After reviewing and thoroughly enjoying Verchuosity a few years back, my interest was ignited in Canadian fiddle music. As soon as I heard the April Verch Band was coming to my university town of Marquette, Michigan, I clamored at the opportunity to witness the fiddle maestro in action. The venue for the concert was set for 7:30 PM on March 18, 2007 at the stately, Masonic Building in downtown Marquette. Upon arrival around 7 PM, I noticed a minivan with Ontario plates – and that’s when the anticipation began! After handing my pre-paid ticket over to the ticket attendant, I noticed a table with April Verch’s latest albums, Take Me Back, and her older material, as well. No Other Would Do, her father’s CD, was also available. There were also postcards, stickers and songbooks.
As I made my way to the concert room, I could plainly see a few fans of the fiddling phenom already assembling on chairs in front of the stage and on tiered, wooden rows on both sides of the room. I was happy to find my seat in the second row in front of the stage. Though, the seats began 20 or so feet from the stage, which seemed to cleverly allow for a makeshift, though fully-carpeted, dance floor. Within minutes, many more people and young children as well, began streaming into the room – numbering about 125-150.
After a few announcements by the venue staff, the audience warmly welcomed the April Verch Band as they stepped out on the stage and immediately began playing. The opening fiddle and step dance tune was “William Gagnon” from April’s 2001 Verchuosity release, followed by “Loggers in the Shortgrass” a jig medley from her new album Take Me Back. The next song was the title track from this new album, released on Valentine’s Day 2006. We heard April’s delicate vocals and Appalachian-esque fiddling rhythms on this one. Introductions were made by April and Marc Bru, her husband and percussionist for the band. Marc Bru played harmonica, spoons, bodhran, mandolin and shakers on most of the songs, only to step off stage for a few of the songs that didn’t require his musical services. We were also introduced to Cody Walters on the upright bass, though April comedically referred to it as an “emaciated bass”, noting its slender, but handy travel size. The rather tall and stately, but extremely talented guitarist, Isaac Callender, hailed from Montana.
The next song was a Latin-flavored concoction called “Spanish for Crown” off the 2003 release, From Where I Stand. Another set of songs included, an Old Time piece appropriately named “Tom, Brad & Alice” after three very good friends of April. This was followed by “The Long Way Home” and an uppity tune “Tennessee Wagoner” from Take Me Back. This was further followed by a medley of “Eclipse”, “Trip To Windsor” and “Heather Bonn”. A special treat of sorts included short story intros to most of the songs that were performed. One in particular was the story about “Faniucks Fancy” and how it was named after meeting a Ukrainian musician at a gas station while touring in Saskatchewan. This song essentially contained rhythms indicative of a Balkan beat with Ukrainian panache.
A vocal ode to home was clearly evident by April’s lyrical retrospection of her humble beginnings in rural Pembroke, Ontario in “This Ottawa Valley”. This was a fun one as all members of the group seemed to really enjoy the instrumental interplay. The performance was electric for the audience, as sounds of shouts and hand-claps filled the rooms’ interior. Shortly thereafter, a 15-minute intermission ensued. Though, my ears still resounded and recanted the magnificent musicianship and energetic step dancing I witnessed over the last hour.
After intermission, April Verch and band mates came back with a lively tune complete with step dancing in true Ottawa Valley form. Everyone seemed content and surprised by April’s fast step dancing and supreme mastery of the fiddle. It was at this point I was again reminded I was in the presence of a Canadian Grand Masters Fiddle Champion and Canadian Open Fiddle Champion. A laid back song with an infectious melody titled “Monarch” was named after a town in Montana by the same name. The instrumental accompaniment of shaker and mandolin was an added bonus by April’s husband, Marc Bru. Afterwards, April introduced us to a new, unreleased song called “My Friend Craig” that will be slated for an upcoming album. “Cruel Moon” showcased April’s heartfelt lead vocals with vocal assistance from Isaac. A contemplative piece, “Seven Years,” was very moving and seemed perfectly well-suited for an afternoon wedding reception.
At this point, April announced that the next few French-Canadian songs were going to be “crooked.” This was in reference to the songs having extra beats added to their structure. The complicated song structure was followed up by an unbelievable solo on the bodhran drum by Marc Bru. This solo was several minutes long as his band mates looked on in amazement, despite probably having witnessed his solo prowess numerous times before. Everyone was captivated by Marc’s flying fingers and playful body language. Just when I thought the musical dust would settle, the action continued on “Lost Boy”, an Appalachian tune on April’s 2001 release, Verchuosity, followed by a poignant tune called “This Flower”. Up to this point, I was astonished with Isaac’s guitar work, Cody’s bass accompaniment, Marc’s versatility on spoons, bodhran and mandolin, and April’s ability to fiddle while step dancing. Before the close of the show, we were granted the luxury of witnessing Marc and April square off with each other. Marc played spoons and April fiddled and step danced with ever-increasing difficulty and speed, with April coming out on top, despite the fact Marc threw one set of spoons backstage in playful disgust. They certainly enjoyed playing off of each others’ energy in a harmless and fun manner. I know the audience was thrilled with their musicianship by the way they were cheering, whistling and clapping.
Unfortunately, this energetic and improvisational performance meant the show was nearing its end. The band verbally expressed their appreciation for the fans and the venue site before exiting the stage at around 9:25 PM. However, April Verch and her band mates could not resist the beckoning calls and standing applause of the audience for one more tune. Finally, they came back on stage to play one final farewell tune and promised to come back to Marquette in the future.
April’s mantra of not forgetting where one comes from was certainly evidenced in the musical traditions her band passes on. I thought about this on my walk home in the cold and blustery, night air. In fact, autumn’s dried leaves were now exposed from winter’s suffocation of snow, only to blow around and dance effortlessly in the wind, as if playfully moving to the tunes of Ottawa Valley’s champion fiddler and step dancer. The band’s irresistible repertoire and Ottawa Valley’s fiddling tradition should make anyone’s head turn, toes tap and hands clap. Take Me Back not only means staying true to tradition; but also reminds me of a kind of innocent captivation. Something as banal as a dancing leaf is all I need to “take me back” to the night where I heard the unmistakable and unforgettable sounds of April Verch.