Joe Nolan is a delightfully soft-spoken, unassuming character when you talk on the phone or chat in a venue. When he steps up to the microphone and gets settled in with a trio of custom crafted acoustic and Fender knock off guitars, the man is a giant. A crowd of around 50 were wowed by the Canadian blues and folk singer’s prowess on Wednesday night at the Carlton Trail Ski Club House west of Humboldt.
From the first notes out of his acoustic, the sound richly tempered with an arsenal of pedal effects, every moment was about the blues. The songwriter from Edmonton has a deep catalogue of his own works and a spirit that plunged everybody into the heart of his blues and folk stylings. In his playing you can hear influences like John Hammond, Bruce Springsteen or Bruce Cockburn, but all with a trademark treatment all his own.
In songs like “All You Gotta Do,” the first cut on his album “Cry Baby,” you get a muscled up base line topped with intricate jazz stylings. When Nolan tears into a lyric, his voice alternately evokes a BB King growl that can soften to a plaintive falsetto at a turn. He’s a master of modulating volume and tone, and his entire body becomes a channel for the music.
In a tune he wrote when he was only 16 years-old, Nolan reflects on his own “Main Street” experiences growing up in Fort Saskatchewan, AB. It’s a song he says has “a completely different meaning now,” given time and distance. Nolan is a consummate storyteller who clearly displays a genuine affection or understanding for places and the people he encounters. The song is a sweet folksy reflection – imagine Mellencamp reborn as a folk fingerpicker.
From there Nolan would pick up a seafoam Telecaster reproduction and lay down some Delta boogie. He spent a chunk of time playing the Fairmont in Jasper while nestled in a cabin style environment writing a few dozen songs. Some of those may be destined for his next album, a project he calls his most ambitious. He’s hoping to head to Los Angeles to work with Grammy nominated producer Tyler Chester who has produced and toured with dozens of top industry artists. One of those album contenders is a straight up folk tune, “Another Dead Poet,” which illuminated Nolan’s gift with lyrics.
Throughout the evening, Nolan remarked on the casual, homespun charm of the venue and the generosity of the audience and the community of volunteers who received him. It was a welcome refuge from the road, he said, as he made his from a Tuesday night gig in Edmonton to three days of performances in Winnipeg
“This is something new for me, and I’m really grateful,” Nolan said to the audience. “I’m grateful to people like Jim (Haussecker) and Brian (Grest) who orchestrated and made this thing happen and to all of you for being generous enough to meet in this very cool and unique building in the middle of nowhere - (cue audience laughter) - and sit together to allow me to share these songs. These little pockets and places are often the highlights of these road trips and tours.”
Nolan charmed the audience throughout the evening with rambling discourses about audience interactions, his eclectic trio of guitars, failed border crossings, and raiding a seniors’ card game in Oak River, MB for a cup of coffee. An encore included a folk-blues inflected cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” and the exquisite love song embracing family, “Daffodil.”
If you missed his visit to the Humboldt area, you can catch Joe Nolan at the Saskatoon venue The Basement on Monday, January 15. It’s a performance well worth taking in.