171. Chameleon/Comedian: Kathleen Edwards, February 9, 2012Posted: October 27, 2012
My 2012 concert-going began with this magnificent show from returning hometown hero, Kathleen Edwards. (ALSO NOTE: With the posting of this entry, I am now caught up here on WordPress with all my concert postings from my Open Salon blog, although there are other types of entries on OS not yet available here).
171. Chameleon/Comedian: Kathleen Edwards with Hannah Georgas, Bronson Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Thursday February 9, 2012, $43.50.
Back around the turn of the century (isn’t it neat to be able to write that as a contemporary benchmark!), Cublet and I took a trip out to the country to meet up with his family for a barbeque. His sister had just moved into a farmhouse she was renting in tandem with a good friend of hers. “Her housemate is a musician,” Cublet told me. “Hmmm …,” I pondered, with a mix of interest and ambivalence.
Both responses derived from the same source, namely that I’ve known a lot of musicians in my life. During a few periods, perhaps one third to one half of everyone in my then-main social circle were musicians (factor in those with a connection to a creative community of any sort, especially art and theatre, and that would cover almost everyone I knew at the given time).
On one hand, having met enough hopeful performers in my time has probably tarnished the lustre of interest that might be there for those who haven’t really been involved in music or any other creative communities. On the other hand, owing to the nature of my current work and its related geography, these days I am more likely to be running into economists and analysts. Trust me, breaking bread with musicians or anyone who has an imagination trumps quality time with policy wonks any day.
Kathleen Edwards and her band onstage at the Bronson Centre, Ottawa, February 9, 2012 (photos by VA and Cublet).
We joined Cublet’s family at the farmhouse and, at one point, I spotted a stack of CDs sitting out in the living room. Me being the nosy parker that I am, especially when it comes to music-related stuff, I checked out the titles and then remarked to Cublet’s sister about the great, diverse collection of discs. “Oh, they’re Kathleen’s,” she replied.
A bit later, this Kathleen housemate person showed up for a while to grab some instruments and related accoutrements en route to a gig that evening in Wakefield. She simply couldn’t have been nicer, not to mention sharp and witty. She went on her merry way after charming us all, and that was that. Just one more in a line of budding musicians I’d bumped life with.
Flash forward a couple of years, and we were at another family gathering wherein Cublet’s sister announced that Kathleen had just completed a video for her soon-to-be-released first album, and why don’t we all watch it after dinner? I was instantly filled with dread at the thought of this, and of the inevitability of having to try and act out a convincing “hey, that was great!” to what I was sure was going to be unremarkable.
Before you start pelting me with textual raspberries over accusations of being an elitist prick, consider the following, especially in lieu of what I wrote earlier about periods of my social world being saturated with musicians: this was probably the 300th or 400th (or 500th? 600th?) time when an artist/friend-of-artist had played for or given me a demo or debut recording for my feedback (or university station radio play, back in the day). Besides these recordings, there were also plenty of nights out spent taking in countless local and regional bands.
Some flyers posted for the gig on Sparks St. in Ottawa.
I’m not very good at shutting down my critical faculties when it comes to something where I have both passion and strong opinions, but have certainly learned how to temper that when necessary. As I’ve touched on before, what turns us on aesthetically is subjective and isn’t necessarily democratic. It’s a great bonus when something creative engages us and dovetails with what we tend to champion in a broader scope regarding any number of factors including region, nation, philosophy, politics, social issues, sexuality, gender, background, spirituality … or personal connections.
But things don’t often fit as neatly as we’d like. A musical artist can be pontificating about things I completely agree with or coming at something with an aesthetic sense where all the right ingredients seem to be present, but if the music isn’t pinging my “YES!” button, it’s just not going to work for me.
In all those years of hundreds of acts presenting me with their demos etc, there have been maybe half-a-dozen or so where I truly felt they had that x factor. Even if some of them never went on to significant success, I still feel I was privvy to a gifted core who perhaps deserved better than what they got owing to bad timing or breaks, too much/too little ego, or what have you.
