REFLECTIONS AND RANTS

Here we are, getting ready for the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals conference again. Kingston this time; another year gone since Guelph, and two years since Sudbury, and three years after where was it? Oh, yes, Ottawa.

Time to think about next year. Which artists do I have to “sell” to presenters? If you’re a presenter, which artists are you interested in already, and which ones will you discover this weekend?

Ah, but to hell with that! What about LAST summer, when it was hot and sunny and all was semi-well with the world?  I’ll bet you’ve got some terrific festival memories – but for what it’s worth, here are a few of mine, in no particular order, except the totally random order in which they popped into my mind as I typed:

* Loreena McKennitt at the Edmonton Festival.  Even at the top of the hill, which is usually a party, there was complete silence and attention.  Who would have thought that this artist had not performed a full show in seven years? And the new songs are SO touching.

* Oh Susanna at the Stewart Park Festival. Who knew that, later that night, she gave birth to Salvador, two months prematurely?  And let me cheerfully add that the baby is fine, has more hair than you can imagine, and is strong and healthy and looks like his dad.

* Sarah Harmer at Mariposa.  After a massive deluge which incapacitated the main stage, a hard-working crew managed the impossible – and set it all up in the beer tent!  Sarah delivered under trying circumstances, and won the audience.  As did the Arrogant Works and Serena Ryder.

* John Prine at Edmonton.  I’ve known John since 1970, when he and Steve Goodman made their debuts at Mariposa; he did the best set at Edmonton I’ve ever heard from him.  Alas, he was one of the too-many artists at Edmonton who performed what Randi Fratkin calls “fly-by sets.”  They fly in, hide backstage, do their sets, are spirited away to a different and more upscale hotel, and leave the next day. No workshops, no schmoozing with other performers – and no chance for folk like me to say hi!

* Eliza Gilkyson at Falcon Ridge. American festivals are VERY different from ours, but just as much fun.  And Eliza was brilliant, as those who saw her at OCFF last year know full well.  Of all the American singer-songwriters, she has the specific goods on George “Blame Me” Bush (oh, we will, we will).  And who knew that this woman could possibly become such a pertinent, tough-edged songwriter after her earlier “new age” recordings?

* Michael Johnston at Stewart Park and at City Roots City Wide in Toronto.  Charming, funny and fey. Another OCFF discovery last year who’s developing as a major talent faster than anyone could believe.  He also has a terrific song to sing to audiences if he has to adlib and the show’s starting late without a sound check.

* Serena Ryder at Pride in Toronto.  I hadn’t seen her perform in six months. Who knew such a strong talent could improve so radically? She killed the audience, and her endless tours in Australia have given her even more on-stage confidence. Which, thank God, has not translated into cockiness.

* Mel Brown at the Smith’s Falls Blues Festival.  Interviewing him for local cable TV, he delivered an impassioned speech urging young people not to smoke. Too late, alas, for this veteran bluesman, who may be hooked up to a rolling oxygen cart, but can sing and play as well as he ever did.

* Karla Anderson at Edmonton. Oh, I know, you’ve never heard of her. But she’s an alt.country winner with a great voice and terrific songs. Right up there in my “discovery list” with Winnipeg’s Romi Mayes!

* Fruit in the Festival Quiz Wrycraft and I did at Falcon Ridge. These women are SO funny, so energetic, so open to their audiences, and they have such a good time. They can also drink me under the table. They still haven’t written a song that remains in my memory for more than 30 seconds, but who cares?

I’m sure every lots of music fans can match and better this list. Alas, I didn’t go to the festivals in Ottawa (damn, missed Kalen Porter), Lunenberg, Vancouver, Canmore, Vancouver Island, Winnipeg or Calgary, and I also missed Hillside and Blue Skies, and my annual visits to Owen Sound have been curtailed by a board member there who says I would only attend “over his dead body.”

The folk festival circuit remains a vital part of the summer life that allows us to face the dreary, damp, cold, snowy months we are about to experience.

Remember the summer.

And plan for an even better one in 2006!

