SEBASTIAN AGNELLO - A MUSIC LEGEND AT 50
COLLECTIVE CD REVIEW
As avant-garde Toronto singer-songwriter-musician Sebastian Agnello will be celebrating his 50th birthday on Saturday, October 26/02, I felt it appropriate to offer a toast to a man who "loves to play".
With his latest release as a solo artist (Modern Day Cowboy), released in 2001, Sebastian Agnello (or Seb as he's more informally known) resurrects his music project known as "Sebastian Country". His long and illustrious career was launched in 1966 by a #1 pop song on Toronto's CHUM-AM ("Cornflakes & Ice Cream"), recorded with The Lords of London when he was a mere 14 years old.
Several years later (summer of '69?), at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, Seb's band Spuff would be put in the unenviable (but far from unmanageable) position of stalling a crowd that was anxiously awaiting the arrival of Jimi Hendrix, who had been detained at the airport due to a drug bust. Seb also opened for Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Inventions at the Rockpile, although in which band formation is unknown.
Sebastian Country appears to have been conceived circa 1985, following a stint with a band known as SCAB, which would eventually branch off into an early version of Blue Rodeo. Seb, along with doing lead vocals, plays guitar and piano on the début album, Full Moon & Welfare Cheques. The rather amusing "Canadian-content" title track was composed by guitar prodigy Tony Quarrington. Surprisingly, Tony did not perform on this CD but has since become a highly accomplished and respected guitar player in his own right in addition to recording and playing live with psychedelic pholk guitarist Brian Gladstone.
Happily, Full Moon & Welfare Cheques also contains six memorable tracks written by Seb, including the Nashville country-swinger, "I'm Country" (on which he admits "I might look like a city punk, but I'm country") and "Play Your Cheating Heart". There are a couple of upbeat hoedowners, including "I Love Robbing Banks" (Clark/Coe) and "Going Down to Texas" (Silverstein).
Along with a couple of endearingly political CDs issued in 1998 under his first name, Sebastian (White Liberals on Reggae - no doubt inspired by Ian Dury's White Punks on Dope - and Queen St. Left - This is a Protest Album), he re-released Full Moon & Welfare Cheques on CD as well.
Sandwiched in between those releases and 2001's Modern Day Cowboy was 1999's While Baby Sleeps, my favourite,
after White Liberals on Reggae, which contains numerous rock'n'rebel rotations. This collection of rock/funk-oriented originals is exciting and thought-provoking and speaks to deception, independence, illiteracy, barroom blues, political buffoonery, vicarious glamour, and illusory (suicidal) flights to freedom ("Lonesome Road", which is oddly phrased but tremendously compelling at the same time). Seb also makes a connection between poverty/starvation and juvenile delinquency very poignantly in "Boys in the Alley" and provides some excellent lead guitar here as well as on the marvelous ensuing track, "A.O.T.A. (All of the Above)". As a matter of fact, Seb provides ALL the instrumentation and vocals. The sound was mixed by Wayne Berge and mastered by Albert MacDonald.
"Modern Day Cowboy" (In Memory of Lyle Vallentyne) sees the return of Mickey Andrews on steel guitar (if only on "The Jogger"); he contributed more thoroughly on pedal steel guitar on Full Moon and Welfare Cheques, but that duty has been given over to the equally talented Dennis Conn here. Mike Elliott also guests on fiddle and Steve Petrie on steel guitar.
The title track, starting off similarly, and maybe deliberately, to Fleetwood Mac's "Break the Chain", is obviously a tribute to a man who respects and keeps the tradition of the wild and free "cowboy", but who just coincidentally prefers to ride a motorbike rather than a horse.
"If I Had a Boat" is a weird, corny little ditty written by Lyle Lovett, but it's kind of catchy, just the same. I didn't care for "The Heart" (written by Kris Kristofferson), but the original version probably sounds totally different, as Mr. Kristofferson's vocal approach has a much smoother flow to it.
I understand why Seb chooses to record cover versions of other well-known musicians, but he really does sound more natural and pleasant when he's singing his own compositions. "Walkaway" is a perfect example, because rather than imitating another song/singer, he blends elements of both "Girl with the Faraway Eyes" and "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" to create a brand-new classic song of his own.
"Heavy Metal" (Guy Clark, Jim McBride), "The Jogger" (Shel Silverstein) and even Bobby Darin's
"Distractions Pt. 1" are just too Dukes of Hazzard for me, but I'm sure most of the male population of the world would relate to and immensely enjoy these tracks. The steel guitars are the only saving graces in them, where I'm concerned.
There was no way I could not like "Overtime", a Seb original (with Mike Elliott on fiddle), and a welcome change of pace to a kind of swingy rhythm and blues. It actually sounds like it came from the same rhythmic mold as Black'n'Blues' "Ugly As She Can Be". It would have made for a better closing track, to sustain an overall positive impression of the CD.
"The Take It Easy Trailer Park" (Kinky Friedman, Van Dyke Parks) is another interesting tune, but it seems to lose something in the interpretation, with the instrumentation being kind of choppy.
"Northern Boy" (Randy Newman), another macho manifesto with a marching rhythm is Seb's always-welcome patriotic nod to Canada, making specific reference to Ottawa and Saskatchewan. However, just as in the next tune "Alright Guy" (Todd Snider), Seb's vocals tend to suffer when they are forced into the lower range, taking on an unpleasant "gruntiness" which isn't really necessary, even with those male-oriented lyrics.
There's no doubt in my mind that Sebastian Agnello is one the best lyrical composers in Canada. I find it very difficult to skip over the rare tracks where the instrumentation doesn't appeal to me, because the lyrics are too powerful to miss!