The Carleton kicked off the Halifax Urban Folk Festival with an incredible double-bill Sunday night. Daniel Romano of Attack In Black and Bry Webb of The Constantines played separate sets to a warmly enthusiastic crowd. Their solo material bolstered brilliantly by their talented backing bands.To say I am a bit of a Romano/Webb fanboy would be a hefty understatement. I grew up rocking out endlessly to their former bands as I toiled through university. I’ve seen the Cons and Attack In Black perform more than any other acts I can think of, and every single time I’ve been blown right out of the water. Sunday’s experience was no different. As their primarily solo-acoustic sets resonated sleekly between the walls, the sound remained positively at home in The Carleton.
Just after 9 p.m. the lights dimmed and Romano, along with his band The Trilliums, took to the front of the room to set the show in motion. Romano was clad as he’s typically been when I’ve witnessed previous solo outings, like a cowboy devotee – brimmed hat and all – lending a modern day appreciation to western heroes of old. His style and swagger was a fitting compliment to the music and lyrics, out of date in the best of ways. Romano put it perfectly himself as he strummed through “Time Forgot,” one of his opening numbers and a definite set highlight: “They say time can take the pain away, because time changes everything. But time forgot to change my heart.”
Throughout the set it was clear that his heart was truly in the music he played, there was nothing hokey going on, and it made for a most satisfying experience. Later he apologized profusely as he made his way through a string of slow, sad songs – needlessly so, mind you, they’re some of his best – but it was obvious that the variation he offered up elsewhere was greatly pleasing to the audience. They hung on to every word and note as he swung between country-folk ballads and upbeat jams. He’s a storyteller too, to be sure, in the same blue vein as classics like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Romano ended the set with a sprawling mish-mashed medley of songs that wonderfully encapsulated his entire live act before donning his guitar once again for a final encore – a humble version of George Jones’ “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” – to leave us, as always, hanging on for more.
After a brief intermission, Bry Webb took the stage, his backing band armed with an upright bass, pedal and lap steel – hell, even Romano sat in on drums throughout much of the set. It was a formidable force, to say the least. And if Romano’s first act left me rather unstuck in time, Webb effortlessly followed suit. The hushed, understated wisps of his songs are the basis for nostalgia, a trip down memory lane. As a new Haligonian, I was fast to recall following Webb’s Constantines from little hole-in-the-wall bars in my hometown in Ontario to throbbing music halls packed to the brim with stomping feet. The Carleton crowd seemed equally as moved through his solo set as the acoustics filled the room.
Webb kicked it off with an absolute favorite, the melancholic “Persistent Spirit,” and the audience listened intently as he sang: “The lady is thunder and lightning, once she’s kissed you, you stay kissed. Sometimes desire is like a spark on a street car wire. Better planes exist.” Webb’s lyrics have always been most noteworthy, their strong emotional pull easily evoking familiar spaces, straight forward, yet always with room for personal interpretation. He continued on with “Rivers of Gold,” explaining that it was the product of a trip to Grand Manan Island, lyrics namedropping the Canadian Yukon, painting images of glorious mountains and quiet roads; a wanderer’s hymn to me.
Elsewhere he fleshed out his set with cover songs, some new material and the majority of offerings from last year’s solo album, Provider. Especially strong was the band’s rendition of the track ‘Lowlife’ which, despite its aura, Webb had to explain was “…not a sad song.” It was, however, fantastically moody and moving as he cooed, “We’re in danger of going stray. We’ll find a way, way stranger.” The set and subsequent encore culminated in a string of rockers then, including a Thin Lizzy number to send us off. The only other thing I could have greedily asked for was Webb’s take on Velvet Underground’s “Oh, Sweet Nuthin’” but, alas, it was an unforgettable show nonetheless.
Both Romano and Webb made me most proud to be a fellow Ontarian with their stunning performances, and equally as elated that I could catch it out on the beautiful east coast at a venue as cozy as The Carleton. Romano kicked it old country-folkstyle and Webb’s mellow gold beemed with reminiscence to make for a most fulfilling show, as well as an eagerly anticipated return to Halifax. And, hey, if they wanted to re-initiate some good ol’ Attack In Black/Constantines action out here soon too, this fan would certainly not be opposed.