Classical violinist and folk band on the same bill? No problem.  

Emerging Artists Alumni Series, School of Music, University of Victoria 

Phillip T. Young Recital Hall, Sept. 21

Featuring Sarah Tradewell and West My Friend

Reviewed by Chris Ho

I was skeptical. A classical violinist and chamber-folk band seemed like an unusual pairing for a concert. But Victoria-based musician Sarah Tradewell and local favourite West My Friend proved me wrong.

The inaugural Emerging Artists Alumni Series, featuring graduates from the University of Victoria’s School of Music, made for an eclectic night of music recently at Phillip T. Young Recital Hall. The evening started with Sarah Tradewell, a violinist, music teacher and stage actor, who performed a range of classical pieces, including movements by Bach, Polo, Stravinsky, and Bunch.

Aside from the shaky start where there were some tuning issues, (she had commuted to and from Duncan with the Victoria Symphony that same day), her performance was flawless. As she further progressed into Bach’s Suite No 1. In G Major, I had that feeling you get when you know exactly when the chorus is going to hit in a song you’re hearing for the first time. I wanted the familiarity of a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s exactly what I got. The simplicity and serenity of Bach’s movement was the perfect introduction.

Half way through Bach’s movement, the tempo picked up, as if we’d cut to a film scene where the camera pans wide, revealing the rolling hills of rural England. Tradewell’s music brought many scenes to mind, but what stood out was the final song. She performed a modern piece by Kenji Bunch, playfully titled The 3 G’s, because three strings need to be tuned to G to play it. The suspenseful and rhythmic bowed sections were tempered by sharp pizzicato, eventually building into a powerful finish.

This is when I expected the night to get awkward. I wasn’t sure if the audience would be ready to transition into the realm of chamber-folk after a traditional classical performance. Instead, it felt euphonic to begin the concert with a solo instrumental act, and then follow it up with a full-fledged folk band. It made for a well-rounded evening of music. The venue was ideal for the instrumental hooks and four-part vocal harmonies that make West My Friend a local favourite.

Their synergy as a band is one of the reasons why they never seem to overdo the sometimes complex and overlapping harmonies. Maybe this is to be expected from a group of highly trained musicians, but the collaborative composition is something to be remarked on. Writing vocal melodies and mandolin hooks that are catchy and original is something not all indie bands can boast about.

But if there’s something that West My Friend has in common with many indie bands, it’s the difficulty of placing their music into a particular category. When asked to describe their genre in an interview, Jeff Poynter (accordion, vocals) replied: “Cascadian third-wave indie prog chamber folk roots music.”

Not the most marketable genre, as some producers and labels would argue. But if accessibility and marketability are seen as two sides of the same coin, then music doesn’t need to be conveniently categorized to be appreciated.