Saturday, 15 June 2013

Life in Winter (BANDSTAND) | Lion d'Or

Life in Winter  |  Cabaret Lion d'Or


Sage Reynolds is a professional, in the true meaning of the word. He’s got a pretty damn good resume, too. He was trained in jazz performance at McGill, he earns most of his rent money by playing double bass, and he composes for several jazz and world music projects. He also backs up more than one singer-songwriters on bass, and he teaches bass, both privately and at Concordia University. However, one should not mistake him for a mere executioner. Unlike the chefs of this world who claim they do not want to cook at home because that’s what they do at work all day long, Sage cannot resist composing and writing songs in his spare time. Mr. Reynolds might in fact be a little obsessed with his trade, but who could blame him? After all, if he were not, perhaps Life in Winter would not exist.

And that would be a real shame.

If Sage obviously enjoys jazz, his musical scope does not limit itself solely to that realm. First and foremost, he is in fact a fan of all kinds of folk and rock bands, including but not limited to the Beatles, the Police, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Radiohead, Grizzly Bear, the National, Deer Hunter, Broken Social Scene, and many more. He claims rock music is “closer to his roots,” because, like a lot of music lovers, he grew up listening to that stuff. He is a man who appreciates the power that the match of words with music has the potential to hold, enough to say: “The lyrical content, the storytelling, the emotions or the descriptive/atmospheric things… You can’t get as deep just with instrumental music, I find. With lyrics, you can take it to a different place.” Given that fact, it is not surprising that he found an outlet to express himself through lyrical rock and folk, something that is evidently harder to do in a jazz quartet.

Of course, these numerous influences find their place in the project he claims to have created as a “vehicle for his songwriting”: bluegrassy finger picking, 60s-rock three-voice harmonies, distortion-filled guitar riffs typical of heavy rock, casually poetic lyrics, modern indie-rock fast-paced guitar strumming, blues-infused lingering bass lines, and a bunch more details displaying the depth of Sage’s musical tastes. The variety of styles which he’s fond of renders his own music at once nostalgically old school and refreshingly modern. “When I’m writing, I’m trying to write stuff that sounds modern,” Reynolds says. “I’m trying to make something that sounds new, but also related to my influences from the past, as well as folk music, and bluegrass music, and… sort of everything that I listen to.”

However, Life in Winter is not a mere combination of musical tributes. It is unmistakably the project of an experienced and poised musician, one that respects the craft enough to be original and, well, professional. Why ‘professional’ again? Fair inquiry. One might find it interesting that Sage surrounded himself with very solid musicians for the recording of his brain child’s debut self-titled LP. Get this: he recruited Andrew and Brad Barr (yes, from the Barr Brothers!) to play drums and guitar, as well as Little Scream herself (a.k.a. Laurel Sprengelmeyer) accompanied by her partner in crime Marcus Paquin (who was also recording and co-producing the album) to cover the harmonies. Not a bad lineup, to say the least.

Nowadays, as Life in Winter takes the stage to perform the songs of this beautifully complex album, the unit is not the same. It is, however, not one bit less sharp and deft. Sheenah Ko (who played alongside musicians from Lou Reed's band and the Barenaked Ladies, as well as Molly Sweeney) is behind the keys and percussions (including the vibraphone), Eric Couture-Telmosse takes care of guitar and banjo, Rich White plays guitar and bass, and Liam Killen handles the drums. All of the band members (besides the well occupied drummer) sing harmony vocals and Sheenah sings lead vocals on a couple of songs. Again, this unit is blessed with a very fair amount of depth, each of its members having played in several serious projects, even its 21-year-old drummer. This is not your usual group of friends who have been playing together since they were teenagers (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course). Rather, these are pros who know exactly what they’re doing, and who have been doing it in a bunch of settings and bands over the years. What edge does that give them? one might wonder. “[As a professional,] you’re used to things working at certain speeds,” Sage recognizes. “[When] you get these experienced musicians together, it means that there’s less time to learn songs, to memorize songs. We have fun, but it’s a little bit more professional in terms of the rehearsals, the way we organize things. It makes it so we can get to the heart of the music quicker, because we have the experience. We can get to where we want to be in terms of expressing things, and getting grooving.”

Only White was missing in that stellar little team when Life in Winter climbed onto the magnificent stage of Lion d’Or on May 30th, ready to open the third night of Bandstand. It did not take long for the audience to understand that these skilled band members really enjoy their share of ballads. In amazingly tight fashion, they delivered sweet-sounding softies to the public, grabbing its attention with their trademark harmonies and their slow, thick-sounding rhythm section. On top of the mix, the keys provided a refreshing high-pitch element, sometimes following the bass line, sometimes breaking away from it. Sage and Sheenah each had their vocal moments, and kept their delivery sober, subtle, and comforting. The result was, unsurprisingly, cool and soothing, warm and calming. It induced a few relieved whispers from swaying audience members.

Despite the stunning quality of these gems, one had better not get too comfortable, because if Life in Winter is capable of shining when they perform velvety ear candy songs, they are also experts at dropping liberating and driving upbeat pieces. In other words, they do enjoy rocking-out with quite an inspiring sense of purpose. Behind his drums, Killen effortlessly laid out the foundation for those fast-moving songs, and did not shy away from punctuating it all with very tight little fills here and there. The interaction throughout the set between Liam and Sage was on point, rendering the rhythm section utterly satisfying to absorb. They handled that groove like untroubled masters, probably because that is pretty much what they are.

The last song of the evening, Water Falls, was my coup de coeur, for several reasons. First, it featured a lyrical conversation between Sheenah and Sage, which was a first that evening. It felt theatrical and natural, it was at once dynamic and chill. Second, it was gorgeously progressive, starting kind of slowly, but shifting to a much more upbeat pace when the synths were thrown in the mix. It ended in an instant of sonic mayhem, a storm of instruments played purposefully dissonantly to wrap up the set. Couture-Telmosse used feedback beautifully during that sequence, in a way reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, making it sing along with his guitar as he teased the amp with it.

The panel of industry representatives  seemed to share my enthusiasm. All their comments could be summarized by a statement as simple as: “You obviously know what you’re doing. Keep it up.”
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