Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gig: Whippoorwill

Whippoorwill (Luxury Pond / Canadian Wildlife)

The Garrison. Tuesday, February 23, 2010.

Sometimes it feels like the musicians you admire are very distant from you, but sometimes they're right there. Like at this show, when I walked in and Ohbijou's Casey Macija was working the door. No surprise, I suppose, as she was the one who had put this gig together as one of her "Heavy Vessel" shows. I was a bit apprehensive about heading out to The Garrison for a "quiet" type of show, but it turned out that the Tuesday night seemed to draw an audience out to pay attention to the musicians, not to drink and stand around talking to their friends. In fact, the only noise that generally competed with the sounds from the stage was the noise of the furnace kicking in — nothing to complain about, in other words.

This night was was billed as the proper debut of Jenny Mecija's Canadian Wildlife project — although there was a brief preview at the Friends in Bellwoods 2 release party1 last year. As with at that show, she led off with a wonderful, sigh-inducing tune invoking images of hand-holding walks and such subjects. Mecija, a veteran of many shows in her capacity as a member of Ohbijou, was still a little nervous to be at the centre of attention. Her songs are good enough that she need not fear any adverse reaction from the audience, though, and in the meantime, she got by with a little help from her friends. The songs all centred around Mecija's keyboard, but the sound was filled out with her sister Casey on guitar and Leon Taheny (of Germans) on bass. Even with the extra players, the songs were still strikingly spare, fragile things. The t-shirt slogan for this project could be "move slow", but it's an amazingly lovely kind of slowness that hit me in just the right way. The brief, five-song set included "Winter's Moon", plus a cover of Forest City Lover's "Waiting By The Fence" and certainly left me with an appetite for more.2

Listen to a track from this set here.

With the room still filled with between-set chatter, Dan Goldman eased from tuning up right into his first selection, and slowly, over a minute or so, most of the crowd quieted down and played attention. Luxury Pond is definitely Goldman's creature, and is sometimes — as on this night — a straight-up solo act, but sometimes expandable beyond that. I had seen him in action previously backing up his partner Daniela Gesundheit (known for her own solo/not-solo project Snowblink), who was front and centre in the small crowd, taking in the performance. Playing seated, his tunes were stripped down to the rudiments of voice and guitar, but the music was neither spare not entirely straightforward. Nimble guitar technique and a mellow vocal approach somewhat masked the fact that although this had the form of the standard-issue confessional singer/songwriter, Goldman was a bit more oblique in his lyrical content — not too much to lose the audience in abstraction, but enough to fit in with the reverb his voice was wrapped in. Simple but effective stuff.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Whippoorwill3, the evening's headliners, is the vehicle for the pure country and western sounds of Sylvie Smith. Oft-seen on stage around town as a member of The Magic and Evening Hymns, if you wanted to wanted to judge her own thing by the company she keeps, then you should know the setlist included covers by Merle Haggard, George Jones, Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings. But this is no casual karaoke-styled affair — the talented band4 was very well-rehearsed, leading off with an instrumental before Smith came on to sing "The Race Is On". Besides her excellent voice — she hit "Oh, Lonesome Me" just right — she exhibited a warm and friendly presence on stage, with the first string of songs a rockin' good time.

For a change of pace, The band essayed "Not In Nottingham" from Disney's animated version of Robin Hood. Definitely a song that I hadn't thought about for decades, but it was one I knew well — I must have been at just the right age for one the re-issues of that film, as I remember seeing that one a lot during elementary school movie days and the like. I never actually really put it together that the song is, in fact, written and performed by Roger Miller — so it turns out it's bona fide after all.5

Introducing "On Our Own" Smith commented, "this is the only song that we play that I wrote — maybe we'll change that, or not." We can only hope that Smith is inspired, rather than daunted, by the quality of songs she's playing here, as this one measures up nicely, and its author should be encouraged in the strongest terms to give it some companions.6 That one was followed with another local touch, covering "East" by The Weather Station, showing Smith to be as much at home on a torch song as a honky-tonker.

After a couple drinkin' times, the set ended with the fightin' words of Loretta Lynn's "Fist City", but the call for an encore (led by Casey Mecija's shouts) brought the band out to finish things as they started, with an instrumental, the languorous strains of Santo & Johnny's "Sleep Walk" serenading us out into the night.

I must say, I'm curious to see where this project goes goes from here. As it is, this is really good stuff, but mix in a few more originals and this goes from "Wow, what a great fun-time band", to "these guys are serious contenders". But even as it is, totally worth checking out. And though I came hoping for a respectful crowd laying attention to some quiet music, Whippoorwill deserves some boisterous, whoop-it-up crowds to get them ready for the Oprey or Gruene Hall.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 "Winter's Moon", the only officially released track from this project so far, is one of the highlights of that comp.

2 During his own set, Dan Goldman would praise the "cotton ball disco" of Mecija's final song, another flavour of softness lingering in her tunes.

3 Update: in the interest of clarity, I should note that this band is now known as The Pale Mornings.

4 With Sylvie Smith at the centre of attention, it's important not to overlook the musicians on stage with her:

Chris Stringer - Guitar

Alastair Miller - Guitar

John Dinsmore - Bass

James Bunton - Drums

Bunton, of course, plies his trade in Ohbijou. Stringer is one of those musician's musicians, a mean hand at understated country guitar. Dinsmore, on the double bass, was unknown to me, but looks to have worked with NQ Arbuckle.

5 In fact, we'd get a double shot of Roger Miller, with the boozier "Chug-A-Lug" also making an appearance later on.

6 It's interesting to ponder, I suppose, how we tend to have an aversion to artists playing more covers than originals, but there are certainly some role models worthy of admiration in the case at hand. With her voice well-suited for harmonies, and an apparent penchant for collaboration, the classic role model here would be Emmylou Harris — although a closer contemporary mixing a respectful approach to covers with some well-written originals might be Kelly Hogan.

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