Live at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre, with opening act Ken Yates. Check out some videos following the review.
BY ERIC THOM
You don’t just open for Rose Cousins at the convenience of some promoter. You’re carefully selected and, in essence, become part of her family. One listen to Ken Yates’ 7-song set made complete sense to her fans on this special night as his smart songwriting was evident from the opening chords of “Grey Country Blues”, his exceptional voice and guitar-playing finesse serving up an impressive start to this show.
If the London, Ontario native seemed slightly nervous given the larger-than-usual, acoustically sound room – he had no reason to be, quickly winning over the crowd with two additional ‘new’ songs before leaning into four more from his second release, the award-winning “Huntsville”. The title track was set up with a hilarious tale about proposing on a camping trip while the song itself revealed an innate sensitivity and uncommon storytelling finesse. “Keep Your Head Down” exposed a highly talented finger-picker while his vocal on this more aggressive song revealed a distinctive country edge that might play itself forward at such an early phase in his career. Other highlights included the darker “Roll Me On Home” (bearing a distinct resemblance to a Cousins-calibre composition) and the somewhat offbeat, yet uncommonly satisfying, “Leave Me The Light On”.
As Rose Cousins took to the stage, the fact that something special was about to happen had already been communicated – without the need of words. The stage, arranged in a semi-circle with multiple music stands, chairs and microphones for eight or more, suggested that we were about to be presented with even more than expected. Armed with little more than her acoustic guitar, Cousins took no time in warming the crowd, asking whether we were first-timers and where we were from, launching into her amiable Atlantic Canada patois as her audience erupted into intense laughter. This is a big part of Rose Cousins’ personality – she can pack a week’s worth of Netflix comedy specials into her stage presence as clearly as she can draw tears of emotion with her original compositions of love lost, tragic disappointment and inner strife. She’s well aware of her darker side and perhaps it’s a way to compensate – letting us know she’s anything but the person her music might seem to project. With so much of her introspective material cloaked in raw shades of black and grey, her more comedic side delivers a welcome, cauterizing antidote. “Let’s see now… we’ve covered devastation, betrayal, heartbreak, added a touch of encouragement and some torment….what else can we do?”
Accompanied herself on guitar for the opener, “Dreams” (which included a hilarious variation on a patented, Pete Townshend-type ending), Cousins is joined by her band (Asa Brosius – Pedal Steel; Zachariah Hickman – Bass; Joshua Van Tassel – Drums) and they fit like a well-worn garden glove. The upbeat “Freedom” (from her Grammy and Juno-nominated Natural Conclusion) becomes putty in their hands as the seasoned foursome blend elements of Indian music into its gospel core.
Calmly referring to the obvious innuendo of “Lock & Key”, the frisky foursome quickly steered it into jazz territory, Cousins moving over to piano, the song warmly bathed in Hickman’s rich acoustic bass. Cue the wings as four additional players took to the stage to support a fresh arrangement (compliments, Drew Jureka) of “White Flag“: Rebecca Wolkstein and Praime Lam (both on violin), Kathleen Kajioka (viola) and Lydia Munchinsky (cello). (OMG, it’s The Rose Cousins Orchestra!) This lush instrumentation only served to lift “White Flag”’s piano-driven excursion further into full-on, Wuthering Heights territory, freeing Cousins’ dynamic vocals to soar in heavenly proportions above the full, goosebump-inducing tapestry created by her eight talented musicians.
Introducing “Tender Is the Man” with a half-chuckle (“it’s okay, guys…”), the strings seemed to afford each composition added gravitas, as the subtle weeping of Brosius’ pedal steel and Cousins’ beautiful piano bolstered the intensity of each lyric. “Go First”, from We Have Made A Spark, mines Cousins’ ability to pen strong elements of pop artistry, breathing added life into each gut-wrenching exposé. Here, the string section helped plunge the knife of a spent relationship even deeper – with stirring results. Followed by the equally disastrous loss realized in “My Friend” – Brosius’ pedal steel shared centre stage with its equally poignant lyric. (“Sad songs – yeah [catcall]!”).
As the string quartet retreated from the stage (no doubt in tears), Cousins & band took a funky detour with the upbeat “Chains” (Natural Conclusion) – a showcase for the rhythm section (a buoyant blend of Van Tassel’s uncommon drum patterns and Hickman’s tight, uptown sound) and a natural gear-shift towards Cousins’ strong R&B leanings. Cue The Send Off’s “White Daisies” – her self-admitted “Emmylou song” (and one of her best) – as Cousins returned to guitar, reminding all of her uncanny ability to imbue her less-than-subtle sense of melody with indelible hooks. Back on piano (as her beleaguered sound man struggled to keep up), the stunning highlight of “Farmer’s Wife” (from ‘’2014’s Stray Birds) – an ode to her mother and sister and the farm life left behind –– revealed vocal pyrotechnics reminiscent of, at times, Laura Nyro, as Cousins’ deft piano-playing skills were on full parade.
Known for her spirit of collaboration, Cousins leans toward co-creating and exploring the art of writing and performing with an impressive cast of talented others. As if to offer a break from – let’s call it Part One, Cousins introduced us to Ria Mae – a well-decorated, fellow Haligonian (and co-comedienne). Sharing the piano stool, they embarked upon the uplifting “All The Time It Takes To Wait” which, in turn, merged into Mae’s own, rap-hued “Bend” from last year’s My Love. Next up, another friend and collaborator, Donovan Woods – a burly, yet surprisingly soft-spoken bear of singer-songwriter who simultaneously taps folk and country to support his rich storytelling. Cousins’ duets on “I Ain’t Ever Loved No One” from his upcoming Both Ways, debuting it here.
As Woods remains, Mae returns, together with opener Ken Yates and singer-songwriter Charlotte Cornfield, to join Cousins in an elegant version of the bittersweet “Grace” (its enlarged chorus succeeds in making inner anguish sound appealing), followed by Sparks’ “What I See”. As her guests file out, the string quartet returns, resulting in a riveting, if not jaw-altering, epic version of “The Grate” – one of Natural Conclusion’s brightest….err….darkest gems. At the same time, as the music swells behind her, Cousins’ unleashes the power of her voice (and piano accompaniment), flying high above the room with other-worldly power. Back to guitar and, with the support of the strings, Spark’s “All The Stars” offers its ever-hopeful reprieve. The relatively hushed, if not somber, “This Light” shows Cousins at her best – accompanying herself on piano, her tender yet robust voice winging skywards, propelled by another sympathetic string arrangement. Following this and back on guitar, “Chosen” – her poster child for self-doubt, gets a similarly sumptuous read.
As the show approaches its natural conclusion, the final song is, appropriately enough, “Coda” – a fitting close to a lovely night that has married gut-wrenching introspection to musical bliss, adding significant colour to the black and white rawness of her highly emotional fare.
The rousing ovation from the house was successful in its bid for more. Always the showman, Cousins returned to the stage decked out in a pair of dark sunglasses as she sat behind her piano to do her best Corey Hart impersonation. What better to follow the main course if not a little dessert as she lit into Hart’s deliciously camp “Never Surrender”? With its defiant message of never giving up on yourself, we’re reminded that such a takeaway is all too apt. Winston Churchill couldn’t have said it any better.
All-in-all, Cousins is a powerhouse of a singer-songwriter. Her talents on piano – alone – could still any room while her pure, distinctive vocals serve to reveal each layer of an emotional landscape few others could begin to fathom, let alone share. At the same time, like a musical prism, she mines light from life’s darkest of corners, refracting it forward in a show of strength over frailty. Hope over despair. The way she appears to leave the door open on her vulnerability is never asking for more trouble. Only by taking such risks does she earn the richest rewards. It’s life – and she’s living it more honestly than most. Such accounts for her monumental appeal.