Sunday, December 24, 2017

Party like it’s 2017 Bananarama at the Apollo Eventim London

The Concert: November 20th 2017

Photo by Mike Devery, London Apollo Hammersmith
I’m not sure I can justify in words how this concert and experience meant to me but “time of my life” and “Absolutely Fabulous” seems the best I can come up with. Being a huge Bananarama fan since the early days of Cruel Summer I’m probably a bit biased, but I’m far from the only one giving it raves reviews. It was one big fantastic dance party. From the moment Sara, Keren, and Siobhan stepped on the stage with the lost Supremes classic “Nathan Jones” the crowed stood up and never sat down. There was no distracting elements, no circus going on, just a video screen, a live band and three best friends celebrating and singing all the hits, fan favorites and more. The girls especially Siobhan looked like they were having the time of their lives, you could see the comradery and fun coming through unlike some pre-fabricated bands that seem to be just going through the motions. It felt like I was watching my best friends on stage reminiscing through the best years of their life. For those critics that see the girls as just karaoke singers this couldn’t be further from the truth. I never understood why so many people put powerhouse singers above all else, sometimes you just need to sing the damm song, no need for a millions vocal runs or voice athletics, which I sometimes find gets tiresome. The set list was a dreams come true, with Siobhan coming on board I feared we might not hear songs like “Nathan Jones” or “I Want You Back” because she was replaced with Jacquie on those singles, but we got them and more.

Photo by Mike Devery, London Apollo Hammersmith
The biggest surprise and most poignant moment was when the three sang “Cheers Then” and Siobhan briefly left the stage, leaving Sara and Keren to start belting out the mega Shakespeare’s Sister (Siobhan’s post Bananarama group) hit “Stay”. Speaking of vocal ability, Marcella’s Detroit part of that song is far from easy to sing and the girls did a beautiful job, the biggest applause though came when Siobhan entered the stage to sing her part. The image of them holding hands at the end in silhouette in front of the moon image on screen was so powerful, that some fans actually had T-Shirts made with that image taken from shots of the previous shows. I didn’t think it could get any better but after Stay, Siobhan announces that it was her turn to choose a song, it was her favorite track the girls did after she left the group, my favorite track too, “Preacher Man” which should have been a bigger hit from the Pop Life album. They did fan favorite singles including their social conscious songs “Rough Justice” and “Trick Of The Night” which had to be added back into the show after fans pestered Sara on twitter to bring it back when it was cut after the opening show of the tour. There were many songs that sounded better than the versions they recorded back in the day, including their first demo, the Latin tinged Swahili song “Aie A Mwanna”, “Really Saying Something” and the Fun Boy Three duet “It Ain’t What You Do” which was slightly revamped with a fantastic swing 1950’s vibe. “I Can’t Help It” and “More Than Physical” was slightly disco-fied, even “Shy Boy” sounded better with the three girls each taking on separate verses while the other two did harmonies and back up. Nothing was a much fun as the Stock Aiken and Waterman section where most of the gay male audience broke into every dance and choreographed move they did from “I Heard A Rumour”, to “Venus”, and “I Want You Back”, it was a sight to see especially when some fans had the moves down pat, better than the girls. The few casual fans in the audience looked around a bit perplexed wondering if they missed the memo or why they weren’t in on the secret. The London show was filmed for a DVD release coming out in May, at one point during “Boy Trouble” the cameraman was filming next to me and turn the camera on me. “Boy Trouble” is the one song I don’t know well and to compensate I tried to do one of my Michael Jackson spins, but the floor was a bit slippery and I almost fell, the cameraman gave me a thumbs up anyways, now I’m wondering if I’ll make the cut, if not I’ll be happy to relive this incredible night, guilty as a girl can be.

Meet and Greet:

My experience was multiplied because before the show I got the chance to meet the girls and get my picture with them. The girls were absolutely amazing, stunningly gorgeous, and kind. I told them I came from Canada and I was there to celebrate my 50th birthday, Keren said something along the lines of “I looked great for my age”. They loved the T-shirt I designed for the concert, carefully checking out all the details.They graciously accepted the colour pencil tribute portrait I made of them. I had 3 prints done and was hoping I could give each girl a copy, they even posed with the prints in my picture.I was so nervous that I barely heard what they said to me, my friend Mike who was waiting in line, heard that Keren hilariously said, (about the portrait I drew), that her head isn't that big. The photographer took many pics, including some of me as I was handing the prints to them. He even photographed me and Mike and our T-shirts as we stood in line. I thanked Siobhan for coming back and thanked Keren and Sara for keeping the legend of Bananarama alive. My hands were still shaking for about a half hour afterwards, I couldn’t calm down. While we were at the bar waiting for the show to start I was told that producer Pete Waterman was there, I was nervous but got the courage to go up and tell him I was a big fan and loved his music, he shook my hand. There were quite a few celebrities in the audience; I came this close to meeting Rick Astley only finding out afterwards he was there. I’d like to thank the amazing Mike Devery for giving me this fabulous opportunity of a lifetime, cheers mate.
Me and Mike before the show, London
My colour pencil portrait

Some of the crazy fabulous fans before the show, London
The Fans: I do have to say that my experience was that much richer because of all the fans I met from around the world, sharing that experience with them made it all the more incredible. The Saturday before the show there was a gathering for us to meet and it didn’t stop there, I met so many beautiful, kind and fabulous people throughout my trip of the UK. Bananarama really do have the greatest fans.

Cardiff St David’s Hall:
I was lucky to see the show a second time in Cardiff, this time I was closer to the stage in 4th row and I could see all their quirky interactions and facial expressions. The show was just as fabulous but the big difference was the audience, they seemed to be more restrained, subdued, a lot more seemed to be casual fans, nobody got up at the first song, everybody stayed quietly seated. When the girls finished the opener “Nathan Jones” they looked a bit perplexed and almost annoyed, thankfully they urged everybody to get up and dance. Bananarama is not a like going to the opera, it’s a party, a celebration, a time to let go.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Wow: It was 30 years ago today…

It was 1987, I was in college, still listening to Madonna, Whitney Houston and George Michael; Kylie was still a year away from releasing her first album, but my favorite girl group crush would release their ultimate pop masterpiece simply titled “Wow”.

