Stan Rogers - A Matter of Heart: the Musical Revue
at Hugh's Room,
Toronto, ON
(28 December 2002)

I knew this was going to be a good show -- I own and love the record released a couple of years ago when this show was a stage production in Hamilton and Toronto (it also ran this past summer in Charlottetown). And when you're working with Stan Rogers' inspired songwriting, you have the kind of solid base that just cannot go wrong.

By the end of the show, however, I felt not only in awe of the talent of the singers and musicians involved, but privileged to have been sitting in the audience taking it all in. For those of us who are too young to have seen Rogers play, this show is as close as we can come to what it must have been like to witness the passion and strength he had as a performer.

Front and center were the voices of Dan Mackay, Charlotte Moore, Frank Mackay and Jim Betts; their enthusiasm for the stories and the songs was evident throughout. Accompanying them were musical director Bob Ashley, who also composed the updated arrangements of the songs, on keyboards; Bob Hewus on bass; Kim Ratcliffe on electric and acoustic guitars; Anne Lindsay (John McDermott, Blue Rodeo, Jim Cuddy Band) on fiddle; and Paul Mills, Rogers' bandmate and producer of all but one of his records, on acoustic guitars and banjo. The stage was crowded but comfortable and there was a feeling of synergy between the performers that was a pleasure to witness.

Most of Stan's best-known songs were featured -- after a warning from Moore to any "Stan Rogers purists" in the audience that they may be shocked by what the songs had become. In reality, most of the new arrangements were not so far removed from how they were originally recorded -- and, more importantly, stayed true to the stories Rogers wove and the characters he created. Standouts for me were "Barrett's Privateers," featuring Mills on percussion and all the performers in harmony; the aching "White Squall," sung by Moore, from the perspective of the "red-eyed Wiarton girl" left behind in the song; "Try Like the Devil"; "Forty-Five Years"; "House of Orange," which was the last song Rogers wrote before he died; the war ballad "MacDonnell on the Heights," rendered with a lot of emotion by Moore and Dan Mackay; and "A Matter of Heart."

Stepping a bit further away from the original compositions was a medley of "Lies" and "Field Behind the Plow," featuring a kind of duet between Moore and Frank Mackay as they told the parallel stories of a weary farmer and his weary wife, both searching for the youth they once had. These two songs fit perfectly together and this presentation adds another dimension to the original stories. Also unexpected but very effective were a jazzy version of "Workin' Joe" and the addition of a hockey coach's pep talk to "Flying."

Sadness and silence captured the room as Betts brought tears to my eyes with "The Jeannie C.," a powerful song about so much more than the loss of a ship on the rocks of Nova Scotia's shore. Also powerful was Dan Mackay's interpretation of "Song of the Candle," a rather dark song about the life of a songwriter.

Jim Betts, who directed the show during its Charlottetown run this past summer and has been involved with the show since its humble 1997 beginnings, replaced regular performer Terry Ratty, who was unable to make this performance. His voice had a bit less volume than his fellow singers' did, but he did a good job on Rogers classics "Wreck of the Athens Queen," a riotous rendition of "The Idiot" and the poignant "The Last Watch."

Fittingly, the encore closed with the raucous "Acadian Saturday Night," one of Rogers' most popular concert songs. The audience joined in with clapping hands and stamping feet, jumping to its feet as the final yells sounded.

Woven throughout was the chorus from "The Mary Ellen Carter," encouraging the downtrodden to "rise again, though your heart it be broken and life about to end." That chorus will always be Rogers' most enduring and positive legacy for me and was the perfect thread to pull everything together in a tribute to the songs of a man who died far too young.

I left Hugh's Room with a lighter heart than I had going in -- the true mark of a good show. The sheer joy that the performers had in presenting these songs made a strong impression on me and made the show a complete and fitting homage to a Canadian folk hero.

- Rambles
written by Rachel Jagt
published 22 February 2003

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