Rush, Live In YYZ (from Moving Pictures 40th, UMC/Anthem, 2022)
It’s taken a groundswell of support from a new generation of music critics from outside Canada to finally acknowledge the greatness of Rush’s Moving Pictures, adding more than the usual hype to the recently released “super deluxe” anniversary edition of the album. Originally, Moving Pictures staked its territory by fusing many of the transitional aspects of rock and roll at the dawn of the 1980s—the streamlining of digital technology, the rise of New Wave and Heavy Metal, and prog-rockers figuring out how to incorporate more melody into their work in order to get on the radio. Rush had been building toward all this in the two years leading up to Moving Pictures, and that work paid off in the seven songs that ultimately crystallized the band’s essence.
But for those who grew up with Moving Pictures in their DNA, the reason to get the 40th-anniversary edition is the package’s previously unreleased live show, recorded during a March 1981 three-night stand at Maple Leaf Gardens, which firmly puts to shame the “official” live album Exit… Stage Left followed Moving Pictures later that year. While Rush’s technical prowess on stage has always been awe-inspiring, Live In YYZ shows the trio truly at its peak, seamlessly blending in nearly all of Moving Pictures with epics from previous albums like Xanadu and the head-spinning Permanent Waves deep cut Natural Science, all brilliantly bookended by the opening and closing sections of 2112.
This was also the tour that found Geddy Lee striking the perfect balance of keyboards within his sonic arsenal, another reason why this era of the band remains of special interest. Although they were clearly taking cues from The Police, Rush’s hard rock roots still dominated, with the overall results being a kind of cerebral, heavy music that was somehow still totally accessible and heartfelt. Neil Peart later wrote about a desire to “freeze this moment” in Time Stand Still. Live In YYZ has done precisely that in capturing Rush at its absolute best for all time.
Adia Victoria, Monarch Tavern, Toronto, April 15, 2022
Adorned in a black velvet dress, South Carolina modern blues artist Adia Victoria exuded all the mystique of her latest, T Bone Burnett-produced album A Southern Gothic when she took the stage, accompanied by a three-piece band. Although she’s been cited as one of the new young, Black female artists reclaiming American roots music, Victoria’s songs connect the desperation inherent in the work of artists from the 1920s and ‘30s with today’s social conditions, brilliantly conveyed in A Southern Gothic’s You Was Born To Die.
As she name-dropped Skip James, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, Victoria reminded the largely older, white audience that she’s been supplementing her income as a musician by working in an Amazon warehouse. Although she didn’t intend that to sound condescending, the point was clearly made about class struggle and blues “authenticity.” Then, as her set gained momentum, Victoria grew increasingly possessed, eventually—and unintentionally—demonstrating what Howlin’ Wolf once sang, “I’m gonna fall on my knees, I’m gonna raise up my hand.” The entire show was absolutely thrilling, and anyone who dares describe themselves as a blues artist these days had better start paying attention to what Adia Victoria and her peers are doing.
Bill Bourne (1954-2022)
As a western Canadian musician, Bill Bourne was part of a unique community of players there that included Lester Quitzau and Madagascar Slim (with whom he often collaborated) that developed a distinct brand of forward-thinking roots music. It all stemmed from Bourne’s gypsy-esque personality, which I briefly got to experience whenever he came to southern Ontario to play shows, making the cross-country trek in his vintage car. He would often stay at my friend Scott Wicken’s place, and getting to sit in on their jam sessions was probably the greatest musical lesson I ever had. As a guitarist, Bill was fluent in nearly every style, but most importantly he was patient when it came to a novice like me trying to keep up. And as a singer, his voice possessed an ancient quality that was still all his own. His warmth, humility and generosity will always stick with me, along with his endlessly fascinating body of work.
Kurt Vile, Goin’ On A Plane Today (from Watch My Moves, Verve Records, 2022)
The Philadelphia slack-rock king’s latest album opens with this choppy piano ditty that puts us in his shoes as he navigates his increasingly hectic life, which he admits at the outset is “getting a little weird.” The kicker is halfway through when Vile reveals he’s on his way to open for Neil Young. “Man, life can sure be fun,” he groans, somewhat unconvincingly.
I’ve felt that the quality of Vile’s output has dipped recently, and on first listen, Watch My Moves didn’t change that view. But delving deeper into the album, it’s evident that Vile is taking lessons from Young in terms of approaching his songwriting almost as a reflex at this point and letting the chips fall where they may. Age has tempered his sense of humour, with the trade-off being songs that look at life with wonder and sadness in equal measure.
Guided By Voices, Alex Bell (Rockathon Records, 2022)
I’m sure I’m not alone among Guided By Voices fans in feeling part of some grand social experiment that vocalist and principal songwriter Robert Pollard has been executing for the past 25 years or so. Trying to keep up with the Ohio indie rock outfit’s output can be beyond daunting when Pollard and co. are able to crank out a 15-track album every four months, with songs seemingly mix-and-matched out of a series of now-familiar tropes Pollard has leaned on this entire time.
However, what keeps us hooked is that the quality of the music remains scarily high, and if you haven’t paid much attention to GBV since their turn-of-the-century brush with mainstream acceptance, I suggest dipping into any of the dozen or so records they’ve released over the past five years.
It’s uncharacteristic then that the band’s latest offering is a standalone single with an actual message behind it. Alex Bell is a tribute of sorts to power pop avatars Big Star co-founders Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. At five minutes, the tune is surprisingly elaborate by GBV standards, with multiple sections ebbing and flowing with the melodic grandeur Big Star was built upon. Now, who will be the one to record the tribute to Robert Pollard?