January 20, 2016
Just by token of being relative youngsters, singer-guitarist Ortega and her three comrades naturally lend country music a sense of dark irony and delicate subversion. It's always been a fine line between sour gothic Depressville and glitzy sham pop-ification, sometimes even with the latter extreme providing unexpected country chestnuts. Ortega may or may not still dwell in Nashville, but here she was, talking about the wintry conditions in her Toronto 'hood (and by this she meant parka-hood). She'd arrived in town looking for "a Yorkshire pudding as big as my head." Let's hope her culinary lust was fulfilled the next afternoon, during a day off in the city.
Ortega's voice has a resonant quality, swooping high and low, as she grasps hold of each word, fully savouring its syllables, clearly a microphone fiend when it comes to subtle placement technique. Each line is perfectly sculpted, finely controlled, but only in the name of emotion. Despite any inevitable attempts to place her in a vocal lineage, Ortega has her own sound, with only faint echoes of the predecessors that some scribes might like to name. Her dealings with romance lie frequently at the gloomy end of the avenue, or down a pitch black alley, or even in the graveyard. "Lived And Died Alone" is her dreamy ode to necrophilia, and "Ashes" is equally morose, though also curiously uplifting, if we seek solace in desolation.
Ortega was garbed like a country gal heading out to party on The Day Of The Dead, with a subtly sombre aura, lightly-veiled, selectively-placed tattoos, and a general vibe of gentle sashaying sideways from a typical Nashville look. In only a handful of years her back catalogue is already looking relatively prolific, and Ortega's show-womanship is already keenly honed when it comes to audience communication. She's a natural entertainer already, with not a shred of rhinestone tooth-gleam fakery evident. Quite the opposite, really, with her dry wit and confidently confrontational attitude.
The basic three-piece drums, bass and guitar crew did much to bolster Ortega's already impressive voice, leaving her free to roam during the quarter of the 90 minute set where she chose not to strum her acoustic axe. Ortega's lead guitarist, Champagne James Robertson commanded the whole twangin' vocabulary, from floating slide- work to chooglin' rock'n'roll speed-pickin,' and her drummer frequently kidnapped attention with a variety of rim-clicks, brush-shuffles and skipping-beat unpredictabilities. The strength of Ortega's original works left her feeling free to dip into some classic oldies towards set's end, presumably only including "Desperado" in the wake of Eagle Frey's very recent departure. She stripped it to its essentials, more like the Linda Ronstadt reading. Then, the extended encore opened with Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me" and closed with a majestic "Ring Of Fire," Johnny Cash decelerated so that our heroine could enunciate each line with full note-holding enthusiasm. The small crowd had already been steadily won over during the night, but this provided an emphatically anthemic close, and a full conversion ceremony. Next time Ortega hits this town, the crowd will surely have gone forth and multiplied.
The Black Swan
January 21, 2016
Róisín Bán (White Rose) are a quartet specialising in Irish folk music, although they actually hail from nearby Leeds, and appear to be semi-authentic Yorkshiremen. They've been together for barely three years, but already possess a strong band bond, light-hearted but heavily rooted in the specialist tradition. At the beginning of the evening, regular club performer John Cherry took off one of his shoes to sing a cobbler's song, followed by "McAlpine's Fusiliers," to set a general Irish tone. He might have suddenly forgotten a few of the lines, but Cherry's delivery was otherwise sparkling. Then, singer-guitarist Steve Marshall took a folk detour for "Lyin' Eyes" (once again, to mark Glenn Frey's departure) and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" (as popularised by Marvin Gaye and The Slits). The least unusual selections of the night, but it was still good to hear them.
Even beyond the confirmed attractiveness of their playing, Róisín Bán are conceptually lively, laying a dynamic repertoire foundation for their driving virtuosity. Guitarist Steve Lacey, flautist Tom Leedale, fiddler Chris Dyson and melodeonist Paddy Heffron opened with a set of jigs, all original compositions. Then, Lacey sang a song about poisoning, making clear this combo's predilection for dark-themed works. Heffron took the lilting vocals on "Mrs Gilhooley's Party," after Kevin Burke of The Bothy Band. This was followed by a clutch of reels, as Dyson switched from fiddle to mandola, Leedale taking a sprightly whistle solo.