Sunday, April 13, 2008

Melody musing

Another great night of music, this time courtesy of Anne Schaefer, Paul O'Brien, Alison Vardy and members of the quartet. Anne gave us a peek into her new upcoming CD, a "concept" album that revolves around an assortment of intriguing characters culled from her slightly quirky imagination: idiosyncratic, confessional characters, each with a markedly different feel for life. What makes this is a significant departure from Anne's last CD is the punchy, almost raucous rhythm of several of her new tunes and a kind of contrapuntal relationship between the music and lyric. Great song writer and a dry appealing sense of humour that the audience really tapped into.

Paul O'Brien hails from Birmingham, England. His parents, though, are Irish-born and bred, which as Paul explained last night has caused him some chagrin. Seems his claim of Irish roots has been met with scepticism on the part of a few Irishmen who refer to anyone of Irish descent who's not actually been born there as "a plastic". Paul described the humiliation he felt because of the term in a song of the same name (also the name of his new upcoming CD). If his new CD out next month is anything like his last it's a must buy.

I first heard Alison Vardy at the Victoria Folk Club several months ago. As the date for the annual Buddhist Centre Benefit Concert arrived I remembered the magical effect her harp work had on the audience and gave her a call. She agreed to play and from that moment on I knew we had a terrific line-up for April 12. Alison did not disappoint. Her deft and fluid fingering on the Celtic harp entranced us all.

Very gratified by the response to Nancy and I as we sang a few new tunes, in particular “Tender Mercies” by Eliza Gilkyson, a song that attempts to reconcile the feelings of hope and despair that permeate Western and Middle Eastern societies. A touching, spare piece of music that I fell in love with the moment I heard her sing it at the Edmonton Music Festival a few years back.

For more info and music by last night’s performers check out these websites:

Thursday, April 10, 2008

On the Road Again

Well, it's been an amazing few weeks...beginning with a wonderful audience at the Dancing Bean Cafe in Chemainus March 29. Normally, I shy away from playing dining rooms. Who really wants to compete with the Blue Plate Special, after all? The Dancing Bean crowd is a little different, however, in that they care as much about listening to good music as they do about eating good food (great food, in fact! try it if you're ever out that way). In short, they're warmly receptive, applauding loudly at the end of each song and listening with particular care to the softer ballads like “Patty Jane and Her Merchant Marine” and “Kelly's Boat”. Several come up to us after the gig to thank us and to chat.

First Sales

That evening was also the first time we had the CD for sale. To my enormous delight 9 discs go out the door at night’s end - fitting tribute to the purchasers’ taste, if I may say so. And as always happens when we have a good night the quartet laughes and kibitzes with the cafĂ© owner and staff before piling into one lone vehicle and heading back to Victoria with yours truly at the wheel. A rough, rainy night on the Malahat but I manage to get my charges home safely.

My Second Home

A few months ago someone told me the Victoria Folk Club has never had a CD launch - something about not wanting to give up the Open Stage and the desire by some musicians to make a killing in CD sales in one of the trendier bars downtown. Pshaw, says I. It’s my home away from home. And I can’t count the number of times someone at the club has come up and asked if I have a CD available yet. These folks gave me a chance after I came back from an enormous hiatus from the music business. Not to do the launch there would have been, well...downright churlish.

And so we do the launch at the Victoria Folk Club, Open Stage and all. And what a launch. Packed house. Friends, fans and people I’d never seen before seated up front, while people lean in from the shadows at the back. Perched near the front door table - my boy Daniel manning the CD sales counter. A broad warm warble of excitement in the air. Nervously we take the stage and within minutes I can feel the entire house sway to the rhythm of “Papa’s on the Road” and “Footloose Heart”. By evening’s end we have done some of the favourites like “This Picture of You” and “For the Sake of Always of Loving You” and added a couple of fresh tunes, e.g. a beautiful little ballad by Clair Lynch called “Sweet Heart Darlin’ of Mine”.

For the encore we pull out an old Beatles’ number which everyone loves “I’ve Just Seen a Face”, an appropriate number as I cast a quick glance at Gael seated in the middle of the pack to the left. I have studiously avoided looking her way all night to maintain focus. She smiles. I smile. The song ends and the place erupts in applause and cheers, then house lights, scraping of chairs and audience banter. It’s been a great night. Everyone can feel it. People crowd around the musicians, thanking and congratulating them.

Me, I need a glass of water and make my way through the crowd to the back. Daniel leans over and says urgently that the next time we do a CD it should be live: “You’re a great performer, Dad!” This is special. Daniel and his Dad's tastes in music are not always in accord. It’s only at that moment that it hits me that Yes, it really has been a great night after all.

