Anyone who mixes a little Monteverdi with a harmonium and Joni Mitchell is guaranteed to get my attention; when that person is a compelling, adventurous young performer, I’m sold. Olivia Chaney played to a transformed Dakota earlier this month, a rare treat for a North American audience anxious to see the British songwriter.
When I got there, the place really was transformed, to the point where I felt a bit awkward. The tavern that normally tends toward rowdy was filled with tables, patrons sitting quietly while they waited for Chaney to take the stage. And take it she did: early in the show, she asked if anyone had heard of Anne Briggs. If people had, they were too intimidated by the silence in the room to admit it. But her renditions of Briggs’s tunes were what brought me to her show. A few years back, one of my mentors sent me some of her 1960s material that has largely gone unacknowledged in mainstream folk narratives since it was recorded. The songs are gripping in their simplicity and sparseness, and Chaney captures that same spirit in both her covers and originals.
The night felt like a completely different time and place for me. I’m not sure if it was my company for the evening, the fact that I was lifted out of the Toronto cold and tucked into a dark corner of the Dakota, the warmth of Chaney’s voice, the hushed audience, or a combination of all of the above, but it was a night bordering on magical. She kept us listening from start to finish, offering her version of Mitchell’s “A Case of You” from the piano as a gesture to us “robust” concertgoers and the Canadian winter she was experiencing for the first time, as a way to cap off a night of truly interesting, thoughtful songs. I’m definitely a fan.