By Keith Sharp
Not being a religious person, Glass Tiger lead vocalist, Alan Frew was less than enthusiastic about recording a Christmas album, even though his record label, Warner Music Canada had been relentlessly pushing the band for such a seasonal offering. The idea of reworking a batch of the usual Christmas standards held no appeal for the self-proclaimed atheist Glaswegian nor were his bandmates Sam Reid and Al Connelly
But considering what a hellish year 2020 has been with the raging COVID-19 global pandemic, the political unrest south of the border and a whole slew of natural climate disasters, Frew and Reid had a chat about recording an album which would deliver a timely message about coming together, fellowship and family in the guise of a holiday release.
The result is `Songs For A Winter Night’ a unique collection of 10 tracks, written by Frew, Reid and Connolly which feature a central seasonal theme but are produced like a contemporary pop album. And to make this opus particularly special, Frew hit his Rolodex to draw in an all-star cast of contributors including the legendary Gordon Lightfoot, Anglo-Francophone star, Roch Voisine, East Coast fiddle talent Natalie MacMaster and even Lebanese/Canadian Opera performer Isabel Bayrakdarian.
“Sam and I had a chat and we decided that people could really use a little coming together,” explained Frew. “We have a pandemic, people are scared and there’s all that political shit going on down South. So we agreed to do this album if we could write all the songs and make them original.”
The end result is a record which features three separate versions of one track; “Happy Holidays”, an English version which also features Voisine, an Anglo-French version with Voisine and finally a Glass Tiger version complete with a trumpet solo and an outro “Home For The Holidays” which sounds like something George Formby might have recorded in the 1940s.
“A Song For A Winter’s Night” is pure East Coast with Natalie McMaster’s fiddle solo bringing the track to life, Songs like “Santa Get Your Sleight”, “Christmas With You” and “Give Love For Christmas” are straight out pop songs containing a seasonal message and there’s even a contemporary spin on that classic Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life” with Glass Tiger joining forces with British musician Steve Sidwell on a unique collaboration.
Then there’s “An Everyday Wish” which features an operatic vocal interlude from the renowned opera star Isabel Bayrakdarian who currently serves as assistant producer of voice at the prestigious University of California.
And top off this extraordinary production, Gordon Lightfoot verbalizes a poem written by Frew titled “Ode for a Winter’s Night”.
“I knew it was unlikely that I would get a vocal out of Gordon so I just wrote to him and suggested he check out the idea of him reading a Christmas message,” Frew explained. “Gordon said okay, so then I had to scramble to write something, It was the last thing I wrote for the album, I drove over to his house, we sat on his porch (maintaining social distancing) he liked the poem and he nailed it after we ran through it seven or eight times. That was his way of saying `there you go boys!”
Frew claims he got the inspiration for the poem from the song he collaborated with his old mate Johnny Reid, “Wae Yer Family”. “There’s a family toast in the middle of that song, and we thought that concept of toasting your family this holiday would be appropriate.”
He agrees that the arrangement for “Happy Holidays” has all the elements of a classic pop song and admits that the instrumental arrangements for that track had originally been saved for a more atypical pop track. “Sam and I thought, if we commit these pieces of music to a Christmas song, there’s no turning back. We wanted it to be the best pop Christmas song it could be and it’s great that it sounds like it could stand alone as a pop song.”
Anglo-Francophone star Roch Voisine was drafted in to record two versions of the song, strengthening a relationship that goes back several years with Frew. “Roch appeared on my first solo album (`Healing Hands’) in 1994 and we later collaborated on two songs which he recently released. I sang with him at Massey Hall so we are both good friends. It was logical that we do a Francophone version of “Happy Holidays” and we also let him sing on the English version.”
As for the inclusion of Isabel Bayrakdarian on “An Everyday Wish”, Frew explained “We had that song well on its way but when we got to the instrument/orchestral part we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if an opera singer sang over the top of it. So we went online and tracked down Isabel. As it turns out, she was going into an empty theatre in California to record some of her own stuff so she said she could do our bit at the same time. So she sang her part in California, and I sang my part in Florence, Italy and we brought it all together.”
Considering all the elements that Glass Tiger initiated for `Songs For A Winter’s Night’, Frew has high praise for the production work, Sam Reid achieved in performing a masterful job of connecting all the outside influences which went into creating this album. “Sam was the one who suggested the Gordon Lightfoot idea. Considering all the challenges, he did an outstanding in bringing this all together, he doesn’t get the credit he deserved but we all think that he crushed it on this record.”
It should not come as a surprise that even 34 years after the band first emerged from Newmarket Ontario with their debut 1986 `The Thin Red Line’ release (which has been lauded as a classic rock release), Glass Tiger continues to be an ever-evolving creative force. Even as recent as 2019, they released a six-track EP titled `33’ which featured two tracks; “This Is Your Life” and “This Is London” which would have been monster hit tracks at any other time in the band’s accomplished history.
Glass Tiger can still pull an audience as evident in their support slot on last year’s Corey Hart, Never Surrender national tour where they more than held their own, performing before 15,000 fans at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage.
As Frew himself admits, the only impediment to the band’s future is his own health mishaps. He famously crocked his knee playing soccer for the Music Express team the day before heading out on tour. More serious was the stroke he suffered in 2015 and the broken neck he endured during the start of last year’s Corey Hart tour. A published author (who is in the process of writing his biography), a public speaker, an actor and someone who’s also writing a screenplay, Frew has a lot going for him off-stage but performing in front of Glass Tiger is still his first love.
“I still have my full vocal range, I can still reach all the keys, If I stop having strokes, breaking my neck and busting my knee, I’ll be alright.”
And as for future objectives. “We want to write a killer rock anthem,” Frew announced. “Some people might say it’s fuckin shit but others will say it’s fuckin brilliant. But so long as they talk about it. I would hate a wishy-washy reaction. I want people to love it or hate it.”