The High Performance Rodeo & Theatre Calgary presents

Songs of Resilience, Queer Songbook Orchestra, at Max Bell Theatre

Friday, January 6

Four and a half stars (out of five)

One part big band concert, one part storytelling, all parts beautiful – that’s a swift breakdown of Songs of Resilience, the opening show of the 2017 High Performance Rodeo, which launched on a frosty Friday night at the Max Bell Theatre at Arts Commons in front of an opening night crowd that seemingly included every Calgary culture vulture there is, including one kd lang.

They were all there to see the Queer Songbook Orchestra, an 11 piece big band out of Toronto and Montreal  formed three years ago by trumpeter Shaun Brodie to pay homage to, and share stories of queer life seven or eight decades ago – and how the songs that emerged from those creators help a lot of queer Canadians stuck in some of the more remote corners of Canada cope with their isolation and alienation.

Those stories involved narration, from a rotating trio that included Olympian Mark Tewksbury, CBC Radio’s Katherine Duncan and a high school student from Western Canada High to be named in a later version of this dispatch (because it’s not in the program!)

Tewksbury launched the night with a tale of a young man growing up queer in Gander, Newfoundland, in the early 1990’s, who felt alone and abandoned in the world until he discovered Constant Craving, by lang. He latched onto it like an emotional life raft, obsessively calling the local FM radio station to request it until finally they played it, allowing him to record it on his cassette recorder that sat next to his radio.

Sung by Alanna Stuart, backed by a big band that looked straight out of a Sinatra outtake – or maybe the orchestra pit of a Michael Buble NBC special (which is totally retro),  the song sounded gorgeous.

Sometimes it was the stories such as that one, or another about a young woman discovering Ani DiFranco’s music as she grew up in Northern Ontario trying to summon up the courage to be her own true self, that made Songs of Resilience soar.

Other times, it was the stories of the composers themselves. Some were heartbreaking stories of great talents forgotten by history, like Billy Strayhorn, who as a 17 year old discovered by Duke Ellington in Pittsburgh, wrote Lush Life, (and later Take the A Train).

Or Lorenz Hart, the first writing partner of Richard Rodgers, who wrote moodily dark lyrics to songs such as Blue Moon, My Funny Valentine and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, but ended up dying of exposure one wintry Manhattan night due to drinking too much. Rodgers ended up with Hammerstein. The world ended up with Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I. Go figure.

There’s a story of Hans Christian Anderson that will change the way you think about fairy tales forever, too.


(The Queer Songbook Orchestra, (Alanna Stuart vocals). Photo: Guntar Kravis)

It’s all delivered in an old-fashioned, big-band style, with the odd departure, such as when a spoken word poet named Steven (he’s not in the program either) opened the second act with a hilarious riff on pressure, talking about cabin pressure and its impact on newborn baby ears, and social pressure, of being an adopted, black, queer kid trying to fit into a straight white guy dominated Canadian world. He was a joy to listen to – funny and lyrical and smart about race and inclusion – and brought a bit of 21st century sensibility to the 1940’s feel of the show.

Then the band launched into Queen’s Under Pressure, which should have lifted the roof off of the Max Bell theatre, but for some reason, the audience of culture vultures were a little more restrained than I expected.

It wasn’t a big deal. I think it was partly because it was 20 below outside, and partly being in the Max Bell Theatre, which is big and old school and doesn’t really encourage you as a room to stand up and let it rip.

Had Songs of Resilience taken place in the Big Secret Theatre, in a cabaret setting, I suspect the reaction would have been quite a bit different.

(But the band would have taken up half the Big Secret Theatre!)

Songs of Resilience is a gorgeous blend of storytelling and musical virtuosity.  Sadly for everyone who didn’t make it out last night, it was a one-off for the Rodeo- but the orchestra are performing Saturday night January 7 in Edmonton, at the Needle Vinyl, and next Saturday, January 14, at the Margaret Greenham Theatre at the Banff Centre (with a chinook in the forecast).

They’re worth the drive.