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Elfin Saddle – The Wind Come Carry (2013)

When I moved back to Montreal in 2007, the first concert I attended was in a tiny apartment art gallery, everyone cross-legged on the floor. Before the main act came out, a timorous host introduced a band called Elfin Saddle. The group’s name made me imagine something mannered, twee. But when Emi Honda and Jordan McKenzie got up in front of us I understood that I was mistaken. McKenzie was chiptoothed, with a beautiful grin. He wore ragged plaid. He looked as if he had come in like Huck Finn, on a raft. Honda, his partner, was a tiny woman with straight-cut black hair and one of the bravest faces I had ever seen. She looked as if she would have led the raft, or built it.

I couldn’t know what Elfin Saddle would sound like. Nobody has ever sounded like them. Although the group would later gain cellist Kristina Koropecki and bassist/tuba-player Nathan Gage, the central forces remained Honda and McKenzie, each like a ramshackle one-man band. They played songs on broken accordion, ukulele, beat-up guitar, singing saw and backyard percussion, in English and Japanese, layering East Asian folk song, sea shanties and wind-swept Appalachia. It was rickety and mesmerizing, fearless and nourishing and wintry and springlike and summery and fall. I compared the music later to “the fearsome creep of daylight.” Their voices blew together and whistled.

Elfin Saddle’s work seemed to inhabit the place where human beings encounter the natural world. Is it a confrontation? A homecoming? They had moved from Victoria to Montreal and they made visual art, too. Living sculptures, stop-motion films, Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms where rotors and turntables moved among mosses, toadstools, piles of earth. McKenzie tended to these contraptions as if they were tender animals, alive. He would stoop over them in his big sweater, peering across grandfatherly spectacles, as if all the servos needed was a kind touch, a breath.

Over the years to come, I’d see Elfin Saddle perform more than a dozen times, in living rooms and halls, at Montreal’s modern-art gallery and at a chapel in Dawson City, Yukon. They played at the first concert I ever booked myself. I learned that their band name was not a reference to a mare’s enchanted tack but to Helvella crispa, a variety of mushroom. Their work was the embodiment of two seemingly opposite qualities, fragility and resilience; Emi and Jordan seemed to know a secret I could only barely apprehend.

We became friends. I remember walking with Jordan in long grasses, laughing over breakfast, listening together to Mahalia Jackson, Woody Guthrie and gamelan. I was always marvelling at his kindness, the way his tenderness could live alongside pragmatism, discernment and an explosive sense of humour. When he and Emi moved back west at the end of 2013, to Hornby Island, I felt a powerful sense of loss. Montreal was losing something that would never grow back.

Jordan McKenzie died in an accident on Hornby, on Jan. 18. He was 36. It is a catastrophe that feels like a kind of wreck. But I dream of this man, coming back on his raft. I dream of walking in the forest, stooping under the boughs of a fir tree, and of finding something growing.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.