Justin Rutledge / Daniel Romano Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto ON May 5

Justin Rutledge / Daniel Romano Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto ON May 5
Daniel Romano immediately set a raconteurish tone with a dry comic story that lasted several minutes about a pool hall wager turned ugly. He then played mostly unreleased or new songs, but no one complained, as pretty much everything the guy writes is gold. Romano joked regularly about only having sad songs to play, and complimented the audience several times on how attentive they were. His versatility was on display with his first-rate talkin' blues about a guy named Chicken Bill, and the knee-slapping novelty number "When I Was Abroad," or "a broad." Get it? Romano has claimed to listen to hardly anything but George Jones. And while there's nothing wrong with the old one at all, Daniel Romano may someday be the new one, because he writes timeless songs, and he writes a lot of them.

In the past there have been complaints that opening acts for Justin Rutledge were too loud, so by the time the soft-voiced and emotive Rutledge had taken the stage, the crowd had grown too chatty. Not the case on this night, as Romano played solo and Rutledge had an airtight band playing loud as hell. Bazil Donovan on bass, who once mentored an upstart Rutledge, appeared to be having just way too much fun for a Canadian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

Rutledge described playing the Horseshoe as, "Being in a room with your closest friends and still being nervous." Neck veins bulging as he worked through material off his latest album The Early Widows, Rutledge graced the crowd with rich metaphors, religious imagery and his unique literary sensibility, with Romano joining the band for covers of "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Mother Will)" and "Sing Me Back Home."

The denouement of a Rutledge set never disappoints. Wrapping things up were an astoundingly good take on "Too Sober to Sleep" (which arguably stands as one of the best songs written by a Canadian in the last two decades), a solo acoustic tour de force on "Alberta Breeze" and finally "Don't Be So Mean, Jellybean," the perfectly worded song that so often finds Rutledge leading the crowd in a sing-along. Familiar as the gimmick may be, only the hardest-hearted cynic wouldn't be moved by the experience.

As young Canadian songwriters go, Rutledge and Romano may be No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Now the race is on to see who will continue to hold on to which position.