Until last night, it must have been the better part of 20 years since the last time I saw Ottawa legend Sneezy Waters do a full evening’s concert. It was too long a wait, but a wait that was richly rewarded last night at the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage as Sneezy and his five-piece back-up band put on one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.
Sneezy is yet another artist I’ve seemingly known forever. He played often in the 1970s at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran back then. In fact, he was the second artist and the first out-of-towner to play there after I took over the Golem in 1974.
Then, of course, there was his long run brilliantly starring in the stage show (and film adaptation) of Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave, a show I saw several times in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa during its 13-year run from 1977 to 1990.
But, over the past couple of decades, Sneezy hasn’t toured very much and his hometown concerts have become special events. Last night’s concert – a celebration of his new CD (see below) – sure was.
Sneezy put together a fabulous band for the occasion. Joining him on guitars were Vince Halfhide and Dave Bignell, Ed Bimm on keyboards, Ann Downey on bass – all of whom play on the new CD – and Alistair Dennett on drums. There was no hint that this was any kind of a pick-up or special occasion band. They sounded like they’ve been playing together for years. Theirs was a full, varied, often-creative sound that never needed to overpower the audience with volume. They stretched out and soloed like veteran jazz players on many of the tunes.
The Fourth Stage at the NAC was completely sold out and most of the audience seemed to be Sneezy fans from way back when. When he launched into familiar songs from the old days like “You’ve Got Sawdust on the Floor of Your Heart,” written by his brother, M. John Hodgson, but forever associated with Sneezy, or “I Saw the Light,” the Hank Williams classic, the audience needed no prompting on when to sing along in just the right places.
And it was a varied repertoire that encompassed, mixed, matched and blended strains of jazz, blues, folk, country, rock, reggae and even African music in an eclectic repertoire that drew on all of those traditions.
In addition to many of the songs on the new CD, concert highlights included “Blue Light Boogie,” the show opener which had Sneezy cast as a 1940s jump blues jazzbo, “Cold Cold Heart,” which proved Sneezy is still the best Hank Williams interpreter around, and the encore song, a bouncy version of Tony Bird’s “Bird of Paradise.”
And, generous band leader that he was, Sneezy played some fine back-up guitar and provided harmonies on five songs, scattered throughout the concert, featuring band members Vince Halfhide and Ann Downey on two songs each and Ed Bimm on one.
Sneezy Waters has never been a prolific recording artist. By my count, the eponymously titled Sneezy Waters is only his fourth album in a career that stretches back more than four decades, and the first new recording since 1997’s A Letter Home. It’s an album that was well worth waiting for and showcases Sneezy as a mature singer, relaxed in his repertoire, who knows just how to communicate the essence of a song. Just listen to him pull off an a cappella version of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.” I can’t even think of any jazz singers I’ve heard do that (or who would have the guts to try).
Sneezy is an interpretive singer rather than a typical singer-song-writer. But, there is one almost-original song here. “(When I’m Loving Them) I Only Think of You,” which sounds like it could have come straight out of The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, and could be a new country classic (if only there were still such a thing) was written by his brother, M. John Hodgson. Speaking of country classics, Sneezy’s version of “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” has all the requisite harmonies.
There are a lot of other highlights to this 13-song collection. Sneezy beautifully captures the late-night loneliness inherent to Tom Waits’ “Invitation to the Blues,” and with a one-word lyric change at the end of Willie P. Bennett’s “Me and Molly,” turns the song into a poignant elegy for Willie.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in such numbers as Leroy Carr’s “Papa’s On the Housetop,” Mance Lipscomb’s “Buckdance,” a guitar instrumental that’s made even more fun by Brian Sanderson’s sousaphone playing, and “Ever Since You Told Me That You Loved Me (I’m a Nut),” a very early Tin Pan Alley novelty tune.
Sneezy also very effectively brings “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” the Yip Harburg-Jay Gorney Depression-era classic, back to life.
My favourite track on the CD is the album-ending version of Mary McCaslin’s “Circle of Friends,” a song that brings me right back to my Golem days when friends like Sneezy and Mary and Willie (and so many more) would ply their song-sharing trade on the small stage.