“Any more questions?” Danny Michel says with a familiar ease as a few daring voices speak up between one of his songs. More of his sold-out audience members respond, eager to know more from Michel, such as if it was before or after New Years in Belize that he wrote “Wish Willy,” or what exactly he was drinking from his mug on-stage. By the way, he doesn’t remember whether if it was before or after New Year’s he wrote “Wish Willy” and he was drinking tea to soothe his sore throat from the tour. Michel’s comfortable stage presence makes inter-song banter witty and natural while maintaining an intimate atmosphere with his audience.
Fresh from his European tour to Germany, Holland, and Austria, Michel braved the flight disturbances caused by Hurricane Sandy to begin his cross-Canada tour in Courtenay, B.C. The tour is to promote Danny’s new album, “Black Birds are Dancing Over Me,” joined by his band comprised of Quique Escamilla (Michel’s amazing opening act), on percussion and guitar, Dave Tolly on drums, and Mark MacIntyre on bass and vocals. Although his most recent album was recorded entirely in Belize with the Garifuna Collective, who are not on this current tour, Michel was successful in channeling the South American spirit in live performance with his band trio. All band members were well positioned to create a sense of ensemble. By having the drums on stage right facing inward, it helped to maintain the focus on Michel while creating a collaborative musical pod on stage. While the strange geometric shaped lighting patterns were distracting, the solid backlighting that was dominant throughout the performance kept the attention focused on the music.
There is no mistaking Michel’s characteristic rough voice quality, pulsating guitar playing, and expressive physical presence. He is a musical storyteller. He embodies the characters in his tunes, from the boastful old man in “Whale of a Tale,” or the scorned lover in “Tennessee Tobacco.” No musical detail is missed, like the subtle vocal shiver on the word “touch” in “What Colour Are You?”, a song inspired by winning a mood ring from a toy dispenser while in Belize. The sound of gritty rock emerges with “Into the Light”, and Michel played a previously recorded vocal solo from Chi-Chi (a.k.a Rolando Mercelino) from the stage. The gentle plea for people to open their hearts to love was audible in “A Cold Road.” These three songs highlight the diverse range of his newest album.
The reason for Michel’s success is due to his solidly established musical identity. Michel transcends the need for musical genre labeling because, frankly, he can do whatever he wants because his distinctive voice remains present in all of his work. From the positive audience reception of Michel’s new album, “Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me,” Michel has the unwavering encouragement of his supporters for whatever musical direction he wishes to embrace next.
Canadian singer-songwriter Danny Michel has produced a 10 disc repertoire that is one of the most diverse I have ever consumed as a listener. From the Canadiana backwoods tunes of Feather, Fur & Fin (2008), to the Belizean warmth of Sunset Sea (2010), Michel manages to keep his listeners guessing what musical flavor he will embrace next. He assures me that he tries not to overthink things. “I like to challenge myself and get out of my comfort zone,” he states. “If things are comfortable, I feel I’m doing something wrong. I just try and make sure I’m moving forward into uncharted waters.” Michel returns to Belize, which inspired Sunset Sea, to record his latest release, Black Birds are Dancing Over Me (2012).
When comparing his newest CD release to a food dish, he reveals that the seafood recipe, Conch Cerviche, would be most appropriate. This musical offering may be exotic for Canadian audiences. The dish involves marinating firm conch meat, which originates from mollusks, in a mixture of citrus juices. This chilled dish is the perfect accompaniment with a beer and view of the sea. The slightly rough quality of Michel’s voice, juxtaposed with the effervescent ease of tunes such as “What Colour are You?” in the new album represents Conch Cerviche well.
Audiences will have a chance to sample Michel’s most recent album performed live at the Arden Theatre on Friday. It promises to be a unique event because a band joins him this time on this tour. This will be a change for listeners who have only heard him perform solo, accompanied only by his loop pedals. A Michel performance trademark involves live-recording vocal, instrument, and percussion fragments so that he can layer other musical lines with his looped accompaniment, all within the live stage setting.
Michel has settled into his identity as a performer: “It’s hard to decide to throw your diary on the table and put yourself out there. But now I just put things out there, personal thoughts, deep experiences, private stuff and let it go. Some songs are very personal and wind up on albums but I don’t play them live. They are what they are.“
Although listening to recordings is a perfectly adequate way to enjoy music, there is something about the energy of live performance that remains unrivaled. Michel feels that “in a world where everything can be stolen and taken, that live moment is still beautifully pure.” Michel’s raw musical offerings await Arden audiences on Friday.
Watching The Dunwells perform is like being a part of history and getting a glimpse into a band well on their way to making it big. If there were a documentary charting their rise to fame, I would watch it. The story would begin in the rainy city of Leeds, UK. It would show the formation of the band and detail their underdog story. It would then involve being heard by London music promoter Tony Moore, who would just so happen to be one of the few audience members at their gig (a gig that they would almost miss due to a broken-down van). Moore’s enthusiasm would convince them to make their way to the US and would lead to the eventual recording their new album, “Blind-Sighted Faith.”
However, watching an underdog story wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t get to know the characters behind the story. Of course, there would be five very different personalities. The story would revolve around how the two Dunwell brothers keep the group on track: Joseph on vocals and guitar with his pensive intensity and focus, and vocalist and guitarist David with his mega-watt smile and open nature. Together they would form the initial core of their band. The documentary would show how David Dunwell met his friend Rob Clayton, who with his wise words and innate sense of style would eventually become the bassist. Realizing that more members were necessary, Rob Clayton would introduce his own cousin, Jonny Lamb, to the Dunwell brothers, with Jonny eventually taking on the role of the drummer. Jonny’s jovial character and warm energy would allow him to diffuse group tension. Soon thereafter they would meet David Hanson, a character with a knack for challenging the norm and funneling that same fervor into his lead guitar solos. While the accurateness of my character descriptions remains officially unverified, the facts regarding their rise to fame are authentic. Isn’t this a story where you would want to find out what happens next for a group poised on becoming the next big thing in British Folk-Rock?
I met with the Dunwells following their first EFMF workshop on the weekend and they provided a glimpse into their recent rise to fame. The round table discussion showcased their dynamic as a group.
Sable: How was your first workshop session at the EFMF?
Joseph Dunwell: That was a lot fun. We didn’t know what to expect with the three bands on stage but that was a lot of fun.
David Dunwell: We’ve never done that before—where each bands takes a turn and plays. It was nice. I’ve only ever seen that on T.V. on Jools Holland.
Sable: Did anyone warn you about the format?
Group: That was the first we heard of it!
David Dunwell: We’ve always wanted to play Canada and to come to such friendly festival like this as our first experience, that made it pretty special for us.
Sable: At one point, you performed 40 shows in 20 days. How is that process?
Joseph Dunwell: You learn a lot about yourselves, you know, and the music that you play and how to perform to different sets of crowds and how to adapt to different situations.
David Dunwell: Some of the shows were plugged in PA systems. Some of the shows were purely acoustic. Small rooms, large rooms, we were crammed in a small van together travelling up and down the UK so there’s no escaping each other. It definitely taught us how to be a band, especially a touring band.
Joseph Dunwell: So now we can just walk into a room with no expectation. We just know whatever is thrown at us we can deal with… like, for example today, that was good.
Sable: Has the recent burst of media attention changed the way you approach your music or performances?
David Dunwell: You’re kinda in the eye of the storm. Although these amazing things are all happening around us, we’re still just five friends making music exactly the same as when we started out in the first place. Personally, I don’t really notice a big huge change. We just enjoy doing what we do.
Jonny Lamb: It hasn’t really changed the way we make music or anything like that. Say Joe comes up with an idea, and then the rest of the guys jump on it, and we have a jam and see what happens. But that’s always been the same.
David Hanson: I think the best thing about touring in America is the diversity of the radio. We spend a lot of time on the road: 16 hour, 12 hour journeys, so we listen to a lot of radio stations and there is such a wide variety of music, which you don’t really have access to in the UK, unless you go on the internet to find it. It’s so readily available in the States and in Canada. So for us, although [the media] is not influencing us, it is very interesting listening to [the radio] and I suppose, subconsciously, it may be influencing us.
Joseph Dunwell: It definitely is. Do you know when you’re growing up and your parents have their music in the background? That somehow influences the way that you play music. Being in the band and listening to the radio while we’re on the road is definitely influencing the way that we write songs, but the five of us are still open to put our input into it.
