Kulak and Hughes Rock Hugh’s Room

I witnessed a very proud moment for the Canadian musical theatre community at Hugh’s Room last Tuesday Night during Jane Harbury’s “Discovery” series. Bryce Kulak and Allie Hughes are both actor/singer/musician/songwriters, whose combined talents are so astronomical it is literally mind-blowing to see them in the same room. They rocked the entire evening hardcore, proving that the future of Toronto independent/cabaret music, theatre and musical theatre is in very capable hands.
Hugh’s Room is a great little space, sort of strangely located at 2261 Dundas St West, just south of Bloor Street West. It’s small and elegant and serves food (and desserts!) and drinks (and martinis!) and has a great stage perfect for showcasing upcoming singers and songwriters. I hope there will be another opportunity for Hughes and Kulak to perform back-to-back there in the near future. You can check out the venue at http://www.hughsroom.com/. There is always something musical going on there.

Bryce Kulak is from Edmonton, Alberta where he, according to his website, grew up on the stage and playing classical piano. He has performed with symphony orchestras and in theatrical world premieres. Most recently in Toronto he was seen playing the piano in November Theatre’s production of The Black Rider. On Tuesday he sang four songs from his album Tin Can Telephone; (“Letters from Sadie,” “Old Buildings,” “Sad Victoria,” and “Tin Can Telephone”), as well as a newer song “You’re My Man,” all with his one-man-band Colin Maier, who can play any instrument ever invented (and perhaps some that haven’t been invented yet!). As a performer, Kulak is charming and funny, and he immediately captivates and connects with his audience. Watching him play his own songs on the piano, while singing with his gorgeous and particularly expressive voice, is such a treat and delight. He radiates joy, and it is contagious.

His music has been described as “songs that will weave themselves into your warmest sweaters,” which I think is probably the most accurate description of Tin Can Telephone. You feel compelled to snuggle deep into the quirky characters and situations Kulak has presented you with, and to empathize with that selfish fish, doomed apartment building and lost sock. Each song sounds like it could come from its own distinct musical (or classic kids’ book), since the stories are so specific and character driven. The creative potential here is limitless. The worlds Kulak have created are at once all distinct, and yet ultimately connected, and he could expand on any one song to create something entirely different, but equally beautiful and captivating.
Kulak writes the sort of songs that I think many people don’t expect to come from a Canadian. They have a jazzy, but ultimately contemporary feel to them, they are such fun, accessible, and yet ultimately poignant. My favourite of the bunch is “Paper and String,” a gorgeous ballad about love’s penchant for wine for breakfast, picnics, whispered secrets, and the urge we get to wrap the people we love up in paper and string and hold them in our hearts forever.
Bryce Kulak has two albums available for sale. Welcome and Tin Can Telephone are both available on Itunes and at CD Baby. You should get them now. If you need more convincing, you can read more on his website: http://www.brycekulak.com/ and you should go right now and download his new song “You’re My Man” from CBC Radio 1, it’s free (http://www.cbc.ca/go/). I bet you’ll listen to it on a loop too.

Allie Hughes then rocked out with her band. Like Kulak, Hughes also played the piano while singing her own original songs. She is also a trained musical theatre actor, having graduated from Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. As a performer, she is infused with tons of energy, which makes her fun and captivating to watch. At one point, she stood up and started to dance- as much as her piano playing would allow. She has no pretense. She doesn’t try to be anyone except the artist that she is. And while that is extremely refreshing to see, it is also very clear that Allie Hughes is a strong enough performer that she doesn’t need to pretend to be anyone beyond Allie Hughes to bring the house down. She sang six songs from her debut album: “Elevator,” “Black Cloud,” “How ‘Bout Cha Go Away,” “Irish Colcannon,” “Gorilla Sounds,” and “Cabaret Song,” and one newer song dedicated to a friend who was in the audience. She was forced at the end of the night to give an impromptu encore when the audience refused to stop applauding or to leave. It was truly an awesome moment.

Hughes’ music has been compared to Sarah Slean and Regina Spektor, and I think that’s probably the easiest way to describe it. There are always unexpected moments, however, for at one point during “How ‘Bout Cha Go Away” her voice goes from akin to Regina Spektor to perfect and gorgeous Kristin Chenoweth-esque resonance within a few moments. The power of Hughes’ music, for me, is in her lyrics. She seems to be able to express and capture collective thoughts and experiences that aren’t often given voice in such a poetic way. Hughes is a poet. Even without the music, her songs would still be poignant and beautiful. With the music, these songs are gifts: up-lifting, self-affirming, empowering and just ‘angsty’ enough to give them adequate punch. Her voice suits the music perfectly. The best example is the way her voice captures the moment in “Black Cloud” as she sings, “…And I’m hard to keep from screaming/ And I’m the black cloud/ And I take on all the darkness of our home/ So you can be/ happy…” Ka-pow!

My favourite of Hughes’ songs is “Elevator,” which I think beautifully captures the experience of trying to strike the balance between friendship and falling in love. I think she is beloved by her fans especially for the lyrics to “Gorilla Sounds” which include, “You think you’re so hot. You think you’re so slick. You know what I think, boy? I think you’re a dick.” She’s smart. She’s sassy. She has an infectious, genuine smile that holds a glimmer of mischief. You’ll get intrigued.

She’s the type of artist that as soon as you discover her, you’ll want to share her music with all of your friends. So, go do it now! Go to this website: (http://www.myspace.com/alliehughes) and listen to all the songs she’s posted on there. You will be frantically searching for a venue where you too can hear her live (and where you can buy her album!). And you’re in luck! She is playing at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen Street West) on Monday February 16th, Monday February 23rd, and Monday March 2nd all at 10:00pm. No cover.

You can also see her in Acting Up Stage theatre company’s production of William Finn’s musical A New Brain at the Berkeley Street Theatre (Downstairs) February 12th to March 1st, 2009. For more information visit http://www.anewbrain.ca/.

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