The future of music, with luck
Speaking of roots, mine originate in this small, picturesque town on the St. Lawrence River, immediately south of Ottawa, just before you get wet. The opportunity to visit my Mom on the occasion of her birthday and take advantage of the chance to see this talented pair provided me with the best of all worlds.
Hardly a mecca for live music, Morrisburg is now home (as of ’06) to a robust group of musicians and music fans known as the St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage. What began as a non-profit outlet for local musicians has evolved into – thanks to the paid use of what is now an intimate soundstage owned by OETIO (Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario) – a going concern for the area, treating residents to a seasonal lineup of intriguing singer-songwriters.
Not only are Canadian artists more than happy to add the venue to their itineraries but they get the chance to perform for a growing – and might I add, highly enthusiastic – audience. In these days of shrinking venues for performers, this timely idea may well represent the future for touring musicians looking to increase their fan base while adding to their income. Meanwhile, local residents get to sample the rich talents of musicians who tend to be headquartered in major centres and, generally, beyond their reach.
Toronto’s Layah Jane and guitarist Oliver Johnson opened on the pin-drop quiet stage as the born-to-perform Layah injected layers and layers of fervent personality into her strong, decidedly earth-friendly originals. Leading with two strong tracks from Honey, her third full-length release, she and Oliver bring something special to the stage, transforming folk into something far more sensual, adding strong elements of jazz, folk and roots, soulfully positioned.
Clearly fueled by passion, every element of Layah’s being goes into the song while Johnson builds a remarkable body of sound from his lone 6-string acoustic (and effects) together with understated harmonies and back-up vocals, allowing her the confidence to launch into each song with everything she’s got.
And she’s got lots – from the velvety hush of her sensual side to a soaring juggernaut of hot soul energy as Johnson explores everything from fingerstyle jazz guitar to graceful fills ripe with otherworldy effects, complementing each and every detour. While the beautiful “Sagegrass” allowed her to channel “her inner-cowgirl”, the bluesy “Saltwater Taffy” revealed another side to her singing.
From Grievance and Gratitude, “Reverence and Ridicule” – as harshly realistic an environmental critique as ever applied to song – to the drop-dead “Firefly” – it was proven that Layah Jane and Johnson are joined at the hip and the heart, performing in total synch – the one following no matter where the other might lead. Saving the best for last, “Dandelion” provided a lovely coda to their set – an upbeat original that comes very close to being the perfect pop song.
Annabelle Chvostek is a seasoned professional with a tight grasp on what she needs to do to entertain a room full of people – be they fans or about-to-be’s. Supremely talented, absolutely confident, she arrived with a full band to embellish her collection of modern folk and roots-rich sounds: no less than David Celia on guitar/mandolin, Jérémie Jones on acoustic bass and Tony Spina on drums (and hair).
The once-was-a-Wailin’ Jenny served notice that the strengths she became known for with two other vocalists was but a fraction of what she does best, bringing her strong originals to life with a tight, full-band attack. Leading with the sturdy “Nashville” from her recent Resilience, the 4-piece managed to kick its country edge up a notch allowing for solos from each of her band members.
Ella Jenkins’ “Racing With The Sun” (covered by the Jennys) had a jazzy, mandolin-led groove bordering on old-tyme country while “Foxtail” – a new song – continued this vibe into bluegrass turf as Chvostek took over from Celia on mandolin, masterfully so.
Another new song, the stunning “Hartland Quay”, revealed a mature artist at the height of her skills, making the most of her clear, emotive voice. Likewise, “Piece of You” – transformed a folk song into something far more passionate, with delicate 6-string and tasteful mandolin.
The band displayed its ability to enhance each song with elements of country or a rich, roots-based sound, as required. As the understated Celia warmed up, his electric guitar would add more muscle to songs like “See It Right” and “I Left My Brain”. However, the evening took a delightful turn as Chvostek moved over to fiddle and worked some magic on the audience with the beautiful, waltz-like “The Sioux”, complete with solid harmonies.
Likewise, her de-reggae-fied version of Peter Tosh’s “Equal Rights”, complete with audience singalong, worked well. The wildly perky “Devil’s Paintbrush Road” proved another highlight as Chvostek strummed her fiddle to the satisfying sound of many feet a-tapping. “Resilience”, too, was a perfect song to close on – yet the audience quickly brought her back for her encore.
Performing solo, another contribution to the Wailin’ Jennys’ Firecracker was her “Apocalypse Lullaby” and she delivered it beautifully . The band returned for “Wait For It” and a wonderful night had come to a fitting close. The chance to meet the artists, buy CDs and have them personalized, and take photos, provided both audience and artist with the chance to interact – everyone leaving a greater fan of both acts than when they’d come in – and all in a hometown setting.
This is the future of live music, with luck.