Tuesday, January 1, 2019

In Search of the Philosopher's Stone: Michelle Willis, December 28, 2018 at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3

Michelle Willis in the moment
Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3
December 28, 2018
image by Roy Abrams
For the past decade, Toronto natives have come to know the magic that their own Michelle Willis has the ability to conjure at a song’s notice. Her singular set of vocal cords possesses an otherworldly ability to identify, isolate, assimilate, and transmit the essence of her emotions into songs that captivate, transfix, and deeply move the listener. Willis's 2016 solo debut, See Us Through, presents the artist as a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the Four Elements.

My introduction to this extraordinary artist took place through Lighthouse, a 2016 release by David Crosby. Billed as a solo effort, the album was recorded with the help of three brilliant younger musical collaborators: Michael LeagueBecca Stevens, and Michelle Willis. From both the album and follow-up tours—loved by fans and critics alike—it was apparent that a new “4-Way Street” was evolving, one that foretold of new music on the horizon. Sure enough, two years later came Here If You Listen, the product of true hands-on creative collaboration between all four members of what is now being called the Lighthouse Band. Michelle Willis’s contributions to this album are masterful, highlighting her originality while underscoring the intuitive communication she enjoys with the other three members.

With only a few weeks passed since the triumphant closing show of the Here If You Listen tour, Michelle posted an announcement on social media that fish-hooked my eye: A special solo performance, to be held at the Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3, on Friday, December 28th. This intimate show, closing out a year filled with more than 230 live performances, would surely be special for both the artist and her audience. 

Minutes before showtime ...
image by Roy Abrams

Walking into the intimate Stage 3 and taking our seats mere paces from the baby grand piano, my family and I absorbed the glow of red light which bathed the stage in subtle frequencies of mystery and anticipation. This was the moment! Having waited for this opportunity since 2016, I was ecstatic that it was finally here. Having experienced the pure magic of what followed, I am equally ecstatic to have lived it. More than three days elapsed since that unforgettable hour, but the afterglow of that performance remains palpable.

After a casual entrance and a friendly greeting, Michelle took her seat at the piano, adjusted her vocal microphone, closed her eyes, and was gone. Angelic airiness capped ethereal yet earthy elegance. Willis’s smoldering soulfulness sent rivers of fire that flowed in, around, and through songs that gave voice to their author’s innermost hopes, dreams and fears. 

Trust Me,” “See Us Through,” and “It’ll Rain Today”, three tracks from Willis’s 2016 debut solo album, See Us Through, were breathtakingly riveting in this format. So, too, were “Glory” and “Janet” from Here If You Listen. Taken together with a handful of unreleased material and specially-selected covers, Willis revealed to those in attendance what so many Canadians have known for years: She is a force of nature, an ever-changing ratio of the Four Elements, blessed with a voice that David Crosby describes as sounding “like God on a good day.”

Willis’s choice of covers highlighted her eclectic tastes. Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” was treated to a gospel-tinged interpretation, while “Rectify,” penned by renowned Toronto-based artist Rob Piltch but never recorded by him, was introduced as a personal favorite.

The unreleased material proved to contain perhaps the most personal musings of the evening. “Think Well of Me,” a short piece, was introduced as “more a thought than a song.” “Just One Voice,” with its walk up and down motion, featured the decidedly barbed hook, “So tell me, am I crazy now?” “Liberty,” a more mid-tempo song, was described by its creator as “groovy” thanks to its verse. The last of the unpublished songs, “Snow Drift,” was yet another glittering example of muse-mining songwriting skill and finesse.

Chatting with Michelle after the show, I learned that sessions for her next solo album are slated to begin in March. Here’s wishing her all the best for a fulfilling New Year on all levels!

© Roy Abrams 2019

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