Hugh's Room in Toronto
If there's one thing the Henrys have learned about show business, it's that you should always leave 'em wanting more. The elusive Toronto band accomplishesthis in the easiest possible way, by hardly ever playing inpublic.
A new album is almost the only thing guaranteed to get them on stage. Even then, the Henrys do not rush to meet their public: Wednesday's CD-release show took place four months after Joyous Porous, the band's fourth album, came into the world.
Pent-up demand filled the tiered and tabled space of Hugh's Room. By the end of the set, you could almost hear the thought in most minds: "Why don't you guys do this more often?"
The Henrys' distinctive sound is rooted in leader Don Rooke's kona guitar, from which he can nurse everything from a voice-like slide tone to something as dry and articulate as a kalimba. He's a speculative kind of musician, fond of abstract ways of looking at small riffs or old-sounding tunes. His partners share his thoughtful, follow-your-nose approach, though in all other ways they're as independent as cats.
Jorn Andersen's drumming, like all good percussion, supplied a grid for everyone to work with, but also shot out a stream of witty annotations, buffing the beat smooth or nailing it with a sharp whack. Like a classical actor, Andersen prefers clear diction to noise and commotion, which meant a miserly hand with the cymbals and a mostly bone-dry tip to his stick.
Rob Gusevs's organ padded around on soft paws all night, curling through the music so subtly that you almost didn't notice how neatly it balanced things out. John Dymond's bass came to the fore in a fine solo late in the set, elsewhere partnering Rooke's melodic excursions without missing a step.
Michael White lobbed his contributions in from a more distant neighbourhood, coaxing a soulful moan from a conch shell, blowing small fantasias on trumpet, or fooling obscurely with a pile of spaghetti-cabled electronics. The weird stuff that eked from his rig during Thought You'd Never Ask put a special dreamland gloss on this sepia-toned melody.
The Henrys' material wandered all over the lot, skirting the blues in one number, flirting with tango in another. Some tunes were a bit too tightly chained to a single riff, though this mattered less when the band let go into jams such as Rash, in which a resonator gizmo gave Rooke's kona yet another tone of voice.
Such subtle variations would have been lost in most Toronto clubs, but the attentive crowd and superb acoustics at Hugh's Room let them be heard with perfect clarity. This has to be the best small room for music in the city.
The show's only disappointment was the non-appearance of Joyous Porous vocalist Mary Margaret O'Hara, who proved herself even more elusive than the Henrys. The nicest surprise, to my unacquainted ear, was the elegant opening set by Dan Kershaw, who joined with fellow guitarists Burke Carroll and David Baxter for a short set of fine-grained urban country songs, including one about a girl named Maybelline that fused affection and parody in a tune that chug-chugged along at the speed of an old 78.