The sun was out on Highway 101 and there were just a few patches of slippery slush when we drove up to Halifax in the after-storm of March 19. Halifax: as far away as I’ve ventured from Wolfville since the pandemic began. An event in itself!
At our destination, I’m in my element, on familiar ground; The Carleton, the best listening room in Nova Scotia. Looking around, I see familiar faces. Many came up from The Valley as well. No surprise. We’re here for a double-header by Daniel McFadyen and Terra Spencer, the second of three sold-out performances. In recent years, they have become two of the singer-songwriters most beloved by Valley audiences. We can feel the pent-up hunger for live music throughout the room. The now-usual Covid precautions are in place, and they are not intrusive (mask-free at your table. Mask everywhere else). We have what I think is the best table in the house. The food is great, the beer is fresh and crisp, and with perfect timing, Terra Spencer hops onto the stage.
Terra knows her audience. She connects immediately by getting conversational about her own experience on the 101. Having driven earlier than us, before the big machines had cleared up the highway, this had been a harrowing, white-knuckle, terrorizing drive. Ever her thoughtful self, she had even texted a note for someone to please feed her dogs if she was not going to make it. This was her introduction to the first song of the evening, “Melt,” a beautiful piece from Chasing Rabbits, her recent collection of wintry songs: “And these snowflakes, they remind me of how warm your love felt. Now I watch them, as they fall down and wait for them to melt.”
From this first chorus, we were all likewise melting in Spencer’s palm. With “Lunenburg Moon” and “In The City,” also from her new album, “Melt” is promised to stand the test of time. Observational, lyrical, profoundly human, these are gems cut from the same stone as those intemporal early songs by Joni Mitchell or Carole King. Nothing less. Something from, what, 1971? Designed as an opening set, this was not Spencer’s full performance. No piano onstage but her fine guitar playing was enough to carry a brisk unfolding of songs filled with empathy, humour, and striking imagery. Terra Spencer can wrench your heart but always with a light human touch, and often with a wink.
Out of winter and its treacherous roads, mindful to warm up the room for Daniel McFadyen, Terra ended her set in merriment with a hilarious little ditty about food and appetite, filled with risqué double-entendres. With lines like “You’ve traded in our golden rings for grease and golden arches,” the song was dedicated (sort of) to the Carleton’s “frites”, the best in town.
Long guffaws turned into joyful intermission chatter. A short intermission. Daniel McFadyen was eager to play. A spring in his step, he leaped on stage, guitar in hand with a nice little pedal-triggered double percussion set up ready to be put to good use. He too knows his audience. From the very first song, a “sweet” one about Caroline featuring a perfect bouncy chorus, McFadyen had the room singing right on cue. The connection remained strong from the first note of his performance to the last. The “Wolfville Song” was an apex of the show. “Going Back to Wolfville,” and its pre-pandemic video showing the people and places of old Mud Creek, became a phenomenon and was kind of adopted as the town’s anthem. These better-known and more upbeat songs were masterfully delivered to the delight of the many who knew them well and were more than eager to sing along.
Offering contrast, some of his slower lyrics-driven songs were spellbinding. In particular, one called “Mr. Lipless,” which was inspired by Daniel’s experience in Guatemala, near a volcano (around Lake Atitlàn, Daniel ?), improvising music with a diverse group that included an Indigenous Mayan who spoke only Mayan. “He never said a word,” sang McFadyen, “we could greet that morning sun.” A song about a moment. A vivid memory. A reflection on a striking experience of non-verbal communication, heightened by a magical setting, but his story concludes with “he built a wall that he can’t get over,” repeated to a singalong ending. The song is cinematic. It grows from a shimmering percussive guitar intro, slowly burns and simmers, then builds to a powerful crescendo. Mr. Lipless reminds me of some of my favorite Graceland-era Paul Simon songs. There’s a strong sense of place in McFadyen’s songs. Wolfville, yes, but also Manitoba, Rimouski, and St-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! Time and place were defined very well in a song about his great-grandma in Saskatchewan, a Prairie early phone operator. We listen in on a gallery of characters until the party line “overloads” into a cacophony of conversations, brilliantly built up with a loop pedal.
Terra Spencer’s songs also have clear locations. Halifax, Lunenburg, Windsor and its iconic factory crumbling by Highway 101 (which, shall we remember, is sometimes dangerous before the plows finish doing their thing.) Fittingly and to everyone’s joy, Terra Spencer and Daniel McFadyen came together and shared the stage for a two-songs finale. As spring was about to spring, in a string of three performances that began on a Thursday, unaffected by an overnight late blizzard, they indeed took Halifax by storm. Spencer and McFadyen are effortlessly two of our region’s most engaging performers, but they do not only rely on innate qualities. It is obvious that they also put in the work, diligently and intelligently preparing for their performance, customizing it for the setting and audience, calibrating their setlist with care, scripting their song intros without making them sound scripted.
With their superb songwriting, their continuing dedication to the trade, and a charm that operates every moment they’re onstage, there is no doubt that, each on their own path, Daniel McFadyen and Terra Spencer will keep collecting accolades. And no doubt, we will return again and again to hear their songs.