The crowd at St James Hall on Wednesday, November 21 was very diverse: all ages, multiple ethnicities, a 50/50 split of men to women, and from conversations I overheard whilst waiting to be let in and waiting for the show to begin, a good number of supporters from the local Rogue Folk Club. The venue appeared to be converted from a keelboat framed church to a concert venue, with the front half of rows comprising individual chairs and the back half made of pews. Their website tells me it’s called the Sanctuary Hall and has been part of the building for approx. 100 years.
Ah, border crossings. Bane of the musician’s travelling existence. In this evening’s case, the show was delayed by an hour. The waiting crowd was good-natured and patient and by the time the grumbling started, the doors opened at 8 pm. This was a full house – every seat was taken, and people were standing at the back and on the west side of the hall. I spoke with a staff member and she and I guesstimated there were a good 300 people there. Not a bad turnout at all!
The opener was Christopher Smith, a toqued and cardiganed singer/songwriter from Vancouver. He played pleasant and melodic songs, sometimes the lyrics got edgier, but Smith lets them stand on their own instead of having the melody follow them to darker subjects. He has a higher than average voice, breathy but not falsetto. Smith’s songs tend not to be structured in traditional verse/chorus conventions, more like poetry set to music – which sounds nice (and his imagery is interesting as well), but it makes it a little difficult for the audience to recognise when a song is over (cue the applause). Not much audience interaction, but every song was introduced in turn and Christopher Smith has a nice sense of humour. Although certainly not an unpleasant way to spend 20-ish minutes, there isn’t a lot to take away with you, unless you purchase a CD.
Waiting for Cold Specks to take the stage, my brain got some exercise in remembering the names of less seen instruments: tenor saxophone, bass saxophone (that at first glance I mistook for a bassoon), and baritone saxophone. Beside the piano was something that looked like a zither, but it had hammers mounted to one side enabling the piano player to enable playing of the instrument by pushing keys – very pianolike.
The first song was “Peace in the Valley”, sung a capella which then segued into a piece I didn’t get the name of featuring bass saxophone, as well as rhythm and lead guitar, the vibrations of which set the snare off, which was a really, dare I say it, neat effect. Next was “Blank Maps”, the first song of the night to give me chills. The sound seemed to fill the room, and I mean every nook and cranny of the room. It was a nicely rhythmic song. “Heavy Hands” had a memorable echoey effect on lead guitar. “Winter Solstice” begins with Al a capella and showcases the power and expressive range of her voice with great drive from the drums when the rest of the band comes in, giving the song even more intensity. “When the Lights Dim” is another one of those songs that builds drama. Al starts with just her voice and the lead guitarist and when the rest of the band come in, it’s almost like they’re providing the colour to a song that started out in black and white. The next song I didn’t catch the name of and the lyrics were difficult to hear. The band was almost too loud and Al’s voice was virtually drowned out except for during a quiet bit in it. “Reeling the Liars In” is a short-ish, mellow song. Again, it starts out with Al singing, lead guitar, drummer playing tambourine as well as drums before the rest of the band comes in. “Send Your Youth” starts with Al singing, lead guitar and piano. After a while the saxophone, female background vocalist and drums lend their support. Very sad lyrically with a lonely, yet lovely sound. “Elephant Head” was next, the lyrics from which the album “I Predict a Graceful Expulsion” gets its title. It has Toronto-specific lyrics, and a haunting line about “1000 stillborn thoughts to cradle”. It’s Al and guitar for the first verses, then a focus on vocal harmonisation over intricate instrumentation when the rest of the band comes in. She shows she can hit the higher notes as well with this one. Incredibly moving song; I got chills again, and something that could be viewed as getting a lump in one’s throat (it was borderline). She then began an a capella / gospel version of “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” with just vocals and drums which was abandoned after about a verse. I didn’t understand why people were tittering when she began it (I’d obviously not made the connection), but eventually clued in. “Holland” was the next song played, and again it begins with Al’s voice and guitar with focus on vocal harmony over instrument use until the drummer starts with the mallet on the tom driving the beat and the song swells into another “nook-and-cranny-filling number” before scaling it down to the level it begins with. “Lay me down” starts with Al on voice and guitar, and has a slow, steady, gorgeous build to it. In this setting, I’m thinking the drums are both her best friend and her worst enemy because it is the first instrument to drown her out and when the other instruments are full on, she doesn’t fight it, she doesn’t push harder to make herself heard but it’s bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, drums, piano, saxophone, backing vocal against her, and she just doesn’t come out the winner in that contest. A standing ovation concludes the set. Al comes back, not to the stage, but to the steps that go to the floor where she sings “Old Stepstone” completely a capella and unamplified, an inkling of why she was nominated for the Polaris Prize. And that song concluded the evening’s musical festivities at 9:50 pm.
Observational note, the bass player had one of the hardest tasks to perform – he played on only a handful of songs (he didn’t even come on stage until When the Lights Dim) and instead of repeated exits/entrances, he did his best to be invisible, crouching down on one knee, instrument across the other knee, head bent away from the audience, everything to imply I’m not actually here when he wasn’t playing. The other musicians did the same, but for the crouching, when they weren’t playing, which is de rigeur and it usually works but sometimes you may as well just hang a marquee above your head for all your attempts come to nought.
Al said this was either the first time they played together as that band or the first time they played as a band in Vancouver. Considering how little interaction there was between band members, I’m guessing it’s the latter because they just ‘got on with it’ – everyone knew what they were doing and when. Very professional; very proficient. Al’s singing style does not lend itself to the clearest diction, but what a voice! I’d first heard her music on an episode of CBC Radio 2’s The Strombo Show and recorded she sounds great. Live, even better. A church hall was a great and atmospherically, super suitable. That’s not to say Cold Specks wouldn’t do well in a larger venue, they’ve just got a bit of a ways to go.’