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April Verch: Fiddle people get it

Fiddle people get it.

Most of them know who she is because of the voice she’s attempting to establish. And, given the success of American counterparts like Alison Krauss, you’d think Ottawa native April Verch – some 8 years Krauss’ junior – would be perfectly poised for her share of all the attention.

She certainly appears to know what she’s doing, having proven her leadership abilities with a fully fleshed out, worldwide touring calendar and 8 albums to her credit.

Verch also enjoys an historic edge. The Ottawa Valley she hails from is also home to a specific and deserving style of music that Verch is more than proud to champion. She’s the product of – and heroine to – the enviable Ottawa Valley tradition of folk, country and bluegrass music that still rings true for an entire generation of Canadians.

The Ottawa Valley was renowned (before the influx of so many politicians) as a hard-working, hard-dancing community in the busy, nation-building times of the early 1900s. A lumbering mecca for untold thousands of Irish, Scottish, French, German and Polish workers, the lumber camps became a collision of cultures and a melting pot for the songs, stories and dances that fueled the folklore of the Valley. It’s simply what these shantymen did to while away the long hours of winter camp.

By the time men like Mac Beattie came along to form his Ottawa Valley Melodiers in the early ‘30s, he’d been fed a steady diet of this material by his father, Jim, who worked the camps before heading out to fight a war. Looking to form a dance band to mimic the popular big dance bands of the era, “Mr. Ottawa Valley”, as he was known, proved a musical force to be reckoned with for the next 50 years.

A study in perseverance, the tough times endured along the way serve as a wake-up call to today’s musicians who lament limited gig venues and poor pay. Mac and his boys responded to many changes as best they could, rising above most obstacles. The band had found its most rabid following in the great dance halls and pavilions sprinkled around Quebec and Ontario while live performances on national radio shows helped to build their reputation and spread their fame.

The advent of rock’n’roll and now-legal drinking halls in town spelled trouble for these dance halls and socials. Patrons now sat to be entertained by smaller bands earning less money. However, the well-connected Mac used his popularity and connections, graduating to national TV exposure through the likes of Don Messer, Marg Osburne, Charlie Chamberlain and CFRA’s Frank Ryan.

Even ABC News Anchor kingpin, Peter Jennings – then working locally on CHOH (and a serious step-dancing fan) did his part to help.

Mac Beattie and his spirited Melodiers represented an entire era for a generation of Canadians right across the country. The ultimate reward for hard work through good times and bad was to dance and party hard under the band’s substantial reign.

April Verch is very much a product of this historic place. From a very early age, she was a performer – singing, step-dancing and fiddling her way into the heart of the community. Ultimately becoming the first woman to ever win both of Canada’s most prestigious fiddle awards – the Grand Masters and the Canadian Open – back-to-back, April’s talents accelerated in an environment where performing translated, socially, into making people feel good – as is the Ottawa Valley tradition.

When she plays, you can feel the spectre of the late, great Reg Hill – Order of Canada recipient and star fiddler with Mac’s Melodiers. You can hear Jim Beattie – returning from the lumber camps to tell spellbinding stories and audition his collection of freshly learned songs for the family. April’s resulting blend of material – from old-time Appalachian mountain music to the driving Franco-Celtic pulse of the long-gone shanties, warming up those long winter nights and adding strength to tired bones – is as natural to her as shoveling snow.

No less than the great player, Dirk Powell – a living legend and authority on traditional Appalachian accordion, fiddle and banjo music (he guests on That’s How We Run)  – marvels at Verch’s ability to act as a filter to any number of roots music types, translating them into her own voice: “She is a rare mix of all the technique and super-flashy things, along with the deep soul and tradition that comes from having grown up with the music.”

One tour through her latest disc, That’s How We Run, reveals many surprises: from traditional fare to a cover by Kasey Chambers, a co-write with Brian Duffy, one of Mac Beattie’s tunes and her own seamless originals.

April’s voice is not as sugary-sweet as Alison’s yet it’s distinctly authentic and powerful in its emotive qualities. Consider the banjo-led title track as she attacks the age-old heartache of separation, as Clay Ross and Cody Walters add harmonies. Or her delicate, vulnerable vocal on “This Flower” – as gently delivered as its namesake.

The great Riley Baugus takes lead vocals on the trad chestnut “Lazy John” (familiar to Ray Bonneville fans), resuscitated here in fine fashion. Baugus’ voice is the old-time country counterpart to April’s.

But the magic on this 17-track disc is found in instrumentals like “Parker Brown/Possum Run” and “Jim Shank/Ti-Jacques Jarret”. Closing your eyes will help as you smell the swirling wood smoke and sense the crunch of footsteps in the snow as the instrumentation falls into place and the party grows larger.

The Appalachians or the Gatineau Hills? April and her chosen musicians bring a sense of joy to the music that’s audible and infectious at once. The urge to kick off one’s shoes meets the invitation to participate. The interplay between banjo and fiddle proves otherworldly in its natural connection and the resulting rhythms as guitars, bass and/or pedal steel enter the fray prove equally irresistible. “Indian Ate A Woodchuck” is a trad pleasure in all its politically incorrect glory.

Her own “Still Trying” with its breathy vocal, lithe fiddle lines and seductive pedal steel is positively haunting – a sound from yesteryear brought into modern times – as you’d expect from the former Berklee School of Music student and Pembroke native. Yet her strong desire to carry the torch for the nearly-forgotten Horn of Plenty that was the Ottawa Valley tradition of party music and mirth-making will forever colour her material in a most positive light as it helps pave the way towards a highly distinctive and rewarding career.

That’s how she runs. April Verch is slowly taking the world by storm with a sound that is uniquely Canadian. The rest of us would be well advised to run and catch up to her and give her a listen.

Photo credit: (April Verch Band, colour) Jeff Ilse

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2 comments

  1. avatar
    Eric Thom 12 February, 2012 at 16:35

    Something I omitted from this piece was that much of my info was gleaned from a portion of a fantastic site here: http://www.backtothesugarcamp.com – as Steve has a special section on Mac Beattie and his Ottawa Valley Melodiers.
    This site is the brainchild of Maplepost’s own Steve Fruitman who posts his CIUT 89.5 FM playlists here faithfully – proving that he knows what he is talking about. I thank him for this neat site and remind anyone who likes this music, to tune in to his show on Thursdays from 3-4pm.
    Or check in here to stream recent shows: http://www.backtothesugarcamp.com/campstreams.html

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