Swift Years, Bare Bones, Freakshow Cabaret

I arrived early to see Swift Years, a Montréal-based band who, despite the snowfall, had driven down the highway for a rare Toronto show. Imagine my surprise to find the Free Times Café in the middle of a full-blown cabaret revue.

The only seats available were up front and, as man-blasting comedienne Diana Love dispensed advice on penises, I decided to sit myself down after her set. What followed included steamy torch songs from Cat Bent, host of the Freakshow Cabaret, along with a parade of faux striptease, solo musicians, stand-up/sit-down comedy, a belly dancer, lip-synchperformance and audience prizes. Surrounded by a full house of friends, family and Freakshow regulars, it was an unexpected treat—and not an altogether unsuitable setup for the wild music to follow.

Patrick Hutchinson celebrates music—all music, grinding a world of influences into a rich paste and applying it to everything he does. Almost everything. Working as half of the duo Bare Bones, he and singer SuzanneNuttall earned a healthy following in and around Montreal through the ’90s.Nuttall now calls Toronto home, and they reunite from time to time to play what they call “torch n’ twang.” Nuttall provides much of the torch, singing lead on a distinctly low-key, bar-friendly set of songs, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar while Hutchinson supplies the twang, vocals and muscular support on electric guitar. A rootsy affair, the fact that these two have played closely together for years was audibly obvious.

The night’s headliners, and Hutchinson’s current project, Swift Years, was the main meal. Founded in 2002, the band is made up of three players who, together, sound like eight: Patrick Hutchison (electric/acoustic guitar and vocals), Suzanne Ungar (bass and vocals) and Bob Cussen (mandolin and vocals).

The amiable Hutchinson, an ex-pat Scot with a French accent, was weaned on an eclectic diet of BBC fare and his punk, ska, rock and Celtic upbringing reveals him as the dark mastermind behind Swift Year’s category-defying sound. Equally adept in a support role or orchestrating inventive guitar leads, the nimble-fingered francophone prays at the church of Cooder,CropperThompson. With vocals approaching those of Robyn Hitchcock (especially on the song “Carla”), the energy starts here.

Bob Cussen is an altogether different study. The seemingly laidback, herb-fired, mando-picking wildman quickly proves himself the second coming of “Dawg” Grissom. As if he’s just fallen off the stage at a Jerry Garcia Old & In The Way reunion, this festival veteran of Hungarian/German descent lights the fire under the band, alive with the ghosts of countless world folk traditions, as if he’s had a few hundred years to absorb them all. WhatCussen can’t do with his well-worn mandolin simply can’t be done – having set the land speed record for picking velocity. Years spent in Montréal’s White River Bluegrass Band has done permanent, irreversibly-alluring damage.

To meet the shy, reserved Ms. Ungar, you’d never realize she wields her bass with the upfront fluidity of Jaco Pastorius or way out front like Tony Levin. No mere rhythm machine, the Budapest-born Ungar presents her instrument in the same expert manner as her two compatriots – turning in mind-numbing lead solos and spellbinding, almost otherworldy vocals that seem to come from deep within. A student of piano and classical guitar, the well-travelled Ungar has contributed to blues, jazz, folk, rock, r&b and Celtic bands – as demonstrated by her fresh, progressive approach to an instrument which too often takes a back seat. Ungar’s contribution proves the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Having absorbed countless repertoires from their years of playing across the Montreal band circuit—bluegrass, pop, rock, Celtic, European folk, reggae, ska, jazz and country—what these three musicians have made of Swift Years fits into a genre some call ‘worldbilly’. I’d call that description somewhat limiting. First and foremost, these three seasoned players are masters of their instruments. They can clearly play it all and now play what makes them happy, which is obvious when you watch them. They bob and weave like an aeronautic team, instrumentally, between themselves, taking turns on lead vocals, supporting each other throughout. The degree of concentration to get through each spellbinding composition can be seen on their faces, their music delivered at breakneck speed with nary a note out of place, despite the skid marks. It’s a trip you’re not able to take very often—and one that requires a seatbelt.

Their set embraced a wide variety of songwriters while, at the same time, showcased songs from their just-released No Sorrow For Me. Upon first playing the disc, I was momentarily disoriented, having little reference for what I was hearing. Seeing the music performed live proved an epiphany of sorts as it all made more sense upon seeing who was playing what, and how.

Material ranged from the Bugs Bunny theme to covers of Woody Guthrie, samples of Brahm’s waltzes to a reggae-fied Robbie Burns and “Over The Rainbow” with a dash of the Mickey Mouse Club theme tossed in for good measure. There’s more to Swift Years than Spike Jones-esque irreverent novelty: Greek, Hungarian, Russian, Italian and French influences marry with tangos, waltzes and even surf music. Though it may sound impossible, it’s not in the hands and voices of these talented, and (in these parts, at least) criminally unsung musical heroes-in-the-making.

They clearly play for themselves first, harnessing an ego-free degree of concentration which reveals a higher musical calling. There’s not much more that can be said of Swift Years, as their music , best enjoyed live, speaks for itself.

From the whirlwind time changes of “Qu’importe le Chagrin/No Sorrow for Me” to the sheer hilarity of Burns’ “Green Grow the Rushes,” Swift Years is not light on entertainment value. This blistering set was further highlighted by their “Dance Lunaire” which featured, as Patrick so eloquently added, “their twiddly bits flying off in all directions.”

This 3-disc squad of talented veterans deserve national, if not international, attention for their intense brand of old-school-meets-new, delivered with the hyper-gypsy fervor of simpatico players having the time of their lives. Let’s hope they find their way back down the highway again.



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1 comment

  1. avatar
    Jay Sewll 28 January, 2011 at 16:53

    I have seem Swift Years several times, in Montreal and in Quebec City. Yes, they are truly unique, very musical, and sometimes spell-binding. Eric Thom, you hit it on the button in your revew! Congrats, we need more musically knowledgeable and pen oriented critics like you.
    And let’s hope that Swift Years receive their due as time rolls on.

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