By the time I walked into a very-packed Barrymore’s on September 17th, 2003 I had already seen Hawksley Workman at least three or four times before so I knew him to be a highly-talented, eccentric character with a flair for the dramatic and a good sense of humour. And all the while he always remained very, very musical.
The time I saw him performing outside of the art gallery the church bells started chiming from across the street and Hawksley immediately picked up on the sonic intrusion and started playing along with them. At the Bluesfest he retrieved a couple of hockey sticks from the wings and started doing a bunch of rhythmic stuff beating them on the stage which was very cool. The previous time I had seen him play on Ottawa’s legendary Barrymore’s stage his looming persona and edgy pop completely blew me away and I expected to watch Hawksley soon hook on and get really, really famous. Which still hasn’t happened, obviously.
But I suppose avoiding expectations is one of Workman’s hallmarks, unless all one expects is a great concert. This show was the first of his tour and he burst out of the gate running. He gave us some great rock and roll, plenty of cool weird music, lots of improvisation, and several little musical treats. Hawksley’s got a lot of talent built up and his voice is undeniable; it’s powerful, full of variety, and has resonance like crazy. He’s a good guitar player too and he even hopped on the drums for a song and rocked it pretty hard. At one point he kicked the band off the stage except for the piano player and together the duo performed about twenty minutes of composed and improvised electro-acoustic ethereal jamming that was utterly brilliant. Midway through the musical maelstrom Workman started singing Scarborough Fair over the din really slowly and in a spooky, high falsetto. It was spine-chilling.
The concert ended with Hawksley singing a Christmas carol – I can’t remember which one – which was rather odd for September, but then again nobody loves out-of-season holiday music more than I do*.
The friend I went to the show with had never heard of Hawksley before and he loved it. He kept saying how surprised he was at the sheer variety in the music. What impresses me most is the extremely high quality of every twist and turn in his musical journeys. If I had to criticize something (and I don’t know why I would but sometimes I feel compelled) I would say there’s a chance that Hawksley overuses that powerfully sustaining voice of his, pulling it out like it’s a party trick or something.
But in the end I gotta say: if it’s a trick it’s a pretty darn good one. Nobody disses David Copperfield for consistently pulling monumental rabbits out of massive geographical hats.
*I spent a few summers during my university years working at my parents’ muffler warehouse, and as I worked I would hum or whistle a random Christmas carol with the sole goal of forcing some out-of-season earworm into the heads of my coworkers. I don’t know what was more fun: hearing the carol being hummed from across the warehouse or the moment when my unsuspecting colleague would realize what he was humming and loudly curse my very existence.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…