The Blues Rocks On–Discovering Alastair Greene

“Well, it’s a mighty long way down rock ’n roll / from the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl / ’n you climb up the mountains ’n you fall down the holes / all the way from Memphis…”All the Way from Memphis, written by Ian Hunter

Well, judging by the current blues revival that’s underway, with artists sampling every colour of the roots rainbow, maybe it’s not so far from Memphis after all. One of my pet peeves about the music scene of the early 21st century is the near-total abandonment of Rock amongst contemporary bands. I mean, in my opinion, did we really need ‘newgrass’ and ’80s synth-pop revivalists? Meanwhile Prog Rock— or as Steve Hackett prefers to call it, “progressive music”—has had something of a revivalist heyday over the past 20 years. But that’s another story…. (Check out my past posts on Prog.)

All of which brings me to Alastair Greene. How does one travel musically from being the guitarist for the revived Alan Parsons Project, touring the globe, to playing to festivals and clubs the amp-shredding blues-rock of the genre’s ’70s heyday? One part of the answer is obvious: great music seldom disappoints no matter how ‘old’ it gets. The other part of the answer is: artists must follow their own creative paths if they hope to remain vital. As Greene explains: “It was an honor to play the music created by the Alan Parsons Project to Alan’s fans around the world. After seven years, the time has come for me to truly pursue my own musical dream.”

Greene performing with Alan Parsons.

And although the press kit for Greene’s fabulous new album Dream Train states that he has been “thrilling audiences for nearly two decades,” he was news to me—good news. Dream Train has welcome echoes of Cream, Johnny Winter, and ZZ Top yet remains consistently original throughout. The title track kicks off with a three-minute full tilt boogie laced with ripping electric guitar and a simple but effective metaphor for dreaming. Big Bad Wolf goes mid-tempo with a guitar riff slightly reminiscent of ZZ Top’s Tush. It took me awhile to figure out what the hell the title of the next track, Nome Zayne, was about until I realized it was a clever contraction of “Know what I’m sayin’,” a compact hit of social commentary. The song has a refreshing Marshall amp crunch to the guitar that I find sadly AWOL these days.

Greene’s new album hearkens back to the glory days of blues rock while remaining consistently original. Courtesy band website.

Greene has learned well the lessons of Rock’s golden age: guitar solos aren’t just about show-offy calisthenics but melody. (Think of the simple yet unforgettably melodic solos of Mick Ronson in David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars.) Another Lie is slow blues at its best, reminding me of the late great Alvin Lee in Ten Years After’s classic Slow Blues in C. Slow blues can actually be harder to do well than a piston-pumping sprint. It’s not about how many notes, how fast, but how much tone you can squeeze out of each one.

The instrumentals on the album—the acoustic romp of Song for Rufus and the funky R&B groove of Grateful Swagger—are anything but filler. In the first, Greene boldly strikes out into Jimmy Page acoustic territory, plucking a complex, softly melodic meditation that nicely balances the harder-edged tunes on the album. In Grateful Swagger, the honeyed tones of Greene’s Les Paul tastefully ripping up the fretboard are balanced by Jim Rankin’s funky bass lines and Austin Beede’s perfectly accented polyrhythms. A third instrumental, Iowa, keeps the overdrive pedal turned off for a clean guitar tone that could be a tribute to Les Paul himself, or even a slightly revved-up Chet Atkins.

But as I’ve said before, ever since the Stones hired master blues guitarist Mick Taylor, I’ve been a sucker for the unique timbre and sheer power of amplified slide guitar. There’s an electrified energy to it that nothing else quite matches. In the right hands it can send shivers up your spine, a Midnight Rambler that menaces even as it seduces. Greene is adept at this skill, and pens some superb originals in Rain Stomp and Down to Memphis. He’s a thoughtful lyricist too, avoiding the easy temptation to endlessly recycle blues clichés. Rain Stomp is a song for the Climate Change Era if ever I heard one, especially after the continent-sweeping wildfires of summer 2017. It’s great to hear artists updating the blues with contemporary issues. After all, the blues started as the music of covert social protest, of slaves using language with the skill and subtlety of the most educated poet to communicate the injustice of slavery. With all the hard-won freedom artists now have to speak, the least they can do is write songs that address what we all must cope with in the 21st century. And—just like their forebears—give us a good time while doing it!

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Joy Kogawa: Walking the Path of Reconciliation

  1. Seeking the Hidden Voice of Mercy

“Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.

They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.

And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.

Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.

Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.

It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.”

—Leonard Cohen, Sisters of Mercy

At age 82, Order of Canada recipient Joy Kogawa continues to challenge both herself and her audiences. As part of The Langham’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Japanese Canadian internment, ‘Memory and Reflection,’ the author appeared with the Tasai Collective in the performance A Suitcase of Memories. The Langham’s newly air-conditioned theatre was packed for the event the evening of July 11.

Joy Kogawa entrance

Joy Kogawa performs at The Langham, July 11, 2017. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Kogawa is touring to promote her new nonfiction book Gently to Nagasaki, which she says is a reply to the statement in her famous novel Obasan that there is no reply to that story. Both books focus on Japanese Canadian families torn apart by war and internment, hewing closely to Kogawa’s own family experience. Her father, raised as a Buddhist in Japan, was converted to Christianity in Canada and became a priest in the Anglican church. Christian allegory informs her attempts to reconcile both the horrific atom bombing of Nagasaki and the discovery that her father had been a pedophile. Kogawa in Gently to Nagasaki notes that one of Japan’s largest Christian communities was located in that city when it was destroyed. The terrible irony is that it had survived centuries of domestic persecution before being wiped out by America, a Christian nation. She notes that the Christian injunction to forgive even your enemies is a command, not an option. Much of her life’s work has been about finding a way to do just that.

