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Opener Tami Neilson has fans wanting more

PREVIEW What: Colin James with Tami Neilson When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St. Tickets: $57 at rmts.bc.
Tami Neilson has received a standing ovation at every show on tour with Colin James, a rare accolade for an opening act.


What: Colin James with Tami Neilson
When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
Tickets: $57 at, by phone at 250-386-6121, or the Royal McPherson box office


The role of an opening act is largely an underappreciated one, and while the spotlight frequently evades those not topping the marquee, moments of brilliance can sneak through.

Take the current tour by blues favourite Colin James, a cross-country trek that stops for three dates on Vancouver Island next week. In the opening slot for the run is Tami Neilson, a Mississauga-bred, New Zealand-based dynamo whose 30-minute sets have created a buzz with audiences. Neilson and her trio have had received a standing ovation at every show on the tour — incredibly rare for an opening act.

“Now, we’re totally spoiled,” Neilson said with a big, room-filling laugh. “If we hit [Victoria] and the pattern breaks, we’re all going to be so wounded.”

Her standing ovation streak won’t be in jeopardy at shows in Victoria on Tuesday and Nanaimo on Monday and Thursday. Neilson’s new album, Don’t Be Afraid, is a showcase for the sequined, beehived soul singer, whose full, dynamic range has drawn comparisons with everyone from Etta James to Amy Winehouse. She isn’t afraid of putting in hard work, either. Following each of the shows on her tour with James, Neilson sticks around to sign CDs for fans and meet concertgoers.

“When you’re a support act, you need to make that connect quickly. Hopefully, the point of doing it is to win over new fans.”

She hasn’t toured Canada recently, having been based in New Zealand for 11 years, so she is generally considered a new artist. Her track record, however, goes back 20 years to when she was a teenager singing country music in her family band, the Neilsons, with her parents and brothers. The death of her father, Ron, two years ago hit Neilson particularly hard. But she kept his spirit alive on Don’t Be Afraid, which features several of his compositions.

Around the time of her dad’s death, Neilson was told by her label in New Zealand that Outside Music in Toronto wanted to meet her and possibly sign her to a contract.

“I hadn’t even written this album yet, and was working through my grief, and they wanted to meet with me? I couldn’t believe it.”

Neilson performed as the opening act for James this month at Massey Hall in Toronto, one of the country’s most storied venues. It was then that what her father had taught her as a child came fully into view.

“To think within a span of two years [since being signed] I got to perform my dad’s songs on stage at Massey Hall; it was a very bittersweet thing. I walked on to the stage and immediately burst into tears during soundcheck.

“It was a lifelong dream realized, but there was the pain that he wasn’t there to share it with me — the one person who would be most excited that I was there.”

He was there in spirit. Neilson’s brother, Jay, who performs in her band, put a photo of their father on his amplifier at that show — and has done so at every show since. It’s their way of paying tribute to the man who gave his at all to every show he performed.

If anything, that’s the one trait Neilson figures she inherited.

“There’s a big difference between being a musician and being an entertainer. If you’re squeezing in a bunch of music and not connecting with people, you’re missing the point.”