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.

25 Years Later & Cape Breton is Still Winning at Music

Ashley MacIsaac: Fiddle Rock God

Ashley MacIsaac: Fiddle Rock God

As an East Coaster you grow up knowing that there is an exorbitant amount of musical talent that is saturated on our shores. It is something that I think we all take a little for granted sometimes. “Of course there is going to be live music at the pub and of course it is likely going to be lovely and of course the guy who plays the keyboards for *insert ECMA winner here* and *insert ECMA winner here* also writes beautiful songs of his own and of course the girl who plays the fiddle also plays the piano and also plays the guitar and of course her brother plays the bagpipes, obvious. And of course there is going to be a jam session in the kitchen of that party you are going to and of course everyone will be clapping on beats two and four and of course everyone knows someone who has dropped a record or is working on one and of course it’s going to be incredible and will likely somewhere, somehow reference the ocean in some quaint, wistful way, because we’re from the East Coast where these things are in our blood.” In my experience, it was only when I moved far away from home that I realized how truly remarkable and special our musical canon and our musical culture is. It is something to be celebrated and relished in unabashedly and so it was wonderful to be able to do just that at two events at the East Coast Music Awards this weekend.

The first event I attended was specifically a celebration of Cape Breton, arguably the Mecca of East Coast Musical Exports, which was at the Marquee Club on Friday evening. Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac performed some tunes from their new record Seinn, although the audience was a little rowdy and it was challenging to appreciate the gorgeous arc of the Gaelic lyrics in Lamond’s deft command of the language, but the accordion, guitar and fiddle playing were jaunty and masterful and floated magically above the din of the crowd. I can’t recommend this record enough, MacIsaac’s fiddling is so sweet and rich with emotion, which beautifully matches Lamond’s crisp diction and warm vocals that effortlessly capture and communicate the essence of these folk songs giving them an immediacy, a contemporary energy and infectious spirit that transcends the language barrier and anchors them deeply into the audience’s heart. Then we were treated to young Margie and Dawn Beaton, two fiddling sisters from Mabou whose debut CD Taste of Gaelic won the 2011 ECMA for Roots/Traditional Album of the Year. They’re adorable to watch and fun to dance to as they feed off each other’s energy and at times break out into step dancing. The entire crowd exploded as soon as they started their first tune and the fiddles were on fire for the rest of the set. And of course, speaking of fires and fiddles, the superstar of the evening was Ashley MacIsaac, who tore up the stage like a Fucking Fiddle Rock God. As an artist he is so original with what he dares to do with folk music, melding it in with rock music, with techno music, and making it perfectly suited for an evening of dancing at the club. As a consummate performer, he puts on a show that revels in the danger of the momentum of the music, that at any moment his stick may fly out of his hand and go barreling across the room and that one is never certain what might happen, what Ashley might say next or do next. Like the best rock stars of the contemporary world, he is continually reinventing himself so one is never able to pin him or his music down or put it or him in a convenient little box. He is revolutionary and soulful. He is playing in a post-modern context, but still ardently connected to his ancestors. He is captivating and fun to watch while being intensely gifted and skilled. I am already eager for more Ashley MacIsaac performances to come. I am both hooked and intrigued.

As I looked around at the crowd at the Marquee Club last night I was immediately struck (although not surprised) by the demographics. The majority of the people who crowded the dance floor and screamed and stomped and danced joyfully for fiddle tunes and folk music were between twenty and forty years old. Most were white, but some were not, which made me smile. When the ECMAs started twenty-five years ago Nova Scotia was experiencing a resurgence of Celtic music and culture and this transcended into national and international attention, interest and acclaim for East Coast music. While it is easy to be cynical about the changing face of the music industry and our culture’s obsession with anything American or packaged to be a “sure-fire hit,” it is perhaps even more significant to see how many people in a city like Halifax get excited about local music, about traditional music and who are fiercely proud of their province’s musical canon and traditions. This suggests that we may be on the cusp of another wave of Celtic renaissance and that the rest of the country may benefit in looking to us as an example of how to foster a rich heritage that also embraces multiculturalism, appeals to the younger generations and encourages its musicians of all different styles and sensibilities to play and to thrive.

Check out TWISI’s photo album from the Cape Breton Embassy Marquee Club Party!

East Coast Music 101 (Part I)

joel plaskett

joel plaskett

Many of the first musical artists that I listened to as a child were Atlantic Canadian and certainly the Nova Scotian cultural penchant for Celtic flair, sea shanties and fiddles permeated into my blood as seamlessly as my appetite for lobster and love of a cold salty ocean breeze. I never sought out music specifically because it was from the East Coast, but it was so often the East Coast music that spoke most ardently to my heart. As many young Atlantic Canadians do, I took much of our province’s rich musical canon for granted and it wasn’t until I was much older and moved away from home for the first time that I really began to appreciate how distinctly gifted, how extraordinary multi-talented and how exceptionally fervent, successful and prolific the musicians on the East Coast are- not to mention how resilient and determined to succeed, we all are, as the economic odds never seem to be in our favour and we still often feel the brunt of our nation’s inferiority complex and yet, quand même, talent still blooms here and thrives both beautifully and magically.

