ST JAMES HALL i
3214 West 10th Ave, Kitsilano
Accessible All ages
People watching. It’s the ultimate pastime of the introvert: spending time alone in a crowd, contemplating the dynamics of the characters around you, reflecting on their emotional lives, reflecting on your emotional life. On Empty Train, three-time Juno winner David Francey elevates the practice to high art.
The long-time manual labourer-turned-revered singer-songwriter populates Empty Train with the lonely, faceless patrons of a Yukon night club (“Mirrorball”); hospital patients who “might get home but you never know” (“Hospital”); working class heroes in the form of sailors, signalers and stokers (“Crucible”); and women seeking to escape their circumstances through the sex trade (“Blue Girl”). And then there’s the man who struck up a conversation with Francey on a flight in California: a real life California football coach heading to the Holy Land, hoping to cheer up Palestinian children for a moment with his handful of magic tricks (“Holy Land”).
Francey contemplates each of their circumstances with his sensitive, weathered vocals, accompanied by beautifully spare acoustic arrangements, courtesy of long-time collaborators Mark Westberg (guitars), Chris Coole (banjo and guitar), and Darren McMullen (mandolin, bouzouki, etc.). Fiddlers John Showman (New Country Rehab) and Rachel Davis (Còig) guest, along with Francey’s son, Colin, who contributes some guitar and backing vocals.
As he has for eleven straight albums now, David draws listeners into the emotional power of his stories using nothing but his incisive way with language, his ear for a catchy melody, and his deep and obvious empathy for people who are struggling – no fancy production or orchestration required. In fact, the album was recorded in a rustic cabin North of Havelock, Ontario.
Francey, as many by now know, has been documenting the lives of the poor and working class almost his entire life. A proud physical labourer from a proud working class Scottish immigrant family, he spent more than 30 years toiling in the Toronto rail yards, the Yukon bush and the Eastern Townships’ construction sites – hitchhiking across Canada at least three times in the process – all the while quietly chronicling in song the triumphs and hardships of life in the trenches.
He played no instruments, never aspired to a career in music, and only reluctantly took to the stage at the age of 45 under pressure from friends and family. The reaction was instant. Within two years, he’d won his first Juno, was touring internationally, and got to thinking that perhaps he should quit his construction job and try this music thing full time for a while.
Since then, he’s won two more Junos and been nominated a total of five times. His songs have been covered by the Del McCoury Band, the Rankins, the Barra McNeils and Tracy Grammer – among countless others – and his “Skating Rink” video aired several times on Hockey Day in Canada, earning Francey the fandom of host Ron MacLean. He performs regularly at some of the world’s most prestigious music festivals – Tönder in Denmark, Port Fairy in Australia – and he’s been the subject of a nationally-televised feature documentary (Burning Bright).
He has also won the respect of songwriters across the musical spectrum for his seemingly effortless ability to turn out songs that seem destined to become classics. “Junkie’s Heart” on Empty Train is a co-write with two such fans: Colin and John-Angus MacDonald of the roots rock outfit the Trews. Long ago, the Georgia Straight called Francey “The closest thing Canada has to Woody Guthrie.” More recently, Exclaim wrote, “It can be argued that David Francey has had more impact than any old-school Canadian folk songsmith since the late great Stan Rogers.”
Now more than 15 years into his career, with not a miss among his eleven albums, it won’t be long before Francey himself becomes a standard-bearer for the next generation of promising songwriters.