“The freeing voice is what is in that reply to Obasan,” she told the Kaslo audience. “The new book is a scream for the presence of mercy because I could not live without it.”

Rather than simply do a reading from the book, Kogawa chose to work with the Vancouver-based Tasai Collective, comprised of poet/performer Soramaru Takayama, performer Yurie Hoyoyon and director Steve Frost. In Japanese ‘tasai’ means multifaceted or multi-talented. Passages from Gently to Nagasaki were read by Kogawa in English, then by Takayama in Japanese, and then simultaneously. “The two together are being given full voice,” says director Frost, who worked with Takayama on the translations. “It’s a collision of words and something new comes out of it. For people who are bilingual it brings it all together. For Joy, hearing the Japanese, which she grew up hearing, was comforting.”

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Soramaru Takayama as the Clown in ‘A Suitcase of Memories’ with Joy Kogawa. The Langham Cultural Centre, Kaslo, BC, July 11, 2017. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The performance was presented in three sequences: The Balloon of Silence, A Suitcase of Memories and The Tree Fable. In the first sequence Takayama appeared as a clown miming the ever growing of the ‘balloon of silence.’ This illustrates what happens when grievous mistakes are made that people refuse to talk about or apologize for, as during the initial decades after the internment. The clown’s childlike innocence was the perfect foil for the heaviness of individual and collective guilt. It was impossible not to be charmed by Takayama’s performance.

In A Suitcase of Memories, Kogawa read a poem that appears in Gently to Nagasaki, invoking the Goddess of Mercy. “The goddess of mercy and goddess of abundance, which are the same, came to me in a dream,” she told the audience. Takayama reappeared as the clown, lugging a heavy suitcase and pulling out its contents to decide what to keep and what to leave behind. Only when the suitcase has been lightened enough can he keep moving, keeping only memories and the reasons for the journey. Kogawa continues the journey with the blessing of the goddess, who reassures her, “I am with you… in the terror and at the heart of what you most fear, I am with you. Through the long dark night of every absence, I am with you, therefore fear not.”

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Joy Kogawa in ‘The Tree Fable’ at The Langham, Kaslo, BC. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The Tree Fable was a piece she’d written for Gently to Nagasaki but which the editors had removed. Kogawa explained how, during a wistful visit to the family home in Vancouver, she discovered a withered old tree in the back yard. Inexplicably drawn to it, she felt something akin to love at first sight, the empathic response of two wounded beings. Returning a few days later, she put her hand on the bark of the tree and felt “a sensation, not as strong as a jolt but distinctly warm” course through her arm. “What struck me at that instant was the sense of a Presence. The life of which I was a part, my family’s life, my community’s life, everything that was done to any of us or by any of us—everything—all the good, all the evil, all the shame, all the secrets, all the kindness, all the sorrow, all, all, all, was fully known. A tide within me surged forth and I acknowledged the Knowing as the Presence of Love.” For Kogawa it was another step on the path to healing. The Tree Fable is one of several fables that had been written for the book but edited out. She says there’s a possibility they could appear in a future children’s book.

“One of the things I love about this show is that the kids love it,” says Frost. “It’s a combination of the cultural and the poetic. Words are rooted in each culture and when you bring those things together something else gets made.”

Some may feel that the breezy, almost comic approach taken in A Suitcase of Memories actually avoids the grave topic at hand. Kogawa told the audience her goal with the show was to try to “make a heavy thing lighter.” She leaves the reconciliation of history’s crimes to others. Gently to Nagasaki is about a lifelong spiritual journey to reconcile herself with her personal history. It’s a lifelong quest she’s accomplished with impressive grace and wisdom. Neither her written words nor her soft-spoken presence betrays bitterness. “You can’t love people you can’t see. The job is to find out what is hidden from you. That’s the task of this book. Eventually we’ll get there. Sometimes the arc of loving the enemy gets longer, but eventually it gets there.”

  1. Walking the Path of Reconciliation: Interview

“If I could follow the stream down and down to the hidden voice, would I come at last to the freeing word?” —Joy Kogawa, Gently to Nagasaki

NOTE: While the Truth and Reconciliation hearings into the residential schools that damaged or destroyed generations of First Nations people are still top of mind, I thought it appropriate to ask Kogawa about her own journey of reconciliation, and how she uses her art to this end.

JOYCE: I’m fascinated by the way you have dedicated so much of your life to reconciliation, for example your work with the Green family of Kaslo in 2012, and also with the difficult issue of your father. What prompted you to choose this path? You could easily have chosen to avoid it, as many in the JC community have done.

KOGAWA: I am guided by certain notions that I imbibed from Western values, i.e. being truthful. My mother was also a very truthful person, which is a value she picked up from English missionaries. Without truth there is no reconciliation. Without reconciliation we have ongoing suffering.

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Joy Kogawa and Takayama at The Langham. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

JOYCE: It must have been very hard dealing with your father’s legacy. If you’re prepared to talk about that, how has this been progressing?

