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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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Katherine Wheatley/Shawn Colvin Koerner Hall, Friday, February 11th

Photographs by Eric Thom

Parry Sound native Katherine Wheatley was in awe both of the room and her role opening for idol Shawn Colvin. Thanks to the presence of family and friends in the room, Wheatley’s presumption of stage fright (“I usually play Legions in places like Espanola”) gave way to a delightfully relaxed performance featuring 6 tracks, primarily from her latest album, Landed.

Everyone was amazed at the quality of the sound in Koerner – the slightest foot tap was audible enough to double as a percussion section—and Wheatley applied her accomplished guitar skills to good purpose, accompanying her ‘from the heart’ songs. The full life she’s led translates to story songs representing real people and real experiences that have impacted her life.

While the too-breathy “One True Kiss” and the overly joyous, pop treatment of “Landed” seemed disconnected from her better work, “Signal Faded” and “The 3:17”—the true story of one of her Queen’s profs who lost more than his wife and daughter when they were killed in a train crash—definitely hit their mark and made her many new friends. Equipped with a clearly emotive, wide-ranging voice, she used this occasion to demonstrate sizeable skills, proving herself to be a wise choice for setting up the headliner.

If Shawn Colvin couldn’t sing a note, her case for fame could well be made with her guitar-playing alone—she wields the lowly 6-string like a painter his palette, mixing notes, chords and percussive effects like so many primary and secondary colours—lining them up from light to dark to suit the mood of the moment.  Colvin chooses each hue in expert fashion, applying them to insightful lyrics which go well beyond mere storytelling to explore more personal material with universal appeal, buoyed by the principles of pop and informed by her legendary interpretive skills.

Armed with only her guitar and a bottle of water, Colvin presented a cross-section of her career with a sampling of 17 songs which, fortunately for her audience, came with insights into the whys and whereabouts of the genesis of many of them, forming an even more personal bond with her already-rapt audience.

Beginning with Donovan’s Dylanesque ’65 hit, “Catch The Wind”, we discovered her passion for covering others’ songs across an evening crowned with selections like Neil Young’s “Birds” (she had performed this song at Carnegie for a Neil Young Tribute concert the night before) and began her encore with a phenomenal reinvention of Lennon and McCartney’s “I’ll Be Back” followed by Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”. Yet it’s her own compositions which unleashed the night’s true magic—many of Colvin’s Grammy-friendly hits have crossed over to an ever-larger legion of dedicated fans who have committed these smart, hook-laden compositions to heart. Hearing them from the author, exhibiting complete control over both her instruments, made for absolute bewitchment.

One of the evening’s true delights was “Polaroids” which, after delivering a jaw-dropping rendition, she launched into a hilarious confession of having plagiarized the tune, proceeding to serenade us with the 2-chord evidence: Jackie DeShannon’s “Put A Little Love in Your Heart”, Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone, the Stones’ “Beast of Burden”, the Temptations “Just My Imagination” and multiple Eagles’ tracks as the audience shouted out more.

From buoyant songs like “Fill Me Up” (not “Feel Me Up”, as suggested by friends) and the breezy  “Summer Dress” to darker fare like “These Four Walls” and the challenging “Tennessee”, Colvin’s lyrics delve into complex thought, weaving a wide range of human emotions throughout, laying out relationships and elements of life for all to see and to identify with. Each song is steeped in solid hooks, while her clear, elfin voice breathes fresh life into every phrase.

Evidently comfortable in her own skin, this timeless pixie is instantly endearing if not world-weary wise, dispensing her hard-won wisdom like the confidante you never had. Another high point appeared with Colvin’s treatment of Tom Wait’s “Hold On” (Mule Variations), the artist reverently recreating the 4-part version, as performed as part of her “Three Girls and their Buddy” tour, boiling it down to a single part. Her guitar prowess was underlined as she jazzed up treatments of both “Sunny Came Home” and the breathtaking “I Don’t Know Why” while the final song of the night—“Ricochet In Time”—was driven home by her percussive plucking of the high E string, as if to send each bullet flying.

All in all, a wonderfully intimate night in a phenomenally sound-friendly room.

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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.


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