A review by
PORT HARDY—By their own admission, the leaders of the Vancouver-based, alt-roots band Headwater were a bit intimidated for the first few numbers of Saturday’s concert at the Civic Centre.
But it was nothing a bit of quality music, punctuated by some well-timed surprises, couldn’t solve in short order.
Appearing in the third event of the North Island Concert Society’s 2012-13 season, Headwater presented the audience a compendium of the roots/folk spectrum, in both original songs and tributes to some of their influences.
And some Peter Gabriel.
The founding duo of Jonas Shandel (guitar, percussion) and Matt Bryant (mandolin, guitar) have written and performed for more than 10 years. In that time they have become accustomed to the club scene and have moved into demand on the festival circuit.
The experience of headlining a one-act show, lights dimmed over a rapt audience hanging on their every note, was another matter.
Fortunately, the pair was backed by a capable trio in guitarist Noah Walker, vocalist Hilary Grist and upright bassist Michael Rush, recent additions to a group which had been made up of four men for the band’s first three albums — the self-titled Headwater (2006), Lay You Down (2009) and Push, a six-song EP released last May.
The lineup provided a lush, textured sound that allowed the group to expand on the sound of its early folk work. The addition of Grist’s female vocal enhanced the harmonies, Walker brought a rock-and-roll presence on electric guitar and Rush added bow work to his plucking on the double bass. In addition, Shandel occasionally tapped a digital foot-pedal drum to add percussion.
Both band and audience started somewhat slowly — Shandel needed three starts at Never Going Back to get in the right key, and the crowd sat on its hands for some of the early solos.
But Headwater’s unpredictability seemed to force the fans to sit up and take notice, and those patrons responded as the group ranged from the easy ballad Your Love to John Hiatt’s up-tempo Master of Disaster, to the a cappella harmonies of Gillian Welch’s Rock of Ages to Bryant’s blues stomper Out to the Country, on which Walker was allowed to unleash his rockabilly chops on guitar.
In case the sublime Winter Song didn’t cement the relationship between band and audience, the group’s signature number, Freight Train, did the trick. Written by Fred Eaglesmith but adopted and refined by Headwater, Freight Train closed out the first set and ended with Shandell leaping from the stage on the final chord as the spotlights went dark and the crowd whooped its approval.
Another surprise was in the offing on the show-closer, the band’s cover of The Bills’ Francis. The song started like the Bills’ three-and-a-half minute traditional folk song, but when Walker’s guitar solo came up, he hijacked the tune and his bandmates on what became a nearly 10-minute epic. Walker kept building and speeding the tempo, until finally unleashing a full-metal assault complete with whammy bar, fuzz pedal and mass distortion as Bryant, Shandel and Rush gamely kept pace with their own acoustic strings.
Walker’s exhibition resembled nothing so much as Michael J. Fox’s portrayal of Marty McFly on prom night in the original Back to the Future film. But instead of being repelled by the display, Saturday’s audience lapped it up and stood to bring Headwater back for an encore of Wagon Wheel.
With their limited back catalogue, Headwater necessarily needed to fill with a variety of cover tunes, including a pair by Hiatt, the traditional Salty Dog Blues and Johnny Cash’s Get Rhythm. To their credit, though, the group is adept at making the pieces their own, such as on Peter Gabriel’s Salisbury Hill, which was heavily infused by Bryant’s mandolin to great effect.
The first two concerts in the NICS season series featured Juno Award-winning veterans in folk songwriter James Keelaghan and Canadian blues legends Powder Blues. But the society’s greatest value may be its unearthing of some of Canada’s highly talented but lesser-known acts for local audiences.
On Saturday, it found a true gem.
Next up on the schedule is the country swing of the Woody Holler Orchestra on March 10, in the society’s annual Decadent Dessert show. For info, visit www.niconcert.ca.