WHITEHORSE – An Engaging Evening of Orchestral Enchantment

Luke Doucet & Melissa McClelland.

Whitehorse performs at Ottawa’s NAC Theatre

A drum kit, a collection of guitars and amps, bass, keyboards, and a series of mics on stands, stood in a tight formation in the center of the NAC’S Theatre stage. Naturally, one would have thought such a set-up was to be manned by several band members, but instead, a man and woman emerged from out of the darkness to take their place among the cluster of musical instruments. The two immediately got to work, building a foundation of looped sounds – he on the drum kit, laying down a number of rhythm fills, and she on a mic (encased in an old yellow telephone receiver), emitting various hoots, hollers, and breathy vocal sounds. While the battery of tribal sounds and rhythms were set in motion, the couple grabbed their guitars, met in the middle, and exchanged an excited salute that was felt and shared by the audience. They dove into the fray of sound, strumming out a sort of blazing wild west bluesiness, while their voices rang out harmoniously, face-to-face over a single mic.

And so began tonight’s engaging performance by Hamilton, Ontario artists, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, otherwise known as Whitehorse. Each an accomplished songwriter and musician in their own right, the two joined forces matrimoniously in 2006, then later professionally as a songwriting team in 2011. To date, they have released two EP’s and three full length studio albums, all under their label, Six Shooter Records, with their most recent, “Leave No Bridge Unburned”, launched this past February to rave reviews. This album shows a stronger emphasis on Doucet’s distinctly vintage, gravelly Gretsch guitar sound, as well as the duo’s signature harmonious vocal blends. With a more daring approach to their songwriting, and guidance from their producer, Gus van Go, they set out to create an exciting variety of flavours, rhythms, and textures, incorporating optimum elements of country, blues, folk, and rock to create their own unique sound.

Their live show offered the enchantment of watching the pair move from one instrument to another in a dance of organic orchestral creation, as they began with a few selections from their current album. In “Baby What’s Wrong”, haunting, deep resonating chords from Doucet’s Gretsch White Falcon guitar, and a dialled-in driving beat were front and center. I loved its deliciously seductive chorus, soaked in McClelland’s syrupy vocals, that served as an earworm long after the show had ended.

Melissa McClelland sings into her telephone effect mic

Similarly in “Sweet Disaster”, also from the new album, Doucet laid down his preliminary tribal beats while McClelland blended in her radio edit effect-laden bells and whistles of sharp, breathy spurts into her telephone mic. The song journeyed through layers of vocal harmonies, and the gutteral steely leads of the hollow body. I could easily picture the song’s forbidding tones painted through a scene from a Tarantino movie.

The pair gave their loop embellishments a rest as they stepped up to the main mic, guitars in hand, their faces just inches from each other for, “Tame As The Wild Ones”, a song with a slow swaying beat that dripped in torchy blues goodness. Their delivery of climbing vocal harmonies sent shivers down my spine, and ended in acapella bliss.

McClelland switched to her bass guitar, as they continued their hypnotic drone with, “Achilles Desire” (The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss – 2012), while Doucet kept up a steady pace on a foot propelled bass drum. Their haunting melody and voice driven emotion in this three-quarter timed piece swept me away once more.

The absolute highlight of my evening came with the sultry hot, “Passenger 24” (Whitehorse – 2011), which completely showcased McClelland’s dynamic vocals of soft and strong textures, delivered with pure passion. The song started in its slow brooding churn, followed by a dramatic turn into a double-timed frenzy of various vocal and rhythm loops. It suddenly grinded to an abrupt halt, where she let out a long and soulful wail that went straight to the bone, and hung in the air like a mournful cry in the night. The music snapped back into high gear with Doucet’s guitar resounding in ambient feedback euphoria, and all loops going full tilt. It was a ground-shaking trip into country-meets-blues radiance.

The end of the show came with the energetic and playfully psychedelic tone of, “Downtown” (Leave No Bridge Unburned), complete with a heavy shaking latin beat, and the rattling nasty sounds of the guitar and bass, lost in a taunting of minor chord hysteria.

The crowd was still on their feet as the two returned to the stage to close with the first of their encore tunes, “Jane” (The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss). Each took to their own mics, and laid down their rhythm and vocal loops. They ensued with an infectious guitar melody of vintage gritty blues, further enhanced by the duo’s simultaneous ascending and descending vocal harmonies. The audience was easily coaxed into adding their own single and double-timed handclaps into the rhythm.

They closed out the evening with their rendition of Tom Waits’, “Gun Street Girl”, which was laced in traditional blues crossed with a sultriness reminiscent of Peggy Lee’s, “Fever”. I enjoyed the song’s give-and-take vocal exchange, as well as the jump into a driving tempo, complete with a sizzling round of finger picking by Doucet that generated a shower of applause. The final bars were sung acapella, in a vocal blend of perfectly matched vibrato that set off the night’s final standing ovation, generated by the nearly one thousand beating hearts in the audience that were won over by tonight’s performance.

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