Thursday, March 8, 2012

Kathleen Edwards' hand crafted folk explosion igntes Exit/In stage

Singer/Songwriter Kathleen Edwards tears up Exit/In.
It's not often that I make the trip to see Canadian singer/songwriters, but I sensed something special in Kathleen Edwards. The Ottawa native caught my eye with the single "Change the Sheets," a hook driven power pop affair nestled in a luscious bed of organic instrumentation.

Her recently released Voyager album has been drawing more attention for who was in the production booth than it had for its actual content. The fact that Bon Iver's Justin Vernon was the album's producer has caused this album to generate much more of a buzz than it likely would have otherwise.

If you're wondering if Edwards delivers a similar recorded in a log cabin type of feel, well, the answer is yes and no. She measures each word carefully and thoughtfully, placing near as much emphasis on the message she's trying to get across as she does on the actual music itself. The result was that Voyager presented itself as a very thoughtful record, if a tad bit on the safe side. But her Jan. 28 performance at Exit/In would paint a different picture, as Edwards swept the crowd away in a gale force whirling dervish.

Fellow Canadian and opening act Hannah Georgas kept the seat warm for Edwards with a serving of plucky pop/rock. I see a girl step on to the stage in brown hiking boots, sporting bangs of burnt auburn with curls that cascade down to her shoulders. She is clad in the type of getup that suggests she may have just finished a trek through the cross Canadian ragweed.

Her music is characterized by heartfelt vocals over top of light, breezy pop music, as she gently plucks the strings of her Harmony Stratotone. Her guitar playing is generally subdued, but when she lets the full energy of each chord ring out, as she did on "Enemies," the results are striking. Other highlights incldue "Millions," which smartly captures a sense of financial angst, and she also pulled off an upbeat, bouncy cover of John Maus's "Hey Moon."

There's a  legion of twentysomething chicks armed with pen and pad who have plenty of issues to get off their chest, and Georgas didn't particularly distinguish herself from that crowd on this night. But why let that bother us as long as the music is just plain fun?

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon lays it all on the line.

As soon as Edwards appeared she left no doubt about what type of statement she was trying to make, announcing that her dress is a bit see through. "Sorry," she says, in a tone that suggests she's anything but.

Her set kicked off with the dramatic one two punch of "Empty Threat" and "Comedian/Chameleon," the first two tracks from the Voyageur album. "Comedian/Chameleon" in particular is interesting because it tells the story of a person who tries to hide their true selves by making jokes and acting like a comedian. She exposes the superficiality of such behavior by singing, "I don't need a punchline."

Elsewhere, "6 O'Clock" presented a nice small town, alt-country shuffle, while Edwards really got her feathers ruffled on the stinging "Back to Me." But the most elegant moment of the evening may have come when the band left her side to allow Edwards to give a solo performance of "House Full of Empty Rooms."

She prefaced it by explaining that the inspiration for the song came when she once owned a house that was much larger than she needed, which left many of the rooms empty and vacant. She began wondering what to do with a house full of empty rooms -- which gave rise to the theme of the song. Her quiet performance allowed the full impact of the song to fully resonate throughout the room.

Near the end of the show, we were all in for a great treat when the man himself Justin Vernon made a surprise appearance. Many fans and critics get up in arms over Vernon for his singing and songwriting skills, but at Exit/In Vernon reminded us that he's also a great guitarist. He delivered soul filled solos on "Goodnight California" and "12 Bellevue," his body twisting and jerking as he poured out every drop of emotion.

By show's end, I was more impressed than I can remember myself feeling from a show in a long time. The Voyageur album certainly demonstrated that Edwards is thoughtful, but live she reveals herself to be a firebrand as well.
Right away it's clear that there's something different about these tracks. Note wise they're the same, but Edwards brings a passion and virulent energy to these songs that was conspicuously absent from the recorded version. The intensity is etched plainly all over her face, from the burning drive behind her eyes to the way her head shakes ever so slightly when belting it out. It was evident during "Mint," when she suddenly jerked back from the microphone and violently slashed downward at her guitar strings.

There are more than a few chicks who try to be trendy by scribbling their problems onto a sheet. This is obviously a woman who's seen it, felt it, lived it, and is now trying to verbalize. And it will hit you how superficial the army of imitators are once you've seen the real thing.

We get it, Kathleen. You don't need a punchline.

Edwards shared a great sense of chemistry with axeman Gord Tough.

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