As fans of roots/acoustic music we’re reminded time and again that when established solo artists join forces the results can be surprising and outstanding. Old songs find new significance, engaging new work blossoms from the union, the limitless versatility of the music scene continues to delight and amaze. Add to the long list of such collaborations we’ve rejoiced in on these pages, the debut album from Canadian duo The Small Glories – Wondrous Traveler.
At the core of The Small Glories are two musicians from the thriving roots music scene in Winnipeg, Canada; JD Edwards and Cara Luft, and both enjoy substantial reputations in their own right. Since 2006 the JD Edwards Band has been providing gritty, invigorating country rock that also accommodates strong blues and soul influences. Cara Luft should need to introduction to UK audiences; a founding member of the hugely successful trio The Wailin’ Jennys, her first solo album was The Light Fantastic, then in 2013 Darlingford was hailed as her best work ever (read our review here), even surpassing the appeal of what Luft had already achieved with The Wailin’ Jennys.
The main feature of Wondrous Traveler is the vocal pairing of Edwards and Luft, and that’s immediately apparent as the album opens with Had I Paid. In a powerful introduction that showcases those beautifully matched harmonies, Luft’s stirring banjo is backed by a build-up of strings and JD’s exceptional song writing. The song first appeared on the JD Edwards Band’s 2011 album, Roads and Roads, but take away the country rock guitar, clear the studio enrichment from the vocal and enhance it instead with some perfectly matched harmonies, and Had I Paid seems to have found a new home.
Luft and Edwards are both accomplished song-writers, but it was sharing work by other artists that first brought them together. In 2012 Winnipeg’s West End Cultural Centre curated a project to unite local musicians who had never performed together. Cara and JD chose a song by Nova Scotia-born, Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter Greg McPherson, 1000 Stars; and that collaboration resulted in the realization of just how well-matched their voices are. The song remains a highlight of their live shows, and is one of the highlights of the album. From its simple piano introduction, 1000 Stars glides dreamily towards a growing feast of close harmonies, guitars and percussion.
Following that 2012 performance, the pair didn’t perform together again until 2014, when JD volunteered as a late addition to Cara’s band for her winter tour. Inevitably, that initial artistic spark was re-ignited, and the work that would become The Small Glories began. Most of the recording took place during two weeks of splendid isolation, recording live to tape at Bottega Studios in Kelowna, British Columbia, with Light Fantastic producer Neil Osborne in charge of the sessions.
Song content on the album is a finely balanced mix of Luft and Edwards’ own material, cover versions, and some new songs written together. Of the latter, the most impressive has to be Home. A collaboration between Cara, JD and Lewis Melville (who also made significant contributions to Cara’s Darlingford album), Home showcases the softness of Cara’s vocal and the charm of her banjo as the song heads towards a glorious choral section. It’s a beautifully warm, engaging and welcoming song that very neatly summarises the album’s themes of evolving roots, loves and life.
From the late days of summer when western wind blow dry
To the bright light of winter and the spring river rise
Mountains to the prairies, the places I have grown
All these small glories thinking about my home
When two musicians who enjoy such diverse influences collaborate, though, they’re sure to make use of a very broad musical palette. The soft jazz influences in Old Garage come as less of a surprise when you learn that JD co-wrote the song with jazz musician Erin Propp. There’s a wistful, plaintive quality to this touching Grandfather tribute. Cara’s banjo adds a mournful tone, along with JD’s trombone, towards the close. The diversity supplied by Cara’s song writing leans more towards country and bluegrass influences. Cara co-wrote Holding On with Alberta singer / songwriter Karla Anderson in 2012. The song echoes the airy elegance of First Aid Kit, but with the latent power of Cara’s voice tempered by JD’s soulful harmonies and Osborne’s precise percussion. JD takes the lead vocal in Cara’s own song about love and hope, Something To Hold Onto. Introducing bluegrass flatpicking maestro Scott Nygaard, the song is feast of harmonies, counter-melodies and guitars.
Got some friends knocking on my door wondering where I been
Tired of mining for your heart, come up for air again.
Can you give some reason to hold on?
Can you give some reason to stay?
One of Cara’s song writing projects that finds a new home on Wondrous Traveler will hold stronger significance for the band’s UK audience, however. In 2013 she paired up with Bella Hardy for the Crossing Borders International Song writing exchange. The first of two songs from that union is Fast Turning World. JD and Cara make the most, again, of their close harmonies and Scott Nygaard‘s guitar, then the addition of percussion and Cara’s electric guitar lifts the song to a country rock powerhouse. The UK folk scene has provided Cara with some of her major influences, and Time Wanders On seems to provide the album’s strongest link between those and North American influences. While Cara’s banjo provides a solid foundation, JD’s harmonica is a voice on the wind. Combined with the vocal duet there’s a wonderful sense of joy and further confirmation of the album’s core message…
I’ve seen the Rockies rise high above the trees
I’ve seen the Northern Lights, it brought me to my knees
Where you are, where you roam
Time wanders on, leads you home
As the album itself wanders on, the mood is lifted even further with Woody Guthrie‘s Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key. Billy Bragg and Wilco developed the melody for this rediscovered Guthrie lyric as part of the 1998 Mermaid Avenue tribute. In this full band stomp the emphasis is very much on fun, and the fun is infectious as banjo, harmonica, bass, drums, guitars and hand claps back a joyful vocal duet.
The album’s final track, though, is perhaps one of its most memorable, and surprising moments. Perhaps the most significant achievement on the album. Wondrous Traveler features a pair of banjos and a fragile, trembling vocal opening from Cara that places the song’s spirituality in the spotlight. The song finds its origins in two ‘Sacred Harp’ Hymns (Wondrous Love and The Traveler). As a bass drum opens up the beat, and carries the song to a more contemporary setting, JD and Cara’s shape singing points firmly to its Sacred Harp origins.
Trav’ler haste, the night comes on,
Many a shining hour is gone;
Storm is gathering in the west,
And you are so far from home.
The Small Glories succeed so well as a creative unit thanks to the commitment and skill of JD Edwards and Cara Luft. Not only their commitment to the project but their commitment over decades to the music they love. Cara brings her rock-solid capacity as a musician, her natural empathy for traditional music, and a peerless ability with harmony singing. JD is steeped in a more earthy country/rock/soul environment that provides a further, instinctive, feeling for tempo and pace. As a result of their combined openness, they play and sing together like they’ve been doing it for years
JD Edwards and Cara Luft may have been thrown together entirely by accident, a recent collaboration in terms of their individual musical careers. This, however, is a partnership that could almost make you believe in fate. It’s a partnership that, in Wondrous Traveler, has produced beautiful, moving, energetic music. I have a feeling The Small Glories will continue to do that for some time to come.
Wondrous Traveler is released 15th July 2016
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Wondrous Traveler UK Tour
Fri, Nov 18 – (venue tbc) Hereford, UK
Sat, Nov 19 – Torr Vale Mill, New Mills, UK
Sun, Nov 20 – The Hive, Shrewsbury, UK
Wed, Nov 23 – Greystones, Sheffield, UK
Thu, Nov 24 – Cecil Sharp House, London, UK
Fri, Nov 25 – St. Margaret’s Hall, Bradford on Avon, UK
See website for full tour dates and details: www.thesmallglories.com
Photo credit: Stefanie Atkinson