Fire Up the Fiddle

Vancouver was hit by a tornado of fiddle and banjo fury on Tuesday night. L.A. bluegrass punk band, Old Man Markley finished up their Canadian tour here at the Biltmore and they tore the place up! It was by far the liveliest, most exciting and fast-paced show I’ve ever seen at the Biltmore, but it wasn’t just Old Man Markley that got the intensity up and tempo flying. The show had two openers, Jesse Lebourdais and Vancouver’s own local heroes, Cornshed.

Compared to the latter, Jesse Lebourdais was quite low-key with just his singing, guitar-playing, and banjo accompaniment for part of the set. Still, he succeeded to move the crowd with his passionate performance and guitar style. The crowd could relate to Lebourdais’ songs about being young and broke, living in Vancouver, being hung over, and falling in and out of love. Lebourdais cranked the volume with some scream-singing, and chose to sing parts of each song off the microphone. Arguably, this made for a more intimate performance for those nearest the stage, but for those of us who were a little further back, it resulted in large gaps in the vocals and missed lyrics.

Cornshed was up next, and these guys really got the show moving. I’ve never seen anything like it – they brought the intensity up from 70 to 102 in just a few bars. Five extreme musicians with big personalities who let their own breed of untamed instrumental music out of its cage on the stage (and on the dance floor too). Each member of Cornshed took a turn rocking out with their instrument on the dance floor. Even the drummer Marc Lovisa charged the floor with two of his drums and got some drum-banging assistance from an eager fan before setting up at the far corner of the dance floor to change things up. Their performance was exciting and ferocious – organized chaos. It was built on pure enthusiasm and love. Their music is this eccentric blend of Celtic, folk, bluegrass, funk, punk rock and instrumental, and each instrument is given agency and its own unique voice within each song. Fiddler Tegan Ceschi-Smith ripped it up on her solos and had the crowd hollering.

The turnout was great, the dance floor was packed, and everyone was clapping, stomping, head-banging, crowd-surfing, and moshing like true punk rock fans. Although neither Cornshed nor Old Man Markley are solely “punk”, they are definitely both influenced and inspired by it. Both bands have their own folk and bluegrass flavours that make them a little bit softer, sweeter, and a tiny bit country. With Cornshed it’s the distinct combination of fiddle and mandolin, but in Old Man Markley it’s a more complex, layered blend of fiddle, banjo, bass, guitar, washboard, autoharp, and even kazoo that makes their sound so unusual and intriguing.

Old Man Markley’s lead vocalist John Carey has a low, smooth, unwavering voice that is enhanced by the melodies of the strings, especially the fiddle and autoharp. On the Biltmore stage, Old Man Markley was super fun to watch because they are another high-energy group and a really big band on a small stage. Almost all of the members of Old Man Markley sing back up, so the performance got pretty intimate with all of the mic sharing.

The banjo is the true backbone to all of Old Man Markley’s lively music, and John Rosen, is one solid banjo player. They had everyone’s feet flying a mile a minute on the dance floor with all of their fast-paced songs. The show really flew by. At the end of their set we all cheered so loudly that Old Man Markley came back to the stage for not one, not two, not three, but for a six-song encore. Give it up for the Old Man.