The Queer Songbook Orchestra is a 12-piece chamber pop ensemble traveling across Canada telling queer people’s stories. I mean this literally – they’re joined in each city by local readers who preface each song with a story submitted from across Canada.
This concert was put on in association with the Regina Folk Festival, though it didn’t open with the familiar sight of a local radio personality plugging upcoming shows and thanking the list of sponsors. Won’t someone think of the SOCAN Foundation? Instead, they went right into the show, starting with a brief introduction talking about the mission of the QSO. I did think it was a little funny when they mentioned wanting to take the show to places where there’s less of a visible queer community, but the big crowd reaction was reserved for the specific phrase, “not just Toronto and Vancouver.” I get it; I hate the two-city “Canadian tour” as much as anyone. It just made me laugh that even in the face of the night’s positive message, our little big city inferiority complex still reared its head.
After that, the show was split into two sets, mostly following the format of story, song, story, song – though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the poetry reading at the start of the second half that stole the show with passion and humour. Each story made reference to a specific song, but beyond that, they varied greatly – some were funny, some sad, some hopeful. One was particularly heartbreaking. It would feel weird to recap them here since they’re not mine to tell and an abridged version wouldn’t do them justice anyway.
The songs were of special importance to the folks who wrote in with their stories, so it’s no surprise that many of the songs were by queer artists, or those with significance to the queer community. We got Changes (David Bowie), Heart of Glass (Blondie), Could I Be Your Girl (Jann Arden), Fast Car (Tracy Chapman), and others by Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and more. Most of the arrangements stuck pretty close to the originals (just, you know, with an orchestra), though their version of Sprawl II by Arcade Fire slowed things down, where I thought the original benefitted from having that extra energy to it.
For all of the stories and songs, the night’s most emotional moment came near the end, when QSO artistic director (and trumpet player) Shaun Brodie addressed the crowd after introducing everyone else in the ensemble. He’d grown up closeted in Regina and joked that the blurb on the front page of that morning’s newspaper – Concert a Homecoming for Queer Musician – read like the nightmares of his 14-year-old self. In the full story, the paper included a photo they’d originally run in 1985 of seven-year-old Brodie getting help with trumpet lessons. Brodie credited that teacher for guiding him toward his career in music, and thanked his other music teachers (at least one of whom was in attendance) and other positive influences and role models he’d had while living here. Being out at home for the first time was clearly something special (if still nerve-wracking) to Brodie.
With that, we had the closing song, described as Canada’s unofficial queer national anthem. I’m not sure what I would have guessed it would be, but it wouldn’t have been We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight by Rita MacNeil. In fairness, my knowledge of both Rita MacNeil and queer anthems is lacking. I’m pretty this is the only MacNeil song I know, and only because it was featured regularly on Rita and Friends in the days when we only got three channels in English.
All told, I thought the music was great and the show felt important. The sound at the Artesian was great, and the venue was the perfect size to host such an intimate, personal show. All that said, given the evening’s nature, it feels weird to critique it like a normal concert. Luckily, these write-ups generally wind up less like actual reviews and more recaps of an evening out with a particular focus on my own buffoonery, so maybe we’re in the clear here.