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Where the Grass is Always Bluer

Posted by Cat / May 27, 2007

20070527_NDG-Main-Hall.jpgWhy is it that I always feel transported to a completely different place each time I attend a Montreal bluegrass or roots music concert? All of a sudden, I'm at a southern country fair, a speakeasy on the bayou, an old-time tent revival – anywhere but some hip corner of the Plateau or thereabouts. It's not as if a bluegrass or country show is an anomaly in this city. Montreal is lousy with fabulous roots, country, folk, and bluegrass talent, and that roster of musicians only seems to grow with each passing year.

True, these genres have such a deep, rich history that it's sometimes hard to disassociate the music with certain traditional spaces, no matter the actual show venue. But lyrics such as those penned by Matt Large, front man for local bluegrass act Notre Dame de Grass, speak directly to our time and place. They also speak directly to our feet, as witnessed by the infectious toe tappin' at this past Saturday's cd launch for NDG's latest, New Canada Road, at Main Hall (bumped upstairs from the Green Room at the last minute.)
Terry Joe Banjo, one heckuva banjo player (which came first: the profession or the surname?) got the crowd warmed up and, well, things were pretty toasty after the first tune: a fiery Spanish-influenced number called "Hummus my Hummus". Dara Weiss, Matt Large, and Katie Moore variously accompanied Terry on songs about Quebec's version of Bonnie & Clyde (Machine-gun Molly), road kill, and world-weariness, respectively.

"I've been known to play the banjo fast. And I've been known to play the banjo real fast," quipped Terry before his finale of banjo bravado, "Ode to Banjo". With a delightful riff on Beethoven's Ode to Joy midway through, those fingers must have exceeded the pickin' speed limit somewhere around five minutes before the song even started. Amazing.

20070527_NewCanadaRoad.jpgThe highway violations continued when Notre Dame de Grass took the stage and immediately launched into their eminently sing-a-long-able title track, "New Canada Road." Joined by Guy Donis on banjo and dobro, Bob Cussen on mandolin and vocals, Andrew Horton on guitar and vocals, Heather Schnarr (from Yonder Hill) on fiddle, and Cedric Dind-Lavoie on upright bass, Mr. Matt Large proceeded to lead us through a set that felt larger-than-life.

From the gorgeous gospel harmonies on "Narrow Path" to the bittersweet country sensibilities and earnestness of "Grease-Stained Hands" (a poignant ode to Matt's dad), the band treated the audience to the incredible range and talent exhibited on the recording, with the added verve and spontaneity that marks a great live show. Guy Donis's instrumental arrangements on "Montreal Breakdown" are pure bluegrass brilliance, rich in dancing banjo, singing fiddle, and twinkling mandolin. Man, can Bob Cussen make that 'tater bug fly! Another Notre Dame de Grass live show earning the title of tour de force.

Matt's voice can fill a hall like few can. While most of the songs were written by Matt himself, he is equally adept at interpreting the music and lyrics of other great songwriters. David Francey's lovely, waltzing "Saturday Night" gets a bluegrass make-over in Matt's hands. Francey himself has joked that, after hearing Matt's version, he may never perform it again. On "Hick's Farewell", Matt's voice is showcased to its powerful best through the honest, haunting simplicity of traditional Appalachian harmonies with minimal instrumentation. It might have been the only moment throughout the entire set that the foot-stomping came to a standstill as the audience stood silent and rapt, as if in church, hearts beating in breasts, gazes steadily fixed forward.

What I love about the bluegrass, country, roots, or folk music shows that I tend to frequent in this city is the incredibly rich make-up of the crowd. More men than women were sporting ponytails. An older gentleman, his weathered face focussed intently on the stage, was perched on a stool near the bar while towards the back of the room a young mum ran herd on her two rambunctious daughters. The variety of facial hair fashions was outdone only by the range of shirts being sported: the de rigueur gingham, plaid, and cowboy styles mingled with polo-necked t-shirts, buttoned-up button-downs, and at least two Hawaiian numbers.

Maybe that's the reason why these shows tend to transport me out of myself and into a different place from the usual night on the town. What other venues and concerts attract such a range of ages and backgrounds (musical and otherwise)? It's always an inspired mix of country folk and city folk, united by a music that, as Matt Large might say, "gets them somewhere that few things do." While the music might leave me feeling as if I am soaring off into some wild blue(grass) yonder, perhaps I am not necessarily travelling so far. Perhaps I am just travelling home. And I'll happily take the New Canada Road to get there.*

*Coincidently (for me, that is), Matt wrote the title track in Bayport, Nova Scotia. The song speaks to the pox of urban sprawl on our countryside, on places like Nova Scotia's South Shore. My parents happen to live not far from New Canada, in Lunenburg Co., Nova Scotia. Travelling home indeed.

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