Maria Dunn has a knack for story-telling. She gets to the heart of an event or memory of a person and brings that narrative alive — her grandfather in “Shoes of a Man”, the workers of the Great Western Garment (GWG) clothing factory in “Speed Up”, senior citizens living in rooming houses during the 1980s in Edmonton’s downtown in “Flora” and “Hans’ Song”, or “When I Was Young” inspired by the stories of Dorothy McDonald-Hyde of the Fort McKay First Nation.
Last night the Northern Lights Folk Club (Dunn’s self-professed “home” folk club) hosted Dunn for a sold out celebration of her latest album Gathering, which won an Edmonton Music Prize and was nominated for a Juno Award. But Dunn, joined by Shannon Johnson on fiddle and Jeremiah McDade on a vast array of musical instruments, didn’t restrict herself to selections from that album, pulling from all six of her albums and her other projects (Packingtown, On The River, The Carol Project, GWG: Piece by Piece and Troublemakers) as well. She shuffled through the stories with mastery, moving between the connection between McDonald-Hyde, Alberta’s first elected female chief, and the Athabasca River to the labour history of Edmonton’s meatpacking North East to depression era trains. Dunn’s gift of exploring recollections and history is not limited by time or place as is evidenced by her award winning song “Malala” inspired by Canada’s most recent honourary citizen Malala Yousafzai. The song’s potent chorus:
Malala, where are you going?
I’ll walk beside you
I’ll meet you there
rang out for a final time with no musical accompaniment, just a joining of the musicians on stage and the audience’s voices, pulling the audience up into a standing ovation and heralding an encore of “God Bless Us Everyone” from The Carol Project.
Roddy Campbell of Penguin Eggs Magazine called Gathering as “essential listening” and I would argue that that description can be applied to all of Dunn’s work. Last night’s show concluded the 2016–17 Northern Lights Folk Club season, but until the fall there are still folk music events going on throughout Edmonton. PEI’s Lennie Gallant will be at Rio Terrace Church on May 19th see here for more details, and Maria Dunn has a local show earlier that week (details will be sent out to her mailing list so be sure to sign-up).