Last Thursday Old Man Luedecke came to town to play the first show in the NAC Presents Canadian music series. The folksy, banjo-picking songwriter brought a sold out crowd to the fourth stage for a night of honest-to-goodness roots music. A people’s poet in the line of Woody Guthrie, Luedecke is a seeker who’s refined his take on the art of the folk song, honest little pictures of everyday life that illuminate bigger truths. In his song “The Girl in the Pearl Earring” Luedecke sings “you can’t fake a work of heart” and judging from Thursday night’s show, it’s a line he lives by.
In a blue plaid blazer and well-shined shoes, armed with his banjos, guitar and a porch board, Luedecke delivered all the things he’s made his name on, finely crafted songs, feel good stories and solid musicianship. He performed with all the confidence and generosity of a man who’s found his place in the world and is enjoying every minute. The banter between songs was nearly as entertaining as the songs themselves. There were plenty of funny stories and jokes about everything from the “spiritual dimension” in one of the room’s flickering candles to how the floor of his “private Jetta” is permanently covered in the shrapnel of Goldfish crackers.
Joining him on stage were Joel Hunt from St. John’s on mandolin, fiddle and a little bit of electric guitar and Toronto’s Ben Whiteley on the upright bass. Hunt’s mandolin playing was especially fine. At one point he picked out a solo so surprisingly sweet everyone stopped for a moment after just to admire what they had just heard, Luedecke and Whiteley nodding their approval.
Luedecke and company put smiles on faces from the very first song “Yodelady,” a rollicking tune about falling in love in the Yukon. He went on to charm the audience through two sets with large helpings from his latest record Domestic Eccentric, a home-centred album full of love songs to his wife, three young children and their life in the country. In “Early days” he sings a poignant picture of life as a parent with an irresistible chorus that got the whole room singing along. There’s something pretty powerful about the sound of a group singing together and it’s particularly stirring in the fourth stage’s cozy darkness. Another standout song from that record was “The Briar and the rose,” an achingly tender love song he introduced as capturing everything that’s happened to him in the last seventeen years. At Thursday’s show he performed the ballad with a transfixing conviction. Ever one for honesty there were other songs with lines about the work of keeping a marriage strong like in the melancholic country ballad “Happy Ever After.”
It was as much a show to win over new listeners with lots of recent tunes as it was one for long-time fans with plenty of songs from Luedecke’s back catalog including the day dreamy “Machu Picchu” and the amusing “Joy of cooking.”
On one hand the show packed everything good about bluegrass – driving banjo, high lonesome vocal harmonies, and foot stomping rhythms especially on songs like “Old highway of love” and the Carter family-esque “Brightest on the heart.” On the other hand, Luedecke showed us he’s no one-trick pony as he stretched out on “Wait a while.” Played on his fretless pumpkin banjo with a sound similar to a Kora (an African predecessor to the banjo), Luedecke picked out hypnotic, meandering riffs under lyrics about life on the road and the homesickness that comes with it. He also surprised us with the J.J Cale inspired rock ‘n roller “Baby, we’d be rich” from the 2014 EP collaboration with Joel Plaskett I Never Sang Before I Met You. The song sparkles with scruffy charm and some great lines like “If reading books was money, and spinning records was investing, if drinking was consulting, baby we’d be rich.”
Rounding out his set Luedecke sang songs of the homespun wisdom he’s acquired living the country life in Chester, N.S. with “Low on the Hog” and “Real wet wood” which he introduced with the valuable advice never to buy wet wood. He also showed some love for the Canadian songbook with “Song for Ian Tyson” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s dizzying poetics in “Closing time.” There was some strong storytelling too especially in “Chester boat song,” a sea shanty about a draft dodger who made a life building boats on the East Coast.
Spinning magic from his banjo and down-home tunes from his life Old Man Luedecke made the fourth stage a welcoming refuge from the blowing cold outside with a show as warm as a hug from an old friend.