By Mike Dunn
October 13-15, 2016
CALGARY — There’s always that feeling when you see an artist or band play their songs: the ones you’ve heard on record a thousand times, and you know there’ll always be elements of the production that won’t be there because the band is playing live in front of you without the frills and chicanery that can accompany the studio process, but you, tonight, you’re hearing the raw and real deal of the group bashing it out together onstage, all well-oiled and dialed-in, the tightly rehearsed parts colliding with those fortunate adventures of immediate rhythm, harmony, and the stage itself in a roomful of gleeful revellers and the sitting listeners planted with the most open of ears to just take in the music itself and never miss a beat.
Nothing is lost live but the expectation that it be the same, note-perfect thing every time, the thought that without those little extras, it isn’t the thing you came to see. That loss of expectation is exactly why you’re there in the first place. If you know, note-for-note, what you’re going to get, then why bother leaving the house?
And across this city, in rooms packed to the walls with trucker-hat ramblers, denim and plaid-clad farmers, stoners in Waylon Jennings T-shirts and Chucks, the well-coiffed and bespectacled urbanites, the country-customary pearl snaps to match the black slacks and rattlesnake boots, and the attuned ears of those who don’t need it loud but certainly don’t object to the volume, songwriters and bands of the roots country and folk persuasions gathered, shook hands, high-fived, and hugged it out to play Wide Cut music as close to the bone as your old boot-heel, the wood, steel, and strings clanging in a calamitously danceable jive as Parsons-cosmic as it was tied to the front porch where it was born.
Ottawa’s Brock Zeman brought his Get-The-Little-Red-Rooster-Behind-The-Mule grit to kick off the second annual Wide Cut Weekend at Mikey’s Juke Joint, one of several out-of-province artists to join a lineup that included some of Alberta’s best established and emerging roots music artists. Peterborough’s Mayhemingways plied their dark take on Appalachian and Zydeco folk styles early Friday evening at The Blues Can, filled with raucous fans eager to shake their behinds, and those in attendance were given every opportunity that evening, as Mayhemingways were followed by the ranch-hand groove of Tin & The Toad, a live staple throughout Southern Alberta, and the open road country rock of Lethbridge’s Dave McCann & The Firehearts. Across downtown at The Oak Tree Tavern, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Jack Marks combined tasty fingerpicked electric guitar and darkly charming lyricism with his backing band The Lost Wages, whipping up a notion of mid-70s John Prine and Nashville Skyline-era Bob Dylan, splashed with punchy staccato Robbie Robertson fills. Upstairs at The Legion, Lethbridge honky-tonk heartache queen Shaela Miller brought sass and sincerity in equal measure, backed up by her crack band of coulee cowboys who swing those roadhouse rhythms just right.
After the chilled out afternoons, mid-evening headlining troubadours, and early-late emerging acts; unless there’s some extra weird freak-out rock show out in the woods, it’s never inappropriate in Alberta to bring home the late show with that sawdust-on-the-floor honkytonk two-step. Particularly, when backed with the blacktop rush of chugging four on the floor country boy rock n’ roll, the kinds of songs that a million glasses have clinked in the air for. Closing an evening will come up again later, but well-past the Cinderella hour of Friday night, sleep was all but a necessity if we were going to catch Saturday’s songwriter sessions held at the newly minted The King Eddy and the iconic Ironwood.
The best approach for those two – slam that extra strong bitter bean tar into the go cup, and take your sweet ass time showing up, unless of course the Ghost of Hiram King Williams Himself goes on at one, in which case, aim for about a quarter after, let those Drifting Cowboys get warmed up.
It’s in the quiet of an indoor songwriters session that the real ghosts are found. Country and folk songs aren’t always interested in great, striving advances in the form, but about a writer being honest with themselves and their audiences, about the depth of human emotion, even in tunes about having a beer with their bacon and eggs.
The Ironwood played host to recent Calgarian Justine Vandergrift, Edmonton’s Ken Stead, former Calgarian Joe Fournier, and Vancouver’s haunting old-time revivalist Petunia. The latter songwriter brought the timid afternoon crowd out of their shells with his cutting tenor, akin to a dark and woody violin, when he moans his Singing Brakeman yodel.
