Willie Stratton steps up.
His heavy cowboy boot hits the small elevated stage in the cramped Halifax theatre. He grabs the blue electric guitar that has been waiting for him in its stand since the previous band’s departure from the stage. ‘Willie’s’ is painted on the guitar head in curly black cursive writing which closely resembles loose rope thrown on the ground.
Stratton dresses similar to a cowboy: Salmon coloured long sleeve button up top with metal clasps on the collar, decorated with fine thread detailing on the chest, tucked into a pair of dark wash jeans being held up by a thick leather belt with an oversized silver buckle, and finally, no cowboy is complete without a pair of cowboy boots. Tonight, he’s dressed up for a special occasion. Stratton is playing a show at the Bus Stop Theatre.
Stratton, 22, is an up-and-coming musician and songwriter. He frequents the Halifax bar and live performance scene solo as well as with his band Willie Stratton and the Boarding Party. Having recorded his second complete album in 2014, Stratton has been enjoying all the new experiences he’s had since its release.
“I played coffee houses in high school. I didn’t play any originals, just played like covers like Jimi Hendrix and stuff,” Stratton says, “Then with my own stuff, after I graduated I found out about the Open Mic House on Agricola Street and that was kinda the first place I played [original songs] in front of anybody. Then shows right after at the Company House. It kept going from there.”
Three other men wearing button-ups step up and join him, as well as a woman. All are wearing cowboy boots. Grace Stratton, Willie’s sister and bass player, picks up a cherry red bass guitar and stands by Stratton’s side.
A red light on the stage illuminates his face while a blue light shines behind him, lighting up the drum kit and a large disco ball hanging from the ceiling above his head.
“I want everyone to dance. Do you know the twist?” Stratton says into the microphone using his speaking voice, a much different voice when compared to his guitar strumming, performance alter ego.
“I sing from my butt,” Stratton says in a manner that suggests he’s only half joking, “that’s what I tell everyone.”
They begin to play. Music spills from the amps and into the air, filling the small theatre venue. Grace’s bass bounces off the walls and into the ears of the audience, who soon stand up to fulfil Stratton’s wishes. Stratton and the other two men playing guitars turn and stomp their feet so loudly to the pound of the bass drum that the drum beat sound is almost non-existent.
*Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp*
Stratton stops his stomping. He turns to face the gyrating audience and puts his mouth to microphone. Out pours an eerie, deep, blues inspired song. Stratton closes his eyes. The sounds of a man experiencing deep pain in his soul, followed by him half screaming the next lines.
Stratton crinkles his forehead to get the lyrics out. Anyone else would have damaged their vocal cords, but not Stratton.
The small sea of audience members shake, twist and jump to Stratton’s music, which is best defined by the band as Cowboy Surf.
“I think it’s catching on,” Stratton adds, “or maybe folk, rock, blues, country, punk, surf?” he says with an upward inflection followed by a moment of hesitation and then a small laugh, “Yeah.”
Drops piano for guitar
Stratton started developing an interest in music at a young age when his parents enrolled him in piano lessons, an interest he picked up from his grandfather.
“I was always screwing around with keyboards and whatever we had on hand. Whenever I went to my grandparents’ house I always played on the big piano. Piano was always around me.”
Not long after, Stratton quit piano because he found he was much more “obsessed” with guitars. After saving all his birthday money, he bought his first guitar when he was 12. He says he was inspired by guitar players from many different genres when he first started learning.
“I was super obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, and from that I got into blues players like Muddy Waters, and I was also really into The Beatles. Some more psychedelic stuff like The Doors and also just songs of the time like cheesy Green Day stuff,” Stratton says with a chuckle, followed by a sigh.
In 2014 Willie Stratton and the Boarding Party released Deserter, they’re sophomore album. Recorded in Stratton’s Bedford home, the band used fewer instruments when compared to its self-titled predecessor.
“The first album is all acoustic, so there isn’t a single electric instrument or keyboard on it . . . [Deserter] was more of a typical kind of like, country rock band set up. We had drums and electric bass and electric guitar, and acoustic guitar as well. Like, on the first album we packed as much instruments on as we could on the album just because I was curious and kind of experimenting, but on Deserter it was kind of more stripped down and more sounding like the band.”
Stratton says the success of Deserter hit him when it was released for sale on vinyl. Being a vinyl collector himself, Stratton feels like vinyl is “more physical” than a digital copy, or even CDs.
The band ends their song. The audience stops dancing. The room once filled with music is now filling up with applause and whistles.
“Are we out of time?” Stratton looks off into the darkness of the theatre at an unseen figure. “We’re out of time,” he answers himself. The audience begins hollering for more music. Stratton looks over his shoulder at his band mates, shrugs, and continues to play his cowboy surf.