Greg MacPherson Union Sound Hall, Winnipeg MB, December 23

Greg MacPherson Union Sound Hall, Winnipeg MB, December 23
If there was any doubt about Winnipeg's Greg MacPherson's allegiance to rock'n'roll, last night eradicated any of those misconceptions. Over the past 16 years, MacPherson has been known as a talented singer-songwriter, storyteller and blue collar musician, someone who was as comfortable alone on stage with just his guitar as he was with a band. Sometimes the solo act was out of convenience, other times the songs worked better without others backing him up.

MacPherson has played with a rotating cast of drummers, guitarists and bassists over the years, both on tour and in the studio, but with the more permanent addition of Rob Gardiner on drums, MacPherson seems to have found a new vigour on stage and a thirst for more guitar-driven rock sounds. Songs like "1995" and "Goes Like This," with GMac's forceful vocals and Gardiner's powerful drumming propel the stripped-down rock found on his new album, Fireball.

Using a looping station to handle bass duties and to fill out the spaces and add texture, the duo throw out a surprisingly full sound from their limited setup. Even older songs like crowd favourite "Buy a Ticket" were given new life, coming across more aggressive and uncompromising. Even with an extensive back catalogue that includes seven albums, MacPherson tended to stick to his more recent cuts, perhaps disappointing some long-time fans who wanted to hear more of his old songs.

But it would have been hard to ignore the fact that underneath MacPherson's meaty rock riffs and Gardiner pounding on the drums, that the prairie songwriter has turned out one of the best and most focused albums of his career. While he has always had a variety of influences and ideas swirling in the mix, his reluctance to water down the impact of Fireball with songs that don't fit the tone of the album and his renewed sense of purpose on stage suggest that MacPherson is hitting his stride as both a songwriter and performer. While the hard working Winnipegger has no unrealistic dreams of where his music will take him, with his own label now handling his albums and one of his strongest releases of his career, 2013 definitely ended on a high note for MacPherson.

Surrounded by keyboards, samplers and drum machines, Marathon of Dope artist Rob Crooks blasted through an opening set filled with rapid fire drum beats, earnest vocals, simple synth melodies and '80s tinged tracks that reveal that the producer has been expanding his reach as a songwriter, with only a handful of cuts in his performance featuring his skills as an MC. While Crooks is still finding traction with this new sound, it will be interesting to see where he takes it.