by Lynn Stevenson
Stephen Fearing fans hoping for a taste of the heaven and heartache he is known for were destined for disappointment, as Fearing, together with long-time friend and fellow singer-songwriter Andy White, delivered a distinctly different brew to a sold-out crowd at the Westboro Masonic Hall in Ottawa. The two insisted on a bass heavy sound that, in this reviewer’s opinion, did not do justice to the gorgeous guitar and rich vocals Fearing in particular is known for.
On this Fearing was unapologetic, stressing that the job of the artist is to grow and change even if your audience has not moved with you. He adds, “As Elvis Costello says, if you are not pissing somebody off, you are not doing it right.”
The duo must be doing something right – packing halls across Canada in a CD release tour that started in Duncan, B.C. on St. Patrick’s Day and ended here in Ottawa. Their 13-song CD titled “Fearing and White” is an interesting mix of the two – at times brilliant, at others somewhat forced and unfinished feeling. The fusion worked on the driving “Under The Silver Sky”, the pop tune “Heaven for a Lonely Man” and the techno inspired “Mothership”. “Faithful Heart” had the strongest echoes of Fearing’s solo work – a beautiful song in which the different styles and voices blended remarkably well. MC Pat Moore complimented their “brother harmonies” – clearly reflective of the strong friendship and close collaboration the two have built over the years.
Their achievement is impressive given the fact that the two friends live on opposite sides of the world – Fearing in Canada and White, born in Belfast, now in Australia. They have collaborated for years since their first meeting at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1998. They’ve finished each others songs, and offered ideas and long-distance inspiration, but it wasn’t until late last year that they were able to take it on tour. Fans of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings will recognize several songs on this new CD which White co-wrote with Fearing including “October Lies” and “If I Catch You Cryin”. While I personally prefer the BARK versions, it is evident that Fearing’s collaboration with White has added a new energy to his work and has taken him to places he might otherwise not have gone.
Their enthusiasm for the outcome was infectious. Jet-lagged but jubilant, these two charming Irishmen (Fearing grew up in Dublin) amused the audience with tales of everything from donuts to dueling GPS systems. “So how many guitars can you pack into the back of a Chevy Impala?” Affectionately dubbed “Vlad” (the impala), Fearing is proud of the fact that he can fit six into his rental ride including two gorgeous Harmony electrics – one a blood red twelve string that despite being the property of White had mysteriously shifted to Fearing’s already crowded side of the stage. The “Man Who Married Music” clearly loves his guitars, demonstrating considerable skill and showmanship even with the notoriously fickle 12 string. White, who shares Fearing’s guitar fetish, played a fine electric bass most of the evening – infusing a Brit pop energy to the performance.
Fearing, who credits his early success to the support he received from Rasputin’s Folk Café in Ottawa, says he has always resisted the folk singer label. In an opinion piece he wrote last year for Penguin Eggs, Fearing called folk music “an old leaky vessel that sinks under the weight of its cargo”. He explains that what he was reacting to is the narrow notion that true folk music – like authentic blues – must always be performed in a certain way. The attitude is wrong he says, “because it fixes everything in amber forever…it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that folk music is breathing and alive, it waxes and wanes, it changes constantly and it always has.” “So I don’t call myself a folk singer.. the stuff I am doing with Andy is actually more true to my roots than anything I have done to date”.
Stretching and changing is essential for any genre of music to grow and thrive. Both White and Fearing remarked on how fortunate we are to have such a vibrant and eclectic folk music scene in Canada. Said White, “the heritage that you have here is really strong; it informs your musical tradition… So you have these beautiful festivals that are not niche festivals – they are for everyone.” In Ireland, by comparison, he says folk festivals are more narrow and highly competitive. Having played in festivals all over the world, White says the situation here doesn’t exist elsewhere – not in Australia, not in Ireland, not in the U.S. or the U.K. He is equally impressed by the number of young people who have grown up going to folk festivals in Canada. “So now you have all these kids coming up. You have hundreds of thousands of young people playing guitars and creating their own music. You have eighteen year olds in ‘old timey’ bands – it is wonderful, amazing really.” And so we are lucky.
While not what some may have expected, the audience for Saturday’s performance must also have felt lucky to have sampled the mixed but splendid brew that is Fearing and White. Hopefully they will find time to collaborate further, polish their sound, and perhaps will pass this way again.