Colter Wall brings down-home prairie folk to the West Coast

Colter Wall at the Biltmore Cabaret, 10/11/17

Photo courtesy of Frontier Partisans.
Photo courtesy of Frontier Partisans.

Vancouver’s Biltmore Cabaret was transported back in time thanks to Colter Wall’s husky musical storytelling on Wednesday (Oct. 11).

The crowd was dotted with cowboy hats and the sold-out room was packed to the brim. Wall drew a motley crew of fans indicative of the far-reaching appeal of the young Canadian’s music.  

If you’re unfamiliar with Colter Wall do yourself a favour and do a quick YouTube search. His voice needs to be heard to be believed. The wiry-framed, bearded 22-year-old has an incredibly rich baritone voice that belies his age. Having been born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan—or as he calls it, “Speedy Creek”—it’s hard not to compare him to Johnny Cash with his straight-shooting manner, his finger-style guitar playing and the way in which he introduces songs with the stories that inspired them.

Wall took to the stage, alone with his guitar, wearing a button-up shirt with jeans and a black cowboy hat. The Biltmore’s sweaty basement vibes were exactly right for Wall’s classically gritty songwriting. There was nothing in the way of his raw and simple music — except for the chatter of the crowd. More on that later.

The audience was full of fans who swayed and stomped their feet to older songs like “Sleeping on the Blacktop” and “The Devil Wears a Suit and Tie” from his 2015 EP Imaginary Appalachia. Highlights from his newly released self-titled LP, “Codeine Dream,” “Kate McCannon,” and “Thirteen Silver Dollars,” had the audience singing along. “Kate McCannon” is lush with imagery that resembles ancient myth. He mixed in some covers too, introducing obscure narrative epics from some of his “heroes” — the likes of Jimmie Rogers (“Mule Skinner Blues”) and Townes Van Zandt.

Coming back onstage for an encore with a wry “since you guys asked so nicely,” Wall had the room quieter than it had been all night. “It’s a tradition to sing this one at the end,” he explained as he launched into the folksong “Goodnight Irene.” The crowd swayed and sang along, ending the night in a cozy, familial way.

Wall kept things chill and simple. His humour was dry as he performed one song after another. His songs are nostalgic and classic tales of life’s hardships, from the complex experience of love to drunken shenanigans. Despite his relatively new career, watching Colter Wall is like witnessing something legendary. It’s undeniable that he was made for this work, that these songs were written for someone like him.

The Biltmore is intimate but the close quarters can make things informal. The audience got progressively rowdier as the night wore on. Fans were appreciative, applauding enthusiastically after each song, but the continual chatter was disruptive. One fan took it upon himself to yell “shut up!” when the background noise competed too much with the singer-songwriter. For the acoustics alone, it would be wonderful to see Wall in the Orpheum or the Vogue the next time he’s in town.

Wall is an incredible talent, plain and simple. He isn’t hiding behind anything onstage, no ornate set decoration, no fancy lights — he doesn’t even have a backup band. He’s not the most expressive performer but his stoicism suits his persona. He’s got the talent down and his stories provide a relaxed stage banter.

There’s really not much to say about his music except that it feels like it belongs around a campfire, it feels like home. His voice is magic, his guitar playing is impressive, and he fits seamlessly into the canon of bluesy Americana folk songs that he’s inspired by. This was his first performance in Vancouver and judging by the enthusiastic crowd at the Biltmore on Wednesday, it won’t be his last. Colter Wall’s music won’t ever get old.