Seven hundred and eighty. That is the current population of Bienfait, Saskatchewan, the childhood home of musician Andy Shauf. He may not have grown up around crowds, but these days crowds are growing up around him, and with good reason. Shauf, who now resides in Regina, released his album The Party (Arts & Crafts/ANTI-) earlier this year, the latest in a career stretching back to his first tour in 2006, and his first proper album in 2009. The Party has been a critical and commercial success, with none other than Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy praising the album.
Fresh from being shortlisted for the 2016 Polaris Prize and performing at its gala, Shauf and his three-piece backing band arrived a sold out Park Theatre in Winnipeg on Thursday evening (a crowd numbering roughly half of Beinfait’s total population). The sold out venue was indicative of Shauf’s talent, as it had only been three months since his last Manitoba performance, at July’s Winnipeg Folk Festival.
I mention Shauf’s small town upbringing because, for me, it is hard not to feel some affinity with it, and therefore some natural connection to his music as well. I, too, grew up in the 1990s in a Saskatchewan town (Bruno, population 600) and spent my summers in the southeast corner of the province, ninety minutes north of Shauf’s hometown. Shauf’s music is often melancholic, with an atmosphere that, if not claustrophobic, is certainly far removed from the expansiveness that usually accompanies artistic musings on the Canadian prairies. More often, he chooses to focus on the bleakness of prairie winters. When he sings, “Now this past winter was the coldest in years / It’s hard to explain if you’ve never lived here,” I feel a pang of recognition.
The concert was the first of Shauf’s extensive fall and winter tour of North America. Despite this, he and his band appeared relaxed and played together naturally. Shauf has been described as shy, and he has clearly remained grounded despite the steep trajectory of The Party‘s success. His on-stage manner is quiet and self-deprecating. Choosing instead to express himself through his songs, banter between songs was kept brief. “Um, do you have any questions? I guess I don’t have any jokes,” he remarked wryly. His slight shyness and lack of pretense on stage was refreshing, and kept the focus on his subtle and affecting songwriting.
I was interested to see how Shauf would bring The Party to life, given that he recorded the album with little outside help. The album’s liner notes simply state, “Songs written, performed, arranged and produced by Andy Shauf.” I’ve often wondered how multi-instrumentalists like Shauf go about delegating these parts to other players in a live setting. How much leeway is given for personal expression? Is the goal to recreate the album? Or to allow a band to colour the arrangements as they see fit?
While The Party‘s signature sound is defined by lush strings and woodwinds, Shauf paired down his band to a bassist, keyboardist, and drummer. All three played well in service of the songs, and in particularl, the drummer’s soft touch was especially well-suited to the material. As the concert progressed, I realized one of the secrets to Shauf’s 70s-folk-inflected sound: the keyboard carries the principal melody, while Shauf’s guitar is mostly used in a rhythm capacity. The setlist was comprised of tracks from The Party, interspersed with cuts from his 2012 album The Bearer of Bad News. The crowd was diverse in age and seemed receptive and attentive throughout the entire set. At many points I found his lyrics floating to the fore, as I realized how strong of a lyricist he is. Highlights included the swelling crescendos of “Begin Again,” and the encore performance of the Bearer murder ballad “Wendell Walker.” The latter was a surprisingly bleak choice, but it proved to be a fitting send off given its elegiac quality. As Shauf continues his tour this fall, many dates are already sold out, and I think he is poised to become a household name beyond the Canadian prairies.