Friday, November 9, 2012

James Keelaghan Trio, The Bassment, Nov 7, 2012

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos, 2012
Video from the Internet

James Keelaghan

Every once in a while, you hear someone with a pure voice and it takes you by surprise, be it a Roy Orbison, kd lang, or James Keelaghan.

I first became aware of Calgary-native Keelaghan in the very early 1990s, while attending the Calgary Folk Festival. Initially, I was there to see the likes of Dave Alvin (ex- the Blasters), Odetta (RIP, 2008), and the underrated Proclaimers (“[I Would Walk] 500 Miles”), who put on a terrific live show. It was there that I also learned of Anne Lorre, Bob Wiseman, and Keelaghan’s amazing tenor voice. His release at the time, Small Rebellions, was an instant classic in the Canadian canon of singer-songwriters (I bought it on cassette at that show); to illustrate its strength, one song on it, “Red River Rising” (about the Métis Rebellion of 1885), was covered by no less than three other artists during the weekend. I can easily avow that there is not a filler song on the entire collection.

But that second release was early on in his now-25-year career, and I had not seen him play since. Sure, I’ve heard the recordings, and I had been waiting for him to play New York City for a number of years, but of course, he finally did after I moved to Saskatoon. It was with great joy that I saw that he was coming to one of my favorite clubs, the Bassment (yes, that is how it is spelled), where I had seen so many other great artists like Don Griffith (jazz), the Oral Fuentes Band (reggae) and Absofunkenutely (well, funk…duh). It’s a nice sized room, and yet still remains intimate. It was a perfect setting for enjoying the James Keelaghan Trio that cold night, on Wednesday, November 7, 2012.

My pal in Saskatoon, Dave Hiebert, is not only a JK fan, but sings a couple of his songs when he’s busking, usually downtown, at Flowers By Fred or at the Farmer’s Market, so who better to share the experience. We arrived early and scored some seats by the stage. A clear shot for both my eye and my camera. I decided not to use flash until the last song due to how close we were, and the nature of the show.

David Woodhead
It’s clear from the moment the trio hit the stage, they were not just fellow musicians, but compadres, from the vibe given from the performance. While JK took the lead with guitar and vocals, the other two switched off on multiple instruments. David Woodhouse was on a beautiful fretless bass, and a warm and worn acoustic guitar. Not only an accompanist, he is also a solo act (just not this night) and a studio musician / producer who has appeared on over 200 recordings since 1975, for the likes of Lorenna McKennit, Valdy, Gil Scott-Heron, and both Garnet and Stan Rogers. Oh, did I mention his sons were the foundation of Spiral Beach? On lead 10-string mandolin and bass was Hugh McMillan, more famously known as part of the classic Canadian band, Spirit of the West.

The older audience (i.e., around my age and above) was revved and hyped, and well versed in – er – Keelahania. And JK responded in kind with kindness. While there was a set list that covered his entire career, he also accepted requests that were occasionally shouted out from the audience (such as “Woodsmoke and Oranges”). While occasionally covering songs and having collaborated with some of the other top Canadian songwriters such as Rose Cousins, his own pieces play strongly with language, such as the opening lines of the sing-along-response “Hillcrest Mines”: “Down in the mines of the Crowsnest Pass / It’s the men who die in labor / Sweating coal from the womb of the pit / It’s the smell of life they savor.”

Hugh McMillan
 JK’s songs lean towards (but are not inclusive to) a reflection of life, a cultural sensitivity, a piece of historical narrative, or all of the above. Whether he’s discussing a particular bar he visited in Ireland (“McConvilles”), Canadian Japanese interment camps (“Kiri’s Piano”), waiting to take a ferry (“Departure Bay”: “The fog is rolling in / It’s gonna be a bad one / It’s as thick as soup / Gee I sure wish I had some”) or the everyday life of the working class (too many to mention), he uses his prose pen to make the point, but never to the position of getting lost in the poetic opaque. Not all these songs were played that night, but hey, I’m making a point here. And speaking of which:

This tour is to continue to promote JK’s 11th full release, 2009’s House of Cards, (available HERE), so naturally many of the songs were from there, including the title cut and as the encore, “Safe Home.” But there were also quite a few from over the course of his career during the two 50-minute sets, including “Fires of Calais,” “My Skies,” and “Hillcrest Mines”.

Between most songs, as JK tuned his guitar to a particular setting, he told the back-story to many of the songs with lightness and ease that never bogged down the time. Usually I’m not a fan of commentary between numbers because they tend to be facile, but JK was just the opposite, drawing us in and making the songs all the more poignant. Hey, even David Woodhouse got to tell what he claims is his only joke: “Why are there no banjos on Star Trek?” Well, to get the answer, you’ll have to ask him (I am not going to steal the man’s one joke!).

The story I’ve heard is that JK once worked in the construction biz, and that he’d write poetry inside ducts while the buildings were being erected, and they remain hidden until some day in the future. This gives some insight to the wit behind JK. With no disrespect meant, he looks as imposing as a man who works high steel, but there is a gentleness about him when he sings and talks that is in a joyful contradiction.
The James Keelaghan Trio are approaching the end of their tour (and just in time, too, considering the weather), as they drive east across western Canada, ending in Winnipeg, but you’d never know it from the energy level coming from the stage. They all seem as musically tight as the journeymen (journeypersons?) musicians they are, and yet made every song sound like it was as much a joy to play as it was to hear them perform it.

The only negative thing about the show for me was that there was just so much more I wanted to hear, cuts like “Somewhere Ahead” or one of my personal faves, “Misty Mountain.” What I am saying is that the nearly two hours just wasn’t enough. I was greedy and wanted more than was reasonable.

Let me sum it all up by putting it this way: you know a good time is happening when the 15-minute intermission feels longer than the two sets.
This blog is dedicated in thanks to JK and Joelle.

Bonus video:
(note: not from this night, nor filmed by me; that is David Woodhead playing bass behind him)

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