Dominion on Queen, Toronto
Saturday, November 23rd, 2013
Blesséd be the mould-breakers, someone surely said…because they have the power to change the way we think. Many of us have been trained, for the most part, to believe that successful bands are built around a front man or woman – as if this central focal point might make a group more interesting. This is especially true in the blues – as if the music, itself, is not sufficiently sturdy enough to entice a listener without having to rely on a stellar voice or standout instrumentalist. With respect to this band, that conclusion couldn’t be further from reality. Because, as the snow flew outside the warm, congenial interior of this Toronto pub, four musicians worked some magic, dispelling the notion that a real band is less than the true sum of its parts.
I was aware of the fact that Terry Gillespie is a seasoned guitarist and can sing (a too-rare combination, as a rule) but I didn’t realize he plays his role as more camp director than your typical showman. He prays at the Church of the Groove and nothing else appears to be as important – period. Likewise, his band attends the same church:
Peter Measroch, a dizzying flurry of fingers over a dual keyboard, jumping from acoustic piano to swelling B3 in a heartbeat;
Lyndell Montgomery, a multi-instrumentalist and singer as comfortable flicking her fingers up and down an electric bass as she is plucking and bowing the strings of a fiddle;
and Wayne Stoute, a drummer’s drummer who goes well beyond keeping time – using his elaborate, jazz-informed attack to call out orders to corral the antics of his band-mates into some sort of organized order.
The resulting chemistry makes for a night of music-listening to change all the rules of a downtown Saturday night: from old favourites, reinvented by artists who love to play, to new songs enjoying the eclectic and inventive contributions from each of them. Terry Gillespie and his band have something special to offer – music you might not have heard before and certainly, if you have, it’s served up with ingenious twists and turns. The set-list, itself, was a revelation packed with truly offbeat and wide-ranging covers mixed with equally solid originals. It’s not often a band does both well – but these guys can. At the same time, there’s another ingredient that solidifies the experience. Mistakes. Their dedication to serving the groove is not without some off notes – entirely forgivable from a band who clearly plays from the heart. Not unlike early Faces or any number of early Brit-pop acts, the net result is all the more engaging and part of their charm. Gillespie commands a superior range of vocals for a singer, let alone a guitar player. There are moments when he’s slightly off – but he’s not long in getting back on. The same holds true of his guitar work. He’s not one to lean back and peel into a scorching riff to save the day or steal the focus from his bandmates. He is, rather, a solid team player with tasteful slide where it counts or a flurry of finger-work to complement the song rather than stroke his own ego. As such, he’s an equal partner and an encyclopedia of music history, taking the listener along on a guided tour that covered blues, rock, soul, funk, reggae and folk.
Beginning with a rousing treatment of JB Lenoir’s “Round and Round”, Gillespie was quick to impress with his resonant vocals and a band who clearly hold the Stax legend high. Their take on John Lee Hooker’s “Want Ad Blues” underlined the distinctive blues flavouring of Gillespie’s most recent release, Bluesoul – yet it was followed by a track from Brother of the Blues, “Rue Guy Boogie”. Half tongue-in-cheek, Gillespie added harp to this upbeat, horns-free version. Yet none of this properly prepared the audience for a stand-out cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Check Out Your Mind” – a funky throwback to a lost era of neo-psychedelia that made the most of all four players – notably Measroch’s keyboard swells, Montgomery’s jazz-informed basslines, Stoute’s authoratitive drumming and Gillespie’s clear, confident vocals – each sitting comfortably in the fat groove they had built. Difficult as this might be to follow, a slowed-down version of Chuck Berry’s “No Money Down” featuring some inspired interplay between guitar and keyboards, demonstrated the band’s ability to take total control over a song to make it their own. Another stand-out track was preceded by a story about listening to Dave Van Ronk (the folksinger who inspired Inside Llewelyn Davis)– Gillespie enjoys great rapport with his audience, often explaining the background to each song – following it with a slightly Caribbean twist on Van Ronk’s version of “Tell Old Bill”, Stoute improvising on percussion with two oversized beer-can shakers for full ‘island’ effect while bassist Montgomery switched over to fiddle, plucking it to achieve a mandolin sound. Transitions to his own material proved seamless. “Brother of the Blues” from Gillespie’s ‘06 release of the same name gave way to the stunning “Magnolia Tree” off the latest – each sounding like they were all cut from the same set-list cloth. The former began with a mellow, B3-bass-guitar stew that changed attitude and picked up speed while the delicate “Magnolia Tree” is largely a gentle duet between guitar and piano as Gillespie’s elastic vocal style recalled a blend of Eric Clapton to Colin Hay. Another original proved a big highlight – “What Would Bo Diddley Do” is as much tribute as it is a fire-starter for the rock’n’roll cause. Cue the dancers. The new “The Devil Likes To Win” locked into a solid blues groove while Tom Waits’ “Theme From The Wire” added Montgomery on fiddle, stabbing it ferociously with her bow, followed by a reggae treatment of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (Montgomery returning on scorching fiddle). A jazzy treatment of Little Milton’s “Welcome to the Club” and Junior Wells’ “Little By Little” – pumped up by the band leader’s signature, one-handed harp – provided a crystal-clear illustration of Gillespie’s informed, creative range.
Following a short break, the band was back with more songs – notably his own “Big Boy”, his half-spoken “It Wasn’t Me” and a highly Dylanesque “Legendary Life”, capped off by – once again – a keeper cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” that was so utterly captivating, it should become their permanent theme. A piano-led instrumental of “Soweto” by South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim served to underline Measroch’s far from subtle, sizeable role within the band. Closing with the Allman’s take on Willie Cobb’s “You Don’t Love Me” invited an encore, transforming their own “Those Days Are Gone” into a full bar sing-along. It was obvious to all in attendance that Terry Gillespie and his talented band are the furthest thing possible from your “typical blues band” – a fact which should surely shower them with much promise for 2014 and beyond.
Photos by: Eric Thom