On Falling In Love With East Coast Music

kim stockwood, ben caplan, jimmy rankin, maureen ennis & jenn grant

kim stockwood, ben caplan, jimmy rankin, maureen ennis & jenn grant

The most beautiful concert of the East Coast Music Awards that I attended was a live radio broadcast of Atlantic Airwaves hosted by the charming and delightful Stephanie Domet. It featured the results of CBC’s call for listeners to choose the top ten East Coast songs of all time and featured an incredible line up of beloved Atlantic Canadian musicians to perform each one, unveiling the order in which the songs were rated by over 6,500 people.

Firstly, the Opening Act was singer/songwriter/pianist Kim Dunn who played some tunes from his record Take This Hammer with Jamie Robinson. If you haven’t heard this record, you should definitely check it out. I especially love his song “Shine,” in which his voice flies dreamily and his rendition of “Take This Hammer,” which is so (seemingly) simple, yet so heartfelt. Dunn and Robinson also made up part of the house band for the rest of the concert. The stage was filled with incredible East Coast musicians, as it so often is.

In the same way that it is quite rare for an Atlantic Canadian play to be revived, especially by a different company than the one who originated it, it seems to be a special occurrence too for a contemporary East Coast song to be covered by another Atlantic Canadian artist. It adds a certain weight to the song’s place in Atlantic Canadian musical history when it has a life beyond its original recording, whether it is continued to be performed by the people who originated or is being interpreted by someone else. The ten songs that were chosen as the finalists for Best East Coast song of ALL TIME are certainly classics of the canon and songs that will have lives of their own for generations to come.

It was special to watch the artists covering these songs, as you could sense the sheer gravity of their mission, how humbled and proud each one was to have been asked to give their rendition and how hopeful they each were of their ability to do the song, and its songwriter, justice. It was also quite magical to watch the other artists on the stage spontaneously begin to sing along, not loudly as to steal the limelight, but almost as though they could not help themselves. There is something so communal about a room full of people who all know the words to the same songs and it reinforces that these ten are a tangible part of the fabric of who we are as East Coast Canadians, our culture and our identity.

The concert began with Ben Caplan singing the Hank Snow 1950 tune “I’m Movin’ On,” which has been covered by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley and Caplan’s performance was right up there with them. He is an incredible performer, throwing 200% in energy and emotion into every line he sings with that gorgeous lush voice of his. He started the concert off with a bang and set the bar high for the rest of the performers, who immediately rose to the challenge. Kim Stockwood followed with Otto P. Kelland’s “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary’s,” (1947) which she recorded on her 2011 record Back to the Water. This song is a haunting fisherman’s lament, gorgeous, spare, and emotionally resonant in Stockwood’s riveting and pure voice. I went home that evening and bought the entire album, which is a love letter to Newfoundland, and warmly nestled into Stockwood’s beautiful voice like one burrows into a familiar quilt. Then Jenn Grant sang Gene MacLellan’s “Snowbird” (1969), made famous by Anne Murray. Grant reminds me of a spunky Patsy Cline and her jazzy country rendition of this song was utterly delightful. I think Anne Murray would have approved. Then Caplan grooved beautifully to David Myles’ “When It Comes My Turn.” Both Myles and Caplan have similarly gorgeous baritone voices, so this was a perfect fit and it spawned a very jaunty sing-along.

One of the draws for me to this concert was having the opportunity to hear Jimmy Rankin’s rendition of the anthem of our province, “Farewell to Nova Scotia,” and I was not at all disappointed. As expected he returns these heart-rending lyrics to their origins as a mournful ballad and adds his own distinctive trills filled with emotion to make the interpretation entirely unique and unmistakably “Jimmy”. I think this is one traditional song that he should definitely consider putting on a record. Then Jenn Grant returned with a cover of Joel Plaskett’s “Nowhere With You,” which I also think she should consider recording. She sings it more as a quirky and winsome emotional ballad, distinctively her own twist, but just as engaging as Plaskett’s original. Then Maureen Ennis broke everyone’s heart simultaneously with her rendition of Lennie Gallant’s “Peter’s Dream.” She is a master class in incredible, seamless, riveting storytelling through music. There was so much depth in this song; I was completely transported to this fishing village. I could see the waves; I could smell the salt, almost as though I were watching a play. Then Jimmy Rankin provided Ennis with some impromptu backing vocals and it was like being in church.

It was interesting to see these six musicians sharing a stage with one another, as it threw performers together who likely hadn’t performed together before or who didn’t frequently perform together. Immediately I noted that Maureen Ennis and Jimmy Rankin’s voices complemented one another very nicely and I thought, “they should do a duet together sometime.” Yet, perhaps surprisingly, it was Rankin singing Rita MacNeil’s iconic “Working Man” with Ben Caplan that made me immediately explode with how awesome their very different musical styles and voices were when they suddenly collided that invigorated me the most. It was a really cool and unique collaboration and one I would be very excited to see much more from. Ennis sang the #2 Best East Coast of ALL TIME, Ron Hynes’ “Sonny’s Dream” with the same gorgeous arc that she gave to her Lennie Gallant tune and she also spawned an immediate sing along, poignantly communal, like songs around the campfire.

