- Central United Church, Nov 13/09
It started as a smoldering groove in a knock-out red frock, built into a smocking jam session that threatened to tumble off the packed stage, and ended as a heartfelt lullaby singalong standing on the pews. Not bad at all for a church concert.
I'd seen both artists perform previously, most recently at Calgary Folk Festival appearances, and had a suspicion that this musical pairing was a particularly inspired idea for a tour. And not just because they are both uncommonly pretty people either. Melissa McClelland and Justin Rutledge have two of the sweetest and purest voices in Canadian music today and their vaguely alt-country styles complement each other so perfectly that it's surprising nobody thought of this before. One of the first thoughts that crossed my mind upon hearing about this concert was that it would be criminal if they didn't perform at least a couple of songs together.
Fortunately both musicians turned out to be on the right side of the law, and besides we were in a church after all, so those of us in the near capacity audience on Friday night were treated to some awfully sweet collaborations.
The venue, always perfect for intimate concerts, is fast becoming one of my favourites. Central United Church is right on the C-train line, and features the soaring architecture, sculptured ceilings, and gleaming wood of some of the other downtown houses of worship which have been pressed into service as musical venues. But it's the pie-wedge shaped room that sets it apart, in that it ensures that there is not a single bad seat in the house. And the pews are cushioned. Nice.
Melissa McClelland took to the stage first, her stunning red frock belying the casual and comfortable approach which she brought to her performance. And she did it right too. Flanked by a violinist and a bassist, McClelland started the evening with a slow measured groove on her first two songs, and then proceeded to mix it up with a duet with Rutledge. Gradually the band grew, with the addition of a drummer and finally an electric guitarist, each addition adding more complexity and more vigour to the music. By the end of her set, the church was pretty much rollicking, with outbursts of applause for particularly inspired riffs bursting forth from the assembled.
When Justin Rutledge took over the stage, after a break to allow half the women in the church to line up for the two-seater bathroom, he followed a similar approach, with he and his guitar accompanied by a slide guitarist. Anyone who has ever heard a note of his music knows that Rutledge has a heartbreakingly lovely voice, but who knew that he was so funny? "You should see me in that dress" were his opening words, and he played to the Calgary audience very skillfully, name-dropping local establishments, lamenting the lineups that were sure to form at a local diner the next morning, and then carefully considering one offer from an audience member to have her cook breakfast for him instead.
But the playful banter, off the wall and refreshing as it was, really was outshone by the performance. By the time the guitarist, bassist, drummer, and Melissa McClelland had joined him onstage for a slowed down bluesy rendition of Johnny Be Good, we had been treated to a tasty blend of acoustic ballads and rocking numbers.
After a mercifully brief pause between the applause and the encore ("where am I going to go? It's not like I have a cab waiting to take me to the Deerfoot Inn ... although we really should go to the Deerfoot Inn..."), Rutledge wrapped up with a flourish, wandering into the congregation, clamouring up on a pew and leading us all in a singalong of Don't Be So Mean Jellybean.
And as far as I am concerned, every concert should end in a singalong.