Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ottawa Folk Festival Concert Review Park 2: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison; and Jimmy Rankin

My experience at the Ottawa Folk Festival for this year concluded with two acts that I have followed for a long time. The husband and wife team of Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison may not be household names per se, but if you follow mainstream country music in any way, you are well aware of at least Bruce Robison.  The career of Kelly Willis has always been a mystery to me.  She has one of the most unique and soothing voices of any female performer out there today, yet she has been completely unable to break through as a mainstream country artist. Hell, I don’t know if one can really say she’s broken through as an Americana artist, but I’m willing to go with saying that she has.  Kelly and Bruce took to the main stage following Hayes Carll, and they did not disappoint.  Kelly Willis has such a wonderful voice, she really sounds like no one else.  Together with Bruce Robison, they are akin to a songwriters version of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.   Bruce Robison is a songwriter whose career is on fire right now.  Many songs familiar to fans of George Strait have been written by Bruce Robison, perhaps with George’s number one from a few years ago off the It Just Comes Natural Album, “Wrapped.”  Bruce has also had the pleasure of writing a song that became an enigma unto itself.  “Travelling Soldier”, which in my opinion was the best performance of the night from Bruce and Kelly, was a big number one hit by the Dixie Chicks in 2003 from their “Long Road Home” album.  The song rocketed to the top of the country charts and then the success of the tune was blindsided.  The same week that it hit number one Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, mentioned to a London, England crowd that they were ashamed the President of the United States was from their home state of Texas.  Keep in mind, we’re talking about 2003.  Once those uttered words reached American soil, “Travelling Soldier” became the fastest descending number one song in chart history.  But as Mr. Robison stated, he is very proud of that song, and rightly so.  Kelly and Bruce don’t perform together very often, so those of us who attended on this cold Sunday afternoon were fortunate to see them.  I note on their web site that they will be performing at this year’s Americana Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee in October.  I hope to catch them again during their performance, if the schedule allows it. These two are great everyone, among the best singer-songwriters from the Great State of Texas that you will hear. Do check them out, either separately or collectively as the performance allows. They were an excellent lead-in to the final headlining act on the main stage, The Levon Helm Band.

However, I did not stay to watch The Levon Helm Band performance in their entirety.  I saw the opening number, “The Shape I’m In”, as much for curiosity as anything.  I did have a plan to watch Jimmy Rankin.  He was playing on a separate stage at the same time as Levon Helm.  The one thing I noticed about Levon Helm and everyone else was that everyone else performing at the festival packed pretty light. No roadies, just the performers taking their own guitars, drums, various string instruments off the stage themselves.  Not so with Levon.  These guys were a 13 member band with every instrument imaginable out on that stage.  The sound was great, but holy mackerel, what a contrast to the other performers I had seen to that point, as well as Jimmy Rankin.

Jimmy Rankin has been a mainstay in Canadian country/folk/Canadiana/Americana music for over 20 years now.  Originally the male voice and driving songwriter for the well known family band The Rankin Family, Jimmy has carved out a very respectable career as a solo artist in Canada.  Having recently made the move to Nashville from his native Inverness County, Nova Scotia (on Cape Breton Island), Jimmy Rankin has recently released a new album titled Forget About the World that has received rave reviews and spawned a huge hit at radio, “Here in My Heart.”  Jimmy Rankin has to be one of my favorite performers. The last time I saw him perform live was also in Ottawa, as he opened for Great Big Sea as part of the 2004 Grey Cup festivities (the Grey Cup is the championship of the Canadian Football League).  This time around, Jimmy performed with just one player accompanying him on guitar.  Rolling through a long line of hits such as “Midnight Angel”, “Follow Her Around” the aforementioned “Here in My Heart”, Jimmy introduced a fantastic new song based on a legendary figure from Cape Breton.  “Colorado Dave” is the story of a young man who leaves Cape Breton to explore and find himself out west in the 1800’s.  What Dave found was his way to the Jesse James gang. The song carefully and creatively tells the story of Dave, complete with his trials and tribulations, as well as his return home to his family in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  Jimmy also has the foresight to know that his show would not be complete without a nod to the act that brought him to the international stage, as the show included a few hits by the Rankin Family.  Jimmy did a fantastic job of dusting off Rankin Family classics such as “Orangedale Whistle” and “You Feel the Same Way Too.” Jimmy’s show brought back great memories for me personally, as The Rankin Family played the one and only country music festival that took place in Minden, Ontario many, many years ago.  My grandmother, who has since passed away, and I attended that day long show that was capped off by the Rankin’s.  I have a lot of great memories from that day with my grandmother, and I certainly treasure them.

One last point on Jimmy’s show.  I would say that Jimmy Rankin wins the Trooper of the Weekend award, if such an award were to be issued.  Jimmy had the tough task of playing on a neighbouring stage at the same time as The Levon Helm Band.  Let’s just say that the added gear from Levon was enough to win any sound competition that may have existed between the two stages.  Jimmy, to his credit, took it all in stride.  He exhibited great professionalism and the truly wonderful sense of humour that exists with a great many people who are from the East Coast of Canada. 

The Ottawa Folk Festival was a truly wonderful experience.  I look forward to attending next year’s festival for an extended visit.  Please visit the web sites of Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis and Jimmy Rankin for tour information, or to purchase one of their albums.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ottawa Folk Festival Concert Review Part 1: Sean McCann and Hayes Carll

Yesterday, I wrote about my first excursion to the Ottawa Folk Festival, which was my first experience at such an event.  My focus of the day was to check out four acts on what was a very large bill.  Today's write up is on the first two artists that I had the pleasure of seeing on the main stage at the show, Sean McCann and Hayes Carll.

It was life and death trying to get to Hog's Back Park, the location for the folk festival, in time for the 4:45 start of Sean McCann's portion of the show.  It's not like Ottawa is around the corner from my hometown, and making a wrong turn on Riverside didn't help ... but luck was apparently on my side, as I reached the ticket booth at 4:43 and walked in to the festival area just in time to hear Sean McCann being introduced.  What followed was a wonderful hour long performance by one of the truly great veterans of Canadian and East Coast folk music.  Sean McCann is one of the founding members of the fabulous band from Newfoundland and Labrador, Great Big Sea.  McCann, understanding that there can only be one Great Big Sea, has embarked on solo career on the side where the music is much different than that of his GBS alter-ego.  The music of Sean McCann is much quieter, much softer, and more personal than the rocking-Celtic sound of Great Big Sea.  And, it pays off for McCann, as he shows fans old and new of another side to his great creativity.  With many years of performing on a stage behind him, and many more ahead of him for that matter, Sean McCann has such a welcoming stage presence and persona that no matter the size of the venue, it feels like you're sitting in Sean's living room -- or kitchen, as the tradition goes "down east" -- while Sean and his capable back-up musicians walk you through a personal history of growing up in Newfoundland.  The beautifully crafted song dedicated to his grandparents, "The Reply (The Ballad of John and Mary)", perfectly illustrates McCann's ability to capture a highly personal story and share it with his fans ... fans, who come away feeling more like friends by the time the show is over.  Sean has recorded two solo albums, "Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes" and "Son of a Sailor", both of which are for sale via his web site or your local record store.  Sean's web site contains a sampler portion where you can listen to all the tracks from the two albums.  Many of these tracks are performed by Sean on stage, and they are all gems.  In addition to "The Reply", pay particular attention to "Wish", "Don't Cry (for Keegan)" and "Hold Me Steady."

Hayes Carll has been around for a number of years, but this year in particular has been somewhat of a breakthrough for this Americana singer, what with appearances on the Tonight Show and Imus in the Morning.  Hayes Carll is a wonderful stylist who is finding acceptance and appreciation from mainstream media who have placed his album "KMAG YOYO" at the top of many critic's choice lists.  The great appeals of Carll as a stage performer, is his deadpan delivery of stories from the road and his keen ability to capture life and society in a song.  Telling the story of his Tonight Show experience was from the point of view that some things don't quite work out the way we would like them to be ... for example, with the Tonight Show appearance, Hayes and the boys were looking forward to meeting a big-time celebrity and, with all do respect, got Kathie Lee Gifford instead.  You know what I mean ...

Hayes and his talented band rolled through tune after tune from his award-nominated album "KMAG YOYO" with tight precision.  Carll took care of the rest with his great vocals and more wonderful storytelling, as he deftly setup each performance by providing the back story to the song's creation.  Two particular stories and songs stand out in particular.  The story of two politically opposite, yet lonely and somewhat intoxicated, people falling for each other in "Another Like You."  As Carll has said before, and he said it in Ottawa, "alcohol and sexual attraction can overcome a lot. "  The other great story and song that was written, was a co-write with Bobby Bare, Jr.  a tune called "One Bed, Two Girls and Three Bottles of Wine."  This was a great song about a situation that is often fantasized about, yet has a somewhat tragic ending ... if you know what I mean.  I'm looking forward to catching Hayes Carll and his band in Nashville this October at the Americana Music Festival and Conference.  The album, on Lost Highway Records, is nominated at this year's Americana Music Awards for Album of the Year.