KOGAWA: I’m exhausted by the ongoing-ness of it. And I have too much to say about it. NOTE: In Gently to Nagasaki Kogawa explores how she came to terms with this legacy of child abuse. She writes of suffering debilitating bouts of nausea in reaction to it: “When I’d first learned of this impossiblity as a teenager, my psyche and my soma convulsed. I did not stop loving him, although at times the roiling within caused my skin to crawl.” During a trip to Japan with her father in his later years she confronted him about it, something not traditionally done in Japanese culture. It was a painful object lesson in just how emotionally complex these legacies are. Simple forgiveness is never simple, even in a culture where children are taught to honour their parents. She speaks of the paradox of her father’s nature, both healer and abuser. As a minister, “very often he sensed the needs of people who were ill, people on the brink of death, people suffering from some calamity. He would phone. He would write. More than once I had driven him to visit a family of someone who was sick or in crisis.” It was during this trip to Japan that she had the dream of the Goddess of Mercy and Abundance, helping her reconcile these wrenching forces.

JOYCE: Let’s talk about your performance tonight at the Langham. You’re collaborating with poet Soramaru Takayama in what is being billed as ‘a poem within a poem.’ How did this collaboration come about? What excites you about it?

KOGAWA: They were among the people at a book launch for Gently to Nagasaki at my childhood home in Marpole and they asked if I would collaborate with them. I thought, ‘Why not?’ The exciting thing is getting to know them bit by bit, the competence, the spontaneity, the flexibility, the willingness to serve, the humility and modesty, the helpfulness, the kindness and gentleness is part of who they are. And on top of that, they are talented and open. Of course I don’t know them very well since we’ve just met a few times and we know we are all flawed. But I am drawn by the ideas that have been generated so far by Soramaru.

JOYCE: Genre boundaries seem to be breaking down, as artists cross-pollinate more and more between genres and even different artistic disciplines. Do you see this as a positive development for writers?

KOGAWA: I see it as an evolution, not just for writers but towards more holistic ways of knowing.

JOYCE: What role do you see poetry playing in activism? Clearly your work has a strong activist element. Do you think poetry can change peoples’ perceptions?

KOGAWA: Poetry opens the mind and heart for those who have ears for poetry. We are all multi-faceted and some are more dependent on their eyes, etc. But it seems to me that when the mind and heart are engaged, action is a natural outcome.

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Convergence Writers’ event provokes thoughtful writing

It’s clear from daily news headlines from around the world that we’re living in a fractured time, a time when politicians and extremists exploit the divisions between us. This year’s Convergence Writers’ Weekend theme, ‘We Will Not Be Separated,’ aimed to counter this trend. Held at New Denver’s Knox Hall June 16 and 17, it attracted 26 people to the community for writing workshops, readings and discussions. Convergence was established in 2012, making this our fifth such event. Writing instructors Gary Geddes and Carolyn Pogue provided their perspectives on writing for social justice in a way that motivates and inspires readers.

Renowned Canadian poet, author and anthologist Gary Geddes speaks at Convergence. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Friday evening the public was invited to hear Geddes and Pogue speak. Geddes is the author or editor of 50 books over a 40-year career as a poet and nonfiction author. His newest book, Medicine Unbundled, is an account of Canada’s segregated health care system for indigenous people. His poem on the native residential schools, The Resumption of Play, won the Malahat Long Poem prize last year. Geddes spoke of writing as an act of reconciliation with the atrocities of history, that the writer is “the ventriloquist of history.” He rebuked the notion that politics and poetry have no place together. In fact, politics and poetry have been closely intertwined since Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, and even earlier. Geddes used Homer’s story of the Trojan horse as a metaphor for “the failure of diplomacy and foreign policy, a story that warned us long ago about the kind of conditions that could lead to the attacks of 9/11 or the election of a president such as Donald Trump.” In this respect the writer helps us “understand our destructive impulses,” in hopes of cultivating “more sensitive forms of government and a more enduring social contract.”

Poetry itself, said Geddes, is a kind of Trojan horse. He calls it “a subversive force… that gets under the skin, into the bones,” and “a healing art.” Poetry begins with the child’s love of language, her embrace of nonsense syllables, of songs and stories full of magical elements. Often at times of great national tragedy world leaders recite poems to comfort the afflicted. A superb example of this was in the wake of the Manchester terrorist attack when Tony Walsh (a.k.a. Longfella) read his poem This is the Place at a memorial ceremony. As Geddes aptly puts it: “In moments of extreme joy or grief or loss we return to poetry, that rich, primal language of the heart.” (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/05/place-poem-tony-walsh-read-manchester-attack-vigil)

United Church minister and author Carolyn Pogue speaks at Convergence. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Pogue through her volunteer work with the United Church was involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Edmonton. The church has apologized for its role in the native residential schools and Pogue’s writing is dedicated to healing such wounds. Part of her work includes a peace camp for kids, and many of her books are aimed at children. The theme of her workshop was ‘Writing to Reconcile.’ She spoke to the Convergence theme of separation, noting how the divide and conquer strategy was used against the Lubicon Cree land claim negotiations. “Obviously, separation weakens, so would-be – fake – leaders like to separate people. Having grown up on a farm and lived many years in the NWT, I saw that separation sometimes kills. Literally.”

Currently a Calgary resident, she also spoke of the challenges of living in a technology-immersed culture. “Smart phones and gizmos like it are sold as something to bring us together, yet when I look around me in a restaurant or on public transit, I’m not seeing conversations or people making eye contact. Spontaneous conversations are more rare. People don’t even look out the window to see if the ice is moving in the river, or how the clouds over the distant Rockies are catching the glow of the sun. I saw a great sign in a restaurant. It read, ‘We don’t have Wi-Fi. Pretend it’s 1995 and just talk to each other.’” Pogue then read a children’s story she wrote called The Wall, a well-crafted allegory that illustrated how ‘walls’ of separation are built with bricks of intolerance, hate and ignorance.

