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The Wilderness of Manitoba, Artur Dyjecinski and Shady Bard, The Windmill, Brixton, May 3rd 2010

May 4, 2010

A bit of a spur of the moment gig this one. I’d noted it down as a ‘possible’, then Astral did her MySpace quality check and we decided to head out for some Canadian folk-rock, and I’m very happy that we did.

We arrived just after Gig Mike, who claimed to have had his arm twisted to go, but he goes to even more gigs than I do, so I doubt the twisting was too severe. Before the two main acts, Birmingham’s Shady Bard (a band rather than a dodgy poet) entertained with some indie-symphonic rock-pop that was quite catchy in places. Despite some sound problems, the six of them got a nice thing going with the keyboards, cello, French horn and trumpet. Astral and I agreed that it’s difficult to use a trumpet in rock music without it being ‘a bit like Calexico’, which was further emphasised by their sprinkling of Latin melodies.

Next on was Artur Dyjecinski, a Polish-Canadian singer-songwriter who spends much of his time in London. Accompanied by Jess on bass and vocals, Ania on guitar and Julian on drums, he invoked a warm world of country-folk, but with enough pepper in it to lift it out of the ordinary. His full baritone voice is reminiscent of big Robert from Willard Grant Conspiracy, and the songs have elements in common too, though Artur’s feel less introverted and more expansive than Willard Grant’s have become.

There’s also plenty of Neil Young in Artur’s songs, but he’s picked up other influences too, through pop, rock and reggae. The songs, by and large, are very straightforward, which is fine by me as I’m a ‘less is more’ person, but the interplay of guitars – and sometimes the guitars with harmonica – lends enough texture to make the music always listenable and really very good. I must get his CD…

There’s been quite revival in recent years of the multi-part harmonies made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (and, to an extent, The Beach Boys), but to my ears, a lot of this genre falls rather short musically. In their earnestness to get the harmonies absolutely spot on, a number of young beardie harmony bands perhaps lose sight of the absolute necessity of having strong songs to back up the sound.

You’ll probably guess that I didn’t join in last year’s mad clamour to praise Fleet Foxes to the skies. I like their sound and there are a few catchy melodies in there, but waiting for Neil Young to come on at last year’s brilliant Hyde Park gig, I stood in front of Fleet Foxes wondering if all the songs were meant to sound the same. In their defence, the clamour was one of those phenomena over which they had little control and at times last year, on TV and on stage, they looked ever so slightly puzzled as to why they’d been picked out for adoration.

On the face of it, Toronto’s Wilderness of Manitoba might seem like they come from the same stable – warm acoustic guitars and banjo, woodsy production, multi-part harmonies etc – but I sensed from listening to their MySpace page that there was something more going on… or rather less. The songs (like Artur’s before them) aren’t complicated, and their strength lies in strong melodies and harmonies which complement the music rather than swamp it.

The four of them took to the stage with an intriguing set of instruments – guitar, cello and two singing bowls – but I was immediately taken by their fine singing. Front-man Will Whitwham holds the songs together well, assisted by Melissa Dalton, Scott Bouwmeester and Stefan Banjevic. The four coalesce very attractively, and I wonder whether having a female voice in the mix helps take the music away from that over-imitated Fleet Foxes sound. It also helps that they clearly have a lot of fun singing and the enjoyment is infectious. Indeed, you feel at times like you’re sitting round a campfire having a wonderful sing-song with not a Kumbaya in sight… Instruments are swapped between band members and included ukelele, banjo and bodhran.

The sense of humour is evident in their second song of the night, spooky number The Great Hall, which tells of shadowy spectres, but which uses the band’s ‘oo-oo’ harmonies to suggest scary ghosts. The next song, St Petersburg, reminded me of the calm, languorous sound of 80s band Hugo Largo, one of the great long-lost talents of that era, while the following one, November, had more than a passing resemblance to CSN’s Helplessly Hoping, as Astral whispered to me.

Then came two rather more personal songs, Orono Park, about Scott’s hometown, and Evening, a song written by Will’s late mother way back in 1968. The band said it was an emotional link between them and the original hippies, and a very lovely song it is too. After Dreamcatchers and a final song whose title I didn’t catch, the band came back for a well-deserved encore. Melissa said it was the song that brought them together and the first they’d rehearsed… Helplessly Hoping, which made Astral and me smile, but it was a strong and fine rendition.

The Windmill is a great venue for this sort of show – intimate, warm (literally on this chilly night) and fun, and I enjoyed myself so much that I decided to go and see the band again the next day at the Slaughtered Lamb. It’s not that extravagant – I only paid £5 for this evening’s entertainment and tomorrow’s is all of £6. These two nights together will cost about one-eighteenth of the price of one ticket for Simply Red’s concert at the O2 in December. I think you know which I’d prefer to go to…

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