Saturday, December 08, 2018

Prairie winds: Colter Wall, Belle Plaine, Foxwarren

Backstage at Regina's Artesian on 13th,
Oct. 31. I'm squatting, on the right; Dustin Ritter
is standing, third from right
November 2018: the month I finally learned that Regina has a music scene. And man, oh man, was I missing out.

On my recent book tour promoting The Never-Ending Present, my schedule placed me in Regina on Hallowe’en, a night when a lot of venues were unwilling to host a book event—except the Artesian on 13th, a converted church now being run as a co-op venue. The only catch? I had to rent the venue. So I decided to book a full-on rock show and charge a cover to take care of expenses (and pay the band, of course). My fellow Polaris Prize juror Darlene Barss agreed to host the evening and forwarded me a few names, which sent me down a wormhole. Several local scenesters sent their regrets, including Megan Nash, Library Voices and Nick Faye.

The Dustin Ritter Band agreed to put together a bunch of local all-stars, only one of whom—Marshall Ward of Rah Rah—I was previously familiar with (that band’s 2015 album Vessels was one of my favourites that year). The others were Travis Rennebohm and Ethan Bender from Tiger Charmer, Christopher “Tiny” Matchett, Tyler Gilbert and Bryce Van Loosen. Everyone did an ace job, and the gig couldn’t have gone better, musically speaking, and there was a wonderful, generous spirit in the room (although attendance-wise, yes, booking a gig on Hallowe’en is not a great idea).

That night I met Blake Berglund and Melanie Hankewich (a.k.a. Belle Plaine), who bought a copy of the book and expressed regrets that they couldn’t take part in the show, because they’d just got back from tour that day. I knew Belle Plaine’s new CD had arrived on my desk just before I left on tour; she was going to be in Toronto soon, opening for Colter Wall, whose record I’d reviewed in advance before I left.

So in the space of a month I’ve gone from being totally ignorant of Regina’s incredibly fertile music scene—including forgetting the fact that Andy Shauf is from there, and being unfamiliar with the Dead South—to being acutely interested.

Mea culpa: I’m also the jackass with a Canadian studies degree who misspelled Saskatchewan in a national music magazine 15 years ago. But at least I know that canola is a modern variant of what used to be called rapeseed.

Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains (Sony)

Quick: name the last great songwriter from Saskatchewan. [ed note: what an ignoramus! Jon Bartlett will kill you for not remembering Shauf.] I’d suggest the duo Kacy & Clayton of Wood Mountain Hills in south Saskatchewan, but I’ll forgive you if you haven’t heard of them (yet). Colter Wall (son of a recent provincial premier, no less) has been the talk of Nashville for a couple of years now, and when he travels the world he’s surprised no one knows anything about his home province. So, much like his Albertan friend Corb Lund, who sings backup here, he’s made his songwriting primarily local—and in doing so, has found universal appeal.

Produced by Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile), Songs of the Plains sounds like a campfire record, with little more than guitar, upright bass, and the instantly recognizable harmonica of Mickey Raphael, a.k.a. Willie Nelson’s right-hand man. The stark setting serves Wall’s rich baritone well, making the material that much more haunting—which is appropriate, because much of what Wall does is rooted in an antiquated view of Prairie life.

He covers of Wilf Carter and three other old cowboy songs, but gets his history a bit confused on the otherwise worthy “Saskatchewan in 1881”: “Mr. Toronto man, go away from my door / got my wheat and canola seed / you’re asking me for more / you’d better fly before I produce my .44.” The word “canola” wasn’t coined until 1978, for a genetically modified derivative of the not-so-friendly “rapeseed,” so no one in 1881 would have referred to their crops as “canola.” One would suspect such a strongly self-identifying Prairie boy to know that.

No matter: otherwise, this sophomore record shows that Wall is more than just a historical re-enactment act. (Nov. 2)

Stream: “Plain to See Plainsman,” “Saskatchewan in 1881,” “Wild Dogs”

Belle Plaine – Malice, Mercy, Grief & Wrath (Rawlco)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Colter Wall’s second album, and asked the rhetorical question: when was the last time you heard a great artist from Regina?

What an ass. I need to take that back. Big time. Not just because of this new album by Belle Plaine, but because having recently visited the city, I’ve been awakened to a wealth of talent in the roots rock and country world there that makes it one of the most exciting music scenes in Canada. And Belle Plaine’s album might make the best argument why that is.

Belle Plaine is Melanie Hankewich, who grew up in Fosston, Saskatchewan (it’s between Humboldt and Kelvington, due east of Saskatoon—but basically in the middle of nowhere). This is her third album, and she draws deeply from her local community: Colter Wall, Kacy Anderson (of Kacy & Clayton), Megan Nash, and Blake Berglund, who is her partner, guitarist, and a solo artist in his own right. The album is produced by Jason Plumb, best remembered as the frontman of the ’90s band the Waltons.

All that talent is put to use on nine songs that range from traditional country to torch songs to more contemporary singer-songwriter fare, all showcasing Hankewich’s haunting, jazz-trained voice. She draws character portraits of loss and longing, occasionally inhabiting stories much older than she—and, in the case of opening track, “For All Those Who I love,” an abusive father filled with regret. She’s also able to write a classic country zinger, like the song with the chorus: “Is it cheatin’ if you don’t get laid? / Is it a gig if you don’t get paid? / Is it a crying shame if my tears don’t fall?” (Nov. 16)

Stream: “Golden Ring” feat. Megan Nash, “Is It Cheating” feat. Colter Wall and Blake Berglund, “Laila Sady Johnson Wasn’t Beaten By No Train”

Foxwarren – s/t (Arts and Crafts)

You’re an artist from a small regional centre in Canada who finally achieves international recognition under your own name, with sold-out shows across North America and Europe. For your follow-up, you decide to… resurrect your obscure band from ten years ago and put out its debut album, with your name nowhere on the cover? An odd choice, yes, but that’s exactly what singer-songwriter Andy Shauf—whose 2016 breakthrough album The Party landed on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist—has done with Foxwarren, a group of old Regina friends who decided to finish what they started a decade ago.

On the surface, it’s not that different from Shauf’s solo work: the baked couch-potato vibe rarely strays from mid-tempo, the late-Beatles production aesthetic is delicate and exquisite, and of course Shauf’s slightly marblemouth vocals are distinctive. For whatever reason—maybe it’s Shauf’s own musical maturity, or maybe because these old mates (especially the drummer) bring out the best in the man who played every instrument on The Party himself—this is more musically rewarding than The Party on several levels. Which makes the decision to keep Shauf’s name out of the brand all the more puzzling. (Nov. 30)

Stream: "To Be," "Everything Apart," "I’ll Be Alright”

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