James Keelaghan has long been considered one of Canada’s greatest singer-songwriters.
Dave Marsh, the eminent Rolling Stone critic, went so far as to call him Canada’s best songwriter.
He earned these accolades with a much-loved body of work that now spans four decades and includes more than a dozen albums. These recordings have earned him a Juno Award, a Canadian Folk Music Award and a loyal following that spans across North America and extends into the UK, Scandinavia and Australia.
But the man who gave us amazing songs like Kiri’s Piano, Cold Missouri Waters and Fires of Calais has been out of the loop for a little while, leaving fans wondering when he might release something new.
Well, that wait is now over.
Keelaghan has just released Second Hand, an outstanding new collection of songs that features both solo efforts and songwriting collaborations with several other acclaimed songwriters, including Prince Edward Island’s Catherine MacLellan , who co-wrote Walk On, the bluesy and upbeat track that kicks off the album.
The 10-song set also includes collaborations with Dave Gunning, Lynn Miles, JD Edwards and Cara Luft, as well as a beautiful cover of Jesse Winchester’s Eulalie.
Produced in Montreal by Bill Garrett, Second Hand is perhaps Keelaghan’s most personal collection of songs to date, whose past endeavors have featured a number of historically themed songs like Kiri’s Piano, which dealt with the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
Why the change?
“I had a conversation with Jon Brooks,” Keelaghan said recently. “Jon felt that if I was going to write about history, I had to write about a more personal type of story. So that really came out on this album. There’s a lot more personal stories, and a little more personal history.
But this story is not exclusively about what happened to Keelaghan himself.
“Just A Letter is drawn from the life story of a friend of mine who was the victim of an assault when she was younger, and now every year she has to relive that as letters come from the parole board of the person who abused them. Every year they bravely write a letter to the parole board reminding them of what they had to go through because of it. To see this wonderful, sweet, amazing person live that every year, the song is about that, parole and victimization.
Other songs deal with topics like the loss of a loved one, keeping a cool head while trying to navigate a rapidly changing world where many things that were familiar to us have disappeared and the powerful hold certain squares and some people have on us.
- Besides being an artist, James Keelaghan has worn a number of other hats in recent years.
- Since 2011, he has been Artistic Director of the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario.
- And since 2018, he has also been artistic director of the Stewart Park Festival in Perth.
One of the most moving plays, Before The Morning Sun, chronicles the final hours and thoughts of a man awaiting execution for killing the banker who took his family’s land after two years of failed harvests. .
The songs on this disc have been beautifully crafted by Keelaghan and his collaborators, and his rich baritone voice is as smooth as ever.
Keelaghan was joined in the studio for Second Hand by longtime musical friend David Woodhead on bass, as well as keyboardist Bob Stagg, guitarists Bob Cohen, Dave Clarke and Joe Grass. Backing vocals were provided by Pharis and Jason Romero and Kelly Prescott.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Doug Gallant is a well-known freelance writer and connoisseur of a wide variety of music. His On Track column will appear in The Guardian every other Thursday. To comment on what he has to say or offer suggestions for future reviews, email him at [email protected]