“A band whose name does not give us the highest of hopes.”
The Henrys is a Toronto-based ‘nearly-instrumental’ group that performs as a quartet, or quintet, but records with a larger stable of players. Led by Don Rooke, since 1990, the band’s goal has always been to compose, record and perform original music that has no obvious genre, but draws on a variety of styles in an original, identifiable way.
The music features the sound of an antique slide guitar called the kona (and other non-pedal steel guitars). Manufactured out of Hawaiian koa wood in California in the 1920s, the kona has a rare tonal purity. It’s played slide style, flat, with a small steel bar. Mixed with vocals, organ and pump organ, bass and drums – and often unusual elements such as conch shell, quarter-tone trumpet, chordette, odd percussion pieces, sonar zombie, steel drums – the sound of the band has been refined and defined over the years.
In the words of Toronto Star critic Greg Quill:
“Toronto kona player Don Rooke and his ensemble of like-minded abstract sound architects stand out on their fourth album as the high-minded intellectuals in their class, the quiet scientists scratching away at the borders of the folk/time continuum while the other guys are staging a hootenanny. ‘Old instruments, new sounds’ is the way Rooke describes what The Henrys do – they extract from a resonator guitar and other plucked acoustic instruments the harmonics, overtones and oblique noises behind the rustic notes to create landscapes that are astonishingly romantic, frightening, sexual, spiritual – and quite beautiful. Brave new music.”
Plenty of fine musicians have played live, recorded or guested with the band over the years, the original collaborators being Don Rooke and Paul Pasmore. Followed by David Piltch, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Kim Ratcliffe, Howard Gaul, John Sheard, Russell deCarle, Hugh Marsh, Michael White, Victor Bateman, Kirk Elliott, Ernie Tollar, Michael Billard, Monte Horton, David Trevis, Jorn Andersen, Becca Stevens, Jeff MacPherson, Rob Piltch, Geoff Young, Martina Sorbara, Maury LaFoy, Mark Mariash, John Dymond, Gary Craig, Michael Sloski, Jessie Coutts, Mal Green, Alan Penner, Jeremy Bellaviti, Joseph Phillips, Gregory Hoskins, Andrew Downing, Jonathan Goldsmith, Davide DiRenzo, Tara Dunphy, Maggie Keogh, Joey Wright.
And of course the guiding sonic hand of engineer Nicolas Tjelios, and before him, L. Stu Young.
The Henrys have been performing (on, and frequently off) for about three decades, with concerts around the world. They played at the Sweetwaters festival in New Zealand, the North Sea Festival in Holland, SXSW in Austin, Luminato and Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, the Vancouver and Calgary Folk Festivals, and many other locations. They headlined at NYC’s famous Bottom Line in 1998. The eclectic nature of the music makes them equally at home in folk, jazz and indie/alternative venues.
The group’s latest recording, Shrug, is their eighth, joining seven other internationally acclaimed recordings: Paydirt (2020), Quiet Industry (2015), Is This Tomorrow (2009), Joyous Porous (2002), Desert Cure (1998), Chasing Grace (1996), Puerto Angel (1994); as well as a solo CD, Atlas Travel, by the band’s leader; and a side project, Three Metre Day, that featured lyrics by head Hank DR.
The 1994 independent Canadian release of the first disc, Puerto Angel, led to international exposure. Soon after its release England’s Demon Records (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe) released Puerto Angel in Europe. The influential Q Magazine gave it a 4-star review. Mojo called it “a delight on numerous levels.” The CD was subsequently released in the USA where Ink Magazine described it as, “classic Americana. Wonderfully arranged, sharply talented and springing from the sheer joy of playing. Something extraordinary.”
The follow-up CD, Chasing Grace, was greeted with equal enthusiasm: “Sinuous slide guitars and torque-wrench tight rhythms. The compositions and playing are impeccable. Make this one of your essential albums,” said Folk Roots Magazine from the U.K. Guitar Player Magazine commented on the next CD, Desert Cure: “The third disc from this Toronto combo firmly establishes Don Rooke as one of acoustic guitar’s greatest unsung heroes. Rooke is a startling original who seems constitutionally incapable of resorting to slide cliches.”