Registrants convened again after dinner to give readings of poems or stories they’d brought to the workshops for critique. This was followed by a wrap-up discussion in an open format. It was pointed out that, despite living in such a fractured time, recent scientific discoveries are shattering the old paradigms that have divided us. For example, the old ‘dumb animal’ trope is being laid to rest by discoveries of complex communication systems and family dynamics that often mirror our own. Dr. Therese Descamp, who studied for her phD in cognitive linguistics at UC Berkeley with professor George Lakoff, explained how this field has clearly demonstrated the common biological basis for all human language. This counters the divisive idea that language structures are arbitrary and culturally isolated from one another. And the field of epigenetics is proving how deeply we are linked to our family past and how subsequent generations can heal from inherited trauma.

New Denver poet Judy Wapp reading her work at Convergence. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Political operatives have successfully exploited the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy against progressives, forcing people to deal with identity politics, valley-by-valley environmental struggles, and the twisted logic of capitalism. This has often worked against a united front on issues such as global climate change. Author Joanna Macy has said part of the problem with climate change is that we have not found a way to publicly grieve for it. Tom Wayman spoke of a recent New Yorker article that asked why dystopias are so prevalent in current film and fiction. What does it mean when a society can’t seem to envision utopias anymore? Some thought that maybe dystopias are a form of grieving. Pogue quoted Josh Stearns, an American journalist, who said: “We cannot create a world we can’t imagine. Stories are the engines of our imaginations.” If we want a better world, we have to first envision it before we can build it.

One person asked us to consider who was not present in the discussion circle that evening—youth or First Nations people. However, it was pointed out that from the very beginning of Convergence in 2012 we have offered a youth scholarship, which has been granted to two applicants so far. Last year we invited Colville Sinixt spokesperson Virgil Seymour to be a special guest in our panel discussion. Sadly, Seymour died shortly after last year’s event. Another registrant said that while he appreciates what young people are doing on protests against pipelines, he thinks the real work is being done by those youth participating in environmental monitoring or restoration programs, in particular the local Slocan Lake Stewardship Society. Yet this too risks a division between ‘worthy’ and ‘less worthy’ actions. If we only do environmental remediation, then we risk becoming little more than capitalism’s clean-up crew. If we only do protest action, we risk being dismissed as radicals. Both are important, and clear public demands for drastic changes in policy are essential. Each tile forms a piece of the total mosaic.

Convergence registrant Annie Ferncase reads at the Saturday night session. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, white Canadians are understandably feeling a lot of guilt over how we’ve treated our First Nations. It’s an important step in reconciliation but there’s a risk of division here too. We can’t quantify suffering by privileging one person’s pain over another. Suffering is suffering, whether it’s First Nations survivors of residential schools, the families of refugees, British home children, or anyone else. This actually builds compassion, preventing us from dismissing someone’s suffering because it’s not our own, or because we don’t understand it. We will not be separated if we look for what unites us, whether it’s a shared compassion for pain or our dreams for building a better world.

NOTE: To correct an oversight, I must thank our Convergence sponsors: the ProVision fund of the United Church BC Conference; Regional District of Central Kootenay Area H Director Walter Popoff for discretionary funding; and Oso Negro coffee for providing first-class, locally roasted coffee. A shorter version of this article has appeared in the Valley Voice. www.valleyvoice.ca

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New Jason Ricci album reinvents blues originality

It’s not often I write a track-by-track review so when I do you know that an album has fully captured my attention. (See my review of the Thornetta Davis album Honest Woman: https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2017/02/16/thornetta-davis-a-new-blues-classic/) Approved by Snakes by Jason Ricci and the Bad Kind is by far the most eclectic and successful blend of genres I’ve ever heard on a blues album.

jason20ricciJust judging by Ricci’s photo on the CD, “the Mooncat” is as much influenced by punk as he is blues, but clearly he’s a magpie for whom no ingredient is off the menu. As Paul Linden writes in the liner notes: “In the box, out the box, kick a hole in the box, if artistic freedom has shit to do with the Big Easy being a global music center, it’s in your hands right now.” I’m just old enough to remember the days of analogue LPs with liner notes the length of a short Rolling Stone article. I loved reading them all and regretted the era when they went out of fashion. If there were an award for most original liner notes, Linden would get my vote: “This record steps out from behind a tattered shade like a hooker hanging her plump thigh over the crowd below. As each succeeding side is thrust out—shamelessly or with passing modesty—the grime in the pavement starts to hiss and sizzle with anticipation.”

The song titles alone cue you to the fact that this is not your typical blues album. It leads off with My True Love is a Dope Whore, chooglin’ down the track with Ricci’s haunting blues harp and an almost breathless spoken word introduction. Ricci signals from track one that his lyrics are more concerned with sociological observation than moaning over lost loves. In my listening experience, few musicians are equally gifted as lyricists and composers, and in blues especially there’s a tendency to dwell on domestic quarrels or disappointments. Modern blues musicians too often forget that the blues originated as a covert form of social protest against slavery. Forget Son House’s famous axiom that “there ain’t but one kinda blues, and that consists of the male and female that’s in love.”  Early blues lyrics were often blistering rants written in clever code so “the Man” would miss it, while anyone on the wrong side of the social divide knew instantly what was being referred to. In other words, the early blues masters were also intuitive masters of that age-old poetic device, the metaphor. These days with the increased freedom of expression in the media, it’s not as necessary to cloak social protest in literary devices. But for the artist devoted to craft, it still doesn’t hurt to write lyrics that work simultaneously on several levels.

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Jason Ricci reinvents the blues on ‘Approved by Snakes.’ Courtesy band website.

