Sherman and Matthew’s Winter Adventure: Two Folk Performers Set Out to Play Newfoundland in a New Way

Photo by Colin Peddle
Two Borealis Music Prize finalists sought out a new and more intimate way to tour the island. And the tour ends here in St. John's
Photo by Colin Peddle
Photo by Colin Peddle

Article by Ryan Belbin

There’s an established tradition of the folk singer, travelling from town to town with a guitar, playing songs, telling stories, and staying with the locals.
Circuits exist all across Canada, but it’s only now that two of the biggest up-and-coming names in local folk/trad music have loaded a restored Volvo with instruments and set out to do the same here, during the coldest time of the year.

The Winter Island Tour, spearheaded by Sherman Downey and Matthew Byrne, sets a new tone. Downey released his second recording 2013 with his band, the Ambiguous Case, while Byrne, in addition to singing and playing in the Dardanelles, released his second solo album last summer. The two of them will share the stage in intimate venues throughout March, lending something unique to each other’s repertoire. “We’re playing the whole show together,” Downey explained. “I’m going to give a nice traditional a cappella tune a go… and Matthew is bringing what he has to the table. There’s one song, ‘The Calling’ [from Downey’s The Sun in Your Eyes] where Matthew is going to be doing a reel in the middle of it, because it works!”

The two of them discussed the idea at the MusicNL conference in Downey’s musical backyard, Corner Brook, last October. “We’ve played house concerts before, where you’re really up close and personal with the audience, and you get to talk about the songs, and you learn that people appreciate it. It’s not like a bar or a festival, where you have to get out and play the music and you don’t get to interact too much with the audience,” Downey said. That interaction includes staying with local host families and accepting the odd after-hours song request.Although the performers will be bringing a station wagon load of instruments with them, including an old organ, an electric guitar, and a bouzouki, the evening will be primarily stripped-down performances. That means that the bigger, rollicking arrangements Downey has built will be presented in a different light for audiences. “People might be interested to find that that’s how they’re written initially—those songs are written on one acoustic guitar in the basement,” he said.

Meanwhile, Downey has not neglected his work with the Ambiguous Case. The band just spent two nights recording a full performance at Swirsky’s, a cozy theatre in Corner Brook, complete with a sound, video production, and lighting crew.

He also has started a tradition of writing a song for each album with the title of his previous album (“Honey for Bees” is a standout track on The Sun in Your Eyes). So how far along is the song “The Sun in Your Eyes?” “You know what, I have started it! Hopefully it’ll be ready for the ECMAs, but I don’t like to put those kind of constraints on myself.”

He says he hopes this type of tour becomes an annual thing, “whether myself or Matthew are involved or not. Hopefully Winter Island Tour becomes a circuit that musicians can come and play—it’ll be a great offering during March, during that lull.”

The Winter Island Tour concludes, fittingly, on the first day of spring at the Rocket Room, in St. John’s. For dates, tickets, and more information, visit winterislandtour.com.

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