A voice that sounds like it’s lived a lifetime’s worth of heartache — if that’s not a solid foundation for an indie folk singer-songwriter, then possessing the skills of a world-class multi-instrumentalist would most certainly assist those efforts.
Leif Vollebekk began playing instruments as a little kid in Ottawa, and it would appear that the countless hours the 36-year-old spent training served as a worthwhile and illuminating runway for the music he’s offering the world today. Leif offered that music to a receptive audience at Union Stage in DC recently.
Now based in Montreal, Vollebekk has four studio albums in his catalogue, and each of those has helped hone his voice and his instrumental presentation to make him one of the most heart-stopping and endearing performers and songwriters alive.
Stream Leif Vollebekk’s 2021 cut of live takes, New Waves (Live Recordings ’19-’21), via Spotify:
A masterful pianist, amazing with both the acoustic and electric guitar, Vollebekk’s voice is unquestionably one of the most romantically stirring, texturally rich to be heard. And he along with a humble but marvelously skilled group of supporting musicians — who behaved like his dear friends — would treat an audience at Union Stage on April 1 to an intimate set of elegant and pleasing music they might very well carry with them forever.
Situating himself at the Yamaha piano downstage right, he snapped his fingers, swayed and then began the first few notes of “Into the Ether,” from his adored 2017 release Twin Solitude. A mesmerizing and prototypical cut from his songbook, it showed off his impassioned, dramatic voice, with heightened sections of gorgeous crooning, as he rolled his hands over the keys below it.
Upon finishing, showing the ability to fast exit the deep contemplation required of such a performance, he immediately blurted into the mic “my stool game is off” and he spun a few times on the circular seat, got up, pulled it up and down, a moment of adjustment. His mates — keyboardist Parker Shper, bassist Michael Felber and drummer Martin Dosh — were themselves entertained by the scene, and they simply smiled at him affectionately as he got himself situated.
“I’m used to spinning,” his voice fading and coming back as he twirled and found the right rotational torque. “There. We’re gonna be ok, ladies and gentlemen. I can spin now.”
For those who’d not yet seen Leif in person, it was a revelatory and abating moment that showed him to be plainspoken, relatable and genial in his way of addressing the crowd — those in the room didn’t just feel invited into his music, but welcomed by him as a kind and sharply witty man.
Watch the official video for Leif Vollebekk’s track “I’m Not Your Lover” via his official YouTube channel:
Beginning with Leif’s whispered chanting over thick bass and a sweltering drumline, “Into the Ether,” also from Twin Solitude, disarmed the room and further coaxed listeners into his touchingly eloquent realm — some of it real, some maybe a dream, it’s territory that already feels as definite and as authentic as that pioneered by the most notable singer-songwriters of all time. While any given lyric in one of Leif’s songs is worthy of dissection, here a particular line stood out: “I wish my tears were in your eyes, and your eyes was on me.”
Despite the wise and weathered offerings in his lyrics, Leif — who studied philosophy at the University of Ottawa — carried himself with a youthful zest and a sense of humor larger than the stage he was on. After moving from the piano over to the smaller Wurlitzer, Vollebekk hopped up and grabbed one of his several electric guitars, and strapping a harmonica into a neck holder, he began humming and strumming a song, but stopped himself.
“Got a Bryan Adams thing going on up here,” he admitted, then hum/sang a few lines of “Summer of ’69,” and stopped again. “It’s dangerous — see, now you can’t get it out of your head, right?”
But after the quick tangent, he set his focus and began what would become a spiritually consuming and resonant version of one of his most remarkable song creations. “Apalachee Plain” was featured on his fall 2019 studio jewel, New Ways, an album that no doubt provided solace and maybe even hope to listeners who made this a pandemic go-to — possibly using it like a pillow or brace of sorts. This song in particular is one that any listener could score as the backdrop to their own heartbreaking, spiritual experiences:
“Is it wrong to call your name / On the Apalachee Plain? / When I know it’s been called / A thousand times / If at all / Is it wrong / To call your name / Once again?”
Stream Leif Vollebekk’s 2019 studio album, New Ways, via Spotify:
After an alluring take on “I’m Not Your Love,” not his only to drift toward R&B resonance, Leif set himself back on the stool, did a quarter turn, and then with all sincerity asked of the audience:
“Was that too much? Not too depressing? No?”
People told him he was full of it, to keep going.
“Well it’s so quiet, it’s like you’re scared shitless or something.”
All the laughs, but along with that was marvel at a supreme talent and compassionate spirit who was earnestly inquiring in real time about the emotional response to his art and expression.
He’d introduce his band, with whom he cracked jokes all night, highlighting a meaningful yet casual connection. He toyed with Felber about his “grout suit,” a grout-colored, full-bodied sweat suit he chose for the show, and he and Shper continued inside gags that have been running all tour — “He’s kind of blowing my mind right now,” Leif said as Parker giggled. “He said that joke yesterday so he’s doing this sort of micro, long gag. I’m blown away he can sneak it in every night.”
Like a conversational bartender, Leif would amplify his banter with the crowd through an ongoing discussion obsessing over the differences and similarities between The Illusionist and The Prestige, two Hollywood films long subjected to this treatment. As he went on about the plot scenarios and the confusion of it all, one ticketholder feigned spoiler disappointment, as if the movies were soon-to-be-premiered in theaters — not released back in 2006.
“RELAX,” he scolded with big eyes. “My mom watched it (The Prestige), we’re like two scenes in and she goes ‘they’re twins.’”
The room cracked up, and he’d deftly work those motion picture references back into the set discussion like a veteran stand-up comedian.
After an absolutely stunning version of “Phaedrus” from New Ways, the audience would get a glimpse into Leif’s pandemic influences, as the band played a brief but downright nasty teaser of “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin, a band he’d dug into heavily during isolated times.
Eventually, he’d break out new material, including a well-received test run of a track he’s calling “Southern Star,” followed by two more new songs that only made the night that much more commemorative.
Sharing in his love for thoughtfully composed music, he somehow got onto a sidetrack about James Bond theme song compositions, and letting himself go with it, he explained his love for Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” ultimately performing what amounted to a cover snippet, drawing big cheers from the crowd as he just repeated his initial question to himself in all seriousness: “How did she write that song for a JAMES BOND movie?”
A musician needs to have the respect and buy-in of their team on stage with them, and it was obvious Leif had that and more, as the performance would eventually serve up two of the most enticing and seductive songs from New Ways, closing out the set with “Hot Tears” — an addictive track with hip-hop flair — and the essential and fanciful groove “Transatlantic Flight.”
Leif, Parker, Michael and Martin returned, of course, to the stage, and after the band leader thanked those on hand for their attentiveness while he performed, the enduring evening culminated with superb editions of two more favorites, an acoustic version of “Rest,” showing off Vollebekk’s exact, careful picking, and then the nostalgic, intoxicating “Elegy.”
With a voice of unmatched transportive strength and appeal, Vollebekk creates songs that, while born out of his own vision, can provide rich, sweeping context for anyone willing to listen and let the songs move them.
Dynamic with his sound thanks to the arsenal of instruments he can play — listen to the country influences on 2014’s North Americana as further evidence — and leveraging a productive bond with outstanding musicians like the crew he brought to Union Stage, Vollebekk is cementing himself as one of indie folk’s most important and charismatic figures.
Into the Ether
Big Sky Country
Never Be Back
I’m Not Your Lover
Heartbreaker (Led Zeppelin teaser)
Southern Star (properly identified new song)
Unidentified new song
Nobody Does It Better (Carly Simon teaser)
Unidentified new song
Here are images of Leif Vollebekk as well as the night’s opener, La Force, performing at Union Stage in Washington DC on April 1, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.