Matt Andersen at the Winter Garden Theatre
“You’re a god!” shouted one of the more vocal audience members in the sold out Winter Garden Theatre after Matt Andersen finished a song. Andersen laughed and responded with an offhand remark about his hair (which is fabulous) but it is obviously his playing that has bestowed him this status.
The Winter Garden, a theatre on Toronto’s Yonge Street that is stacked on top of the Elgin and decorated with hanging foliage and pastoral scenes, might not be the first place that comes to mind for a blues show. Built in 1912, it has an astounding amount of leg room (were they taller back then?) and the type of elaborate ornamented decor found more often in opera theatres and playhouses. But the formal atmosphere did nothing to quell audience enthusiasm, who expressed their admiration in a manner more typical of a rowdy club. Andersen is one of, if not the, definitive bluesmen of his generation.
One of the toughest crowd members was beside me. My guy has spent much of his life listening to, reading about, learning to play the blues, so he can be a rather discerning listener, and he left happy, saying Andersen has all the right components: gritty voice, great lyrics, and solid playing. Well, solid is an understatement. Andersen understands his guitar in a way that most players can only dream of, and has developed his own language for it from a foundation of the most advanced blues techniques. There are moments when you think you’re following along, and then suddenly his harmonic vocabulary goes far beyond the places you expected (I’m talking like late Beethoven string quartet tonal craziness). Just when you think you’re totally lost, he tosses out a short melodic turn that brings it back to where he started within a couple of bars.
Andersen doesn’t just do the roaring bluesman thing well; he’s an accomplished songwriter who can carry an entire solo show. He slowed things down for the more introspective songs, like the title track from his newest disc, Coal Mining Blues, inspired by his recent move to Cape Breton, and other ‘relationshippy’ songs like “Home Sweet Home” and “So Gone Now.” Those were matched by the blues tunes that define his style, like “Fired Up” and “Devil’s Bride.”
The new album, just released last week and recorded at Levon Helm’s studio with Colin Linden, will please Andersen fans. It’s got some nice arrangements with surprising twists – like the saxophone on the title track, which is normally played as a folk ballad. And his voice is properly foregrounded, though it doesn’t overshadow his guitar work, which is slightly more restrained with a band supporting him. “Baby I’ll Be” touches on gospel a little bit, with some nice call and response between Andersen and a female chorus, while “Make You Stay” and “Lay It On The Line” show him in his classic blues persona. He throws in a couple of covers, “Willie’s Diamond Joe,” (Willie P. Bennett) and Charlie Rich’s “Feel Like Going Home,” which are good counterpoints to his originals. “Willie’s” has a cool little mandolin part and some pretty high harmonies from Linden.
He’s also got a video for “Fired Up” which has apparently gone into ‘light rotation’ (whatever that means) on CMT. Here it is:
I can’t sign off without mentioning Andersen’s opening act, Old Man Luedeke, who also played a killer solo set. Interjecting his slightly wacky (but totally interesting, philosophical, meandering) songs with humorous banter, OM Luedeke accompanied his songs with rollicking banjo picking and some guitar. He’s been around the Canadian roots scene for awhile, and similarly writes from the perspective of someone discovering his new (and very quiet) home on the East Coast. OM Luedeke has been a festival favourite for several years, and his writing keeps getting better. It’s great to see two accomplished performers in one night, both able to carry a show completely on their own – who can keep a 900 seat theatre totally captivated? Not an easy thing to do, but both of these guys did.