By Tony Birch
The last week has been rather Canadian, and I don't just mean the sub-zero temperatures with snow lying even in the micro-climate that is central London. We're fortunate to be on the tour trail for visiting performers and in just six days I got to see some of the very best Canada has to offer.
It started with The LYNNeS at The Green Note. I've mentioned it a few times, as it's my favourite London venue, so maybe I'll should tell you a bit more about it and try to get it on your bucket list. You'll find it in Camden, an area known for it's bohemian atmosphere and market. It almost certainly used to be a shop and only became a music venue in 2005. Since then it's become iconic and musicians want to play there. It's probably an urban myth that Leonard Cohen walked in one night to see if he could play and was told “You can have a couple, if you're quick”, but he's certainly visited. It's a narrow building and the auditorium is behind a curtain. It holds 60 or so, just over half get seats but if you want a good view you need to be in the first dozen in the queue. The stage is small, quartets can struggle to fit on it, so why is it packed out every night? The simple answer is the quality of the music and the atmosphere. This is a venue for musicians and fans of music, you don't go there to chat but to listen to the performers and they appreciate that. The sound is always excellent and there's a very good bar too. The food is vegan, the beer artisan, everything about is it quality in an environment that is cosy, welcoming and warm. There's music every night, with a tiny basement for really intimate sessions, and you should go if you ever get the chance.
A listening audience doesn't mean you sit there in silence, though, especially with The LYNNeS in full flow. If you've not come across them before you really should. Juno award winner Lynn Miles and award-winner Lynne Hanson have teamed up to produce heartbreak songs that draw you in. The album they've released “Heartbreak Songs For The Radio” is really special, certainly worth getting, but hearing played live is even better because what you get are two people who're so interesting and funny to listen to. They have stories of many years on the road which can make you laugh or cry and are very often the inspiration for the songs. I hope they return soon, I know Lynne Hanson is back with her band in the autumn and I won't be missing out.
A few days later, and with the weather even worse, I finally got to achieve an ambition I've had for a long time. Dave Gunning is a musician I liked from the very first hearing and I finally got the chance to see him play live. That's one I wasn't going to miss but the icing on the cake was that The Ennis Sisters were on the same bill. I've seen them before, in Canada, so it was lovely to catch up again and they made the perfect combination. Between them they write songs that are full of soul and have a resonance, even for somebody who lives the other side of the pond. Dave is from Nova Scotia, the Ennis sisters from Newfoundland, and as I discovered when I visited the east coast they're places that are slightly out of time. The main industries of coal, steel and fishing have largely gone, along with the family farms and the area is starting to depopulate. If people want work they have to move away, leaving their families and a culture behind. A lot of the songs reflected this regret but also the hold the area keeps has over it's inhabitants who want to return “home” at some stage in their life, even if it's only to be buried there. The Ennis Sisters have a beautiful song called “Take Me Home” which is a family story on exactly that subject. I've always liked Dave Gunning's song “Coal From The Train” but hadn't realised it's based on a true story told to him by his grandfather. You can only get that back-story at a live performance. It certainly wasn't all gloom though, and Dave told the funniest story of a dead dog I've ever heard. It wouldn't normally be a subject for humour, perhaps, but the surrealism to attempting to scatter it's ashes on a beach on a windy day with everyone wearing sunscreen had us roaring with laughter !
I've harped on about this before, but in a small venue you not only see a performer, you get to meet them and you couldn't wish to meet nicer people than I did this week. It wasn't just a “meet and greet” by the merch table either because we all had a common interest, so it was a gathering of friends. The Rolling Stones have just announced some UK dates and I'd love to see them but they're playing huge venues with thousands of people and probably giant video screens so I won't be going. I'll be somewhere very much smaller with a pint in my hand, making eye contact, and I'll have a much better time of it.
I know I'm preaching to the converted here but how do I get to find out about all these visiting artists? I won't hear about them on mainstream radio, that's for sure, so I don't bother listening to it. To hear the music I want to listen to I have to explore the back roads and byways and that's where Blues and Roots Radio provides such an invaluable service. It really does provide “the best music you've never heard” and long may it continue.