After those half-dozen-ish x-es, there’s been a bit-larger swath of folks who fell into the decent-to-pretty-darn-good category, followed by a huge bulk’o’folks who are somewhere within the range of indistinctly-competent-to-downright-bloody-awful. Given these learned, experiential odds, the best one can usually hope for when presented with a “hey, check out me/my friend/someone I chanced into at the bar the other night” situation is that the act at least be not bad. This was what I was expecting and hoping to hear via this video.
With dinner complete, we gathered around the TV to watch the vid … but, as it turned out, there was no need to come up with any phony exclamations. While the video was just ok, the song itself – the important element – absolutely, truly knocked me out. Entitled “Six O’Clock News,” it wasn’t at all what I had been expecting. Well, stylistically it was no surprise as I had a vague idea of what vein her music was in. It’s just that I’d had no expectation of it being that good. The song was top notch as was her vocal performance and the band’s playing, married to just the right production.
I was able to gush without a hint of irony about the tune, but did wonder if the rest of the disc would be as strong. I got my affirmation on that when I picked up Failer shortly after its release, playing it continually throughout 2003. Yep, I had lucked into getting to hear, early on, one of those rare x factors.
The video I saw in late 2002 and my introduction into Kathleen’s music: Failer’s “Six O’Clock News.”
Failer slowly began to take off in the larger commercial marketplace and, within months, owing to a combo of hard work, lucky breaks, and rave press notes in key publications, Kathleen was performing on Letterman, participating at a high profile Gram Parsons tribute in LA, and appearing as part of the Rolling Stones’ “Sars-stock” benefit concert just outside of Toronto, sharing a bill featuring Rush, The Flaming Lips, and AC/DC, among others, to an estimated audience of a half-million people.
I only ever ran into her once after Failer’s release, and wanted to communicate how truly blown away I’d been by it, along with asking a few questions about the album and the recent career-expanding experiences. However, owing to the context of the interaction, it would have been wholly inappropriate for me to do so. I simply made a quick note of how much I loved Failer, congratulated her on its success, and left it at that.
Failer (2003), Back To Me (2005), and Asking For Flowers (2008).
She followed it with 2005’s Back to Me which featured a clutch of strong numbers, even if the album overall suffered from the sophomore slump, but then came back strongly with a new career best via 2008’s Asking For Flowers. After a longer-than-normal break between discs, she re-emerged this past January with Voyageur, upping her game once again. It’s her finest work to date, and that’s saying something given the level of quality she’s sustained and built on over the past decade.
The big “back story” on this new one which got plenty of pre-release ink is that, between Flowers and Voyageur, she divorced musician Colin Cripps, afterwards becoming involved, personally and artistically, with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Vernon went on to co-produce this new album with Edwards.
It’s been a critical and commercial success for her, debuting at No. 2 here in Canada, and finally sneaking her into the US Top 40. Prior to its release, however, the other big story was down to how this disc was going to showcase a new musical direction for her, moving away from the Americana-style sound of the first three albums, into something slightly poppier and more sonically expansive. Early reviews were quick to latch on to this, but … I dunno. If there’s anything I find perhaps a tad disappointing about Voyageur in light of how it was being marketed is that it really doesn’t fulfill that promise, at least to my ears.
There may be a very slight aesthetic shift going on, particularly regarding subtle production touches here and there, but it’s really not a massive departure, genre-wise, from what she has been doing. Voyageur is more of an expansion of her sound, rather than a departure, containing all her trade-marks: first-rate, roots-based melodic songwriting adorned with soaring, hooky choruses underpinned by insightful lyrics, peppered with wry, dark humour and some not-so-humorous honesty and observations.
Apparently, others are hearing a massive new twist. I read one online review where the guy was pining on, something to the effect of “I’m a Katherine Edwards fan, and this just isn’t Katherine Edwards but merely Bon Iver.” Take a chill pill, pal. It’s not like she made a dubstep album or anything.
Me, I think it’s important for artists to branch out and experiment or they often end up cornered into an overly refined, comfortable-but-bland musical cul-de-sac. Maybe the larger shift will occur next time around, following this toe-dipping exercise. Those stacks of CDs I saw out at the farmhouse certainly indicated that she had some pretty broad listening tastes, well beyond the genre of music she’s been making. For now, though, I’m just damn pleased to have another repeat-play confection from Kathleen to enjoy.
