Last night The Wooden Sky rolled in from Toronto to play one ferociously good show at the NAC 4th stage. The good news is they’re playing again tonight and there may still be some tickets available. Dubbed The Wooden Sky Holiday Show there was plenty of holiday spirit without any of the old familiar carols. This is “holiday” in the sense of charity, goodwill and just generally looking out for one another. No bells jingling or chestnuts roasting anywhere.
For the past five years The Wooden Sky has made a tradition of playing a charity holiday show in their hometown of Toronto as a way to give back to their community. The popular event has sold out every year. Lucky for Ottawa the producers of NAC Presents asked if the band would bring the show on the road and here they are. The holiday show is where the Wooden Sky gets to stretch out and let loose. After all, the stage is all theirs for an entire evening and with four albums to their name they have lots of material to play to pieces. The annual event is also a nice chance for the band to share the stage with friends like Jon Hynes and Evening Hymns who joined the band Tuesday. Frontman Gavin Gardiner joked that the show is their version of the office Christmas party.
A Wooden Sky show is a treat whenever they come to town as a four piece. With the added sweetness of Shaun Brodie on trumpet and Ed Huizinga’s achingly tender violin, it is a gift indeed. On Tuesday night the band gave a very generous performance playing more than twenty songs and putting everything they had into every last one of them.
From hushed atmospherics to swells unleashed with wild abandon part of the joy listening to this band is the shapes and arcs of the songs. Full of harmony vocals and reverb-heavy guitars the sound is full and rich with a palpable energy behind it so that even when they pull way back in volume there is still a stunning intensity to it. Gavin Gardiner sings with the growly authority of a prophet and is rarely still when he plays. He may be the most animated on stage but he isn’t the only one so immersed. The entire band seems to lock in when they play, channeling everything into the song at hand.
They covered a fair bit of stylistic ground too from the easy retro feel of “Baby hold on” and “Take me out” to the folky sing along “Oh my God,” rounded out with plenty of ruckus raising rock tunes like “Saturday Night” and “Dead Horse Creek.”
Some highlights were the hymn-like acoustic take on “Angelina,” the ethereal swirling organ and trumpet on “Your fight won’t be long,” and the acoustic 3-song encore where the sound wound down to its most fragile state.
Partial proceeds from the Ottawa shows will go to Carty House, an Ottawa group that provides transitional housing for female refugee claimants. In past years the Wooden Sky’s holiday shows in Toronto have supported the Daily Bread food bank though this year proceeds went to help Romero House which provides transition support for refugee families. Asked how he chooses a cause to support Gavin says, “Refugees have always been a pertinent issue in Canada but it seems like it’s at the forefront of everybody’s minds now. We were just in Europe and we were traveling from France to England and there were groups of refugees walking along the highway trying to get to the train. People were also hanging out outside truck stops and you start to understand that they have nowhere to go. I had a small experience that’s nothing like a refugee’s but when I was in Dresden I lost my phone and I had no money on me at all so I couldn’t get a hold of anyone. I just tried to talk to people and no one would even look at me. It was a small window into that experience. Starting from nothing, when you have no family, you have no support system, where do you go?”
Without even a token carol in the set list I couldn’t help but wonder if Gavin maybe had a grudge against holiday songs. Turns out he actually loves Christmas carols. As for his favourite – “That’s a tough question” he says, “I really like the Boney M. Christmas album. I also really like that John Prine song, “Christmas in Prison.” We’ve covered a Tom Petty Christmas song, which is pretty fun. It’s called “Christmas all over again.”
A great show, a good cause and a break from incessant holiday playlists?
Sounds like Christmas came early.
The Wooden Sky Holiday Show continues tonight at the National Arts Centre. Tickets are $27. Live Rush seats available now for $15.