Last Friday’s concert at Calgary’s Festival Hall was an elaborate affair, as far as Canadian folk shows go.
Winnipeg-based show-opening Justin Lacroix remarked that it was the first concert of the tour to feature a fog machine. Headliner William Prince was similarly taken aback by the folding chairs that had been set up as overflow seating on either side of the stage.
“I’ve never played a show where people sat at the sides of me before,” he declared. “I feel like U2 or something!”
While he’s not mounting multimillion-dollar tours yet, William Prince is a rising star in the Canadian folk scene. His lyrics, which feature vivid descriptions of everyday life, are simultaneously heartbreaking and life-affirming, and his humble personality and self-deprecating humour make him an engaging live performer.
“I’ve been called an old soul since I was six years old,” he remarked. If you haven’t heard William Prince yet, that pretty much captures his vibe.
This past spring, Prince’s debut album Earthly Days took home a Juno for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. He’s currently working on music for a follow-up, and this tour has been an opportunity to road-test a new batch of songs.
“I hope you don’t feel cheated if it’s all the new stuff,” Prince cautioned, pausing for a moment before adding (with an exaggerated eye roll): “I’ll play the hits.”
The show included a selection of new material and fan favourites, with a generous dose of storytelling in between. It was interesting to hear the stories behind the songs, many of which draw from Prince’s personal experiences and those of his family and friends.
For instance, one of his first singles was The Carny, a slice-of-life tune about a friend who took an unglamorous job at a midway. “I drove him out to it, said ‘I’ll see you in 48 hours,’” Prince recounted. “He stayed there the whole summer [and] paid his rent.”
More recently, a visit to Brighton (“Nick Cave’s hometown”) while touring in England inspired Prince to write Leave it by the Sea, a cathartic anthem about leaving negativity behind.
“I was working on some songs for a movie, so I was looking for something dark,” he recalled. “When you go looking for that, something light will show up.”
The newest song he played Friday was Heaven and Hell, a gospel-tinged ballad he’d finished writing just four or five days prior. “I haven’t had a chance to practice because we’ve been driving,” he apologized.
The new material was excellent, with poetic lyrics and moving, spiritual choruses. That said, Prince hasn’t lost the attention to detail that characterizes his best song writing (one of the new songs has a delightful line about “raspberry vodka”). If these tracks are any indication, his upcoming album will be even better than the first.
Prince’s music is especially powerful in a live setting. For instance, there’s a great verse in The Carny describing a fistfight with a tattooed carnival worker who “swears Jord stole his weed.” Immediately after, the lyrics take a melancholy turn; the audience, who had been chuckling at the previous verse, fell silent.
One of the most moving moments of the night was Prince’s performance of Eddy Boy, an ode to his late father, the pastor and gospel singer Ed Prince. “There was always a guitar in the house,” Prince reminisced. “I feel him every time I sing.”
Later on, Prince paid tribute to his mother with the song Wasted. “It sounds like a super-cool drinking song, but it’s not – it’s super nerdy,” Prince joked. His mother, he explained, always encouraged him and his siblings to follow their passions: “She didn’t want me to waste my days.”
Prince, who is from the Peguis First Nation, spoke at length about how his family influenced his music. For instance, his love songs are “mostly tailored towards my son.” Similarly, the nostalgic romance of Breathless was inspired by childhood memories of his parents performing at community halls in Winnipeg.
It’s a testament to his abilities that Prince can write such poignant songs out of intangible experiences. “I kinda write these songs for nobody,” he admitted of Breathless. “People don’t believe that, but I gotta write songs.”
Breathless served as a showstopper of sorts. “I don’t do encores because it’s kinda weird to just step behind that curtain for a minute,” he laughed. “So, if you want to, pretend that this is the last song.”
The audience was game, and gave the song a standing ovation. Prince stayed on for two more songs, closing with a rousing cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire.
Justin Lacroix, touring in support of his new album Sweet Time of Mine, successfully warmed up the crowd with a set of lively, sing-along-friendly rock-tinged folk.
His bilingual set was full of surprises, including a raunchy funk number which he suggested would be a good duet to do with Prince. Other highlights included Out in the Streets, Ticket to Tokyo, and the “impending doom love song” Lovers Weep.
Early on in the set, Prince expressed surprise (and gratitude) that so many people chose to spend their Friday night listening to him play. He needn’t have fretted; for Calgary folk fans, there was no better place to be.
Lineup: Justin Lacroix / William Prince
Date: Nov. 24/2017
Venue: Festival Hall, 1215 10 Ave SE, Calgary, AB