March 2006

David Newland & Nathan Caswell
Match 24, 2006Free Times CaféToronto
Zen Canadiana
by Andy Frank with photos by José Romelo Lagman
Renaissance Man David Newland paid his annual visit to Free Times Café on Friday night, this time in the company of Burlington, Vermont resident, the hilarious Nathan Caswell. It was the last stop in their three-city 'tourette' titled Brains, Baboons, Trains, and Loons.

Surrounded by ukuleles, 12-strings, 6-strings, harmonicas, and a funky-looking bass guitar, the gents opened the evening alternating songs. Caswell, the author of songs like “Einstein’s Brain” and “Baboon Heart” performs songs that are usually accessible, witty and musically punchy, a little like a folk version of Randy Newman.

Newland’s work is rooted in the Gordon Lightfoot tradition (he even has a feline friend named Lightfoot The Cat). In fact, Newland is the charismatic host of the Lightfoot-tribute travelling concert series, and offers a most welcoming sound that resembles the late Jim Croce, and the artist formally known as Cat Stevens (surely Newland’s next feline’s name).

Among the things these artists share is a Great Lakes upbringing: Caswell having been raised in Thunder Bay, and Newland in Parry Sound. This heritage is evident in the singers’ lyrics and, in my opinion, in their respective outlooks. Newland calls his artistic expression “Zen Canadiana” which he describes as “a sense of balanced decay, or appropriate imperfection… such as a freight train which derailed just so”. Caswell’s song settings are usually more urban, and are often satirical, but he also yearns for a Canadian leader like a canoe-paddling Pierre Elliot Trudeau, “a leader who stands for more than himself”.

As the evening progressed, the audience got the opportunity to laugh, sing along, or close their eyes and picture a sunken ship off the shores of the CNE, or a screwdriver stuck frozen under the fresh ice on Georgian Bay. It’s always a treat to enjoy songwriters whose work can be instantly enjoyed by devoted fans or first-timers alike.

The musicians fed off each other seamlessly, and worked well together off-stage, with Caswell paying attention to the soundboard, and Newland working the friendly room.

Also, it was a joy to behold two men at the elbow of the long arm of public performing. They are young enough to be brazen, idealistic, and charmingly cynical (at times), yet old enough to be taken seriously - even in their comedic moments. Both are blessed with devastating charm, and experienced enough to use the gift sparingly. And, of course, they will never sound better.

The only 'fly' in the ointment on this evening was the involvement of Newland’s group, The McFlies, who appeared near the end of the set and struggled to perform on such a tiny stage. It wasn’t that they were anything less than good musicians and great guys; it was simply not the right time or place for their guest-gig. A better bow around the evening would have been a duet or two between Caswell and Newland. I would have loved to hear them sing together.

They plan on another 'tourette' in the autumn. Catch them if you can.

David Newland

Nathan Caswell
We welcome your comments and feedback
Andy Frank
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José Romelo Lagman
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The Live Music Report

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