Monday, August 17, 2009

Edmonton Folk Fest Wrap-Up

It's been a week since the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, a rousing success by all accounts for the festival's 30th anniversary. I had a great time and, as to be expected, I was exposed to some great new music without even trying. If you know me, it shouldn't surprise you to know I was stage-stalking Danny Michel for all his side stage sessions. All the great stuff was going down on one of the seven side stages, while the Main Stage headliners were unfortunately a little bland for my liking, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings excluded. I'll zip through a few highlights of the weekend:

Alex Cuba
I don't usually find out cover happenings from my mom, but when I mentioned I was going to a session with Alex Cuba, she told me that he had covered a Blue Rodeo song in Spanish. Born in Cuba, Cuba (the musician) immigrated to Canada in 1999 and now resides in Smithers, BC, the hometown of his Canadian wife. It's a great story: in short, while performing at the Songwriter's Circle show at the 2008 Junos, Alex saw Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy in the crowd so he whipped out a couple verses of one of their hits Bad Timing in Spanish. That same night at an after party, Blue Rodeo invited him up on stage, handed him a guitar, and he performed the whole song. Several months later, they brought him into the studio to record Spanish vocals with the original master tracks and then released it single exclusively on iTunes. All this after his mother-in-law introduced him to Blue Rodeo's 5 Days in July back in 1996. Technically, it's not really a cover song.... but this solo version I recorded at the festival counts and I honestly like it better with just Alex and his guitar.

Alex Cuba - Arrepentido (Bad Timing) [originally by Blue Rodeo]

Alana Levandoski
I caught Manitoban folk singer/songwriter Alana Levandoski when she shared a sidestage with Danny Michel. Coincidentally, both of them appeared on the Neil Young tribute album Borrowed Tunes II and she actually did perform her cover from that album, Don't Be Denied.

Alana Levandoski - Don't Be Denied [originally by Neil Young]
Alana Levandoski - Helpless (Live at the 2009 Winnipeg Folk Fest) [originally by Neil Young]

Jill Barber
For me, Jill Barber was my favourite discovery of the whole festival. I had previously seen her name throughout my RSS feeds (she was recently engaged to CBC Radio 3 host Grant Lawrence) and I know her brother is Matthew Barber, but I hadn't actually heard her music before I saw her share the stage with Danny Michel. She's got a fantastic voice, great songs, über-talented band, and just a general aura of joy that is exuded by her performances. Her most recent album Chances (I must buy this!) is a collection of 50's jazz-inspired romantic tunes that have a timeless, vintage quality even though they're original compositions. Even stripped of their lush arrangements, these songs still sound fantastic accompanied by her guitarist Les Cooper, keyboardist Robbie Grunwald, and fiddler/accordionist/clarinetist Drew Jurecka, who I last saw performing with The Polyjesters in '07. One of my favourites was the call-and-response number Oh My My, which was actually chosen last Wednesday as Today's Top Tune on KCRW. After that first session, I caught a couple more of her shows during the weekend and was continually impressed. Judging by some chatter I overheard, I wasn't the only one that became an instant fan last weekend. Check B(oot)log, a Jill Barber champion for years, for a number of live recordings including some covers such as Dream a Little Dream of Me and a CanCon requisite Neil Young cover sung with her brother. I wish I had paid attention earlier! Here's her cover of Sam Cooke's Cupid recorded for CBC's GO on Valentine's Day, which she also performed at the Folk Fest.

Jill Barber - Cupid [originally by Sam Cooke]

Great Lake Swimmers
Not so much a highlight, but I was pretty unimpressed by the Great Lake Swimmers after hearing a lot of talk about them previously. Languid is putting it nicely, though I later overheard someone else bluntly say "disappointingly boring" and I couldn't really argue. I know they have quite a following... maybe they're better on CD? Or you have to be in the right mood? Whatever the case, during their session with Chuck Brodsky, Chumbawamba, and Jill Barber, my eyes would involuntarily roll back into my head whenever it came to their turn in the rotation. Here's a CKUA recording of them doing a Neil Young cover (theme of the weekend!) joined by Joel Plaskett:

Great Lake Swimmers with Joel Plaskett - Harvest (Live at the Edmonton Folk Fest) [originally by Neil Young]

Fred Eaglesmith
This was my first exposure to folk/country music force Fred Eaglesmith, who could easily command the Main Stage but is relegated to the side stages because the hilarious, unfiltered banter between songs that he's known for-- a little too unsafe and unpredictable for the Main Stage I'm guessing. He has the demeanour of a cranky, grizzled old stand up comedian, but when the music starts he's unstoppable. For his side stage session with Danny Michel, Jill Barber, and Loudon Wainwright III (recorded by the CBC for a future broadcast), he was joined by Australian artist Bill Chambers on steel guitar and vocals. He opened with Wilder Than Her, which was later covered by Dar Williams. There was a great moment when Bill's daughter Kasey Chambers, who was playing the Main Stage later that night with her husband Shane Nicholson, joined her dad and Fred Eaglesmith to sing Fred's Freight Train, which Kasey had previously recorded a version of.

