Edmonton Folk Festival – Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

This year’s Edmonton Folk Music Festival kicked off at Gallagher Park with a special Wednesday night fundraiser concert, featuring Bobby Blue Bland and Van Morrison.

The Wednesday night show is becoming more common at festivals, it seems. Winnipeg this year lumped it in as part of the festival, but Edmonton, for the second year in a row, sold it as a separate ticket, as a festival fundraiser (not that Edmonton really needs to raise funds – it sells out every year and is sitting on a million dollar endowment fund, I read, among other huge successes and ongoing initiatives). Apparently the show almost didn’t happen. As of a few days before the tickets going on sale (and you’d better get your tickets on the day they go on sale, because they almost always sell out on that date – the full weekend passes, anyway) there was no artist announced. I read today in an Edmonton paper that this was because there was almost no artist to announce. Festival AD Terry Wickham (aka the man of miracles, in my eyes) wanted to do another Wednesday night show, but only if he could find the right marquee act to program. He got his wish late in the game with one of the dream acts of many festival programmers, Van Morrison.

Apparently Morrison was the one who recommended Bobby Blue Bland as an opening act. Interesting choice. I honestly thought that Bland was dead. He’s one of those cool, obscure acts that festivals love to bring in. There’s no way you’d get to see a living legend at a club somewhere anymore, as they don’t have the drawing power on their own, but as part of a festival lineup, they add some buzz. In Edmonton, on past visits, I’ve seen lineups that included The Staples Singers, Junior Wells, Wilson Pickett, Long John Baldry, and more. Where else would I get to see acts like that? Jimmy Cliff played that role in Winnipeg this year.

Like Jimmy Cliff (and many of the others mentioned), Bobby Blue Bland isn’t the performer he used to be. Sure, he’s old and sits in a chair rather than moving around the stage, but nobody really cares whether he can do scissor kicks after each song. It’s the voice you look for, and Bobby’s just ain’t there any more. He’s a legend, he’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and has a long string of blues/R&B hits attached to his name. It’s cool to have him as part of the festival, but like most of the audience around me, I wasn’t entirely captivated by the performance. His band followed the old blues/R&B shtick of starting the show without him and performing a couple of instrumentals. I never entirely understood that, because you just get bored wondering when the guy you actually paid to see is going to emerge. In this case, Bobby’s entrance was somewhat anti-climactic, because once ushered out and announced as “the world’s greatest blues singer,” he croaked his way through most of the set. The guy’s getting on in years, so it ain’t his fault, but he’s got no high notes and when he dipped down, it kind of sounded like he was farting into the mic or something. Good tunes, solid band, but I do now see why Bobby’s been laying low (leading me to think he was dead).

Nobody could wonder which side of the grass Van Morrison is on, because he’s never really stopped putting out albums and never entirely faded from the spotlight. Like many people I suppose, I have a real hit-and-miss track record with Morrison’s musical output. Sure, he put out Moondance, one of the greatest albums of all time and one of the most important albums in my life and he’s got a ton of other really powerful, memorable songs, but he’s also got a whole lot of boring crap (I just about told you to check your CD store delete bins for some of the albums I’ve bought over the years, but, sadly, there aren’t many CD stores any more, and even fewer delete bins…).

In addition to his hit-and-miss recordings, Morrison has developed quite a reputation for being wildly unpredictable in concert (as well as a reputation for being a pompous jerk). He’s another in the line of legends who can’t be bothered to acknowledge a crowd from stage (Neil Young, Dylan, etc.). Sometimes Morrison is “on,” and he’s in the mood to do the old hits and puts on a lively, interesting show, but seemingly more often, he’s in the mood to play what he wants, how he wants to, and many people who’ve seen him live have left disappointed. I, personally, am growing very tired of those inflated-ego shenanigans, and would rather spend my money and time on performers who care AND appreciate that I’m there. I’ll choose to see 25 smaller shows at $10 long before I’ll see one $250 show again (Hey Neil, I want my money back. I need it more than you do).

True to form, at this show, Morrison didn’t say so much as “Hello,” “Thank You,” not even a “Goodbye.” Hell, would it kill him to introduce his great backing band that puts up with his crap? He did, however, have one of those “on” nights, that’s for sure.

And to think, I almost didn’t go to this show. When I first planned this trip, I couldn’t justify the extra cost of the ticket, another night in the hotel, extra food, time away from home, etc. What with the huge potential for disaster, it just didn’t seem worth it. Luckily, I did the right thing in the end.

Van & the band came on stage with no fanfare at all. No introduction, just right on and into the first song. Morrison originally started off a little bit back from the front of the stage, so I couldn’t see him at all from my vantage point, which made me a little worried. [I just read a review stating that he was sitting at the piano. News to me! Note to Edmonton Folk Fest: the video screens at the side of the stage in Winnipeg are GREAT, because even close up, you can glance over and find out what you’re missing.] Eventually Morrison did the right thing and moved to front & centre, where he could sing into his GOLD PLATED microphone stand (adorned with a big VM logo) and GOLD PLATED microphone. Clearly, dude likes it ornate.

