James rocks. You knew this.
He sent my this awesome CD as one of two (!) birthday prezzies this year. I know!
I don’t tend to like the New Country, to me it just sounds like pop music with a twang, or frustrated Van Halen fans who feel they need to tow the yee-haw line in order to sell records. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but that’s my overall impression.
Colter Wall suffers none of that. The feel here hews more to Johnny, Waylon, and Merle, with bluegrass and a world of southern hurt built-in. His voice, believe it or not, melds Johnny and Gordon Lightfoot, which is light years ahead of what any shiny added-twang CMT young gun can muster. I wasn’t sure, at first, about the vibrato on the vocals, but it grew on me. He doesn’t sound as young as he is. And what he’s singing is equally important to how he does it – this is real, bloody story-telling. Which goes to show, there’s a big difference between putting on airs and actually having dust on your boots. This record is the real deal.
The Dead South appear on Johnny Boy’s Bones, Belle Plain adds lovely vocals to Caroline, and he even (perfectly) covers Townes Van Zandt’s tune Nothin’.
I saw a comment online that summed it up: Saw this kid last night in Chicago. His voice is startling. His guitar work is original. He’ll be around as long as he wants to be.
This is, hands-down, a fantastic record, top to bottom. It evokes haunted images of barrooms, graveyards and crossroads. It invokes the powers of the greats. It lays it all out raw. This is the best damn record I have heard in ages. Completely recommended.
If you stick around, the whole thing is here:
Colter Wall is another one of those folks where it’s been cool to watch his progression. It wasn’t all that long ago that he was playing a teaser set at the Regina Folk Festival, not yet being a big enough deal for a main stage spot. Then he’s selling out the Exchange. Now he’s in the hall at Conexus Arts Centre, and I recognize that these place names only mean something to about three of you. It’s bigger, is the point. I think you got that from context.
Steve Earle called Wall “the best singer-songwriter I’ve come across in years.” High praise. And Brock Lesnar and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had an animated discussion about their shared fandom of Wall on WWE Network and while I’ll defer to Earle as far as musical knowledge goes, that was still weird and unexpected enough that I’ll bring it up anytime Wall’s name is mentioned. Like the last time I had to write one of these things about him.
I just looked back to confirm that last point and this review, thus far, is thematically so similar to the last one that it reads like I just re-wrote it. Which I didn’t do, but should have. I could be in bed by now.
Doors at 7:00, show at 8:00. There are good reasons to be late for a concert, but switching over the laundry and finishing up washing dishes probably aren’t among them. I should be careful, lest I damage the rock n’ roll cred I’ve so carefully built up over the years. And anyway, I only missed opener Blake Berglund’s first few songs, arriving just before he was joined on stage for a few songs by (his wife? his fiancée? did I mishear that whole thing?) Belle Plaine.
I might have misheard it. The sound – and this was true for Colter later on too – didn’t do anyone any favours. Really heavy on the bass and muddy vocals. I got better at deciphering things as the night went on, but if I wasn’t familiar with the song beforehand, I was often pretty lost. That said, I still enjoyed the set well enough, especially when Plaine was out there. It’s hard to say she made a surprise appearance when they’re always popping up at each other’s shows, so let’s just say she was unannounced and welcome.
Colter Wall has been likened to Johnny Cash, which seems like the most unfair thing you can do to a young musician but that’s not going to stop me from repeating it here. Apart from a comparably deep voice, Wall has clearly been raised on Cash and the other legends of classic country, taken that history, and put his own spin on it.
And now we’re back to guy with guitar and me not having a lot to say, the most familiar of all SLCR territories. Wall did the first few songs by himself, then brought out his band, and then had Blake and Belle back out with him for the encore. Sound issues aside, this was all good. I don’t know if it was a significant upgrade from listening to his albums, though.
I should have shown up earlier and stood closer to the front – normally, I’m all about hiding at the back, but the front seemed to be for people standing and listening, and the back was for the drinkers and partiers. Only a handful of Wall’s songs are rockers; most are better for listening and it wasn’t always the easiest to do that. Nobody was being a jerk, it was just kinda loud and distracting.
Well, almost nobody – I did think I was going to see a fistfight between Happy Loud Drunk and Angry Quiet Drunk. Happy Loud honestly didn’t seem that loud to me – no worse than 50 other people near me – but Angry Quiet had other thoughts and most of them were the f-word. Nothing happened but eventually a security guard took a permanent spot near them. Earlier, I’d seen two security guards keeping watch over a few ice cubes that had been spilled on the floor, so they were probably thankful for having something more interesting to do.
I don’t know when I first learned that Colter Wall was a musician. It seemed like it just happened one day and suddenly he was everywhere. It was notable around these parts because Wall is the son of our Premier (the equivalent of a Governor for my American pals). This is the kind of thing that probably helped him a lot for a while and may be as much of a hindrance these days. When referencing the concert, I heard “great singer, shame about his dad” more than once.
