Saturday, November 14, 2009

gathering in the warmth of autumn's cold chains

Justin Rutledge & Melissa McClelland
- 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.


Wandering Coyote said...

Another great gig review!

mister anchovy said...

I agree about the singalong. Where is Pete Seeger when you need him.

Since I first heard the term "alt-country" I've struggled with it. I guess the problem is the the name "country" has been so co-opted to refer to that strange brand of sentimental pop music that comes out of Nashville, that some other category had to be invented to bucket any harder to categorize act who might show a little respect for American roots music.

When I was growing up, I didn't know about "country" music. However, I did know about something else, which my dad called "country and western" that used to refer to the kind of honky-tonk music that say, Buck Owens played. Maybe in more recent years we could put Don Walser or the Mavericks or Ian Tyson or Corb Lund into that bucket, but I hardly ever hear anyone saying "country and western" any more.

Excellent review by the way.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'm happy you enjoyed it, Wandering Coyote. Thanks.

You make some excellent points, Mr Anchovy. I think you are right that the term alt-country was coined to differentiate it from the horrid pop music that passes for most modern country music. Also it is close in sound and sensibility to alternative/indie music, so I think the name fits.
Whatever did happen to the term country and western, anyway? Certainly some of those artists you named could be easily categorized as such and I am sure they would be proud to wear that label as well.
Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

Allison said...

Cushioned pews and singalongs! Sounds like a brilliant night out. I haven't listened to these artists before, so thank-you for posting those clips. Great review!

bloody awful poetry said...

One day, ONE DAY, I need to attend a church gig. With singalonging, of course!

So educate me ; Justin Rutledge is considered alt-country? Would that include Ryan Adams? All those miserablist males of similar ilk? Cuase I get so much shtick for listening to them. Seriously. Everyone's like "".

Barbara Bruederlin said...

The cushioned pews were a really nice touch, the singalong was divine, Al.

You just tell those mean little friends of yours that country can be awesome and very cool, BAP.
I would actually consider Justin Rutledge to be folk/alt-country/indie. The lines get blurred.

Sean Wraight said...

So do you think the venue has an effect on the performers as much as the audience? There must be a certain reverence that imbibes the music. Something I would think can't really be achieved at the local watering hole.

What an inspired pairing though, it must have been thrilling for you. Did you see if the CBC was recording it or anything? I would so love to hear it.

Excellent work on the review too. Your style is becoming very distinctive and a throughly enjoyable read.

Keep up the great work with those. They are greatly appreciated.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

There is definitely a difference between a church show and a bar show, Sean. At a church show, the performers apologize every time they say fuck. True story, every single time.

Sadly, the CBC was not recording, although it would have been a natural, I agree. I don't even think there were a lot a camera phone recordings, not that I could detect anyway.