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Page the solo artist delivers refreshing set

Sometimes, after experiencing wild success for an extended period of time, an artist needs a wake-up call.

That's exactly what happened to Steven Page in 2009, when he was forced to leave pop stalwarts Barenaked Ladies after 20 years as one of the group's leading creative forces.

Page and his excellent band kicked off the 2011 Molson Canal Concert Series with a set that both solidified his importance to the Ladies' aesthetic and signaled a much-needed rebirth as a songwriter. Ever since BNL hit their peak in the early '90s with "Maybe You Should Drive" -- a masterpiece of sarcasm and sensitivity -- the group began a slow decline, eventually becoming a commercialized product, most of its original charms having been sandblasted away in the studio.

So to hear Page open his set with "New Shore," a cut off his 2010 solo record "Page One," was a refreshing thing. An allegory for the trials and tribulations of a songwriter striking out on his own, the hook-happy cut holds its own amongst Page's best work. Even more impressive was "Clifton Springs," a gorgeous carnival waltz with a layered vocal melody -- an even stronger indicator of his Brian Wilson obsession than the song he wrote about the man.

When Page performed in North Tonawanda's Riviera Theatre last year, he approached many of the same tunes, and while he sounded great, the bandleader's stage presence just wasn't what it used to be. Not so on Friday night. Whether he was writing a song on the spot about a man watching from the window of an apartment building, pretending he used to be in the Tragically Hip, or reassuring the soaked-to-the-bone crowd in the middle of the night's second downpour ("We're gonna make the best of this, aren't we?"), it was clear that Page had finally settled into his role as a solo artist.

Of course, while the new material sounded better than any BNL tune from the last decade, the main reason people braved the cruddy weather was to hear those classic songs that Page contributed to the band. And he didn't disappoint, with early renditions of "Jane" and "The Old Apartment," a heartfelt take on the ballad "Call & Answer," and an exceptional "Gordon" nugget, "What a Good Boy." The eclectic five-piece band behind him gave all of these tunes invaluable depth, with violin, cello, flute and glockenspiel runs.

Opening act Free Henry! delivered a stunner of a set, full of slow-building, riff-free rock-and-roll. I don't know if they've been listening to My Morning Jacket to the point where their music is seeping out of their pores, but Free Henry! is making a valiant attempt at capturing that band's storied dynamic. They're not the loudest or flashiest band it town, just one of the best.

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Steven Page    

Part of the Molson Canal Concert Series.

Friday evening at the Ulrich City Center in Lockport.    

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