A Blazing Gurf- Gurf Morlix & Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah- The Hideout, Red Deer June 12, 2011
A sixty-minute film to sum up a life is more than most of us will get, but it seems a bit inadequate for a life that was as obviously full as that lived by Blaze Foley.
Complemented by a superior set of lyric-centric post-hippie, country music from Gurf Morlix, for the past week Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah has been touring the roots venues of Alberta. Marred as it was this night by a sound system that seemed to be working against itself, the movie expanded on the many stories we’ve heard recently about the Texas songwriter who was killed in 1989.
Fifty or sixty like-minded folks- many devotees of Morlix, several others in attendance by little more than chance- gathered in a Gasoline Alley eatery along Alberta’s busiest highway this Sunday evening to watch a documentary about a singer most had never heard of a year ago. I didn’t know Blaze Foley, of course, but I can’t help but wonder what the might have thought about such an event. From what I have learned about the towering troubadour, I suppose he most likely would mutter, “Where the hell is Red Deer?”
To be featured this week at Toronto’s NXNE, Kevin Triplett’s Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah is an impressive creation. Interviews with family members- siblings, his mother- friends and songwriters- including Morlix, Mandy Mercier, Ky Hote and many others- his soul mate Sybil Rosen, as well as admirers including Merle Haggard place Blaze Foley’s seemingly contradictory behaviours in context. A defender of those facing injustices- a character trait that ultimately led to his death- had its foundation in the erratic and violent actions of his father, an abusive man according to Foley’s sister.
The many interviews weave into a solid fabric that tells Foley’s tale. Providing extra depth and insight are archival photos from throughout Foley’s life, handwritten lyrics, and brief bits of colourful animation. While the interviews provide the background and the visuals absorbing detail, the unearthed performances of Foley- in Austin television studios, on assorted stages, and on recordings- provide the substance. He was most obviously more than the drunken poet, in the words of Townes Van Zandt, “Who only gone crazy once. Decided to stay.”
Through the remembrances of those who knew him best, the film reveals Foley to have been both a self-saboteur and a victim of unparalleled circumstances. The stories told by Morlix about Foley during previous live shows sketched the outline- Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah completes the portrait.
Here’s a guy who seriously considered converting to Judaism while ordering sausage for breakfast. A man who lost one album’s master tapes when his car was broken into and hundreds of copies of another album to a raid by federal agents. Through no fault of his own, his most endearing- and enduring- song “If I Could Only Fly” was about the only song Willie Nelson recorded in the 80s that wasn’t a hit.
The missed opportunities and bad fortune are not unique to Foley, but they are amplified with the knowledge that he never got that next chance that might have turned out differently: the man made Van Zandt’s career trajectory appear comparatively well-executed. The documentary appeared to appeal equally to those who thought they knew most of the stories already and those who entered the roadhouse having never heard of Mike Fuller.
What did I take from the film? While I realize Blaze Foley wasn’t the greatest singer who ever darkened an Austin dive’s doorway, I came away with a greater appreciation for his gently awkward voice and finely crafted words. His first song- the first bleeding song the guy wrote- is as beautiful as anything I’ve heard. “Livin’ in the Woods in a Tree” is a personal song capturing his love for Sybil and their carefree life in a treehouse, but its images and sincerity provide universal appeal.
I’ve heard “If I Could Only Fly” sung by Foley (and others) any number of times, but the sparseness of the performance captured in Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah reveals an innocence of spirit that brings to mind Nick Drake at his most exposed. And I love the story shared about Foley helping Van Zandt get through “If I Needed You” one night on stage.
As stated earlier, it was unfortunate that a film that rivals Be Here to Love Me was provided an exhibition less than ideal. The sound was horrible, frequently rendering the artistry of Foley’s lyrics indiscernible. Audience members were leaning forward, searching for the nugget that was every word and were too frequently left wanting. While one appreciates the efforts it took to bring the production to the city, one hopes the film has a better fate elsewhere. It certainly deserves such.
Outside of a screening of Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah, the closest many of us will ever get experiencing Blaze Foley may be through an evening with Gurf Morlix. Morlix’s affection for his friend comes through in every conversation, and his performance in Red Deer on Sunday evening was certainly a suitable tribute.
Morlix performed about a dozen Foley songs in his hour-long set, each punctuated by his recollection of experiences with Foley starting in 1977. Several of the stories were poignant and all of them were humourous.
Having caught Morlix a couple times as both a sideman for and on a co-bill with Sam Baker, as well as fronting his own outfit at a Calgary fest a half-dozen years or more ago, I was very much looking forward to hearing him run through his interpretation of the Foley songbook.
He didn’t disappoint.
Even more than usual, Morlix’s guitar playing was spectacular, each note delicately but assuredly picked. The sound was significantly better for Morlix’s performance than it had been for the movie, and again the audience was hanging onto every word spoken and sang.
