Tuesday, June 7, 2011


It's been a while since I updated my ongoing exploration of the music of Hamilton, Ontario.  To explain, each year I travel to The Hammer for its music awards, usually held in November.  During these trips, I've made many friends, and been introduced to a unique music scene, as strong as any in the country, better than most.  You can find it all there, plus a strong tradition in roots and rock 'n' roll, one of the very first places in the country to welcome the wild sounds.

The big news these days is a major concert being held Saturday, August 27th.  It's a concert in support of local farmers and sustainable farming practices in the area, called the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic.  Musically, the show is backed by local boy-made-good, Daniel Lanois, who is headlining and bringing along a bunch of his friends.  Those include the great Emmylou Harris, whom Lanois has produced, singer-songwriter Ray Lamontagne, Gord Downie and the County of Miracles, Sarah Harmer, and several more.  It's quite a lineup.

Just added to the bill is a duo you won't know outside Greater Hamilton, and this will definitely be their biggest audience ever.  I was introduced to them in a time-honoured way, at a Rising Star competition, indeed the first one the Hamilton Music Awards has held, this past November.  I had a crazy job that night, acting as the MC.  There were something like 15 different acts going for the prize, which was quite substantial, including free studio time and lots of gear, perks and professional help to start young artists along the right path.  These were singers and groups from high school age to early 20's, all realizing this wasn't some lame contest.  Now, I had no idea going in that the level of young talent would be so high that night, but it quickly became apparent that these weren't some American Idol wannabe's, these folks were serious about possibly moving into a professional career, and I know of at least of the acts that are playing lots of pro jobs in the area.

Anyway, I was glad I wasn't judging, because it was tough.  There were three or four that caught my attention (while I was panicking about my next introduction), including the eventual winners.  They were a duo, two young women from nearby Dundas, 18 and 16, named Dawn and Marra.  It was quickly obvious, even with just two songs allowed, that these two had a spark, and a desire to perform.  I'm not talking about the "look-at-me" narcissism you see on Idol shows, or among high school class clowns.  These two wanted to share what they do.  What really impressed most people was that they also wrote their own songs, already.  You can be a great singer, a fine musician, but add songwriting to that mix, and you've turned a corner.  That's the thing about music -- somebody has to write it.  Fine voices, good arrangements, harmonies, confidence playing just by themselves, Dawn and Marra has everything you'd want to see in a professional duo at club, and here they were just starting out.

Fast-forward to, well, today, half a year later, and I have the new, and first Dawn and Marra album, Never Ask Me Why.  Using the buzz and support from the Hamilton Music Awards, they've done exactly what you'd hope they would:  made a strong debut album, played almost every weekend since, and staked out an immediate future in music.  The disc is all original, ten cuts, done in their singer-songwriter style. Marra Koren sings lead and harmony, and handles bass duties, while Dawn Larsh writes the bulk of the songs, also sings lead and harmonies, and plays guitar and ukulele. Quite good ukulele in fact, there's a couple of cool numbers with that as the base instrument, a different sound for sure.

Dawn and Marra are still learning, and there's an awkwardness at times with the lyrics, or times when they still sound like teens.  But mostly on this disc, and live, they're showing their strengths in performing and writing.  Already they stand out.

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