Friday, April 20, 2012

Jesse Winchester at The Pearl Company

It was a sad night. The death of Levon Helm was hard to take.
I had been waiting for Jesse Winchester to return for several months, ever since Barbara Milne gave an advance notice on the Pearl Co. blog. I ordered my tickets immediately. Decided to get down there early, to find a good parking place, both for the car and for my seat! Gary was handing out parking passes at the Drug Store lot, so I decided to drive around the block and park there. Had to break up a street hockey game, where the kids yell, "Car!" and scatter leaving the goalie to shuffle the net out of the way. I guess these fellas had been interupted more than once, they barely moved enough for the car to pass, giving me a stink eye as I slowly drove by. I had to smile. Parked, talked to Gary, and went to the front of the old warehouse that is Hamilton's warmest, most intimate music venue. There was a group of people on the street, "Doors open in 5 minutes!" Up the stairs, pay my money, grab two seats, dead centre, first riser. Ah nice, no big hairdos or chatty couples will block my view. Leave my coat and bag on the seats, and go grab a coffee. Then...the waiting. I talked to Jim from Freewheelin' Folk, introducing myself and chatting about Ian Thomas, Jackie Washington and, of course, Levon. A David Rea story. David and Levon played on Jesse's first album. The foldout cover with the same photo reproduced four times. The crowd grew, Rich and Kim arrived, Bryan (the other guy from Freewheelin' Folk), and then Frank arrived. It's great to see the Pearl full. I've been there when there was only a handful of us, but Barbara & Gary deserve success. They've built this place up with their bare hands...and passion. Passion for the arts, for music, theatre, creative people. Then it's 8:00. The appointed hour. Gary pitches The Pearl Review magazine (which I forgot to buy...again!) and introduces "Jesse Winchester"! There's almost a standing ovation as Jesse walks to the stool, and plugs in his guitar. It's a nylon string guitar. Hardly anybody plays those things anymore. But Jesse Winchester does. And he plays it in a way unlike anyone else. Kind of a percussive fingerpicking style. It sounds great, and with his clear tenor voice floating above it, it's simply beautiful. He sings one song, and then talks about Levon. They didn't hang out, but they knew each other. Of course they did. "Heaven's band just improved," he quips, "and it was already pretty good." He sings, and plays, lullabyes, love songs, and his quirky story songs. Like "It's a Shame About Him" and "Gentleman of Distinction". He sells the punch lines with this fabulous face, eyes like saucers, mouth like rubber. The laughs are welcome. It's been a sad day. But this is the healing power of music. I've seen friends restored from fights with the wife, trouble at work, money problems, health issues and even family suicide attempts, by a few songs. Levon would understand. This was the whole point of what he spent his life doing! And that's what Jesse Winchester does best. At the end of the first set, Rich leaned over and said, "He's already played the only 2 songs I know. What's he gonna do next?" I said, "He's gonna play some songs that you're gonna know!" And that's just what he did. Songs from his long career. "Yankee Lady", "Biloxi", from that first album, "Mississippi You're On My Mind", then "Eulalie", "Foolish Heart", and "Talk Memphis" right through to "Bless Your Foolish Heart" and "Lonely For A While" from Love's Filling Station. He even did the song that made Neko Case cry on Spectacle, his paean to doowop, "Sham-a-ling-dong-ding". And it nearly made me cry. After putting his guitar down for an accapella rendition of "You Can't Stand Up Alone" he walked off. He returned, of course, for one more number. Can't ignore those ovations...especially the standing kind. Of course there's the increasingly rare prone ovation but the kind of geezer that drives a Mercury Grand Marquis doesn't see too many of those anymore! I had the opportunity for a brief chat with Jesse after the show. He remains a southern gentleman, and one of the great singer-songwriters of this, or any other, generation!

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