Madison Violet

Live Review | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | Review by Allan Wilkinson

The newly extended Wheelhouse in Wombwell opened its doors once again tonight for a sell out appearance by one of Canada’s best loved harmony vocal duos, Madison Violet.  The venue itself has been slightly extended, with the addition of an alcove to provide more room, not specifically to cram more people in, but to make the Wheelhouse even more comfortable for the handful of loyal regulars and for those visiting for the first time, including the guest performers of course.  Toronto’s Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac have been together for just over ten years now and have in that time produced three fine albums, two in the guise of Madviolet Worry the Judge (2004) and Caravan (2006) and for their most recent offering, No Fool for Trying (2009), a name change from Madviolet to the slightly lengthened Madison Violet, due to the confusion arising from their former name and that of a 1980s psychedelic band, The Mad Violets.  Tonight, Brenley and Lisa gave a stunning performance, despite some lingering jet lag, with a selection of songs from each of their three albums, together with one or two more familiar songs from the pens of Paul Simon and fellow countryman Gordon Lightfoot.  Starting with “The Ransom” from their current album, the duo delighted the audience with their often perfect vocal harmonies, alternating between guitar, mandolin and fiddle (Lisa) and guitar and tenor guitar (Brenley).  Those harmony voices first came about purely by accident when the duo was rehearsing together over ten years ago.  Brenley discovered that Lisa could in fact sing, by overhearing her harmonising to a pre-recorded looped vocal of hers on a Head Rush looping device.  Whilst the singer was upstairs, having left the rehearsal space momentarily, Lisa added her own voice to Brenley’s.  Overhearing the two voices together, Brenley discovered that for the first time she loved the sound of her own voice, simply by hearing it being coupled with Lisa’s.  The task then was to convince Lisa that she should sing with her.  “I had a horrible fear of singing in public” Lisa explained.  Those voices now however, are almost inseparable.  Holding fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot in reverence, the duo sang two of Lightfoot’s songs during their set, having recently met the man himself and even getting him to sign Brenley’s tenor guitar, which she was proud to show off to the audience tonight.  Brenley and Lisa first of all performed Lightfoot’s “Poor Little Allison” and then towards the end of the night, delivered a beautiful rendition of the better known “Sundown”, a minor 1974 hit for Lightfoot in the UK; a number one smash in their native Canada of course.  Without doubt the most familiar song of the night however, was the unexpected Paul Simon classic “Mr$s Robinson”, which the duo managed to breathe new life into and I’m pretty sure in doing so, reminded the audience just how great the song actually is when heard once again in its rawest acoustic form.  Of all the sad songs that have been drawn from the pens of songwriters throughout my time, not many have touched me quite the same way as “Crying” and “The Woodshop”, both written by Brenley in tribute to her late brother Stevie, who was unfortunately killed two years ago.  During the introduction to “The Woodshop”, Brenley explained the relevance of the line ‘dust to dust and ashes fifty-two’, her brother being the fifty-second homicide victim in Toronto in that particular year.  The song was rewarded with complete silence throughout, which it fully deserved.  Once heard, difficult to shake off.  Some of Brenley’s songs do often reveal something of a chaotic life.  Once doing rather well for herself working in the graphic arts industry, having all she really needed except that crucial of all ingredients, that of happiness, Brenley gave it all up for music.  During that time she has endured the daunting experience of being accused, handcuffed and thrown in a cold cell, whilst being completely innocent of an undisclosed crime.  Great songs come from such experiences though and “Baby in the Black and White” has subsequently become one of the most outstanding songs on the new album and also as a live favourite. For the more soulful “Small of My Heart”, Brenley and Lisa invited the Wheelhouse audience to join in on some gospel-like oos, which had the effect of momentarily transforming the packed Wheelhouse into a chapel of sorts, albeit a gospel chapel that serves up some mighty fine Guinness along with the songs, with a little help from regular barman Andy at the back of the room.  Lisa comes from a family of fiddle players and the playing of the instrument seems to come naturally to her, certainly as an accompanying instrument to some of the songs performed tonight, but especially in her bluegrass playing as heard on the traditional “Cindy Cindy”, which brought the night to a close.  There was of course the obligatory encores, which tonight consisted of the aforementioned “Sundown” and also the jaunty “Never Saw the Ending”, with its foot tapping instrumental fiddle tune coda, courtesy of the enigmatic Lisa MacIsaac.  Other songs featured during the night included “Best Part of Your Love”, “Skylight”, the Ron Sexsmith co-write “Sore Heart, Height Ashbury” and the catchy “Men Who Love Women Who Love Men”.  Once again, a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable night at the Wheelhouse.