Archive for the ‘Alt Folk’ Category


Letter to a friend re: Bon Iver

September 29, 2011

Dear E:

June 27, 2008. That’s the date when you emailed me with a recommendation to listen to a band I had never heard of: Bon Iver, who had put out an album called For Emma, Forever Ago. In the email you nailed it when you said, “Let the song “Flume” make you weep like a baby.”

Sometimes when you get deeply into an artist, you lose sight of how the enchantment began. To be honest, I had forgotten how I got turned on to Bon Iver (Justin Vernon and his bandmates). I vaguely recalled learning about Vernon from a friend in email, but I didn’t remember who and when. Gmail search gave me the answer in a millisecond.

So now, more than three years later, I’m writing to say thank you. Thank you so much for knowing me well enough and taking the time to suggest that I check out Bon Iver’s music. I had no idea at the time where the music would take me. And it’s taken me to unexpected places.

Specifically, it took me to Raleigh, North Carolina. Months ago we were lucky enough to get tickets to this week’s Bon Iver show at the Orpheum Theatre. Awhile later we booked a trip to North Carolina to visit family, and M found out that Bon Iver was performing in Raleigh, an hour and a half drive from where we were staying. The brilliant idea came up of going to the concert, even though we already had tickets to the Vancouver show.

After mulling it over we decided to go for it, because we thought it would be special given that Vernon lived in Raleigh during a critical period in his musical development (read this very good feature on Vernon’s Raleigh years in the Independent Weekly), and simply because when you have a chance to see Bon Iver, you take it. Plus I’ve never seen an artist twice on the same tour, so this gave a unique opportunity to compare performances two months apart. Finally, I love going to shows in foreign places; some of my best concert memories are from other cities – being somewhere else adds to the uniqueness of a performance.

So the three of us, including Miles (who has become a huge Bon Iver fan – those screamo/death metal days are a distant memory) made our way to the concert at the Raleigh Amphitheater, an outdoor venue. The heat in Raleigh that day was insane – the high was about 104°F. By showtime in the evening, it was still pretty hot, so that might have affected our ability to enjoy the show. That said, it was a wonderful concert. Aside from Vernon’s magnetic falsetto singing and all-round musicality, I was struck by how much was going on with the eight-piece band. The musicians adeptly switched between multiple instruments – from electric guitar to violin to keyboards to french horn and beyond – which made for a sumptuous aural palette. Despite the heat, and the somewhat soulless venue, we were glad we went to the show.

Art shot (ie photo that didn’t turn out) of Bon Iver at the Raleigh Amphitheater:

Bon Iver in Raleigh, North Carolina

Vids I took of Bon Iver in Raleigh:

We went to the Orpheum with the kind of anticipation you have before seeing an extraordinary artist for the first time, even though it wasn’t. The anticipation paid off – it was as perfect a show as I could imagine. The Raleigh concert was early in the tour, so the band was still developing chemistry. At the Orpheum, the musicians sounded completely in sync. The songs – from Bon Iver’s two albums and one ep – sounded like they were fully realized versions of Vernon’s vision (that alliteration wasn’t intentional).

There were some differences between the shows. In Raleigh, Bon Iver did a terrific obscure cover of Björk’s “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)”, featuring multi-instrumentalist Reggie Pace as a human beat box; they didn’t do that tune in Vancouver. But here, there seemed to be more opportunities for the musicians – like saxophonist/circular breathing whiz Colin Stetson and drummer/keyboardist Sean Carey – to stretch out. The sound was also better at the Orpheum, not to mention the non-sweltering temperature.

In my world, getting a tip on a new band is the best possible gift. Through a casual email, you gave me that gift. So thank you.


Jian Ghomeshi did an insightful interview with Justin Vernon on Q – check out the interview.

Compare and contrast – “For Emma” and “The Wolves (Act I and II)” in Vancouver:


I’m back!

September 23, 2011

It’s been more than a year since I’ve written something for this blog. The last piece I wrote, dated September 2, 2010, was a review of a Michael Bublé concert. Why the silence? I’ve been busy at work and with life in general. Whenever I thought about blogging, something told me it wasn’t an essential use of my time, so I wrote nothing.

