The second day of the 2010 edition of the Central Music Festival did not hold the excitement of the previous evening. While the weather was outstanding and the lineup significant- headlined by a rising country star from Central Alberta, Shane Yellowbird- overall the day suffered from a certain mediocrity. While truly presenting a catholic menagerie of approaches and styles, the afternoon lineup did little to build momentum toward evening.
While individual tastes and impressions are, well… individual, the only act heard before 5:00 that significantly moved the audience appeared to be Edmonton’s Black Pioneer Heritage Singers. This seven-piece gospel outfit, with percussion communicating almost as much as the voices, shared a musical tradition going back scores of year. Stellar vocal arrangements infused with equal parts of spirit and sass brought Big Choir to the concert bowl. Familiar gospel numbers including “Keep Your Hand on the Plough” were performed. Forget every white bread sing-a-long of “Put Your Hand in the Hand” you’ve ever heard; BLHS delivered southern-styled soul in their interpretation and Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” was similarly remade.
As impressive as the group’s two female, two male vocal lineup is, nothing prepared us for the addition of Agnes Brown to the proceedings. Considered the group’s matriarch, this queen of gospel shook and stomped in her ministry. With four voices harmonizing with the obviously active senior, one could be forgiven for feeling as if they were in a community church somewhere much further south. “Ain’t That Something to Talk About,” indeed! Frailing on the banjo, Ms. Brown led her younger disciples through several songs including “The Resurrection Song” which led into “There Ain’t No Grave That Can Hold My Body Down.”
Without a doubt, the highlight of Day 2 happened early.
We snuck out for a quick run home, but I returned just as local group Oldbury were finishing their set; from all appearances, they worked the assembled audience into a bit of a frenzy. U22 participant Lucas Chaisson- heard previously at Canmore- has the Brett Dennan-thing down, and while his songs belay his youth the boy does have promising talent. However, I’m pretty sure I don’t need to hear “Man in the Mirror” again; I continually get horrid mental pictures of images in the mirror’s background.
Perhaps Canada’s finest interpreter of traditional blues, Jim Byrnes laidback music was nearly perfect for early evening. Accompanied by the ubiquitous Steve Dawson- previously heard this summer in a Mississippi Sheik tribute in Calgary and with The Sojourners in Canmore- Byrnes didn’t break any new ground despite performing a couple numbers from his upcoming release. In fact, the most recent song performed through the 75-minute set was a gorgeous take of “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues.” Bookending that Dylan number were a couple songs each from Jimmy Reed, The Sheiks, and Robert Johnson including “Take Out Some Insurance,” “Bootlegger’s Blues,” and “From Four ‘Til Late.” The stories Byrnes shared added to the set.
Allow me a moment to sing the praises of Steve Dawson. Not only can the guy play anything- and make it sound great- but he has great vision and ably operates a label while producing seemingly non-stop. Not only in Red Deer yesterday, but whenever heard he is likely at his best providing electric (even when acoustic, as on Saturday) leads to those he chooses to support. While he and Byrnes were consistently impressive, I was especially impressed by the bottleneck slide work Dawson added to “Bootlegger’s Blues.”
Jenny Allen performed a set that was just the right length. At turns heated and powerful, the Calgarian is imminently personable. Janis Ian’s “From Me to You” was given an ideal and memorable reading but this did not overwhelm Allen’s own pieces including “A Beautiful Mess” and other songs of miserably failed relationships. Like Dar Williams, Allen has the ability to soften her message with lightheartedness.
For those of us concerned about sameness bred of acoustic earnestness throughout much of the day, Ponty Bone and the Squeezetones put an end to all that. The accordion veteran and his four-piece outfit brought a steamin’ pile o’ San Antonio to us and garnished it with a slice of Louisiana. Blaze Foley’s “Ain’t Got No Sweet Thing” was a highlight of a set that may have suffered from its own type of sameness for listeners, but seemed to please the dancers in every way. “Baby, You Know,” “Castle Blues,” “Bon Temps Rouler,” and “Lucille” kept the area in front of the stage swaying and jumping.
But Ponty Bone- listen to the stage manager next time- it appeared he stormed through the signals to wrap the set that were obvious to everyone else.
Chris LeBlanc brought his deep, Maritime voice as the evening moved toward closure. Holding his own with only his guitar and songs like “Two Lane Road,” “Set My Heart on Fire” (with the excellent lyric “the flames flickered in her eyes”) and “Two Hearts, Four Wheels,” LeBlanc brought modern, traditional-based country music to the stage. Lightening the mood with “Arrest Me,” LeBlanc played the majority of his Too Much Nothin’ album; like me, most of the audience seemed unfamiliar with the New Brunswicker, but his calm, mature manner seemed to keep folks listening. Numbers like “Little Brick Bungalow”- reflecting on living within one’s means- reminded me of why I enjoyed listening to commercial country music in 1992.
Once Shane Yellowbird hit the stage with his beer garden-country, it was time for me to head for home. Nothing against the fellow, but that style of Tim McGraw modern country leaves me cold.
Overall, a very nice day and a half. Lots of different sounds, but unlike larger festivals where one can seek out music closer to one’s interest, at the single-stage Central Music Fest one has to take what comes. While this can expose one to music that may be surprising- Lucas Chaisson, Lisa Heinrichs, or Jenny Allen, for example- one does need to exercise patience to endure things of much less interest.
Still, a good vibe. The audience appeared to be- for the most part- there for the music and was quite appreciative. The vendors were well-stocked and the prices- for the most part- avoided the gouging that is common at some music festivals; I’ll pay $5 for a serving of butter chicken or curry and rice anytime. Excellent sightlines, lots of clean port-a-potties…and with an emphasis on Alberta music, who can complain too loudly?
We’ll be back, I do believe.
But I didn’t win the Steve Coffey painting!