ZZ Ward and Delta Rae – Virgin Mobile Mod Club, Toronto – February 28, 2013
By Samantha Wu
Photos by John Santos
Twenty-four year-old Pennsylvania native Zsuzsanna Ward (better known as ZZ Ward) is a young lady who embodies one soulfully powerful vocal instrument. An instrument that would make her strong blues influences – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Robert Johnson – proud. In support of her debut album, “Til the Casket Drops”, ZZ Ward brought her bluesy talents to the stage of the Virgin Mobile Mod Club along with tour mates Delta Rae.
Upon first listen of Til the Casket Drops, it’s hard not to comparatively name drop. This is not a bad thing as yes, ZZ is sure to carve a noteworthy place for herself in the international music landscape; she’ll be standing there next to good company. ZZ possesses a voice and sound reminiscent of Adele and Amy Winehouse while being bold and strong in her lyric writing. Drawing from personal experiences to fuel her writing (something Adele has also been proudly fond of doing), and proving that nasty breakups make for great songwriting inspiration.
It wasn’t that long ago that the music scene was flooded with a sea of pretty young faces that tried to substitute their lack of actual musical talent with a cute, sexy look for their album covers. Luckily, that trend has come and gone and has been replaced with young artists that take pride in their craft. Let it be known that Ms Ward can play, play well, and bring a house down. Yes, her voice is great and it holds in it a power and spirit that is much older than her years; there’s strength in her voice, a raspy dynamic gruffness that is still smooth like a fine wine.
ZZ takes to the stage with guitar in hand, rocking it out with her band, with skill and grace – not just a girl that can sing. “I don’t know if you got this vibe from me, but I’m kind of a blues girl,” she said early in her set and emphasized that point by putting down the guitar to break out her harmonica for a few accented solos during the latter part of her set.
Her music is funky and danceable and though a lot of her songs are themed towards that nasty ex-boyfriend as fodder for music genius (she even penned a slow mournful, anti-ballad entitled “Last Love Song”, the last song, at the time, written for this guy), it was not all entirely a hate fest towards this certain someone. Taking a cue from Etta James’ noteworthy song “Waiting for Charlie”, ZZ offered her response in “Charlie Ain’t Home”.
Following ZZ Ward came the American folk rock band Delta Rae from North Carolina. Comprised of brothers Ian Hölljes (vocals and guitar), Eric Hölljes (vocals, guitar, piano and keyboard), sister Brittany Hölljes (vocals) as well as Elizabeth Hopkins (vocals), Mike McKee (percussion), and Mike Emerson (bass), Delta Rae are on a world tour promoting their debut album, Carry the Fire. Self described as a combination of Mumford and Sons meets Fleetwood Mac; this sextet with a surprising number of vocalists may seem like a lot of people and gear to cram onto one stage but boy do they make it work. Taking turns on vocals leads, with the others subsequently providing backup, their sound is full, vast and multidimensional. They have all managed to find and tap into the distinctive unique talent that each member possesses.
With two male lead vocals and two male female leads, the nuances and variances of vocal combinations seems endless. Delta Rae has taken care to pair the right voice with the right song. Having admittedly not had much exposure to the band prior to the show, I was pleasantly blown away by the second song of their set, “Holding On to Good”, featuring Brittany’s soulful raspy yet kitteny sensual voice on lead. The depth of the voice in this petite blonde woman was stunning. As great as the talents of the rest of the band, I found myself drawn to her whenever she took the lead.
Combining that many strong presences into one band can easily transform from a great idea to a cacophonous too-many-cooks situation but Delta Rae have that all under control. As the members shift seamlessly from instrument to instrument, with the ladies taking up shakers, tambourine and even to man the standing base drum as the fulcrum to their stage act. The singers passing lead vocal duties along, there does not appear that there is a definitive leader to the band, even though Eric, from behind his keyboard, was the one who addressed the audience throughout their show, announcing that this was their first Canadian performance. Not that they require one.
Kudos to the band for their unapologetic stance on political themes and their boldness in allowing their views heard in their music. Hailing from a rather Republican state like North Carolina, Delta Rae defied the norm, speaking out against California’s Proposition 8 situation ruling against same-sex marriage in their song “Chain on Love”.
With their performance of the crowd favorite “Bottom of the River” (also featuring Brittany on vocals, showing off a hugely raw and rough edge to that otherwise soft and kitteny voice) in a percussive heavy performance full of the majesty reminiscent of the troupe Stomp. Combining a lot of foot stomping, chain banging, drum stick clashing, chanting, and Brittany’s signature voice soaring away, the results are awe-inspiring.
Equally as impressive was their other rough and tumble song “Fire”, a song that bears a low and gradual lead up before exploding into a banging and powerful chorus that draw an audience to their feet dancing and singing along. This song bears so much power; you can feel it reverberating through the floor and walls of the club. Once again, Brittany on vocals, accented with that amusing little shriek, damn that girl can sing.
At the end of the show, with the crowd anticipating an encore, it appeared that the roadies were ready to take the gear down from the stage, when the band reappeared, grabbing their instruments and heading into the crowd. Playing their final song, “Hey, Hey, Hey”, completely unplugged (no microphones either, so it was a little hard to hear), with the smiling crowd gathered around them, dancing and singing along, they closed off their performance on a truly satisfying night of rocking blues.