It's hard to believe that it was just shy of two years ago when Portage & Main played their very first live show. John Sponarski and Harold Donnelly had been friends for many years, and in other bands, before coming together to form this band, and they kind of hit the ground running, releasing their first album before even playing a live show. But after near-constant touring since the first album came out -- including the cross country train trip Tracks on Tracks and their involvement in the latest Peak Performance Project -- they've released their second album, Never Had The Time, and celebrated the release with a show at the Biltmore Cabaret.
There was a definite folk-country theme to the night, and starting off the night was Vancouver's Rob Butterfield. His band included some familiar faces, Colin Cowan and Chris Kelly on bass and keys respectively, and there was a definite countrified twang.
The songs were pretty catchy, but the tempo of a lot of them were the same, and he was perhaps a little too much on the "country" side for my tastes. But it picked up a little at the end, with the last couple songs; one was a much more energetic boot-stomper, and the last song of the set had a bit of a blues tinge to it. He wasn't bad in the slightest, but it was wasn't quite my speed.
Next up was another Vancouver-based alt-country band, White Ash Falls. Fronted by Andy Bishop -- formerly a member Yukon Blonde -- the ensemble also included prolific pedal steel player and former Treelines member Matt Kelly. They also straddled the line of being a bit "too country" for my tastes, with a melodic, folky, Americana (Canadiana?) sound. But Bishop was a strong frontman, his voice lending perfectly to the well written, intimate and heartfelt nature of his songs.
Near the end of the set, he brought out Brandon Scott of Yukon Blonde to help out on the rare song-named-after-the-band "White Ash Falls" off their most recent album, By The River Bend, which was my favourite of the set.
And finally, the band of the night Portage & Main took the stage, kicking off the set in high gear with the raucous "Sweet Darlin'" before the title track to the album they were celebrating the release of, "Never Had The Time".
I've seen the band numerous times in the last couple years, and they just keep getting better; their set was incredibly tight, the chemistry between John & Harold apparent as they played off each other, not to mention with the rest of the band -- Georges Couling on the keys, Ben Appenheimer on bass and Dave Gens on drums. This was definitely the best I've seen them yet.
They had a few guests out to help them, Matt Kelly once again pedal steel and Redbird's Savannah Wellman joining on vocals for a few songs, her voice meshing with John and Harold's beautifully. There wasn't much banter, mostly a lot of thanking everyone for coming -- John was visibly moved by the sold out crowd -- but their stage presence more than made up for it, the entire band bursting with energy. Highlights of the night included the deceptively upbeat "Better Man" and "What Have I Done" off their first, self-titled album.
They ended the main set with "Good Morning Sunshine" from the new album, which featured a bit of audience participation, with the crowd singing over the last couple verses. And as the band said their thank-you's and left the stage, the packed Biltmore kept their part, the "da 'n da dada dadadada", going until the band came back out for their encore. It's hard to explain in text, but it made for one of those great "concert experience" moments, the whole crowd in sync with each other, and John's first words when he got back on stage summed it up: "Well that was pretty cool."
For the encore, they did a strong cover of The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and they continued the singing along by ending the night as they traditionally do, pulling friends and fans alike on stage for "Carolina", everyone shouting along with the two-word chorus, capping off one hell of a set.
Sweet Darlin', Never Had The Time, Lied To Me, As a Child, Rocky Mountain Wanderer, Better Man, Oona Jean, What Have I Done, Good Morning Sunshine.
(encore) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down [The Band cover], Carolina.