Hawksley’s banter & ballads

Hawksley Workman, May 9 @ Sydenham St. United Church

Hawsley displayed his noodling skills between anecdotes on May 9, 2006.
Hawsley displayed his noodling skills between anecdotes on May 9, 2006.

Almost every rock show I’ve attended in Kingston has been cut from the same cloth: a couple openers of variable quality, and a tightly-packed, sweaty audience. The crowds are usually a patchwork: true believers yelling every lyric, slightly bemused friends along for the ride, disinterested conversationalists looking to pick up and all-too-enthusiastic dancers.

So it was disorienting to step into Sydenham Street United Church—a venue conspicuously lacking a bar—on May 9 to see Hawksley Workman play his folksy, traditionalist pop. There were dozens of people—most were older than thirty—sitting quietly and attentively in rows of pews. Clearly, I wasn’t on student turf anymore.

Workman was in fine voice throughout the night, delivering most songs in an anguished croon and relying heavily on his impressive falsetto range.

The stripped-down instrumentation—a piano and occasionally an organ, as well as Workman’s many guitars with banjo, xylophone and harmonica—allowed him to dictate the flow of the show according to his whims. He took advantage of the opportunity by delivering rambling, avowedly pointless anecdotes for minutes at a time in between, and occasionally during, songs. Workman tried hard to project an intriguing quirkiness during these interludes, but often came off as self-consciously wacky, and his rambling prevented him from building any momentum from song to song.

A lack of focus was a problem for the music as well. Structurally, Workman’s compositions are quite simple and static. This isn’t a problem on his albums, which enlist the help of a band or use elastic arrangements with various instruments dropping in and out of the mix. Without those options available to him at this show, Workman struggled to keep things interesting. Songs often came to furiously strummed climaxes, complete with unwarranted primal howls. There were frequent noodly solos, and though Workman is an accomplished guitarist, he struggled to integrate them into his songs; their arrival and departures generally signified nothing.

The show lasted almost two hours and contained most of the songs from his ruminative new album Treeful of Starling and some harder-rocking highlights from his back catalogue. Workman’s lyrics, in sharp contrast to his banter, boldly go where every sensitive guy with an acoustic guitar has gone before: relationships (they’re hard), rain (it falls and it’s sad), women (they’re hard to have relationships with), and life (there are a lot of women, and it’s often raining). There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, and Workman has yet to write a truly bad song, but the tired territory has also prevented him from crafting any great ones.

Perhaps Workman is aware of this, and tries to compensate through his bizarre banter and history of self-mythologizing. Yet it seems like a defensive attempt to bring mystery and intrigue to well-composed, well-performed music otherwise too generic and reserved to leave much of an impression.

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