Saturday, 22 August 2015

2015 Merlo - An Exceptional Vintage

If you're a country music fan there's a pretty good chance you've heard and love Madeline Merlo's music. This deeply talented young lady is on a skyrocketing career arc and bound for big, no, more like, BIG things.

Madeline is the complete package combining a wholesome beauty as though she were drawn by Disney artists, with a voice that would make the angels pause and listen. She's a compassionate soul caring for all the creatures inhabiting our world; It makes me happy to see great thing happening for such an amazing person.


2015 is turning out to be a huge year for the 21-year-old artist from Maple Ridge, BC, with a list of accomplishments that might make you wonder what you've been doing wrong your entire life. When I was 21, most of my "accomplishments" were related to beer consumption; Madeline's resume is much more impressive.

She's performed overseas for Canadian military troops in Kuwait, played the lead roll in a feature film, performed and recorded in Nashville, is featured in a Country Music Television Canada web series; and has been nominated for a Canadian Country Music Association award. And that is only the first half of the 2015.

I was fortunate enough to catch up with this busy lady for a few minutes.

"It's insane when you put it all out like that, it's been an amazing year so far," Ms. Merlo replied, when I recapped her activities over the last few months.

Performing for the Troops in Kuwait:

"That was such an incredible opportunity. It was the best thing I've ever done in my life. A very emotional, eye opening experience."

A family member, in military service, had previously explained to Madeline that for military personnel, visits/performances like hers were a huge thing and "a great day, shaking up the routine, and critical to their sanity." Madeline viewed it as an opportunity to shake hands and say thank you to the men and women in our armed forces.
Image from Madeline's Instagram - @madelinemerlo

Hollywood Debut:

Our conversation moved on to her movie roll in the upcoming film Country Crush, focusing on a blossoming musical talent, Nancy Taylor, whose career is about to take off. After a chance meeting, a young man falls for Nancy, follows his heart (and Nancy) to the big city, while she pursues her music career. Yeah, I can see how that could happen.

Madeline explained "They were looking for an up and coming country artist to play the lead and they saw me on-line."

The filmmakers asked for a tape ... She submitted  a couple of songs and a scene, and ... Bam! Madeline Merlo is cast as Nancy Taylor.

Working along side Jana Kramer and Sophie Tweed-Simmons, Madeline described making the film as "Such a departure from what I'm used to. It was so intense, such a great experience. I learned so much."

Expected for release in early 2016, we'll be sure to check out Country Crush.

A Rising Star:

Talent attracts accolades, and Madeline Merlo got herself a nomination in the Rising Star category, for the 2015 Canadian Country Music Association Awards. While I wasn't surprised at her nomination, Madeline's humility shines through, "It's insane, I was not expecting it at all. I'm floored, it's an honour to be nominated among such amazing talent. I'm so excited for September, in Halifax."

For the Love of Music:

Country Music Television Canada's on-line presence CMT.ca is currently home to a great feature, in which Madeline covers a range of music across genres and generations, in the aptly named CMT Decades. Along with faithful homage to Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline, the web series also features smile inducing spins on music by on Gnarls Barkley and Beyonce, Survivor's Eye of the Tiger, and my favourite of the bunch - Rude, by Magic! (watch the video below)

New sounds:

While in Nashville to perform at CMAfest, Madeline found time to record some new music, with producer Matt Rovey - who's worked with a bunch of talent. The first result that we get to hear is the playful and sultry Honey Jack. (see the lyric video below)

Madeline explains "It's kind of a new sound for me... I'm 21, and a fun loving person, I wanted to show that as well."


I have it on good authority that we can expect the release of a new Madeline Merlo EP or album before the end of the year. How do I know? Madeline told me so.

Touring:

But depending on what part of the country you live in, you may not have to wait much longer for more Madeline, as she's been confirmed as the opening act for a number of Ontario dates, in October, for the Paul Brandt / Dean Brody Road Trip Tour. Wow.

So you can add a new record, and touring with some big name stars, to Madeline Merlo's already impressive 2015.

