At the old bricked tavern Call The Office in London Ontario, Matt Bahen, lead singer-songwriter of the power trio The Schomberg Fair, sits at the bar with beer in hand after unloading his banjo, guitar, harmonica, cigarettes and other necessities to headline tonight’s show. Bahen describes the sound of the new record Mercy, released November 8th, as “boutique.” It crosses over genre parameters of psychedelic-folk-rock-gospel-country and punk with strong roots in pre-war blues.
Named after the agricultural spring fair in the hometown of Bahen and Nate Sidon (bass/vocals), an event of “liquor, mayhem, close friends and local pubs,” the band’s original inclination was “a tip of a hat to where [they’re] from.”
“Mercy is a completely different project than the first album released, A Pickup Full of Empties” states Bahen, “We never played a show, mostly it was just to get gigs, we didn’t have a drummer at the time – it was just Nate [Sidon] on bass and vocals.” The thunderous drumbeat of Pete Garthside solidified the group, “we became better at merging Nate’s punk-rock metal background with a more traditional blues/gospel sound.” Bahen explains.
Last November The Schomberg Fair toured Canada for their record Gospel, released October 2009. The record was inspired by true stories from Bahen’s day job as an outreach worker and drew on themes like the “inclination to destroy oneself, the desire to be saved, and the hope of better things ahead”. The new Mercy EP draws on the same themes and ideas as Gospel, but rather than focusing on the micro stories of the individual, the ideas are expressed at the macro level.
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are the next stops for the trio on this years tour, “I’m looking forward to going back to the east coast, they are all fire, they always treated us well.” Along with drinking locally brewed Moosehead beer in Saint John, Bahen’s favourite feature of touring is the social network of bands and bartenders that is created, “It secures us couches to crash on province wide,” he jokes.
Heading “home” to Schomberg, a village about 30 minutes north-west of Toronto, to perform for familiar faces is a regular affair for the band. The Schomberg Fair has become a staple on the bill of an annual field party music fest called Pdotstock during Canada Day long weekend.
Festival host and Schomberg townie Ryan Edwards, aged 23, raves that “The amount of energy [they] radiate on stage is unmatched by many upstart bands these days.” Edwards has been a fan since The Schomberg Fair’s young career began, observing as their music took on new forms while staying true to their gospel roots.
Bahen doesn’t have a preference when it comes to big versus small performances, as long as the vibe is positive. However, The Schomberg Fair does have aspirations to expand and tour new places, “we have played in the States a little bit and the audience was responsive, we’d like to go back, we’d also like to tour Europe.” Opening for a solid headliner would be the ideal breakthrough for the band, “It’s hard rolling into a town when no-one knows who you are especially when your sound isn’t niche” acknowledges Bahen.
Taking a last swig of his beer, Bahen prepares himself mentally for the performance. “Listening to a record is a much different experience than a live performance” he tells me, “generally the lyrics talk about awful rotten things, but the collective provides the opportunity to celebrate them.”
Tonight’s crowd is humble, yet onstage Bahen enthusiastically strums his banjo while Nate’s low tenor and Pete’s smooth thundering voice provide aesthetic contrast with Bahen’s hardy bellowing. Mixing up the set-list with old songs and introducing new songs from Mercy, The Schomberg Fair reveals their ability to preach dark content through galloping upbeat rhythms. The crowd is drunkenly satisfied with the trio’s close, an improvised, unrefined, raucous speed-gospel shuffle followed with a shot of whiskey.
You can listen to The Schomberg Fair over at CBC Radio 3.