White Ribbon Benefit CONCERT featuring Shawn Hewitt & The National Strike with Alex Lifeson , Bruce Cockburn , Ron Sexsmith , Jim Cuddy , Sarah Slean , Matt Mays , Emm Gryner and others at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Tuesday (June 7). $25 advance, $75 VIP pass, free to first 100 NXNE wristband holders. 416-870-8000, www.whiteribbon.com. Rating: NNNNN
Knowing how musical ability of ten takes a back seat in talent contests decided by a voting audience (sorry, Bo), it came as a welcome surprise when the genuinely gifted Shawn Hewitt took NXNE 2004's Fan Choice Award for his stellar showcase performance at the 360.
And from the sounds of the advance of The Soft Society (Schmusic.com) six-song EP that Hewitt used his $5,000 prize money to record at Chemical Sound with producer Ian Blurton, it was money well spent.
While Hewitt's soulful Rhodes-enhanced work with the National Strike always suggested a subtle Neu! and Can inspiration, putting Blurton behind the board has significantly raised the guitar and drum presence, taking Hewitt deep into jarring krautrock territory. If you can imagine Donny Hathaway singing on Can's Ege Bamyasi you'll have some idea of where Hewitt and crew began with The Soft Society sessions. Where they ended up is a place Madlib and Pharrell Williams likely wish they'd arrived at first.
"Donny Hathaway? Definitely. Can? Absolutely! I really appreciate both those ends of the sonic spectrum, and for this recording I wanted to find a way of combining what I love about that style of soul music associated with Donny Hathaway and the rawness of experimental rock groups like Can, Neu! and Faust.
"The great thing about working with Ian Blurton is that he knows all of those musical reference points and understood the common thread that connects them to what I wanted to do with the National Strike.
"Early on I realized I couldn't simply copy what Donny Hathaway or Can had done. I needed to develop a voice of my own that reflects both. But I also wanted to present this adventurous music in an accessible way so people can really understand what the songs are about."
That krautrock-meets-R&B hybrid may seem like a weird combination on paper, but once Hewitt starts singing, it all makes perfect sense. He's got Jeff Buckley's knack for making unusual progressions sound natural and absolutely right.
You'll get a chance to hear him work his alchemical magic - in advance of The Soft Society EP's June 28 release - when he appears as part of the star-studded White Ribbon Benefit Concert kicking off NXNE 2005 at the Phoenix Tuesday (June 7).
"I feel humbled to be asked to participate in the White Ribbon event, which involves so many great artists and benefits a worthy cause, ending violence against women.
"It's definitely a great opportunity for me, and I'm really looking forward to meeting the other people on the bill.
"Of course, since Mr. Lifeson's going to be there, I'll have to remember not to wear my police uniform."