James Keelaghan and David Francey, Hugh's Room, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, (September 16, 2003)

Last spring legendary Canadian singer songwriter James Keelaghan and rising star David Francey agreed to meet in Toronto to support the city in its isolation due to the SARS crisis. Sadly, that show had to be canceled, and it was rescheduled for August. Francey arrived at Hugh's room, driving in from Quebec, to find the venue lit by candles, due to the power outage that plagued most of the Northeast of North America. Despite everyone's best intentions, it appeared that the gig wouldn't come off, except that Keelaghan, who calls Regina, Saskatchewan home was able to be in Toronto on September 16, on his way to Europe for a three month tour. Miraculously, Francey was also able to make the show, returning from a recording session in Nashville. It's a testimony to the popularity of these two that most folks kept their tickets, and filled Hugh's Room to overflowing that Tuesday night. Yours truly had managed to arrange to attend, and arrived early to have dinner before the show.

Hugh's Room books an astonishing variety of high quality, and high profile folk, and world music acts. It's arranged as a dinner theatre, with a small bar for smokers at the back and an even smaller space for single seats and small raised tables. The staff are congenial and accommodating, and the food is great. One word of warning, however -- if you plan to attend a sold out show, plan for dinner as well, and reserve a table, or you may end up sitting at the back of the room, close to the bar. Truly one of Toronto's best venues, Hugh's Room has really filled a void in the musical palette of the city.

Francey and Keelaghan did both sets together, and had quite a bit of congenial chit chat that folk music fans have come to expect. Keelaghan, sporting a new shorn look, was also in town for the launch of a Gordon Lightfoot tribute CD, and had just returned from seeing the man himself turn up at the launch. They began the show with "Red Winged Blackbird," a song they have both recorded, and went on taking turns from there. It's actually surprising how many similar songs they have recorded, or perhaps not. For folks who aren't from here, Francey is a Scot transplanted to Quebec, and Keelaghan is a child of the Canadian prairies. We heard songs about being a paper boy, songs about teenaged romance, political songs about farm foreclosures, and songs about suicide from both men. Francey is a master of the straightforward ballad, eschewing the long-winded introspection that drives so many listeners away from singer-songwriters, and he really knows how to craft a chorus with a compelling hook. Keelaghan's songs are longer, but he has won over many fans here in Canada and abroad with his compelling melodies and finely crafted stories.

Really these two are consummate ballad singers -- it's just that instead of trad., arr. we have the men themselves singing the songs. If most singer-songwriters were as good as these two (and as someone who vets lots of independent releases, I can tell you emphatically that most are not even close to being a Francey or a Keelaghan), the genre would generate much more interest from labels and find better distribution with which to attract a broader audience. As it is, folk musicians rarely become wealthy, but the good ones do have long careers with loyal followings. Francey, who burst onto the Canadian scene several years ago, seems delighted with his new house, and claims to be very happy to have left his days in construction behind. It seems even middle-aged singer-songwriters can succeed, on occasion, and that is a comforting thought indeed.

The second set began with some technical difficulties, but ended on a fabulous note. Francey's latest disc contains a wonderful round called "A Winter Song" which was performed by the two men, as well as Geoff Summers on guitar, Kate Murphy on banjo, and Francey's partner Beth Girdler singing. Lovely! And the final number in the encore was an audience-enhanced version of the title track from Home with enthusiastic audience harmonies on the final chorus. As he said, "This chord really can solve the problems of this world." Well, I think we were all convinced that evening, and I for one can't wait to hear his latest release, which consists of re-recordings of his "hits" and contains this song with the final chord recorded at the 2003 Winnipeg Folk Festival, from the middle of the audience - I'm sure that a chorus of 15,000 will prove to be quite impressive!

[Kim Bates]

If either of these men come to a venue near you, I highly recommend checking them out. Keelaghan is currently in Europe, and Francey is touring the western part of North America.