David Jacobs-Strain & Ralph Boyd Johnson

Ironwood Stage & Grill, February 24, 2011

A most impressive evening of music in Calgary tonight, unexpectedly enjoyable as I was taking a bit of a flyer on this one. Whenever I come to Calgary for a conference, as I did this morning, no one who I want to hear is ever playing. The night before I arrive? Sure. The night of my departure? Almost guaranteed. But the night I am free in the big city? Never.

So, when I checked the listings and saw David Jacobs-Strain’s name down for the Ironwood Stage & Grill, I wasn’t too excited and was even disappointed.  I had heard David Jacobs-Strain several years ago, but obviously he never made an impression; when I went to pull the CD off the shelf, it wasn’t there, indicating I must have given it away or traded it in some time ago. I had him pegged- wrongly it turns out- as yet another boring blues revivalist, and wasn’t terribly interested. Still, I streamed the songs on his website this past weekend, and- quite happily- really enjoyed what I heard.

I admit it- my mistake: the kid has talent to burn.

Youthful, the self-described “Jewish blues singer from Oregon” is a very percussive guitarist utilizing unorthodox instrumental riffs punctuated by thumping, knocking, and banging as well as vocal dramatics to distinguish himself. Smiling and genuinely pleased that we chose to come out on a frosty evening, Jacobs-Strain is as much fun to watch as he is to listen to.

This wasn’t your standard set of blues wanking; more like folk music played by someone who loves the blues the way I love bluegrass, Jacobs-Strain impressed in every way. Sporting a “Make Biscuits, Not War” cap, he performed a series of developmentally-inappropriate songs that shouldn’t sound so convincing coming from one so young. Each song was more enjoyable than the one that preceded it, and as such the 80-minute set built to a rousing conclusion.

Proving that Todd Snider isn’t the only Oregon-native who can spin a yarn, the personable slide-and-otherwise guitarist shared a number of stories to set-up and extend his songs. Playing the bulk of his Ray Kennedy-produced Terraplane Angel album augmented by older selections  including “Ocean or a Teardrop”, Jacobs-Strain is obviously equally competent and engaged with a sparse love song (“Call of the Wild”) as with a raucous party blues tune. Out of nowhere he’ll drop in a ballad with a line as lovely and true as “You taste like dirt and wildflowers” or as revealing as “When you come to see me, leave your visions by the door.”

Thankfully, he didn’t spend a lot of time tuning and noodling. Jacobs-Strain relied on just two guitars to get him through the evening, including his “plywood and duct tape” Yamaha on “Hurricane Railroad,” undoubtedly one of the highlights of the 80-minute set. A few covers were mixed in, including “Come on in My Kitchen” and Stephen Stills’ “Tree Top Flyer.” “Halfway to the Coast” was perhaps an unusual way to begin the ‘half standing ovation’-induced encore portion of the show, but darn it if it isn’t a great song and it led into a more conventional tune of string-bending, much to the delight of the nearly sold out room.

Early in the show, it occurred to me that Jacobs-Strain has one of those voices you heard on late-70s FM radio, back when every song was new and one didn’t yet discern one singer from another.

With even more music from below the corporate radar, hometown troubadour Ralph Boyd Johnson opened the show with a brief six- or seven-song set. Performing entirely unfamiliar material, he kept my interest for the duration, lending hope that an album of new material is on the horizon. It’s been a long time since Dyin’ to Go, and Johnson is one of the province’s finest songwriters and most pleasing vocalists, in my opinion.

An evening well-spent, me thinks. I was able to (unexpectedly) hear a local favourite do a few songs and add- as interestingly- a new favourite into the mix. David Jacobs-Strain is someone I’m going to be watching out for much more intently.

Jacobs-Strain plays Saskatoon this weekend before heading home to the lovely state of Oregon for a slate of shows.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

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