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Brian MacMillan, Layah Jane and Oliver Johnson (July 12, 2008)

We’ve just returned from yet another in the amazing Knox Acoustic Cafe series, this time the incomparable trio of Brian MacMillan, Layah Jane and Oliver Johnson. What a fantastic show!

The basement room was definitely warm tonight – this hot July night’s heat was a presence certainly felt by all. But there was no stopping these musicians as they treated us to song after song of brilliant playing, beautiful vocals and tales of new beginnings and love. What’s not to like?

Brian MacMillan has played at Knox before, a solo set last year and, although we regrettably missed that show, I have had reports that it was every bit as great as tonight’s performance. I believe it. The man’s excellent songwriting and intricate guitar work is truly something to behold, and his relaxed and engaging stage presence is a definite plus. I’ve had his CD for a while now, and his songs never fail to lift me up. With his words he seems to acknowledge that there are bad things about life, but why focus on that when you can start over, move past it and get on with things in a more open and understanding way? Better yet, he’s not at all preachy about it. It just is what it is. I love it.

Layah Jane is known to folks around here through Last Chance Saloon, part of the lead up to a recent Summerfolk. Tonight she sang incredibly well, her perfectly-controlled voice rising from whisper to power with passionate ease. There’s a breathy quality in her singing, in the tradition of the great jazz vocalists (one could easily imagine her covering Ella and Billie). I also heard some Eva Cassidy (as a fellow audience member pointed out), and even a little Norah Jones. But those would merely be comparisons (which can only go so far), because her voice is also completely her own and it’s amazing. Her songs are well-considered and peaceful, and she dances while she sings, her entire body suffused with the music. She’s a captivating performer whose name you should definitely get to know.

This was my first time hearing Oliver Johnson play the guitar, and I definitely hope it won’t be the last. He was the ace in the hole tonight, in many ways, reliably adding support, colour and fills where they best fit in each tune. It was obvious in his playing, and in the way his eyes lit up and a playful smile crossed his face mid-song, that the man has truly found his joy in music. Watching his fingers fly across the frets was a real treat.

The first set of the show featured Jane’s songs, with accompaniment from MacMillan and Johnson, while the second set was comprised of MacMillan’s tunes backed by the other two. On any given night, all three of these musicians could ably carry a solo show, without question, but the real treat for the audience tonight was seeing them all perform together. There’s a real understanding between them, a sympathetic and respectful playing that was completely riveting. They just seemed to know where the others would take things, and it all fit seamlessly. Each song was beautiful, complete, and perfect.

Alas, it was all over too soon and, after chatting with each performer briefly afterwards (who all turned out, of course, to be genuinely friendly and nice people), we struck out for home with our heads full of the wonderful music we’d heard tonight. I will not soon forget this excellent show.

Our thanks go, as ever, to everyone at Knox for all of their hard work in making this series happen, and especially to the super-amazing Susan and Irwin for engineering the whole thing. You guys rock.

Next up: Steve and Rob Ritchie (of Tanglefoot) on July 25. Oh yes!

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