ROSES IN THE SNOW at Dundas Square, July 9. Tickets: free. Attendance: 50. Rating: NN Rating: NN
There are many places well-suited to showcasing the rollicking, homey strains of bluegrass music. I'd go for banjo-picking while drinking beer on a front porch, or listen to fiery fiddling during a barbecue-slash-campfire. Hell, even a nice, dingy club can provide a decent atmosphere for countrified love and murder ballads - the Silver Dollar's done well by Crazy Strings for years now.
The corporate concrete wasteland that is Dundas Square, however, is not the best environment for a bluegrass show.
Sadly, that's what the feisty femmes in local all-girl bluegrass posse Roses in the Snow found out during Saturday afternoon's Celebrate Toronto gig. Actually, it was three femmes and one fella, since local MVTP (that's Most Valued Twang Player) Chris Quinn filled in on acoustic guitar for Rose Dottie Cormier, whose absence went unexplained by her bandmates. The three remaining Roses scored an A for effort, offering up cheery anecdotes about rising by the musician-early hour of noon and providing short but sweet backgrounders on their trad tunes to the fanny-pack-sporting, touristy-looking crowd.
The talking bits worked all right; it was the singing that went wonky. Although upright bassist Marnie Niemi 's prettily thin soprano warble worked well with songs like Emmylou Harris's ballbusting I'll Go Stamping Too and Roses In The Snow (the 1980 track and album from which the ladies take their name), it was clear from banjo-plucker Kathy Montgomery 's shaky harmonies that something was awry.
The pair wobbled over major thirds and fifths in a way that didn't seem natural. It was clear that they're used to busting out fairly professional symbiotic duets, and judging from the fact that the kids in Broken Social Scene experienced similar vocal fuckups the previous evening, I'd guess the vocal monitors at Dundas Square aren't up to snuff. Factor in passing traffic and the atrocious acoustics of the Square on a good day, and you've got yourself a bluegrass disaster.
Montgomery fared the worst of the four. Projecting the nervous energy of a Canadian Idol competitor, she swallowed the ends of phrases and backed away from trickier passages every time she took over lead vocals in her foggy alto. Instrumentally, the Roses were tight, valiantly fighting the tuning problems caused by merciless heat and humidity with good arrangements and some impressive solos, particularly the rollicking runs of fab fiddler Leslie Knowles .
And on a few numbers they gelled. Niemi and Montgomery pulled off a fine a cappella take on the trad gospel I'll Fly Away, the three-way version of Bill Monroe's True Life Blues was loaded with piss and vinegar, and their run at the Dixie Chicks' Travelin' Soldier was actually an improvement on the original. Still, you felt like you were watching a decent band do everything to rise above the worst possible concert conditions.
What were the planners smoking when they designed Dundas Square? It's public space engineered to ruin all public events.