From Victoria to Halifax and multiple stops along the way, Canadian jazz singer-songwriter Micah Barnes is embarking on a cross-Canada tour to promote his latest album, Vegas Breeze. In ordinary times, it is a touring schedule that would test the mettle of any performer.
But these are not ordinary times. And like many artists during the pandemic, Barnes is going virtual. What sets this one apart from others of its kind though is in partnering with some of the actual venues in the cities Barnes would typically play on the road.
“This is that old school tour, the kind you want to avoid. If you had to drive or fly to each venue, you’d never want to do it,” says Barnes with a laugh from his home studio in Toronto.
Having tested the waters back in April with a virtual Canada Performs concert for the National Arts Council, it was a format Barnes realized could work for the already scheduled release of Vegas Breeze.
Concerned at first that he would miss the energy of performing in front of a live audience, Barnes was pleasantly surprised at how well it translated to being online.
“As an entertainer, I don’t play the piano; I play the audience. I want to know how they respond,” he says. “I wasn’t sure at the time, but it landed so beautifully. And with people stuck in their homes, they might be going out for ice cream, but they’re not going out to dine, to see a show or hear live music yet. We’re getting to the people where they live, in their pyjamas.”
Not that Barnes will be performing in his pyjamas. The consummate performer, he knows what audiences expect. “If I don’t show up looking like I’m giving you a Vegas show, why would you even come?”
It also helps that Barnes is tailoring each of the shows to the city he is playing. “I don’t want to look like a performing monkey, and every city is getting a unique show,” he says. “My Nova Scotia experiences are very different from my Ottawa experiences on the road.”
Released just days ago, Vegas Breeze is a recording borne out of creative restlessness while touring his more intimate, romantic and moody New York Stories.
“I was including some cover tunes that were a little more robust to suit my musical personality,” says Barnes. “I wanted to express the more dynamic aspects of my vocal personality, and my band pointed out that they were all Vegas showroom tunes that I was bringing to the table.”
It is a genre Barnes had not considered up to that time. “I kind of hated The Rat Pack,” he admits. “I literally ran in the other direction of Frank Sinatra’s bombastic personality.”
Finding a more significant musical connection with the likes of Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday, it would be a deeper dive into exploring other notable Vegas-style entertainers like Peggy Lee that would open up the possibilities for Barnes.
“A stalwart mainstage entertainer in Vegas, she was always developing unique material,” he says. “And Nat King Cole, whose taste was every bit as sophisticated as Frank Sinatra’s in terms of choosing material and arrangements. Or Mel Torme, who is a little bit of an unsung because he wasn’t as sexy as the rest, but he was perhaps the best musician of them all. I’m describing what I would say is my Vegas playlist #BeyondTheRatPack.”
But while music made famous by this A-list of Vegas musical royalty would make it onto Vegas Breeze, despite a lack of enthusiasm for Sinatra, Barnes couldn’t ignore the Chairman Of The Board. The result was the first single off the album, a cover of Sinatra’s That’s Life.
“We knew we had to include a Sinatra number on the album to pay tribute,” says Barnes. “His recordings with Count Basie live at The Sands, which were arranged by Quincy Jones, are some of the finest of big band vocal arrangements ever known to man.”
Working with his band to find the right Sinatra song to his suit his musical personality, they uncovered a “hepped-up” version of the 1966 hit song.
“Its the cocaine That’s Life,” says Barnes with a laugh. “Instead of bluesy swagger, we went for crazed-up-all-night-on-the-wrong-drug version. It is a little nod to 24-hour party town, which Vegas is also that.”
From there came the album’s second single When In Rome, written by Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman and made famous by Peggy Lee.
“I’ve wanted to sing When In Rome my whole life,” says Barnes. “It’s that smart, sophisticated lyric that is sly, sexy, and kind of world-wise in a way songs could be back in the day.”
