By Saturday, I was already feeling a bit worn down after 3 fairly late nights of music, but this was the day when the “real” festival felt like it began for me, with a multitude of workshop options to enjoy. Luckily, the choices were fairly simple for me.
But even before the shows began, I was already discovering new music, courtesy of one of the highlights of any trip to Alberta, CKUA. That radio network is kind of a holy-land for me, with folk, roots, and blues being the staples of their schedule. They always have a strong presence at Alberta folk festivals, and Edmonton, of course, is no different. CKUA has a tent right on site, where they broadcast live, all day. (I’m just waiting for the
invitation to pitch a Tell the Band to Go Home tent at the Winnipeg festival. Call me?) Each host has a schedule of festival performers who drop in to chat and play, and the lineup of guests is pretty impressive. You could actually sit at the CKUA tent and see many of the best artists at the festival. The funny thing is, the crowds at the tent always seemed pretty small.
On this day, the guest list early on included Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Pug, both of whom I enjoy, and Dave McCann, who was one of the locals that
sounded most appealing to me. McCann ended up being one of my favourite “discoveries” of this festival, and Jaine has become somewhat obsessed with his latest CD. I really enjoyed hearing him first on CKUA, and getting to know a little more about him.
After McCann was an enjoyable chat with Joe Pug. He was a big hit at the Winnipeg festival a couple of years ago, but this was his first appearance in Edmonton. He went from nobody to big star in Winnipeg thanks to his appearance at our festival, and it was great to see that Edmonton audiences seemed to respond the same way.
After Pug’s interview, we made our way to Stage 5 for a session called “Old Songs/New Songs,” featuring Jimmy Rankin, Chris Trapper, Jill Hennessey, and Holly Williams. Workshop titles are always kind of a laugh – occasionally (very occasionally), they can lead to a magical session where performers do different/unique/obscure material to suit the theme, but most often, as in this case, artists can interpret the theme however they want, and end up playing whatever they want. This title was especially dorky, because, as host Jimmy Rankin said, “all songs are either old or new, so we can do just about anything.” I assume that festival AD Terry Wyckham intended for the artists to dig back into their catalogues and pull out old ones that may not get heard every day, or play new songs yet to be recorded, but it’s my experience that artists are somewhat lazy, and just want to get their best/favourite songs out there. Fair enough, I suppose.
Jimmy Rankin is one of those guys who has obvious talent and a knack with a melody, but for some reason, he irritates me. His songs are a little too slick and blatantly commercial, and he has a bit too much confidence. Jimmy doesn’t strike me as real humble or modest. His songs were good, but I was always glad when his turn was over.
Chris Trapper is another guy who comes across as quite sure of himself (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) He’s got some great songs, but for some reason, he seems to lean on the same two songs, wherever he goes. One was on the soundtrack to August Rush, one of the WORST movies of all time. The soundtrack was pretty good, and it got
nominated for an Oscar, but I wouldn’t want my name associated with that piece of crap movie. Yeah, I saw it, and now I want those two hours of my life back, please! His other song is this cute little song about death called “Put a Keg on my Coffin.” He did that song and told the same introductory joke EVERYWHERE he went. Now, I know that at a festival this big, you’re going to see new people wherever you go, but you have to hope/assume that some people are going to follow you and see you more than once, and those people want to hear something different, especially when you’re only doing a few songs at each session. All that having been said, I do enjoy Chris, and was glad to get to see him again, after having seen a short, opening set in Winnipeg a year or so ago.
Jill Hennessey… hmmmm… I promised to be a little bit more careful with my honesty, after the Trout Forest incident a few years ago… Jill is, I’m sure, a talented actress. She should stick with that. Like so many actors/actresses, she’s allowed the token vanity project CD, but I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what she was doing playing one of the most prestigious festivals in Canada. Sure, she was technically born in Edmonton, but she wasn’t raised there and hasn’t lived there since, so I’d say that her Edmonton roots are pretty shallow. Sadly, so is her “music.” And if Jimmy Rankin was a bit egotistical and annoying, Jill put him to shame. Wait, I said I was going to be careful…
Holly Williams could easily have fallen into the same hole as Hennessey – she’s Hank
Williams’ granddaughter, Hank Jr.’s daughter (easy claim to fame), and she’s gorgeous. She wouldn’t have to do much more than open her mouth to get some attention, but luckily for her (and us), she seemed quite talented. Of course, I can’t be entirely sure, because she (like many artists in Edmonton, I found) didn’t bring nearly enough CDs and they sold out long before I could scoop one up. I just can’t imagine how you can go to a huge festival and not bring a ton of CDs. As Paul Thorn said in Winnipeg when he made that mistake, “it’s like leaving money on the table, and that ain’t good.” I’ll be watching for Holly down the road.
