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A balladeer who finds sweetness in the sorrows Add to ...

  • Justin Rutledge
  • Lee's Palace
  • In Toronto on Saturday

Michael Stipe of the alt-rock pioneers R.E.M. famously sang that everybody hurts, that sometimes everything is wrong, and that "now it's time to sing along." Stipe's commiseration was gentle and lovely, and melodically soothing too.

In a 2002 documentary, the folk-music giant Pete Seeger mused about the power of music. He said a short song can have as much impression on a listener as reading a whole novel can, and that it is something we could bounce the experiences of our life against, in return receiving new meanings. "Singing a song," said Seeger, "can be an active reaffirmation."

Here then comes Justin Rutledge, the handsomely lamenting country-tinged hometowner, who closed his show at Lee's Place as he almost always does, with a cheery communal singalong. "Don't you be mean," went the chorus, "my jellybean, my Boston cream." What came before that was material often melancholic or wistful, yet Rutledge doesn't wish to bring dark clouds to the garden party. There is, I believe, a sweetness to his sadness. Or, as he put it, on the easygoing lope of the popular Robin's Tune, "Even when she breaks my heart, she's music to my ears."

A few years ago, I was at the Horseshoe Tavern when balladeer Rutledge put down his acoustic guitar and strapped on an electric one. The joke of the (great) night was that the moment was Dylan-at-Newport in its significance. And now, Rutledge's new album, The Early Widows, finds this young (to me) troubadour using amplification and bigger sounds. The interesting singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman produced the record, bringing in double drums and choirs to fill out Rutledge's poetic stoicism.

So, there were two drummers on the crowded stage, sharing space with an affecting steel guitarist, bassist Bazil Donovan (of Blue Rodeo), a talented but underused guitarist in David Baxter, harmony vocalist Julie Fader and a second guitarist for good measure.

All that was missing was Michael Ondaajte, the great novelist who co-wrote the night's first song, Be a Man. That's right: Ondaatje, The English Patient writer, is responsible for the line "I am, a pause in a storm on a dark stair, whenever your name is spoken." It's not "wooly bully, wooly bully/ wooly bully, wooly bully, wooly bully," but it does show some promise.

(Ondaatje and Rutledge, the latter often described as a literate singer-songwriter, have collaborated on When My Name was Anna, a staged adaptation of the novelist's Governor-General's Award-winning Divisadero that get its premiere next spring.)

Be a Man, a tense, self-fortifying mantra, was sung in Rutledge's tremulous and assertively hushed way. Jack of Diamonds - "Yellow bird, yellow moon/ You've arrived while the spring is out of tune" - had a pleasant folk-country lonesomeness. And the soft, wishful Come Summertime, with its willow-tree steel guitar notes, doesn't need Ondaatje's help at all.

Greenwich Time - "a little song about wrist watches," quipped Rutledge - sets its clock to Dylan. Not Bob Dylan, but his son, Jakob Dylan, who used to lead the tuneful, easy-rocking Wallflowers.

Did Rutledge's audience appreciate his bolder, slightly less countrified sound? At one point, a friend turned to me and said, "An adoring public suits Justin well." Of course so. He and his fans appreciate sweet sorrow, sharing it like the best Boston cream pie.

Justin Rutledge plays Montreal on May 29, then embarks on a tour of Ontario in June.

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