Published Jun 24, 2016"This is like my birthday party," said Adam Baldwin, sporting a wry smile, from the Seahorse Tavern stage.
Close enough. The Dartmouth, Nova Scotia rocker was, indeed, the centre of attention Thursday night (June 23) as he returned home from a short Ontario tour to celebrate the release of his new album, No Telling When (Precisely Nineteen Eighty-Five). The Seahorse was full of friends and family, and Baldwin had one heck of a birthday outfit in tow: a stunningly bright stars-and-stripes leather jacket he wore until the temperature under the lights was simply too hot to handle.
"Since I last saw you, I joined American Gladiators," Baldwin joked to the crowd. "Doing big things now."
Following a solidly workmanlike opening set from Halifax's Scrapes, Baldwin and his talented five-piece backing band bashed their way through a blistering 13-song performance featuring the bulk of No Telling When's songs, a smattering of material from Baldwin's 2013 self-titled debut and a couple of covers (including an night-ending, 100-per-cent-genuine take on Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn"). The audience was a home crowd, through and through, the sort that eagerly turned an older track like "Burning Man" into a sing-along, allowing Baldwin to step back from the mic and let the room carry the song's "You don't love me anymore" refrain.
Baldwin's songs are a familiar sort of meat-and-potatoes rock, with echoes of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty so unsubtle that to call them "touchpoints" or "influences" would be a gross understatement. Baldwin comes across as a man so deeply immersed in those artists' records that they're in his bones, as if songs with hard-strummed major chords, driving backbeats and Roy Bittan piano flourishes are simply what his body knows how to write.
They're pretty good songs though — particularly his ballads. Baldwin's perhaps best known as a guitarist for fellow Dartmouthian Matt Mays (his "best bud," as Baldwin put it, who joined him in the encore for a shared-microphone duet of Son Volt's "Windfall"), but Baldwin also leads a popular covers band that plays Saturday nights at the Carleton Bar and Grill in town, and together, those experiences have given him a real sense of how to burn down a performance and heat it back up again. It allowed him to wring extra pathos out of the likes of No Telling When's breakup ode "Sparrow Song," or the main-set closer "Love You With My Eyes Closed," still perhaps his best composition.
It's all very earnest, though, and the trouble with earnestness is it's a tool wielded by poets and posers alike. On record, the dramatic flourishes in Baldwin's songs aim at universality with such shamelessness that they sometimes risk coming across as the work of a more cynical writer. Think about how many well-meaning but shallow "issue" songs you've heard in the style of "Rehtaeh," Baldwin's tribute to Nova Scotia teenager Rehtaeh Parsons, who took her own life after photos of her rape were circulated by her peers. Think of how many flailing attempts at political anthems you've come across that sound similar to "Daylight," which does everything short of name names in presenting a decade of Conservative government in almost dystopian terms.
But live — sweat pouring off his forehead, a snarl curling through his upper lip — it's impossible to mistake just how much Baldwin deeply means these songs. He adds colouring and heft to them not only in the intensity of his performances but with his stage banter, sharing his heartfelt connection to Parsons' story and challenging his audience to focus on the political values at the heart of a song like "Daylight" rather than politics in general (or, as Baldwin put it, "Let's not get all hot and bothered about Justin Trudeau just yet, eh?")
Or maybe it all works because, sometimes, the times demand some unsubtle sentiments. I confess I was more distracted than I wanted to be during parts of Baldwin's performance, my gaze drifting to my phone as I refreshed Twitter for the latest results from the UK's "Brexit" vote. It was right around the point when the tide turned against the "remain" side, never to turn back, that Baldwin kicked into "Daylight." My phone was telling me that, across the pond, a campaign whose ideas are inseparable from the fear, xenophobia and division fuelling much of its support was about to win a major victory. The man on stage, in contrast, was throwing his fist in the air, calling together his "brothers" and "sisters" with a raspy, righteous howl, promising that "what we lost in the dark, we'll find come daylight."
I put my phone away, and sang along with the man on stage.