That, and a new tour, affording me a third opportunity to see her live. I’d previously taken in a few terrific outdoor sets at Bluesfest (coming up down the line), making this gig at the Bronson Centre the first time I’d seen her perform under a roof not made of stars. While I like the Bronson as an intimate 800-seater venue, there are two things I’m generally not keen on about it. First, there’s no reserved seating and unless you can get there to line up a few hours in advance — difficult for Cublet and I during mid-week — it’s hard to secure an up-close spot (unless they allow for standing, as they did with the dynamite Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings in May 2011). Ergo, we ended up five rows from the back, up in the balcony.
The late afternoon line-up to get inside the Bronson Centre begins as I strolled through Centretown and Chinatown awaiting Cublet’s arrival.
I was grousing for a while about the seats until Cublet called me on the carpet for being a curmudgeon. Still, the Bronson, being somewhat compact, means that, even at the back, you’re not too far away.
The other thing is — please take note any Bronson-folk who may be reading — is the ventilation, or lack thereof. It took until five songs into Kathleen’s set before we finally had fresh air, relieving what felt like a steambath, especially if you’re up in the balcony. Yikes. Just wait until I get to writing about a Feist gig here on a sweltering May night in 2007 ….
Otherwise, Bronson Centre, you’re swell, peachy keen, etc. etc.
Pre-show inside the Bronson Centre, from the balcony.
Opener Hannah Georgas — a Vancouver-based former Ontarian — turned in a terrific warm-up set. Paired with a second guitarist and incorporating keyboards and a drum machine, she delivered a series of short, economical, atmospheric tunes. It was a bit like Feist meets Vini Reilly/the Durutti Column and, voice-wise, not a million miles from Kathleen herself. “This is my favourite place to play in Canada,” she exclaimed, although I wasn’t sure if she meant Ottawa or simply the Bronson itself.
“The Beat Stuff,” Hannah Georgas (2009).
Hannah got a warm reception here in the National Capital, and will be on the road with Kathleen straight through until May.
As for Kathleen, herself, she and her core four-piece band kicked off the night’s main course with Voyageur’s two openers, “Empty Threat,” and “Chameleon/Comedian”: probably my least and most favourite tracks on the album, respectively. While the latter is about the real self we often hide behind constructed, distracting personas, the title could be a literal shorthand summation of Edwards in concert and the variety of moods she creates throughout the arc of the show. She alternated downbeat, introspective numbers such as a “Soft Place to Land,” with its great Satie-esque opening notes, or “Goodnight, California,” probably my overall favourite Edwards song, tonight given a mesmerizing airing (and with both songs featuring Kathleen on violin), with uptempo, rockier fare such as the aforementioned “Six O’Clock News” and a supercharged “Back to Me.”
“Chameleon/Comedian,” from Voyageur.
Meanwhile, much of her between-song stage patter is loaded with off-the-cuff and in-the-moment humor and asides. She asked if “anyone is at the Jim Cuddy show tonight? No? There’s still time!,” referring to the Blue Rodeo dude’s solo gig over at the NAC, while the launch into “12 Bellevue” was halted so that Edwards could compliment an audience member on his matching shirt and earplugs. Prior to her final song of the night, a cover of Iris DeMent’s “This Town,” she talked about touring in Europe and the plight of being an opening act, comparing it to “kind of like getting spanked, except it doesn’t feel good.”
“Sometimes being the opening act is kind of like getting spanked, except it doesn’t feel good.” Edwards closes out the night with a cover of Iris DeMent’s “This Town.” This video was shot by a quick-thinking Cublet with our regular camera (sorry, no high def or stereo on this one) and is on my YouTube channel, VATV (not much is there yet, though).
Edwards also taked about how “I always think of Ottawa now whenever I hear this song,” one of several references throughout her set to this being a homecoming gig. She even changed one of “This Town”’s references to Bank Street, the main north/south thoroughfare that runs the entire length of the city, from the grounds of Parliament through to the outer burbs and beyond.
Early on, she delivered a “Hello Ottawa, it’s nice to be home” message, followed by shout-outs to those she knew in the audience, giving the night a Romper Room feel, with Kathleen as Miss Ann looking through her Magic Mirror to the boys and girls watching (alas, Mr. Do-Bee was nowhere to be seen).
