Since they teamed up as Roberts Hall three years ago, Etienne McGuigan (pictured above with Monica McGregor) and Brendan Holm have absolutely hurled themselves at the project. Juggling day jobs, other musical endeavours and the stuff of life, they have undertaken three self-financed cross-Canada tours, played countless shows in their Vancouver Island backyard, and released an EP and debut album.
Hard at work on it for the latter half of 2017, the Nanaimo, BC folk-rock duo is now close to unveiling their second full-length offering, entitled 2016, with a general release set for February 2018 (!). Like its predecessors, 2016 was produced by Wolf Parade’s Arlen Thompson and, having been fortunate to receive advance airings from the rough mix stage to completion, I can tell you with every confidence that it is a real doozy.
In line with McGuigan and Holm’s buoyant personalities they like to do things that are somewhat off-kilter or adventurous, like the (Neutral Milk Hotel’s Holland 1945-inspired?) cover of last year’s debut album, I’ll Send a Friend. The pair are performing in a river, with Holm sitting at a piano that is engulfed by fire. And in that spirit of creating an indelible impression or scene, on November 25th Roberts Hall held a soft launch event for 2016 in the most intimate imaginable setting.
In a short space of time The White Room has become an invaluable multi-purpose art space in a town sorely lacking such venues, and it was here that Roberts Hall elected to perform 2016 in its entirety, in the round, with an expanded line-up, also filming and recording the event for possible future release.
Joining McGuigan (vocals, guitar) and Holm (vocals, drums) were Chris Thompson (Ah, Venice, Top Men) on guitar, keyboards and backing vocals; bassist Andrew Fraser (Dope Soda, Bananafish Dance Orchestra); backing/harmony vocalist Monica McGregor (Truth) and the JUNO award-winning violinist Trent Freeman (The Fretless, Speaker Face). (A point of interest concerning Freeman’s appearance is that he was playing a violin once owned by the legendary Canadian fiddler Oliver Schroer (1956-2008), whose brave final months before succumbing to leukaemia were captured in the must-see documentary, Silence at the Heart of Things).
In front of an audience of family, friends and supporters that completely encircled the band at close quarters, the augmented Roberts Hall simply did not put a foot wrong. Playing 2016 front to back, adding nothing else from their catalogue, they were greeted after each song and at set’s end with applause that may well have been clearly heard across the Georgia Strait. It was a sonically rich, beautifully relaxed, yet emotional performance that felt like a significant turning point for this band. Without a doubt, these young men are stars in the making.
I hope to review 2016 for this esteemed website upon the official release date, so will leave such as the poignant lyrical themes and an explanation of the title until then, but in signing off I feel it important to reiterate Roberts Hall’s incredible work ethic, and their admirable approach to providing the maximum bang for a buck.
Tickets for this show were $20 CAD, but for that price not only did the fifty ticket holders experience a wondrous performance of an album sure to place high on my 2018 end-of-year chart, but they also received a beautifully packaged, coloured vinyl copy of 2016, three months ahead of release. For an extra $30 an audience member could receive one of fifty copies of the record in an extraordinary, hand-built wooden slipcase, containing a 12-page lyric/photographs booklet and stamped ‘RH’ on the front sliding panel from their own livestock branding iron. A locally respected carpenter, Holm built every single copy, the last of them completed in the early hours on the day of the show. Sure to become highly sought after when – not if – these charismatic musicians make a major breakthrough, if anyone develops designs on my copy be prepared for pistols at dawn.
Main image by David Morrison. Remainder are stills by Raymond Knight