I’m not a Foley expert and I don’t know every one of his songs. Morlix’s renditions of “Clay Pigeons,” “For Anything Less,” and “Baby Can I Crawl Back to You” were quite impressive, equalling the performances contained on his tribute album Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream. “If I Could Only Fly” silenced the house. “Cold Cold World” brought the evening to a close on just the right notes, while Morlix’s own “Music You Mighta Made” contained clever echoes of Foley’s music…at least, to my ears.
As Morlix sang “Cold Cold World,” perspective was delivered. Had Blaze Foley not died in 1989, there is no telling what he might have accomplished. As past behaviour is most frequently the best indicator of future behaviour, Foley’s future- had he not stood up for his friend Concho- might not have been as rosy as some may like to imagine. Dying as Foley did short of his 40th birthday, we are left with a legacy of accomplishment magnified by its unrealized potential. But, imagine if it had turned out differently.
Maybe Blaze Foley would have stopped getting in his own way finally finding a modicum of success. Maybe Blaze Foley would be a household name outside of Austin and outside of select CKUA-listening Alberta homes. Maybe Blaze Foley would be as well-known as Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, and Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Maybe. But not likely.
A blazing grace, indeed.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
In today’s Roots Music column in the Red Deer Advocate I advance the local shows as usual and review the recent Gurf Morlix tribute to Blaze Foley. As previously mentioned on Fervor Coulee, Morlix is bringing his Foley tribute show to Red Deer’s The Hideout June 12.
To access the column, click on the link http://tinyurl.com/3b2gsbv and give it a gander.
Originally published in my Roots Music column in the Red Deer Advocate, May 20, 2011
Gurf Morlix Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream www.GoToAGig.com
If it were not for Gurf Morlix, most of us would not know of Blaze Foley and his incredible legacy of understated songs, many of which could be mistaken for less familiar offerings from the songbooks of Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt.
As much myth as legend, Foley has had songs written about him by Van Zandt and Lucinda Williams and he has been covered by Merle Haggard, John Prine, and others. Foley’s songs are sparse, matter-of-fact Texas poetry, alternating gentle romanticism with crude reality. Not long for this mortal coil, Foley checked out almost a decade before Van Zandt and left only a hodgepodge of recordings behind.
Over the past several years, Gurf Morlix has brought Blaze Foley’s name to prominence within Americana circles. Recently, Morlix released Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream, performing intense, low-key renditions handpicked from the Foley catalogue.
Morlix presents a balanced view of Foley’s music. The straightforward country request of “Baby Can I Crawl Back to You,” which opens the album, is offset by the realistic wistfulness of “Clay Pigeons” and the linguistic playfulness of “No Goodwill Stores in Waikiki.”
Having made his career as a sideman, Morlix is a more than capable front man; his voice isn’t pretty but is pure, imparting shades and textures where more flamboyant vocalists may falter communicating the melancholy and conflicted emotions of the songs. Late in the set, a trio of songs- “Small Town Hero,” “Rainbows and Ridges,” and “In the Misty Garden”/”I Shoulda Been Home with You”- fully expose the tortured intelligence and talents of Blaze Foley.
Obvious is the respect and loyalty Morlix holds for his friend Foley. He imparts enough personality to make the album his own, holding fast to the measure of the words and melodies as written by Foley.
When Morlix sings “Wherever I’m going is the same place I’ve been” in “Cold Cold World,” Morlix isn’t only singing the words as written, he is revealing the tortured soul that inhabits all of us.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.
I don’t normally cut & paste press releases at Fervor Coulee. I try to post only when I have something semi-coherent to share (Like, the new Tommy Shaw album absolutely rocks), but will make an exception- Gurf brings Blaze to Red Deer in June: you read it here first…if you didn’t see it somewhere else already.
Gurf Morlix Blazes Across Alberta with Music… PLUS…
The Movie Documentary “Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah”
***Links to tickets & information at: www.gotoagig.com***
Tuesday June 7 Monarch Theatre – Medicine Hat (Co-Presented by The Medicine Hat Folk Club)
Wednesday June 8 Geomatic Attic – Lethbridge
Thursday June 9 Coleman – Blackbird Coffee House
Friday June 10 Canmore – Communitea Cafe
Saturday June 11 Haven Social Club – Edmonton
Sunday June 12 The Hideout – Red Deer
Monday June 13 Ironwood Stage & Grill – Calgary
- Gurf Morlix is VERY well known to Alberta audiences, and for some time now he has showcased the talents of his old friend Blaze Foley via storytelling and song. Gurf released his own “tribute” to Blaze called “Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream”, named for one of Blaze’s songs that Gurf covers there.