But until it's proven otherwise, I bet I can still out-drink her.

Cheers to you, Madeline! Keep rockin'!

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Dad ... YOU HAVE BEEN CHOPPED!!!

I don't like the term foodie. Seriously, everybody likes good food.
I despise the term food porn ... unless you're a voyeuristic cattle rancher... eeeww ... enough said.
And while maybe once cute, "om-nom / nom-nom" has grown loathsome because the foodies overuse this onomatopoeia in their food porn.
I don't want to see photos of your every meal, and I assure you that red velvet cake is not to die for.

That said, I love watching Food Network Canada. Our family of four (9 year old Lola, 13 year old Oz, my wife @YouAreFierce, and myself) normally have some rather diverse interests and TV preferences, but find that we're all quite satisfied watching Food Factory, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, or Chopped Canada.

The shows that combine delicious food with game-show style competition are probably the most fun for us. Who hasn't caught themselves singing "Top Chef, serving it ... Top Chef, serving it"?

Watching a group of talented (or even not so talented) contestants prepare a meal under time constraints and often with a little twist or big surprise thrown at them, brings our family together. We love to guess who'll be Chopped next.

With the kids on summer vacation, we posed the question of "what activities do you want to do this summer?" and Ozzy came up with Family Chopped Canada. Lola offered to judge, host our "show", and create our mystery baskets of ingredients. Even with only 3 "chefs" competing, the logistics of all of us cooking in our home kitchen, will necessitate a few changes to format. But the point is, the kids found an activity that we all enthusiastically agree on. We don't expect to create restaurant quality dishes, and there's no cash prize on the line, but we will have fun.

I'll give a post-Chopped update (complete with self-indulgent photos, and no that's not hypocritical, unless I develop a need to do it every day).

I just hope I don't hear "Dad ... you have been chopped"

POST-CONTEST UPDATE:

Okay, I know this is gonna sound like sour grapes from a guy who just didn't make the cut in the Family Chopped kitchen, but the mystery baskets (assembled by our 9 year old host / judge) were insane!


  • Appetizer: canned crab, peanut butter, shortbread cookies, dessert waffle bowls, fresh cherries
  • Entree: honey nut Cheerios, popcorn, processed cheese slices, whipped cream, dark chocolate
  • Dessert: fruit gummies, cream soda, Snapea Crisps, cucumber, apples


Yes, my worst Chopped fear came true, as Lola picked Ozzy's dessert over mine. My only consolation was that I lasted one more round than T.

The parents lose, one child wins, and the other judges. Hmmm... Something's fishy here, and I'm not just talking about the canned crab from the appetizer round.

In all fairness, Oz deserved the win, he was a Santoku knife wielding warrior. His lack of experience was buried by his enthusiasm, and creativity.

The two takeaways for me were simple: cooking can be family fun - a lot of fun; and the real unsung heroes of the Chopped shows are the people doing the clean up. We created a ton of dirty dishes and had to wash them between rounds. Boo! Lesson learned.

Cheers for Chopped!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Small Town Pistols - The Interview That Made Them Wonder "Why?"

Some siblings are so close that they seem to share a psychic connection that might puzzle those who don't have that type of shared consciousness with another person. Such is the case with the country music brother & sister team of Tyler and Amanda Wilkinson,
known as Small Town Pistols, they could probably finish each others thoughts, sentences, songs, and everything else (with the likely exception of sandwiches).

Recently, I spent some time with Tyler and Amanda, having drinks on the patio at Edmonton's storied Hotel MacDonald, sharing marginally embarrassing childhood stories of groggily peeing in the driveway, our choices of entertainment to be stranded on a desert island with, and talking music. Just an average summer day happy hour, among friends. (Reality check: I spoke on the phone with them for 16 minutes, and have never personally met them, but this is my story, so I'll tell it the way I please.)