She talked about coming back here, walking around the city, and seeing the familiar faces of former regulars she recalled serving from her years of working at the Starbucks on Elgin St. The former barista couldn’t remember their names but sure could remember what they would order, such as the man she recognized walking through the World Exchange Plaza earlier in the day. “He was a double latté guy,” she recollected. “He was an asshole.”
Her repartée, however, was far from all-comedic. She obliquely referenced her divorce on several occasions, talking about how she hadn’t had an album out in a while and had “fucked up,” then written “a bunch of songs that were cathartic, forgetting that others are going to listen.” In particular, “Empty House” was prefaced by a lengthy prologue about the final night she spent in the place she’d expected to inhabit as her permanent home, before passing over the keys the next day to a couple who could perhaps take it on with their own new sense of hope and renewal.
More handbills around town, this time in Chinatown, prior to the gig (above) and, currently, in the window of Compact Music’s Bank St. North location (below). For tuneage lovers descending upon Ottawa, Compact Music is one of Ottawa’s finest indie music stores!
Otherwise, she refused to overly invest in rounds of connect-the-songdots-with-my-life, crowning both “Sidecar” and “Going To hell” as compositions “about brushing your teeth,” while she insisted that “Pink Champagne”— my runner-up fave on Voyageur — isn’t about her wedding but instead about a night out in Calgary where she had too much le rosé and promptly barfed. Right. I’ll believe that. I also just bought a bridge.
She also addressed the other “elephant in the room”: the absence of former guitarist/musical collaborator and local favourite, Jim Bryson. Edwards’ appreciation of Bryson is such that she wrote one of her finest songs about him: “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory.” He appeared shortly thereafter to applause, with Kathleen explaining that he was a proud, two-day old dad. “Jim, your figure looks great!,” she chuckled. “It must be from baby boot camp.”
Video for Asking For Flowers’ “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory,” Kathleen’s tribute to former musical associate, Jim Bryson. One of Edwards’ finest tunes sadly wasn’t played on this night. Among the cameos in the video: hockey greats Marty McSorely (also mentioned in the lyric) and Paul Coffey, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, and Bryson himself. I think you have to be Canadian to fully “get” this one.
They hadn’t played together on stage for some time, but remarked that “when we do, it’s kind of like riding a bicycle, without the sex.” In addition to a run through of Failer’s “Hockey Skates,” he re-appeared later for some scorching playing in “12 Bellevue.” “He’s been home for a little while so he’s ready to melt your face,” adding that with “all this baby and house talk, I gotta get me to the Humane Society so I can get another cat.”
A magnificent night of music ended with Voyageur’s single, “Change the Sheets,” followed by encore covers of Big Star’s “September Gurls” and the aforementioned “This Town.”
“Thank you for coming and making me feel like I still have a home,” she extolled following “Sheets,” getting teary-eyed during a hometown standing ovation.
Performing “Change the Sheets” on David Letterman, a few weeks prior to the Bronson Centre gig. Below: the 45 vinyl release of “Wapusk”/”Change the Sheets” that I picked up at the show.
Without question, this was the finest set yet I’ve seen Edwards play: I was riveted from start to finish. Clearly, her voyage is just beginning.
As for our voyage, we exited the Bronson’s heat, out into the rejuvenating crisp, cold February air, befitting a night of rejuvenating music.
Encore #1: Big Star’s “September Gurls,” with Hannah Georgas on backing vocals, also on my youtube channel, VATV (thanks again to Cublet).
Next On Stage –>In my piece on The Clash, I wrote that seeing them made for the most-anticipated gig I had attended up until that time. Well, this David Bowie concert one year later — at the same venue but utilizing the full stadium — left that prior show’s sense of anticipation in the dust as I finally got to see the performer who had long occupied the No. 1 spot on my “Must See” list.
Bowie and his seventies output made such a seismic, and enduring, impact on my life that I am setting aside a whole first part simply to extrapolate on how formidable it was, as well as to put it in context with the 1970s, at least how I experienced that time. Part Two will look at the actual show, featuring the great Rough Trade as opening act, on that gorgeous Labour Day weekend in 1983, ending one of the most memorable summers of my young life with an unforgettable climax.
NOTE: I cross-post entries on my Open Salon blog.
© 2012 VariousArtists