“Walk On / Better days are coming / Walk On / You don’t have to walk alone / Hold on / To the things you believe in / Keep on walking / ‘Til we all get home.” (“Walk On”).
Supporting his most recent 2022 “Second-Hand” album with a small run of shows here in the US, we caught up with Calgary, AB-born (and now Perth, ON-based) singer-songwriter James Keelaghan (guitar/vocals) last weekend at Unity Church in Charlottesville, VA. Accompanied by good friend and touring companion David Woodhead (bass/vocals), the duo performed plenty of tunes – both new and old – across two sets of music, and over the course of just under two hours.
Accompanying Keelaghan on this latest adventure was another long-time friend and companion too – his trusty old Laskin acoustic guitar – one he even credits in the album’s liner notes. Both artists gave their instruments a thorough workout from the very start, opening with an incredibly up-tempo performance of “Gathering Storm,” itself the first of eight new album tracks that James and David would share throughout the evening. And ever-eager to connect with his audience, James would share many tales behind these new songs along the way.
Discussing the new album’s title track, “Second-Hand,” James recalled time spent several years earlier at the Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton, NS, where an ad-hoc collaboration with other random songwriters resulted in the creation of both this song, and “Alberta,” another album track. “This title track from the new album, I wrote with my good friends JD Edwards and Cara Luft of The Small Glories,” he shared. “We wrote this before the pandemic actually came down, because as musicians we tour, and at the time we did travel, and now we’re getting back to travelling a lot…” There was plenty of familiarity to this tale – one we’d previously had the pleasure to hear from his co-writing friends, The Small Glories, during a show of theirs we attended back in 2019 (and both tracks were also recorded by the Winnipeg-based duo for their own “Assiniboine & The Red” album).
“…And one of the most annoying things about travelling is not the suitcase, or flight delays, or anything else, it’s the fact that you see all this amazing stuff while you’re on the road,” James continued. “And you try to explain it to people back home and they just don’t get it; trying to tell the people back home that the German museum of concrete is a must see.” Pausing to appreciate the laughter in response to his tale, his own deadpan impression when seeking to convince us of the joys of visiting museums devoted to concrete and Danish furniture prompted a perfectly timed segue into the album track. “The picture don’t do it justice / If you could see the things I see / Don’t need to hear about it second-hand / You’ll be there if you care to come along with me.”
After mixing in a pair of popular older tunes during the first set, James and David would return to the new album, and spend some time discussing the origins of “The Benefits of Surrender.” “We live in this culture now where it’s like Push! Defend your idea! Don’t give any ground! To your last breath, defend your position! And. It’s. Wrong.,” James declared. “I’ve been pushing back / When I should be giving in / Brittle and hard / I can’t bend the wind / I’ve been making do / When I could have had splendour / If I could accept / The benefits of surrender.” “Not all the time, but sometimes it’s wrong, and I started to think how different my life would have been had I surrendered more? Had I surrendered to love? …to art? …to music? …to friendship? And to all kinds of things, and that’s what this song’s about.”
Performing older cuts such as “Cold Missouri Waters” and “Red River Rising” for those in the room who likely saw James perform in Charlottesville on a previous visit to this city, the duo also took requests for ‘story songs’ – sharing the popular favorite “Sinatra and I,” and a stunning version of “Kiri’s Piano.” And naturally there was plenty of time for jokes and banter, with amusing anecdotes about church, about bagels, and a little bilingual humor too. Of course, when you have a co-write with Dave Gunning on your new album, “Before the Morning Sun,” what better way to tickle the funny bones of your audience than to share a tale about a hanging song, right?
“Oh, the night before Larry was stretched / And the boys they all paid him a visit,” James recited in jest when discussing ‘hanging songs,’ eager to share these lines from a traditional Irish song of that ilk from his own memories. Progressing into this collaboration with Dave Gunning, he would share how they performed the tune together in Sydney, NS – in front of the Lt. Governor, nonetheless, who absolutely loved hearing it. “In the green room during the intermission, she made a beeline for Dave, and clasps his hands, shakes his hand and says ‘I didn’t think when I was coming here today that I’d hear a hanging song’,” James commenced, the highly amused audience hanging (no pun intended) on his every word at this moment. “Did I miss something? Was she real nostalgic for a time when Lt. Governors had more power? So, we’re playing here tonight – in a church – some folk songs here, and you may have some hope… But it’s a hanging song! So, you’ll get into the story, you’ll feel some sympathy for the guy, he’s a nice guy, a victim of circumstance, you’re gonna hold out hope… But there isn’t any! It’s a hanging song! I just don’t want anybody to be, to be in suspense!”
As anticipated, the charismatic James Keelaghan brought his A-Game to Charlottesville. David Woodhead brought his too, pushing both his standard bass and fretless bass to their limits, often mimicking the sounds of an electric guitar when his left hand was placed at the higher end of the neck. Both their friendship and their time spent together on the road was clearly on display, so impeccable was their performance, their chemistry, their banter, and the way they so easily worked the room. Here’s hoping we get the pleasure to relive another experience like this in their company again soon.
- Gathering Storm
- La Cattiva Strada – The Road to Ruin
- Just A Letter
- What’s For You
- Red River Rising
- The Benefits of Surrender
- Walk On
- Cold Missouri Waters
- My Skies
- House Of Cards
- Before The Morning Sun
- Sinatra and I
- Kiri’s Piano
- Hillcrest Mine
- Safe Home