We had debated about whether to go, since we would have to buy our baby a ticket, and then there was always the possibility that she would fuss and we would have to take turns missing the concert anyway. She has gotten past the stage where she falls asleep on a dime and continues sleeping no matter what.
But Sean said, “Oh, come on, we should go! It’ll be fine.” The tickets were not that expensive – still totally (potentially) worth it. I have wanted for years to see James Hill perform.
I was kinda nervous about the whole scenario – especially when A cried most of the drive to the concert venue – but she had calmed down and was actually sleeping when we took our seats. I allowed myself to get giddily excited looking at my program insert for a few minutes before the show began. Then, of course, A woke up and squawked just as James and Anne took the stage. Thank goodness for magic boobs – I got her on there and she barely made a peep for the whole first half. The only real drawback to this was that I couldn’t applaud – had to settle for grinning my face off. (There were several times when, if I’d been able, I would have initiated/elicited some more enthusiasm from this rather timid audience.)
As you may know, James Hill is the artist who inspired me to take up the ukulele (well, he and my husband – Sean’s the one who bought me my first uke). I thought (and still think) his instrumental-only album, A Flying Leap, is pure brilliance – exactly the kind of music I’d want to write if I were a ukulele virtuoso. (That sounds like a dumb thing to say, now that I’ve written it… but really. I deeply relate to his chord combinations.)
Then we bought Man With a Love Song, and I realized this guy can write, AND sing. Frickin’ awesome.
Then I put myself on his email list, so I personally received the email announcing that he and Anne were engaged. Which means we’re, like, practically buds. (We’re like THIS.)
James and Anne started off – after saying how glad they were to be in our city – with a story about being in quarantine in Singapore during the swine flu debacle (it was actually kind of a funny story). You’d never guess, listening to it, that those were the circumstances under which the “Assam/Like a Bird” medley was written. I adore this number – makes me so happy whenever I hear it. E loves it too – calls it “fair music“; sometimes we dance to it together in the living room.
I guess the concert was only billed as “James Hill” because most of the songs played were ones he wrote, and he is the guy with the melody most of the time – but really, James and Anne are a duo on stage. You can tell they’ve been playing together for many years, so seamless is their interaction, both musical and conversational. Seamless, affectionate, and full of humour.
They mostly played material from Man With a Love Song (all my favourites – ‘cuz, you know, we’re buds – but with dazzling uke solos added); it was interesting to find out that James uses a capo to play “Hand Over My Heart” on the ukulele (was it the tenor uke? I’m not sure – in the video, his banjo uke has no capo); during “Heart-Shaped Tattoo”, I wished – hypothetically, since I’m still not that great – I had my Lady (and no baby in my lap) so I could play too. James told us that the song “You Should See Me Now” – a gentle, wistful tune I’ve dubbed a lullaballad in my head – was inspired by the inane catch-phrase of the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia: “You Should See Us Now!” (The duo lives near Truro, NS.)
I was stoked that he asked us to sing along for the “ooohs” in “Man With a Love Song” (pretty much the most gorgeous song ever – I listened to it about five times in a row when we first got the album). He explained that he thinks of it as fatherly – or, in his case, avuncular (yes, he used the word avuncular, with great relish) – advice to a daughter/niece. Suddenly that song makes way more sense – and is somehow even more charming.
They also played a few from their collaborative album, True Love Don’t Weep, and a couple of Anne’s own songs, which I hadn’t heard before. They were lovely. I found I could hear Anne’s voice more clearly and individually in the live setting; it’s like a clarinet, very sweet, and pitch-perfect. (If you visit Anne’s website, you can listen to some of her music; you can also discover as I did that she is a photographer and modern dancer in addition to cellist and singer. Ridiculous in the talent department, I tell you.)
We were also fortunate enough to witness the playing of “Billie Jean”. Folks, it’s CRAZY. No looping machine, just one guy with two hands. I’d seen it on YouTube already, but now having seen it live, in its component parts, then put together… I still cannot figure out how it is accomplished.
