R einventing the coffee-house gig seems roughly on a par with reinventing the wheel -- difficult and pointless. But Toronto singer/songwriter Arlene Bishop is taking a stab at it anyway.
For her month-long residency at the Joy of Java, Bishop has pushed the proceedings outdoors onto the patio and tacked on a revolving series of guests intended to provide her with songwriting inspiration.
If you don't think that's an adventurous move, consider that Bishop -- who last Wednesday kicked off her 8 o'clock show with three songs before handing the floor over to first guest, Tamara Williamson -- was playing solo in broad daylight to snacking Java attendees and dog-walking passers-by while streetcars rumbled past (always at inappropriate song moments) and a fervent baseball match went down in a nearby park.
Yet Bishop, equal parts musician and stand-up comedian, turned the potential distractions to her advantage, cracking wise and pulling imaginary contexts for the street sounds out of the ether. Fortunately, things were slightly calmer when she returned to bridge Williamson's and second guest Mia Sheard's sets.
Though Williamson had the benefit of dusk and a co-conspirator in electric violinist Karen Graves, her songs are also quieter. Moments as fragile as spiderwebs were several times shredded by the clacking roar of a passing 501 car, but Williamson, almost trance-like throughout, soldiered on, occasionally revealing the real-life provocations of several numbers while Sheard snapped pictures.
It wasn't all heavy, though. Since the gals are obviously pals, affectionate heckling of each other's sets brought the audience into their confidence, softening awkward moments.
If Bishop's material is slice-of-life and Williamson's is journal-in-the-back-pocket, then Sheard's is pure Lewis Carroll, though far more melancholy than any of Alice's adventures.
Like Carroll and maybe Beck, Sheard has a knack for stringing together kaleidoscopic words and scenarios that shouldn't work but somehow do. Combined with her fearless falsetto, the results are electrifying -- we're talking hardcore goose flesh -- and very, very moving.
Like Williamson and Bishop before her, Sheard battled street noise and, by set's end, she was battling a small air force of mosquitoes, too. Still, few free, informal summer evenings are likely to be more memorable.
ARLENE BISHOP, TAMARA WILLIAMSON and MIA SHEARD, at Joy of Java, July 12. Tickets: free. Attendance: 40. Rating: NNNN