Reviews of Northern City LimitsCanadian flag

Bluegrass Canada Magazine / Nov/Dec 1997 / By Nick Parker

"No two ways about it, listening to this group is a journey to where music is tonic for the soul.

Clear Blue Sky cover

With classic bluegrass in their veins, this "quad" of fellows move from break to break in flawless progression. Executed with the confidence of those whose abilities belie their years, fine harmonies combined with clear, crisp playing makes this CD a given in any collection of bluegrass.

With the likes of the hard-driving Armadillo Breakdown to the softer I'll Break Out Again Tonight to the creative instrumental Katie, the group's diversity is pleasing.

Each cut has been selected and arranged for maximum impact through attention to detail and the care in which each instrument and artist is given their due to demonstrate their potential. It leaves the listener hoping for more.

What more can I say? I am biased, if you haven't guessed! These lads and their guests have created a diversified listening package that makes me proud to be a part of the Canadian bluegrass tradition.

Continually impressed, I can hardly wait for their next effort. In the meantime, I'm off to find the replay button for #10, Gone Away, my favourite!

Bluegrass Now Magazine / March 1998 / By Tim Bond

"If nothing else, Clear Blue Sky by Northern City Limits proves that Canadian bluegrass is alive and well: fortunately for bluegrass fans, this release does considerably more.

Band photo

Akin to the contemporary style of Alison Kraus and Union Station, Clear Blue Sky contains all the prerequisites for modern bluegrass: adept musicianship, taut harmonies, a few original tunes interspersed among carefully selected cover material, a couple of gospel numbers and a few hot instrumentals.

Northern City Limits bases their sound on a strong ensemble approach. Vocal and instrumental chores are evenly delegated, with each member contributing to the selection of material. The band consists of Bill Carson (bass), Paul Hurdle (banjo), Tom Nunn (guitar) and Norm Tellier (mandolin), and each adds to the vocal mix.

Both Hurdle and Nunn have developed unique styles on their instruments, as each contributes breaks exhibiting constraint while remaining innovative. Both refine the melody-based techniques of first-generation artists by playing lines through the chord changes, but neither goes for flashy or forced breaks, instead preferring to play in a more relaxed style.

Tellier is a fabulous mandolinist whose fluid lines will challenge even veteran players. Guests Darrin Schott (fiddle) and Steve Adams (dobro) also add to the success of the project.

Three originals are included. Nunn's vibrant One Glorious Day opens the release and Hurdle contributes two excellent instrumentals, B's Tune and Katie. Cover material includes a nice mix of old and new. George Jones' tear-jerker Old, Old House and Ralph Stanley's Down Where the River Bends work well along John Pennell's Dark Skies and Front Range's Maybe This Time.

King of Spades, an old Country Gentlemen piece, Pete Wernick's Armadillo Breakdown and the early Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver number Gone Away all feature impressive performances.

A point of interest with Northern City Limits is their propensity for taking chances. Although they possess a smooth, relaxed style, the band refuses to stand still.

In particular, the instrumentals Katie and Armadillo Breakdown move way beyond standard bluegrass fare, as do the split lead vocals of Gone Away, I'll Break Out Again Tonight and Sunday Morning Singing.

Northern City Limits, as indicated by Clear Blue Sky, is definitely a group to watch -- they have a great future ahead of them."

Bluegrass In Review / July 1998 / By Tim Farrell

"Northern City Limits, based in Ontario, Canada, has got it all.

Their instrumental work is powerful and slick on all of the lead breaks, or perfectly subdued and subtle when it comes to accompaniment.

Plus the same can be said for their vocal work, with strong leads and tight flawless harmonies. All of the band members kick in on the vocal work, with Tom Nunn and Bill Carson sharing the most-prominent work on lead. Instrumentally, all of the breaks by Norm Tellier on mandolin, Paul Hurdle (banjo) and Nunn (guitar) are crisp and clear. The group is anchored by Carson's bass. Special guests include Darrin Schott, who chips in on fiddle and Steve Adams adds his dobro.

This album also includes three original tunes, two instrumentals by Hurdle and a ballad by Nunn. Highlights of this recording include "King of Spades", "Dark Skies", and "I'll Break Out Again Tonight."

If you are familiar with the work of Northern City Limits, this is a strong follow up to "Through the Mill". If you missed their first recording, you may want to pick up both. You won't be disappointed."

Kitchener-Waterloo Record / June 19, 1997 / By Robert Reid

"Northern City Limits burst onto the Canadian bluegrass scene in 1995 with the release of Through the Mill.

