The last time the Wailin' Jennys played an album release gig, they had about 310 people at the West End Cultural Centre. The place was packed. That album, 40 Days, went on to win a Juno and the Jennys went on to much greater exposure, particularly as regulars on Garrison Keillor's A Prarie Home Companion US radio show. It's interesting to note when they end up on the show, they end up being in the top 5 best-selling artists on Amazon.com. At one point, the Dixie Chicks were ranked #1, the Jenny's #2 and Johnny Cash #3.
Their last Winnipeg concert proper, as far as I can recall, was a gig at the Prairie Theatre Centre in front of a couple of hundred fans last year. This time they sold around 850 tickets – quite an increase. They did play the Winnipeg Folk Festival this past summer, but that is technically an out of town gig in Bird Hill Provincial Park.
They began the show with one of the most immediately appealing tracks from the new album, Devil's Paintbrush Road, written by Annabelle Chvostek. It's upbeat and has a driving, old-time sound. I recognized everything they played, save for one unrecorded track. Throughout the set, they would talk about the inspiration behind the songs. Some songs are sentimental in nature while others have a darker inspiration. They played one song about an Aboriginal man who, as the custom was, was driven to the edge of town in winter and left to "sober up." He froze to death.
All three members of the Wailin' Jennys are accomplished songwriters, each with their own unique strengths. Ruth Moody's "Prairie Town," a ballad about her hometown of Winnipeg, won the crowd over. Nicky Mehta's "Begin" knocked my socks off the first time I heard it on album, and live it was equally stunning with it's poignant, bittersweet style and that oh, so beautiful chorus that only comes in at the end. This is the type of song that she is known for – hypnotically alluring, dark but hopeful. Annabelle's "Apocalypse Lullaby" was also a demonstration of her songwriting prowess. This oddly titled song is haunting, surreal and incredibly sublime. I give her top marks for including the word "tetrahedron" in the song. It's one of my favorite songs right now.
The Jennys are known for their luscious three-part harmonies and in this show, like all their shows that I have seen, they had the audience spellbound. They can pull if off with or without accompanying instruments. They played some cover tunes that are staples of their live shows, including Leadbelly's "Bring Me Lil' Water Sylvie" and "Calling All Angels" by Jane Siberry, which are meant to showcase their blended vocals. Rounding out the sound on several tracks were violinist Jeremy Penner and bassist Gilles Fournier, two veteran players in the local folk and jazz music scene.
The Jennys have reached a point where they actually cannot play all their best material in one show, even though they only have two proper albums out. Missing from the set was a favorite of mine, "Ten Mile Stilts," which was on their debut. Any of the songs of Nicky Mehta's brilliant debut, "Weathervane," would have fit like a glove. Her best songs are distinctive, memorable and have a long lasting appeal.
I'm not smitten with every track on the new album. Some tracks are clearly stronger than others. Time will tell whether or not they will give up the formula of giving each member an equal number of slots on their recordings, or will they simply go with only the strongest tracks in the pool, regardless of who wrote them. Of course, they could also try something that they haven't tried before, writing together. You can clearly tell who wrote what songs on the album and in the show since they don't collaborate together.
Ruth's songs as whispery sentimental and easy to digest, like lullabies. And her angelic vocals are an unreal match for her songs. Nicky's are more elaborately crafted with bittersweet feelings of caring and concern, happy but not without a price. Anabelle's are more distinguished by her sound which takes advantage of her fiddle playing and generally sound more upbeat. I'm a little loathe to try to categorize and summarize their individual songwriting talents, however, since each one is a more diverse writer than I let on.
Given how they seem to be constantly on tour, they made a point of handing out the thank-yous very liberally to their hometown audience. We really don't know when they are going to play here again, given the growing demands on their schedule.
Opening act Patrick Keenan was a complete unknown to me. He's a local performer and he was reminiscent of both Joe Cocker with his unrestrained vocals and also the stylings of Rufus Wainwright. I liked the way his songs actually had stories behind them, which he shared with the audience. Playing with just an electric piano, Keenan put on an excellent show and I will try to track down his CD.
I was at the very first Wailin' Jennys show at Sleddog Music, an acoustic guitar shop/ cafe, in the Wolseley area of Winnipeg, back in January, 2002. They played to about 50 people in total over two nights, and they didn't even have a name before the first show. As the now famous story goes, after those shows, they began to receive more offers for work than they had as solo artists, so they decided to see how far they could take the band concept.
To date, they've gone from playing North American festivals to touring regularly in the UK, Canada, the US, and even Australia, where Ruth Moody was born. They earned their success so far with very limited radio airplay and lots of word of mouth, winning fans over one person at a time. Frankly, I would not be surprised to see them win a Grammy one of these days – they are that competitive sounding.