Songs, whether we are the performer or the audience, can help us to make sense of the world we live in. Last night a packed house at St. Albert’s Arden Theatre had perennial prairie favourites John Wort Hannam and The Small Glories (Cara Luft & JD Edwards) to help us unravel ours. When Wort Hannam described the imminent sense of home he felt when he saw the Dairy Queen in Claresholm while introducing “Good Night, Nova Scotia” I immediately was able to translate that to my own experience of cresting the Obed summit on the Yellowhead as I moved back home from a few years on the coast — I didn’t know the sight that Wort Hannam related but I certainly understood the feeling.
This deep sense of understanding permeated my experience of the evening at the Arden. When Edwards recounted introducing “Old Garage” to UK audiences including a heckler who apparently shouted that he had sheep that were older than Edwards’ garage, again I was transported to another time. A time which included me attempting to explain to my Welsh friends that back home there was a living history park (Fort Edmonton) that housed historical buildings — preserving things from the 1880s or 1920s — at which point inevitably someone would point at a building and say “oh, did you know that was built in the 11th century?”. Luft also stirred up memories when she described herself as a third generation Albertan (me too!) who got to share our beautiful province with the UK folk musician Bella Hardy a visit that resulted in the powerful “Time Wanders On“.
The evening addressed ideas of tradition and culture and was at times light and joyful, and by turns profound and dark. Wort Hannam’s musical reaction to Edmund Metatawabin’s memoir Up Ghost River cracked open not only the devastating history of residential schools in Canada, but the repercussions of them in an individual’s life. While The Small Glories take on Sacred Harp singing with “Wondrous Traveler” embodied the American tradition’s emphasis on exuberant participation (you can typically hear a “sing” from outside the building it is being housed in) even if it did stray from the strictly vocal nature of it.
The double bill of The Small Glories and John Wort Hannam reminded me about what it meant to live in Alberta and Canada at this time, and helped to refocused my understanding of the world.
Rose Cousins knows when and how to deliver a comedic zinger. She has the perfect onstage proportions of self-deprecation, modesty, confidence, vulnerability, and authenticity when sharing her lyrical perspective on the world. These traits are woven throughout the fabric of her show. Whether she is demonstrating her Islander accent and colloquial phrases, deciding which dog each one of her band members should own, or giving a heart-felt thanks to the audience for supporting live music and allowing her to continue her career as a singer-songwriter, her genuineness shines through and you don’t feel like your city was simply another in a long line of shows.
Audience emotions fluctuated between laughter and tears, while Cousins, with a smile, let us know that feelings were welcome. She is happy to assume the responsibility of providing a somber soundtrack for scenes of death in TV shows, a fact she expressed before she started into the heart-wrenching Go First. Introduced with the quip “We’ve just been through the ides of March, which is where Julius Caesar gets stabbed in the back by Brutus. This song isn’t about that, but is about getting stabbed in the back” My Friend aptly expressed the dichotomy between light and dark which was at the heart of Cousins’ performance.
The rapport between Cousins and her band members exuded a quiet strength. Their instrumental offerings supported Cousins acoustic music-making without every over-powering her. They also played peppy transition music as she moved between her acoustic guitar and the piano, lightening the mood between songs before we were plunged into emotional depths. She warned the audience that things only get sadder when she is at the piano. She was not wrong since, in fact, her piano works were the most trance-like moments of the show. The translucent stage fog was lit like a funnel of light from the overhead spotlights. It created an intimate atmosphere for songs such as White Flag, Tender is the Man, Like Trees, and her Donoughmore encore off of her Natural Conclusion album. As much as a Cousins show can be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, the dark and somber songs are always accompanied by a bit of hope. Leonard Cohen’s oft-quoted “there is a crack in everything … that’s how the light gets in” line, seems an appropriate description of Cousins’ show.
Port Cities opened the concert with their stripped back harmonies. Cousins’ jokingly described them as “young whipper-snappers” and the trio does exude a youthfulness although they have also achieved success on the CBC Radio 2 chart and co-written songs with the likes of Donovan Woods. Port Cities’ version of On the nights you stay home captured the darker edge of the Cape Breton phrase, while Sound of Your Voicedemonstrated the complexity of the trio’s music. The opening set wasn’t their only contribution to the evening, as Cousins called them back out to act as the choir on Grace. The trio just released their first album, featuring their tight harmonies and it will be interesting to follow them wherever the future takes them.
The Arden’s eclectic schedule continues with groups like Delhi 2 Dublin, The Small Glories and John Wort Hannam please see their website for ticket details.
I was sitting in a graduate level university music class when I first heard The Bills. It was a class on music & urban culture and the initial task was to bring in a song about a place, one of my friends (a Pacific Northwest native) brought in The Bills’ “Old Blue Bridge” — a timely and topical choice as we were in Victoria and the debate about dismantling the landmark had reached its height. We discussed the musical features of the song, including the lyrics, and then moved on to the next student’s selection (which was something by Sufjan Stevens if my memory is correct). The song was my gateway into The Bills’ music, but its straightforward bluegrass flavour belies the diversity of styles that was heard at their show in St. Albert’s Arden Theatre.
If the eclecticism of CKUA could be captured into a single live show it would be The Bills or some group a lot like them (if that is even possible). In the mood for a historical tune? “Pandora’s in Flames” recounts the tragic tale of John Bryant’s fatal flight over Victoria in August of 1913. If a gorgeous instrumental is more to your liking, you could try “West Bay Crossing” written as a processional by Adrian Dolan for his bandmate Marc Atkinson’s wedding. Perhaps a song about invasive plant species? What about a medley of the great French-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt played on a mandolin? The Bills have you covered with “Blackberry, Ivy, and Broom” and “Love’s Medley” respectively.
The enthusiasm and musicianship of The Bills, in addition to their interest in a wide-range of musical styles, was evident with the ease that this band of 20 years interacted with one another. Gathering around the microphone to lend their voices to a chorus, The Bills would just as quickly disperse and focus their intensity on their own instrumental lines.
Their accomplishments were not just limited to combining vocal & instrumental parts. They brought the house down when for the second song of their encore (heralded by a standing ovation) they sang “Bamfield’s John Vanden” a cappella (resulting in a second standing ovation).
Spoken word Artists and Bassist, Pat Braden, from the New North Collective takes some time to speak with Folk on the Road while on are on tour.
What is the significance for you to live a traditional lifestyle but translate this for contemporary audiences?
In our understanding of a traditional lifestyle, we see ourselves as contemporary northern artists. We connect to traditions in our individual lives through language, community, our teachers and elders and living like most northerners do by connecting daily to the land. We interpret our northern lifestyle through our music, acknowledging and paying respect to the traditional cultures that have formed and influenced us. These traditional values as well as our own stories and experiences of living in today’s modern world are all subjects that we write about in the NNC.
Do you have any specific memories of living in the North that was formative in you becoming an Artist?
Pat: My Mother played organ in the church for as long as I can remember and my brothers would bring home LP records and Rolling Stone magazines which I consumed voraciously. As a boy in the mid 1960s, I had the opportunity to hear a few of the local musicians playing around town. In the basement of the Legion one Christmas, I was able to catch a glimpse of a guitar player on the stage and thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Later on, I got to know that guitar player and after I started to play music in Yellowknife, many of the other musicians as well who played music through the 1960s and 1970s.
What does a collaborative session with the other Artists look like when you are rehearsing?
Our rehearsals or writing sessions have taken place in recording studios, performance spaces and in one of our sessions, in Burwash Landing in Kluane Park, YT at Diyet and Robert’s home where we were quite rudely interrupted by a visiting grizzly bear.
We set up our instruments and amplifiers in a circular or semicircular arrangement and jam and pitch ideas back and forth until we have the structure of a song. There are usually band member’s children around our sessions as the work/life balance can be demanding for all of us. This also helps to keep our work real with family close by. Meal times and downtimes are also an important part of our process as we take these times to reflect and discuss the work of the day.
It has been mentioned that there is a common goal in NNC to discard the stereotypes of the North, instead, what image do you wish to leave audiences with instead?
We hope that an audience will leave with a sense of having been invited into our lives and welcomed into our community. Leaving our concert with a small sense of freedom and leaving whatever assumptions of the north that came in the door of north behind. Maybe a spark for an adventure and desire to learn more about this incredible, diverse and humble part of the country.
Members of the NNC are passionate about a wide range of musical styles, including folk, rock, jazz, improvisation, classical, singer-songwriter, storytelling, etc. and we bring them together in the Collective.
What is the personal significance for you to be a part of the NNC?
Pat: It is important to be a part of a group of northern based musicians who have similar values, lifestyles, life experience that we all wish to express in our music. It is also significant in that this is based on first and foremost, the creation and performance of collective / collaborative created music. Each of us have our own solo careers but the NNC gives us a chance to contribute new ideas to a collective process and to gather new ideas for our own personal creative works.