North by North East is one of those massive “industry events” that infects Toronto from time to time. You know the drill: A handful of seminars, many opportunities to schmooze and drink, several BIG parties and dozens of little ones. And 350 bands in 50 clubs!

Fueled by alcohol, the occasional toke of semi-legal “substance” and the friendliness of strangers and folk you know (but what IS her name?), these events are the glue that holds the music business together.  And they are, of course, a wonderful place to find new musicians.

Which leads me to tell you ‘bout one of those epiphanies that strikes you as interesting, but turns out to be important as well.

As I rushed out of a speech by the remarkably witty British manager Peter Jenner on my way to another party, I passed a display table.

Manned by a sweet pink-haired girl with army boots and a surly young man with a mohawk, their table was covered with fliers and posters with the message: DISCOVER NEW MUSIC.

“Hey,” I said as I rushed past. “Y’know what the sign SHOULD read? “Discover OLD music!”  The pair stared at me, uncomprehendingly, and I kept going. No converts there, that’s for sure.

Now the folk scene, traditionally, has always understood this. We KNOW that the music of the past has so much to recommend it: Great stories, great images of the past which helped make the present, great playing by virtuoso musicians, great memories of  times that were before ours …

Ken Whiteley told me, years ago, that he was often criticized for playing older songs; why didn’t he play new songs?  His response, as he launched into a song from the early ‘20s: “Hey, this IS a new song to me!”

In one of my other lives, I teach a course called Music & Media at the Harris Institute in Toronto, and it has taught me a lot. First of all, it’s taught me that young musicians — and the 20-odd folk in my class are all planning to enter the music business — know next to nothing about music history.

Okay: Which black American guitarist lived in London in Handel’s house?  Answer (hey, YOU knew!) is, of course, Jimi Hendrix. Fact: Out of 20 kids, only four got the answer right, and three of them thought the guy was “Jimmy” Hendrix. And only three, questioned further, knew that Handel was a classical composer and musician.

Can you do better on this one: George Gershwin wrote the music; his brother wrote the lyrics. What was HIS name?  ONE person got that right!  And when I asked when the first jazz record was cut, the closest guess was 1947!

However, don’t despair. The young intern who now works in my office is only just 21, but she’s open to just about any music you can chuck at her. She went to hear Medeski Martin and Wood last night, and she’ll help out with a Guy Clark show I’m doing tonight. She goes to the Symphony, loves opera (she’s ahead of me on that!) and right now she’s playing The Band as I’m writing this.  She thinks Ella Fitzgerald is cool, and she loved an obscure Texas singer-songwriter, Terry Allen, that I ran by her yesterday afternoon.

So how do we introduce the new kids to the joys of old music? Well, the answer is: Play it to them, describe the context, tell the stories of the artists who made the music. Play new versions of old music by new artists — Eric Clapton is the best introduction to  B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Son House you could ever find.  Don’t tell kids to read newspapers or books; they don’t — instead, suggest they discover old music on the Internet, recommend websites that cover older music, point them to discussion groups like MaplePost and MapleBlues.

This isn’t a matter of nostalgia or sentiment for the good old days — it’s a matter of spreading joy.

The joy of finding old music that’s as relevant today as it was when it was created is wonderful. And the only thing that’s better is finding NEW artists and discovering new music.

No introduction. A quarter of the lights. One third the sound. No place the park the van. Audiences that don’t give a hoot. No mention in the advertising. Don’t eat the headliner’s food. There are four beers and some KFC for you; say thank you. Oh, and don’t go any longer than 30 minutes.

Oh, I hear you say, that’s rock and roll. Doesn’t happen in the folk world.

Well, the law of supply and demand in the folk world says that opening acts play for nothing; if they want to sell CDs that’s okay, but count this as exposure, as a rite of passage on the way to the big-time. And just in case that depresses you, note that in the rock and roll world, the opening artist’s record company may even have to pay the headliner for the right to BE the opener…

Who the opening act is depends on the demands of the headliner. If you’re Guy Clark, say, you don’t want a nice young girl singing dear diary music to your audience before you go on, or if you’re Gillian Welch you don’t need another woman singing world-weary alt.country. A gender change is often necessary – er, let me re-phrase that: If the headliner’s a male, it’s often best to have a woman open, and vice-versa. The opening artist’s music has to be complementary, but not similar, to that of the headliner.