The version that would ultimately land on Vegas Breeze was a bit of a departure from its original. “We eventually felt like a bossa nova was the perfect sensual groove to express the flirty nature of the lyrics and the richness of the harmonic world of this particular tune,” says Barnes.
While Barnes was somewhat shocked by the reception it received, When In Rome quickly became a staple on jazz radio. “I think the video had a lot to do with it,” he says. “We got to shoot the video in Rome, which was an incredible blessing. It is little things like that have helped make this album a little more special.”
But there was nothing “little” about the music video. Shot in just three days on location around Rome, there is a retro-vibe that is a perfect fit for the song.
“We had such fun making it,” says Barnes. “I was in a three-piece suit for three days sweltering in the hot Italian sun. It was my job to look cool for those three days, but off-camera, I was constantly gulping water and wiping down my brow.”
As for the album’s title, Barnes says it is very much a metaphor for the mystique of the desert city.
“Vegas has always captivated the public’s imagination as the great destination to escape the humdrum of our daily lives with its promise of the big win and where young newlyweds get married in a heady swirl of romance,” he says. “It is where the mythology of the great American jackpot stayed alive for all of these decades, and I needed to express that sense of liberation and freedom that Vegas promises where the breeze that blows off the desert suggests possibilities of new beginnings and exciting life.”
Vegas Breeze is also the title track. An original song on an album consisting mostly of covers, it was written with his brother Daniel even before New York Stories dropped.
“Daniel and I were working on tunes in his studio, and I couldn’t find an angle for that melody,” explains Barnes. “It just never landed for me.”
A few years later, as he began looking for the quintessential Vegas song to include on the new album, Barnes revisited the song.
“The only song out there that seemed to be serviceable about the town itself was Viva Las Vegas, but I couldn’t find an arrangement that worked for me, and I was kind of stumped,” he says. “It was a little bit last minute, but I dug in, and I tried the old melody with a sketch of the new lyric, and I thought this was it.”
Despite building an album around the music of Sin City, it is surprising to find out Barnes has never played Las Vegas, although he did come close during his early days as a member of The Nylons.
“When I joined The Nylons, they promised me I was going to see the world and said they had got a six-week contract in Vegas on the bill opening for Aretha Franklin,” says Barnes. “Unfortunately, Aretha Franklin was famous for cancelling her engagements, and we didn’t get to Vegas. It was one of the great heartbreaks because, of course, she is no longer with us.”
It was an even more significant blow for Barnes, who saw Franklin as an early touchstone for his career.
“Keep in mind that I’m the guy that discovered that Aretha Franklin was my goddess at age 13,” he says. “I had been listening to the likes of Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday and Fats Waller, and all of a sudden, here was a contemporary artist that seemed to be in the tradition of jazz and blues and gospel on the radio.”
But while Barnes would never get to play Vegas with his childhood idol, he has managed to keep Franklin’s musical spirit alive by using a version of her studio method as a template for Vegas Breeze.
“She would sit and make the arrangements with her backup singers at home playing piano, and they would build the rhythm section around her piano playing, then add the horns and strings,” he explains. “I did something quite similar on this album. We didn’t add the horns, strings, and backups until the rhythm arrangements had been worked out around my piano playing. It is why this album ended up being the truest to my musical personality.”
With Barnes’s tour currently scheduled to conclude at the end of June, after 13 dates, he says it will be time to take a breather. It will also allow him time to reflect more fully on what is happening in the world.
“There were a lot of difficult decisions to make amid COVID around the release,” he says. “And we also recognize with the planet on fire around racial equality at this moment it’s been challenging to release music. We hope that Vegas Breeze will be a breath of fresh air in a turbulent time.”
Micah Barnes performs in a live free virtual concert on The Carleton’s Facebook page on June 23. Live from his home studio in Toronto, the jazz vocalist will perform The Nylons fan-favourites as well as songs from his New York Stories album and the new Vegas Breeze. Visit thecarleton.ca for more information.
Visit micahbarnes.com for a complete listing of virtual concerts taking place across Canada.