But whatever. When your dad’s the Premier, that probably opens some doors in Saskatchewan. That doesn’t get you onto Rolling Stone’s list of 10 New Country Artists You Need to Know. It doesn’t get you a touring gig opening for Steve Earle. It doesn’t get Stone Cold Steve Austin and Brock Lesnar discussing how much they love your music on an episode of Austin’s podcast… okay, it probably DOES get you that since Brock lives here now and has met the Premier. But still. That other stuff.
I saw Colter at the folk festival a few years ago. At the time, he wasn’t big enough to merit a main stage spot, playing only a few songs as a teaser between headline acts. If I’m being honest, I thought he seemed a little nervous and I didn’t think that he came across that well. He had definite potential but wasn’t there yet. Since then came all that stuff I listed above. And I listened to his debut EP, Imaginary Appalachia, and it was really good. Dude won me over. This show was the launch party for his (self-titled) first full-length album and I was looking forward to seeing him live again.
On the weekend before the show, Mika fell ill with a cold. “Tell me if you don’t feel like going to Colter Wall and I’ll see if someone else wants to go,” I said on Sunday afternoon. “I’m not going to Colter Wall,” she said at 3:30 am Monday. I appreciated the advance notice, and we were both awake anyway, but it probably could have waited until morning. Anyway, she spent the day home sick and I went to work with a mission to find someone to take this extra ticket off my hands.
Luckily, Jason, a friend from an ungodly long time ago if I stop to think about it, has a blog. And in said blog, he had recently referenced Colter Wall and mentioned he didn’t have plans to go to the show. I checked with him and to my delight, he was in. It was either doors at 7:00, show at 8:00, or 8:00/9:00 depending on where you looked, so we agreed to meet at the Exchange just before 8:00. He got there a few minutes before I did and saw Colter hanging out with friends outside the venue.
Once inside, we got beers. I don’t know from beer so I went with my old standby, Same For Me. Whatever it was, it was good. We took our beers and made our way into the concert hall. It was a sold-out show with very little seating, so we found ourselves a good standing spot. The crowd was an interesting mix of country fans, hipsters, and Sask Party MLAs (and someone who we were pretty sure was Colter’s dad in a leather jacket) – if I ever hung out with people, I’d say this was “not my usual crowd.” I may also have compared it to being on the bridge of the ship in Spaceballs but I said I’d leave my politics out of this.
The opener was John Clay, who played a short acoustic set before returning later in the evening as Wall’s drummer. He played a mix of originals and covers that I didn’t know, encouraging us to check out music by his influences; in particular, the only album ever released by Willis Alan Ramsey. This suffered from the usual curse of nobody paying attention to the opener, but those of us who did got some good tunes. And though he was mostly pretty low-key, there was one point where he really showed off his voice and that got everyone’s attention. Fine stuff.
Wall, on the other hand, isn’t one for vocal showmanship. He has a deep bass baritone that suits his songs well. Not a huge range but he can bring the intensity when required. He was playing with a small band and showed no trace of the nervousness I had seen (or imagined) before. He was calm and confident and came across like a seasoned veteran.
As you’d expect, he played most of the songs from his new album and his EP, which, together, are about long enough to fill out a set. I don’t know how new the new material is – whether this was the first time he played it live here or if it was already familiar to much of the crowd. Everything got a really good reaction but the best was saved for two favourites from the EP – The Devil Wears a Suit and Tie and the last song of the encore, Sleeping on the Blacktop.
It’s hard to reconcile some of Wall’s songs with his upbringing. This likely isn’t an issue for anyone who doesn’t live here and shouldn’t be an issue for me. I mean, I don’t know anything about the guy personally and I know that songwriters don’t have to be autobiographical. But you get to songs like “You Look to Yours” with the line “don’t trust no politicians” and I get distracted, you know? But that shouldn’t matter if the songs are good, and these are, so never mind me.
I feel like I’ve been nitpicky here but this was a really good show. Packed house, hometown (well, homeprovince) crowd, great music. Would go again. Jason made this point but I’ll reiterate it – from all the buzz and the success Wall’s having, this could be the last time we’ll get to see him in a venue this small. And though he’s apparently living in the States now, I suspect he won’t be skipping past Regina on future tours even if he makes it big. So, you know, I’ll gladly take advantage of his connections when they benefit me.
• Bryan Adams w/Our Lady Peace and Johnny Reid (May 27)
• Son of Dave (June 24)
• Serena Ryder (June 25)
• kd lang (August 26)
• Guns N’ Roses (August 27)
• The New Pornographers w/Born Ruffians (October 6)
• Martha Wainwright (October 22)