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Blue Christmas with Donovan Woods and Basia Bulat. Photo: Ming Wu

A Winter’s Night featuring The Skydiggers, Basia Bulat, Donovan Woods & The Opposition

By Colin Noden on December 14, 2019

The Ontario Festival of Small Halls is finishing off the year with three concerts at the National Arts Centre. They’re taking a group of “not too big for our britches” performers and mixing them with audiences who can turn a theatre row into a block party. Then putting everyone together in the not so small halls of the National Arts Centre. The result? A signature Festival of Small Halls experience!

The first performance on December 13th set the party mood. In fact, they didn’t dare turn up the house lights between the second and third set because it was so hard to get everyone back in their seats during the first intermission.

Blame it on The Skydiggers, they said. People were up and clapping in no time with the energy of the band. The couple beside me had come because of memories of a Yukon performance and claimed that the band had not lost any of their energy. And judging by the rush to the bar during intermission, I hoped The Skydiggers had negotiated a cut of the bar profits.

Basia Bulat didn’t let that energy escape. She came onstage and went straight into the music, letting her piercing voice announce her arrival. Then she was into the crowd, taking that small halls attitude into the rows of NAC seats. Bewildering the lighting director but drawing the house together. Fans responded to the familiar songs and then got wound up by her vocal jazz collaborations with her five-piece band. Basia’s set ended with a standing ovation, which was the perfect foil for Donovan Woods.

“I’ve got a lot of saddies” said Donovan. He slowed the pace and helped the crowd absorb the evening’s experience. The first thing that emerged was the quality of the musicians who back up these lead singers. The bass with the mood building slides, neck grips and string freezes. The drummer with more toys than Santa in a sack by his set. The double keyboard expanding the dimension of sound. And the lead guitar with a style as mean as the introduction Donovan gave him. Donovan’s “saddies” let that quality permeate the room.

Quality, experience, and professionalism are signature elements in the Small Halls experience.

Quality, experience, and professionalism are signature elements in the Small Halls experience. It is a way to celebrate the cultural richness of the travelling and resident musicians amongst us. People who love their music and those who appreciate it.
Donovan may be a renown song writer and Juno Award recipient, but he’s also the guy who apologizes for an accidental instrument feedback. And enjoys some self-effacing banter in between songs. Basia is a multi nominated artist on the rise. One of those “I saw her when” people. But she gushed about being at the NAC and remembered when her biggest goal was to get a booking in the Yukon (what is it about the Yukon?). The Skydiggers value passion, chemistry and community.

These artists love getting in close with their audiences. And appreciate the fact that it’s people in these small halls that launch and sustain careers. Donovan exemplified this when he came back for his ovation encore and got the audience to join in on a silly, but sad, tune.

The Ontario Festival of Small Halls is putting their 2019 season to bed with their final show on Dec 20th. It will be the last time to get this experience until it starts up again next summer. In a hall near you….

The final Festival of Small Halls “ Deck the Halls” performance will be Christmas with Matt Andersen and Friends with special guest appearances by Terra Lightfoot, William Prince and Joey Landreth on December 20th 2019 in the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall at 8pm. Tickets: Starting at $35 are available online. More information on The Ontario Festival of Small Halls can be found on their website