And how many blues albums are stocked with numbers that stretch to nearly ten minutes, unless you’re talking a live jam of Got My Mojo Workin’ or Sweet Home Chicago? (There are four such tunes here and several that average close to seven minutes.) Ricci and the Bad Kind are clever enough musicians to make the long workout a many-textured, seamless ride without merely filling up space. Something Just Arrived, in true poetic fashion, has me wondering what exactly the singer is suggesting, and its mid-tempo lurch and grind carries us along nicely. Demon Lover slows it down to an atmospheric crawl, with minimal percussion and chord swells to create a suitably spooky vibe along with Ricci’s almost whispered vocals. Here again Ricci is tapping into a mythic vein that has been explored by writers for millennia—the succubus or night spirit of ancient legend. The guitarist’s swells from nothing to an echoey fullness and then back to nothing again are apt sonic evocations of the elusive night spirit. One of the longest songs on the album, its length allows a painstakingly slow climb to crescendo that holds you mesmerized.

The mood shifts uptempo for My Mom’s Gonna Yell At You, with a vocal line carried by the entire band, creating a sing-songy groove that could become an off-kilter radio hit with the right amount of luck and timing. (Two of the most essential elements in the tripod of success—clearly talent alone isn’t enough.)

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Ricci’s blues harp technique is reminiscent of the late great Paul Butterfield, but ‘the Mooncat’ takes it places even he never imagined. Courtesy T-Bois Blues Festival.

But just in case you were thinking Ricci and the Bad Kind were gearing up for the Parents’ Seal of Approval, next comes Broken Toy/I Fink U Freaky, a hybrid number that merits the “Warning: Explicit Lyrics” label on the CD. “I’m too well for the hospital / I’m too sick for the healthy… Just an outsider and a misfit / not your girl and not your boy… I feel just like a broken toy… I’m too fucked up for this little world / I’m too straight for the faggots / I’m too queer for all the little girls…” Ricci delivers the lines in an agonized tone just short of a wail—the tormented voice of the nonconformist relegated to outsider status and cast to the fringes of society. Late in the song it breaks into a semi-demented bridge, Ricci twisting his harmonica tone even further out of shape than usual and a solo guitar freak-out. The chorus of “I think you’re freaky and I like you a lot,” is a reassuring counterpoint to the singer’s isolation.

The closest the band comes to a jam is on Listen Here, introduced by a funky bass line played by Andy Kurz. By this point in the album you already know these guys know their stuff inside and out, but this is no mere filler. Ricci shifts seamlessly from a Buddy Guy-like vocal sandpapered around the edges into a double-time rap. Ricci uses this tune to demonstrate his blues harp chops—he reminds me of the fluency and tone of the late great Paul Butterfield.

Terrors of Nightlife has the feel of Sticky Fingers-era Stones, a bourbon-soaked voice laid over an acoustic guitar line graced with sweet-as-honey electric slide guitar. It’s not hard to imagine Keith Richards singing this one. Ricci’s harp solo has gorgeous echoes of Sonny Terry. The tune has the sweet, aching melancholy of the Stones’ Coming Down Again from Goat’s Head Soup. The cracking hard light of Ricci’s morning-after-blues is aptly followed by Got Cleaned Up, a jaunty number that—along with I’m Too Strong For You—is probably the closest to a standard blues romp this band gets. Disconnect gives us another golden opportunity to hear the Mooncat’s ripping harp set against an unconventional instrumental backdrop.

This is a highly diversified, deeply textured and thoroughly well-crafted album. I recommend it highly—a 4.5 out of five stars from me. Pre-order Approved by Snakes here: http://www.mooncat.org

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March of the Blues Divas

You could be forgiven for thinking the glory days of the blues are mostly in the past. The fragmentation of audience fostered by the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse to artists seeking to build a reputation. So it’s a great discovery to find that there’s a whole new generation of blues artists out there, with stellar standouts like Thornetta Davis, Mississippi Heat, and Reverend Freakchild, to name only three.

And all of these new blues acts have the benefit of a century of blues tradition to draw upon. So it’s not surprising that the myriad artists represented by Frank Roszak represent a broad spectrum of mix-and-match blues stylings. Like a Cajun gumbo, a little of everything gets stirred into the pot—zydeco, Delta, Chicago, folk, rock and at times even a little rap or punk. Blues musicians have an easier time than ever crafting a unique sound, even if cutting through the haze of a saturated music market remains a major challenge.

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The amazing Thornetta Davis, whose album ‘Honest Woman’ gets five stars from me. Image courtesy of the Windsor Star.

Of the many albums Roszak has sent my way, I find it interesting that many of the standouts are women artists. It’s as if this new wave of creativity has unleashed the March of the Blues Divas, as competent and diverse as their male counterparts. Broadly speaking, though, they seem to fall on either side of the stylistic divide—on one side you have the more commercial ‘Smooth Blues’ of Lauren Mitchell, Laura Tate, Lisa Biales and Gina Sicilia. On the other you have what I call the ‘Gutbucket Blues’—the floorboard-ripping, raw blues of Eliza Neal, Thornetta Davis and Polly O’Keary and The Rhythm Method and the soul-blues of Janiva Magness. Also in this category would be the acoustic roots-blues of Holly and Jon. The amazing Tony Braunagel, both a drummer and an excellent producer, is behind at many of the emerging blues divas. Braunagel has a golden ear for production and these women are lucky to have him in their stable. His mixes are always bright, rich and with beautiful separation and imaging of the various instruments. I tend to prefer my blues on the rougher side of town—the Gutbucket Blues that kicked off with Muddy Waters and Albert King and was excellently rendered during the Mick Taylor years of the Rolling Stones and Canned Heat. To me, nothing beats a fluent slide guitar solo fed through a Marshall stack, something Taylor mastered at a precocious age.