Both Sean McCann and Hayes Carll are on tour throughout the United States this fall.  Check out their respective web sites for dates and cities, and be sure to check them out when they come to or near your hometown.

Tomorrow:  Reviews on Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, and Jimmy Rankin.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Discovering Folk Heaven

It was an exciting day for me yesterday (Sunday August 28, 2011).  While I've been writing this blog for over a year now, yesterday was my first experience at a major folk festival.  The Ottawa Folk Festival is, as the name suggests, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada's National Capital. Ottawa is roughly a three and a half hour drive up Hwys. 401 and 416, which is more than manageable.  This trip however, was completely spur of the moment.  While contemplating on whether or not I was prepared to make the drive on Saturday night, I pretty much decided to go at the drop of a hat on Sunday morning.  The festival itself had been going on since Thursday, with such top flight folk and Americana acts as Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses, with Allison Moorer, Steve's son Justin Townes Earle, Bruce Hornsby and the Noise Makers, Hawksley Workman, the Punch Brothers, with a long list of local, national and international artists taking three stages over a four day weekend.  My reasons for going up on Sunday to check out a few people I've wanted to see for  a long time, and they all happened to be playing on Sunday, one right after the other.  So, while I would love to have been there for all four days, if I could only do one day it was going to be Sunday.  I'll have the concert reviews from Sean McCann, Hayes Carll, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, and Jimmy Rankin posted over the next two days, but for now I'm going to talk about this festival.

The Ottawa Folk Festival, as I mentioned, was my first experience at what I'll call a major folk festival.  I had hoped to check out the Newport Folk Festival this year, but you know how it goes, things happen and sadly, I couldn't be there.  I will say though, for a first experience, the Ottawa Folk Festival is absolutely wonderful.  I arrived in time to see Sean McCann take the main stage at 4:45, with a crowd of hearty people that braved the effects of then Tropical Storm Irene.  Don't let the word "tropical" fool you either ... it was anything but tropical.  It was freakin' cold for August.  It's like someone turned summer off at around midnight, or some crap like that.  Anyway, I got my ticket and walk over to the stage to listen to the show, and I can't help but notice how different this festival is compared to the festival I'm used to attending in July.  If you'll recall an earlier piece for this blog, I usually attend Jamboree in the Hills, a four day country music festival that is one of the biggest parties on the planet.  One of my good friends sums up Jamboree in the Hills quite nicely, specifically some of the craziness that you can see over the course of those four days ... "You can't make this s**t up."  And that's the truth.  At Jamboree in the Hills, you truly can't make that s**t up.  There are at least two moments over the course of that time that will make your jaw drop, make a double-take and just simply say "What in the hell did I just see?!" 

Clearly, the Ottawa Folk Festival doesn't quite have that crazy shock value, at least from what I could tell on Sunday.  The crowd was a great cross-section of people.  There were students, couples, groups of friends, artists, hippies and a few eccentric types, all of which made for a very cool feeling.  Everyone was there to celebrate the art of it all, not so much the party.  There was no judgement on anyone.  Whether it was the music, the artist and musician workshops, or the visual artists selling their works in the vendor section, everyone who attended was there to celebrate arts, music and people.  It was a very relaxed atmosphere.  I quite liked the community aspect of the Festival, as there were tents set up for jam sessions where attendees can bring their own instruments and play among old and new friends for a time. Health and wellness is actually promoted at this Festival, with organic fare offered in the food services area of the Festival grounds.  A different kind of wellness is offered at Jamboree, which admittedly, is pretty cool too for those few days.

