David Francey’s Songs Illustrate His Stories

Review by Bill Monahan of Meaford Hall performance         Nov. 5, 2016

David Francey is something of an anomaly among songwriters in that he doesn’t play an instrument.  It makes a difference to his songwriting.  Most songwriters create at a piano keyboard or with a guitar on their lap, but in his case it is all in his head.  That explains why his songs sound like they do, resonant of Scottish ballads that echo his heritage, having spent the first decade of his life in Scotland before emigrating to Canada.

It doesn’t mean he’s not a musician.  A musician dwells in his ears, where he hears the tunes and the harmonies, and David Francey clearly does that.  When he’s not singing he’s swaying and bobbing, his head down, to the sounds of his accompanists, Chris Coole on banjo and Mark Westberg on guitar.  On stage they sit stoically on each side of him picking out simple but precise melodies.

He walked out on stage at Meaford Hall as if he was walking into the kitchen where supper was about to be served and spent a few minutes thanking us for having him here and telling us what a lovely home we’ve got.  That’s his style as a performer.  His introductions to songs are often longer than the songs themselves, and usually contain more of a story.  He’s like the visitor with a handful of snapshots who tells you all about each picture before he lets you see it, so that when you finally do you appreciate the details, the light and the colour, because you’ve been told the meaning behind them.

His songs are very much like snapshots in other ways too.  They are short on narrative, sparing with poetic imagery, and strong on sensual impressions.  Listening to them, we are left with memories of moments.  There are the sounds: The church bells calling the faithful on a pleasant Sunday morning; the music from the skating rink echoing through town at night; the clattering of empty freight cars as a train rattles through the middle of a town where it never stops; a marsh full of redwing blackbirds heralding the coming of spring.  And the pictures: A great big moon in a Texas sky; dancers under the mirror ball in a disco; the midnight sun in the summer Yukon.

The observations in his songs are often wrapped in aphorisms, giving a macro aspect to a micro view.  And occasionally he inserts a metaphor of true poetry, like his evocation of a lovesick boy watching the girl he secretly admires walk down the high school hall:

“When you hear a sound like broken glass that’s my heart every time that girl walks past

When you hear a sound like the rush of wind it’s just me catching my breath again.”

He’s considered a folk singer, and his troubadour style and traditional sound support that.  But when he played one traditional folk song in his set the difference became clear.  A real folk song is full of repetition and usually chronicles good and evil juxtaposed.  His songs are genuinely personal rather than universal, and that’s why the stories he tells in his introductions are so important.

Having spent a few hours with him we know about his stern Scottish mother who liked to cuff him on the head and laugh, who always reminded him when he brought home some good news from school that “nobody likes a braggart.”  We’ve seen his first wife walk out on him and move in with the guy across the courtyard.  We’ve been enchanted by his second wife, Beth, whom he mentioned so often her presence in the room was palpable, as she danced carefree around the pub on a Saturday night, and we sat in the back seat of the car as they had a pointless argument on the way to the airport.  We felt his anxiety about taking on a fourteen year old stepdaughter and his relief when they bonded.  We watched him embarrass himself, tongue-tied, when he encountered a girl so ineffably beautiful that he missed her name and referred to her as “Kansas”.

All of those details were in the introductions.  The songs that followed added illustrations, colours, light and sounds.

He made a point at the end of the evening, after praising his accompanists, of how much he appreciated the staff and sound crew of Meaford Hall.  Many performers at the Opera House do that but he expanded with one of his typical anecdotes, sincere and heartfelt.  He said that between sets Al Burnham, Meaford Hall’s technical director, came to the green room to ask if everything was okay and David replied by telling him it was excellent and that he was doing a fine job on the sound.  Modestly, Al replied “It’s the hall”.  David said, “No it’s not the bloody hall, it’s you.  Without you the hall would sound like shit!”  Maybe not quite accurate, as the acoustics of the hall are exceptional, but he pointed out something that musicians appreciate more than the audience does, that the secret of a great live performance is in the hands of the sound tech more often than not.  And we at Meaford Hall are blessed, as he pointed out, with a great sound crew.

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2 Responses to David Francey’s Songs Illustrate His Stories

  1. Gillian says:

    David Francey sounds like a lovely man and your article makes me feel as though I’m remembering an evening rather than reading a review.

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