“It’s nice to be with you, even when I can’t see you,” Frazey Ford expresses from the stage of Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. “I’d like to see you, but I can’t and that’s hard. But I can feel you psychically.” Such is the existential confusion of the performing musician in the Covid-19 era. Live streams can be limiting and frustrating experiences, but when they are well executed and produced, they can be a reasonable and hopefully temporary substitute for the in-person live experience. This production utilised a range of camera angles and close ups on most of the band members, including the outstanding backing vocalists Caroline Ballhorn and Emily Millard, who play a crucial role in the arrangements.
Ford’s band are extraordinary. Drummer Leon Power, notwithstanding his name, demonstrates great subtlety and variety in his touch, locking in with bassist Darren Parris in a naturally soulful groove. The rhythm section work particularly well at holding a slow tempo, particularly on the slow but still powerful U And Me, and the slinkier, more mobile material feels relaxed and confident. One of the highlights of the set is the superb Holdin’ It Down, a gutsy paean to self reliance, given all the more weight by the unusual and no doubt challenging nature of Ford’s biography (her parents were US political activists often on the run from the FBI in Canada, and there is further complicated detail beyond that).
If the specifics of Be Good Tanyas founder Frazey Ford’s songs are often rendered somewhat opaque by her gently fluttering vibrato singing style, their defiance, stoicism and emotional impact are communicated clearly. The song Azad, named after her older sister is, in Ford’s own words, “about survival and a wild wold child”. Its melody rides over a busy drum pattern with an abundance of ghost notes and a deft bass line emphasising rhythmic placement over shifting harmony. It veers between moments of mystery and melancholy before bursting into choruses that beam with light and life, during which Ford’s voice assumes a greater volume and power. It’s a hugely effective arrangement. In addition to personal stories, Ford has clearly not rejected protest entirely, given songs such as The Kids Are Having None Of It.
While the set focuses on Ford’s outstanding U Kin B The Sun album from earlier this year, there is ample space for select moments from her back catalogue. Ford introduces Done (from her breakthrough Indian Ocean album) as “a little trip down bitch anthem lane” and her current band imbues Firecracker, from her debut album Obadiah, with a new urgency. September Fields, one of those songs that seems to have wormed its way into all corners of life despite not exactly having been a hit, would no doubt have been warmly received in front of computer screens thousands of miles away.
Ultimately, Ford’s skilled fusion of country-tinged songwriting with soulful arrangements is part of a distinct musical tradition, harking back to performers and writers such as Dan Penn and Tony Joe White. But Ford’s distinctive delivery and depth of feeling present a unique and individual take on the form. The appearance at the end of the set from members of the Kingsgate Chorus ensure that U Kin B The Sun’s title track loses none of its slowly unfolding force and grandeur. What slight imperfections there are in the performance (a couple of aborted attempts at starting Money Can’t Buy due to confusion over the key) merely add a sense of earthiness and fun to the experience.