Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Leif Vollebekk at Cabaret du Mile-End

Leif Vollebekk | Cabaret du Mile-End


Sometimes, things happen in the just the right way. The stars line up perfectly. Karma hands you a treat. The context meets your mood, flawlessly and peacefully. When that happens, you feel like the circumstances, in an act of pure kindness, agree to satisfy your modest needs, without asking for anything back. On the night of Saturday, March 23rd, I was lucky enough to experience such a moment.

That weekend had started with a generous dose of fun, but without much in the way of sleep. It is thus with a thick eggplant-colour shadow under each eye that I stepped into Cabaret du Mile-End to hear Montreal-based indie folk act Leif Vollebekk. I looked great, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Given its poor shape, my sleep-deprived self needed the night to unfold delicately. It could not have handled much liveliness, nor could it have endured much chaos.

Jennifer Castle’s sweet-sounding, sharply delivered vocals were filling the atmosphere as I walked in. Alone with her guitar, she was singing her poetry to an audience of wide-eyed listeners. What I caught from her set was solid, although it was a little linear. In the middle of a song, I sometimes had the feeling I was listening to the same piece she had just played. However, despite this slight lack of variation from one piece to another, it would be unfair not to recognize her way with both words and guitar strings. She’s a gifted performer whose voice is truly angelic, and whose storytelling lyrics are worth getting lost into.

In between acts, I noticed for the first time just how many people were crammed into the Cabaret. Hordes of indie-thirsty show-goers had decided to spend their Saturday night listening to the brown-haired local boy’s new songs. Wise decision.

After his much loved debut album Inland, Vollebekk recently released North Americana, which, according to the man himself, sounds like “a record from 1970something that no one’s heard before”. On that night, in the midst of the wait, it was not very difficult to sense the eagerness of the audience, the kind of restlessness that comes with excited curiosity. Perhaps I sensed it in others because I could sense it in myself.

When the wait finally came to an end, joy rose from the crowded floor. The mumbled chattering morphed into a cheer, and Vollebekk appeared on stage, along with a crew of smiling musicians. I recognized Notre Dame de Grass’s mandolin player Joe Grass, who was sitting down behind a pedal steel. The rest of the unit was composed of a contrabassist (Hans Bernhard), a drummer (Philippe Melanson), a tenor saxophonist (Adam Kinner), and a pump organist (Parker Shper). As for Vollebekk, besides singing, he would handle guitar, harmonica and piano, depending on the song.

As soon as the unit started playing, I closed my eyes, instinctively. That’s when I realized it, that’s when I told myself, “Wow, this is exactly what I needed tonight.”

Silky smooth vocals. Slowly progressive ballads, with soft edges and mellow vibes. Cozy melodies, faintly whispered fables about love, travels and friendships. A mixture of comforting ingredients, blended with great care.

I was savouring every bit of it, quietly, but voraciously. The nonchalant delivery that characterizes Vollebekk’s vocals, the way he purposefully dragged his voice over the rhythm, especially spoke to me. Combined with the sheer velvety quality of his voice, it was like audio satin. It felt like the sound was getting under my skin, like it was permeating me. My state was bordering synaesthesia, as esoteric as that might sound.

Leif Vollebekk just knows how to forge an atmosphere. He devotes careful attention to ambiance, which is why he roamed around the world with his team of musicians to record the songs of North Americana one by one, in several recording studios, scattered in several parts of the world. From the moment these songs were written and composed, it apparently took him two years to record the entirety of his ten songs LP. He claims to be looking for “the perfect take” when he records his pieces, and it is thus not surprising that he is capable of offering such astonishing live performances. Surprising or not, it was extraordinary. It felt like a dream.

Leif Vollebekk is the real deal, folks. The way he writes, the way he composes, the very manner in which he sings, even the weird half-convulsions that take over his whole body when he is in the process of uttering an especially soulful line: everything about this musician is passionate, inspired, elated. I have the feeling North Americana might be the second of many great albums.

The man is off to a good start, to say the least.

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