Heart, soul & raw passion in Shikha’s meditative, rhythmic Coconut Mantra EP

DSCN2067 smIt was a celebration of music with friends, family and fellow musicians at C’est What? on Friday night, with the launch party of Shikha’s EP Coconut Mantra.

Opening act Custom Tease (Celebration Army frontman Oliver Pigott and Danka Scepanovic) brought some soul-infused, bluesy, rootsy goodness featuring originals with poetic, evocative – at times fierce – lyrics. And they threw in a sultry cover of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” for good measure. Sounds include hints of Motown and Kate Bush, executed with sharp harmonies.

Shikha, the main event of the evening, featured Shikha Sehgal on vocals and banjulele (a four-stringed banjo/ukulele hybrid instrument), accompanied by Hugh Wilson (of Big Name Actors) on bass and Troy Larabie (of Celebration Army) on drum box. A passionate performer, Shikha brings it with heart and soul, and genuine feels. The vocals are delivered raw, with heart-on-sleeve intensity – and the lyrics are soulful, meditative and rhythmic (“Sing Baby Sing”), with hints of reggae (“Can I Hold You?”), blues and pop. The result is a seductive sound that features an earnest, sometimes melancholy, and powerful (“I Am Woman”) resonance.Check out the official video for “Sing Baby Sing,” one of the first songs Shikha ever wrote:

You can keep up with Shikha on Twitter, Facebook and on her YouTube channel.
In the meantime, check out some pix I took of the evening’s music festivities:

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Upcoming music, theatre & spoken word awesomeness

It was some big fun, not to mention a great pleasure, as I worked the door at Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir (LVCN) last night, with feature artists Andrea Thompson, Frenchie Fatale and Hugh Wilson. It was LVCN’s first night at its new home at The Central – and the place was packed, with an incredibly engaged audience.

There’s still all kinds of awesome goodness coming up in T.O. this month, my friends. Here is just a small sample of what’s happening on the small stage and indie scene:

David Hustler & the Trustworthy EP release – Wed, Sept 11 @ Horseshoe Tavern @ 8:30 p.m. – $5 cover

Songwriters Circle of Jerks – Thurs, Sept 12 @ 8:30 p.m. @ Free Times Café, featuring Hugh Wilson and Nick Verona from Big Name Actors (among others), Nelson Sobral from Melting Pot and I Hate Todd, and David Hustler of David Hustler & The Trustworthy, with guest Meghan Morrison – PWYC

Eclectic – September Group Exhibit – opening Thurs, Sept 12 from 6-8 p.m. and running till Sept 29 @ Fran Hill Gallery

Jeff Cottrill’s tour fundraiser show Keep Calm & Get Rid of Jeff – Sun, Sept 15 @ 7:00 p.m. @ Black Swan, with a whole line-up of music & spoken word guests – $10 cover

Studio BLR punk rock production of A Streetcar Named Desire – The House Show – Sept 19 – Oct 5 @ 8:00 p.m. – show starts in Dragon Alley at the northwest corner of College/Dufferin

Alumnae Theatre production of The Underpants – Sept 20 – Oct 5 on the Alumnae Theatre main stage

Anglewalk Theatre production of tick, tick… BOOM! – Sept 21 – Oct 6 @ Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio

The Beautiful & the Damned – Thurs, Sept 26 @ 7:00 p.m. @ The Central, hosted by Duncan Armstrong, and featuring Heather Babcock, Brock Hessel & Nelson Sobral

Matt Gerber CD release – Sat, Sept 28 @ Tranzac, doors @ 7:00 p.m. – $15 cover

Look out for Big Name Actors and I Hate Todd as the play various dates and venues around the city.

Big Name Actors rock OHC benefit in advance of “Part Time Friends” EP launch

Got out to Lee’s Palace last night for an Ontario Health Coalition (OHC) benefit, featuring bands Newark Minute, Big Name Actors , I Hate Todd  and Trevor James & The Perfect Gentlemen. Big Name Actors is releasing their Part Time Friends EP tomorrow (Saturday, June 8) and I’m not able to be there, so I was glad to get out to see the full band live.

Big Name Actors (BNA) are Hugh Wilson (guitar, keys, vocals), Nick Verona (drums, vocals) and Scott Sokoloski (bass). I met Wilson and Verona at the monthly Songwiters Circle of Jerks at Free Times Café and had heard them do some acoustic versions of BNA songs, but it was extra awesome to see the full band plugged in at such an iconic venue.

In the weeks leading up to last night’s gig, I gave BNA’s Part Time Friends EP a listen online. Featuring five pop rock, guitar-driven, all original tracks (written by Wilson), the EP opens with “End of My Rope,” a catchy, knee-boppin’, self-deprecating pseudo-title track featuring the lyric “part time friend.” “Built A Bridge” is edgy but optimistic, shifting into “Sour Grapes,” an even edgier anthem of angst and heartbreak, featuring a pounding guitar/drum conversation near the end of the track. “Dearly Devoted” is a truly lyrical song, opening with the lines: “Soaked to my soul in the rain / Would it cost you a lot to ask me to stay?” The EP winds down by way of winding up with “Dancin’ After Midnight,” a tale of a reluctant clubber seduced onto the dance floor. And all delivered with a mix of kicky pop/wired rock supported by driving beats, strong vocals and excellent musicianship – not to mention a way with words. Jeff D. Elliott supplied additional synth and keys on Part Time Friends – as well as the very cool, trippy cover art – and Kevin “Toad” supplied additional keys for the record. Elliott also mixed and mastered the EP.

Big Name Actors’ drummer Nick Verona performed double duty last night, also appearing as frontman/guitarist with his band Newark Minute in a reunion of sorts – and they rocked the house. I’d heard a lot of good things about I Hate Todd and I wasn’t disappointed. Their sound is a powerful blend of pop, rock and a bit of goth (“Zombie Love” was one of my faves – and the band dedicated it to my good pal, zombie afficionado, Lizzie Violet) – and features relative newcomer Nelson Sobral (Melting Pot) scorching the stage on guitar. It was getting late, so I wasn’t able to stick around to hear Trevor James & The Perfect Gentlemen in the final set of the night.

Thanks to Mario and the entire OHC gang for a big fun event – full of music, friends and support. I’m very proud to say that I was one of the lucky raffle winners last night, scoring a pair of Jays tickets. Woot!

Big Name Actors launches their new EP Part Time Friends at The Central (603 Markham St., Toronto) on Saturday, June 8 at 9:30 p.m. The evening’s line-up also includes I Hate Todd and The Muckabouts. In the meantime, you can listen to and download the Part Time Friends EP on Big Name Actors’ Bandcamp page.

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Newark Minute
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Nick Verona performs with his band Newark Minute.
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Big Name Actors
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The boyishly handsome Hugh Wilson of Big Name Actors. Seriously – buddy got carded on his way into the gig last night.
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Scott Sokoloski kickin it with Big Name Actors.
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Nick Verona on drums with Big Name Actors. Wilson calls this dude his Swiss Army knife of the band.
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Mario from OHC rockin out to Big Name Actors.
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I Hate Todd (there really is a Todd too – the band’s singer)
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Nelson Sobral’s doppelgänger (from Newark Minute). Should’a known – this dude plays right-handed.
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The real Nelson Sobral, onstage with I Hate Todd. Frankly, I’m surprised that the presence of these two handsome dudes in the same place at the same time didn’t cause a paradox.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Happy Valentine’s Day, all!SAMSUNG

It’s so cliché – not to mention annoying and sad – to be a bitter single person today, so I’m choosing to celebrate with some lovely and talented friends at Glad Day Bookshop tonight: The Beautiful and The Damned Femme Fatale Valentine’s Day edition, hosted by Lizzie Violet – with feature performers Josh Smith, Myna Wallin and Andrea de Boer – doors open at 7 p.m.

If you’re up for some music, check out Heartbreakers (aka Songwriters) Circle of Jerks at Free Times Café, featuring Melting Pot, Big Name Actors, David Hustler and Nick Verona – doors open at 8:30 p.m.

Sorry to be missing the music at Free Times tonight. This gal has to get up bright and early for the office job tomorrow, then on to my first rehearsal for New Ideas Festival 2013 Week One reading of Jamie Johnson’s Falling, directed by Ed Rosing, at Alumnae Theatre. More on this acting gig soon.

What are you doing today?

Poets & songwriters & a holiday love-in

Last night was a double pleasure – for the art and for the company. First up was The Beautiful & The Damned (TB&TD) at Glad Day Bookshop, where a gang of my best pals (Liz, Lizzie, Kat, Janis and Kira) and I gathered to catch the first set before continuing our evening’s cultural festivities.

The December edition of TB&TD was Star Wars night, with props to dead celeb Sir Alec Guinness. Host Duncan Armstrong started the evening off with his poem “Guilt,” funny and insightful youthful reminiscences of a father’s jacket and stealing away to the closet – my favourite line “grow much too quickly into adulthood.”

Open mic performers included author/poet Adam Abbas, who read his piece “Excess,” words and rhymes tripping from the page and out of his mouth with Dr. Seuss-like playfulness. Singer/songwriter Kat Leonard treated us to a new song, a fun – and decidedly dirty, but in a good way – ode to Santa and his big, bulging sack. Duncan followed this up with his own raunchy ode to holiday time, with his poem “Santa Daddy” – a fun and sexy romp.

