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Ortega hoedown delivers with WSO

A little bit country, a little bit classical

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The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra served up gutsy shots of heartbreak Friday night, no chaser, courtesy of rising country/pop superstar Lindi Ortega.

The Canadian singer/songwriter/guitarist made her WSO debut Friday night with the three weekend Pops shows led by acclaimed conductor/arranger Charles Cozens. The two-act program featured 14 of Ortega's original songs telling of love and loss, pain and hope by the Nashville-based artist who belted out her world-weary tales like a rasping angel.

Recently nominated for a 2014 Juno award -- her third -- for her acclaimed 2013 album Tin Star, the concert also marked her inaugural symphony show in a slew of international tour dates that sees her criss-crossing the Atlantic until June. All sensitive, less-is-more orchestral arrangements were by Cozens, who has also scored shows for Canadian groups: The Nylons, Quartetto Gelato, and aboriginal rock band Eagle & Hawk.

After a sprightly Pops Hoedown overture, Ortega took the stage in her signature lipstick, red cow punk boots and sassy black square-dance skirt, evoking a 1980s k.d. lang who preferred to saw her own footwear off at the top. Joined by rockabilly bandmates: James Robertson, electric guitar; Ben Whitely, electric bass guitar; Tristan Henderson, drums and backup vocals, they launched into their first high and lonesome number Angels from her recent CD, where she sings of being "robbed of the love I used to have."

We also heard Hard As This, also from Tin Star, that tells of a one-sided relationship, and the moody High from her 2012 CD Cigarettes & Truckstops, with the band setting up a slow groove to conjure the drug-addled euphoria of self-medicating broken dreams.

When Ortega finally got to Waitin' on My Luck to Change, a bluesy number that also saw the nervous singer visibly relax more, even adding a few dance shuffles while admitting "this is fun," the mostly older audience could also just kick back and enjoy. This gifted artist is known for daring to plumb deeply dark emotional depths and that is fine -- however, more of these upbeat tunes would have balanced the program. Voodoo Mama, inspired by the "magic" of New Orleans in which the band rocked out, including a particularly tasty guitar solo by Robertson, helped.

The second half featured Tin Star's title track, composed in tribute to "struggling musicians," with the WSO strings providing effective underpinning to Ortega's acoustic guitar and heartfelt vocals sung with childlike simplicity.

There's no denying Ortega is an authentic artist with something to say. Despite the show's few rough edges for instance, more stage banter would have been welcomed -- you can be sure we will be hearing more of this unique performer with her soul-baring songs, as her own tin star continues it steady, and sure rise.

The concert repeats tonight, 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon, 2 p.m. at the Centennial Concert Hall.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2014 A10

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