The sophomore release Clear Blue Sky catapults the southwestern Ontario quartet -- consisting of Paul Hurdle on banjo, Bill Carson on stand-up bass, Norm Tellier on mandolin and Tom Nunn on lead vocals and guitar -- into the front ranks of Canadian bluegrass.

Paul in the studio

Co-produced by Rick Hutt and the band, Clear Blue Sky benefits from being recorded at Kitchener's Cedartree Studio. The sound is richer, fuller and more dynamic than captured on Through the Mill.

Whereas the previous album contained an eclectic musical blend spanning bluegrass, country, pop and folk, all ground through the bluegrass mill, Clear Blue Sky features a blend of contemporary and traditional bluegrass and white rural gospel tunes.

Perhaps most significant, the second album continues the high standard of original tunes -- including Nunn's One Glorious Day and Hurdle's two instrumentals, B's Tune and Katie -- established with the first album.

The band has never sounded better. Instrumentally, the quartet plays with a high level of virtuosity which never draws attention to itself. And vocally, Tellier and Carson play an expanded role, complementing Hurdle's harmony and Nunn's lead vocals.

Guest artists Darrin Schott on fiddle and Steve Adams on dobro add color and texture to a sound that is already smooth and sophisticated. Clear Blue Sky should satisfy bluegrass afficianados and intelligent music listeners alike."

Country Music News / April, 1998

"Kitchener, Ontario-based bluegrass quartet Northern City Limits is quickly earning notice as one of Canada's finest bluegrass recording acts.

Like their previous Through The Mill outing, Clear Blue Sky features renditions of some bluegrass classics and the band's interpretations of country tunes, as well as a serving of instrumentals.

Versions of bluegrass tunes previously done by The Stanley Brothers, The Country Gentlemen, The Bluegrass Cardinals, Alison Kraus & Union Station, etc., are mixed with re-makes of country songs like I'll Break Out Again Tonight (recorded by Lefty Frizzell and by Merle Haggard.)

Old, Old House (an obscure George Jones song, originally released as the flipside of a 1965 single by Jones) and Listening To The Rain, a song written by Canadian-born Don Devaney that was first recorded by country's Johnny Russell on a 1971 album and which has since become a staple with bluegrass artists -- having been recorded by The Osborne Brothers, Special Consensus, Pam Gadd and Idle Time.

Clear Blue Sky was produced at Cedartree Studios in Kitchener by Rick Hutt, known in country circles for his work with Beverley Mahood and Jamie Warren.

Bluegrass Unlimited / April, 1998 / By Nancy Pate

"Northern City Limits is a quartet of musicians from Ontario, Canada and Clear Blue Sky is their second recording.

The group consists of Bill Carson playing bass, Paul Hurdle on banjo, Tom Nunn on fine lead guitar and Norm Tellier playing mandolin.

Nunn, Carson and Tellier all switch around on the lead and tenor vocals and Hurdle sings baritone. The band personnel were supplemented on this CD by Darrin Schott on fiddle and Steve Adams on resonator guitar; both guest musicians play some lovely fill and breaks that substantially contribute to the professional sound of recording.

The first song, One Glorious Day, was written by Tom Nunn; the title of the CD comes from a phrase in the song's chorus: "clear blue sky, no sign of sorrow." Sung in Nunn's strong and mellow tones, the song makes a bouncy, good-time kick-off number.

Banjoist Hurdle also contributes two original instrumentals, B's Tune and Katie. Because of the fun echo and twinning parts carried on between the banjo and other lead instruments, B's Tune is a lively number worthy of special mention.

The rest of the material on the album consists of covers of songs popularized by a wide variety of bluegrass bands, everything from Down Where the River Bends, recently recorded by Ralph Stanley, to Front Range's Maybe This Time.

Some of the more successful cuts are Nunn's very nice job singing the Country Gentlemen's King of Spades, Carson's version of Old, Old House, and Tellier on a gospel tune recorded by the Bluegrass Cardinals, Sunday Morning Singing.

The songs are well-done, the band has good chops, but the quality of the vocal blend is not consistent from one song to the next.

Northern City Limits clearly has a lot of talent on board. There is plenty here to please their fans and impress new listeners. The inclusion of more original material or less-known material, however, would prevent the listener from making constant comparisons to the original recordings."

Carson's the name, bluegrass the game

The Exeter Times-Advocate

By Craig Bradford, April 29, 1998

Bill Carson has been Exeter's best kept musical secret in his own hometown, up to now that is.

Carson, 50, is the stand-up bassist with the bluegrass outfit Northern City Limits. The band's songs have been played to national exposure on CBC-1 Radio and the group is among the few top bluegrass acts in Canada.

