Heather Dale, Hugh's Room, Toronto, Canada (22 February 2004)
Heather Dale is a positive, vibrant singer, and very committed to the concept of bringing Arthurian traditions into modern consciousness through original songs and contemporary arrangements. She has a lovely mid-range voice and performed her music with a very competent backing band for this show. I'd never seen her, although GMR had reviewed one of her earlier releases, with another review of her most recent album in the works. As our reviewer, Lenora Rose, notes, Heather's music has great appeal in the SCA community, and I'd venture to guess her CDs sell like hotcakes at Ren Fests as well.
It's clear that the Arthurian tragedy has had an enormous impact on many the world over, myself included. The story went straight to my heart as a young person, and I researched these stories in novels and writings about source material, searching for the core of the story; indeed I continue to find some of the stories very meaningful even decades later. So I was very intrigued by Heather's concept in pursuing the role of Ancient Celtic Singer, although I'm reviewing it from outside the communities in which she has flourished.
Heather has indeed tapped into some of the emotional truths contained within these stories, and sang many of the songs from her most recent release, May Queen, which is mostly made up of contemporary arrangements, a departure from some of her earlier work. She occasionally employs typically Celtic melodies, instruments, and arrangements, but in her first set she stuck mostly to her contemporary songs written with the Arthurian stories in mind. Particularly memorable is "Prodigal Son," written from the point of view of Morgan Le Fay, expressing the bitterness of the scorned woman - but is she scorned because of the incest, or because of the triumph of Arthur's Christian order? Certainly Heather's use of one of the WASP's core myths suggests the latter, although there is some ambiguity in the song.
"Kingsword" employs some of the more obvious male imagery from the stories, and has a great hook for the chorus, as does "May Queen," a song modeled on the Lancelot and Guinevere story. "Exile" is another standout. During her second set, Heather played some of material from one of her other endeavors, The Commoners' Songs, that are part of a long time collaboration with her guitarist, Chris Evans. Several of these selections were delightful, particularly the one about the canals in England.
So what makes Heather's contemporary songs Arthurian? In some cases it seems to be her spoken introductions that set the songs in context, particularly for songs like "Prodigal Son" or "May Queen" - both very contemporary songs that draw on certain parts of the Arthurian story, but could easily be about something else all together. In others, the imagery is more overt and doesn't need to be explained. I couldn't help thinking that Heather has set herself a daunting task - tapping into the universals of the story while remaining recognizably Arthurian.
And this too may be her big challenge if she seeks to move outside the audiences in which she has so far thrived - if the enthusiastic fans that almost filled Hugh's Room are any indication. My companion and I were seated at a mixed table of folks who were not eating that evening, and it gave me a chance to chat up several fans. Like me, they really resonated with Heather's voice and enthusiasm. I sensed that the two gentlemen I spoke with were caught up in the stories, and with Heather as well. With fans like these she may not need to seek a wider audience; she has certainly created a niche for herself and her music.