In 2006 I moved from Vancouver to Halifax for school. I knew no one; I’d never even been east of Toronto. The entirety of my Atlantic Canadian knowledge came from local artists like Joel Plastkett, whose songs like “Love this Town” and “Nowhere With You” painted a quaint, loving picture of the city. While living there I interviewed Plaskett twice – I even met his mom (according to her he was a “chubby baby”). So clearly I have a bit of a bias when it comes to his music.
Still, I hadn’t seen the Darmouth, Nova Scotia native since I left the Maritimes, so it was hard to know what to expect when the lanky singer-guitarist took the stage at the inaugural Toronto Urban Roots Festival. His national profile has grown since I moved to Toronto in 2008, and he’s released a slew of new music in that period. Yet from the moment he stepped on stage, beaming, it was clear that the humble, self-aware artist who introduced me to my temporary home had changed little.
Backed by the Emergency (drummer Dave Marsh and bass player Chris Pennell) the trio opened with “Down at the Khyber” much to the delight of the numerous Haligonians peppered throughout the crowd. By second song “Through & Through & Through” it was clear that while Plaskett as a person hasn’t changed, Plaskett the frontman has.
For such a modest figure, he’s developed a stage persona that’s part storyteller, part Southern preacher leading the revival. The former took hold particularly during a brief acoustic interlude; Plaskett detailed the genesis of his ode the the Cabot Trail, “On the Rail” even briefly teasing at a performance of Thrush Hermit classic “the Day We Hit the Coast.” The latter appeared in the band’s jammier moments, particularly the epic “Work Out Fine.” Verbally riffing off the song’s distinctive drum and bass groove, interpolating Sam Cooke “Cupid” and a sing-a-long of “Doo-Wah-Diddy” before finally settling into the song proper. And when the band hit the crowd favourite line “All my friends/Where did they go?/To Montreal/Toronto!” line, he implored “little Halifax” to sing along.
The set split the difference between his latest CBC commissioned record, Scrappy Happiness, and older material like “Natural Disaster” and “Extraordinary.” Yet there’s an incredible congruity to Plaskett’s music, which has mixed the singer’s heart-on-sleave sentimentality with a knack for self-referential whit (“I’m Yours,” which details meeting his future wife on the set of Thrush Hermit’s “French Inhale” video shoot, being a prime example) throughout his career. In the wrong setting this seeming clash of tones can go awry, but on this night it hit its target as “Love this Town” and “Lightning Bolt” closed out a triumphant set that set an incredibly high bar for the weekend to come. A biased opinion maybe, but one that certainly from the heart.