As more tentative reopening steps take place in the music world, one of Atlantic Canada's best festivals is back with a smaller but still impressive lineup. The Halifax Urban Folk Festival (HUFF) goes from Aug. 29 to Sept. 6, presenting some of the finest established and new performers from the East Coast. There aren't as many shows this time, nor any of the expertly-chosen cross-Canada and international acts that have graced the stages before (think Alejandro Escovedo, Lloyd Cole and Lily Hiatt to name but three), but when you can brag up Matt Mays, Erin Costelo and Reeny Smith for intimate shows, you're a class event for sure.
One of the hallmarks of the festival is its Songwriters Circle series, featuring three nightly artists in an acoustic setting. P.E.I.'s Nathan Wiley will do one of those sets on Saturday, Sept. 4 at Brightwood Brewery, as well as a full-band gig the next night at the Carleton. Wiley is launching his new six-track E.P., Modern Magic. The Summerside songwriter and producer, best known for his 2002 breakout hit "Bottom Dollar Baby," only releases things when he's darn good and ready, but they are always most welcome and solid, start to finish.
This set kicks off with "Heatseeker," a dark and funky track fueled by horns and dramatic stabs of strings plus a mysterious vibe. A tale of a femme fatale, I'd call it soul noire. The horns are especially rich and well-recorded, and it has the glow of real instruments, real playing to it. The horns return for the groove-ier "Nobody's Lookin' At You," this time with organ and backing vocals adding richness to the cool, Bill Withers-type simmering number. Somehow Wiley manages to make a synth sound funky on "Love Through the Eyes of a Shark," real soul instead of plastic soul.
I love the dark and funky late-night mood through all six tracks, and the fantastic arrangements, especially the choices of instruments. Where guitar would suffice for many, with his producer's ears Wiley has used the horns, singers, keys and lots more to make these songs extra-deep with ear candy. As for hooks, he's fully stocked, with "Moneymaker" an especially catchy one. Top notch, this one.