If you are only marginally familiar with the East Coast musical canon, I would like to offer you a list of MUST HAVE additions to your musical library. This list will only scrape the very beginning of the surface of what Atlantic Canada has to offer, but it will hopefully kindle your interest in some of the very best of Canadian music. I am splitting the list  into two blogs so it is easier to read.


RITA MACNEIL: I don’t remember a time before Rita’s soulful voice wasn’t a resonant part of my life. When I was about six years old my aunt introduced “Flying on Your Own” to me as a feminist anthem, which is fitting since Rita has been an inspirational pioneer in forging out a place for women in the song writing business in Nova Scotia and has certainly paved the way for an impressive array of strong, dynamic and powerful female singer/songwriters/musicians to come. Her Christmas album Joyful Sounds: A Seasonal Collection is one of my absolute favourites, likely because she has such a beautiful, wide, open and joyful heart that permeates all the music she makes and that mixture of sweetness and vulnerability is so perfectly suited to Christmas songs. She may have upped her coolness factor when she guest starred on Season 4 of The Trailer Park Boys, but for me (and I know it may sound cheesy, but it’s the honest truth) her genuine warmth reminds me of home and my childhood. Check her out:

THE RANKIN FAMILY: “Celtic Music Heroes” The Rankin Family burst out onto the East Coast music scene in 1989 with the gorgeous and distinctive harmonies of Cookie, Raylene and Heather, the infectious fiddle and piano of John Morris and the poignant songs written by Jimmy. Together, the effect was magical. If you don’t own North Country and These Are the Moments you should stop reading this right now and go buy them, they will make your heart feel cozy. Then I suggest investing in the rest of their albums. They are all great. Check out this tune for just a taste.

JIMMY RANKIN has since released five solo records, which are exorbitantly different from the work he did with his siblings. I recommend buying Forget About the World, which (incidentally) Keith Urban plays guitar on and also Song Dog. My favourite of Jimmy’s songs (today) are on those two records: “I’m Just Saying,” “Here in My Heart,” “The Hurtin’ Part,” “Followed Her Around,” “Midnight Angel” and “Lighthouse Heart.” His voice is dreamy and his lyrics are so poetic. I could listen to his music all day (and sometimes I do!).

RAYLENE RANKIN released two solo records, Lambs of Spring is out of print, but I heartily recommend her last album All the Diamonds. Her voice is connected directly to her heart on this album. It is the purest, crispest and brightest I have heard her beautiful, angelic voice- it resonates out of her like her body is a cathedral with the best acoustics in the world. She pours everything she has into this record, which makes it heartbreaking to listen to but in a beautiful, cathartic way. The joy in her is so palpable; it is clear that she was living with every ounce of herself engaged and that spirit of delight is infectious. Her voice is so sweet and rich, you will want to bask in it like pure sunlight. We have lost a remarkable and unique Atlantic Canadian treasure, but All These Diamonds is certainly Raylene’s last (and profoundly generous) gift to us. Watch this clip from 1986 where she is the cutest.

JOEL PLASKETT: One of Halifax’s most famous musical exports is Joel Plaskett who has been rocking out in the Indie Rock scene in Nova Scotia since the 1990s. I recently fell in love with his 2012 album with the longest title ever EMERGENCYs, false alarms, shipwrecks, castaways, fragile creatures, special features, demons and demonstrations, which nicely sums up much of what you can expect from its 20 tracks. It has been characterized as a “B-sides and rarities” compilation. It has a distinctive East Coast flair, many Nova Scotia specific lyrics, and universal emotional rock n’ roll fervor. His newest album Scrappy Happiness will be released on March 27th and he was nominated for the ECMA Rock Recording of the Year and as Fan’s Choice Entertainer of the Year. Check out this video:

MELANIE DOANE: According to my aunt I first saw Melanie Doane perform when I was four, the first time I went to Neptune Theatre, where Melanie was playing Alice in Alice in Wonderland. I wish with all my heart that I could remember this, but I have been told I gave her and the entire production extremely zealous and enthusiastic reviews. In 1998 her album Adam’s Rib dominated the radio airwaves of my adolescence and Melanie has been touring the country and being a cabaret star and theatre star and music star ever since. I love her gorgeous homesick love song “Salt Water,” her song “Goliath” is my own special power anthem and “Every Little Thing” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard about motherhood. She is a stunning singer, she plays the fiddle, the guitar, the bass, the ukulele AND the piano incredibly (and nearly simultaneously), her song writing is gorgeous and heartfelt AND she is stunning beautiful. Crazy. Check this out:

AMANDA LEBLANC: Amanda LeBlanc, a talented theatre actor and musician from Nova Scotia, burst onto the East Coast Music scene in 2009 with the release of her debut album Yours Truly and she has since toured the province, sung at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival and performed all over Toronto with her big hearted, bright spirited, wistful and original tunes. You can read a longer review of Amanda’s album here, but for now: just listen to this girl sing!

Check out the next five of my favourite East Coast artists here. 

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: