Until recently I'd not realised both the quality and quantity of great music there is in Canada. It's a very diverse country and one that has managed to retain the cultures of the people who've settled it over the years. It's also a country that has undergone a real change as traditional industries have gone, causing a lot of upheaval. Two of the best commentators and documentors of this change made an all to rare visit to the UK recently and I was fortunate enough to be at one of their shows. We'd even provided suitably Canadian weather for the event for them as storm Emma and sub-zero temperatures dumped snow right into the heart of London.
Dave Gunning, Canadian Folk Music and Juno award winner, is an artist I first became familiar with through Blues and Roots Radio http://www.bluesandrootsradio.com/ , a Canadian based internet station who major on independent artists, taking shows from around the World, and are an incredible resource for anyone looking for music the mainstream won't pay attention to, so it was a real thrill to finally get to see him live. I had seen The Ennis Sisters before, but as a duo rather than trio. As double bill they make a really powerful combination with songs that are moving but also full of social comment about where they come from, on the eastern seaboard of Canada. This is an area that has undergone change as traditional industries such as fishing, small scale farming and mining have declined. There's also been a noticable shift of populations into towns and many people have had to leave the area to find work in places like Alberta or Ontario. These are all subjects for songs which look back on a more simpler way of life, although it's also accepted that poverty has become less desperate.
Dave, from Nova Scotia, started the evening with a solo set which opened with "They Don't Do That No More", a song from his latest album Lift exploring the theme of social change. The dance hall, where everyone attended and many met their sweethearts has long gone, along with home-made bread but people no longer need to grow food in the yard to ensure they have something to eat when times are hard. Another song he played on the evening, "Coal From The Train", is based on a story told to him by his Grandfather, who worked on the railway. In small communities everybody knew everyone and the train drivers would occasionally shovel some coal out on to the trackside if they passed somewhere going through a tough patch so that there would be some fuel for the home stove. This idea of community is also seen in one of my favourite songs of his, "Game Goin' On". This is a story about Ice Hockey, but not at the professional level. This is about the rink made by a community on a pond at the edge of the where everyone gets together to smooth the ice and plays just for the fun of it. Everyone gets a go, whether they can skate and play or not. These are very songs about people being nice to each other, and looking out for each other, because that's better than the alternatives and very much sums up the Canadian way of life.
Dave then left the stage to allow The Ennis Sisters, also Juno winner, to come on. Maureen (oldest or first born, depending on who's talking). Karen and "Mother" Theresa have a very simple set up with Maureen on guitar and all three providng vocals. They also had Mark Murphy on percussion and vocals, who added immesely to the evening. They opened with "Summer of My Dreams", a song about being young and with your family when everything was so much easier. The perfect harmonies of the sisters, their total understanding of each other, and the simple treatment of this song moved everybody in the auditorium. It got even better when Dave Gunning returned for the final song of the first half, his anthemic "With These Hands" which was a Great American Song Contest winner in 2014. It asked a very simple question; look at what people have done with their hands, what will you do with yours? The audience were quite content to use their hands give all the artists a huge round of applause to take us into the interval.
The Ennis Sisters returned for the majority of the second half. They hail from Newfoundland, which I was surprised to doscover was an independent dominion as recently as 1949 when it finally joined Canada. It's also undergone great change, particularly that caused by the collapse cod fishery in the 1990s. What's also changed is the urbanisation of the population, as political policy was to move people to bigger communities where, as was said on the night, "They could get access to all the Government services they didn't want and didn't know they needed". This is covered in their version of Gary O'Driscoll's "Out From St Leonards", where whole communities were relocated
For to go to Toronto to follow their goals,
Or to go to Placentia to live on the dole.
What many of the people who left Newfoundland never lost, though, was this sense of a home they would return to one day. "Take Me Home" is another family story of their Uncle Ronnie who had moved away to find and didn't eventually return home until after his death. This is a beautiful song about the need to have a home, a place of solace and safety you can return to. It's a warm song despite the back story.
That summed up the night, these two worked so well because they cover all aspects of life, with all it's nuances, good times and bad. Dave told a story about his dog dying. Although it started off sad he slowly built in some really surreal images and we ended up roaring with laughter. King's Place is a modern theatre and arts space that can, on occasions, have problems creating a atmosphere for music but on this night we felt as if we were gathered around the fire, possibly in the kitchen, talking with good friends and family who just happen to have a couple of instruments with them. Dave's voice has a huskiness to it that does suggest a farmer or fisherman, somebody who spends his life out in the elements. The Ennis Sisters have the most wonderful three-part harmony, with an Irish lilt to it that is perfectly normal where they come from. They're all lovely people as well, very easy to talk and genuinely pleased to meet their audience during the interval and after the show. It's a shame we don't get to see them over here more often but for those of you lucky enough to live closer, take every chance you get to see them.
I can't finish the review without mentioning, and thanking, the staff at King's Place especially Anthony and his team in Hall 2, who went out of their way to help me on the night, suggesting the best places to take pictures from and explaing the rules in such a friendly and considerate way. They were a big part of an exceptionally good evening of music and one I'll remember for a long time.
Tony Birch - Words, Pictures
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