‘Gutbucket’ Blues—with Soul

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Eliza Neals: rockin’ the blues in the Stones tradition. Courtesy band website.

Eliza Neals’ album 10,000 Feet Below has some fine, speaker-shredding slide guitar work courtesy of Howard Glazer, and her voice has an earthy, raw-edged timbre. In the finest Taylor-era Stones tradition, stellar tracks include Call Me Moonshine, You Ain’t My Dog No More and Hard Killing Floor, songs I return to often. As a blues singer Neals easily gives Jagger a run for his money. Glazer is as fluent and gutsy an electric blues player as Taylor, though he prefers a nastier growl to his tone, which is fine by me. This is the real deal. Unfortunately, the mix-down too often buries the instruments in an aural sludge that competes with rather than supports this fine artist. She should get Braunagel to produce her next album or remix this one. http://www.elizaneals.com/10000-feet-below-new-blues-rock-album-from-eliza-neals-2172017/

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Grammy nominated Janiva Magness: deep down soul. Courtesy band website.

Janiva Magness on her six-track EP Blue Again keeps the instrumentation simple but starkly effective, providing an ideal vehicle for her richly soulful, almost Motown voice. In true roots-blues tradition, she opts for flourishes of blues harp, Hammond organ and punchy guitar solos rather than horns or string sections. Magness duets with Sugar Ray Rayford on If I Can’t Have You, soaring to new heights of soulfulness. The compact length of this album is a reminder in this age of filler that less is more—there isn’t a wasted track here. Her previous album Love Wins Again was nominated for a Grammy and she gets a shout-out from the iconic Mavis Staples: “Sista Janiva’s robust and soulful voice is showering each cut with determination to make us all fall in love. Her delivery is as always sincere and straight from the heart. Soul music is alive and kicking.” http://janivamagness.com

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Polly O’Keary lets it rip on Black Crow Callin’. Courtesy band website.

Another fine Gutbucket Blues album is Polly O’Keary and The Rhythm Method on Black Crow Callin’. A power blues trio in the finest sense of the term, O’Keary handles vocals and bass with equal proficiency, and guitarist David Miller is a revelation. With drummer Tommy Cook, the band creates a tight, dynamic blues-rock groove occasionally supplemented by Hammond B3 organ, harmonica and The Powerhouse Horns. The songwriting is consistently strong and catchy without ever losing its driving edge—Hard-Hearted World, A Man Who Can Stand, and Red Light pick you up by the shirt collar and before you know it you’re settling into the slow blues groove of title track Black Crow Callin’. Miller’s crisp, clean Stratocaster solo propels the song to another level. Reconciled is another standout, a soulful ballad that gives O’Keary a chance to soften her rough edges. http://www.pollyokeary.com

All three of these albums will remain on my playlist!

The Smooth Blues department

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Lauren Mitchell crafts a smooth, engaging album on ‘Desire.’ Image courtesy Lauren Mitchell band website.

Lauren Mitchell’s album Desire features a diverse stable of songwriters, including Mitchell herself, with covers of songs originally performed by Etta James, Bettye Lavette, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Betty Davis. Mitchell’s smoky vibrato is liberally supported by backing vocalists and soaring horns, giving her crooners a radio-friendly sheen that should appeal to a wide audience. But Mitchell can rock it out too, as in stellar tracks Desire, Jump Into My Fire, I Ain’t Been Licked Yet and Brown Liquor, a Mitchell original reminiscent of Take Me To The River. Reggie McBride provides a funky bass groove on the obscure Anti-Love Song, allowing Mitchell’s vocal improvisation full flight. But this isn’t an album for people who love guitar, horn or keyboard solos—everything is kept brisk and to the point. Given how tight the performances and arrangements are, it’s incredible this album was recorded in just ten days at Braunagel’s Los Angeles studio. It’s testament once again to the man’s genius for production. http://laurenmitchellband.com

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Laura Tate’s ‘Let’s Just Be Real’ is a well-rounded mix of pop, blues and light jazz. Image courtesy band website.

Laura Tate on Let’s Just Be Real similarly draws from a wide, sometimes surprising range of songwriters. Tate’s voice and vocal style leans even more heavily toward blues-inflected pop than Mitchell. She gives Terry Wilson and Teresa James a special shout-out for their help with the album. Wilson—who performed with the legendary Eric Burdon—plays bass here and is the writer of If That Ain’t Love, a snappy jazz-blues number. Wilson is also producer of the album and co-writer with James of I’ll Find Someone Who Will, a brisk, horn-driven tune. Tate offers a seductive spoken word intro to Can’t Say No before shifting gears for her interpretation of Thin Lizzy’s rock classic The Boys Are Back in Town. This could have been a huge misstep, but she wisely chooses a downbeat, lounge jazz rendering that shouldn’t work but somehow does, and beautifully. If anything, it makes the tune far more interesting than the original. Here again Braunagel’s presence is felt, though primarily as drummer, not producer. https://www.musicbylauratate.com

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Gina Sicilia goes beyond covers to craft a nearly all-original album on ‘Tug of War.’ Image courtesy The Bluegrass Special.

