When Leif Vollebekk announced to the Carleton audience that he was going to cover Jeff Buckley, I couldn't help but admire the confidence.
It's not just that Buckley's material is so well-known — although "Morning Theft," from his posthumous collection Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, is admittedly a deep cut ("You probably don't know it," as Vollebekk put it) — it's that Buckley is such an obvious comparator for the Montreal-based singer-songwriter: the soulful voice, the ethereal sense of phrasing and tone in the playing. In lesser hands, or at a different stage in Vollebekk's career, covering Buckley would risk mimicry.
But Vollebekk has three great records to his name — including this year's Polaris-shortlisted Twin Solitude — and a following that sold out the Carleton for his Halifax Urban Folk Festival headlining show Wednesday night (August 30). In that context, covering Buckley played more like a fitting tribute to a great antecedent of his own work, a performance that connected musical threads instead of tying them too tightly into knots.
It wasn't the only cover of the set, either. Vollebekk's show-ending take on Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You" similarly felt like a dialogue between artists past and present, while his rendition of Kendrick Lamar's "Untitled 8 (Blue Faces)" showcased his ear for translating seemingly divergent material into his own form and style. Vollebekk even goofed on Aerosmith's "Crazy" during a between-song banter break about ballads — and did such a good job of it that he had the whole venue singing along.
Mostly, though, the crowd sat quietly in appreciation of Vollebekk's intensity as a performer. The way he shudders to and from the microphone, the way his fingers fly across the Wurlitzer keys or his guitar's strings with equal velocity, his woozy dances into each syllable sung… even as a one-man show, it's gripping to watch and stirring to listen to.
The set leaned heavily on Twin Solitude material (opening with "Vancouver Time" and closing the main set with "East of Eden"), but also included old favourites like "Photographer Friend" and "Off the Main Drag" — all of it played with the same intoxicating confidence as his Buckley cover.
Tasked with warming the stage for Vollebekk were 21-year-old New Brunswick singer-songwriter Tyler Hache — who, while clearly still early in his career, has the poise of a much more experienced performer — and, following that, Halifax orchestral pop outfit the Heavy Blinkers, who were playing a rare show.
Marking the recent vinyl reissue of their magnificent 2004 album The Night and I Are Still So Young, the Blinkers performed songs like "Gentle Strength" and the album's title track with an eight-piece lineup that featured harp, violin and flute among its instrumentalists, and was fronted by vocalists Stewart Legere and Melanie Stone. But the set's most poignant moment came when Legere and Stone ceded the spotlight to former Blinker Andrew Watt, who co-founded the band with Jason Michael MacIsaac nearly 20 years ago.
Watt hasn't been a Blinker for close to a decade, and said it's been about eight years since he's been on stage. But he ably sung a slow, swoony take on The Night and I opener "Filtered Light," adding a reunion show's glow to the night's proceedings.