Basically, I’m stupid. Here’s why: I decided to research my hometown’s music scene after I moved away. When I do go back, it’s at times like Christmas when doing research is futile. You know, the time where people don’t play shows, and your friends don’t want to go to shows, and when your conversations with people you haven’t seen in six months pretty much centre around the relief of escaping visiting sisters and brothers-in-law for a day, the fear of losing your job, and upcoming gall bladder operations. Nobody even wants to talk about music.
This year I went home to Calgary with knowledge that I wouldn’t be achieving much in getting the latest on the scene, and that I would enviously be watching people eat cool stuff and drink a lot of alcohol while I sat in the corner with a plate of vegetables. I was fine with it. Really, I was.
But then, I started listening to JR Shore’s album, State Theatre, and I realized again how much I miss by being away from the scene at home. Despite being able to keep up with the artists I like by online means, I still can’t go to their shows, and can’t just hang around to see what’s happening on a regular basis. There’s still something to be said about one’s physical proximity to a scene. You might see someone open up a show you bought tickets to, or stop by a bar one night on the way home from work and discover a great songwriter. Those things don’t happen for me anymore, at least not for what I know of Calgary.
Luckily, people like Shore send me their records and I get to hear their artistic progression in that format. State Theatre is Shore’s third album. It’s a double album; the first half his own compositions, the second a series of covers. It’s a smart move to throw in a bunch of covers if you’re an independent artist trying to build your audience, and Shore maintains an overall aesthetic that unifies both sides of the album. As a listener, you can put on the cover side to introduce yourself to the artist with some familiar tunes, and then turn to the originals for a series of new songs in the stylistic vein you’re used to.
And that stylistic vein Shore tends towards is a mix of blues, roots, and 60s country rock. More specifically, he’s got the organ-driven, heavy arrangements of The Band (and a cover of “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”); fiddle- and pedal-steel-based outlaw country of David Allan Coe and Billy Joe Shaver (a cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Redneck Mother”); the sensitive balladry of Gram Parsons (a nicely executed cover of “Sin City”); and the pinched high register and memorable guitar riffs of Neil Young (“For the Turnstiles” appears).
Normally I’m leery of covers, especially ones like these. Anyone interested in the genre is tempted to cover the classic roots music of this era, and we’ve all seen countless songwriters doing their best “Sin City” or John Prine (Shore has a version of “The Late John Garfield Blues”). But he’s approaching the cover in a way that I think most of us listeners appreciate best: pay homage to the original, keep some of it intact, but make it just different enough that we hear some of a new, individual style too.
Ok, when you’re done with the cover side, move on to Shore’s originals, because as I said, you’ll find many musical similarities to the artists he’s influenced by and you’ll like the way he mines their material.
Some of the songs, like “Holler Like Hell”, “Charlie Grant”, and “Addie Polk”, have a grimier feel and draw more obviously on blues; “Addie” also relies on funky organ interjections behind Shore’s verse lines. Others are more clearly rooted in country, like “The Ballad of Dreyfus”, whereas still others (“Spring Training” and “Dash Snow” – on which his voice and melody are reminiscent of fellow Alberta singer-songwriter Dave McCann) put him into rock territory. The slower ballads are nice interruptions; Shore’s gravelly timbre on “M.S. St. Louis” adds a sober element after a series of upbeat songs and “Poundmaker” shows why Shore’s keyboard skills (and accordion and piano) are featured on most of the album. State Theatre was partially funded by a Rawlco Radio Grant. In 2007, the station committed $1.4 million to recording grants for local artists ($10,000 to 20 separate artists each year for seven years). Great to see that the program is still going, and that, as in Shore’s case, the money is well-spent.
I last talked to JR in 2010, when he was playing at the Calgary Folk Festival. He has spent time in Nashville developing his songwriting, and is known in the Calgary scene for having won the CFF’s songwriting competition (held every year in the spring) two nights in a row for different songs. But Shore is also a guy bound by his duties to family life and his job working with special needs children in speech pathology; as a result, it’s not always easy to see him live outside of Calgary. He is, however, doing a short tour through Alberta in January and February. But if you can’t get to one of his shows, at least visit his website and grab a copy of State Theatre. It’s only six days into the year, but I bet this will be on many 2013 top albums lists.
Here's a live performance of "Charlie's Lullabye", one of his originals.