The songs take on kind of an ornate quality in performance as well. Morrison is backed by a 6 piece band of veterans who know their chops. Apparently he’s not afraid to berate a player on-stage if he misses a cue or plays a solo that Van doesn’t approve of. Tough guy to work for, but I guess it keeps you on your toes as a musician. And those musicians worked hard – tasteful solos throughout almost every song, nice touches of violin, flute, piano, guitar, and Van’s oft-present saxophone. Morrison is no slouch on a variety of instruments, taking solos on sax, guitar, and harmonica. And his voice, that powerful, soulful voice has aged well. It hasn’t really lost its power or edge at all over the decades that have passed since he recorded those great classics.

And surprisingly, he was in the mood to indulge us in many of those. Almost right off the top – second song, actually – he went into a breezy version of that tired-but-true classic Brown Eyed Girl. Personally, I could do without ever hearing that classic rock staple ever again, and if I’m tired of it, imagine how much ol’ crankypants Van hates it. But did it he did, and well, too. I figure that was thrown in to appease some of the loogans who surely would have yelled out for it, and to prove that he was willing to make some attempt to appease the critics. I figured that would be the lone obligatory hit, but soon after, we were treated to an especially jazzy run-through of Moondance.

Now, I’ve mentioned that Moondance is one of the seminal records in my life, one that opened my ears and eyes and blew my mind, and one that I absolutely love to this day. A few times in my life when I was courting a lady, I would ask whether she had a copy of Moondance – if the answer was yes, it was love. I have it on record, cassette, and CD. Heck, if I could find an 8-Track, I’d buy that too. So to hear a song from it live was a dream come true. I thought that would be the pinnacle of the concert, and I was fine with that.

Then, shortly later, Into the Mystic. That’s a song that brings a tear to my eye and a flutter to my heart every time I hear it. It’s just one of those timeless classics that I won’t ever get enough of. It took a minute to place the jazzy introduction, but once it clicked in, I was rapt. As if that weren’t enough, we were treated to a delightful run-thru of Have I Told You Lately and a rousing show-closing version of Gloria. Hell, if Morrison had thrown in Lord, If I Ever Needed Somebody, I would have thrown my undergarments on stage. Luckily for all around, that wasn’t to be, but I did get my heart’s fill, that’s for sure.

And I can’t imagine anyone leaving the show unsatisfied – they did the obligatory hits, threw in enough obscure material to appease the hard-core Van fans (and there were many), played solos deftly and often enough to show that they are skilled musicians, sang with heart and soul you wouldn’t expect from a guy who seems to hate fame and being watched, and used up every minute of their allotted stage time (sure, if I had been at a concert venue, I might have liked more, or an encore, but this is a festival with noise bylaws and such).

I should mention that there are no photos of Morrison’s show attached to this review, because we were warned on entry (and scared off by the omnipresent security) that there were to be absolutely NO photos of Morrison, lest he flee the stage like a scared rabbit. I could understand when Neil Young’s people made the same request of us recently after the show, hanging around the tour bus – haggard Neil, tired and wanting to go play with his train set could be forgiven, but on stage, Van was looking pretty dapper indeed. If I looked that good at his age (hell, if I looked that good at my age), I might not mind a few souvenir photos just to show that I’m still lookin’ studly.

After the show ended, buoyed by the great show, we went searching the streets of Edmonton looking for a late-night snack. While they do have a lot more going on than Winnipeg, there aren’t that many options late on a Wednesday, so we ended up at Sherlock Holmes pub, a short walk from our hotel in one direction and the festival’s host hotel in the other. Sitting having a pint, looking over the menu, I happen to notice festival AD Terry Wickham walk in.

It should be pointed out that, although I’ve never met Terry Wickham, and don’t know a thing about him, he seems like a hell of a good dude. He continually programs one of the most interesting, star-studded festivals anywhere, and he genuinely seems concerned with how well everything runs. I always see him running around the site, checking out concerts, talking to artists, volunteers, and everyday Joes. I don’t know how, after a day of all of that, he still has time to go out for a late night pint, but there he was.

And strolling right behind him… nah, not him, but his band! Van Morrison’s combo came in and sat a couple of booths away. I’ve never been tempted to go and congratulate backing musicians before (I reserve my annoying stalkage for bona-fide stars, thank you), but these guys impressed me in all kinds of ways. Unfortunately, some weird old pub regulars got to them first, so I figured my gushing wouldn’t exactly be welcome.

And speaking of unwelcome… after a night of great music, we were treated to pub performer Stan the Man from Newfoundland. Yup, that’s what he calls himself. Now, Stan the Man seems like a decent dude too, and he’s got a tough gig playing to bar patrons who either don’t notice him or don’t care, but his staunch insistence on playing EVERY cheesy overdone hit the exact same, speed up tempo, and in the same key, got really annoying. You just can’t do Hotel California and Last Dance with Mary Jane exactly the same. Well, Stan can. Anyway, Stan, I’m sure oblivious to what he was doing, threw in an especially annoying cover of Brown Eyed Girl. I can only imagine that the band would either have considered walking out or showing Stan how it’s really done.

Luckily, the beer was cold, the pizza was great, and it was a nice night to just hang out in a fun city, knowing that I could sleep in for a change the next day, and knowing that there was much more wonderful music to come.

On to night 2, we go!

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