We’re very fortunate Canadian singer, guitarist and, above all, outstanding songwriter Dennis Ellsworth has fallen in love with The Square Tower venue in Portsmouth; we’ve had three gigs from him in the last two years. As he mused to his latest audience, sometimes he wishes all his UK gigs could be here. This time it was for a special occasion, the second anniversary of Ken Brown’s Square Roots Promotions use of the venue, complete with spectacular birthday cake and support artist to die for, Marion Fleetwood.
Marion has gained a great reputation and loyal following as violinist and vocalist in several bands, most recently The Jigantics, and is destined to become even more widely known as part of TRADarrr. This new band hasn’t gigged yet, Cromer’s Folk on the Pier is destined to be the first airing, but on the strength of their not yet released album, they’ve been booked to play Cropredy. Having heard the album I can certainly see why, watch out for TRADarrr during 2015. Marion hasn’t, up until now, been known as a solo artist but that, too, is destined to change this year with a rapidly expanding gig list and a solo album currently being recorded. Marion turned to crowdfunding for the album project and was overwhelmed by a response that saw the funding target reached and exceeded in a matter of days.
Marion used a brand new acoustic guitar to accompany most of her songs, reserving her trademark fiddle to add eerily atmospheric backing to I’m Stretched On Your Grave. The song, deriving from a traditional Irish poem, typifies material that Marion discovered a while back and is now finding a place for in her growing solo repertoire. At the same time, she is also finding her own song writer’s voice, The Curve of My Back telling the tale of a 1900’s mandolin that came Marion’s way. For her last couple of songs she had to contend with the misbehaviour of her effects pedal, simply dealt with by unplugging the guitar, stepping away from the mic and giving her voice full rein. That’s a great way to endear yourself to an audience, and they showed just how much they appreciated her set.
Dennis kicked off his set with two tracks from last year’s Hazy Sunshine album, the opening track, Things I Want, and Everything’s Fine. From the start they showed him to be a song writer whose lyrics speak to you with a clarity and an honesty that draw you in to a story, to a state of mind, to a view of the world. The effect is amplified by Dennis’ easy going chat between the songs. In contrast to many songwriters, he delights in explaining how he came to write a song, to give them a backstory, and soon you slip into thinking of him as a long-time friend come back home to tell of his adventures. So it comes as no surprise when you’re told, by way of an introduction to Rattle Down The Line, of the tragic demise of much loved family cat, Winsloe. And you feel a genuine sadness.
Home for Dennis is in Charlottetown on Canada’s Prince Edward Island. He spends around 6 months of the year on the island, catching up on home life with his wife, relaxing with friends and, most importantly, writing his songs. PEI is well known for its long-established Celtic and Acadian musical tradition but Dennis doesn’t see this as a major influence on his music. The island itself, though, is central to his perspective. Its remoteness, the solitude and, most importantly, the surrounding ocean, all feed stories and images into his songs. He’s clear that he’s writing songs for the world beyond PEI and increasingly that world provides the germ of the idea for a song. But turning that idea into a song most often requires him to be back on the island to capture the moods of dark optimism that he says characterise his writing.
For his UK tours, Dennis generally operates solo, just voice and guitar, blending in a variety of guitar styles, from quite heavily percussive to match the tumultuous sea imagery of Perfect Storm, to a gently thumbed bass string alternating with a single finger pick on I Tried To Be Your Lover. Back in Canada, and on his recorded material, he happily augments his sound with a band. A taste of this fuller sound came when he invited Marion to join him on another track from Hazy Sunshine, If I Find The Truth. Quiet lyrics that again link relationship ups and downs with coast and sea images and with which Marion’s violin blended beautifully.
His song writing has also tended to be a solitary affair but he’s particularly proud of a developing partnership with singer/guitarist John Smith from Devon. Their first joint effort was Perfect Storm, a song that, almost 4 years on, they’re happy to list as one of the best either of them has written. It was pure chance that the partnership came about. In 2011, Music PEI, a non-profit association tasked with encouraging local musicians, launched an artist exchange programme. Dennis and John were the first pairing. Having never met, for the first few days in Dennis’s house they didn’t even consider writing a song but, by day 3, knew they thought about music and life in much the same way and the songs started to come. Now, when Dennis comes to the UK, they try to include joint gigs in the tour. Dennis is here until the end of February and the last 6 gigs will be with John.
Dennis tends to write and record an album a year and, true to form, the 2015 edition, Romantic As It Gets, is recorded and soon to be released. One theme it explores is Dennis’ reaction to other people’s music, prompted by listening to Billie Holiday singing Autumn in New York. The essence is Beauty Is Sad, tears may not come but, as he puts it, “when Billie sings Autumn in New York, it meets you, it wrecks you”. Several other new songs featured in his set, his first live performance of Ghosts of Love and Shines the Sun, a song he wrote over 2 days last summer on the beach at home, no guitar, no notebook, just written in his head as a challenge to himself. It is insights such as this that, for me, raise Dennis’ performances to a higher level. The songs are, of course, personal, evocative but it is the close engagement with his audience through talking as well as singing that makes them even more memorable. In his own words, “with song writing you have to be able to let people in, you can’t hide once you’ve written”. I know plenty of song writers who wouldn’t agree with that feeling but it’s a belief that helps Dennis make his gigs truly special. You really ought to share one with him as soon as you can.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
The Square Tower, Portsmouth (30 January 2015)