- Blaze, a colorful, but flawed character, was murdered in 1989 at the age of 39. Recording an album of Blaze’s music is something Gurf’s been wanting to do since Blaze died. Now is the time. Gurf knows that Blaze’s honest, heartfelt words will resonate with today’s audience.
Blaze is finally having the career he wanted, but unfortunately it has only been since his death that the likes of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, John Prine and others have shone spotlights on songs such as “If I Could Only Fly”, “Clay Pigeons” and “Election Day”.
- Blaze was also an inspiration for other songwriters; Townes Van Zandt’s “Blaze’s Blues” and Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel” were both lovingly written about Blaze Foley.
Gurf wrote a while back: “Blaze Foley – soulful, passionate singer songwriter. Champion of the downtrodden. Friend of the working Girl. Truth seeker. Atmospheric disturbance. Tender caring person with a big ol’ bag of deep-rooted troubles stuffed down into one of his pockets. Blaze could cut right through the bullshit, or he could be the cause of it. The funniest person I ever met, and also the most tragic”……and Gurf Morlix is better equipped than most to tell the tales and sing the songs of Blaze Foley.
- Don’t miss your chance to see and hear him do just that during a unique evening that also includes a visual history of Blaze, the documentary “Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah.
- Kevin Triplett is a Filmmaker who has the grit and determination of a dog on a bone, as well as the patience of Job. After twelve years in the making, Kevin finally got to officially release his “labor-of-love” documentary movie about Blaze, “Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah” in February this year, right around the release date of Gurf’s CD.
- The documentary has been getting rave reviews, and gives a wonderful insight into the troubled talent that was Blaze Foley by people who knew and loved him. Tall tales and truisms will make you laugh and cry along the way.
Sharing the common bond of Blaze, Kevin & Gurf have been “gigging” together since February, with Kevin screening the documentary followed by a Q&A session, and afterwards there’s a whole set of Blaze songs performed by Gurf. Bring your own popcorn!
Gurf Morlix, Red Deer Feb. 14 photo courtesy Helge Nome
Sam Baker, Red Deer, Feb. 14 photo courtesy Helge Nome
Last evening in Red Deer, Sam Baker and Gurf Morlix continued their Freezin’ Our Butts Off February tour of Alberta. A sold-out Matchbox Theatre was the venue hosting the two Austin residents on Valentine’s Day night and the evening exceeded all expectations.
One could be forgiven (I hope since I was one of them) for having expected the evening to be a Sam Baker concert with accompaniment by Gurf Morlix. Instead the audience of just over one hundred was treated to a song swap that lasted almost two and a half hours, including the many stories and song introductions shared by both participants. Spontaneity was obvious at almost every turn. And since I went into the show with huge appreciation for Morlix, more so than even Baker, things worked out for me just fine. I also gained an even deeper understanding and appreciation for Baker.
I purposely didn’t take notes during the show, but the memories remain sharp more than a dozen hours later. With each of the singers sharing (I think) ten songs, most of the favourites were covered with a few surprises intermixed. The intimate venue revealed excellent sound and sightlines, well-living up to the reputation it has earned over the past two years. The only complaint could be that Baker’s guitar couldn’t be heard for the middle third of the show, the result of a forgotten pedal switch. This oversight simply allowed one to even more enjoy Morlix’s contributions to Baker’s songs.
While other Texas (and Texan-based) songwriters that I enjoy- Guy Clark, for example, or even Tom Russell and Morlix- seem to have more male-audience appeal, Baker has that mysterious and tortured poet-thing a-goin’ that attracts the ladies. His songs have qualities that appeal equally to the genders, but they seem to resonate emotionally and even romantically a bit more than other songwriters with women. This was obvious with the attention he received during the break and after the show, as well as in the number of heads cradled on partner’s shoulders during the concert.
Establishing that they would play their sad songs early, and the sadder ones later, the pair immediately connected with their audience. I enjoy Baker’s music every time I hear it on the radio or on disc, but I was a bit jaded after a less than satisfying Baker performance at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival this past August. This time out, everything fired for Baker.
The expected songs were masterfully performed- “Juarez,” “Pony,” and “Orphan,” along with a note-perfect rendition of “Waves” late in the second set. Morlix’s fingerpicking on this final number was incredible- he just pulled us into the song. Baker kicked off the second set fulfilling a request for “Iron,” his finest song in my opinion. Also performed were “Boxes,” “Angel Hair,” and his closer, “Broken Fingers.” Prior to this, Baker made “Long Black Veil” all his own, changing the odd word here and there. By the time the scaffold was high, his phrasing had changed enough to make it a Baker song with all influence Cash or Lefty Frizzell may have imparted falling aside.
