The summer’s turned its back on me, with a sorrow-laden symmetry – with a highway kind of robbery, like my life was an apology. Now I don’t think about you all the time – only when the trees sway, slaughtered by the Alberta Breeze.
– Justin Rutledge (“Alberta Breeze“ – from Man Descending)
Toronto country/alt singer/songwriter Justin Rutledge has made a very lucrative career out of turning his study and long love of poetry writing into the lyrical masterpieces of his music for over a decade. Topics of personal heartache, simple pleasures and the frailty of life are harnessed further by his stirring lyrics and the subtle, traditional rootsy tones of his music. Together with a band of four very accomplished musicians, the NAC’s Studio hall was filled to capacity for Rutledge’s show on Friday night.
Rutledge began modestly with “Getting Away”, a track from his fifth album, Valleyheart (2013) and immediately reeled in the audience with its achingly pretty melody and minimal instrumental embellishment. This brought Rutledge’s tender and trembling vocals to the forefront as he sung each word with careful diction and heartfelt passion, remindful of a young Paul Simon.
He followed up with another mild tempoed number from the same album, “Kapuskasing Coffee,” a song he had started to write for his first record but never finished. In 2012, at the suggestion of his label, Outside Records, a remastered edition of his first effort, No Never Alone (2004) was re-issued on vinyl. After revisiting these songs he wrote almost a decade ago, Rutledge was inspired to finish writing “Kapuskasing Coffee,” as well as another discarded effort, “Heather In The Pines”, and included them as bonus tracks on Valleyheart. Rutledge described the experience as a collaboration between his younger and older self.
Shouts of recognition came with “A Penny For The Band” (Man Descending – 2008), a steady, soft rockin’ piece that induced plenty of toe-tapping. He followed up with “Jack Of Diamonds” (The Early Widows – 2010), another that moved along at a good pace. I loved the melancholy chords that wound their way into my heart by way of the murmuring pedal steel (Burke Carroll), and the haunting tones of the hollow body guitar (David Baxter). The song breathed with layered instruments, and volume swells…a common characteristic present in most of Rutledge’s material.
Rutledge strapped on the harp for “This Is War” (The Devil On A Bench In Stanley Park – 2006), as the lights dimmed, the slow, brooding tribal beat began and the hollow body was allowed to shine dimly with its sombre intro. Rutledge’s vocals, along with the often prominent electric guitar, rose to a crescendo during the chorus, and raced straight to the hairs on the back of my neck. Passionate lyrics conveyed a tragic tale of marital breakdown in this very moving piece of music.
Quicker gaited tunes, “The Heart Of A River” (The Early Widows), and “Greenwich Time” (Man Descending), had the crowd’s feet keeping time once again. “Out Of The Woods” (Valleyheart) exhibited contrasts of subtle and strong tones and varying drum beats. I was drawn immediately to the guitar’s melody line, its robust sound, and intensified accents, that more than satisfied my inner rocker beast. Solid and diverse rhythms laid down by drummer, Sly Juhas, and Bazil Donovan (Blue Rodeo) on bass, made up the framework of the music, provided richness, and added a variety of textures. Without a doubt, my favourite piece of the night.
“Too Sober To Sleep” (No Never Alone), another crowd favourite, had an old country western nostalgia in its simple and beautiful melody, coloured with the wistful presence of the pedal steel. Rutledge’s higher ended vocals pierced through the music in a heartrending vibrato reminiscent of troubadour greats like John Denver, Dan Peek, and Ian Thomas. By this time, I was also beginning to get a sense of some of his classic literary and musical influences such as E. E. Cummings, Leonard Cohen, and Hank Williams.
Rutledge intermittently paused to tell the odd story or experience about his life and his music, with his own quirky, dry humour and over the course of the performance had warmed up to the reciprocating audience. At this point of the show, he introduced one of the songs from his sixth and latest album, Daredevil (2014), a compilation of completely rearranged Tragically Hip covers. “Long Time Running”, started softly and even when the band kicked in they played at a discreet level and allowed the quiet parts of the song to speak…a technique prevalent in much of Rutledge’s material. Written in a gently rocking three-quarter time I could envision couples swaying across a sawdust floor at a country barn dance. It was magical.
“St. Peter” (Man Descending), was the final song of the set, which led the crowd in another traditional-flavoured, gentle-rocking country rhythm. After the band left the stage, Rutledge alone returned to play another tune from his first album, entitled “Federal Mail”. Rutledge’s entire first record was an ode to an old flame, and the journey out west that ensued to be with her. The words fell from his lips with such delicacy, as if each one was easily fracturable. His combined soft strumming/finger-picking method also adhered to the mood of the song. A second song from the same album, “This Too Shall Pass,” was played before the band returned to the stage for “The Suffering Of Pepe O’Malley (Part III)” (No Never Alone). This one had a drinking song swagger to it, and gradually, Rutledge weaned his way into the background to let the rest of the band take the song away into hugeness.
The final song of the night involved full-on audience participation. All musicians stepped out in front of the stage with their unplugged instruments and led the crowd into a rousing rendition of “Don’t Be So Mean Jellybean,” a simple three-chord song, with easy-to-follow call and response lyrics ranging from silliness to more darkly-humoured subject matter. It brought the room together in a shared adventure of song and laughter, ending the night perfectly. The song is a fresh experience each time, with different groups of people in various venues, but stimulates the common thread of togetherness. It has not (as yet) been recorded on any album thus far.
In the earlier part of the millenium, Justin Rutledge took a turn from his English Literature studies at the University of Toronto and succumbed to the musician within. Now at 36 years of age and with 6 albums to his credit, this unassuming troubadour, poet and old soul has clearly matured through his music. His minimal approach to performing and recording his work has shown us the beauty and the strength of silence, and continues to rapture audiences across the world.