If folk music is really, at its most linguistic of roots, about people, the Gertrudes of Kingston, Ontario certainly know how to start a band in the genre. The Canadian group boasts a “veritable orchestra”, as their record label puts it, of young and old, men and women, acoustic and experimentally electric musicians (and many, many local guest artists). This motley crew has been making music together in the popularly haunted Skeleton Park district of their historic lakeside hometown (right behind my old student house, in fact) to the delight of the city’s many folk fans. Nearby, the Mansion bar boasts both indie rock and old-time fiddle jam nights every week, catering to an audience that teeters between hip university kids and first-name-basis regulars.
It has been in front of these diverse kinds of audiences that the Gertrudes, on Kingston’s hometown-proud Apple Crisp Records, have developed a knack for folk music that goes beyond banjos and the smell of rosin. Their latest album Dawn Time Riot aims to mingle traditional folk with high-energy, quirky multi-instrumentalism and a profound sense of local pride. The result sounds a little bit like the kind of record that Broken Social Scene might have made if they were separated from Toronto’s hip urban sprawl by a few hundred kilometers of Highway 401.
“Cliff Jumping” leads the album off in an onomatopoeic exercise, rushing forward at top speed before plunging straight off the edge in a yelling, cacophonous crescendo. The euphoric mood continues on “Wind From The South”, as the song barrels into shouts and the big accordion-guitar-trombone-and everything else swells of grandiosity that come to define a large part of the album’s sound.
The early tracks on Dawn Time Riot often feel like the high-speed ones featured lyrically on “Freight Train”, but once the album hits its midpoint it takes a load off and sits down for two consecutive six-plus-minute mind-benders. “Sailor” features slivers of spacey noise and some beautifully spare moments of harmony, and finishes off with an unexpected shortcut into positively gnarly prog noise territory. “You Don’t Mind” shows off the band’s diverse sense of texture, pitting a plaintive vocal against springily reverberating guitar and scuzzy distortion as a haunting horn line cuts through the mix. Unfortunately, it also positively drags along compared to the album’s first few tunes, and ends up feeling like a miscue as a result.
Fortunately, “Concession Street (Charge Across Cedar)” brings things right back to a sprightly pace without losing the depth of texture or the sense of evolving interplay between the band`s many members. In light of that achievement, it’s probably Dawn Time Riot’s best song. “Ronnie Hawkins” is not a bad follow-up either, with its handclaps, singalong whoa-ohing and simply ecstatic, explosive energy.
The band isn’t done packing its full-length right to the end with every possible kind of idiosyncratic moment. They title a track after themselves that is awash in crackly lo-fi honky-tonk radio sounds and, just when you thought they couldn’t pack any more people into their studio, a whole children’s choir jumps into and out of the mix with disarming ease.
The Gertrudes’ quiet-loud-crazy dynamic shifts create a sense of perpetually powerful, almost gospel style communal storytelling in their songs, but by the end of Dawn Time Riot it’s impossible not to notice that the more intricate moments are those that really stand out from the joyous bombast that may come blasting down any given track. Many of those moments are made possible by inventive and modern deviations from the traditional folk music mold, musical leaps that the Gertrudes have made with confidence and vigour.