I left the venue more impressed by Morlix than I had anticipated, especially since my regard was already so significant. He did a couple Blaze Foley songs, including “Cold Cold World” and most of Last Exit to Happyland including the time-stopping “One More Second.” It was apparent the audience was not as familiar with Morlix as they were Baker, so songs like “Crossroads,” “She’s A River,” and “Walkin’ to New Orleans” were new to most. All were very well received. “Voice of Midnight” struck a powerful chord, not surprising given the date and “Madalyn’s Bones” from Diamonds to Dust allowed one to consider what one is leaving behind. Most unexpected was a tear-through of “I Fought the Law.” While Baker had an armful of requests, Morlix satisfied his single request for what he called his most pure song, “Dan Blocker.” This song (Thanks, by the way, Gurf!) caused the evening’s only uncomfortable moments as it was apparent- even after the introductory story about Scout camp- that the audience wasn’t sure what to make of this one, and perhaps kept expecting it to go somewhere. It didn’t of course, but that is kind of the point.
Closing with “The Last Time,” the pair left the stage forgoing the obligatory encore which would certainly have been appreciated by all in the audience.
An excellent evening of roots music in Red Deer, and those who skipped it for a late dinner or an evening of cuddling missed something special. One hopes that this successful performance will encourage the local promoter to continue to take chances on artists of this caliber.
I hope to link some pictures from the show in the next couple days, so check back if interested.
Baker and Morlix remain in Alberta for the next week; check http://www.sambakermusic.com/calendar.html or http://www.gurfmorlix.com/tour.html for details and venues.
Due to a miscommunication, my column scheduled for last week ran today. No big deal really as I was not advancing anything of a time-sensitive matter. However, since the column was submitted, a couple interesting shows have been added to the local roots music calendar.
This coming Friday, Dec. 18, a fundraiser for a few area charities including the food bank goes at The Hub downtown featuring a variety of acts- the only one I have nailed down is Will White with Byron Myhre. $10 at the door and I’ll try to find the entire slate. Also, in huge news, Sam Baker with Gurf Morlix will make a Valentine’s Day appearance at the Matchbox. I caught the pair at the Edmonton Folk Festival this summer, and I dare say Gurf almost overshadowed Sam. I have already reserved my tickets for that one. Also, bluesman Mark Sterling brings The Songs of John Lennon to the same venue March 6.
This week I reviewed two new albums, the Amchitka set from Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Phil Ochs and the 1965 live set from Pete Seeger.
Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Phil Ochs
A double-set documenting the 1970 Vancouver event ($3 a ticket!) that launched the endeavours of Greenpeace, those of a certain age are sure to find Amchitk fascinating.
Looking back, a very impressive lineup: Joni Mitchell at the peak of her powers, prior to going arty; James Taylor having just released his breakthrough Sweet Baby James album; and Phil Ochs, the poet prince of the Greenwich Village set.
Mitchell is more lighthearted than one might expect, cracking wise dropping a snippet of Bonie Maronie into Big Yellow Taxi, asking forgiveness to ‘putter around here a minute’ when she loses her way during For Free. Mitchell features a number of tunes from Ladies of the Canyon, and performs on guitar, piano, and dulcimer. Mr. Tambourine Man is just one of the delightful surprises within her thirty five-minute set, made more so when Taylor ambles in to bring it home.
Taylor sings from his first three albums, including tunes from the then unreleased Mud Slide Slim. Songs that would become standards- Carolina in My Mind, Something in the Way She Moves, Fire and Rain- resonate brightly almost forty years later.
At the time, Phil Ochs was as big a name within folk circles as Mitchell, lacking populist appeal perhaps but unrepentant in his convictions. A seven-minute rendition of Joe Hill is masterful, while I Ain’t Marching Anymore and Rhythms of Revolution reminds one of a time when it appeared music just may change the world. Throughout the set Ochs demonstrates that earnestness need not defeat entertainment.
As a sliver of folk-rock history, Amchitka (named for the Aleutian Island where U.S. nuclear bomb tests were protested by Greenpeace) captures a seminal moment in the development of the folk-rock, singer-songwriter era.
Devoid of the planned spontaneity such a benefit now requires, this set highlights a time when the music world seemed less like business and more like community.
Live in ’65
To be valued as true ‘folk music’ there needs to be more than an acoustic guitar or banjo and slightly off-key singing. An attempt to encourage social upheaval thorough a revolution inspired by music is at the core of folk music- whether challenging the structures of 18th century Britain or the constraints of 20th century America, the singer encouraged change.
Recorded in Pittsburgh in 1965, this set captures Pete Seeger at his storytelling and entertaining finest. His manner seems quite quaint more than forty years later; it is hard to imagine that politics and activism made him a target of government scrutiny. Yet his influence on those who would follow- from Bruce Springsteen (who rewrote He Lies in an American Land, included here) to Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco- is obvious.
Among the 31 cuts included in this previously unreleased concert recording are Seeger standards including Turn! Turn! Turn!, Guantanamera, This Little Light of Mine, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and Old Joe Clark. Less familiar and as such a little more interesting may be Peat Bog Soldiers with its roots in a Nazi concentration camp, Going Across the Mountain, and When I First Came to This Land. Lovely.
This past Saturday, I took the highway north to take in my (almost) annual day at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, I find it difficult to do more than a day at any music fest although there was a time when I could do three days in Calgary, three at Stony Plain, and then four in Edmonton; those days are long gone. In fact, this year, I needed to sleep away most of Sunday afternoon just to recover from my day at Gallagher Park.
Because I limit myself to a day at the EFMF, I do try to take in as much music as possible. I go in with a bit of a game plan as to which sessions I most want to catch, but try to allow for some spontaneity. This year I was very much looking forward to finally catching Rodney Crowell as he has been a long time favourite I haven’t caught in concert; I remember a scheduled Red Deer show in the early nineties was cancelled after only a few dozen tickets sold- and this after six consecutive number ones on the Canadian country charts.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the festival is well-established and there are usually not too many organizational surprises, leaving one to discover music without worrying about food (lots of vendors), water (two different locations with plenty of taps with potable water), potties (go early is my advice!), or discs (the CD tent is fully stocked, although some artists still don’t bring enough (or any) product to satisfy the demand). I’m estimating this is my tenth festival over fifteen years, and despite attending only the one day, I must admit I have never more enjoyed an Edmonton Folk Music Festival. It helps that the weather was sunny without being uncomfortably hot.
I got to the park in plenty of time to catch the opening sessions, and made a bee-line for Stage 2 for Newgrass, a pairing of Nashville’s The SteelDrivers and Mongolia’s Hanggai. I had checked out Hanggai’s Myspace site (http://www.myspace.com/hanggaiband) the day before and was intrigued at the interaction that may occur between southern bluegrassers and an Asian stringband. I was not disappointed.
Richard Bailey, the SteelDrivers’ five-stringer and one of the most in-demand session players in Nashville, had a huge smile on his face as he dropped in some basic fills while the throat singer and other members of Hanggai performed their music. Quite a bit of interplay occurred between the quintets, with Hanngai’s electric guitar player taking an extended break during one of the SteelDriver tunes- can’t recall which one.
This was my first chance catching the SteelDrivers, and they didn’t disappoint. Tammy Rogers has played Edmonton numerous times as a member of the Dead Reckoners, and her contributions to a song are always appreciated. Chris Stapleton’s growly blues vocals are as effective on stage as they are live, and Mike Fleming kept things moving along with a restrained approach to MC duties. The bands came together for a rousing closing on “The Drinking Song.” This was one session that ended much too soon, and it seemed that everyone on the stage left quite pleased with their collaboration.
Next up were my favourite Canadian alt-country band, The Swiftys. I was pleased to see Marc Ladouceur hanging around the stage area as the SteelDrivers and Hanngai performed, leading me to believe he might be sitting in with the band. And he was, performing on acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin. It became clear early on that Jody Johnson was no longer playing with Shawn Jonasson and Grant Stovel as a new bassman was on stage with them- and Jody was off to the side. Roger Marin was also sitting in on pedal steel, making the trio a quintet.
I didn’t take notes during the show, and instead just sat back to enjoy the forty-minute set. They played songs from both of their albums including “Ridin’ High” and “Sweet Rose”. They dropped in Shuyler Jansen’s “Bottle of Wine” and Darrek Anderson’s “26 oz of Gin”, both recorded on their Ridin’ High disc, as well as a cover of Waylon’s “Sweet Mental Revenge.” I don’t know how much this line-up has been gigging, but they sounded quite tight and there were no noticeable slips. Knowing how much Marc likes the electric guitar, I was pleased to finally, after how many years, get to hear him play in a couple spots. Very nice, and complemented the band’s sound nicely. A strong set of electric barroom-inspired country music was enjoyed by a fairly large gathering of friends, family, and fans at stage two.
After touching base with acquaintances after the show, I rushed off the catch the final bit of a session featuring Tift Merritt, Sam Baker, Alana Levandoski, and Slaid Cleaves. To be able to listen to three of my favourites- four, if one includes Gurf Morlix who was sitting in with Sam- was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I don’t often enjoy the sessions that include a number of singer-songwriters taking turns playing their songs with little interaction. It often seems pretty stiff and awkward. Maybe it has to do with the mind-set of the songwriter.
Sam Baker was finishing up “Orphan” as I got to Stage 5. Slaid slipped nicely into “Drinkin’ Days” along with a backing duo whose names I didn’t catch. Tift was next up, and sang a beautiful version of “Something to Me” unaccompanied. Very nice, and a great way for my only chance to see Merritt at the festival to begin. Later, she moved over to the keyboard to perform “Good Hearted Man.”
I only caught a couple songs by Alana, one of which was a cover of “Those Memories of You” inspired by her dual love of Emmylou Harris and Brit-pop bands.
Sam Baker performed “Truale” and Slaid’s mando player was invited to drop in a four-second break. Gurf Morlix wrapped things up, playing it “weird and scary”, transforming the Stones’ “The Last Time” into a breezy gospel clap-a-long. A nice way to close things down.
The session- at least the portion I witnessed- didn’t feature a lot of interplay between the participants although many quips were exchanged and laughter was plentiful.
The mid-afternoon main stage performance was by Oysterband. I’ve long thought the Saturday afternoon 2:00 set as the toughest of the weekend. By Sunday afternoon, most folks are tired enough to sit down and just veg and listen. But on Saturday it seems the performers always face a sea of movement, lanes of wanderers in search of sustenance, shade, and lost pals. While it didn’t seem many were listening to Oysterband initially, John James’ personable interactions, encouragement of audience participation, and the band’s lively Celtic-rock hybrid seemed to bring things around. Fortunately, the sound system was cranked up loud enough that the set could be heard throughout the site, allowing one to indulge in green onion cakes and the like. I want to dive back in and explore their catalogue a bit.
I was a bit torn for the next slot. The Skydiggers were doing a concert set, and as they are a new-to-me favourite, I was tempted. But, in the end, seeing a bit of Fred won out- how can I attend any festival and not spend at least a bit of time being amused, enlightened, and offended by our Fred? So, I went over to the Megatunes session for Fred Eaglesmith and Loudon Wainwright III. Joining them at the far stage six were Danny Michel and Jill Barber, two singer-songwriters that don’t much interest me but whom I know have devoted and- judging by the crowd in attendance- sizeable fan bases.
This one had all the makings of a session disaster- too many chairs on the small side stage, too many hands setting up too much gear. The start time of 3:00 came and went with only Danny Michel appearing ready to go. Plugs, cords, and mics were still being manipulated by the time Fred and Jill were ready, and Loudon was still nowhere in sight. Of course, the biggest straw hat in the park had to sit directly in front of me, ta boot. I considered beating a hasty retreat, but elected to hang in. Loudon took the stage at seven past, and by about eleven after the hour things appeared set to go.
Jill Barber did a couple of her jazz-tinged songs of an earlier time. She has a lovely voice, but it doesn’t quite stick with me or hold my attention for very long. She did “Wishing Well” and “Be My Man” and audience loved that.
Joined by Bill Chambers, Fred launched into one of his ‘lesbian love songs’ “Wilder than Her,” offending half of the slope with an off-colour quip about gay pride and rainbows that I figure will somehow be edited out by the time this session is broadcast on Radio 2 August 27. He also pulled out “Rough Edges,” which I haven’t heard in years. That’s one of the many things I like about Fred, he is willing to pull out older songs and give them an airing on occasion. Some songwriters, well you have a fair idea of what you’ll hear, but with Fred all bets are off. Fred is able to do more in two songs than lesser entertainers can in an entire set.
Loudon performed a pair of songs from his upcoming Charlie Poole project that really interested me, and will encourage me to check out High Wide and Handsome when it is released.
Knowing that I would only likely hear another song from each of the performers, I decided to head back across the park for the 4:00 concert by Chumbawamba, a band I really wanted to experience. They were booked into the festival a few years back, but I missed their performance and since then I’ve purchased a handful of their discs and quite enjoyed them. I am also interested in them because of their refusal to fall victim to the ‘pop trap’, and have gone out of their way to maintain their values and aims while setting “Tubthumping” well behind them.
Chumbawamba Acoustic is a very impressive group- heavy songs, lightly presented. Two guitars, accordion, trumpet, tambourine, a pipe and usually four but occasionally five voices taking on the world. I spent a wonderful fifty minutes listening to them, and was absolutely impressed in every way. They engaged their audience- actually went a bit far with that and had a young gal from the audience come up to sing the first verse of “Ring of Fire” within “Charlie”- and were completely brilliant. They even dropped in a bit of “pissing the night away” into “Charlie.” I’m gushing, I know, but I just loved what they did. The did several songs from The Boy Bands Have Won (including “I Wish They’d Sack Me” and “El Fusilado”) as well as the chuckle inspiring ode to the joys and perils of social networking, “Add Me.” “Hanging On the Old Barbed Wire” brought things back to somber realties. I downloaded a couple albums last night- UN and Boy Bands-and can’t get enough.
Which brings me to a suggestion I’ve thought of making to the festival’s A.D., Terry Wickham. I think it may be time to let go of the mid-day main stage performance. Many (most?) people appear to have trouble focusing on the music during the middle of the afternoon when the stage is so far down the hill from many of the audience. Judging by the number of folks in the food lineups, under the shade of the sheltering tent, and just wandering the grounds, I wonder if the slot might be better used by having seven extended concert sets going instead of one main stage performance.
While a Fred Eaglesmith, Chumbawamba, or Tift Merritt- or for that matter, The SteelDrivers, Hot Tuna, or Joel Plaskett) may not warrant a full, main stage set, they are more than deserving of greater than forty-five or fifty minutes to show their wares. Perhaps if one scheduled a series of 80-minute concert sets between 1:30 and 3:00 on all the stages, more engagement may occur between listeners and performers.
I know I would have much rather had the Oysterband play to a really enthusiastic but smaller audience than have them playing to a sparsely populated hill of half-listeners. Just a thought.
Next up was Texan Sam Baker, again accompanied by Gurf Morlix. I love his voice and approach to songwriting. He did a couple songs from the new album Cotton including the title track and “Moon.” I don’t mind his penchant for borrowing lyrics at all as he makes the traditional words fit his characters and their situations so effectively. He punctuates his singing with an oddly lively picking style that is appealing.
“Waves” is up there with “75 Septembers” for impactful songs of sustained commitment and aging. Baker has a way of singing that is unlike anyone I can think of off the top of my head. It is a hesitant yet melodic singing-speaking voice that is attractive. He’s top drawer, engaging, self-deprecating, insightful. I enjoyed the set immensely. And yet…
When Gurf Morlix gets a chance to do one of his songs- and Sam turned things over to him twice during the nine-song set- it is magic. He doesn’t blow Sam Baker off the stage- they are too different in approach for that to occur- but when he is finished a song like “Crossroads,” one thinks, “Damn, that’s how it is done.”
They are like two visual artists of very different styles. One is grounded in realism, texture, and details, the other is into poetic uses of colour within impressionistic murals. I’m not sure which is which, but I enjoy them both as they are completely compelling when sharing their music.
But note to Sam- don’t ask for requests from the audience when you can’t hear what they are yelling! Just play your songs.
So that was the day in the sun. Next up were the main stage acts, supper, and such. After having my fill of green onion cakes, we settled in on the hill for the main-stagers. I didn’t hear much of Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit, but we were ready for Patty Griffin.
According to my friends, I’ve seen and heard her at the folk fest before, but I don’t remember her. I don’t think I’ll recall much of this performance as well. I don’t find her music terribly appealing, although I am definitely outvoted in that regard within our small group. My ears perked up for a version of “Silver Wings”, but I would have a real hard time recalling any of her other songs. It wasn’t unpleasant by any means, but just more suitable to an audience that doesn’t include me, I suppose.
Iron & Wine was next. I have to be honest, I own several Iron & Wine albums and EPs but without liner notes I don’t know one Sam Beam song from the next. Strangely, I’m okay with that ignorance. I just like the sounds. And on the main stage, standing alone in a revolving spotlight, he alternately banged and strummed his guitar- making the bass notes count- and sang. And for an hour or so, the crying babies, squabbling couples, (loudly) reuniting friends, and other annoyances faded away. I’m told he sounds like Jethro Tull/Ian Anderson, and that was a good thing, I believe. I didn’t recognize a single song, and that has more to do with the way I listen to Iron & Wine than anything else. I just love the music. It was a great set, very enjoyable. The word ethereal is used a great deal when describing music that causes other words to be inadequate. I think I now know the meaning of the word.
Okay, that isn’t completely true. I didn’t fully enjoy the set. I had gone all day without having any conflicts with any other attendees. I had even mentioned this to my friends- the chatterers seemed to be missing this year. Well, all good things come to an end.
I hope you are reading this! If you want to gush about your friend’s knitting, discuss the dental crown you lost, compare and discuss the relative merits of hoodies and zippered sweaters, and….Why come and do it on a hill surrounded by folks who are actually trying to listen to the freakin’ music? I will never, ever understand it.
I do understand and embrace the social aspects of the folk festivals. Over the last twelve or so years, more often than not I’ve attended festivals with a small group of friends, and recently that group has included a great wee lad. We chat relatively quietly, we catch up, and then we listen. That is the part I don’t get- why would you pay money and ignore world class artists who are sharing their innermost thoughts and observations? A mystery.
Back to the hill.
When the lights go down, things do change. When the sun finally sets around 10 o’clock, and darkness engulfs the hill, it is really quite spectacular. I remember both of the Joans (Baez and Armatrading) marveling at the effect of the candle-covered hill. With the candles on our side, and the downtown skyline on the other, a better setting for a festival of this type is hard to imagine. And, amazingly, people tend to quiet down as well! Bonus.