And the CD sales? It seems we’ve tied a record for the most CDs ever sold by a feature. 33. Could I be happier? Don’t think so.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Baby's Home

A thousand babies, actually...packed into five boxes (where will I find the room?) and just in time for our gig tomorrow evening at the Dancing Bean Cafe in Chemainus. The plant reproduced the CD design flawlessly and the music is just as we laid it down. I'm exhilarated.

Now the really hard part begins: slogging the end product to our gigs and figuring out how to sell the darn thing on-line. Agencies like CD Baby and Bullfrog Music are excellent on-line servers, but as far as I know they don't do too much promotion. Some excellent players poured their talent and hearts into the project, so it’s just a matter of getting people to sample the actual material from the website (once it’s up and running). More web adventures!

Thanks again to all the wonderful musicians who played on the CD and kudos to Zak Cohen and Don Craig who stick handled the final process. For those interested in purchasing a copy, contact me at or call me at 250-658-6461. The price is $20. I’ve got a hunch you’ll like what you hear.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Well, it's done. A CD of eleven songs written over several years finished last night and about to head out the door to the plant. Joby and I worked most of Friday afternoon and evening adjusting levels and tones so that it all works as a cohesive whole and I have to say I'm pretty pleased. I've spent much of today calling the musicians who participated and thanking them for their efforts, and also getting correct name spellings for the CD jacket.

I know it's hackneyed to liken the artistic process to having a baby (male hubris: forgive me), but the parallels are there: the months of watching your little project blow up into something huge and ungainly, the soft knowing looks of family and friends who can't possibly understand all the pain and worry you're going through, the sudden elation when all the pain is over and that sense of wonderment and yes, detachment as you view for the first time this ugly wrinkled thing you've brought into the world...all followed finally by the desire to just sleep. Next morning you wake and the product of all this labour is placed in your lap and you discover that the child's really rather beautiful...Okay, I've strained the analogy, I know. I'll stop.

Once the CD's linear notes are finished and the final touches made to the CD jacket design, the CD master heads off to Vancouver where it will all be packaged up in a 1000 units and returned to me in a few weeks. More trepidation awaits once the box of CDs arrives, with the mysteries of marketing to follow. Meantime, the quartet begins preparing for a growing concert schedule (see page right) and we all get to enjoy the sunshine and early signs of spring weather.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Stalking the Muse

Well, now we really are closing in on the finishing line. A little more recording on penny whistle, mandolin and accordion this weekend and then we get into that mysterious process called "mixing". This involves balancing and harmonizing the levels and tones of the various instruments so they're heard clearly. After that, the songs are mastered, i.e. adjusted for the broad array of sound systems out there and for radio play. This latter stage is so vital that another engineer is normally brought in. In this case, we're relying on Joby Baker of Baker Studios, widely viewed as the best ears in Victoria.

From music to poetry. I've attended several readings lately, some very good like Ken Babstock's reading at Open Space Wednesday evening, and others not quite so inspiring. Babstock has won or been nominated for several prestigious poetry awards in the past few years, not least of which was the Governor General's award. I must confess I was not entirely sold on the hand full of his poems featured in “The New Canon” (ed. Carmine Starnino), but became decidedly more appreciative after hearing him read from his latest work "Airstream Land Yacht".

Babstock possesses a strong, ruminating style, delivers precisely and richly drawn metaphors, and displays a capable philosophical point of view largely absent from the bulk of Canadian poetry. More importantly, I get the feeling that Babstock (or more precisely, perhaps, his poetic persona) is profoundly changed by what occurs within his poems. Again, this is something missing from much of the poetry, Canadian or otherwise, that I read: experiences or insights that are not only deftly or cleverly revealed but that are transformative in their effects upon the poet first, and then upon the reader. A poet who demonstrates this repeatedly is Philip Larkin (see "Church Going"), but so, too, does Babstock. A good example is "Essentialist", a poem that needs to be read in full to see how this transformation I'm talking about occurs, and hence is too long to transcribe here. Buy the book. You'll enjoy.

We also got to eavesdrop on a conversation between Babstock and past GG winner Tim Lilburn that evening. Babstock has been following a rather intricate discussion among psychologists and other scientists over the past few years about what constitutes consciousness, a dialogue that has strongly influenced his view of life and his poems. An intriguing discussion with serious, perhaps even dire, implications for that age old question about free will.

Of less value was a more recent question which inevitably arises whenever an audience is asked to question or comment: Is poetry dead? And if it is, are the universities to blame? The same question came up (more or less) at a reading by three poets laureate I attended the week before. As usual, nothing decisive resulted. My view: Poetry is not dead, just the argument. My great regret: that poets and readers spend too much time asking fruitless questions like these and almost universally duck more important questions, i.e. the nature of poetry itself, the state of the craft, and the various ways that readers and poets alike come to understand poetry.

