The Wailin’ Jennys and Kelly Joe Phelps

Date and Venue 9 February 2008, 8pm | Chan Centre at UBC

Reviewer John Jane

I last saw the Wailin’ Jennys in concert at the 400-seat Capilano College of Performing Arts Theatre in the late summer of 2006. Since then, the Jennys have said goodbye to Annabelle Chvostek and replaced her with Heather Masse. They have also added Jeremy Penner to the tour line-up to compensate for the loss of Chvostek’s fiddle-playing.

Subsequent to their 2004 recording, “Forty Days” and their later, even more successful “Firecracker,” the band have rapidly gained a wide and devoted fan base to the extent that the once confused sales clerk in my local music store no longer misdirects me to the “Waylon Jennings” section when asking about one of their CDs.

Capilano College Entertainment Program Director, Fiona Black made the drive over from the North Shore to introduce both the Jennys and warm-up act, Kelly Joe Phelps to a packed Chan Centre.

The girls opened their show with an acapella version of “Bright Morning Stars” followed by the melancholic “Driving,” that featured new girl Heather Masse on vocals and stand-up bass.

The Jennys don’t give concerts just to sing their own compositions – they’re equally at home covering songs written by other artists, like “Bring me Lil’ Water Sylvie” by Huddie William Ledbetter (better known as Ledbelly) and the perhaps lesser known Ella Jenkins revival song, “Racing with the Sun,” that tonight, featured Nicky Mehta on ukulele and Heather Masse on vocals.

The trio is reknowned for their silky three-part harmonies and with the negro spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” they had the audience spellbound. This interpretation was more up-tempo than the better-known, mournful renditions by Paul Robeson and Elvis Presley.

Disapointedly absent from this selection were songs penned by former member, Annabelle Chvostek, like the moving, bluegrass tune, “The Devil’s Paintbrush Road" or the bittersweet “Swallow” that practically knocked my socks off at the “Cap” theatre gig.

After a standing ovation from an appreciative and knowledgeable audience, Mehta, Moody and Masse returned to the stage for an encore that included “One Voice” – dedicated to those “Who need peace in their lives” – and “The Parting Glass” performed in their trademark acapella three-part harmony, complete with the requisite subdued lighting.

Opening act Kelly Joe Phelps is a true troubadour who is constantly exploring and expanding new directions. Generally under-rated as a result of his preference for playing smaller venues – “I don’t usually get to play in places as big as this” he quipped at the start of his set.

Kicking-off with “Ruby Sally” - as close as he ever gets to rock ‘n roll; Phelps then settled into a rhythm with tunes like “Crow’s Nest, the as yet unrecorded, bluesy “Nine Tail Whip” and the dylanesque “Mustard Seed.”

His fifty-minute set was sometimes uplifting; occasionally melancholic and always enigmatic.

© 2008 John Jane