Maria Dunn & Friends, Red Deer May 12, 2012

Maria Dunn, Shannon Johnson, and Sharmila Mathur- GWG: Piece by Piece Snell Gallery, Red Deer

Last night, Maria Dunn, accompanied by a pair of musical companions, delighted a small gathering in the basement of the Red Deer Public Library.

Dunn, well-regarded as a singer-songwriter, is always a delight to hear live. Searching back in the memory, I believe the last time I experienced a live Dunn performance may have been eight years ago when she was first showcasing her Troublemakers: Working Albertans feature although I would be surprised if there hasn’t been a festival set in the intervening years; eight years seems like a long time for me to have gone between Dunn performances.

Searching for ‘something’ to do this weekend, I stumbled across a mention of this performance on the CKUA events page. Being somewhat connected to the Red Deer roots music scene I was both delighted and disappointed to hear of this little concert: delighted because my wife and I were almost certain to enjoy an evening of song from one of Alberta’s most consistent folk performers, but also disappointed that such an event almost passed by without notice.

Dunn is currently touring the province as part of the Alberta Federation of Labour’s Project 2012, a celebration of the AFL’s 100th anniversary. She is performing the Troublemakers show and- in select locations- GWG: Piece by Piece. It was this latter multi-dimensional, multi-media show that was featured on Saturday in Red Deer.

I was a bit nervous suggesting to my wife that we take in a performance built around the experiences of female labours within Edmonton’s GWG factory from 1911 to 2004. Considering our collective knowledge of the Great Western Garment Company consisted of wearing GWG denim jackets throughout our childhood and a faint recollection of a GWG advertising campaign featuring Wayne Gretzky- and even that could be a mental creation- I wasn’t sure exactly what we were in for as we strolled into the Snell Gallery.

If nothing else, Maria Dunn has built a reputation I trust. Her 2004 album We Were Good People brought to life a history of western Canada of which I was mostly ignorant, and the images captured within Troublemakers added so much to her already fully-nuanced stories of Canadians creating everyday history. Given my many experiences with Dunn and her music, I was happily willing to take a chance.

We weren’t disappointed once the show (which started late due to a double-booking of the facility, not the fault of the performers- amplified by a rather extended introduction) began. Dunn was joined by long-time collaborator Shannon Johnson (fiddle and vocals) and Sharmila Mathur (sitar, percussion, and vocals). Dunn and Johnson served as their own opening act, performing three (too few) songs from Dunn’s considerable repertoire.

Staying true to the labour theme of the evening, Dunn opened with a fiery rendition of her telling of “The Lingan Strike,” giving voice to the Scottish miners who, having travelled from their homeland to Cape Breton only to find that they were to serve as scabs, refused to go underground. One of Dunn’s early numbers, “Shoes of a Man,” allowed her to share family history, while the tale of desperate train-bound job seekers “How Do You Do, 1935?” concluded the all to brief opening set.

As solid a little appetizer this trio of performances was- and it was a very nice introduction to Dunn and her craft- the real magic began when she introduced GWG: Piece by Piece. Running at about an hour, this collection of film, interviews, images, and song- all composed by Dunn- in collaboration with filmmaker Don Bouzek and Catherine Cole, a writer whose recent book GWG: Piece by Piece serves as an illustrated history of GWG- was simply breathtaking.

Dunn’s ability to connect the reminiscent memories and phrases of the interviewed women who worked in the factory into a cohesive narrative is nothing short of impressive. As she did within We Were Good People, Dunn has illuminated the continuing history of Alberta, informing us of a story we didn’t know to appreciate; doing so in such an incredible manner that only the hardest didn’t have tears of appreciation cresting by its conclusion is only one measure of the success of Dunn’s vision.

Dunn tied the hardships faced by the factory workers- often the family’s only breadwinner in hard times, as often an example of the sacrifice made by the newly arrived as they built a life in Canada- to the dignity they achieved for themselves in performing labour that many other Alberta workers would never have considered for themselves.

In sharing the stories and insights of these women- some of whom traveled from rural areas to find work in the city, others immigrants from Italy, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, China, Pakistan, and elsewhere- Dunn has created a memorable and dynamic collection of songs that will undoubtedly extend her renown as Alberta’s finest folk singer and writer. These songs are to be released on an album that is anticipated next month, Piece by Piece: The Songs.

I especially appreciated the contributions of Sharmila Mathur. The sounds of her sitar further informed the performance, bridging the international roots of many of the interviewed workers with their experiences in the Edmonton factory. She also contributed a brief vocal interlude that was more than a little moving. Shannon Johnson’s fiddle playing was of course stellar, and it was nice to hear some ‘old world’ sounds sneak into a song that had a definite Italian flavour. Together, they added texture to the immigrant experience of the GWG factory.

Maria Dunn and friends next bring the GWG: Piece by Piece production to Hinton and Grande Prairie May 25 and 26. Troublemakers has additional performances in June and August. should have the details. Additional information at 

As an aside, as we left the theatre with a warm glow, we decided to extend our evening of music and went crosstown to catch a few songs from Dave McCann at The Hideout. With his Firehearts, Dave was in loud form performing his identifiable blend of Americana infused rock ‘n roll. Noisy, but still quite enjoyable. We had to leave before the band returned from an extended break (are breaks getting longer, or is it just me? This one seemed to have been 45 minutes before we finally left) because we’re old.

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