Slow River Showcase – Rivoli (Toronto, Ontario)
One of the grand cliches of music criticism asserts that the test of a great song is whether it stands up once it’s stripped down to its bare, acoustic rudiments. But, like a lot of cliches, this one tends to be a gross oversimplification, and a Slow River Records showcase at the recent North By Northeast music conference in Toronto was a case in point. For every tune that seemed to come alive once the studio clutter was excised, another number lost something in the translation.
The Massachusetts label has carved a niche for itself as a haven for sensitive songwriter types, and there’s no one in the Slow River stable who comes off on first blush as more sensitive than Josh Rouse, whose recent debut disc Dressed Up Like Nebraska is an idiosyncratic, many-splendored thing that reveals its deepest charms to a patient listener. For this show, Rouse’s songs were shorn of the album’s well-appointed arrangements and delivered in minimalist form, with the singer accompanying himself on guitar, joined periodically and masterfully by fiddler Ned Henry.
Boyish and bookish in appearance and blessed with an affecting, gentle voice, Rouse is a mesmerizing performer, and the naked arrangements only deepened the impact of the songs. “Late Night Conversation” and “Suburban Sweetheart” on record are peppy and shiny in all the ways pop songs should be, but here, they became heart-stopping meditations on human relations.
The crowd’s chattiness finally got to Rouse, who demanded quiet, then rewarded the audience with a wrenching interpretation of “The White Trash Period Of My Life”, the kind of epic to emotional desolation Morrissey used to specialize in. And just to prove the point, Rouse tossed in a campfire rendering of The Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”.
Like Rouse, Tom Leach was up-front in acknowledging his own musical mentors, closing his set with a dusty take on Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” and a rockabilly-tinged race through Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light”. But the approach the two men take to performing live couldn’t be more dissimilar. Leach’s album is a spartan affair, recorded solo on a borrowed four-track tape machine. But for his live show, he opted to dress up the songs with a full band, including Slow River founder George Howard on mandolin.
Hearing Leach’s unsteady warble on songs such as “Confidence” backed by full-band arrangements proved to be a mixed affair. They sounded fine, but there wasn’t a single performance this night that I would choose over the album renditions. Perhaps that says less about any deficiencies of his live show and more about the mercurial quality of Leach’s record. It’s a vivid snapshot of a lonely soul, and the intimacy of Leach committing his desolate songs to tape is the kind of thing you couldn’t hope to capture onstage night after night. Wisely, Leach seemed eager to put some distance between himself and those performances, experimenting with more aggressive stylings that could still yield some interesting results.
If Rouse dotes on Morrissey and Leach leans to Haggard and Hank, Charlie Chesterman’s primary inspiration must be Buddy Holly. Like Holly, the strength of Chesterman’s songwriting is evident whether he’s backed by a full band or reinterpreting his own work on acoustic guitar.
The former Scruffy The Cat frontman started this evening’s set solo, but came out of the gate roaring anyway. Even without the fortification of the pub-rock arrangements on his most recent album, Dynamite Music Machine, Chesterman’s performance glowed with all the verve and skill he has obviously absorbed from his idols. A few songs into the set, Chesterman seemed to be distracted by the noisiness of the packed, small room, but he regained his footing with joking asides about Dwight Yoakam’s perpetually pumping leg and even demanded the club fire up its disco ball.
Conference scheduling coincidentally placed local heroine Oh Susanna on the same bill as the Slow River mob, and it made for a nice fit. The singer (Suzie Ungerleider is her secret identity) likewise performs solo and has, in the span of a few months since relocating to Toronto from Vancouver, established herself as a songwriter of the first order.
Her earlier compositions had been remarkable stylistic exercises, reworking the sounds and themes of ancient field hollers and outlaw ballads. But the new material showcased this night (and on a newly minted five-song cassette) comes from a much deeper and more personal place. “Johnstown” and “You’ll Always Be” are bleaker and blacker than anything she’s previously achieved, while in “Alabaster”, her swooping voice and indelible sense of melody re-create the endless yearning for love. Why she remains unsigned and largely unknown is a mystery.