Some final photos from the 39th annual Edmonton Folk Music Festival—see you on the hill!
Some final photos from the 39th annual Edmonton Folk Music Festival—see you on the hill!
The Dead South at New Moon drew both a sizeable audience (the show sold out months in advance) and a selfie-taking one (but I’ve got to admit the kickdrum was a pretty good backdrop). The Regina-based band’s music is visceral, pulling you into the drama of the song’s lyrics with the gritty coarse vocal delivery; versatile, moving easily from sweeping melodies in the cello to fiery banjo solos; and viral, see the intense online following generated in part by their music video for “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company”. Looking towards the bar area, you might have thought you were at a Whyte Ave bar rather than at a folk club watching a show, as people gathered to dance or (often more accurately) sway to the music drinks in hand. The enthusiasm (standing for nearly three hours) was not limited to this stalwart set of individuals but permeated throughout the hall as spontaneously people jumped up and began to sing and dance along.
I’ll admit my previous (lack of) knowledge of The Dead South came from the radio and a few videos on YouTube— I’d never seen them live, and the theatricality of the show caught me a bit by surprise. Right away the stage set-up which included some cattle skulls/horns and a fence post sign and the uniform style of the band’s clothing gave off a very old-timey wild west vibe. Then there was the music (theirs I assume) that accompanied the band’s entrance to the stage which to me was very unexpected—I don’t think I’ve ever see a band at a folk club have entrance music before. Third, the storm scene for “The Massacre of El Kuroke”—I had wondered how they’d deal with extra-musical sounds—turns out they had a recording that they played against. Less surprising, given the many takes the video must have taken to shoot, but nonetheless delightful was the excellent choreography (from cracking beers to the finger snap shuffle) for “In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company”. The theatrical elements blended just the right amount of extra-musical entertainment to go along with the intricate foot-stomping musical performance.
The whole evening, which began with an opening set from Red Deer’s Boots & The Hoots, was a throwback to the wild west (maybe the imagined lands of spaghetti western fame?) and the golden era of country & western music. It was visceral, versatile, and given the tightness of the musical performance certain to go viral beyond the digital realm—I know I’ve been whistling the opening to “In Hell” all day.
The New Moon Folk Club season reconvenes in the new year with Belle Plaine on January 26th.
Imagine you are picking some of your best friends up the airport. They’ve just flown in from an international adventure and you haven’t seen them for some time. Before the car doors have been slammed the conversation is already in full-swing. They are telling you stories of shows they saw and food they ate. Once you arrive at their home they’ve convinced you that they need to stay awake in order to re-set their internal clocks so you follow them inside and the stories continue to flow. Someone apparently was on the phone on the ride from the airport and more friends quickly arrive at the door. Soon a celebration of your friends’ return is underway. Souvenirs and stories from their trip are passed around while the atmosphere and discussion dissolve into a jet-lagged induced, hilariously loopy party.
You might ask why I’d ask you to imagine such a scenario. Well to me it is the best way to put you in the correct mindset for attempting to describe what happened when The Paperboys descended at the New Moon Folk Club. The show was a sell-out and the queue to get inside snaked up and down the lobby a few times before it continued out into the dark, snowy parking lot. Everyone was eager to hear The Paperboys who had just flown in from Dublin, as part of their 25th anniversary tour—what songs from the back catalogue would we get to hear?
Once The Paperboys took the stage it was time for the stories to start flowing: Geoff Kelly’s imaginary food baby? Apparently courtesy of Greggs’ Cornish pasties, and sausage rolls; St. Basil’s Cultural Center? Double the size of any of the small folk club venues they played in the UK and Ireland. Just like the imaginary scenario I described you were never sure if at one moment the band would all collapse from exhaustion. They never did succumb to their need for sleep, always keeping the energy level cranked—and they played until 11 o’clock which would be 6 am in the UK!
The atmosphere was a party and then some. I have never seen so many people dancing at an Edmonton folk club. Ever. Both sides of the stage had people out of their seats, twirling and bopping along to the constantly evolving musical selections blasting from the stage. We sang along with “California” at the top of our lungs and then The Paperboys started pulling in extra performers, Calvin Vollrath traded off fiddle duties for a song or two with Kalissa Landa, Jeremiah McDade offered some saxophone solos and Remi Noel joined in on trombone.
At the end of the night you were exhausted but invigorated. It was a fantastic night that like The Paperboys’ music itself defies all attempts to describe it…so imagine an evening of stories and songs bouncing from topic to topic seamlessly as only the best of friends can manage.
The next show at the New Moon Folk Club is the Dead South and is also sold-out, so start planning for 2018 and get your tickets early to the shows in the new year. Also new is New Moon crowd-sourcing local musicians for the First Set—if you know of a local artist who would benefit from playing the first set at a New Moon show email their information to FirstSetnmfc[at]gmail.com.
