When Sue Smith and The Potion Kings hit the stage Friday at the River Run for a free live stream concert, it will be their first public performance together since they recorded the songs for Smith’s new album, Tonight We Sail.
The largely improvised recording was captured during two sessions at local musician Scott Merritt’s studio, The cottaGE, in Guelph.
“We did it live off the floor so, what you hear is that magical playing that they do,” said Smith. “We didn’t have rehearsals. We met in the studio. I had some basic charts. We’d look at the chart and discuss, tempo, feel, vibe and then play. Several songs were first takes.”
Smith’s melodies, playfully poetic lyrics and ethereal vocals blend perfectly with the eclectic, improvisational style of The Potion Kings.
Each member of the group is an essential ingredient of the formula and each bring with them years of experience, exploring and pushing the boundaries of pop and other musical genres such as jazz, rock, folk, funk, roots, blues and classical.
Percussionist Howie Southwood is a member of Canadian Celtic rock band Rawlins Cross. Drummer Randall Coryell has played with countless artists including Tom Cochran, The Kings, Alannah Myles, Glass Tiger, Bo Diddley and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Guitarist Kevin Breit is a singer-songwriter, producer and creative collaborator with a number of groups including The Sisters Euclid, The Rational Youth and the Bona Fide Scoundrels. Jeff Bird is a multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer with deep roots in the local and international music community. He was a founding member of the folk trio Tamarack, is a multi-instrumentalist with the Cowboy Junkies and a creative force behind dozens of other artistic and musical collaborations.
Perhaps, his most fruitful and enduring collaboration has been with Smith. They were drawn together by a mutual love for music and their involvement in the vibrant arts and music community in Guelph during the 1980s.
“I love dancing to bands, and I heard Jeff play music before I met him,” said Smith. “He was the bass player in Common Ground, and I danced my ass off to those guys. We met in the early ‘80s. I worked at ED Video and Jeff was part of some players that used to jam there. We got together later on in the ‘80s.”
Smith and Bird co-produced Tonight We Sail and many of the themes and lyrics on the record reflect their creative chemistry and shared experiences.
“I am thrilled with it and Jeff and I talk about it as a rock, jazz, record,” said Smith. “There is a wildness to how these guys play together and for me to be in the centre of that, it’s a masterful wildness. When you are standing in your truth singing your song and it is being elevated by this quality of playing – it’s a very exciting ride.”
Smith has been riding a musical wave since she was a child and has earned many awards and accolades for her creative contributions and performances in a variety of styles as a singer, musician, dancer and director with groups such as The Season Singers, The Ondine Chorus and the Raven String Collective.
Her work as a performing arts director and music teacher has inspired a sense of community and opportunity for a new generation of musicians and performance artists
“More and more I recognize that part of what I am doing is fostering community,” said Smith. “Everything I do tends to bring people together.”
She was a founding member of the folk trio The Bird Sisters along with Tannis Slimmon and Jude Vadala as well as a co-founder of the Hillside Festival.
“This is my second solo, but my sixth album,” said Smith. “I did three albums with the Bird Sisters. I’m So, was my solo debut in 2006, and then we did an EP with Ondine Chorus, in 2013.”
Smith was excited to share what she and the Potion Kings had created and was determined to put the record out in spite of the pandemic
“When COVID hit last March, we were all knocked sideways,” said Smith. “I was thinking, How will I finish this record? How am I going to release it? I can’t tour, I can’t do shows.”
Fortunately, the bed tracks and backup vocals from local musicians Nick Craine and Gwen Swick were already recorded.
“We mixed it in September with Nik Tjelios, a wonderful Guelph engineer, and then we mastered it in the late fall,” said Smith. “I always knew I was going to release it in February on my birthday and I needed a big room with good ventilation to do a show, where everyone can be safely distanced. Where can I do that in Guelph? The River Run.”
Once again, her timing was right because the folks at the River Run were looking for a third local artist for their Live From The River Run free, livestreaming series. The first two shows, sponsored by TD Bank Group and Richardson Wealth, featured performances by Boreal and the Kramdens.
“We are intentionally supporting local artists and we have had a great turn out for the live streams,” said Nicole Neufeld, program manager, development and marketing for the City of Guelph. “For the first two shows combined we had around 2,100 people stream live.”
Smith has invited singer Gwen Swick and dancer Karen Kaeja to join her and the Potion Kings during their performance starting at 8 p.m., Friday, March 26. People are encouraged to visit www.riverrun.ca/in-the-spotlight to receive the livestream link and notification on the day of the free show.
“Sue is decidedly a community collaborator and it is exciting to see the ways in which she incudes other artists, musicians and dancers into everything she does,” said Neufeld. “It felt like a great fit for the series to celebrate the new album and also celebrate that ethos of Guelph.”
Smith is grateful to the staff and crew at the River Run for the opportunity to launch her record in such a hopeful and inclusive way after a year of, isolation and uncertainty.
“Tonight We Sail,” she said. “I love it because it is an invitation to a journey through the night. A lot of the songs reference – kind of by coincidence – the darkness, the dream time. The journey through the night, being alone in the night. And coming to the dawn. To me, that is the arc of the project.”
To learn more about Sue Smith and the launch of her new record visit: www.suemith.ca