[This article was originally published on Vacay.ca]
By its nature, roots music makes a statement through understatement. It uses poetry and art and subtlety to snake its way into a groove that listeners find themselves wanting to retrace time and again. If rock ‘n roll and hip hop are the Saturday night club, then roots and folk music are the neighbourhood coffee shop — the place we always wind up when we want to think and gain perspective and sense community.
Tom Wilson may look like Saturday night — and he’s no doubt enjoyed the rock lifestyle — but his songs have always had the elements of folk music, from their melodies to their characters who possess the depth necessary to connect a listener with their struggles.
On “The Folk Sinner,” the sophisticated second album by his Lee Harvey Osmond project, Wilson shows he’s at his finest these days when there is minimal bombast. With the goal of “serving the music first,” Wilson and his bandmates deliver an elegantly produced album with throaty vocals and a touch of First Nations texture in songs like “Big Chief.” It is reminiscent of Robbie Robertson’s brilliant self-titled album from 1987. “The Folk Sinner” also evokes another celebrated Canadian songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot. A cover of his song “Oh Linda” kicks off the album and was a highlight of Friday night’s performance inToronto that featured Wilson and several of his friends, who just happen to be among Canada’s most talented musicians.
Wilson’s Blackie and the Rodeo Kings bandmate Colin Linden performed “Oh Linda” while Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, Oh Susanna, the Skydiggers‘ Andy Maize, and Paul Reddick were also on stage at the Great Hall for a 90-minute set that showed folk songs have no problem turning into rock music when infused with the energy of a live show and Wilson’s showmanship.
“That configuration has never played together before. They’re all friends of mine and have been for a long time. The idea was to serve the music, to put it first and see where it takes us,” Wilson told me on Tuesday.
A charismatic frontman, Wilson keeps audiences engaged with his humour, some of it self-effacing (“I’ve been on a no-wheat diet and I’m trimmed down and feeling good, but before the show I had a burger for the first time in months and I tell you, I owned that bun, man”), and talents, whether with his vocals or his on-stage antics. On “The Folk Sinner,” “Freedom” is a funky foot-tapping number highlighted by horns and slide guitar, but in concert it smoulders. With a riveting and fiery delivery, Wilson urges anyone within earshot to unshackle themselves and move.
Timmins’ sister, Margo, will be making appearances on upcoming tour dates, Wilson said. Hawksley Workman, who performs on the album’s first single, “Break Your Body Down,” will also join this rambling group of aging and congenial musicians who will show audiences that great concerts are still about great musicianship, not distracting choreography and lip-synching.
“We’re really astonished by the response. To be able to put 470 people into that hall is quite something,” Wilson said about Friday night’s show, which was part of Canadian Music Week festivities. “The album has been No. 1 in Canada already on the Americana Roots charts and we’re getting airplay in the States.”
Tom Wilson’s son, Thompson Wilson, is making a name of his own as the bass player for Harlan Pepper, a Hamilton, Ontario quartet that is poised for big things. Their forthcoming album was produced in Nashville, Tennessee by Colin Linden and their opening set at the Great Hall on Friday showed tremendous maturity and talent.
“They’re born into a tradition of music and living around music, so for them to be good musicians isn’t a surprise. They’re already great writers and already a great band. I wish I was that good when I was 19, 20 years old,” Wilson said.
One of the most intriguing shows during Canadian Music Week occurred at the El Mocambo on Saturday night, when Britain’s Charlotte Church took the stage at the legendary club and belted out a mesmerizing set of songs. Church was once a child prodigy, making the world take notice with her operatic vocals. She sold more than 10 million records before turning her attention to pop music in 2005. She hasn’t gained nearly as much notoriety for her career in that genre, partly because her songs aren’t radio-friendly. They’re entertaining, though, and very good.
Now 27, Church is promoting a new album in North America, and taking people’s breath away with that voice of hers that seems like a miracle with its range and ability to rattle every molecule of a listener’s body when unleashed. Her song “How Not to be Surprised When You’re a Ghost” is an impressive tune that might remind you of something Kate Bush or Siouxsie and the Banshees might sing — except better.