Gina Sicilia on her seventh album Tug of War is intent upon proving herself not just as a singer but an original tunesmith. She wrote seven of the album’s eleven tunes and co-wrote I Don’t Want to Be in Love with Dave Darling, who plays guitar and bass. Sicilia’s voice is well-rounded, never harsh and always deep. But this isn’t truly a blues album, except in spirit. According to American Blues Scene, the album was made in Nashville on the heels of a traumatic event in her life, prompting “a period of really challenging myself as a songwriter.” The Nashville influence is most prominently heard in I’ll Stand Up, yet never slips into country music kitsch or sentimentality. There’s a tasty acoustic guitar solo in Never Gonna End by Ron Jennings, who provides restrained, to-the-point guitar throughout. Abandoned has a catchy hook and a mid-tempo groove propelled by Jennings’ snappy electric guitar work. Sicilia slickly updates the Sixties pop classic Tell Him by Bert Berns. Her rendition of the Lennon-McCartney tune All My Loving I found less convincing. The album matches Braunagel’s high standard of production, thanks to Glenn Barratt and Dave Darling. https://www.americanbluesscene.com/2017/05/gina-sicilia-life-tug-war/ http://www.blueelan.com/gina-sicilia-store/gina-sicilia-tug-of-war-cd-pre-order

I’ll deal with the male blues artists I’ve been listening to in a separate review.

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Popular Kootenay duo Freya releases debut CD

Noel Fudge and Martine denBok, collectively known as the duo Freya, have just released their much-anticipated debut CD. The album contains eight original songs performed on guitar, violin and viola, with an alternate version of one track. The cover art for the album was created by New Denver, BC encaustic artist Louise Ducharme. Anyone who has heard this accomplished duo perform can testify to the beautiful sonic textures they create together. Freya will launch the new album at the Silverton Memorial Hall on Saturday, June 24 at 7 pm and at the Vallican Whole on July 8 at 7 pm.

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Noel Fudge and Martine denBok of Freya. Photo courtesy ICandy Films.

Noel is a versatile composer and guitarist, whose accomplishments include film scores, choral and orchestral works, and singer-songwriter material. His instrumental music has been commissioned as soundtracks for ICandy Films video productions. He holds a BFA in composition from Simon Fraser University. Noel wrote and performed with the band Crop Circle, a group that received extensive airplay and toured Western Canada, opening for ZZ Top and Bif Naked. A popular music teacher, he established Fudge Music Factory in Maple Ridge nearly 25 years ago prior to moving to New Denver in 2015. He teaches guitar, bass, composition and brass instruments. Last year he composed the soundtrack to the performance poetry suite Dead Crow: Prologue by Sean Arthur Joyce.

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The encaustic artwork created by Louise Ducharme for the Freya CD cover.

“Part of the story of the CD is the connection between us,” he says. “From the moment we first played Sue together we realized we had to keep going with this. It doesn’t really fit into a genre – there’s elements of folk, classical, jazz and contemporary music that pushes the boundaries.”

When I ask him the usual question about his musical influences, he rattles off a decidedly unconventional list that includes obscure guitarists Andy McKee and Tommy Immanuel. But for Noel it’s a moot point. “The music of Freya, to be honest, isn’t reflective of my musical influences. It’s a compositional approach. I consider myself a composer before a guitar player. I wanted to create something that was both technically challenging but also beautiful melodically.”

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Freya in beautiful New Denver, BC. Photo courtesy ICandy Films.

Martine denBok has a master’s degree in music performance from University of Victoria and bachelor of music in violin performance from University of Alberta. She is the current principal second violinist for the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra. Previously she performed with the Symphony of the Kootenays, Galiano Ensemble and Die Mahler String Quartet, both in Victoria. As with many musicians, performance has been a part of her life from an early age. Her training includes choral music, and she has performed with Kokopelli Choir, the sister choir to Corazon. While living in Edmonton, she performed with an all-girl band known as Combo Platter as well as the string quartet String Beans. Not afraid to range outside the classical canon, with these groups she performed everything from chamber music to songs by Coldplay, Queen and Metallica. She says you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the classic Jimi Hendrix song Purple Haze played on violin. Improvisation isn’t something that comes naturally to most classically trained musicians. But Martine found herself adapting easily to Freya’s mode of composition.

“I think my melodic mind is one that comes from a singing voice,” she says. “The ability for me to improvise has come from just being comfortable with the other artist I’m performing with, and that there are no wrong notes. The process for me when tunes were brought to the table was to just listen, over and over again. And then take up the instrument and see what fits.”

Freya’s compositional approach differs from the standard model of having one musician playing the melody while the other supplies the basic chord progression. Instead, the guitar and violin interweave throughout every song, adding unique and complementary textures and tones. “I think we always set Freya out to be a duo that has both technical and musical capabilities,” says Noel. “But we put the music first – the composition. If there’s something really technical to learn, we put in the time to do that, but not just to show off. It has to fit the theme. When I met Martine it was a really easy synthesis because she understood that as a symphony musician.”

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Noel & Martine of Freya: making beautiful music together. Courtesy ICandy Films.

Although the album is instrumental, each song is a journey. “Every single song has a story to tell—our personal story,” says Noel, “and I don’t think it would do justice to it to have a single word on it.” This becomes startlingly clear on songs like No Words, as eloquent a statement of love and longing as could be imagined in the absence of lyrics. Another example is the song Kyoto, whose sonic landscape reflects the city itself, with its uneasy juxtaposition of the ancient and modern. Pleiades references literary themes connected with the actual constellation, originating in ancient Greek myths but also appearing in First Nations stories of the Seven Sisters. The bonus version of Mistress has a special guest appearance by bass guitar legend Don Schiff, who has performed with Elvis Presley, Pat Benatar, Tina Turner and other greats.

