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.

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