Joyous Porous was recorded in Toronto during 2002 and again features the ever-compelling vocals of Mary Margaret O’Hara, along with Toronto musicians David Piltch, Jorn Anderson, Michael White, John Sheard and Hugh Marsh. In a half-page review entitled ‘Situation Joyous”, Robert Everett-Green gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars, saying “virtually every note a poem.”
2009’s June release, Is This Tomorrow, a combination CD/DVD, was the Globe and Mail’s Disc of the Week, also earning 3.5 (oh, that elusive .5) out of 4 stars. The additional DVD has original still photographs set to more music by the band and mixed in 5.1 surround.
Richard Williams, UK music writer:
For some years now the Henrys have been one of my stock answers to the question, “What’s your favourite band?” Since they’re celebrating their 21st anniversary with this week’s release of their first album since 2009, it’s probably time I wrote something about them.
I say “them”, but the Henrys are really Don Rooke, a resourceful guitarist and songwriter, with a floating group of like-minded musicians gathered at his base in Toronto. Rooke will be known to some people for his contributions to the regrettably slender discography of the elusive singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara, an authentic genius whose sole full-length album, Miss America, and two London concerts around 25 years ago are still vivid in the memory.
MMO’H appears as a guest on earlier Henrys records — Puerto Angel (1994), Chasing Grace (1996), Desert Cure (1997), Joyous Porous (2002), and Is This Tomorrow (2009) — and if you click on http://www.thehenrys.ca/listen.html and scroll down down to “God Moves on the Water”, you’ll hear one of their finest moments together. But she’s not on the new one. The lead singing on Quiet Industry is done by Gregory Hoskins, with John Sheard on pump and electric organ, Hugh Marsh on violin, Jonathan Goldsmith on “muted piano”, Andrew Downing on bass, Davide DiRenzo on drums, and Tara Dunphy on backing vocals.
The music of the Henrys has what always seems to me to be a typically Canadian quality: like that of the Band and the Cowboy Junkies, or the musicians who used to travel with the McGarrigle sisters, it sounds as though it’s being played in your front room by musicians who wouldn’t be put out if you asked them to swap instruments. I don’t know a better way of describing the sense of ease that lubricates their creativity.
The tone may be set by the timbres of a slide guitar, a pump organ and drums that sound like they were made from a set of well-travelled cardboard suitcases from the 1930s, but the music isn’t revivalist or retrospective in any way. It’s devised and directed by a person who seems to have spent a lifetime cultivating good listening habits and distilling them into a personal vision of the way things might sound.
So while the noise the Henrys make is full of creaks and sighs, these are an indication of carefully chosen textures rather than of an attempt to counterfeit the patina of age. Rooke himself, an unassuming virtuoso on various kinds of guitars, including a Weissenborn koa-wood model, has a better command of acoustic sonorities than just about any guitarist I can think of, along with an absolute disinclination to show off. About a dozen years ago he made an album of instrumental pieces under his own name called Atlas Travel, also highly recommended.
Rooke has excellent taste in singers (Becca Stevens was also featured on Is This Tomorrow), and Hoskins, a veteran of the Canadian folk-rock scene, has a sidelong, semi-private delivery that suits the songs almost as well as O’Hara’s more gestural approach once did. And these are really beautiful songs. Once you get past the exquisitely detailed settings, like the dancing organ on “Was Is” and the shadowy doubled vocal on “Burn the Boat”, there are many things to admire in the finely turned melodies and the thoughtful lyrics, such as this payoff verse from “Dangers of Travel”, a great edge-of-breakup song: “The light is pretty now / But soon it will fade / So put the bags down / Please put the bags down / Your dinner’s been made.”
Here’s a film they made to go with the album’s opening track, “The Weaker One”. Here’s a clip of “When That Far Shore Disappears”, a song that illustrates some of their subtler virtues. And as a bonus, here they are in an earlier incarnation, playing a piece called “VF61” from Joyous Porous on an Ontario TV station in 2002, with David Piltch on bass and Michael White on trumpet.
There’s a special strength, intimacy and sense of proportion to this music, along with great inventiveness. Quiet Industry may be the product of the Henrys’ 21st year, but it’s a great place to start. And they’re still one of the answers to that question.
The elusive Henrys make a Joyous appearance
By Robert Everett-Green
Friday, December 6, 2002
The Henrys at Hugh’s Room in Toronto
If there’s one thing the Henrys have learned about show business, it’s that you should always leave ’em wanting more. The elusive Toronto band accomplishes this in the easiest possible way, by hardly ever playing in public.
A new album is almost the only thing guaranteed to get them on stage. Even then, the Henrys do not rush to meet their public: Wednesday’s CD-release show took place four months after Joyous Porous, the band’s fourth album, came into the world.
Pent-up demand filled the tiered and tabled space of Hugh’s Room. By the end of the set, you could almost hear the thought in most minds: “Why don’t you guys do this more often?”
The Henrys’ distinctive sound is rooted in leader Don Rooke’s kona guitar, from which he can nurse everything from a voice-like slide tone to something as dry and articulate as a kalimba. He’s a speculative kind of musician, fond of abstract ways of looking at small riffs or old-sounding tunes. His partners share his thoughtful, follow-your-nose approach, though in all other ways they’re as independent as cats.
Jorn Andersen’s drumming, like all good percussion, supplied a grid for everyone to work with, but also shot out a stream of witty annotations, buffing the beat smooth or nailing it with a sharp whack. Like a classical actor, Andersen prefers clear diction to noise and commotion, which meant a miserly hand with the cymbals and a mostly bone-dry tip to his stick.
Rob Gusevs’s organ padded around on soft paws all night, curling through the music so subtly that you almost didn’t notice how neatly it balanced things out. John Dymond’s bass came to the fore in a fine solo late in the set, elsewhere partnering Rooke’s melodic excursions without missing a step.
Michael White lobbed his contributions in from a more distant neighbourhood, coaxing a soulful moan from a conch shell, blowing small fantasias on trumpet, or fooling obscurely with a pile of spaghetti-cabled electronics. The weird stuff that eked from his rig during Thought You’d Never Ask put a special dreamland gloss on this sepia-toned melody.
The Henrys’ material wandered all over the lot, skirting the blues in one number, flirting with tango in another. Some tunes were a bit too tightly chained to a single riff, though this mattered less when the band let go into jams such as Rash, in which a resonator gizmo gave Rooke’s kona yet another tone of voice.
Such subtle variations would have been lost in most Toronto clubs, but the attentive crowd and superb acoustics at Hugh’s Room let them be heard with perfect clarity. This has to be the best small room for music in the city.
The show’s only disappointment was the non-appearance of Joyous Porous vocalist Mary Margaret O’Hara, who proved herself even more elusive than the Henrys. The nicest surprise, to my unacquainted ear, was the elegant opening set by Dan Kershaw, who joined with fellow guitarists Burke Carroll and David Baxter for a short set of fine-grained urban country songs, including one about a girl named Maybelline that fused affection and parody in a tune that chug-chugged along at the speed of an old 78.
Thursday, January 14, 1999
Copyright 1999 The New York Times
Pop Life: Treats for Off-the-Menu Tastes
NEW YORK — When critics say it was a mediocre year for music, that’s not the whole story. What they mean to say is that it was a mediocre year for popular music. With more than 25,000 albums released last year, the laws of probability predict that at least a few dozen will fit each taste. The problem is finding them. Record labels and radio stations often make their decisions based on trends, genres and lifestyle instead of along purely musical lines. When the right music is released at the wrong time, it can slip by unnoticed.
Below, the pop and jazz critics of The New York Times list some favorite albums you may not have heard last year. Some are hard to find because they are on small independent or specialty labels; others were released only abroad, and a few were neglected by their own U.S. record companies.
Hunting for some of these records can be an adventure.
The Henrys, “Desert Cure (Trainrec/Canadian Arts Council). Don Rooke’s work on various slide guitars, from the kona to the lap steel to something called a sonar zombie, recalls the erudite ramblings of Bill Frisell. This ensemble (which sometimes includes the vocalist Mary Margaret O’Hara) surrounds his playing with sunset tones.
~ Ann Powers