Better Than Steamed Milk
“We missed you!”
It was only about 10 seconds after Kathleen Edwards took the stage and started to strum the beginning of “Sure as Shit” at the Birchmere that someone yelled out the sentiment many were surely feeling at her first U.S. show since she decided to take a break from music in early 2014. Though the show was part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration, it was just as much a celebration of the return of one of our northern neighbor’s finest singer-songwriters.
Edwards spent what she referred to from the stage as her “drinking vacation” opening up a coffee shop called Quitters in Stittsville, Ontario, but, as she said in an interview with the Toronto Star early in her hiatus, “[G]etting on stage and playing a show? There’s nothing — no f–king steamed milk, nothing — that competes with that feeling.” So, fans remained hopeful that she would return to music at some point, and were excited when she started doing the occasional show in Canada. And now, with this U.S. return gig and a spot at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in a few weeks, the “Come play in [fill in city]!” comments on social media are beginning to grow in number.
Though she seemed understandably tentative on the first few songs, it didn’t take Edwards long to find her comfort zone, which is to say delicately singing crushingly beautiful songs (“Sweet Little Duck,” “Soft Place to Land”) and then offering between-song asides that don’t let you dwell on the sadness and heartache for too long. Edwards was aided in her mission by fellow Canadians Jimmy Bowskill and Colin Cripps, the latter of whom is Edwards’ ex-husband (which she cheerfully brought up early in the set when explaining that the guitar she was playing was actually a wedding gift to them). Bowskill was particularly impressive on the mandolin, and Cripps’ tasteful guitar work still fits perfectly within Edwards’ songs. “Back to Me” is always a highlight of an Edwards show, but Bowskill and Cripps made it ring particularly right at the Birchmere.
Edwards also debuted two new songs, the second of which she futilely insisted she would need whiskey prior to singing (though she was rewarded with two whiskeys–and an assurance from an audience member that it was a keeper–at song’s end), before telling the crowd she was going to do a Canadian cover. That led to artist requests from the audience and her singing lines from “Sundown,” “Helpless,” “Building a Mystery,” and “Sorry,” among others, before finally going into her actual choice, a rocking run through Joni Mitchell’s “Raised by Robbery” (followed by a seemingly impromptu stab at “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”).
Cripps and Edwards went across the border for the set’s other cover, the encore-opening “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” which, I think we’d all have to admit, isn’t the first choice to spring to mind for a divorcee duet. But it definitely worked, with the two trading lines and sharing a mic. And the show-ending “In State,” on which Bowskill again shined, was similarly impressive.
SCTV. The Degrassi franchise. Four-fifths of The Band. We have a lot to thank Canada for. But at the Birchmere two nights before Canada Day, perhaps what those heading out to their cars were most thankful for was that they let us have Kathleen Edwards again, for at least one night. Happy birthday, Canada. And welcome back, Kathleen. Don’t be a stranger.