Friday, 19 July 2013

ol' savannah at quai des brumes

Ol' Savannah  |  Quai Des Brumes


Fri., July 12 - When I ask for three words to describe their music to someone who’d never heard it  before, the members of Ol’Savannah have varying responses. “Really, really bad,” remarks one member wryly. Another clarifies the genre: “Appalachian mountain music.” A third member adds, “How about just in your face!”

As I sit on a stool to the side of Quai des Brumes, waiting for the band to set up, I wonder just what their live show will be like. The result? Like nothing I expected.

In the beginning, only some of the band members are onstage. There is the strum of a guitar, a steady drum beat. It is unclear whether the band is still setting up or not, but then the lights dim, and the sound seems to grow deeper and deeper as it builds on itself. 

All of a sudden, there is a commotion to the left of the stage: a man wearing a large, eerie-looking donkey mask and waving a ripped up book rides in on the back of another donkey-clad fellow. He steps onto the stage, where he stumbles around and shakes fiercely, while beating the shredded book on the floor. The music, continuously growing in volume and speed, reaches a point where an unnerving sense of urgency permeates the room. While the donkey flails around on the stage, the rest of the band members play their instruments stoically with a haunting sense of duty. The donkey-masked man reveals himself to be Speedy. As he begins to sing, his voice match his actions: equal parts raw and growly, and seem to come from a strange place somewhere in the depths of his insides. 

Ol’Savannah may be strange, but they’re not at all off-putting. Their tunes are lively and bring the ol’ cliche toe-tapping music to life: a quick scan of the audience at floor level reveals many a foot that is itching to move. It’s not your regular cheerful folksy setup, though; there is a troubling edge to every note that slides out of their instruments. After the opening song, Speedy swaps his donkey mask for a cap and dedicates the next song to “mothers”. By the third song, audience members quickly shove away the tables in front of the stage to clear room for dancing. It’s impossible to sit still to this sort of music. “When the crowd’s into it, we’re into it,” Speedy noted earlier, and it shows: the more people dance, the wilder the songs get.

The band loves playing live. As often as they can. Wherever they can. “It’s a lot more fun than just puttin’ on a cd,” says Speedy Johnson, who atkes on lead vocals, guitar, and harmonica.

While Speedy rumbles about whiskey and the mountain life, crouched over and cap sliding over his eyes, the rest of the members fill in their parts of the sound. Tim van de Ven, on drums, looks very calm as he maintains the beat while staring up at the ceiling. Ram Krishnan plays bass, plays it seriously, and plays it like it takes him no effort at all. Bartleby Budde strums furiously at the banjo that instantly injects the music with a thorough dose of energy. Kevin “Homebum” Labchuk adds accordion to the mix, drawing out long notes of melancholia. All together, it is absolutely transfixing. Somehow rejuvenating and exhausting at the same time, Ol’Savannah’s sound commands your full attention. Their strongest songs are the ones that start slowly and suddenly explode into a fury of hunkered down stomping and nimble-fingered banjo riffs. The audience agrees, showing their appreciation with stomps, hollers, and ear-to-ear grins.

This Friday night show kicks off a brief tour for Ol’Savannah, who have been playing with varying members for several years. Originally a duo consisting of just Speedy and Bart, Ol’Savannah cites “old-time bluesy guys” Mississippi John Hurt and Fred McDowell as first influences. Their sound has definitely strayed far since they began playing. Bart notes that their last album was “slightly overproduced” and that they were looking for a “rawer feel” for their upcoming release. “The third album is different and weirder,” he states. The album in question will be released in September and has been recorded and produced entirely independently, as the band desired more control over the process. As for the songwriting process, Speedy tells me that it varies with every song. “Sometimes you get a melody in your head,” he says, but also adds that he writes in a notebook which holds the inklings of many lyrics.

All members of the band cite plenty of local support from fellow musicians. United Steel Workers of Montreal and The Unsettlers are two bands that among their favourites; during the set, they cover a Steel Workers song. They also have high praise for their opening act, Sin and The Swoon, whose country harmonies are beautiful in their simplicity. Just two acoustic guitars and vocals, Sin & The Swoon are sweet, but not sugar candy sweet; their sound has the sort of sweetness that belongs to rich amber honey or a ripe fall apple. It has substance without being too serious. Though a somewhat confusing pairing with Ol’Savannah, the combination of the two sets is surprisingly satisfying.  

Over the years, Ol’Savannah has played countless live shows. One of their most memorable live tours was in Newfoundland, where they arrived with four bookings and ended up playing six shows during the seven nights they were there. Speedy remembers the “warm reception” and jokes that they “never left a bar sober.” However, Ol’Savannah does not limit their playing to bars and venues, you’re also very likely to stumble upon them busking on the street. Though Speedy admits it’s something they won’t be doing forever, he looks back on it fondly: “It’s something you never forget… playing in the streets, right? You’re just out in front of everyone.” Bart explains the challenges of busking flatly: “When you’re on a stage you can play a really shitty set for 45 minutes and sort of slink out… If you’re terrible on the street, you’re just terrible, right, there’s no two ways about it.”

Just don’t try to call Ol’Savannah something they’re not. “We don’t play bluegrass,” Bart clarifies, “and we’re not hillbillies.”
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