Sable: What does the songwriting process look like with so many different viewpoints in the band?
Joseph Dunwell: Every song is different. Some songs are written by three of us, some are written by five of us, some songs are written by one of us.
David Dunwell: Some songs are a riff that hangs around for a long time and never goes any further until, suddenly, it becomes something we all focus on.
Joseph Dunwell: The thing is that we never [leave a song unfinished]. We always play every song live at least once.
Sable: Do you ever scrap songs after playing them live?
Joseph Dunwell: Many a time.
Jonny Lamb: In some cases, we keep it in mind and then we come back to it and play it in a different way than the first time we tried it. We never throw anything away. It’s always there.
David Hanson: We’ve been playing a lot of 90-minute sets on this tour because we’ve been doing more headlining shows. It’s given us a chance to experiment with new material. Maybe it’s an old song that’s been hanging around for a while or maybe it’s something new that we’ve been writing on the road. But it just gives us that chance to test it out. A long set is almost like a litmus paper. It allows us to experiment and find out whether [songs] are going to be acidic or alkaline.
Jonny Lamb: Nice.
Sable: What are your thoughts on people labelling your sound or comparing your sound to others groups like Mumford and Sons?
David Dunwell: I’m a fan of a lot of the bands that we get compared to so it doesn’t ever offend me. We class ourselves as British Folk-Rock. We call it Folk Rock because we like story telling. We use traditional instruments and mix it with rock and roll instruments as well.
David Hanson: We call it rock because we play really loud.
Joseph Dunwell: Do you know what? Everything has to have a label. In what we’ve been living with we don’t resent it.
David Hanson: Are we a rock band? Are we a pop band? Are we a folk band? I don’t know. We have been labeled, but if someone were to ask us what we do: we play songs and we enjoy playing songs.
Sable: How do you intend to keep the momentum of the band going into the future?
Joseph Dunwell: We’ve just got to keep touring, you know? We see things happening a lot more when we’re on the road. When we go home we think, “is that it?” and we’re so ready to go back on the road all the time. It’s hard work but it’s good fun. And we’re leading our own path into our own future by touring and doing what we’re doing to every corner of the world.
David Hanson: Our album comes out on August 28. 2012, it’s called “Blind Sighted Faith,” and in support of that our plan will be to tour and we’ll be continuing our US tour to late September, at which point we’ll return to the UK. The album comes out in the UK around that time. Then we’ll be heading back over to America sometime in October and touring up there with different artists and we’ll be doing festivals like the Austin City Limits Festival and hopefully some T.V. as well.
Sable: You’ve busked and even moved your concert to a hotel after getting rained out at Lollapalooza. Does venue environment change your performance experience?
Joseph Dunwell: As long as I get a vibe from the audience that they’re enjoying themselves, then I am enjoying myself, you know? So if we’re playing an acoustic song and it’s so silent that you can tell that they’re really into it or we’re playing the loudest song in our set… as long as I’m getting something from them I’m happy.
Rob Clayton: As long as you’re enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to be fun.
Sable: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
Jonny Lamb: I’d be a tractor.
Rob Clayton: A tractor? Not a driver? A tractor?
David Hanson: An attractor of ladies?
Jonny Lamb: No, no, a tractor, like a farm tool.
Sable: An object?
[Group agrees that Jonny Lamb would be an object]
Rob Clayton: I’m not gonna even follow that.
David Dunwell: Lamp.
David Hanson: I’d be a fly.
Jonny Lamb: That’s a living thing, not an object.
David Hanson: On a wall, it’s an object!
Sable: What is the most rewarding thing about being an artist?
Rob Clayton: To me, personally, it’s crowd feedback. When we you see everybody loving what you’re doing it keeps you going, especially when you’re on the road. You can be exhausted and feeling a little bit down, and then as soon as you do a show that evening, you’re just back up there again and loving what you’re doing. To me it’s all about the vibe from the crowd and that is the most rewarding thing.
David Dunwell: For me it’s travelling, meeting new people, and having the opportunity to travel the world. I remember going on holidays when I was a kid if I was in Paris or wherever, and I’d be watching a band, I’d go “Oh gosh, I wish I could do that!” Now I get to travel the world and be on a stage making music and I’m meeting new people everyday.
Sable: Was there a moment when you realized that this wasn’t just a jam band and had the potential to go somewhere?