Fred Eaglesmith with Bill & Kasey Chambers - Freight Train (Live at Edmonton Folk Fest)
Kasey Chambers - Freight Train [originally by Fred Eaglesmith]

Danny Michel
Danny Michel was one of the main reasons for wanting to come to the festival, besides visiting my folks back home. I never get tired of seeing him perform live. I think one of his best moments came during an unscheduled performance on the Main Stage as an in-between act (while they set-up for another headliner). Proving again why he himself should be on the Main Stage as a main act, he performed a quick unrehearsed three-song set on an organ keyboard thing without his usual guitar and looping pedals. He admitted he hadn't played them on keyboard before, though you wouldn't know it. Later during ex-BNLer Steven Page's headlining set, Danny was brought out to perform an epic cover of Billie Jean. The next day's local paper read "Were there a house here, it would've been brought down". Yep. That earlier session with Jill Barber, Loudon Wainwright III, and Fred Eaglesmith, ended with an impromptu group performance of Loudon's The Swimming Song with Danny being goaded into singing lead on two verses. Another session with Joel Plaskett, Johnny Flynn, and Sierra Hull, ended with Danny leading the way in a cover of Los Lobos' Life is Good. A quick note about Sierra Hull: she's a phenomenal young mandolinist with an equally phenomenal backing band... only 16 years old and has a bluegrass festival named after her that's in its SEVENTH year! I wish I had a chance to see more of her, but alas Folk Fests are notoriously about making hard decisions between all the simultaneous music going on. Danny will be touring the Netherlands in November/December before coming back to record a live album in Winnipeg. Here's a great Danny Michel cover of Joe Strummer, not from Folk Fest, but from a live show recorded early last year.

Danny Michel - Get Down Moses [originally by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros]

In related news, Danny's recorded a cover of The Clash's Straight to Hell for a dub Strummer tribute album called Shatter the Hotel due in December on the 30th anniversary of London Calling. Danny has previously covered this live and so has his Under the Covers co-host Emm Gryner. You can sneak a listen of his cover on the album's myspace page.

Steven Page & Danny Michel - Billie Jean [originally by Michael Jackson]
This whole summer Steven Page has been touring folk festivals in his first stint post-Barenaked Ladies and honestly he sounded great solo. He played acoustic guitar and was accompanied by cellist Kevin Fox, a member of the Art of Time Ensemble, on BNL classics and others. Having not really listened to BNL since their 3rd album, I couldn't really distinguish what was new or old material-- but I liked most of it! It didn't take much to win back the crowd who seemed to be willing to forgive and forget the troubles of the past year, except a heckler shouting "Cocaine!" from the sidelines who Page was good humoured about. If you're a fan, like I was, of Page's all-covers gig with the Art of Time Ensemble last year, be on the look out for a studio recording of the same covers due I think/hope before the year is out.

Steven Page with the Art of Time Ensemble - Paranoid Android [originally by Radiohead]
Kevin Fox - Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) [originally by The Eurythmics]

Of course, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings never fail to impress, rocking the main stage on Saturday night with their distinct brand of funk soul and mostly new(!) songs. They did mention a new album will be hitting soon. It would've been awesome to see them scheduled for a side stage session, as I had seen them at the '07 Calgary Folk Fest ripping it up with Bettye LaVette, but they must be busy these days, playing the Burnaby Folk Fest the very next night. I was also excited to read they recently recorded a couple songs with Michael Bublé, which should make for an interesting mashing of vocal talents.


Lisa said...

One of my hard decisions at this year's EFMF was between the Fred Eaglesmith and Great Lake Swimmers concerts. I chose Great Lake Swimmers. I had never heard them before, but absolutely loved the concert and am now a bit obsessed with their latest CD. I have heard a lot of good things about Fred Eaglesmith though, and am sad I missed his concert. Thanks for the link to his song with Kasey Chambers, it was great!

I had never heard Danny Michel before either, but agree, he was a highlight of the festival!

ekko said...

I hope Fred did "Time to get a Gun". My fave song of his. Awesome songwriter.

Fongolia said...

He did do Time to Get a Gun, backed by his full band and The Ginn Sisters from Texas. Great stuff.

Rene said...

If you like "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)", here are two other interesting covers of the song:

An a capella version by Club For Five:

And a more pop-oriented one by Krystal Meyers: