“I ain’t one for subtlety”, says Lindi Ortega, standing on the stage in red cowboy boots as red as her Ruby Woo lipstick. She seems to be speaking for her music as well as her character: both are bold and fun. And both are clearly appreciated by the large crowd within the Empire Music Hall.
Jordan Klassen opens up the proceedings for the evening: an unassuming, jumper-wearing Canadian who tries to let his music make the impact. He’s fighting against the tide of chatter in the Empire, though, and sometimes his quiet, haunting vocals get washed away a little. His sound at times reminds me of Bon Iver… long, building notes that make you think of log cabins and uninhabited wildernesses. He’s an accomplished artist in his own right, with a number of releases under his belt. At the moment, he’s promoting his new album, Javelin, which releases next month. It’s been praised for its intricate arrangements, but since it’s just him on a stage with a guitar or ukulele this evening, the full experience is missing. One song that does get the audience’s attention is ‘Delilah’, a song about a fiery red-headed breast cancer survivor (Klassen’s mother), which is greeted with a very warm round of applause from the house. Wrapping up a set of songs at a walking pace, Jordan Klassen stretches his musical legs with his final piece, an upbeat, pop-y number ‘Firing Squad’.
Lindi Ortega bursts onto the stage to a fanfare from her band and enthusiastic applause. Her trademark red boots and veiled fascinator give the impression of a gangster’s doll from the 1920s — think a grown-up Bugsy Malone — which fits perfectly with the Empire Music Hall’s speakeasy decor. Accompanied by her band of three musicians, guitar, bass and drums (James, Ryan, Noah), they launch into a substantial and varied set that transcends genres. I was expecting Country music: the cowboy boots and with Ortega now living in Country Music capital Nashville, Tennessee, that was the initial impression. But there weren’t so many songs about trucks, girls or hard liquor. Instead there was good old rock’n’roll, there was soul, there was something verging on pop. Everything was done with confidence, and Ortega’s strong character is clear, even when accosted with a drunken audience member asking for a kiss on the lips. (That’s $25, for future record).
I was surprised by the range of ages in the audience, but not in the normal way: “Wow, those people don’t look 18” is my usual thought, but instead my mind was “Wow, some of those people could be 80”. It’s rare when I consider myself to be one of the youngest in the audience, but the demographics of tonight’s crowd are definitely well into grey-hair territory. Ortega considers herself an “old soul” (she’s not, she’s 35), and that comes across in her music; I suppose that appeals to people who can remember Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn in their heydays. ‘Someday Soon’ from Ortega’s most recent LP release, Faded Gloryville, certainly makes me think of Country greats like Crystal Gayle. But then ‘Tell It Like It Is’ is rocky, ‘I Ain’t The Girl’ is pop-y (albeit in a Caitlin Rose sense) and ‘High’, a song about smoking marijuana with fabulous crashing drums and guitars, was definitely not approved of by the middle-aged audience. More of those genre contradictions that perhaps speak of her misplaced musical youth, growing up in Toronto and not really fitting into the scene there, before transplanting herself to Nashville, where she seems to have settled.
Ortega and band play through songs from recent releases Faded Gloryville and previous album Cigarettes & Truckstops. The audience start swaying early on, when ‘Demons Don’t Get Me Down’ is played, and by mid-set there’s full-on swing dancing in the front row of the Hall. When the impressive set closes, with title track ‘Cigarettes & Truckstops’, there’s foot-stomping, jumping and whistling to call the band back for more. And then, with new favourite ‘Love Somebody’, old favourite ‘Tin Star’ and everybody’s favourite ‘Ring of Fire’, we’re verging on debauchery. I would not have been surprised to see bar-room brawls breaking out, with people braining each other with bottles of Bourbon whisky, Western-style. It had that feel about it. A thoroughly entertaining evening, with music ranging from old-fashioned honky-tonk rock’n’roll to pop, but cementing itself firmly within Country with Johnny Cash’s classic as a send-off*. Paul Woods for GiggingNI.com. Photographs by Tremaine Gregg.
(* with an awesome guitar solo, btw)