Joseph Dunwell: I think the moment I actually got our first album. It comes out on the 28th of August, but we’ve been given a hard copy now, so actually holding that in my hand for the first time and having copyright and all this stuff I see on real albums. And now we have one of them!
David Dunwell: You just like the picture of yourself on the front cover.
Joseph Dunwell: So yeah, the fact that we have our first album. It’s something that I’m proud of and looking forward to getting out there and selling.
David Dunwell: One of the very early shows that we did in London, we traveled down, we were in the van, and about 15 miles out of London the van broke down. We had a decision to make. We were either gonna have to wait for the recovery man to come and pick our van up, and take us to the nearest town to fix our van and miss the show. We decided to book a taxi and struggle to get through London traffic and leave the van at a service station on the M1. We actually got the venue five minutes before we were supposed to go on stage. We walked onto the stage and played in front of four or five people. We made all the effort to get there and play for four or five people. But one of those people was a promoter who adored us, Tony Moore; he used to play in a band called the Cutting Crew. He championed us so much that he made me believe that our band is worth fighting for. He had seen so many bands coming through, being a London promoter, and for him to have that much faith in us made me think, “yeah, we’re not just a jam band, we’re not just a band floating around the north of England,” but a band that deserves, you know, everything that is good, everything that is bad, whatever that comes to us.
Jonny Lamb: [Tony Moore] first suggested to us to come over to America as well and perform at the Folk Alliance Conference, which led to massive things for us.
Joseph Dunwell: He’s the guy.
Jonny Lamb: Without him really, we’d still be eating fish ‘n chips in Leeds…in the rain.
Sable: Is there any country that you would love to tour to as a band?
David Hanson: I think Japan would be fantastic. I’d love to go out there. I heard it’s very nice. I heard the crowds are really appreciative of music. I think we’d like to go to mainland Europe and perhaps do France and Germany and places like that.
Joseph Dunwell: We did a festival in Amsterdam. We were literally in and out of Amsterdam and then back into the UK and then straight over to America. So we’ve had a snip-bit of Europe but I’d like to go back and experience the whole of Europe.
Sable: It’s the musician’s lifestyle.
Joseph Dunwell: Absolutely!
The Dunwells are well on their way to becoming a formidable British Folk-Rock export; however, these five musicians still maintain the ease of five blokes you could approach at your local pub. Hear it for yourself in this lightening round of questions. Who knew that brollies vs. wellies would be such a highly contested issue?
Crowds for the Colour Draw (Sunday Morning 6:45 am)
Circling the corral (Sunday morning 7 am)
Success! Tarps are laid for the main stage events (Friday’s hill above the first aid tent)
A reminder from organizers to be couteous to those surrounding you.
Workshop Sessions -where the magic of folk fest comes alive. Members of: The Paul McKenna Band and Blue Highway (Saturday Morning Stage 1)
Workshop Session. Members of: La Bottine Souriante, The Paul McKenna Band, Emily Smith and Dry Bones (Saturday afternoon Stage 5)
Dry Bones (Saturday Afternoon Stage 5)
Kiran Ahluwalia, Jayme Stone and James Vincent McMorrow (Sunday Morning Stage 5)
Members of David Wax Museum, The Barr Brothers and Dry Bones (Friday Evening Stage 1)
T. Nile and Her Banjo Jolene (Saturday Morning Stage 3)
Martyn Joseph takes a stroll through the crowd (Friday evening Stage 5)
Arlo Guthrie (Friday Evening Main Stage)
Finale (Sunday Night Main Stage)
Seeing is believing. The Edmonton Folk Fest allows audiences to experience their favorite musicians in a venue that although accommodates 10,000+ music fans can be surprisingly intimate. Have a look and see!
The heart of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival isn’t the the evening candles on Gallagher Hill, the hillside dance parties, or the headlining artists on Mainstage—it is the workshop sessions. I remember when I was planning on attending my first Folk Fest a friend, who was a seasoned Folk Fester, told me that I had to buy a weekend pass so I could attend the workshop sessions. I took her word for it. I have not regretted it since.