Stead and Vandergrift collaborated on Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up”, Stead’s sincerity shining through and giving the song a respectful reading, showing the clean picking and earnest, heartfelt quality that has placed him as a solid contender in the former Peak Performance Project, now Project Wild Artist Development Program. Vandergrift harmonizes beautifully and her own soulful country-folk is buoyed by the honest-to-God heartbreak in her lyrics. The two would go on to sing together at Stead’s solo set at the King Eddy.
Joe Fournier paid tribute to Calgary rock ‘n’ roll legend Billy Cowsill with his own “Sang Like A Bird,” staring the loss of a good friend and mentor in the face, and coming out stronger for the pain.
The second Ironwood session of the afternoon featured Calgary’s gentleman cowboy Tom Phillips, easily the best-dressed man in any room he walked into on a beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon wearing a suit he had recently bought for his daughter’s wedding, now his performing attire. He shared the stage with veteran Edmonton guitar ace and songwriter Gord Matthews, emerging Cochrane-via-Edmonton songwriter Lucas Chiasson, and Winnipeg-based Sean Burns, with his ever-present guitar player Kris Ulrich. Phillips is as gracious a host as you’ll find for these sorts of sessions, his genial nature as genuine onstage as off, and his song “Words for Whiskey” was a subtle recitation of the hard life and regret, in the truthful voice of a man who made the room feel as though he knew both, intimately. Matthews followed up with “Bring Back Sundays,” in a Willie Nelson vein, wondering aloud what it might be like if we all just unplugged, turned off the cars and went outside for the day. It’s never easy to write about loving someone in a new way that’s never been said, but Chiasson’s “Love So Loud” hails from the “show, don’t tell” school of lyricism, his soulful rasp and wisdom belying his youth.
The most pleasant surprise of the afternoon, though, was Sean Burns. Well known across the country among bartenders and saucy good-timers (for good reason, as he’s made his living travelling across Canadian pubs for the past several years, making his way solely as a songwriter, sideman, and performer the entire time), Burns showed a more sensitive side, following up a story about his grandfather with the moving “Cup Of Tea,” tackling the frailty and absence of mind that accompanies the body as its time in this world dwindles. Ulrich played tasteful slide guitar throughout, adding dimension and atmosphere to a tune that was instantly memorable, and genuine in its pathos.
Cranking the gears to The King Eddy, we caught a bit of the session featuring Calgary’s emerging Carter Felker, the 1930s Dustbowl twang of Amy Nelson, a re-energized Mike Stack, and Edmonton songwriter/fiddler Braden Gates.
Hitching back up to The Ironwood, we caught Sean Burns and Kris Ulrich kick off the evening show. The crowd was engaged from the first note, as Burns’ high-paced country-rock provided an excellent contrast to his fingerpicked folk from earlier in the day.
Miller followed Burns, and while the spirit of a Texas dancehall was alive throughout her charged-up set, including a cover of the Ernest Tubb classic “Thanks A Lot.” Toward the close, she and her band took a firm turn toward the red dirt desert highway, possibly a preview of an upcoming record she’s been writing; country music’s in good hands down in Lethbridge.
One can only hang around in the Ironwood a few minutes before proprietor Pat MacIntyre starts giving you the gears, all in the good humour of one of Calgary’s most revered and comical veteran bartenders, of course, and there were shows and venues down the line to see. Settle up, tip your hat, and make your way down the mile. BeatRoute made use of some quality downtown parking and free-fare-zone trains through the core to make our way down to the Legion for the evening’s and festival’s closing acts.
For people who have a certain regard for nostalgia, The Legion may be the finest venue in this city. Look around: the building is an immaculately kept homage to a time long gone. They say it’s military etiquette to remove your chapeau when you walk into a Legion, unless it’s part of your uniform, in which case, it’s grudgingly accepted, and true prairie boys will always believe their cowboy hats are part of the uniform. The wood paneling, the smell of well-trod and kept carpet, maintained with care and reverence for men and women who served and fought genuine tyranny, the possibility of end times within their own times. Tyranny’s a tricky business, and any self-respecting folk singer knows that most wars are fought by the poor for the benefit of the rich, although these days it seems, the closest to war most of us get is amongst ourselves, for our own benefit.
