Hannah Epperson’s homecoming show a fine balancing act

Hannah Epperson, Holy Hum, and Omhouse at the Fox Cabaret, 11/18/16

Photo courtesy of MRG Concerts.
Photo courtesy of MRG Concerts.

Hannah Epperson and Toronto’s Omhouse wrapped up their cross-Canada tour with an emotional show at the Fox Cabaret last Friday night. A slew of their favourite Vancouver people turned up for Epperson’s homecoming including her parents and additional opener Andrew Lee, aka Holy Hum.

Omhouse set the evening in motion with a dual guitar sound that resembled shattered glass: the pointy notes and jagged riffs of singer Steven Foster and his “dear friend” Sam Gleason rode up against each other – needled each other – but never quite interlocked. Every so often, the meditative looking Gleason broke from his smiling nirvana into unexpected crackling guitar solos. But this incongruity was one of their best attributes, and at least one member usually carried a prominent melody. The duo was even capable of rocking despite lacking all of the percussion found on their recordings, especially on closer “Gutterbird”, their most up-tempo and riff-oriented song of the night.

Sound and visual artist Andrew Lee also distilled his music, reducing Holy Hum to a solo act at the Fox. Nevertheless, he managed to attain subsuming grandeur. With one hand, he raised tides of electronic ambience and cued tundral bass notes. With the other, he rang out distorted noise from his guitar, plucking and bending his strings and jerking his hand up and down the neck. At one point, he completely abandoned his guitar in favour of the keys and knobs on his various consoles and modulated the resultant sounds via an array of pedals. Ironically, the absence of a backing band made Lee’s performance a more powerful experience: the sonic and physical expressions were all him. Even such grand music seemed intimate – personal – as his body shook while he dissected his guitar.

Lee prefers performing in public spaces and art galleries, but he brought his multimedia sensibility to the Fox too. Video projections of time-lapsed freeways, views of Earth from outer space, and undulating tides enlivened his soundscapes. He strives to simultaneously evoke emotions ranging from happiness to sadness – a bittersweet mix – and he achieved just that by coupling ambience-backed images of a lonely, far-off planet with an up-close view of him sharing pieces of himself.

On Hannah Epperson’s new album UPSWEEP, released this past September, she seeks common experiential ground while singing from the divergent perspectives of Iris and Amelia, two characters from a screenplay she’s been working on for the past year. UPSWEEP is further divided into a first half in which Epperson takes on the smooth voice of Amelia as electronic pop swirls around her and a second half in which “Iris” sings creaky, tip-toe-quiet versions of the same five songs.

Despite the dichotomized musical styles, Epperson partially merged them together live. Omhouse reconvened as her backing band with Gleason having reprised his role as guitarist while Steven stationed himself behind the drums. His kit was minimal: a single snare, a single cymbal, and an electronic pad. Even his kick drums were electronic. But she combined those more synthetic sounds with teetering, precarious violins, both looped and live, and the same straining vocals that draw so much more focus to her lyrics on UPSWEEP’s second half. On Circles”, she squeeezed out as many syllables as she could from her words. And instead of allowing her final notes to dissipate gracefully, Epperson frequently ended with a sudden dramatic stroke of her bow, causing the song to drop off like walking off of the side of a cliff.

Foster’s minimal set-up and Gleason’s lone guitar were perfectly adequate for the performance. Any more instrumentation may have detracted from Epperson’s intricate layering of her violin. “Whisper into your neighbours’ ears,” she gently urged fans before starting her first song. “It’s that kind of show.” Moreover, Foster offered just enough percussive variation with his apparatuses that included a brush, a tom, and of course, a pair of sticks.

Besides some initial milling about at the bar, the audience was mesmerized since Epperson’s finger-picked opening notes. After a few minutes, once everyone got a drink in their hand, like everyone else, they remained reverently quiet for the rest of the night (except to applaud after each song). She repeatedly commended everyone for “obliterating every Vancouver stereotype” by staying respectfully silent and not saying a word. “Wow. I have so much joy in my heart right now,” she said looking like she was fighting back tears. “Let’s take it to the end. I can hear my violin, and it’s awesome!” She spoke in a protectively hushed, hoarse voice that sounded like it was all she could muster after a long tour. But it was enough: she could hear her violin; we could hear her heart.

Even her hushed voice worked to her advantage though and not only in cultivating intimacy between her and her already rapt audience. She drew everyone in by speaking lowly then spiked her voice, blowing the room open and sending goosebumps up their arms and neck. On “Brother”, a “sad” song written for a missing person – and the crown jewel of her set – she hit some vast, bass-y depths to match the song’s heavy content. As Epperson shot from whispering to yelling, Gleason interjected with discordant guitars that, like her voice, created a sense of dynamic range.

Epperson closed with “Farthest Distance”. She created her own percussion by patting and flicking her strings and running her knuckles along the body of her violin. Although she wrote the song as a plea for silence after Charlie Hebdo – an expression of feeling futile mourning in 140 characters and thousands of miles away – at the Fox, she offered “Farthest Distance” as a thank you for the audience’s silent attention and for the opportunity to make music for everyone in the room.

Omhouse joined Hannah Epperson for her Canadian dates, which took them as far as a legion in Antigonish, Nova Scotia – the legion in Antigonish, Nova Scotia – but she had been touring extensively in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and more since early September. Playing alongside Omhouse and Holy Hum, her self-professed two favourite musical projects in Canada, in front of a packed house at the Fox, she could hardly have had a better homecoming. Balancing relationships with work can be challenging, but Epperson seems to have found the key by making art with her friends and performing with them too.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu