If there are two things Montreal loves, they are whiskey and folk music. Friday night served up generous helpings of both at Divan Orange, with Ol’ Savannah’s fifth release, an EP called On a Trip to Normal.
The bar filled up quickly with an air of excitement as musicians exchanged stories from the road. I bumped into Ram Krishnan, drummer for Ol’ Savannah and iconic Grumpy’s barman. The band spent July touring the East Coast. When I asked how it went, he smiled and shrugged, “Oh you know, ups and downs.” I later heard from accordion player Kevin Labchuk and banjo player/vocalist Bartleby Budde that the weather was unseasonably cold. They seemed in good spirits, however, basking in the warmth of both the Montreal summer and the crowd gathering for the show.
Po Lazarus was the opening act, and they kicked off with “I’ve Been Sitting Here,” a gentle acoustic riff by bassist and rhythm guitarist Paul Mascarenhas, accompanied by Joshua Carey’s soulful vocals. The band shares a name with a chain-gang song featured in the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Despite this “old-timey” reference, the group have a distinctly contemporary sound, backed up with the versatile percussive skills of M.O. Novak and the reverberating guitar of Luc Delisle.
Carey wields an aching, indie-rock croon that breaks into gritty snarls before easily soaring into pure high notes. The audience grooved along to the infectious “Will You be My Baby?” Catchy riffs and tight solos by Delisle followed Carey as he busted into some jaunty dance moves. He is a charismatic front man, and the audience cheered at his swagger.
They switched from riffy rock to tragic country with “A Man Loves His Whiskey More Than His Woman,” Mascarenhas providing beautiful backing vocals. During “Bloodcake,” Delisle frantically shredded out ethereal sounds. When Carey hit those high notes, I could see where the Radiohead comparisons come from.
“I’m Just A Man” is a new song with a country vibe, slow but swinging. Couples danced closely and the band seemed delighted by the warm response. Po Lazarus are working on a debut album, and their song “If You Are Alone” already feels like a hit. Carey sang a cappella, and the audience joined in. They ended with “Backyard Voodoo.” Delisle bore down hard and the song exploded into a thrashing soundscape bursting with guttural rock screams. An intense note to end on, but it set the unsettling tone for the show to come.
Ol’ Savannah did not so as much take the stage as they transported the bar to some backwoods, rustic setting. Singer Speedy Johnson entered, whacking a shovel with a wooden stick, while Labchuk’s accordion billowed with ominous notes. “This train runs on whiskey!!” cried Johnson, enticing the audience with the skill of an old carnival barker.
They started off with the new EP’s track “Charlie Do, Charlie Don’t,” referring to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Ol’ Savannah has an impressive ability to weave modern politics into authentic roots numbers, creating something that is simultaneously current yet timeless.
They covered Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man,” a hidden track on the new EP, before slipping into “Don’t Let It Reign.” By now you could feel the ground rumble as every foot in the house stomped along. The band took a moment to introduce their ill-fated mascot Bucky, a tiny effigy hung by a noose on Budde’s mic stand. Laughter erupted, and shot glasses were raised in poor Bucky’s honour.
The band slowed it down with the track “Coming to Me.” Bass player Mike Gavrailoff remain locked in a tight rhythmic pocket throughout the show, bobbing and nodding with toothpick and grin. Soon all four were hunched low over their instruments, locked in a rhythmic sway. The vocal harmonies of Savannah are simply haunting. Each member has a distinct grit, and combined it produces an otherworldly rumble. There is a spiritual quality to their music that the audience responded to, swaying with their hands in the air as if grasping for salvation.
The EP title track is based on the actual town of Normal, Indiana. Johnson joked about what an awful world it would be if everyone came from Normal. The crowd applauded this salute to misfitry. There was a lovely Leonard Cohen cover, and at one point Krishnan put down his drum sticks to join in on mandolin. A round of whiskey was sent up for birthday toasts to Krishnan and Johnson.
Budde took the stage solo with his gourd banjo for “Arlington,” singing with restrained frailty about death rites while the audience watched in a solemn hush. The band returned to whip the crowd into a dancing frenzy, doing three encores including “Man From Oblivion” which – I’m informed – is a rarity.
By the end of the show both the floor and the audience were well worn, but the party did not subside. Whiskey and stories continued to flow until closing time, with new friendships forged on the dance floor and old ones fortified through a session of honest roots music.
Written and Photographed by Courtney O’Hearn
*edited by Kate Erickson