Let’s go back a bit, Bananarama first appeared on my radar in 1984 with “Cruel Summer”, their first top ten in North America, it was a cute little song with 3 confident girls having fun, but by 1986 the game would change. Their 3rd studio outing “True Confessions” featured one of the ultimate 80’s cover songs “Venus”, originally recorded by 60's group Shocking Blue, the girls revamped the track along with superstar producers and Hit Factory makers Stock, Aiken & Waterman, they made the perfect pop combination. The girls loved Stock Aiken & Waterman’s previous work with the Dead Or Alive song “You Spin Me Round” and wanted that same hard edge euro dance sound for “Venus”, that coupled along with the super sexy and sultry video made them superstars and the song went straight to the number one spot of the Billboard Hot 100. My best friend Chris and I had taken Jazz Dance as one of our gym electives in college, we were hilariously the only two guys in the class and our final dance routine was done to none other than “Venus”. Bananarama had other hits along the way like my favorite of the time “Trick Of The Night”, and “Robert De Niro’s Waiting”, but none would have an impact in North America.

“True Confessions” only had two songs produced by Stock, Aiken & Waterman but when it was announced that they would write, produce and arrange their entire next album I was beyond excited. The album “Wow” was co-written by the girls, who fought with Stock, Aiken & Waterman along the way, the producers were not used to writing songs with their artists. Unlike most pop groups today Bananarama were not a prefabricated band. They formed in 1979. Sara and Keren were best mates since early grade school. When Keren moved to London Sara followed and met Siobhan in college studying fashion journalism, together they rented a flat and as they say the rest is history. They managed themselves for the most of the time, they insisted to write or co-write their songs, designed they look, nobody told them what to wear, they were sexy, but strong and confident women, without just being arm candy for men.

 “I Heard A Rumour” the first single that preceded the "Wow" album was not a disappointment, the song became their 3rd and final top ten in North America going to #4. The album was a juggernaut and it had a unity unlike their previous efforts. “Love In The First Degree” my favorite song, became their biggest hit in the UK, Berry Gordy the founder of Motown said it was the closest anybody had to come to the Motown sound. Unfortunately after putting out 4 studio albums, 20 singles and living together for 9 years a split began to happen. Siobhan decided she wanted to pursue a different sound and went on to form Shakespeare’s Sister, their performance of “Love In The First Degree” at the Brits Awards in 1988 would be their last together.

Like The Supremes the group that inspired them, they would continue with a new member named Jacquie O’Sullivan. I have to admit this was an exciting time for Bananarama fans. They were inducted in the the Guinness Book Of World Records as the all-female group with the most chart entries in the world. The album “Wow” still had some hit singles left in it, so Jacqui’s voice was added to the super fab “I Want You Back” making it a number 5 smash in the UK. It was at this point I started realising the differences between the UK and American charts, none of their singles would chart in Canada or on the Billboard Hot 100. I started shopping at import record stores picking up all the UK 12” Bananarama singles I could find, I sadly couldn’t hear these hits on the radio but I could play them all I wanted. 

In 1989 the girls recorded a cover of The Beatles “Help” for UK’s Comic Relief charity, alongside comedians French & Saunders who parodied them as “Lananeeneenoonoo”, the song along with the hilarious spoof video became another top 3 hit in the UK. That year they released their Greatest Hits Collection with a fab new song “Love Truth & Honesty” and re-released another track from the “Wow” album, a cover of The Supremes song “Nathan Jones”, the original was recorded by the 70’s version of the group when Jean Terrell replaced Diana Ross. It was this song that led me to discover the “70’s Supremes” and those forgotten but fabulous albums that were made after Diana left the group, it made me a superfan of that era.

Keren, Sara & Jacquie toured North America in 1989 and luckily Montreal was part of the schedule but sadly their only Canadian date. Along with my best friends Chris & Ernie we saw that fabulous show at the Metropolis Club on March 22nd. A year later Banarama would continue on with one of their best albums “Pop Life” but the imperial phase of them having hits would be over as the grunge 90’s were ushered in. In 1991 Chris and I saw Siobhan and Marcella Detroit as Shakespear’s Sister at a small club at the corner of St, Laurent and St Catherine called the Dome. I remember being so close to the stage that every time Marcella would swing her guitar around while playing I had to duck as I was afraid of getting hit.

My ticket from the 1989 show
My ticket from the 1989 show

After 3 years Jacqui would quit Bananarama and best friends Sara & Keren continued on as a duo. They reunited in 1992 with Stock & Waterman (minus Aiken) for the Abba-esque “Please Yourself” album. In 1995 the small Canadian record label “Lime” released “Ultra Violet” and they appeared alongside a dozen artists at the Montreal Forum to promote the album. They only sang 2 songs, the new single “Every Shade Of Blue” and “Venus”, but there I was with my best friend Chris, we were probably the only two real fans there to see Bananarama as the other artists and audience members were much younger. I remember holding up the program booklet from the 1989 concert which I brought along with me, Keren caught my eye then pointed to me saying “I’m sure you’ll know this song” as they went into “Venus”. They released a few more albums from 2006’s comeback “Drama” to the recent “Viva” in 2009.

I was floored when I found out this month that Siobhan was reuniting with them and going on tour. I can’t wait to see them live for the first time as a group. Thank you Sara, Keren & Siobhan, for all the music, the videos’ the dance routines and the fabulous times I’ve had in my living room singing and dancing along.   

