Thursday, January 16, 2020

Concert Review: David Francey

Another break with tradition, as tonight I’m going to review a live show, but not a studio album (usually it’s the opposite). Francey’s last album was 2018, and while I own it, it is no longer “new to me”. I’ve decided to wait until I roll it, rather than pull it off the shelf because he came to town.

In any event, on January 15, Sheila and I braved the freezing cold weather to join our friend Casey and his two daughters for Canadian folk singer David Francey. Here’s how it looked:

Here’s how it went:

The Concert: January 15, 2020 at Hermann’s Jazz Club, Victoria

I hadn’t been in Hermann’s Jazz club in over twenty-five years, and I was excited to see the place again. As a young man I went there for a couple of years because I knew it was frequented by a woman I was interested in (maybe two, details are hazy) and because I had decided that I was going to damned well embrace jazz until I learned to like it.

Despite substantial effort, I never successfully wooed a woman there, and never learned to enjoy jazz either, but I still I have good memories of the place. It was great to return, the more so knowing I wouldn’t have to listen to any jazz. Hermann’s is a Victoria institution, with its low ceiling and brick walls and speakeasy feel, it is like a club out of a forgotten era. It is a wonderful place with a great vibe, and I’ve always felt welcome there.

That remained true. If anything, it felt more informal and relaxed than I remembered. When we arrived, the band was still doing a sound-check (likely delayed by the snowy weather) and it was fun to just watch them do their thing. Then they disappeared, and our attentive (but never intrusive) server brought us burgers, fries and chicken strips (the latter being a favourite of at least one of Casey’s kids).

The two-hour wait between the dinner reservation and the show went pretty fast, and before you knew it Francey was on stage, joined by a couple of guest musicians: fiddler Pierre Schryer and guitar player Adam Dobres; both well known in the local scene. Schryer was new to me, but I’ve known Adam Dobres dating all the way back to his early days with Outlaw Social (last reviewed back at Disc 754). I’ve always loved his guitar playing, and nothing’s changed.

On this night he and Schryer did an artful job of backing David Francey. Recognizing these were simple folk songs, Schryer played with no frills, while still providing a rich and honeyed tone that lets every note soak in. Dobres laid down gentle strums and pick-patterns that were subtle and beautiful. Neither ever interfered with Francey’s narrative tales, but instead provided an extra layer of emotion underneath. Combined, it was some of the most unselfish playing I’ve witnessed.

Francey was getting over a bout of bronchitis, and his voice was not 100%. He warned the audience at the beginning of this but promised to give us everything he had. He lived up to that promise, and while his voice cracked a couple of times, it held up remarkably well, and even improved through the night as he worked it up.

I’ve only known Francey’s music for a couple of years, but I’ve bought a ton of his records in that time. He’s not a radio star, and it was fun having no idea which songs of all the ones I knew were concert favourites. Turns out “Paperboy” and “Empty Train” were big and recognized hits based on the audience reaction.

I liked those songs fine, but frankly they were all good. Many were written many years ago, but Francey always sang them with a heartfelt approach that made you feel like he was performing them for the first time.

Francey’s a natural storyteller, and in front of every song but one, he talked about what had inspired him to write it. On that one song (“Torn Screen Door”) he talked about it after. He reminded me of Billy Bragg with his gift for the gab, and for making a relaxed connection with the audience. In one introduction, he even showed off his terrible dance moves. They are indeed terrible. Hilarious, but terrible.

A couple of times he talked the song out a bit too much, particularly when he would describe imagery that he later used in the song, but for the most part it felt unassuming and natural.

When he was singing, his rich Scottish brogue soaked over you. The sound was clear but never sharp, and it felt like you were sitting in someone’s living room.

The only negative part of the experience was some guy near me doing the thing I hate most at any show. He thought he knew the words to Francey's songs, but for the most part, he didn't. On songs he vaguely recognized (about a quarter of them) he'd sort of sing along too loud, but always slightly behind the beat as he "remembered" the lyrics just after Francey sang them. The worst part was the show had all kinds of opportunities for audience participation, with Francey encouraging us to help out with many a chorus. There was no reason to create a weird half-echo on the verses.

Anyway, it was a great show, and while only one of the three songs I was hoping to hear got played (“The Waking Hour”) the tracks that did make the cut were great. Francey did two sets and played almost twenty songs. The encore was only one song, which was disappointing, but only from the perspective of not wanting the show to end.

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