So Babstock's great. So, too, is another discovery: Julie Bruck, a poet from Montreal whose poem "Cafeteria" is one of the best poems I've read this past year. She, too, can be found in “The New Canon”.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Getting It Right

Another marvellous evening in the studio. Lights down with one lit candle, a glass of red beside me on the floor, guitar in hand and a song to sing:

“Lovers come and sometimes lovers go
One’s not persuaded, but the other knows
The heart’s a pilgrim `til it finds a home
`Til it hears another say:

Let a little light burn between us then
As morning parts the blinds and sunlight sends
Its gentle hands to wake us once again
Let a little light burn between us then.”

Took us four or five passes and we were happy. Dennis did a great job on the board, inspired perhaps by his own glass of wine nearby…and dare I say it by the song, too. It’s all beginning to take shape. Mike and Suzanne did the Mexican trumpets on a cheeky little number I wrote last year called Footloose Heart…and did them very well I might add. Nice job done by all.

More to follow.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Crossing the Extremities

Isn't there a song entitled "Mama Told Me There Would Be Days Like This"? If not, there should be (Maybe it was just a line in a song). In any event, we just learned that the computer in one of the two studios we use has crashed, cashiering the whole of tomorrow's recording schedule, which had been tagged for violin and accordion tracks. It seems one of the local music stores provided the engineer with the pre-amp he needed to fix the problem, but neglected to include something called a "fire wire" cable (Yikes, that sounds dangerous). But if I cross my fingers and toes, perhaps he'll deliver it tomorrow so it's all fixed in time for the mandolin recording on Sunday.

Then there's the paperwork. I found out today the mechanical rights to songs by Dougie MacLean and Danny O'Keefe ("Caledonia", "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues") are good for Canada only and that I must, if I want the international rights, contact folks in London, U.K. and likely the US - undoubtedly, more money being vacuumed up from my cash-strapped budget. The boys must be paid, though, and so I have been dutifully filling out permission request forms and checking with the agency in Toronto that oversees such things to clear up some of the ambiguities in their data base - like why they have two different registration entries for one song. Answer: "We shouldn't. Sorry". Mercy!

The good news? Ken Hamm's slide guitar pieces arrive on Monday from his home in Forget, Saskatchewan - all very exciting (though I do hope his town's name is not a harbinger of things to come).

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Man (staff?) the barricades?

Well, what excuse can one offer for tardiness in writing, but the usual complaint about Christmas holidays, plus an arduous CD recording schedule? I promise to post with greater regularity. All in all, not a bad Christmas, though, with trips to Burnaby with dear son Daniel to see his grandmother, a modest birthday celebration (which I quickly blanked from my mind) and Christmas dinner at Brian and Judy's house. This was topped off by an outing to Matisse’s Restaurant where I and a friend were treated to exquisite French cuisine and entertainment courtesy of the establishment's thoroughly engaging owner. Matisse's is much recommended.

As for the CD, we are heading down the stretch, with a super job on piano and synthesizer turned in so far by Karel Roessingh and on drums by Jerry Adolphe. A few main vocals remain to be done, plus violin and accordion by the redoubtable Calvin Cairns, slide guitar by the righteous Ken Hamm and incidental pieces on bagpipe, penny whistle and hand drum. With any luck we'll have it all mixed and mastered and in hand for our first 2008 gig February 29 at the Acoustic Cafe. Details to come.

Some may wonder where I find time to read, but I've managed to make time for an excellent essay by the Canadian poet and critic Carmine Starnino. Starnino comes in for some justified knuckle wrapping for his rough treatment of some of our established poets. That said, the title essay of his book "A Lover's Quarrel" is compelling. In sum, he argues that in their efforts these three or four decades to produce a national poetry by turning their backs on established international lights from the UK and the US, Canadian poets have actually robbed themselves of vital influences - influences that far from "colonizing" Canadian poetry might have helped to invigorate and shape it.

One reviewer replies saying Starnino has set up a false dichotomy, another that the poets he endorses bear suspiciously close relationships to the publication Starnino himself edits, still another that those endorsements fall short of the critical acumen Starnino prescribes for other critics. Interestingly, few take him to task over his attempted evisceration of the reputations of some of our most notable poets. Can it be that he has won tacit consensus for a fresh aesthetic/critical agenda? A tall order, perhaps, though I agree with one reviewer who considers it an important essay, if only because it asks us to challenge some of our assumptions about the Canadian poetry scene.

Other critical titles worth reading:

Alfred Corn's "The Poet's Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody”
Robert Pinsky's "The Sounds of Poetry"
John Hollander's “Sound and Sense”

Each of these provides a progressively helpful elucidation of metre, culminating in a rather difficult analysis of the principle historical outcome of traditional prosody by Charles O. Hartmann called “Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody.” Difficult, and not everyone’s cup of tea, but I persevere.