Okay, you’ve been hired: You’ll be opening for Guy Clark at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. What can you do to take advantage of this?

Ask the promoter to include you in the advertising.
When the promoter has announced the show, you then announce your participation to your mailing list. Do not announce your involvement before then.
Make sure that you “sell” as many tickets by word of mouth as you possibly can.
Ensure that your friends and relatives are there for support, even if you have to buy their tickets.
Be on time for the sound check, and be brave is there isn’t time for one.
Be friendly with the headliner, but don’t fawn over him or ask him to sign your guitar.
Be totally rehearsed (with your best songs, and some positive upbeat chat).
Do not go over your allotted time.
Say nice things about the sound, the wait staff, the bar tender, and the promoter.
Stay for the headliner’s set.

The prize for the classiest treatment of an opening act goes, without exception, to – of all people – Harry Belafonte. When he was the biggest star, and the most expensive ticket, on the concert circuit, he would always open the show himself. After half a dozen songs, he would bring out the “opening” artist with a fulsome, sincere introduction. The “opener” would finish the first half of the concert, and return for a finale with the headliner at the end of the second half.

In this way, back in the day, Belafonte introduced mainstream North American audiences to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Nana Mouskouri, Lottle Mbulu, Miriam Makeba, Odetta and many others. He MADE their careers – and HE looked like the best guy, the least selfish guy, in the world for doing so.

The prize for the worst treatment of an opening artist? No contest: The Rolling Stones. Sure, they sometimes hired good people – among them, over the years, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Ike & Tina Turner and Lee Dorsey. (I once saw Chaka Kahn open for them at Maple Leaf Gardens; her wig came off in mid-song, and lay on the stage for the rest of the set looking a bit like a dead hedgehog).

At a Stones show, nobody announced the opening artist, and the sound and lights were the least they could get away with providing. The opener usually played to small audiences, since they were often not included in the advertising, and the Stones audience were only there for one act — they didn’t even arrive in time to hear the opening artist. And after the openers finished their allotted time-span, the Stones themselves waited for another hour before hitting the stage.

So, here’s a question or two for headliners everywhere, what kind of music you play:

Why can’t you go out and introduce the opening artist?
Why can’t you arrange for them to be paid at least one-fifth of what you’re getting?
Why not offer them their share of your food and drink rider?

Mike Plume, a wonderful songwriter from Alberta who now lives in Toronto, once opened, with his band, for a well-known Canadian singer who had a hit at the time — oh, well, since you’re asking, it was Allanah Myles. Mike later wrote a song about the bitter experience, and told how – so angered by their treatment – the band would wait til Ms. Myles was on stage, and then go and eat her food and drink her wine and beer.

A few years later, the band was playing at the Horseshoe in Toronto when the Ms Myles wandered in. She loved the band, and went directly to their dressing to invite them to open for her on her next tour. Needless to say, Mike and the band, having been there and done that, were not impressed.

But here’s a story you can feel warm and fuzzy about. My friend Serena Ryder, on her first trip to Australia, got the opportunity to open for Steve Earle. Seriously jet-lagged, and suffering the cold she always gets when she goes anywhere in a plane, she stood in front of 5,000 rabid, screaming Steve Earle fans, already hollering for Copperhead Road.

Well, she survived, but Steve took her into his dressing room afterwards, and behaved like the classy man that he is. Henceforth of the tour, HE would go out and introduce her every night, and tell his audience to shut the f*** up and listen. Then he handed her three songs, and told her to learn them, and that she would be singing back-up with him during his show. Then he told her to return the rented van; she’d ride on the tour bus with him and his band. And finally, he said “Look, my contract says I have a two room suite in every hotel on this trip. If you want it, the second room is yours.”

Being the opening artist is a thankless job, nearly of the time. But do it right, make friends, and do well, and you won’t have the role in the future.

You’ll be the headliner instead.

And when you are, treat the opening artist with the respect you would have appreciated when you were starting out. (2003)

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