O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? Tribute with the Backstabbers, RICK FIELDING and CRAZY STRINGS at Birch Cliff United Church, December 8. Tickets: $16. Attendance: 100. Rating: NNN
seven minutes after the planned start of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Tribute show, the fidgety audience that filled the basement of Birch Cliff United Church (Kingston Road at Warden) impatiently began clapping along to the Backstabbers' side-stage warm-up. Meanwhile, church regulars scurried to the back of the quilt-decorated room to survey the selection of home-baked cookies, squares and cupcakes available on the honour system. The elderly majority who'd come to see Rick Fielding -- the Tommy Hunter of the Toronto folk scene -- didn't seem overly concerned when amiable host Lillian Wauthier announced that the Ottawa duo Ball & Chain would not be appearing since singer Jody Benjamin was feeling under the weather. And no one in the place looked half as puzzled as I was when Wauthier attributed the phenomenal success of the O Brother soundtrack to a general feeling of nostalgia for the old days on the farm. Here I thought it was the stirring sound of real human voices that hit home with city and country folks alike.
Unfortunately, that moving vibration of high-lonesome harmony singing was the key element missing from the evening's performance. Backstabbers singer Bob Hannan was off sick for the night, and although guest fill-in Miss Christine helped shoulder some of the lead singing, Hannan's soulful harmonies were sorely missed, especially on Man Of Constant Sorrow.
The fact that the show was meant to be a salute to the songs of the O Brother soundtrack evidently eluded Rick Fielding and cohorts Frank Barth, Greg Monk and Slowpoke's Eddie Baltimore, who chose to play whatever blues and old-timey tunes caught their fancy. The crowd, clearly delighted with the good-time vibe, merrily sang along.
It was left to Crazy Strings to get the theme show back on track, but with lead singer Jenny Whiteley still suffering the effects of a week-long cold, they were forced to rely more heavily than usual on their instrumental chops. That wasn't really a problem, with fleet-fingered teen Marc Roy and Joey Wright on guitar, Dan Whiteley picking mandolin and wisecracking Chris Quinn bending blue notes on his banjo. They easily outplayed everyone else who'd been onstage that night. But it was too little O Brother too late.