The other members of the band are Tom Nunn of Kitchener on the guitar, Norm Tellier of Cambridge on the mandolin and Paul Hurdle of London on the banjo. All four members share the singing duties with a lot of three-part harmonizing.

Carson describes the Northern City Limits sound as softer than most bluegrass bands that tend to be a touch more up-tempo than their work over the past five years.

"There's warmth to what we do," Carson said. "We're not in the middle of bluegrass, but more in the right of centre. And we've got some of the smoothest and most-practised musicians in Canadian bluegrass."

The band has cut two albums: Through the Mill in mid-'95 and Clear Blue Sky in mid-'97. In their short recording history, Northern City Limits has garnered much acclaim, including favorable reviews in many bluegrass magazines and other media, including Bluegrass Canada, the Michigan Bluegrass Newsletter, Bluegrass Unlimited, Country Music News, CBC Radio and the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. The last source has a close band connection - Nunn, whose non-musical responsibility is promotion - is a reporter with the K-W daily.

In '97, Carson was nominated for bass player of the year at the Canadian Bluegrass Awards (central division). Northern City Limits won the Most Promising Group Award the same year while Clear Blue Sky was nominated for album of the year.

The band has played at some large venues as well, including a 6,000 crowd in Lexington, Kentucky. The band has also played live in front of a national audience on CBC Radio.

Caron said the band's goal is to play at larger venues in the U.S. and maybe skip across the Atlantic to play some gigs in Great Britain and Europe.

The band tours in the summer and alternates practices at each others' homes. They last played in this area on April 15 at the Exeter Villa. The next time you can catch Northern City Limits somewhat closer to home is May 30-31 at Dixie Lilly's in Kitchener, at the Brantford Chili Cook-Off on June 20 and July 3-5 in Southampton. On May 23-24 the band will be playing along side some of the world's top bluegrass artists at the Tri-State Bluegrass Festival in Kendallville, Indiana. Northern City Limits also plays on behalf of charities in their hometowns.

Though the band obviously wants more and more people to listen to their music, Carson said stardom isn't the goal.

"It never was the adulation for us," he said. "Some people play slo-pitch, old-timer hockey or play poker on Friday nights. We do this."

While Nunn is in charge of getting the group's name out, Carson's unmusical duty is taking care of the band's finances. Putting the books in his hands was a no-brainer for the band: by day, Carson is the Royal Bank senior agricultural account manager for Central Ontario and is based out of the Exeter Royal Bank branch.

Flexibility at his job allows Carson to indulge in his passion for playing bluegrass and travelling throughout the summer with his wife Dianne (who's originally from Dashwood).

Carson's other passions include Harley-Davidson motorcycles and restoring old cars.

Carson hesitated when asked what drives him to create music.

"It's just being in the centre of the music," he said. "It's almost impossible to describe what it feels like to be in the middle of producing music that other people love to listen to as much as you do."

Bluegrass In Review / January, 1997

Tim Farrell's review of Through the Mill

"Northern City Limits has been together a short time, just over a year (in its present configuration), but they have come together as a band for a dynamite first release.

Instrumentally, the group is solid with tasteful licks, especially from the interplay of Norm Tellier's mandolin and Paul Hurdle's banjo.

Vocally, Tom Nunn's lead vocals are clean and powerful and the harmonies complement his voice and give the band a full bluegrass sound.

Some of the highlights of this recording include bluegrass standards "Gone, Gone Gone" and "It's Mighty Dark to Travel" and Lennon and McCartney's "I've Just Seen a Face".

Also included are two original works, the title cut "Through the Mill" co-written by mandolinist Tellier and Tom Nunn penned the final song, "First to Know".

Bluegrass Unlimited (US) / February, 1997/ Review of Through the Mill:

"This Canadian band is one with a great deal of promise.

In the studio

Although this album suffers from some unevenness, there are plenty of great songs performed well. A band that immediately reminded me of the progressiveness of the Seldom Scene (probably because of Gord De Vries' melodic resonator guitar style), Northern City Limits also gives a solid nod to traditional music as well as a song by Bill Monroe, two by Rodney Crowell and a challenging Alan Munde instrumental.

Northern City Limits consists of Bill Carson (bass), Gord De Vries (resonator guitar, tenor vocals), Paul Hurdle (banjo, baritone vocals), Tom Nunn (acoustic guitar, lead vocals) and Norm Tellier (mandolin).