The honour of being named Best East Coast Song of ALL TIME went to Jimmy Rankin’s “Fare Thee Well Love,” a song made famous by him and his sister Cookie Rankin on The Rankin Family’s 1990 album of the same name. I have to admit I was initially skeptical of hearing a Jimmy Rankin solo rendition of this song because Cookie’s gorgeous, passion-filled belting voice soaring like a Scottish angel over the ocean is so iconic to me and so much of what makes the original track so evocative and laden with emotion. Yet, (of course) I should have known that Jimmy can harness all that power and all that emotion and re-interpret his own song in a way that is beautifully faithful to the original, and using all his own prowess and soul. There is no doubt why “Fare Thee Well Love” has been heralded the BEST East Coast song of ALL TIME. In response to the honour Rankin said, “I feel like I just won the Bingo!”

In all it was an incredible concert, one that I am sure will be seared in the memories of the audience that packed the Citadel High School’s Spatz Theatre for years to come. It would be wonderful for the CBC to consider getting these artists to record these tracks for a compilation album to further celebrate the accomplishment of these ten songwriters and to do a little to immortalize a bit of the energy of pride and care that was so palpable in the room and wove the kind of magic that unites a room of strangers in song.

The show will be rebroadcast on Canada Live on CBC Radio Two April 4th and on Radio One April 5th, 2013.

East Coast Music 101 (Part II)

wendy macisaac & mary jane lamond

wendy macisaac & mary jane lamond

BEN CAPLAN: I first saw Ben Caplan in a riveting production of The Pillowman that the Kings Theatrical Society did when I was doing my undergrad at Dalhousie and I was struck by what an extraordinary actor he was and how dark and intense and wildly theatrical and dangerous this KTS production was. Then I started hearing his name everywhere in the Indie music scene and seeing these incredible posters where he looked like a Hipster Rabbi and so I knew I had to check out his album (with his awesome band The Casual Smokers), In The Time of the Great Remembering (which makes it sound like a Land Before Time movie). He was nominated for two ECMAs this year, Rising Star Recording of the Year (which he won) and Folk Recording of the Year. In The Time of the Great Remembering is a jaunty and lyrically poetic album with Caplan’s gruffly melodic voice pulling you in by the heart. There is a perceptible Tom Waits quality to many of the tracks as well, which is a fascinating ingredient to toss into an eclectic mixture of musical instruments, styles and dramatic storytelling and creates something richly meditative and at times even other-worldly. His natural theatrical prowess only makes the performance of these songs more captivating and fun to revel in and I am looking forward to seeing more Ben Caplan in Halifax once he finishes his swanky tour. Download his Mobile App here to follow him along on the road. Or follow him on Twitter. Take a listen:

GRAMERCY RIFFS: Sister of Soulpepper/ Republic of Doyle star Krystin Pellerin is Mara Pellerin, a member of the Indie band Gramercy Riffs, whose 2010 record It’s Heartbreak is one of my favourite things to ever come out of St. John’s. They are rockers with great vocal harmonies and poetic, spare lyrics and songs that are fun to listen to and easy to dance to. Mara has a sweet and haunting voice, check her out in this video!

HEATHER GREEN: Before each film of the OutEast Film Festival last Spring a little bit of Heather Green’s song “Day I Was Born” played and every time it lodged itself deep into my ear and my heart and prompted me to buy her album Your Last War. She has a smooth and soulful voice and her songs have a great pop-rock quality to them that are simultaneously infectious and vulnerable. She was nominated for 2 ECMAs this year in the Pop and Rising Star categories for Your Last War. I still haven’t seen her perform live, but I am looking very forward to it. In the meantime, check out this video.

MARY JANE LAMOND & WENDY MACISAAC: If you love the Gaelic and the fiddle (and if you don’t, I’m not sure we can be friends ;)) there isn’t much more blissful than Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac’s 2012 record Seinn. I am in complete love with it and it has been on repeat in my house for the last three months, especially their rendition of “Òran An t-Saighdeir/Soldier Song.” Even though the song is sung in Gaelic the emotional arc of the song is so palpable and it’s catchy- you will find yourself singing along and butchering the language as only non-Gaelic speakers can. They were nominated for ECMA Roots/Traditional Group Recording of the Year. Check this out:

I wrote a lot of Ashley MacIsaac love in this piece about a show I saw on Friday evening, but I need to give him and Mary Jane a special shout out for “Sleepy Maggie,” which I adore. Check it:

TANYA DAVIS: The Mayor’s Poet Laureate for Halifax, Tanya Davis’ heart-on-sleeve spoken word poem music captures for me so distinctly the character of the North End of Halifax and our immediate time and place. Yet, I think that it is in her specificity and her vulnerability that her music resonates much more broadly. She is brimming with sheepish wisdom and quiet profundity. Check this out: