NXNE Day 1 – Jim Cuddy, Oh, Susanna, Royal Wood, Jenn Grant, Kevin Hearn, Jason Plumb @ Lee’s PalaceThe night was called “Outlaws and Gunslingers” and some of Canada’s premier country/alt country artists took the stage last night for an evening of good music and beer. I got to Lee’s Palace on Bloor St. just as opening band, The Swallows, were ending off their set. I managed to hear four songs and did like what I had heard. I would love to see them again. Glen Milchem has a good voice but struggled a bit in his upper register, that could easily have been just a bad night because his middle/lower registers were very nice. The last song, “Penny”, off their 2006 release “Awkward Situation”, showed a punkish side that really rocked the crowd. This showed Milchem’s split personality because it had more in common with his former band, Holy Fuck, than with Blue Rodeo who he currently drums for. The crowd really were solidly behind this band and showed their appreciation with some raucous applause at the end of the set. This is a good band that is worth checking out if you happen to see them playing anywhere close to you. You can find The Swallows CD’s at bluerodeo.com and Maple Music for more information you can go to their official website although it doesn’t seem to have been updated in a while (Ed note they update their myspace).
Jim Cuddy/Oh, Susanna/Royal Wood were next up and they took the stage promptly at 9PM. Lee’s was, by now, packed and the crowd was a pretty good mix of older and younger people, such was the appeal of the nights performers. The three performers took turns singing and also provided vocal harmonies to each others tunes. They were joined by Blue Rodeo bassist, Basil Donovan, and drummer, Glenn Milchem. These two provided a good, solid base for the melodies and Milchem’s drumming was stellar, driving the songs along when necessary but providing a softer, more mellow beat when called for.
Royal Wood was first up with his beautiful song, Juliet. This is a beautiful love song that normally I would find cliché but his voice and the simple charm of the song saved it for me. Wood has been compared to Ron Sexsmith and Rufus Wainwright, not without merit, and he’s had songs that have been featured on shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Regenisis”, “This Is Wonderland” and the soundtrack for the Food Network’s production, “The Surreal Gourmet”. His final song, I’m So Glad, was a nice quiet love song whose melody put me in mind of Tiny Dancer from Elton John but without the urgency. A graceful tune that enchanted the crowd. “At the end of a long, long day/There is not much more to say then love/I’m so glad I met you”, a simple heart-felt lyric delivered simply. After his gig at NXNE, Wood will be performing at the Danforth Music Hall on June 30. I really wouldn’t mind catching him then. For more information on tour dates and to listen to his songs, you can visit his MySpace page.
Oh, Susanna (aka Susan Ungerleider) provided a welcome female presence to the stage. She is a good writer, her songs are firmly rooted in good old Americana folk/country but with a bit more of a contemporary edge to them. She delivers them with passion and confidence and has a warm and intimate stage presence. She seems like you could really sit down over a few beers and have a good laugh over just about anything. Her songs are good bar crowd fare, filled with lyrics about love and personal struggles. She wouldn’t sound out of place on stage with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash or John Prine. Her voice blended well with Jim Cuddy’s and Royal Wood’s when she was required to sing back-up or harmony but on it’s own I think she could have projected it better. I’m not a fan of country music and would probably not go out of my way to see her again but if she showed up on the same bill as an artist I like, I wouldn’t walk out. You can find out more about her, including tour dates, by visiting her Myspace page.
Jim Cuddy was the other performer in the second set of the night. He, of course, really did out-class the others. Cuddy provided what everyone has come to expect from him – solid song writing, solid vocals, charm and charisma. His turn at the mic had the crowds attention and he provided a nice counterpoint to Wood and Oh, Susanna. He started off with All I Need, a rocky song about love set to a catchy melody that had me humming it when I got up this morning. He also did a song that he said he didn’t normally do, it was an old song and I didn’t hear the title but it was a lovely song with nice vocal harmonies provided by Oh, Susanna. He really was the class of that set and the crowd was appreciative not wanting to let him go. You can get more info on Cuddy by visiting his official website or by visiting his MySpace page.
The next set was the one I had been anticipating. I had heard all kinds of good things about Jason Plumb but wanted to hear him for myself, the fact that he was playing with Kevin Hearn and Jenn Grant was just a bonus. I had heard Grant before, I caught her a couple of years ago at the CMW’s but she didn’t really impress me then. She is a much different performer now, more confident with a lot more stage presence and a more polished sound. This set was structured very much like the previous, with each performer taking a turn at the mic, this meant that everyone got to do at least three of their own songs. Grant opened the set and her unique vocals really caught the crowds attention. In fact, the crowd was very attentive to each artist throughout the set. Grant is often compared to Feist, Sarah Harmer and Sarah McLaughlin and her writing is definitely reminiscent of them, solidly written with sharp lyrics and melodies but I think her unusual delivery and sound has as much to do with her own innate creativity as it does to any her influences. I do have to say that her phasing and delivery do remind me of early Jane Siberry (now known as simply Issa). She still isn’t my cuppa, I much prefer her albums than her live shows, I just find her voice is much harsher live than on her CD’s. I have to give her props, though, for covering a much-loved Neil Young song, Only Love Can Break Your Heart. It’s not easy, I’m sure, tackling such an iconic song and she did it well if a little too heavy-handed for me. You can find Jenn Grant on MySpace and at her website.
Kevin Hearn is best known for his work with The Barenaked Ladies and The Rheostatics. He has a lovely voice that can be delicate or hard-edged. His songs were interesting but I was standing in the wrong spot because I had trouble hearing him. It didn’t help that there were two women who were laughing and talking loudly but the crowd was so thick that it was hard to move to a different spot without ending up out the door. The one lyric I did manage to catch belonged to a, I thought, humorous song about a relationship. I would definitely go see Hearn again, if only to hear what I missed last night but also because the stuff I did hear was intriguing enough to pique my curiosity. I also like his stuff on his MySpace. I’m sure a lot of people will be familiar with his songs, Lancaster Bomber and Map Of The Human Genome both of which I have heard on the radio.
Lastly, Jason Plumb. As I said previously, I had heard a fair bit about him and was not disappointed. When it was his turn at the mic, you really could not take your eyes off him. His stint with the Walton’s did not get wasted because I’m sure he has taken that experience and used it as a jump-off point for his own career. His three songs were the best of the night, they built from simple acoustic guitar to epic endings that had everyone on stage playing full-out. Glenn Milchem got to show his sizeable drumming skills on these few songs propelling them along and never letting up. Plumb knew how to control the crowd, we never stood a chance from the first note. I’m not familiar enough with his songs to know them by sound and I didn’t hear the introductions so I’m guessing here but I think he did Empire On The Plains. If this was the song I think it was, then it was as dynamic a song live as it is on record. It started unpretentiously enough with acoustic guitar but built to a crashing ending with everyone on stage playing flat out. Wonderful. I would go see him again in a heart-beat. Get him on stage with Jim Cuddy and you’ve got yourself a party. He will be playing C’est What tomorrow (June 20) and I will try to get down to see him but there are other bands (Young Galaxy, Band Of Skulls, Emma Lee) I would like to see as well. Anyway, if you aren’t doing anything and you like alt/country go see him, you will have a great time. You can find out more into by visiting his MySpace page. And, as always, you can find all these artists music on iTunes.