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Review: Del Barber with Ridley Bent

Del Barber 1A year ago – on a similar, wickedly cold night in downtown Toronto, I was happily touring the top floors of the Delta Chelsea during last year’s Folk Alliance, when I happened to luck into a “Manitoba Room” featuring a collection of artists – some I knew (Cara Luft), some I didn’t (Del Barber). Taking turns showcasing their songs, Del Barber played something called “Waitress” – which blew me away. So, as his solo show came through Hugh’s Room almost a year later (February 6, 2014), I had to be there.

Opening the show was someone who seemed an odd duck: Ridley Bent. Odd if only because of his choice of hat – which, unlike the cowboy look of his Buckles & Boots release, lent him a 50’s sitcom look, reminiscent of an odd uncle rather than anything as familiar as any singer-songwriter hailing from the Left Coast.

Ridley Bent 560His first song, from the aforementioned record, did little to distinguish him with his soft voice and rudimentary accompaniment on acoustic guitar. And then he did the unthinkable – he rapped his way through the lyrics of “Smokin’ Again,” blending country to hip-hop, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Even more unthinkable – it worked! Revealing a sly sense of humour through witty lyrics and sideways smiles, Bent’s next assault was, in the form of a co-write with Dustin Bentall, called “Nine Inch Nails” – becoming one of the only songwriters I know to drop Husker Dü into a lyric. The rappy “Devil at the Crossroads” further demonstrated the Bent twist – a subtle shifting of rhythms against continuous, rolling lyrics that don’t quit. “Cry” – another co-write with Bentall – is a breakup song that picked up the energy with its “Cry Cry Cry” refrain while “Crooked and Loaded” saw him bite into his acoustic guitar with true grit. “Faded Red Hoodie” proved a funky little folk song while “Revenge” – the third song of a trilogy – proved a set highlight, as did the distinctive, hilarious “Suicidewinder” with its litany of pop culture landmarks throughout its chorus. Something different – and somebody to keep an eye on – regardless of whatever direction his somewhat eclectic music decides to take him.

Note the upgraded treatment of the noteworthy “Arlington” in video form.

Del Barber 2As for Del Barber, there appear to be two of him. His appearance on CBC’s Q the following morning, supported by a talented band, and the musicians he records with, presented a very polished act with songs fully orchestrated and arranged into rich, full compositions. However, it’s the solo singer-songwriter who presents the strongest showing – matching ironclad songs to an energetic personality in complete control of his music. Key to the success of his shows is the degree of storytelling Barber invests into each song selection and, before long, you’re entirely sold on his personal take on life, if not the man himself. Often referred to in bios and reviews as a “winsome” figure, Barber presents a more worldly, slightly darker personality than the sweetness or innocence that term might imply. He’s been living down on the farm far longer than that – projecting, instead, a wily, youthful energy that erupts onstage with each song. At times, Barber combines strong elements of John Prine – even sounding like him on colourful, descriptive numbers like “Right Side of the Road“ and “Hen House Manifesto.“ At the same time, he’s a passionate performer with a natural gift on guitar – alternating aggressive, fingerstyle acoustic guitar with his full, country-tinged vocals. It’s a powerful combination and Barber has full command of his stage, forcing the listener to realize that this Winnipeg native is surely going somewhere with his craft.

Del Barber 3His fourth and latest record, Prairieography, was clearly his key focus with brilliant new songs like the upbeat (with a hint o’ Prine-like humour) “Country Girl” and the gentle love song, “Peter and Jenny Lee,” rendered as a story and delivered with extreme, face-contorting commitment. The studio version may drip with the added sentiment lent by pedal steel and percussion, but Barber’s ability to render it powerfully – all by his lonesome – is a key strength. Likewise, songs like the highly personal “Big Smoke” – shaking his guitar for full tremolo effect – and the high-energy, dead-end trance of “Living With a Long Way to Go” further establish his talents. Of course, his signature “The Waitress” proved a highlight, Marge’s bittersweet toast to a sad life well-wasted. The fast flurry of lyrics comprising the country-folk of “Hen House Manifesto” with its chicken-picked guitar gave way to an encore, featuring another key song from the new record, “All That It Takes,” delivered with natural swagger. Just for good measure – for anyone not already convinced of his guitar-playing prowess – Barber tackled the ultimate master and influence with a vibrant, aggressive cover of no less than Richard Thompson and his legendary “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” doing a spectacular job of keeping his fingers from flying off the ends of his wrists ­– playing the classic with absolute passion and without a hint of intimidation by the lofty original. And it’s this balls-to-the-walls attitude which distinguishes the prairie-bred upstart from the typical singer-songwriter. Wearing his Winnipeg roots proudly on his sleeve, he boldly embraces the warmth of analog recording to the point of adding reverb to his most recent record by running the mix through the acoustics of an actual grain silo. Add in elaborate instrumentation and tasteful harmony vocals might show his followers what is possible, but it’s the bare-naked songs themselves – and Barber’s ability to bring them to life in the time-honoured tradition of serving them up in front of an audience of real people – that will distinguish him in the long run.