In a fashion similar to that of many contemporary bands, Northern City Limits takes some old folk music and sets it to bluegrass. Here they've included -- with varying degrees of success -- the late Jim Croce's "Age", Bob Dylan's classic "You Ain't Going Nowhere", the Lennon & McCartney love song "I've Just Seen a Face" and even the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil". The latter, despite a lovely arrangement, suffers from weak harmonies in the chorus and is not representative of the other harmony mixes on this 15-song, 43-minute CD.

Indeed, many of the harmonies are memorable, from the two-part vocals in Rodney Crowell's waltz "Song for Life" to the sweetly rolling vocals in "You Ain't Going Nowhere." I would have like to have heard more emotion in some lead vocals in, for example, Monroe's "It's Mighty Dark to Travel".

But generally, the vocals are sound and enjoyable. Instrumentally, the band excels. The title track gives each member of the band a chance to shine on some fast-picked bluegrass building to a fever pitch by the end.

Hurdle is a strong banjo picker and his influence can be heard on many of these songs, including Harlan Howard's "Gone, Gone Gone", the title track, the cut-time traditional "Little Maggie" and in Alan Munde's jazz-tinged instrumental "Peaches and Cream".

I also enjoyed the high-end banjo picking in "I've Just Seen A Face" and the dynamic picking in Tom Nunn's heartbreak song "First to Know". The resonator guitar, so prevalent in many of the songs and well-performed, gets lost in the mix of Ron Block's "You're In My Heart". And the mandolin, played with strong staccatos and tremolos, is reminiscent of Monroe's style. Nunn, meanwhile, adds dynamic guitar flourishes in the title track and his own song, "First to Know".

Bluegrass Canada Magazine January/February, 1996 / CD Review of Through the Mill

by Nick Parker

"I have no idea whether the title of this CD Through the Mill reflects the struggle of this group as they move into the mainstream of Canadian bluegrass.

Despite the potential obstacles that stand in the way of any group, as they launch into the limelight of performing and recording, this particular ensemble is worth a listen. Through the Mill provides a clarity of music reached only by those who know their way around their respective instruments and are able to bring the various acoustic harmonies together while possessing a real sense of devotion to their craft.

One can feel the group's determination to succeed while listening to their sense of rhythm, punch and drive on some of their numbers and breaks.

The bottom line? These guys are good and they mean business! If you haven't spun their CD in your unit, make it your New Year's Resolution to do so, and hey, while you're at it, try to catch them live - you won't regret it."


Country Music News March, 1996 / CD Review of Through the Mill

Canadian bluegrass recordings seldom get attention at the national level, and fewer still get any radio airplay outside of those stations that provide a weekly hour or two -- and that's a pity, because there's some good music that never gets its proper due . . . the latest being this 15-song collection by southwestern Ontario-based quintet, Northern City Limits.

Through the Mill features original pieces in the title track tune and the album's closing number "First To Know" -- with greater emphasis given to cover versions of familiar folk and country tunes.

Country fans will be able to relate closely to tunes like "Gone, Gone Gone", originally done by Lefty Frizzell; "Song For Life", the Rodney Crowell-penned tune that was a recent country chart-topper for Alan Jackson; "New Patches", a Tommy Collins-penned hit for Mel Tillis; The Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face", originally done bluegrass style by the group Red, White and Bluegrass; Jim Croce's "Age" and the Bob Dylan classic "You Ain't Going Nowhere".

Bluegrass believers: Northern City Limits gaining recognition south of border

The Kitchener-Waterloo Record

By Robert Reid August 19, 1995 (updated)

Bluegrass bands come and bluegrass bands go.

However, Northern City Limits, a new band with deep roots in the rich bluegrass soil of southwestern Ontario, has the stuff to endure.

Although the band -- consisting of Bill Carson, Gord De Vries, Paul Hurdle, Tom Nunn and Norm Tellier -- has been together in its current incarnation only since last fall, it has recorded a debut album and is gaining recognition in bluegrass circles on both sides of the border.

"The group is sounding great,'' a recent issue of Bluegrass Canada magazine declared. "The Most Pleasant Surprise of the festival goes out to Northern City Limits,'' announced the Michigan Bluegrass Association.

Like many bands, Northern City Limits has changed both its name and personnel over the years. The band started taking shape in 1990 when Carson (bass), Hurdle (banjo and baritone vocals) and De Vries (dobro and tenor vocals) began picking tunes on a casual basis, rotating among Carson's home in Exeter and the London homes of the other two founding members.

Informal growth

"We got together one night a week for our own enjoyment,'' recalls De Vries, who acted as the group's spokesman and booking agent.

Informal gatherings developed into something more substantial in 1992. "We began sounding good enough to play on stage and I decided to formally start a band.''

Over the next few months, a couple of early members left the band, which was known as City Limits. In the fall of 1993, Norm Tellier, a mandolin player who had just left the Cambridge bluegrass band Clean Sweep began picking with the band.

