TORONTO - A tribute to Canadian folksinger Kate McGarrigle held at Massey Hall on Friday was more celebratory than sombre, with dozens of her family and peers gathering for a joyful celebration of her unique songwriting.
The event — held as part of Toronto arts festival Luminato — was a testament to the sturdy charm of McGarrigle's compositions, which sparkled even without the shine of the McGarrigle sisters' inimitable harmonies.
Kate McGarrigle — one-half of the influential Montreal singing duo with her sister Anna — died of cancer in January 2010 at the age of 63. On Friday, a lineup including Emmylou Harris, Bruce Cockburn and members of Broken Social Scene offered a mix of straight interpretations and cleverly revised covers featuring flavours of rock, soul and gospel.
"It's a wonderful feeling to be part of a show like this," Cockburn said before launching into a version of "Come a Long Way" buoyed by his skilled fretwork.
"(Kate) added so much to so many people's lives."
Friday's concert marked the third such charity tribute to the folksinger — with proceeds going to the Kate McGarrigle Fund, created to further sarcoma research — and like previous shows in London and New York, this was a family affair.
With the stage sparsely decorated with a couple rugs, two chandeliers hanging overhead and a diverse array of instruments, McGarrigle's sisters (Anna and Jane), children (Martha and Grammy nominee Rufus Wainwright), nieces, nephews and in-laws joined a heady lineup of musicians that also included Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith, Toronto singer/songwriter Jane Siberry and Montreal multi-hyphenate Robert Charlebois.
"They're a wonderful family," Harris said.
But even those who weren't part of the preternaturally talented extended McGarrigle clan seemed intimately familiar with one another. As a rotating cast of musicians hopped on and offstage with each number, they usually exchanged hugs or a quick laugh on the way.
Indeed, the event was seldom mournful. Siberry seemed to hit upon that idea with an introduction to her first performance that only seemed solemn.
"This is a terrifyingly moving love song," she said. "I have trouble singing it because of the emotion I feel, but I'll try my best."
She then launched into the jaunty, goofy "NaCl — The Sodium Chloride Song."
Later, when Charlebois missed his cue and flubbed the start of a song (he admitted he was "out to lunch"), Rufus Wainwright milked the moment for all it was worth.
"Oops!" he said, laughing. "Well, it's a McGarrigle show — forget the chandeliers and the lighting."
Still, even if the mood remained jovial, the musicians capably delivered some devastating takes on McGarrigle's songs.
Harris and Martha Wainwright melded their voices beautifully for a hushed take on the sorrowful "I Eat Dinner," Missouri singer Krystle Warren wowed with a performance of "I Don't Know" and Rufus Wainwright showcased his pristine tenor while singing "Walking Song" solo at the piano.
Members of local indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene — including Kevin Drew, Amy Millan and Andrew Whiteman — provided two of the more compellingly different interpretations with soulful, rock-infused versions of "Come Back Baby" and "Mother Mother."
Kate and Anna McGarrigle's were perhaps best-known in Canada for their distinctive rendition of Wade Hemsworth's "The Log Driver's Waltz" and saw their wry, evocative folk songs covered by the likes of Judy Collins, Elvis Costello and Sarah McLachlan.
But Friday's event explored more obscure corners of the McGarrigles catalogue, including several never-released tunes likely known only to the select few onstage.
Between songs, some of Kate's family shed light on aspects of her personality that were probably similarly unknown to most in the crowd — how she identified with Jack Kerouac and wrote a musical inspired by him that she never finished, how she gave other people presents on her own birthday or how she developed a keen interest in Greek mythology over the last years of her life.
"She actually thought she might be a goddess," recalled Anna McGarrigle to chuckles from the crowd.
"I said, yes, I thought maybe she might be."
For a fitting encore, everyone involved with the production joined together for a rousing take on "Love Over and Over and Over." The show ended with more than two dozen people dancing and shouting the words together at the same time, while some in the audience leapt to their feet to join in.
"This is chaos," said Anna McGarrigle, sizing up the throng around her.
"If anybody liked chaos, it was Kate."