Tyler and Amanda are so open in sharing their thoughts and feelings on a wide range of topics that I did feel like I was chatting with friends, and not interviewing Canadian country music nobility. Perhaps it's because they've grown up in the business, first experiencing musical success as adolescents when they, along with their father Steve, were known to Canada as the band - The Wilkinsons; Or maybe it was my disarming charm and the free-flowing, ice cold beer? Who really knows?

With the release of PISTOLOGY, their second album as Small Town Pistols, Tyler and Amanda have again put forth a well polished, highly varied, and very enjoyable musical set from beginning to end.

Among my favourite tracks are:
Can't Wait To Meet You (a loving ode to an unborn child from an expecting parent),
the joyous and empowering Be Your Own Song,
and the smouldering, old school country, I Only Smoke When I Drink (evoking images of a hazy roadhouse dive, with bull horns above the bar, and neon liquor signs. I just can't remember what I came here to forget).


So as the waitress brings us our libations of choice and we settle in, I spring my first hard hitting question: 
Ignoring the awkward logistics of it, if you were stuck on an island with only one book, one movie, and one album, what would they be?

Tyler: Book - The Lord of the Rings; 
Movie - Star Wars, Episode 4; 
Album - Beatles - The White Album

Amanda: Book - To Kill a Mockingbird; 
Movie - The Color Purple; 
Album - Rumours - Fleetwood Mac

They seem comfortable and forthcoming so I ask for them to:
Tell me something most people don't know about you, reveal something about yourself.

Tyler: "I absolutely despise pickles" 

The two siblings laugh together, and Amanda confirms that the mere presence of pickles in his food, agitates Ty to a level of near violence. Ty elaborates that you can't just take the pickles off a sandwich and eat it, because some of the pickle juice remains. "He's processed this almost too long," Amanda acknowledges.

Amanda: "My free therapy is painting..."
"It's a form of shutting my brain off and reconnecting with myself"

Again, co-operative and open to sharing, Amanda agrees to show us one of her artworks, as appears below. Why are we not surprised to see that Amanda's talents extend beyond music? It's beautiful.

The beer is working it's magic, on me at least, so I continue, asking each of the Wilkinson kids (who are grown ups, I know that) to share something interesting about their sibling.

Amanda offers that Tyler is the family MacGyver, capable of fixing just about anything. He's also the go-to guy for computer, smartphone, and technology problems. Tyler confirms that he accepts payment in the form of beer for fix-it services, and I contemplate asking him to look at my troublesome phone, but decide instead to stay focused on our conversation. 

When Tyler hesitates, thinking what to share about Amanda, I suggest that it could be something amusing, or maybe even a little embarrassing. At this, he briefly chuckles and then settles on what I assume to be one of his favourite funny stories from their childhood. Ty explains that when they were little kids, their family would often go on extended camping trips, and that the campsite would sometimes be a long way from the washroom. Knowing exactly where the story is headed, Amanda adds that in the middle of the night it's pitch black and their parents would worry about them walking to the bathroom. Tyler resumes, "if you just have to pee, you hop out of the trailer, go round back and find nice tree or bush and do your thing". After a returning home from along camping trip, "... Amanda sleepwalked out into our driveway, and my mom is a really light sleeper... she met Amanda mid-squat in the driveway." 

We all laughed. What? Peeing is funny.

Eventually, we did get around to more serious discussion, about their music.

The word family is unavoidable, in thinking about Small Town Pistols, and while they didn't want STP to be the family band, part 2, Tyler confirms "we knew that we didn't want it to be the focus of the band, but obviously we are family, we're still tight together, and we hang out quite often ... and part of the reason we gel and mesh together so well is that we are family. I think it is a crucial part of our sound." 

Referencing a type of sibling intuition, Amanda adds, "Tyler can be singing something, and I automatically know where he's gonna go, that is a huge part of our sound, those familial harmonies."

In an effort to impress upon Tyler and Amanda that I am really smart, I note that the word "pistology" is the study of faith, within theology. So going out on a limb, I ask: 
Ok, not necessarily limited to a religious context, but is there a message of faith in the album, or in Small Town Pistols itself?

