With so many Ontario Scene events this past Saturday, it must have been a tough choice for someone looking for an evening out, but for those who placed their bets on Matthew Barber and Jadea Kelly’s show the rewards were sweet. Not only did we get to hear these two songwriters on the same bill, we got to hear them in the lovely sanctuary of St. Alban’s church, a smaller, more intimate space than most churches with ornate stained glass windows, warm wood and high arched ceilings which make for an impressive acoustic.
Jadea mesmerized the crowd from the first note, opening the show with a couple songs in a stripped-down duet arrangement with guitarist Tom Juhas. What stands out when you first hear Jadea is her voice, angelic and pure, so it was a treat to hear her in this spare setup that left plenty of room for her vocals to shine.
The sweet, country-tinged “Count on,” was a highlight with Jadea’s plaintive singing backed by Juhas’ liquid slide guitar and vocal harmonies. Whether he was drawing out pedal steel-like cries or gritty lead lines from his telecaster Tom Juhas was a solid sideman, adding texture and muscle that filled out the sound without overwhelming it.
Other highlights were the stays-with-you catchiness of “Wild West Rain” and “Lone Wolf” where the band built a truly eerie atmosphere around Jadea’s ghostly vocals singing lines like “when the night falls, when the moon crawls I’ll find you still.” Jadea ended with a heartbreaker from her upcoming record where her yearning lilt dipped in and around syllables of loss over a subdued accompaniment. By the end you couldn’t help but feel the pain in the lyrics. After hearing that one it was good to hear she’s planning to return to Ottawa for a release show sometime in the fall.
The night was still young when Matthew Barber took the stage to deliver a set crackling with energy. He was also surprisingly loud for an artist I’ve always thought of as more of a rootsy balladeer but it worked. Barber was in fine form, moving easily between rollicking rock n roll with sing along choruses and the earthy Canadiana he’s built a name on.
Between songs he charmed the audience with his friendly ease cracking jokes about pre-show carrot snacks coming back to bite him and getting lost on the way to Ottawa. I really appreciated his taking the time to introduce the songs and say a few words about them. Barber and band moved through a range of sounds showing shades of blue-eyed soul in “Magnet eyes,” honky-tonk in “Settle my accounts with you” and even channelling some Springsteen on the driving rock ‘n’ roll of “Big Romance” and the anthemic “Lose your love.”
Though rock n roll always has a home on Saturday night no matter the venue, Barber also took the opportunity to play some gospel style songs to suit the setting. On these ones- “True believer,” “Hold me” and “Where the river bends” – he really showed us the feeling he can wring out of his voice. He finished up his set with a raucous rock ‘n’ roll shuffle, spitting the lyrics in a twangy delivery full of swagger to the accompaniment of driving drums and barrelhouse keys. The song’s energy only seemed to rile up the audience who gave the band a standing ovation, applauding until they returned to the stage. Barber happily obliged, explaining that though the band hadn’t rehearsed it they were going to do a rendition of “Stand by me” in honour of the recently passed Ben E. King. It was probably the churchiest moment as Barber led the crowd in singing and clapping to the gospel flavoured tune as Jesse O’Brien added juicy fills on the organ.
The only thing that was off the whole night was the brightness of the lights over the audience which seemed strange and sort of removed the fourth wall between the audience and the stage. But since this was the first time the Scene festival was using St. Alban’s such a minor hiccup can be forgiven.
Such things can’t take away from what was a great night, the kind of show that stirs the soul and gathers new believers to the power of live music.