Photography: Eric Thom

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Anne Janelle/Discoveries

Anne Janelle and James HillNine 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.

Braden Campbell of The Campbell BrotherToronto’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

Meredith Moon at Hugh's Room 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.

Nicholas Cunha at Hugh's RoomFrom 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

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Mary Gauthier: Hugh’s Room Oct. 9

Mary GauthierMuch of the press surrounding Mary Gauthier’s progressive, consistent career has revolved around her younger years, when she was a borderline survivor of some of life’s toughest hurdles – as if this is responsible for the success she now reaps. Bottom line and her past aside, she’s a brilliant songwriter with a highly personable demeanour – one who pours absolute passion into each and every song she performs live, as if she was singing it for the first time. She may not have the world’s greatest voice – you can find the odd rough edge in her preferred part-spoken, part-sung delivery. And she’ll likely not grace the cover of Guitarist magazine as one of the world’s greatest guitarists too soon. But that’s not what it’s about. She bashes hell out of her well-worn acoustic, using her chording and her percussive strumming power as an added weapon, as she accentuates each well-chosen, painterly word with a magical power pulsing with warmth and sincerity. When you put it all together and you’d be hard-pressed not to fall in love with her – singer-songwriters don’t get any more genuine than this performer’s performer.

This explains why Tim McGraw, Candi Staton and Blake Shelton scramble to cover her originals while she is regularly praised by no less than John Prine, Dylan and Tom Waits. What she does has been categorized as “Americana Gothic” and “Country Noir,” but mostly she’s just achingly honest  – accessing elements of folk, country, bluegrass, blues and gospel – whatever works best to tell her tale or make her case. Solo, she cuts to the quick of each song, many of which have seen the light of day in various configurations – but they all began life with little more than what her fans were here to see tonight.

Mary Gauthier 2“Between the Daylight and the Dark” started things off – easily an appropriate description of the focus of her work. Following with “For Rose,” Gauthier proved in fine form, chasing it with her wonderful “I Drink” – in exceptional voice – before admitting to the crowd that she “wanted to blow through all the addiction songs up front.” Her hard-strummed take on Fred Eaglesmith’s “Cigarette Machine” (one of three FredHead covers on her latest CD, Live at Blue Rock). A new song, the very sad “Another Train,” brought along an admission that trains act as metaphors for relationships – the comings and goings of the human heart – and that, if we sit and wait long enough, another will come along. The lovely co-write with Gretchen Peters, “It’s How You Learn To Live Alone” was followed by an even more powerful performance of a new song, “When A Woman Goes Cold.” This was delivered with such zest and passion, Gauthier seemed almost spent at the song’s conclusion. But no, she soldiered on with the delicate “Karla Faye” – the sensitized story of a Texas inmate given the death penalty for murder and a soft, gentle rendering of “Our Lady Of The Shooting Stars” – a song she half-claims she stole from Ferron.

One of the evening’s greatest highlights was her powerful portrayal of Steam Train Maury Graham – the patriarch of the hobos (“he looked a lot like Santa – but the day after Christmas”). There’s no better story song than this one, dedicated to a true original who accomplished what the rest of us can only dream of – the last of his kind and worthy of her praise. Speaking of riding the rails and trains, Gauthier also included a touching version of Fred Eaglesmith’s “The Rocket” before launching into a lively version of the song Jimmy Buffett covered that afforded her a new car – “Christmas in Paradise,” a song she definitely lives. This led to a Robert Johnson story and a new song – “Oh Soul,” which questions the infamous deal made at the crossroads – and whether the died-too-soon Johnson ever lamented the decision he’d made. Yet this didn’t prepare us for her upgraded version of  “Wheel Inside A Wheel” – which was played hard, wrapped up in a funky delivery, distanced itself from the original recording in a lively way, driving her parade of souls across the sky with spirited conviction. The expected encore drew her back for one last, deep-cutting tune, “Mercy Now” – a prayer for compassion – the perfect close to a most intimate evening. This night left no question that, as much as you might love her song-writing or her subject matter, it’s the act of seeing and hearing Mary Gauthier deliver these heartfelt songs live which pushes you – entirely – into making her your own.

Photography by: Eric Thom

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Claire Lynch Band Oct. 3 & 4

CLaire Lynch If you’ve never heard Claire Lynch sing, your life’s not quite complete. For never was there a sweeter sound – never more fair from any songbird’s trill – than her voice. What she can do to a musical story has helped transform the art of bluegrass music. A true original, she’s a joy to behold and as deep, down soulful as can be.

It wasn’t always so – she’s worked hard for her recognition and deserves all she can get. Surprisingly, her extremely southern-sounding voice was born in Kingston, New York where, at age 12, she relocated with her family to Hazel Green, Alabama. Upon meeting her husband, Larry, she moved away from her love of singing pop music with her sisters to falling in love with bluegrass. Singing in Larry’s band, Hickory Wind ­– eventually The Front Porch String Band, she released her debut, Breakin’ It, in ’81. The rest is history – that and 9 more discs, a family and a touring regimen that would make a Bedouin blush. A faultless writer, her name preceded her own live talents as others covered her music. She’s since more than earned her own marquis – treading the boards endlessly, injecting her original material with a sweet soulfulness, proving that nobody does them better than she.

Claire Lynch

The release of Lynch’s tenth disc, Dear Sister, has forever moved the bluegrass goalposts, given her ability to project intensity and gentleness, vulnerability and strength and all points in-between. The road’s not been easy – career detours and family-rearing stopovers resulted in hard-earned changes in her personal tune. But she’s proven herself 100% committed to what she’s doing, surrounding herself with a phenomenal band who manage to exceed her inflexible expectations. It’s the combination of Claire’s high, lonesome sound and this band of virtuosic musicians who prove the secret ingredient behind their powerful sound. Award-winning bassist-clawhammer banjo player-dancer-percussionist Mark Schatz joins mandolinist-guitarist Matt Wingate and fiddler and player-of-all-stringed things, Bryan McDowell. Acoustic guitars and bass mesh with fiddle, mandolin, banjo and their supportive harmonies – never fighting for position and always working under Lynch’s one-of-a-kind vocal aeronautics. There’s never an unnecessary break in the action, unless intentional.

Touring behind Dear Sister provides the band the opportunity to present fresh, timeless material as it’s meant to be heard – with all the energetic drive of a finger-blistering live show, keeping the bluegrass tradition alive. The title track provides a good start – a tear-inducing masterpiece – co-written with southerner Louisa Branscomb. It’s an intimate farewell letter shared between two sisters, their lives ravaged by the destruction of the Civil War, delivered with all the tenderness Lynch is known for – ending smartly with the coda from “There’s No Place Like Home” and reinforced throughout by Wingate’s mandolin and McDowell’s crying fiddle. Or consider the frailty and heartbreak revealed in “How Many Moons”, contrasting with the pop-friendly “Need Someone” with its hook-laden chorus and blend of innocence and longing. The upbeat, banjo-driven “I’ll Be Alright Tomorrow” clears the air with its slap-happy acoustic bass, mandolin and guitar while the heartfelt paean to all love songs, “That Kind Of Love”, speaks highly of Lynch’s character, the song wrapped in delicate harmonies, propelled by its sturdy, spirited acoustic underpinnings.

Claire LynchAn opportunity to witness such wide-ranging talent, depth and emotional firepower on-stage doesn’t come along very often – especially in a room so acutely attuned to making the most of acoustic performance. The Claire Lynch Band makes for a special occasion not to be missed – so don’t.

2013-10-03  Toronto  ON   Hugh’s Room

2013-10-04   Innisfil  ON   Music Up Close

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Friendly dueling: annual event shows best in banjo

Oh, you know the old joke: “How can you tell if there’s a banjo player at your door”? “They can’t find the key, the knocking speeds up, and they don’t know when to come in.”

There’s a million jokes like that — as Chris Quinn admitted from the stage “it’s a tambourine on a stick” — and  today’s banjo players know how to take them.

Yet the fact remains, they’re a powerfully emotive instrument with a complicated history and the chance to catch four  of Canada’s best pickers on the same stage was something that had to be experienced: the annual Banjo Special: A Showcase of Traditional Banjo Style, held at Hugh’s Room earlier this month.

As it turned out, this was the annual event’s 12th year and others, equally thrilled with the concept, packed the house in anticipation. So much for the banjo being the butt of musical jokes.

Chris Coole. Brian Taheny. Arnie Naiman. Chris Quinn. Each with different approaches to their instrument, each representing their own specialty and each connected in various ways.

Chris Coole and Chris Quinn are renowned for their roles within the Foggy Hogtown Boys – relentless progenitors of bluegrass hybrids. Chris Coole, the old-tyme, clawhammer aficionado and Chris Quinn hailing from the Earl Scruggs school of three finger playing.

Brian Taheny, originally of Co. Sligo, plays Irish tenor banjo for an entirely different effect – a lynchpin of Celtic sounds.

Arnie Naiman is another old-tyme player employing a clawhammer technique in  down-picking style. He plays with his band Ragged But Right (consisting of wife, Kathy Reid-Naiman and daughter Hannah) and plays regularly with Chris Coole.

This abundant talent pool started off the night playing together and, in round-robin style, individually. Together, they demonstrated different techniques, playing styles and variations in the instruments themselves, proving both interesting and informative. Brian’s son, Leon, provided percussive support through his skilled use of the Irish bodhran.

Chris Coole played on a late ‘70’s Vega Tubaphone banjo and a gourd banjo (made by Teilhard Frost); Chris Quinn played a ‘34 Gibson KK-10, a ‘72 Gibson RB-250 and a 2008 Recording King (Deco King model); Brian played a Gibson Mastertone and a ‘24 Vega Delux Tenor Banjo; Arnie played a ‘70s Vega Tubaphone, a new Jason Romero custom-built banjo from Horsefly, B.C. (12 inch pot with goatskin head) and a Teilhard Frost gourd banjo.

It’s important to register this because each player took the time to explain why they preferred their different instruments, how they complemented individual playing styles and, in some cases, their histories. As the house seemed to be filled with quite a few players, the education proved an unexpected bonus.

Each player featured songs from their repertoire – like “Langstrom’s Pony” and “The Convenience” (Taheny), “Johnny Court The Widder/Camp Chase” and a hypnotic version of “Reminiscence” (Naiman), Allen Shelton’s “Bending the Stings” and “Farewell Blues” (Quinn) together with Coole’s rousing version of the Band’s “Stage Fright” and an exceptional original in “Winfield’s Fancy”.

Of equal joy was watching each player clearly enjoying the work of their fellows — competitiveness seems to be the territory of others in this family-oriented collective.

As if this wasn’t enough, the stage was suddenly as full of banjo players as the ocean depths are reputedly filled with lawyers – a 16-piece Banjo Orchestra, to be exact. Comprised mostly of students (each player being an instructor on the side), a thunderous version of a Sergio Leone-like “Once Upon A Time In The North” (Chris Coole) was truly something special to behold — right down to the cued crack of a (live) whip, providing added value for the S/M set.

The second set lent itself to a less structured format in which each individual brought up guests from their regular bands and/or talented friends, allowing them to stretch out a little further in their preferred modes. Brian’s North Atlantic Drift added Cape Bretoner Dan MacDonald (fiddle) on fiddle and Ross Griffiths on Scottish border pipes and (potentially) Irish Uilleann pipes while Brian added banjo.

Chris Quinn brought up Kristine Schmitt (vocals) and Tony Allen (fiddle/vocals) while both he and Chris Coole added dobro master, Ivan Rosenberg to their separate sets (Ivan guests on the latest Foggy Hogtown release). Chris Coole also performed with Kristine Schmitt while Arnie added his wife (Appalachian dulcimer, banjo ukulele) and daughter (fiddle) to showcase numbers from the Ragged But Right repertoire.

