May 2007

DiggingRoots – with Liam Titcomb & Sarah DeCarlo
May 5, 2007 The Silver Dollar Room Toronto
Experiencing Blues Music As a Native Tongue
by Sebastian Cook
It had been several years since I had last enjoyed a rocking, full-throttle blues show at the Silver Dollar Room, which at one point during my early years in Toronto had been practically a weekly hangout. Metaphorically speaking, DiggingRoots took on another meaning on this springtime Saturday night.

Opening this triple bill was aboriginal singer-songstress Sarah DeCarlo; a compelling lyricist and engagingly activist stage storyteller who with more work on her playing technique and rhythm might hold considerable promise.

A set of about an hour followed from prodigy Liam Titcomb, son of Canadian folk legend Brent Titcomb, who was in the audience and at one point was pressed into guitar tech service due to a seemingly inevitable broken string. Titcomb the Younger has stardom written all over him: he has the ability to create the sound of a full band with only a drummer accompanying him; both his acoustic guitar work and lyrics are highly accessible yet also reveal tremendous depth and character — commercially-friendly but still plenty rooty; and his stage personality is confident bordering on cocky without being arrogant or pretentious. Most of his songs were from his forthcoming CD Can’t Let Go (to be released on June 16 at the El Mocambo), with highlights including the U2esque anthems “Love Can” and “Lift Me Up”; the infectious “Got a Lot”; and the ballad “Sad Eyes” which reveals his folk-encoded DNA. Keeping it in the family, indeed.

And then, it was time to experience the spiritual and musical force of nature that is DiggingRoots. Clad in the classic bluesman’s attire of black formal jacket and pork-pie hat with his hair flowing out form under it, guitarist Raven Kanetakta was like a horse that could toss his jockey from the saddle right in the starting gate. His warmup on his Larrivee guitar grew more and more impatient, as if to say, “Let’s stop talking and rock this joint,” while the utterly magnetic lead vocalist ShoShona Kish introduced the band. “Beautiful Star” featured a gorgeous taste of Chicago-style blues vocals. While a bit sloppy at first, Kanetatka’s guitar progressed into blistering yet tight-as-a-drum high-register solos. Even in a warp-speed rocking blues solo, his jazz sensibilities, possessed by seemingly every Berklee-trained axeman, shone through.

Next was “Let Me Be”, an anthem of self-determination and a favourite of mine from Seeds that they gave an acid-blues treatment on this night. By this point Kanetakta was becoming reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, both in terms of his melodically unique sound and the way that he appeared completely possessed by his instrument; his body responding in complete physical harmony to each rapid-fire volley from the guitar. It must not be easy to transition from guitar with that type of sonic firepower to such rich and textured vocalizing, but DiggingRoots pulls it off. Kanetakta and Kish are truly a yin-and-yang combination in that respect.

Speaking of transitions, the next tune was a country-blues ode to Kanetatka’s grandfather called “80 Year Old Mooshim” — introduced by a hilarious “Where we come from, we hear a lot of new country” anecdote which had me wishing all 'new country' had this type of musicality behind it. His vocal skills while crooning such simply profound lines such as “I’m an 80-year old man / walk as straight as I can” are not as jaw-dropping as his guitar skills, but they still carry a tune and then some.

During the vocally stunning gospel-blues number “Going Back” I had one thought — if DiggingRoots aren’t Canada’s blues heir apparents, who is? Hearing First Nations artists perform gospel music at that level also reinforced a very powerful spiritual and historical parallel; between today’s groundbreaking native blues musicians and the pioneering black artists in the Delta of yesteryear.

Noted actor Gary Farmer then joined the band on harmonica for a turn on “So Strong”. Perhaps it was simply a function of where I was sitting, but I had never heard blues harp ring out with such gorgeous resonance through the Dollar like that before. Right before the next song “Brighter” — which sounds uncannily like Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” if it were re-written as a contemporary blues-rock song — a man called out, “I have to go but you guys are f------g amazing.” It was a strange candidate for spontaneous profundity of the night, but a winner indeed.

One of the signature songs from Seeds, “Rebel”, came next with a reverb-heavy and dancefloor friendly blues/reggae/rock-steady/Latin beat. Here Kanetakta revealed yet another side of his musical personality, the hip hop MC, with Kish providing a sublime harmonizing balance. The song came to a close with shredding rock guitar breaking down into a slinky reggae-dub bass line. If Brad Nowell from Sublime had been alive and in the house to hear this one, he would have been lighting two joints in approval.

Back to the Chicago sort of vibe, Kish then led the audience in an interactive call-and-response version of “Mama’s a Revolutionary”. I found the stops and starts in the song a bit distracting, but once in full swing all was forgiven.

Another new-school reggae-blues joint from the CD, Wake Up and Rise, closed the show. Hearing this tune brought to mind perhaps the most striking contemporary inspirational parallel to DiggingRoots. Just as Ben Harper (to whose voice on this song Kanetatka’s sounds uncannily similar) inspired a generation of young black American singer-songwriters starting with his seminal debut Welcome to the Cruel World in 1992; so too, one hopes, will DiggingRoots inspire more First Nations artists to plant more seeds of such natural, vivid, diverse and relevant music.

Towards the end of the last song, my date scrawled something in my well-worn reporter’s notebook and instructed me not to read it then and there. Here is what she wrote: “Thank you for taking me to see and feel such amazing music as DiggingRoots — it really has meant a lot to me.”

That would make two of us.

Raven Kanetakta: guitar & vocals
ShoShona Kish: vocals, guitar & percussion
Adrian Lawryshyn: bass

Special guest
Gary Farmer: harmonica

We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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