IN CONCERT: Canadians reshuffle Americana

Apr 24, 2007 | Reviews, Series 21

By JOSEF WOODARD
NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

Chalk up Saturday night’s Sings Like Hell concert as one of those — and there have been many in this series — where the opening act steals the show. Not to take away from the pleasure of hearing country music artist Corb Lund and his band, the Hurtin’ Albertans, but the opener, a perky quartet known as Nathan, hit the Lobero Theatre stage with a special blend of friendly, brainy and sweet musical power. A kindly buzz virtually shook the room.

Canada was in the spotlight this night, with Lund’s proud Albertan heritage and Nathan’s home base of Winnipeg, Manitoba — hometown of Neil Young and dubbed the “biggest small town in North America.” This also was a night highlighting two actual bands, with bass and drums and multi-textured fixings, compared to the often stripped-down “unplugged” setting of the series’ singer-songwriter culture.

It felt more like a Saturday night alt-country, alt-hoedown, and a pleasurable introduction to new musical friends we’d like to be fans of.

Here are two unusual facts you need to know about Nathan. For starters, the band is built around two talented frontwomen, singer Keri Latimer and multi-instrumentalist-singer Shelly Marshall, who met at a party and discovered they were both “girlfriends” of a scurrilous character named Nathan (hence, the future band name). Secondly, the band is comprised of two married couples — the males, being drummer/harmonica player Damon Mitchell and bassist Devin Latimer, who hold down the rhythm section on the back line. Both couples have babies in tow, and on tour.

Such personal data might seem trivial, except it adds to the picture of eccentric bliss bubbling up from the music itself. From the first country-ish tune to the various twists of style — folk meets pop meets retro-jazz — wordplay and vocal harmonies, Nathan was thoroughly charming and hard to pigeonhole.

Just when you think the band is going down a rootsy path, a fresh turn — be it a disarming lyric or the sudden appearance of an accordion or therein in the mix — reminds you of a special creativity principle at work.

Roots music takes different detours in the case of Lund. Lund is a tall drink of water with a big old hat and an ample set of talents, to boot. He doesn’t head straight down the middle of country music tradition, and maybe a bit more actual twang would help spice up his music.

But Lund is carving out a sound and a voice all his own, having partly to do with a proud rootedness in one of North America’s last frontiers, the relatively unspoiled northern Rockies outpost of Alberta. His more literate songs can trace history and heritage and bemoan the threat of upsetting the natural balance, as in “The Truth Comes Out,” with its key line “the antelope mourns the buffalo in the night.”

All was not so serious during the show. In the course of a nicely varied set, Lund and band played minor mode historical epics and up-tempo sorta-country and western ravers, and a rockabilly ditty featuring the percussive percolations of upright bassist Kurt Ciesla. A closing tune Lund jokingly referred to as a “spiritual number” was “Time to Switch to Whiskey.”

Something’s going on with Canada’s music scene these days, a new wave of intriguing and style-stirring creativity that sometimes seems to trump its Stateside counterparts. Several Canadian acts have hit the Lobero boards in recent years, thanks to Sings Like Hell, and we just might be ripe for an inferiority complex. In part, the intrigue has to do with these artists’ reshuffling of musical genres and vocabularies, handing back “Americana” in a fresh, altered suit of clothes.