The Crooked Brothers and Manitoba Hal headline at St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage

 Sandra Whitworth, board member for the St. Lawrence Acoustic Stage, could only talk in superlatives as she described The Crooked Brothers and Manitoba Hal as totally “fantastic musicians.” 

“I saw them both at this year’s Ontario Council of Folk Festivals and was blown away,” Whitworth said. “I am personally, let me underline this, really looking forward to this show.”

The  artists will be performing  at the Stage in Morrisburg on Saturday, April 14, part of the St. Lawrence 2012 concert series.

Manitoba Hal, who will open the concert, is an accomplished guitarist, song writer and ukulele player. His is a unique and striking blues style: his ukulele finger picking and strumming has won him Canadian and international awards and election to the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 2001. 

The Crooked Brothers,  Jesse Matas, Darwin Baker and Matt Foster, are brothers spiritually and musically, brought together four years ago by a shared passion for music, song writing and performing. They have released critically acclaimed albums including 17 Horses and 2011’s Lawrence Where’s Your Knife, a mixture of old and new works. “I guess you’d have to say that, with us, music is a virus that never goes away,” explained Darwin Baker.

The Leader had the opportunity to talk to Hal and Darwin about their music.

Hal laughed when I asked him how an East Coast native, who plays a completely non traditional blues instrument like the ukulele, became Manitoba Hal. 

“About 17 years ago, my grandfather handed me a 1955 Martin ukulele and made me promise to learn to play it.  I learned to play, on my own, strictly by learning to read sheet music. I love the blues, and to me the ukulele carries a huge amount of melancholy under the surface. It creates a bittersweet sound that is utterly remarkable.”

Now using a specially built double neck ukulele, a “radio sonic” built for him by Fred Casey, Hal is able to loop his music to create a literal one man band on stage. 

“Blues is honest and true music,” Hal said. “It’s music based in raw human emotion. I think the Crooked Brothers also tap into this emotion.

After all, a bluesman might sing of evils as a way of driving them away, making listeners feel better. There’s a lot of hope in this music. Since I learned my blues at the feet of Big Dave McLean, that distinct prairie sound is still part of me.”

His newest release, January 2012, is Flirting With Mermaids, of which Manitoba Hal says, tongue in cheek, “imagine the blues meeting an East Coast side show, and you have a sense of this album.”

Manitoba Hal will also be holding a special workshop on Saturday afternoon.

“I work at the level of the  workshop participants,” he said, “because when I teach I also learn. I am passionate about making ukulele knowledge available to others.” 

The Crooked Brothers, who will soon be leaving on a European tour,  starting in Paris, are versatile western artists, for whom, as spokesman Darwin Baker put it, “music is our life.”

“Our dream has always been to be genuinely touring musicians, going to new places and new cities, keeping our music and ideas fresh.”

 In four years of performing across the country, band members got into the habit of passing instruments around. “We all play acoustic guitar (love the unique sound of wood and metal vibrating together), mandolin, banjo, dobro and harmonica. In Morrisburg we will also have Zoe on the bass.”

Matt Foster and Darwin had performed together in other bands when they were joined by Jesse Matas. “We began playing together but twisting and stretching the music a bit for a unique sound. And eventually,” he laughed, “while we were waiting for a ‘real singer’ we all began singing by default.”

The Crooked Brothers describe their music as “roots, but that is kind of a blanket term. There is a strong blue grass flavour to our sound, and we like to actively seek out new sounds and instruments.”

Baker described the Brothers’ music as a “kind of catharsis, with some sadder and darker themes underlying, but there is also a lot of imagery from nature and our travels mixed in. We all write: then our jamming sessions in the lake cabin (Falcon Lake, Manitoba) can turn into something new and exciting like 17 Horses.”

The Brothers are looking forward to the St. Lawrence Stage. “We love playing live, whether the audience is in a rowdy bar, or in a concert hall. I think we are going to perform some more intimate and introspective songs in Morrisburg. And of course,” Baker added, laughing, “we’ll also play our rockers.”

Registration for the ukulele workshop and tickets for the 7 p.m., April 14 concert, at the Morrisburg Meeting Centre ($15 in advance, $18 at the door) are available at the Basket Case, Strung Out Guitars or www.st-lawrencestage.com 

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