Published Dec 01, 2005Jon-Rae and the River had barely returned from their brief Maritime tour and already the Music Gallery swelled with anxious fans ready to welcome their homecoming. The band embarked westward on their first national tour this summer and this was their biggest home-base headliner yet. The night opened with Castle Music, Fox the Boombox's Jennifer Castle. She used her sweet, strong voice to sketch out some minimal country/folk songs and then left the stage to experimental folkies the Silt. If you were to hear the Silt from another room, you might guess that they were lonely nuts attempting pop music after a lifetime of deep woods isolation. Their songs run the gamut from bent twang to mutant soul, with an underlay of dissonance warping their pretty melodies like a giant worm twisting the country earth. Nothing sounded quite right, yet the disarray left every sound closer to perfect. They were a hard act to follow, but Jon-Rae and the River had a secret weapon: their behemoth choir, who joined the band for the first half of the set. The Music Gallery, a church by day, was the perfect venue the band played gospel standards and covers, and even their originals sounded holy. As the ensemble sang about Jesus with unnerving conviction, I saw people shift uncomfortably in their seats, an observation that further substantiates the band's natural ability to move its audience (in any which way). The choir eventually departed and the band plugged in and played on under a halo of camaraderie. Their anthemic country rock songs not only narrated but resurrected nuggets of Canadiana, each seeming classic and warmly familiar. The band's playful chemistry diffused throughout the pews and the audience clapped along, charmed if not downright enraptured by the group's joie de vivre. In a better dimension I suspect that Jon-Rae and the River are the patron rock band of the proximate Canada and the Tragically Hip are simply a national guilty pleasure. The headlines can only get bigger.