We did duck out of this session to head back to the CKUA tent to catch Alejandro Escovedo. For me, he was one of the biggest stars at the festival, and the opportunity to see him up close and personal (and bug him for an autograph) was too much to pass up. Alejandro is one of the artists that first caught my attention and blew me away at my first folk festival in ’93, and when I mentioned that to him after his CKUA interview, he had fond memories of the festival (even though he broke his guitar and felt that he came a really long way for not a lot of exposure.) His last CD, “Real Animal,” was a big highlight for me, but his newest hadn’t really caught on with me yet. This is probably largely to do with the fact that I don’t own it yet (CDs aren’t real and aren’t good until I own them, of course), but I was hoping to pick up a copy at the festival. Sadly, Alejandro didn’t bring ANY merchandise at all, so I went home empty-handed. Another guy leaving money on the table… I sure did enjoy getting to hear him speak about the songs and his family, and hearing some acoustic versions of songs that he would rock with his band later on.
We managed to make it back to stage 4 for a session called “Trouble,” featuring Steve Dawson, Joe Pug, Dave McCann, and a local U22 performer. Not entirely memorable, but it was a solid session and a great opportunity to see all of the performers. Most notable for me was probably Steve Dawson, who is becoming so important for his work with Black Hen Music and the many acts that he produces, but who is still an amazing, highly underrated musician. At this festival (as
with so many Canadian festivals this year), he was performing as part of a tribute that he put together for the Mississippi Shieks. Yet another one of those amazing projects that is so worthwhile, which shows his passion and amazing ability to pull together a diverse crew of like-minded musicians. I’m so glad to have seen him do his own thing, albeit briefly in this session. He is definitely someone I should be listening to and playing on the radio more.
Edmonton has this nifty tradition of the afternoon concert on the main stage, where all of the side stages shut down and finally get a much needed break. On this day, we were treated to one of the concerts that I was most excited to see, Alejandro Escovedo and
his Sensitive Boys. Alejandro never disappoints me live, and this was no exception. Although I’ve already mentioned that his new album hadn’t grabbed me yet, seeing the material performed live made it much more interesting and important to me. He ran through a great set of old and new, and some killer covers, like “Beast of Burden.” He can do rock, country, folk, soul-tinged stuff, and so much more, and whatever he does, he excels at. He’s a true musical treasure and one that it’s always a treat to see live (as you can see from the videos below!)
There were some good workshop options after that, but nothing that would keep the great energy going, so we opted for a needed dinner break, before heading over to stage 4. The session there was called “Shine a Light,” and it was supposed to feature Marc Jordan, Joe Pug, and Dan Wilson. Wilson was one of the guys that I was keen to hear for the first time at this festival, but he was nowhere to be found. Pug was put in a rather awkward scheduling position as he had his concert set end at exactly the same time as this workshop that he was supposed to be in. So, the workshop started out with a solo Marc Jordan.
Marc Jordan is one of those great songwriters that I love to see at a festival. He’s written some wonderful songs, and having seen and met him before, I know that he’s a decent, interesting guy. That having been said, I don’t think that he really thought much of going it alone on this stage. He was self-deprecating (bringing up the fact that people had been mistaking him for Margaret Atwood – and I can see why!)
and funny, but not entirely engaging. He figured that nobody knew who he was, so he started off with his smash hit “Marina Del Ray.” Now, that is a great one, and it has done him well over the years, no doubt, but I for one am ready for him to put it behind him. Maybe he still feels that he has to do it every show, maybe he’s just proud of it or something, but whatever it is, I’m getting a little tired of it. He’s written many, many wonderful songs since, and I for one would much rather hear some of those.
Jordan seemed pretty pleased when a local performer showed up (filling in for Dan Wilson – no explanation was given for his absence), and again when Joe Pug showed up. Unfortunately for me, our time at that stage was about up as we had to head to stage 3 for another busy workshop. In the end, “Shine a Light” seemed a little dim.
The next session proved a little more interesting. It was called “Take a Look at my Heart,” and it featured Murray McLauchlan, Holly Williams, Beth Nielson Chapman, and Diana Jones. This was another of those vague workshop titles that didn’t seem to really inspire most of the participants, so they mostly just did whatever they wanted. Holly Williams again impressed me with her songs and stories (although I did hear a repeat song/story again in the same day).
Beth Nielson Chapman was a real delight. She’s one of those songwriters who I knew of by her legendary reputation, but had never actually listened to. She was a highlight for sure, with her touching, heartbreaking songs. She has a bunch of very powerful stories to tell after some devastating experiences in her life, and it makes for some great songs. Murray McLauchlan was characteristically entertaining and charming (sorry Ron!) Diana Jones has some powerful songs, but her voice and much of her material failed to grab me.
After the set, all of the performers were available to sign and chat. McLauchlan was dashing off to another stage to join his Lunch at Allen’s collaborators, but he was still kind enough to record some station IDs and say hello
The evening main stage started off with gospel/bluegrass band Dailey & Vincent. That normally wouldn’t interest me at all but the food lines were long and we were plenty tired, so we sat and took it all in. The band managed to win me over a bit with some great humour and a pretty funny bit where the lead singer went into the audience with a wireless mic. One of the guys in the band had this really annoying loud laugh, and he laughed at just about everything that the singer dude said. It was kind of funny at first, but grew old fast.
Never a huge world music fan, I opted to wander off during Vieux Farka Toure’s set. It was time for my regular hike up the hill. At least once during the weekend, I have to make the trek up the ski hill to see how the top-of-the-hill folk live. There’s an interesting community up there, with a whole different energy of its own. You can’t really connect with the music the same way up there, so folks watch the video screens and create a different kind of culture. Again, not at all my scene, but it seemed like the folks up there were enjoying themselves.
We finally settled back onto the tarp for a concert by Sarah Harmer. I’ve fallen in and out of love with Harmer’s music over the years, varying between huge fan and casual observer. Her latest record is quite strong, but having seen the live show in Winnipeg so shortly before this appearance, I wasn’t all that
excited by another opportunity to watch her luke warm live show. Still, watch it we did. It was characteristically nice, with little in the way of magic or overly memorable moments.
But we had to be in position for the next concert, one of the main reasons why I’d made the trek to Edmonton in the first place, Brandi Carlile. Her moving, emotional songs have been mainstays on my CD player and on my radio show, and I was very eager to see her live show. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but had high hopes for her.
She did not, in any way, disappoint. Backed only by her twin accomplices, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, and a cello player, Carlile was able to take the jam-packed, noisy, busy hillside into a quiet, intimate environment. There’s such a danger that songs so passionate and personal are going to get lost in such an environment, but Carlile won everybody over with her humble rootsy charm and powerful vocals.
It didn’t hurt that she sprinkled the set with interesting covers. The show started off with a solo cello cover of a Metallica instrumental. Carlile tackled interesting songs like “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” and “Mad World.” All of them became Brandi Carlile songs and blended in seamlessly with her powerful originals. She covered a lot of bases, pulling songs off of all 3 of her amazing albums. Her career has been short, but everything she’s done has been meaningful, and has proven that she is a talent that is here to stay. She deserves to be recognized as one of the finest female singer/songwriters going today, and I’m sure that her career will continue to prove that.
After Carlile was another show that I was eager to see, a concert by former Men at Work frontman Colin Hay. Those Men at Work records were the soundtrack to my youth. I lived for those songs, so it was with eager expectation that I first saw Hay solo at the Edmonton Festival on one or two of my previous visits. In concert, he is amazingly funny and charming. He mixes the Men at Work classics with some really strong solo material put out since those days. He has a couple of solo songs “Beautiful World,” and “Waiting for my real Life to Begin,” which rank right up there with not only the Men at Work songs, but some of my favourite songs of all.
Although I’d seen Hay before, this was my first opportunity to see him with a backing band, and the first since the release of some great new material. It all made for a real highlight of the festival, and a very fun end to a very entertaining day. Seeing the whole hillside sing along to “Down Under” was a lot of fun. Hay and the band played those 80s classics with all of the passion that one could muster out of songs that Hay has had to do during every show over the past 25 years or so. When I saw him solo, it seemed like Hay was going through the motions, doing the obligatory hits, but with the band, he seemed to actually enjoy doing the songs. It almost made up for me missing the Men at Work concert at the Winnipeg Arena in the 80s, because I was too young to go.
And so ended another very long, very full, very enjoyable day in Edmonton. Tomorrow would be the last of this trip, and there was much to look forward to.