East Coast meets Prairie for a night of song

Originally billed as “3 East Coast Ladies, 1 Night”, a cold, wet Tuesday night was soon transformed into a cross-Canada kitchen party at the Free Times Cafe, with the help of two added performers: Nicole Byblow (Toronto via Winnipeg) and Keith & Renée (Winnipeg).

Opening the show, Nicole Byblow delivered songs all by her lonesome, accompanying herself on electric piano in a most aggressive fashion. More the pop chanteuse than the music that was to follow, Byblow expresses more feelings per key than anyone in recent memory. Slightly confessional, her lovely vocals ride above rollicking, Conservatory-trained piano-playing that seems, at first, a mismatch. A quick survey of her whimsical approach to lyrics glues the two extremes together and makes for an enjoyable listen. What seems off-the-cuff is the result of a studied approach to the category of piano-based singer-songwriters — from Joni to Laura, Diane Birch to Tori.

Byblow has the presence to command a stage unaccompanied, but one can’t help but crave a band to bring these delightfully offbeat songs to a full boil. From “They Don’t Think So” to “What I Learned in the Hospital”, her unorthodox approach is refreshing, entertaining and unusually deviant – in an attractive way. With only one EP to date, here’s hoping her muse gets the better of her day jobs allowing her to ramp up her output and get the exposure she deserves.

Cat Bent (accompanied on harmonies by husband, Colin and local guitarist Britton Vincent) is a very visual performer who, after studying opera during her music degree quickly fell in love with cabaret.

Both she and Colin hail from Truro, Nova Scotia but Cat is already a fixture in Toronto: teaching voice lessons when she’s not leading choirs (where she’s often a soloist) or spearheading outlandish events such as her beloved Freakshow Cabaret. A truly colourful character, Cat’s passion translates to enthusiasm for all things musical and lovably eccentric. Equally adept at piano and guitar, Cat & Company updated “Ave Maria” and sung a love song dedicated to her husband. Her operatic vocal range takes some getting used to and, quite frankly, the numbers she attempted in her lower range had the greatest appeal. A case-in-point was her heavily harmonized version of Neil Young’s “Teach Your Children” — clearly the best song of their collection and very much a team effort.

Keith & Renée (Keith Macpherson and Renée Lamoureux) were the surprise hit of the night — an accomplished duo, hailing from Winnipeg (just west of the Maritimes), who have worked together for a decade, both sporting exceptional voices and the moves to match. Strong harmonies and powerful original tunes placed them into a category of their own making, clearly polished and ready for something much bigger. Heavily influenced by alt-country and country-rock, each heavily harmonized original is anchored in bedrock and served up with absolute confidence.

With 5 albums under their cowboy belts, they’ve added world travel to their musical résumés and this pulses through original songs like “Best Day”, “The Moment” and “Missing You” which, although recorded with a full band, sound equally powerful delivered by the two of them. And powerful is a good word to define their show – they should really be better known as their complementary talents are tailor-made for any stage and they know how to work it. Renée handles the higher end of the singing scale and has a voice steeped in country fare while Keith could double for Tommy Keene, with even more range – and is a great guitarist at the same time. They alternate on lead vocals or attack a song as equals, supporting each other with the enthusiasm of siblings, knowing they’ve got a good thing going on. Because they do – the songs are gold and they’re delivered with 100% heart.

Mary Stewart, living in Toronto but originally from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, proved another strong contender for the evening’s highlight. Quirky doesn’t quite cover her gentle, pop-based songs and despite her penchant for conversational lyrics and unconventional songcraft, she’s highly musical and entirely at home behind a microphone. Accompanying herself on guitar, Stewart comes well out of left field but obviously enjoys playing there, her sweet vocals creating an intimacy that’s surprisingly entrancing. A moody voice with a hint of jazz, she alternates between songs that are songless, musically, and leans on stream-of-consciousness lyrics – but herein lies her edge. She’s got a fixation for cats and cupcakes but, a natural performer and a very funny lady, she shows great promise, providing a fresh look at the singer-songwriter category.

Jenny MacDonald, originally from Antigonish, Nova Scotia but now living in Wolfville, appears to be a sweet, young, frail thing but she pulls a big voice out of her well-worn boots and a lot of sound from her over-sized guitar. Hers was the toughest job: appearing before an over-served crowd (entertainment-wise) towards the end of the night. She had much to prove in a short time.

Possibly suffering from a cold, her vocals came off slightly reedy but her voice is so much larger than you’d expect. Songs like “Homesick” and “Warm Hands, Cold Heart” suggest an artist who loves the lifestyle and gets her material from life on the road. Another closet jazz vocalist, her folkish charm would detour into areas of gentle swing, country blues or toughen up with a more aggressive rock stance. Her guitar-playing is rudimentary and her heart is in her performance but her voice could sometimes betray her – coming off slightly shrill or occasionally off-key, hampering the effect. Just a guess that she’d fully rise to the occasion in the company of Wolfville’s Hupman Brothers (Scott produced her most recent release), or similarly talented band members. Removing the stress of having to do it all, her vocals have great potential and the power of her showmanship would be fully realized in supportive company. A young talent, she’s clearly refining as she goes and the world will ultimately prove to be her oyster. You can bet on it.

All in all, an exceptional night of far-ranging entertainment and truly an embarrassment of riches. Nothing could be finer.

Photos by Eric Thom

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