But saying I was busy is just a lame excuse. I could have blogged if I really wanted to. It’s not like there was any shortage of topics. As always, I went to many concerts in the last year, and I could have reviewed any number of them. In case you’re wondering, since that Bublé show, I’ve seen the following artists:

The National, The Walkmen, Arcade Fire, Calexico, Broken Social Scene, Big Boi (the last time I had to accompany Miles to a concert – no more hip hop and metal for me), Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, N.E.R.D. (Pharrell Williams), Lila Downs, Concha Buika, Junip, Galaxie 500, Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Grinderman (Rufus/Teddy and Grinderman, featuring Nick Cave, on the same night!), Leonard Cohen, Black Dub (Daniel Lanois), the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (doing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 and Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, including the Vancouver Bach Choir singing “Ode to Joy”), Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses, Owen Pallett, Donny McCaslin, Orrin Evans (McCaslin and Evans in NYC), Ernie Watts and the Capilano University “A” Band, Salif Keita, Robert Plant, Fleet Foxes,  the Pixies, Imaginary Cities, Tonbruket (Dan Berglund), Robert Glasper, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Trombone Shorty, Lucinda Williams, Ana Moura, The Bad Plus, Colin Stetson, Christian McBride & Inside Straight, Richard Galliano & Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Atomic, L. Subramaniam, Spirit of the West, Dan Mangan, Gillian Welch, Rosanne Cash, The Jayhawks, Solas, Kathryn Calder, Jenny Whiteley, James Cotton and numerous other artists at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Bon Iver (along with the Rosebuds in Raleigh, North Carolina), Beirut, the Decemberists, Okkervil River, Charles Bradley, Iron & Wine, Marketa Irglova (of the Swell Season), Devo, the Pointed Sticks, the Lewis Nash Quintet, Karkwa, and Aidan Knight.

Some photos I took:

L. Subramaniam at Summer Live:

L. Subramaniam

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings at the Folk Fest:

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

Kathryn Calder at the Folk Fest:

Kathryn Calder

Okkervil River at Malkin Bowl:

Okkervil River

Devo at the Vogue:


And that doesn’t include the band I play in, OEQ, performing at Kits Neighbourhood House and the Kitsilano Showboat, and Miles performing with the TD High School Jazz Intensive band at David Lam Park and the UBC Senior Jazz Band at the Chan Centre.

But no, I didn’t write a word. Until now. Although simply posting a list of concerts doesn’t really count. That’s more bragging than blogging. (I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go through Google Calendar and make a list of all the concerts I went to in the last year. My conclusions: I go to a lot of “alternative” shows where most of the audience is half my age – will I still be doing this when I’m 64?; I have no idea whether my concert-going is slowing down or keeping pace with past years; I’m a lucky guy to be able to see so many shows; and no wonder my hearing is going.)

I’m still not going to write anything of substance about those concerts, most of which were wonderful. But this is my way of easing back into blogging. I was wrong to think that blogging isn’t a must-do for me; writing has been a big part of who I am since Grade 9 (when I had an epiphany, in English class, that I could write), so I NEED to do it. Stay tuned for some actual writing.


Not-So-Great Swimmers & Choosing Nickelback over Jon-Rae

February 6, 2010

I hesitated about buying a ticket for last week’s Great Lake Swimmers’ Vogue Theatre show for 2 reasons: I wasn’t wowed by their latest album, Lost Channels, and I had a feeling the Vogue concert couldn’t possibly top their performance at the much smaller St. James Hall last March, which was spellbinding. I should have listened to my intuition. The sold-out show just didn’t jell for me.

It didn’t help that Jon-Rae Fletcher and his band played one of the worst opening sets I’ve heard in recent years. Fletcher, who grew up in Kelowna, has been making music for a long time and he’s got quite the following in Toronto and elsewhere. But it sounded like amateur hour up there. While Fletcher has a decent voice, which he works up with a gospel-like fervour, his limitations showed when going for the high notes. Fletcher’s lyrics were also dial-a-cliché. What grated on me the most was the lack of cohesion between Fletcher and his bandmates. Darcy Hancock, who’s also in Ladyhawk, crunched distorted riffs that didn’t go with anything. The trombonist and bassist sounded like absolute beginners. Fletcher was much better off performing solo, like he did at the end of the show. But overall, how weak was the set? I actually asked myself at one point, “Would I rather listen to this or Nickelback?” I actually chose Nickelback, who I despise. Enough said.

