Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
It’s been a busy fall for Blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Chris Antonik and vocalist Ashley Belmer. Partners in music and in life, they are wrapping up their first-ever tour of Eastern Canada. The Northwood Acoustic Tour (named for the venue where the two had their first date) presents the duo performing Mr. Antonik’s music in a new, simplified way. Since the tour began in October, they have performed in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, and Ontario. They perform their final set in Montreal on December 1. The program consists mostly of Mr Antonik’s catalog, “unplugged, plus some really nice country/blues covers chosen by Ashley. A nice mix,” he smiles. Presenting the material in an acoustic setting allows him to veer away from his “typical approach” of “searing guitar solos”. Instead, the emphasis is on their voices: blending vocal harmonies with guitar stylings, and mining the lyrics for narrative and emotion.
Mr Antonik is well known in music circles across North America and the UK, having performed at major international blues festivals. His accolades include nominations for Recording of the Year for his self-produced Monarch, and Songwriter of the Year at the 2018 Maple Blues Awards. While on a recent US tour, he performed with Blues legend Buddy Guy for the second time at his club in Chicago. While many know his partner Ms Belmer for her performing-arts PR and graphic-design talents, they can be surprised to learn that she is also a gifted singer and actor who performs in Montreal and Toronto. She has performed with the Lyric Theatre Singers and the Montreal Jubilation Choir, and is currently a member and soloist for Newchoir Toronto. “When Ashley and I started seeing each other, one of the things that we bonded over immensely was music. Playing it, listening to it, talking about it,” Mr Antonik recalls. “Given how talented Ashley is as a vocalist, after a while, it just made sense to try and do something on stage together as a duo.” While he normally presents his music in full-band, electric blues-rock format, this “more intimate thing” has turned out to be a “real thrill”.
The newness of the Northwood Tour’s spare format has resonated warmly with audiences: “people have responded well to our chemistry, and to a more stripped-down, singer-songwriter approach to the songs. There are not many guitar solos on this tour, which provides a great opportunity for people to hear Ashley’s beautiful voice.” And the tour’s intimacy has yielded additional unexpected delights. For instance, when the audience at a Newfoundland show in October discovered that the show date fell on Ms Belmer’s birthday, “they surprised her with a cake!”
The tour has been a success on many levels. First, Mr Antonik and Ms Belmer have successfully woven their performances into a regular schedule of full-time work and regular clients. It has also been personally rewarding. “Touring is hard work, and we have survived,” laughs Mr Antonik. “Working with your partner can have its challenges, no matter what line of work it is, but I think we have become stronger as a couple, and even closer. I love hearing and looking at her on-stage when she sings. It’s awe-inspiring…. She’s taught me a few things!” he winks, for instance crediting her with improving his vocal range.
Following the final performance in Montreal, Mr. Antonik heads into some welcome “down time” to start writing “new music for his next electric album.” Happily, the duo is not a one-off. Their live collaboration prompted the two to do some writing together this winter . . . and they have their eyes on the long game. “The idea is to bring the duo act to some Canadian folk festivals in summer 2019 (in parallel to my electric act touring blues and rock festivals).” This bodes well for audiences in parts of Canada outside of the Northwood Tour stops. So if you’re in the Montreal area, make your way to Bootlegger on Dec. 1. If not, keep your eyes peeled and fingers crossed for a 2019 introduction to the unique stylings of this dynamic duo.
News You Can Use
What: Northwood Acoustic Tour, performed by Ashley Belmer and Chris Antonik
When: Saturday, December 1, 2018
Where: Bootlegger, 3481 Boul. St-Laurent (2 étage), Montréal, Quebec
Info and Tickets: chrisantonik.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine