There is something to be said, something almost magical about watching a musician perform live, stripping away everything else save for only a simple music accompaniment, whether it be on the piano or guitar as you, standing or sitting in the audience, listen intently and take in the lyrics, the melody, the vocals, as the musician draws you into their world. For some songs, all chatter may stop, you may even get goosebumps. From the strum of the guitar, the first run of piano notes and watching a singer belt out the first few notes as the room goes silent, captured by the performance, I’m sure it’s something we have all experienced at least once.
Over the past year or so, I, along with my fellow Tourists, have been introduced to some fantastic Hamiltonian music and one of the highlights for me personally has been the number of talented singer/songwriters in this city. From Max Wray to Amberley B., the Xo.Ex.Oh’s to Drew Smith, I have always been amazed by the ability of these individuals to put themselves out there and allow us to enter their world. It’s quite profound really.
Kristin and I were lucky enough to check out a fantastic singer/songwriter night at Homegrown Hamilton featuring Kirby, Donovan Woods and UK singer/songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich. While I’m not sure my words will do justice to their performances, I will do my very best to capture it for all the readers. I highly suggest you check out each of their albums.
It was a warm evening (a much needed break from indecisive Mother Nature who just couldn’t seem to make up her mind whether it should be spring or not!) and Kristin and I made the most of the BEAUTIFUL weather, both of us chosing to wear bright floral patterns. We were both certainly in a springy mood. After wrapping up our Rendezvous with Kirby, we made our way over to Homegrown Hamilton and were soon joined by Honourary Tour members Krystal and Stacey. It was a true Tour family affair as friends Matt Montour and Max Wray also showed up!
First up was Kirby. It’d been a while since Kristin and I had last seen Kirby perform (he’d been on egg shaker duty when we last saw him play and he rocked it like nobody’s business and as only Kirby could) and this was actually my first ever time seeing him perform tracks from his past few albums, including his latest, Into The Dark. During our Rendezvous, I’d noted how his previous albums, Within These Walls and The Good Fight, along with Into The Dark, reflected this sense of inner struggle as alluding to the journey he takes listeners on throughout the album, into the depths of his mind, his thoughts on life and relationships. In his song “High Horse,” he sings about feeling heartbroken, wanting someone to get off their high horse and regaining what they had taken from him. Another one the four of us enjoyed was “This Shelf,” which speaks about broken promises and how actions speak louder than words. What I most enjoyed was watching Kirby as he strummed his guitar, singing with so much emotion and drawing us in. Of course, he found time to crack a few jokes and get caught up in telling us the stories behind each song.
Next to take the stage was Donovan Woods. Kristin and I had tuned into Max Wray’s Kitchen Sessions on INDI 101 to hear Max’s interview with Donovan, where we learned about his musical inception (Max’s words, not mine), and his journey as a musician. He mentioned how his voice and music have drawn comparisions to the likes of John Mayer, Damien Rice and Paul Simon, and I can understand why. Donovan Woods has developed a distinct style of his own though, not only in his music but his stage presence, as he took the stage, one leg propped up on a chair with his guitar leaning against it.
He played some older tunes as well as songs off his album The Widowmaker and a new song about going to Saskatchewan aptly named “Saskatchewan,” which had a neat twangy guitar sound. Earlier in the day, he’d tweeted how he’d be more than happy to talk about relationship problems and alluded to this throughout the show, telling us to “get ready to take a rattle to your emotional cord”. “Let Go Lightly” reflects these sentiments, in this case, about deciding to let go of someone you love after holding on tightly. For this song, Donovan whipped out a harmonica (Kristin and I excitedly looked at each other when we saw it) which added a very Bob Dylan-esque sound, something I know my friend Themba would’ve appreciated. “Your Daughter, John” with Donovan’s warm vocals, along with the beautiful harmonies in the chorus, made this one of my favourites of his set.
