Published Dec 06, 2013Basia Bulat was about the most pleasant performer you could imagine this evening. The little folk singer from Ontario checked to see how the audience was feeling between most songs, was exceedingly thankful for the stage and everyone in the room, and cracked jokes about a folk musician going electric and going to the lobby for snacks (the Rio Theatre primarily shows movies). Where so many musicians use rehearsed banter to appear thoughtful or humorous, it seemed to be Bulat's defence against stagefright, to keep the momentum going by talking it through, and it made her appear human and humble.
Judging from the talent she displayed, Bulat could be justifiably conceited. She showed an effortless vocal style, never straining yet always sonorous and emotive, sweetly soaring with a light vibrato. Whether she was playing charango, keyboard, acoustic guitar, autoharp or hammered dulcimer, she rocked out, tossing her hair and getting down with nimble picking and vigorous strumming. Her play was particularly impressive with the autoharp, considering the instrument was bigger than her torso and had no straps, which meant she had to hold it like a handful of binders while teasing its dampers and strings. She's an explosive performer with world-class skill. No one could blame her for forming a chip on her shoulder, but it was a testament to her character that she projected a quirky, selfless soul on stage.
There were a few flubs, but they were all forgivable. Backed by bassist Ben Whitely and percussionist Ian MacKay, Bulat had to abort the first try at "Promise Not to Think About Love," as the mic stand was too high, but MacKay kept the beat going in the interim while Bulat made fun of her height, claiming to be three feet tall, and thanked the stage tech who came to her aid. She had a little trouble trying to set up an arpeggio on a keyboard for "Run," and, while mumbling her way through it, suggested that musicians never know what they're talking about. Any time the prospect of an awkward pause arose, she spun it into a chance to reveal more of her character.
Overall, Bulat's set was wonderfully dynamic. Tracks like "Five, Four" and "I Was a Daughter" elevated to folk-rock crescendos that would do Dan Mangan proud. These moments were contrasted mid-set by a Joni Mitchell-esque solo section, where Bulat quietly picked "Paris or Amsterdam" and "Little Waltz" on her guitar and "The Shore" on what she called a pianoette, and the audience seemed to hold its breath for the duration. No matter the amplitude, she was captivating.
Her regular set came to a close on massive renditions of "Tall Tall Shadow" and "Never Let Me Go," her stirring chorus harmonies bolstered by her rhythm section and the reappearance of Jonas Bonnetta (who opened the show with his band, Evening Hymns). This led to a solo encore that included her take on "True Love Will Find You in the End" by Daniel Johnston. She expressed hope that Johnston's song would come true for everyone, and no one could question her sincerity. When Basia Bulat says that she loves you, she means it.