The songwriters’ circle at Edmonton’s Northern Lights Folk Club highlighted and clarified a few things in my understanding of song and music. Throughout the evening—featuring Jay Gilday, Jasmine Whenham, and Jason MacDonald (joined by Colin Grant on fiddle)—questions bubbled to the surface of my brain: How did the people on stage crystallize ideas into song? What makes a songwriter different than a singer or for that matter any musician? What is a song?
First what is a song? Music and song have been described many ways—for Victor Hugo music expressed “that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” Perhaps more completely E. Y. Harburg described the difference between written text and music, as “words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.” The songs sung at Northern Lights certainly made us feel thoughts—particularly the second set where in one pass across the stage we were taken from considering life for young single parents (in light of now being a parent himself Gilday sang “Open up the Door” for some of the people he knew growing up who became parents very early), to attempting to understand the switch being flicked in a brain where that person is no longer themselves (Whenham sang a powerful—unreleased—song about when that switch flipped for her and she went from running for her life, to running from her life), to the impatience of waiting for a child’s birth (MacDonald sang “Overdue” about his eldest daughter’s birth). What these highly emotional songs demonstrated was a fragment of the person who wrote them. That was the moment when I realised the difference between a singer and a songwriter was that a songwriter breaks off part of their story to give to the audience, while a singer collects the fragments of others and presents them to an audience.
I still don’t quite know how songwriters distill moments and experiences into brief meldings of music and words—but that mystery is one that will continually draw me back. Causing me to listen to more songwriters, seek out how they experience the world, and judging by the standing-ovation that ended the songwriter’s circle at Northern Lights, I’m guessing I won’t be alone in that search.
The Northern Lights season continues in January 2018 with what promises to be an excellent evening with Coìg. Next week is the Canadian Folk Music Awards in Ottawa, the fiddle-player from the Northern Lights Songwriters’ circle Colin Grant is both nominated and performing, if you can’t make it out to Ontario you can live stream it at www.folkawards.ca.
Although I love the foot-stomping, fiddle wielding power of French-Canadian musicians, I’m always a little hesitant to go to a show of solely Francophone music. Perhaps its my lack of French skills (cereal-box French isn’t real French) that intimidates me. Or my suspicious nature causing me always to wonder if I’ve missed a joke, or exactly what the words the musicians want the audience to sing mean. Vishtèn‘s concert at St. Albert’s Arden Theatre helped me put those fears in their place.
Vishtèn wasted no time with half-hearted pleasantries, simply coming out onto the stage and playing. The concert began with an instrumental tune that featured a configuration of the LeBlanc twins (Emmanuelle & Pastelle) flanking Pascal Miousse’s central space on the stage. This arrangement that remained constant only switching when one of the LeBlancs would move to the keyboard.
Almost immediately we (the audience) were called on to participate—cue fear #1—with “Tobie Lapierre”. My uncertainty was almost instantaneously quashed by a quick explanation of the story: Tobie LaPierre, who loves dancing, women & whisky, loses his wife in the woods and uses a bell to try to locate her. The audience was going to be singing the bell part—this, I thought, I can do.
Apparently many others in the audience either did not share my fear of singing something silly in French (as they spoke the language) or they too were calmed by Vishtèn’s patient duo-lingo explanations, because the audience chorus was substantial. The concert continued that way, with Vishtèn slipping seamlessly between French and English, explaining the histories of their tunes—from a flat tire on the Massachusetts turnpike to a magical bus trip in the Shetlands. This kept me happy as I never felt like I was missing out on something because my French isn’t much more developed than flocons de maïs.
Vishtèn shared not just the stories of their own tunes, but also brought out elements of their Acadian culture while simultaneously drawing us into the performance. Periodically Pascal would ask us if we were enjoying ourselves, reminding us that it was important to have a good time. Every iteration of this question (always met with a resounding “Yeah/Oui”) reminded me of the kitchen parties in PEI and the Magdalens that they had told us about. Emmanuelle also told us a tale about the subversive development of foot stomping percussion—something about being able to hide the dancing under the table, so anyone walking by would just see people in the house sitting at a table (not people dancing and having fun). When the LeBlanc twins pulled their chairs to the front of the stage and performed a complex dance-song (how can I even describe the pounding polyrhythmes their feet made?) and included us with snapping and clapping instructions, Vishtèn made us part of the performance.
The members of Vishtèn have a genius for making you feel like you are taking part in a centuries old Acadian culture, rather than just watching or hearing it. This is the start of their Western dates, and more details about their tour can be found on their website, try and catch a show, especially if you—like me—have always been a little uncertain about attending shows where you don’t speak the main language of the performers.