Note: If not for Bananarama I might have never discovered Kylie Minogue. I remember my best friend Chris going into that same import record shop buying her 12” single “I Should Be So Lucky” based solely on the fact it was produced by Stock, Aiken & Waterman, that started a whole new obsession and passion.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Madonna, Dance Music, Dancers and Kevin Stea

Salim, Oliver, Carlton, Kevin
Luis, Jose, and (Gabriel in spirit)
Thursday night I attended the showing of the documentary “Strike A Pose” at the Victoria Film Festival. In 1990 Madonna hired seven male dancers for her Blond Ambition Tour, they taught her to Vogue, were featured in that iconic video, but more importantly they were the subject of her film, the behind the scenes documentary “Truth Or Dare” which came out a year later. The film was one of the biggest documentaries at the time and those seven dancers were thrown into stardom. “Strike A Pose” takes a look 25 years later into the lives of those dancers. I had no idea till I was seated at the cinema that one of those dancers Kevin Stea would be present for a Q&A session. I was so excited and all I could think about throughout the film was what I could say to him. “Truth or Dare” was the first representation of gay men I had ever seen, this was a time when Ellen, Will & Grace etc.… didn’t exist, but there on the big screen was gay men openly living their lives, going to gay pride parades and just being themselves,  some of us saw our first male on male kiss. I still remember seeing the film in 1991 with a close friend and I remember our reactions and talking about the dancers afterwards, I remember having a crush on dancer Salim "Slam" Gauwloos although I had no idea I was gay. Two years later I came out as a gay man and a few years after so did my friend. I always wondered through the years what happened to those dancers and now we get to see. The film is joyous and heartbreaking at the same time, as we discover that some of them were HIV positive and were struggling with this dark secret, while touring in a show that was all about “Expressing Yourself”. Some were not completely out or comfortable, Gabriel Trupin had asked Madonna to cut that famous kissing scene with Salim, but she refused, he tried suing her, sadly in 1996 he lost his battle with AIDS. Others sued her for a breach of contract, money they were owed, a sad but not uncommon tale for many in the showbiz industry, while others just lost their way with drugs and life. Seeing the six remaining dancers get together at the end was pure joy, it’s was nice to see that they were all OK all these years later and that they were still “family”. Oliver Crumes’ stood out for me in the original documentary as he was the one straight guy of the crew, as gay men we have our own prejudices, as I always wondered if he was really a closeted gay man and came out years later, but there he was still straight, his reactions to finding out that some of his friends were HIV positive was very moving, I could feel his pain.

Kevin Stea and me
When the film ended I made a straight line to the front row hoping to meet Kevin. Kevin was the  associate choreographer for Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour and became the dance captain, when he left the  tour he was broke but then went onto work with some of the biggest iconic stars including Michael Jackson his sister Janet, Lady GaGa, Celine Dion, Prince and David Bowie to name a few, he has starred in numerous commercials and films. I was so nervous when I approached him, I told him what it meant to me, seeing him and the other dancers on screen back in 1991, I was wearing my George Michael T-shirt and asked him about George, and I quickly got a pic with him. There was an event at the Copper Owl club afterward, a dance party to benefit AIDS Vancouver Island, I wasn’t sure I was going to go but when I heard Kevin was attending and that there would be a “Vogueing” session I quickly changed my mind. I was there alone, many others were in cliques, so I sat at the bar for about a half hour staring at my phone, Madonna's music was playing but nobody was dancing. Kevin was sitting at a table talking to a few people but afterwards I noticed like me he was sitting alone.  I turned around and said “How come no one is dancing”? We chatted for a good 20 minutes if not more,  I didn’t want to seem like a stalker so I told him I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, he told me never to apologize for that and we kept on talking, he was a real gentlemen and a class act. When the Vogue lesson started we moved towards the dance floor, I didn’t end up Vogueing but afterward I danced nonstop for over an hour, it was one Madonna song after another, they even played one of my favorite album tracks from True Blue which was never a single “Love Makes The World Go Round”. At one point I was hoping they would play a bad Madonna song so I could take a break. Kevin was mostly chatting with others during this time but then they starting playing other artists, he finally came on to the dancefloor when Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy was played. Talking with him about music, dancing and life was a dream come true but I really wanted to dance with him. The dancefloor was really small, there were only a few people between him and me, then Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” came on, I was thinking, do I dare dance up to him? It took me to halfway through the song to get the courage, at that time we were in a circle of people, I pushed my way through and busted my best Michael Jackson moves, including a few spins, I thought I was going to fall flat on my face or hit someone but I got through it, he started dancing to my moves, and I heard a few cheers, when the song ended I thanked him and he hi-fived me. It wasn’t till the next day that I found out going through his website that Kevin worked and danced on the video for “Black Or White”, my reaction was “OMG what was I thinking!”. If this wasn’t on my bucket list it, it is now, mission accomplished. I wanted to stay longer but I had work the next day, I went to get my coat, I saw Kevin sitting at the bar so I went up to say goodbye but again we ended up chatting for a while, then I stayed to watch the dance competition which he judged, a final goodbye and I was on my way. This was truly a night to remember. Thanks to Jose, Luis, Carlton, Salim, Oliver and Gabriel for being an inspiration all those years ago and to Kevin who was so gracious and has inspired me then and now.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Listen Without Prejudice Volume 4

Wham! George Michael
and Andrew Ridgeley
Photo by Tony McGee
To say I’m a huge fan is an understatement but I never really realised how big of an impact his lyrics, music and life had on me. My all-time favorite group and artists are The BeeGees, when Maurice and Robin Gibb died I was devastated, but I didn’t feel the same as when George died, maybe because they were older than me, not part of my formative high school years, but I felt that the BeeGees had come full circle with their last album “This Is Where I Came In” in 2001. I was also devastated after Michael Jackson died but his life was plagued with so many issues and I was so far removed from his reality. George‘s career, in my opinion was cut way too short, he was only 53, his last studio album of new material dates back to 2004’s album “Patience”, I’m still waiting for a follow up. When I got the news about George on Christmas Day I just crawled up in bed and cried. I was already emotional because Christmas reminds me of my mom who I lost around the festive time, so my emotions were running high, I had just posted some pictures of her on Facebook, I was feeling a bit down, then 15 minutes later the news about George popped up on my newsfeed, it was all I could bare.

