Concert review

Sultans of String Christmas Caravan – Dec. 15 in Toronto

Winter bit in a bit early this year, so it’s natural, in the northern order of things, to obey the nesting impulse, to align ourselves more intimately with the purr of the furnace and the Koenig and the glow of all those radiant screens. But under the adversarial grimace of Canada’s perennial seasonal foe, in the hyper-frost of a Sunday night, the grandeur of an itinerant Christmas caravan lured a large congregation of suburban Toronto music faithfuls out to the convivial refuge of a neighbourhood church for a carnival of cultural delights.

“We really have never known the capacity of Kingston Road United before,” said presenter Tim Dawson, as folding chairs were hauled out of the basement to accommodate the overflow and discounted seating in the choir section behind the altar was hastily bought up. “We thought it was about five hundred. Turns out it’s more.” As he introduced his headliners, Sultans of String, appearing in the church’s concert series for a third time, he added, “And we hope to see you all back here next Sunday.”

The prevailing incidence of worship centers taking the place of failed licensed venues as showcases for contemporary musicians is a trending phenomenon in both urban and outlying communities. This church relies upon sponsors to fund the production and takes the profits from the door. The Sultans also made use of the event to fund their upcoming album Refuge by distributing pre-order forms. Making music viable is a developing art form.

The initial welcoming-in was entrusted to Giluts’aaw musician and elder Shannon Thunderbird (“My name came before the car”), who centered the mood of the evening with a performance of the Huron Carol, featuring the original Indigenous lyrics. The Sultans then commenced dazzling the crowd with their virtuosic string-craft and song juggling from their vast Canadian / Balkan / Mideast / Christmas repertoire. The sense of pageantry was heightened by Ventanas’ frontwoman Tamar Ilana who snapped the chancel floorboards to reverberant life with her flamenco vigor and thrilled the sanctuary with cascading swirls of her skirt and two flame-coloured banners.

Over the course of the generous programme, affable guitarist Donné Roberts led a celebratory sing-a-long for Kwanzaa, Lynn Miles sang her stark and timely ballad “What If You Were a Refugee,” Shannon returned with an anthemic and rousing “Power Of The Land,” and the omnipresent and effervescent voice of Rebecca Campbell rose to spontaneously inhabit the architecture of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with a new and glorious spirit. The crowd erupted with flurries of applause and vivid gusts of appreciation at the end. All in all it was a Christmas miracle of song, secular and sacred, joyful and triumphant, as all Christmas celebrations should be.

And thank heaven that the fire marshall didn’t show up. Amen.

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