Friday signaled the start of workshop sessions at the 2017 Edmonton Folk Music Festival.
Even though Thursday night of the 2017 Edmonton Folk Music Festival was cut short due to an evacuation order based on the possibility of extreme winds we still got a sampler of the fantastic music we can expect over the next few days.
The geniuses behind the Winnipeg Folk Fest curate a series called Hear All Year and to some extent that is what the Edmonton folk clubs do for us. They bring a bit of that timeless August magic into the dreary grey, slush-filled prairie winter evenings. At New Moon the glimpse’s of summer aren’t just the music, or even the line-up for the door that wound through the lobby a few times at the final show of the 2016–17 season, it is the sense of community that permeates the whole scene. It seemed that more than ever people were stopping by each others tables to visit, catching up with a neighbour in line, or even striking up conversations with unknowns at their table. In many ways the last show of New Moon’s second season felt like the Sunday of Folk Fest — I, for one, was almost ready to sing “Four Strong Winds” and climb up a ski-hill at the end of the night.
After the perogy line finally abated Rebecca Lappa took to the stage. The Edmonton native charmed the audience with quirky stories about her childhood documentary obsession (the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart) and even linked the reality TV show Millionaire Matchmaker to her original song “Crockpot Girl”. Lappa was joined by Nick Samoil on keyboards, creating a full sound that carried through St. Basil’s even with the simple configuration of just a guitar, keyboard and Lappa’s voice.
Following Lappa’s opening act, Leeroy Stagger’s four piece band came out with their own take on The Shmenge Brother’s “Cabbage Rolls and Coffee” as an introduction that brought Stagger to centre stage. “Cabbage Rolls and Coffee” was both appropriate (given the available cuisine) and hilariously executed even if the reference was missed by some. He told us that his wife phoned him just before he took the stage to tell him that their young son has heard dad on the TV and had been singing along with the la-la-las of “I Want It All”, eliciting a chorus of “awwwhs” from the audience. But Stagger wasn’t just about laughter and light topics. “Little Brother” was written after Stagger’s own younger brother was in a serious accident, which brought Stagger to his bedside during a week long coma. The evening also featured a number of other tunes off Stagger’s new album, Love Versus hitting stores on April 7th, including “Crooked Old Road” which Joel Plaskett appears as a guest musician on. Ending the main sets was the older “Radiant Land” which is about standing up for what you believe, asking:
What would you do?
What would you do if it all came down to them or you?
Would you stand tall and fight?
In the fields of this radiant land
Stagger segued seamlessly from his own words to Bob Dylan’s reminding us that “the times, they are a-changing.”
To say that all the musicians on stage with Stagger were talented, would be an understatement. Their performance was polished but that doesn’t mean it was stagnant. Keyboardist Michael Ayotte often held the in between song bits together using chords like glue, while drummer Nick Stecz was quick to jump in with a drummer roll for the door-prize draws at intermission & provided a vibrant rhythmic underpinning to the whole evening. Tyson Maiko’s (the bassist) fifteen years of playing with Stagger showed in his banter with the lead singer and Ryland Moranz was phenomenal switching between instruments — mandolin, banjo, various guitars, and likely some other instruments I missed — like it was a game of musical chairs (and he was winning). Together this quintet brought down the house for the New Moon Season, and all we can do is look forward to what is in store for next season.
Early bird season passes for New Moon’s next season go on sale June 1st, and the discounted rate continues until the 30th.
With the long weekend of February just completed we are now officially past the halfway mark to lounging on tarps on a ski hill, while listening to world-class musicians. Winterfest now in its 9th year hosted by the Uptown Folk Club, marks this shift like a solstice to its summer counterpart. The event lasted for five hours on Friday, and many more than that on Saturday. If you need a pick-me up from the February blahs mark Winterfest on your calendar for next year (its always on the long weekend in February) and be prepared to be overloaded with all folk music, all the time.
Any good folkie will tell you that each stage at folk fest has its own feel dependent upon size, location and, of course, the musicians on stage. Some years it is as if the stars have aligned and every workshop I want to see happens on the same stage and I spend more time camped out on my little blanket than back at the tarp that I pegged on the Hill. Winterfest at the Uptown Folk Club is like that magical stage at folk fest, once you’ve got your spot sorted out you can just remain there and soak in all the wonderful music. Just like folk fest there are quick stage changes managed by a crack team of sound techs, and on Saturday afternoon there were two workshop sessions, one on songwriting and one for instrumentals that dissolved into the amazing jam sessions Canadian folk fests are known for.
Winterfest boasted everything from bluegrass to Beethoven and even some pyrotechnics, both literal and musical. Friday night kicked off with “Legion” of Folk showcasing the talents of many of the Uptown Folk Club volunteers who would spend the rest of the weekend devoted to manning the audio-visual equipment. These performers turned volunteers linked their songs back to inspiration gathered at previous Winterfests and shared part of their own musical journeys. In a similar vein “Legion” of Folk was followed up by the local Family Folk featuring Chris and Matt Gosse with their father Steve. Literal pyrotechnics ended Shane Chisholm’s set on his gas tank bass, when the salvaged-Chevy-van-part-turned-musical-instrument met his musical metal grinder. Rounding out Friday evening were performances full of musical pyrotechnics by American’s Molly Tuttle and Bluegrass Etc. their hands were a constant blur, and both Tuttle and Bluegrass Etc. were called back to the stage for encores.
Saturday started out with workshops before Edmonton’s Lara Yule Singh took to the stage sharing a number of fairy-tale inspired tunes. Performances by Rick Garvin and Chris Ronald both hailing (now) from the West coast bookend a brief supper break. Garvin drew song inspiration from family history in “A Hundred Dead Buffalo“. Ronald took us back to his beginnings as a singer-songwriter re-living one of the two songs his music teacher at school had him play to accompany the choir with “Streets of London“. The Great Plains (Saskia and Darrel) had borrowed instruments from the two Steves (Gosse and Spurgin) and started their set out with a borrowed tune too, having everyone singing along and miming the explosive snare drum in “The Boxer“.
One of the best things about live music is hearing the stories that accompany the songs, gaining some insight into the performer’s song writing process. Over the weekend Tuttle described struggling with wanting to make something perfect, and how sometimes it was “Good Enough“. While with “The Busker” Ronald explained that the opposite is also true and that at times songs appear in nearly complete form in your head. Steve Spurgin with Bluegrass Etc. noted that songwriters can become associated with songs not written by them such as was his experience with “Moonlight Motor Inn” (actually written by John Malcolm Penn) and “Walk in the Irish Rain” (written by Spurgin and NOT a traditional Irish folk song).
Winterfest was a great mix of local and imported music, and perfectly timed to cancel out the despair of a long winter with no summer music festivals on the horizon. The Uptown Folk Club continues its season mixing local and other performers with an open stage on March 17th and a concert featuring the Lonesome Ace String Band on April 7th, please see their website for information on tickets. If you were wondering where Beethoven came into this mix this weekend — listen out for to the “German folk song” in Bluegrass Etc.’s “Dueling” about 7 minutes and 20 seconds in.
Karen Savoca & Pete Heitzman shared the bill with the Shari Ulrich trio at the Northern Lights Folk Club. Sharing a show equally, rather than having an opener play a short set to start, usually means that there are a number of songs that get cut from the set list — sacrificed to the reduced stage time. Although choices certainly were made as to what to include (and what didn’t get played) Savoca, Heitzman and the Ulrich trio took it as an opportunity to visit old friends and explore one another’s songs.
The friendship forged between the two groups was obvious. Ulrich recounted her first meeting with Savoca when many years ago Ulrich’s young daughter Julia Graff (who is now grown up and was on stage as part of the trio) gave Savoca some sweet tarts, quipping that “they’d been friends ever since”. Ulrich joined Savoca & Heitzman for the last three songs of their half, adding her voice and violin to Savoca’s percussion and Heitzman’s guitar for “Five Old Men”, “You Gotta Love” and “I Shook the Tree”.
This cross pollination continued when Savoca & Heitzman joined the Shari Ulrich trio, which includes Graff and Kirby Barber in addition to Ulrich, and they finished off with the bluegrass tune “Cluck Old Hen”. After a standing ovation the quintet of musicians returned to the stage to perform “(Fear of) Flying”.
Both Savoca and Ulrich’s songwriting showcased the grim and mirthful sides of life, as well as, the enormity of some decisions, and how they can echo through our lives and others. In “By the Grace of Goodbye” Ulrich told the story of reuniting with her son that she had given up for adoption years prior.
While Savoca when introducing “You Gotta Love” written for her father, described how one morning in the last months of his life her father in the care home had played dead — this story brought full out laughter from the crowd and as Savoca sang the song’s final words “oh, it’s a joy and it’s a curse, it’s wings and it’s a hearse, it’s water and it’s thirst, but you gotta love” we were reminded of the connection between life and death. Like the best workshop stages at folk fest from the cross pollination of these two groups grew an evening of spontaneity, and a genuine love for sharing music and stories.
Up next at the Northern Lights Folk Club, Old Man Luedecke and opener Ken Stead will take to the stage at on March 4th, please see the NLFC website for ticket details.