“The music is so balanced,” says Martine. “You really hear how the instruments support each other, with the exception of No Words which is all guitar. One of the reasons it’s hard for people with instrumental music is to find a way into it. For example, once you know that Mozart wrote the opera Don Giovanni about his Dad, it opens up the whole piece. In Pleiades, it really is about the constellation; there are different themes introduced for the different characters. In the end it doesn’t matter what our story is. It’s the individual’s perception of it, their response to it, that brings meaning to the music for them.”

Fortunately for Freya’s fast-growing fan base, the duo already has enough material for a second album, which will take a more lyrical approach. Many of the new songs have already been performed live at their concerts. The duo is constantly on the lookout for instruments that can add new texture to their music. The day I interviewed them, Martine had just picked up an octave violin, something I’d never heard of. “It’s actually a viola that’s tuned to regular violin tuning but sounds somewhere between a viola and a cello,” she explains. The resulting tone is considerably lower than a violin, with a lovely, resonant bass. Last year Martine picked up a beautiful vintage accordion and quickly became proficient at it.

“Freya will always be a duo,” says Noel, “but we love playing with other people so we’re meeting with a drummer and a bass player for our larger shows, at least for certain songs. It’s always what’s best for the piece.”

To order the album visit fortheloveoffreya.ca.

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Convergence Writers’ Weekend a Unique Opportunity

by Sean Arthur Joyce and Tom Wayman

The deadline is fast approaching for the chance to have your imaginative writing responded to by one of Canada’s best known activist authors at the 4th annual Convergence Writers’ Weekend in beautiful New Denver, BC. Nestled in the Valhalla Mountains and on the shores of pristine Slocan Lake, it’s an inspiring setting for writers. Join authors Gary Geddes and Carolyn Pogue for a fascinating weekend of writing workshops and discussions. The event will be held this year on Friday, June 16 and Saturday, June 17.

“A house divided against itself will fall,” goes the old proverb. Our house—our world, our community, even our sense of self—is threatened with many issues of ethical dislocation, injustice and dis-ease that can divide us or paralyze our forward momentum. Some of these things are new, some have been with us throughout history. Whatever threats we face, one of our most powerful tools for motivating social progress and justice is the written word.

Every day the world discovers more and more how everything is inter-connected. Our Convergence 2017 theme, We Will Not Be Separated, will focus on exploring positive connections we can make with our own creativity, spirituality and activism. We will learn from and encourage one another. We’ll look at how the world is, and how the world could be. New and seasoned writers are welcome.

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Renowned Canadian poet & author Gary Geddes will teach at this year’s Convergence event.

Convergence 2017 offers registrants a chance to work on their writing with either Carolyn Pogue or Gary Geddes in Saturday workshops. You can hear them speak Friday evening at a session open to the public. And Saturday night an optional session provides the opportunity for registrants to read from their work and to discuss what they’ll take away from Convergence.

“May 19 is the deadline for anybody wishing personal feedback on their writing from invited presenter Gary Geddes,” said Convergence Writers’ Weekend coordinator Nadine Stefan. “Spaces are limited to 25, and we’re half full already.” For people who don’t want to submit samples of their own creative writing, the registration deadline for the June 16 and 17 writers’ weekend is June 1, Stefan said.

Registrants in Geddes’ poetry workshop will learn about line breaks, how to make a poem nest in the ear without depending on rhyme and metrics, or how to turn a local image into a structural component in the poem. “I’d like to show you how to write up a storm, not a perfect storm but one that resonates at the levels of sight, sound and idea.” His most recent collection of poems is The Resumption of Play, which explores the experiences of those forced to endure Indian residential schools.

Those who prefer to explore non-fiction will benefit equally from Geddes’ tutelage. In Drink the Bitter Root, he travelled to Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Somaliland in ‘A Search for Justice and Healing in Africa.’ Geddes’ newest book, Medicine Unbundled, is an account of Canada’s long-time provision of segregated health care for indigenous people.

Reviewing Medicine Unbundled in the Vancouver Sun, Tom Sandborn writes: “Geddes gives a passionate and persuasive account of the devastating impacts of Canadian government policies on the lives and health of this nation’s first peoples. This book deserves to be widely read, and should be acted upon boldly. Anyone who cares about human decency and social justice owes a debt to Gary Geddes and to his indigenous informants.” Geddes has written or edited 50 books.

Carolyn Pogue

Calgary author Carolyn Pogue will be our second featured author at Convergence 2017.

Pogue, too, has written on a variety of topics in her many books. As a descendant of a British Home Child, she has written two young adult novels, Gwen and West Wind Calling, about this aspect of Canadian history, one of which was a finalist for the 2010 City of Calgary Book Prize.

Her other books include Language of the Heart: Ritual, Stories and Information About DeathPart-Time Parent: Learning to Live Without Full Custody, and a follow-up to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Sorry: Why Our Church Apologized, which with other authors explores the United Church’s expression of regret for its part in the residential schools. Pogue also co-founded a peace camp for kids, and contributes a twice-monthly column to the United Church Observer.

Pogue’s Write the Spirit workshop will encourage seasoned and beginning writers to explore how the world is and how the world can be. Using “freefall” writing, discussion and a variety of exercises registrants will explore possibilities for peace, justice and healing within ourselves, our country and our planet. Work in any genre you choose.

Convergence is supported by the ProVision fund of the United Church’s B.C. Conference, and by the Regional District of Central Kootenay’s Area H Director, Walter Popoff.

Registration fee of $45 plus GST = $47.25 covers all events Friday and Saturday. Friday’s session is open to non-registrants by donation.

http://widespot.ca/convergence-writers-weekend/

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