Similarly, during the encore, they played some traditional East Coast fiddle music (“Smash the Window” and “St. Anne’s Reel” – no fiddle in sight, mind you) and James tried to teach us in the audience how to do the also-traditional galloping triple-stomp foot-tap thing (seen above at the end of “Like A Bird”). I like to think of myself as a coordinated person, being a dancer and all, but I could not do this foot-tap for more than a few bars without messing up. He did it flawlessly… and then added this wild, complicated uke-playing on top of it. I was blown away.
Baby A did very well, in general. She mostly nursed/dozed; a few times she surfaced and just looked around, seeming to enjoy the music (as well she might, since she’s been listening to it ever since she grew eardrums in utero). During intermission, we’d taken her out to the lobby where she was adored by the usher ladies. It was a good thing, too, because some of those ladies were very helpful, guiding us to seats by the “secret” exit for the second half, just in case. And A did run out of patience and start fussing about two songs from the end, so Sean scooped her up lightning-quick and took her out the secret door, where he could still hear the music and sing to her along with “Hand Over My Heart”. Another usher ferried the diaper bag out to them, and carried the car seat down to the lobby at the end of the show, just out of kindness – well, and also a confessed obsession with babies.
At the end of the show, James and Anne were all, “Hey, we’re going to be out there in the lobby, and we’d really like to meet you all, so please come say hi.” As if we’d be doing them this great favour by keeping them company out there. HA!
Of course, this would turn out to be one of those situations where my shyness and social insecurities – which I so often squelch – come rushing to the forefront. A time when I’m unable to assert my turn in the midst of an awkward clump of fans… when I’d love to say something scintillating and memorable, and instead can only think of things that would sound cheesy, like “I love your music!”, “Great show!”, or “You inspired me to take up the ukulele!”, all of which are true, but come on. Boring.
A little girl had them autograph her shiny red ukulele. James noticed it had already been signed by the Good Lovelies and said, “Yeah, they’re good friends of ours.” One of the many reasons to be a Great Canadian Musician: you get to hang out with other Great Canadian Musicians (the likes of David Myles, Stephen Fearing, Melanie Doane) and, you know, jam and stuff! Sigh.
I did manage to get James and Anne both to sign our ticket stubs (all three of them), and told them it was a great show. I also mentioned how much my colleagues and students who got to see his educational performance last year loved it (I was really envious about that because I couldn’t go). And, Sean took my picture with James. I’d like to think James won’t mind me posting it, since I know from his photo galleries that he understands the urge to have one’s picture taken with artists one admires.
Then, luckily for me, Sean had to go get the car from its faraway parking spot, which meant I was waiting in the lobby for quite a while – long enough for the crowd to have basically dispersed, so that chatting with James and Anne became much easier, almost inevitable. I got to congratulate and talk with Anne about the upcoming wedding (next September – several international celebrations happening), and found out that she and James have been together for ten years, having met while studying music together at UBC (University of British Columbia). They both met the baby (she was sleeping, but it still counts), and did not seem to mind that she had created a disturbance or two.
Then Sean returned and jovially shook hands with James – he has never been subject to shyness, that I know of. He was the one who mentioned I’d been learning to play the ukulele, leading me to admit that I’ve been learning a lot by playing along to his album. When I mentioned that I’d first heard him on CBC and found that video of him playing “Down Rideau Canal”, he looked kinda sheepish and said he’s not sure he can even play that one any more – that was back when he was “young and foolish”. (I’m sure that’s not really true – if he can play “Ode to a Frozen Boot“, which he did, his fingers are obviously still pretty nimble.)
When we got in the car and Sean found out I hadn’t even talked about my ukulele with James, he chided me (gently) for wasting such an opportunity. I guess if it had been up to him, I would have told him all about belly dancing to his music, my musical background, my progress with the Lady, etc. Ah well, maybe next time. 😉
If you have read this and now wish you’d been at the concert, well… sorry ’bout your luck. But there’s lots of cool stuff to hear/see/read on jameshillmusic.com and annejanelle.com. Teachers (and all other interested parties), check out Ukulele in the Classroom and The James Hill Ukulele Initiative – you’ll be inspired!