Phox, JE Sunde, Donovan Woods at The Drake Hotel

Photographs by Sarah Rix.

With a wry smile, Donovan addressed the crowd. “My last record was nominated for a Juno. It’s a Juno loser, pick it up.” Between his laidback manner and self-deprecating wit, it was easy to be drawn into his performance. Dressed simply in a black wool sweater, toting an acoustic guitar, his presence evoked life experiences translated directly to music. An Ontario born singer-songwriter, Donovan Woods’ gentle folk rock melodies have a unifying quality; they draw on the well of shared human experience. He’s as much a storyteller as he is a musician.

In the intimate surrounds of the Drake Hotel Underground, his sandy voice rang out crystal clear and the stories he weaved shot straight to the heart. Your Daughter, John told a tale of regret, of paths taken and loves lost. How Much is That Hat manifested themes of envy and desire to live above your means. “How much does a hat like that cost?” he crooned “oh if it was mine I‘d never take it off.” A skilled guitarist, his crisp strumming reinforced the veracity of his lyrics. He sang the words as if he’d lived them and it was impossible to imagine otherwise.

Quiet and appreciative, the audience swayed back and forth with wistful smiles and dewy eyes. When he stumbled in the first verse of a new track and forgot his own lyrics, they were on his side. He tried a few times to regain the momentum, but with a sigh he gave a laugh and moved on. With such a forgiving crowd, the mistake was acknowledged and overlooked.

An anecdote sprang forth about a man who’d lost his girlfriend to another man and asked Donovan to write his story into a song. “I don’t want to ruin anything” he says “but he didn’t get her back.” It might not have been his story, but the song was all his own. The humour was evident and the humanity of it all was intact, leaving the audience humming from the afterglow.

If Donovan Woods was a storyteller, then J.E. Sunde was a troubadour lost in time. A past member of Wisconsin band The Daredevil Christopher Wright, his solo project draws favourable comparisons to The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle or The Tallest Man on Earth. His lyrics were sprawling and poetic, edging on the metaphysical at times. Abstract and visual, words painted a colourful collage of deeper meaning, drawing heavily from shades of grey. Simply put – dude can write, yo.

With his energetic demeanour it was easy to be pulled along for the ride. Delicate voice slinging lines with the tact of a seasoned actor, the songs captivated and transported the audience to disparate worlds. Rabbit Trail traipsed along like a lazy love letter to the fallibility of man, dropping casual references to Sodom and Gomorrah, ritual sacrifice and suffering, strung along with the calm weightlessness of a humid summer afternoon. Describing his style as “sad with the cathartic effect of making you happy”, his melancholic lightness was all too evident on I’m Gonna Disappoint You. Trilling with a reflective tone, his words cast an abiding affection for the fleeting trappings of infatuation.

On Rabbit Rag and I, he plucked his guitar like a harp, weaving a heart breaking tale of broken homes and a drifter’s search for meaning. “Rabbit Rag will take all your money, take your heart, take your name.” he sang, voice rising emphatically, drifting down with the subtlety of a falling leaf.

He rounded out the set with a couple half-finished tracks. Conceding his unconventionality he admitted “I just get excited about things and want to share them.” The enthusiasm he held for his work rang true through his performance, given the roaring applause his farewell received.

If the crowd was seeking a departure from acoustic folk they found it in Phox. The Wisconsin indie-pop sextet oozed a feisty, sass from the moment they took the stage. Having met at the same high school, their friendship shone through their nuanced chemistry. Lead singer Monica might’ve been the focal point, but the way the band gelled, the whole band shone bright.

Young and cheeky, their amicable banter made the songs accessible and engrossing. Introducing the track Leisure, Monica remarked “This song is about when you start seeing someone and your friends ask why you never come out any more. You say ‘have you heard of pizza and sex?’” When the song hit, it brought with it a lush, full sound. Everything found its space without once feeling busy. Ambling bass was complemented by a flirtatious brush of cymbals and light trumpet flourishes. 1936 carried an upbeat small town feel with sprinklings of banjo and poppy vocal ping pong.

As the songs stacked up the band’s zeal never wavered. The vibrant harmonies rose richly and the tracks rolled on with an organic, almost improvisational tone. A beautiful grasp of contrast that never felt conflicting, Phox melded tropical calypso melodies with smart pop sensibilities. Twinkling keys and barely there banjo found themselves bolstered by glam rock guitar and punchy Elton John style piano. In seconds a bold ballad could fall back to a tipsy whispered confession without skipping a beat.

Even in such a sensory swell, moments stood out. Calico Man found Monica performing a stripped down solo number with pangs of a mournful moonlit waltz. Garden of Night saw multi-instrumentalist Zak Johnson take the mic for a punchy indie rock ditty while Monica called for the audience to howl like wolves. Without hesitation, eager howls filled the air. Closer Espeon, an inspirational ode to defiance in the face of decay was dedicated to Monica’s “awesome” younger sister. “Thank you all for hanging out with us.” She remarked, and the words carried weight. The performance felt inclusive, welcoming, as if we’d all been through something together. Still at the start of their tour, it’ll be a wonder to see how the road shapes their sound in the months ahead.

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