By Mike SauveA diminutive girl in a plain white dress takes the stage, her parlour-sized guitar looking disproportionately large. She greets the audience with an uplifting "Hello everybody," which has just a hint of "aw shucks" in it, a shyness that conveys "country girl in the big city." Pathos is established. She furrows her brow and makes a few bird-like noises regarding key and song choice to her band. Then she begins to sing, leading you to think, "Hey, this is an angel."
One diehard follower of Toronto's singer-songwriter scene calls relative newcomer Whitney Rose "the best pure voice in Toronto."As proof of this, her first shows in Toronto were backed by Blue Rodeo's Bazil Donovan and local folk institution David Baxter, and those two are co-producing her forthcoming album. When Baxter and Donovan aren't available she has a talented rotation of players in her corner, including the spirited Jack Marks and the young piano prodigy Devin Cuddy. Rose's soprano voice evokes the down-home warmth of Emmylou Harris, or the soulful vibrato of early Jewel. Transcending gender, these manifestations are infused with the country-drunk heartache of George Jones if you can believe it.
If any loud-talking, misanthropic text addicts aren't won over immediately, they are by the conclusion of the first set, having heard Rose's powerful take on the Chiffons' "One Fine Day," her husky barroom sex appeal and keen comic timing on "Harper Valley PTA," and whichever Hank Williams tune Whitney feels like belting out on that given night. She seems to know every country standard, not surprising since as a child she was paid a dollar per request to sing them in her grandparent's PEI bar. Rose has also written at least one shockingly good song in "At the Do Si Do" (as she spells it), and several others like "Daisies in our Eyes," "You Only Love Me in the Summertime" and "Send You Away."
At best, abstractly, Rose is something like Leadbelly singing "Goodnight Irene," beloved by young and old alike, timeless. At worst she's flummoxed and without guile, yet even in this condition cute enough to probably sell her own sitcom. Here's why: Whitney Rose seems like a much-needed antidote of sincerity and wholesomeness to that poisonous brand of post-ironic pop irony hustled by Zooey Deschanel, et al.
But she's no small-town rube awed by the prospect of serious success. Just because Whitney Rose plays the role of the charming innocent doesn't mean she's naïve or in over her head. She knows what she's selling. Let's hope it isn't diluted too heavily by the time it's bought, packaged and shipped to the Wal-Marts of the world in half-ton crates.