A notable performer put it quite brilliantly from the stage recently, summing up what many people feel about this series, declaring “ This is the Bluebird Cafe of Canada ”
Four Chords and The Truth is a quarterly series of “in the round” sessions with leading songwriters — modeled on Nashville’s famous Bluebird Cafe sessions but with a greater range of musical genres — which debuted at Toronto’s Dakota Tavern on June 18, 2015, presented in partnership with Jack Daniel’s.
For those not familiar with one of the most successful songwriters series in Toronto I’ll give you an idea of who has performed previously, Sylvia Tyson, Andy Kim, Stephen Fearing, Suzie Vinnick, Russell deCarle, Damhnait Doyle, Kim Stockwood, Liz Rodrigues, Tom Cochrane, Tom Wilson and the list goes on. Almost 80 of Canada’s finest have been presented over the five years since it’s inception, I have been to every single one in Toronto and have been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to interview each artist for a ‘Behind The Scenes’ show for Blues and Roots Radio. There have been two shows held by invitation outside of Ontario, one in Halifax at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, the other at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville bringing it all full circle.
Andrea England, Nova Scotia-born and Toronto-based, founded and hosts the series. Andrea works successfully in two different music worlds, recording and performing as a solo roots/country artist while placing songs with pop stars and emerging country artists. She’s earned many songwriting honours with placements having been recorded by pop and country stars and featured in major TV series as well as in feature films. Inspired by the “in the round” sessions on Canada’s East Coast and in Nashville, Andrea wanted to established a regular grass-roots series in Toronto, but wanted to present a wider range of music. “It’s a rare opportunity to hear bare-bones versions of songs — from different genres — and the stories that inspired them,” says Andrea. “When you break songs down this way, it’s easy to see that at the end of the day, they’re all ‘folk’ songs and we’re all just folk singers.” Andrea is currently working on new material for a forthcoming album, her previous stunning release ‘ Hope and Other Sins ‘ was produced by Colin Linden.
This evening, the 18th at The Dakota, was much anticipated and was everything it had been hyped up to be and more, selling out months ago before the line up had even been announced, performers this time were Peter Katz, Melissa Bel, Arlene Bishop, Campbell Woods, and as Andrea always does on the evening, an emerging artist was presented, this show featured the incredibly talented Bianca Bernardi.
Peter Katz was the special unannounced guest and first in the round to perform; he is a 2012 Juno Award nominee and Emerging Artist of the Year nominee at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. Having sold over 15,000 copies of his discs, he has performed with notable artists such as Dan Mangan, The Good Lovelies, Joel Plaskett, Bahamas, Royal Wood, Garth Hudson from The Band, members of Levon Helm’s band, and Glen Hansard. He has been writing new material for the last 3 years and has 60 songs which have been recorded and mastered for a brand new release coming soon, he performed 4 of the songs on the evening, every one was amazing, and if they are all like that, I don’t know how he’s going to choose from 60 for inclusion on his new album.
Melissa Bel followed Peter, she has been captivating audiences and listeners her whole life with her powerful, soulful voice and compelling songwriting. She grew up in a musical household in Burlington, Ontario listening to soul, classic rock and blues music, and draws inspiration from the likes of The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, John Mayer and Christina Aguilera amongst others. Melissa wrote her first song at age 7, picked up the guitar at age 14, and has known she wanted to pursue a career in music since she can remember. Since 2010, the Toronto-bred, UK-based artist has released 4 records, headlined a solo tour of Germany, toured worldwide as a backup singer, performed in front of millions of viewers on national television, and opened for artists such as Matthew Good, Tegan and Sara, Joey Landreth and Maverick Sabre, and also for Kylie Minogue in London recently. Notably, she co-wrote Avril Lavigne’s recent single, “Tell Me It’s Over,” and is quickly becoming a sought-after songwriter for other artists and projects in addition to her own. Her songs were compellingly beautiful, she told the audience about her romantic encounter in Las Vegas which ended with her marrying the man of her dreams and relocating to a rural part of England where she now bases herself, travelling to London, Toronto and LA to work and write, her parents were in the audience to see a rare intimate performance which made it extra special and among the songs Melissa sang was her latest single, the funky ‘Cotton Candy.’
Arlene Bishop was next up, a compelling performer with between-song-banter that has taken on a much larger role than the typical “this next song is about…”, Arlene Bishop’s funny and dark monologues are the result of letting loose an obsessively busy and creative mind. The songs themselves are personal, poetic, and passionate expressions of the emotions she balances off-stage. Arlene’s concerts are populated by songwriters, artists and interesting characters and she typically chooses small venues to embrace the intimacy and shorten the distance between the stage and the audience. In 2017 she released a groundbreaking live album titled ‘Together Tonight’. Recorded live in concert with a 30-person vocal ensemble and a band she jointly calls The Spirit of Adventure, the album documents a roller coaster of a set, with instantly memorable songs and funny between-song banter. Listening to the album is like ‘being there’ in the concert venue. I’ve known her music for a long time but this was the first opportunity I’ve had to meet and see Arlene perform live, I was blown away by the power she has and the wonderfully crafted songs she presented, I am now a huge fan. Arlene has a new project set for release before the end of this year.
Campbell Woods was the last of the invited “in the round” songwriters to sing, he released his first record, “Oxford Street” in April 2017. In the fall of 2019 he is releasing a new record made with Grammy award-winning producer Howard Bilerman, and he will be touring Northern BC, Yukon and Northwest Territories with Home Routes / Chemin Chez-Nous. Campbell toured all of Canada this past summer including dates at Vancouver Island MusicFest, Trout Forest Folk Festival, Blue Skies Music Festival and the Halifax Urban Folk Festival. A song Campbell wrote while participating in the Singer-Songwriter Residency at The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity won Folk Music Ontario’s Songs From the Heart Award in the Roots Category. He has a wicked sense of humour which is sometimes highlighted in his songs, check out the track he wrote about his hometown of Smiths Falls and performed on the night called “Just Like Paris” and he’s not referring to Paris, Ontario.
Burlington, Ontario native Bianca Bernardi was the invited emerging songwriter. Andrea England always gives up her seat after a song or two to enable a young performer to take to the stage; I’m sure this can be equally nervewracking and inspirational for any young artist considering the talent that sits there. I have known Bianca for the last five years, I’ve watched her blossom and grow as a performer, she has been in the audience at all of these events, and before the show I learned that she was going to take to the stage, I could not have been happier for her, she is deserving of her music being heard by a wider audience, I think she has been absorbing the performances at these events, learning from each experience as she nailed it with her choices, I saw a tear in the eye of many of the audience as she powered through two emotional ballads, kudos to Andrea for encouraging young artists to be a part of this amazing series. Bianca is currently working on new material for a release coming soon.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that every show has been stunningly good, with the calibre of performers that’s not surprising, what may surprise is that every artist that has appeared have been really nice people, so down to earth, each and every one has embraced the intimacy of the event and many have told me how surprised they have been at the audiences ( read community ) who attend the shows… why ?
I think the main reason is that Andrea England has built a unique community that comes to listen, and that is a rare thing in downtown Toronto venues these days, performers are given respect to tell their story and perform, the Dakota Tavern provides the perfect platform and environment for this to happen, and let’s not forget “the sound guy”, I have the utmost respect for Alex who does the sound at The Dakota, to quickly pull together a sound check one hour before the doors open with 5 or 6 top class artists, factor in the ambience of the room once filled to capacity, have it bang on when the first note is sung deserves a special mention.
Tickets are very hard to come by, this years series sold out within hours of the announcement of dates, no one even knew who would be performing, that’s how good the previous shows have been, it’s quite astounding, the best way to obtain tickets is by visiting the Four Chords and The Truth website, ask to join the mailing list and receive advance warning of dates and releases.
The work that goes in to these events that nobody sees is remarkable, Andrea has a unique ability to move in varying music circles and uses her time, talent, connections and knowledge to pull performers in from varying genres from all across Canada, some even live in LA, Nashville or Europe. It’s like watching a top class chef prepare a Michelin star meal, the ingredients have to be the best cut, a pinch of Roots, Canadiana or Blues, a dash of Folk and Country music, with a sprinkling of the curators magic spices you have the perfect dish to serve up every quarter, et voilà “Four Chords and The Truth.”