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Leona Burkey, AJH Gillis – The Carleton – Halifax Live Review

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Leona Burkey, AJH Gillis
Wednesday, March 4th, 2015
The Carleton Music Bar & Grill

Wednesday night at the Carleton. Full house for Leona Burkey’s debut album release with special guest AJH Gillis.

Opener AJH Gillis sports a uniquely raspy voice with country undertones but a folky style of guitar playing straddles him between the genres–though he’d probably prefer that I lump him with the country folk. He’s a travelled man and his varied life experiences are the building blocks of some deeply personal songs. They are miniature stories of life working in mines, adventures in Texas, and loves lost and found.

Some of his songs are a tad wordy and the boisterous atmosphere of the Carleton (or better yet, irritatingly noisy) unfortunately doesn’t allow for an easy listening experience. While not an ideal environment for story telling, it is a wonderfully rich music environment as far as sound quality and acoustics are concerned.

Gillis did a decent job holding the attention of a full bar while filling the opening slot for Leona Burkey.

Burkey is a Cape Breton singer/songwriter who’s had her fair share of music successes over a 20 year career. On this night, she provided a preview of her debut full length album Wave Theory across two sets. The crowd was packed with friends old and new, but her stage presence easily won over this Burkey newcomer. Filled with humour and amusing stories, she commands the attention of even the casual diners at the bar.

With a 5-piece band behind her, Leona kicked off set 1 of 2 playing a bunch of tunes from the new album and a previous EP. The usual instrumental suspects plus banjo, mandolin and violin put Leona Burkey fully in the ranks of roots music but with very obvious country influences (see: mandolin). Honestly, I don’t care what genre of music you’re playing, what it’s about and all that jazz, cause if you have a banjo in your band, I’m sold. Much like opener Gillis, Burkey’s songs are stories of her life–one also well travelled it seems–which she shares insight into before kicking off each in cheeky fashion. Her lyrics draw the listener into her soul with their heartfelt nature and perhaps knowing where each song comes from helps with that immersion.

Insanely groovy title track “Wave Theory” was a crowd favourite with its driving drum beat and wicked mandolin playing. Burkey’s sincere vocals cut through loud and clean on all her tunes from set one, which was more toned down and relaxed. No tricks here, just stories clearly projected draped in free flowing instrumentation.

After a short break, her second set kicked off with some raucous Celtic jamming complete with some improvised highland dancing from the audience. The second set was generally more upbeat and driving. The crowd–half in the bag at this point, I won’t lie–came more alive as well with their clap alongs and “yeehaws” and all those jubilant noises older folk make in this part of the country. After a few upbeat jams it became apparent that Burkey’s strength is in the slower intimate tunes simply because her voice isn’t strong enough to cut through heavy instrumentation. She loses a bit of her power in the faster upbeat tracks whereas her voice commands the slower ones. This wasn’t a huge concern for me, as the energy of a fast and upbeat song is more important than its lyrics. But if there were stories to tell in her second set, most of them were lost on me.

Having spent most of her life in the Canadian music scene, its nice to see a talent such as Burkey get a full length album under her feet. The Carleton show was more a celebration of this than anything, and its always a pleasure to be in an environment such as that.

Review & photos by Cody Spence

THE SCENE


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