A Big Show with Hat Fitz and Cara for Small Halls

Images by Roseanne Lake.

The Festival of Small Halls is exactly as it sounds, a bunch of bands going to historic and beautiful places around Ottawa playing big shows in small places. The festival is meant to bring life and vitality back to small venues outside of the city landscape. It also gives the opportunity for bands who played at Bluesfest and CityFolk, the two festivals associated with the Small Halls fest, to have an intimate show with people in quaint settings.

fosh-perth-hatfitzcara1-rosannelakeThere are similar festivals in both PEI and in Australia, each taking advantage of local talent and architecture in their areas. The Ontario Festival of Small Halls runs until Oct. 2, so there’s still time to see some great acts like Jim Bryson who will be accompanied by local talent Melwood Cutlery at McDonald’s Corners Agricultural Hall.

Sunday night, the festival was held at Ecotay, a farm near Perth, Ontario, one of the first houses built in the area. Brock Zeman, a local talent from Carleton Place opened the show in the beautifully lit barn, originally built over 150 years ago. Zeman was a crowd favourite, with witty songs and a deep raspy voice he had toes tapping and people laughing. Locals came to see him, well-known from his stints at O’Reilly’s pub in town, where he plays every Tuesday.

But Hat Fitz and Cara, a band that hails from Australia, were the stars of the show last night. Hat Fitz, the masculine half to the musical duo, grew up in Queensland, Australia. He stood out in Perth with his bushy beard, his flip-flops and his Aussie bush hat. He even showed us a scar on his leg from when he was bit by what he called “a junior,” which I learned is a crocodile.

His lovely partner (in music and in life) Cara Robinson did a bit of translating for the crowd when Fitz’s accent got too thick, through an accent of her own. Robinson moved to Australia from Northern Ireland seven years back, and taught herself drums so that she would be able to tour along with Fitz (also in music and in life, according to Robinson).

unnamedTheir union has produced nothing less than musical magic, something the crowd felt last night – their unexpected sound engenders a visceral connection to the music. Fitz’s fingers flew deftly across his guitar and his deep textured voice soared over the sound of the many instruments Robinson swung between with ease: the drums, the fife, the tin whistle and, my favourite, a washboard with an attached cowbell, which she played with gloves dotted with thimbles and shotgun shells on the tips of their fingers.

The duo’s sound is an intoxicating mix of bluegrass, Aussie country, funk, traditional Irish and old American blues. The first song from their latest album Wiley Ways is called “Power,” has a Nina Simone feel to it. Robinson had no problem pulling it off as she belt out the words in her deep and powerfully soulful voice. The range of both their voices and the musical genres they are able to master and mix seamlessly together made the small show into a fantastic spectacle of their big talent.

unnamed-2The chemistry between the couple added to their already powerful stage presence, with witty banter so good it could have easily been staged if they weren’t so charismatic. The blonde beauty and the Aussie beast (they have an album called Beauty n’ the Beast) introduced each of their songs with a story, one in remembrance of a friend past, one about missing their children while on the road, one about the troubles not long past in Northern Ireland (the song called “I’m Going Home” made more than a few cry). The old barn at Ecotay was filled with warmth, dancing and laughter, which made the show feel like a moment between friends, rather than just another music festival.

Hat Fitz and Cara are already on their way back to Australia, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of the Small Halls experience. There’s still a week left to get out in the country and see the music (and the halls) up close and personal.