Last summer, I saw Matt Andersen perform twice. Each time, I was in awe of his powerful voice, his clever songwriting, and how he seems to put every ounce of himself into every song.
The first time was at a free concert in a park in Ridgefield, Connecticut — part of a fabulous May-September concert series called CHIRP (Concert Happenings in Ridgefield’s Parks) that’s the brainchild of town government official and folk music devotee Barbara Manners. It may be the world’s best concert series, because of the sheer volume of talented established and emerging artists like Andersen that Manners has brought to Ridgefield since she founded the series in 2002. Where else can one see 24 concerts in about 13 weeks, in a nice, laid-back setting while relaxing in a beach chair or on a blanket, enjoying a picnic dinner?
Like so many acts Manners books, Andersen was unknown to me and most in the audience at the Ridgefield show. But, after the incredible one-man performance by the Juno-nominated Canadian blues and soul singer and guitarist, he won’t soon be forgotten.
Andersen captivates with his expressive voice, which, at times, sounds like a sweeter combination of the best sounds that have emerged from the throats of Ted Hawkins, Joe Cocker, and Dave Van Ronk. When he closes his eyes, looks to the sky, and lets his voice rip from his massive frame, the mesmerization quotient is off the charts. His own songs are compelling and, when he finishes with “Me and Bobby McGee,” you shake your head in awe.
That’s what happened nine days later when I traveled to Toronto to see Blue Rodeo for the great Canadian band’s annual concert at the Molson Amphitheatre. I was unaware when I bought tickets to finally see Blue Rodeo in their home country, where they are revered as a national treasure, that Andersen was the warm-up act. He walked out alone in front of a sold-out crowd in an amphitheater that accommodates about 16,000 people, and he could be heard beautifully above a noisy crowd that drank too hard and was primed for Blue Rodeo.
Offstage on the righthand side, I noticed Jim Cuddy, Blue Rodeo’s exceptional lead singer, standing in the shadows, intently watching Andersen perform. I wasn’t the only one in awe. Andersen didn’t seem nervous in front of the big crowd and just let his guitar picking and soulful voice win us over.
“It was a really great night,” Andersen recalls. “I was opening, so the crowd was filling up as I played my set. By the end, I had a full crowd listening, and it was a better night than I thought it was going to be. I’ve been a fan of Blue Rodeo for years and have played their songs in pubs plenty of times. I was pumped to be getting the chance to do the show with them, but a little leery as well. Sometimes outdoor shows can be tough, with people settling in and walking around, setting up their lawn chairs and such. But it was an amazing crowd. It felt more like a huge theater than an outdoor venue.”
Later, when Blue Rodeo took the stage and their vast catalog of sensational songs sent the crowd into a frenzy, Cuddy remarked that Andersen had the best voice he had ever heard. That’s quite a compliment from one of rock’s sweetest voices who, along with fellow Blue Rodeo lead singer Greg Keelor, makes some of the finest harmonies in pop music.
Cuddy brought his son Devin Cuddy, members of Devin’s band, and Andersen onto the stage for a pre-encore final song — Keelor’s “Lost Together.” It’s an anthem probably known by every Canadian from Halifax to Vancouver. With the boisterous crowd standing and cheering, one would expect the guest stars to simply add some muscle and background harmony. But, in respect for Andersen’s vocal skills, Keelor turned over the mike and let Andersen take the lead. He sang:
Strange and beautiful
Are the stars tonight
That dance around your head
In your eyes I see that perfect world
I hope that doesn’t sound too weird
And I want all the world to know
That your love’s all I need
All that I need
And if we’re lost
Then we are lost together
Yea if we’re lost
Then we are lost together.
Keelor eventually assumed the lead, with Andersen and the Cuddys providing harmony. It was a perfect end to the set, and it showed how much Canada’s top musicians respect the artistry of Andersen, a New Brunswick native who released his first solo album, Second Time Around, in 2007.
