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FBF: Remembering That First Taste of Live Canadian Music

Great Dark Wonder

As we wrapped up my post-concert review for the Joel and Bill Plaskett concert in Hamilton, ON, recently, we linked to a previous piece written illustrating how Joel Plaskett was indeed the first Canadian artist we had the pleasure to see live on Canadian soil.  But Joel was not necessarily our first live Canadian act.  With the fantastic performance provided by Alan Doyle and The Beautiful Gypsies back on St. Patrick’s Day, it occurred to me that it was his former band, Great Big Sea, who were the first Canadian band that we saw live here in the USA.

But for this half of Team GDW, Alan was not my first live Canadian act.  No, this half of Team GDW had the distinct pleasure of growing up back in the ‘old country’ across the pond, and a recent album purchase would provide the fodder for this short piece about ‘that first taste of live Canadian music’.

Taking advantage of the liquidation sales offered by a (now formerly) well-known music store chain, I picked up an album released just last year, but not seen by me in stores until now.  And as I listened to “A Fine Line” by Nova Scotia native Heather Rankin, I was immediately whisked back to the tail end of the 1990s, when a wonderful evening was spent in the British West Midlands with The Rankin Family.  It was shortly after the release of the hits CD “Collection” that these five siblings (Jimmy, John Morris, Cookie, Raylene, and Heather Rankin) would venture to the UK and beyond to share their music.  The city of Wolverhampton may have been 25 miles or so from my home (quite a journey to a Brit), but the opportunity to see this band live was a must.

And while the details of the show are a little sketchy after all this time, I shall always remember how the band quickly won the attention of the audience as they sought answers as to the name and significance of the historic statue opposite the building.  I certainly remember how many familiar hits were played that evening.  The natural leader of the pack, Jimmy, would wow with “Roving Gypsy Boy,” Raylene would melt hearts with “Rise Again,” and Cookie would deliver a powerful rendition of “Borders and Time.”  As the youngest sibling on stage, I still recall how Heather was a ball of energy, whether she was taking the lead with songs such as “North Country” or simply providing her verses in tracks such as “You Feel The Same Way Too.”  And after an amazing encore with the popular hit “Fare Thee Well Love” and “Mull River Shuffle,” the crowd would head to the exits, but not before I happened to glance back at a crack in the stage curtains and noticed Heather with a huge smile on her face as she headed backstage.

Fast forward to my daily commute with Heather’s “A Fine Line” playing in the stereo, and those memories came flooding back.  As The Rankin Family were hitting their musical peak, a tragic automobile accident would take the life of John Morris Rankin, and the life of this five-piece act too.  Jimmy Rankin would rebound and continue to both write and record solo music, but the family were tested once again in 2012 when Raylene Rankin lost an ongoing battle with breast cancer.  And during the second track on the new album, “We Walk As One,” Heather pays homage to both John Morris and Raylene (together with her siblings Jimmy and Cookie, who provide background vocals) with three poignant lines: “It wasn’t all good news as the decades flew, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do, to be with the ones who passed away too soon.”  With this line, Heather had my full attention: kudos to her for both paying respects and taking hold of the family torch to debut a long-awaited solo album.

“A Fine Line” pretty much played continuously for three days in my car.  This is not a Rankin Family album, but the Rankin Family influence is obvious throughout.  This is not a traditional folk sound like that of the Rankin Family, as Heather intermixes her roots with a progressive move to a more modern sound.  Tracks such as “I Got Your Back” and “Undone” are as close as we get to traditional folk here.  Instead, Heather takes the opportunity to introduce a unique side of her artistic persona.  Both “For Good” and “Superstars” are a step into the mainstream, with the former hinting of Celine Dion, while the latter could easily climb high on the contemporary pop charts.  For me, there are two tracks in particular that stand out on this album.  Firstly, “Sitting in a Café,” which is a great take on the classic style of Barry or Barbra, but with a modern twist.  Lyrics that include “Swallowing your cell phone” and “Sporting my faded jeans [that are] tearing at the seams” give this song a charm that has the classic ‘piano-ballad’ roots, yet propels such timeless appeal into the modern era.

There is no doubt, however, which track supplants “Sitting in a Café” as the coup de grace on this album.  With the haunting strings and gradual piano intro, “Titanically” is the perfect vessel for Heather to shine. And how can you ignore the lines of “Toss me in a ten-foot wave, taunt me with an icy grave, Grand Finale, have me save” before embarking on this delightful masterpiece?  Piano and strings continue to dominate and provide emotional support, before Heather prepares to turn this one completely around.  With a nod to the traditional sounds of Broadway, Heather offers an impeccable change of pace that guarantees your full, undivided attention, and clearly opens multiple musical pathways ahead for the energetic sister from Mabou.  “Mozart and Gershwin, we can match the mood you’re in, picture we, living titanically” is just pure genius!

If I did have to find any weakness with this album, I would point to the inclusion of a cover version of the Tears For Fears hit, “Everybody wants to rule the world.”  I don’t dislike the song, and I certainly appreciate the unexpected addition of a hip-hop style spoken word during the instrumental.  However, for me, the song feels out of place, no doubt partly because it sits between the two tracks that I favored most (and thus became victim of the ‘track skip’ monster).  Maybe including this as a ‘bonus’ track after “Valentine” may have worked better, at least for me, but I am certainly happy to overlook my own pet peeves and to be able to have this one in my collection.

Of course, my closing statement will be so blatantly obvious if you’ve made it this far.  Now that Heather Rankin has successfully released her album, there are plenty of Rankin Family fans out there who would love to see a tour beyond the Maritimes.  We would love to see Heather hit the road, and hey, if Cookie tags along, and Jimmy shows up too for “Reunion – Part Deux,” all the better.  These are incredibly talented and gifted musicians, and if you have any opportunity to see just one of them, do NOT miss out.

~ M