The venue is packed; it's the final event of the Ottawa Writers Festival, and the audience atmosphere is a mix of anticipation for the Songwriters' Circle, and regret that the whole thing will soon be over. Alan Neal of CBC's All In A Day introduces the theme of the night: the Stage Name Summit. Sure enough, all of the guests usually perform under stage names. Tonight will be a bit more informal, as we learn how these monikers came into being (and see some incredible musical prowess along the way).
The evening, it turns out, is to be divided into three “rounds”, each one having its own theme. Round one: perform any song about a name (or involving names thematically). First to perform is Oh Susanna (born Suzie Ungerleider), whose song “Zoey” is delivered with strident, alt-country tones and music-box delicate guitar accompaniement. Next to the mic is Socalled (Josh Dolgin), whose plan to perform “Richi”, a particularly angry song about heartbreak, has to be derailed briefly due to technical difficulties. Socalled is up to the challenge however, and bangs out a sidesplitting cover of Ira Gershwin's “Tchaikovsky” until the sound crew can get his equipment working. Joey “Shithead” Keithley (original last name “Keighley”, pronounced with a “th”), frontman for D.O.A., regales the audience with a ballad about early 20th century BC coal mining union martyr Ginger Goodwin. The ground-breaking punk artist, acoustic guitar plastered with a “This Machine Kills Fascists” decal, sounds like a counter-cultural Gordon Lightfoot giving the finger to the establishment. Masia One (Mei Xian Lim), whose sound equipment is also out of commission, instructs the audience to accompany her with a boom-clap, as she performs “Model Minority” a capella. Finishing up round one is Snailhouse (Mike Feuerstack), who pulls no punches in getting to the sentimental, low-key, introspective tune “Homesick”.
Round two invites the musicians to perform their first song (performed or recorded) under their current stage name. Oh Susanna starts it off with “Crooked Down the Road” from her first EP, confident and soulful despite her assertion of not having played the song in about 10 years. Socalled breaks out a track from his album “The So Called Seder” entitled “Chad Gadya” - Yiddish for “One Little Goat”. His fusion of hip-hop beats with klezmer melody keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, despite having no clue what the lyrics mean. Joe Keithley explains why his earliest material may not be the most edifying – consisting mainly of repetitive swear words and little content – and instead gives an acoustic rendition of D.O.A. classic “The Enemy”. Masia One follows up (her sound equipment finally working) with “Split Second Time” - her Much Music debut – switching it up midway through by instructing her DJ, DJ 2 Creamz to change the backing track. Snailhouse rounds it off with a twist: rather than performing his first Snailhouse tune, he gives a preview of his new album – the first to be released under his actual name, Michael Feuerstack.
Between rounds, the winner of the All In A Day songwriting contest gets a chance to perform. Each artist provided, in advance, a single word. The winning song had to contain all 5 words: hospital, important, ninja, willfull, and Agamemnon. The winner was Cape Breton musician Brett Maclean, with his harmonica-infused, folk-heavy entry “Why Can't Everybody Get Along".
In Round three, the songwriters have to showcase a song with a 4 syllable word in the title – though most of them have to stretch the definition of “4 syllable word” to meet the requirements. Oh Susanna follows the rule to the letter (to the syllable?) with her song “Alabaster”. Socalled joins in on piano, and the audience lets out a contented sigh. This sets the tone for the remainder of the evening, as gradually, the musicians become more and more comfortable collaborating onstage. By the end of the event, the musicians are all adding their own improvisational touch to a raucous cover of “Taking Care of Business”. The audience sends them (and the Ottawa Writers Festival) off with resounding applause, and the lights come back up. It's a cheerful end to a wonderful festival, and as we all part ways, we're sorry it's over – but not sorry that it was, that it happened.