To say that the Christmas season is a time of year that David Myles really gets into is probably a bit of an understatement — his website for the month of December features an Advent Calendar, with different videos, songs and even some colouring pages! And while Santa might not have brought him a banjo, with a guitar Myles packed St. Albert’s Arden Theatre for his It’s Christmas show.
In his signature suit, flanked by Kyle Cunjak and Alan Jeffries, Myles spun stories of Christmases past in between classics such as “White Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride”. Myles’ family, including a rather precocious four year old, featured heavily in the stories. Last week Myles’ daughter’s playschool class was the test audience before he played two shows with the Halifax Symphony. The kids, so the story goes, didn’t want to hear any “sleepy songs” like “Star of Hope” and instead demanded repeats of “Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo” … which is decidedly NOT a sleepy song.
It was one of those rare shows that you left with a sore face because you spent two plus hours with a massive grin on your face. Myles kept us in stitches, reliving in great detail a Christmas morning when his brother Sean focused on his new GT Snow Racer missed (or rather didn’t miss) the present left behind by the family dog Ginger.
From cajoling to carolling, audience participation was natural. Beginning with level one participation: imagining ourselves on a beach for “Simple Pleasures” off of Myles 2011 album Into the Sun, to full involvement for an acoustic encore that brought Myles, along with Jeffries and Cunjak, in front of the microphones for what felt like a spontaneous collective version of “Silent Night” at the concert’s close.
Myles made a point of mentioning that Christmas albums can come back to haunt performers (yearly, in fact) and if they didn’t REALLY like a song, in the long run it would be not good for them. He spoke about selecting the songs for the album, apparently his daughter is a fan of Nat King Cole’s voice, his mother-in-law was able to point him to a French song to include (“Have you listened to Céline Dion?”), and how a bluegrass version of most any Christmas song but especially Meaghan Smith’s “It Snowed” (non-bluegrass original here) is his default.
Based on the reactions of those around me I doubt that I am alone in hoping that It’s Christmas haunts Myles for many years to come. Like the playschool friends of Myles’ daughter I’ve got “Santa Never Brings Me A Banjo” on repeat, and I will be heading back to Myles’ website every day from now until Christmas to see what fresh treat awaits me in the It’s Christmas Advent Calendar.
The Arden Theatre’s Professional Series musical offerings continue with The McDades on December 16 & 17, for more information please see their site.
Andrew O’Brien from Fortunate Ones had some time to chat with FOTR.
How has your tour been going so far?
The tour has been fantastic. Too often stops in Saskatchewan only include Regina and Saskatoon. It has been a real education, getting to see and experience smaller towns in the province. Saskatchewan is an exceptionally beautiful place and the people we’ve met have been so welcoming and kind. We’ve also been setting up/mixing and tearing down our own sound system each night. Historically, we’ve been spoiled by having sound people and equipment provided so at first we were a little hesitant about the the time and effort it was going to take to do it all ourselves but it has been surprisingly rewarding and we’ve gotten it down to a science!
You’ve previously mentioned that the more your tour Canada the more it feels like a unified country instead of being from Eastern Canada or Western Canada, why do you think that is?
The music of this country is so diverse but it is that diversity that binds us and brings us together. We run into fellow musicians and friends as we travel from coast to coast and we see ourselves in them. We’re all out here trying to make a living at doing what we love. Rather than feeling a sense of division or competition we have come to see that there is an empowering community of like-minded artists in this country. This sense of community has been the greatest takeaway from this career. It really doesn’t matter if you’re making music in Vancouver, Saskatoon or St. John’s, we’re all trying to achieve the same goals.
There is such a strong folk music culture from your home province of Newfoundland. What do you think it is about NFLD that produces such accomplished musicians?
As Newfoundlanders we are fiercely proud and protective of our cultural heritage. We come from a culture of storytellers and singers. This sense of entertainment is almost certainly rooted in the geographical isolation of living on an island. When people started to settle in Newfoundland they brought with them oral and musical traditions from Ireland, England, Scotland, France and other regions and over time this melting pot of cultural styles has morphed into a patchwork that we think of as traditional Newfoundland music. The wonderful thing, now in Newfoundland, is that “folk music” is not solely recognized by the traditional instruments that have come to define it, rather it is a multi-genre art form that has grown exponentially over the last number of decades. It’s either that or there’s something in the water.
In the initial stages, you both were musicians in larger bands, do these larger collaborative interests still exist for you as Artists or do you find more drawn to the duo work in Fortunate Ones?
The urge to collaborate is always there and I think that is partly due to the fact that we have surrounded ourselves with such talented and inspiring people. We love what we do as Fortunate Ones but are definitely excited to expand on our sound and performances. We are looking forward to see where our next album will take that journey and will most definitely be calling on our friends to help us in that exploration.
How do you continue to challenge yourself as Artists and stay accountable to one another in your artistic vision?
We write and perform music to express ourselves and to connect with people. That connection is a powerful thing and strengthening that bond is always the goal. We always try to create work that comes from a meaningful and honest place. If we don’t hold ourselves up to a creative standard and level of honesty in the work it would be difficult to get behind the music. If we can’t stand behind our work then our fans won’t either.
Previously, you have mentioned that time is a present theme in your music, do you find that communicating through the medium of music helps to make a transient thing like time feel more permanent by capturing the moment in music?
We’ve written many songs about time, it’s passing and it’s effect. I’ve yet to come to comfortable terms with it and I suspect my trepidation surrounding it will continue to be a central theme in our creation. I can’t think of anything specifically that feels as though it has a true sense of permanence. All good and bad things fade with time. There is a joyful sorrow in moments as they pass. It’s really quite beautiful and serene to know how utterly minuscule we all are.
Is there something you would like to mention that I have not asked?
We have a Christmas EP called All Will Be Well coming out this Friday, November 4. All details can be found at www.fortunateones.ca.
Fortunate Ones performs at the Arden Theatre Friday November 4, 2016. For more information on tickets and The Arden Theatre’s Professional Musical Series, please visit their website. Some upcoming Artists include: Aoife O’Donovan, Jayme Stone’s Lorax Project, David Myles, and The McDades.
Fun Fact: The last time Folk on the Road saw Forunate Ones was at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
The first musical stop on The Arden Theatre’s Made in Canada 2016 Professional Series, celebrating Canada’s upcoming sesquicentennial was Ontario with a performance by Royal Wood with Jessica Mitchell as the show’s opener. Mitchell may have been the opening musical act of but there was nothing in her performance that suggested she was a novice to the stage. A fact also evident in her nominee nod from CCMA earlier this year for their Roots Artist of the year award.
Jessica Mitchell came on stage addressing the audience with a tone of familiarity that made her feel like she was already a close friend. Her performance didn’t merely invite the audience to be her friend, she engaged with us as if we were her personal confidantes. At times, she sang with searing clarity when her resolve was evident, yet other moments featured a breathy vulnerability. Whether she was sharing her insights on love, growing up, or how music has served an important role in her own mental health — she sang with honesty that asked us as audience members to know her as a person.
A singular incandescent bulb glowed on the stage at the start of Royal Wood’s set. While the ghost light is normally lit after the theatre closes, Royal Wood decided to invite the spirits of the theatre to share the stage with him. The light would glow with varying intensity throughout the show or stay silent in the darkness.
Five white clothe panels suspended from the stage created a versatile visual backdrop for lighting effects. When lit from the bottom, the fabric displayed a rough texture not unlike concrete but when the backlight turned on to shine from behind the panels, the outline of tattered drapes hung as another layer behind the fabric. While such lighting theatrics could have easily turned into a haunted house effect, the vibrant purples and pinks projected created an inviting warmth. If there were indeed ghosts sharing the stage, they appeared happy to be present among the living musicians on the stage.
Musicians entertain, they tell stories both through music and between songs. It can be a difficult balance to strike — How much banter is appropriate? Should I just sing the next song? Should I suggest a sing-along for this song? Would the audience even know what to sing if I did suggest it? Royal Wood’s performance didn’t seem hindered by such questions. When if came time for the audience to dust off our own vocal chords, for Woods’ “Forever and Ever” he taught us the part, rehearsed it with us and then cajoled us from a few people singing sotta voce into a choir that resonated the intimate ~500 seat theatre.
There is a sense of professional design in Royal Wood’s show: the flow of his set list alternating between solo numbers and arrangements with his full band, an appropriate amount of audience sing-along that felt inviting but not imposing, the lighting design, even his styling was consistent with his trademark vest. While this artifice could appear disingenuous, his stories of preteen love and clear passion for sharing the stage with his band members made his generosity palpable. He recognized each one of his band members throughout the show. The audience developed quite an affection for Robbie playing the keyboard, who also happens to hold a Doctorate in Physics. During his encore, Royal Wood invited Jessica Mitchell back to the stage to share the spotlight with him for a closing duet. The congenial atmosphere cultivated on-stage by the musicians transferred to the audience as they spilled out into the St. Albert night.
For more information on The Arden Theatre’s Professional Musical Series visit their website. Some upcoming Artists include: Monkeyjunk, Terra Lightfoot, Andrea House, Fred Eaglesmith, and Fortunate Ones.