Monday, February 21st, 2011
Jenn Grant, Rae Spoon and Olenka & The Autumn Lovers at The Horseshoe in Toronto
Frank YangYou would think that my appreciation of a triple-bill of artists familiar and favoured would be of the “comfort food” variety more than anything else, but Saturday night’s lineup at the Horseshoe featuring Jenn Grant, Rae Spoon and Olenka & The Autumn Lovers offered up more than its share of pleasant surprises.
By rights, Olenka’s superb second album And Now We Sing should have gotten a proper writeup hereabouts by now, but having stuck it on my 2010 year-end list without having uttered a word about it beforehand, it felt like that was the more compelling endorsement. I’ll expand a bit now, though, and say that with this record, the London, Ontario outfit has gone from a Balkan-inflected orchestral folk collective to an astonishingly ambitious and versatile band – the core of their sound remains, but their songs are richer, more melodic and dynamic and able to include heretofore foreign elements like a big rock guitar solo or countrified steel twang and make it feel like the most natural thing in the world. Each song on Sing is its own distinct and fully-realized work but fit perfectly alongside each other, strung together on Olenka Krakus’ rich and rangy voice, to make a whole even greater than the sum of its impressive parts. And this, very briefly, is why And Now We Sing was one of my favourite listens to come out of 2010.
Which brings us back to Saturday night; whereas she played her last show at The Horseshoe last November solo, this time Krakus brought along the Autumn Lover ladies string section – Sara Froese on violin, Kelly Wallraff on cello and both on vocals – and a non-lady (read: guy) on upright bass. Yes indeed, there were a lot of f-holes on stage and accordingly, the song selection leaned towards their more old world eastern European roots both in sound and lyrical theme. Now Krakus is a strong solo performer, but it can’t be overstated how much the strings and more crucially, Froese and Wallraff’s harmonies brought to their sound, nor the fact that even though the band configuration meant that most of my favourite songs from Sing were left out of the set, it was still a wholly satisfying performance. Think about that.
Seeing as how Rae Spoon performs solo, it’s more difficult for him to mix things up but even so, it wasn’t the same show as I saw when he play The Rivoli in November 2009. For starters, that show was in support of his mostly-folky and wholly-beautiful Superioryouareinferior and since then, he’s put out the decidedly more electro-dance Love Is A Hunter and picked up an electric guitar. But even plugged in and backed by a laptop, Spoon couldn’t hide his countrified roots and even made the relative failure to completely reinvent himself as a disco maven a recurring joke throughout the set, amongst many other jokes – he had some top-notch comedic material at the ready. That, and a voice of heart-breaking clarity and a brace of great songs were really all he needed for a successful set.
I had been more than a few years since I saw Halifax’s Jenn Grant, celebrating the release of her third album Honeymoon Punch, in a live setting so it’s entirely possible that she’s grown from fronting a basic four-piece band to leading a six-piece keyboard-loaded musical army… but I am guessing not. Nevertheless, she and her bandmates clearly came set to do full justice to the bouncy, synth-heavy pop of her latest effort – a sound which to these ears, at least, suits her the best of the singer-songwriter/adult-contemporary/folk-jazz styles that she’s touched on over the years. The sophisticated flourishes in her singing and songwriting couldn’t be suppressed if you tried, so having them accent big, hooky tunes that match her own natural effervescence sounds like a no-brainer and make for a pretty terrific record.
The show was front-ended with a mix of older and newer material, keeping the dynamic at a fairly steady keel and if anyone in the packed house had not yet heard the new record, it probably would have felt perfectly familiar for the first while. But a solo turn on Punch‘s gentlest moment, the Sarah Harmer-ish “Paradise Mountain”, marked the start of what was basically a recital of the new record; all of it ended up getting aired and that was absolutely fine with me and, it seemed, the rest of the packed house. Care was taken to reproduce as many of the album’s tones and textures as possible – hence the five-part synth orchestra on “Walk Away” and the marching band tom which Grant took great delight in banging around stage for the outro of main set closer “Stars To Waves”. For the encore, there was a cover of Ron Sexsmith’s “Dragonfly On Bay St” and finally her first single “Dreamer”, before calling it a night and capping a performance that affirmed that if Honeymoon Punch makes Jenn Grant a star – as it rightly should – she’s more than ready to take the call.
The Autumn ringers, which is to say local Torontonian musicians, will sit in with Olenka when she opens up for Mark Berube at The Garrison on March 3 and the full and proper Autumn Lovers will be on hand for their Canadian Musicfest showcases, Friday March 11 at 4PM at a venue to be announced and then 8PM that same night at The Drake Underground. The Vancouver Sun, Northern Life and The Georgia Straight have interviews with Rae Spoon. The Waterloo Record and NOW have features on Jenn Grant.
Photos: Jenn Grant, Rae Spoon, Olenka & The Autumn Lovers @ The Horseshoe – February 19, 2011
MP3: Jenn Grant – “Dreamer”
MP3: Rae Spoon – “Death By Elektro”
MP3: Rae Spoon – “You Can Dance”
MP3: Rae Spoon – “Come On Forest Fire” (CPI Remix)
MP3: Rae Spoon – “There Is A Light”
MP3: Rae Spoon – “Come On Forest Fire Burn The Disco Down”
MP3: Olenka & The Autumn Lovers – “Odessa”
Video: Jenn Grant – “Getcha Good”
Video: Jenn Grant – “You’ll Go Far”
Video: Jenn Grant – “Heartbreaker”
Video: Jenn Grant – “Dreamer”
Video: Rae Spoon – “There is a Light (But It’s Not For Everyone)”
Video: Rae Spoon – “Joan”
Video: Rae Spoon – “Love Is A Hunter”
The National Post and JAM caught up with members of Arcade Fire in the immediate wake of last week’s big Grammy win, while New York Magazine addresses the whole “never heard of them” reaction that also occurred in the wake of the big Grammy win. The National Post also has an interview with the band about their collaborative short film with Spike Jonze.