Edmonton Folk Music Festival, August 8

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 Merle 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

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