Photo by Reynard Li
BAHAMAS at the NOW Lounge (189 Church), Tuesday (February 28), doors 6 pm. NOW contest winners only.
Video of the performance will be streamed in real time starting at 8 pm on our homepage and will be available to watch later at your leisure on NOWTube after that!
BAHAMAS at Virgin Mobile Mod Club (722 College), April 13, 7 pm. $16, RT, SS, TW. See listing.
Some singers, even those with huge skills, will always be known first and foremost as guitarists.
That's not to say you should compare Toronto troubadour Bahamas (aka Afie Jurvanen) to guitar heroes of yore like Eric Clapton. No, Bahamas is all class and no flash; you'll probably never hear him shred an extended, blisteringly fast solo. But watching him deploy his effortless touch with the instrument can make guitarists feel like they've wasted their lives showing up to the day job instead of practising every day.
Eating breakfast with Jurvanen at Aunties & Uncles, it's no surprise to hear one of the staff ask his advice on a guitar purchase. What is shocking is that he tells him to sell his other guitars to make room in his heart to fall in love with a new one.
Jurvanen, for his part, insists on sticking with his battered low-end vintage Silvertone despite owning a few much more esteemed pawnshop treasures that he's saving for future children's college funds.
"I'm obsessed with Silvertones. They're all a bit fucked up, and I don't know why I gravitate to them," admits Jurvanen as he sips his coffee. "Something about those cheap, shitty guitars - it's like a comfort food. It's an instrument, but it's not the precious vintage Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton used: it's a utilitarian tool.
"The Strat is way more versatile, but part of me wants a one-trick pony. I want to ride that one trick really hard and figure out all the nuances and subtleties in just that."
He speaks about his artistic vision with precision and clarity, but he's come to that self-assured place over many years, slowly discovering himself by backing up other singers and through his own solo career. While his 2009 debut, Pink Strat, was reminiscent of a ragged Neil Young, his addictive new album, Barchords, is more like Young backed by Booker T.
You can see the musical transformation reflected in his appearance: in his Pink Strat days, he hid behind a beard and sunglasses. He now looks like he just stepped out of a 50s barber shop with a fresh cut and shave.
While Pink Strat is lovably scruffy and backwoods country, Barchords is dapper and cosmopolitan. Jurvanen's still wearing blue jeans, but they're tailored now, and paired with some nice dress shoes instead of workboots.
"Shaving my beard isn't something I invest much thought in, but I'm sure it's symbolic. I just feel more confident about showing myself, in the songs and otherwise. As a man and as a writer, I feel much more comfortable now than I did then. I suppose that just comes with time."
He now commands the stage with the casual confidence of someone who's spent most of his life with a guitar in his hands. He played with the guys from Zeus (whom he's known since high school in Barrie), as Paso Mino, touring with and backing up Jason Collett. That led to his going out on the road with Feist (who contributes some backing vocals on his new album). Playing guitar is the job he's had the longest - and probably the only one he'll ever have.
Long before I'd caught the Bahamas bug, a friend raved about him, "He sounds like he plays every day but never practises his own songs."
That didn't make any sense until I saw him captivate an early-evening crowd at a 2011 SXSW showcase with a casually gorgeous bare-bones cover of Sam Cooke's civil rights anthem A Change Is Gonna Come, performed as a duet with Alanna Stuart (of electro-dancehall duo Bonjay), backed only by his drummer, Jason Tait (Weakerthans, Broken Social Scene, the FemBots).
As he figured out which song to do next, he absentmindedly played fragments of other Sam Cooke classics, dropping them into his stage patter in a way that suggested he wasn't fully aware that he'd started singing instead of finishing his sentence.
Then he snapped out if it, called out the next tune and fell comfortably into the groove of one of his own bittersweet country soul songs.
His tunes unfurl with the kind of tight looseness that gives an audience absolute confidence in his ability to deliver, while maintaining the feeling that the song could go in any direction at any moment.
"I don't have to share the musical space with anyone onstage. As a guitar player, I can do whatever I want, which is what's been so liberating about touring like this over the last few years. There are no rules. I don't have to wait to play the guitar solo - I can do it whenever I want. I just want to get closer and closer to some real musical inspiration that's truly of-the-moment."
Beyond the freedom this approach gives him live, it's also what makes him stand out sonically. Both Pink Strat and Barchords feature arrangements in the family of a traditional full band, but on the latter it's clear that the guts of the songs are really just about the vocals, that guitar and Jason Tait's inventive and subtle drumming.
All the other details are there purely to reinforce that skeleton. That minimalism makes every detail pop with vibrancy in comparison to a typical roots rock approach, and gives these very old-fashioned melodies a strangely modern feel. After all, even back in the Sam Cooke era, pop musicians weren't often willing to strip it down this far.
"It was first and foremost a musical decision, but that economy allowed me to do a lot of touring. Now there are four of us [backup vocalists Felicity Williams and Carleigh Aikins play a vital role in his current live show] and a tour manager, so it's very much a normal band-sized operation, but when we started it was my car, me and Jason, one hotel room, and we didn't even really need to do a sound check.
"It was the opposite of the world I was coming from, which was giant venues, lots of crew and people setting up my guitars for me. I didn't plan it that way, but it allowed me to take tours that I could never have done with a full band."
Backup vocalists Aikins and Williams proved their worth at the Dakota during an unofficial friends-and-family CD release party. The gig hit capacity early, and dozens who'd lined up before doors opened had to be turned away. The two singers joined Jurvanen outside to entertain those stuck in the cold with an acoustic performance.
It was very effective, but different from the electrified and drum-enhanced club show inside the bar later. The vocalists tend to be used sparingly but dramatically, their soulful choir-like harmonies accomplishing everything that a stageful of musicians can.
"If it's not essential to the song, you won't hear it. All those old recordings, people are just barely touching their instruments. Generally, there were just one or two microphones, and if the drums were too loud the producer told the drummer to play quieter and move 10 feet back."
That type of approach was mostly discarded by popular music back in the 70s, but there's something reassuring about a young modern musician who still sees the value of a light touch. Bahamas isn't retro, but he's indisputably not-of-this-time.
As I put on my coat and reach for my wallet, Jurvanen stops me.
"Don't worry about it - I've got an account here. I pay them in guitar lessons."