With my writings for Folk Radio UK my intention is principally to alert readers to off-the-radar, independent Canadian folk releases that perhaps may not otherwise gain attention or press outside Canada. This said, there will inevitably be the odd domestically well-known exception to this self-imposed rule, one such being the wonderful David Francey. A multi-nominated, triple Juno-winning folk icon in his homeland, the 61-year old Francey is one of those rare artists, of any genre, whose writing and performance skills are of such a consistently high standard that he never drops the ball. This fact is once again emphatically borne out with the release of his 11th album, Empty Train.
At the heart of Francey’s appeal, at least for me, is his sheer ordinariness. Describing his songwriting prowess as a “fortunate affliction,” he comes across as genuinely unassuming and humble, especially in a live setting. Onstage Francey stands with his hands shoved in his pockets, seemingly amazed the room is full for him, as he sings his marvellous songs or regales rapt audiences with tales of his travels, life experiences, and the people or events that populate his material. He is the sort of guy you want as a pal, to go for a beer with, and best of all he speaks frequently of his deep love for his wife, Beth Girdler, without whom Francey states he would still be toiling away as a carpenter on construction sites and in the rail yards of Ontario. (True: with huge faith in his talent it was Girdler in particular that persistently encouraged her husband to get out there and share the songs he’d been writing and home recording for years.) Summing up Francey’s humility and typically self-deprecating sense of humour, when I last saw him perform he announced there were CDs for sale, but that he would happily sign them as Bruce Springsteen, or any other megastar of choice, so the purchaser could sell them for big bucks on eBay.
Compared to the towering ilk of Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, yet to my mind also reminiscent of Dick Gaughan, Christy Moore and James Yorkston, Francey is a master storyteller, and like all the best in that class he uses the most simple and direct imaginable language. Three decades of hard graft as a blue collar worker, and the fact that Francey released his debut album, Torn Screen Door (1999), at the age of 45, certainly gave the man the leg up of life lived when it came to penning lyrics. The daily working lives of normal people like him; the struggles of the poor; social injustices and human rights; tales of the sea and brave endeavour; love, loss, and the natural beauty of Canada are all recurring themes throughout his stunning back catalogue.
The comforting thing about Francey fandom is that one knows what to expect with each successive release. That is not to say he is stuck in a stylistic rut, because there are subtleties, nuances and fresh arrangements unique to each release. The expectation stems more from the fact that Francey and his chosen collaborators are so reliable, the performances so strong that, as I stated at the top, he delivers the goods every single time. In this respect, the release of a new Francey album is a genuine event for me and a great many other Canadians, as I can rest easy that he will have done it again. And, with clockwork dependability, Empty Train is another beauty.
For some years now Francey has surrounded himself with the stellar band of banjo/acoustic guitar maestro Chris Coole (Foggy Hogtown Boys), Mark Westberg (guitars, vocals) and Haligonian multi-instrumentalist, Darren McMullen (Còig). With guest contributors including Francey’s son Colin (acoustic guitar, vocals), the ensemble presents a collection of twelve songs ranging in topic from the grimness of life for sex trade workers to naval life during WWII, and the joy of weddings to being too self-conscious to dance at clubs. In a nutshell, these are vintage, very human David Francey lyrics all over, with vivid imagery positively crammed into the dozen tracks, nine of which clock in at under three minutes. He sings softly, yet persuasively, in seasoned tones that retain recognisable inflections of the Scotland he left behind with his family as a 12-year old immigrant.
Musically, Empty Train veers from jaunty bluegrass through harmony-laden, mid-tempo country romps to reflective, Celtic-tinged balladry, a formula that has served Francey well his entire career. The old adage ”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” springs to mind, and in just 32 minutes Empty Train packs in more soul, humanity and spirit than is reasonable, further consolidating Francey’s reputation as one of Canada’s most important ever folk performers.
Empty Train is out now.
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David is touring the UK later this year in September, head on over to his website for full details: http://www.davidfrancey.com/gigs.html