Edmonton is a city spoiled for choice when it comes to folk music, and at times that means a finite audience gets divided up into quite small segments—I’m guessing that unintentional subdivision of the usual folkie crowd is what happened last night when the Chris Ronald Trio and Sam Spades shared the bill at the Northern Lights Folk Club playing to an intimate audience.
While outside the evening began with a brilliant sunset it turned into a cool, damp October night, the same sort of startling contrast took place inside the hall. The evening began with Chris Ronald who has the ability (likely honed from time as both a busker and a schoolteacher) to hold attention whether he be telling you about touring via Via, or defining halcyon. Mike Sanyshyn and John Ellis joined Ronald on stage, and with dramatic melodic fiddle flourishes (Sanyshyn) and guitar/mandolin/banjo/vocal harmonies (Ellis) aided an already skilled storyteller in sharing tales. Ronald’s songs take inspiration from everything between (and including) a photograph of his brothers, busking, finding a lost wedding ring (8 years later in the back of a basement storage space), and even the heart-attack of a championship curler. The trio had the audience singing and clapping, and relaxing into the intricate sounds of Ronald’s latest album Fragments.
An intermission, set change-over and few minutes later the local Sam Spades—John Richards (bass), Greg Hann (drums), Trevor B McNeely (lead guitar), and Sam Heine (guitar & lead vocals)—took the stage with their brand of blues-soaked rock’n’roll noir. From the first chord, the difference was apparent, we were in for heartbreak accompanied by epic swathes of pedal steel and blisteringly fast (yet somehow twangy too) passages from the upright bass. The Sam Spades set felt like it would be at home in a dusty western bar (probably only found in my imagination) where the floorboards creak from age and, the scent of beer and whisky seem to permanently infuse the air.
The effect of the two sets was entirely different, providing both a cool contrast and demonstrating the fantastic range of styles found in folk music. This is just the starting leg of Ronald’s tour as he heads East to Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, if you can be sure to try to catch a show. Sam Spades plays frequently throughout the Edmonton area, including an upcoming (November) set of dates at Blues on Whyte, and Northern Lights is back with Hillsburn (whom we saw at the 2016 Jasper Folk Fest and thought were awesome) on October 21st.
Tonight marked the opening of Edmonton’s Northern Lights Folk Club’s 19th season, and it opened with a bang—Garnet Rogers commanded the stage for two sets (and an encore). In an unequivocal demonstration of support for live folk music, the line-up before the doors opened stretched out of the building and down the sidewalk. The show was sold out, just a few hopeful (and extremely lucky) folks got in when someone had an extra ticket because _________ friend/family member couldn’t come.*
Rogers cuts an imposing figure. He is a tall man, his voice is strong, and he selects his guitar from a rack filled with instruments possessing unique histories, which he happily shares. But the number one thing you take away from his concert has nothing to do with his height and everything to do with his stories. Whether it is through song or speech (or written down—now in the form of the book Night Drive) Rogers has an impeccable gift for telling a good story. With the song “Small Victory” he told us the tale of a mare rescued from slaughter, the very first stanza gives you a sense of Rogers’ attention to literary detail:
You’ve no business buying a mare like that
But buy her if you must
He bit the end off his cigar
And spat it in the dust
She’s old, she’s lame and barren too
She’s not worth feeding hay
But I’ll give her this, he blew smoke at me,
She was something in her day.
Within seconds you are at that dusty horse auction buying that mare. Although the song has a melancholic air, it also conveys the hope in the title. Rogers succeeds in sharing a part of his emotional connection to his horses with his audience, and it set us up for a hilarious tale (FedEx and artificial insemination) about that mare’s offspring. Rogers’ tales read from Night Drive drew the audience in as much as his musical offerings did and he took us from being all of fourteen on a beach in Port Dover to a workshop stage on another coast line in Vancouver.
David Alan Eadie from their days in the Stan Rogers trio joined him on stage for the encore—beginning with a rousing sing-a-long chorus of “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore”, once again set up by a reading from Night Drive. Seeing as I can’t even approach Rogers’ dramatic story-telling prowess, I’ll just say get the book, read it, and imagine a room filled with folkies singing along at the conclusion of Chapter 9. This is Rogers farewell tour of the West, so if you are from Edmonton and want to see Rogers play live then you are going to have to be the one to do the travelling. Check upcoming tour dates on his website,
*If this was you (or someone you know) I’d advise signing up for the Northern Lights Folk Club mailing list, HERE. They send you handy reminders so you aren’t standing outside the show in the cold hoping for a miraculous ticket to appear.
Dave Gunning and JP Cormier are up next at the Northern Lights Folk Club on September 30th, 2017 and there are still some tickets available.