Me circa 1987-1988
1985 was my graduating year from high school and outside of Madonna Wham! was all the rage. My best friend Chris Dardzinski and I were Wham! I first met Chris in grade 4, like George Michael I was the new student arriving mid-term, and in the same way Andrew Ridgeley was assigned to be George’s guide in class, Chris was assigned to me, we became inseparable closer then brothers. I remember walking into the local record store, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and Wham! “Make It Big” albums were on display, Chris bought “Make It Big” and I bought the Madonna album, we would then make cassette tapes for each other so we could have both. Chris and I couldn’t sing or play any instruments but by High School, we dreamed of being pop stars, we photographed ourselves like photoshoots for record covers; we even wrote songs or rather poetry and compiled them into imaginary albums. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “Wake Me Up Before You GoGo”, “Everything She Wants”, or the mega song “Careless Whispers”, all went to #1, but my favorite at the time was the #3 hit “Freedom”, not the George Michael song from 1990 but the song that accompanied the music video from their historic concert in China. Despite many writing them off as bubble gum pop stars, George knew how to write a hit and channel the magic of Motown. Looking back today those songs are still classics, and not as simple as some would believe.

Chris circa 1987-1988
As we started college everybody was growing up, but as Chris and I remained friends I was shocked at the news of Wham! splitting up. Their final album “Music From The Edge Of Heaven” is still my favorite. I remember walking into the record store and buying it, I loved how side one of the vinyl with the 4 up-tempo tracks was called “The Hot Side” while the other side with the ballads was called “The Cool Side”. More importantly was the music, only eight songs long but eight amazing songs. "I’m Your Man" is probably my favorite upbeat Wham! song, when I saw George in the music video with the brown hair, cropped beard, tambourine and gloves I wanted that look, it wasn’t long before I grew a beard although not a neat as George’s. “A Different Corner” from the same album, credited to George as a solo artist is one of his best tracks, a beautifully haunting ballad with heart wrenching lyrics “Take me back in time maybe I can forget, turn a different corner and we never would have met, would you care?” Another favorite of mine is an album track called “Blue (Live In China)” I had no idea at the time that this song was originally the B-Side to their early single “Club Tropicana”  then called “Blue (Armed With Love)”, but from the first few notes I fell in love with it. Chris and I kept writing more song lyrics throughout college and like Wham! we decided to fake-spilt up and write our own albums. The song “Blue (Armed With Love)” was on my first solo imaginary record along with my other originals.

The "Faith" album
We were both waiting for George’s next musically chapter to arrive but in the meantime 1987 brought us my all-time favorite duet, the chart topper “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” by George and Aretha Franklin. I still can’t help singing George’s part whenever I hear it. Then Faith happened and everything just exploded, at this time Chris and I had both graduated from College. I have to admit I wasn’t an immediate fan of his new sound it was a bit too R&B for me. I was not enamoured with the lead single “I Want You Sex”, which was plagued with radio and MTV bans including Aretha Franklin who vowing to never sing with George again. It took some time but I got to love songs like “Father Figure” “One More Try,” “Monkey”, and the title track,  four #1 singles from one album was quite a feat in those days. Two of my favorite songs from the album were the only two non singles, “Look At Your Hands”, and “Hand To Mouth”. Both Chris and I saw Michael’s legendary Faith tour at The Olympic Stadium, unfortunately it’s one of the worse places for a concert sound wise but we were thrilled to see him. The album went on to win Album Of The Year at the Grammy’s, there was no stopping George.

Chris and I circa 1992-1993
1990 was a huge year of musical change, the 80’s was gone, the sound of pure pop was giving way to Grunge and R&B. I remember walking into my local HMV and seeing no more vinyl records just lots of cassettes and CD’s, my musically tastes were changing and so was George Michael’s. That’s why George’s new album “Listen Without Prejudice Volume One” just blew me away. To this day it ranks at #2 for my all-time favorite album, just under The BeeGees 1975 record “Main Course”. “Listen Without Prejudice” was exactly the music I wanted to hear, incredibly produced with beautiful melodies and either personal or social conscious lyrics. George never gets credit as a record producer but he was one of the best, on his albums he did it all, the writing, the arrangements, the production and in some cases most of the instrumentations with just a few session players he trusted. “Praying For Time” is probably one of the greatest songs ever written, a commentary on social injustices “The rich declare themselves poor, And most of us are not sure, If we have too much, But we'll take our chances, Because god's stopped keeping score, I guess somewhere along the way, He must have let us alt out to play, Turned his back and all god's children, Crept out the back door…” it went to #1 but with no video and George’s dispute with Sony nobody remembers it. The track most people remember from the album is the incredible “Freedom 90”, George’s plea to rid himself of all those pre-fabricated images, listening to the lyrics now we can’t help but wonder if his oppressed sexual orientation wasn’t hinted in the song. The album contains so many of my favorite songs, “Something To Save”, “Heal The Pain” whom he wrote for Paul McCartney, they even recorded a duet of the song for his compilation Hits CD “Twenty Five”, the haunting rendition of Stevie Wonder’s They Won’t Go When I Go, the war torn "Mothers Pride, “Cowboys and Angels and “Waiting For That Day” the final single that should have been a huge hit but never was. I loved how the album ended with the Reprise song “Waiting” I hadn’t seen anybody do that sine the BeeGees.

