Photographs by Daniela Tantalo.
Hawksley Workman is not easy to define; he lives at the intersection of talented and quirky. He is part rocker, part folkie, part theatrical opera singer and his live show morphs to display all sides.
When 40 year-old Workman appeared on stage at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre as part of his Winter Bird Tour in support of his latest release, Old Cheetah, he seemed to be the anti-rockstar. Opening the night was lovely British songbird Fiona Bevan. Slouchy black toque and matching tank-style undershirt, Workman looked like your neighbour coming to hang out for a while, which may have been by design. After all, he came to Toronto from Huntsville as a young man to take a stab at a music career and lived in the city for many years. For him, this was coming home.
He kicked off the show in high gear with Tonight Romanticize the Automobile, clutching his flying V guitar while jumping and leaping around the stage. Through the next few songs the energy level built and it felt like the stage was almost too small to contain this entertainer, whose sound and performance are big and generous. Workman told stories and the crowd chuckled as he offered tongue-in-cheek advice on how to impress your major record label. It involves writing songs about bugs, which segued nicely into Baby Mosquito. (Workman is now on Toronto indie label Six Shooter Records.)
Workman and his band played a, sometimes self-indulgent, 90-minute set, and returned immediately for a 40-minute encore. It was in this encore that the magic of fandom was at its most dazzling. Workman stood up on an amp at the front of the stage, acoustic guitar in hand; the instrument was plugged in, his voice was not. He sang the first line of Safe and Sound and then, as you do when hanging out with friends, accompanied the audience as they sang the song. The effect was beautiful.
In an especially heartwarming moment, Workman invited a young lady named Stephanie up to the stage. Diagnosed with stage 4 cancer a year ago, Stephanie is working through her bucket list and singing with Hawksley Workman was high on that list. They launched into No Reason to Cry Out Your Eyes (On the Highway Tonight) and sounded fantastic.
The last few songs included another sing-along, Autumn is Here and then Workman reached back to oldies like Smoke Baby, and I’m Jealous of Your Cigarette. Workman exchanged banter with the crowd, a clear benefit of the venue’s size. He was flush with gratitude and made sure his fans knew it. Any moments of self-indulgence were readily forgiven as Workman repeatedly thanked the audience and let them know how blessed he felt that they chose to spend their Saturday night with him.