Friday, 22 February 2013

Slocan Ramblers and Notre Dame de Grass at Petit Campus

Slocan Ramblers and Notre Dame de Grass at Petit Campus

A Wild, Locked-in Haze of Strings by Nick Laugher

It's an odd scene at Petit Campus. Calm, yet caustic, like a speakeasy on the edge of being found out. A lingering, venomous excitement – vicodin thrill of the outlaw.

Notre Dame De Grass are curating a month full of sauntery and sweet bluegrass jams here, and this month they're hosting up the terribly talented Torontonians the Slocan Ramblers. The idea of the jams is to foster a cross-pollenation of Quebec and Ontario bluegrass artists.

There's an air of appalachian amour, a slow slinking tug of wide grins and toe-tapping, letting off that tide of troubles for the last whiskey-soaked smooch. The mics on stage sit stoically, lonely and longing to ring out already, a steadfast standoff, a wait for resolve.

The floor wants to feel it later, that shuffle and clatter of slush-filled boots stomping out the winter doldrums to devilishing fast swarms of strings, but it's not going to happen here.
Despite drink names like the Juicy Pussy and Killer Kool-Aid the aesthetic is quiet and quaint.
NDG take the stage in a a rollocking one-two swagger. A slight off-beat hiccup or two, they're trying to sink into that glossy canola-gold groove, but it's not quite clicking.
The mandolin player, Pat Murray, is on loan while NDG's regular is off gallivanting, and there's not as much of a chemistry as there should be on that stage. A couple of stumbles and some chunky, off-time clamor, but the vibe is certainly there.
Songs like New Canada Road recall the satirical anti-capitalism of Phil Ochs with a sweetness and sincerity of a John Prine ballad. Singer Matt Large has a dastardly drawl, sometimes sliding too far into Dwight Yoakam territory, but otherwise pretty spot-on.
They rest their set on the premise of just a couple of mics and some foot stomping jams, but unfortunately with bluegrass, the best blistering riffs come from chemistry and locked-in grooves. With two borrowed members, NDG is falling in and out of rhythms with some skeptical glances being shot across the stage.

Neo-Gospel tune Narrow Path meanders through Jimmy Buffet glibness, while an untitled new song about leaving a girl alone in the rain on a football field conjures a plagued conscience as Large sings "So young and so foolish / she slipped through the palm of my hand."

The bass from the grinding, pumping dubstep downstairs was leaking through the stage and the whole of the band looked a bit ill at ease and after a Red Allen cover and a Sloan Matthews tune, the boys bounded off-stage and left a chattering crowd to their own designs. We naturally migrated to the bar.
 When the Slocan Ramblers hit the stage, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere of what should have been a smoky, whiskey-drenched room but instead was a fairly sterile wash of bland black and white campus crowned decor. They'd brought fiddling phenom John Showman with them, and he embodied everything a good showman should. A fierce, almost disgustingly good fiddler, his flying fingers floored the room.

There's a wild and wiry musical coalescence happening on stage. The slow bleating choral of Black Whiskey widens the room, as the bucolic three part harmonies ripple like energetic blows to the sternum, ricketing through the hall. Guitarist Darryl Poulsen is like mercury, sliding around preternaturally on the strings.

The crowd is attentive enough, hanging on the words like a sheer cliff face, but failing to indulge or engage in any way, sitting back like a white-washed, cardboard cut-out peanut gallery. The insane romp and stomp of the Ramblers should have blood spiked and feet riled, but the crowd sits still, nodding slowly – and maybe some claps, every now and then.

Bassist Alastair Whitehead is savagely bobbing and weaving, hauling the giant double bass up to the other three to throw some beautiful baritone vocals into the lush harmonies of Norah's Turn.
Resting heavily on songs from their recent album and traditional folk songs, the Slocan Ramblers have shifted the tone from campy and bouncy to sincere, rambling gambling grit and grime. Running like a well-oiled pickup truck, they careened through the night in a kind of wild, locked-in haze of strings and singsong voices, all blending into a sweet, mercurial ecstasy.
After sending us off on a clever "damn the man!" note by blending some classic anti-establishment traditional folk, prettied up by the twinkling interplay of breakneck mandolin and guitar, the Ramblers invited NDG back on the stage for a gigantic, sprawling bluegrass deluge including a fast-footed rendition of Two Dollar Bill, culminating in a fraternal fierceness with a rendition of the Stanley Brothers tune Hey Hey Hey, complete with wailing dueling solos from every member of both bands.
While feet may have rested on legs, firmly crossed in chairs and didn't dain to hop up and shuffle around the floor, there was still a quirky, palpable positivity. While I would've loved some hootenannying or even some hoe'in down, an audience that's captivated and appreciative of maniacal fiddling and slathered-up southern drawls is good enough.
Maybe it's just me, but I always get a longing for some of that old timey troubadouring, so I can forget about the present for a bit, crack a smile and enjoy a pint the good old-fashioned way, if only for that brief moment. So, while it wasn't perfect, it was sincere, scrappy and savage, and sometimes that hits the spot just right.
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