Tyler: I think it's more in Small Town Pistols. It kind of makes sense; People find faith in a lot of things, their religion, their families, their partner, their children...

Amanda: The healing power of music is one of those things. We, as song writers, as human beings, have gone through rough times. Most people have probably had that experience of turning on the radio and hearing a song that resonates with you, the feeling that they're speaking to you is that faith. The healing power of music is a pretty huge thing.

My head bobs in silent agreement, and I move to my last serious question:
As song writers, do you make conscious efforts to produce different sounds, or is it more of a day to day, week to week thing, where you write what you feel?

Amanda: I think it's where the day leads us really. My dad, being sort of the principal song writer of The Wilkinsons for a lot of years; a lot of our lessons as far as crafting songs come from him, he said "keep your eyes open, keep your ears open, you never know when inspiration is going to hit you."
We're influenced by a lot of different music. So we just try to be honest, we know right away, as soon as we're finished a song whether or not it's a STP song.

Tyler: Yeah, for sure.

___

Tyler and Amanda exchange a near imperceptible nod, simultaneously finish their drinks, and politely excuse themselves; Leaving me sitting happily in the shade of the big umbrella, under the summer sun. I think I'll order one more pint and get down to work, writing about my time with Small Town Pistols.

(Or maybe, I'm reminded that we're out of time, and they're ushered on to their next 15 minute phone interview.)

Either way, I had fun and learned a little about Tyler and Amanda Wilkinson. They're pretty cool.
If you haven't seen it, be sure to check out Can't Wait To Meet You, below.

Cheers, Small Town Pistols!



Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Summer Vacation Is Almost Here!

Knowing that there are 8 days left in my kids' school year, and that field trips, parties, and make work projects will occupy most of that time, the obvious question of "what are we gonna do with the kids?" has surfaced again.

Summer camps? I suppose so, and there are a wide range of options, NAIT, the University of Alberta, and YMCA, all have some interesting day camps. Practically speaking, 2 kids x 8 weeks x $250 to $300 per camp = carry the four... cha-ching... O_O ... Not a viable solution.

Maybe we could let life imitate art, and the kids could re-enact their favourite Phineas and Ferb episodes? We could use a roller coaster in our yard or some sort of -inator. However, in the real world, the laws of physics and potential liability concerns prevent this solution from proceeding further.


The 9 year old would be content to play Minecraft all summer, and while she does fashion some rather amazing structures out of her virtual blocks, I'd be worried that she'd end up pixelated too.
Our 13 year old would coast through the summer posting and commenting on social media, but I'd rather see him climb a tree than ROFL.


Summer is short, so let's get out there and have some fun! My wife's work schedule isn't as flexible as mine, so she'll be chained to her desk (just figuratively - I think), while I'll be cannon-balling into the Stony Plain pool, and having ice cream with the children. What? Like you wouldn't if you could.

That said, summer's not just about the kids. There will also be ample time for more adult oriented recreation. Here's my recipe for summer fun:

1. Take two parts sunny patio
2. Add the shade of one large umbrella
3. Order a beer, or a rum drink if you'd prefer that tropical feel
4. Cheers with friends
5. Add hot wings or nachos if desired
6. Repeat steps 3 - 5 as seems reasonable

May your days be sunny, drinks be plentiful and icy, 
and may you have the opportunity to share them with the people you love.



Monday, 8 June 2015

On Top Of The World

When my 13 year old son, Oscar, invited me to be his guest at the Imagine Dragons concert, I was pretty happy. Truthfully I wasn't his first choice, but when his lifelong friend couldn't go, due to other commitments, I got the nod. Too bad for you, Tate.








I knew the band well enough to name a half dozen songs going into it, and was aware that they are from Las Vegas. I also knew that they are one of my kids' favourite bands, I've heard Radioactive enough times, I could probably perform it myself. Okay, maybe not.

Rexall Place was busy when we got there, and the crowd expanded though entertaining performances by Halsey, and then Metric. By the time Imagine Dragons took the stage, the building was packed.

