On the last Sunday of April, my wife and I joined around twenty others to fill a cosy basement for an afternoon performance at the home of the featured musician. However, as tiny as the venue and invited audience were, if the significance of the event we’d gathered to witness was mirrored metaphorically, there’d have been thousands of us assembled somewhere like Madison Square Garden.
For better or worse, and at any given moment, life can change in a single beat of a hummingbird’s wing. Almost five years ago the decision by a truck driver to run a red light forever changed the life of Vancouver Island musician Marian van der Zon when he t-boned her vehicle at high speed. Up to that moment, van der Zon was, by her own admission, an overachiever: a respected university Professor in Media Studies and Women’s Studies, she had co-authored and co-edited Islands of Resistance (New Star Books, 2010), an extraordinary book about Canadian pirate radio. A committed media activist and radio programmer; a member of the Nanaimo-based multi-media project Meridian, and an inventive banjoist with an arresting Contralto voice, van der Zon had also released two great CDs of off-kilter folk music with her ex-husband under the banner Puzzleroot. She was also deep into the world of experimental sound collage and voicescapes, and while there is yet more to her resume, you should be getting the picture.
There is no need to go into detail here concerning the spinal surgery, cognitive therapy, the permanent chronic pain, or any other aspect of van der Zon’s lengthy treatment, but imagine if you will that as a musician she could not listen to music with a beat or rhythm, only ambient sounds such as A Winged Victory for the Sullen and their beautiful ilk. Nor could she watch a movie or TV show with any level of intensity or freneticism, or anything with subtitles. More than two voices in a room at any one time sounded as an overwhelming cacophony, affecting van der Zon so badly it could take her days to recover. Out of absolute necessity in order to continue to heal, and obviously unable to work, she withdrew almost completely for a considerable time, living a quiet, hermetic existence.
So, years later, we filled that basement on April 29th to witness something that many present would surely admit they thought may never again happen. Following three sporadic, seemingly miraculous comeback performances with Meridian, van der Zon was to step back onto a stage, albeit in the comfort of her own jam-space, to perform brand new solo material in front of an audience for the first time. As she took to the stage, the room fell into an anticipatory hush.
“This is a celebration for me,” she began. “I feel a shit-ton of gratitude that I’m even here…to play music for you.” She spoke a little of the harrowing journey she had been on to reach this day, of her healing processes and, ever the intellectual sponge even in the most traumatic of circumstances, some of what she had learned along the way. Then, after we joined her in three deep breaths to land on the same page, cradling the banjo on its custom-made stand she began her set.
At the end of the opening song, Grace, van der Zon was visibly moved, the emotion of this huge moment for her spreading around the room. Such has been her physical and mental suffering these last few years that the simple act of performing that first song should be viewed no differently than had she run a marathon or scaled a massive mountain.
Joined by her ex-Puzzleroot collaborator, Shelley Brown (Sweet Potato Brown, Tuber, Wiseacre etc.), on bass guitar and harmony vocals, van der Zon performed another ballad, She, then the upbeat Wrong Way, both on the banjo, before introducing another sonic approach for which she is known. Looping her voice to produce layers of choral vocals, van der Zon performed the acapella We are Love with arms outstretched, and it was incredible. A hypnotic and hymnal piece, it was greeted with applause enough to induce tears in the singer’s eyes and a deeply appreciative, “Thank you so much, beautiful people!”
Switching to piano, on which van der Zon composes but admits to a distinct lack of performance proficiency on, a moving song with the working title of Abandoned to Accepted was up next, before the remarkable Dragon Dreams. Employing looped vocals to create a Renaissance era-style polyphonic madrigal effect, the composition is essentially a story song beginning with the discovery of three dragon eggs. Full of personal symbolism, Dragon Dreams emerged from a lucid dream in the wake of a transformative session in a flotation tank, and I cannot wait for a recorded version.
Anyone familiar with the lyrics of First Aid Kit’s Silver Lining, and its messages of perseverance, not looking back and grabbing life by the horns, will understand that it’s a natural choice of cover for van der Zon. If she chooses to try again I’m sure she’ll nail it in future performances, but on this occasion, she tripped over said lyrics and it went off the rails. Not that anyone really cared, though, and with a laugh van der Zon said, “Ah, I’m just going to let that one fly away!”
Storm of Love also featured looped vocals that built and built, only to stop suddenly for the song to end in beautiful fashion with delicate banjo. Joined once more by Brown and, on brushed drums, Tracy Myers (Tongue & Groove), Some Days, the penultimate song of this affecting set, is lyrically something of a narrative on the daily struggles van der Zon has faced during her long, slow and ongoing recovery, yet also includes the hope for the future with which she is doggedly combating her situation. With lines such as, Some days I go to sleep, some days I don’t wanna know, or I try to be hopeful, I try to stay clear, and Some days I rise up high, I look up way above encapsulate the many lows and scattered highs that those of us close to this artist have witnessed in her struggle since the accident.
Ending the set with the lovely mid-tempo shuffle of Shine, this quietly triumphant event came to an emotionally charged conclusion, and everyone including van der Zon wore beaming smiles. The songs aired were composed under the working project name Of the Sun, which may or may not remain moving forward. They’re understandably shot through with personal spiritual themes of healing, reconnection, rebirth and acceptance (of one’s lot), and they collectively represent a crucial element of the artist ’s continuing rehabilitation. The next step and plan is to assemble them, and hopefully, others just as gorgeous, into a full-length album. All things considered, that will be another massive van der Zon milestone which I for one will celebrate with gusto. On the evidence on the material performed at this greatly welcomed intimate show, it will be something very special indeed.
The bravery and sheer force of will with which van der Zon has battled phoenix-like to once again do what she loves doing most has been extremely inspiring. My old friend Elle Osborne endured a similar dreadful experience, partly explaining the decade-long gap between her Testimony debut and (fully explaining the title of) the wondrous follow-up, Slowly Slowly Got She Up. I applauded Elle’s remarkable, spirited comeback, just as I do now, loud and clear, for the most welcome return of Marian van der Zon.