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Katherine Wheatley's songs light up the room
(Katherine Wheatley at Acoustic Harvest, with Sam Turton and Jane Lewis)

by Eric Thom

Lillian Wauthier has been running her east end folk club, Acoustic Harvest, out of the basement of St. Nicholas Anglican Church in Toronto (previously at Birchcliff Bluffs United Church) for some 20 years (with thanks to the late, great Rick Fielding).

A monthly mecca for quality roots performances, Lillian has long promoted a wide-ranging Who's Who of folk, bluegrass, Celtic, olde-time and world talent while, at the same time, cultivating a warm and familiar audience who have learned to trust her taste when it comes to who's she's bringing in next.

Such was certainly the case this past Saturday night as people were lined up the stairs and out the door for a chance to share a cozy get-together with Katherine Wheatley - Parry Sound's red-haired sparkplug of a singer-songwriter - the full house confirming that Lillian's choice was a smart one.

Hard to believe that Wheatley remains slightly shy about playing solo; she needn't be. Often touring with Wendell Ferguson (as Wendell & Wheat) or as part of Betty & The Bobs, she's an all- natural, effervescent performer all by her lonesome - capable of connecting with her audience in record time. Self-effacing and surprisingly intimate, this feisty songstress proves a master storyteller in short order - inviting each listener into the catalyst behind each song or, in some cases, the tall tale from whence it emerged.

Those shared insights prove endearing to both the music and audience hearing them. As for the tiny woman delivering them, she's happy to invite everyone in for a better understanding of what she's all about - her powerful vocals and exceptional guitar-playing working together seamlessly as each colourful narrative unfolded. On this occasion, the world was celebrating Earth Hour and, as the lights in the room were extinguished in favour of candle power (with the odd flashlight thrown in), Wheatley zeroed in on her love of the earth - specifically songs that revolved around the celebration of nature.

The homey glow of the candlelight transformed the room into something akin to a nighttime campfire and Wheatley seemed intent in involving her audience in a series of singalongs. To her credit, they fully cooperated, providing better-than-average accompaniment to some of her better-known songs. This set the bar higher as Wheatley repaid the warmth with a show that simply got better as she relaxed. Personal favourites aside, I came away from this show with two realizations: one, Wheatley is an excellent songwriter and her compositions incorporate smart hooks, whether they be through specific vocal treatment or through her accomplished guitar-playing. There's always something there to grab one's attention. I left the show with many new favourites - without even getting to the songs I was hoping to hear.

Two, her ability to sing with others takes both her songs and her performance to another level. Exceptional accompaniment was had on a few numbers thanks to fellow Guelph-ites Jane Lewis (vocals) and Sam Turton (slide guitar, vocals, hats). Together, they lifted each piece higher, playing together like there was no other way to render these songs. Lewis' rich backup vocals joined Wheatley's to create sibling-like harmonies while Turton's Cooderesque slide embellished each song, augmenting each with some special moments while never stealing the thunder from the others - no easy feat.

Clearly experimenting with a number of vocal approaches, Wheatley applies a certain breathiness to some of her songs while her mid-range seems her strongest suite. The former worked well on the pin-drop-quiet "One True Kiss" and her song of paying tribute to patience, "Fishing" (although she may have overtaxed her voice in a few spots). Other highlights included the title track of her latest album, Landed, as well as a stunning new song entitled "The Silence of the Snow" and, from her first release, "Water Moves Me".

The band joined her for a pair of songs after the first half of the show: "Some Sweet Country" proved a lush, homegrown affair while Lewis' own "Tend Me Like A Garden" was a showpiece for beautiful harmonies and a truly tender touch (Lewis revealing a strong, earth-mother soulfulness in her abilities). Wheatley originals like "Signal Faded" (co-written with James Gordon) bring out the best in her vocals as they demonstrate her rich range. Other strong songs included "Until the Day is Done" and her new "Tarpaper Shack".

The hard-rocking "Bound To You" could in another life be a Stones' song. With the return of Lewis and Turton, Wheatley's cover of Van the Man's "Tupelo Honey" was exceptional, slowed down slightly with Turton embellishing it with lovely slide flourishes, both guitars working well in tandem, and Lewis' added vocals helping to keep the song in its hymn-like, pastoral context.

Likewise, "Over the Moon" was a strong choice with tasty slide and serious vocal power. Far and away, the evening's best song was Wheatley's own "Hallelujah" - and no relation to the now over-exposed Leonard Cohen song by the same title. Wheatley's more earthborn original kicks butt, offers a fresh, rousing alternative complete with a drop-dead chorus.

An encore was a given and Wheatley returned for a memorable rendition of Henry Mancini's "Moon River", supplemented by the entertaining story that spawned its being covered, with Sam Turton supplying some near-perfect, impromptu slide.
Another fine night at Lillian's Acoustic Harvest by anyone's definition - and some electricity saved in the bargain.

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