Feature performer Melissa Benner finished off the first set, reading a selection of her poems. “Small Town Straight,” a place where gays are beat up or forced into covert ops disguise, and later dream of throwing a Pride parade before setting the town alight in flaming retribution. Then the love poems: “Tom Boy,” a beautiful love poem to a boyish woman, a woman she was and now loves, and “Bloodstream,” about a boy she once loved, attraction starting innocently with a date in a church and coming to a boiling point, senses coming alive with touch. “Letter to My First Love” is a love poem to the farm landscape of family and childhood – which Benner said she read to the fields one day – the heartache of a love lost, of a place that will never be the same. Moving on to the loss of a loved one, the wife of a dear friend – chosen family – caring and healing with food in “Cooking.” And, lastly “Call For Beauty,” an ode to the love of words, sparked by a Leonard Cohen haiku – touching off memories, words painting the landscape of a beloved place, again the farm, and “one white lawn chair sits regal in the middle” of a field. Benner has a lovely, lyrical way with words – sensuous, romantic, evocative and sexy – and delivers them with genuine emotion, humour and love of her subject.

The next edition of The Beautiful and The Damned will be on Thursday, January 10 – with host Philip Cairns.

Then, Lizzie, Kat, Janis and I walked to the Free Times Café for a night of music with the Songwriters Circle of Jerks. This was their third event, and the Jerks are Nelson Sobral (Melting Pot), Hugh Wilson and Nick Verona (Big Name Actors), and David Hustler (David Hustler and The Trustworthy).

Four guys. Four acoustic guitars. Four mics. One set of antlers. One Star of David. This edition of Jerks had a whimsical, holiday feel to it – and there were Santa jars of candy on every table. The guys started with an amazing round robin set – from Sobral’s blues-infused rock, with growling vocals and driving guitar, to Wilson’s soft rock ballad with smooth vocals countering the forceful chords on a Big Name Actors original tune, Verona (the “awkward” one) serving up powerful sounds on a rock-driven ballad with his 12-string that’s got two strings missing, and Hustler’s melodious and funny-‘cuz-it’s-true “Six Pints In.” I think the holiday song round was my favourite, though, partly because the guys donned holiday headgear and also for the new twists well-known Christmas songs: Sobral’s “Jingle Bell Rock” and Hustler’s “We Three Kings” rawked out, while Wilson’s “Christmas Time is Here” (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) was melancholy and bluesy, and Verona’s “White Christmas” started quiet in the lower register, shifting into a more longing and earnest sound in the higher register.

Guest performers Red Falcon White Lightning gave us an all-original set, with acoustic guitar and bass, featuring some driving rhythms and sweet harmonies, all with a roots/power/pop rock flavour. Brought Blue Rodeo to mind, actually. And I loved the double-barreled harp tune.

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Duncan Armstrong
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Melissa Benner
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Nelson Sobral
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David Hustler
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Red Falcon White Lightning
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Adam Abbas
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Kat Leonard
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Nelson Sobral, Hugh Wilson, Nick Verona with David Hustler in the foreground

The next Songwriters Circle of Jerks event is Thursday, January 3, when the guys will be covering each other’s songs. And get ready for the boys breaking hearts and stealing your girlfriend in February. All in the back room at Free Times Café.

Big, big fun and a whole lotta love.

Some December happenings

While I’m taking a bit of a break after all the recent theatre-going and set work, thought I’d shout out some ongoing and upcoming December fun.

Red Sandcastle Theatre is cooking with music, comedy, drama and holiday fun all month long! Check out their website to see what A.D./actor Rosemary Doyle (who’s appearing in Escape From Happiness till Dec 17) has happening for December.

Alexander Showcase Theatre (formerly the Alexander Players and Singers) remounts their 1940s radio play version of It’s A Wonderful Life for a very short run, from Thursday, December 6 (that’s tonight, folks) to Saturday, December 8 – please note the early curtain time of 7:30 p.m. – at the Papermill Theatre.

The December edition of The Beautiful and the Damned poetry cabaret is coming up next week, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 13 upstairs at Glad Day Bookshop. Hosted by Duncan Armstrong, and featuring Rocco di Giacomo, Melissa Benner and Ameoba Starfish, plus open mic performers.

Songwriters Circle of Jerks – featuring the amazing sounds of Melting Pot, Big Name Actors, Nick Verona and David Hustler, and maybe even a guest or two – at Free Times Café, also on Thursday, December 13 – 8 p.m. in the back room.

Set Those Sails – A Night of William Finn with new arrangements by Tara Litvak on Friday, December 14 at the Tranzac Club (292 Brunswick Ave., Toronto) at 7:30 p.m.

Animator/filmmaker/artist Patrick Jenkins and photographer Pamela Williams are both going to be appearing at a Goth Bazaar (918 Bathurst St., Toronto) on Saturday, December 15 from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Plasticine Poetry – poetry and spoken word at Pauper’s Pub on Sunday, December 16 at 6 p.m. – featuring David Clink, Lisa de Nikolits, Cathy Petch and Lizzie Violet.

Singer/songwriter Craig Stickland plays at The Drake Hotel on Tuesday, December 18 – 9 p.m. $10 cover or $5 with a non-perishable item.