Great Lake Swimmers, Kate Maki, Dive In

“Hi, I’m Kate Maki and I’m from Canada. Is anyone else here from Canada?”

The fresh-faced singer pushes her bangs out of her face, and surveys the audience at Johnny Brenda’s. There are a few vague hoots and hollers.

“Some of you? Oh, cool.” She pauses. “Is anyone here from Sudbury, Ontario? Because that’s where I’m from. Land of the world’s largest nickel. Yup, that’s home.”

The audience chuckles, and Maki smiles, and bursts into song. It’s a chilly, rainy Wednesday, but the vibe inside JB’s is warm and welcoming, and an unusually large crowd has gathered to watch Maki and fellow Canadian headliners the Great Lake Swimmers.

Local folk collective Deadfolk open, offering their signature blend of quiet, twinkling melodies, and intimate, moody psych-rock. The band first impressed me when I caught them opening for Woven Hand back in October – they sat, 7 in a row, in a semi-circle on the stage and traded various stringed and percussion instruments back and forth, while projecting that special brand of meditative serenity.

But tonight, they’re only 4 (guitar, drums, keys, harmonium), and their short set (barely 20 minutes) seems like it’s missing an element – strings perhaps? Nevertheless, Deadfolk know how to draw a crowd – I’ve never seen so many people gathered in front for an opener!

After Deadfolk’s short but stirring set, it’s all about Maki, the strikingly earnest and good-natured folk goddess whose 2008 album, On High, earned her Pitchfork nods and her first “international” fan base. Live, she’s friendly and charming, her voice plaintive and clear as a bell, especially on tracks like “Blue morning” and “Lose my mind.”

“I need you guys to help me out here,” she tells the audience, teaching them a simple chorus. They try it a few times, with growing enthusiasm.

“Not bad,” says Maki, pleased. “Some of you are a little off beat, but I like it!” She grins.

Great Lake Swimmers close out the show, incorporating the gentle sounds of the first two acts into an intimate and rolling collection of wistful folk songs.

Their amiable calm (especially on tracks like “Pulling on a line” and “Palmistry”) marks a departure from their previous sound, which was more melancholy and brooding (so much so that All Music Guide labeled them “sadcore.”) I have to admit I like the new Great Lake Swimmers better – the delicate quirkiness of pop numbers makes the tender moments (like “Concrete Heart,” which GLS front man Tony Dekker performs solo) seem more poignant and deliberate.

Great Lake Swimmers play for well over an hour, but the time seems to pass in just a few minutes.  It’s easy to get caught up in their dreamy tunes, and it’s always a wonderful ride.