Rodney Crowell was next, the act my group and I had been waiting for, and he was amazing. Fronting a three-piece band, including Cicadas compatriot Steuart Smith for the first time in nine years, Crowell focused largely on material from The Houston Kid and later albums. “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design” and “Moving Piece of Art” started the show, setting the tone for an evening of music played with maturity and good taste. “Still Learning How to Fly” seemed especially poignant, and “I Wish It Would Rain” seemed to capture the audience’s attention. I was especially pleased to hear “Closer to Heaven,” if only to howl “I love Guy Clark” along with Rodney.
More than halfway through the show, Crowell started reaching back into his extensive catalogue. “Leaving Louisiana” and “Til I Gain Control Again” got things going while an amped up take of “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” was blistering, and on this familiar tune Crowell and his band demonstrated that a country band can rock without resorting to recycled Van Halen riffs.
While at an afternoon session (I’m told by an ecstatic Cheryl) Crowell dipped into the songbooks of George, Hank, and Merle, the only cover on this night was a spell-binding rendition of “Pancho and Lefty.” Introduced by Crowell as “one of the greatest songs ever written,” he launched into the song and made it sound new. I think this version may get Waylon and Willie playing dress-up out of my head, and perhaps I can enjoy the song now as others do.
As an encore, Crowell came back unaccompanied with quiet, gentle benediction that I just can’t identify although I know I’ve heard it before; it reminded me a little of “Forever Young,” but I couldn’t figure it out. (Edit: Two years later…”Earthbound,” I do believe.) He swung into “I Know Love Is All I Need” with the band rejoining him before the song’s conclusion.
A perfect performance, in my opinion. Too often I am disappointed in performances on large festival stages from my favourites, but not this time. Even lacking the Columbia hits and our being several hundred feet from the stage, Crowell kept me engrossed the entire performance.
My friends left after Rodney, and I decided to move to another location for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. I knew I wouldn’t stay long, no matter how good they were because of the two-hour commute home, but I wanted to be close to one of the video screens. I found a wonderful spot, and I think it may now be my favourite secret location, on a steep incline that no one else seems to sit on.
The tweener for this slot was Ashley MacIsaac accompanied by Quinn Bachand, a thirteen year-old guitar wizard. One could almost hear the hill collectively sigh, “Ashley, all is forgiven. Welcome back, lad!” The attention-seeking behavior of the past was forgotten as the duo electrified those remaining in attendance. They did three numbers, the middle of which was a dreamy, passionate fiddle tune that was lovely. Bookending this sensitive number that really showed off MacIsaac’s gifts were a pair of up-tempo leapers with which one more readily associates with the Nova Scotian. Seeing MacIsaac mouth the chord changes to Quinn was like watching the skills of one generation being passed down to the next, which I guess it was. I’ll be on the lookout for more music of this type from MacIsaac and I won’t be surprised to see him making a return visit soon.
The seven-piece Dap-Kings opened the show Wilson Pickett-style, with a horn rich instrumental, firing up the audience with an extended introduction to the revue while getting the lower bowl on their feet. By the time Jones joined the boys, the hill was rocking to the soul-fest. “How Do You Let A Good Man Down?” got things jumping, and “Nobody’s Baby” kept it going. A couple tunes later and I was making my way to the bus, wishing I could stay later. But, knowing it would be 2:00 AM before I got home kept me going toward the exit as midnight approached.
What a day! I can’t remember the last time I left a music festival so drained and satisfied. I was unable to catch several favourites, including Chuck Brodsky, Kimmie Rhodes, The Skydiggers, Spirit of the West, and Great Lake Swimmers, and I still haven’t caught up to Sierra Hull. Hot Tuna intrigued me, especially after I realized who was playing with them- Barry Mitterhoff. Dang! I even missed Dick Gaughan, something I never thought I would do. Too many choices. A friend suggested I hear The Wooden Sky, but I was unable to. I bought their disc instead, unheard and only on my pal’s advice. I must say, Ross has me figured out as I’ve quite enjoyed the album already.
A last thought- It was nice to see a mention of Gilbert Bouchard in the festival’s program guide. I won’t pretend Gilbert and I were friends, and certainly have no desire to overstate our relationship. But for several months from 1984 to 1986, Gilbert was a close acquaintence. He was the first person to give me a chance to write about music and was a brutal but supportive editor. His taste in sherry not withstanding, without his involvement, I likely wouldn’t have followed a path that has included writing.
As always, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival appeared to be excellently organized, and my experience was entirely pleasant, excepting a half-hour of chatter-chatter during Iron & Wine. For those of you not in the Edmonton area, consider putting this fest on your vacation planner; but get your tickets early, as the fest tends to sell out quickly. www.efmf.ab.ca