Watching the Strumbellas perform live at the Imperial theatre in Vancouver was probably one of the best concerts that I’ve ever attended. From the vim and vigour of the band members and their floor-thumping feet-stomping music, to the amazing acoustics of the theatre, the Strumbellas delivered not just the gift basket, but the whole damn company.
The Imperial theatre is one of Vancouver’s hidden gems, nestled in a seemingly dingy building just a block away from Hastings and Main, arguably the city’s most notorious intersection. Inside the Imperial, however, is a modern funky venue, with hip seating around the perimeter and on a slightly raised back half of the room, and statues of China’s imperial warriors standing guard above the crowd’s heads. The space lends itself to an intimate performance, and the corrugated walls provide excellent acoustics. The stage was set, as it were.
Opening for the Strumbellas was Edmonton’s The Provincial Archive, who did a great job of warming up the crowd, which was a bit reserved at first. The PA got the crowd’s feet tapping and, by the end of their set, people were lined up and swaying to the folksy tunes. A highlight of the set was the first song, ‘Daisy Garden,’ an upbeat ballad that set a positive tone for the rest of the hour. These guys are worth watching if you get half a chance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wend their way to the Junos in the next couple of years.
And then there were the Strumbellas.
These guys were unabashedly hipster, with the lead singer, Simon Ward, sharing that, on their way to the Imperial, one comment off of the street being that, damn, that was a lot of lumberjacks for just one girl (the girl being violinist and backup vocals, Isabel Ritchie; the lumberjacks being the other five male members of the band). In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a smooth shaven face in the room amongst the men, and certainly the urban lumberjack camp feel of the room and it made for a cosy atmosphere.
The band dove right into their set, completely immersing themselves in their music: they were clearly having a great time, from Dave Ritter’s (vocals and keys) full body stomping around his so-called keys ‘station,’ to Ritchie and Darryl James (bass) twisting with the music. The whole performance, for the full one and a half hours, was physical from start to finish, with each and every member absolutely feeling the music. The crowd joined right in with toe tapping, foot stomping, arm waving, body swaying, and head nodding. The whole room, musicians and patrons, were equally feeling the beats.
Ward and Ritter have amazing voices that, when blended with the backup vocals from the rest of the band, provide the Strumbellas with their unique country-folk-bluegrass sound. Many songs started with a slower acoustic, almost acapella, opening, through which all six voices harmonized and resonated throughout the room, before the songs would then explode in a sudden flurry of movement and fast-paced music that brought most of the crowd to their feet. Songs like the opener ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘In This Life’ resonated throughout the room like an electric current.
One thing that I noticed, in hearing a whole performance of this band, was the continual reference to religion, in some form, such as referring to the late JC. Hearing these references, alongside references to home and to the family, peppered throughout the lyrics lent a plaintive and poetic depth to the music. Ward’s song writing in and of itself reminds me a bit of Leonard Cohen’s, albeit Ward’s is a much better voice (with respect to Cohen’s gravelly charm of course).
Lastly, the final icing on the cake, the rosettes really, was the hilarious banter of the band between songs. From egging Ritter on to do his Sean Connery expression (the best one in the band, but still sounding like a Scottish leprechaun – Dave’s words, not mine), to comparing playing a tambourine to trying to fight an alligator while smoking a cigarette at the same time—it was a bit like watching improv on a good night.
Watching the Strumbellas was the equivalent of having cake and getting to eat it too. Brilliant group, compelling and engaging tunes (car karaoke perhaps?), phenomenal energy.