About 5 years ago I chanced upon an energetic young gal getting up at an Open Stage late night at the Ontario Council of Folk Festival Conference (OCFF) held in Ottawa and within one song you could tell her solid vocals had impressed a roomful of veterans. When you notice a sudden silence in the room, where people have stopped talking to pay attention to who’s singing, you know there’s something special there.
Canadian icon Ken Whiteley was hosting that evening and was impressed enough to call her at a later date to invite her to perform at one of his now legendary Sunday Gospel Brunch shows at the wonderful Hugh’s Room in Toronto. I heard her many times over the next few years at subsequent OCFF Conferences as she played solo in a multitude of showcase rooms and each time she impressed with her songwriting but even more her natural vocals, which could cross genres from country, gospel, blues to R&B, roots or good ol’ 50′s rock & roll with ease.
I’m speaking of Edmonton born, Lion’s Head, ON raised Samantha Martin who now hails from Toronto. Samantha Martin and her band The Haggard played recently at O’Reilly’s Pub in Perth and won over the crowd in short order. They were on their way to Wakefield’s Black Sheep the next evening, out promoting their new self titled disc Samantha Martin & the Haggard and I have to tell you, even as tired as I was after a long work week, they took my interest and kept it for the night.
The CD was co-produced by the band and John Dinsmore (multi-instrumentalist with Kathleen Edwards, Sarah Harmer and NQ Arbuckle) and is a real nice mix of styles both in her own nine songs and four covers of diverse artists like Tom Paxton, Burt Bacharach / Hal David and the Staples Singers. From growling Janis Joplin, sentimental Patsy Cline or heartful, soulful Lucinda Williams, she has an innate ability to make others’ songs respectfully her own.
You can hear her musical influences as her vocal strength captivates. It’s one thing to have a loud, strong voice but knowing how to work it makes the difference. It’s so much more than just hitting the notes. To see this young, pushin’ 5-foot, cowboy boot-wearin’ chanteuse and then hear the smokey, whiskey and honey vocals she exudes is definitely what raises the bar for this group… impressive. I can’t help but think of Etta James, Mavis Staples or Bonnie Raitt but I hate to compare cuz Samantha holds her own.
The Haggard are made up of Mikey McCallum (veteran of country influenced Kensington Hillbillies) on guitars and backing vocals, Greg Sweetland on bass and Pete Lambert on drums and backing vocals. They showed their professional quality from the first note, playing slightly less than the usual ‘loud’ and, each in their understated way, keeping Samantha’s vocals up front and driving the sound. The added harmonies sweeten the mix as naturally as Sam’s voice offers, not fancy, just practical and pleasing.
The Haggard boys give just enough to sweeten the taste, like some wine in a stew. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Samantha’s guitar work which also adds to the overall sound, whether strummin’ or slide. The timeless arrangements impress as well. They make noticeable and pleasing use of minor keys and sevenths to add to the songs mood… again raising the bar from usual regime to being sought after entertainers.
As I listened through their sets I must say their own material caught my ear as much as the covers they offered like John Prine’s ‘Angel from Montgomery’, The Band’s ‘Ophelia’ and ‘The Weight’ and Credence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Green River’ and ‘Proud Mary’. Their own rockin’ ‘New Kind of Blue’ or the ballad ‘Where I Went Wrong’ definitely hold their own, leading fingers toward the repeat button.
Samantha Martin has proven to be the real deal. From those glimpses five years ago to the quality product offered now shows how hard this lady has been working. I encourage you to seek her out next time you get the chance. A definitely pleasing listening experience.