Things weren’t all serious with Donovan however and we were entertained by his lighthearted humour, both during his songs and in between. He played a song called “Petroleum,” describing it as “the best between banter” song. Kristin and I had briefly spoken with Donovan Woods as he was prepping his set list. Naturally, we put out a song request for “How Much Is That Hat” and sure enough, he played it! Kristin and I smiled at each other as Donovan began singing. At the end of his set, he chose to play “Lawren Harris” which we’d heard him perform live on the radio earlier that day. We exchanged a look, both recognizing the song and delighted he’d included it in his set. “Lawren Harris” captured everyone’s attention, something I feel has to do with the simple melody and the profoundness of the lyrics.
Then it was time for Benjamin Francis Leftwich to take the stage. Can I just say what a brilliant name he’s got?? Not to mention swoonworthy. Kristin had first told me about this event and she had me at Benjamin Francis Leftwich. Hailing from the UK, Benjamin Francis Leftwich made his way across the pond to start his North American tour, making a stop in Hamilton. Kristin and I had listened to some of his music beforehand as we tend to do before shows, to get a taste of what was in store for the evening. Funny enough, I actually ended up buying his CD BEFORE he’d even performed. There was just something about his music I enjoyed, and I had a feeling that after his performance, his album would be flying off the table. It was a bold choice, but a good one.
Benjamin quietly made his way onto stage and as soon as he began playing, the room went silent. And that is how it remained throughout his set because each and every one of us in the room was captivated by his performance. I remember being so scared (seriously) to make a sound or take a picture, not wanting to interrupt or ruin the moment. His set consisted mainly of tunes off his album Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm including “Pictures,” a song about remembering through photographs, as well as reassuring someone that you will be okay, that you will be there for them. Benjamin captures this sense of calm and relief in his sweet, raspy vocals which compliment the melody.
I also loved the imagery and poetry in his songs, like “Butterfly Culture” which evokes an image in my mind of butterflies flying around in the forest, almost dancing, with light shining through the trees. Fitting also how Kristin was wearing a butterfly patterned dress! Another theme in his songs was this sense of journey, of going somewhere and making a plan to be with someone. “Maps,” a song off his EP A Million Miles Out speaks to this as does “Atlas Hands,” which describes a longing for a place shared with someone special, a song I could instantly relate to having experienced this. Being able to look up at the stars and reflect on the good memories of a time and a place dear to your heart and finding a way back to it.
Benjamin Francis Leftwich
An instant favourite of mine was “Box of Stones” (which Kristin and I recognized right away), a beautiful song about finding someone and along the way, finding yourself, a song filled with joy, innocence and wonderment. Grey’s Anatomy fans, you may recognize this song, as it was featured on last season’s premiere along with “Atlas Hands”. I was taken with this song upon first listen (the music video is also stunning and compliments the song well) and to hear the stripped down version of this guitar, with Benjamin rapping a beat with his fingers on his guitar and singing along was something special.
It was fascinating watching Benjamin as he closed his eyes, strummed his guitar and swayed back and forth as he got lost in the music. His vocals were never overpowering yet they took centre stage in some songs as he sang with a longing for something more. In between songs, Benjamin was a man of few words, though he smiled, telling us about trying maple syrup for the first time as well as his time in Canada so far and his visit to beautiful Niagara Falls. At the end of his set, we were treated to an encore thanks to Kirby. This time, Benjamin sat on the edge of the stage, a far better place for someone like him and he played one last song to round off his amazing set.
Afterwards as expected, some people made their way over to the table to purchase his and Donovan’s albums and chat with them both. Kristin, Stacey, Krystal and I had a chance to chat with Benjamin afterwards as he signed our CDs. I was excited to learn that he was from Manchester; during my third year of undergrad, I’d done a semester abroad in Leeds (an hour away from Manchester) and had a chance to visit Manchester whilst there! Again, this theme of journey carried throughout the evening.
It is so neat when musicians let you into their world, into their inner thoughts and who they are, where they’re going, embodying this sense of their journey (there were tour metaphors in each of their songs), something which fits so well with our Tour. This was most certainly the case this evening and as I drove home, I found myself humming along to their songs. This was without a doubt one of my favourite shows and I’m looking forward to what Kirby, Donovan Woods and Benjamin Francis Leftwich have in store for us next.