My January got off to a flying start this year with a visit to the inaugural SPEAK Music Be Kind Festival held from 17-19 January at the Tranzac Club (an abbreviation of Toronto Australia New Zealand Club) in the heart of the vibrant Annex neighbourhood near the University of Toronto, with easy access and abundant car parking within a short walking distance.
I am pretty familiar with a lot of the artists that were announced in the line-up, as I’m sure most people who keep an eye on the independent music scene in and around Ontario are, but there were one or two magnificent performances from artists that I had not heard of before, or, that I had not seen perform live, isn’t it a delight when you attend a festival and come away discovering artists that you really need to check out further.
I must start with a quote from the festival website which reads “Our goal is to create a festival for music lovers and music-makers who are kind, or want to be kind. Check your unkind attitude at the door !” I must say that as soon as I walked into the venue I was immediately struck by the warm and welcoming atmosphere, I have been in Toronto ten years, but had never visited the Tranzac Club; that is something, going forward, that I will immediately remedy as it’s a gem of a place, friendly staff, great beer and food available, there are two intimate performance rooms (The Tiki Room and the Southern Cross) both holding 50 people, and the Tranzac Main Hall which has a capacity of 200. The three performance spaces are connected by a corridor that literally takes 10 steps to get to the next door, meaning that getting to see more artists perform would be a real bonus.
Three days worth of music in a short recap was always going to be a challenge, so what I decided before I headed downtown was to attend the performances of artists I either had never heard live before, or had never heard their music at all. Friday night kicked of at 7pm with Conor Gains, originally from Cambridge, Ontario; his music is best described as a mix of rock infused funky Psychedelic Soul meets RnB. Conor’s new album ‘Compass’ is amazing and he did not disappoint live, playing some pretty cool original material armed with a kick drum, stomp box, harmonica and guitar laying out some neat guitar riffs over an amazing vocal range. He performs with his band at various venues which will definitely be something to look out for in 2020.
The next three performers on the main hall stage were completely new to me, but as it turned out, all were extremely compelling in their own unique way. When it comes to R&B music, Toronto has been producing artists whose works are sometimes on the edge, pushing the boundaries. Shi Wisdom was a revelation to me and very much in that vein, the very talented singer, songwriter, lyricist and producer played an exquisite set with unbelievable command of her vocal range. She is long a fixture in the underground scene, having worked with Drake and Kardinal Offishall – it was a stunning performance.
Next up were BLISK, whose performances are a musical journey travelling through Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, and beyond, based in Toronto. The band consists of Ewelina Ferenc, Stacey Yerofeyeva, Ekaterina and Stephania Woloshyn, who are all extremely polished performers; the variety of instruments they all play complemented by their vocal arrangements and the percussive accompaniment (which can be quite hypnotic at times) is thoroughly entertaining.
Chloe Watkinson was next to perform accompanied by an electric and acoustic guitarist, transcending musical genres. Shehas seriously powerful vocals and amazing stage presence, which could have a little to do with her upbringing, as she is the daughter of Terry Watkinson – keyboard player of Canadian rock legend Max Webster, and Carla Jensen, who sang the original “African Lion Safari Theme Song.” Chloe has spent her entire life surrounded by the workings of “show biz” but has managed to carve out her own style, voice and fan base. Another performance that I was mesmerized by, including some extremely neat guitar accompaniment and solo’s, top class entertainment which left me wondering, how do you follow that !
Artistic director Beverly Kreller certainly had the answer… born and raised in Canada, jazz trumpeter, composer and vocalist Mike Field is known for his bright and energetic music. His works have earned him a series of prestigious awards, and he travels around the world performing his original compositions with local musicians at jazz festivals and clubs, again another revelation to me and an artist that I will certainly be exploring in the future.
With all the musical talent that I have just mentioned, I failed to say that I had not moved from my seat in the main hall for almost four hours, I had missed performances in the two adjoining spaces by equally talented artists such as Tia Brazda, Ori Dagan, Vivienne Wilder, Piper and Carson, Winona Wilde, Abby Zotz and Angela Saini, such was the depth of talent present for the first night.
To top it all off in the main hall to close the night Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar were joined by Steve Marriner (Monkeyjunk, Harry Manx). Samantha is definitely at the top of her game having released two stellar recordings in the last couple of years, ‘ Send The Nightingale ‘ and her most recent album ‘ Run To Me ‘ from which the song ‘ Chasing Dreams ‘ recently won the Blues & Roots Radio International Song contest in the group category. Sam and her band have been packing halls and festival stages all over Canada and mainland Europe over the last few years, she has many nominations for Maple Blues Awards in the past, and the band also have a brand new album in the works due for release in early summer that’s going to be very special indeed. What a way to end the first night in the main hall!
The Tranzac club is a perfect location for this new event with the three rooms all in use, great variety of performers, young old, female, male, folk, blues, jazz, experimental and more. It is believed to be one of the first (if not THE first) festival presenting a gender-balanced line up ! That deserves a huge round of applause.
Beverly Kreller excelled in the choice of artists presented for the first night, but there were two more full days and nights ahead – I’ll tell you about that in part 2 of my recap.