By Peter Vesuwalla
CALGARY – Hearing Fred Penner talk about his life, you can picture him crawling through a hollow log to a secret clearing in the woods to play music with his friends every day, just like he did on TV all those years ago. The Winnipeg-born, Juno winner, whose Fred Penner’s Place ran on CBC from 1985 to 1997, speaks of walking among the red cedars, enjoying nature’s majesty, and feeling the thoughts of life flow from his veins all the way to his brain. Music is always part of the daily regimen, whether that means recent studio collaborations with respected artists like Ron Sexsmith and Terra Lightfoot – heard on his most recent album, Hear the Music (2017) – or simply noodling on his banjo for 15 minutes or so.
“It’s quite the existence I have going here,” says the 71-year old. “A friend of mine who’s a children’s entertainer – his name is Rick Scott – he and his wife live on an island in the Nanaimo harbour. It’s a beautiful place right by the ocean, so we do some kayaking and swimming. He’s the dulcimer master, and over the last couple of days here we’ve been playing and jamming. My wife is learning to play dulcimer, so there’s something about that instrument that is so very easy to play and immediately gives you a sense of accomplishment. It’s quite lovely, so we’re getting some r’n’r before the fall insanity continues.”
The “insanity” Penner is referring to is leading fun singalongs at campuses and pubs, with several stops planned in Western Canada over the next few months. “When you put alcohol into the process, it changes the perspective a little bit but the bottom line is people want to be engaged. Here’s your part to sing in the song if you would like. The stage is open for you to be part of the music,” Penner explains.
“I am from the folk generation. That was the main part of my development in the ’60s when singalongs were key to music. The anti-war protest stuff was happening. There was so much music that had really good choruses that the idea was everybody was meant to get involved so they could participate in some of the political things that were going down. I’ll do maybe a Joni Mitchell or Cat Stevens or Neil Young. Bringing in some Beatles’ songs is a constant in the world of music for any performer.”
And no show would be complete without a selection of the old folk songs that made him a Canadian icon. “The Cat Came Back,” which he adapted from an 1893 tune he found in a folk encyclopedia, has been his signature jingle since he first recorded it in 1979.
“Many of the cultures around this world have songs about cats because the cat is such an elusive creature that people revere. They are so self-confident,” he enlightens. “For children when they listen to songs, they imagine sometimes they are the creatures being talked about. Philosophically, I think part of it is children think of themselves as being invincible – and we as adults think of ourselves as being invincible until the reality of mortality comes upon us. No matter what happens to this cat, it still manages to survive and make a comeback. That it gives the listener a little bit of support.”
“The mantra for years has been, ’Never underestimate your ability to make a difference in the life of a child,’ and that can be whatever age you are. We still have that part of us that has child energy and youthful exuberance.”
Fred Penner performs October 20 at Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre (Revelstoke), October 21 at Vernon & District Performing Arts Centre (Vernon), October 24 at The Gateway (Calgary), October 25 at Creekside Theatre (Lake Country), October 26 at Frank Venables Theatre (Oliver), October 27 at Capitol Theatre (Nelson), October 28 at Prince Charles Theatre (Creston), November 3 at Slave Lake Legacy Centre (Slave Lake), December 21 at Bert Church Theatre (Airdrie), February 3, 2019 at Pender Harbour Music School (Madeira Park), February 9, 2019 at Surrey Arts Centre (Surrey), February 10, 2019 at Farquhar Auditorium (Victoria), and March 24, 2019 at Riddell Centre Theatre (Regina).Bert Church Theatre, Capitol Theatre, Creekside Theatre, Farquhar Auditorium, Frank Venables Theatre, Fred Penner, Pender Harbour Music School, Prince Charles Theatre, Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre, Riddell Centre Theatre, Slave Lake Legacy Centre, Surrey Arts Centre, The Gateway, Vernon & District Performing Arts Centre