As for the Swimmers, to a large extent, the group is all about Tony Dekker. He writes the songs and sings them with a shimmering melancholy. I realized at the Vogue, however, how important the rest of the band is. I’ve always had a thing for Erik Arnesen’s playing, especially on banjo, and he sounded as vital as ever. But here’s the key: multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Julie Fader wasn’t in the band and violinist Miranda Mulholland was. I missed Fader’s subtle contributions to the GLS sound; Mulholland’s upbeat playing and personality didn’t mesh with the rest of the Swimmers. She’s a fine musician, but just too damn happy to be a Great Lake Swimmer! Aside from my reservations about the fiddle player, hearing tunes from Lost Channels live confirmed that there’s nothing on the album that’s as powerful as “Your Rocky Spine” from the previous disc.

I usually embed YouTube videos to illustrate concert reviews, but I couldn’t find any from this show, so for your viewing pleasure I’m posting a photo I took last summer of a great lake in Umbria, Italy: Lake Trasimeno

Great Lake

Maybe my feelings about the show were coloured by weirdness that followed. Right after the concert we went to an alternative art happening in the downtown eastside at a former funeral home. In a lineup outside some idiot sprayed a fire extinguisher at us. Choking on chemicals in the rain wasn’t a pleasant feeling. But really, that had nothing to do with the music. I just couldn’t connect with the Swimmers like I did so intensely at St. James.


Dan Mangan at the Cultch

September 2, 2009

I caught one of the two sold-out concerts that Vancouver’s Dan Mangan performed at the renovated Cultch last weekend, and it was a glorious show.

Everything came together that night: Mangan’s well-honed confidence as an impactful performer; his ease and sense of humour when talking to the audience between songs; Mangan’s rapport with his strong band; the rare treat of hearing three horn players and a three-member string section expand the sonic palette; the added bonus of having Shayne Koyczan in the house to inject his spoken word mastery; being back in the beloved Cultch for one of the first concerts since it was massively renovated; and the euphoria of being at a sold-out show for a hometown boy who’s making good.

Seven months ago I hadn’t even heard of Mangan. Then a new friend talked glowingly about his music and eventually recommended that I go to the Cultch show. Only after buying tickets for the gig did I actually listen to his music, starting with Mangan’s Roboteering ep and then his debut album, Postcards and Daydreaming. I liked what I heard, especially on Roboteering. There’s a fine line between what Mangan does and what someone like David Gray does, and Mangan is on the right side of that singer/songwriter line. By right, I mean he avoids clichés that are an occupational hazard of his genre, and he stays connected to an alternative DIY sensibility.

This is quite the time for Mangan: he’s deservedly getting rave reviews for his new album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice, including one in the Province that ranked him at the level of Nick Drake! (Dan’s good, but not that good. Not yet anyway.) Plus there he was on the cover of the Georgia Straight. I imagine that receiving this much attention could make it challenging to remain grounded. Just listening to Mangan talk during the show – he’s so damn likable – makes me think the 26-year-old won’t go Kanye West (i.e. ego trip) any time soon.

My usual source for videos of gigs is out-of-town and missed the show (which she would have loved), but I found some decents vids that someone took:

Mangan’s “hit single”, “Robots”, which he somehow managed to F-up, forcing him to stop mid-song and start again. But the way he handled it was so endearing that no one cared:

“Tina’s Glorious Comeback”:

The very intense “Tragic Turn of Events/Move Pen Move”, featuring the performance poetry of Shayne Koyczan:


Soothed by the Swimmers

March 30, 2009

Now that was more relaxing. After going into a mini-depressive stupor following the Art Bergmann concert, three nights later, I was soothed by the Great Lake Swimmers.

While the Swimmers have a great band sound, they revolve around singer/acoustic guitarist/songwriter Tony Dekker. At acoustics-friendly St. James Hall (a former church), his vocals were as wondrous as they are on the group’s recordings. Where does a voice like Dekker’s come from? What kind of otherworldly DNA does he have that enables him to sing so gorgeously? After just one song, a friend sitting near me in the pew had tears in her eyes. As far as I know, she’s not the type that cries on command. It was the aural beauty that got her.

They did a lot of tunes from the new album Lost Channels, which will be released tomorrow. The songs sounded more upbeat than the last release Ongiara. This made me a bit uncomfortable at first because I’ve been so beguiled by the powerful stillness of the angelic vocals and banjo (played by Erik Arnesen) of Ongiara. But hearing them rock out more is probably a good development; they would risk turning into a cliché if they stayed still too long.

Opening act Kate Mackie was a bonus: She was funny when she talked to the sold-out audience, and I loved it when she went country. Mackie had a pedal steel player, and I’m a sucker for that instrument’s high lonesome wail.

The Swimmers: