Photos by Neil Van
It’s taken me a while to formulate my thoughts on Keaton Henson’s show at The Great Hall. Sifting through my tears and emotions to find actual words to describe it has been akin to finding a beautiful, soft-spoken bearded prince in the sea of shit in which the world currently resides. But I finally sat down, drank some tea, and convinced myself that Trump is an Ayahuasca-induced fever dream long enough to fully dive back in to that transformative night.
The first indicator that this was something all together different was the line. Not that I haven’t waited in my fair share of lines for shows, but the rainy night of the 17th was an especially unpleasant one to slowly plod through. Yes, there may have been some grumbling in line, wondering why the venue was letting people in so slowly, but once inside, those murmurs stopped are were replaced with a feeling of calm. The venue’s Main Hall was an ideal reflection of the performer, beautiful and comfortable, grand without making you feel small. By letting the line in slowly the space developed a relaxed feeling uncommon before a show and perfect for the night to come.
The surprise opener, Little Kid’s Kenny Boothby, was a welcome addition. His folk-leaning music plays with themes of faith and lack thereof in a more subtle way than the mainstream pseudo-religious fare of Mumford & Sons or Edward Sharpe. The songs that stick with me most are “Method Comedian” and “The Lord Made Me Leave You” for their genuine storytelling, mirroring in some ways Henson’s use of prose and verse. Sitting on stage with looks reminiscent of a Hemingway-esque Mac Demarco, Boothby admits that he is “very nervous, so thank you.” The set ends to strong applause mixed with his continuous thanks to Henson for giving him this opportunity. The crowd is happy but not riled up, most having staked their claim to space in front of the stage or a seat on the wrap around balcony above. And so it begins.
First, cellist Reinoud Ford emerges. He sits down without fanfare, flips to the correct page in his book and begins with a soaring prelude. The hall is silent, swept up into the moment. There is no sense of annoyance that Henson has yet to emerge, barely even anticipation; it is understood that this is part of the experience and there is nothing to wait for, having already begun. When Keaton walks out, quickly finding his seat and picking up his guitar, there is initial applause that quickly dies away. This is not for lack of excitement; his struggles with anxiety are well known and the main reason his tours are uncommon and precious. This is a room of fans, lovers of the music… no one wants to add to his nerves. We want to give him the same calm the night has given us.
Henson and Ford begin with “Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us”. I feel it sink in slowly how truly wonderful he is live, surpassing all expectations. He makes difficult songs so easy to listen to, heartbreaking descriptions of lost love and disappointment so beautiful you have no choice but to let the emotion wash over you. To me, there is no question of the truth behind the lyrics; when he sings, “And if all you wanted was songs for you, well here goes, after all that you’ve put me through. Here’s one for you,” my heart aches for him. “The Pugilist” lays the blame on him, asking for forgiveness, even while admitting that he’s “sorry [he] broke it, never forgive me.” There’s something almost dangerous about the way he lays himself bare: “Don’t find a way to get in, I care only for art and career. So scared of death that I try to leave part of me here.” The anxiety surrounding reciting these words in front of others is easily understood under the supposition that he is detailing to strangers his deepest truths.
For “Alright”, Henson moves to the piano, his ease at the instrument coupled with his unfaltering voice unnerving. Looking around, couples hold each other, eyes still locked on him. Standing side stage I can still see his face as the plays into the piano, the emotion and movement impossible not to absorb. Remaining at the piano he plays a musical interlude with Ford, one of many that cut through the lyrics of the night, equally wonderful and revealing and a small break so we can absorb the lagging bits of feeling only now reaching us from the last song.
Henson returns to the guitar for “Small Hands”, a personal favourite. Midway through I realize I’m crying but feel neither self conscious or embarrassed as tears roll down my cheeks, thinking of all the people I miss as he details the ways he misses “your teeth when they chatter, when we smoked out in my garden. When we couldn’t sleep for all the heat, soft talk began to harden.” The tears continue through “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are”, as he makes sure your new love fully appreciates you and my mind goes to the music video, a close up of a woman alone in a field, crying as all manner of thoughts cross her face. “You” brings others down with me, a song rife with messages about everything from life and love to mourning and death. Once and a while we are treated to his unsung words, said into the microphone so softly I find myself straining to hear though a speaker is nearby. A surprise comes when he says why he came to Toronto for the tour, telling us “I always assumed I would live here some day.” Someone shouts out, “You can live with me!” and he smiles, a gift almost on par with his music. We are here to make him happy as much as he is here for us.
The piano brings to life a newer song, “No Witnesses”. He rubs a small handkerchief across the back of his neck as he lays out a story of love and heartbreak in Los Angeles in the span of minutes. Another song off his newest album Kindly Now, “How Could I Have Known”, is especially painful. It’s “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” but stripped of the trope, a man on his knees, too late to realize he is in love. “I’m out in the cold, baby come hold me close. Please don’t let me drown, woman I love the most. My holy ghost, goddamn.” He quietly thanks us for coming with a smile and walks off stage, and I’m left wiping my face and wondering what to do now. The room is at full applause, more than grateful, when he re-enters. But, there is a pause. There is a pause that makes me think that this initial walk off stage, if he so chose, could be the end. A pause that makes me think that when he re-emerges, smile on his face, it’s because he wants to, not because he has to. Because we’ve given him something too. In parting he offers us “10 AM, Gare Du Nord.” I let the tears trickle down silently one last time as he tells us, before leaving until who can say when; “Tire of me if you will, my dear. I will not tire of you.”