Last Friday’s concert at Murphy’s Community Centre was the main event in town that night for the 2013 PEI Jazz and Blues Festival, a festival that I look forward to every year, and an annual event that always delivers stellar internationally-renowned jazz and blues performers to Charlottetown’s stages.
And, knowing the calibre of entertainment that the festival regularly brings into our city, I suppose that is why I was particularly disappointed with the opening performer for last Friday’s show, who I felt was not only artistically lacking, but also generally mislabelled as a blues musician.
Treasa Levasseur is an Ontario singer/songwriter who is a Juno Award nominee for her 2008 release, Low Fidelity and who this year received a Maple Blues nomination for female vocalist of the year.
And rightfully so, as her bellowing, digging-in-hard voice rang out through the Murphy Centre in a powerful way right from the very first note of her 40-minute performance that night.
But, as Levasseur continued in her nine-song set, supported by a tight three-piece backing band, I must admit, she lost me more and more in that all-important bond that needs to be maintained between performer and audience member.
And, judging by the lukewarm applause that followed each one of her songs, it seemed as though other crowd members may have been on the same page as me.
Levasseur has such a commanding and confident stage presence, and she does her best to try to keep the crowd engaged through stories about herself. In theory, it all should work, but in the end, her songwriting displayed a pedestrian approach, there was little to be moved by and, honestly, I would probably describe her sound as more musical-theatre-esque or perhaps simplified adult contemporary, rather than R and B or blues.
Now, all I can say is that thankfully it was none other than Steve Strongman who closed out the Friday bill at the Murphy Centre because with his brand of award-winning, high-gear, steaming-hot blues guitar, he put the blues back in “Jazz and Blues Festival” for the soon-to-be-fired-up crowd that night.
Ontario’s Strongman is this year’s Juno winner for blues album of the year, and also won three Maple Blues Awards for songwriter of the year, recording of the year and guitar player of the year (for the second year in a row).
And, accompanied by a two-piece band of drums and bass, he tore out of the gates with a tune called Lie to You, which soared with a sweet in-the-pocket groove, belting vocals, some fantastic harmonica by Strongman an of course, many a signature wailing riff pouring out of his Gibson hollow-body electric guitar.
“Are you listening?!” Strongman shouted out to the room, away from the mike, as the crowd roared back in response, and as the suited-up Strongman kicked out another wild, flashy solo, well-varied in dynamics, rhythm and soundscape.
A broken string on that hollow-body electric caused the need for a set of acoustic tunes as the drummer and bassist exited the stage for a string change (I thought it was interesting there was no back-up guitar at hand).
But it was certainly a blessing-in-disguise, as Strongman delivered a tremendous trio of three acoustic songs, including Haven’t Seen It Yet (from his 2012 CD A Natural Fact), and the soulful homesick ballad Coming Home Tonight.
The charged-up Woman Across the River brought the electric groove back, as Strongman, with Colin Lapsley on bass and Dave King on drums, then continued to rock the crowd solidly straight through to the end of their set.
Kudos to the P.E.I. Jazz and Blues Festival for bringing us a great overall 2013 festival and for doing their best to bring us the best each summer. And even though I now wouldn’t call myself a Levasseur fan, Strongman went far and above to make it an impressive show. And I will, of course, as always, be an eager returning audience member for the next P.E.I. Jazz and Blues Festival.
Next week: I’ll be heading to the annual Maud Whitmore Benefit Concert at Confederation Centre of the Arts.
Todd MacLean is a local freelance writer and musician. If you have a comment or suggestion for a review, you can get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 626-1242. But he won’t be offended if you don’t.
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