2011 In Review: The Best Stage Banter I Heard
Posted On December 10, 2011
Most of us experience music in its recorded form more often than not: we buy albums and play them in our stereos, our cars and our iPods. We listen to the same recordings again and again until we’ve internalized them and they become a part of us.
There’s a magic missing though from these recordings. They become a part of us, but they’re missing the spark that can happen when an artist plays live in front of an audience. The moments in between the music are as important as the music itself, and the best live performers engage with the audience on an intimate level. In small clubs dialogue can happen two ways; at bigger shows the intimacy is more of a feeling than an actual dialog, but it still exists.
In honour of these moments, I’m going to pay tribute to the best on stage banter I’ve heard this year.
“Welcome to the Wrecking Ball”
These five words, spoken by Emmylou as she stepped up to the microphone at Daniel Lanois’ first ever Greenbelt Harvest Picnic, introduce one of the finest live performances I’ve ever seen. On a day that had already seen incredible music from Sarah Harmer, Gord Downie, Daniel Lanois and his band Emmylou’s set was heavy on material from the Lanois produced Wrecking Ball album with Lanois and his band providing backup. It was an incredible hour of music performance under the starfilled skies outside of Hamilton, Ontario. I called it the best concert ever in my review, and I still get goosebumps when I remember that night, that voice, that moment.
Allen Toussaint, Chan Centre, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC
Allen Toussaint’s reflections on Hurricane Katrina.
I wasn’t familiar with Toussaint when I went to this show–he was opening for Mavis Staples–and I’m not surprised in hindisght. The man is noted as a songwriter, and hasn’t recorded much under his own name. Not too worry friends: since the show I’ve learned as much as I can.
Toussaint is a classy, engaging live performer of the sort that the world needs more from. He told stories of life in New Orleans, and the men and women who’ve recorded his songs in the past. He was funny, and charming and wore a smile through the whole show of the sort that we should all carry with us.
When Toussaint reminisced about Hurricane Katrina–that storm that devastated his home years ago, including the destruction of his longtime home–the audience grew quiet. Many people, Toussaint said, remembered the storm as a tragedy and a horrible incident. It was all true, he agreed. There was not denying it. “Some of us,” Toussaint said, “some of us try to remember it differently. Some of us try to remember it as a thing that taught us we had muscles that we’d forgotten about. Muscles we hadn’t flexed in a long time.”
Those words show a man who chooses to look at life from the positive side: not denying the troubles that life can bring, but remembering that the good comes with the bad and trying to find a learning experience in every moment. We should all be so lucky to have an outlook like this.
Aidan Knight, Smorgasborg, St. Andrew’s Wellesley Church, Vancouver, BC
Smorgasborg was a night of music curated by Dan Mangan as a fund raiser for Vancouver charities who help the homeless. Dan’s performances guaranteed a huge crowd, but one of the most poignant moments of the night belonged to the very young Victoria singer-songwriter Aidan Knight.
During his short set Aidan paused to thank Dan for arranging the night, and talked about his family. His younger brother had left home at the time, and Aidan talked about his concern for his brother who he feared might be spending nights on the streets. It was a moment of clear and honest emotion, and Aidan almost broke down on stage.
I haven’t seen Aidan since, but I’ve thought of his brother and I hope things have gotten better for all of them.
Jenn Grant, Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver, BC
Jenn Grant is the queen of witty stage banter. It’s as good a reason to go see her as the music. She’s so cute and chatty on stage you’ll be charmed in seconds.
Towards the end of her Vancouver show promoting her new album Honeymoon Punch Jenn asked the audience to lean in close so she could tell us all a secret that she’d never told anyone else..as long as the 300 or so people in the audience promised not to tell anyone (we all had to pinky swear.) In the next few moments she unfurled a story involving roommates (as most of her stories seem to,) dreams and unicorns that had the audience laughing loudly. It also set the stage nicely for her closing numbers, and made for a memorable show.
Henry Wagons, The Railway Club, Vancouver, BC
Melbourne, Australia based Wagons visited Vancouver on the Sunday night of the last long weekend of the summer after playing Seattle’s bumbershoot. Henry’s an engaging frontman who loves to chat with the audience and it was a good thing because the crowd was pretty small.
Henry checked in with the audience about the long weekend. “Is there a public holiday tomorrow?” he asked. The response was a rousing cry of yes, putting a smile on Wagons’ front man’s face. “Well all right then. Let’s get shitfaced!”
Good times ensued, with the band’s Willie Nelson and a cover of “I Ain’t Never Been to Spain” providing highlights. Nex time you catch Henry live don’t forget: he likes some salt and pepper with his evening meal.
Gillian Welch, Vancouver International Folk Music Festival, Vancouver, BC
Particularly at a festival like this one that gathers up large groups of incredibly talented musicians, you can always tell the great performances by watching the sides of the stage: if they’re packed with musicians you know you’re watching something special. When Gillian Welch took the stage on the first night of a wet, rainy Vancouver Folk Fest weekend every musician there was watching. The night included outstanding performances from Justin Townes Earle and Joel Plaskett, but both of them were peeking over the fence to watch this show.
Gillian Welch doesn’t tour often, and she acknowledged it with a little joke saying that “Haley’s Comet visits more often than we do.” It’s not quite true, but the gaps can be large. They’re definitely worth it though: it was a stellar performance.
Kathleen Edwards, Black Sheep Inn, Wakefield, Quebec
Kathleen Edwards is one of the most talented singer songwriters to come out of Canada in some time, and she’s long overdue for a new album. She’s releasing Voyageur in January, and in the late summer played a few small gigs that featured material from the much-anticipated release.
When I’ve seen Kathleen live in the past her sound has been a fairly natural, effects-pedal free zone. While that’s still fundamentally true–and a beautiful live version of Buffalo hammered that point home pretty firmly–Jim Bryson was playing guitar and keyboards and when he starts fiddling with knobs the sounds start to stray from the pure twang. At one point a long, electronic tone was held for at least a minute thanks to a small red box Bryson had brought with him.
Kathleen laughed when the sound faded, and stepped up to the microphone. “I said I was tired of this I’m tired of that Alt-Country shit and Bryson said that little box was what I needed.”
If Change the Sheets and Sidecar from the upcoming Voyageur album are the result of Kathleen Edwards being tired of anything, I say bring it on.Voyageur is hotly anticipated, and Kathleen hasn’t disappointed yet.
Jim Bryson with Kathleen Edwards at the Black Sheep Inn.