Jon-Rae and The River / Castle Music / The People Verses
The Stack Farm; Kelowna, BC

[07-15-06]

"Welcome
to the Jon-Rae Jamboree," reads the sign greeting patrons. It's 7:30pm, the
official “Doors Open" time, and hardly anyone is here. At least, it feels like
no one is here. In fact, it seems like nothing is here, as tonight's
festivities are to take place at an old farmhouse in central Kelowna, a small
city known for its fruit trees, beautiful golf courses, ski hills, and
ludicrous amounts of urban development. But tonight, the focus is around the
return of one of the city's best exports: Jon-Rae and The River.

The 'door,' as it is normally referred to as, was more of a long, dirt
driveway, with a beat-up, old pedestal and a chair beside it. To the right of
this whitewashed box lay a blanket with the first band's CDs neatly arranged
in a row along the left-hand side, as to make room for The River's swag. Most
of the people who have come to attend this gig are wandering between the house
and Ernie's Liquor Store across the street, waiting for the show to start.

Once Jon-Rae Fletcher and his new, Toronto-based River (after moving there,
members of Jon-Rae's former River went on to play in bands such as Ladyhawk
and P:ano) pull up to the driveway, things are underway. After some quick
setup in the carport and a few beer runs, husband-and-wife duo The People
Verses hit the (ahem) 'stage' (carport). My expectations for their set were
rather low, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. Their stage presence was
warm, friendly, and very similar to fellow couple-band The Evens, but their
sound was more akin to a Detroit garage rock band, borrowing guitar sounds
from The Stooges, or perhaps The Black Keys. During their set, the band even
encouraged the audience to not buy their merch, as to help The River have
enough gas money to get back to hometown Toronto.

Second act Castle Music (featuring Jennifer Castle of Fox The Boombox and
Everybody Get Sick) was up next; they chose to start playing immediately
instead of saying "hi everyone," and waiting for our attention first.
Apparently we weren't the only ones who didn't realize that her set was
starting – the majority of the crowd continued talking throughout 75% of her
entire first song. Jennifer has an excellent, emotive voice, with similarities
to Leslie Feist or a much less annoying Joni Mitchell, and she isn't afraid to
use it to express. This was best evidenced in her final song in her incredibly
short set, a haunting a capella 'sea shanty' about sailors that finally
silenced the very social crowd.

But it was the entrance of The River that finally grabbed the audience's full
attention. Sporting a leaner, slimmer, touring band of a mere seven members,
leader Jon-Rae welcomed the crowd and started out the set with a set of two
new tracks, "Roll," and “Ghost." The new songs encapsulated the group's usual
'big city record store employee does country' sound, but have moved a little
closer towards a bastardized 'soul' music, such as with "Just One More."
Regardless of genre, Jon-Rae's knack for writing a melody is uncanny; it's not
often that you can go to a gig, hear a new song, and walk out of the show
actually humming the tune. That's how great pop songs should be, right?

Jon-Rae and The River are one of the best live acts I have seen. They are
enthusiastic and passionate about the music they perform, with all members
singing without microphones during some of the songs. One of the most
satisfying moments of the show was during "Holy Ghost" — a standout track from
their 2003 LP, The Road — where audience and band alike sang along with
Jon-Rae during the choruses, never missing a note or a word. There was a
slight chill in the air as those prolonged vocal tones resonated past the
single guitar's subdued, chiming notes, leaving this tiny fraction of
perfection.

Between Paul Mortimer's weeping slide guitar, the outstanding, almost Doors-esque
keyboard collaborations of Jonathan Adjemian and Mike Stafford, the rolling
bass of Ian Russell, and the Animal-esque drum stylings of Dave Clark, The
River's blend of sounds complimented Jon-Rae and Anne Rust D'eye's tag-teamed
vocals perfectly. Never satisfied to adhere to one sound style, the group
would make these subtle yet ironically sharp left-turns, such as the Lynyrd
Skynyrd-style breakdown at the end of "Roll." These are the moments where it's
most apparent that JR&TR is a live band.

Though there were plenty of people in the crowd who didn't know each other,
what they did know is that you come to a River show to sing. This is a
band who did a show that Now! Toronto called "the best gig of 2005" — and for
good reason. They are musically tight, warm, and inviting, and they write
irresistibly catchy indie-rock/country tunes that aren't there to conquer the
world, be dramatic, or anything else other than just be great songs to sing
along to. You could say that they're the ultimate sing-along group. I mean,
all their albums to date have been recorded in living rooms while all of
Jon-Rae's friends sing along; is that not a big enough hint?

Expect the Toronto's newest LP, Knows What You Need to drop in October
on the Baudelaire label (also home to Tangiers and The Diableros). In speaking
with Jon-Rae, he told me he was most proud of this record of "soul songs about
fucking," which I'm sure has some sort of intentional Steve Albini reference
in it somewhere. If the recordings manage to capture a little bit of the magic
these live fucking songs convey, it will be an amazing record indeed. If
you're looking for a great act to see live, make sure you check these guys out
– you won't be disappointed. Perhaps you won't get to see them in a farmhouse,
but any venue with Jon-Rae and The River playing is a good venue indeed.

Set list:

Roll

Ghost

As I Die

When You Come Knocking

Come Back To Me

Nothing To Do

Just One More

Baby, Maybe (?)

Fire

Holy Ghost

It is Hard to Live in the City

Two Hands