March 2007

Serena Ryder
presented by Richard Flohil
March 9, 2007 Hugh's Room Toronto
A Memory That Will Serve Me Well
by Sebastian Cook with photos by Roger Humbert
It takes ten seconds for a boxer to be counted out in the ring. It took less than that for Serena Ryder to completely stun this reporter at the start of her a cappella rendition of “Melancholy Blue”; and about three minutes, or the length of a round, to announce herself as a once-in-a-generation, Dylanesque visionary who quite literally has no ceiling. This 24-year old native of Millbrook, Ontario is truly The Matrix as it relates to singer-songwriters: a jaw-dropping three-octave voice; gorgeously rhythmic and percussive guitar chops; a remarkably mature and open-minded stylistic aesthetic and range that metaphorically melds past, present and future; and above all one of the most utterly joyous, captivating and free troubadour’s personalities one could ever hope to witness grace a stage.

On this night at Hugh’s Room, a ‘standing room only’ crowd of about 270 was treated to a perfectly flowing mix of music from: Ryder’s newest album If Your Memory Serves You Well, an exhaustively selected 15-song tribute covering four generations of essential Canadian songs; 2004’s Unlikely Emergency; and unreleased material.

The aforementioned “Melancholy Blue” (Harlan Howard) was the opening salvo with which Ryder revealed the soul of a gospel queen, the resoluteness of a road-wary country twanger, and the vibration and pitch control of a jazz or opera singer.

Serena the storyteller introduced herself in the segue to “Music Soup”, strumming gently on her guitar while invoking the story of an inspirational Australian friend and hostess stricken with Cushing’s disease. Her guitar work was simple, slappy and authoritatively yet gently rhythmic, melodically harkening Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” (no kidding) and a bit of the Traffic classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy”. Soothing harmonica lines bridged poignant verse and chorus. At the risk of musical blasphemy it was like seeing a young and of course female hybrid of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, with a much more brilliantly refined voice and more nuanced, musical guitar work. Next was her first original, “Somebody Too”, an acidly funny blast at “a man named George Dubya Bush” who “Only loved his mother, never loved another”, she crooned.
Back to the storyteller’s tip, several songs later with “Sisters of Mercy” she paid homage to Leonard Cohen with a grace, humour and personal resonance that no 24-year old has any business being able to pull off. It started with an improvised call through song to the sound engineer to “please turn up my monitor”. Midway through the song, her band began to layer itself into the concert, starting with a gorgeously floating electric guitar.

The classic, 18th century French melody inspired and oft-adapted “My Heart Cries For You” was touchingly dedicated to her band. Once again, Ryder displayed her innate gift for the shift, between gospel-soul and country-blues tempo and voice. Her knack for the crescendo, which is hair-raising when done properly but grating when misused, truly stood out here. As gifted as she is, Ryder also knows not to get in her own way or steal the song.

Next, Ryder turned “Some of These Days” (the Shelton Brooks version) into a booty-shaking cabaret joint, with a nod to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman”. She captured that historical metaphor right down to her silky-black attire and dancing with a glass of red wine.

Two tunes later, we heard an original from Unlikely Emergency called “Skin Crawl” that made my skin tingle. Announcing it as one of her original love songs and holding her guitar to her head at the beginning, she sang “You’ve made my skin crawl further than ever before / only know you’re not passed out on my floor”. Has it really been 13 years since Alanis Morissette dropped “Jagged Little Pill”? All of a sudden, I feel a bit dated but it’s nice to hear that singularly emotive and raw spirit come to life again in the next generation.

The singular moment of human beauty from this night so full of it was her story of playing the next tune, “Good Morning Starshine” from the musical Hair, for a class of Grade 1 students in Winnipeg; this on the heels of Ryder having missed her flight and then being moved to join the class after receiving a box of drawings from them at her hotel room. The song itself moved to an infectious Latin swing beat, ending with a “cha-cha-cha” flourish.

Just as quickly, the spirit of The Who visited the stage in the form of Ryder’s own “Just Another Day”; with its simple, pounding drumbeats and bass line, the heavy buzz of classic and progressive rock guitar, and lyrics that still managed to flow effortlessly with such a hard-driving song.

The final song before the encore was her magnificent and hugely popular original ballad “Weak in the Knees”. With an achingly visceral voice she sang its poignant and brilliantly-constructed verse such as “Would you mind if I pretended we’re somewhere else … would you mind if I pretended you were someone else … I’m weak in the knees for you … But I’ll stand for you if you want me too.” She ended it with a toast of her wine glass, and one wondered if there had been water in the chalice at the start of the show. Weak in the knees? Yes, that’s one way to describe the effect of Serena Ryder and perhaps that would have been the way to close the show.

For an encore after leaving the stage to the most rapturous applause I’ve heard in Hugh’s Room, she offered an acid-rock take on “Morning Dew”, a personal top-five amongst Grateful Dead songs that I have now learned has its roots right here in Toronto courtesy of folk singer Bonnie Dobson. The song is indeed very much alive and well.

Perhaps what is most inspiring about Serena Ryder is that it seems clear we need not worry about her being worn down or corrupted by the vagaries of the music business itself, life on the road, or acclaim. She is acutely aware of the impact she has on wide-eyed children and equally wide-eyed if considerably more jaded adults; and relishes it for the blessing and joy that it is to have the platform, without one iota of superficial pretense or ego. As Andrew Craig of CBC Radio Two’s Canada Live relayed during his introduction, Serena Ryder is indeed an old soul, who it seems “has been aged in oak barrels.” After the show, pianist Kris Craig said that after time on the road she feels like a sister. If you see her coming to your town, drink her in and savour every last cathartic, magnificently envisioned and delivered drop. And yeah, bring the family.
The band
Serena Ryder – vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica
Dan Siljer – lead guitar
Kris Craig – keys, guitar
Depen Pandya – bass
Michael Thompson – drums

Listen to this concert @ CBC Radio 2 – Concerts On Demand.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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