Miss Emily – Live at the Isabel
CD: 15 Songs, 57 Minutes
Styles: Torch Singer Blues, Ensemble Blues, Live Album
“Simply beautiful.” Those two words succinctly encapsulate the fifth CD from Canadian chanteuse Miss Emily, a compilation of several performances Live at the Isabel. It includes selections from her In Between album release (2017), Miss Emily Sings Kingston II (2018), and Miss Emily in Concert (2019 and 2020). With powerhouse torch-singing pipes and a stage presence that wows crowds in person and at home, it will only be a matter of time before Miss Emily Fennell – 2020 Maple Blues Awards Female Vocalist of the Year, New Artist of the Year and Sapphire Canadian Blues Music Video Award winner – makes it big in the United States. Her lyrics are profound. Her passion washes over you in waves during one song, then blasts you like a space heater on the next. Her rapport with the audience is audible and palpable. To top it all off, her diction is spot-on. Some torch singers go overboard on flashy costumes and vocal vibrato, but Miss Emily keeps it real. “Water ain’t my kind of drink,” she quips when she reminds everyone that other beverages aren’t allowed in the Isabel Rader Auditorium!
At county fairs, instead of emulating Whitney Houston or Celine Dion like her peers but channeling Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, she belted out song choices that belied her age. Those traditional influences would be the foundation of a career characterized by fearless honesty and a constant connection to the roots of popular music.
Along the way, she acquired an unparalleled work ethic by playing night after night in bars along Ontario’s 401 corridor while refining her songwriting and gaining a loyal following. This approach paid off as she grew her audience and advanced to theatre and festival appearances with performances at Montreal Jazz Fest, Harvest Jazz and Blues, Ottawa Bluesfest, and Beaches Jazz Festival in Toronto.
Accompanying Miss Emily (lead vocals, piano, acoustic and electric guitar) are Van Sheen, Rob Baker, and James McKenty on guitar; Gord Sinclair and Seamus Cowan on electric and upright bass and background vocals; Zak Colbert on electric bass and electric guitar; Rob Radford on drums; Benni Vander on organ, piano and background vox; Jon “Bunny” Stewart on sax and backup vox; Spencer Evans on piano; Sean Jensen on drums, and Kelly Prescott and Chad Murphy on more background vocals.
The album stars off with a smooth swath of ensemble sound on “Sometimes It’s Better to Lose.” The musicians go all out, none overpowering the others and letting their leading lady lead, like she’s meant to. As great as this opener is, it’s not the best love song, IMO. That honor is a two-way tie between “Three Words” (track four) and “My Friend” (track eleven). The former is a stark and sultry reminder not to be careless with one’s declarations of love: “Be sure in the words you choose to say. In the moment, you’ll be weak. The weight of those three words…” Gorgeous piano completes one of 2020’s best torch offerings. “My Friend” is a different take on love, not between romantic partners, but between confidants. When a friendship goes sour because “people grow and people change, people can’t pretend,” the feelings of loss are as keen as those of a breakup.
Upbeat numbers include the rocker “Land of Greed,” feminist anthem “No,” and the kick-azz closer “Hold Back the River,” a nearly acapella gospel tune where the audience claps along.
In simple terms, Miss Emily’s Live at the Isabel is simply beautiful!