From “Oh Groundhog” to “Southern Jack” to “Cruel Willie” and back, this was a special night of music, indeed. If you weren’t a fan of the banjo before you arrived, you’d certainly leave as one. As expected, an encore was a requested and delivered.

The fact that this ever-cheerful, rhythmic instrument goes both forward or back in time, as determined by its player, means it will never fall out of vogue, never mind the jokes. An intensive evening of buoyant, banjo-focused playing like this — from four virtuosic players — has the power to not only cure what ails you, but can stand you in good stead for the time that lies ahead. Real roots music would be lost without its upbeat, if not soulful, contribution.


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Lucy Kaplansky does it all

Hugh’s Room, Toronto – Sunday, March 6th

Some artists give more than others. In the case of Lucy Kaplansky, she gives more than most.

I had never seen Lucy play live and, frankly, had no idea what to expect. Her claim to fame is massive in proportion to her tiny frame.

She’s served as a backup/harmony vocalist to everybody who’s anybody as well as a legion of friends and co-musicians: Nanci Griffith, Shawn Colvin, Suzanne Vega, Bryan Ferry, Greg Brown, John Gorka, Buddy Miller and most popular singers you can think of.

She’s been a member of Cry, Cry, Cry with Richard Shindell and Dar Williams. Most recently she’s co-helmed a veritable super-group in the beautiful Red Horse – a disc released last year, teamed with John Gorka and Eliza Gilkyson.

It’s a stunning meeting of mind and voice as they take turns on each other’s songs, volunteering some notable originals. Suffice it to say, her interpretive and harmonic skills have been more than her meal ticket.

At the same time, there’s a lot more to Kaplansky than hanging around studios as a first-call session singer. She began to demonstrate significant writing skills after leaving her hometown of Chicago for New York’s Greenwich Village in the late ‘70s. It is here where she made fast, famous friends – holding her own – with many of the folk underground set who have been calling on her ever since.

Kaplansky took a detour to get her doctorate in psychology, ultimately opening her own practice and working with chronic, mentally ill adults. Once the head of Red House Records heard some of her solo recordings, it wasn’t long before she was adopted by the label and pulled back into touring, developing her first career.

Which only goes to say, she’s a bright and highly interesting personality whose songs are highly absorbing, often delving into emotional turf that embraces love, hope, heartbreak and loss. More recently, having become a mother to her beloved Molly, themes of motherhood, family, home and heart come to the fore.

On this occasion, Kaplansky mounted the stage armed only with a guitar, looking like her reputation might, indeed, be bigger than she was. She welcomed the crowd and noted that, given her father’s connection to Toronto (he was born here before moving to the U.S.), much of the room was filled with family and distant relatives.

This had a great effect on her performance. She took the time to tell stories of her youth, her relationship with her immediate family and of how being a mother had transformed her life into something far more precious.

Apologizing for somewhat lax guitar skills (she was suffering with a recently-healed broken wrist, which had her preferring the house piano more often than not), she proceeded to silence the room with a beautiful selection of songs featuring her distinctive, seemingly effortless voice.

Lucy’s earlier material was pure folk with elements of Celtic while she’s morphed, more recently into more of a contemporary, almost-alt-country sound. Yet, accompanied only by herself, she projected her singer-songwriter self, choosing a cross-section of her songs, adding interesting asides along the way.

This was also a grand opportunity to delight in her wonderfully sweet voice, unencumbered by background instruments. “Manhattan Moon” (renamed “Molly’s Moon” by her daughter) joined the drop-dead “Scorpion” and a gorgeous version of Eliza Gilkyson’s “Sanctuary” (on piano), also featured on Red Horse. June Carter’s “Ring Of Fire” was notable as was an audience-requested “Line In The Sand”, a more political stance on Iraq.

Other highlights included her version of “Hallelujah” but, as over-played a song as it is, it was reinvented nicely in her hands, featuring some accomplished piano-playing on her part.

We were also treated to new songs and a lovely segment introducing us to some songs written by her late father. As a little girl,   she used to sing with him and his musical side had a profound effect on her. A forthcoming EP of these Dad-penned songs will be out shortly, together with a recording of him singing one with Lucy.

Surrounded by cousins and family as she was, she seemed especially caught up in the high emotional cost of having lost her father and, more recently, her mother and two aunts. She dedicated her version of “Let It Be” in their memory as she invested heavily into the song with deft piano-playing. It proved one of many intimate moments, revealing a side of the performer that I didn’t know existed, adding more meaning to her entire catalogue.

A lovely woman, Mom, wife and talented singer-songwriter, Kaplansky does it all while projecting herself as somebody no more special than you or me. However, her singing voice is an absolute joy to behold, making the entire package truly irresistible. Many of us can’t wait to see her again.

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Review: Shelby Lynne

I had a hunch. The opportunity to see a true-blue celebrity like the dramatically underrated Shelby Lynne, up close and personal, in a place like Hugh’s Room was too good to be true. An enthusiastic, sold-out crowd confirmed my suspicions – the stage was more than set for something special.

At the same time, this petite, 42-year old firecracker brings with her the gloriously unsettling feeling that comes with not really knowing what to expect from her. Promoting her latest disc on her own label, “Tears, Lies & Alibis”, Lynne arrived, stripped down to little more than her rich catalogue of originals, an acoustic guitar (its strap emblazoned with a sequined “Shelvis”) and accompanying, multi-string whiz kid, John Jackson.

This was a room packed with true fans: from glitzy, big haired country girls dressed to the 9s to singer-songwriter aficionados and rockers with an appreciation for great songwriting and colourful delivery. An audience that covers this much ground speaks volumes about the artist. Playing a generous double set, Lynne tripped through equal parts new material and classics like “Johnny Met June”, “Where Am I Now?”, “I’m Alive” and “Leavin’”.

As Lynne dug deep, revealing pure emotions through her heartfelt lyrics, Jackson layered each composition with a gentle barrage of sophisticated tints and tones. As the audience absorbed each performance in pin-drop proportions, clearly moved more by Lynne’s larger-than-life stage presence and obvious abilities, she seemed momentarily taken aback to find herself among friends – translating to an even more intently-focused Lynne, lifting her craft even higher in the bargain.

Burying herself within each lyric, Lynne is beyond vulnerable which is, perhaps, her key appeal. As a songwriter, she’s a bottomless pit of heart-piercing material that celebrates loneliness, promoting, at the same time, living with extreme passion. As an interpreter of other’s music, she’s unstoppable in her inventiveness, dipping into musical genres like different hues of paint, having covered off country, Western swing, soul, roots-rock, blues, jazz and most things in-between across her 12-album output in less than 21 years.

Even if she’s channeling Dusty Springfield – as she did beautifully with the soulful “Willie and Laura Mae Jones“– she’s her own person. This tough little rebel is, if nothing else is obvious, a fiercely-committed artist who has done things her way, remaining totally in-charge. Case in point was the new material showcased: “Like A Fool”, “Something to be Said About Airstreams” and “Why Didn’t You Call Me?” – each reminding the listener of her innate ability to dress a lyric in highly complementary clothing.

With only Jackson’s sturdy support on slide or dobro to back her up, each song came through in vivid Technicolor, wrapped up in the degree of confidence that only comes with having survived so much in such a short time and on her own terms. Granted she was selling these songs to the already-converted, she was clearly giving it her all across a generous double-set that seemed over far too soon. Thank goodness for her “this-is-never-going-to-be-on-a- record” drawer, the source for so much of the material on “Tears, Lies & Alibis”.

Rest assured, she’s got a closet-full to come and, despite the fact she vanished after her encore – hardly the norm for the meet ’n’ greet environment of Hugh’s Room – here’s hoping she comes back to give us more.

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Click photo above to initiate slideshow.

All photos by Eric Thom.


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Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Hugh’s Room, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Call them what you will – traditionalists, revivalists or just damned talented players harnessing the time-honoured ability to breathe new-life into the stringband category. But you owe it to yourself to witness this band live – to see and hear for yourself as this aged, handed-down music rises up off the floor and flows directly into your bones – as if the very originators of the category were channeling the music’s spirit through its young hosts.

The appeal is timeless, all the more surprising when the combined ages of the three talented players –Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons – barely equate to the time when their mentors, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, enjoyed their heyday back in the ‘20s. Their second visit to Hugh’s Room, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are three African-Americans who – armed with banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar, drum, spoons and vintage jug – drive their Piedmont-styled version of string-band music into an area that has little to do with their respective southern roots.
Most important to the melding of musical genres on-stage is each band member’s absolute reverence for tradition and the seasoned veterans they’ve learned from along the way. Each player brings their own strengths to the party. Flemons has more energy in his fingers than most of the rest of us have in our entire bodies – expertly accompanying the band on guitar, banjo, snare drum, spoons or jug – sometimes playing two instruments at once, quick to embellish the rhythms with a dance step or two. Also a fine singer, he’s matched by the sweet, honeyed vocals of key fiddler Robinson, who doubles on banjo, autoharp and jug in support of the others.

The band’s focal point is certainly Giddens, whose Madonna-like, classic features do little to prepare you for the absolute purity and soulfulness of her vocals and her adeptness on banjo and fiddle. Acting as key storyteller, with able assists from Flemons, Gibbens provides much of the fascinating history behind each composition, offering as much of an education on the music they hold so dear as they do an intoxicating blur of musical styles – delivered by players whose musical ability cannot be understated.

Of interest to the gathered group of fans – even beyond their encyclopedic knowledge of the category – is their willingness to embrace new influences. On repeated occasion, Gibbens referenced Canadian Celtic influences in her appreciation of the enthusiasm received from their Canadian audiences, adding a few ‘learned in Canada’ pieces to their set. Who knew something so seemingly simple as a three-piece stringband could deliver such no-holds-barred firepower and elicit such energy from a crowd? This is a roots music that deserves more widespread recognition and, thanks to the sheer energy and enthusiastic conviction demonstrated by the Carolina Chocolate Drops on this special night, we’ll return to a time when its prominence rises above the less visceral variety that earns far more than its share of notoriety today. We can only hope.

– Eric Thom

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Openers – Thom Swift

Thom Swift – Hugh’s Room, Toronto, Preview – March 11, 2010

Pity the job of the show opener. Often a last-minute add-on or somebody’s marketing ploy to gain exposure for an up-and-comer, theirs is the task of taking on a room full of people – none of whom have come to see them, and to warm the crowd for the better-paid headliner. Sometimes these pairings are brilliant. More often than not, they’re not.

In the case of this Thursday’s (March 11th) show at Hugh’s Room, you’ll be getting much more than your money’s worth for the chance to hear Thom Swift open for J.P. Cormier. Thom’s better known in the Atlantic provinces as the blues-soaked third of local heroes Hot Toddy. This band – a rootsy, organic mélange of blues, jazz and folk – has had a phenomenal 10 year run, having taken on a life of its own based on the virtuosity of the players. At the same time, each band member maintains enough of a life on the side to follow up on solo projects and interesting collaborations.

Thom Swift is in town to promote his newest solo record, Blue Sky – the follow-up to ‘07s acclaimed Into The Dirt. Thom is fast finding focus in musical territory that capitalizes on his myriad influences: his country blues base is still evident yet he’s embarking on a distinctive singer-songwriter Canadiana sound that’s surprisingly accomplished for someone who’s been connected to two other players for so long. His confidence is all over this new release as it was on the last – from the uplifting title track to the scintillating “Down The Road”…a jaw-dropping instrumental that crystallizes his soulful stance in just over three minutes. Joined by a who’s who of Atlantic session players – Bill Stevenson (piano, B3), Geoff Arsenault (drums, percussion), Matt Andersen (vocals), Brian Bourne (bass) and Chris Corrigan (electric guitar) – Thom’s strong sense of home is always fully realized.

Blue Sky is a bold step forward – songs like “Killer” employ considerable rock muscle to make its point while “One Way Track” follows a similar hard-hitting path in a sea of guitars and swirling B3 – quite unlike the Thom you may have expected. Yet, at the same time, his always-expressive vocals are at the forefront of his solo career – every bit as important in the mix as his sophisticated guitar-playing, driving the music forward. One listen to “Stand Tall” – the opening track – instantly colours in the rest of the picture. This radio-ready song could double as a back-up, feel-good anthem for the act of simply holding it all together.

J.P. Cormier – Thursday’s aforementioned headliner – guests on three of Blue Sky’s tracks – notably on “Seafoam” in which he adds fiddle accompaniment to yet another drop-dead instrumental. With luck, perhaps they’ll reprise it at Thursday’s show…

In other words, this isn’t your typical show opener and fans of J.P. Cormier’s old-soul approach to his craft will also delight in the complementary skills of Thom Swift. Rarely will you find two such accomplished musicians in the same venue on the same night – and Hugh’s Room’s delightful, whisper-quiet atmosphere is just the way they like it. Add to this the fact that both hail from the east coast, and you’re guaranteed a ringside seat for the substantial degree of earnest intensity that comes with the territory. The possibilities dazzle….