George "Fastlove" Cover 1996
The 90’s were a huge adjustment for both me and George, in 1993 I came out as a gay man while George had also come to this realisation, he kept it hidden for quite some time. His 1996 album “Older” gained him a bit of a comeback in the UK where it outdid the Faith album, in the US the haunting single “Jesus To A Child” and fabulous dance track “Fastlove” kept him in the top ten of the Billboard charts, to some of us this album confirmed he was gay with the non-too subtle lyrics and drastic change in looks. Perhaps for George this was fine, since he could have a career but didn’t have to deal with craziness of mega stardom. We both lost our mothers to cancer whom we loved dearly, unlike George I never got to talk to my mom about my sexual orientation; I came out a year after she passed. My mother's death was a huge black hole for me, George seemed to suffer a similar fate especially when combined with the loss his first lover Anselmo to AIDS. George finally “came out” publicly in 1998 in that much too talked about bathroom incident, which in my opinion has overshadowed his musical output and place in music history. Both Chris and I wondered about George’s sexuality over the years but now we had confirmation and an out in your face song and hilarious video called “Outside” which mocked his arrest and made no doubt of the fact that George was like me, a proud gay man. At this time Andrew Ridgeley had long traded his superstadom life for a quiet retreat with his wife Keren from Bananarama. Like art imitating life Chris stopped writing songs and compiling album, I kept it going throughout the 90’s and the early 2000’s turning my lyrics to the struggles of me losing my mom and becoming a gay man. Chris got married in 1998 and just 2 years later would be the last time we were friends. In 2008 I was lucky to see George’s absolutely incredible concert “Live 25” at the Bell Center in Montreal; it was the concert I waited 25 years to see, I couldn’t help but think of Chris at the show, I wonder if he was there. To this day I still don’t completely understand what happened; Chris decided to give up an entire part of his life and most of his friends including me. It’s been over 16 years since we’ve spoken, every so often, a song, an artist or a place reminds me of him. I’ll never understand how such a close friendship could just be erased. George Michael’s death has reminded me all over again, I mourn George Michael, I mourn my best friend, I mourn my grad years and college, and all the wonderful music we’ll never hear from George. So again I ask: Take me back in time maybe I can forget, turn a different corner and we never would have met, would you care?  

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Celine Dion: Bell Centre Montreal August 1st 2016

It was an honour and privilege to see this show. Celine’s mini tour of the summer of 2016 will be talked about for many years to come. I have to admit I was not thrilled when I first saw the setlist from Belgium and France, my setlist would have been quite different, so many of my favorite songs were missing, and many were rarer album tracks and songs she doesn’t often sing. I would have replaced 10 songs with others, but what I heard totally blew me away. I was excited to see a show of hers mostly in French, because let’s face it her French recordings with a few exceptions totally outclass her English repertoire in soul and artistry. Her Las Vegas show is all very “American” high gloss while this show had emotion, subtlety and class. Without singing a note Celine walked on stage, after reciting a snippet of the poem, "Trois Heure Vinght" behind a hidden screen to a 10 minute ovation. She could barely start the first song and new single “Encore un soir”. The song was written by her long time songwriter and collaborator Jean-Jacques Goldman. She asked him to write her one more song, this time about the passage of time as a tribute to Réne. She stood on stage for 2 hours, no wardrobe change, Celine wanted to spend as much time and sing as many songs she could for her fans. She could barely hold back the tears especially when she sang “Et je taime encore” the applauses stopped her right before the refrain for a good 5 minutes. Her orchestra with a full string section was breathtaking; this is what a real concert should sound like, no theatrics, just fabulous music, and an incredible vocalist, the real original definition of a “Diva”. She premiere a new song which was voted by the public to appear on her new album, written by unknown songwriter Daniel Picard, the song “À la plus haute branche” was stupendous; you could hear a pin drop. Even songs like « Tous les blues sont écrits pour toi » which is not a favorite of mine sounded better than the record and will make me revaluate them. “L'amour existe encore” and “Pour que tu m'aimes encore” was sung with maturité and beautiful vocal restraint. One of the cleverest moments of the night was her new version of “Naziland, ce soir on danse” from Luc Plamondon’s big rock opera Starmania. Céline had asked her producers to figure out a way to incorporate Réne’s favorite TV show and theme song “Law & Order” into a song, when she explained it I thought it was crazy but the result was fabulous. When I heard the first notes of “Dans un autre monde” I couldn’t help but get up and dance, but as I looked around the forum I could see I was only one of 5 in the stands standing up and boogieing, most preferred to sit as it was a ballad heavy list. One of the evenings highlights was the acoustic medley of "Apprends-moi / Tous les secrets / Ne bouge pas and Valse adieu", Celine along with her back up singers and a few musician, did a type of campfire sing along which was as worthy as the full orchestra tracks, the ending with just her and the singers doing "Valse adieu" was incredible, it took me a few minutes to realize it was all accapella. I did get up again when she sang “Love Can Move Mountains” into “River Deep, Mountain High”. She obviously did the huge English hits “Because You Loved Me”, “It's All Coming Back to Me Now” which morphed into “The Power of Love”. I cried when she sang “It's All Coming Back to Me Now”, it reminded me of the last concert of hers I saw in 1996 with my then best friend Chris D. my friend has chosen to no longer be around and it just stirred up emotions. She covered “Purple Rain” and her new recorded version of Queen’s “The Show Must Go On”. As a unique twist to our night, she asked us for a favour at the encore. She had to record “My Heart Will Go On” for an American TV show and asked if we could be part of it. The show briefly stopped as she explained that there would be camera cue’s, she would talk to the American audience in English, then sing the song.  She asked us to light up the stadium with our cell phones, hoping that we had enough power left over; that along with glow sticks they were selling at the kiosque produced an incredible sight. The show ended with her love and peace pledge “S'il suffisait d'aimer”, she then sang an accapella snippet of “Vole” and faded into the background as the lights went down.

I really hope this concert is recorded and is set to appear on CD and DVD, not everybody got the chance to see it live, and some of us want to experience it again.

Merci Celine,

1.    Trois heures vingt (A cappella snippet)
2.    Encore un soir
3.    Je crois toi
4.    Qui peut vivre sans amour ?
5.    Immensité
6.    Et je t'aime encore
7.    Pour que tu m'aimes encore
8.    Terre
9.    À la plus haute branche
10. Ordinaire (Robert Charlebois cover)
11. Because You Loved Me
12. It's All Coming Back to Me Now / The Power of Love
13. Le vol d'un ange
14. L'amour existe encore
15. Apprends-moi / Tous les secrets / Ne bouge pas / Valse adieu
16. Tous les blues sont écrits pour toi
17. Dans un autre monde
18. Naziland, ce soir on danse
19. Purple Rain (Prince cover)
20. Love Can Move Mountains
21. River Deep, Mountain High
22. The Show Must Go On (Queen cover)

23. My Heart Will Go On
24. S'il suffisait d'aimer
25. Vole (A cappella snippet)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Celine et Moi

A family friend once told me "You always knew she would be a huge superstar". Truth be told I never realised how big she would become, I just thought she had a phenomenal voice and I loved her music.

Celine Dion first captured my attention back in 1987. I was working in a department store in Laval on the north shore of Montreal Quebec. Celine and her mom could often be spotted shopping at the store, in those days, while being a Quebec celebrity she was wasn’t the huge paparazzi draw she is now, so it was common to spot her around town.

Celine’s album "Incognito" was stocked in the store and the record would play over the store’s speakers. "Incognito" was the first record of Celine’s I bought and it would start a long love affair with her music and concerts. I knew she previously had a career in Quebec as a "young child" singer, I knew she sang that song "Une Colombe" for the Pope’s visit, but she was never really on my radar. "Incognito" was her first "adult" French album for Sony Records, only 8 songs long, normal for that time era" but every song stood out, no filler in those days. One track that really got my attention was "Jour De Fievre", it was different to the usual ballad type song she would sing, it had a type of gusto and grit in her voice with a dancy edge.

As fate would have it Celine was hired to advertise a commercial jingle for my workplace, does anybody remember "Montreal c’est ma ville mais Simpson c’est mon style"? To premiere the ad all of Simpson’s employees were invited to a special show at the Theatre St Denis in Montreal. I remember waiting in line to get in, while others just kind of sauntered in, I was the first to run up to the front of the stage and got a seat right up front. She only sang 4 songs and premiered the new ad, but my jaw dropped at her voice. I was always cynical and under the impression that most artists got their voices fixed in the studio for their records, that nobody could sound that good but there she was just a few feet in front of me and she blew me away. I remember right after the show I went up to the stage, clutching her vinyl record I brought with me and asking the two guards if I could get an autograph. They oddly responded "Celine est dans sa douche", "Celine is already in the shower", so I left with no autograph but that would not be my last chance.

A few years later Celine premiered on English TV in Canada at the Juno’s singing "Have A Heart" an English translation of her song "Partout Je Te Vois" from her "Incognito" album, her performance was the talk of the show and this would launch her international English career.

In 1990 that song was featured on her first English album "Unison" but another song "Where Does My Heart Beat Now" would be the breakthrough. As a kid growing up I would spend my Sunday mornings listening to Casey Casem’s American Top 40, I wouldn’t leave the house till he got to #1. I knew how hard it was for a Canadian artist to have a top ten hit, let alone an unknown French Canadian. Despite loving "Where Does My Heart Beat Now" I never though she would succeed on her first try, but my jaw would drop again when the song cracked the top 40, then the top ten, all the way up to #4.

Not long after the album Unison was released, I was attending the international car show at the Montreal Olympic Stadium, I was supposed to meet up with some friends, they were late, I was bored but I always had my camera with me, an old SLR with film, no digital in those days. At one point I turned around and was shocked to see Celine at the Chrysler booth signing autographs, she was the spokesperson at the time but I had no idea she would be there. I knew I had to get a shot of her but I was so nervous, so I hesitated, at one point she got up to take a break and as she was walking out I got enough courage and asked if I could take her picture. I wasn’t sure the shot would come out, but to this day, while not being the sharpest picture I ever took it’s one of my favorites. She looks fabulous and glamourous, it’s not the most posed shot either, I snapped it pretty fast, not giving her much time to smile.

I did get her autograph and took another shot of her signing. I finally found my friends, I probably talked their heads off about seeing Celine and getting her picture, but none seemed as trilled as I was.

At this point I was transferred to work in Downtown Montreal for the Hudson’s Bay Department store. I worked as a greater, security guard at the front entrance. I remember one day this lady came up to me asking if I knew where the coat check was. She was wearing sunglasses and a kerchief was covering her hair but I thought there was something familiar about her, it wasn’t seconds later that a bunch of follow employees came up to me to ask what Celine wanted, it figures her biggest fan wouldn’t recognize her, it still makes me laugh to this day.

As her English career started soaring her French Recording career, would take a huge leap forward. Celine’s 1991 album "Dion Chante Plamondon" consisted of songs entirely written by well renowned French lyricist Luc Plamondon (Starmania). That album would make the French community around the world take notice and move her from just a pop singer to a serious interpreter of song. The album covered some of Plamondon’s most famous songs like "Les blues du businessman" and "Un garçon pas comme les autres (Ziggy)" a #2 hit in France, he also wrote 4 new songs for her including’ L’amour existe encore" which remains a huge favorite and considered one of his best.

Celine could have easily faded away as a one hit wonder in the USA, but as she was preparing her sophomore English album, Disney came to her with the opportunity of recording "Beauty & The Beast". If you hadn’t heard of her before, there was no escaping the film and this song. The duet with Peabo Bryson climbed up to #9 on the Billboard charts and in 1993 won them a Grammy award for "Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal"

To launch the new album in Montreal, Celine would appear at another department store, this time Eaton’s for a signing session. I knew this was my chance, I had two 8 x 10 prints done of that fabulous picture I took of her at the car show. Along with my best friend, we waited in line. I not only got her to autograph that fabulous photo I took, but I gave her a copy, and this time I got my picture with Celine.

I doubt Celine still has that picture but I still got mine. Her eponymous album titled "Celine Dion" went on to produce the Billboard Chart #4 single "If You Asked Me To", while songs like "Love Can Move Mountains" was #1 in Canada. Both written by Diane Warren they were not their last hits or collaborations together.

In April of 1993 Celine played 6 nights at the Montreal Forum, I saw her not once but twice. I already had a ticket for the 6th of April, but as I left work downtown on the opening night of her shows I passed by the concert forum. There were scalpers as usual selling tickets, I hate scalpers and as a rule I never buy from them, but it was 5 minutes to show time and they didn’t seem to be able to sell all their tickets, I got a ticket for under the value, I paid $25 for a $35 ticket and for once cheated the scalpers who sell for ridiculous high prices and in those days were actually breaking the law.

From this point there was no stopping Celine. Her next album "The Colour Of My Love" produced her first #1 Billboard Hot 100 Hit, "The Power Of Love". The song was a cover but neither it’s originator Jennifer Rush (who had a #1 in the UK with the song) or others like Laura Branigan or Air Supply could make it in the States. On the 30th of March 1994 I saw one of her 6 concert nights at the Theatre Du Forum.

In French Celine would record the album that would become her opus and benchmark. Simply title D’Eux, a play on words meaning "Two", "Them", "About Them" or "From Them". The album was mostly written by French singer songwriter Jean-Jacques Goldman, and went on to become the biggest selling album in French history. It’s hard to explain the difference between Celine’s French and English repertoire, but most fans consider her French music of a higher art. Her English albums are usually written and produced with a huge committee of people while albums like D’Eux are more of a concept album, one or 2 people and tightly produced.

The music has less of a standard middle of the road, pop chart appeal, the big epic type ballad with the huge soaring voice in every song is not present. In French they seem to restrain her voice and use it where it is necessary in the song, the lyrics are pure poetry. Listing to it today songs like "Pour que tu m'aimes encore", or my favorite "Destin" are not dated but remain classics. In 1998 Jean Jacques and Celine would repeat this feat with her next French album "S’il Suffisat D’aimer" meaning "If Loving Were Enough", the title track along with others would become classics that she still sings today.

If D’Eux was her French opus, her next album "Falling Into You" would be her English one. The first single, the Diane Warren written tune "Because You Loved" was already #1 on the Billboard Charts. I remember buying the CD, coming home and again my jaw dropping again as I heard "It’s All Coming Back To Me Now" from the first note of the song I was hooked with this fantastic Jim Steinman jem, it’s still my favorite English song of hers. Not only would it become one of her biggest selling albums but it won two Grammy’s including the coveted "Album of the Year Award" beating out Mariah Carey’s fabulous "Daydream" album. In 1996 my best friend and I would see her "Falling Into You" tour at the newly built Molson Center now the Bell Center, for a sold out show.

Many casual fans seem to only remember the next song and she is forever positively or negatively attached to it. Nothing was bigger than Titanic Movie and "My Heat Will Go On". Her album "Let’s Talk About Love" sold over 31 million copies around the world going diamond status in Canada and selling over 10 million in the US. While she hasn’t surpassed these sales with her more recent outputs she still releases fabulous records and plays to sold out shows.

There’s one last thing that I need to say about Celine and the music industry. I’ve noticed over the years that sadly many huge megastars and certain musical genres, are easy targets for backlashes. The "Disco Sucks" era with the BeeGee’s, along with the infamous burning of disco albums at the Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1979 is one prime example, Celine while not as severe, is another example. I get friends and family members going "ick" or "yuck", "Why would you spend your money on her or go to her shows". My boss calls her a freak. Speaking of work, we play music in the store, we are allowed to bring our own CD’s and playlist, but I am forbidden to play Celine. I once made a holiday mix on my Ipod, I just dumped all the Christmas songs together, when by accident one of her songs came on and I was given the dirtiest of looks and told to take it off. We’ve played the gamut at work from jazz, country, rock, Taylor Swift to even Led Zeppelin.

I’ve never understood this phenomenon. I can understand not liking certain music genres or songs, I do too, but why this type of angry distain? Isn’t there enough hate in this world? It seems to be more than just her music, but why? Celine doesn’t do anything crazy or horrible, she isn’t into drugs, or over partying, she hasn’t broken the law or been to jail, yet these clean cut artists are always ridiculed and considered less than their contemporaries. Some people don’t seem to like her personality but I think she is fabulous, always funny, down to earth in interviews although sometimes too truthful, she works hard to put on a great show, she doesn’t seem to be a diva (in the bad sense), and she seems to treat her company of workers very well. Yes her life story is very much public and always out here, but the recent passing of her beloved Rene and that hardship only makes her more human and relatable in my opinion.

I love Celine, I love her music and nobody can take that away from me. Because of life’s circumstances, The "Falling Into You" tour was the last time I saw her in concert, it’s been twenty years. This August we will meet again at the Bell Center in Montreal, a long time waiting.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Top Ten of 2015

I got lazy last year and never got around to writing a review for my top ten albums, maybe I just got tired writing detailed reviews for each album or maybe it wasn’t a very inspiring year for music. I thought it was time to post both my 2014’s and 2015’s top list. It seems fitting putting those two years together in one blog since a few of those albums from Sam Smith, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran crossed over and could be on either list.

Best Albums of 2015

1.“Paper Gods” Duran Duran: The boys are like a very fine wine, they only get better with age. This album is not as cohesive as their predecessor “All You Need Is Now”, but it is one hell of an album, from the opening anthem “Paper Gods” it is superbly recorded and produced. The album is much more modern sounding then anything they done in years, from the vinyl groove of “Pressure Off” produced by legend Nile Rodgers to the best cut “Last Night in the City” which makes you want to never leave the dancefloor. For those wanting the classic “Duran” sound “Face For Today” and the “Save A Prayer like”, “What Are The Chances” fit the bill. The album’s opus “You Killed Me With Silence” with its “Chauffeur” like atmosphere, and odd verses against the chorus is one of their best. One of my favorites “Sunset Garage” is the first time I’ve seen Duran channel the Motown sound and to suburb effect, I could have easily seen the Temptations covering this. “Butterfly Girl” is kind of an odd track but it’s heavily drum sounds give it a bit of “Power Stations” feel. Yes there are a few missteps like “Dancephobia” with Lindsey Lohan, and the album kind of loses steam at the end but it still a very fine wine.

