Coco Love Alcorn at the St. Andrew’s United Church, Kaslo, Sunday, September 18, 4 pm, sponsored by The Langham’s Guest Artist Series.
One thing Coco Love Alcorn has always been great at—blending her singing and songwriting gift with an upbeat optimism. I’ve been a fan of hers now for nearly 10 years and can safely say she’s never given a bad show. A natural performer, she has a way with an audience that makes them feel instantly at home. Having been the Arts and Culture Editor for the Valley Voice for nearly as long, I’ve seen a seemingly endless parade of singer-songwriters pass through the West Kootenay. But few of them have the grasp of songwriting skills Coco makes sound so effortless. ‘Many are called but few chosen,’ as the old saying goes.
Coco’s current tour follows a four-year hiatus as she raised her daughter Ellie from infancy to preschool age. Her time off, if anything, has only enriched her abilities. Her 2011 album Play was a jazzy tribute to motherhood and to Ellie herself but to my ears failed to capture the instantly memorable tunesmithing of earlier classics like Joyful (2009). But with her new album Wonderland, she’s achieved that rarest of accomplishments for a songwriter: making the music simultaneously of-the-moment and timeless. The musical approach is stripped down, bringing her amazing vocal range and emotive qualities to the fore, often accompanied by only backup vocals, strummed ukelele and percussion. As a production decision it makes perfect sense, since Coco’s greatest instrument by far is her voice.
Almost all the songs reflect a gospel sensibility, so having today’s concert in Kaslo’s historic St. Andrew’s church was absolutely fitting. Coco was joined by her ‘Wonderland Choir,’ a group of locals who convened only this afternoon to learn a few of her new songs, which are ideal vehicles for a massed vocal treatment. The effect was luminous and—to borrow her own title—joyful, enhanced by the soaring acoustics of the vaulted church ceiling. As Lynn van Duersen, who coordinates The Langham’s guest artist series, said, Coco’s “spiritually uplifting collection of songs” lent itself naturally to such a setting.
Without knowing the details of Coco’s personal life, it would seem she’s had her fair share of trials the past five years. It’s evident in many of the lyrics on Wonderland, which show a more mature take on positivism than the naïve optimism of earlier songs like Joyful and Hope for the World. At the St. Andrew’s church concert she prefaced her new song Old Habits Die Hard by saying it was inspired by the continuous flood of feelgood books, magazines and websites all telling people how they can be better somehow. The reality is that change is difficult for the best of us, and as we age it only gets harder. Transformation gurus would have you believe otherwise but they would, wouldn’t they—it’s their living.
On Wonderland she delves deeper than she has in the past while still retaining her apparently innate and perennial optimism. Album opener Good News keeps the sunny side up but already by Trouble we know her optimism is more hard-won now. The River sounds like it was plucked from a hymnbook in a deep southern revival church, as so many of these songs do. By the time she gets to Unbreakable, it’s clear this statement of survival in the face of an often hostile universe is the product of real living, not just wishful thinking. Tiny Lights was borrowed from the tiny folk festival of the same name at Ymir, BC, near Nelson, and riffs beautifully on the theme of each individual’s intrinsic value. Roots and Wings expresses the artist’s need for both a stable home—providing the security within which to create—and the need to experience the wider world, whether to tour new work or get inspiration for new works.
The St. Andrew’s church concert was—true to Coco’s inimitable form—as much a love-in as a performance. The audience was invited to sing along and did so magnificently. The locals in the Wonderland Choir did an amazing job for amateurs. In the second set Coco and percussionist John Foster did what she called “a kind of theatre sports for music,” inviting the audience to submit words to improvise to—anything from business cards and receipts to hastily scribbled poems. Using her loop machine along with Foster’s electronic percussion, Coco somehow managed to turn the most mundane material into magic. It was a gutsy move that paid off, though in the hands of a lesser talent it could have been disastrous or merely boring.
She finished up with the classic Revolution from the album Joyful, with an encore of another audience favourite, Fiori Modena, about her favourite Italian-made bicycle. I would have loved to also hear earlier songs like Where Do the Robots Go When They Die or Intellectual Boys, but by now she’s earned the right to move on with her work. No one has worked harder touring her music to audiences across the country. Fittingly, Coco and John received a standing ovation.
In an era when so many songwriters seem to opt for the meandering and almost tuneless—if they’re capable of writing original material at all—Coco Love Alcorn shines as a beacon of the art and craft of songwriting. (Of course, it helps that she has killer vocal cords.) As she writes in the liner notes: “Everything I’ve ever done has led me to here. To Wonderland, a collection of songs that are an invitation to connect, an invitation to sing, and an invitation to myself to dig deeper than ever before.” Amen to that!
Check out Coco on her Wonderland tour—share the love! http://cocolovealcorn.com/tour
And while you’re at it dig deeper into Wonderland: http://www.cocolovealcorn.com/wonderland