“My largest audience to date would have been the Winnipeg Folk Festival, but the show with Blue Rodeo was probably one of the most Canadian nights of music I’ve been to,” Andersen told me last week. “Seeing Blue Rodeo in Toronto with the whole crowd singing along on a gorgeous night, with the CN Tower lit up in the background, was pretty special. Getting to be onstage with them singing ‘Lost Together’ is also a great memory. What more could a Canadian kid ask for?”
Andersen’s new album, Honest Man, was released Feb. 26 on True North Records, and he is touring Canada and the United States “for the first time in years” with a band.
“Working with producer Commissioner Gordon [who worked with Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone] definitely brought a sound to the album that I haven’t had before,” Andersen says. “We used drum loops for a lot of the songs, which is something I never thought I would do. It took me out of my comfort zone a bit, but I love the results. It was also great to work with some different writers on this album. Writing with guys who write differently than I do also turns out some great results. I love having the influence from other people on the album. It brings out songs that I never would have written on my own. Honest Man is a great representation of how important collaboration is and how beneficial it can be.”
Andersen’s previous album, 2014’s Weightless, was his first for True North and earned him a Juno nomination for Best Roots and Traditional Album of the Year.
“Weightless was all about the songs,” Andersen says. “Everything was built around what the song needed. We left out long guitar solos and built all the songs around my voice and guitar, adding or subtracting to best serve each song. It was not an approach I had deliberately taken before.”
Andersen is proud of all 12 songs on Weightless, which was produced by former Blasters sax player and Los Lobos producer Steve Berlin. “The whole album was co-written with some great friends, and I hadn’t done an album that way before. I have co-written songs but not an entire album. It was great to have all those different influences. It brought a variety I would never have reached on my own.”
But he cites “Coal Mining Blues,” the title song he wrote with Colin Linden for his 2011 album, as one of his favorite songs he’s ever written. “It’s a song that, for me, was written while thinking of miners on the East Coast of Canada,” he says. “As I’ve travelled, it amazes me how much that song connects with so many different people all over the world. It seems to be a song that — even if you haven’t experienced mining—you can still get the sense of the sacrifice that job entails. It always seems to hit people.”
“So Gone Now,” from 2008’s Something in Between, is another song Andersen regards as one of his best. “It’s a pretty personal breakup song, but often somebody approaches me after a show and tell me that’s the one that made them cry. It’s an honest song for me as well. I didn’t try hard enough to make things work in the relationship. I think a lot of people can relate to that.”
He says he’s “usually pretty happy” with the sound of his voice. “Most of the time I can get it to do what I want. I’m always trying to push it, work on my range and not always stay in my comfort zone. By that, I mean getting away from what I know I can do and pushing myself to work at the things I can’t.”
What about comparisons to Cocker and other distinctive vocalists? “I get compared to a lot of different people,” Andersen says. “Some I like, some I don’t. But I’ve learned that people are hearing something they like, so I let that go. I get Joe Cocker a lot, Meatloaf, Richie Havens, Steven Page—a pretty varied list. I think what people hear depends on what song I’m singing.”
It was an Eagles concert in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2015 that Andersen cites among the best shows he’s ever seen. “It was a three-hour show of a great band playing hits. It was amazing — smiles all across the stage and just great music all night. The show was a retrospective of their whole recorded career, starting from the early formation of the band right up to their most recent recordings. It was inspirational to see a band whose music has spanned decades on stage laying it down like it was all new to them. It’s the kind of show every young musician needs to experience.”
The Eagles inspired him, but a B.B. King show at Harbour Station in Saint John, New Brunswick, “about 10 years ago” was the most influential.
“He was playing great and singing great. All the things that I wanted to see B.B. do, he did. The way he claps his hands, his tone, his voice — all of it. At the time, I was really getting into blues, and hearing B.B. live was like getting right to the source. The biggest thing I took away from the show was his delivery — still on fire and full of passion. He meant every note he played and sang. It was so easy to get lost in his sound. It was a good lesson: When you mean what you are doing on stage, the whole room can feel it.”