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Jennifer Castle’s idiosyncratic ways allow her to stand out among a crowd of folk and blues singers.

Artist
Jennifer Castle
Venue
Great Hall
City
Toronto
Date
Thursday, September 25, 2014

An out-of-the-ordinary singer appeared at the Great Hall, where her music was distinctive, apparitional and free of cliché. It will be difficult to approve the predictability of most folk-blues singers after listening to Jennifer Castle.

She was a loose bunch of approaches, a flutter-voiced presenter of era-spanning songs and an anti-star on a candlelit stage. The Toronto-based indie artist celebrated the release of her latest album, Pink City, which turns out to be a pleasantly peculiar place. It is her fourth record, and although it comes with strings, onstage Castle mostly went it alone – on acoustic guitar, on a hollow-body electric, and (twice) on piano. For an encore, she sang a cappella.

The singer-songwriter, in her late 30s I'm guessing, has been compared to Joni Mitchell, an evaluation that flatters her but likely frustrates her, too. In 2014, more than 50 years into a Village-led revolution, how does a folksinger stand out? Castle's answer is to develop a style that is no style at all.

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Vocally, she is gently uninhibited. On her instruments, she is not obsessed with fluidity, at least onstage. One second she moves in Elizabethan ways; the next, like Elizabeth Cotten. She isn't loud, but she'll never be part of any coffeehouse background.

Influences? Hard to guess, but fun to try. With something like Spoon River, perhaps Bruce Cockburn or Karen Dalton. Often, the songwriting economy of Kris Kristofferson could be detected. Her pop sensibilities are not developed. And although she doesn't commit outright to blues music, she does catch the devil's ear from time to time.

She isn't opposed to a sort of eerie folk-siren psychedelia. On Truth is the Freshest Fruit – and the messiest, too, right? – she sang about San Francisco. Musically, it is a place to which she is not afraid to travel back in time and go. Let's suggest, then, that she is a fan of Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.

On the slowly moving and kindly swaying piano ballad Nature, Castle showed her protest-singer side. As Mother Earth: "I lift my skirt for the economy."

Sailing Away moved in a swiftly picked and melodious manner. Castle sang about learning from the best, cutting the rest and taking what she can get.

The trickling How or Why would seem to be Castle's poetic introspection as to what it is she does. So, a gardening metaphor: "Digging holes in November means tulips in May, and if I dig them, they'll be pay." On the same song she sang about hearing her favourite song on the radio, and "one more kiss, then I'm gone."

This is an artist with a transient air. But as she gets better at what she does, she's leaving footprints. So, Castle, a new, idiosyncratic entry into the bluesy folk-music canon.

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Jennifer Castle opens for Agnes Obel, Nov. 4 and 5, Toronto's Harbourfront Centre Theatre; Nov. 11, Montreal's Olympia de Montreal; Nov. 13, Quebec City's Palais Montcalm.

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