Triply isolated by history, geography, and economics, Halifax, Nova Scotia, stands slightly outside the 21st century — which makes it the ideal home base for singer-guitarist Joel Plaskett, who has perfected a brand of retro-flavoured rock that is similarly unstuck in time.
This tendency — sometimes carried to ludicrous extremes — showed up early in his career. His first successful band, Thrush Hermit, was decidedly progressive by Halifax standards, but given a mainstage opportunity at a major Toronto rock festival in 1995, it opted to kneecap itself by delivering a set made up entirely of Steve Miller Band covers.
Rest assured, though, that “Fly Like an Eagle” failed to turn up on Saturday’s set list. In front of an enthusiastic and nearly sold-out Vogue Theatre crowd, Plaskett didn’t merely take the money and run: instead he turned in a long and energetic set culled largely from the Emergency’s 2001 debut, Down at the Khyber, his sprawling 2009 triple album Three, and his new Scrappy Happiness.
He also proved himself a weirdly entertaining frontman. A classic ectomorph, he’s got a dancer’s legs and the moves to match, having mastered that James Brown trick of gliding over the stage without seeming to exert any effort. But Plaskett’s also a goof, flapping his pterodactyl arms while letting his semi-hollow guitar feed back, repeatedly enthusing about the foot-switch-controlled robot monkeys perched atop his amp, and telling jokes about the “folk-art Wayne Newton head” that decorated bassist Chris Pennell’s rig. It could all seem corny if he wasn’t so clearly in the moment: at one point, after lying supine on the floor and clutching the mike stand to sing a verse of audience favourite “Work Out Fine”, he got up, laughed, and said, “I’ve never done that before.” There’s no reason to doubt it.
Musically, the night was all over the map—and not only because Pennell and drummer Dave Marsh took a long break mid-set so that Plaskett could turn folkie for a few acoustic songs, including the Irish-inflected “Harbour Boys”. Amplified, his default mode is classic rock, with Led Zeppelin a clear touchstone (as indicated by the story he told about how collecting Zep posters earned him the disdain of a legendary Halifax record-store owner). Within that framework, however, he also referenced dance music, new wave, psychedelia, radio pop, and Stan Rogers–style storytelling, all the while sounding exactly like himself.
In fact, that might be Plaskett’s strong suit. He’s a gifted guitarist, but live he’s less nuanced than he is in the studio, and while he’s an evocative lyricist, he’s not an especially poetic one. But he’s believable. It’s interesting that many of his songs are about the redemptive power of music, something he has the power to manifest on-stage. By set’s end, the night had turned into a love-in, with the entire audience on its feet, singing along with its hero.
Maybe there’s life left in that old corpse rock ’n’ roll yet; I was feeling it too.