Music in St. John's, Newfoundland
By Lanny Fields
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I recently returned from a visit to St. John's, Newfoundland, North America's oldest and most easterly city. St. John's is known to be saturated with Irish traditional and Celtic rock music, but for a smallish city on a fairly remote island, I was surprised by its many other live music offerings.
I'll start with Andrew James O'Brien. When this young fellow stepped up to the mic to perform some of his songs during Folk Night at The Ship Pub, I was not expecting the caliber of music that came out of him. I likened it to the wind and the water - the way his songs and melodies seemed to flow so naturally. The whole room was instantly spellbound, as if an unknown Paul Simon or Jim James was first being heard, on what was basically just an open mic night. The next afternoon I went to Fred's Records on Duckworth Street to buy his CD Songs For Searchers and happened to run into Andrew. (I think he works there, or was on this day). The CD is a bit different than the music I heard on that stage at The Ship - more produced and less raw - although still very enjoyable. The quality of his songcraft still comes through and I don't think it will be too long before we are hearing more of Andrew James O'Brien in the states.
One night, having got a good sense of my musical taste, a bartender encouraged me to go over to The Rose & Thistle to check out Sherry Ryan who was playing there that evening. Unfortunately by the time I got there she was almost done, however I heard enough to intrigue me. Some readers may already be familiar with this alt. country singer who has been compared to Lucinda Williams. She's the kind of singer who could fit right in at a festival like Bristol Rhythm and Roots. Check her out.
After Sherry Ryan finished, Neil Conway and the Something Family took the stage. I think this band has been doing a Sunday night residency at the Rose & Thistle. If you are going to be visiting St. John's, do yourself a favor and find out where they are playing. I would describe Neil Conway as freak folk > western swing > vaudeville. Definitely a musically kindred spirit of Richmond, VA's The Hot Seats in their earlier incarnation as Special Ed and the Shortbus, or New York City's Two Man Gentlemen Band. With song titles like Wake & Bake Weekday, The Lesbian Boxer Song and Set My Willy Free this is music for someone with a "refined" sense of humor! Here's a link to the Somethin' Family CD on CD Baby. Neil Conway also has a catchy hip-hop persona under the band name The Discounts.
We also lucked into seeing 12-string guitar/5-string banjo/bodhran/concertina player and singer Fergus O'Bryne at O'Reilly's on George Street. I think Fergus has a regular gig there on Thursdays at 8pm. This is in the heart of the most touristy street, and the crowd can be kinda drunken and indifferent, but Fergus manages to put on a good show in front of a mixture of folks who are probably completely unaware of his history. Fergus was born in Dublin, Ireland, emigrated to Toronto in the late 60's then moved to St. John's in 1971 where he became a member of the legendary Irish-Newfoundland band Ryan's Fancy. O'Byrne is a life-long student of traditional folk music and his show stands out among the plethora of dudes belting out "Dirty Old Town" in every open door on George Street. And a nice guy too, I might add, as was everyone I met in St. John's.
I should also mention the tremendous dobro player John Clarke who was the host of the folk night that I attended. John may have a funny on stage persona, but his playing is as serious as it gets. More info here and here.
Finally, anyone with an interest in traditional Newfoundland/Irish accordion/fiddle music will want to check out Graham Wells and Billy Sutton during their regular sessions at Erin's Pub (Tue & Fri 8:30p) and Nautical Nellies (Sun 5p). Inquire at those pubs or at O'Brien's Music Store to confirm that schedule.