Drawn by the warmth of St. Basil’s Edmonton folkies shuffled their feet across icy surfaces in search of the secure grip of gravel into the venue. As incongruous as it might seem the grittiness of Edmonton’s January streets was matched by the stories and sounds of New Moon Folk Club’s two headliners, Tim Isberg and Ben Rogers, who played full sets to the cozy audience of 300. It wasn’t simply an evening of pleasant entertainment, as both Isberg and Rogers brought provocative subjects to the foreground and challenged the audience to consider their roles in the world.
Isberg’s service in the Canadian military has taken him to conflict torn areas such as Rwanda and Afghanistan. Readily admitting that he left a piece of his soul overseas as he bore witness to the devastation in those areas he also notes that he has gained a lot of perspective. Yet the turmoil that one might expect to manifest from witnessing such extremes of human behaviour does not surface on Isberg’s face, instead, he displays his emotions in his music. An energy of contemplation is present in Isberg’s music even when his lyrics grapple with challenging subject matter. He suggests that his listeners self-evaluate the types of physical and emotional walls they create in order to separate people and consider their disassembly in The Walls, “Does freedom bring peace or the other way around?”
If you close your eyes and listen to Ben Rogers, you hear a gritty bass voice of that might make you think of an ancient character, sipping whiskey that is borderline poisonous, perched on a stool at the end of a weathered bar in a dusty old western town. Rogers shares stories of all types through his songs, especially those that might otherwise be unspoken and forgotten. His gift, even stronger than his voice, is helping us to remember—whether it is songs of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Highway of Tears or the tragedy of interracial love in his encore, Cowboys and Indians—and challenging us, as individuals, to do better. When you open your eyes, you may be perplexed by how a voice like Roger’s has chosen such a young vessel. However, it doesn’t matter what physical form his voice is contained in. His voice speaks for the marginalized.
This post is co-written by Twila and Sable.
Next up at New Moon Folk Club is Catherine MacLellan on Friday, February 3, 2017.
The words on Danny Michel‘s red guitar (matching those found on the late Pete Seeger’s banjo) state: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Friday night’s show epitomized that same message, that the love embedded in music could conquer all. From “Feather, Fur & Fin”, to “Sad & Beautiful World”, and eventually “Click, Click” Michel led us to sense a profound connection between his music and the reality that we now are living. The concert was a moment away from the ugliness that has bubbled to the surface in 2016, but it wasn’t an escape.
But the current Geo-polictical reality wasn’t the only theme of the evening, technology-mediated connections also played an integral role. Both Michel, and the opener Mohsin Zaman, are familiar with stage technology utilising loop pedals to create invisible backing bands, but as strange as the one-man-tech-band may have seemed 15 years ago, on Friday it was the technology of the phone that was featured in a different way. Beginning with Zaman calling/skyping his sister in Dubai (she seemed far more gracious than I would have been if my brother had called me at 7 on a Saturday morning); and, later on in the evening we got a sneak preview of some of the orchestral parts in Khlebnikov the album Michel wrote this past summer on an ice-breaker in the arctic with astronaut Chris Hadfield (can we all just take a moment to realise how cool of an adventure that must have been???) when he played a track through his phone. And with those two phone moments it became clear that the evening was about connections — those between us and the performers, between the songwriter and the topic, between the music and the lyrics.
Through out the evening Michel drew on the wealth of his extensive back catalogue (playing requests called out from the audience) in addition to newer works such as those off of Khlebnikov … check out “24,000 Horses” now:
In typical Danny Michel fashion the music mixed the thoughtful (“Nobody Rules You”) with the humorous (“Wish Willy’s” & “Whale of a Tale”), the nerdy with the sublime (“Samantha’s in the Sky with Diamonds”), and left us all questioning how we can make the world a better place (“Who’s Gonna Miss You” & “Sad and Beautiful World”). Khlebnikov, due out in January 2017, promises to continue the tradition of Michel’s earlier writing, although this time with a bit of a Russian-classical music twist … take the final few lines of “24,000 Horses”:
Through the northwest passage
I stand at the bow
And I thought I’d seen beauty
Until right here right now
Once we had dreams
but they fell through the seams
Like the ice here all melting away
The precise memories of the New Moon show in time will melt away, but maybe the message of the songs that were sung that night will remain.
The past three New Moon Folk Club shows have been sell-outs. To avoid the disappointment of missing a Friday-night folk music fix in 2017 when the club resumes on January 13th with Ben Rogers you can get five-pack of tickets for the 2017 shows. Please see the New Moon site for details.