour, we’re going to do a group photo in the CBC building atrium, and soon after head off to a group dinner. The musical highlights tonight will include label and management company Hidden Pony’s showcase at the Dakota Tavern featuring their bands and artists Rah Rah, Jeremy Fisher, the Danks, Elephant Stone, and Rah Rah’s Erin Passmore. Other music tonight which will challenge my ability to be in two places at once include the Rheostatics’ Dave Bidini current outfit, the Bidini Band, and blues-soul performer Andre Williams playing with the great band The Sadies. And outdoor, at Yonge-Dundas Square Plants and Animals will be playing, along with the Matthew Good Band.

It’s been a good day already, and it’s only going to get better at the CBC and the Dakota Tavern.

Bonding with Shotgun Jimmie & John K. Samson at the Bowery Ballroom

I love one-man bands, those musical artists who can stomp, holler, and play licks while animating a whole set entirely on their own. Soloists like this captivate an audience with talent, musicianship, and personality. Last Thursday night’s show at the Bowery Ballroom offered ample pleasures like these, with the fresh and funny Shotgun Jimmie opening for master singer-songwriter John K. Samson in a show for the ages. Jimmie was charming, talented, playing kick drum with his foot, ripping on his Fender electric, and singing his quirky songs of striving and nerdy romanticism, maintaining despite all disappointments a cockeyed optimism. Even the title of Jimmie’s latest album suggests wit and wordplay: “Transistor Sister.” Here are some lines from the opening track “Late Last Year.”

Oh my darlin’ the legs under this table/are independently bumpin’ in to mine/They’re on a mission dispatched to disable/My defenses and they’re working just, fine

Like the Canadian rockers Library Voices, John K. Samson’s lyrics exude a literary quality, filled as they are with learned allusions to explorers, the classical world, and existential reality. He’s co-founder of a publishing collective in Winnipeg called Arbeiter Ring Publishing, a sort of Workmen’s Circle for books, which recently brought his Lyrics & Poems 1997-2012. As a book professional myself, I am intrigued with this rocker who also has a big footprint in the book and publishing camp. I see that Vancouver writer Steven Galloway, whose novel Ascension I published in 2002, has articulated what’s special about Samson’s work:  “John K. Samson is one of Canada’s finest living writers. He creates a world with a phrase, devastates with a word and restores hope with an image. Many novels do not contain as much humanity and emotional resonance as one of Samson’s lines. As a writer I am torn between admiration and jealousy; as a reader I am enthralled.” // more w/photos . . .

Songs about Speeding Arrows & a Disgruntled Cat

The show at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom last Friday featuring The Weakerthans with Rah Rah was special in many ways. Before anything is even said about the music and the performances, consider that it was the seventh night of what by any measure must be considered an extraordinary bi-coastal residency that The Weakerthans had undertaken over the previous two weeks. Talk about ambitious! / / more . . .