Review: Bywater Call, “Remain”

Bywater Call

For serious music fans, sometimes our expectations can be a little too demanding.  We’ve all encountered bands that create magic in the confines of the studio, only to fall a little flat when on stage, outside of that comfort zone. Likewise, some bands give it their all on stage, engaging the crowd and sounding phenomenal, something that often fails to translate to their over-produced studio work.  Finding a perfect combination of ‘killer studio band’ and ‘unbelievable live act’ doesn’t come along too often, but on that rare occasion when the stars are seemingly aligned, serious music fans take notice.  Yes, serious music fans love to be stopped dead in their tracks, to embrace any momentary piece of personal musical nirvana – especially live and in person.

We recently discovered the Toronto-based 7-piece soul-roots band Bywater Call at the Home County Music & Art Festival, and – if we are to be brutally honest here – were not only in complete awe of their music and energy, but were totally blown away by their unrelenting, unabashed live performance on Victoria Park’s main stage.  Firmly rooted in the soul and blues genres, and with plenty of slide guitar, vintage organ, and horns, Bywater Call create music designed to stir emotions, to soak you with raw energy, and to connect through more than just audio channels.   

We’ve seen our share of powerhouse vocalists in our time, but were not at all prepared for the explosive, passionate, soulful talent of lead singer Meghan Parnell, whose vocal range and clarity rivaled that of Etta James, and whose stage presence channeled a little Amy Winehouse confidence and swagger.  The emotive mastery of blues and slide guitar from Dave Barnes beautifully complemented Meghan’s vocals, and when also factoring in the talents of bandmates Alan Zemaitis (keys/Hammond B3), Stephen Dyte (trumpet/trombone), Julian Nalli (saxophone), Mike Meusel (bass), and Bruce McCarthy (drums), it is easy to understand why this music is considered ‘soul’ – for it has a TON of it.

Bywater Call

Bywater Call are ready to overload each and every one of your senses today with the release of “Remain,” their sophomore album that follows a stunning 2019 self-titled debut.  Teaming up once again with producer Renan Yildizdogan (Samantha Martin) at Gypsy Soul Records, Bywater Call engaged Ross Hayes Citrullo (Julian Taylor Band) to record and engineer this new album, at both Jukasa Studios in Oshweken, ON, and RHC Music in Toronto.  And having teased over the last few months with a few single releases, notably “Falls Away” back in May, followed by “Let Me Be Wrong” in June and the album title-track in late July, all eleven of these new compositions (note: the vinyl is limited to just eight tracks) are officially made public today.

For those wanting to jump straight in and learn quickly about the musical identity of this band, the title-track is a great place to start. Written in early 2020 about the unwillingness to let love go, “Remain” is a stand out ballad about the loss of love due to distance, both physical and emotional.  With a slow drum beat and Dave’s bluesy guitar riffs to open, the B3 ever present in the background holding eternally to its note, it is easy to sense Meghan stepping from a dark void into the spotlight, itself hovering appropriately above a sole microphone, before earning your full attention with her soulful delivery. From this delicate and sparse beginning, “Remain” builds towards its musically potent finish, whilst flawlessly using both lyrics and instrumentation to tell the story of that unwillingness to move on. Meghan’s exceptional vocal range is on full display as the song meanders through intense highs and emotionally charged lows – a voice that itself fits like an additional instrument to the song.

“Falls Away” represents not only the first teaser of new music this year from Bywater Call, but doubles as the album’s opening track, thus injecting a little high-octane blues rock into your headphones and/or speakers immediately. There is no slow introduction here – this one is full throttle from the opening note – and as one of two co-writes with Toronto musician/producer Tom Juhas (Justin Rutledge, Jadea Kelly), it is apparent that Juhas challenges both Meghan and Dave to bring added passion and musicality here. All seven band members jump straight in, bombarding the listener with an outstanding smorgasbord of sounds and emotional connections. And it’s the best kind of bombardment, with pops of Hammond B3, plenty of brass, and that much-loved slide, all packaged with some stunning additional percussion from Mario Allende.

Bywater Call

The key ingredient for a successful soul-blues band is the ability to create a timeless sound. Soul music should transcend the generations – sounding both crisp and fresh, whilst simultaneously not revealing any clues as to its true age.  We know that this music here from Bywater Call is brand new – but go ahead and play this for somebody none-the-wiser, and ask them to put a timestamp on the music. “Lover Slow Down,” for instance, opens with some great early 70s sounding soul vibes to open, with notable low bass tones, a flash of organ, and then the arrival of Meghan’s voice. Of course, the none-the-wiser crowd may still recall being embarrassed when asked to do the same with Amy Winehouse back in the day, and may be a little more skeptical this time around.

Both “Let Me Be Wrong” and “Ties That Bind” are prime examples of this sense of timelessness – convincingly both sounding as much 1970s as they do 2020s. The latter has a phenomenal groove, with plenty of sassiness on display here – dual organs, funky guitar licks, and a very dominant bass that dictates the tone. Mix in those horns and the B3, and there is more soul here than the average human being can handle. Both tracks shall move you, will suck you in, and get under your skin with each and every spin. Not a bad place to be, in my opinion.  

For those of you finding it hard to move beyond “Remain,” I encourage you to skip to “Locked,” and discover another gem of a soulful, powerhouse ballad (the other track co-written with Tom Juhas). With some light reverb in the vocals, accompanied by a delicate church organ, the opening is both beautiful and eerie, with the purposely held bass notes adding depth, and anticipation of the anthem that this builds in to. With strong gospel elements, Meghan stretches her vocal abilities into the stratosphere, explosive one moment, restrained the next, and with the ever-present support from her bandmates, delivers a moving musical and vocal climax.  This is a solid second album from Bywater Call, and a lock for my albums of the year list.

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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