"Norm started jamming with us and he seemed like a nice guy, so I asked him if he'd like to join. He made everything jell.'' Although the nucleus of the band was formed, a lead vocalist and guitarist was needed, so De Vries turned to his nephew Butch De Vries.

Commitments with Port Elgin-based rock and country bands, however, soon made performing with City Limits too onerous a load.

Shortly after De Vries resigned, Nunn, a reporter at The Record who has been playing guitar to old-time fiddle tunes since childhood, joined the band as guitarist and lead vocalist.

"Norm knew Tom and, in the week before he rehearsed with us, he learned 10 of our songs.We were blown away. All the pieces fell into place when Tom came on board.''

The band decided to change its name, adding Northern to its title, after learning there was another bluegrass band by that name plying its trade out of Tacoma, Wash. "We wanted to avoid any confusion, especially in the U.S. where we hope to gain a profile.''

Although Northern City Limits is relatively new, its members draw on years of bluegrass experience.

Carson played in three bands before Northern City Limits, including the Sarnia-based Blackwell Sideroad, where he first met Hurdle. Carson, Hurdle and De Vries all played in Shades of Blue.

Hurdle, who received a Bluegrass Pioneer's Award at the 1991 Canadian Bluegrass Awards, began his career with the pioneering Country Rebels and Rural Retreat. He has performed with such well-known musicians as The Good Brothers, guitarist David Essig and Bert Baumbach, the lead vocalist of London's Dixie Flyers.

De Vries, a recipient of the Central Canada Bluegrass Association's 1994 Dobro Player of the Year Award, spent 15 years in the Hamilton area playing with a country band called The Country D's before turning his attention to bluegrass.

Tellier was a founding member of Clean Sweep, a bluegrass band that is still performing under the stewardship of Richard Dugal after 15 years. His wife, Nancy, a professional audiologist, acts as the band's sound technician.

Nunn, who spent his adolescence playing in a family dance band in halls across Haldimand-Norfolk, performed with bluegrass band Shady Grove in the late 1970s.

Although all the band members hold down day jobs, Northern City Limits wants to be viewed as "a serious band'' among peers and fans alike. That desire was the main reason for recording its first album Through the Mill.

"We work hard on our music and we hope the album wins us some respect. We're not a full-time band, but we're more than a weekend band,'' De Vries observes. Through the Mill's 15 tracks accurately represents where the band was when they were recorded this spring at London's Studio 107.

Expanding boundaries

Bluegrass has undergone a revolution in recent years, as more musicians have bridged and blended musical genres. Northern City Limits has adopted a broad approach to bluegrass. Featuring an ear-pleasing blend of bluegrass (Bill Monroe, Leonard Sipes and Ron Block, in addition to traditional instrumentals), a couple of original compositions penned by Tellier and Nunn and an eclectic assortment of covers drawn from country (Rodney Crowell), folk (early Bob Dylan and Jim Croce) and rock (The Grateful Dead and The Beatles), the material blurs musical boundaries.

"We draw our material from a variety of sources,'' De Vries explains. "Good music transcends musical boundaries and we try to present good music in a bluegrass style.''

Although band members demonstrate the technical virtuosity that is expected in bluegrass music, the band's vocal harmonies set it apart from conventional bluegrass bands. Instead of the high, pinched, nasal harmonies associated with traditional bluegrass, the harmonies of Nunn, Hurdle and De Vries are softer-edged, fuller, more contemporary in tone and texture. "We don't want to sound like a traditional bluegrass band,'' De Vries acknowledges.

The one essential ingredient of traditional bluegrass the band has adopted is emotional depth and thrust, which De Vries believes is absent in most Canadian bluegrass bands.

"Bluegrass is feeling music. It's derived from the blues and there's a lot of hurt in the music. It's not enough to be proficient on your instruments.''

The band is completing this summer's round of festivals. Plans are already under way for a sophomore release that will likely include more original material. (The project has since been released in mid-1997).

Through the Mill and the group's latest release, Clear Blue Sky, are available at: HMVs in Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto or by ordering at any HMV outlet in Canada; Sam's in Toronto, Waterloo and London; Tower Records in Toronto; Twelfth Night in Waterloo; CD Warehouses in Kitchener and London; Music in Sebringville; Safe Harbor Books and CDs in Owen Sound; Earthtones Cafe and Back Porch Music on the Internet, plus Coot and Valleygrass mail order services.

Orders can also be placed by writing to: Northern City Limits, 118 Homewood Avenue, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. N2M 1W9, or by contacting

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