The term “power trio” usually evokes images (and memories) of bands like Cream, Rush, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience where a virtuoso lead electric guitarist, heavy booming bassist, and powerful drummer together drive the sonic mayhem forward. But perhaps there is space in the definition of power trio to include a singer-songwriter, pedal steel player, and electric mbira player doubling on percussion who captivate a sold-out roomful of attentive fans with pristine vocals, soothing melodies, and a sense of warmth and intimacy.
On a recent chilly Bellingham evening, Caitlin Canty, Joachim Cooder, and Will Seeders did exactly that at the New Prospect Theatre’s refurbished Lucas Hicks Auditorium. The first night of a short West coast run, Canty and friends played tunes off her newest album, Quiet Flame, in a “sort of” record release performance. Although the album came out in June 2023, she hadn’t had a chance to play the songs in front of people yet. Judging from the crowd’s response, and Caitlin’s nearly constant radiant smile, the wait was more than worth it.
At New Prospect Theatre on Nov. 14, Joachim Cooder (Ry’s son) kicked the evening off with a short set featuring tunes from his 2020 release, Over That Road I’m Bound-The Songs of Uncle Dave Macon (Nonesuch). Cooder is known as a percussionist but he is also an expert electric mbira player.
For those unfamiliar, according to Wikipedia, “Mbira are a family of musical instruments, traditional to the Shona people of Zimbabwe [in 2020, the mbira was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity]. They consist of a wooden board (often fitted with a resonator) with attached staggered metal tines, played by holding the instrument in the hands and plucking the tines with the thumbs (at minimum), the right forefinger (most mbira), and sometimes the left forefinger. Unlike stringed instruments or air-column instruments like flutes, the overtones of a plucked lamella are inharmonic, giving the mbira a characteristic sound. The inharmonic overtones are strongest in the attack and die out rather quickly, leaving an almost pure tone. When a tine is plucked, the adjacent tines also create secondary vibrations that increase the harmonic complexity of an individual note.”
Although wiki entries can be helpful, they don’t hint at the sweetness and purity of the mbira’s tones. During Cooder’s opening set, he used it as a lead instrument but when he returned with Canty the mbira provided beautiful accompaniment to Will Seeders’s mournful pedal steel, and Canty’s pitch-perfect vocals.
And speaking of vocals, Canty’s are reminiscent of a less twangy Dolly Parton with a dash of John Prine world weariness. As described by Eric Pooley in a recent Observer article, Quiet Flame finds “Canty explor[ing] the textures of her mature voice: creases, crannies and a subtle rasp that rescues it from being too pretty. [Inspired by] the lazy acoustic grooves of a 1993 album Jerry Garcia recorded with mandolinist David Grisman, Not for Kids Only…she wanted that vibe for her record. ‘Strip away everything inessential,’ she says. ‘No drummer. No electric instruments. Nothing too complicated.’”
Canty’s come a long way since that day in 2009 when she quit her job and dedicated herself to making music full-time. Originally from Vermont, she earned a degree in biology, moved to New York City and took a day job as an environmental sustainability consultant while making music by night in Lower East Side music halls and bars. In 2015, she and her 1939 Recording King guitar moved to Nashville and she has now completed four full-length albums – Golden Hour (2012), Reckless Skyline (2015), Motel Bouquet (2018), Quiet Flame (2023) — a couple EPs as a solo artist, and recorded with Down Like Silver, her duo project with Peter Bradley Adams. The new album features a couple familiar guests (Sarah Jarosz, Andrew Marlin of Watchhouse) and was recorded live in the studio over four days.
Set list for Caitlin Canty, Bellingham, WA, 11-14-23
The show Tuesday night opened with “Dotted Line” from her 2016 EP, Lost in the Valley, and set the tone for the evening: songs from Canty’s previous albums intermingled with new tunes. “Pull the Moon,” from the new album, with its bluesy syncopation practically begged for bass, drums, and a Clapton inspired solo, but in true Quiet Flame non-complicated fashion, its strength lay in the clarity of the trio’s restrained performance. After two new ballads that showcased her beautiful singing, “I Don’t Think of You” and “Salt Water,” she performed my current favorite Canty tune, “Blue Sky Moon,” the lyrics a declaration of career independence from the demands and expectations of the music industry: “Breakneck boy goes speeding by, in a hellbent race to some finish line, I ain’t going with him.”
Watch Caitlin perform “Blue Moon Sky” live with Brittany Haas, Sarah Jarosz, and Paul Kowert on YouTube.
To finish up the first half of the show, Canty performed “Heart of My Country,” a sobering yet poignant statement about the U.S., its lyrics filled with shimmering images of a beautifully diverse and unique country, only to finish with the lines, “From California’s burning forests to the New York Island, can you hear the chorus of voices asking, where is the heart of my country?”
Watch a solo live performance of “Heart of my Country” by Caitlin Canty on YouTube:
After a one song solo set at the midpoint of the show, an electric guitar did appear, but only in the lyrics of the song that featured Cooder’s percussion. The next song, “Wild Heart,” was preceded by an introduction about wolves howling, presumably inspired by the “ooohs” in the song’s chorus.
As the show began to wind down, Canty performed the title tune off the new album, a gorgeous, short song with beautifully evocative lyrics, “Quiet flame dancing on a window pane, dancing on a window pane” that I’m sure many of us didn’t want to end. Alas, the evening had to end, though, with 2015’s compelling, “Get Up,” segueing into the new album’s last song “Come by the Highway Home.” The bookending of the two songs seemed like an appropriate conclusion for a musician moving forward on her own terms.
Watch Caitlin Canty and Jefferson Hamer perform “Get Up” on Folk Alley Sessions via YouTube.
The absurdity that a folk singer-songwriter, the high lonesome sound of a pedal steel, and a traditional Zimbabwean plucked instrument might be considered a power trio is self-evident…but the subtle and beautiful melodic strength that Canty, Cooder, and Seeders produced proved the truism that the power of music lies not in its volume or spectacle but in the emotional responses of both audience and artist. Canty and her bandmates exchanged smiles and laughter throughout the evening, and as I observed the audience, wide grins on faces and heads bobbing in time, the shared good humor and camaraderie on this cold Bellingham night kept us warm indeed.
Please visit Caitlin Canty’s website for information on future live dates, new music, and videos.
Here are some more photos of Caitlin Canty performing at Bellingham’s New Prospect Theatre on Nov. 14, 2023. All photos courtesy of and copyright Mark Caicedo.