©Brett Delmage, 2018
Kellylee Evans' show was at the end of an 11-hour day of jazz that started at 10:30 a.m. and closed a four-day festival but that didn't stop the audience from getting up and dancing throughout her show   ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Kellylee Evans
2018 Merrickville's Jazz Fest
Merrickville United Arts Centre
Sunday, October 14, 2018 – 7 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

It was such a relief to see Kellylee Evans dancing again.

Evans has always been such a physical performer, singing not only with her full, clear, powerful voice, but with her whole body. For the past five years, the Ottawa vocalist has been completely or partially sidelined by the aftereffects of being struck by lightning while washing dishes, followed by a concussion two years later. But judging from her performance at the 2018 Merrickville's Jazz Fest, she is fully back on her feet.

Or, more specifically, two-inch stilettos, in which she swayed to the music, danced, and even jumped in the air repeatedly in her high-energy show which closed the festival. Backed by a crackerjack group of Toronto musicians (Michael Shand on keyboards and guitar, Mark Godfrey on bass, and Ian Wright on drums), Evans delivered a carefully-organized and finely-tuned performance that was rapturously received by the capacity audience in the Merrickville United Arts Centre.

She opened with “My Name Is” from her I Remember When album, followed it with the title track from that album, and continued in her first set with some of her best-known songs from three previous albums.

Singing to an emphatic beat, Evans demanded “Do you want to know my name?” – and repeated the call with constantly changing words and dynamics, with her band singing behind her and the crowd clapping along. She paced the stage like a leopard declaiming “I will never, I will never, I will never fade” over a deep grooving riff on bass and drums, in her song “I Remember When”.

And she also plaintively asked “Who's gonna save me now? Who's gonna show me how? I'm lost, I've lost all I know” – singing her song “Lost” with sincerity and intimacy, accompanied by Shand on melodic guitar.

Evans has always walked the line between jazz, pop, and soul, and primarily sung her own compositions. Her most jazz-centric album was her JUNO-Award-winning album Nina [2010], a stirring tribute to Nina Simone with songs Simone made famous.

“Feeling Good” from Nina closed the first set. Evans' voice rang out as she sang, “It's a new dawn, It's a new day, It's a new life for me” over echoing drums and vibrating guitar. She concentrated on the words, singing simply and compellingly – and people in the audience started singing back to her. By the end of the song, she was leaning forward to the audience and almost whispering the lyrics as the voices in the audience rose.

The second set was devoted to Evans' new CD, Come On. She combined fast scatting with happy lyrics in “Tell Me What You Like”. She talked about finding her mother's old Timex watch in a drawer that day, and then dedicated the joyful “Find Your Heart” to her mother and the Motown hits, particularly those by Diana Ross, to which they had listened together.

It was music designed to boost your spirits. By the time Evans was singing the soulful “Come On”, with lines like “take me high!” and “I'm on fire!”, audience members had started to form a conga line down to the stage. 20 listeners danced in front of the stage, clapping and bopping to the music.

In introducing “Hands Up”, Evans reflected on how she'd realized “how little control I have over my life” when she had to take two years off her life after hitting her head in 2015. Over a flowing bass line and hard-edged guitar riffs, she sang the song confessionally with a determined edge. It flowed naturally into the next, “These Arms”, a passionate ballad that opened with a sparse, quiet piano intro. It used Evans' flexible voice to the fullest in first delivering the emotional lyrics and then wordlessly singing the melody, which faded out over simple hand claps.

With the closing number, “Right To Love”, the show reminded me more and more of a revival meeting. The song was an anthemic call to action – “I believe every one of us has a right to love” – and quickly had the audience clapping along to the fast, R&B beat.

After expressive piano and bass solos, and a fast, hard-attack drum solo, Evans again directly exhorted the audience, “There's so many different love songs that you can write, so many different stories that you can tell, so many different people, situations, events, heartbreaks, new acquaintances. But at the base of all that is just this idea that love is right. There's something that feels right about loving. … and then at the core of that everyone has a right to love something, somebody.” Returning to the soulful melody, she invited the crowd to sing along with her, and soon had them singing the main melody with her adding vocal interjections for a beautiful, upbeat, full-out close.

The audience immediately erupted into intense applause and cheers and a standing ovation as Evans curtsied and then danced off-stage.

Called back for an encore, Evans told the audience that she used to live just down the road from Merrickville, in Beckwith Township, for 12 years.

She warned the crowd to learn from her never to go near water during a lightning storm, but affirmed, “But you know what? I'm still here. Nothing quite works the same as before, as well you might imagine, …. but I'm gonna take a risk and say that I'm unbreakable!” and went into “Unbreakable” from her latest CD.

The number of dancers in front of the stage kept increasing, as Evans' voiced soared in the uplifting ballad telling everyone “I am not afraid”. More strong applause, another standing ovation, and then she told the audience “If you feel like dancing, this is the song. I just wanted to give you a hint.”

And as the first bright notes of “And So We Dance” started, just about everyone was up dancing, whether at the front or by their seats. Another conga line brought more dancers down, filling the entire space at the front. Evans gave them impromptu sung dance lessons (“go left, go right”) as she scatted to the driving, dancing melody, and got so excited she was hopping and dancing in place as she sang.

The end of the song and the show immediately evoked more cheers and another standing ovation.

About the venue

While the performances from Evans and her band were excellent, the sound and lighting in Merrickville's United Arts Centre didn't do them justice. In the band's final song, for example, you could hear the instruments and rhythm clearly, but the lyrics were one big mush, with only the occasional word peeping out.

It was a consistent problem and, if anything, worse in the first set when Evans' vocals were often muddied and drowned out by the instrumentals, although her between-song chatting was clear enough. A bad mix like that should have been detected in the sound check, or, if not, in the very first number, yet it persisted. Several experienced listeners were heard commenting negatively about the sound at the set break.

Similarly, the lighting was just dreadful. It made the drummer by far the brightest musician on stage – not Evans – and it was painful to watch. It was harsh, and kept intermittently shining directly and uncomfortably into my eyes and the eyes of the audience. While one would want some razzmatazz to go with this type of show, this lighting distracted from the music instead of enhancing it.

I was surprised at how poor the technical aspects were, given that conversion of the centre and installation of new equipment happened last spring, and the centre has hosted many concerts since then.

Read all the stories by OttawaJazzScene.ca about the 2018 Merrickville's Jazz Fest: