Shawnee Kish – Aug. 31 at Live on the Waterfront, Thunder Bay
On record, Shawnee Kish sounds like a soul-drenched pop singer with a massive voice, a mountain of sass and songs that are catchy as hell.
So I headed out to Thunder Bay’s waterfront on Aug. 31 expecting your typical pop performance: a lot of synth, a lot of posturing, and a lot of pretty vacuous between-song banter.
“Thunder Bay! How ya’ doin’?”
To be clear, I was there for it. I love everything I’ve heard from Shawnee so far, and I was down for a mindless good time.
But what I got was even better.
Shawnee walked on stage and immediately announced her blues bona fides by opening her set with a cover of Elmore James’ “The Sky is Crying,” showing off that huge voice in a whole new light.
Next up was her breakthrough single, “I Got it Bad” that suddenly also sounded like a full-blown blues number, backed as she was all evening by just an electric guitarist and a keyboardist.
She followed that up with “Diagnosed Dissociative,” a deep cut off her debut EP, and “Mr. Tie,” a recent single about dealing with music industry suits.
She prefaced the latter by talking candidly to the audience about her struggle to deal with the pressures of the music industry and be true to herself as a performer.
The respectably-sized crowd at the outdoor stage appeared to have shown up mostly to see the fireworks show that would cap off the summer concert series immediately after Shawnee’s set.
People were seated comfortably in their lawn chairs, offering smatterings of polite applause instead of packing the dance floor in front of the stage as they’re sometimes wont to do.
But Shawnee met the audience where it was at, talking with people intimately and honestly instead of trying to pump them up with faux-bravado.
She explained how music and her culture helped her find her place as a Two Spirit Indigenous person, then sang her ballad “Way Home,” which features some traditional singing.
Next, she explained how she’d grown up on the music of Melissa Etheridge and launched into a cover of “Come to My Window,” which I have to say, did this middle aged queer woman’s heart good.
From there on in, she mixed her originals – “Burnin’ Love,” “Love or Lose It,” the yet-to-be released track “So Long” and the Serena Ryder-penned “No Evil” – with scorching covers of CCR’s “Proud Mary” and Four Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.”
I’m not sure if they’re always part of her set, or if Shawnee – who seems uncommonly skilled at reading a crowd – was just trying to give the people what she felt they wanted.
But if she was going for the latter, it worked.
During her version of “What’s Up,” she heard a young girl singing near the front of the stage and invited her up to belt out the chorus with her – which the youngster did quite impressively, earning the loudest cheers of the night to that point.
By the time Shawnee launched into her closing numbers, a row of fans – new ones perhaps – was pressed up against the gates separating them from the stage.
They were treated to blistering renditions of Shawnee’s 2021 single “Light Me Up,” and her brand new one, the closer, “Stella!” which featured her wife, Canadian Olympic rugby player Jen Kish, leading the crowd in percussive claps.
Shawnee Kish did more than blow the sky off the roofless venue last month with that voice that parallels those of the great divas of our time.
She worked her ass off to win over a tough crowd and delivered a set that kept us hanging on every note – even those of us waaaay out in the “immunocompromised section.”
This woman belongs on the mainstage of every festival in this country.