While Dave McCann and The Firehearts rocked the downstairs hall, upstairs resided an air of seriousness, the sort that Northern Alberta songwriter Matt Patershuk trades in with the utmost in sincerity. Patershuk, who skipped Breakout West in Regina to play Wide Cut Weekend despite a Western Canadian Music Award nomination for Roots Album of The Year, brought the house on this Saturday night, a dialed-in folk ensemble that prized harmony and arrangement for the benefit of a rapt and silent audience. The sultry and soulful voice of Edmonton’s Kimberley MacGregor was a welcome match with Patershuk’s baritone, and lifted the most poignant moments of his nominated record, I Was So Fond of You, to beautiful heights. Patershuk showed confidence as a bandleader, giving room to the band to stretch out and rip on some higher energy fiddle and guitar jams while taking his leave for a tune.
Manitoba troubadour Del Barber followed Patershuk on the upstairs stage, his up-tempo fingerpicked country melodies backed by the lightning chicken pickin’ of Grant Siemens and the bluesy, walking low end electric bass of Bernie Thiessen. Barber’s conversational tenor easily brings a crowd in, and he’s as good as they come in the west at setting up the next tune with a good story.
Folk music tradition is rife with interpretation, of finding inspiration in the work of others, reworking, adding or subtracting from previous or current artists’ work to create something new. Bob Dylan’s early work was an interpretation of the work of other artists, whether it was Woody Guthrie, Son House, Robert Johnson, or The Carter Family. Every artist in the ‘60s besides The Beatles and The Rolling Stones did a Bob Dylan song. Take your pick, folk music is made to be passed along, and Barber did a very nice job of reworking Carter Felker’s “Everyday Life.” It’s a special thing to know that a creation touched one of your peers in such a way that they would add it to their repertoire, and if they add to it to make it as true to their own emotion as it the original work is to the writer, then there no reason not to do it. Songs are just songs, and yes, they mean a lot when you create them, but they change over time, and grow, get lost, and get found again. It’s the very nature of the folk tradition.
Remember so long ago when we were talking about how to close down a night out? We’re here now. Front Porch Roots Revue is easily one of the best choices to close a festival, and their band tribute Up On Cripple Creek featuring a veteran lineup of Alberta roots musicians including Ron Rault, Gord Matthews, JR Shore, Thom Moon, Vancouver’s Doug Andrew, and in place of the dearly departed Ron Casat on organ, Calgary’s Garth Kennedy. Regarding the earlier mention of stripping away all the production until there’s just a group of players onstage working and playing together, there were several moments where if you closed your eyes, and forgot where you were for a minute, you could have been at Winterland in San Francisco in 1970, at Yasgur’s Farm, or a fly on the wall at Big Pink in Saugerties, New York. Legendary places where important seeds were sown, bringing more diverse strains of music to the rock ‘n’ roll of the time, be it the Cajun fiddle of “Rag Mama Rag,” the country soul of “It Makes No Difference,” or the Civil War mountain march of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Kennedy’s interpretation of Hudson’s massive and iconic Hammond intro on the psych-funk of “Chest Fever,” with its Preservation Hall second line breakdown, was only one of many moments. The ubiquity of “The Weight” only gains strength in the hands of the right players. It’s dicey to put together a tribute act: you have to choose the right act to cover, and players sympathetic enough to the music to remove themselves from it so that the music feels real. Front Porch Roots Revue put their best into the material of The Band, and it really did feel like the best possible way to close Calgary’s second annual Wide Cut Weekend.#1 Legion, AB, Alberta, Amy Nelson, Bernie Thiessen, Blues Can, Braden Gates, Brock Zeman, Carter Felker, Dave McCann & The Firehearts, Dave McCann and the Firehearts, Del Barber, Doug Andrew, Front Porch Roots Revue, Garth Kennedy, Gord Matthews, Grant Siemens, Ironwood Stage & Grill, Jack Marks, Joe Fournier, JR Shore, Justine Vandergrift, Ken Stead, Kimberley MacGregor, King Eddy, Kris Ulrich, Lucas Chaisson, Matt Patershuk, Mayhemingways, Mike Stack, Mikey’s Juke Joint, Oak Tree Tavern, Petunia, Ron Casat, Ron Rault, Sean Burns, Shaela Miller, The Lost Wages, Thom Moon, Tin & The Toad, Tom Phillips, Up on Cripple Creek, Wide Cut Weekend, Wide Cut Weekend 2016