It was loud, and the energy palpable. Which is exactly how the bass felt in my chest. Oh god! I hope that's the bass, at my age it could also be a coronary event.

The Dragons are a tight and talented band, and they delivered exactly the show that their young fans were looking for. I couldn't help but be impressed by the way the band swelled to 14,000+ members, as the crowd joined in the chorus of On Top Of The World, and I Bet My Life.

Watching my son's joy and enthusiasm at witnessing his first live rock concert, brought me an equal measure of happiness, and soon I found myself singing along to the infectious choruses. And now, I too am a fan of Imagine Dragons.

Thanks Oscar, for letting me join you, it felt like I was, yup, On Top Of The World.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

A Smile For You


This is a comic strip from Calvin and Hobbes, by the brilliant Bill Watterson.

It makes me smile, and I hope it does the same for you.

Cheers!

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

What I Learned From Boko Haram Kidnappings

Usually, I like to be right. It's nice to know that I can anticipate the outcome of an event, like a Super Bowl, or predict the "plot twist" in the evening's 44 minute television crime drama. But today, I sadly say I was right.

2014 Demonstration in Nigeria - from news.com 2014 Demonstration in Nigeria - from news.com

You see, it was a year ago that the social media world briefly united, interlocking arms and thrusting #BringBackOurGirls into the top of the trending terms. And for good reason, Nigerian terrorists Boko Haram had boldly snatched away nearly 300 girls from their families in a mass kidnapping that caught the news and inspired outrage in every decent human being on the planet with access to a news feed.

Even as I was tweeting along with everyone else, I knew that #BringBackOurGirls wouldn't bring back the girls. Boko Haram didn't pop up over night, and the abductions weren't their first foray into kidnapping of young girls, nor young boys for that matter. Some social media experts will argue that the bulge of Tweets and Facebook posts brought massive attention to this tragedy and forced action. I saw photos of Michelle Obama holding a sign that read #BringBackOurGirls, and I'm sure that as a parent, her heart ached along with the rest of us. I know that government leaders around the globe had advisers researching what to do.

Could we free these girls through social influence? No. Could we pressure our governments into pressuring other governments in Nigeria and the surrounding region to action. No. Well, yes, maybe we could have. We could have, if the focus remained on #BringBackOurGirls. Now to be fair to the foreign ministers of whichever country you want to point the finger at, and even to the Nigerian government, you have to remember that Boko Haram are terrorists, who kidnap girls and women to enslave them and be used in servitude of their cause. They kidnap boys and men threatening them with death if they don't adopt the cause and fight along side of them. These people use their kidnap victims as human shields when faced with opposing forces, so imagine how difficult it would be to launch any effective rescue mission, or negotiate any release of the abducted. This is a complicated issue. Acknowledged.

And then our attention was diverted elsewhere, many elsewhere's.

So here we are, a year later, and I started my day following a link on Twitter, and reading a news story reminding us of the horrific kidnapping, and in the time that I've been typing this post, I see that hundreds of new tweets have again shown support in using the hashtag, and again I know that it will do no good. Not unless your support of #BringBackOurGirls is sustained and in tangible form. Write letters to your members of parliament, or senators, or governors, your president, prime minister, or whoever you can. But we have to do it on a sustained basis, and then, some day a long time from now, with continued effort, the threat of Boko Haram in Nigeria will be eliminated.

There are thousands of good causes out there that need support, and there's no way we can support them all, not in meaningful ways. When something strikes you as important, act on it, do something to contribute. I'm not saying don't tweet it, or post it, or talk about it; But we need to do more than retweet the hashtag for the cause of the day while we wait in the queue for our venti latte or while sitting in the drive-thru for a large double-double, or we risk that as we flit to the next cause and hashtag, that we forget those girls.

I guess I wrote this piece because I feel bad that we didn't do more, that I didn't do more. Actions speak louder than words. I guess I learned something: Don't just talk about doing good or making change, DO IT.