I would say ten, twelve, or maybe fifteen years ago, I don't think I would have appreciated or "got" the Ottawa Folk Festival for what it is.  It seems to me the Ottawa Folk Festival, and indeed other folk festivals that I have researched since returning home early this morning, that arts, music, health and well-being are staples of folk festivals in North America.  I can't speak about overseas festivals because I haven't researched them yet.  But this was a very cool, very relaxing and invigorating experience.  This doesn't mean I won't be going back to Jamboree, far from it really.  I'm planning on going back next year for my thirteenth visit.  It's a community as well, and a community of really great people that I get to see once a year and I think the world of them.  But I can tell that I've grown to really love and appreciate this type of music that I really don't believe I would have accepted in my 20's, for whatever strange reason.  Whatever that reason was, it's not relevant today.  The Ottawa Folk Festival was the first major folk festival that I attended ... the first of many to come.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

CAMfest Revival -- August 20, 2011

This past Saturday (Aug. 20) I had the pleasure of attending a revitalized festival near my hometown of Bowmanville, Ontario.  The neighbouring town of Orono played host to CAMfest, a day long festival celebrating arts and music in the Municipality of Clarington, Ontario.  The daytime stage played host to many wonderful local bands, while the evening stage played host to three of Canada’s finest international acts.  Local artists and chefs were front and centre as well, as there was a large section of the fairgrounds dedicated to artisans displaying their works and a wide variety of locally produced food items.

The evening portion kicked off with Bowmanville’s own Mark Sullivan, an internationally acclaimed instrumentalist.  Sullivan, who now resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, was backed by two wonderful musicians Caroline Leahy, from the infamous Leahy Family, and Andrew Hayhurst, who is a fine guitar player and vocalist.  Sullivan’s hour-long mostly instrumental set was a wonderful kickoff to a great evening and was the perfect showcase of the diversity of Americana/Canadiana music that exists on both sides of the border.  Mark Sullivan is a world-class violinist and fiddle-player who is worthy of your time when the opportunity presents itself.

Next up in the evening was an artist that I grew up listening to on Canadian country-radio as a kid.  A legend in the music business, he is no stranger south of the border.  Singer-songwriter Murray McLaughlin has been writing and performing on an international stage for over 40 years.  When it was announced he was coming to Orono, I was very intrigued.  When Mr. McLaughlin took the stage, it was like listening to an old friend in your living room telling stories about his life.  His opening number “Don’t You Want to Have Some Fun” was brilliantly descriptive as he painted a vivid picture of places and locations in the city of Toronto, where I grew up.  The small but appreciative crowd revelled in the many stories McLaughlin told of his songwriting exploits over the years.  My particular favorite was the story of a great song of his that was to appear on an album of Kathy Mattea’s a few years ago but was subsequently cut when the record label executive felt that the subject matter wasn’t commercially appropriate. Nice to see that some things are consistent in the music business (said with tongue firmly in cheek).  Anyway, the song was called “Try Walking Away” and it received new life as Murray McLaughlin’s version of the song would play at Toronto Blue Jays games whenever a walk was issued.  The first new album in ten years will be coming out in the near future, and Mr. McLaughlin gave us a wonderful preview with what should be a single at radio, “Picking Up Mary Lou.”  The show was a wonderful performance delivered by a music veteran, a true legend in the music business.

The final performers of the weekend are no strangers to the Americana/Canadiana music scene. Yep Roc recording artists, The Sadies, have been around for several years now with an ever increasing following.  The two front men of The Sadies, Dallas Good and Travis Good are world class musicians who completely dominate the stage with their musicianship and vocal harmonies.  I have heard of The Sadies and their reputation as a live act.  All I can say is, they appear as advertised.  A world class band who is reinventing the psychedelic-rockabilly sound and delivering it to new and loyal audiences in scorching fashion.  Mixing a blend of instrumentals with vocal performances, The Sadies played one of the best shows I have seen all year.  They deserved a larger audience then what they received on this night, but the Sadies were professionals throughout, delivering a show worthy of their headliner status.  I look forward with great anticipation to attending another show to be entertained by this group of world class musicians.  The Sadies, simply put, are the real deal.  They are an indescribable talent that will be around for a long time. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Art of Social Relevance

One of my favorite music writers is a gentleman named Chet Flippo.  I've never had the pleasure of meeting Chet, but I have a feeling he and I might get along quite well.  Chet is a longtime veteran of music writing, and it seems like he's had a long history of writing and saying what's on his mind regardless if anyone's feelings might get bruised.  I like Chet's writing because we have a similar take on the state of country music, specifically country radio, at this time.  Clearly Chet's take is more educated than mine, but I agree with him on most days.  

Chet's most recent column for, the weekly Nashville Skyline feature, talks about one of the most socially relevant songs to come out in a long time by one of the greatest vocalists the industry has been fortunate enough to witness.  Ronnie Dunn's "Cost of Livin'" is a masterpiece that will be remembered as a modern-day classic, regardless of it's chart position.  It will be a life-and-death struggle for this song to reach the top 10, which is a complete and utter shame.  Country radio is at a state where they'll only play tunes about how big your "country to the core" is, or whatever.  That's a debate for another time.

While not naming any names, "Cost of Livin'" is a true story that takes place across both the United States and Canada every day.  It's no secret that the recent recession has been tough on both sides of the border, as well as around the world.  Admittedly, Canada has fared better than our friends and neighbors to the south.  Country music has always been about stories that capture what is socially relevant at that time.  From recent examples as Alan Jackson's "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning", to Loretta Lynn's feminist anthem from the early 1970's "The Pill", country music has always been there to tell the story of the masses, not the privileged few.  Country music, in general, remains the social conscience of the music world. "Cost of Livin'" is the song that will tell the story of the Great Recession of 2008 - 2011 and beyond to future generations.  

Hopefully radio will come around and play this song as it deserves it's rightful place on every playlist at every country and Americana radio station.  I include Americana in this list because I believe that, at this time, the Americana/alt-country branch of the format more closely captures the social conscience of North America in the same vein as mainstream country did in the 1960's and 1970's.  One can only hope that the balance will be restored at some point in the future.  In the meantime, track down and listen to this song (you can hear it by clicking on the link above).  And if you are one of the people Ronnie sings about in the song, keep plugging away and don't give up.  Better days are ahead.  I wish you and your families all the best and please take care of one another.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Concert Review: J.P. Cormier, Little Lake Music Festival, Peterborough, Ontario

On previous occasions I have written about the vibrant music scene that exists in Peterborough, Ontario, a city of 75,000 northeast of Toronto.  In addition to the many clubs and bars that host many nights of live music, the newly-christened Little Lake Music Festival takes place weekly on Wednesday and Saturday nights from the end of June to the end of August.  The concerts are free and they take place lakeside at Del Crary Park.

This past Wednesday July 27, I had the great pleasure to attend this festival and take in a show by East Coast singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist J.P. Cormier.  A lifelong musician, J.P. has performed with the likes of Waylon Jennings, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart and bluegrass giants Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs to name a few.  When I read that on his web site, I knew I had to see his show.  

J.P. as a man, is a very commanding figure on stage.  This gentleman stands 6'4" and towers at the center of the stage between his two back-up singers/musicians.  As a musician and vocalist, J.P. demonstrates why he has won all the awards and why he has been so successful in both Canada and the United States for more than 25 years.  Performing "Gilgarry's Glen" early on in the set, J.P. showed the crowd from the get-go that he is one of the finest guitar players Canada has ever produced, as well as one of Canada's finest vocalists.  Quite simply, this was one of the best shows I have had the pleasure of seeing this year.

There were many stories to tell on this night, with tales of his time in the state of Alabama and growing up in Nova Scotia.  My personal favorite was the story of the time J.P. fell in love with a young woman ... but not just any young woman mind you, it was a young woman at McDonalds who asked him so wantingly, "Do you want fries with that?"  This story was a great lead-in to a beautifully written and performed song, "My Autumn Girl."  Given the opportunity, and with his long history as a musician working with some of the greatest legends in the music business, I would love to hear more of J.P.'s experiences.  

Songwriting seems at the core of what J.P. does musically.  As I've stated previously, this is a gifted musician, a multi-instrumentalist who played the guitar, fiddle and banjo on this evening.  His voice is as rich and smooth as you will ever hear.  When the music starts, you will find yourself tapping along and smiling.  But songwriting appears to be the biggest pleasure for J.P.  "Leaving Charlottetown" is a beautiful piece of art that is reminiscent of Merle Haggard's earliest works.  Perhaps the finest performance of the night was a tribute to Canada's own singer/songwriter legend, Gordon Lightfoot.  Playing a selection from J.P. Cormier's The Long River: A Personal Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, J. P. delivered an astounding version of Lightfoot's "Song for a Winter's Night."  It was one of the finest performances I've had the pleasure of seeing and hearing, and I am sure that Mr. Lightfoot would be very proud of what J.P. has done with his song.  

J.P. continues his 2011 tour with stops in Edmonton, Alberta on August 4 at the Edmonton Folk Festival; the John Arcand Fiddle Festival in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on August 12; the Dakota Dunes Casino on August 13, also in Saskatoon; Music Up Close House Concerts on August 20 in Innisfil, Ontario; and the Shelter Valley Folk Festival on September 2 in Grafton, Ontario.  Do check out J.P. should you get the opportunity.  You will bear witness to a Canadian/East Coast treasure.