Nine years ago Jane Harbury started something very special at Hugh’s Room in the form of Discoveries. A labour of love, Jane – publicity maven to the stars – was intent on accomplishing two goals at once: to provide fresh, new musical talent with an opportunity to expose their skills before an adventurous breed of audience lusting for ground-breaking talent – and an affordable night of always-interesting, if not exceptional, musical entertainment. Hugh’s Room is the ideal venue for the requisite intimacy, quality of sound and music-loving clientele it provides, together with its unprecedented reputation for presenting exceptional live music – a perk in the résumé of any up-and-comer. Even Gordon Lightfoot was in the audience, which speaks highly of this consistently excellent event which takes place three times each year.
On October 22nd, I arrived to see and hear a young performer from outside Halifax who bills herself as a “cellist and songstress”. Both true, however, the effervescent Janelle is like no cellist I’ve ever seen and is also gifted with a luscious pop voice that drips like warm, sweet syrup from her lips. Her newest release, So Long At The Fair, is also like nothing else I’ve ever heard – and quite an accomplishment. Visions of balloons, dancing barefoot on the beach, iced tea with Doris Day, bits of faerie music and polka-dot clothing adorn these 12, fanciful tunes which encompass folk, pop, jazz and blues influences, embracing both old-school and new. She plays her cello like Paul McCartney picks his Hoffner – plucking it more like a bass to husband James Hill’s ukulele accompaniment and, on this occasion, adding piano and remarkable vocal support from an equally talented Shelley O’Brien.
The first song, “Waiting” – from Anne’s Beauty Remains disc, proved the perfect vehicle to introduce her voice while the next four songs were comparatively stripped-down arrangements from the new release. The sleepy “Forgive Me” came alive with its hand-clapped percussion and James’ harmonic contributions while “Come Home, Jennie” – one of the highlights from the new disc – enjoyed lush harmonies from the unprecedented combination of O’Brien and Janelle as James Hill delivered great sounds from a uke/dulcimer hybrid played like a lap slide. The jazzy, traditional “Oh Dear” was a natural yet the stunning, 3-part harmonies employed to tackle the dazzling – and challenging – a capella “Black Is The Colour” proved one of the evening’s stellar high points.
Toronto’s Cameron Brothers Band is a busy, Ontario-based group who have built their following with regular club appearances in the time-honoured tradition. With one release under their belts, they have forged a roots-based sound not unlike a rough version of The Band. Their two secret weapons are keyboard/multi-instrumentalist Aaron Comeau, whose incredible talents seem innate, while singer Emma Harvey adds a distinctive country counterpart to brothers Scott and Braden Cameron, their collective harmony vocals defining the core of their sound. “Modern Day Lovers” provided Harvey with the chance to strut her strong vocal flavour while “Here and Now” gave Comeau the opportunity to build a strong, rootsy groove driven by his exceptional skills on piano. Again, “Who Am I To Say?” was owned by Harvey while a powerful duet between Harvey and Scott Campbell in “East Nashville Blues” proved bittersweet as the Harvey-Campbell component is ultimately moving to Nashville to try their luck in Music City
Toronto’s Meredith Moon is a true diamond in the rough. Endearingly shy, her voice rang true from the first notes of her own “Let Me In (My Man Of Blue)” and although she carries an aura of patchouli oil and somewhat dated hippie-dom, she’s possesses a lovely, full voice and the commitment to make a difference for her many causes. Strumming guitar or dulcimer, her vocals are clearly the star of the show. Despite a slightly out-of-tune guitar, her “Rocky Mountain Blues” revealed a sturdy soprano and enhanced fingerstyle guitar while the beautifully intimate “Womanhood” – despite losing some of the lyrics – proved a highlight of her set. Inviting a friend in fellow singer/guitarist Danielle Rebelle, Moon clearly relaxed as the duo reworked Doc Watson’s “I’ll Fly Away” with stand-out harmonies and rhythmic power. Apologizing for her lack of finesse on the piano, the audience wasn’t quite prepared for Moon’s phenomenal, drop-dead cover of Joni Mitchell’s “The River” – unleashing a vocal strength, spellbinding in its emotive punch, enhancing the already-untouchable original. Her closer, “So I May Never Soar” gave one last glimpse into her potential, rough edges aside and entirely forgotten.
From the more formal side of the conservatory comes 17-year old Nicholas Cunha. Knee-deep in music studies at U of T, his young age has nothing to do with his maturity level, turning in a polished show with the deft assistance of Rob Cooper on piano. Already a seasoned crooner of the crushed velveteen jacket set, his brand of easy-listening fare is liberally sprinkled with a strong flare for the broadway musical, delivering on what he refers to as “classical-pop”. A rich, gorgeous voice, he clearly has a gift for performance (with a slight tendency to overreach) and, as he toured through larger-than-life songs by Canadian songwriters – including Vince DeGiorgio’s “I Won’t Be The One” and a one-off track, “The Island”, by Paul Brady – you couldn’t help but appreciate that this guy is definitely going somewhere. Let’s just hope it’s not on a cruise ship as a body-double for Bert Convy. To hear him is to realize he’s something special.
As its name implies, Discoveries more than delivered on its promise. Every audience member received more than they bargained for and were treated to an extraordinary night of great musical performance in a warm, welcoming setting.
Photos by Eric Thom