–        Eric Thom


Filed under Making Music, Reviews

The Joy of “Discoveries”

I was going through some old ticket stubs the other day to realize how easy – and affordable – it used to be to see a favourite artist. The thought of forking out $225 to catch a faint glimpse of Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton at the ACC in late February underlines how much this entertainment circus has turned us off the experience.

Yet there is joy to be found elsewhere for your entertainment dollar. Many of us delight in finding new favourite artists in the time-honoured way of catching them on the way up. Who doesn’t cherish the chance to make our own little musical discoveries at the smaller clubs throughout the city where you not only have access and a much more personable experience but you can actually see and hear them, one-on one. On a good night you might meet them, buy a disc and have them personalize it or pose for a photo.

Like an overzealous parent, we watch our prodigies grow, hoping they make it to a larger stage. It’s an addictive process – all the more so with the realization that there’s no need to sacrifice anything. Who in their right mind would consciously pay more to get so much less?

For me there’s no better to way experience this sensation than by catching one of Jane Harbury’s long-standing Discoveries nights at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. Could any event have a more appropriate name?

Jane is one of the city’s leading publicists – a musical taste fairy who came up with this idea about 6 years ago. She’d been hounding booker Holmes Hooke for opening slots at Hugh’s Room to promote her promising young artists. Holmes offered Jane her own night to showcase whomever she wanted and – voilaDiscoveries was born.

Jane offers these special evenings of musical discovery 3-4 times a year, serving up 3-4 relative unknowns per show. Her only criteria are that she has to like the act and their music and, for the most part, they come to her, eager for the exposure to a Hugh’s Room audience. Each artist is expected to bring out their own fans while the Discoveries brand has come to guarantee a discerning audience of its own, eager to make the acquaintance of some of the country’s best emerging talent.

One such artist is Jana Keeley. A Mom from southwestern Alberta – the daughter of a cattle rancher – who now lives in Vancouver and has just released her first album, Trouble. The attention-to-detail in every aspect of her songwriting and performance underlines just how much her music means to her. Co-produced with percussionist Joby Baker, it’s a well-conceived collection of originals featuring Jana’s soft and breathy, intimate vocals set against a rough and tumble backdrop of crushed percussion, distorted guitar and the occasional wash of B3. Shawn Colvin meets Tom Waits, if you will. But sweeter to the taste – all the more so against its highly textured, rough-hewn backdrop. And, with Jana’s limited ability to be a hardcore regular on the touring circuit, it takes something like Discoveries to bring her to your attention.

But there’s more!

Andrew Cole is a Toronto native who spent his formative years in Liverpool, playing in various bands before returning home in ’03 with the UK’s North West Artist of the Year under his belt. He combines his Canadian roots with elements of British rock to fuel the release of his first solo effort.

Jenna Glatt hails from Ottawa and possesses a strong vocal presence and graceful stage manner beyond her years. An avid competitor, she’s won Gold at the MusicFest Canada Nationals and been invited to the National Arts Centre’s Broadband Jazz Masterclass Series. Her versatility and passion for singing speak volumes.

J.P. Saxe is a 16-year old Toronto-schooled performer who sings and plays both piano and guitar. Weaned on classical music from a very young age before funneling his passion towards jazz and rock piano, he’s surprisingly accomplished and clearly poised, charged with incredible drive, to do great things.

Discoveries delivers this wide breadth of talent to you  at one of the most ambient-rich clubs in the entire city – all for a nominal fee.

Could there be a better opportunity for you to make a discovery you can call your own? Here’s to Discoveries and its vibrant flow of ever-inspiring talent. Discoveries has already revealed  such acts as Ariana Gillis, Jadea Kelly, Allie Hughes and Cara Matthew and now the opportunity to meet promising acts like Jana, Andrew, Jenna and J.P.

It would be great to see similar shows catch on across the country. It sure beats the local arena or stadium, and, with the fortune you’ll save in parking alone, you can pick up a disc or two and help spread the word.


Filed under Making Music, Reviews