Stephen Fearing Headlines Winter Warmer Fest With Brand-New Album

Ontario's loss was a big gain for the Maritime music scene when celebrated singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing moved to Halifax in 2008. Whether solo, or in a duet with Andy White, or in the beloved Canadian supergroup Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Fearing has put out a string of special albums for two decades. Being in Nova Scotia has meant that we have had access to an extra amount of Fearing the past few years, often one-off shows outside official tours. One of those is happening this weekend. Fearing is one of the performers at this year's Winter Warmer Festival. That's a relatively new event that has sprung up in St. Andrews, three nights of shows in intimate, comfortable venues, up close and personal with the artists.

Winter Warmer kicks off Thursday night, with a hometown boy, and also the province's hottest performer. Owen Steele grew up partially in St. Andrews, and has been rising fast in the folk scene in the Maritimes. He has a strong fan contingent all over the Maritimes, thanks to his sing-along, fun style. Joining him is Lisa LeBlanc. The Acadian singer became a breakout star last year with her debut album, a gold record in Canada thanks to huge support in the Quebec scene, and inroads through touring in Europe. Her banjo and acoustic guitar tunes are full of striking, in-your-face lyrics, and lots of energy.

Friday will see shows from Acres and Acres, and Mike Trask in the evening. Saturday brings us to a busier day, starting in the afternoon with a set from the hot Moncton-based band Les Hay Babies, and then moving into the evening, a house concert, featuring Nova Scotia's power couple Christina Martin and Dale Murray. That's at seven PM, and then you can zip over to Sunbury Shores and catch Mr. Fearing at 9 PM. The great news about that one is it's the debut of his brand new album, Between Hurricanes, released just on Tuesday.

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It's Fearing's first solo effort in seven years, since his much-admired Yellowjacket. Not that he hasn't been busy recording, with White and Blackie, but I've been waiting for this for a while, to see what he'd come up with. When I think of Fearing, I think of warmth. Not the summer sun, more like the indoor warmth of a fire in winter, contained, but strong, the kind of warmth you want that takes away the chill. Fearing has a calm, rich, deep voice that exudes confidence, with some noticeable healing properties. His songs range from folk ballads with an influence from England, to roots-rockers, where he kicks back and blasts. Those mellow moments have always been his strength, and there are plenty of them here, but with some extra sonic touches that haven't been heard on his past releases. Fearing and producer John Whynot add some subtle layers to some numbers, some echoey piano starts another, little ambient passages that beef up the dream state just a touch. It isn't overused, not in a long shot, but its enough to take Fearing out of the slot of acoustic troubador.

But as always, the strengths are his voice, melodies and especially, his stories. One of the major numbers here is Cold Dawn, inspired by the 2009 Cougar helicopter crash off the coast of Newfoundland that claimed seventeen lives and left one survivor. We travel on that flight through the thoughts and eyes of one of the oil workers, and it's a fitting and touching tribute. On the rockier side, imagine if Pete Townshend had started writing roots tunes instead of rock operas in the 70's. That's the vibe I get from Wheel Of Love, with its driving rhythm. And there are gentle moments, almost parlour-song material from a century ago, like the number The Half Life Of Childhood.

One more bonus to having Fearing around the Maritimes; he's picked up on the local scene, made musical friends, and co-written with them too. Newfoundland's Chris Kirby teamed up on one here, and Erin Costello from Halifax co-wrote a full three. Catch Fearing Saturday night at the Winter Warmer Festival in St. Andrews.

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About Bob Mersereau

Rockin' BobBob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).

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