The workshop sessions are constructed musician groupings by festival organizers. Prior to their time on stage, the musicians may have never even heard of each other. Some workshops may involve a very orderly presentation of songs by individual artists… but this defeats the point of a workshop session. To be a musician, one needs to be a musician within all contexts. Their musical skills should not only be isolated to performing their own personal music. However, when there is a consensus to unite the individual talents on stage, it is the ultimate aural showcase of musical synergy.
I witnessed the aformentioned musical chemistry in two Saturday sessions that I attended. One session featured Rose Cousins, Jim Lauderdale, Pokey LaFarge, and New Country Rehab. What does a folk-pop singer-songwriter, bluegrass singer-songwriter, American Roots trio from St. Louis, and alternative country group from Toronto have in common? They’re all great musicians. Upon introducing Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days,” the artists reworked the musical themes with an organic flow of guitar, fiddle, harmonica and vocal solos to present a unique version of the song.
The same can be said for the session that included The Dunwells, who have recently arrived in Canada for the first time from Leeds, Royal Wood, and Bahamas. It took about two individual rounds of a very civil “battle of the bands” showcase before Bahamas frontman, Afie Jurvanen, invited Royal Wood and the Dunwells to play/sing as well. In my later interview with the Dunwells, they revealed they were uncertain of the workshop sessions improvisation etiquette, but they caught on soon enough with a canon of vocal harmonies. Joe Dunwell even happened to create his own lyrics at a midpoint in the song saying that he didn’t know the lyrics… and he sang this statement of fact with roaring passion. The Dunwell’s reciprocated the exchange by covering Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” and as soon as Joe Dunwell heard the ethereal female harmonies from the Bahamas singers, he couldn’t refrain from giving them a smile while continuing to sing. In both of these sessions, all the musicians contributed their voices to create a piece that only materialized at that one point in time. It is music-making with such transient beauty. This type of art cannot be prescribed. While it helps to arrange strategic pairings of artists, there is no way one can predict the musical outcome. All you can do is sit back and listen to the heart of the Folk Fest.
“Did you get it?” I ask tentatively as T. Nile takes a deft swing.
“Sorry buddy,” she says to the mosquito she just obliterated at the Media Tent on Gallagher Hill.
After her first EFMF appearance in 2007, T. Nile is enthused to be back at the Edmonton Folk Musical Festival this year: “There is something about the culture here…people are very openhearted, unpretentious, quick to offer help, quick to laugh, appreciative, and attentive to music… it doesn’t get any better than this,” she continues, “there are lots of great festivals but this one is really up there.” This time at the EFMF, T. Nile is taking the stage with Kim Beggs, both as separate artists but with some shared musicians between them. It was a collaborative pairing suggested by EFMF booker, Terry Wickham. Nile remarked that while working in collaboration with artists she values receptivity, openness, and creative thinking; Kim Beggs definitely has all of these attributes. As a result, the organic pairing of these two songstresses is audible.
Currently, T. Nile is working on her new record which will potentially be released in Spring 2013 to coincide with her UK and European tour. Her enthusiasm is apparent since this record has the potential to be a cross-over record for her as she develops her electro-folk sound. Following her passion to challenge herself as an artist, she states that she will always maintain the folk themes in her music but she is excited about exploring the realm of dance music. Current musical inspiration for her new album include Bat for Lashes, Fever Ray, and Chromeo: “I’m excited about synthesizers, drum machines, and the way that you can create any sound… it’s a new frontier of sound… there is this whole world that opens up to you.” T. Nile’s voice manages to penetrate the layers of socially constructed facade and into the very core of her listeners. While it is evident on her tracks from 2006 record, “At the Table” and her more recent 2009 EP release of “Cabin Song,” I definitely hear it on her song “Buddy.” Her most recent “Cabin Song” release is a series of aural vignettes which channel a back-woods energy from songs such as “Lake Irene” to “Sunrises.”
As Nile continues to explores her electro-folk sound, it will be exciting to hear the evolution of her folk roots sound fused with electronic music on her new record. However, regardless of musical genre she produces, Nile still has some hopes for audience members watching her perform: “I want them to feel like we had a connection,” she continues with a smile, “If people are dancing I feel like I’ve really done my job.”
Listen to the complete interview to hear T. Nile’s thought’s on her upcoming European tour, the Peak Performance Project she has been competing in, connecting with her fans through social media, things that she could do without as a touring musician, why her banjo is named Jolene, and what instrument she wishes she could play.