NXNE 2011: New Country Rehab @ The Dakota

Scene: The Dakota Tavern. Almost 2 am. The crowd’s moving, dancing like you almost never see at a rock show, when the singer drops the fiddle to his side and steps back to the microphone.

“Who likes old-time country music?”  he asks. Scattered applause from behind me; a few hands may have shot up, but I was too far forward to see.

“That many, huh?” He smiles wryly, exchanging looks with his bandmates.

The band: New Country Rehab. As they launch into the next tune—a cover, rare in the ‘original showcase’ environment of NXNE—the guitarist takes a few minutes to change a broken string, right onstage in front of the packed house at the Dakota.

And I don’t think the crowd noticed.

After listening to the band’s album over the last week, I’m hard-pressed to find something I don’t like about them. Their sound’s just a little bit rough, taut but honest and bare. Their bass player plays a double bass, and onstage, the damn thing is LOUD. When was the last time you heard someone play a double bass really well?

This is a rare kind of a group, with the sort of stage presence that grabs an audience and holds them, no matter what’s actually going on onstage. They had a few issues during the set, members getting on and offstage to get strings, bows and things, and everyone else stepped in seamlessly to fill the holes. What that means is that these guys are professionals, indeed, and that when you go to see New Country Rehab, you will be guaranteed a great show, no matter what blows up in their backline.

From the first song, there was dancing, pretty girls in gingham dresses swaying along with the thumping double-bass. The unorthodox instrumentation is something I appreciate from this band; the bass, as I mentioned, is quite remarkable, as is the guitar—in a festival of artfully-worn sunburst Fender Stratocasters and pawn-shop Harmony electrics, this band uses an electrified acoustic guitar run through a pedalboard. And, of course, the singer plays the friggin’ FIDDLE on the stage. While singing!

Before launching into their song “Cameo,” the singer told a story about how the tune was written, involving a neighbour of his in Ottawa, a little old lady on the run from the persecution of the Nazis back in World War 2. I’ve always felt that the true purpose of modern songwriting is to tell a story, and I think New Country Rehab understand that as well. Through the narrative process, an audience is brought in so much farther to a mood and a circumstance, where you want them to be, as opposed to just writing lyrics that throw moods and lines at them with no cohesive structure to pin them against.

Musically, they’re no slouches, either; the classic country song is often turned on its head, with time switches, interesting effects and sudden dynamic shifts always keeping the audience guessing. I’m particularly impressed with the work they do in the breakdown sections of their cover of ‘State Trooper,’ where  plain, understated slapback guitar gives way to a vicious unison riff underneath the fiddle, wailing a police siren. But there’s no live recordings of that one I can link to; I need to start taking my own video.

Anyone got an HD video camera they want to give me? “Bury Me” is a great song, anyway, though; enjoy.

Herohill,  my favorite blog from Halifax, talk about the qualities it takes to include two classic songs as covers on your debut album. It is interesting that, on their debut record, NCR have included Hank Williams and Springsteen on it, but I think the versions of the songs speak for themselves. This band has vision, even if their names aren`t on the writing credits.

Next time you’re leaving a gig, think about the amount of dancing you did. Was it some? Is some ever enough? If you ever want to do more than some dancing, check out New Country Rehab. And if you’re not into dancing, go see them anyway. Consummate storytellers, New Country Rehab are one of the most fun live acts to see in the GTA these days. Must-see.

When I saw I’d been taken, I reached for my gun / But the cowboy had 3 friends, and I didn’t have 1.

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