Suzie Vinnick Sets The Standard for the Gallery Series

Review by Bill Monahan of Suzie Vinnick Concert, Jan. 28 at Meaford Hall

Suzie Vinnick kicked off the Meaford Hall Gallery Series on Saturday night with a warm engaging show that set the standard for the series of six concerts.

The Gallery Series was born of necessity because the Opera House can’t be used during renovations to the balcony, but it has created something which provides unique value for live music fans with high quality acoustic performers in an intimate setting.  Tables were set up in the Gallery of Meaford Hall to create a setting that seemed a hybrid of house concert and coffee house.  It provided an ideal environment to enjoy the music of performers who seem like they belong in a larger venue, in a small room that, despite the proximity of the cash bar, encouraged the audience to remain quiet and attentive during the performance.  With Al Burnham on the mixer, it was guaranteed that the sound would be high quality, tailored to the room.  The lights were not turned down so that the performer could see the audience, encouraging interaction.  Suzie Vinnick made the most of it, speaking to various members of the audience directly, even encouraging one table to leave so they didn’t miss their ride, and engaging the audience in some call-and response moments.  While the sound of an entire audience singing along didn’t quite match the magic of when that happens in the Opera House, it was enough interaction to encourage both Suzie and her audience.

Suzie Vinnick is the winner of multiple Maple Blues Awards for a variety of talents, including vocals, guitar, bass and songwriting.  All of these skills were on display on Saturday night.

As a vocalist, she has a soulful quality that even enhances her humming.  She can go from a sensuous bluesy growl to a beautiful soprano in a single line and it’s clear that the direction her vocals take arise from a deep inner feeling rather than an intent to impress.  Her guitar playing has the same quality.  Although she is capable of intricate rhythmic blues runs on the guitar, she knows enough to save the pyrotechnics as spice in a dish that is built around flavour, sticking to simple strumming when that is what best suits the song.  As with her singing, it seems that her guitar playing is driven by her heart.

I didn’t expect to see an example of her bass playing but she treated us to a song called Danger Zone, which she learned from the great slide player (and her teenage hero) Ellen McIlwaine, accompanying herself only with her Sheldon Dingwall designer bass.  While it is a beautiful instrument, brought to life by her playing, she admitted sheepishly that she chose the guitar because of its colour, called Fifth Marguerita Green.

Suzie is a great collaborator, co-writing songs and winning competitions with a list of great songwriters that included one-time touring partner Rick Fines, blues great Matt Anderson, and Dan Kershaw, one of my all-time favourite songwriters.  In addition to these co-writes, she performed a lot of her own compositions and a number of covers from unexpected places, including Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Tom Waits, Roy Forbes (Bim) and even (in the encore) Bruce Springsteen.  But every song she sang became her own through her great ability to inhabit the song.  Hearing how she infused these songs with such emotion brought to mind that old phrase, she could “sing the phone book and it would sound great”.

With such multi-faceted talents, it seems surprising that she is so self-effacing, but of course she is Canadian and we Canadians appreciate that sort of thing.  She considers it something she still has to work through but it is part of her charm.  She commented that although she has been performing since she was a teenager and she’s now in her forties, she still gets nervous before every show.  You’ll see no sign of nerves when she’s playing but her down-to-earth modesty about her talent had the effect of drawing everyone in the room closer to her.  It was helped by the fact that, with the lights undimmed, we all knew she could see us, and we felt more connected.

The show seemed to be quite short but it wasn’t.  I guess it’s an indication of a great performance when you wish it would go on for a few more hours.

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