Great Hall, Toronto: Thursday, October 24th
As a young boy, I grew up loving cowboys – Sugarfoot, Paladin, the Lone Ranger and the Cartwright clan. Had I known better, I’d have paid much more attention to cowgirls. Lindi Ortega is a cowgirl and a homegrown success story – if only because she’s stuck to her guns and done things her way. Recently transposed to Nashville for the good of her career, this was an enthusiastic return to play to her hometown crowd. As difficult as it must be to perform in front of friends and peers, it has to be even more awkward to do so in front of one’s family members, suitably ensconced in the Great Hall’s upper balcony. Add in song lyrics from new Tin Star originals such as “Lived and Died Alone” – in which the protagonist speaks fondly of digging up and making love to the dead –and you’ve clearly got yourself a no-holds-barred party. The self-proclaimed Gypsy Child has matured greatly over the past few years and, ably assisted by little more than her guitarist, James Robertson, and her drummer, Tristan Henderson, this well-rehearsed trio ripped up the oversized stage in no uncertain terms. Both musicians are exceptional – Henderson does more with one tom-tom than most can do with a complete set while Robertson pulls in the lion’s share of the sound shaping, his ferocious guitar-skills conjuring everything from a Spanish flamenco to a wall of squalling feedback and lightning-fast fingerwork, whether approximating Carl Perkins or Rick Richards; Duane Eddy or Sonny Burgess. Ortega, no slouch herself, works hard on acoustic and electric guitar, providing some of the evening’s best moments accompanying herself on electric piano.
Show-openers, Matt Goud (aka Northcote) and Blake Enemark, charged up the crowd – the Victoria-based, singer-songwriter having emerged from hardcore band Means. With many members of the audience familiar with his hyper-energetic brand of punk-charged, singer-songwriter fare, there was sweat to spare in record time – but not enough time to bask in their spirited, mood-making intro.
Lindi Ortega took to the stage with little fanfare – aside from the tumultuous cheers from the crowd, transforming the packed room into a Queen for a Day homecoming celebration, much to her heartfelt delight. Beginning with the semi-autobiographical title track from her latest record, Tin Star (watch official video below), Ortega was clearly singing to the converted and, as she encountered the faces of friends or fans mouthing the lyrics, her radiant smile cast a sincere glow from the stage. Clearly, she’s no “nobody”, despite how her move to Nashville may have made her feel. Upping the honky-tonk, “Hard As This” drew further crowd response as Robertson cranked the tremolo to Henderson’s fat ’n’ frisky beat. Introducing her friend, Satan, Ortega launched into one of her signature tunes, “Little Lie”, providing another highlight against a backdrop of Robertson’s powerful effects and incendiary guitar pyrotechnics. The comparatively laidback “Waitin’ On My Luck To Change” worked well with acoustic guitars, minus its piano and steel guitar arrangement. Charging out of the gate like a runaway Johnny Cash hit, “Voodoo Mama” proved another launching pad for Robertson’s wall-o’-sound guitar while, a moving dedication of “Gypsy Child” in honour of her parents, aptly chronicled the red-booted wanderer’s journey and likely coached a loving tear from the Family Ortega.
The aforementioned “Lived and Died Alone” was a highlight – both because it seems to summarize where Ortega has stationed herself musically – a slightly irreverent crossroads between rockabilly and outlaw country, blending in a saucy, dark Mexican piquante as befits her surname, served up with some well-intentioned punkish attitude – and because she’s not shy about parlaying a strong, sassy, sexual persona into everything she does, which works famously. Both Johnny Dowd and Rosie Flores would be proud to hear this song. Moving to the rear of the stage while her band-mates took a break, she broke into a rousing version of the Eagles’ “Desperado”, accompanying surprisingly herself well on electric piano.) As the band returned for an unidentified song about Houdini called “Cold Dark Ashes” followed by the wildly frothy “I Want You” with its guitar wallop and spaceship-like feedback, Ortega’s vocals proved a bit intense for the sound system, distorting slightly. Back on board with the slow grind of “Demons Don’t Get Me Down” followed by the euphoric-sounding “High”, which called for hyper-tremelo’d guitars and cymbal washes to set the mood before the teeth-kicking furor of the amped-up “All These Cats” – a high-torque, lyric-lashing, rockabilly powerhouse. Taking a brief intermission, the band returned with – speaking of Johnny Cash – a rip-snorting version of “Ring of Fire” seguing into an equally-animated take on Sonny & Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) – Robertson adding loops, effects and multiple, stinging solos. A quick retreat back to the piano, Ortega delivered an impassioned version of “Songs About” from Tin Star, as Robertson’s guitar effects approximated an orchestra to Henderson’s steady pulse – Ortega’s voice cutting even deeper on the more mellow numbers. Likewise, the slower “Cigarettes and Truckstops” underlined the realization that Ortega – aside from her obvious skills as a performer – writes and co-writes some exceptional original songs and is rarely credited for the sturdy little songwriter she is.
An encore was a given, the band returning to the hard-chugging, bittersweet ache of “Day You Die”. A great night out and a reassuring snapshot of a young artist who deserves wider acclaim – with all the skills to get what she wants. Or else.
Photo: Eric Thom