2.“Rebel Heart”—Madonna”: At 19 songs I find the album a bit long, but pruned down to about 12 tracks, it’s her best album since “Ray Of Light. From the singles “Living For Love” to “Ghosttown” which should have been huge hit, this album puts Madonna in ripe form. Best tracks include the autobiographical “Joan Of Arc”, Devil Pray” and the title song, this is the direction Madonna should take, the song “Rebel Heart” is her most heartfelt and endearing ever. “Body Shop” is a cute retro style “True Blue” song that only Madonna can pull off. I’m not a fan of tracks like “Bitch I’m Madonna” "Iconic"or “Holy Water” but then some would argue that those are more like “Madonna” the the rest.

3.  “No Place In Heaven”—Mika: Excellent album from one of the most underrated pop musicians. Best tracks include “Good Guys”,  the hilarious poppy “All She Wants” about a mother longing more for her son and the dancefloor track “Staring At The Sun”. The album has it’s tragic but beautiful storytelling with the Freddy Mercury inspired “Last Party” and the superb title track. If you haven’t checked out Mika please do so.
4. Made In  The AM”-One Direction: Manufactured or not they make good pop records, with every album they seem to grow up just a bit. Lead single “Drag Me Down” written by their songwriting team of Julian Bunetta and Jamie Scott is one of their finest singles. Unfortunately, they chose 2 of the worst tracks to follow up, “Perfect” and “Infinity” are OK but they don’t compare to what follows. “If I could Fly” or “History” could have easily replaced them. All members of the group seem to have their hand in co- writing most of the songs. They channel a retro Fleetwood Mac groove on the fab “What A Feeling” and just as lovely is “I Want To Write You A Song”. Two of my favorites, the totally different “Never Enough” and the Harry Style co-written beatle-esque “Olivia” could have put the group in another league above the typical boy band.

5. “X”--Ed—Sheeran: A funky rhythm and soul album that infuses rock, pop and rap. Ed knows no boundaries; he does everything to perfection from the emotional ballads of “The One”, “Photograph” and “Thinking Out Loud”, to his beautiful falsetto and craftsmanship as a musician.  I prefer Ed when he gets down with the tracks like “Sing” and “Don’t”, it’s hard to believe that a ginger white guy is this funky.

6.“L’orchestre Symphonique De Montréal”—Mika: Team up one of the most underrated pop stars with Montreal’s incredible Symphonic Orchestra and you get one of the most fabulous sounding albums. This project proves just how talented and what a great songwriter Mika is, even odd chosen tracks like francophone “Boum Boum Boum” are perfect.

“Unbreakable”—Janet Jackson: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis return to produce her best album in over two decades”. On the title track they turn Janet’s velvet vocals and sprinkle their magic slow jam groove that moves throughout the record. Janet uncannily channels her brother Michael on the fabulous “The Great Forever”. Favorite tracks include “2 B Loved”, “Shoulda Known Better” and the retro “Jacksons 5/Escapade” “Gon' B Alright”.

8. "1989"--Taylor Swift:
What can I say about this album that hasn’t been said. Like it or not it’s a pop juggernaut. From the solids hits “Blank Space”, “Shake It Off", “Style” and “Wildest Dreams”, producer Max Martin and Swift made a blueprint to the perfect pop album and put the music industry back on it’s feet. The one misstep is the childish nursery rhyme “Bad Blood” whom without Swift's name and billion buck video, in my opinion, would have never hit #1. My favorite is still “I Know Places” co-written with Ryan Tedder.

9. “Get Up”—Bryan Adams:
Produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynn, Bryan puts out another fantastic album. Opener “You Belong To Me” is a rockabilly Traveling Wilburys type record, but the rest of the album is all Adams. The retro sounding rock anthems “Go Down Rockin’” and “That’s Rock And Roll” could have easily followed up “Reckless” back in 1985. “We Did It All” could be up there with some of his biggest hits as well as lead single “Brand New Day”. “Don’t Even Try”, feels like a long lost early Beatles record. In case you want to hear what the some of the song would sound like without Lynn’s production, Adams give you 4 acoustic tracks.

10.“All American Boy”-Steve Grand: One of the biggest Kickstarters campaigns, Steve Grand delivered a great album to his fans and backers. They dubbed him the “gay country singer” but I would place him more in the Bryan Adams area of music. The title track was one of my favorite songs a few years ago and he follows it up with superb tunes like “Stay”, “Say You Love Me”, and “Time”. A bit out of place on this album but my favorite, is the dance anthem “We Are The Night”, maybe he can one day do a full hi NRG album. Looking forward to hearing what Steve does next.

Best Singles of 2015
  1. “Marvin Gaye”--Charlie Puth and Meagan Trainor
  2. “Ghost”—Ella Henderson
  3. “Drag Me Down” One Direction
  4.  “Ghosttown”—Madonna
  5.  “One Call Away”--Charlie Puth
  6. “Living For Love”—Madonna
  7. “Last Night In The City”—Duran Duran featuring Kieza
  8. “Pressure Off” Duran Duran featuring Janelle Monae and Nile Rodgers
  9.  “More Then Silence” Culture Club
  10. “Sugar”—Maroon 5
  11. “Sing” Ed Sheeran
  12. “Uptown Funk”—Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars

Top Albums of 2014

1. "50 St. Catherine's Drive" Robin Gibb
2. “Sweet Talker”Jessie J.
3. “In The Lonely Hour” Sam Smith 
4. “High Hopes” Bruce Springsteen 
5.  “Xscape” Michael Jackson
6. “Kiss Me Once” Kylie Minogue 
7. “Songs Of Innocence” U2
8. “Never Been Better” Olly Murs 
9. “Four” One Direction 
10. “3” Take That  

Top Singles of 2014

  1. Alan Freeman Days--Robin Gibb
  2. Love Never Felt So Good--Michael Jackson
  3. Stay With Me—Sam Smith
  4. Let It Go-Idina Menzel
  5. Take Me To Church—Hozier
  6. Masterpiece—Jessie J.
  7. The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)—U2
  8. Night Changes--One Direction
  9. Up-- Olly Murs & Demi Lovato
  10. I’m Not The Only One—Sam Smith
  11. Into The Blue-Kylie Minogue
  12. Wrapped Up-Olly Murs

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