December 2006

Music for Vacuuming
Don Ross | and Friends
December 27, 2006 Hugh's room Toronto
There’s Acoustic Guitar. And Then There’s Don Ross
by Sebastian Cook with photos by Mike Colyer
It had been five years or so since I last saw Don Ross at the Bamboo. He is considered by many to be the greatest acoustic guitarist Canada has ever produced — in my opinion, it’s not even close. What better way, then, to cap off a first year as a professional in the music business — and as a Live Music Reporter — than with his annual holiday concert at Hugh’s Room?

The self-proclaimed ‘guitar geek’ was in absolute peak form, holding court with a holiday crowd that fully appreciated the man’s talents. The set list was chosen mostly from online and in-show requests. And it was refreshing to feel the vibe of a musician who knows exactly how good he is and can convey that pride in his skills without coming across as arrogant.

The standout memory from the night is “Catherine”, a two-decade-old tune from his early days, was seven or eight minutes of Ross on his own that I won’t be able to do justice to in writing. It was as though someone was playing the guitar, bass, keyboards and percussion simultaneously on one instrument; indeed, my tablemate commented, “It’s almost like he’s got a bass player behind the curtains.” Ross moved from blistering flamenco/dobro tempo to a slow bluesy-ballad pace and back again several times. He moved in and out from the core melody to improv playing so skillfully it sounded like he was playing two or three songs. His trademark harmonics and percussive rhythms rounded out the one-man band at his finest. People didn’t just applaud when it finished, you could hear moans of delight. Without a doubt, this was the finest display of acoustic guitar I’ve ever witnessed.

Don Ross

Brooke Miller

Other highlights included: “Elevation Music” which wasn’t far behind for sheer guitar godliness; “Wall of Glass”, which reminded me of Paco De Lucia/Al DiMeola/John McLaughlin’s immortal Friday Night in San Francisco live album; “Dracula & Friends Part 1”, Ross’ homage to Motown and Miles Davis; the Rosshead favourite “Zarzuela” which was enhanced by pedal and electronic effects that redefined my perspective on their use in acoustic performance; an Appalachian-rootsy cover of David Essig’s gem “Berkeley Spring” that reminded me of Ross’ friend Dan Crary; and the much-requested “Michael, Michael, Michael” which until about the three-minute mark sounded exactly like it does on the CD Passion Session.

Let us now turn to the Friends or ‘Fiends’ as Ross repeatedly referred to them, making light of a promotional typo.

Outside of the jazz sphere, Jordan O’Connor’s performance on upright bass ranks right at the top amongst my relatively limited range of reference. He was on fire throughout, matching Ross’ incredibly intricate and dynamic tempos and harmonic construction stride for stride, especially in his sublime work on “Zarzuela” and “Blue Bear”.

Ross’ wife of about a year and a half, PEI-native songstress Brooke Miller, offered two stellar original songs: “Country from The Dome Car” which was about playing a festival on a train and frankly got a bit drowned out by Ross’ accompaniment; and “You Can See Everything”, a brilliant number that evoked comparisons to Annie Lennox with better guitar chops. Don’s influence on her guitar work was clearly evident, and with her vocal and lyrical strength Miller must surely have a bright future ahead. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one musing about the musical possibilities for their children.

Lastly, the towering Del Vezeau (also Ross’ booking agent) played two of his tunes. His folk/flamenco/blues compositions are top-notch, but what impressed me even more is his stream-of-consciousness stage charisma. And he certainly piqued my interest in the 2007 edition of his Canadian Guitar Festival.

Wrapping up this final report of ’06, I’ll opine categorically that no discussion of the greatest in Canadian music is complete without Don Ross. Pick up 3 Hands (no kidding), Bearing Straight, This Dragon Doesn’t Sleep, Passion Session, Live in Your Head, Robot Monster (one of the funkiest acoustic guitar albums you’ll ever hear) Music for Vacuuming (his newest) or other recordings in his catalogue. Sometime this fall, look for the date of the 2007 Don Ross and Friends show at Hugh’s Room, between Christmas and New Year’s, and get your tickets. Don’t just bring your friends, bring your fiends.

The musicians
Don Ross – acoustic guitar & effects, vocals
Jordan O’Connor – upright bass
Brooke Miller – acoustic guitar, vocals
Del Vezeau – acoustic guitar
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We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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Mike Colyer
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The Live Music Report

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